In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Free Reads -- Murphy on Muschamp | Main | Art as Economic Inefficiency? »

January 15, 2003

Philip K. Dick and Sci Fi Gnosis


As you may remember at our Lousy Ivy University, when I should have been writing term papers or thinking seriously about my future I hung out in the library reading whatever amused me. In a comfortable little lounge that I didn’t discover until I was a senior I came across a history of Gnosticism. This has always seemed like a stroke of luck to me, intellectually, because Gnosticism is one of those energizer bunny ideas that keeps on showing up in one unexpected context after another. Plato, the Christian Gnostics, Manichaeism, the Kaballah, Theosophy, New Age mysticism, The Matrix, all contain echoes of the thought that the world that we wander through is a dark, delusional, screwed up place and that our spiritual home, our true reality, to which we must struggle to ascend, lies on another plane accessible only through mystic insight or gnosis, achieved either by contemplation or via divine revelation. On an emotional level, if our deepest desires and urges seem constantly frustrated in this world, if we feel at root that “things shouldn’t be like this,” that’s because this world isn’t really real, but rather a kind of nightmare we’re trying to awaken from.

When I picked up Philip K. Dick as an adult I discovered that I had read many of his books as a teenager indiscriminately gobbling up my local library’s collection of sci-fi. Of course, since it had been nearly two decades since I had read them I had almost forgotten them--resulting in a very Dickian ghost memory as I read them again 20 years later.

Of course, to call Dick a “science fiction” writer is a bit of a misnomer: the futuristic settings of his novels just give him permission to cut loose from the constraints of psychological realism and get on with setting up his Gnostic allegories. The situations of his books are often hilariously complicated, as I have found trying to summarize them for friends:

“Well, um, in Ubik, the hero—Joe Chip—is an employee of a psychic protection agency in a future world where reincarnation has both been scientifically proven and can be delayed, so it’s possible to communicate with the dear departed for a while. The plot gets going when the agency is hired for a big job on the Moon and then their team of psychic operators is double-crossed and the charismatic protection agency boss gets killed. When Joe and his fellow psychics try to accompany the bosses’ body for burial, Joe starts getting weird spirit messages from his boss (words written on mirrors, television commercials featuring his boss with messages directed at Joe, etc.) and of course the world they travel through keeps slipping further and further back into the past…”

I remember giggling and thinking that I had never run into anything that was quite so transparently allegorical, at least not since "Pilgrim's Progress." (And, of course, Dick is a great deal funnier than Bunyan, at least as I remember the old boy.) But I can't claim to have been fully aware of how closely his ideas track what might be termed “orthodox” contemporary Gnosticism until I did some research for this post. To pick one example of many, this quote from a Gnostic website (which you can visit here) could be utilized quite directly in a plot summary of “Ubik” (and many of his other books):

Death does not automatically bring about liberation from bondage in the realms of the Demiurge. Those who have not attained to a liberating Gnosis while they were in embodiment may become trapped in existence once more. It is quite likely that this might occur by way of the cycle of rebirths. Gnosticism does not emphasize the doctrine of reincarnation prominently, but it is implicitly understood in most Gnostic teachings that those who have not made effective contact with their transcendental origins while they were in embodiment would have to return into the sorrowful condition of earthly life.

In any event, when I started reading Dick in earnest I was emotionally open to the fundamental concept of Dick’s fiction, which is the "unreality" of reality. After spending my first twenty-odd years of life in a sort of mental straitjacket—during which time my reality principle could have been summed up as "if it frustrates me, it must be real"—I had recently kicked over the traces, gone to art school, and then, in an improbable plot twist, been sent to take over the European office of a company I was doing some work for. It was in a London bookshop that I re-discovered Dick. His books were a perfect expression of my emotional state: reality, after resisting me like a concrete block, had suddenly become permeable to my desires, and thus not quite real. I wandered around London feeling as if the streets and curbs and buildings and trees weren't entirely solid.

I also spent a lot of time listening to Roy Orbison. I’m not quite sure why, but Roy Orbison and Philip K. Dick go together like wine and cheese—in combination they tend to reinforce each other. Interestingly, many of my favorite Dick novels were written contemporaneously with Orbison’s music—the late 50s and the early 60s. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but Dick’s aesthetic—while a perfect fit for the Sixties (mysticism, paranoia, explicit pyschedelic drug references et al)—was in fact fully developed before the rest of the world caught on to what the era was going to be about. I wonder what it must have been like to be perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist of a particular era and then actually live through it. I suppose it may have been terrifying to see your subjectivity turn into other people's objectivity. Dick’s regrettable reaction, in any case, was to develop a serious drug problem that finally killed him off prematurely.

In my late 40's I have no energy for sitting around and arguing whether or not Philip K. Dick was actually a writer of "serious fiction." I mean, what kind of a qualification is that, anyway? He certainly seemed serious about his Gnosticism, in a deeply neurotic sort of way. And while I’m no advocate for Gnosticism as a literal explanation for the world, emotionally I can understand its appeal across the centuries. If you don’t get it, try picking up one of Dick’s books—say, “Ubik,” or “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” or “The Man in the High Castle” or “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”—and put on some Roy Orbison in the background. What a buzz.



P.S. I originally tried out some of these "thoughts" (to over-dignify them) in a comment on Polly Frost's wonderful 'blog, "Notes from the Velvet Crypt." I would strongly urge you to check it out here.

posted by Friedrich at January 15, 2003


Ahh, so that's what was some of what was going on in the head of FvB back in the Lousy Ivy days. Explains a lot. And thanks for spelling out some of the appeal of PKDick. I'm not one much for allegory, gnosticism or sci-fi, so the one novel of his I've read sort of breezed past me. I had moments when I was getting his hallucinatory jive-cat thing. But all too often I was (pedantically and blockheadedly, I'm sure) just trying to keep track of what was going on, and failing.

Do you see your taste for (vulnerability to?) gnostic-style thought or feelings having any impact on your taste in visual art? Or movies? Would you say you're still attracted to Kabbalistic kinds of things? I'm trying to think of the kinds of religious-type systems or approaches that make my system hum. I do think most people have a taste for a certain kind of religion -- Person A might resonate to something really austere, while Person B might prefer a lot of showbiz.

Hmm. I can get happily sucked into various Eastern approaches, which I suppose I should be ashamed of (too easy, too hippie), but what the hell, they work for me. But even among the various Buddhisms, which I looked into for five minutes a hundred years ago, I found that I had a strong-ish preference for a few varieties (Tibetan, Vipassana) over some of the others (Zen, Mahayana). Hard, and maybe impossible to explain, though I could get earnest about a few points -- Zen's apparent conviction, for instance, that an empty mind is even possible is something I find rather cruel. (Vipassana accepts that thoughts, ideas, mental thingees, are forever going to be floating across your consciousness, rather like clouds -- that that's simply what it is to be conscious. I find this outlook pretty simpatico. Which may mean nothing more than that I'm inadequate to Zen.) Tantric views of sex have come to mean a lot to me, not that you'll catch me getting too solemn about it right now. I seem to resist getting too fascinated by endlessly intricate systems of thought that are forever promising revelation, though lord knows I've wasted a lot of time looking into a lot of things over the years. I'm happy to acknowledge the importance of Western religions, and think they're probably a good idea for many people, and I can feel very moved by attending church services. But, to be honest, none of the Trinity stuff holds much interest for me, and little of it moves me in any way. I bumped into something called Vedanta the other day, which I'm enjoying scoping out. Do you know anything about it? Too involved to explain at 11:30 at night, but it seems a sensible way of dealing with religion. Christopher Isherwood, a personal hero, turns out to have been quite an enthusiast, so I'm reading some interviews with him about it, and am thinking about hauling my tired ass to a Vedanta service or two.

Did you ever see "Pi", by the way? About an obsessed, brilliant youngish Jewish loner who's fascinated by numerology, the stock market, and the Kabbalah (at least so far as I recall). The movie had a kind of paranoid-religious style that did a good job of sucking you into that kind of viewpoint, or so I thought. How'd you react?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2003 11:37 PM

You say: Of course, to call Dick a “science fiction” writer is a bit of a misnomer: the futuristic settings of his novels just give him permission to cut loose from the constraints of psychological realism and get on with setting up his Gnostic allegories.

I'd say that Dick was a science fiction writer--or at least, most of his books were published as science fiction, and I've never heard anyone before you say that they weren't science fiction.

They weren't hard (scientifically rigorous) science fiction, but hard science fiction is only a small part of the field--there's plenty of other science fiction which is more about making up emotionally/metaphysically intense stuff that has little or no basis in science, but can be made to sound scientific enough to not quite be fantasy.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on January 16, 2003 7:33 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?