Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Other Staple Reading: Philip K. Dick

Vladimir Nabokov and Philip K. Dick have each appeared many a time on this blog to date. Why stop now? Why stop when such a good thing is going?

I don't know, perhaps because it's hard for me to imagine "VALIS" being topped by anything else in what remains of my "to read" PKD reading. I've nursed on this book for the better part of the last several months, not so much because I couldn't focus on it (although as previously mentioned focusing on reading has been difficult of late), but instead because it's such a bizarre and fun romp to read, and I am one to savor such books.

But "romp" probably doesn't adequately describe the fact that this book is insane. As Ben commented on a previous post, PKD sort of lost his sense of . . . things . . . near the end of his life. It's also possible that instead of losing his mind he became a modern-day prophet, technologically oriented and so forth. One thing is for certain, whatever the case, something profoundly affected his fiction. Something gave us "VALIS."

So let's talk about what it gave us, then. "VALIS" is in a very superficial sense a story about a man, his friends, and his mortality. It's about mortality, also, in a more general way. I feel like when Jean Baudrillard was sussing through the offerings of simulacra and postmodernity in the novel, sure, yes, "Crash" by J.G. Ballard was a good choice, a great example of the synthesis and synesthesia of postmodern techno-simulacra that's possibly come to define our present way of life, but c'mon, Baudrillard: Philip K. Dick. I mean, c'mon.

"VALIS" is so much a synthesis of the age-old theological, ontological questions set against the backdrop of modern communications and greater media. The modern prophet would receive his call from God through a medium like a major motion picture, wouldn't (s)he? The modern prophet wouldn't know if he or she was crazy or sane, right? (We, the viewing public, would assume insanity, which I maintain is not an unreasonable thing to assume.)

The answer to all questions posed above: yes, yes absolutely. (I'm comfortable being categoric as those things go.) But would the prophet, the receiver of this information simultaneously be both "VALIS"' third person subject/object of narration, i.e. Horselover Fat (PKD's alter ego), and the narrator himself, i.e. Philip K. Dick? Um, yes again. We're introduced to Horselover Fat at the beginning of the "VALIS" through a presumably omniscient, third person narrator, but who in fact, it turns out, is Philip K. Dick himself. This meshes perfectly with the dichotomous nature of the tale -- e.g. reference to the rational and irrational creators of the universe abound.

This will sound stupid, I suspect, but one of the most satisfying qualities of "VALIS" is just how much esotericism fills its pages. I mean, there's religious references of all kinds, Gnosticism (the codices of Nag Hammadi are cited frequently), numerous eastern sects (Buddha and the like), countless nods to various other derivations of the Semitic religions, Zoroastrianism, and truly more than I could hope to identify or keep track of, even when PKD invokes them by name. Then there are references to philosophical schools and their preeminent thinkers. Goethe's Faust is mentioned, and how that work more or less engendered existentialism, revealing in it that humans are defined not by words but by deeds. From this seed came the outgrowth of man's awareness of and relationship to his absurd conditions -- to, in PKD's parlance, the unstable creator deity who begat a world that is not rational but irrational. Richard Wagner is referenced several times. Wagner's "Parsifal," his last opera, is taken to task in an amusing anecdote:

I can see Richard Wagner standing at the gates of heaven. "You have to let me in," he says, "I wrote Parsifal. It has to do with the Grail, Christ, suffering, pity and healing. Right?" And they answered, "Well, we read it and it makes no sense." SLAM.

SLAM, indeed, Wagner.

Others noted are Pascal, Spinoza and Schopenhauer. Immanuel Kant might as well have been cited by name with the introduction of Fat's friend Doug, a man Fat meets while he's institutionalized, following Fat's suicide attempt. Doug states his belief in two forms of knowledge that which is empirical and that which is occurring a priori -- i.e. knowledge that requires no experiential observation, et al, "that arises within your head." Certainly Kant isn't the inventor of a priori vs. a posterieri knowledge, but he is one of its greatest advocates, one who best advanced and infused this dichotomy in Western thought, of phenomenon (things experienced, or of the senses) and noumenon (thing-in-itself or Ding an sich).

All the while, an unnamed but monomaniacal search continues. It's a search for things, and each thing becomes a new singular focus. At one time it's a search for the cause of pain and of suffering. it's next the search for belief and a reason for doing so. It culminates with a search for the next coming of the deity variously referred to as Zebra, VALIS (which is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System), and eventually the reincarnation of St. Sophia (and thus Christ) with a computer for a brain (although she's only referred to as Sophia, this second coming, or whatever coming she is).

Sophia, a two year old and product of immaculate conception, is the daughter of Eric and Linda Lampton, filmmakers responsible for the theatrical version of "VALIS" -- a movie which tells a tale of a dark world in which an evil ruler holds sway, Ferris F. Fremount (referenced as a stand-in for Richard Nixon). VALIS undoes Fremount's reign in the film, as it did in real life, or so is what's claimed by the Lamptons and Sophia. The Lamptons also claim to be immortals, members of the "Friends of God" Society, which is meant literally. They are immortal friends of him/her/it, God. There's also the deteriorating Mini, a man who is dying a slow death (of multiple myeloma) as a result of his experiments with lasers that are meant to reveal to him VALIS in its true form. Mini explains to Fat and Philip (who by the time in this story when the Friends of God Society is revealed is a functioning character in the story) that VALIS is living information. [I TOLD YOU THIS STORY IS CRAZY!] Ultimately revealed by Mini is that VALIS is our savior, meant to free us from our unreal maze world that's inherently irrational, or poisonous, toxic to humankind. This is at least partly because humankind did not originate on earth but on Albemuth, and VALIS is an artifact sent by those left behind to beam to us rational instruction . . . obviously. VALIS apparently looks like an old satellite. It's all very interesting.

Most of the "Friends of God" saga reads to the outsider, the reader, as the way in which people become immersed in a cult. It happens slowly, by subtle indoctrination, as with Scientology. Scientology doesn't reveal all the crazy truths that make up its origin story when at first you join, but slowly as you become more and more entrenched in the church's dogma. After that, Xenu makes a lot more sense, but I apologize for this digression; it's just one of the things I observed over the course of "VALIS."

There's also moments earlier in the story when it's revealed time and space are constructs of sorts (mechanisms of separation) and that all existence is happening simultaneously. That's not as strange as the cross-consciousness that results from it, i.e. Horselover Fat's thoughts begin to be penetrated by the thoughts of a man named Thomas, who is living in ancient Rome and who Fat says is smarter than himself, Fat. It leads to a lot of Ancient Rome's being superimposed over 1974's California. That would be kind of a mind fuck. I might parse this episode further but it's sort of exhausting just rehashing this much.

In fact, this might be a good place to stop. I feel as though "VALIS" is the kind of novel that begs for follow up reads, and follow up analysis, and follow up perplexity. I encourage you to check out other PKD before giving this one a go. It's less for the uninitiated, or rather it's worth waiting for.

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