“Something is wrong. I don’t mean with you or me or with any person. I mean in general." --Ragle Gumm

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Recognition and Dysrecognition in the World of PKD

“Many literary critics and scholars in Western and Eastern Europe, Japan, and throughout North America agree that Philip K. Dick will be remembered in years to come as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century.” –Philip K. Dick: The Official Site

So here it is. Finally. The world-wide accolades he deserves and would have relished were he still with us. The Philip K. Dick Award, new editions of his novels with abstract covers and higher prices, the publication of novels not published during his lifetime, the publication of his Exegesis, translations of his novels into twenty-five languages, two conferences for scholars and fans  in 2012. . . what more could there be? 

And yet. Once we open a novel and start reading, all of this disappears. We are not meant to hold on to the consensus reality as we read. With every story, Philip K. Dick wants to crack open our minds and startle us into dropping the rigid constructs of thought we either don’t know how to question or are afraid to. Sure, money and fame—good for him, good for us—but they are not the reality he seeks to perpetuate once we have opened a novel and projected our minds into it. Pride and appreciation don’t work here.

In a letter he wrote in May, 1981, Philip K. Dick called the process he wanted to initiate in his readers “ the shock of dysrecognition,” the undoing of things which prevent the mind from creating its own reality, independent of the insanity of human consciousness. We are not meant to come out of his novels the same as when we went in. Every mind is its own house with doors, walls, windows, furniture, pictures, and anything else we might pick up shopping through life; and every mind wants to keep them placed just the way they are. But when we take on PKD, we can expect rearrangements to take place: furniture moved, windows broken, doors off their hinges, walls cracked. And then, if we are paying attention and not scrambling to put everything back the way it was, and if we are lucky, we might get a glimpse of PKD smiling up at us from a corner on the floor where the lines were never meant to meet.   

 “Dysrecognition” is his highest praise. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Virtues of Rationality and Madness

I have read a lot of Ken Wilber. He is a genius. At one time in his life he read thirty books a day on all subjects and made as his life’s work the integration of everything he knew into elegant theories of life with new classifications and designs of reality that embraced the whole of human experience: science, religion, psychology, sociology, literature. Two of his many books are entitled A Brief History of Everything and A Theory of Everything.

Wilber established the Integral Institute as an institution of study and spiritual practice and has gathered followers who have contributed to the knowledge base of his intellectual designs. He is one of the greatest intellects to have walked the planet and can stand on the same platform as Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Newton, Einstein and many others. He is also a good man with an expanded consciousness, a compassionate heart, and a life based on being a whole human being. Looking at him, one is amazed, astonished, filled with respect and admiration, probably intimidated, and loved. I have been enriched reading his books and reading about him.

Philip K. Dick, on the other hand, was a sprawling disaster of a man, who wrote bizarre science fiction stories; letters, essays, and in his last years a sprawling, half-mad journal 8,000 pages long filled with passion, self-devouring thoughts on time and space, science, history, literature, theology, mysticism, spirituality, insanity, religious cults—anything his mind could grab hold of to enflame his quest for reality and explain the cracks in his mind that were dragging him into indefinable territory.

Dick was not a scholar. His knowledge of human explorations of life came from encyclopedias and a few obscure reference books, which were fuel to the flame of his fevered pursuits. He did not leave behind an elegant edifice of thought to be evaluated by philosophers and academic scholars. Indeed, he came to believe that his life resembled the fractured, sometimes terrifying, realities he depicted in his books. In his frantic pursuit of reality, he had fantastic visions, suffered from mental disorders, was consumed by paranoia, became hooked on drugs, married five times, and tried to commit suicide, all while breathing in the fire of life that eventually wore him out. His pursuit of reality took him way past the logical mind or even the imaginative mind into irrational realms from where he struggled to integrate the ungraspable experiences of his life into the bound conventions of human thinking.

He sold his first story in his early thirties (1951), gradually became famous for his short stories and novels amongst a few fans and other SF writers, and did not stop writing until he died in 1982 at the age of fifty-three. Within a few years after his death, he became a world-wide cult figure who generated not only amazement at what he wrote but also an almost morbid fascination with his personal life, which was raw to its core. He made his way into the mainstream spotlight through films made from his short stories and novels and has become for many one of the great literary geniuses of his age. His reputation continues to grow exponentially. With the help of his children, his editors, and those who loved him, most of his writings are now back on bookstore shelves, and Hollywood continues to pick through his works looking for movie ideas. He wrote forty-four published novels and approximately 121 short stories.

People love this man, some with professional collegiality, others as a kindred spirit, some with a passion so deep that they cannot imagine not having him as part of their inner landscape. He is loved because he makes no sense, because he is half-deranged, and because he grabbed his life with a ferocious passion that few in this world will ever know. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Eye in the Sky (1957)

“. . . closed worlds that don’t touch on reality at any point.”

“’Illusion?’ Laws grinned sarcastically; with his hard fist he thumped the wall of the kitchen. ‘It feels real to me.’”

“Maybe we have sunk down into the real reality.”

What inspired me to take on the project of reading all of PKD’s books was their ability to touch places inside of me that defied intellectual understanding, emotional response, or social reference, despite their presence in his stories. His writing is something unto itself, unique, and troubling in a way that releases me from the kinds of certainties that our uncertain world does not challenge. Dramatic events in the world can stagger our personal and social security, but no one is going to heaven holding onto the handle of an umbrella, or literally be eaten by a house, or transform into a gigantic insect. All of these events are funny (as Dick intended) if read from a distance, but if you project yourself deep enough into the story, shifting realities can be quite troubling. I found much of Eye in the Sky terrifying, despite the intent of the author.

This novel is about the ambiguity between illusion and reality. The reality shifts are unleashed by the fall of eight people into a proton particle accelerator called a Bevatron and take place one at a time within the psyches of five of the group left on the floor in various degrees of consciousness. In the five reality scenarios, the private reality of one of the fallen draws the consciousness of all of the group into it. Each of the separate realities has a continuity and must, therefore, be accepted as real and played out with its rules. Early on Jack Hamilton, the main character, figures out what is happening and vehemently resists each reality and struggles to return himself and the others to the real world as he knows it, the world in which he is applying for a job but is stymied by accusations that his wife is a communist (McCarthy style).

Getting a flat tire in a dangerous part of town, arriving in India for the first time as a westerner, finding oneself in prison—all of these can be dramatic and challenging assaults on one’s personal reality, but finding oneself in a different universe is another thing. Mental derangement and drugs can induce alternate realities, as depicted in other of his novels, but when one settles into another world and takes on its conditions and lingers there, an uncertainty arises that cannot be anything other than terrifying, were it not confined to a book.

The novel begins and ends in Jack Hamilton’s reality, which the reader can take for granted as the real world. Jack never questions his reality, nor do those who were part of the Bevatron accident. After all, the Bevatron is the concrete cause of all they have experienced. In the reality shifts of the novel, however, the group is never brought into Jack’s private world. One might conclude that all of the realities depicted in the novel are inside Jack, leaving Jack as a solipsistic entity with no reality outside of himself. Or one might conclude that Jack’s world is real only in the context of a higher reality that exists beyond his imagining or the imaginings of others. Or Jack’s world is as he says it is—the real one. Those uncertainties about Jack Hamilton’s reality are for me the essence of the novel.

Philip K. Dick’s stories do not always draw out an emotional response. Some do, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Now Wait For Last Year; for me Eye in the Sky does not. What it does, however, is tear a hole in my mental security and leave me with one foot outside the reality that allows me to make a phone call or fix a meal. There are any number of elements that can be used to define human existence; emotion would have to be high on a list of those elements. Once one has slipped past the bonds of human emotion, one begins to question the other human elements, which one usually takes for granted. As that process continues inexorably and darkly, one eventually finds oneself on one’s own. For me this view of the solitary traveler is ultimately the world of Philip K. Dick.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Horror, Beauty and PKD

In their introduction to Exegesis, editors Jackson and Lethem give us a statement by PKD which suggests to me that he had touched the foundation of his existence and that were his readers to approach this reality through his books, they might have a similarly profound realization. As Jackson and Lethem indicate, a philosophical context within a long history of thinkers is irrelevant, especially considering the images and worlds he generated in his stories and the vast amount of fevered verbiage he devoted to explicating his 2-3-74 experiences. PKD is not about understanding, which is of the mind; he is about reality, which is not. Here is the last line from Dick’s statement:

“Thus the essence of horror underlies our realization of the bedrock nature of the universe.”

This horror is not the kind that has made Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allen Poe popular. This horror comes from direct contact with the original condition of the universe. How is that possible? How could Dick make such a terrifying claim, which he says is absolute? You only know if you know, but if you are willing to ask a few questions without expecting a reliable answer from the mind, you can peek into what he is projecting into his stories and find a deeper resonance with them.

First, how do you know that you exist? Things, of course. Things of the mind, of the senses; sensations of the body; the trust we place in the elements for form and structure, the things we depend upon to give life its continuity. Could you know you exist without these “things”? You can only ask this question through the things you depend upon to verify your existence. Without those things, only existence itself can know the answer, but it can only know it in a way that does not include you, who are a composite of the things mentioned above.

Second, this reality must deal with its own condition, which does not ask but which responds to itself in the only way it can—through the generation of a universe and its things. The mind can ask why things at all? Why you? Why me?, but it cannot answer these questions, not even with words as beautifully crafted as Dick’s in this paragraph. Thus, only the naked fact of existence, “the bedrock,” as he puts it, remains, the absoluteness of which unleashes the horror that must be assuaged by the presence of things and particularly, as Dick says earlier in the paragraph, things which through human suffering must ultimately become beautiful. In the gap between the existential horror and the mind’s ability to apprehend beauty lies the issue of insanity, which for human beings is the ultimate crisis. Thus only “absolute beauty” can justify the pain of human existence as well as the horror inherent in absolute existence. This realization is not something the mind can know directly; however, the unbounded existential condition, "the bedrock," can touch the mind and reveal the absolute necessity of beauty in how we live our lives and craft our art. To live such a life and to suffer its necessities is to be real. Philip K. Dick lived a real life.

Read the whole paragraph, take it in, think about it deeply, follow it through Dick’s novels, and you will begin to unwrap your mind on the way to cognizing the absolute beauty which he struggled throughout his life to shape.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

“The Gun” (1952)

Look at what he’s done. He’s put us on a planet that is dead except for a mechanical gun which functions “as if” it were living and intelligent. This gun has only one duty—to protect the treasure that is buried within it. This dead planet is earth.

The treasure consists of artifacts of the now extinct human race which represent its highest achievements, left to be admired by any other race that happens along and wonders who once lived there. And other beings do arrive after seeing a “fission flash” from their distant system. As their spaceship nears the planet, they are fired upon by the gun and damaged enough that they have to land on the planet for repairs. They land near the gun.

As they examine the gun, they realize that it responds to what they are doing and will protect itself. They look around and find buried beneath the gun the treasure it is protecting. They understand the value of the treasure and disable the gun as best they can with the intent of returning to earth to retrieve it. With high anticipation of what it has to offer, they repair their ship and lift off. Meanwhile, the gun repairs itself and reengages its purpose. When the ship returns, it will again have to face the gun protecting the treasure.

The gun is the last artifact of the human race, an artifact that prevents any recognition of what the human race was, other than the implications of the planet's burnt out surface. Not only has the human race destroyed itself, it has negated its existence in the universe by creating an intelligence that is not intelligent; the gun will destroy any effort to retrieve the treasure. The gun is what it is and all that can be said of the human race is that it was insane.

Look what he has done. Put us in a reality that negates itself. Entrapped a piece of universal intelligence within a box that has no door. And pushed us into a cul-de-sac of existence beyond which there is no which to be.

Devastating to realize that you are no more real than the tail you chase.

First PKD Entry--The Limited Benefits of Sanity

This is the second incarnation of this site. The first dealt with the ambiguity between what is real and what is not, why existence rather than non-existence, human and non-human points of view, and existence on its own as a field in itself. I am also exploring these issues at two other sites: On the Way to Where You Already Are  and  Living a Galactic Life.

My credentials for engaging Philip K Dick are not academic but rather experiential. What I have in common with him is the willingness to step into an existence in which sanity and insanity are ambiguous. Those interested in how I can claim this kind of connection can look at the biographical vignettes on this site beginning here.

The purpose of the ensuing entries is to lean against the reader’s reality by engaging PKD’s writings. I will write pieces on his fiction, give thoughts on The Exegesis as I continue to read it, and endeavor to assist his readers to experience the ground state of their personal existence, including its terror. If reading Dick's writings doesn't leave the reader unsettled, then there are dimensions of the stories that remain to be explored. To get the full force of what he has created, one must risk one's own sanity by taking on reality directly.

Dick's writing is more than treasured story-telling, astonishing existential situations, and literary craftsmanship. He is one of an age, beyond religion, science, academics, commercialism, or the quotidian reality that is either boring people to death or murdering them in their sleep. To engage Philip K Dick's life and work is to stir existence places that have no name, creating for readers the opportunity to break loose from the death grip the mind places on reality.