Having just made a joyful romp through A Crack in Space, I can understand the point of view of reading PKD just for the sheer pleasure of it. From more experienced PKD readers, I have heard that other novels offer this kind of playful treat. After all, Dick’s view was that reading his novels should ultimately bring joy.
That joy can also be found in such despairing novels as Maze of Death and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The satisfaction for me in these novels is PKD’s power to disturb our settled, if not secure, experience of the world. They work such that their hopeless depiction of reality can still, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s words, engender in the reader a “willing suspension of disbelief.” The mere fact that they exist is astonishing and therefore satisfying in their own right. The greatest satisfaction for me in these particular novels, and in others, is that Dick runs their reality right down into the place where we are all unconsciously uncertain about the foundations of our existence, that interior place which Umberto Rossi in The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick calls “ontological uncertainty.”
The direct experience of ontological uncertainty while reading Dick resonates with my personal story, which includes a lifetime of clinical depression; a diagnosis, based upon the DSM manual for mental disturbances, of bipolar disorder and chronic anxiety, for which I take medication; and an upbringing in a family that self-destructed from madness. Add to that thirty years of penetrating my dark interior through various meditations, which have left some of my inner security blankets in tatters, and I can honestly state that I have looked psychosis in the eye, established an ambiguous relationship with it, and have reluctantly accepted its companionship as a possible window into reality, as scary as both can be. I used to believe in transcendental bliss India-style as a life goal, but no more, despite having enjoyed extended periods of time in a blissful state. The pursuit of bliss in the context of my experience became just another excuse to avoid stripping away illusions and being battered by the existential white water that such a commitment creates, the white water Philip K. Dick experienced his entire life. Standing on the indefinable edge between reality and insanity is the most satisfying, if terrifying, experience of my life. This walk has the virtue of being real.
What I have to offer here, if you are still with me, is a metaphor for “ontological uncertainty,” which may be of assistance to PKD readers who cannot locate what they are experiencing while reading his work. Something gets stirred in a wordless place and we can become unsettled in the experience. If you want to get a more literary analysis of how Dick achieves this existential insecurity, I would recommend the “Afterward” in Clans of the Alphane Moon by Barry N. Malzberg.
You are a high diver at a meet. You stand on the platform looking down at the water in the pool. When you reach your peak of concentration, you leap into the air and immediately wind your body into a tight ball for multiple spins before unwinding it and entering the water. But in that moment when your body is most tightly wound, when it is in auto-mode and you are neither thinking nor experiencing through your senses—suddenly, from nowhere and for no reason, doubt strikes as to whether there is water in the pool below. And there is real terror! This is ontological uncertainty. As your body unfolds, the only issue is how long that doubt will overwhelm you before you reach your destiny below. Unfolding inevitably takes place despite the ontological uncertainty. The longer the diver remains in uncertainty as his body unfolds, the greater the possibility for madness, either the conscious madness of psychosis or the unconscious madness of pretending that your world is real.
For the purposes of this metaphor, I place PKD’s novels and his life within this context of an unwinding diver ripping away as many illusions as he can in order to face the reality of his situation. And to further extend the metaphor: we are all in the middle of a dive from the high platform, unfolding according to our individual existential struggles, dreaming up life experiences that hide the reality of ontological uncertainty until something turns us around to face it. That’s why we can relate to him so profoundly and why his writing is unique. There is no answer to this situation. It is, instead, a probe by existence into a possibility of a how this kind of being, a human being, responds to its existence when assaulted by doubt. The unwinding of the diver represents a spectrum of possibilities extending from panic which never goes away to the acceptance of uncertainty and entering the water for a perfect ten. And everything in between.
This would be a good time to discuss Horselover Fat and Angel Archer, but I’ll save that discussion for another day.