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

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

VALIS: Casting Off (1)

You can dive into this book completely innocent as I did. VALIS was my second PKD novel, after Androids. I was warned. So I dove in with my eyes shut.

Not completely, though. I knew stuff. When I got it that this book was about insanity and reality, I knew I had come home. In my heyday hanging out over the edge, I wrote books too, and people called them insane. I wrote some good stuff but most of it came out as a flashflood of uncontrolled verbiage. No artist I. Never mind.

Now if you are academically inclined and know a lot about Dick’s life, you can dive right in and enjoy the ride though the PKD post-2-3-74 landscape. There’s nothing like it. As art, it transcends the novel form and its genres by offering a deep literary pleasure that invites analysis. This is the mind-in-tact approach. It serves all PKD readers. It’s fun.  

If you go in the back door, however, Horselover Fat will greet you himself. Narrator-Phil warns us about what association with Fat requires: You cannot think about it without becoming part of it. By thinking about madness, Horselover Fat slipped by degrees into madness.

Personally, I think this book is safe. Art has a way of pulling our fat (sorry about that) out of the fire, and since PKD readers have a lot of reality-travelling under their belts, they should be able to hold on when Fat is at the helm.

Here’s what this book boils down to: You have an experience. It’s intense. It wipes out everything you think you know about yourself and the world. It busts open your mind and you know there is no way to get rid of it. Call it God, reality . . . whatever. Fat came up with several names for it, including Valis. My favorite name comes from one of Fat’s more stalwart mental efforts. Imagine he/you are standing in your front yard and suddenly from behind, you hear a thundering roar. Knowing where you are, you confront the situation realistically. It’s probably a horse. You quickly turn around and to your horror, it is not a horse. It’s a zebra!

So now there is a Zebra grazing in Fat’s backyard. Now and then it breaks into the house and gives Fat a good thrashing. Eventually the Zebra moves in permanently and now the Zebra sits on the couch in front of the TV with Phil, who still thinks it’s his house. Their conversations are interesting but mostly one-sided.

According to narrator-Phil, who has many insights into Fat, the Zebra is not what drove Fat over the edge. It got him going, as one might expect, but it was Gloria’s suicide that cut him loose and sent him on a worldwide search for the 5th messiah.

Personally, I don’t think searching for the 5th messiah makes Fat insane. After all, why not the 5th messiah? Just because billions of people have joined a handful of God-clubs around the world doesn’t mean they have a handle on the reality-thing. It just means that in tracking down reality, Fat is going it alone. That part might make it psychosis, but that’s not the whole reason narrator-Phil thinks he is insane. According to narrator-Phil, Fat tipped over the edge just as much because of his psychological baggage—dope, a fervent need to help damsels in distress, and his wife walking out on him taking his kid. Narrator-Phil says that Gloria “unfolded a panorama of total and relentless madness.” It’s easy from this to see how Fat got into trouble. Inviting suicidal Gloria into his house where a Zebra’s sitting on the couch may not have been his best move.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

VALIS Preliminaries

For the last twenty years, I have asked myself almost daily whether I’m insane. I think the verdict is in but just because I can fix food, drive a car, converse intelligibly on the phone, and write bits and pieces for blogs—that doesn’t mean I don’t send mental probes into other dimensions where cosmic beings monitor my progress in being able to download things from a place called pure existence. Or find myself at the center of the galaxy with swirling arms of stars, planets, and masses of gas, giggling in bliss despite not having a leg to stand on. Or emerging spontaneously into the reality place where a prolonged visit will shred everything I think I am, knowing I didn’t quite get back in time. Or sitting terrified in a chair while something sweeps over me that has insanity written all over it. Or feeling so depressed that any moment the cosmic demon is going to swallow me whole and take me to the edge of oblivion so that I will know what it is without having any way to back off.

I read Philip K. Dick for companionship. So I can feel his breath manifesting wisps of thought in my mind that announce a presence I can relate to rather than what my mind has to deal with inside the collective psychosis. I’ll take a high five on that one! Besides, my psychosis is a lot more interesting than anything the TV can serve up, or the checkout girl at the supermarket can dredge up when she wishes me a good day.

So when I read VALIS, there is a lot of shit coming down the pike (I’ll get to Timothy Archer later). We know there are a number of novels where Dick zeroes in on that place where the rational mind craps out, but those are wrapped up in protective storylines. VALIS is almost naked! Like the giant claws of existence are ripping the author apart, and I don’t know whether  to pop a few more pills or get down to my own nakedness and join the fray.

Here is the deal about reading VALIS.* Whoever reads it has to take a stand on one side or the other of the sanity/insanity line—if you can find one. It’s important. You can take the ramblings about esoteric writings and ancient philosophies and try to put it all together like a jigsaw puzzle and nod obligingly to Fat, thinking you and he are on the same page intellectually, or you can join Fat and let go of your mind as it revs up like a jet engine out of gear and get it firsthand that none of that stuff matters and that you are standing there like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike long after the Atlantic Ocean has passed over you.

So, for the next few blogs I will sort through some of my mental debris and hopefully come up with something intelligible to say about this book.

*The FDA will never approve this book. Check in with your doctor to see if you are sane enough to read it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

PKD’s “Stability” as a Quantum of Pure Perception

A story does not have to mean anything in order for it to give pleasure and astonishment. Philip K. Dick’s “Stability” is a perfect example. It is a mind-bending adventure in which events leap frog from one to another so that the story does not become fixed or predictable. At the end, all of the events of the story come together in a singular, multi-layered reality.

Robert Benton sits in the office of the Controller, who is an official in a totalitarian state. The Controller’s job is to keep civilization from disintegrating after it has attained its highest achievements. Stabilization is the mantra of government control. No progress, no falling back. Stasis. Anybody who might potentially upset stability is killed.

The Controller tells Benton that his invention, a time machine, has been rejected for use by the Control Board because it would endanger stability. Benton, however, says he never invented one. He doesn’t know that he has already built and used it because he is talking to the controller from a time before he built it. Nevertheless, Benton sets off to retrieve the time machine, which is being kept in a gigantic array of offices where a thousand men and women serve the machine which keeps the world in a state of stability.

At home Benton is puzzled by the machine. When he turns it on, he is suddenly in a new world, which is not earth as he knows it. There are forests and abundant fields of grain. When he finds a small glass globe and starts to pick it up, a voice urgently tells him not to. Doing so would upset stability. The voice tells Benton that he is under the control of the glass globe and that it is evil. The voice is the guardian of the globe. Its purpose is to prevent the globe from being broken open. Ignoring the voice, Benton takes the globe back to where he left the time machine.  

Under the influence of the globe, Benton returns to the Controller, who does not recognize Benton because Benton is now in a time after he built the machine while the Controller exists in a time before. Benton is astonished to realize that time has shifted. He leaves the time machine and plans with the Controller.

The Controller and the Control Council, from somewhere in time after both visits, discuss the  detection by the stability machine of an imminent destabilizing event. The time machine!

With no idea as to what is actually transpiring (or has transpired), the Controller and the Council rush to Benton’s apartment in order to retrieve the time machine. Benton is perplexed when they ask for it. He does not have the machine because he just left it at the Controller’s office. He does, however, have the globe, which has been telling him about its plans. The Controller discovers the globe and tells everybody that there is an evil city inside it and that the globe wants to be smashed so that the city can escape.

After a struggle with the Controller, Benton smashes the globe and releases into the room the “accursed city,” which sweeps all those in it into a reality where giant machines of “raging power” have reduced humanity to “sweating, stooped, pale men, twisting in their efforts to keep the roaring furnaces of steel and power happy.”  Benton’s awareness of his former life is quickly subsumed into this devastating world.

The ending is a shock but it opens the door to multiple perceptions of the events that precede it and begs for interpretation.

From one perception, these machines are the the stability machines of the future. They are a product of the decree imposed upon civilization by the Control Council far back in time.  The use of the time machine has destabilized civilization, which has disintegrated as predicted into the scenario of the evil city.

From a second perception, stasis has been maintained but the relationship between humanity and machine has become grotesque. The stability machines are serviced as in the past, but they have assumed dominance and become the tyranny of human life.

From a third perception, the stability machines operate outside of cause and effect and are not subject to the flow of time. From here past, present, and future are conjoined. The machines themselves are the source of time and function therefore as an evil entity.

Beyond these multiple layers of perception, a single image connects the events of the story into a whole as a quantum of pure, unmediated perception. The discrete image of Benson reaching down to pick up the globe for the first time is the story’s real and only “stability,” a source point through which all the other events of the story pass regardless of what meaning or time frame is attached them. Unfortunately, human beings have no access to this transcendent reality and can, therefore, never know stability.

Beyond that, one can project an infinite number of such discrete existences . . . 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Radio Free Albemuth (1985)

Last night I finished Radio Free Albemuth and was so overwhelmed by my experience that I can safely say it has brought me my most satisfying experience of PKD.

Since Dick wrote RFA not long after the visionary experiences of early 1974, we are in this novel probably closer to the original fire that burns through everything he wrote after that.  Even though Dick probes his experiences far and wide and often erratically in his Exegesis, in RFA he presents a beautifully coherent expression of them in the context of a science fiction story that gives them value and makes the conclusion of the novel so spiritually moving. Indeed, this is the most passionate PKD novel I have read.

The visionary life of Nicholas Brady occurs in an alternate history of the U.S., c. 1978, during the fascist regime of Ferris Fremont, President of the United States and mole for the communists of the U.S.S.R. It would be easy for Nicholas Brady to be sucked into his alternative reality, but the dangers of the fascist state keep him fully engaged with preserving his life, the lives of his friends, and the life of the nation gradually being consumed by fear and hatred. The essence of the novel lies in how these two realities constitute a whole, singular event.

There are two narrators in RFA: Nicholas Brady and a science fiction author named Philip K. Dick. The Dick character listens helplessly to Brady’s experiences but cannot contribute much in the way of understanding. After all, as Brady keeps telling him, he writes science fiction. Dick tries unsuccessfully to look at Brady’s experience from an objective point of view. He accepts but does not understand. In the second part of the novel, Nicholas Brady relates his experiences as a personal narrative.

One night he suddenly finds himself downloading information from what he later learns is a satellite which has been orbiting the earth for centuries. This satellite transfers information to a select few on the earth from humanity’s home star system Albemuth. Brady refers to this entity (God) as Valis, an acronym for vast active living intelligence system. The intent of the information is to counteract the influence of “the adversary,” the dark force that surreptitiously accompanied the human race from Albemuth to the earth and is behind the rise of Ferris Fremont to the presidency.

The agents of the fascist government, called Friends of the American People (FAPers), are omnipresent in all areas of American life and are aware of the satellite, which their underground ally, the Soviet Union, eventually destroys. They are also aware of the subversive plot instigated by Nicholas Brady, who recruits musical talent for a living, and Sadassa Aramchek, a key member of the resistance group Aramchek, named after her mother. Together Brady and Aramchek formulate a plan to introduce to the public subliminal messages through song lyrics in hopes of generating resistance to the government. This plan, however, never has a chance. It has been tracked by FAPers from the its inception and is destroyed. Brady and Aramchek are executed.   

Nicholas Brady’s inner experiences constitute a cosmology much greater than what is acted upon in the story. Valis is more than the progenitor God of the human race. It is the cosmic mind, within which the cosmos exists. Brady participates in the cosmic life by receiving the downloaded information from Valis and consciously acting upon it in the greater context of earth’s spiritual history, including the immediate situation of Ferris Fremont’s presidency. His lack of success is less important than the fact that he received the information and demonstrated his understanding through his actions. That was all that was required of him.

In RFA it is easy to see Judeo-Christian influences at work; however, the science fiction element allows us to strip away the constrictions of religious cosmologies, which, because of their historical roots, cannot integrate new visions. It is this balance between known theology and science fiction elements that opens the door for the reader to jump in and celebrate all possibilities.

At the end of RFA, there is hope for the human race. Help is on its way in the form of another satellite from Albemuth, which, however, will take centuries to arrive. Meanwhile, earth will continue with its struggle against the adversary, and eventually Valis will return and restore all human beings blissfully to their root existence.