Philip K. Dick–The Penultimate Truth

At the online book club Classic Science Fiction, we had a series of posts discussing whether or not a book should stand alone or if it helped readers to know about the writer and why they wrote their fiction to fully appreciate the story.  Most of the members wanted books to be completely self-contained and did not want to know about the author.  If fact, many readers worried if tales about the writer were slanderous or gossip it might unfairly color their appreciation of the story.  They were responding to my comments about Radio Free Albemuth and how I judge Philip K. Dick to be crazy.  My response was that certain writers like PKD, Proust, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Wolfe and other autobiographical novelists almost demand knowledge of the writers to fully appreciate their work.

Let me say upfront that if you are reading just for entertainment, books have to be standalone and self-contained.  No knowledge of the author or literary history should be required.  And I do read for entertainment, but for me it’s the foundation to the house, and the real architectural design to be admired is what fiction says about reality.  I’m just not interested in one dimensional fiction.  The novelists I love the most are natural philosophers and reporters.  Now that doesn’t mean I want pontification in fiction – no, fiction is about catharsis, not messages.  To me the best philosophical stories are those where the author is invisible behind the scenes, and their characters, setting and conflicts presents the reader with a deeply emotional experience, whether tragic or comic.

I used to think that only Dick’s last novels were about his personal experiences, but after watching Philip K. Dick-The Penultimate Truth  I now think different, and realize he was always autobiographical to some degree.  Philip K. Dick is very close to Jack Kerouac in that their novels are spiritual journeys that try to make sense of their troubled souls.  Although this documentary about PKD is framed with a cheesy X-Files setup of two FBI like agents brainstorming from boxes of evidence about who Philip K. Dick was, it’s actually a perfect metaphor for Dick’s life.  FBI agents were watching PKD, and he was obsessed with being watched.  You can view this documentary online at YouTube, or get it from Netflix, or follow the link to Amazon above and buy it.  I highly recommend this film.

Here’s the first of nine parts on YouTube:

The documentary gathers three of Dick’s five wives (Kleo Mini, Anne Dick, Tessa Dick), many of his girlfriends, and several of his closest friends (Ray Nelson, Tim Powers and K. W. Jeter) to talk about him while the agents pin photos on a wall as if they were trying to solve a crime.  Some people like to think that PKD actually experienced mystical events and they are unexplained revelations of truth, but I don’t.

All through the documentary they show clips from a speech Dick gave in Metz, France in 1977, that to me is conclusive evidence that Dick was crazy.  He essentially confesses his madness in front of the audience.  His girlfriend that was with him at the conference, Joan Simpson, said the speech was quite horrible and she wished she could have been anywhere else.  She said the French audience was kind to him, but she felt they had been greatly disappointed too, because they expected his wild stories to be creative rather personal visions that Dick confessed to believe.

Now I’m not saying we should write off PKD as a man lost in madness.  As K. W. Jeter says about The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, that Phil provides a critical self-portrait and realizes before he dies that he had been crazy, and as Jeter would like to think, he didn’t die insane, and had finally accepted this reality.

This is an excellent documentary that expertly summarizes the life and work of Philip K. Dick in 89 minutes.  Philip K. Dick was a major explorer of reality and he ventured to some very dangerous places, but ultimately he comes back to report that we shouldn’t go where he’s been.  PKD is a teacher about what it means to explore madly divine concepts.  He is a professor of paranoia and Gnosticism.  We like to think that penultimate realities don’t exist, but Philip K. Dick traveled into them and wrote mission reports back to us.

Here’s the thing.  If you are sane and have a firm grasp of reality, those penultimate gnostic worlds don’t exist, but if you have a weak understanding of this reality they do exist, and they are very real.  It’s not that Dick’s mad ideas explain the ultimate reality because they don’t, but they do explain penultimate realities that we really don’t want to visit.  What’s sad, tragic and troublesome is the people who ask if what PKD experienced was real in our ultimate reality – those people are too close to a penultimate reality, and to them Dick’s visions explains a reality they see but we don’t.  Anyone familiar with mentally ill people will recognize many of the belief systems Dick explored.

Reading Philip K. Dick’s books are a study in madness, and not philosophy, religion or even science fiction.  They are meta-fiction, autobiographical, epistemological,  and a form of exegesis.  PKD even kept a journal he called The Exegesis.  I believe that at times Dick fully believed his visions, but at other times he questioned his sanity.  Many people read his books as science fiction and find them entertaining.  Dick was good a writing fiction.  At the entertainment level many of his books are self-contained stories that work without knowing anything about his life, but the more you know about PKD, the more you see something different about his work, and you see that he was an explorer of penultimate realities.

And when I say “penultimate reality” I’m not riffing on PKD’s titles.  I’m talking about people with gnostic mindsets.  To them, they seek the ultimate truth, or hidden knowledge.  They think they are living in a penultimate reality and are being told lies, and this reality is a sham, and the real reality is a secret being kept from them.  Such thinking has always been a part of various religious sects in world history.  PKD is a modern Gnostic.  Conservative religions don’t like to discuss this, but madmen are often the driving force of the early stages of their religions.  People with mystical instincts are attracted to seers like Philip K. Dick as a form of validation, and Dick knew this.  He was seduced by his own visions too.

Christianity rejected Gnosticism in the early centuries of the common era, but the modern faithful also believe this reality is a penultimate reality.  And this is why we should read Philip K. Dick, he’s a modern day example of a prophet, mystic, seer, writer of revelations, like those in the Bible and other holy books.  If you believe in science, this is the ultimate reality, and mystic people are crazy, now and then.  If you believe this is a penultimate reality, then Dick was a visionary, and from my perspective, you are a tortured soul like he was.  Because any believer in hidden knowledge finds this reality confusing and upsetting.

This is why I say books by Philip K. Dick aren’t just for entertainment and escapism.  You need to know as much about PKD as possible to decipher them.  Sure you can read them as far out science fiction and just consider them weird ass stories to be amusing.  But my fear is some PKD fans live in a penultimate reality, and see Dick as a mystic and that’s really scary.

For me, the real reason to read Philip K. Dick is to study the madness of metaphysical worlds and to avoid them.

JWH – 6/4/11

9 thoughts on “Philip K. Dick–The Penultimate Truth”

    1. Instead of saying the universe, I refer to reality as all of existence, whether we live in one universe, or our universe is part of a multiverse, or it’s even more complex than that. Reality to me is the whole shebang.

  1. Science has no claim to ‘reality’ it is simply a method of observation and inference. The physical universe seems to obey certain ‘laws’ but this says nothing about what is ‘real’ or not imo ; the idea that there is a thing called reality that exists ‘out there’ somewhere is a huge metaphysical assumption

    1. By my definition of the word “reality” it means the whole enchilada, whatever that might be. I take reality to be all of existence from top to bottom, from beginning to end, every last dimension, all the possible universes, with nothing left out.

      But Alex, are you saying there’s no external reality? My guess is all of human existence is no more than the smallest particle we can imagine compared to the hugeness of reality.

  2. We are taking a very orthodox view of Dick’s sanity or insanity through the eye of his religious or mystical visions.Because he had what he thought were epithanies of a divine presence,does it really mean he was insane?Probably,but if he is,can’t the same be said for all the various religions?Why should it be any more insane to see a divine presence than believing unconfirmed religious doctrine?He was very interested in Gnosticism,and his 1964 vision,seemed to confirm what he knew about the subject,at least his moral suspicions.It caused him to cast doubt on his sanity or insanity,and he decided to write a book about it.”The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” is a fictional autobiography of what he claimed had happened to him.It deals with the theme of madness,that was what Dick felt in regard to his epithany,but as in all of his work,even “Valis”,he didn’t believe everything he wrote about in it.”Valis” is a literal autobiography of “weird events”,that lacks therefore the subtlety of the other novel,but it does cast doubts on his sanity,that he felt in his personal life,and had to come to terms with himself.

    1. I never thought PKD was insane because of his spiritual philosophy. Dick was functional, although self-destructive. Where we have to worry is with his hallucinations during this VALIS episodes. He knew he had very vivid experiences that seemed real, but probably wasn’t. It was his obsession trying to understand them that we have to worry about. Phil was always putting people on, and he may have been putting people on about this too. I wish the PKD estate hadn’t suppressed that biography by his ex-wife’s daughter. I think that was the relationship.

      By the way Richard, I found this book Philip K. Dick and Philosophy by D. E. Wittkower that’s quite interesting. Have you read it?

      We can call PKD a crazy guy because he was into so many crazy ideas, but I doubt if he was seriously mentally ill. He probably had some bad episodes because of stress and drugs, but for the most part he was very aware of what was going on.

      1. I mentioned the 1964 episode not just to prove that he had visions before his famous 1970s experiences,but because Dick himself said that the significance of his later visions,was rooted in that awesome “encounter”.In this case,are the “Valis” episodes anymore or less worrying than what “happened” to him ten years earlier?It occured during the heat of his amphetamines dependency,and it seems easy to attribute it to this drug binge,but it also occured during a period of loneliness and marital angst.Obviously he was serious enough though to have written a book in a disguised form about it,as he did “Valis”,and assume in regards to your comment,that none of what he actually “experienced”,was fabricated.That sinister apparition seemed to confirm to him,that what he was seeing was the flawed Gnostic God who was less than benign,in contrast to the “Valis” period,that convinced him,that whatever he was being visited by,was this time,a power for good.You can’t doubt the morality of his claims,even if you think he was telling some quite scary fairy stories.

        I suppose however,that neither two periods can be said to be definitely real.If he wasn’t mentally ill then,and at least a substantal amount of his solipsist history is genuinely honest of what he “experienced”,what was going on?Was it just stress and drugs?

        I think I’ve heard of that book,but don’t know the author.I’ve only read four books about him,which isn’t enough,but have read numerous articles and essays about him on and off the web.

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