VALIS

Book Review: VALIS by Philip K Dick

Known for his books that eventually would become big-screen hits like Blade Runner and Minority Report, the author Philip K Dick in VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence), combines elements of autobiography, philosophy, science-fiction, Gnostic theology, psychoanalysis, and existential self-construction. Like the recently published Exegesis, it takes its origin in the need to understand and respond to the events of February and March 1974 (which Dick called 2-3-74). He was irradiated by a brilliant pink light emanating from a Christian fish-symbol (ichthys) necklace worn by a young woman. He had a series of visions over the next two months, and spent the rest of his life trying to understand them.

The novel splits Dick into two characters: the narrator, Philip K Dick, a moderately successful science-fiction writer; and his unattractively named “Horselover Fat” (Philip in Greek means “fond of horses”; “dick” is German for “fat”), which is his crazy, schizophrenic alter-ego, to whom the visions arrived, and whose life became a quest to resolve their enigma. The principal framework of this book is a sci-fi variant of Gnostic cosmology, where the phenomenal universe is a construct of a false, malevolent and insane god–explaining all of the irrationality and sufferings that it contains.

The world humanity finds itself exiled in, is called the Black Iron Prison, and we are its prisoners. The true God is outside the universe and breaking through to heal it and us in various ways, including the pink light that Dick experienced. After many surreal experiences and visions the book ends with the narrator, Philip K. Dick, sitting before the TV, watching and waiting. He is clear that this is his way of continuing the search and keeping to his mission: keeping awake and open to infinite possibility.

Dick’s novel opens with the beginnings of his eventual psychological break-down and suicide attempt:

Horselover Fat’s nervous breakdown began the day he got the phonecall from Gloria asking if he had any Nembutals. He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself” (p. 1).

This is no message from a divine light, but the beginning of a soul-destroying relationship with a toxic, thanatotic individual, whose name “Gloria.” One of my favorite lines in the book, actually has little to do with Gnosticism. It goes like this:

I am, by profession, a science fiction writer. I deal in fantasies. My life is a fantasy. Nonetheless, Gloria Knudson lies in a box in Modesto, California. There’s a photo of her funeral wreaths in my photo album. It’s a color photo so you can see how lovely the wreaths are (p. 3).

I think many of us experience moments of revelatory intensity and also of intense despair at the imprisonment of our daily lives and of our very selves.

Caught in his own maze, like Daedalus, who built the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete and then fell into it and couldn’t get out. Presumably Daedalus is still there,  and so are we. The only difference between us and Horselover Fat is that Fat knows his situation and we do not; therefore Fat is insane and we are normal (p. 31).

How did humanity get in such a situation? By the blinding, hypnotic power of the Demiurge, of course. However, other divine beings like Christ, had other plans:

It can be argued that this is the most important statement in the New Testament; certainly it is the most important not-generally-known statement. We shall be like him. That means that man is isomorphic with God. We shall see him as he really is. There will occur a theophany, at least to some. Fat could base the credentials for his whole encounter on this passage. He could claim that his encounter with God consisted of a fulfillment of the promise of 1 John 3:1/2-as Bible scholars indicate it, a sort of code which they can read off in an instant, as cryptic as it looks. Oddly, to a certain extent this passage dovetails with the Nag Hammadi typescript that Dr. Stone handed to Fat the day Fat got discharged from North Ward. Man and the true God are identical-as the Logos and the true God are-but a lunatic blind creator and his screwed-up world separate man from God. That the blind creator sincerely imagines that he is the true God only reveals the extent of his occlusion. This is Gnosticism. In Gnosticism, man belongs with God against the world and the creator of the world (both of which are crazy, whether they realize it or not). The answer to Fat’s question, “Is the universe irrational, and is it irrational because an irrational mind governs it?” receives this answer, via Dr. Stone:

“Yes it is, the universe is irrational; the mind governing it is irrational; but above them lies another God, the true God, and he is not irrational; in addition that true God has outwitted the powers of this world, ventured here to help us, and we know him as the Logos,” which, according to Fat, is living information (p. 58).

An enlightened, immortal man existed before the creator deity, and that enlightened, immortal man would appear within the human race which Samael was going to create. And that enlightened, immortal man who had existed before the creator deity would trample upon the fucked-up blind deluded creator like potter’s clay (p. 55).

This is further elaborated in the different points in Dick’s Tractates Cryptica Scriptura.

44. Since the universe is actually composed of information, then it can be said that information will save us. This is the saving gnosis which the Gnostics sought. There is no other road to salvation. However, this information-or more precisely the ability to read and understand this information, the universe as information-can only be made available to us by the Holy Spirit. We cannot find it on our own. Thus it is said that we are saved by the grace of God and not by good works, that all salvation belongs to Christ, who, I say, is a physician.

45. In seeing Christ in a vision I correctly said to him, “We need medical attention.” In the vision there was an insane creator who destroyed what he created, without purpose; which is to say, irrationally. This is the deranged streak in the Mind; Christ is our only hope, since we cannot now call on Asklepios. Asklepios came before Christ and raised a man from the dead; for this act, Zeus had a Kyklopes slay him with a thunderbolt. Christ also was killed for what he had done: raising a man from the dead. Elijah brought a boy back to life and disappeared soon thereafter in a whirlwind. “The Empire never ended.”

46. The physician has come to us a number of times under a number of names. But we are not yet healed. The Empire identified him and ejected him. This time he will kill the Empire by phagocytosis.

Earlier in the book, Horselover Fat’s world steadily begins to unravel, much like the characters in the Dickian inspired movie Dark City. In Dark City: The Reality Projector, Individuation and the Aion, the author remarks on one of the characters, Detective Walenski, who has gone insane trying to find the truth about his unreality in his spiral-like existence.

“Round and round and round she goes… where she stops nobody knows.” – Detective Bumstead. Detective Walenkski’s drawings are reflections of his efforts to try to figure out that which he cannot remember or understand. The streets and subway follow a spiraling pattern . John finds out that the “Green Line” is the only way to Shell Beach (green-Osiris), but he has no way to get on it.

Horselover Fat eventually has a similar epiphany: that the present world of 1974, in reality, is a holographic cover-up, projecting over the sprawling nightmare, boiling behind it. To his horror, humanity was still stuck in the far-flung ancient world of Rome, where Christian martyrs were thrown to the lions, and all the Caesars spread the light of the Empire all over the known world. And curiously, behind ancient Rome, was also another “big brother,” communist, technocratic New World Order-type of dystopia, explored in another novel called Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said:

…during the interval in which he had experienced the two-world superimposition, had seen not only California, U.S.A., of the year 1974 but also ancient Rome, he had discerned within the superimposition a Gestalt shared by both space-time continua, their common element: a Black Iron Prison. This is what the dream referred to as “the Empire.” He knew it because, upon seeing the Black Iron Prison, he had recognized it. Everyone dwelt in it without realizing it. The Black Iron Prison was their world. Who had built the prison-and why-he could not say. But he could discern one good thing: the prison lay under attack. An organization of Christians, not regular Christians such as those who attended church every Sunday and prayed, but secret early Christians wearing light gray-colored robes, had started an assault on the prison, and with success. The secret, early Christians were filled with joy.

Fat, in his madness, understood the reason for their joy. This time the early, secret, gray-robed Christians would get the prison, rather than the other way around. The deeds of the heroes, in the sacred dream-time . . . the only time, according to the bushmen, that was real. Once, in a cheap science fiction novel, Fat had come across a perfect description of the Black Iron Prison but set in the far future. So if you superimposed the past (ancient Rome) over the present (California in the twentieth century) and superimposed the far future world of The Android Cried Me a River over that, you got the Empire, the Black Iron Prison, as the supra- or trans-temporal constant. Everyone who had ever lived was literally surrounded by the iron walls of the prison; they were all inside it and none of them knew it-except for the gray-robed secret Christians.

That made the early, secret Christians supra- or trans-temporal, too, which is to say present at all times, a situation which Fat could not fathom. How could they be early but in the present and the future? And if they existed in the present, why couldn’t anyone see them. On the other hand, why couldn’t anyone see the walls of the Black Iron Prison which enclosed everyone, including himself, on all sides? Why did these antithetical forces emerge into palpability only when the past, present and future somehow-for whatever reason-got superimposed?

Maybe in the bushmen’s dream-time no time existed. But if no time existed, how could the early, secret Christians be scampering away in glee from the Black Iron Prison which they had just succeeded in blowing up? And how could they blow it up back in Rome circa 70 C.E., since no explosives existed in those days? And now [sic], if no time passed in the dream-time, could the prison come to an end? It reminded Fat of the peculiar statement in Parsifal: “You see, my son, here time turns into space.”

In one article, by Kyle Arnold, he sums up the following points succinctly:

In the following months, the visions continued. Scenes of ancient Rome appeared, superimposed over Dick’s suburban neighborhood. A local playground seemed a Roman prison. Where there was a chain-link fence, Dick saw iron bars, and where there were children playing, he saw weeping Christian martyrs about to be fed to lions. Dick saw pedestrians dressed in Roman military uniforms, stone walls, and iron bars. “I hadn’t gone back in time,” Dick wrote to a friend, “but in a sense Rome had come forward, by insidious and sly degrees, under new names, hidden by the flak talk and phony obscurations, at last into our world again.” Dick supposed time had stopped in 70 A.D., the year the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by a Roman siege. Everything that happened afterwards was an illusion, and the world was still under Rome’s dominion. Dick believed the Roman Empire was embodied in the tyrannical Nixon administration, and responsible for the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. His own role was that of an undercover Christian revolutionary fighting to overthrow the Empire. That was why the delivery girl had flashed him the fish sign.

The novel ends with an optimistic phone-call from Horselover Fat reporting on his quest to find the 5th Messiah:

“one day I got a phonecall from Horselover Fat: a phonecall from Tokyo. He sounded healthy and excited and full of energy, and amused at my surprise to be hearing from him” (p. 210).

The split between Dick and Fat continues, but it enriches his life instead of despairing it. The healing power of ICHTHYS, anagram for “Iesous CHristos, THeou Yios, Soter” (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior) and Eros has come to win out over thanatos (spiritual death or ignorance) and alienation. After all the speculations and synchronicities, after all the encounters both toxic and salvific, there is no final explanation only a new sense of optimism and openness:

“My search kept me at home; I sat before the TV set in my living room. I sat; I waited; I watched; I kept myself awake. As we had been told, originally, long ago, to do; I kept my commission” (p. 212).

At the same time, Dick tells us in, “The Ten Major Principles of the Gnostic Revelation”: “To know these ten principles of Gnostic Christianity is to court disaster.” PKD is telling us right there that the archons will come after you once you figure out what’s really going on, much like the Strangers in Dark City and the agents in the Matrix trilogy.

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