He wasn't a legend, and he wasn't mad.
December 3, 2011 11:25 PM   Subscribe

I have always wanted to write about PKD as another example of American prophetic speech, and make the argument that his work is legitimately religious. I couldnt do that until this was published--I was hoping that the volume would be less edited and more annotated, and that doesn't seem to be the case. But I am glad that it exists.
posted by PinkMoose at 11:41 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

So apparently this going to be the more-or-less definitive account and collection of his writings and experiences around the transcendental experience he had in 1974. The only writeup I could find mentions that he was recovering from a wisdom tooth operation at the time, is there any evidence that the medication or recreational hallucinogenic drug use was going on at the time? Either way, he is the closest thing I know of to a modern prophet, so this could be pretty interesting. I'm sure the reading won't be a walk in the park though, even after editing.

Also, if I had to describe PKD I'm pretty sure the words "legend" and "mad" would be right up there at the top of the list. And shoutout to Moe's books in Berkeley! I used to devastate their used sci-fi collection whenever my student loan check came in, and I often noticed the large PKD selections they put out. Didn't realize he went to high school and (some) college there.
posted by sophist at 12:45 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Portions of the Exegesis have been published before, in Cosmogony and Cosmology and In Pursuit of Valis. Looks like they're both pretty rare now, though. (Glad I got my copy of Cosmogony and Cosmology when I did.) I think The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick is also selected parts of the Exegesis.

Looks like this is the first time so much of his Exegesis has been published in one volume, though.
posted by jiawen at 5:42 AM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

This book was printed in 1991 although I don't know how long it stayed in print. Has 300 pp of the Exegesis. I would be interested if somebody has read it and the new one finds anything good. I was under the impression the 300 page version was everything the editors in 1991 considered printable.
posted by bukvich at 6:11 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Experiences like PKD's pink beam are not rare; I've had a few myself, some of which turned into stories. What makes people like PKD special is that most of us go "well, that was weird" and move on with our lives. Dick was unable, or unwilling, to let it go. He had seen what looked like proof that something was very wrong with reality.

I've skimmed the 300pp version of the Exegesis that was previously published; it's really quite hard to read because it darts from point to point, as Dick tries to assemble the enormous ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle that was his perception of reality. It's so long because, ultimately, the pieces do not fit together. And it's not hard to wind up in his same situation. There are simple exercises, long known to mystics and popularized by people like Robert Anton Wilson, for revealing the nonsense underlying reality. Because a lot of those exercises also stimulate creativity, writers are at particular danger for stumbling onto them by accident. The logos is indeed powerful magic.

Once this has happened to you a few times it becomes a matter of knowledge rather than faith that either something is seriously wrong with the universe, or something is seriously wrong with consciousness. Either possibility is terrifying if you think about it too much.

Those who pursue magic as a hobby warn that the forces you contact can lie and play with you. People like PKD who stumble onto these things by accident often don't get that and take their visions literally. PKD mostly seems to have taken this interpretation, seldom doubting that the entity who sent him the pink beam was the good guy in the drama he was trying to reconstruct. I think it's just as likely it was a trickster who got a good astral laugh out of turning a hard-boiled science fiction writer into a Gnostic Christian.

Dick once said "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." And this reflects a fundamental flaw in the Christian approach to magic, which is that other approaches do not require belief. Trust me, there are very unreal things by the standards of consensus reality which hang around quite stubbornly whether you believe in them or not. This is probably why Dick found his pink beam so compelling; a thing that powerful, that made such a change in his life, that had created so many stunning coincidences, had to exist. In order to do some of the things it did it couldn't possibly be all in his head, it had to have some kind of agency outside of himself. And therefore it had to be real, just as real as his typewriter.

What Dick missed, what he was groping toward, is the idea that information is real. It would take the pervasive computer revolution to start spreading the idea that with enough information you could build a world without matter, that cyberspace might be a place people could live. And that unlike a world made of matter, a world made of information might be quite capable of lying to you and representing itself as something other than what it is -- such as world of matter that isn't supposed to permit exceptions.

Dick died at a really bad time not just because he missed out on getting rich, but because he may have missed out on coming to peace with VALIS. The Matrix should have been a PKD story. And I think he would have probably written it around 1988.
posted by localroger at 7:12 AM on December 4, 2011 [17 favorites]

Your links for "Jonathan Letham" and "From The Estate And Inside PKD's Mind" point to the same video.

The correct link for the second video should be this.
posted by hippybear at 7:23 AM on December 4, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a newly published, 1,000-page book devoted to a religious – or perhaps psychotic – episode in February and March of 1974, when a pink beam of light sent by God explained the nature of reality to a pulp science fiction writer.

posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:52 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

localroger: The Matrix should have been a PKD story. And I think he would have probably written it around 1988.

More like 1977.
posted by mediated self at 8:27 AM on December 4, 2011

Thanks for the post, empath.

Found this 1 hour 54 minute audio interview that may also be of interest:

Incredibly rare Philip K. Dick interview 1979 Santa Ana [SLYT]
posted by rmmcclay at 8:40 AM on December 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

mediated self: That speech is basically a tiny excerpt from the Exegesis. I don't get the sense that when he says "a computer programmed universe" he is thinking of something as fluid as the Matrix; rather that there is an underlying mechanical reality which is being manipulated.

A good example is in the "build a universe" linked speech:
I once wrote a story about a man who was injured and taken to a hospital. When they began surgery on him, they discovered that he was an android, not a human, but that he did not know it. They had to break the news to him. Almost at once, Mr. Garson Poole discovered that his reality consisted of punched tape passing from reel to reel in his chest. Fascinated, he began to fill in some of the punched holes and add new ones. Immediately, his world changed. A flock of ducks flew through the room when he punched one new hole in the tape. Finally he cut the tape entirely, whereupon the world disappeared. However, it also disappeared for the other characters in the story... which makes no sense, if you think about it. Unless the other characters were figments of his punched-tape fantasy. Which I guess is what they were.
This doesn't sound a whole lot like the Matrix, and it's more typical of the puzzle pieces he was assembling in the Exegesis. In 1977 nobody had any idea how powerful computers would get or what that would look like.

In the Exegesis Dick frequently refers to the Black Iron Prison, often enough that he abbreviates it BIP. Dick's conception of the BIP is extremely close to the Matrix, but when he died he clearly hadn't figured out how the BIP itself fit into whatever narrative passes for ultimate truth; he wrote stories and had experiences where flashes of this truth were briefly revealed, but he never did get all the pieces put together so that he could tell a story about the BIP and how and why it existed.
posted by localroger at 8:48 AM on December 4, 2011

> On February 17, 1982, after completing an interview, Dick contacted his therapist complaining of failing eyesight, and was advised to go to a hospital immediately, but did not. The next day he was found unconscious on the floor of his Santa Ana, California home after suffering a stroke. In the hospital, he suffered another stroke after which his brain activity ceased. Five days later, on March 2, 1982 he was disconnected from life support and died. After his death, Dick's father Joseph took his son's ashes to Fort Morgan, Colorado where they were buried next to his twin sister Jane, whose tombstone had been inscribed with both their names when she died 53 years earlier.

When PKD was composing the Exegesis he was not a well man. For your brain to stroke out at 53 years old is like Nietzsche. Nietzsche's last couple of books do not make all that much strict sense either.

The buried next to his twin sister thing is kind of horrific.
posted by bukvich at 9:04 AM on December 4, 2011

bukvich, PKD got hit by the pink beam in 1974, and was writing these obsessions into his stories for 20 years before that.

A bit more about the Matrix: Dick's Exegesis and the Matrix are both Gnostic, but there were flavors of gnosticism and there is a big difference; in Dick's version, there was a good force responsible for the revelations and which should have been running things; VALIS is about connecting with this force and restoring it to prominence.

But in the Matrix, there is no such positive force; the Matrix is entirely run, lock stock and barrel, by entities who mostly hate humans. It is humans who are the positive force, not a vast alien intelligence; and while we have a few allies among the bad guys it's mostly a war which humans can only win by turning one of the bad guys on his peers.

If you look at the last line of Radio Free Albemuth, which Dick abandoned to try again with VALIS, it seems he might have been moving in that direction ... and decided not to.
posted by localroger at 9:13 AM on December 4, 2011

I don't think that him being buried next to his twin sister is horrific.

The man did a lot of amphetamines, it did him in, both mentally and physically. That doesn't meant tha he wasn't amazing or his neo-gnosticism (Neo?) wasn't a source of philosophical inspiration to a lot of people (myself included).

There's a bit of his stuff, I think it might be in one of the VALIS trilogies? Or it's in the Ever Shifting Realities... He discusses two entities playing a game of chess, and the game is basically reprogramming the world at various points in historical time. I think the chessboard is like the world, and this reprogramming is what causes him to see these glimpses. The Empire Never Ended means that this chessboard is still there, only it manifests itself in different forms via reprogramming. A sort of cosmic Battle Chess, as it were, only where the rules of the game are codified and recodified throughout the game.
posted by symbioid at 9:19 AM on December 4, 2011

It's like the Matrix only got the part about the Demi-Urge, and didn't have Plotinus' ONE (although Neo is an anagram of One, right?) So I can't remember the full series, because fuck me if I was gonna watch 3 after the travesty that was 2.... Was there some sort of sense of Neo having been an atemporal or outside the system entity - or a fragment of code that's distributed amongst all beings (i.e. the "spark" of gnosticism that tries to be liberated via knowledge?)
posted by symbioid at 9:21 AM on December 4, 2011

I guess it's self link time. I was sent a review copy of the Exegesis by Houghton Mifflin posted a 1,200 word review of it over at AE.

The short version is that this is not an accessible book, but it is a treasure. I am very grateful to Jackson, Lethem and HMH for taking the risk of publishing it. I'll be flipping through it and submerging myself in it for the rest of my life.
posted by 256 at 9:30 AM on December 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

Was there some sort of sense of Neo having been an atemporal or outside the system entity

No, Neo is fully physically human, he was just born with administrator privileges within the Matrix, which he was given so that he could orchestrate the recreation of Zion after it's cleaned up. However, Agent Smith has gone rogue and the other programs don't seem to be able to stop him from replacing everything in the Matrix with copies of himself. Neo has to physically travel to the physical "machine city" to negotiate a truce; he alone has the ability to stop Smith, but he won't do so unless the machines promise not to wipe out Zion. The machines accept his terms, there's a big wrestling match, Neo defeats Smith by allowing Smith to start absorbing him and then allowing himself to die, which brings Smith and all his copies down too. The ongoing physical assault on Zion ends, roll credits.
posted by localroger at 9:32 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

PKD got hit by the pink beam in 1974, and was writing these obsessions into his stories for 20 years before that.

One interesting thing about the Exegesis is that PKD later came to believe that all of his pre-1974 novels had been subconsciously inspired by communications from the alien divine that had slipped in just below the perceptual threshold. As a result, he spends a lot of time in the Exegesis dissecting his earlier work for hidden themes, messages and other clues.

And, though he was almost certainly mad, Dick clearly retained his keen intellect and critical instincts through these years. The result is a truly unique thing: a complete semiotic analysis of a body of work by the author himself as though he truly were reading it for the first time.
posted by 256 at 9:41 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

No, Neo is fully physically human, he was just born with administrator privileges within the Matrix, which he was given so that he could orchestrate the recreation of Zion after it's cleaned up.

But isn't there that bit in the third movie where he's able to use in Matrix powers in the physical world?

That's kind of the point where (after many previous points that I let slide by) I finally said "oh, fuck this!".
posted by hippybear at 9:47 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

256 your review is readable and I enjoyed it. Have you read In Search of Valis? I have a ton of respect for Sutin and my a priori would be that the new work would add little. I am not yet thinking of buying a copy.
posted by bukvich at 9:50 AM on December 4, 2011

The other connection between PKD and The Matrix referred to in the video I linked above is that Dick says feelings of deja vu are an indication that a variable has been changed in the computer-programmed reality. This same basic idea that "whoa, deja vu" = "something has been changed in the matrix" was of course used in the first Matrix film (i.e. the black cat).

On preview: I have a copy of In Pursuit of VALIS and am very eager to pick up this new edition if only because it is (a) hardcover and (b) 600 pages longer.
posted by mediated self at 9:55 AM on December 4, 2011

hippybear there's some woo implying that Neo has a limited ability to communicate with the Matrix or machine network, but it's not used after that point and has no further part in the resolution of the story. The machines have to plug Neo back into the matrix physically so he can confront Smith for the big finale. I would just consider that a plot effup.
posted by localroger at 9:58 AM on December 4, 2011

mediated, I'm convinced that that bit about deja vu is one of the things the W brothers directly ripped off from PKD.

I get the impression that Dick conceived of the powers at the chessboard moving modules around, but that within the modules reality would be linear. When he recreated the scene from Acts of Philip helping the black man, he wasn't really recreating it; the module itself had been moved, forward in time. This is what he means by "altering the program;" that module is a program block, and the programmer moved it from A.D. 60 to A.D. 1974, in the same way one might use ctrl-X ctrl-V to move a line of code.

This is quite different from the Matrix or my own conception of Cyberspace; in those models time is mostly linear, but the very understructure of the Universe is a lie; it is not in fact mechanical and can be manipulated in ways that its manipulators work carefully to conceal, but can use against us. In that sort of world the recreation would really be a recreation, perhaps set in motion by forces manipulating chance to make their little diorama come out right, but in no sense would PKD actually be the same Philip from 60 A.D.

The Matrix does imply in Neo's conversation with the Architect that he is the same Neo from the previous iterations, but I suspect this is a bit of woo like Neo stopping the sentinels from outside the Matrix which should be chalked up to plot inconsistency. The Architect admits that Neo is different each time, and that Trinity's presence is new; so it's more likely that Neo is a new person whose development has been guided so that he will have the qualities necessary when his fate is revealed.
posted by localroger at 10:15 AM on December 4, 2011

Yeah, it's that bit where Neo and Co are approaching the Machine City outside the Matrix and he uses his Matrix powers to stop the attack. That was hooey.
posted by hippybear at 10:15 AM on December 4, 2011

Didn't have to be hooey. Neo had implants which could have been conceivably wirelessly communicating back to the computer network.
posted by empath at 10:49 AM on December 4, 2011

Didn't have to be hooey. Neo had implants which could have been conceivably wirelessly communicating back to the computer network.

You're reaching pretty far outside the universe as presented to try to justify a bit of lazy writing.

Anyway, back to the original topic of this FPP... this is fascinating to me. I'd not known about this side of PDK (I'm far from a scholar of his work), and so all this is new to me. The R. Crumb cartoon is fascinating, the first of the documentaries is really excellent (and answers a lot of the "what drugs was he on" questions from upthread).

I'm going to dig into the Arena documentary next.

Overall, I'm fascinated and grateful to have this posted here. I've had my own encounters with the numinous, which I pretty much accept at face value and haven't really tried to investigate to any deep sense. I'm comfortable living in a state of two-minds where I'm primarily scientific-extinctionist in my worldview but feel that my life runs better when I strive to give expression to my spiritual impulses. So I do so, from a Jungian approach, without any dogma or strictures. But I don't necessarily BELIEVE in the spiritual. I also don't NOT believe in it. I don't know enough about this universe to know whether my Actions With Intent have influence which I cannot directly perceive or not. And I certainly don't know enough to about it to know whether my encounters with the Divine Other are merely a product of stimulated neurons in my brain or if they are indeed a brush with something much larger than myself.

They simply are part of the experiences I've had in life. I try to live according to my perceptions, tempered with knowledge where it exists. When it comes to things like this, there is no real knowledge, and so I work within my own sphere.

I harm no one else; I seek to convert nobody and explain nothing. It simply is. And my life works better when I don't shut that part of myself off, so that's how I approach daily living.

Anyway, this is fascinating. I'm not feeling driven to buy the book (maybe someday), but I had no idea that one of the visionary writers of my lifetime had similar experiences and worked so hard to make sense of them.

Thanks for posting!
posted by hippybear at 11:01 AM on December 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh my god. It's real? It exists?

I will of course be swallowing this 1000 page pill immediately, which means that the last remaining shreds of my sanity are about to be burned away by a pink laser.

Happy holidays, everyone!
posted by rokusan at 2:54 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bought. Considering also getting the Kindle version.
posted by paladin at 4:20 PM on December 4, 2011

You're reaching pretty far outside the universe as presented to try to justify a bit of lazywriting.

I don't think the idea that he had extra abilities with the machines and computers is reaching, it was part of the basic premise for Neo's character. Although, there are a few plot points in The Matrix that does qualify for lazy writing, but I think that's because they were trying to cram to much into the movie(s). He uses his abilities 4 or 5 times outside the Matrix though. At the crash landing, saving Trinity, "seeing" without eyes, etc..
posted by P.o.B. at 4:54 PM on December 4, 2011

When I had a series of experiences 20-odd years ago that ended up being my life's version of PKD's pink beam, I tried to shoehorn the ineffable into some fiction I was writing. I never ended up finishing that project, but in retrospect I can't consider that to be a failure because in the process of writing I kept myself cognizant that I was quite intentionally creating a fiction out of something that is beyond fiction and non-fiction. I realized that for the most part the narratives that we create for ourselves are fictional, while at the same time "reality" was far too bizarre to lend itself to the structures we need to keep everything straight.

I read the Valis stuff, including the condensed exegesis, right around this time, and felt such empathy for PKD. Here he was trying to make sense of things that we can only grasp a portion of, and the constructs would not stay put inside his writing and seeped into his every day consciousness and work. My life circumstances (being a dad and husband, having a career, etc.) disallow me from diving into the full exegesis now, but I spent enough time with the condensed version to know that the alternate reality that PKD wrote was deeply complicated and immersive. The fiction that came out of that period was, IMO, so engaging and fascinating, but damned if the poor man didn't go through the depths of hell in his pursuit of making sense of things.

When I think about PKD and these experiences, I can't help but be reminded of Icarus. It takes more than wax and feathers to be able to fly close to the sun. Yet perhaps the journey and inevitable fall is, at least to some, worth the suffering.
posted by vverse23 at 4:59 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

At the crash landing, saving Trinity, "seeing" without eyes, etc..

Well he saves Trinity because she was wounded inside the Matrix and her body outside the Matrix would believe her brain's image of herself and she would die. And he saves her within the Matrix, which saves her outside the Matrix.

But that's a first movie plot point and it works great within the context of everything that was established.

Any other evidence of Neo using "powers" outside the Matrix elevates him from being an enlightened person within the large program who can free the slaves to the machines into being a mythological / supernatural figure who can bend reality itself. It has no place within the universe as originally presented, and is a cheapening of the concepts which were so brilliantly laid out in the first movie.
posted by hippybear at 5:00 PM on December 4, 2011

Oh good grief. And now I realize that the Trinity resurrection is a second movie moment.

Anyway, I'm standing by my assertion that Neo shouldn't have any special powers outside the Matrix, and when the movies go there, they're transgressing on my sense of what I liked about the concept of the movies.
posted by hippybear at 5:03 PM on December 4, 2011

I'm on the fence whether the "extra" abilities was a good for the movie, but I don't think it plays against the movie. The Wachowskis were messing with a bunch of ideas, including "truth" and "reality" being first and foremost. You can find those themes in narratives that are thousands of years old. Stripping away one reality and finding yourself in another, usually means that you have to begin again to strip that reality away to get closer to the truth.

PKD liked to mess around with those ideas in the form of sci-fi rather than fantasy or mythical stories, and it's easy to see the comparison here.
posted by P.o.B. at 5:50 PM on December 4, 2011

It has no place within the universe as originally presented

Neo was presented as a gnostic christ figure that was going to redeem humanity from the first moment of the first movie.
posted by empath at 8:28 PM on December 4, 2011

Didn't have to be hooey. Neo had implants which could have been conceivably wirelessly communicating back to the computer network.
You're reaching pretty far outside the universe as presented to try to justify a bit of lazy writing.

I have my doubts I'm going to talk anybody for whom that explanation doesn't work into having it work for them, but the explanation empath offers is one of the possibilities that occurred to me as I was trying to come to grips with the apparent violation of the rules, and the more I've turned it over, the more credible I find it. It's exceptional to the setup at this point, but while Neo is definitely human, he's clearly exceptional. He's obviously outfitted with hardware, and it's strongly implied through a number of different snippets of dialogue that he was intentionally augmented beyond the usual wiring in a number of ways. It's also not unreasonable that after reaching the contact with the source and the architect there might have been some new (and unusual) abilities unlocked, and the specific new abilities regarding contact with machines would be useful to somebody re-starting Zion anew. Fits together fairly well for me.

Better in a lot of ways than a lot of explanations for what's going on with this world, anyway, back at the topic...
posted by weston at 10:48 PM on December 4, 2011

I called hooey on it at first, too. But the whole point of the series is about the ambiguity of the "real" world. Neo spent his whole life in a simulation that he thought was the "real" world. After learning that world isn't real, you still treat it as real, and it requires training to suspend your belief of that world as real. In fact, you don't really suspend your belief in it, you overwrite your belief of it with a different belief. This requires training, and most people still have to accept it as "real", even though they know it isn't.

But how do you know know the world outside of the matrix is the "real" world? You don't know, and in fact can't know. That's the whole premise of the first film. Until someone comes along shows you the way out, you don't know if the world you believe to be the "real" world actually is.

But here's the neat thing. If you do become adept at manipulating the simulation, then that skill can't help but be present in any simulation. The implication is that this other world is also a simulation, and the matrix was simulation within a simulation. But then is the next world up the "real" world, or is it also a simulation. How many simulations do you have to escape till you get to the real world? As you travel along, the definitions of "real" and "simulation" get hazy. What is the difference between real and simulation? The only difference has been in "knowing" that the world is a simulation. Without that "knowledge" you will never find a difference between "real" and "simulation". So it's not just that in and out of the Matrix are both simulations, but that they are both real. It's that when you are jumping in and out of virtual worlds, you will confuse them because the only differences between them are that you perceive them as real or virtual.

And you do this all the time. When you play some game on your PC and you shoot and kill the bad guy, you don't consider it "real" killing, because you (virtually) shot and killed a (virtual) bad guy. Yet five minutes before that, when you signed the EULA, you consider that a contract you that you signed, when the contract is just as virtual as the bad guy was, and the act of signing is just as virtual as the act of killing was. You confuse the real and the simulation all the time, just like Neo. You probably think this sentence is real, but it's just a simulation of one.

Compare the Matrix to the Last Action Hero. Jack (Arnie's character)(I just watched this movie on crackle with my son. Sue me) gets pulled into the "real" world from a simulation. The "happy" ending of the movie has Jack choosing to live in the simulation. To return to being a simulation himself. He chooses the blue pill. The only way this works as a happy ending is if you recognize the simulation as equal to the "real" world.

So the problem isn't "how did Neo use his Matrix powers in the real world?". The problem is "why did you believe that world to be any more real than the other?"
posted by BurnChao at 1:15 AM on December 5, 2011

Yeah after the second movie, I thought they were going there, too, but I don't think there's any reason to think that Zion was a simulation, except perhaps in a truly mystical sense, rather than a science-fictional sense.
posted by empath at 3:59 AM on December 5, 2011

I am interested in hearing theories about his extra sensory ability when his eyes were burnt out. More "wifi" tech? It's not like there haven't been blind people with "sight" in other stories.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:13 AM on December 5, 2011

I haven't seen it in a while, but everything he was seeing had electronics, yeah? We already know the implants are able to make people see things. That's the whole premise of the movies.
posted by empath at 4:49 AM on December 5, 2011

I received this today. It's sooooo big and thick and dense and deep that I think I'll just dive right in and resurface sometime in March, CE39.

I wouldn't have realized this existed without your post, empath.

(So everything that happens from here on out is your fault.)
posted by rokusan at 6:30 AM on December 9, 2011

After so long I thought I had some idea of what PKD was about. Then I listened to the 5-17-1979 interview rmmcclay posted. I'll forget everything I've ever read that tries to explain him - this is where Phil ties the room together.
posted by Twang at 1:16 AM on December 27, 2011

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