“The Revelation of Philip K. Dick” – John GRAY

It would be hard to find a more striking statement of a Gnostic world-view than this:

Behind the counterfeit universe lies God … It is not a man who is estranged from God; it is God who is estranged from God. He evidently willed it this way at the beginning, and has never since sought his way back home. Perhaps it can be said that he has inflicted ignorance, forgetfulness, and suffering – alienation and homelessness – on Himself … He no longer knows why he has done all this to himself. He does not remember.

Having undergone a succession of experiences in which he seemed to gain access to another order of things, Dick found himself feeling at once liberated and oppressed. He recognized that these seemingly paranormal experiences might be accounted for by personal factors, including heavy drug use over many years, and did not deny that they involved a departure from conventional norms of sanity. Yet he remained convinced that he had been granted a glimpse of another world from which, along with all other human beings, he had been immemorially exiled:

Within a system that must generate an enormous amount of veiling, it would be vainglorious to expostulate on what actuality is, when my premise declares that were we to penetrate to it for any reason, this strange, veil-like dream would reinstate itself retroactively, in terms of our perceptions and in terms of our memories. The mutual dreaming would resume as before, because, I think, we are like the characters in my novel Ubik; we are in a state of half-life. We are neither dead nor alive, but preserved in cold storage, waiting to be thawed out.

A brilliantly original writer of science fiction who used the genre to question what it means to be human, Philip K. Dick never came to terms with the upheaval that he suffered in the months of February–March 1974. He struggled with the experience for the rest of his life.

If the circumstances of his life led him to the experience, they also ensured that it would remain painfully enigmatic. Born prematurely along with his twin sister Jane in December 1928, Dick suffered states of what seems like metaphysical horror from his early years. Jane died six weeks after she was born, an event that troubled him throughout his life. He was terrified when his father put on a gas mask to illustrate stories of his time in the war: ‘His face would disappear. This was not my father any longer. This was not a human being at all.’ In 1963, he had a vision that harked back to this early terror: ‘I looked up in the sky and saw a face. I didn’t really see it, but the face was there, and it was not a human face; it was a vast visage of perfect evil … It was immense; it filled a quarter of the sky. It had empty slots for eyes – it was metal and cruel and, worst of all, it was God.’

Episodes such as this appeared in his fiction – the metal face in the sky became Palmer Eldritch, for example. They also pulled Dick in the direction of Gnosticism. As his biographer comments, for Dick ‘the Gnostic view that our world is an illusory reality created by an evil, lesser deity was utterly compelling. It could account for the suffering of humankind, as well as for startling phenomena such as a vision of “absolute evil” (the Gnostic god’s true visage!) in the sky.’ This Gnostic vision resonated deeply with some aspects of Dick’s personality, while other parts of him were just as deeply repelled by it.

Dick was always prone to paranoid fears, not always without reason. In late 1953 he and his then girlfriend were visited by FBI agents, who showed them surveillance photographs and appear to have offered them expense-free places at the University of Mexico if they agreed to spy on their fellow students. Such approaches were not unusual at the time. Overshadowed by the Cold War and McCarthyism, early Fifties America was a time of suspicion. Many years later, Dick discovered through a Freedom of Information request that a letter he had written to Soviet scientists in 1958 had been intercepted by the CIA. Surveillance of this kind was routine in these years, but it is unlikely that American intelligence agencies had any special interest in Dick. He had no access to sensitive information, and the costs of monitoring him would have been prohibitive. Even so, for the rest of his life Dick believed he was under surveillance – if not by the FBI then by the KGB or (perhaps worst of all) the Internal Revenue Service.

In late 1971 his house was burgled and his files removed – a break-in he attributed to Watergate-type Federal agents or possibly religious fundamentalists, among others. Neither explanation was entirely fantastical – this was the time of Nixon, and Dick had been involved in the late Sixties with James A. Pike, the Episcopal Bishop of California, in seances in which the bishop had attempted to make contact with his son, who had committed suicide. At the same time, neither explanation was realistically plausible. (Some among Dick’s friends suspected he may have staged the break-in himself, perhaps to foil an anticipated IRS tax audit.) Following his mental upheaval in early 1974 he believed that his personality was being taken over by US Army Intelligence. He called the local police to tell them ‘I am a machine’, and wrote to the FBI in an attempt to dispel any doubts as to his loyalties. Such episodes suggest full-blown paranoia.

In the aftermath of his mental upheaval, Dick medicated himself with drugs, alcohol and vitamin preparations, while consulting a number of therapists. Yet he could not shake off the sense of confinement imposed on him by the revelation he had experienced. Instead of ascending to a realm where he would be free from danger, he saw himself ever after as being surrounded by evil forces. Fantasies of conspiracy – political or cosmic – dominated Dick’s view of the world up to his death, some weeks after he suffered a stroke, in March 1982.

Dick’s propensity to paranoia was exacerbated by his style of life – not least his excessive use of amphetamines. But his was paranoia of a peculiar kind, one that articulated an entire world-view – a highly distinctive version of Gnosticism. With its vision of the world as being ruled by an evil demiurge Gnosticism is, in effect, the metaphysical version of paranoia. Paranoid delusion is often a reaction against insignificance – the sense, often well founded, of counting for nothing in the world. Dick’s paranoia was of this kind. By seeking a sense of significance, he became familiar with the dark side of a world where nothing is without meaning.

Dick’s achievement as a writer came from detaching science fiction from speculation about the future and linking it with perennial questions about what can truly be known. In many of his novels and short stories he explored the dizzying possibility that the universe is an infinitely layered dream, in which every experience of illumination proves to be one more false awakening. This was the theme of novels such as The Man in the High Castle (1962), a novel of alternate history in which Axis forces are imagined as having won the Second World War and the chief protagonist ends unsure which history actually occurred; The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), where an evil entrepreneur markets an alien hallucinogen that destroys the ability to distinguish the real from the unreal; Valis (1981), in which it appears that the central character is being helped to uncover the truth of things by an alien space probe; and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), a posthumously published volume, dealing with the struggle of a renegade bishop to make sense of recently discovered Gnostic texts.

These novels reflected and sometimes anticipated experiences in which the author was unable to say what was real and what not. Often the life and the work were images of one another: Timothy Archer is an avatar of Bishop James Pike, for example. It was not just reality and illusion that were intertwined. So were fact and fiction. Dick could not accept that his life was shaped by a succession of random events – the death of his twin sister, a routine visit by the FBI, a commonplace break-in. He looked for design in everything that happened to him – above all his mental breakdown. Fearing he could not make sense of his experience, he turned it into a book.

The book was The Exegesis, a massive manuscript of over eight thousand pages and around two million words, mostly handwritten and not meant for publication, in which he tried to comprehend what he had undergone. The editors of the published version, which appeared in 2011, describe it as:

visionary and fractured, at once coming apart and striving heroically, in the only way a novelist can strive for such a thing, to keep himself together as a life nears its end in shambles, haunted by a dead twin sister whose own life was a month long, and defined by bouts of psychosis, a diorama of drugs, five marriages, suicide attempts, and financial destitution, real or imagined stalking by the FBI and IRS, literary rejection at its most stupid (which is to say destructive), and a Linda Ronstadt obsession.

Invoking early Christian teachings and a number of esoteric traditions, especially Gnosticism, Dick struggled to persuade himself that what he had experienced was an authentic revelation. Having been unhinged from reality for large parts of his life, he wanted to believe he was now on the way to being truly sane.

Though it was marked out by his own traumas, Dick trod a path that has been followed by many before him. Like human beings in every age he wanted to believe that the events of his life formed part of a pattern. So he created a story in which his life was shaped by secret agencies, some of them from beyond the human world. But a world in which nothing happens by chance is an enclosed space that soon proves maddening. Dick found himself stuck in such a place – not the radiant, meaning-filled cosmos he was looking for, but a dark prison. Scrawled on the walls were messages, some of which would appear later in the pages of his books.

The Exegesis is rambling, fragmented and often wildly speculative. The synthesis of personal experience with hermetic tradition at which he laboured was never achieved. Yet he succeeded in bringing together Gnostic themes that, unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking.

Dick summarized what his experiences had led him to believe:

1. the empirical world is not quite real, but only seemingly real;
2. its creator cannot be appealed to for a rectification or redress of these evils and imperfections;
3. the world is moving towards some kind of end state or goal, the nature of which is obscure, but the evolutionary aspect of the change states suggests a good and purposeful end state that has been designed by a sentient and benign proto-entity
 
In this cosmogony the visible world is the work of ‘a limited entity termed “the artifact”’. The ‘artifact’, or demiurge, may be ignorant, or else (Dick sometimes speculated) demented. But it is not malevolent, simply doing what it can to free humans from delusion. This is a view that has something in common with Kabbalah, as Dick acknowledges:

Probably everything in the universe serves a good end … The Sepher Yezirah, a Cabbalist text, The Book of Creation, which is almost two thousand years old, tells us: ‘God has also set the one over against the other; the good against the evil, and the evil against the good; the good proceeds from the good, and the evil from the evil; the good purifies the bad, and the bad the good [Dick’s italics]; the good is preserved for the good, and the evil for the bad ones.’

Underlying the two game players there is God, who is neither and both. The effect of the game is that both players become purified. Thus the ancient Hebrew monotheism, so superior to our own view.

An interplay between good and evil in which each is necessary to the other is at the heart of many mystical traditions. If he had stuck to this view, Dick might have exorcized the demons that possessed him. But he needed to know, beyond any possibility of doubt, that the scheme of things was good. In 1975 he wrote: ‘This is not an evil world, as Mani supposed. There is a good world under the evil. The evil is somehow superimposed over it (Maya), and when stripped away, pristine glowing creation is visible.’

The idea that evil is a veil covering the good is an old one. But it leaves unresolved the questions, why and from where did the veil appear? If it originated in some divine mind, the world must have been made by a creator that is itself partly evil. This creator may be only a lesser god, one of many. But how did this ambiguous demi-god come into being, if the true God is all good? Why must humans spend their lives struggling against illusion?

These are questions Dick could not answer. In Gnosticism evil and ignorance are one and the same; when gnosis is attained, evil vanishes – at least for the adept. In this type of illumination there can be no uncertainty. Dick’s experience was nothing like this. The illumination he experienced was the trigger for a process of psychological disintegration. There was no way the revelation he had received could be seen as the end of his search. This may be why he introduced the idea of evolution into the system of ideas he was struggling to put together. Invoking a process of evolutionary change that is alien to Gnostic thought, Dick believed a transformation was under way that spanned vast tracts of human history and cosmic time. Believing that the human mind becomes gradually more enlightened, he was applying a near-universal modern assumption. In many respects an antinomian figure, he was also a product of his age.

A belief in human advance through time is built into the modern world-view. For Plato, the Gnostics and the early Christians, there was no question of the shadow-world of time moving towards any better state. Either time would literally end – as Jesus, the apocalyptic Jewish prophet who came to be seen as the founder of Christianity, appears to have believed – or else time and eternity coexisted in perpetuity, as Plato and the Gnostics thought. Either way there was no expectation that any fundamental alteration in human affairs could occur in the course of history. Taken for granted in the ancient world, this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible.

The modern world inherits the Christian view in which salvation is played out in history. In Christian myth human events follow a design known only to God; the history of humankind is an ongoing story of redemption. This is an idea that informs virtually all of western thought – not least when it is intensely hostile to religion. From Christianity onwards, human salvation would be understood (at least in the west) as involving movement through time. All modern philosophies in which history is seen as a process of human emancipation – whether through revolutionary change or incremental improvement – are garbled versions of this Christian narrative, itself a garbled version of the original message of Jesus.

Dick wavered between accepting that history is ruled by chance and believing it obeys a secret design. In 1980 he considered writing a novel of an alternate world, ‘The Acts of Paul’, which would have explored the radical contingency of history. In ‘The Acts of Paul’, Christianity – the faith that more than any other affirms that history has meaning – would have been clearly just a spin-off from random events. Sadly, the novel was never written.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous, and Dick could not help being influenced by it. Above all, he was attracted to the idea of evolution because it promised that his epiphanies might someday make sense. If the mind evolved through time, his confusion need not be permanent. Dick wrote: ‘What happened … is that I woke up to reality. But it has these counterfeit accretional layers over it. Our sense of time – of the passage of time – is the result of our scanning the changes of appearance … I merely passed over from unconscious messenger to conscious…’

Some months before he died Dick wrote a letter enclosing a one-page ‘final statement’ of The Exegesis. Under the guidance of a ‘hyper-structure’, a new species with a higher level of awareness than humans was evolving. He insisted this was not ‘mere faith’. But for him it had to be true. He could not live without the belief that his disorienting experiences were phases in a continuing process of enlightenment. Desperate for any kind of meaning, Dick needed a fantasy of evolution in order to avoid being left with mystery.


GRAY, John. “The Revelation of Philip K. Dick”, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom. New York/London: Penguin, 2015.

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