Sunday, 10 August 2008

Phil Dick overload?

A few people who read my review of Flow, my tears, the policeman said (I suppose I should self-importantly correct that to “a few of the many people”) were intrigued by my comments on Dick’s continual wrestling with different views of reality and have asked if I might expand on this a little. I would straight away recommend them to read a very interesting book about Dick called I am alive and you are dead by Emmanuel Carrere, but since I have some experience of wrestling with reality myself as a novelist perhaps I can also add a few perspectives of my own, though let me acknowledge openly that I will be drawing heavily in places on Carrere’s book. I am also honoured that Tessa Dick, Phil’s widow, should have taken the trouble to get in touch with some comments on my original post, all of which I have naturally been delighted to incorporate.

The title of his book, by the way, is a reference to Ubik, in which some characters are presented as being alive but are in fact dead, while others are portrayed as effectively dead but being kept alive, or at least existent, artificially. For anyone looking to dip a first toe into the water of Dick’s oeuvre, it is not a bad starting point.

Talking of starting points, his “experience” on 2nd March 1974 is generally taken as having sparked what became an obsession with the nature of reality and perception. It was the day, Dick said a year later when he “saw that the world did not compute”. Lawrence Sutin in his biography of Dick, Divine Invasion, quotes him thus:

“It, from inside me, looked out and saw the world did not compute, that I - and it - had been lied to. It denied the reality, and power, and authenticity of the world, saying, 'This cannot exist; it cannot exist’.”

While not seeking in any way to downplay the effect of this on Dick, there are one or two points to bear in mind here. First, Dick himself was unsure of exactly what nature this revelation had taken; that is why I have deliberately used the word “experience”, which was as neutral a word as I could conjure up, but even this is loaded to a certain extent in that it acknowledges that something actually happened, no matter what it might have been. Dick later explicitly acknowledged the possibility that he might have been mistaken (what he called his “minimum hypothesis”), or have misinterpreted what he felt or experienced.

The other thing I would point out is that the constant description of altered states of reality (or rather, altered perceptions of reality) was already a leitmotif running through his books well before this experience occurred. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was published nearly a decade earlier in 1965, and Eye in the Sky as early as 1957. So, whatever the experience might have been or done, it may have contributed to the internal debate but it certainly did not initiate it.

We should also consider the zeitgeist of California in the fifties and sixties, an era when hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD were legally available, and people were becoming aware for the first time that the establishment was not the benign father figure that it purported to be, but a cynical, manipulative clique whose only real purpose in life was to cling to, and if possible increase still further its power. It is distinctly possible that both of these things could have been major contributory factors to Dick’s subsequent writing and to his eventual paranoid delusions.

It was also a time when new scientific musing was taking place about the nature of perception and reality, and in particular the role played by the human mind. R.D. Laing in The Divided Self argued that what society sees as madness may actually be a sane person’s reaction to a mad world, an idea developed twenty years later by Foucault in Madness and Civilisation. Aldous Huxley and Henri Bergson agreed, describing the brain as a mechanism for filtering out a reality which is too rich for people to deal with. Writing in The Doors of Perception in 1954, Huxley advanced the theory that madness is what occurs when the mechanism fails, and a person catches a glimpse of reality as it really is. Incidentally, Huxley was a user of LSD and asked to be injected with it a few hours before he died, so that he could enjoy the experience more intensely.

The British writer John Collier suggested that the universe might be like a pint of beer, with each bubble a separate galaxy. What would happen, he wondered, if a few people living in one tiny bubble should happen to peer out and catch a glimpse of the man pouring the beer? For them, nothing could ever be the same again. The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft adopted the word “eldritch” to describe this sort of feeling, what Carrere describes as the panic and betrayal at realising the true nature of the falsely familiar. We know that Dick read this and that it affected him deeply, since he created a character named “Eldritch” who distorted people’s perceived reality through the use of narcotics. In fact, Freud had earlier used the word “unheimlich” to describe this sort of sensation.

Dick already knew that perception was treacherous, that the senses could lead us false, and that the human mind altered its perception of reality as much as possible to avoid having to confront a reality that may not sit well with the individual’s belief system, or that may cause friction within the collective spread of belief systems of a group of people. He was familiar from reading Jung with the ancient Greek concept of “idios kosmos” as being the individualised version of reality that each person carries around in their head, and “koinos kosmos” as being what people think of as being reality, but which is really a diplomatic fiction to allow society or a community to function. Dick described this as the lowest common denominator of the group. From this it was for Dick only a short step to a recognition that the business of ordering any society consists simply of the deception of the many by the few.

“What seems real is a deception. What rational beings agree on as constituting reality is an illusion, a simulacrum, created either by the few in an effort to mislead the many or else by some external power intent on misleading everyone. Reality is not reality.” Emmanuel Carrere, from I am alive and you are dead.

For many, I am sure that this is what makes Dick’s writing so compelling. Not only are they very well written, but they force us to question our own everyday world through his eyes. It is one thing to acknowledge that everything told to us by government is somewhere between an evasion and a downright deception, and quite another to question the whole physical fabric of our reality, yet that is the step which Dick invites us to take. And that way, as he was to find out to his cost, madness lies.

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