The Return of Philip K. Dick

The Return of Philip K. Dick
A Review of Philip K. Dick: The Dream Connection

Robert Anton Wilson

 from Magical Blend #18, February 1988

 I tell you these things for what they are worth. They are true things; they happened.   –VALIS

Of all the books I’ve read in the past year, none has impressed and moved me quite as much as Scott Apel’s Philip K. Dick: The Dream Connection. The story Scott tells is about as uncanny as a kangaroo in a Mozart string quartet, but it is all based on fact.

I assume that readers of Magical Blend will be aware of who Phil Dick was and of the mysteries and controversies that have made his final years as enigmatic as John Kennedy’s last six seconds in Dallas. Briefly, for the benefit of those who aren’t hip to the Dick Phenomenon:

Philip K. Dick was one of the most prolific and also one of the most disturbing of recent American science fiction writers. His books, by ordinary literary standards, are better written, more humanistic and insightful, more “artistic” and, above all, more philosophically profound than almost anything you can find in the sci-fi field. Also, the majority of them were more frightening, or at least more unsettling, than most current novels, inside or outside of science fiction. You always had the feeling that his books might bite you.

Phil Dick was a man obsessed with the basic questions of philosophy and epistemology: What is real (if anything)? How much of our experience can be trusted? Do we really know anything about the strange universe in which we live or are we just guessing? Reading him was about as soothing as the 11 o’clock news and almost as likely to drive you to booze or downers. Or, if that is hyperbole, Phil at least had the same capacity as the TV news to make you wonder if you had somehow gotten onto the wrong planet.

Those who don’t read science fiction have probably encountered one of Phil Dick’s esoteric fables in film version. The gruesomely poetic (or poetically gruesome) Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford, was based on Phil’s novel,Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The most Dickian things in the movie are the Christian symbolism sensitive viewers have noted (the dove and the dying android) and the ironic implication that some androids may be more human than some humans. Phil, in fact, was fascinated by the Turing problem, as it is called in computer circles: how can you tell a sufficiently advanced Artificial Intelligence from a “real” human being? This was related, in Phil’s philosophical musings, to the classic problem of ontology: how much of perceived “reality” is an illusion of our own minds?

Blade Runner also contains one of Philip K. Dick’s major obsessions: the image of a United States under totalitarian control, but of such a subtle nature that most citizens aren’t even aware that democracy has died and has been secretly replaced by fascism. You might say that, while many radicals shout that “extreme” view in their rhetoric, Phil never howled about it in political speeches, but quietly, in his fiction, brooded over the possibility that it could happen or it might even have happened already. He gets under your skin. He makes you wonder if the 11 o’clock news isn’t just a preview of the Bela Lugosi classic that follows it: maybe our country really is like that?

This obsession grew after the mysterious break-in at Phil’s house on November 17, 1971. This was preceded by what Phil, at the time, feared was an onset of paranoid thinking on his part. He thought he was being watched for many weeks. He tried to evaluate this “irrational” thinking and worried that he had done too many drugs back in the wild 1960s. Then it happened. Persons unknown broke into Phil’s house, stole many of his papers, and set off a small bomb to destroy other of his records and documents. Phil assumed, at the time, that some government agency was responsible (he had been active in the Peace Movement for many years) but, in retrospect, this is just one more weird piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Phil’s last decade.

After exploring basic questions about reality and illusion in his fiction for over 20 years, and then wondering for three years who had trashed his house and why, in 1974 Phil Dick had just about the most mind-blasting “mystical” experience to hit anybody in our times. Phil spent the rest of his life (he died, tragically, of a sudden stroke in 1982 at the age of only 53) trying to understand in some rational way this 1974 experience which was, in its intensity and content, no more rational than country that has a Statue of Liberty as its symbol and compulsory urine testing as its sacrament. Phil’s last and best novels are all attempts to make sense of the 1974 Epiphany at least in artistic terms; these mind-bending epics are Radio Free Albemuth, VALIS and The Divine Invasion.

Phil’s 1974 “illumination” (or whatever it was) began while he was under the influence of sodium pentothal, given by a dentist during an extraction. On returning home, Phil had a sudden flood of memories involving a past life in ancient Rome. Later, other memories about that “past life” came back to him repeatedly, in intervals between sleep and waking. Other visions involved seeming contact with extraterrestrials; seeming contact with another Philip K. Dick in a parallel universe where the United States of America did not exist and was replaced by the Portuguese States of America; seeming experiences of channeling in which Phil knew ancient languages he had never studied; and, at one point, a night-long and encyclopedic vision of the history of painting which seemed to be a part of a transmission from Russian parapsychologists to interstellar telepaths. Those are the highlights of the less crazy parts of the original experience.

Other parts Phil always found impossible to verbalize or conceptualize, but he was left with the strong intuition that a divine being of some sort, a new Buddha or Christ, was about to appear on this planet. This was reiterated in subsequent visions, less chaotic and more traditionally religious, that came to Phil in later years.

Those locked in a Fundamentalist Materialist reality-tunnel will, of course, say that Phil Dick simply went goofy. Phil himself seems to have entertained certain worries on that score, and only his robust and healthy sense of humor saved him from being terrified about what happened in 1974 and some of the strange after-tremors in later years. Besides, as a man who was both an original philosophical thinker and a creator of scientific romances, Phil was able to generate so many “explanations” of his altered states of consciousness that he never lapsed into believing any one explanation was necessarily the true and only explanation.

If at various times Phil Dick thought that perhaps he had undergone a temporary psychotic break, after all, he also thought, other times, that maybe he had telepathically contacted extraterrestrials, or had gotten caught in a PSI channel through which Russians and extraterrestrials are communicating (without notifying the rest of humanity). He also hypothesized that the megavitamins he was taking in 1974 might have “blown a hole” as it were in the corpus callosum, allowing vast amounts of non-verbal data from the holistic right hemisphere of his brain to pour into the analytical left hemisphere, which tried to make verbal maps of a Noah’s flood of visual/transpersonal information that does not lend itself to coherent verbal description. (I like this alternative in some ways. The first maps Phil made of his experience were the maps a science fiction writer would naturally use in trying to define the undefinable.)

An oddity of the extraterrestrial hypothesis is that Phil specifically made the ETs denizens of Sirius when he wrote the semi-fictionalized VALIS. Make of this what you will. Phil never identified his “guides” with Sirius in any of his conversations. Nonetheless, I was having experiences in 1973-74 which, at the time, I thought were telepathic communications from Sirius. (This “psychotic episode” or transcendental communion with Higher Intelligence is recounted in my book, Cosmic Trigger.) Later, one psychic reader told me I was actually channeling an ancient Chinese Taoist alchemist; but another psychic reader told me I was channeling a medieval Irish bard. Growing less bold in my theorizing as I get older, I now tend to think, most of the time, as Phil tried to think most of the time, that I was merely receiving signals from the right hemisphere of my own brain. I still wonder about Sirius occasionally, however.

It is interesting that, also in the 1970s, English mainstream writer Doris Lessing began writing science fiction novels about ETs from Sirius who are intervening on Earth to save us from a calamity of our own making. In the third of these novels, The Sirian Experiments, Ms. Lessing tells a tale that parallels Phil Dick’s experiences and my own in dozens of ways. When I met Ms. Lessing in 1983, she said she had never read anything by Mr. Dick or myself.

I guess we better file that under the Funny Coincidence department. I almost wish we could file it under the It Never Happened department.

I must emphasize that a great deal of the time, Phil Dick suspected that he had received a religious vision, and that his training in scientific and modernistic modes of thinking was blocking him from understanding fully the transcendental gnosis he had been granted. He was increasingly preoccupied with Gnostic Christianity in his last years.

Many of the themes of the 1974 Epiphany and of later visions have a Gnostic flavor but are also pregnant with numinous Jungian archetypes. The “head Apollo,” symbol of artistic intuition, was prominent in many of Phil’s visions. Various forms of female Messiahs appear in his fiction, as artistic analogs of this image. The cryptic but unforgettable mantra or koan, “The Buddha is in the park,” connected to both the new Messiah and the Head Apollo, came in a hypnogogic dream and later haunted Phil. The nonsensical and/or prophetic phrase “King Felix” — connected by synchronicities to Felix the Cat, the reborn messiah, and an odd printing alignment in one of Phil’s early novels — came to unify all opposites, like a Jungian archetype of reconciliation.

Personally, although I only met Phil a few times, I formed the strong opinion that he was as sane as most writers or poets, and saner than a great many I could name. Certainly he was never as grandiose or cranky as William Blake, or as pompous as Walt Whitman, nor seemed seriously unbalanced to his friends, like Christopher Smart did (to mention just three other writers who were granted trans-human visions).

When Phil died in 1982, much of the sci-fi world was engaged in debating whether his visions came from extraterrestrials or Russian mind-researchers or some kind of real “God” out there or just from “the collective unconscious” of Jung. Then things got really strange.

A letter Phil had written in 1981, circulated by him to about 70 friends, began to be reproduced and distributed in all sorts of places. In that letter Phil states that Jesus has been reborn and lives on the island of Sri Lanka. This religious proclamation is very hermetic, however, in that Phil also says Jesus is incarnated in the whole biosphere of Earth and then distances himself from the message of the letter by attributing the vision of the new Christ to Horselover Fat, a character in Phil’s novel, VALIS. (But then Horselover Fat clearly is Philip K. Dick, or part of him…)

While Phil Dick fans were trying to figure that one out, the post-mortem mysteries began. Rumors circulated all over the U.S. and Europe that Phil was not dead at all; some claimed that he had faked his death and gone into hiding, for unknown reasons. Some even insisted they had seen Phil — in Boston, in Amsterdam, in all sorts of odd places. About the only place he wasn’t reported was the men’s room in the Pentagon, but then, if he showed up there, those bastards would never tell us, would they?

The Philip K. Dick Society, a serious group of friends and fans of Phil’s, has investigated Phil’s death rather thoroughly, and there is no doubt that he is, medically at least, really dead. The people who claim to have seen him wandering about are either liars, or hallucinators, or are seeing his ghost. (Take your choice.)

Philip K. Dick: The Dream Connection is largely a personal account of D. Scott Apel’s personal involvement with Phil and Phil’s mystical ambience. The first, and longest, part is an in-depth interview by Scott and Kevin Briggs in which Phil Dick discusses his Epiphany of 1974 with intelligent skepticism, good humor and flashes of brilliant wit; but, despite his lack of grandiosity and his willingness to consider all possible theories, Phil clearly indicates that he really suspects the experience was of crucial importance, not just to himself but, possibly, to the future of humanity. Some form of Higher Intelligence is trying to tell us something, using Phil as one of its channels — maybe. When you think he is about to accept the gnosis literally, Phil retreats again to agnosticism.

These pages are not only intellectually exciting but deeply moving; never before has a man with such a truly religious vision tried so hard to be intelligently skeptical and remember that the emotional depth of an experience is no proof of its objective validity. Nietzsche, who claimed the mystics were never honestly analytical and philosophical about what happened to them, would have had to admit that this criticism did not apply to Phil Dick.

This long, fascinating interview is followed by a hitherto unpublished story by Phil, “The Eye of the Sibyl.” Like Phil’s last novels, this is one more attempt to make an artistic analog of the transcendental visions he had experienced, and it is interesting both as science fiction and as a parable, similar to the teaching stories of the Sufis, in which suprarational matters are conveyed by indirection. A Priest of the Sibylline oracle in Rome is transported forward in time, becomes a little boy in Berkeley named Phil Dick, grows up to be a science fiction writer, and gradually remembers that he is actually an ancient Roman living in modern America. The conclusion indicates that extraterrestrials have caused this time-warp because America needs a science fiction writer who understands fully the doom that comes inevitably to imperialistic nations. In fact, the story is based on another of Phil’s visions, between sleep and waking, about his earlier life in ancient Rome.

In that vision of time-travel from Rome to America, Phil got a view of the extraterrestrials who were manipulating him. He says they looked like the ones described by Betty and Barney Hill in that famous UFO contactee case.

This means they also look like the little jokers who kidnapped Whitley Strieber, according to his recent book, Communion. Students of occultism are quite familiar with these mischievous midgets, because Aleister Crowley painted one of them over 50 years ago. Crowley called them “Enochian entities,” because he contacted them by using the “Enochian calls” – Cabalistic formulas (in no known language) which Crowley learned from the notes of 17th century sorcerer, Dr. John Dee. Jungians, no doubt, would say these dwarfs are archetypes of the collective unconscious.

Another short piece follows, “A Dream of Amerasia” by Ray Faraday Nelson, a gifted sci-fi writer who had once started to collaborate on a novel with Phil Dick, called Ring of Fire. Both got involved in other projects and that novel was never written. This essay describes a dream in which Phil’s ghost appeared to Mr. Nelson and encouraged him to sit down and write Ring of Fire. While this is less eldritch (as Lovecraft would say) than the reports of those who claim to have seen Phil’s ghost walking around in broad daylight, in this context it gives one pause, does it not? It is implied that Phil, from beyond the grave, will continue to act as collaborator. Ray says he is going to write that novel – which concerns an alternative universe in which Japan won World War II and occupies California. (Like the “Portuguese States of America” in Phil’s 1974 vision, such a world might be as real as our own, according to the Everett-Wheeler-Graham model which increasing numbers of young physicists now embrace.)

A much longer section, “The Dream Connection” by Scott Apel again, takes up in a sense where Ray Nelson leaves off. Like Ray, Scott encountered Phil’s ghost in a dream — but it did not just happen once in Scott’s case. It happened over and over again. Each dream was followed by one or more Jungian synchronicities, all of them weird enough to convince Fundamentalist Materialists that Scott is as mad as Phil was or else is a damned liar. Most of these synchronicities have a surrealist humor to them (especially the ones involving Disneyland) that reminds me powerfully of the novels and personality of Dick…

I know Scott Apel quite well and I am totally convinced he is not crazy and not a liar. In any case, such webs of dream-and-synchronicity are very common in certain groups; for instance, patients in Jungian therapy, acid-heads, students of yoga or Cabala, and artists and poets are particularly prone to this kind of experience. But even scientists have occasionally endured such spooky interminglings of dream and reality (Wolfgang Pauli, Nobel laureate in physics, is a notable case).

Scott Apel concludes that the evidence of his dreams and synchronicities, the analogous case of Ray Nelson’s dream-contact with Phil, and a few ambiguous seances in which Scott attempted to contact Phil Dick directly, all add up to a good argument for the survival of the individual consciousness after death. You can think what you want about that. The data remains fascinating whatever way you choose to interpret it.

One of the most suggestive anecdotes in The Dream Connection happened before Phil’s death, by the way. Phil had once told Scott of a dream in which he was told that he would be contacted by a certain woman who was an agent of an underground society of humans who are in communion with the extraterrestrials who are manipulating events on this planet to save us from catastrophe. Just before his death, Phil said he had finally received a letter from a woman who fit the description of the promised messenger from Higher Powers. Nobody has yet shed light on whether Phil met her or what happened if he did meet her. (In Radio Free Albemuth, the Phil Dick character does meet her, and then they are both killed by the Secret Police…)

Concluding matter in this anthology contains a letter about Phil’s philosophy by Theodore Sturgeon, a copy of Phil’s Gnostic epistle about Christ being alive in Sri Lanka, and an afterward by myself in which I give a Jungian and somewhat Buddhist interpretation to the events Scott prefers to interpret within the models of Christian Spiritualism. The metaphors may be a matter of taste. Those trained in shamanism would say that Phil Dick was a man of Power and his Power lingers in the world his body has left.

There are more books about Phil Dick coming out every few months, it seems. Few of them, so far, have shown as much insight and empathy as this anthology by Scott Apel. For a while at least, Scott’s book will be the definitive work on the science fiction writer who became as much of a mind-bender as his own most imaginative novels.

What are we to make of the case of Philip K. Dick? I have thought a lot about that since Phil first told me of his “out of body/out of mind” experiences at a sci-fi convention in 1977, and my comments in Scott’s book are not my final thoughts by any means. Somehow, I keep circling back to the allegory in VALIS — a variation on the theme we have already encountered in “The Eye of the Sibyl.”

In VALIS, the last 2000 years of history never happened. Certain evil forces, never quite defined, have placed us in deep hypnosis and we do not realize that we are actually still living in the Roman Empire. One man, Horselover Fat, discovers the truth, but his friends all think he is crazy and try to persuade him to be “cured.”

Yet, while these brainwashed subjects continue to hallucinate Richard Nixon and the CIA and moon-rockets and Bubble Gum Rock and so forth, Fat alone sees what is really happening: the Roman Empire survives, and slavery and madness and sadism survive as they always have. We are governed by Caligula and his kith and kin; the people of gnosis (the awakened) are being thrown to the lions every day. We do not see the mass murder going on, but retain dream-distorted images of part of the genocide: the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon…

Somehow I think all Phil’s theorizing about extraterrestrials and parallel universes were attempts to put into words the same urgent insight that Horselover Fat conveys by insisting, over and over, “The Empire never ended.”

Similarly, in Radio Free Albemuth the United States appears to have been taken over by an anti-Communist dictatorship, and all sorts of Communists or alleged Communists are being locked up in concentration camps. This sounds like a ghastly parody of the Joe McCarthy era, but then comes the typical Phil Dick switch. The dictatorship is actually run by the Communists and the persons exterminated are not Communists after all but Christians. Grok? The Empire never ended.

If I may offer my own exegesis: Phil’s visions are telling us that people who claim to be Christians (and especially the ones who claim to be anti-Communist) are not true Christians at all; the true Christians, or gnostics, have been driven underground and hide below the surface of our civilization, which is a Black Iron Prison to those who have awakened enough to see a bit of what is really going on. The last 2000 years have been a nightmare, and in a sense never happened. The Redeemer is alive, either in Sri Lanka, or in the whole ecosphere (Phil gave both versions in the same letter). This summary contains the parts of Phil Dick’s revelation that seemed most important to him. I think Phil’s vision is most important to all of us, whether we accept it literally or interpret it as an allegory.

Scott Apel has done a marvelous job of taking us to a Disneyland of the Illuminati, and Phil Dick’s spirit is indeed alive and brilliantly shining in this mind-boggling book.

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