on June 19, 2013
I think Dick's "Valis" can usefully be approached in conjunction with his "Exegesis" ("The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick") which is a partial collection of Dick's "mad" writings as he tried to come to grips with a revelation he had in 1974: "a sudden, discorporating slippage into vast and total knowledge that he would spend the rest of his life explicating, or exegeting." The posthumous publication of some of these texts highlights Dick's long and arduous attempt to understand what exactly was happening to him, in a similar manner to C. G. Jung's efforts, as recorded in his Red Book. I can choose any page at random to get a feel for sheer movement taking place, on-rushing fervour, a furore, gathering rapids, as punctuation breaks down, or ceases really to matter, as an onrushing life begins to prevail. It's like navigating a maelstrom at times, with little islands emerging only to be swept away again. The structure of that book is described as "a freewheeling voice that ranges through personal confession, esoteric scholarship, dream accounts, and fictional figures... one of the most improbable and mind-altering manuscripts ever brought to light."
This kind of writing cannot be categorized because it is expressive of a BREAKDOWN of fundamental categories such as mechanical space and linear past, present, and future, those very categories that constitute the background of our stabilized modern structure of consciousness. I could use categories like "fictive", or "imaginative", but these categories come loaded with a history that has deprived them of any truth or reality. In fact these words currently mean the opposite--not real, fantasy, entertainment only, falsity, etc.
But the phenomenology is conclusive.
The process Dick underwent is real and, crucially, has no referent outside itself. For example a breakdown of categories does not refer outside itself to a literal break down on a personal level or to the scale of a literal world catastrophe, although many people who are caught up in these background movements often make these misinterpretations. And yet, because this movement is the real background or the "within-ness" of the world, then it follows that madness or world catastrophe are not to be excluded after all.
How can we understand the necessity of this contradiction?
An example may help us here. C. G. Jung had a series of "world catastrophe" visions just prior to the outbreak of the First World War. In his book "Memories, Dreams, Reflections" he offers two contradictory interpretations. Being an experienced psychiatrist he understood psychosis very well and at first felt he was being menaced by one. But when the war broke out he began wonder instead how his personal inner experiences could have something to do with subsequent events in the real world (the catastrophe of the war). This question of the connection between inner psychic events and outer events in the world became a lifetime's work for Jung, and is no less important and perhaps no more understood today.
In fact, for the next several years Jung was caught up in psychic processes that involved a breakdown of categories such as inner and outer, and he went through a very real personal breakdown that simulated psychosis (auditory and visual hallucinations, extreme emotional states, etc.) but, unlike madness, Jung's ego remained intact, as Dick's has. He was able to reflect upon, as well as undergo the breakdown of categories.
His written record of this journey is now published as "The Red Book". Jung's understanding of what he went through is complex and beyond the scope of this book, but we can touch on two aspects that are relevant here. On the one hand, after Jung emerged from his immersion in the "breakdown", he returned to the categories of inner and outer and took up the question of how one could have anything to do with the other. For example, his theory of synchronicity is a sustained attempt to find a theoretical connection between inner events, say a dream, and a "coincidental" event in the outer world. On the other hand Jung seemed to accept the breakdown of categories (e. g. spatial and temporal categories that form the structure of modern consciousness) and to change accordingly in his self-definition. He thus became initiated by the experiences themselves into a new reality. This initiation gave Jung the power to form new conceptions appropriate to this reality and thus perceive new aspects of the real world. These new conceptions gave rise, for example, to his unique notion of soul as absolute interiority.
Jung's complex and contradictory responses to the "breakdown of categories" have given rise to conflicting theoretical and methodological paths within the Jungian community but may be sympathetically understood as the result of a pioneer's attempt to face the sheer terror of participating in a breakdown of the very categories that support modern consciousness itself. And, if consciousness itself is undergoing a transformation, then personal breakdowns and world convulsions are highly likely, as our history demonstrates so well.
One of the other significant category breakdowns relevant to Dick's writing is that of the pair of opposites: doing and reflection. Within our modern structure of consciousness we consider these a pair of opposites. We can do something in life or reflect on something in life but not both at the same time.
In the kind of writing that Dick and Jung did, it seems that both happen simultaneously or something else happens that subsumes both within itself. I call this "happening" PARTICIPATION. Dick participates with the mind in its breakdown and writes it as he participates with it! Thus, participation can be sharply distinguished from automatic writing where the writer's consciousness plays no part. It is also different from having an experience and subsequently writing about that experience from memory. The writing that emerges from this participatory process therefore is a form (it's probably too early to call it a genre) that EMBODIES such category breakdowns (inner-outer, past-present-future, action-reflection, etc.)
To this extent such writing will appear crazy, as writers of this emerging form are forced to express mind-bending notions that are faithful to the phenomenon yet incoherent when subjected to the requirements of our stable modern form of consciousness.
I recently saw an example of such "nonsense" when I was awake, late at night, unable to sleep. I was being besieged by these and other crazy thoughts. I turned on the TV and to my surprise saw a re-run of "Terminator" (1984). The heroine (Sarah) and her rescuer are being chased by the Terminator and are resting in a tunnel where she seeks to understand the logic of what is happening. The machines had sent a Terminator back through time to kill her so that she cannot give birth to the hero and then train him in warfare to save future humanity from the machines. The mere presence of this future machine forces this simple waitress to gain the very skills that the machines fear, and to become pregnant with the future hero. Her rescuer had been arrested and a forensic psychologist listened to his story of travel from the future. He declared the prisoner completely delusional. The heroine, however, is willing to listen as he talked, not of futures, but possible futures. From their point of view, now in the Present, they were confronted with possible futures that were penetrating into the Present. Their actions mattered, although they could not predict the outcome (whether Sarah would be killed or not). It seems from this and other like examples ("Minority Report" etc.)that the idea of possible futures intersecting with the Present and demanding action, without knowing the outcome, becomes important only when the usual categories that support present-day consciousness break down.
A key methodological approach in producing this kind of "mad" writing is that the author takes seriously whatever phenomenon presents itself, in its own terms. The author must be able to remain "within" the phenomenon long enough so that it can teach her what it means in terms of its own logic, no matter how crazy it may sound when appraised from the categories of our current form of consciousness. The author is thus compelled to think self-presentational thoughts that defy ordinary rationality.
I'll give one example here from Dick's book, "Valis". Dick tells us of a dream he had in which he is living with this wife:
I have had dreams of another place myself, a lake up north and the cottages and small rural houses north and the cottages and small rural houses around its south shore. In my dream I arrive there from Southern California, where I live; this is a vacation spot, but it is very old-fashioned. All the houses are wooden, made of the brown shingles so popular in California before World War Two. The roads are dusty. The cars are older, too.
Following the dream, which Dick accepts completely in its own terms, he begins to compare its reality with his ordinary outer reality, which does not include many of the elements in the dream. He then gets a memory of his father and realizes that in his dream he is living his father's life. From this conceptual achievement, Dick argues further that the individual contains the history not only of her personal life but of our entire race, back to its origins, back to the stars: "This is gene pool memory, the memory of the DNA."
Now this final thought has been discovered and articulated by others. In modern times, C. G. Jung has developed a unique view of history which is very close to Dick's, namely that we are psychologically the "outcome" of many historical transformations in consciousness, all of which may be reconstructed in our modern minds, with the correct methodology--history, as much as it is psychologically relevant to our lives, may be found "within".
The really significant point here that I want to make is that Dick did not gain this knowledge externally, as a student of psychology might do so. He was initiated into it by the phenomenon--his dream, which he took to be as real as his waking life! His eyes were opened to another reality!
To take this line of argument a step further, we can ask what happens if, when the very categories that support our current form of consciousness break down, we stay immersed, participating in the chaos that logically follows, as Dick does. The process becomes mad and both "Exegesis" and "Valis" feel that way, from the perspective of our modern-day consciousness.
But Dick emerges with an astounding conclusion.
Dick discovered that a reversal in a fundamental polarity takes place.
Let me explain.
For thousands of years we have slowly stabilized a form of consciousness that has a structure of order/disorder. Consciousness is order and outside, beyond the boundary is disorder, chaos, evil, etc. Consciousness at first had to be periodically consumed by disorder and then renewed. It could not, for many generations, be relied upon to last forever. The dark irrational powers were a constant threat to the order of daylight consciousness and had to be held at bay by ritual acts of warding off. They also periodically had to be given their day--a day ritualized, for example, by the ancient Saturnalia or the Celtic Day of the Dead.
Over time our daylight consciousness became stabilized enough for these rituals to lose their power and necessity. Today they have degenerated into Halloween, etc. They have no psychological value. So now, we live in a stable world of rationality which is occasionally threatened by events evaluated as irrational (emotions, visions, delusions, the psychoses, etc.), all of which are dealt with primarily by medications, thus "warded off" (literalized by psychotic patients being put in the "back wards"). The content of irrational outbursts (or more accurately, in-bursts) are not listened to or trusted in any way by the "healing profession".
With this context we can more easily gain access to Dick's discovery. He shows us that if we take madness seriously and in a sustained way; if we take it on its own terms, as it presents itself to us, then the fundamental polarity that has driven our Western culture for thousands of years, giving rise, finally to our modern structure of consciousness--the rational-irrational polarity--reverses itself!
Dick outlines this reversal in his cosmogony (from "Valis"):
The single most striking realization that Fat had come to was his concept of the universe as irrational and governed by an irrational mind, the creator deity. If the universe were taken to be rational, not irrational, then something breaking into it might seem irrational, since it would not belong. But Fat, having reversed everything, saw the rational breaking into the irrational. The immortal plasmate had invaded our world and the plasmate was totally rational, whereas our world is not.
What this means for us is this: Where we feel most sane is where we are in fact insane. Our modern consciousness has so far isolated itself from everything else (the private self) that it is now psychotic--yet, of course, it thinks of itself as totally sane. Furthermore those aspects of our psychological being, now "persona non grata"--dreams, visions, hallucinations, etc.--are the harbours of the very sanity that can cure us of the insanity of our present psychological isolation.
This kind of writing demands both reflection and doing, i.e., what I earlier called participation! The ability of the author to engage this way probably determines the extent to which he could legitimately be called mad. The doing is a needing to act without knowing the outcome in the sense that modern consciousness knows (subject-object knowing)--just as Sarah had to act in Terminator!
If we know the outcome then obviously we are merely repeating the past in some way, since present-day consciousness knows only in terms of the past (memory). This "doing" can at first be frightening to those who feel the "demand" to act in this way. Yet one can get used to it and even become curious.
"Valis" and "Exegesis" are both accounts of the real process that a human being undergoes if she is pulled in to participation with the Mind as it undergoes an epochal breakdown, so that all the categories that support modern consciousness (especially spatial and temporal categories) go under, taking the author with them, sometimes into insanity, but as we can see with Phillip K. Dick, also in sanity, the kind of sanity that our normal consciousness will judge as insane.