The Open Door Leads to the Dormouse

“As of July 17, 2010, eleven of Philip K. Dick’s early works in the public domain in the United States are available in ebook form from Project Gutenberg.”

“Films based on Dick’s writing have accumulated a total revenue of over US $1 billion as of 2009,” according to the Philip K. Dick Trust.

Both of these quotes are from his Wikipedia page.

I don’t know whether these two facts are an appalling statement about literary agents, publishing, or Dick’s ineptitude. Phillip K. Dick couldn’t even pay his own library fines; and his official biography page borders on the hagiographic for the clichéd troubled and misunderstood artist. There is no doubt that Dick was troubled. A reading of his Wikipedia page details the man’s difficulties in life. But I think that Phillip K. Dick understood himself as best as he could and that he translated his difficulties into his art and that to me makes him heroic.

If you had not read his Wiki page then my statement above will make no sense to you. In short, Phillip K. Dick was a paranoid schizophrenic. He had been diagnosed as such as a young man, although, as the biography page states, the diagnosis remains in dispute to this day. The prognosis for schizophrenia in children is in a word…poor. Read the signs and symptoms of childhood schizophrenia from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and ask whether some or all of those bulleted items does not appear in his fiction.

They do. Fiction, we are told by other readers and our teachers, requires the suspension of disbelief. We are told that the reader becomes complicit in entering a constructed reality of values, whether for a brief, intense time as in a short story or novella, or for an extended period of time, as in a novel. The how is the craft and the getting from here to there is art. Everything in between is technique and the author lurking behind the words. Someone once mumbled that the greatest writers write scenes that have been unimagined. I can’t recall who said that. But what do we do when genuine psychosis is involved?  It is not the first time authors have transformed their demons into disturbing angels.

Is science fiction fantasy literature or is it a fiction of how we know knowledge? The word ‘science’ is derived from the Latin word ‘scio,’ which means ‘I know.’ One can anticipate the corridors of Philosophy rearing up around the reader like a carnival House of Mirrors: How do we know what we know? (Epistemology) but the point is not to start drawing Euler diagrams, not to suggest that mental illness enhances creativity.

While there is a long romanticized history of substance abuse in the Arts, the end results are often fatal. Alcohol seems to be the prevalent substance abused by writers. Cue to Tom Dardis’ The Thirsty Muse.  The end result is not pretty. Some writers have picked other substances. DeQuincey chose opium. Burroughs chose heroin. Hunter Thompson took LSD and so did Cary Grant and Steve Jobs. In fact, the internet has numerous articles about Jobs, LSD, and FBI files on him. It is enough to inspire a conspiracy theory and what Satanic sounds are heard when hard drives spin counter-clockwise. So what? Several of Hendrix’s lyrics could be interpreted as LSD-inspired. I’m sure there is a generation of writers who’ll claim MDMA is the backbone to their creativity. It makes you wonder what William Blake might have been taking back then to write his poems and do all those illustrations. I doubt that Blake abused drugs.

Philip K. Dick did, by his own admission, experiment with LSD, likely synthesized by Owsley and known as Blue Cheer in the Bay Area. Dick, however, preferred amphetamine stimulants, particularly Semoxydrine. I don’t think it is a stretch to connect speed with paranoia. Dick also ‘did’ massive amounts of vitamins and lots of black coffee. Balzac himself had done strong black coffee and enjoyed the brothels. Balzac died from an ulcer from all the coffee. Maybe there is something between stimulants and prolific output. Both Balzac and Dick were prolific: the record shows that Dick wrote eleven novels between 1963 and 1964 and before he died he had written a total of forty novels and two-hundred short stories. As far as I know only Belgian writer George Simenon has bested Balzac or Dick combined, with 400 novels. But, Simenon was known only to have smoked, like most men in his generation, and to have worn out typewriter ribbons and couriers as they ran from his apartment and his publisher’s, Gallimard. Joyce Carol Oates is fast on their literary heels and, while she may have a gothic imagination, I doubt that she is tippling or doing peyote in Princeton.

In 1972, Dick attempted suicide, after which his delusions worsened. He believed his phones were tapped and from there on out he lived and wrote as a split personality. He talked about transmissions,”pink rays” and alter-ego, Horselover Fat in his (autobiographical?) novel Valis. Youtube has an extensive series of PDK interviews where he discusses everything. Unfortunately I think the biographical preoccupation with his illness might add “color” at the expense of PDK’s accomplishments as a writer.

Like most writers, he read broadly and he synthesized all that he read. The bio page provides a list of writers that he read: “Xenophon’s Anabasis, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the French realists such as Stendhal, Flaubert and Maupassant – all this and much more …Dick gave credit to the American Depression-era writer James T. Farrell, author of Studs Lonigan, for helping Dick see how to construct the SF stories that he sold in such numbers to the SF pulps in the early 1950s.”

Philip K. Dick uses rapid dialog shifts in many of his stories, usually limited to two characters at a time. He inserts ‘beats’ when his characters speak so the reader can create a mental image of the conversation and infer motivation. What makes Dick an enduring science fiction, I think, is that the realities that he creates, with their shifting foregrounds and backgrounds, are so realistic, so cinematic and compelling, that it is no wonder many readers have postulated that his creations had been drug-induced or facilitated by drugs. Myself, I don’t think so. I do not think that readers become complicit in PDK’s delusional psychosis. Many of the scenarios that he creates are simple premises, creatively taken along unexpected  trajectories. We read his stories decades later and anticipate the Twilight Zone twist ending, but I doubt that was how they were perceived when they had been first published. The short story The Skull is one good example of a Twilight Zone ending but it still is creepy in the same way that Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” shocks you.

PDK is just that good of a writer. He does it with simple diction — not a bad thing — and while he does have the occasional awkward scene transition, Philip K. Dick is in a tradition of science-fiction writers. Machines acquire consciousness (Shelley’s Frankenstein and Asimov’s I, Robot). Numerous PDK short stories examine linguistics, religion, and spiritual values. He questions the existence of Utopia, as did Joanna Russ in The Female Man, Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Herland. I think Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s A Brave New World are known to most readers. PDK crafted a ‘what if’ situation in The Man in the High Castle, where the U.S. lost World War II. Science fiction is not all about aliens we’ve seen in cheesy films. Octavia Butler wrote sympathetic aliens in Lilith’s Brood, Carol Emschwiller gave us The Secret City and the oddest sci-fi story I encountered about aliens (and the Catholic Church) is Mary Rusell’s The Sparrow.

Walk through this collection of PDK articles to get a sense of his influence in sci-fi and in popular culture.

Dick is likely to be remembered for how how he portrayed Authority. Even when he is not dystopic, the fascist police state is always lingering in the background and the diaphanous boundary between conformity and individuality, sanity and paranoia, is in the forefront. Dick seems hopeful that the locus of control will remain inward until…the sheep (we as conformists) start dreaming of androids (those who have no empathy). A lack of empathy, Philip K. Dick might say, is the start of mental and social illness.

Remember what the dormouse said to Alice in Alice in Wonderland?

‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

Is that not consciousness? It is no coincidence that the Dormouse sits between the March Hare, who always wants to remain blissful in a perpetual tea party, and Hatter, who is always groping for more than he has in reality. The Dormouse is the literal sleeping cushion between a form of Ignorance and Narcissism and both are self-deceptive and self-destructive. When Hatter is called to testify in Chapter XI to recall what the Dormouse had said he can’t remember a thing. Knowledge in any form is as ephemeral as the shadows on Plato’s cave wall.

Phillip K. Dick might have agreed with the line in the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit” in which Grace Slick sings, “Remember what the Dormouse said. Feed your head. Feed your head.” Lewis Carroll did not write the line.

The caution in all of it might be in the Reality that is created. Those who have empathy and those who don’t have empathy create the webs of belief we call society. Humans are the only creatures that have reason (supposedly), language, and change their locomotion during the course of their lifetime (Riddle of the Sphinx) and create their own reality.

Some of us are asleep when we are awake, dreaming when we are sleep or when we are awake, and the majority of us want more than what we have but can’t remember why.

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About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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