Apr 17, 2023, 05:55AM

Anamnesis in Southern California

Philip K. Dick, Valis and the Word of God.

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I’ve written about Valis before. It’s one of the later works of the writer, Philip K. Dick, published in 1981, and probably his most difficult work. It was the first book I read which mentioned the Gnostic Gospels. It’s a very strange book, and I don’t recommend it. The first chapter is a model of how a good book should start. It’s one of the best first chapters of a book written by anyone. It’s poignant, funny, perspicacious, witty, insightful and profound, but it swiftly goes downhill after that.

Very soon the characters turn into ciphers for philosophical positions and don’t develop or go anywhere. They simply repeat their positions and the plot turns into a barely-concealed philosophical argument which ties itself increasingly into knots. One of the characters is a cynic and talks about his dead cat all the time. Another is a Catholic who talks about God. By the second half the book gets so convoluted and nonsensical that I’ve more than once thrown it across the room in exasperation.

There’s a chunk about the T-34 Soviet tank. It’s relayed by Sherri, the Catholic, but the tone of the conversation is that it’s Dick himself who’s imparting this obscure information, for no other reason than that he has researched it and he has to put it somewhere. Lots of the conversations are like that. Nevertheless the book is weirdly compulsive and introduces some of the strangest concepts to appear in science fiction, or in any book.

The first words are these, on a page all by themselves:

VALIS (acronym of Vast Active Living Intelligence System, from an American film): A perturbation in the reality field in which a spontaneous self-monitoring negentropic vortex is formed, tending progressively to subsume and incorporate its environment into arrangements of information. Characterised by quasi-consciousness, purpose, intelligence, growth and an armillary coherence. —Great Soviet DictionarySixth Edition, 1992

The Great Soviet Dictionary is fiction. These words were written in the late-1970s, and by 1992 the Soviet Union no longer existed, collapsed into 15 separate politically diverse statelets in December of the previous year.

It was, according to Francis Fukuyama, The End of History, but Dick couldn’t have known that either as he’d died 10 years earlier. The Valis Trilogy (of which Valis is the first part) was the last substantial work of the great writer, who’s lived most of his life in poverty. The year he died, 1982, was also when Blade Runner came out, based upon another of his novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? After that Dick became a staple of Hollywood, and there have been 15 major movies, and a number of TV series, based upon his books. No doubt there will be more. Had he lived he would be a multimillionaire by now.

Valis is largely autobiographical. It opens with a vivid and powerful description of Dick’s nervous breakdown. It veers between third-person narrative and first-person narrative. It turns out that the person who’s narrating the story is also the person who the story’s about. His name is Horselover Fat. So sometimes the narrator appears as a separate character, as a friend of the Horselover Fat he’s writing about, and who shares some of his adventures; and at other times the two slide into each other and it’s made clear they’re the same person. This gets even more confusing when the narrator contradicts the character, commenting upon something he thinks or does and disagreeing with him.

“Horselover Fat,” it later transpires, is a translation of the name Philip Dick. Philip means “horse-lover” in Greek, while Dick is German for “fat,” and at a certain point the narrative shifts again, and it’s made clear that it’s Dick himself who’s telling the story. He refers to one of his own books, A Scanner Darkly, and has Horselover Fat and himself sitting in a bar drinking and laughing together.

Woven throughout the text there are excerpts from Dick’s real-life journal, a work he called his Exegesis. It's the story of the last few years of his life. In 1974 Dick had a religious experience. He had an operation for the removal of two impacted wisdom teeth during which Sodium Pentothal was administered. Later a woman came to his door carrying a prescription for pain killers. She was wearing a golden necklace with a peculiar fish design, and Dick asked her about it. “This is a sign used by the early Christians,” she said. Suddenly he was catapulted into another time.

“In that instant, as I stared at the gleaming fish sign and heard her words, I suddenly experienced what I later learned is called anamnesis—a Greek word meaning, literally, ‘loss of forgetfulness.’ I remembered who I was and where I was. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it all came back to me. And not only could I remember it but I could see it. The girl was a secret Christian and so was I. We lived in fear of detection by the Romans. We had to communicate with cryptic signs. She had just told me all this, and it was true.

“For a short time, as hard as this is to believe or explain, I saw fading into view the black, prison-like contours of hateful Rome. But, of much more importance, I remembered Jesus, who had just recently been with us, and had gone temporarily away, and would very soon return. My emotion was one of joy. We were secretly preparing to welcome Him back. It would not be long. And the Romans did not know. They thought He was dead, forever dead. That was our great secret, our joyous knowledge. Despite all appearances, Christ was going to return, and our delight and anticipation were boundless.”

This experience forms the basis of Valis.

As I say, it was the first time I’d ever heard of, or read about, the Gnostic Gospels. And Dick throws new light upon the history of early Christianity. He’s of the opinion that the early Christians were Gnostics: that Orthodox Christianity came after and was a bowdlerisation of Gnosticism. In Dick’s view Gnosticism is the true Christianity and Orthodoxy the imitator, not the other way around.

Dick claims to have been an early Christian himself, in a previous life, and there’s something in the telling that makes his claim seem, not just plausible, but spiritually true. That’s not to say it’s actually true, just that it’s true for the writer. Dick’s clearly sincere in his beliefs and I’ve always believed that we should listen carefully to words spoken in sincerity, even when those words contradict what we ourselves believe. You never know, we might learn something.

He then says something startling. This is a quote from Dick’s Exegesis document, which he’s been inserting into the text at various places. The Exegesis entries are always in bold.

Entry number twenty-four,’ Fat said. “In dormant seed form, as living information, the plasmate slumbered in the buried library of codices at Chenoboskion until—"

          ‘What is “Chenoboskian”?’ Dr Stone interrupted.

          “Nag Hammadi.”

“Oh, the Gnostic Library.’ Dr Stone nodded. ‘Found and read in 1945 but never published. “Living information”?’ His eyes fixed themselves in intense scrutiny of Fat.”

‘”Living information”,’ he echoed. And then he said, ‘The Logos.’”

Those last two words in this context had a deep effect when I first read them. The Logos. The Word. It gives new meaning to the notion of “the Word” and its origin to imagine it as living information which is carried in a book. That’s a profoundly religious concept. It’s what Christians believe: that the Bible is the word of God. But Dick adds new meaning to that idea, first by saying that the Word is carried in these non-canonical texts (which implies that some of the Biblical texts might not be authentic) and second by saying that it’s living information, not a representation of the Man-God Jesus. It’s not that these books are about Jesus, the Word, but that the information contained within them is itself the Word, and represents a life-force, capable of reproducing itself.

           Fat trembled.

‘Yes,’ Dr Stone said. ‘The Logos would be living information, capable of replicating.’

‘Replicating not through information,’ Fat said, ‘in information, but as information. This is what Jesus means when he spoke elliptically of the “mustard seed” which, he said, “would grow into a tree large enough for birds to roost in”.’

Dick could be describing the internet. The internet is information. A lot of it’s false information, or faulty information; but it’s information nonetheless. As a medium the internet allows for replication. I can cut and paste something a million times, and it’s not diminished by this process. When Julian Assange’s Wikileaks site went down, thousands—tens of thousands—of mirror sites sprang up to take its place. The physical space which Wikileaks had occupied, the place where the host server was situated, was under attack, the man himself and his organization were under attack, but the information remained in existence, and multiplied, becoming more ubiquitous.

Information is the one thing in the Universe which defies entropy. Information can’t be destroyed. That’s what Dick means when he uses the word “negentropic.” It means negative entropy. Growth instead of decay. Creation instead of destruction. Life rather than death.

But Dick goes even further:

Jesus foresaw not only his own death but that of all –‘ Fat hesitated. ‘Homoplasmates. That’s a human being to which the plasmate has crossbonded. Interspecies symbiosis. As living information the plasmate travels up the optic nerve of a human to the pineal body. It uses the human brain as a female host –

Dr Stone grunted and squeezed himself violently.

 – in which to replicate itself into its active form,’ Fat said. ‘The Hermetic alchemists knew of it in theory from ancient texts but could not duplicate it, since they could not locate the dormant buried plasmate.’

‘But you’re saying the plasmate – the Logos – was dug up at Nag Hammadi!’

‘Yes, when the codices were read.’

Not only is the information contained within the Nag Hammadi library able to replicate itself in the ordinary sense, but it’s a living being seeding itself into the human brain; cross breeding with the human. Creating offspring.

You don’t have to believe any of this. Valis is a science fiction novel, albeit one supposedly based upon some real events. Dick may have believed some of it, all of it, or none of it, but he was also a consummate philosophical writer. He played with ideas the way other writers play with characters or plot. Even his more conventional novels are mind-bending in their execution.

In Chapter 9, Dick introduces a new theme. The characters see a movie called Valis, which they then spend the rest of the novel discussing and exploring. The film was made by Eric Lampton, a.k.a. "Mother Goose," possibly a fictionalized version of David Bowie. We’re introduced to a character, Sophie, who’s two years old and talks like an adult. She talks like the Exegesis and is a continuation of the philosophical meanderings of the book as a whole. What had begun as an autobiography resolves itself through fiction. There are more of these convoluted philosophical arguments which repeat themselves and appear to go nowhere. God and dead cats abound.

The only time I’ve ever finished the book was as a free audiobook on the internet. You’d think I’d be tired of it by now, and yet I never am. It’s fascinating, frustrating, confusing and compelling by turns; worth tackling if you are in philosophical frame of mind and you don’t mind your brain being twisted into knots. The first chapter alone makes it worthwhile. It’s Dick’s most unsuccessful book, and yet his most intriguing at the same time.

Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone



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