Thursday, July 17, 2008

Long Article About PKD in London Review of Books


The London Review of Books has a long article on PKD in their July 3 issue and now it's available online here. Is it the article we've all been waiting for, the one that corrects all the commonly-repeated inaccuracies from the other articles, the one that finally and ultimately gets PKD, the one that finally explains him so that everybody will love his work as much as we do?

...No.

Stephen Burt, the article's author, seems to be operating under the assumption that Emanuel Carrere's I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K Dick is a legitimate biography (it's a good read but it's not a biography as biographers generally avoid inventing facts out of whole cloth). Stranger still, Burt doesn't even mention Sutin's biography. But he's read Kim Stanley Robinson's doctoral thesis on PKD (or paid someone to tell him what it was about) and I think he's read at least a couple of PKD's books, so he's perhaps got a cleaner lens than Gopnik.

Here's some excerpts from the interview (setting snark to 'minimum'):

"Dick said near the end of his life that he was ‘into power’: ‘Instead of society moulding me,’ he claimed, ‘I mould it.’"

When did he say this and why is he spelling mold with a 'u'? (Yes I know it's a British spelling and it's a British article, but Dick was, er, American - shouldn't the writer be honoring the quotee's spelling habits - or has British imperialism extended to changing spellings within quotation marks?) Does that sound like PKD to you? If anybody has a source for this quote please let me know. Perhaps the spelling is a clue to the source: maybe it's an audio recording transcribed by Burt or someone else on that side of the pond.

Burt continues:

"His late belief in his own visionary importance puts into new, sad light the schlubby repairmen, newspaper-puzzle obsessives and helpless Organisation Men in Dick’s earlier works: these little people stuck in large systems, with their frustrated hopes and their cartoonish (mostly bad) sex lives, align Dick less with other SF writers than with other mordant Californian satirists, such as Nathanael West."

Now, really, I am not trying to be a dickhead, but how does the logic in this sentence work? How does Dick's own belief in his own "visionary importance" caste a sad light on the characters in his books (and what about PKD's skepticism about his authenticity as a 'visionary'?). I guess you can say his experiences caste his characters in a pink light, but, seriously, what's so sad about it?

Thank you for comparing PKD's work to Nathanael West's - it's perhaps the most apt literary comparison and one many other writers have failed to make.

Burt continues:

"Dick should be placed close to psychoanalysis, too: not so much the kind Freud practised, but the kind that coated American popular culture in the years Dick started to write. His characters wonder whether they count as neurotic or psychotic, whether they are sufficiently masculine or feminine, whether they should see a specialist about their complexes. By far the most important psychiatric label in Dick’s work is ‘paranoid’: his protagonists wonder whether someone or something is manipulating all they see. Usually the answer is ‘yes’: Dick’s characters must detect ‘the enemy, with its infiltrating tactics, its systematic contamination of institutions . . . of the domestic life itself’. That enemy may be a phalanx of telepaths and precognitives employed in corporate espionage (Ubik); a squad of doppelgangers from alternative timelines (Now Wait for Last Year); drug-enforcement agents whose high-tech ‘scramble suits’ make them unrecognisable even to one another (A Scanner Darkly); or androids who pass for human (almost every book). Such plots draw at once on the Red Scare mentality – anyone might be a secret Communist, and any Communist a double agent – and on what Dick knew of clinical mental illness."

Well now I'm starting to like this guy, but I think it's just because he agrees with me. PKD is tirelessly analyzed in relation to Jung, but very few of us dare to see the themes and elements Dick tore from the pages of Freud's On Narcissism.

Play us out Burt:

"Depictions of drugs and depictions of fake or robotic people work well together in Dick’s books, since people whose moods depend on a single chemical (on what it does to them, or on how to get more of it) are as predictable, even robotic, as the rest of us might think we are not."

Read the rest and then tell us what you think in the comments section.

14 comments:

Pete said...

"or androids who pass for human (almost every book)"

How many PKD books involve androids? I'm sorry, but, at 11 novels and counting I can only think of one. Intelligent machines perhaps, but "androids passing as human"?

I read the article. Most of it's no-brainer stuff. And it's poorly written.

The PKD cannon doesn't need someone churning pop-historical context through it (unless they're trying to write their own novel..) It needs exhaustive comparative study in an uber-traditional context. I'm talking Poe, Twain... West is a solid mark but West was relentless with his reinvestment in his characters, PKD always has a crux outside anyone in particular that ain't contingent, it's cosmic, its universal. (Hence why PKD isn't really satire per se). And he's also a religious writer! for reals, like Rabelais + Bunyon + Blake + Julian of Norwich + some perfect "outer limits" rerun...

Above all, PKD doesn't need condescension. Cause given half a chance, he'd convince Einstein there were these dudes with one eye and two noses...

palmer_eldritch said...

I don't know about about the 'moulding reality' quote but there is this from The Dark-Haired Girl:

"Reality, to me, is not so much something that you perceive, but something you make. You create it more rapidly than it creates you."

It's great taking things out of context, as Mr. Burt shows. And let's not get started on American vs. English spelling of sertain wyrds. 'Twould be wayste of thyme.

palmer_eldritch said...

"All but Do Androids? and Ubik either begin too slowly, with confusing multiple narrators or overlong exposition, or end too suddenly, with large questions poorly resolved."

Pity the poor 'gatekeeper' critic.

Anonymous said...

As with all these articles, when read by most people it is probably decent but when read by Dickheads, there are always (unfortunately) going to be holes.

It is ridiculous, though to make a comment on British Imperialism from the spelling of "mould". I'm English, and I didn't even know Americans spelt the word differently.
-giospurs

Ragle Gumm said...

giospurs, you're right, nothing to do with imperialism, but it does seem weird that Burt quotes PKD using British spelling - and I really want to know when and where PKD said that!

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't dwell on the spelling, but you're right in that I'm sure PKD didn't say that. At best (for Burt), it's a misquote. It just seems really unlike PKD, "into power"? He was worried about being taken seriously, at being seen as 'important' (although it also seemed to give him a thrill), so I can't believe that he'd say he "moulds/molds society".
-giospurs

Robert Cook said...

Regarding your question as to how Dick's purported (by Burt) belief in his own visionary powers casts a sad light on Dick's protagonists, it's clear to me what Burt means, although his phrasing his confused: the contrast between the humble, troubled, men of "no account" who are Dick's protagonists and Dick's own alleged grandiose self-image is what he sees as sad; he sees Dick's supposed self-aggrandizement as a compensating device by which Dick denies the mean facts of his shabby real life circumstances.

In short, to Burt, Dick's supposed grandiosity in life is the fiction, while his pathetic characters are the reality, so to speak, of Dick's life.

Whereas many writers of humble means or damaged psyches, (or whose readers may be such persons...as in the sci-fi community), may write power fantasies in which their protagonists are, if not outright supermen, at least idealized heros acting with purpose and efficiency, Dick writes fictional characters that reveal his own real life failings, while in his life he claims for himself (in Burt's supposition) an exalted status.

Burt's assertion regarding Dick's view of himself is, at best, questionable. He misses Dick's humor, his self-mocking tendencies, and he may have taken literally statements of Dick's that were meant originally as jokes, or that may have been sincere when stated, but were then replaced by alternative, more acute self-perceptions. I don't doubt that Dick had a secret view of himself as being, if not exalted, at least a "chosen" one, e.g., the "pink beam" experience, but I respect that, to the degree he lived his life in confusion or self-delusion, (as we all do), he told the truth in his fiction: he depicted imperfect characters fumbling their way through an inscrutable, falling apart reality, trying their best to sort out their humble concerns, to deal with their wives or do their jobs, with a sort of dogged, enobling persistence. He refused to pander to his own or his audience's desire for wish-fulfillment or power fantasies.

In other words, if Burt's supposition is true, it's not sad, but just the opposite: while Dick may have been self-deluded as a man, or his life turbulent and failed, as a writer he was honest and brave.

Robert Cook said...

Or perhaps my reading of Burt's meaning is wrong, in which case I can't make sense at all of his statement.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the article, but I'm interested in your comment about PKD works being examined from a Jungian standpoint and not a Freudian standpoint. From what I've read, it seems that he hasn't gotten a lot of either. Or, more appropriately, critics may mention one or the other psychoanalyst, but they never seem to supply an in-depth psychoanalytic textual analysis. My own master's thesis attempted to utilize a Freudian perspective, but I found precious little published criticism using that made extensive use of Freud.

Can anyone provide some citations? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, scratch the word "using" in that last post.

Oh, and I guess Douglas Mackey's book does some nice (though quick) Jungian readings. But I'm wondering if anyone knows of something more in depth. Thanks!

Ragle Gumm said...

Anonymous,
My masters thesis was, in part, a Freudian reading of Time Out of Joint. Happy to send it if you email me.

Ragle Gumm said...

Oh and Pete, what about We Can Build You - that's at least a second 'android book'?

Anonymous said...

I found the quote where PKD says he "molds" society. It is found in a 1982 exegesis entry, and in the penultimate page of the last chapter of Sutin's biography:
"I've realized: I'm into power. In terms of my writing & in terms of what I do with the money I earn from my writing. The key term is: effective
I am interested in only one thing:instead of society molding me, I mold it: (1) in my writing; (2) in what I do with the money; (3) in interviews; (4) in the movie. Vast thematic doctrines are emerging... This is what the whole opus adds up to: anticipation of the coming kingship of God. In other words, the kerygma."

Bear in mind though, when you read this, that around this time, Phil consulted his therapist because he had been contradicting himself, on and off tape. On the basis of this, and failing eyesight, the therapist recommended he go to a hopsital immediately. So the quote shouldn't be regarded as a definitive PKD statement.

-giospurs

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