Saturday, May 23, 2009

In Defense of Sanity, a conservative blog dedicated to examining SF from a right-wing perspective, recently posted a long article about PKD and is planning two more focusing on the work of Tessa Dick. Readers who have been with me from the beginning may remember that my MO early on involved reacting to PKD articles on the Internet with tons of snark, much in the vein of some of my favorite political blogs: Sadly, No and Jon Swift. But, as I keep telling you people, I've mellowed, and so this is a difficult post to write. While I am tempted to return to my glory days of snark and, er, total dickheadedness, and take some nasty swipes at what is, I think, a pretty easy target, I have found a better purpose for this blog - and that is to put a check on the 'PKD was a druggie nutjob' narrative that is so pervasive among his critics (and surprisingly, among many of his fans).

So, now, without further ado, I will address some of the factual errors, and dangerous notions from the article, all the while attempting to keep this post contained to factual discrepancies, rather than ideological ones.

The article begins:

"It is somewhat sad that the New Agers have claimed Phil as their own, because I don’t think he’d like them."

No matter how much the author (or I) may dislike 'New Agers' (Nibiru 2012, I'm looking at you), I think we must accept that Dick had some pretty New-Agey interests and friends, especially in his final years. Here's just one example.

The article continues:

"Though he didn’t believe the truth was the same for every person, he did believe there was an objective truth. He was messianic, believing that the second coming was here, and the new Messiah was already on earth. I’ve often wondered if he had anyone in particular in mind for that roll."

He did.

But here's the line that motivated this post:

"I mean no disrespect when I say that this is stuff no sane person could really write about because, well, hell, they’re sane."

Sorry dude, but that's a tautology, and the (lack of) logic behind it is deeply flawed - and disrespectful. Seriously, this is a cop out, and no way to understand the work or life of Philip K Dick. Insane people, by definition, have trouble connecting with other people. Dick's novels may connect with people, but he's not an artist - he's insane? What then is the role of Dick's craft, what of his ability to make people feel real emotion with his work? How do we account for that? We simply say, he's crazy? Not only do you lack the clinical training to make such a diagnosis, you are attempting to diagnose a man you've never met.

And then there's one more line that set me off:

"On February 28th, 1982, just forty-nine days after having nothing but a title, and just forty-four days after the final interview in this book, Phil sat down at his typewriter with a bottle of scotch and a fistful of pills and began “The Owl in Daylight.”"

Dude, a handful of pills and a bottle of scotch? You're romanticizing this stuff. This reminds me of some of my more simple-minded students' love for Bukowksi - mostly predicated on the notion that his bad behavior necessarily makes him an 'artistic genius' and that his lifestyle, because many young men want to get drunk and screw, somehow confirms the artist within him, and, by extension, makes an artist out of those trying simply to ape his ape-like behavior.

Now we know that PKD enjoyed drinking scotch with Tim Powers and KW Jeter, and we know PKD has taken handfuls of pills at various points in his career, but Dick wrote his last books without the help of amphetamines - an accomplishment he was very proud of. To fail to acknowledge that, and instead to project some kind of Hunter S Thompson-esque notion of stoned artistry on PKD's sitting down at a typewriter and, well, working, that cheapens the whole thing for me. Look at this way, the pills PKD swallowed ultimately took him from us too soon, and just when he was getting really good at writing - as this article atests.

This notion that artistic genius is somehow connected to either debauchery or insanity is an excuse made by people who want to explain away their own lack of artistic greatness. In PKD you have a guy with a work ethic that would put John Calvin himself to shame, a guy who wakes up and writes until he can't keep his eyes open, who tortures his psyche, his body, and his family with his dedication to his craft. Read this letter from PKD's agent David G Hartwell, it paints a very different picture of PKD than the drug-addled prophet schtick pushed in so many of these articles.

While I certainly agree with the article's assessment of PKD's relationship with reality as 'delicate,' I think his ability to communicate those experiences to others in his books and stories is evidence of a phenomenal mind, not a deranged one. Unfortunately, I think PKD himself cultivated this public image as a disheveled genius, a drug-addled paranoiac, and I think it was good for business, and probably helped him sell books, especially later in his life. But it has given rise to a kind of myth, and in a very Dickian kind of way, there is an entropy at work here, a blurring by repetition, a consensus perspective that dulls his image, traps him in stereotype, reducing his fullness - his humanness - in our minds as he recedes from us in time.

Now, having said all that, I think the article is definitely worth a read, and I am glad to see anyone sharing a passion for Dick's work with those around him.

Republibot has also posted a review of Tessa Dick's "The Owl in Daylight" here and an extensive interview with Tessa here.


Daro said...

I've heard a cassette tape recording of Dick just talking with someone in his living room and the subject happened to be some period of European history as a backgrounder to modern day American political sentiment. Boy, did he know his shit. We wasn't drunk. Or "high". Or giving it the "Manson freakadelic". Just straight dialectic on a very insightful level. The sort of stuff you'd read in a Glenn Greenwald blog post. Knowing current and future employers may read my postings I won't discuss his dr*gs angle, but this at least needed to be said; Dick was an "old fashioned" guy. i.e. He believed people should do their homework and be properly informed. I feel the whole pimply, hippie set turned him off somehow for their lack of depth and commitment to anything at all.

tuffy777 said...

Thank you so much for this article!

In the ten years that I knew him, Phil's "handful of pills" was his prescription medication for high blood pressure and heart disease. And some vitamin supplements.

Some people assume that because Phil hung out with certain people, or even allowed them into his home, that they were bosom buddies or something like that. Phil used to quote an old Chinese proverb: "Keep your friends close, and keep your enemies closer."

He was a remarkable man, and I've never met anybody quite like him.

~~ Tessa Dick

Craig D. said...

"This notion that artistic genius is somehow connected to either debauchery or insanity is an excuse made by people who want to explain away their own lack of artistic greatness."Couldn't have said it better.

Pollution Q. Thrashbarg said...

It felt good to read this acticle and all the comments. I'm glad somone is sticking up for Philip and someone is sticking up for the truth. I recently came accross an anti-philip image that really pissed me off. I think it sums up the uninformed public's attitude twards him. I repeat, i hate the following comic strip!!

Republibot 3.0 said...


Firstly, thank you very much for the guardedly-positive review of my article. I've long been a fan of TDH and the work you've done here, so you saying "It's worth reading" in spite of my factual errors means a lot.

Secondly, I'm actually in your debt for pointing out my errors, since I am, I guess, somewhat guilty of believing at least some of PKD's public image was true in private as well. All I can say is that his writing was a huge formative influence upon my life, and I meant no disrespect. If the overall tone of my book review seemed to imply something otherwise, I'm sorry. Thank you very much for pointing it out to me, and I will make sure to pass your concerns on to the readers of my website.

A couple specific comments:

"It is somewhat sad that the New Agers have claimed Phil as their own, because I don’t think he’d like them."

As Daro said in his reply, I think the hippie thing turned him off, and while PKD definitely had an unconventional relationship with the numinous aspects of life, and I don't mean to imply at all that he was a Baptist or whatever, but my impression of him is that his impression of Gnosis involve some effort and pain and sorrow and struggle on the part of the person who dares to try and claim them. I think he'd be annoyed with the concept of "New Age" religion as essentially a fashion statement and a way to sell windchimes. I could be wrong, of course, but I never got the impression that he was a fan of pat answers and greeting card theology.

I mentioned PKD's unique brand of Messianism, wondering who he had in mind for the new Messiah, and you said he had someone specific in mind. I'm aware of the "Tagore" letter, but it's always struck me as a bit vague, you know? No one has come forward to claim they were the one he was talking about, and while it's a specific enough description, it's lacking a lot of details that would allow one to go looking for the guy. For reasons of space, I was going to explain that, but ended up condensing it to one line. My failing. I apologize.

Regarding my comment on his sanity, you said "Sorry dude, but that's a tautology, and the (lack of) logic behind it is deeply flawed - and disrespectful." Again, no disrespect was intended. I'll totally grant that I probably was overly glib - without quite realizing it at the time - but Sutin's book specifically states a number of psychological breaks with reality in PKD's life, as well as extreme agoraphobia, and then goes on to posit Temporal Lobe Epilepsy as the cause of his visions. I am not arguing that he was psychotic or barking mad or anything like that, just that there's a skewed perspective inherent in people who have problems like these that will affect their work. If I've overstated this, or am completely wrong, then it's entirely my fault, and I'm sorry, but I got it from Sutin. I've had extensive contact with mentally ill people, and many of them are mostly-functional in society, and a number of them don't have any real problems connecting with people, though, again, so I didn't see this as a cop out. If PKD was mentally ill - and you've given me reason to doubt that, certainly - then what he managed to do with his life strikes me, personally, as a triumph. Again, I'm sorry if I alluded otherwise.

"Dick wrote his last books without the help of amphetamines - an accomplishment he was very proud of."

I claim ignorance. I was unaware of this. You have called me on the carpet here, and I am wrong, and I'm more than a bit embarassed by that.

You've given me a lot to think about, and I thank you. I'm going to have to re-assess my review of that book, and either edit it, or write up some kind of postscript explaining my own failings in writing it. In the mean time, I'll link people to your site.

Again, thanks. This is how I learn. Keep up the great work!

dailyread said...

They posted what can only be called an apology over on Republibot You don't see that everyday.

tuffy777 said...

In defense of Republibot, they seem to be relying upon the testimony of Doris Sauter and Gwen Lee. I do wish that they had consulted me. I'm okay with them and you.
~~ Tessa

pete said...

I think the problem, the BIG problem with the romantic notion of "drugged up PKD," is that these versions of our artistic heroes provide the worst sort of role models possible for creative and impressionable young people. Kerouac, Bukowski, Burroughs... (And teenage girls have another sort of crappy influence in the form of Sylvia Plath)... I don't mean to blame these artists per so, its the commercial/journalistic enterprises that take advantage of them, sells them to us. These "ideals" lead to blunted futures for kids that get the idea you have to destroy yourself to be an artist. It's just terrible.

tuffy777 said...

Pete, you make some good points.
What really destroyed Phil was chronic health problems, due in part to his having been born two months premature, and due in part to a chronic condition caused by a birth defect that caused frequent problems with his gall bladder and pancreas.
~~ Tessa

Anonymous said...

I appreciate Republibot's response. It's tough to show such willingness to be corrected and to hear contrary points of view. Bravo.

Mr. Hand said...

thanks for this. I'm getting sick and tired of reading the same "PKD was crazy and on drugs ain't it a miracle people care about his work?" article over and over again. It's amazing how many dozens of hacks have rewritten it imagining that they were making some original contribution. I rarely have the strength at this point to say much in response (as it's the same old noncontroversial facts I have to resort to)

as for Dick's feelings about "New Age" and "hippies" it's really a matter of semantics. I think Dick would have a much more negative opinion of the kind of person who would twist a definition to imply that PKD would agree with his own political views, than he would disapprove of "hippies".

Of course PKD was fascinated by tons of esoteric, mystical, and occult material, especially of the Christian variety--we have detailed records of his interest in such "New Age" topics.

Republibot 3.0 said...

@ Mr. Hand:

I never said nor implied that Mr. Dick was a Republican, nor politically conservative, and I'm under no misapprehensions about that. I mean, in Radio Free Albemuth he flat out says his Richard Nixon analogue was the Antichrist, and the whole book is about overthrowing him, whereas I kind of like Nixon. Aside from the Abortion issue, and our common belief that Nazis are bad people, I doubt Mr. Dick and I would come close to agreeing on anything of a political nature. I'm certainly not claiming him as "one of us."

One thing I can say about him is that he was an unconventional thinker, which is why he's one of my heroes. Creativity is *always* more important than slavish devotion to a political ideology, right? Certainly I think so.

tuffy777 said...

Phil registered Democrat, but he held some conservative ideas and voted his conscience.
Nice image of his typewriter & mug.
~~ Tessa