Republibot.com, 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."
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.