Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Erik Davis on the Pink Beam

Well yesterday may very well have been the fiftieth anniversary of PKD getting zapped by the delivery girl's Jesus fish necklace, or whatever. The funny thing is that the deeper you dig into the timeline, the more out of joint it becomes. Maybe it wasn't February at all. On February 1, 1974, PKD writes to Jamis, "All I can recall about the entire month of January is that I had two molars and a wisdom tooth which had grown down and become embedded in my jawbone removed...." (74 SL pg 3.)

I got to spend part of the afternoon with High Weirdness author Erik Davis, as we riffed on Dick's visions for about thirty minutes in my class, before Davis had to teach the last class of his Stigmata course

The main idea I got out of all of this is that 2/3/74 is a kind of sacred uncertainty (if you rearrange the letters of the word "sacred" you get the word "scared"). For me the most important lesson of this radical uncertainty is that part of me wants to be certain, and that I have to work to keep from being certain. As much as I would like to believe that PKD concocted these experiences to fulfill some unmet need for significance, I have to save space for the possibility that something divine and revelatory happened. And I would ask that you check your own need for certainty as you explore your own ideas about what happened to Phil Dick. 

Davis put an old essay about the whole beam deal on his website yesterday. Davis writes: 

"Unlike most religious seers, Dick did not approach his visions with anything like certitude. Dick distrusted reification of any sort (his novels constantly wage war against the process that turns people and ideas into things), and so he refused to solidify his experiences into a belief system. Like William Blake, another impoverished autodidact whose bubbling imagination was steeped in the Western visionary tradition, Dick approached his theophany (or “in-breaking of God”) as artistic material, reworking it in his writings with an artist’s commitment to irony, craft, and a political bite. Even in his private journals, he constantly liquefies his revelations, writing with a modern thinker’s sense of the tentativeness of speculative thought. “Indeterminacy is the central characteristic of 2-3-74,” writes Sutin in his Dick biography Divine Invasions. Sutin points out that mystics traditionally interpret their experiences within the faiths they are raised in. “Phil adhered to no single faith. The one tradition indubitably his was SFwhich exalts ‘What IF?’ above all. In 2-3-74, all the ‘What IFs?’ were rolled up into one.”

Friday, February 16, 2024

So, When the Heck is 2-3-74?

PKD biographer, Lawrence Sutin, dates Phil's "pink beam" experience following a dental procedure when a dark-haired girl delivered some pain medication to Phil's door to February 20th, 1974. 

Sutin writes, "What precisely happened on that February 20 after Phil gazed upon the golden fish?" (210)

Sutin's source notes at the end of the book, usually quite thorough, offer nothing to substantiate that date. He points to a letter Dick wrote to Ursula LeGuin in 1973 that confirms the delivery took place in February. Phil writes, "... in February I had major oral surgery, and was home recovering, still under the influence of the sodium pentathol, and in severe pain." (SL 1974, 247)

So I asked biographer Gregg Rickman, who responds, "Phil refers to the Valis event as "2-3-74" many times in the Exegesis, as shorthand for the months of February and March." 

So, I asked PKD's friend Tim Powers who responded, "And I don't know if he talked about it to anyone right after it happened. I lost track of him for about a year right after he married Tess -- in fact I wonder if he was talking to anybody but Tess at that period!" 

PKD's friend Bill Sarill and ex-wife Tessa reconstructed the day as a Thursday, making it either the 14th or the 21st of February. 

As Erik Davis says, "There's too much noise on the line" to determine exactly what happened and when. Dick fans looking for certainty in life have obviously not been paying attention to Dick's work, which foregrounds this radical uncertainty the characters must work through. 

At the end of last semester a student asked if I had a time machine, where and when would I go. My answer without hesitation was "Orange County, February 1974." I've been thinking the last couple of days about what I would've seen if I'd been lurking outside PKD's apartment that fateful day. 

Would I have seen the pink beam? Doesn't seem like the delivery girl saw it, so why should I? Honestly, I'm not even convinced anything really happened. I could see PKD flashing on how intense it would be if it had happened and maybe moving straight to creating elaborate fictive narratives around it. But the flurry of activity prompted by the event (a million words of notes on the subject) suggests the truth of the experience for Dick, even if the ferocity and manic quality of the belief argues for skepticism. 

This is a long way of saying, take some time next Tuesday and think about the difference between what you know, that is your empirical experience, and what you are given to know through revelation, known as transcendental experience. Now deconstruct the false binary. Even in empirical experience our perceptions still leap this magical and mysterious chasm between external reality and our internal subjectivity, and in doing so, sure act a lot like revelation. And revelation has to be processed by the mind and made sense of, which involves all the standard tools of experiential thinking. 

In other words, this anniversary is a chance to inject a little of the mystery that animated the end of Dick's life into your own. 

Illustration from R. Crumb's "The Religious Experiences of Philip K. Dick."

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Stage Production of "Minority Report" in Nottingham

A Nottingham Playhouse, Birmingham Rep and Lyric Hammersmith Theatre Co-Production In Association with Simon Friend Entertainment and by arrangement with Electric Shepherd Productions are staging a production of PKD's short story, "Minority Report." Check out the website here

Looks like they've tweaked the story a bit:

"In 2050, neuroscientist Dame Julia Anderton is about to launch the next phase of her pioneering Pre-Crime programme, detaining people for crimes before they are committed. But when Julia is accused of pre-murder, she’s in a race against time to save herself from her own system."

Sounds promising.. 

"Minority Report sees award-winning director Max Webster re-united with the producers of the globally successful stage version of Life of Pi (‘It will make you believe in theatre. A triumph’ The Sunday Times). This incredible theatrical experience creates a world at the borders of science fiction and reality."

Webster also staged a production of "Back to the Future" last year. 

There's a Financial Times write up, but it's behind a paywall. So I grabbed that shot above and here are some quotes:

“What’s brilliant about the Philip K Dick story is it’s got a psychological conundrum in the centre of it,” says Webster. “But it’s not a philosophical exercise or lecture; it’s a crime thriller. It’s a person who’s caught by their own system and then is on the run.”

This next one is a great quote: 

“The wildness and extremeness that sci-fi allows you to think about possible futures might actually be a good match for the kind of extremity of the times in which we find ourselves.”

The final quote comes from writer David Haig: 

"Haig’s Minority Report touches on this 'deprivation of free will, free choice, free thought', he says. 'The fear of a dystopian society controlling our minds is a very powerful one. I think there’s always room for material that projects into the future to comment on the present.”

I think the reason mind-controlling dystopian futures are so common in science fiction is that they express an anxiety that we are currently under the control of a beyond saturated media society that not only feeds us an endless series of things to purchase, but also the necessary mindset of passive consumption (which of course has to simultaneously perceive itself as vital and necessary). 

The play runs February 16 to March 9 at Nottingham Playhouse,, then touring to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (March 22-April 6) and the Lyric Hammersmith (April 19-May 18), London. 

Tip o' the hat to star Dick-student Al Berg! 

Saturday, February 10, 2024

The Pseudo Science of The American Weekly


Dick writes in his 1968 "Self-Portrait, "And then there was the lurid section of the Hearst newspapers which on Sunday told of mummies still alive in caves, and lost Atlantis, and the Sargasso Sea. The American Weekly, this quasi-magazine was called. Today we would dismiss it as “pseudo-science,” but in those days, the mid-thirties, it was quite convincing. I dreamed of finding the Sargasso Sea and all of the ships tangled up there, their corpses dangling over the rails and their coffers filled with pirate gold. I realize now that I was doomed to failure by the very fact that the Sargasso Sea did not exist -- or anyhow it did not capture many Spanish gold-bearing ships-of-the-line. So much for childhood dreams." 

Pictured above is the two-page spread about the Sagrasso Sea from The American Weekly, March 5, 1939 edition. 

I've been developing an idea about Dick's approach to writing I call "Juxtaposition and the Flip-Flop" in which polar opposites or elements in a binary opposition, are first juxtaposed and then their positions "Flip-Flop." 

So here in this important early influence on PKD we have a very early example of "fake news." But The American Weekly is not Fox News or MSNBC using their infrastructure to perpetuate a partisan rhetorical bubble. The American Weekly traded on its journalistic reputation every Sunday, flipping the relationship between "truth" and "fiction" in the attempt to squeeze money out of their readers by capitulating to the luridness of their imagination. As Robert Anton Wilson famously said, "Reality is what you can get away with." 

Get to Know the Fest Guest: Part 2 -- Blake Wilson

In preparation for the upcoming Dick-Fest 2024 in Fort Morgan this June, Total Dick-Head is running a series of interviews with fest guests. This week it's Blake Wilson. 

TDH: Can you tell us a little about how you got interested in Philip K. Dick?

Blake Wilson: I can literally point to the first PKD I read: it was Phil's 1981 letter to David Hartwell (editor, Timescape Books) outlining his would-be next novel The Owl in Daylight. It was published for the first time in issue #13 of the late great fanzine Forced Exposure, which came out in the winter of 1988. I was an avid FE reader in the late 80s, mostly due to the excellent writing and music coverage by Jimmy Johnson and Byron Coley. I liked a lot of the music they liked (Sonic Youth, Big Black, Swans, Mission of Burma). They also loved PKD and his name had popped up in some earlier issues, but the letter was the first thing I read. I was fascinated. I had to find out more about him. The problem? Nothing was in print––at least nothing I could find, and used bookstores weren't turning up anything. I kind of forgot about him until I received a piece of junk mail a year or so later from the Quality Paperback Book Club, one of those "book of the month" subscription deals. Lo and behold! There it was: the first omnibus edition of The VALIS Trilogy! Brand new! I ticked the box and agreed to join. I may have literally taped a penny to a postcard and sent it back, which is how those clubs worked back in the day. VALIS arrived a few weeks later. I read it. It blew my mind. I still have that copy, dogeared and heavily penciled, held together with more than one layer of packing tape. The next QPBC mailer offered The Nag Hammadi Library by James Robinson, which would have blown right past me but for the PKD book I had just first "PKD moment," perhaps? So I added that to the growing collection, which soon included the fruits of intensified used book scouting in Sacramento, San Francisco, Berkeley, and the rest of California. I also somehow ended up on Mark Zieising's mailing list, so I was able to score a brand new copy of Dark Haired Girl directly from him. When Sutin's biography and the Vintage editions started coming out in the early 90s it suddenly seemed like PKD was everywhere. The so-called "mainstream" novels all appeared around this time as well––for better or for worse. It was somewhat of an embarrassment of riches to be in the middle of this PKD “revival” as it were, but very exciting. 

TDH: Tell us a little about your PKD-related publications and endeavors... 

Blake Wilson: I currently have two book chapters in print. One of them is in the book The Man in the High Castle and Philosophy (Open Court, 2017) and it gets into what I take to be PKD's politics and how they weave their way into the book and, less subtly, into the TV series. The other is in Blade Runner 2049 and Philosophy (Open Court, 2019), and it's about "ethical" cops: Rick Deckard (Phil's version and the movie version) and K from 2049. I've got two more book chapters in the works. Both are about religion. One of them, "Perturbations in the Reality Field: Logos, Gnosis, and Aletheia in Philip K. Dick's Late Works," should be coming out any day now in a book edited by Richard Feist called Jesuits in Science Fiction: Reason and Revelation on Other Worlds (Vernon Press). The latest is called "The Conquest of Death and the Divine Afterlife: Philip K. Dick's Life and Fiction of the 1960s," and it will be appearing in the The Esoteric Theology of Philip K. Dick (Lexington, I think). I know several folks at DickFest are publishing in this book and I'm really looking forward to the discussions. I've also given a few conference presentations where I shared the stage with you, David. On the horizon: I'm gearing up for an article or two on PKD's ethics. 

TDH: What do you plan to talk about at the PKD Fest? 

Blake Wilson: Dunno! Probably something about religion or ethics. Or religion AND ethics. 

Thanks, Blake! See you in Colorado! 

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Dick-Fest Fundraiser in Full Swing

A who's who from Fests past... 

The organizing committee for the 2024 Dick-Fest in Ft Morgan is working feverishly to curate a totally Dick-tacular event for this June 13-16. Currently there is a fundraiser at GoFundMe, where the gang has already raised more than $1500 to help pay location deposits and grease the wheels of civic involvement. The organizers are determined not to charge guests for the events. That's right: the talks and other events will be free to all who attend. So please consider donating to and/or attending the Fest. We'd love to see you there. 

Lord Running Clam sez, “For me it’s all about bringing the PKD fans together. Making friends, meeting and appreciating the art and spirit of each person. Phil's last resting place is here in the heart of beautiful Fort Morgan, Colorado, next to his baby twin-sister Jane. So come and pay your respects to this great writer and celebrate his life and work with your friends this summer of 2024. See you there!"

This is the first Colorado Dick-Fest since Covid, as well as the first to take place in Ft Morgan, where the bodies are buried. The amazing list of guests and speakers is still growing, but here are the players scheduled to appear so far: 

Lord RC

Joanathan Lethem

Sam Umland

Henri Wintz

Andrew Butler

David Gill 

Blake Wilson 

David Agranoff

DH Wilson

Keith Giles

Jens Christoph-Nolte

Ted Hand

Josh Lind

Frank Hollander

Saturday, February 3, 2024

It's 2-3-24... so what?

 In my class the other night, I got all excited that the 50th anniversary of "2-3-74" is "coming up" - we (meaning I) may even have mentioned how it was this very weekend. Of course in the clear light of not teaching a class on Zoom, I remember that "2-3-74" refers to February and March of 1974 and not the third of February. 

Sutin locates the date of the delivery and subsequent pink beaming on February 20th, 1974. Other sources suggest February 14th (my second birthday) or the twentieth. There are no letters from any of those dates in The Selected Letters

I can't find any sourcing in Sutin for his date, but I trust his research. Stay tuned, we should do something.... maybe we could all zap our friends and families with kitty laser toys at an appointed hour.