Monday, August 13, 2007

Warren Ellis Starts His Sunday Morning Hangover With Some PKD

In his weekly column, 'Sunday Hangover' over at SuicideGirls, Warren Ellis writes one of those 'PKD was a great writer but was also kind of a jerk' articles that appear every now and again. It's been awhile as all the sound and fury of media coverage for the Library of America release has finally died down, but let's see where Ellis is going with this:

"What makes Philip Dick more relevant to today is not necessarily the quality of his fantasy, but the complexity of it. And him. Philip Dick was as much an anti-hero as any of his characters. He's a counter-cultural hero whose personality was forged in the fifties, not the sixties. He was a champion of the drug culture who attempted to sell out friends and acquaintances to the FBI. He saw into people, but knew himself not at all."

I wish I knew what was going on in PKD's head the way Ellis does. Where is Ellis' skepticism? How can he know what Dick knew about himself? He's obviously read Paul Williams' interviews with PKD because he recounts this line of what I feel very strongly to be bullshit that PKD was laying on Williams in an Oct 1974 interview about how his liver was secreting all of the speed in his stomach before it ever reached his bloodstream. Ellis writes:

"This is a guy who took speed every day for years, and then was told by a doctor that his liver was so fantastically efficient that it processed out any drugs in his system before they had a chance to affect his central nervous system. To which he replied, well, I guess that explains why I like to take speed before I go to bed. The only writer on earth who'd write for ninety-six hours straight and then pass out on the office floor due to the placebo effect."

Or it was a guy who wanted you to think he was the kind of guy that would do that. I plan to check this liver story out with an addiction medicine specialist just as soon as I can track one down, but it sounds like nonsense to me. So what's the point of all this? He doesn't have one (seriously, check for yourself).

"Phil Dick didn't need a vast invisible satellite to explain away the fact that he finally started paying his bills and chasing his agent for slipped royalties. But it helped to think so. He suddenly "knew", one day, that his son had some kind of undiagnosed physical defect and took him to get checked out. Which is either knowledge from beyond or the sudden paranoia of someone who was both a famed nutcase and drenched in amphetamines and also wrote some of the most paranoid fiction of the 20th century."

I find no evidence of the certainty that Ellis posits in PKD regarding his 'mystical experiences.' I don't think PKD ever really 'knew' what happened to him. Ellis writes:

"Philip Dick found his own science-fictional epiphany. He swore blind, in fact, that a satellite was firing into his brain an information-rich pink laser from orbit."

Read the rest for yourself here.

I love what Lawrence Sutin said in this interview on PKD's mental health:

"[Was PKD crazy?] was the second most frequent question I was asked during my labors. (The most frequent was "Who is Philip K. Dick?") A good number of the people who asked it (including two psychiatrists of my acquaintance) were smiling in a faintly nasty way, waiting for me to give them the inside poop on just how crazy he was. It was as if they were yearning to hear me say "Yes!" so that they could safely dismiss the strange novels and stories that had somehow, despite themselves, gotten stuck in their heads. To these people I wanted to say (but never did): "The word 'crazy' could be applied with precisely the same justice to Philip K. Dick as the word 'mediocre' could be applied to yourself."

But that's not to say Warren Ellis is mediocre - seems like an interesting guy who needed something to talk about for his weekly column.

Thanks Leo!

Update: Sparks are flying in the comments section!


drjon said...

I'm afraid I don't hold as high opinion of Ellis as some of my friends...

Anonymous said...

I´m sorry man but Warren Ellis is praising PKD...yes praising.However it seems you didn´t get it.He doesn´t call him a jerk at all...rather he points out how people dubbed crazy are in fact,quite often,visionaries.

Ragle Gumm said...

Anonymous (if that is your real name), you're right; he is praising Dick as a writer while also accusing him of not being self-aware, of turning his friends in to the FBI (which Dick did do but you don't have to bring it up), and of being 'mental.' He ends by saying that Dick's discourse with the satellite is like McKenna's talking to a mushroom, or 'a magician in a conversation with angels and demons' but then doesn't tell us what he thinks those conversations entail. He doesn't go so far as to say that crazy people are in fact visionaries.
He's spinning his wheels.

Cal Godot said...

PKD wasn't very "self-aware." He didn't understand his problems with women and drugs. He didn't understand his mystical experience(s). His mood swings suggest a reactive psychology not unlike "bipolar disorder." (PKD considered himself "mental" at times, you know.) A million or more words entailing a variety of often exclusionary or contradictory interpretations of a seminal mystical event does not indicate someone who was intensely "self-aware."

Ellis has high praise for PKD. It's not up to him to tell us the deeper meaning or content of PKD's visionary experiences. That is not the point of Ellis' column: instead his desire is to illustrate that even a writer such as PKD, capable of great spiritual or philosophical insight, with uncanny perception into the shadows which haunt others, can be blind to his own demons.

As for the FBI thing: yes, it merits mention, especially in the context of exploring PKD's psyche. Since he himself was at times suspicious of betrayal by friends as well as government intrusion, PKD's letters to the FBI are quite relevant to exploring the tortured mental world of the author.

And you're right: the liver thing smacks of BS. But again: Phil seemed to believe it, which is another mark toward a deficit of "self-awareness."

Ragle Gumm said...

Et Tu Cal?!
Here's my problem with this article: it's supposed to be (I think) one of these articles that explores what makes PKD tick. Where did he get his ideas, was he really crazy etc etc? The problem is that these article, almost invariably simplify Dick's life.

How can you say PKD wasn't self-aware? Did you know him? Sure there is evidence that he may not have been completely honest with himself about his motives sometimes, but there is other evidence that he pondered at great length his own culpability (for instance writing in the Exegesis that perhaps his crises were karmic retribution for the way he had run out on Kleo, his second wife).

For me the problem is that these stories always attempt to pigeonhole him as a crazy. PKD was crazy and sane, self-aware and ignorant of his motives, petty and charitable. Ellis simply picks the end of the sane/insane spectrum that fits his argument (which I hope one day he will clue us into) and ignores all the evidence that contradicts his myopic view of the author as a visionary nut-job.

Does PKD contradict himself? Very well then he contradicts himself. He is vast, he contains multitudes.

Anonymous said...

You can be self-aware and in denial, of course. Not that I want to stir the pot any more here, you understand.

FCBertrandJr said...

Let's call them "fluffers." By way of attempting to explain Philip K. Dick's novels and stories, they attempt to "explain" Philip K. Dick himself...with one vague generalization supported by additional little ones. They arrogantly assume they "know" what he was thinking...and end up giving us fluff.

Their time would be better spent CAREFULLY reading, and re-reading, Sutin's biography, along with Dick's essays, letters, and interviews.

Was Philip K. Dick "crazy"? What's crazy? What's normal? As Aristotle wrote of beauty, it lies in the eye of the beholder.

Anonymous said...

I've read both the Sutin and Carrerre bios and anything else I can get my hands on re: PKD. Clearly the man was mentally ill--there is ample evidence of that. But he had coping mechanisms and a sharp, brilliant mind that allowed him to operate with some success in the real world. The fractured realities that recur in his works are manifestations of an un-normal and highly creative mind. Phil, fortunately, had writing to channel his wild thoughts into and when fictional works no longer sufficed, he turned to his "Exegesis", a rambling pursuit of the ultimate chimera, a tortured mind laid bare...

Anonymous said...

'Fluffers' ! :-D I like that.

FCBertrandJr said...

Thank you, Mr. Eldritch.

I was thinking of it in the following context from the O.E.D., second edition:


fluff, n.1

Add: [1.] e. fig. Something insubstantial or trifling, esp. journalism or other writing, usu. of a sentimental nature.

1906 R. FRY Let. 11 Feb. (1972) I. 249 Having to see reporters..and being careful to give them a lot of fluff with nothing inside it.

1979 Amer. N. & Q. Nov. 41/1 The more immediate monetary rewards to be gained by starring in a piece of unchallenging romantic fluff.

1986 New Yorker 22 Dec. 75/3 Bloom says he was the paper's ‘fluff specialist’ for a while{em}the reporter papers depend on to write their way out of a story on the first day of spring or..the new baby giraffe.

1990 N. DE MILLE Gold Coast xxix. 405 The U.S. Attorney's office had complained vigorously about media sensationalism and too much human-interest fluff.

It's either that, or perhaps "eclectic obfuscation."

Regardless, I just wish the individuals asserting PKD was "crazy" would provide empirical, verifiable, duplicable PROOF of this, to include appropriate citations from the DSM-IV-TR, 4th edition.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the endless 'was he crazy' debate, chaser. It can very quickly become a kind of competition between fans as to who thinks they know the guy best, despite probably never meeting him.

And FWIW I think your use of 'fluffers' works whichever definition of the word you want to use!

FCBertrandJr said...

I'm with you, Mr. Eldritch on this "PKD was crazy" allegation. The pundits who claim this, without any corroborating empirical evidence, would do well to CAREFULLY read and think about what Thomas M. Disch wrote in a February, 1992 Atlantic Monthly article:

"Dick followed his instincts just as single-mindedly though he was legendarily ill fated and undervalued (admittedly, much of the legend was created by the author, who was an ace self-mythologizer."
[from Thomas M. Disch, On SF, Univ. of Michigan Press, 2005]

More importantly, they should think even harder about what Dr. Anne Mini said in a February 2006 interview about her yet to be published memoir:

"In a way, my entire life has been leading up to it. This was a story I had avoided telling for 23 years, since Philip died. He was my mother’s ex-husband, and in my late elementary school years, he and I became very close. He was heavily agoraphobic, and my father was dying, so we formed a very strong bond, whispering into the telephone. In fact, he was my first writing teacher, showing me how to create plausible realities on the page and in real life.

For years, I told him everything; he talked through plots of books he was writing, problems with his publishers -- and we made up stories about his life for him to tell interviewers. We were both flabbergasted at what he was able to convince people to believe, and over time, the thrill of getting away with it became addictive. It was our secret game, and I loved it."
[from link at:]

Anonymous said...

It seems there are hundreds of articles that backhandedly praise PKD while at the same time doubting his sanity. These writers are quick to write but not so eager to do their research. I'd like to suggest to Mr. Ellis -- and anyone reading this here -- that you find a copy of my book, just out, titled PINK BEAM: A Philip K. Dick Companion. This book takes a look at PKD's Pink Beam experiences and attempts to put them in a literary context. In many ways PINK BEAM is an adjunct to Sutin's and Rickman's biographies. Check it out!

FCBertrandJr said...

Welcome, Lord Running Clam, to our web log. Your accomplishments in helping to SERIOUSLY understand the fiction and non-fiction of Philip K. Dick precede you...

But rather than a kind of blatant advertisement for your new book, could you please say something about WHY you chose it's particular title??

Aren't you thereby feeding into those who use the alleged "pink beam" episode to claim that Philip K. Dick is crazy??

At best it's an episode susceptible to multiple points of view, whether it be categorized as psychological and/or physiological.

Anonymous said...

Good points about PKD bullshitting to Williams about his use of speed. Partly joking, partly bullshitting! Anyone who has taken speed over any reasonable length of time can understand a lot of what Dick was experiencing. PKD periodically lost the sight of the distinction between amphetamine psychosis and a more everyday sense of reality.

This is not to belittle him. He was eccentric and brilliant.