Sunday, July 27, 2008

PKD's Relationship to Academia

Loyal reader Giovanni posed this thought-provoking question to me in an email:

I know that something you often discuss on your blog is how Dick would react to the LoA releases and a "new-found" importance attached to his work by literary critics. I found an interview (in the PKD Otaku #4) that was in The Aquarian in 1978, in which Joe Vitale posed an interesting question to PKD:

AQUARIAN: "In terms of broad acceptance, science fiction has undergone quite a change in the last few years. Always considered a popular, inferior brand of writing, it has now been accepted, not only by the masses but by the academic community. Science fiction courses are now part of almost every English department, people are doing theses and doctoral dissertations on science fiction. What do you think of all this?"

DICK: "I hate it. I just hope we can survive it. You know, we've survived complete obscurity. We survived complete condescension, the "are you people really doing anything serious?" attitude. I hope we can survive acceptance. It's really the most dangerous thing. You know, sometimes I think it's all a plot, to praise you and accept you and treat you like a serious literary form. Because in that way they can guarantee your demise. The only thing that's worse than being treated as "not serious" is being treated as "serious." I'd much rather be ignored. And this "scholarly" science fiction criticism is the worst. You know, if they can't destroy you by ignoring you, they can destroy you by annexing you. They, the literary critics, write these incredibly turgid articles which see all this "meaning" in your writing. The end result, I guess, is to drive all your readers away screaming."

Perhaps a more interesting example of PKD's reaction to academic interest can be found in an interview PKD did with Paul Williams Oct 30, 1974:

PKD: "...Nobody can get as much out of a book of mine as I did. Because I'm deeper into it. I know more than they do. But that isn't really true, because people will point out things -- especially academic people will point out things that I didn't know about my books, that I never noticed... I read this article... New Worlds for Old [David Ketterer's book--New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature]...there's a thing about Man in the High Castle, and it explains that the pin on Juliana Frink's blouse is the symbol that holds everything together...And actually it holds her blouse together. But I didn't know it held everything together...he sees the relationship between the fact that the pin is jewelry...Now he's probably right and I never realized it."

Williams adds in brackets [From his tone of voice, Phil brought up the subject to mock the critic, and then as we spoke convinced himself that the critic was probably right]

Immediately after this bit in the interview Dick realizes the connection between the pin holding Julia's blouse together and the fish necklace the delivery woman wore that fateful day she delivered his pain medication. This is an example of criticism at its best: right or wrong, if it gets someone (even the author) thinking about literature in new ways it can't be bad. Of course this notion is complicated when, for PKD, thinking about his literature meant thinking about the events in his life that inspired it, but this is different, not impossible. In an earlier interview with Williams, Dick describes his attitude towards his own education:

PKD: "...I was very lucky, I had a powerful unconscious. It drove me out of the academic community, it drove me out of double-domed intellectual pursuits... Egghead stuff that I was into. It drove me out of cloistered realms where I would have been cut off from the broader, truer world, and drove me into the real world. It drove me into a job, and marriage, and a career in writing, and a more substantial life.... I found that I couldn't go into a class and listen to discourses on Locke and Mill and Hobbes, but I could read the books. And I could drive all the way across the Rocky Mountains and things like that and fix my car and stuff, you know, I carved out a broader reality."

I think these quotes shed a lot of light on Dick's attitudes. I mean who needs college if you can teach yourself about anything you're interested in? What's more, if you're a scholar in your free time, you might think professional academics are little more than paid dilettantes. But at the same time, Dick throws around so many high-powered literary allusions it kind of seems like he expects a more serious reader than the average Asimov fan out for a jaunt on the dark side.

But you send PKD back to the twelfth century and he'd be a world-class scholastic (the word Scholasticism is derived from the Latin word scholasticus, the Latinized form of the Greek σχολαστικός scholastikos, “scholastic”); they were the first serious academic types to attempt to fuse and/or reconcile Biblical theology and Aristotelian thought. Something tells me a professor who had both PKD and Thomas Aquinas in his class would have a tough time getting a word in edgewise.


Anonymous said...

I think Phil wanted serious analysis of his work, but not from 'eggheads' or high society. He probably wanted the average sf reader to delve deeper into his works, after of course, revelling in the worlds, characters and main plot of his novels.

Mr. Hand said...

as an aspiring academic i've long been troubled by PKD's anti-criticism stance--of course I would never dream of writing anything like the kind of SF crit he's talking about. He was correct to point out the problem of analysis seeking to "explain away" the meaning of the work (just as in psychoanalysis). I agree with anon that serious analysis doesn't have to be destructive. I've also felt a definite lack of good useful critical material on PKD. the recent book on his "theology" is pretty interesting but all the attempts by Continental theory types to appropriate PKD tend to go wildly wrong IMHO (not that there isn't lots of vital philosophical interest there--it just rarely does justice to the actual content and form of Phil's ideas)