Thursday, January 13, 2011

Crosshairs Over VALIS

Sadly, it is becoming increasingly clear that Jared Loughner, the mentally disturbed man who shot Congresswomen Giffords and a whole bunch of other people in Tucson last week, was a Philip K Dick fan (Though he does not list any PKD books in his favorite books section of a profile page) In yesterday's Washington Post a story recounts Loughner's contact with fringe culture. The money quote:

"Loughner's favorite writer was Philip K. Dick, whose science-fiction tales travel a mystical path in which omnipotent governments and businesses are the bad guys and the average man is often lost in an identity-shattering swirl of paranoia, schizophrenia and questions about whether the universe and the individual are real or part of some vast conspiracy."

The day before, conservative pachyderm John Podhoretz wrote this:

"[Loughner] may, in other words, have found his intellectual solace not in political ideology of any sort but rather in the false-reality fantasies of writers like Philip K. Dick, who all but invented a science-fiction genre about how the powerful have the rest of us living in a dream world in which we are manipulated. The most commercially popular version of this worldview is The Matrix, the 1999 film with Keanu Reeves as a computer hacker who discovers that he and all of humanity are actually trapped in a gigantic machine in which they are serving as energy sources for other machines.

The Dick view was, it turns out, quite literally out of the brain of a paranoid schizophrenic, as biographies of the writer himself reveal. But given that tens of millions have read Dick’s work and probably hundreds of millions of people have seen The Matrix and its sequels, not one frame of The Matrix nor one word in Dick’s hand can be blamed for the fact that they may have deepened one singular individual’s madness. As was true Saturday and as is true today, the villain is not “violent rhetoric” but the diseased and evil brain of Jared Loughner."

Max Fisher at the Atlantic called Podhoretz's theory one of the '5 Strangest Explanations for Jared Loughner's Attack'

In his own defense, or rather trumpeting some sort of vindication after the WaPo article, today Podhoretz writes:

"The point I was making is not that readers of Philip K. Dick, of whom there are many millions, are going to go out and shoot people. It’s that people who live in a disordered reality would be especially susceptible to a portrait of the world that suggests disordered realities are real and actual realities are false. That this notion seemed less plausible to many than that Loughner was driven to a murder spree by talk radio says a great deal about the reality distortions that grabbed hold of the minds of eager liberals over the past six days."

Ironically, while everybody was convinced that violent political rhetoric made Loughner snap - turns out he likes Phil Dick books. Will the angry villagers now hunt down the literary legacy of Phil Dick with pitchforks and torches because one of his fans lost it? I doubt it. But this makes me sad. This line in the WaPo story really hit me:

"He had friends, but then all of a sudden . . . he had nobody, and that's not a nice place to be."

Our community of Dick-heads is really pretty small. This guy certainly could have been part of it. The WaPo article concludes:

"Over the past two years, Loughner "was desperate to hang out with people," Montanaro said. "He'd just show up at our houses, call us constantly and would even pay for us just to get us to chill with him. It was rather annoying."

By last summer, evidence of Loughner's increasingly deteriorating mental state was littered across the electronic worlds he inhabited.

On one site, Above Top Secret, Loughner left dozens of posts with bizarre theories about U.S. currency, the Constitution and grammar. Finally, another regular on the site wrote back that "I think you're frankly schizophrenic, and no that's not an amateur opinion and not intended as an uninformed or insulting remark. I really do care. Seek help before you hurt yourself or others or start taking your medications again, please."

Loughner, known on the site as "erad3," responded, "Thank you for the concern.""

Dick was so incredibly prescient in seeing moments like these: real connections between people in 'artificial' realities. Dick is able to make it clear exactly how 'fake' consumerist culture can be. Dick's ultimate conclusion, in my opinion, is that these connections forge and ground our realities, rendering 'false' realities real. Our digital interactions are limited by our lack of physicality, but they are not rendered completely powerless either.

Reality, like home, is where the heart is. Sadly, for Loughner, there was no 'there' there. Loughner's rampage shows the effect of long-term isolation and alienation, the toll mental illness takes on the psyche, and the desperate, existential need we all have for connection.


ct-scan said...

Loughner, to put it lightly, had issues. Far deeper than any political pundit, author, book, movie, or musician could have created. It's just as outlandish an idea as Marilyn Manson being responsible for the Columbine shootings...yet that theory seemed to get quite a bit of attention back then.

It's still sad. A sad situation to begin with for sure, but now hitting closer to home. There were a number of things in that WP article that I thought...I like those things too.

(Side note: My take on "Waking Life" is a bit different from the WP author...I actually thought the character was experiencing death.)

ZenWoman said...

Oh boy, here we go... that was my first thought. First the dispersions cast on "lucid dreaming" something I love from Carlos Castaneda and Tibetan dream yoga. Now, PKD in the crosshairs. GADS! Mainstream press (whatever that is) and crazy obsessive bloggers (our own excluded) will no doubt analyze this to death. oh boy...

-- ej "zenwoman" morgan, author of A Kindred Spirit Homage to PKD

Henry Baum said...

I just don't see this turning into a PKD inspired him issue. John Hinckley was inspired by "Taxi Driver" which was literally a movie about assassination. And Martin Scorsese is still making movies. People love the White Album, though it inspired Manson and "Have you seen the little piggies...What they need is a damn good whacking" doesn't leave a lot to the imagination.

The issue with Palin though is not that her cross-hairs inspired Loughner, but that they could, and this is what it would look like. The rhetorical hyperbole is terrible and needs to be called out. This is entirely different from blaming a work of art for a crime, as Palin's a political figure with a specific kind of influence.

But when you boil it down, Loughner is uniquely disturbed, to the point where maybe a re-run of "Friends" could set him off. Still, that's a different issue from saying that politicians should tone down their rhetoric, which is a pretty rational response.

I say this as a writer who wrote a PKD-inspired novel about DREAMS, in which dreams and reality collide, so maybe I'm trying to defend myself. But we can't reach a point where we think Loughner destroyed the validity of Dick's ideas. And maybe that's the moral of this: that an act as heinous as this has many victims - such as a genius like Dick being called into question.

Mr. Hand said...

PKD's key insight was that awareness of schizophrenia exposes a vulnerability that should lead to compassion rather than violence. He was aware of the brutal irony that this consciousness is everywhere present but constantly being betrayed.

It is a mistake to predict that a PKD reader should be disposed to become paranoid schizophrenic. PKD teaches us how to find a way out of that kind of alienation. That is the central message of his books, that even in our most alienated and reality-broken-down depths we are connected to other humans who are just as vulnerable as we are. My experience of meeting and talking to the others in our small community is that long acquaintance to PKD leads to wisdom and insight rather than some weird science enthusiasm and bizarre dystopian ideology.

Nick said...

It is very telling that Podhoretz writes:

"It’s that people who live in a disordered reality would be especially susceptible to a portrait of the world that suggests disordered realities are real and actual realities are false."

Perhaps he thinks we should all subscribe to the same ordered reality - (ordered by whom and in what way?) Most of the actual 'ordered realities' that I have come across are false. We should never fear the lone psychotic - they do damage, but the real ravages of history are from the organised masses who are trained to respond as one monkeymind - like the Nazi's in WW2. I fear over-integration, not individuation. A few lone nutters are nothing compared to the mass of drones who rally round flags, corporations, ideologies, etc.

PKD represents the antidote to subjugation, encouraging as he does a myriad of ways of looking at any situation. This is the opposite of dogma and propoganda. Dick stands for the individual and against Ordered reality for he knows that once a truth is organised, it becomes a lie.

Lucidus Valentine said...

The schizophrenia myth is like myth number one about PKD. The long bouts of depression and heightened rounds of creativity suggest a bipolar 2 diagnosis. One of his psychiatrists finally said so, but the legend is that he was schizophrenic, largely because of the paranoia. Hey, it was the Age of Nixon. They really were out to get him.

Anonymous said...

Where is the washington post getting this info? I haven't seen anything in his forum posts or youtube that show that PKD was his "favorite writer"

Terry said...

Well, I posted a very long comment at ej "zenwoman" morgan's blog on this subject (, so I'm not going to repeat it here. For a change, I'll be brief.

I don't agree with the comment that Palin's remarks could inspire people like Loughner. I don't think things work like that, period. As for Podhoretz's view of what people who live in a disordered reality (maybe he's thinking of the denizens of the beltway) are susceptible to in literature, it sounded like it referred to all fiction. (Gosh, I like Greg Bear, I'd better be careful.)

When I was 16 or 17, I had this most interesting class in HS, in which we got to 'study' various nifty things totally inappropriate (thank God) for a standard college prep state education. One of the subjects was the book Psycho Cybernetics, which I was fascinated with briefly at the time. I discover some 35 or so years later that James Earl Ray was wandering around from sleezy motel to sleezy motel, carting a copy of that book with him wherever he went. Indeed, he would have been doing this about a year before my own interest in the book.

Fancy that.

As if the Arizona event was not bad enough, we get to submerge ourselves in flaky theories in the aftermath and who knows how such constructs will be used by various political forces with agendas. And thus, is the matrix built and/or tweaked - much the way game theory and John Nash have had such an incredible and disastrous effect on our culture, our very sciences, on the patterns of our thought for the last 70 years.

MDK said...

Maybe this is a conspiracy to discredit PKD and writers like him. Could Loughner have been a Manchurian Candidate? We may never know. Let's just hope there won't be any bans on his books in the near future.

Kind of reminds me of Michael Bishop's "Philip K Dick is Dead, Alas"

No, he was evidently a very disturbed individual. Hopefully, Phil's name won't be scathed any longer by being tied to this creep. He would vehemently decry the violence and torment that Loughner has inflicted upon all those involved.

Darryl Mason said...

As Philip himself said :

"Don't live alone. Don't do it."

Darryl Mason said...

The books were dangerous, it was decided. Not because the words in those pages inspired revolt, or contained recipes for bombs, or rally cries to spree kill. The books were dangerous, it was decided (by a few for the unrequested behalf of the many) because they encouraged readers, again and again, to question what they saw, what they read, what they heard, what they felt.

'Is this fake?' 'Is my president human?' 'Are they lying to me?' 'They tell me I should be happy with a house full of stuff like on the TV, but am I?'

Dangerous questions, more dangerous than bombs, they knew, because important questions spread through societies like a virus. The vaccine was more of their lies but the only real cure was truth.

They didn't burn the Philip K Dick books they hauled away from bookshops and libraries, they shredded them, and recycled the paper for the approved literature.

Cleansing the internet of Philip K Dick's ideas and questions, however, proved impossible.

ct-scan said...

Seems coincidental that we choose to read "We Can Build You":

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing some perspective to the ugly little factoid linking Loughner and PKD. After years of recommending Dick to my friends and relatives,a few are now giving me the tilted head look.
Has anyone noticed that self-professed expert grammarian Loughner said he was interested in "conscience dreaming." Not conscious. Conscience. Adds another layer to the weirdness. Dick would have laughed.

Anonymous said...

I can't help wondering if Loughner wouldn't have been better off living on a world such as Alpha III M2, from "Clans of the Alphane Moon." But would he have been in the Manses, Pares, Heebs, Skitzes, Ob-Coms or Polys camp? THAT is the question!

Lord RC said...

To me it seems like a bunch of lazy journalist hacks turning over every turd to find something to write about. No doubt if Loughner liked apple pie that would also be in the news and those damn apples would be to blame.

derelict_koan said...

"[Loughner] may, in other words, have found his intellectual solace not in political ideology of any sort but rather in the false-reality fantasies of writers like Philip K. Dick"

Political Ideology on the other really real, just like projecting psychobabble at a list of someones hobbies and deriving meaning from it. Real man...real.