Sunday, March 27, 2011

Weekly Round Up

That chug-chugging sound you have been hearing in the distance is the gentle whine of The Philip K Dick Article Machine 2.0 churning out a couple of, dare I say, interesting articles about PKD.

There was this story in the Guardian about how we're all living in a Philip K Dick future, examining both Sucker Punch and Source Code as Dickian flicks. I'm quite excited to see Source Code as I thought Moon was one of the better Dickian films of late. While this story shows that the Philip K Dick Article Machine is still learning, it's got a ways to go. Favorite line:

"The first great Phil Dick movie was, of course, Blade Runner, in which enslaved androids seem human, and some "humans" don't know that they themselves are androids."

At least they threw in the 'of course' - I mean it was THE FIRST adaptation.

The article I liked even better was from, provacatively titled "5 Ways Philip K Dick's Insanity Changed The World of Movies." The reason I like this article is that instead of trying to convince a bunch of stuffed shirts reading literati zines (New Yorker et al) that they should lower themselves to read this pulp writer whose prose isn't very good, Cracked can suggest to their target demographic, dormroom stoner bros, that Philip K Dick's writing will blow their minds.

Instead of crap like this from Gopnik's New Yorker hit-piece from way back:

"The trouble is that, much as one would like to place Dick above or alongside Pynchon and Vonnegut—or, for that matter, Chesterton or Tolkien—as a poet of the fantastic parable he was a pretty bad writer."

You get:

"You don't have to be crazy to write mind-bending science fiction, but it apparently helps. Many of Dick's stories revolve around questions about the nature of reality, schizophrenia, paranoia, drug use, religion and hallucinogenic imagery. Whether any of these are related to the fact that all his pre 1970 stories were written while high on amphetamines we'll leave for you to decide, but they totally were. The man would mix offworld colonies, cold war politics, Tibetan theology, corny advertising jingles, psionic powers, sentient jellies and small scale domestic drama. Not just in the same book -- all those elements could easily appear in the same paragraph."

Now, as for the article's charges of Dick's 'schizophrenia' I'd simply like to quote Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia who brilliantly proclaimed: "Interior Decorating is a rock hard science compared to psychology practiced by amateurs." I can't believe I just quoted Scalia approvingly. Let's move on.

Actually, if you're interested, and I did this once, take out your copy of Sutin's PKD biography, Divine Invasions, look up 'schizophrenia' in the index and then skim each page listed. It's interesting to see the contexts in which the term crops up again and again in Dick's life. But, to get back to Scalia's point for just a sec, the term 'schizophrenia' is a fairly loose one (any of several psychotic disorders characterized by distortions of reality and disturbances of thought and language and withdrawal from social contact), akin, I learned recently, to 'meltdown' - a term that has no quanitative basis; there is no lab test, no failing score on the inkblot tests, that confirm a diagnosis of schizophrenia (though Dick loved to write about exactly such tests, not to mention his uncanny ability to intentionally mimic symptoms of various disorders to the delight and dismay of his friends and family). But whatever. Point being, it's a complicated subject and we should take Dick's clinical diagnosis from the writers of Cracked with a grain of salt.

But also we should read this letter that Dick wrote to the FBI, advising them of the Marxist tendencies of several notable critics. The fact that several of these critics were rather open with their Marxist readings of SF makes Dick look more naive than crazy in my mind. I mean it's sort of silly to suggest that Marxist literary theorists may be undermining the capitalist system with the way they read books, but then again, Dick grew up during a time when any open allegiance to communism was serious business, of the same order as treason. Update: Going back and reading the letter again PKD seems more concerned with Lem's influence over the these critics. I wish I had time to go through the volume of 1974 letters and try to find more context for this. If I remember correctly, there were several weird and wild letters from the same period.

What's the point of discussing his sanity? There's no point in trying to diagnose him. But there is merit in discussing the boundaries of 'sanity.' We should examine the distinction we make between sanity and 'insanity.' PKD's books and novels examine this theme over and over again. The jarring aspect of this letter is the coldness of the tone with which he wields some pretty serious accusations. But there's no way anyone would read Dick's fiction if it read with the same clinical detachment. We certainly wouldn't be talking about his influence a quarter century after his death if there wasn't some kind of sustaining warmth emanating from the pages of his fiction. I guess this post is turning into an attempt to develop the dialog beyond whether or not he was crazy, perhaps towards the goal of understanding PKD's appeal, the nature of his insight, the source of his prescience. And I think we should study PKD's life to try to understand the suffering he experienced. That's the uncool thing about the Cracked article. There's no empathy towards PKD's suffering. It's all just grist for the mill.

The Philip K Dick Article Machine is still a long way from passing the Voight Kampff.

It's only now, in hindsight, that I see I've just opened a great big can of worms. Don't go too crazy in the comments section (see what I did there?).


Anonymous said...

Another article I've seen recently. Not the same subject as the ones you're mentioning and not mainly about Dick but interesting nonetheless I think:

Nathaniel K. Miller said...

While all those things bother me, what's been really getting to me most lately is the "bad writer" business. Yes, sometimes he was a bad writer. But sometimes he was a beautiful writer, with a singular, fully-realized voice. Take Valis, or Timothy Archer, or parts of Martian Time-Slip. Isn't part of what makes him special that he rose above his weaknesses to accomplish a few masterpieces and a handful of near-masterpieces, while still remaining relevant in his ideas (not to mention entertaining) in his less-well-written works? I feel that this "small omission" drastically de-contextualizes the man's work. A redemption story is a tragedy until the last scene. The difference between the representation of Phil popular culture keeps reflecting and the one those who have looked closer know so well is as drastic a difference.

ct-scan said...

To be fair, the article is from Cracked, and says he was paranoid, and MAY have been schizophrenic. Dick was often paranoid, and sometimes he had reason to be so. (Since the government really was paying some attention to him.)

I think they made up for any possible mess-up with his mental state with the following line: "Meanwhile, the $15 million Ben Affleck made from starring in the (shitty) adaptation was enough for Affleck to eat a different thoroughbred racehorse for dinner every day for the next three years."

Now that's funny.

Zack said...

Amen to the above, jacen. The "bad writer" business is bollucks for several reasons, and it infuriates me to read that particular "insight" over and over.

First of all, like jacen said, there are plenty of Dick's works that show beautiful, affecting, and clever writing ability in the sense of style and "literature" appeal. The first chapter of Valis is brilliant in this regard, as is the entirety of Flow My Tears. That novel is special not for its science fiction ideas or questions so much as it is for the very human and very insightful dialogues between Taverner and the various women.

Secondly, I've always wondered why good writing always seems to come down to a question of style and imagery--at least from a critical perspective. Having great ideas for stories and characters is just as important as style, and Dick was the master of great ideas. Having the ability to inspire readers, or to make readers question their outlook--these are also qualities of a good writer, and these are also qualities that Dick had plenty of. A writer can be a great writer with or without great style.

FCBertrandJr said...

Before we attempt to continue playing "Pin The Label On PKD," I suggest looking at the DSM-IV TR for the actual conditions that warrant being "schizophrenic," or any of the others that are so readily thrown about. I further suggest that the old cliche "Crazy Like A Fox" is much more appropriate for PKD.

Anonymous said...

Posthumous psychological diagnoses are pretty difficult. He was a pretty complicated man and I don't think the shrinks knew what to do with him when he was sitting in front of him, let alone 19 years after his death.

simon50 said...

Philip K. Dick was a brilliant, moderately screwed-up artist, who abused amphetamines and dabbled in other drugs. That's the only "diagnosis" that can be made with any degree of accuracy. He functioned at an extremely high level - in terms of work output, maintaining relationships with friends and wives. A complicated guy - but no more so than William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot or William Blake who also had visionary experiences and have escaped all the simplistic pejoratives of "crazy," "schizo," etc.

As for his writing style - it's a mixed bag. Beautiful poetic passages interspersed with perfunctory prose and some terrible clunks.

Re-read the opening chapters of Radio Free Albemuth - I think you'll find some very graceful, lucid writing there (and during the height of his supposed VALIS lunacy).

This guy wrote FAST, so it's not surprising, really. He's not William Faulkner. Similar to Jim Thompson in this way among the pulp writers in the "detective" genre. (also canonized in Library of America). Amazing originality of story and viewpoint . You could say that Raymond Chandler is the "stand-out" stylist among mystery writers. But who's the s-f writer of this era that stylistically ranks so far above PKD as a "writer?"

Anonymous said...

Has this blog ever had a discussion of Dick's story "The Pre-Persons"? If so, please indicate where I can find it. If not, why not, and when?

--Chris DeVito

constructivist said...

I enjoy quality Sci-Fi because it seeks to explain the inner workings of some invented future/alien technology, civilization or anything else that would seem plausible. What I enjoy about a Dick story is that the alien landscape he explores is his own mind. His fears and hopes serve as our guides and I often feel like I'm peering over PKD's shoulder, both of us sharing the same experience via the protagonist-surrogate.

When I read his books, and I've yet to read more than six I think so I'm no expert, I get a feeling like I'm reading more than an interesting story. I feel like I'm absorbing an overall tone or thought-state. What just happened hits me in waves after I've finished.

I just finished A Maze of Death. You can read that book so many ways. The deeper you look the more you'll find. Look too deep and it becomes utterly meaningless. Too shallow and you're left with a hackney take on the it-was-only-a-dream theme with a strange ending.

I try to avoid reading anything about artist's personal lives and just know them via whatever it is they create(d), this author makes this difficult not to know every detail of his subconscious. Having inadvertently read about his twin sister Amy. I can't help but see her as Mary, the name contains Amy and the last name is an anagram of 'My Role'. Seth and Amy are not husband and wife but twins. In the intro that talks about the theology he gives us the translation of the kibbutz that they start their journey from: "Tekel upharsin" is Aramaic for, "He has weighed and now they divide." The whole, Amy and Dick, became divided and this story can be read as the mythology of that event. And at the end of the story Seth is saved but Mary can't come with him, yet.

Oh no, I'm starting to sound like a total Dick-Head. Thanks for having this blog, I'm enjoying other people's take on things!