Philip K. Dick: The
... the group had taken an active
interest in their situation, viewing it as a manifestation on an earthly plane
of certain super-terrestrial forces.
- Jack Isidore (1)
My first exposure to the mind-bending
fiction of Philip K. Dick was in early 1981. It must have been January or
February because I
it still being quite cold. To my surprise, a friend of my dad's had given him a
recent issue of Playboy, which I eagerly perused whenever I had the chance. On
one such occasion I needed to prove to myself a maturity beyond the pictures of
naked ladies, so I commenced to read the magazine's various features. It turned
out to be the December 1980 issue; one feature was Phil's story "Frozen Journey"
(2). Although this high-school senior had been reading science fiction for a
decade or more, I must confess I was confused by the shifting realities
portrayed in "Frozen Journey". Further readings did little for my comprehension.
By the time graduation rolled around, I
had seen Phil's books recommended repeatedly in the columns of Heavy Metal
magazine. I picked up a used copy of The Man in the High Castle (3). It was
quite good, and a whole lot easier to understand than "Frozen Journey" had been.
Soon after, VALIS (4) hit the stands. I bought it. I enjoyed it immensely, but
was still unable to fully realize the implications of Phil's speculations. Next
I found the Gregg Press hardcover reissue of Time Out of Joint (5) in a little
science fiction bookstore that had just opened off-campus. At last I understood;
what I had read of the false or illusory nature of reality while studying
Hinduism and Buddhism now made sense on a personal level. As I matured, my
appreciation for Phil grew. I started college that fall, and frequented that
bookstore often. I scoured almost every used bookstore in the Minneapolis area,
spending months in search of elusive PKD titles. I found many rare first
editions this way, and still have dreams wherein I continue the search. When
Phil died in March of 1982, I owned a copy of nearly every book he had written.
I considered his death a personal loss.
To understand Phil, one must grapple
with his unique emotional states, and his unique interpretations of same. Most
importantly, in February and March of 1974 Phil had a series of "mystic"
experiences. When he died eight years later he was still unsure of their origin
or meaning. Left behind was his so-called Exegesis, an 8,000-page,
one-million-word continuing dialogue with himself written
late, late at night (6). Though Phil never did solve the puzzle to his
satisfaction, I believe he enjoyed the pursuit of the answer for its own sake
much more than he would have enjoyed resolving the problem. In fact, I don't
think any answer would've been entirely acceptable to him for very long. By its
very nature this mystery had no rational solution.
Phil had suffered several personal
setbacks during the time immediately preceding these experiences. Stress over
his wife and new son, a severe case of writer's block, an unexplained break-in,
lingering problems with drugs (mostly prescribed medications), and worries over
his political actions all played their part. So did the loss of several close
friends. He even worried over whether he had inadvertently published high-level
government secrets in his novels (see KING FELIX discussion below). The usually
self- reflective Phil became much more introspective than normal. His depression
turned his thoughts to suicide more than once. The impetus for this particular
experience was the severe pain Phil was suffering as a result of having an
impacted wisdom tooth removed. Phil called his oral surgeon, who promptly phoned
in a prescription for some codeine to a local pharmacy (or Darvon; accounts
When the delivery girl arrived, Phil
took one look at her and became mesmerized by the golden fish dangling between
her breasts. When asked, the girl told Phil that this was the primitive
Christian ICHTHYS symbol, ICHTHYS being the Greek for "fish". The fish was
chosen in part because ICHTHYS was taken to be an anagram for "Iesous CHristos,
THeou Yios, Soter" (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). "The girl and I are
secret Christians, in hiding because of the Roman persecution. The only way we
can identify ourselves to each other is the innocent-looking fish symbol, a
harmless pendant in the eyes of most. This secret ally brings not only medicine
to heal my sore tooth, but spiritual medicine as well. After all, is not Christ
the Great Physician?" He accepted the package and bade the girl good-bye. Phil
found himself transported back to first-century Rome -- the time of the founding
of the Church amidst much persecution. The vision of another reality
superimposed upon this one lasted weeks. Phil had a hard time deciding which one
was true, and which the illusion. During this period of uncertainty, he found
himself "trapped" (figuratively, I would imagine) in a Black Iron Prison -- a
Gnostic symbol of our fall into History. It is deceptively referred to as the
Cave of Treasures. Phil used this concept obliquely in "Strange Memories of
Death" (7), wherein he refers to his apartment complex as having been
prison-like until the new developers made it appear like a garden. From his
further description it is quite obviously still a prison, despite its Edenic
In Freudian terms, the tooth can be a
symbol of libido (not necessarily sexual). Dreaming of the loss of a tooth, for
example, can represent a fear that one may lose one's standing in some way --
physically or emotionally -- or be a warning from the subconscious that this is
threatening to happen. Note that one of Palmer Eldritch's three stigmata was his
artificial teeth (8). Phil's impacted wisdom tooth was like his latent Gnosis,
awaiting the proper stimulus to trigger his anamnesis. Another symbol of libido
is the phalliform fish, whose sleek shape glides silently through the deep
waters of the subconscious. As ICHTHYS, Christ strengthens our libido, our
"psychic" energy, and asks nothing in return. He is UBIK, a negentropic force in
a universe that is forever running itself down (9).
The Hebrew for "tooth" is shin, which is
also the name of the twenty-first and penultimate letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
(The reader familiar with Phil's novel The Penultimate Truth (10) may do well to
ponder the connection.) The English equivalent to shin is "S" or "Sh". Perhaps
because of its trident shape (literally, "three-toothed") and sibilant
pronunciation, the kabbalists associated this letter with the element fire.
Compare Phil's trident dream at the end of VALIS, after Fat departs again for
the Greek islands. Shin also appears somewhat like a descending dove, so it
should come as no surprise that a relationship between it and the Holy Spirit
exists. That the numerical value of both the letter taken by itself and the
Hebrew phrase RUACH ALHIM ("the Spirit of God", usually translated "Elohim") is
300 serves to solidify the connection. The Spirit is often represented as a
flame, one example being the tongues of fire that came to rest on the apostles'
heads on that first Pentecost. Many spirits and other air elementals have been
associated with fire as well.
Later Christian kabbalists (namely,
Pico) and the Theosophists attempted to justify their doctrines by showing that
the union of God as Yahweh/Jehovah (YHWH) and the Holy Spirit (Sh) was Jesus (YHShWH).
The four letters of the ineffable name represent the four natural elements of
the ancients, while the fifth element -- spirit -- fills out the fifth point of
the pentagram, a symbol of man. The triple-pronged shin was taken to be
representative of the Trinity. YHShHW is usually translated "Yeheshuah", of
which the English form is "Joshua". "Jesus" is from IESOUS, the Greek version of
this name. This formula seems especially valid if one considers the esoteric
doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the feminine counterpart of God. Certain
kabbalists have maintained the Hebrew RUACH is of the feminine gender; if so
then this has been translated out of most versions of the Bible. In some Gnostic
systems, the consort of God is Sophia, Phil's Holy Wisdom (see the biblical Book
The Babylon whom St. John of Patmos
tells us is "fallen, fallen" is usually identified with first-century Rome (11).
The Hebrews' subjugation under the Romans was every bit as resented as it had
been under the Babylonians six centuries earlier. John's prophecy of Rome's fall
was certainly wishful thinking, penned sometime after the destruction of the
Temple in 70 AD. I identify John's Babylon with the Gnostic Sophia, a symbol of
the world in its fallen state. The Land of the Dead -- Egypt -- was a similar
symbol for later Gnostic sects. The implication of Phil's vision is that we
still live in Roman times, i.e. a "fallen" state. Gnosis must come from the
outside. Chokmah is the Hebrew for "wisdom"; her position on the kabbalistic
Tree of Life is the second or penultimate one (representing a less than perfect
reality) -- but here she is given a masculine identity, despite the references
to Holy Wisdom in the Scriptures. The Greek for "wisdom" is Sophia; a cognate
term is Gnosis, "knowledge". Like Sophia, Chokmah is one step removed from the
true Godhead. I equate Sophia with John's Babylon and the traditional Chokmah,
the same yin principle which Phil took to be his anima in the form of his
long-dead twin sister Jane (she had died aged five weeks). Her avatar has
appeared previously in the form of Simon Magus' Helen, to cite a Gnostic
example. In Phil's case, he sought her in each woman with whom he had an adult
relationship -- a reunion of the divine syzygy, as it were. His yearning for the
sister he never knew did more to inspire his world-view than any other single
factor; the appearance of twins throughout his work is ample testimony to this
state of affairs. The encysted twin in Dr. Bloodmoney (12) is one of many such
There is a kabbalistic tradition in
which one sees oneself relating events from the future. The kabbalists'
reticence to record autobiographical experiences, especially those of an
ecstatic nature, has obscured this fact. Phil had a hypnogogic experience as a
boy in which he saw himself as an adult standing at the foot of his bed. In
later life he relived the experience from the "time traveler's" standpoint. The
Persian Mani (founder of the gnostic Manichean religion) had the same thing
occur to him when he was 12, and once more as an adult. He recognized this
doppelganger as his Higher Self -- the Divine Adam and called it in Arabic "al-Tawm",
the twin. It guided him and gave him comfort throughout his life, and he was
said to be gazing upon it in the cell just before he died. Despite Phil's
Valentinian Sophian cosmology, I have often felt he was more akin to the
Manichean school on a practical level.
In 1975 a two-word cypher was "sent
forth"; the phrase KING FELIX appears in the juxtaposition of two adjacent lines
in Phil's novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (13). It was only later that
he happened upon its significance. The fact that Army Intelligence bought
multiple copies of that one book perplexed him greatly. In VALIS one of the
Lamptons tells him that the phrase has kabbalistic significance. I assume they
refer to gematria, the practice of assigning numerical values to individual
letters within a word and taking their sum. "King" is English, so should it be
translated into Latin? "Felix" is the Latin for "happy" (literally, "fruitful").
"Rex" is the Latin for "king" so FELIX REX adds to 256 when transposed into
Greek enumeration. This is the eighth power of two, which perhaps is the Gnostic
ogdoad pointing back to a duality -- Phil's Two-Source Cosmogony. "Basileos" is
Greek for "king"; I'm not sure what the proper translation of "felix" would be,
or even if Greek is the proper language to use. This practice existed in the
Hebrew language before Greek became the common language of the Mediterranean
area, and in other Semitic languages before that. The little girl, Sophia, reads
from the Sephir Yetzirah when the Rhipidon Society visits her at the Lamptons'
-- establishing a Hebrew link -- but she also tells them the Lamptons are
insane. This issue remains unresolved.
At one point Phil experimented with a
megadose of vitamins he had read about in Psychology Today. This mixture was
being used by a certain doctor to stimulate simultaneous neural firing in both
hemispheres of the brain. While the original experiments were strictly designed
for split-personality patients, Phil concocted a batch and swallowed it down. He
says it worked. The right side of the brain is often identified with the dark,
irrational, "feminine" component of our minds; the parallel to the imperfect,
premature Sophia is obvious. Speculation has arisen that the voices heard by
prophets and madmen originate in the right-brain (14). Usually drowned out by
the day-to-day noise of the more verbally active left-brain, under certain
circumstances it may be heard. At one time in our not-so-distant past, this may
have been far more common than it is today. This is one of many possibilities
considered by Phil, probably no more right or wrong than any of the others.
Another possibility I'd like to briefly
consider is that one possible subconscious influence was the "Roman" episode of
the old Star Trek TV series. I've long forgotten the show's title, but it
involved a planet similar to twentieth-century Earth with the exception that
Roman rule still existed. Rome never fell -- the Empire never ended -- and
secret followers of "the Son" were preaching peace and brotherhood rather than
tyranny. This in no way lessens the import of Phil's vision, nor does it explain
anything away. I merely find it an intriguing idea to ponder. Who can say what
psychic debris forms the foundations of our subconscious?
As the image of first-century Rome
persisted, Phil began seeing St. Elmo's fire almost everywhere he looked. He had
purchased his own ICHTHYS sign to hang in the picture window of his apartment;
admittedly his staring at the sunlight had much to do with the earliest
manifestations. However, the pink light was even visible at night, when Phil
would sit up in bed unable to sleep, enjoying the show. In A Scanner Darkly (15)
he describes it as a rapid-fire succession of Paul Klee, Kandinsky and other
modern artists. He also describes the times the St. Elmo's fire took on the
shape of a doorway proportioned to the Golden Mean (representing perfection).
This was a doorway to the Other World. The character in the book regrets having
never thought to step through the doorway after the apparition finally
disappeared. The nightly visions continued, often taking the form of incredibly
complex dreams which Phil saw at once were unlike his usual sleeping habits. He
called them "tutelary" dreams because of their information-rich content. In many
he was actually shown texts, which he was able to read and transcribe their
contents upon awakening. This is another kabbalistic tradition, the ability to
read holy texts on the astral plane. Always for Phil, the pink beam of light was
Admittedly, the idea one is being shot
with a beam of energy is typical to many schizophrenics. So are the discarnate
voices which haunted Phil's unplugged radio at night, telling him how terrible a
person he was (his then-wife Tessa heard them too). The one difference here is
that Phil perceived it as a healing light rather than a further descent into
madness. He credited it with taking charge of his life, recovering a lot of
income due from unpaid book royalties, and even re-margining his typewriter. He
never decided what the beam's source really was. Guesses included the
Rosicrucian Society, Soviet scientists experimenting with "psychotronics", and
an alien satellite orbiting a distant star. One message came from the
"Portuguese States of America", leading Phil to contemplate the possibility of
parallel universes. He also thought it might have been God. The Roman Sybil in
her later Christianized form was a particular favorite of Phil's; her similarity
to Jane as Phil's "protectress" was the attraction. VALIS even quotes the
Sybilline Oracles. Note also that the much-sought product UBIK in Phil's novel
of the same name is depicted on the dustjacket of the original as spraying a
pink substance. Coincidence? The connection is further made in VALIS when Phil
and friends mistake a model of the satellite for a can lying in the gutter (in
the movie-within-a-book). Does this refer to a can of UBIK as well?
In some of his dreams, Phil saw Soviet
scientists rushing around behind the scenes to keep the alien satellite
functioning. Phil originally thought VALIS was from Fomalhaut, which he called "Albemuth"
(from the Arab Al Behemoth, "the whale"). Fomalhaut is the fish's mouth; Phil
apparently mistook "behemoth" for "leviathan", two Hebrew words from the Old
Testament. It is the latter which actually refers to the whale, according to
most sources. What matters most is Phil's beliefs on the matter; if his
subconscious mind processed "behemoth" as "whale", then "whale" it is - for him.
At any rate, the fish symbolism is obvious, as is the reference to Jonah. Phil
must have read Robert K.G. Temple's The Sirius Mystery (16) before writing VALIS,
because he relocated the satellite to there. This brings in a host of occult
references too involved to go into here. Suffice it to say that the dark
companion of Sirius represents "occult" or hidden knowledge, as does Sirius'
position as "the sun behind the Sun" (as Kenneth Grant calls it). Neither Phil
nor Temple seem to have known this when they wrote their books. Phil cleverly
tied in the dualist Dogon philosophy described by Temple with his own Gnostic
beliefs, though as narrator of VALIS he ascribes this revelation to Fat and
tells us this is the point at which Fat's madness became complete. Madness or
not, VALIS stands as a classic on many levels. The three-eyed aliens had pincers
like a crab where hands should be, just like Palmer Eldritch and his artificial
hands. These "improved" hands seem to denote an elevated status as cosmic
artificer or demiurge, while also indicating an inherent flaw of some sort. The
beings were also deaf and mute; they communicated amongst themselves by means of
telepathy. One could say their inability to hear or speak reinforces the notion
of an imperfect demiurge, as well as it helps conceal his true nature. Then
again, their physical handicap may be the results of a personal sacrifice
undertaken to enhance their mental faculties.
Phil was consistent in documenting his
major influences within the works they influenced. VALIS was no exception.
Curiously, there are two which went uncredited, and to my knowledge no
researcher has yet uncovered them both. The first is Robert K.G. Temple's
aforementioned The Sirius Mystery. Temple documents the Dogon people of Africa
and their precise astronomical data which predate telescopes. Their legends say
that this knowledge was given to them by three-eyed crab-clawed beings from
Sirius. Temple goes on to trace the Dogon's ancestors back to migrating
Egyptians who continue a tradition well-documented in the Mysteries of Isis and
Osiris. Certainly Phil read Temple's book after writing Radio Free Albemuth; why
else would he have moved VALIS from Fomalhaut to Sirius?
The other major influence which went
uncredited may be more of a surprise. It is not a scholarly influence like
Temple's, but rather a little known facet of popular culture. The whole idea of
an immortal and all-powerful race who build universes out of boredom, fall into
them and become trapped because they forget who they are is indeed gnostic in
flavor, as many have said. It should be noted, however, that this is exactly
what Scientology teaches about the Thetans. WE ARE THE THETANS and we don't even
Palmer Eldritch had three stigmata: his
artificial eyes, artificial teeth and artificial hands. The cover of the
original edition combines these to show the classic eye-in-palm design used by
fortune-tellers to indicate occult wisdom. The all-seeing eye is a common motif
in Masonic lore as well; at one point Phil challenged God to show himself and
saw the Ark of the Covenant opened to reveal the eye-in-the-triangle. Esoteric
tradition among the Masons identifies this occult eye with the star Sirius --
named for Osiris, the dead and risen Egyptian savior who adumbrated Christ by
centuries. It is also the eye of the cyclops and the third or ajna eye of Shiva,
which Phil (as Fat) attributes to Ihknaton and his followers in the Tractates
appended to VALIS. Others have placed a sexual interpretation upon it as well,
but that's beyond the scope of the present work.
While listening to the Beatles'
"Strawberry Fields Forever" one day, Phil heard the lyrics change into a
prophetic warning: "Your son has an undiagnosed right inguinal hernia. The
hydrocele has burst, and it has descended into the scrotal sac. He requires
immediate attention, or will soon die." Phil rushed him to the hospital and
found every word to be true. The doctor scheduled the operation for the same
day. Once again, the healing power of Phil's vision comes to the fore. In a
sense the boy was "reborn", which was to have great consequences for Phil's
subsequent actions. For a while Phil thought the spirit of Elijah had come upon
him, much as the followers of John the Baptist felt about their Master. He even
identified with a certain first-century Christian he called Thomas, whose
thoughts Phil heard while falling asleep. There's someone inside of me, and he's
living in another century. This Thomas was eventually garroted, which provides
the connection to John the Baptist. "Thomas" is a Greek name meaning "twin";
whose twin was he if not Phil's? (Mani's twin was also called "tawm"; extant
Greek Manichean texts refer to him as "syzygon".) Phil saw fit to baptize and
confirm his infant son at this time (he was Episcopalian). Phil then gave his
son a secret name which has never been divulged. In the posthumously-published
Radio Free Albemuth (17) - the first version of what finally became VALIS --
"Nicholas Brady" christened "Johnny" with the secret name "Paul". Since Phil saw
himself as Elijah or John the Baptist, my best guess is that Phil told his son
he was the Savior incarnate, and named him "Emmanuel", a Hebrew name meaning
"God with us". His son's birth name was in fact Christopher, from the Greek for
"Christ-bearer". Indeed, Radio Free Albemuth ends with the imprisoned Phil
taking consolation in the knowledge that the Message has gone out after all --
to the children. The importance of this assertion in light of the child-saviors
in VALIS and The Divine Invasion cannot be underestimated. No wonder it hurt so
badly when Phil's wife left with his son. It would have been interesting to see
how Phil's son would have turned out under his father's tutelage. As it is, he
may yet surprise us as he comes of age.
Phil's experiences culminated with a
beatific vision of a Palm Tree Garden, which he described in Deus Irae (18) and
mentioned several times in The Divine Invasion (19). Though this was still a
part of first-century Rome, Phil felt at peace in the garden -- the nostalgic
Eden. The palm tree itself is the World Tree, the axis mundi, the pole at the
center of the world which leads to heaven. Palm leaves were strewn before Christ
when he returned to Jerusalem to indicate victory over temptation in the
wilderness; today they are carried by those who have completed a pilgrimage to
the Holy Land. Palm Sunday commemorates this event in Christ's life. Palmer
Eldritch's name is an obvious reference, but "palmer" could also refer to
sleight of hand -- indicating his position as malevolent demiurge.
Associated with the vision of the Palm
Tree Garden was a young girl gathering water at riverside. On her vase was an
interlocking pattern which Phil recognized as a series of ICHTHYS symbols. He
also saw it as the double helix form of DNA. The universe, he understood, is
information - just as DNA is the encoded information by which our bodies are
created and maintained. He identified this girl with Aquarius, the water-bearer.
To me this symbolizes a pouring out (from the subconscious) and the heralding of
a new age. This scene was used in VALIS to announce the new messiah, the little
girl called Sophia. A new age had indeed begun, short-lived as it was.
Though Phil's vision of Rome faded, his
tutelary dream continued for six more years. So too did the AI voice (for
"Artificial Intelligence"), a soft feminine voice he heard in times of stress
and during hypnogogic revery. Naturally he identified this voice with
Jane/Sophia, and claims to have first heard it during a high school physics exam
(it gave him the answers) 25 years earlier. It all ended November 17, 1980. Phil
claimed to have had a theophany that day, though witnesses noticed nothing
unusual. Phil suddenly comprehended God as infinite, by nature incomprehensible.
In other words, the Exegesis would never solve anything because there was no
answer to be had. Phil actually stopped writing for a time because of this, but
was at it again before too long. He also wrote The Divine Invasion around this
time, which was when the voice finally stopped. Had it not been for the
theophany, Phil would have probably cried, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" As it
was, he persisted in speculating the remaining year of his life, and managed to
produce one more novel before the end - the posthumously-published The
Transmigration of Timothy Archer (20). Phil suffered the first of several
strokes in February 1982 and died several days later in the hospital, on March
2. He was 53.
(1) Philip K. Dick. Confessions of a
Crap Artist. New York: Pocket Books, 1982. (Orig. 1975.) Pg. 164.
(2) "Frozen Journey" was Playboy's name
for the manuscript Phil called "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon". It was reprinted
under its original title most recently in The Eye of the Sybil (New York: Carol
Publishing Group, 1992).
(3) The Man in the High Castle. New
York: Putnam, 1962. This title has gone through several editions and remains in
(4) VALIS. New York: Bantam, 1981.
(5) Time Out of Joint. Boston: Gregg
Press, 1979. (Orig. 1959.)
(6) A very limited number of Exegesis
entries were eventually published in Selections from the Exegesis, edited by PKD
biographer Lawrence Sutin (Lancaster: Underwood-Miller, 1991). Sutin also wrote
the excellent Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (New York: Carol
Publishing Group, 1991).
(7) "Strange Memories of Death" first
appeared in issue #8 of Interzone magazine (Brighton, UK). It also was collected
in I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987) and volume 5
of Underwood-Miller's Collected Stories (reprinted by Carol Publishing Group).
(8) The Three Stigmata of Palmer
Eldritch. Garden City: Doubleday, 1965.
(9) Reference is to Phil's novel UBIK
(Garden City: Doubleday, 1969).
(10) The Penultimate Truth. New York:
(11) Revelations 18:2.
(12) Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along
After the Bomb (New York: Ace Books, 1965. Reprinted Boston: Gregg Press,
1977.). Another good example is the pair of lambs born near the end of
Confessions of a Crap Artist (ibid), the second of which is stillborn. In this
case it is the male twin Phil kills off - representing himself.
(13) Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.
Garden City: Doubleday, 1975. (Phil parodied this book as The Android Cried Me A
River in VALIS.)
(14) See Julian Jaynes, The Origin of
Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin,
(15) A Scanner Darkly. Garden City:
(16) Temple's book is little more than a
well-researched paperback of the Ancient Astronaut variety. Only Phil could have
turned it into a whole universe. (London: Futura Publications Ltd., 1979.)
Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger was also an influence in regards to the
Sirius connection; Phil acknowledges it as such in VALIS. (Berkeley: And/Or
Press, 1977. It's been reprinted by both Simon & Schuster and Falcon Press.)
(17) Radio Free Albemuth. New York:
Arbor House, 1985.
(18) (w/ Roger Zelazny). Deus Irae.
Garden City: Doubleday, 1976.
(19) The Divine Invasion. New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1981.
(20) The Transmigration of Timothy
Archer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982.