An attempt to write a concise essay about The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick immediately makes me feel like I’m inside of a Philip K. Dick story, specifically an early one called “The Preserving Machine.” In it a scientist wants to figure out a way beautiful works of classical music could survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Eventually, this is accomplished by the invention of a Preserving Machine, which converts these pieces of music into formidable biological creatures, which can survive any terrain. But these critters are nasty buggers and don’t resemble the beautiful pieces of music from which they came. Running them back through the Preserving Machine doesn’t work either!
So how can I turn a 900+ page volume from Dick into a little blog creature, which can survive the ravages of the internet without losing something? Especially when the nature of the writings in this book messes with the fabric of, well, pretty much everything?
The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick is, in essence, an exploration on the part of an author to understand reality and conceive of new ways of framing the conversation about it. In many ways, this work strikes me as a sort of mash-up of Kant and Foucault sensibilities. On the one hand, Dick wants to establish an ontological framework in which to talk about these issues, while at the same time he has an impulse to constantly tear down any assumptions about reality, frequently using the existence of his science fiction as proof. The introduction from co-editors Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson informs the reader that what they are about to embark upon might not make sense, at least not in the conventional way we think about that word, and they have a simple explanation as to why:
The majority of these writings, that is to say, are neither familiar nor wholly lucid nor, largely, elegant—nor were they intended, for the most part, for publication.
There you have it. Dick’s Exegesis then is a treatise on life, and a documentation of the exploration of one’s life that was not intended for publication. Does this make a lot of the text diaristic? Certainly. But imagine if Nostradamus or Socrates had tape recorded themselves, and then transcribed those tape recordings, put them in several folders, and then also threw in a series of letters to their various friends and acquaintances. And on top of all that, they also tried to also make commentary on how it all related to each other and their own work, which was separate from the recordings. That’s what kind of diary this is. There’s a lot of media, which is pervading the text of the Exegesis, even though much of it is not physically present.
And one medium that is not “physically” present, but somewhat “real” for Dick is that of spirits, or possessions. When he writes about this stuff, is it the rantings of a madman? Check out this excerpt from a letter her wrote to Ursula Le Guin in 1974:
Tom Disch came back a couple of weeks ago and I told him about it. [a possession] He suggested perhaps it was Elijah who had possessed me, and so I read up on Elijah; that explanation fits as well as any other, and so I ran with that until last night when, in falling asleep, I thought the words “poros” and “krater,” and then looked them up today and sure enough once more, they are Greek words, and words which I certainly didn’t know.
Is Dick sane throughout this stuff? Is it reasonable to assume that not knowing Greek words which you have spoken aloud proves that a possession took place? Well, it all depends on what your definition of the word “is” is. And the word “reasonable,” too! However, the majority of the Exegesis itself is predicated upon an experience Dick had which he refers to as “2-3-74” and in someplace just as “3-74.” In a nutshell, the experience was a kind of metaphysical epiphany. An epiphany about what? Well, that’s what the Exegesis is attempting to explain. In a great section towards the middle of the book (pg. 371) Dick actually looks inward for more terrestrial explanations as to his various visitations and possessions:
And now I exhaust myself trying to explain 3-74. I was lithium toxic. And had a schizophrenic breakdown.
The footnote on this page from editor David Gill is quick to point out that this statement from Dick is a kind of indication that Dick was not insane, as totally insane people don’t generally question their own sanity. Instead, Dick was truly trying to be honest with himself about what was happening. Clearly SOMETHING was happening, and whether it was all in his head was a possibility he was willing to entertain. But the important assertion, (like the Dumbledore quote from the final Harry Potter book!) is that just because it might have been happening in his head, didn’t make it any less real.
The Exegesisof Philip K. Dick is more of a philosophical text than it is mediation on the nature of science fiction. But the nice thing is that Dick clearly didn’t really view science fiction as fiction at all. In fact, you could go so far as to say that Philip K. Dick, at some point in his life, refused to actually understand the differences between art, personal interactions, reality, conciseness, and unconciseness. If forced to over-simplify his ideas via his own Preserving Machine, I would characterize The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick as follows: if thoughts created the universe instead of physical objects, this is the entire universe wrapped up in a triple decker sandwich which has infinite length. The sandwich also may or may not be conceptual.
But, if you like Philip K. Dick, and you like thinking outside of every box ever known, then this book will not only be satisfying, but also make you hungry to go back and read all of Dick’s novels and short fiction. In fact, I feel like it’s time to go read “Faith of our Fathers” right now.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He worked at Barnes & Noble as a teenager back when you still had to wear a tie.