Philip K. Dick and Heidegger

The science fiction writer Philip K. Dick died in March 1982, but has left a legacy behind that would be the envy of most writers (a lot of people think he is still alive and writing). Although the majority of people come to his work through the many movies that have been made from his stories, such as Minority Report, Scanner Darkly and of course Bladerunner, for me it is ultimately his written work that makes the deepest impression.

His last three novels were Valis (1980), The Divine Invasion (1981), and the astounding Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), which features his only female protagonist, Angel Archer; the latter is  based on the real-life story of Bishop James Pike, whom PKD knew well.

Philip K. Dick and Bishop James Pike on Dick’s wedding day to Nancy Hackett, July 1966

Dick wrote these as lightly fictionalized accounts of his own life–Valis for example features the sf writer Philip K. Dick and another character, Horselover Fat (which means Philip Dick in Greek and German) who is a kind of projection of PKD’s psychosis (there is a kind of deep humor here that is often missed).

Dick’s themes often touched on authenticity and penetrating to the authentic. As an autodidact and a scholarly dabbler you can explicitly see references in his work to gnosticism, Hebrew kabbalah, Spinoza and so on. One reference I have sometimes wondered about, as I once wrote elsewhere, was whether Dick had read or encountered the work of Heidegger. (Tessa Dick, his former wife, wrote to me several years ago noting that “one of Phil’s favorite topics was Heidegger’s concept of Ereignis, that is, that existence creates or gives birth to space and time. I guess you could say that Phil’s writing focuses on phenomenology.”)

This can now be confirmed. The sixth and final volume of his Letters has at last appeared (the other five appeared nearly 20 years ago but this one was delayed) begins almost immediately with this letter to John B. Ross:

[January 30, 1980]. As I read your letter I thought about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and wondered if you’d read him.I just read him recently and his ideas made quite an impression on me. It seems as if both you and I have been fighting for what he calls authentic existence,which always involves a crisis as the person becomes aware of the possibility of his own nonexistence. This sets off primal dread but it can lead to authentic existence, finally.

Of course Dick is interpreting Heidegger here through his own understanding and concerns (and he doesn’t say what Heidegger he read; and for all we know it could even be a secondary source), but notice how well it fits with the Dick oeuvre (he even characterises it novelistically, with that turn from inauthentic to authentic in the last act).

What’s more interesting though is that he continues:

I wrote an outline of a new novel last month in which I combined Heidegger with early Hebrew concepts of monotheism–a daring effort on my part since Heidegger was a Nazi and totally rejected the idea of God, and, most of all, the Hebrew deity. The outline ran 80 pages.

What’s important here is not whether or not you agree with Dick’s characterization of Heidegger and the latter’s rejection of God, but rather that Dick was prepared to understand this novel, and his own work, in light of Heidegger. While I have not read that 80-page treatment I’m pretty sure that he was referring to a novel he was then calling Valis Regained (after Milton) which later became the published book The Divine Invasion.

TDI charts the arrival of a small boy Emmanuel (ie., God is with us; Valis had a small girl with the significant name Sophia or knowledge) who for various reasons is the target of a corrupt church here on earth (cf. the much later series  His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman). Unfortunately Emmanuel suffers from amnesia and some of the book concerns efforts to restore his full memory, or anamnesis (an idea Dick derived from Plato). You can see here perhaps in sketch form some of what might be understood as efforts to reach the authentic if it were written up as an sf novel.

There is much more to the novel than that of course and I shall certainly have to reinterpret these last three novels (actually four, there’s also the posthumous Radio Free Albemuth, which has just been made into a movie). I’m certainly looking forward to reading more of these letters, which cover the last 2 years of his life.

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