I’m participating in the Philip K. Dick-of-the-month-club and Exegesis support group along with some other book nerds in the blogosphere, having decided that it was a good idea to solider through Dick’s Exegesis en masse rather than in isolation—throwing bloggers over-the-top to wade through the trenches of Dick’s mind, dodging the paranoid shrapnel of Dick’s most surreal ideas, and his bizarre analysis of the most alien of authors… himself. Seemed like a good idea at the time. So far, I am around 75 pages in, and wanted to get some thoughts down so as not to leave Nikki hanging.
I’ve been a fan of PKD’s work since the time I really started reading SF, and it didn’t take too long before I heard about Dick’s Exegesis. It has a reputation as a pretty dense piece of work, partly because of how much recognition Dick has received since his death, and because the Exegesis is supposed to be the Full Dick experience—all the paranoia, the metaphysics, the questioning of reality without any filler. It doesn’t hurt that the published Exegesis is over 900 pages in length and consists of letters, notes, journal fragments, and other epistolary debris… and that’s but a fraction of the (in)complete Exegesis, often redundant and circular. Or at least, that’s what THEY tell us… what secrets have been excised, hrrm?
So, around Feb-March 1974, Dick began to experience visionary experiences after having his wisdom teeth removed—the fulcrum was a girl sent by the local pharmacy to deliver painkillers, whose ichthys necklace triggered Dick undergoing a series of hallucinations and religious visions, plus a side-show of abstract and hypnotic light-patterns. The Exegesis was Dick’s attempt to theorize and understand the cause behind all this, and his theories are both pretty far-out and somewhat rational. He jumbles together elements of (then) cutting-edge neuroscience, classical philosophy, Christian iconography, referring to everyone from John Calvin to Plato, trying to establish whether he’s unlocked some secret of the mind or whether he’s receiving thoughts from the mind of God. Like most of the characters in his books, he’s looking for meaning in the chaos—trying to distinguish the signal from the noise. As he becomes more engrossed in his theories, there’s no surprise that religious elements and “reality vs illusion” become strong themes in his novels.
It’s about as wild and crazy as I’d hoped; that said, while some of the theorizing can get dry or far-out, so far it’s been more accessible than you might think—with its reputation, I honestly wondered how many of those 900 pages consisted of Time Cube-style nonsense. I like that the editors chose to ease the reader into the Exegesis by starting with content drawn from PKD’s letters. I think there’s a bit more context here that grounds and humanizes him—it’s just one piece of his everyday life, and you can kind of feel how confused and manic he was, digging away at what was for him was a huge, pressing issue, which in fact the fate of the universe did rest on. Dick certainly didn’t shy from discussing his theories, along with tidbits of metaphysics and classical mythology and Christian histories, with various friends, readers, critics, and whoever else wrote him a letter that week.
And, most interesting to me, PKD starts by trying to analyze the work of a foreign author—the work is Ubik, by Philip K. Dick. Or was it Philip K. Dick by Ubik? In college, all those Lit classes drive you to understand the different schools of literary analysis, criticism, and theory which now just automatically happen as I read—the capitalist/Marxist perspective, the feminist perspective, the postcolonial perspective, etc. But here’s Philip K. Dick, putting on the analytical lenses of Religious Experience to comb his own work for unintentional meaning—anything that could have been subconsciously fed to him by his external influencer. You don’t really think about an author analyzing their own work to the degree PKD did, but here he is, gaining more meaning from his own work than he did when he wrote it.