The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick Hardcover – Nov 8 2011
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To explain, toward the end of his writing career, Philip Dick had a visionary/religious/mystical experience. Like all such experiences, it was exceptionally difficult to verbalize, rationalize, or explain. If the experience itself didn't drive Dick mad, the task of making sense of it clearly did, at least for a time. Dick entered a period of heightened creativity, struggling to give voice to his religious experience through writing. Dick called this process, and the body of text it produced, his "Exegesis." Traditionally, the word signifies the process of expounding upon and interpreting a work of literature, typically a religious text; here, the object of Dick's literary critique was his own mind.
This book is a relatively narrow selection of pages from that effort. It reads like a philosophical journal, and consists of outlines, correspondence, doodles and rambling essays on science, creativity, ancient history, religion, death, and drugs. This is the raw ore of genius, but it is extremely unrefined. Worse, it has an eerie "tinfoil hat" feel to it; one gets the strong sense that Dick was flirting with mental illness. The casual reader is certain to be alienated, and unnecessarily, since the Exegesis formed the basis for several excellent works of narrative fiction. VALIS, Dick's crypto-autobiographical novel recounting the same events is infinitely more accessible.
But, if you, like me, are more than a casual reader - if you have read Valis and Ubik (and possibly Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati to boot) - if you take seriously the possibility that Dick contacted a divine intelligence in February of 1974, then this book is for you. And if that's you, then the content will speak for itself.
But the editing? In my view, it's above average. Since I have never seen the file cabinets from which these pages have been selected, I can't attest to their completeness. However, the stuff that's here is consistently engaging and seems to have been selected with care. Better still, the text has been annotated by a multidisciplinary team of editors, ensuring that the reader has a guide for some of Dick's frequent digressions into brain science, Biblical hermeneutics, and pharmacology.
This is much better than I'd hoped and the serious fan/student will be very, very happy.
[UPDATE: In a previous version of this review, I complained about the absence of explanatory material on Bishop James Pike. A comment below pointed out that there is in fact a detailed entry on Pike at the back of the book. My mistake. My gripe is withdrawn.]
The physical presentation is commendable, definitely worthy of the price and perhaps even the 29-year gap between PKD's death and the book's publication: the binding is attractive and gold beneath the dust jacket; the pages are light and crisp with 8 glossy photocopied entries from the Exegesis in the center; the type design is pleasantly minimal and unobtrusive. I found the editorial work to be only average; in particular, I was disappointed with several of the footnotes to the text. Although always historically informative, the editors frequently fail to illuminate any deeper meaning, which is what editorial notes traditionally are meant to do. Still, they have done a great service to PKD and the world by bringing together a lucid and presentable collection of the Exegesis material, a task that I'm sure was incredibly complex.
I would not recommend the Exegesis as a starting point for exploring PKD's work. At the very least, you should be familiar with Ubik, as its subject and themes are frequently referred to throughout the Exegesis; and PKD's final trilogy, VALIS. The Exegesis is connected intimately with the VALIS trilogy, both being a result of Dick's infamous '2-3-74' experience; indeed, the Exegesis is basically a 938-page appendix to the VALIS trilogy, the novels being mere poetic summaries in comparison (though brilliant, of course, in their own right).
The Exegesis, to me, is a philosophical 'tour de force', a cypher blueprint of reality waiting to be understood, a veritable 'feast of the mind', as another reviewer noted; it is an incredible thing to read and behold, something that has impressed me as a work of modern genius possibly more than anything else I have ever read. I would recommend it to anyone interested in PKD and the ideas reflected in his work.
having some deep experiences with meditation and entheogens. Finding Dick's reflections was a great blessing, as the way he ponders on the ultimate nature of reality is extremely original, unique and unparalled.
The exegesis is a raw, unadulterated experience of philosophical genius. It's not a methodical and organized exposition of a system of thought, although there is one here through and through implicit in Dick's discoveries.
The amount of metaphysical insights contained in the Exegesis is simply amazing. The meaning of creation, the nature of evil, the ultimate goal of the universe - all the great themes are explored here.
It's also important not to approach the Exegesis as a work of pure speculation. It is not. Dick is trying to describe a direct realization of reality, and while his metaphysical flights may seem to be completely ungrounded at times, they always ultimately derive from the transformation of consciousness he underwent, and as such, must be treated as serious descriptive attempts of an ineffable state.
In regards to his cosmology, it essentially states that we are living in a Mind. That the universe we experience is an appearance, illusion, fabrication, simulation, hologram that is emanated and generated by this great Mind at the core of reality. What we see, feel and experience is information which is being endlessly rearranged within this living hypercomputer, what he calls Valis.
There are two dimensions of this classic idea in Dick's exposition. The first is gnostic in essence, and states that the world is some sort of forgery and consequently evil. The second view, which Dick matures as the Exegesis goes along, is that the illusion of the world is not negative, per se, but rather exists as it does for a good and bening purpose. The veil within or minds, the dokos, which affects our memories and makes us believe we actually are the people we believe we are, when in fact we are higher dimensional souls, exists in order for the human drama to be possible. To see through it, to remove the layers of consciousness, as Dick did,
entails and end to the human story, and the development into another kind of reality. The whole process of enlightenment, or attaining gnosis, is one of anamnesis, or remembering. We forgot something fundamental about ourselves. But the memory is within us, somewhere deep down our minds, and if we are capable of retrieving it, everything stands revealed and explained. The reason for why all is as it is will shine in consciousness.
I'd say that in order for a reader to appreciate what he is trying to do, one must have had a least a mystical glimpse of reality. By this a mean an alteration of consciousness to some degree in which the universe isn't seen anymore as a set of disjointed material objects, unconscious, unintelligent and without intention. In fact, this way of seeing the world is not a an immediate given of pure experience, but rather a superimposition that came upon western consciousness through the centuries, starting with atomists - Democritus, Leucippus and Lucretius. Since this is our unconscious mythology, the deep structure within our psyches from which all of our modern condition is derived, transcending it, even for a brief moment, entails seeing the universe in a radically transformed way, as the ancients did. Sentience, intelligence, life - these attributes are mapped into the whole field of experience, and not just to some physical bodies. The universe becomes a living organism, a living entelechy in which we are both part and whole. No longer hostile, alien, uncaring and unfeeling; but not because we wish it to be so, but because it is so.
After reading many of the great books of history, from the East and West, I have come to the conclusion that Philip K.Dick's Exegesis is not only unique but it is one of the best--in the field of philosophy and theology. I stand by that astounding estimate with great confidence. The book's wisdom, searching questions, and convoluted thinking--based not on nonsense or "clever ideas" but Reality--is profoundly impressive. Mr. Dick thought and studied for many years, delved deeply into the Greeks, mysticism, early Christianity, German philosophy, Hindu thinking and much much more. The depth and brilliance of his thinking, also the compassion, is astouding--and very alive, not like some of the PHD philosophers. The book is not disciplined, it is not neat and tidy: it is rambling and challenging--but deeply rewarding. PKD, in my mind, was not loopy or deranged: he had tapped into essential truths about reality, himself and life. And, incredibly enough,he touched the source which Plotinus called the One, and this experience fueled the sincerity and depth of the great Exegesis. In his own inimitable way he explored the same truth of all the great thinkers and wise men: from Heraclitus to Lao Tzu, to St. Paul and Christ, to Boehme and Blake in the late Middle Ages, to the modern era with such stellar minds as Simone Weil and Franklin Merril. Strange, but really not so strange, that America, and California, would produce one of the lights of deep philosophy, and that this person would have a relatively humble background as a writer of pulp science fiction-- in his early days. One caveat: as said by others, read Valis, Ubik and others first. Exegesis is a product of Mr. Dick's whole life and career, the magnificent culmination of a remarkable career.
A brief addition: since writing this review I have gone back to Exegesis many times and have still not finished it. It does take time. But there are some real holes in the book that I now see better: Dick repeats himself extensively, he gets into ruts, and veers into pages of what I think is nonsense. He is extremely clever,he is a philosopher right on the edge of the abyss, and he had some powerful revelation, an enlightenment experience, but lacked an inner discipline, not something rigid or formal, but a sense of Self with a capital S. Other luminous genius' of great distinction like William Blake and Boehme still had their feet on the ground. I cannot quite explain my reservations, but they remain. The book is still, I said it before, unique in the annals of Western civilization and that is a remarkable accomplishment.
PKD explores every possible angle for his sudden insight by writing mostly by hand nearly every night for the remaining eight and a half years of his life. He analyzed himself and his own work especially ten novels he felt to be form a meta novel. He continued to produce novels and was working on still another when he died. He had reached a point in his career where money began to flow a bit more freely, a fan base had grown, international markets were bestowing more praise than his home country, and SF conventions were inviting him to keynote and paying for his trips. His overriding ambition throughout everything was to understand the above revelation. He wrote; he debated with himself; he called his friends in the middle of the night with further insights; he figured it all out only to dismiss his findings in the cold harsh light of the next morning when he'd start the process all over again.
It's not clear to me if PKD ever meant for any of this work to be published, but I'd guess from my layman's distance that he probably did. He wrote mostly by hand and didn't bother to keep the material in an orderly fashion, but he had enough faith in his reputation to expect future biographers to come in after his death and sort through the mess he left behind. Friends even spotted him carting stacks of handwritten material to the incinerator at times, meaning he did dispose of something, which meant he did allow the rest of his pages to survive.
I spent months reading The Exegesis. The material was too dense for me to read more than ten to twenty pages at a time. This edition runs to 900 pages. I didn't want to race through it. I wanted to think about it. Let the ideas linger, maybe fester, maybe germinate. And unusual for me, I expect to return to the book from time to time just to jump in for a blast of PKDickiana. I like how he challenges everything, every idea and solution he conjures, how he takes the BUT WHAT IF opposite side of every auto-debate.
It's his process of exploration that I find most intriguing. How he hammers unrelentingly at a problem to see just how malleable are the assumptions upon which we base our worldview.
If you like PKD, and if you like digging into a writer's journals for insight into how and why he wrote what he did, you'll like Exegesis. If you aren't familiar with PKD, this is still a violently good read. And if you stick with it, you'll end up reading his novels which is exactly what you should do after you finally make his intimate acquaintance.
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