Tuesday, August 21, 2007
In 1974 the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick went crazy after having a vision at least partially brought on by an injection of sodium pentathol he had taken to undergo a dental procedure. Thereafter he worked under the signature "Horselover Fat" (Philip means "lover of horses" in Greek, and dick, in German, means "fat"), although the books of his last eight years include interpolations by Philip K. Dick, who criticizes Fat's philosophy and personal shortcomings.
Dick's descent into insanity was no accident or Act of God, however, because he was working hard at going nuts when he finally went there in 1974. He wrote a large number of amphetamine-fueled novels in the sixties and seventies, one of which ("The Man in the High Castle") won a Hugo Award in 1963. It was included along with three others among his best books in a just-published prestigious Library of America volume, signaling that the science-fiction pulp author has now been accepted into the hushed cloisters of "great literature."
The New Yorker's editors assigned Adam Gopnik to review the new book and recap Dick's life and career, which is probably what motivated me to buy the book within hours of receiving this week's issue. Gopnik is a marvelously disciplined writer and critic whose concision, clarity, and economy insure that no reader could possibly ever misunderstand him. His comprehension of Dick's central philosophy, repeated throughout the early novels and then articulated incoherently at the end, is surpassed only by his highly concentrated and accurate synopses of it.
In Dick's most famous novels, Gopnik writes, "the future (is) like the past, in the sense that, no matter how amazing or technologically advanced a society becomes, the basic human rhythm of petty malevolence, sordid moneygrubbing, and official violence, illuminated by occasional bursts of loyalty or desire or tenderness, will go on. Dick’s future worlds are rarely evil and oppressive, exactly; they are banal and a little sordid, run by a demoralized élite at the expense of a deluded population. No matter how mad life gets, it will first of all be life."
Philip Dick had no pretensions of being a great writer. His prose is boilerplate narrative, characterized by a pedestrian technique and stock characters suitable to the lowbrow genre he labored in. What makes his work valuable and timeless is his philosophy and acute perception of the eternal human condition, his recognition that there is no hope, and that technological miracles, past, present, and future, have done nothing to alter the fundamentals of existence. As Gopnik explains it, "No matter what things may come, they will be exploited, merchandised, and routinized by the force of human weakness."
History is Merciless
The study of history, unlike the studies of philosophy or religion, has no idealized aspect or aspirations of transcendence. It's simply a dispassionate catalogue of the errors, disasters, and follies of the human race, punctuated at times with traces of integrity, or nobility, or acts of compassion. The truths told by Philip K. Dick resonate with me because I already knew them, having learned them 20 years ago in the history classes taught by Dr. Will Jacobs at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.
Jacobs used to point out that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (before 1914), nearly all historians, theologians, and philsophers alike believed that the human race was on the verge of creating a second Garden of Eden, this one to encompass the entire earth, due to the tremendous burst of creativity unleashed by advances in science and technology. Then came the two world wars with their incomprehensible slaughter and, in the case of the second war, unprecedented mass murder, and history's more perceptive observers recognized that advances in science and technology had unleashed at least as much destructive force as they had creative energy.
Likewise, there is a thread running through all modern history (from the 17th century on), Jacobs taught, that explains poverty, crime, and all forms of human degradation and misery as resulting from the greed, ignorance, and violence of corrupt institutions. Voltaire railed against the corruption of the Church and the animal greed and cupidity of Europe's aristocrats, and was convinced that if those institutions were abolished a utopian society must be the necessary result. Karl Marx was absolutely convinced that when capitalism was suprseded by communism, as it inevitably would be, the only possible outcome would be a human race at last free to bask in the warmth of its own fundamental goodness. Voltaire and Marx may not have had much in common, but they agreed that human nature was basically good.
"What's obvious, when we look at the holocaust and firebombing and nuclear warfare of World War II," Jacobs said, "is that the problem is not with corrupt institutions, but with us."
"We have met the enemy and it is us," said Walt Kelly's Pogo Possum.
I would disagree with my teacher only so far as to argue that corrupt institutions are a part of the problem, but that those institutions are an inevitable product of human nature. This was Philip K. Dick's core realization, and in his work, Gopnik says, "the social arrangement of power is always that of a brute oligarchic minority forcing its will on a numbed population, with amusements the daily meal and brutality the implicit threat; for all that has changed technologically, that fatal pattern has never really altered. The future will be like the present, he had once known, and now he saw that the past was like the future, too."
"The surest sign of the madness of the world," Gopnik says, paraphrasing Dick's central message, "is the violence that we accept as normal." All ruling classes, past, present, and future, rely at bottom on violence or the threat of violence to maintain and expand their authority, and the empire has always been, and will always be with us.