Thursday, January 21, 2016

THE SHIFTING REALITIES OF PHILP K. DICK: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings – Edited by Lawrence Sutin

Years before my first experience with psychotropic drugs I came across an observation by Edna Ferber that her everyday consciousness seemed to her similar to the heightened perceptions reported by people who'd experienced chemical psychedelia. She said she'd not tried them herself.

Meanwhile in a parallel universe Philip K. Dick wrote The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, considered by some to be the classic LSD novel, two years before he took any psychedelic drugs. This, according to Paul Williams in his extensive 1975 Rolling Stone piece on Dick. Dick told Williams he did try writing once on LSD, to disastrous effect: “It came out all in Latin and Sanskrit.” Williams attributes “probably” Dick's internal chemistry for the “stunning, almost hallucinogenic sense of reality” Dick created in his writings.

This “internal chemistry” apparently extended even to the dizzying pace of his creative imagination. He admitted he wrote his first thirty-some novels on amphetamines, but then was told by psychiatrists who tested him for possible drug addiction that the drugs had not been working. He was told his liver detoxified the chemicals so they never reached his brain. He found he'd been fooling himself.

“I believed there was a direct connection between the amphetamines and the writing,” he told Williams. “I attributed my speed of writing, my high productivity and my pushing myself to the amphetamines. I really used to think that if I didn't take 'em, I couldn't write.”

Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly, his first novel without taking amphetamines, and said he followed the same work habit as before: “I would work incredibly long hours, eat very little...if you'd watched me you would have thought I was taking speed, I guess. And then when I got toward the end, I was all dingy and screwed up, and I'd crash. It was just like withdrawal. And it'd been years since I'd taken any amphetamines.”

Whatever psycho-physiological phenomenon was at work while Philip K. Dick wrote, some of it transmits to me while I read his work. His stories are so rapidly, bizarrely imaginative I come away with a buzz that feels like a flashback from my own youthful experiments with psychotropic substances. Sometimes I, too, find myself “all dingy and screwed up,” as I did last night after reading Dick's story Faith of Our Fathers. I “crashed” afterward, as Dick probably did after writing it, and had trouble sleeping, as scene fragments from Dick's fascinating nightmare continually infested my own.

I find reading Philip K. Dick (the formal name just sounds better to me than any shortened form) comparable to nibbling a rich dessert or sipping a fine spirit. A tiny bit is plenty in one sitting. At the same time I've come to be interested more and more in reading the less formal work of writers I admire—letters, journal entries, speeches, fragments of works-in-progress. This is what drew me to The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and PhilosophicalWritings, edited by Lawrence Sutin, who also wrote Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, generally considered the definitive biography.

A recurring theme in Shifting Realities is the near poverty Dick experienced most of his adult life despite being an internationally acclaimed science fiction author. In his introduction to The Golden Man, published in 1980, two years before his death from a stroke, Dick talks about buying horsemeat at Lucky Dog Pet Store in the 1950s in Berkeley. The clerk questions him, accuses him of buying the horsemeat for himself.

'Yes, sir,' I admit. I want to tell him, Look: I stay up all night writing SF stories and I'm real poor but I know things will get better, and I have a wife I love, and a cat named Magnificat, and a little old house I'm buying at the rate of $25-a-month payments, which is all I can afford. But this man is interested in only one aspect of my desperate (but hopeful) life. I know what he's going to tell me. I have always known. The horsemeat they sell at the Lucky Dog Pet Store is only for animal consumption. But Kleo and I are eating it ourselves, and now we are before the judge; the Great Assize has come; I am caught in another Wrong Act.

I half expect the man to say, 'You have a bad attitude.'”
[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


  1. Algis Budrys noted that it was remarkable that Dick was writing so much on speed, since speed-driven prose was prone to logorrhea, as Hunter Thompson might be noted as demonstrating (Budrys not responsible for that last observation). If Dick's reporting of his diagnosis can be believed, That might explain that. Ace Books, Dick's most important market in the '50s and early '60s, was not the most generous nor cash-rich of publishers, so he wasn't pulling down Fawcett Gold Medal-level money for his paperback originals...I'm reminded of Patricia Highsmith's complaints about how little she was making from her books published by Knopf in the same years...even the prolific and ell-regarded, as both were, could have it tough...his early work is less distinctive, and perhaps indicative of fewer demons and/or VALISes messing with him, or how such matters simply worsened over time, but certainly his best early work, such as "Upon the Dull Earth." is as powerful as anything he would ever write, and idicative of the imagination and hallucinatory power of his best work throughout his life.

    1. Theodore Sturgeon, describing his first meeting with Dick: "I felt as though I'd been through a hurricane that night." I suspect in person he might have come across as on the order of Robin Williams on crystal meth. It's a wonder his fingers on a keyboard could could keep up with his mind.