left biblioblography: The Troubled Genius Of Horselover Fat

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Troubled Genius Of Horselover Fat

Cross posted @ God Is 4 Suckers!

It is not often that I write of other writers, better writers than I – and it saddens me when I read of the degree of mental pain and self-torture that these geniuses were subjected to. Nijinsky had schizophrenia, Tolstoy had a small but impressive litany of issues, Van Gogh and Newton suffered from bi-polarization, Dickens suffered from clinical depression. It seems that great creativity springs from great pain, which is indicative of how badly the world is wrought.

As I was sprouting from muddled middle-schooler to troubled teen, I chanced across the writings of Philip K. Dick, and was completely tumbled by his strange visions and his eclectic command of the language. Many of you (as avid bibliophiles) are no doubt aware, Mr. Dick was the author of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, which became a major movie title Blade Runner. He was also the mind that created the concept of Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly. A personal favorite of mine was the Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, and the novel Valis was my first (albeit brief) encounter with the concept of exegesis. 

For the most part, the art is usually a reflection of the artist, but as a rule, the artist is not the art, but the art is a facet of the creator. However, Valis was actually somewhat autobiographical in nature (in which he named himself Horselover Fat, "Horselover" echoes the Greek etymology of the name Philip, while in German, Dick's surname means "fat". )

It is a little known fact that PKD actually had some serious mental health issues:

On February 20, 1974, Dick was recovering from the effects of sodium pentothal administered for the extraction of an impacted wisdom tooth. Answering the door to receive delivery of extra analgesic, he noticed that the delivery woman was wearing a pendant with a symbol that he called the "vesicle pisces". This name seems to have been based on his confusion of two related symbols, the ichthys (two intersecting arcs delineating a fish in profile) that early Christians used as a secret symbol, and the vesica piscis. After the delivery woman's departure, Dick began experiencing strange visions. Although they may have been initially attributable to the medication, after weeks of visions he considered this explanation implausible. "I experienced an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane," Dick told Charles Platt.

In 1974, even admitting the onset of visions was a stigma – most likely that exists to this day. Again, religion provides an umbrella for the disturbed to hide under.

Throughout February and March 1974, he experienced a series of visions, which he referred to as "two-three-seventy four" (2-3-74), shorthand for February-March 1974. He described the initial visions as laser beams and geometric patterns, and, occasionally, brief pictures of Jesus and of ancient Rome. As the visions increased in length and frequency, Dick claimed he began to live a double life, one as himself, "Philip K. Dick", and one as "Thomas", a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century A.D. Despite his history of drug use and elevated stroke risk, Dick began seeking other rationalist and religious explanations for these experiences. He referred to the "transcendentally rational mind" as "Zebra", "God" and, most often, "VALIS". Dick wrote about the experiences in the semi-autobiographical novels VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth.

None of the explanations seem overly rational.

At one point Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. He believed that an episode in his novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said was a detailed retelling of a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which he had never read.

One has but to read the novel to see how delusional that is. Or, just read the synopsis.

In time, Dick became paranoid, imagining plots against him by the KGB and FBI. At one point, he alleged they were responsible for a burglary of his house, from which documents were stolen. He later came to suspect that he might have committed the burglary against himself, and then forgotten he had done so. Dick himself speculated as to whether he may have suffered from schizophrenia.

Strangely, there’s no motive listed for why two high-powered Intel groups would be interested in him.

Many of his works showed several powerful themes running through them:

Dick's stories typically focus on the fragile nature of what is "real" and the construction of personal identity. His stories often become surreal fantasies as the main characters slowly discover that their everyday world is actually an illusion constructed by powerful external entities (such as in Ubik), vast political conspiracies, or simply from the vicissitudes of an unreliable narrator. "All of his work starts with the basic assumption that there cannot be one, single, objective reality," writes science fiction author Charles Platt. "Everything is a matter of perception. The ground is liable to shift under your feet. A protagonist may find himself living out another person's dream, or he may enter a drug-induced state that actually makes better sense than the real world, or he may cross into a different universe completely."

Alternate universes and simulacra were common plot devices, with fictional worlds inhabited by common, working people, rather than galactic elites. "There are no heroes in Dick's books," Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, "but there are heroics. One is reminded of Dickens: what counts is the honesty, constancy, kindness and patience of ordinary people." Dick made no secret that much of his ideas and work were heavily influenced by the writings of Carl Jung, the Swiss founder of the theory of the human psyche he called "Analytical Psychology" (to distinguish it from Freud's theory of psychoanalysis). Jung was a self-taught expert on the unconscious and mythological foundations of conscious experience and was open to the reality underlying mystical experiences. The Jungian constructs and models that most concerned Dick seem to be the archetypes of the collective unconscious, group projection/ hallucination, synchronicities, and personality theory. Many of Dick's protagonists overtly analyze reality and their perceptions in Jungian terms (see Lies Inc.), while other times, the themes are so obviously in reference to Jung their usage needs no explanation. Dick's self-named "Exegesis" also contained many notes on Jung in relation to theology and mysticism.

Mental illness was a constant interest of Dick's, and themes of mental illness permeate his work. The character Jack Bohlen in the 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip is an "ex-schizophrenic". The novel Clans of the Alphane Moon centers on an entire society made up of descendants of lunatic asylum inmates. In 1965 he wrote the essay titled Schizophrenia and the Book of Changes.

Drug use was also a theme in many of Dick’s works, such as A Scanner Darkly and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Dick was a drug user for much of his life. According to a 1975 interview in Rolling Stone,[31] Dick wrote all of his books published before 1970 while on amphetamines. "A Scanner Darkly (1977) was the first complete novel I had written without speed," said Dick in the interview. He also experimented briefly with psychedelics, but wrote The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which Rolling Stone dubs "the classic LSD novel of all time," before he had ever tried them. Despite his heavy amphetamine use, however, Dick later said that doctors had told him that the amphetamines never actually affected him, that his liver had processed them before they reached his brain.

A sad troubled genius was Horselover Fat – he spun wild tales that ran rampant with weird conspiracies, and challenged the concepts of reality. It was unfortunate that these were bizarre echoes of his personality, a pastiche of a fragmented person, struggling, ever struggling, and that the baroque meritocracy of his vision resulted in some of the best science fiction ever put to pen.

I do not have it in me to mock his pain, or his inability to cope. It poses the question, however: if he had been privy to the advanced psychological treatment we have access to today, would he have then still penned the works he had, or been reduced to a drooling patient in a psych ward?

It is food for thought, it is.

Till the next post, then.

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