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Valis by Philip K. Dick

by John Bloner, Jr.

"Valis is a masterpiece whose power partly lies in its ability to disorient and enchant the reader" - Erik Davis
Fiction. This word is printed on the back cover of the paperback edition of Philip K. Dick's book, Valis, which is shelved in science-fiction sections (and has been on my shelf long enough that the pages have yellowed), yet Valis does not squarely meet the definitions of fiction or science-fiction, even if the people and events described within its pages seem to be conceived by the unrestrained fancy of a novelist's mind.

Dick was a prolific writer, churning out 45 novels and over one hundred short stories in his career, and Hollywood has turned several of them into feature films, most notably Blade Runner and Minority Report; however, none of these facts can prepare you for Valis.

The book's protagonist is Dick himself, as well as his alter-ego, Horselover Fat, who, the reader learns, has been struck in the eyes by a beam of pink light from an unknown source. This incident provides him with momentary clairvoyance. "As soon as the beam struck him," Dick writes, "he knew things he had never known. He knew, specifically, that his five-year old son had an undiagnosed birth defect and he knew what that birth defect consisted of, down to the anatomical details."

Dick derived this story from a phenomenon he purportedly experienced in early 1974 when a girl from a pharmacy in Fullerton, California, arrived at his home to deliver pain medication for his recent tooth extraction. The girl was wearing a pendant, shaped like a fish. When he asked her about it, she replied, "This is a sign worn by the early Christians."

Upon hearing these words, he slipped into a state of anamnesis--a remembrance of a distant past--tearing away the veil of the world to show that he and the delivery girl were living in the Apostolic Age--the time between the resurrection of Jesus and the death of the last of his apostles.They belonged to the secret cult of Christianity, hiding from Roman soldiers and using the fish symbol as a cipher to recognize fellow believers.

This experience was the first of many visions, including the witnessing of the pink light, which Dick encountered. He would spend the rest of his life trying to understand them.

For eight years that followed, Dick filled over 8,000 pages with his handwriting in an attempt to decipher what had happened to him. He called this collection, his Exegesis. A dictionary describes Exegesis as "a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture." Dick's use of it expresses another dimension. "What the Exegesis is, above all, is the record of an exploration," says Jonathan Lethem, who, along with Pamela Jackson, edited the thousands of pages into a somewhat-digestible 900+ page book. Lethem adds, "It obeys no rules, except it's this heroic, impossible foray into understanding the unknowable."

Through Valis and Exegesis, Dick seeks to lift the veil on existence, describing the world as a phantom for nearly two centuries. "Real time ceased in 70 C.E. with the fall of the temple at Jerusalem," Dick wrote. "It began again in 1974 C.E. The intervening period was a perfect spurious interpolation aping the creation of the Mind."  Time is not linear; one period in our so-called history is overlaid on another. Dick was not experiencing a past-life in his vision. He was simultaneously a 20th century man named Philip and a 1st century Christian called Thomas.

The name, Thomas, means "twin," and it reveals a subtext for Valis. Just as Dick found that his modern day life was intertwined with Thomas' existence, multiple characters in his book are more than reflections of each other. They are each other. 

Dick is Thomas, but he is also a character called Horselover Fat. This odd name is derived from a Greek translation of "Philip," paired with the German translation of "Dick." It lends the author an opportunity to distance himself from the events he experienced in 1974 and therefore look at them with an objective eye. Had he gone mad? Was the whole affair a chemical reaction in his brain? Or was he an insane man who had suddenly gone sane?

In the novel, as in Exegesis, Dick speculates that the source of the pink light was a Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS), which could be alien, divine or mankind's future self communicating into his present day California home. At other times, he refers to it as Zebra; that is, something hidden in plain sight.

Image by Lord-Iluvator
In the early Christian text of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus responds to a question, "On what day will the kingdom come?", with these words: "The kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and men do not see it." In Dick's writing and in his beliefs, VALIS/Zebra is the godhead, which has revealed itself to him. The divinity that he experiences is not an old man with a white beard. It is insect-like, not only in its ability to camouflage itself, but in its ability to metamorphose from one stage of being to another, like a caterpillar to a butterfly.

In the summer of 1977, Dick wrote that his insight "explains what Christianity cannot: pain and suffering; this is all part of its grand metamorphosis process." While reading Dick's work, I recalled a poem, "The Yellow Dot," by Robert Bly, which also reflects on a dispassionate divinity. 

"That grave is not what we want," Bly wrote, "But to God it's a tiny hole, and he has/The needle, draws thread through it, and soon/A nice pattern appears."

VALIS/Zebra reveals itself to Philip K. Dick through the pink light and subsequent visions. In these encounters, he experiences life as man may encountered it until about 3,000 years ago, with a bicameral mind. According to the late psychologist Julian Jaynes, mankind lacked self-awareness until the late Bronze Age and was instead obeying the voices of gods. The turn toward consciousness was not a single moment. It came into being over many centuries and our minds have not ceased in their evolution.

Psychologist Julian Jaynes, author of "The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind."
At the heart of Valis is a quest. Philip K. Dick, Horselover Fat and friends embark on a quest like knights of King Arthur's court. The Grail they seek is not a chalice, though, but the fifth Savior who is the latest in a line that began with the Buddha and has continued through the prophets Zoroaster, Jesus and Muhammad. Along the way, they encounter a rock star based on David Bowie, who might really be the Man Who Fell To Earth, a composer modeled after Brian Eno, and a literally divine, two year old girl, Sophia, who brings healing, at least temporarily, to Dick and Horselover Fat's fractured existence.

David Bowie and Brian Eno in the 1970s
I read Valis for the first time about twenty years ago and only recently went back to it prior to writing this article, while I encountered Dick's Exegesis for the first time. The pages of my copy of Valis are yellowed and filled with markings from my highlight pen and notes, while the Exegesis' pages are often divided with whatever materials I could find as a bookmark while I was reading the text: Post-It notes, toilet paper, a red envelope from a birthday card.

Dick challenges the reader to look at the world with fresh eyes. You don't need to believe that everything he says is true. It's enough that it was true for him. His writing makes me, at least, lean a little closer to my environment, scratch around its edges, and delight when science cannot explain everything. In 2002, Pope John Paul II introduced five mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, to the rosary, which had been unchanged for hundreds of years. These mysteries tell of events in the life of Jesus that cannot be readily explained, such as the transformation of water into wine, and do not address them as fact or dismiss them as fiction.

We live in the radiance of a slowly dying star, on the Orion arm of our galaxy, at the edge of starlight in a universe that may have had no beginning, and yet we pretend to know how a mind may work and diagnose what is madness.

Dick's been called a "garage philosopher," whose "speculations leaked into everyday life," (see Erik Davis' article, The Metaphysics of Philip K Dick) but I'd rather spend my days in his shop, drinking his coffee and listening to his encounters with the mysteries than with many scholars and politicians who frighten me with their certainty.