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The Divine Madness of Philip K Dick
by Kyle Arnold
In February 1974, Philip K Dick - one of the most influential figures in science fiction and the writer whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? inspired the 1982 film Blade Runner - was, not for the first time, feeling delicate. The US Internal Revenue Service was pursuing him for unpaid taxes, he had recently undergone an ego-smashing treatment programme in a Canadian drugs-rehabilitation facility and he and his wife Tessa had added a baby to their burdens. He was also in agony after mangled dental surgery, requiring a home delivery of Percodan.
According to Dick, the painkillers were brought to his door by a beautiful young woman wearing a fish pendant. This symbol of early Christianity dramatically triggered a prolonged visionary episode in Dick's overheated brain, a hallucinatory series of heavens and hells that he would name '2-3-74'. He saw a light-based shape-shifting entity called Zebra and heard the voice of a mystical woman called 'Sadassa Ulna'. He believed he was a first-century Christian martyr called Thomas and that the Roman Empire had stopped time in AD50, making all subsequent history illusory. He received a letter he suspected was a coded message from the KGB (or possibly the FBI) and, terrified of evil, baptised his infant son with a hot-dog bun and a cup of Ovaltine.
Just six pages into this book, Kyle Arnold, a New York-based clinical psychologist, issues a warning: 'Take note: readers unwilling to enter the complex labyrinth of the mind of Philip K Dick might best stop here.' It is not advice that should be taken lightly, even for those beguiled by any of his 44 novels and 121 short stories. Arnold's tendency towards psychological jargon, with convoluted explanations of 'metanoia' and 'intrapsychic crypts', risks repelling the reader, yet it also suits his impenetrable subject. Dick's florid imagination generated strings of ruined worlds, synthetic beings and dark covert forces, a sequence of transmissions from the uncanny valley, the outer limits.
Yet despite bearing all the obsessional marks of the outsider artist, Dick infiltrated the mainstream like one of his sinister doppelgangers. As well as Blade Runner, Hollywood would also plug into his 'precogs' and replicants for Total Recall and Minority Report. In 1975, Rolling Stone declared him to be 'the Most Brilliant Sci-Fi Mind on Any Planet'. As Arnold's clear-eyed study shows, he also competed for the title of most disturbed, a man pitched into madness by a toxic cocktail of gothic childhood trauma and raging amphetamine addiction.
From the moment he was born in Chicago in December 1928, Dick was in trouble. His mother, Dorothy, struggled to feed him and his twin Jane: he was hours from death when he was rushed to hospital at six weeks old and, appropriately for a science-fiction writer, was saved by a newly invented incubator. Jane, malnourished and suffering from burns after a hot-water bottle accident, died before modern medicine could intervene. Dick would always blame his mother, who would later write pamphlets on childcare. If that didn't shadow his childhood enough, his parents had his name engraved on Jane's gravestone, ready and waiting.
This early trauma is rich territory for Arnold and he links it crisply to Dick's writing, exploring the recurring eerie doubles that stalk his worlds, or the terror of 'inhumane authorities' who exterminate the small and vulnerable. Yet while Arnold shows how this childhood horror affected Dick's mind and relationships (he married five times), he doesn't downplay the effects of drug addiction on the author's mental health.
Already fragile (disordered eating was another legacy of his sister's starvation), Dick was prescribed amphetamines as a child to treat asthma. By adulthood, he was taking an estimated 1,000 tablets a week, dosing himself by the handful, his fridge stuffed with pills and protein shakes. This, argues Arnold, rather than possible schizophrenia, was the trigger for his paranoia and delusions. In 1971, when the house Dick shared with a shifting cast of speed-freak teenage delinquents was burgled, his first response was 'relief...because it proved I wasn't nuts' and that someone really might have been out to get him.
The question of who that might be - neo-Nazis, the government, Black Panthers - entertained him for years. Similarly, 2-3-74 preoccupied Dick entirely for his final eight years, spawning four novels (VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer) as well as the 8,000-page journal Exegesis, an endless spiral of interpretations that showed his difficulty in separating life and fiction.
Arnold wonders if, in his final years, with his slowly increasing financial success barely sweetening his intractable relationship problems and profound anxiety, Dick had vague, envious thoughts of emulating L Ron Hubbard, another science-fiction writer with grand religious ideas. Exegesis only ended on March 2, 1982, shortly before Blade Runner's release, when Dick's life-support machine was turned off after he suffered a rapid series of strokes.
To Arnold's credit, The Divine Madness of Philip K Dick doesn't entirely read like a lock-in with a psychedelic pub bore. Inadvertently, however, he does undermine the enduring and seductive myth of the 'crazy' artist.
Read Dick's 1965 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, for example. A fantasia of interplanetary colonists, psychotropic drugs and a godlike being with metal teeth, it is unmistakeably the product of a mind at right angles to reality. Yet the further Dick descends into the artless insanity of 2-3-74, the less interesting he becomes.
The gnostic tripping and textbook paranoia might be essential from Arnold's professional point of view, but for other readers Dick's story is most compelling when his madness is closest to its human form.
Dick could be monstrous to live with. Though outwardly loving to his third wife, Anne Rubinstein, and their children, he would also fly into violent rages, grew paranoid and claimed to his psychiatrist, without any evidence, that Rubinstein had tried to run him over with a car and had threatened to kill him with a knife. Though Rubinstein exhibited no psychotic symptoms, Dick's scheming got her locked up for several weeks. She eventually filed for divorce.
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