Thursday, June 14, 2012

notes on my SF PKD Fest talk (coming in September)

One of the key problems of the Exegesis is Dick's conflict over whether or not he was a Christian. I'd like to discuss the influence of Neoplatonism on this conflict, which has not received enough scholarly attention. Gabriel McKee has notably argued for Dick's being a Christian in the end, and there is certainly a consistent strain of serious Christian thinking in Dick's writing, but doesn't cover the esoteric versions of Christianity that complicated Dick's voyage. McKee gives short shrift to Dick's Gnosticism--which by the way recently seen some interest from philosopher and Hans Jonas professor Simon Critchley--and doesn't cover Dick's interest in many of the  more mystical and esoteric Christian thinkers that influenced Dick. Elsewhere I have discussed the crucial influence of Christian Hermeticists (per PKD) Paracelsus, Boehme, and Bruno, who all play a role in determining the weird ways that Dick thought about Christianity--at least in their legendary form if not in the specific details of their programs. Dick associated Neoplatonism with Hermeticism in a few interesting passages of the Exegesis that we will look at. At times he was worried that he had destroyed Christianity with his Neoplatonic thinking, that he had found an ancient true religion that predated Christianity. At other times he found himself back to orthodoxy, often by the very same Neoplatonic philosophical lines that led him astray.

Dick understood Neoplatonism as providing a legitimate philosophical ground for interpreting his own weird spiritual experiences. Looking at the ways Dick used Neoplatonism to interpret the Christian Hermetic authors can also give us an important window into his religious thinking.

Before I get into the nitty gritty details of Dick's Neoplatonism, Id like to say a few words about the problems facing the interpreter of his esoteric explorations, and thus the scholarly neglect. What is especially lacking is interpreters of Dick's work who have much expertise in the various esoteric religious and philosophical currents that he was involved with. But we don't necessarily need academic experts, as Dick himself was no expert, and often misunderstood the esoteric territories that he traveled through. We don't need an expert on esotericism in itself, but rather an expert in the ways that Dick made creative use of these esoteric materials. This specialist will still require a relatively comprehensive knowledge of the areas that Dick explored, but it will be better to look into Dick's actual sources -- largely the Britannica and the Bible itself, but especially into the many comments that Dick himself made about what he was reading (and
reading into!).

Then I will dive into Dick's treatment of the relationship between Neoplatonism and Christianity. I will attempt to fill in the context necessary for understanding why he was so troubled by the results of his research into esoteric philosophy, and give a prelimary sketch for a theory of Dick's Neoplatonism. Plotinus had a great deal to offer Dick not only in understanding the strange nature of his religious experiences, but also the difficulties of the theology and esoteric knowledge system that he built in order to understand those experiences. But it was in the Christian Neoplatonism of the Hermetic thinkers such as Bruno, Boehme, and Paracelsus, that Dick found a version of Christianity that has barely been mentioned by Dick scholars, and which occupied a great deal of Dick's time. This can best be seen in Dick's novel VALIS, in which the "entity made of information" is said to be a secret known to hermetic alchemists, and especially in the Exegesis.

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