I sure am liking reading Philip K. Dick a whole lot. I just finished The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, up next are Radio Free Albemuth and The Man in the High Castle. After that I might take a sci-fi break, or who knows, I might finally get around to that copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars that has been blessing my bedside table for the past month (or maybe I’ll just reread Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan).
I read this passage last night from Transmigration that I sure liked a whole bunch, sitting on the couch next to my dad while he watched Blade Runner (talk about appropriate! I just watched it a month ago, right before beginning my Dick binge, or else I’d have watched it with him). The passage in question is from pages 729-732 in my hardcover Library of America edition, and I’m going to share parts of it in excerpts here. Basically, the narrator is talking about an experience she had, staying up all night in incredible pain from an infected tooth, drinking and reading Dante. The narrator was definitely my favorite thing about this book: she’s female (which I suspect is rare for Dick), and I totally dug her over-educated yet down-to-earth Berkeley hippie stoner chill throughout the novel’s shenanigans.
I especially like this quote in light of this blog’s so-called theme that I am never super bueno about articulating, that of the connection between experience and reading. I think it has some sentences that are really beautiful and moving. Here goes:
All these books that Tim forever reaches for, especially in moments of crisis. Everything worth knowing can be found in a book; conversely, if Jeff [Tim Archer’s son and the narrator’s husband] is important he is important not as a person but as a book; it it books for books’ sakes then, not knowledge, even, for the sake of knowledge. The book is the reality. For Tim to love and appreciate his son, he must–as impossible as it may seem–he must regard him as a kind of book. The universe to Tim Archer is one great set of reference books from which he picks and chooses as his restless mind veers on, always seeking the new, always turning away from the old…
I am no different, then, from Timothy Archer. To me, too, books are real and alive; the voices of human beings issue forth from them and compel my assent, the way God compels our assent to world, as Tim said. When you have been in that much distress, you are not going to forget what you did and saw and thought and read that night; I did nothing, saw nothing, thought nothing; I read and I remember; I did not read Howard the Duck or The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Snatch Comix that night; I read Dante’s Commedia, from Inferno through Purgatorio, until at last I arrived in the three colored rings of light… and the time was nine A.M. and I could get into my fucking car and shoot out into traffic and Dr. Davidson’s office, crying and cursing the whole way, with no breakfast, not even coffee and stinking of sweat and bourbon, a sorry mess indeed, much gaped at by the dentist’s receptionist.
So for me in a certain unusual way—for certain unusual reasons–books and reality are fused; they join through one incident, one night of my life: my intellectual life and my practical life came together–and having done so they never completely came apart again. If I believed in God, I would say that he showed me something that night; he showed me the totality: pain, physical pain, drop by drop, and then, this being his dreadful grace, there came understanding… and what did I understand? That is is all real; the abscessed tooth and the root-canal irrigation, and, no less and no more.
I read the Commedia through to the end that night and then shot up the street for Dr. Davidson’s office, and was never the same again. I never changed back into what I had previously been. So books are real to me, too; they link me not just with other minds but with the vision of other minds, what those minds understand and see. I see their worlds as well as I see my own. The pain and the crying and the sweating and the stinking and cheap Jim Beam Bourbon was my Inferno and it wasn’t imaginary; what I read bore the label “Paradiso” and Paradiso it was.
God save me from another night like that. But goddamn it, had I not lived out that night, drinking and crying and reading and hurting, I would have never been born, truly born. That was the time of my birth into the real world, and the real world, for me, is a mixture of pain and beauty, and this is the correct view of it because these are the components that make up reality. And I had them all there that night, including a packet of pain-pills to carry home with me from the dentist’s, after my ordeal had ended. I arrived home, took a pill, drank some coffee and went to bed.
What are the memories of very concrete experiences that I’ve had, reading very specific books? I’m going to have to chew on that for a while. For now the first thing that comes to mind is my AP English teacher reading aloud Addie Bundren’s chapter from As I Lay Dying and thinking “holy damn, can that Faulkner write.”
For reference this is the final canto of Paradiso that Dick quotes in the novel:
“I beheld leaves within the unfathomed blaze
Into one volume bound by love, the same
That the universe holds scattered throughout its maze.
Substance and accidents, and their modes, became
As if fused together, all in such wise
That what I speak of is one simple flame.”
After quoting this passage, Dick (or the narrator, I should say) then goes on to quote a commentary on this passage (i.e. an interpretation of what Dante means), made by a C.H. Grandgent:
God is the Book of the Universe.
How very Borges!
Dick has another quote in this passage that I also liked, by a Greek tragedy writer (possibly Aeschylus; the narrator never specifies):
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
Other things I am learning about, via the lens of Dick:
– the Essenes
– the Dead Sea Scrolls
– the definition of Gnosticism (my father claims that Dick discusses this in a similar manner to Lawrence Durrel in The Alexandria Quartet, though I have absolutely no memory of this. Maybe my high school brain just couldn’t absorb it at the time).
– the nature of madness
– the Torah and its emphasis on words
– the importance of specific Hebrew vocabulary in the Bible, especially the use of the word “I” in reference to God as it makes Yahweh (aka old school Old Testament God) of “I am that I am” fame a distint conscious “I” as opposed to a word meaning something like “the forces of nature” or “the will of the universe”.
– the importance of bathing in ancient Jewish sects
– scrolls being found in jars deep in caves by sheepherders. “How can they be preserved for that long?” I asked my dad. “The desert,” he replied. Makes me want to watch Lawrence of Arabia again.
– the theory that Jesus and his disciplines ate some kind of mushroom to be found in the caves of Israel
– the theory that Jesus WAS a mushroom. Apparently this is something that is actually REAL and does not just spring from the Dickian universe.
– what would it mean if the universe was created by a totally fucked and crazy force/thing, a la His Dark Materials trilogy?