Confused, Confusing, but Intriguing
Recensito negli Stati Uniti 🇺🇸 il 16 settembre 2021
Many readers complain that VALIS is too dense, an intractable book, but honestly, I tend to cordially disagree with them. Yes, this book does not sound like sci-fi and, true, barely can be called a novel because of its truncated narrative and its long sections that resembles much more an essay on philosophy or history of religions (footnotes and quotes allowed) than a story. VALIS is indeed the register of PKD's own flow of ideas, questions and conclusions about the existence of God or more generically our relationship with the divine, almost as a stream of consciousness without any critique or organization, a journal seemingly at the erratic pace as those ideas came to him.
So VALIS is a confusing and confused book. But inmho, that is exactly its virtue, what makes it so unique. Granted, I don’t get easily intimidated by difficult texts and when I started reading VALIS I immediately had the impression that it would be like one of Thomas Pynchon’s books, maybe The Crying of Lot 49, not only because of the extensive use of references, from pop songs by Linda Ronstadt to obscurely medieval works by the kinds of Meister Eckhart but also, surprisingly, because of its humor (the kind of irony and dense, intellectual mockery that is so typical of Pynchon’s). But as I moved on into the book, things started to become clearer and even quite transparent. Sigh, no one is more opaque and unreadable than Pynchon…
The exegesis (Tractate: Cryptica Scriptura) that character Horselover Fat writes in VALIS is part of PKD’s own exegesis, his interpretation on the Bible and many sacred texts from other religions. From 1974, when this revelation occurred (to which PKD referred to as ‘2-3-74’), and his death in 1982, PKD wrote more than 8000 pages of personal notes in his journal, which was finally published in 2011 as the 900-page The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. PKD was obsessed with connecting all kinds of religious visions into a comprehensive theory that uses, without much rigor, science theories of time-space and microbiology, philosophical and psychological terms, and the history of religions (for example, comparing the double-helix model of the DNA proposed by Crick and Watson, the fish sign that represents Jesus Christ, and the intertwined snakes of the Caduceus, the staff of Hermes—but here apparently PKD took it wrong.)
So similarities, analogies, common sources (Akhnaton’s Hymn and Psalm 104), connections between Catholicism and Buddhism, references to the Greek and Latin origins abound in VALIS, quoting Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Edward Hussey, C.S. Lewis, to name a few. Schopenhauer, who also sought relationships between Buddhism and Western Thought, is quoted once or twice, as well as Wagner’s opera Parsifal. It all reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, especially when PKD went like this: “Sometimes Brahman sleeps, and sometimes Brahman dances.”
VALIS is an acronym for “Vast Active Intelligence System”, and is also the name of the intriguing movie made by rock star Mother Goose (Eric Lampton) that the Rhipidon Society watches several times in the book. The ideas that come from the investigation of the movie are Erich von Daniken's The Gods Were Astronauts raised to the n-th power. Still, VALIS is filled with humor and a sense of ridicule, as if PKD managed to sustain his own skepticism all along. "Reality is that which when you stop believing in it, it doesn't go away,” he says at a certain point of the book. He seems to know that all he writes may be just the result of his own traumatic experiences, lunacy, schizophrenia, or because his brain was wrecked by heavy drugs. And while being critical, PKD also sustain a solemn reverence to the sanctity of the mystical symbols he investigates, as when Phil secretly performs the Catholic sacraments in his son Christopher (with a mug of hot chocolate and a hot dog bun though).
It is this continuing ambivalence between rational and irrational, logical and illogical, sane and insane, and all the genuine effort to keep seeking and discovering, that to me makes it, at its core, still a sci-fi book in spirit and a very interesting book. I certainly plan to read the other two books of the Valis trilogy, Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (while not formally the third episode of the trilogy, PKD himself said that this very last novel could be seen as part of a trilogy constellating around a basic theme.)