Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Transcendent Adventures of Philip K Dick

I've posted Robert Crumb's piece on Philip K Dick as a corrective to what I perceive as a deficit in the extant literature: Many assessments of his work ironically turn out to be the theoretical equivalents of the "kibble" Philip K Dick critiqued. I say this because all too often they seem to simply cherry pick by neglecting to mention the centrality of the religious impulses that drove him. I think it's fine, of course, to give a postmodern reading of PKD, but such an approach would be even more perspicacious if contextualized in relation to postmodern theology; rather than just lazily rehashing Baudrillard's thesis on simulation etc. And afterall, the author in question is on the record as saying:

"In Plato's Timaeus, God does not create the universe, as does the Christian God; He simply finds it one day. It is in a state of total chaos. God sets to work to transform the chaos into order. That idea appeals to me, and I have adapted it to fit my own intellectual needs: What if our universe started out as not quite real, a sort of illusion, as the Hindu religion teaches, and God, out of love and kindness for us, is slowly transmuting it, slowly and secretly, into something real?

We would not be aware of this tranformation, since we were not aware that our world was an illusion in the first place. This technically is a Gnostic idea. Gnosticism is a religion which embraced Jews, Christians, and pagans for several centuries. I have been accused of holding Gnostic ideas. I guess I do. At one time I would have been burned. But some of their ideas intrigue me. One time, when I was researching Gnosticism in the Britannica, I came across mention of a Gnostic codex called The Unreal God and the Aspects of His Nonexistent Universe, an idea which reduced me to helpless laughter. What kind of person would write about something that he knows doesn't exist, and how can something that doesn't exist have aspects? But then I realized that I'd been writing about these matters for over twenty-five years. I guess there is a lot of latitude in what you can say when writing about a topic that does not exist. A friend of mine once published a book called Snakes of Hawaii. A number of libraries wrote him ordering copies. Well, there are no snakes in Hawaii. All the pages of his book were blank".

We should, however, proceed carefully, so as to avoid the mistake of affirmative postmodern readings that tend to blur the crucial distinction between religion and religiosity. As explained in The Transcendent Adventure: Studies of Religion in Science Fiction/Fantasy (and the piece on Doris Lessing's turn to Sufism is worthy of inclusion in the A Mosque Among the Stars anthology I referenced in an earlier post), this distinction hinges upon the following:

"When religion turns into religiosity, insights into the fundamental nature of the cosmos become naive oversimplifications of reality, gods become idols, and teachings become dogmas. In a similar way, human life and its meaning are devalued, and in their place various individuals and objects, rituals and traditions are invested with ultimate value. Likewise, morality is reduced to formality, a legalistic network of obligations and taboos in which the trivial becomes ethical and the ethical becomes trivial.

Historically, religiosity of this sort was rejected by Buddha and Jesus, even though it is still too often found in Buddhism and Christianity, and in other religions as well. It is also rejected by science fiction writers who satirize religion or some aspect of it. This is to say, what these science fiction writers dismiss as unworthy of imitation or belief is not usually religion but its parody--religiosity. Occasionally they even reject religiosity in the name of genuinely religious fundamentalizing, ultimatizing, and moralizing."

Indeed, many scientists have rejected religiosity, and thereby found their faith compatible with scientific enquiry, which have together provided a driving impetus to many exciting fields of science that science fiction has in turn drawn upon--not least space travel and artificial intelligence. If you're sceptical about this claim, I invite you to read David Noble's The Religion of Technology in tandem with Steve Fuller's Humanity 2.0. Unfortunately though, some sci-fi authors, such as William Gibson, appear to be ignorant of this long-standing connection, as shown by their dismissive comments about the religious themes in Dick's work. This is basically an example of the aforementioned cardinal sin of conflating religion and religiosity. Where he and others go wrong then is in failing to realize that science and science fiction have in a sense already lain down together "in the fields of the Lord".

1 comment:

HellCombatant said...

Yeah! And now seems to be the time to unmake it and become unreal again! Some mistakes have a really high price!