Friday, August 21, 2009

Philip K. Dick a Gnostic?

A few days ago I came across a magazine article about the work of Philip K. Dick. The article was in a Catholic Magazine—a rather good magazine—called Commonweal (May 4, 2007). The title of the article “The Real Gnostic Gospel: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick” by John Garvey. It compared Dick’s work—particularly his later work—with the Gnostic gospels. A subject I am less than literate with, but interesting and thought provoking nonetheless since I have always viewed Dick’s paranoia—the ideal that there is much more than meets the eye—as less a support for organized religion and more an indictment of everything organized, including religion.

While it isn’t my intent to discover any new truth or argue with the author of the article I do want to examine the idea—rather shallowly I assure you—for no other reason than to figure out how Dick’s body of work can be used as an apologist piece for organized religion—and more importantly see if there is anyone around who knows enough about the early Christian texts, mythologies and dogmas to intelligently compare and contrast the two.

Firstly, a simple definition of the term gnostic: to know. It is derived from the Greek and has the direct opposite meaning of agnostic, or without knowledge. The Gnostic gospels are defined by the The Gnostic Society Library as:

Among early followers of Christ it appears there were groups who delineated themselves from the greater household of the Church by claiming not simply a belief in Christ and his message, but a "special witness" or revelatory experience of the divine. It was this experience or gnosis that set the true follower of Christ apart, so they asserted.

A key idea in Garvey’s article is when he compares Dick’s work with both the Gnostic texts and the more modern view that religion uncovers the hidden truths about both human nature and God—or god, depending on ones personal pantheon.

They key paragraph:

The animating idea behind Dick’s fiction—hardly original in itself—is that things are not as they seem. This is, of course, a major part of any religious insight—and as an Episcopalian, Dick understood this. Walker Percy’s essay, “The Message in the Bottle,” for example, describes an island (this could be the beginning of a sci-fi plot) where everything is pleasant. Life seems good for all its inhabitants; then someone walking along a beach finds a bottle with the message, “Don’t despair, help is on the way.” This is what the Christian gospel says to a complacent, obtuse world, and it is not unlike one of Dick’s plots.

Garvey goes on to compare this Christian enlightenment of humanity to Dick’s work—“the world is depicted as not merely asleep, but deliberately deceived. Any remedy or salvation will therefore have to include a battle against powers that not only seem insane, but are evil.”

My view of Dick’s work is that everything organized should be approached with suspicion because there is something deeper and much more nefarious than it first appears. The truth is hidden and the seeker of that truth—the protagonist—must risk both his easy vision of reality along with his personal safety. I tend to disagree with the author’s view that Dick is a weaver of Christian tales and an apologist for organized religion. Rather, his work is one that should be measured as something dangerous—to standard and unenlightened thought—and counter to the status quo of government, industry and religion.

I should note that I absolutely agree with the idea of Philip K. Dick as a gnostic writer; at least as far as the genuine definition of the word is concerned because his work (most if not all) dealt with a protagonist moving from a state of no knowledge to that of knowledge. Moving from agnostic to gnostic, if you will.

What do you think?


Gonzalo B said...

It certainly is a compelling argument. One book that potentially sheds more light on Dick's views on religion is his mainstream novel Voices from the Street.

tuffy777 said...

Phil definitely was a gnostic. He said so, himself. But he was not an apologist for organized religion. At one time, he was a devout Episcopalian, but his friendship with Bishop Pike led him into a similar heresy.
~~ Tessa Dick