Philip K. Dick’s novel VALIS is, 40 years after its publication, a bit like watching one’s self live on video: what seems bizarre is actually what’s there all the time, revealed by the unfamiliar reflection of the familiar reflection which we see in mirrors.

VALIS is a bizarre work, made more bizarre by the way it challenges the concept of fiction. Many of the thoughts and experiences in VALIS are allegedly those of the author. This is recorded in most standard accounts about Dick’s life, as well as within the novel itself, although the novel also includes the character “Horselover Fat” as, at various points, 1) a mask worn by the author, 2) a self-delusion which the author sees through, and 3) an independent entity who interacts with the author. VALIS does not seem to me like it’s simply a pantomime exercise in freaky shit, for what that’s worth. The gnostic musings as well as the reported experiences seem, in combination with external writing about the book and the author, to be coming from sincerity—although the author makes considerable allowance for some of the experiences to be hallucinations or other cognitive-only experiences, sincerely reported.

Taken all together, VALIS seems like a tour of delusions, myths, and conspiracy bunk, provided by a guide partially aware that some of it is incredible and may not be strictly real, but not at all certain what alternative is real.

In 2021, in America, this also seems like a prime example of the literary characteristic of applicability for which J.R.R. Tolkein expressed appreciation.

Most of what constitutes culture and civilization and such as passes for a national conversation is, always, made-up shit. It presumably has to be, unless one posits some explanation for complex society other than product of human imaginations. This massive interactive fiction is reasonable and useful to take seriously and more or less literally, when it is widely shared and has a lot of consistency among its own components and with the reality of those phenomena independent of human beliefs. Such is definitely not the case for America in 2021, however.

History always places some check upon my bewailing the present too much; America has had periods of stability but these involved oppressive hierarchies and institutionalized exploitation, and the past hundred years have certainly been a catalog of brainworms and disruption in a variety of forms. Be that as it may, the very systems for society to review input, reach conclusions, and organize corrective responses to problems now seem absolutely dysfunctional to the point of fraud, plus nature is now erupting in multiple parallel revolts and large segments of society are in total denial. Theater is one thing, but it’s another thing when competing groups are trying to perform different scripts on the same stage at once, with considerable ad-libbing, and a large minority which disputes, well, almost everything, plus the stage is on fire.

What is rational amid this? What is even reality? Are these even meaningful concepts? Dick’s description of literally seeing, at times, two competing realities superimposed is evocative of struggling with a world where most people are convinced of and perform real actions based on concepts which are not credible—a struggle which there may be no way to win as such.

In the fable version, one child speaking the truth about the emperor’s fictional new clothes is enough to break the spell and bring everyone back to reality; in what passes for our reality, such outbursts are generally hushed or ignored and people carry right on acting out the myth of the new clothes, or of “bipartisanship,” or of “let’s flood the office with calls,” etc.

VALIS is the story of various demi-prophets, none of whom presents a convincing and complete revelation, and any or all of whom might just be delusional or frauds… who are nonetheless reasonable in proposing that what everyone else takes for reality is bunk, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

VALIS is also perhaps a warning about the dangerous allure of gnosticism—i.e. conspiracy theories and fortune-cookie mumbo jumbo—in such situations. Useful as far as it goes, probably, but not an answer to the larger questions.

Potentially of course there just are no satisfactory answers, per se. I can’t help being reminded, when I dwell on this problem, of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, a novel which faintly touches some of the themes and concepts of VALIS. While Harry August is mostly a more practical story, in which some kind of consistent reality mostly underlies even time-shifting and multiple-lives science fiction, the acknowledged limits are especially memorable.

The titular character reflects at one point that there’s an art to navigating Blitz-era London, for persons who have lived the era multiple times over, this being essentially just “remember what gets bombed and avoid it entirely.” Absent August’s total recall, this feels not entirely unlike trying to navigate the dysfunction and upheavals of now, with the imperfect guidance of history in general taking the place of imperfectly recalled lived experience in the events themselves.

But there’s a bigger exception, and perhaps better metaphor, of which I was reminded when re-reading parts of the book this month. Visiting Maoist China at one point, August notes that its upheavals are so sudden and chaotic as to defy “navigating” them with certainty, even for multiple-lives denizens of a universe where historic events generally take the same course life after life.

The best thing to do, in August’s experience, is don’t be there for those events. The second-best is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Returning to VALIS, when irrationality is so extensive that it seems not to matter, reliably, what you do… can one really speak meaningfully of choosing between sense and nonsense?

P.S. Then this comes along an hour after I post the above; good grief.

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