What best I can do? Exactly what I’ve done. My voice for the voiceless.
—Philip K. Dick, “Exegesis”
In 2015 I set out to perform a task that in some earlier era I literally could not fathom—reading Philip K. Dick’s almost 900-page Exegesis. While the edition I read was published in 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it was edited down from a far longer unpublished version spanning about eight thousand pages.
It took a year and three months to do read the book. I didn’t read it all at once, but scattered it in chunks. It was, for the most part, a very dense read, and I took notes with my handy mechanical pencil throughout the entire thing. I don’t even feel ready right now to give a sort of overview or “book report” on the volume, as it was so vast that another “quick read” going through the notes themselves would be necessary to even scratch the surface. (I’ve just started wading my toe into that second read and I spent like an hour on just a few pages, so many correspondences and notations came up.)
But here is the short version on what the Exegesis is: a collection of mostly journal entries and some letters Dick compiled between 1974 until his death in 1982. The inciting incident for this massive work was what he called his “2-3-74 experiences,” in which he claimed to have several mystical phenomena happen to him. The crux of these experiences involved an intelligence he variously referred to as Zebra, God, possible mind-zapping rays by the Russians, his left brain talking to his right brain, or, most famously, a Vast Active Living Intelligence System—VALIS.
Dick used thousands of pages to try to get to the bottom of what these religious-type experiences exactly were—and why he was chosen for them. He entertained many theories, including that he simply might have been going insane.
And what do I think about the Exegesis? I absolutely believe that the Exegesis was the modern equivalent of various mystical texts and treatises from throughout history; I’m especially thinking here of the lone monk or nun quivering from ecstatic experiences in their little room, filling page after page with insights and analysis.
We seem to have very little room for such genuine mystics in today’s society, unless they consciously adopt a socially-acceptable, easily brandable schtick that might work really well at a TED talk. (This is not to put down the modern-day mystics who structure their teachings in this manner; I realize that it is a fact of life of the current age.)
And I think of Phil’s realization towards the end of the Exegesis that if it wasn’t for his then-recent successes in mainstream popular culture (including the movie Blade Runner, which he called “Satan”), nobody would ever care to hear about any of his theology or mystical experiences. Because there’s not a lot of room for genuine shamans and mystics in this society. The pop-culture itself becomes the shamanistic gateway, the mystical portal.
If there is one quibble I have with the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition, it was with the final editor’s note at the bottom of the last page. It basically sort of dismissed everything PKD wrote in the Exegesis, stating that it was mostly interesting as a window into the mind of a disturbed literary genius. The note proceeded to provide this condensed CliffsNotes version of all the various fuck-ups in PKD’s personal life—divorces, drug abuse, mental illness—and reiterate Dick’s own point that if he wasn’t such a famous writer, the public wouldn’t really care to read the Exegesis.
And you know, I read that note, carefully tore it off the bottom of the page, and threw it away. Because I thought it was incredibly disingenuous to take a man’s personal writings, publish them after his death to great hoopla and publicity, and then basically write them off in the end as a TMZ-like morbid curiosity. (Also: I just invested my life into reading almost 900 pages of this thing, so I felt like a schmuck.)
Regardless of whether one feels what Dick wrote in the Exegesis was “true” or “important” or just a fever dream or whatever—it is very clear that the writings were of supreme importance to him. And I think that requires a degree of respectfulness…or not. But if “not,” then why publish his journals in the first place?
Or, if the publication of the Exegesis was meant to simply gain more insight into his specific novels, why not just publish the entries relating to that stuff? If you’re so “embarrassed” by the “ravings” of this author you so admire…you know what I mean?
I feel this volume could have benefitted from having more editors/annotators involved who were genuinely interested in the mystical aspects of the writings. There were a few who had really good insights, but then there were these other highly patronizing notes that knocked the flow of the reading dead. And I really had to wonder what Dick himself would have thought of all this.
At any rate, reading the Exegesis was a worthwhile and satisfying endeavor for me, and I’m glad I took it on. Wondering what a second go at it might bring!