“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 While the edition I read was published in 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it was edited down from a far longer unpublished version spanning about eight thousand pages.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 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 feel ready right now to give a sort of comprehensive 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.
“It possesses immortality (through rebirth). It knows everything (through being gestalted from an almost infinite number of bits throughout space and time). Knowing it can’t err, knowing it can’t die, having a direct relationship with the Logos, or objective reality, or the Plan, it can make decisions partaking of Haggia Sophia: the wisdom of God.
‘Haggia Sophia is about to be reborn. She was not acceptable in the past.’ This sentence refers to all of the above, and expresses it. We will have in our midst a wise entity, a sort of organic computer which will surpass its parts and the sum thereof.”
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.
“This is a moment of great fear and sense of dread, to experience the irreality of himself and his world, and to have both go, both slip away. Can he survive without himself and his world? The continuity of identity is lost. New memories arise as if out of nothing. And the new self and world; all out of nothing—ex nihilo; new self, memories, identity and world without a history—a past–behind them: created on the spot—as if he always had been this other person with these other memories in and of this other world.”
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.
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.)
But this is EXACTLY why Dick considered the Blade Runner movie to be “Satan” and a test from God to him. Because he intuitively knew that the Archons try to pervert and discredit anything truly meaningful for the liberation of the human soul that they can; which is why the Treasure must be carefully hidden in the Trash. An edited version of his Exegesis is lavishly prepared for mass-production, to much media hoopla…and yet the last editorial note pretty much shits on the entire thing. Classic Archonic fuckery.
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!
“Ah Zebra—why really did I choose that name for you? You mythical lovely beast of sun and safe shadow; I saw you once but can never—as if you are some fabled deity—prove to anyone you exist. I inform them, I try to take them along with me to the special spot from which I saw you—and you’re not there. But I sense the glint in your eye and your smile of understanding amusement. Are you the joy god Dionysos of root and star? of dark forest and the melting butter gold of the sun? What a psychological symbol Jung would have known you to be–playful and unpredictable, shy. Pawing the ground with your sharp hooves—oh, goat god Dionysos! I recognize you: you are too wise, too experienced with our dangerous race to ever expose yourself to harm at our hands. We would kill and freeze you into stasis—hypostasis, and all your pawing and advancing and disappearing and smile—light would become dead glass, warm butter only hide—dead, frozen—but this is only your exoskeleton! Inside this form which I glimpse, you are motion and rapid change: electrons? Sheer bioplasmic energy? I love you, I want to grip you, but you are elusive. But I am not disappointed; you are all the lovely passing persons things, and events I would want to stop dead. Thank God I can’t; Zebra, my clutching, hugging, yearning embrace would kill you, my needs kill. My fingers are the claws of the petrified dead, yearning to hold your life. Better this petrified fossil that I am should stay dead so that you can live on in immortality. Thank you; thank you for hiding from me, thank you for your wise caution and your secret smile. Thank you for not staying but—
You once told me I’d hear the sound again—the temple bells—bells that you wear, jingling bells. Please, Zebra—please. Don’t wait too long; I am in a lot of pain and can be in more. I want to hear again, hear more. Please. Equus dei, qui tollis mala fortuna mundi, meus amicus–libera mi domini.”