by Frank C. Bertrand
On Philip K. Dick:
40 Articles from Science-Fiction Studies,
eds. R.D. Mullen, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Arthur B.
Evans, Veronica Hollinger.
Terre Haute & Greencastle: SF-TH, Inc., 1992, 290
pgs., pap., $16.45, ISBN 0-9633169-1-5.
Several months ago I finally purchased a softcover edition of On Philip K. Dick: 40 Articles from Science-Fiction Studies (hereinafter On PKD). And connotatively the subtitle of this book really says a lot. We must be realistic, and not disingenuous, about the fact that On PKD is a anthology of reprinted essays that originally appeared in the academic journal Science-Fiction Studies (some of the essays have been previously reprinted in other anthologies). Furthermore, these essays are not meant for the average Philip K. Dick fan/reader! They were written by scholars for other scholars to accrue “publish-or-perish” points. This is a serious fact-of-life in the ivy-covered-halls of Academia that shouldn’t be made light of (some intriguing insights about it, however, can be gleaned
from articles in the journal Lingua Franca). I also should note that I was genuinely surprised to find my name on page xxviii where my 1981 article, “Encounters with Reality: P.K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly,” is listed in a “Secondary Bibliography.” This was surprising because I do not have any esoteric initials after my name.
Nonetheless, there is one new essay in On PKD that warrants our critical contemplation, the introductory piece, “Pilgrims in Pandemonium: Philip K. Dick and the Critics,” (pp. v-xviii) by Professor Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. He teaches in the English Department at De Pauw University, Greencastle, Indiana and is currently co-editor of Science-Fiction Studies.
Aside from the catchy and suggestive alliterative title (Pandemonium is the capital of Hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost), Professor Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. delineates in his essay what he perceives to be a tripartite division of the critical intent driving or infusing the essays about PKD in Science-Fiction Studies. These phases or stages he labels beatification, disputation, and diffusion. In the first one “…critics set out to justify why they consider him to be an important writer.” (p. viii) The second involves disputes “…about the relative validity and strength of certain readings over others.” (p. ix) And the third phase “…refers to the current period of Dick criticism” where “…Dick’s reputation and the “Dick text” have extended far beyond the generic boundaries of SF and literature.” (p. ix) Yes, his essay, as are the others in On PKD, is liberally sprinkled with “metalanguage” code words and phrases; you can simplify and demystify them with a college dictionary and/or thesaurus.
The efficacy of such an approach is perhaps best answered by Professor Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. himself:
“…should academic standards of scholarly rigor and authority be required so that SF can become part of the historical project of literary study, thereby influencing and being influenced by scholar-ship? Or should it be allowed to develop en sauvage, free fromthe pedantic restrictions that would inevitably vitiate it?” (p. xiii)
If you think about it for any length of time this, apart from the quaint French phrase (besides wild or uncultivated, this can also mean a shy or unsociable person), is loaded with assumptions. WHO says SF wants to become “part of the historical project of literary study”? WHO says SF wants to influence or be “influenced by scholarship”? WHAT empirical evidence is there that “pedantic restrictions…would inevitably vitiate it”? (pedantic as in narrow or unimaginative; vitiate as in to make ineffective or weak)
As for “academic standards of scholarly rigor,” carefully consider this assertion: “The phase of disputation comprises roughly the fifteen years from 1980 to 1988, the year of the second special Dick issue.” (p. ix) Also curious is that such scholarly rigor cannot find any worthy Philip K. Dick works to explicate prior to 1960 (six novels, two short story collections), the justification apparently being that “Before the mid-1960s, SF works were considered, with a few exceptions, diversions, not vehicles for profound visions into the nature of things.” (p. v) Yes, you certainly should be asking WHO considers SF before the mid-1960s diversions, WHY the mid-1960s is a cut-off, and WHAT “profound visions” are. The latter might have something to do with a statement near the end of Professor Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.’s essay, that “SF’s relationship to religion has always been close.” (p. xviii) Always? According to Philip K. Dick, “Religion ought never to show up in s-f except from a sociological standpoint, as in Gather, Darkness. God per se, as a character, ruins a good s-f story; and this is as true of my own stuff as anyone else’s.” (“Will The Atomic Bomb Ever Be Perfected, And If So, What Becomes Of Robert Heinlein?”, Lighthouse, No. 14, October 1966, p. 4)
You might think this cogent and common sense advice by PKD. Then again Professor Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. asserts that because of a transformation in SF, “…Dick was transformed from an exemplary satirical visionary into the oracular schlemihl of the postmodern condition.” (p. viii) WHAT could it possibly mean to characterize anyone as “the oracular schlemihl of the postmodern condition”?
First of all a schlemihl (also “schlemiel”) is “an awkward and unlucky person for whom things never turn out right.” Oracular has to do with “giving forth utterances or decisions as if by special inspiration or authority.” Does this perhaps mean that Philip K. Dick is a awkward and unlucky prophet whose prophecies about the “postmodern condition” never turn out right? Yes, you should ask WHAT prophecies. “Postmodern”, by the way, is a quintessential “metalanguage” code word used by “postmodern” academic-scholars to label everything from poetry to architecture, Pop art to music, videos to contemporary novels that they perceive as not fitting in with, or being reactions against, established forms of “high modernism.” Todd Gitlin, a professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley perceptively notes that postmodern “…self-consciously splices genres, attitudes, styles. It relishes the blurring or juxtaposition of forms (fiction-non-fiction), stances (straight-ironic), moods (violent-comic), cultural levels (high-low). It disdains originality and fancies copies, repetition, the recombination of hand-me-down scraps.” (“Postmodernism defined, at last!”, Utne Reader, July/August 1989, p. 52)
With respect to novels of the 1950s, however, Irving Howe, in a 1959 essay simply writes that “In their distance from fixed social categories and their concern with the metaphysical implications of that distance, these novels constitute what I would call postmodern fiction.” (“Mass Society and Postmodern Fiction,” The Decline of the New, 1970, p. 203) This is a far more apt and suggestive description of PKD’s novels, in particular the phrase “metaphysical implications,” than anything in Professor Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.’s essay, or the essays in On PKD. And it is done without squinting at ideas through oblique words.
As that doyen of SF and PKD scholar-academics, Jonathan Swift, once wrote:
“These two Evils, Ignorance and want of Taste, have produced a Third; I mean a continual Corruption of our English Tongue; which, without some timely Remedy, will suffer more by thefalse Refinements of Twenty Years past, than it hath been improved in the foregoing Hundred….If a Man of Wit, who died Forty Years ago, were to rise from the Grave on Purpose; how would he be able to read this Letter? and after he had got through that Difficulty, how would he be able to understand it?” (“On The Corruption Of The English Tongue,” Tatler, CCXXX, September 28, 1710)
For the average PKD fan/reader trying to understand On PKD will indeed lead to a kind of cognitive pandemonium as they strive to decipher claims that are not at all self-evident and judge the neutrality and objectivity of what has been included, occluded, and/or omitted. And in this instance the academics are very much the pilgrims, in the sense of Chaucer
rather than Bunyan, not us. On PKD is meant for them, not us. [FCB, 1/94]