Divinely Inspired: Andrew Tidmarsh talks to Lawrence Sutin, Biographer of Philip K. Dick

Thanks to Frank Bertrand for contibuting this article to philipdick.com.

by Andrew Tidmarsh

[source: Interzone, No. 56, February 1992]

    Lawrence Sutin’s first book was Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick; his second book is In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis; his third book will be an as yet untitled biography of Aleister Crowley [Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley].
Sutin explains: “I make all my writing decisions unconsciously and then, once I make them, I see all sorts of parallels. Here are the parallels between Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley. First of all, they both came from despised genres: Science Fiction and the Occult. If I say, well, here’s a writer on the occult, most people hold up their noses just as they do if you say here is a science-fiction writer. The other thing is, both of them were incredibly birlliant and complex persons who tried to encompass reality. They were satisfied with no less than an understanding of what the universe was really all about. And they were not afraid to ask grand questions. That very much endears someone to me.

    “I fell in love with Dick’s work in the mid-1970s. I was not what you would call a science-fiction fan in the sense that I read omnivorously and could name all of the great writers in the field. I read selectively: liked some and didn’t like others. Then there was this, in retrospect, rather well-known interview with Philip K. Dick conducted by Paul Williams and published in Rolling Stone (“The Worlds of Philip K. Dick”: 6 November 1975). I didn’t read that interview but a friend did and read The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and simply insisted that I read it. I did; and I loved it. It is not only brilliantly plotted; the characters race from crisis to crisis with as little idea of what they’re doing as you or I or the rest of us. I’d read bushels of Existential novels that complained that life was absurd and that the categories of reality were arbitrary. In Three Stigmata, Philip K. Dick’s narrative managed — and I think not only for me but for a number of readers — to create a visceral impact: you felt, literally, that your views of reality, the categories into which you placed things, were shimmering and less absolute than they ever had been.”

    That calling into question of the categories of being was something Philip K. Dick did for Sutin more strikingly than any other writer. Sutin mentions Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811, a German dramatist; in his tragedies — according to The Penguin Companion to Literature — “under the influence of passion man’s feelings become confused and he inevitably misinterprets the truth of any given situation…Even in the comedies, the confusion of appearance and reality is never far from the surface”), Gogol, Dostoevsky. Other writers were comparable bu Philip K. Dick had the strongest effect.

    “It is a commonplace to say about us that we have reality filers, we let in certain sensations, certain thoughts: they are appropriate, useful. Others that we regard as inessential or somehow questionable we filter out and ignore. For Philip K. Dick the filters were down: reality seemed to be streaming in on all sides. He managed to create that impression in me, as a reader. And I would say that, as a result of reading his books, I am more alert, more open, and take more seriously the nature of the perceptions that I — and other people around me — have: I don’t, simply, conclude that this can’t be so, that this shouldn’t be thought. I wouldn’t want to draw too many comparisons but, in this respect, and in this respect only, there is a close relationship between what I comprehend in Philip K. Dick’s writings and what I comprehend in Sufi writings: in particular, in the writings of Idries Shah; he’s a great favourite of mine.”

    But of course — lest we forget — Philip K. Dick was primarily a writer of science fiction, not a philosopher. During his lifetime he published more than 30 sf novels, from Solar Lottery in 1955 to The Divine Invasion in 1981. His Collected Short Stories (available from Underwood-Miller in the USA and from Grafton in the UK) contain more than 900,000 words of science fiction. Sutin provides a useful Chronological Survey in which he offers a guide to Philip K. Dick’s novels in the order in which they were written (rather than published) and attempts to rate them all on a scale from one to ten. (For the record, his favourites are The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, and Valis: no argument with that.)

    Sutin explains that “Philip K. Dick grew up loving science fiction. He cherished his sf magazine collection from the time he was a child. When he talked about his influences, though, he did not by and large mention sf writers. A.E. van Vogt did influence him, as did Robert Heinlein…in terms of story-telling ability. And,” Sutin thinks, “he was influenced by Henry Kuttner and Ray Bradbury and by the editor Anthony Boucher.” (Boucher taught a writing class at his Berkeley home that Dick attended in 1951 and, as editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, bought Dick’s first story “Roog.”) “But,” Sutin continues, “Philip K. Dick did not give lists of the science-fiction writers who influenced him. When you asked him who his influences were, generally, he talked about ‘mainstream’ and ‘world’ authors. Or philosophers. Or psychologists. Jung influenced him. James T. Farrell, creator of Studs Lonigan; Maupassant; James Joyce; and the Greek historian Xenophon.”

    And, because of this, Sutin argues in his Introduction to Divine Invasions, “Philip K. Dick remains a hidden treasure of American literature because the majority of his works were produced for a genre that almost invariably wards off serious attention. You can’t write about rocket ships and be serious, can you? A great white whale serves as a literary symbol but surely the same can’t be true of a telepathic Ganymedean slime mold.”

    “So,” he continues in conversation, “it’s been a long time for Philip K. Dick. In England, there was a time when sf could simply be written and no one made a big deal about the fact that it would be labelled ‘Science Fiction.’ H.G. Wells could write sf and he was still a member of the literary establishment. In America, sf is still largely regarded as junk by the literary powers that be. It is a pulp genre not worthy of serious consideration.” (As an aside, Sutin remarks that his biography of Philip K. Dick was not reviewed by the New York Times Book Review when it was published in the early part of 1990; yet, they review virtually every literary biography that is published.) “On the other hand, certain sf writers have managed to slip through the cracks of mainstream acceptance in America: Ursula K. LeGuin and Stanislaw Lem are two that come to mind.”
    In Sutin’s opinion “they wrote in a more mannered and literary style than Philip K. Dick. Valis, which is written in a very colloquial and direct style, in a very bizarre voice, simply puzzles people. Dick is so challenging that if you come to his works with academic literary expectations you’re going to bounce off like” — Sutin clicks his fingers — “that.”

    In a sense, this is Philip K. Dick’s tragedy. Before his first science-fiction novel was published he wrote a number of mainstream novels — Mary and the Giant, for example — that he was unable to sell. (And it is ironic that most of those novels have appeared since his death.) But he is, and will be, best-remembered for his sf novels: The Man in the High Castle (Hugo award winner, 1963), Martian Time-Slip, Dr Bloodmoney, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis of the film Blade Runner). Did he not know better than to write science fiction?

    “Of course he knew better,” Sutin says. “You’re talking about a man who was beautifully acquainted with world literature and philosophy. Philip K. Dick was no fool. But, he loved science fiction. And, he valued writing in a truly American voice. Dick sensed that his true writing voice was a rushing, colloquial, extemporaneous voice. It’s a unique sort of voice. Valis is so wonderful” — to Sutin — “because it is wirtten by a man who acknowledges that he’s confused and lost and looking for God. There are some people who say that Valis is such a wolly book.” Sutin’s answer to them is: “Of course it is. Here’s Philip K. Dick saying: let me show you how wolly reality really is. I think it’s twice as wolly as you think!”

    Would Dick’s impact have been greatly diminished had he written at a more leisurely pace or in a more leisurely style?

    Sutin thinks not. “Philip K. Dick worked in the way that worked best for him. There’s a Sufi story abut a falcon who lands on a woman’s windowsill. She says, Oh, poor bird, those claws on its feet must be really difficult for it to walk about on and that curved beak must be so difficult for it to peck its food with. So, she cuts the claws and the beak and the falcon is left to sit there, perplexed, and no longer able to live as it should. Dick raced through his books: that was his method, he knew no other.”

    It could also be said that Philip K. Dick raced through his life. He was married five times (and, subsequently, separated from each of his wives); he was plagued by nervous breakdowns (though, in Sutin’s opinion, he was “surely not crazy by any standard that I would dare to apply”); he was involved in the street drug scene (though later wrote a novel, A Scanner Darkly, that has a vehement anti-drug theme); and, he was driven near to insanity by visions of God (or was it a stroke that he suffered in February-March of 1974?). In a sense, his fiction was autobiographical. He wrote, in his introduction to The Golden Man, a collection of short stories, that “people have told me that everything about me, every facet of my life, psyche, experiences, dreams and fears, are laid out explicitly in my writing, that from the corpus of my work I can be absolutely and precisely inferred. This is true.” Perhaps it is also true that — as Barry Malzberg wrote in his introduction to the volume on Philip K. Dick in the Taplinger series, Writers of the 21st Century — “the difference between writers of the first rank and those who are not…is that the first raters always — always — make their lives part of their collected Works.” Philip K. Dick was a writer of the first rank. Sutin’s biography wisely interweaves the life and the work.

    “My methodology as a biographer,” he explains, “was to recognize that no biographer ever arrives at the truth — with a capital T — about their subject. The role of a biographer as far as I can see is to present the ambiguities and complexities fully in such a way that a reader can savour their richness and be puzzled by them. There are certain things that are very clear — when he married, what he thought about a particular issue. But, where there were conflicting versions of Phil among the people that knew him, or where his views on reality differed, I saw it as my job to weave together the ambiguities and the complexities in such a way that they would entertain, bemuse, and perhaps enlighten the reader. Never to impose some artificial finality on an open question for the sake of making my narrative neat and tidy and making myself out to be some iron-clad expert.”

    By so doing, Sutin continues, “I found that I was capable of having a great deal of sympathy for Philip K. Dick. I didn’t feel apologetic about the fact that sometimes he behaved badly. I simply felt that it was my job to say so: not necessarily to admire him for those things but not to apologize for him either. In other words, I guess, one of the things I learned is that human beings are erratic, they are not perfect creatures: every life contains dark and invidious moments. I know there are other researchers into Philip K. Dick who are very uncomfortable about this.”

    Sutin mentions Greg Rickmann, whose biography To the High Castle / Philip K. Dick: A Life 1928-1982 was published by Fragments West in 1989.

    “I think Rickmann and I have very different approaches. Rickmann is fond of posthumous diagnostics. He’s very concerned to create sympathy for Dick’s failings by explaining them in terms of various physical and psychical ailments that he might have been heir to. Sometimes, I think he goes beyond the evidence to the point where I can’t follow him. I fell — without specific reference to Rickmann’s work but as a matter of biographical method — that to impose psychological diagnoses on a subject is reductive. I don’t think that an understanding or appreciation of Dick’s life is enhanced by calling him a multiple personality disorder. I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to establish that he was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. So, without saying that I’ve written the last word on Dick and that no new facts can emerge, I’m not tempted to add to or adapt my book. And I’m damned if I can understand how Dick’s novels are opened to me by such theorizing.”

    Sutin’s biography, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (published by Paladin, price £8.99) illuminates Dick’s life and work. It is a relatively short book, but it says enough about the life and the work to intrigue rather than to surfeit. It is not intended to be a definitive statement. It leaves one hungry for more.

    More can be found in In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis (made by Lawrence Sutin) published by Underwood-Miller late in 1991. The Exegesis, subtitled by Dick “Apologia Pro Mia Vita,” was written in an attempt to explain to his own satisfaction a series of sights and sounds that seized him in the period February-March 1974. It consists of some 8,000 hand-written pages, some of it quite difficult to follow. Sutin has read it all.

    “Some of it,” he thinks, “is not of great general interest. I am not making a biographical argument in In Pursuit of Valis. My principle in selecting excerpts was to print those that I thought had the highest literary, philosophical or spiritual merit. There are chapters on theoretical explorations; Philip K. Dick’s personal experience in February-March 1974 and thereafter; Dick’s writing techniques; plot outlines; self-examination — where Dick literally interviews himself; and a final chapter called ‘Three Closing Parables’ in which I pick three self-contained stories from the Exegesis and present them.” In the Exegesis Dick analyses his work in an attempt to understand whether or not he could be said to have anticipated what happened to him in February-March 1974. “It will be of interest,” Sutin thinks, “to readers already familiar with Dick’s novels and short stories and intrigued by them. A number of readers whose tastes run to philosophy and spirituality generally may also derive a great deal from it.” But, Sutin says, “I’m quite clear that Philip K. Dick never reached any final conclusions. He loved to speculate and in the Exegesis you can see him saying ‘yes, this is it! I finally understand the nature of reality’ but, then, a few pages later…thinking about it some more.”

    Sutin, however, has reached a conclusion. He’s through. “I’ve written a biography. I was the first person to read the Exegesis. I felt a great desire to bring the best sections of that to light. But I think I can say with absolute certainty that I am done with my task. All I wanted to do, as a lover of his fiction, was to find out who Philip K. Dick was. He made a living as a writer, writing what he wanted to write. He left some books that, as far as we can tell, will endure. He loved, and was loved by many people. He ended his life with money in the bank. I don’t look at Dick’s life and go: ‘My God What a tragic, empty waste.'”

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