Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On "Understanding Philip K. Dick" by Eric Carl Link ****

This is the first book from University of South Carolina Press's "Understanding" that I have read, and if this book is anything like the others, I'm going to have to read some more. The book is a very short introduction to Dick's life and work, discussing his biography and major themes and giving closer readings of a few select works.

The biography I was very aware of by now, having read two books about Dick's life. But it was nice to have someone summarize it so well. Likewise, having now read six of Dick's novels and a small assortment of his stories, I'm familiar with most of his major themes and motifs, but having someone write those out for me--and explore what those things really mean--was satisfying as well. Having left off the academic study of literature fifteen years ago now, I don't tend to read as closely or as methodically as I used to, and I felt a bit silly not to have picked up on some of what now seems very obvious in some of the works that Dick has written. Most specifically, Link linked some of the reading in Jung, Binswanger, and the I Ching that I've done in a concrete fashion, something I'd been too lazy to think through thoroughly myself.

Of central concern to Dick is the ability to know--or to know transcendence--as Link puts it in hs book's conclusion. This is, of course, where he connects up with many of the concerns of the gnostics. And it also links to his concerns about the nature of reality and of the self--for if we can't know who or what "god" is, then how can we even know the world around us or within us? Or as Link puts it in his chapter on themes, Dick essentially sets out to know two thing: What is real and what is human? If some kind of transcendent existence is real, how do or can we know? Isn't it just as possible that such experiences are the workings of a madman's mind? Or are the mad the ones who truly understand the world (as in the case of the schizophrenics who populate many of Dick's works and who figure in Jung's own work)? For humanness, Dick posits his concept of empathy--it is our ability to feel with others that makes us human. However, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, even this can be problematized.

Other themes of Dick's work, to give a short list, include: what is real, what is the self, what is human, the nature of power, the effects of technology and media, the effects of drugs, and what is madness. One of the most interesting readings of a Dick novel, I think, was Link's critique of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. He sees the work as largely one about love--or different messed-up forms of love. He attaches Dick's biography to this, as it was written during the breakup of Dick's fourth marriage. The novel itself details various forms of betrayal amid love, including the incestuous brother/sister-man/wife relationship at much of the novel's core and the love of one's child (in the form of that family's own child). Indeed, Jason Taverner, who I see as more the focus of the book, loses his identity largely through an act of betrayal: his betraying of his friend with another woman, the other woman's vengeful act in return for Taverner's dumping of her, and his friend's betrayal in the form of her own affair.

Having read this book, I certainly came away having felt like I knew Dick's work even better than before.

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