Brain Pickings

Philip K. Dick on Beauty, Suffering, and the Nature of the Universe


What a woman with a fish necklace has to do with Blade Runner and the “terrible law of the universe.”

Today marks the 83rd would-be birthday of iconic author Philip K. Dick, who became as well-known for his era-defining science fiction as for the series of unusual experiences he had between February and March, 1974, which he shorthanded as 2-3-74. Dick spent the next 8 years recording and decoding these visions — manically, obsessively, passionately — in a private journal he called his “Exegesis,” which he filled with writings ranging from the philosophical to the mystical, reflecting on everything from Marxist theory to the nature of the universe to what it means to be human. That journal was recently released as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick — a magnificent final work based on eight thousand mostly handwritten pages, culled and edited by Pamela Jackson and the hopelessly excellent Jonathan Lethem, who also penned the book’s introduction.

The book begins with a passage Dick wrote in 1980, which captures the complex, dimensional, equally hopeful and hopeless nature of the Exegesis:

The beautiful and imperishable comes into existence due to the suffering of individual perishable creatures who themselves are not beautiful, and must be reshaped to form a template from which the beautiful is printed (forged, extracted, converted). This is the terrible law of the universe. This is the basic law; it is a fact… Absolute suffering leads to — is the means to — absolute beauty.”

Lethem writes in the book’s introduction:

The writing in these pages represents, perhaps above all, a laboratory of interpretation in the most absolute and open-ended sense of the word. When Dick began to write and publish novels based on the visionary material unearthed in the Exegesis, he commenced interpreting those as well. So, as these writings accumulated, they also became self-referential: the Exegesis is a study of, among other things, itself.

For more, see The Afterlife of Philip K. Dick, a documentary from BBC’s Arena, originally broadcast on April 9, 1994:

In the end, of course… you have to face the fact — like many a good man, Philip K. Dick went ’round the bend, that’s the honest truth. And there are those who prefer the ’round-the-bend Dick to the marvelously sane Dick who saw the bend coming, perhaps.”

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