VALIS: ESTRANGEMENT vs ALIENATION
I cannot review VALIS objectively, as it is a book that belongs to no pre-existing category, combining elements of autobiography, philosophy, science-fiction, gnostic theology, psychoanalysis,and existential self-construction. Like the recently published EXEGESIS it takes its origin in the need to understand and respond to the events of February and March 1974 (which Dick called 2-3-74). He was irradiated by a brilliant pink light emanating from a Christian fish-symbol (ichthys) necklace worn by a young woman. He had a series of visions over the next two months, and spent the rest of his life trying to understand them.
The novel splits Dick into two characters: the narrator, Philip K Dick, a moderately successful science-fiction writer; and Horselover Fat his crazy illuminated friend, to whom the visions arrived, and whose life became a quest to resolve their enigma. The principal framework of explanation is a science-fictional variant of gnostic cosmology in which this universe has been constructed by a false, evil and crazy, god, which explains all the irrationality and the suffering that it contains. The world is the Black Iron Prison, and we are its suffering prisoners. The true God is outside the universe and breaking through to heal it and us in various ways, including the pink light that Dick experienced.After many surreal experiences and visions the book ends with the narrator, Philip K. Dick, sitting before the TV, watching and waiting. He is clear that this is his way of continuing the search and keeping to his mission: keeping awake and open.
I think many of us experience moments of revelatory intensity and also of intense despair at the emprisonment of our daily lives and of our very selves. Jodorowsky speaks movingly about just such a feeling of the mind in prison. I first read VALIS in 1981, when it first came out. I was all alone in a student room in a god-forsaken empty outer suburb of Paris, unable to speak French, dreaming repeatedly of being shut up in a prison that was shrinking and squashing me out of existence. I empathised with the Gnostics and their idea of this life as a prison. I read VALIS and it spoke to me instantly and deeply.
My “pink light” came at a moment of extreme existential and intellectual isolation in my birthplace, in Sydney: I read Deleuze and Guattari’s ANTI-OEDIPUS, and it changed my life. I left Sydney for Paris, attended Deleuze’s lectures for 6 years, and finally took on French nationality, moved to Nice, and settled down as an English teacher on the French Riviera. And I’m still trying to understand what happened to me.
Dick’s novel opens with the beginnings of his eventual crack-up and suicide attempt: “Horselover Fat’s nervous breakdown began the day he got the phonecall from Gloria asking if he had any Nembutals. He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself.” This is no message from a divine light, but the beginning of a soul-destroying relationship with a toxic, thanatotic individual, whose name “Gloria” is an ironic mockery of her real state and aims.
The novel ends with an optimistic phonecall from Horselover Fat reporting on his quest to find the 5th Messiah: “one day I got a phonecall from Horselover Fat: a phonecall from Tokyo. He sounded healthy and excited and full of energy, and amused at my surprise to be hearing from him.”
The split between Dick and Fat continues, but it enriches his life instead of despairing it. Eros (and estrangement) has come to win out over thanatos (and alienation). After all the speculations and synchronicities, after all the encounters both toxic and salvific, there is no final explanation only a new sense of optimism and openness: “My search kept me at home; I sat before the TV set in my living room. I sat; I waited; I watched; I kept myself awake. As we had been told, originally, long ago, to do; I kept my commission.”