VALIS DOES NOT FAIL US: notes on a philo-fictional anamnesis

The following post is a response to a review by Baird Searles of Philip K. Dick’s novel VALIS, as it contains a number of oft-repeated criticisms of the book. Baird Searles on VALIS

The review was posted on twitter by Jesse Willis @SFFAudio. It was published in ASIMOV’S, March 16, 1981.

Searles’ review is a typical example of a literal-minded reader who is afraid of anything involving metaphor, philosophy, or “mysticism” (which he ignorantly identifies with “flying saucers, god’s chariots, Bermuda triangles and all”. Literal-minded = one-dimensional.

VALIS is a multi-layered fictional account of one character’s (not the author’s) encounter with the unconscious and of his evolution from nihilistic despair through literalism and belief to a religious attitude of awareness (the opposite of belief).

The style of VALIS is modernist, with its focus on daily life and its resonances with mythical, religious, and philosophical structures. It is postmodern, not in the debased pop relativist meaning of the word, but in that of a perpetual scepticism towards its own explications. It is an ode to being faithful to your experience, however unorthodox, an ode to thinking and to dialogue, and an ode to caring (even if it hurts). It is a devastating critique of belief.

Searles shows his rejection of all this from the beginning, with his stereotypical opening of not liking people’s accounts of their dreams or drug trips, especially involving religious experiences. His is the voice of intellectual conformism, he sees nothing interesting in these experiences.

Searles does not see that the book is both literal and metaphorical from the beginning. It begins with the suicide of “Gloria” (sic transit gloria mundi), who is both a real character and an embodiment of nihilism.

Earles does not realise that the book contains a critique of “objectivity”: as literal-minded systematising of fragments of experience (the character Horselover Fat), but also as ironic meta-minded modernism (the character Phil). The narrator claims to be objective but is often ignorant or unreliable

Searles notices that there are multiple incompatible explanations of Horselover Fat’s experiences in VALIS, but does not realise that this is a feature, not a defect. He prefers the old style one hypothesis explains all type of story. He likes Aristotelian logic (rejected in the book). VALIS explicitly calls Aristotelian logic into question.

Searles’ cumulative list of defects terminates in a “crescendo” with the presence of quotes from philosophers, mystics, poets as if this were damning criticism, when it only shows his own philosophy-phobia.

Searles ends by holding up James Blish’s novel BLACK EASTER as a model of combining metaphysics and mysticism with the science fictional mindset, praising it for being a “succinct, straightforward account”. Real experience is not straightforward, it involves “time dysfunctions” as VALIS calls them.

BLACK EASTER is a very enjoyable book, but unlike VALIS it does not show how science fiction is already metaphysical and religious if you go for the metaphor. It does not trace the fraught translations between everyday life, SF, philosophy, and mysticism.

For example, the Black Iron Prison reprises the repeating theme of the Chinese finger-trap, which is a pathological relation (with a person, but also with an idea or a belief) that becomes inextricable once you enter into it. These are what anti-psychiatrist R.D.Laing called “knots”.

This theme of anti-psychiatry runs through the book. It could be formulated as “the only good psychiatrist is an anti-psychiatrist”, and its equivalents: the only good mystic is an anti-mystic (sceptic), the only good sf writer is an anti-sf writer, etc.

We could say to Searles: the only good critic is an anti-critic, one who seeks to expand, rather than to reduce.