Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Gnosticism of Philip K. Dick's Works and Its Resonance to Present-Day American Culture

A thickly humid, mild, mostly cloudy evening after a thunderstorm (much, but not all of which missed the DCA rain bucket), 1300 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW, Washington, D.C., 6:44PM, May 23, 2012. I walked part way home from work.

Alas, I couldn't come up with a more suitable lead image. I'm open to suggestions.


On Wednesday I came across this fascinating three-part series on the Gnostic philosophy underpinning the works of the late, great dystopian science fiction writer Philip K. Dick and how it speaks to our own spiritually troubled country and world of the early 21st Century.

The three-part series appeared between May 20th and May 22nd on The New York Times' online site in the Opinionator section.

I've been quite interested of late in learning more about Gnostic philosophy, in particular Gnostic Christianity and what it says about the nature of Evil and God as "demiurge" -- rather than the actual Unknowable Monad -- in the material Universe (the Reality) that we inhabit, trapped in, forced to live in.

The series by Simon Critchley (pictured left), the Hans Jonas professor of philsopher at New School for Social Research, New York City, ultimately is critical of Gnosticism and how it now ties into American culture.

I happen to like what Gnosticism says about God-as-demiurge and, as my regular readers know, happen very much to subscribe to the notion of "Empire" / corporate oligarchical overclass as malevolent elite presence in our society.

Nevertheless, I am still posting it because it is a wonderful series of ruminations that ties the works and Gnostic philosophy of Philip K. Dick with our contemporary American culture, including political beliefs and well-remarked-upon "paranoid style." Yes, "the paranoid style of American politics" identified by Richard Hofstadter almost 50 years ago.

Also, I just saw Avatar a few weeks ago -- on a Sunday night at Larry's Lounge! -- and I loved it and I want to note how Critchley ties it into his three-part essay.

So without further ago, here are the links and excerpts of what Opinionator called Philip K. Dick, Sci-Fi Philosopher, Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 ...


Part 1, "Meditations on a Radiant Fish"

(I think my one-time Blogger Buddy Fifi would really appreciate that title.)

Full essay here


When I believe, I am crazy. When I don’t believe,
I suffer psychotic depression.

-- Philip K. Dick

"Philip K. Dick is arguably the most influential writer of science fiction in the past half century. In his short and meteoric career, he wrote 121 short stories and 45 novels. His work was successful during his lifetime but has grown exponentially in influence since his death in 1982. Dick's work will probably be best known through the dizzyingly successful Hollywood adaptations of his work, in movies like 'Blade Runner' (based on 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?'), 'Total Recall,' 'Minority Report,' 'A Scanner Darkly' and, most recently, 'The Adjustment Bureau.' Yet few people might consider Dick a thinker. This would be a mistake.

Dick's life has long passed into legend, peppered with florid tales of madness and intoxication. There are some who consider such legend something of a diversion from the character of Dick’s literary brilliance. Jonathan Lethem writes -- rightly in my view --'Dick wasn’t a legend and he wasn’t mad. He lived among us and was a genius.' Yet Dick’s life continues to obtrude massively into any assessment of his work.


Part 2, "Future Gnostic"

Full essay here


"But the core of Dick's vision is not quite Christian in the traditional sense; it is Gnostical: it is the mystical intellection, at its highest moment a fusion with a transmundane or alien God who is identified with logos and who can communicate with human beings in the form of a ray of light or, in Dick's case, hallucinatory visions.

There is a tension throughout 'Exegesis' between a monistic view of the cosmos (where there is just one substance in the universe, which can be seen in Dick's references to Spinoza's idea as God as nature, Whitehead's idea of reality as process and Hegel's dialectic where 'the true is the whole') and a dualistic or Gnostical view of the cosmos, with two cosmic forces in conflict, one malevolent and the other benevolent. The way I read Dick, the latter view wins out. This means that the visible, phenomenal world is fallen and indeed a kind of prison cell, cage or cave.

Christianity, lest it be forgotten, is a metaphysical monism where it is the obligation of every Christian to love every aspect of creation – even the foulest and smelliest – because it is the work of God. Evil is nothing substantial because if it were it would have to be caused by God, who is by definition good.

Against this, Gnosticism declares a radical dualism between the false God who created this world – who is usually called the 'demiurge' – and the true God who is unknown and alien to this world. But for the Gnostic, evil is substantial and its evidence is the world.

There is a story of a radical Gnostic who used to wash himself in his own saliva in order to have as little contact as possible with creation. Gnosticism is the worship of an alien God by those alienated from the world.

The novelty of Dick's Gnosticism is that the divine is alleged to communicate with us through information.

This is a persistent theme in Dick, and he refers to the universe as information and even Christ as information ...

The core of the heresy consists in the denial of original sin: sin does not lie within us but within the world, which is not the creation of the true God but of the malevolent demiurge, whom St. Paul calls in one quasi-gnostical moment 'the God of this world.' Therefore, we must see through the evil illusion of this world to the true world of the alien God. The phenomenal world is the creation of a bad God and governed over by those agents of the demiurge that the gnostics called the 'archons,' the rulers or governors, those whom Dick ominously calls 'Empire.' Today we might call them major corporations ..."


Part 3, "Adventures in the Dream Factory"

Full essay here

Excerpt (with corrected spelling of Neytiri):

"A purer version of the gnostical ideology of authenticity can found in the biggest grossing movie of all-time in America, James Cameron’s 2009 epic, 'Avatar.' By 2154, Earth's resources have been used up and nature reduced to a filthy, poisoned husk. The corrupt and all-powerful RDA Corporation is mining for the appropriately named Unobtainium on the planet Pandora.

This is home to the Na'vi -- blue-skinned, beautiful, 10-foot-tall beings -- who have an intimate connection with nature and who worship the mother goddess, Eywa. Jake, the broken, disabled ex-Marine eventually becomes his alien Na'vi avatar, melds with his true love Neytiri, and unifies with nature after defeating the Satanic human forces of corporate evil. He loses his human identity and becomes the alien, leaving behind him the dreadful homeland of Earth for the blessed alien land. The point is that authentic harmony with nature can only be achieved by throwing off the garment of earthly nature and becoming alien. Such is the basic fantasy of gnosticism.

"Dick's gnosticism also enables us to understand something of the paranoid style of American politics -- and perhaps not just American politics. For example, Dick constantly comes back to the theme of Watergate and the rather odd idea that the removal of President Nixon is the reassertion of the true deity over the false idols of the cave. Namely, that the phenomenal world is a prison governed by corrupt, secretive and malevolent elites. There are too many political analogues to this view to list here.

For example, think about the relentless rise of conspiracy theories, which has gone hand in hand with the vast, rhizomatic flourishing of the Internet. Think about the widespread idea -- on the right and the left -- that the United States is governed by secretive, all-powerful elites. These used to be identified as Ivy League educated WASPS or Freemasons or Jews and are now usually identified as former senior employees of Goldman Sachs.

"If you think that there is a secret that can be known that they are hiding from us and that requires the formation of a small, secret sect to work against them, then you have entered into an essentially gnostical way of thinking. Politics here becomes the defense of purity against impure, inauthentic forces and the true leader has to be an authentic hero who can combat the forces of evil with an almost superhuman resolve: Mitt Romney, step this way.

"The morality of gnosticism is also oddly relevant to our current situation. As Hans Jonas points out, possessors of gnosis set themselves apart from the great, soiled mass of humankind. The hatred of the world was also a contempt for worldly morality, and this leads to two equal, but opposed, ethical responses: asceticism and libertinage ...

In the face of an alienating and poisonous world, one can either withdraw to a safe, allergic distance or plunge headlong into the viral whirlpool of humanity. Either way, I know I will be O.K.

Crazy as it doubtless must sound, I think that Dick's gnosticism responds to a deep and essential anxiety of our late modern times. The irrepressible rise of a deterministic scientific worldview threatens to invade and overtake all those areas of human activity that we associate with literature, culture, history, religion and the rest.

Ask yourself: what does one do in the face of a monistic all-consuming naturalism? We can embrace it, hoping to wrest whatever shards of wonder and meaning we can from inquiries into the brain or the cosmos sold as brightly colored trade hardbacks, written by reputable, often prize-winning, scientists.

Or we can reject scientific determinism by falling back into some version of dualism. That could mean embracing a spiritual or religious metaphysics of whatever confection, or -- if one is still nostalgic for the disappointed modernism of, say, Kafka or Beckett -- by falling back upon a lonely, alienated self in a heartless world of anomie.

But perhaps another way is open ....

... one that is neither entirely naturalistic nor religious nor some redux of modernist miserabilism. If so, to quote Jonas, then 'philosophy must find it out.' But that’s another story for another occasion."


OK, that ends this entry. My apologies for not posting the one I had promised (re. Wall-P in Key West and Nebraska geographic oddity).  My next planned update is in time for You-Know-Who's Half-70 Birthday.



Ben Woodruff said...

Seems to me that dualism or gnosticism, as defined in this article, is simply another shiny object meant to distract over-aware believers away from their conviction. Christians are taught by the Bible to beware those who aim to persecute us, and that we truly aren't of this world, but the degree of paranoia described here reminds me of myself back when the Occupy Wallstreet stuff first started (before I had been revived in the truth). The reason this distraction is important to Lucifer/Satan is because it would cause a believer to remove his love from those around him who are still sleeping in the lies of this world, since he is supposedly awake and doesn't want to consort with them because of the risk he sees in it. However, this is like the paranoia that the Pharisees expressed towards "sinners," like the publicans and harlots that Jesus said would get into heaven long before the Pharisees would, that they were too filthy to even come near for the purpose of conversion and calling to repentance. What good is a holy person if they fail to inspire others to be holy as well? This is the failure of gnosticism, that it doesn't actually make anyone visibly "better" to outsiders, unless those outsiders are significantly paranoid already themselves. I was once that way myself, but since then Jesus has taught me—by the power of His Word—that love is the root of healing for sinners. A vessel without love has nothing else good in it. And no, that doesn't mean that we need to love every filthy aspect of the material world, but rather that we should be lights on a hill, shining brightly His truth forth for those who are yet in darkness, not to be hid under a bushel or under a bed. Secrets belong to God, whereas that which He has revealed plainly to men belongs to men, to lead us to life rather than confusion. May the grace of Jesus Christ be with you always.

Regulus said...

Thank you for the comment. I think.

For what it's worth, I like the Gnostic intellectual solution to the Problem of Evil -- the physical world itself contains a duality in it. God -- as commonly understood in Christianity, even in its Low Protestant Americanized forms -- just gets defined into a higher realm. It's almost like the Jewish concept of Yahweh -- wholly unknowable and removed.

In short, Gnosticism just takes the God/Satan clash and puts it entirely into the physical world and the creator of that world (Demiurge).

As it is, I just like this concept because it finally settles the unanswerable and pointless question of "Why does evil exist in a world that a Perfect and Perfectly Good God made?" And I'm tired of the whole Free Will argument -- that every bad thing happens in some sense because someone chooses it. That's nonsense.

Anyway, I don't except to change your mind, but thank you for taking the time to comment.

The reason I have commment moderation on is because I'm tired of weird fake comments from internet robots trying to sell stuff. The

As it is, I don't get many comments on this blog, which is what I prefer.