Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Philip K. Dick under the stethoscope

The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick by Kyle Arnold (OUP)

The problem with using any of the pre-made tool kits of literary, artistic, or personal analysis - whether it be Marxism, Freudianism, or any of the more recent inventions - is that you have to pick the right subject. The kit that works well on one subject is completely inapt for another. All I can say after reading this book is that the tool kit of clinical psychology is ideally suited for the study of Philip K. Dick, because damn, is this book ever piercingly insightful.

The author, a practitioner of same in Brooklyn, has closely read both PKD's fiction and all the biographical material about him, and builds his conclusions and surmises, carefully labeled as such, on a firm basis of knowledge. The book proceeds generally through PKD's life, stopping to examine stories and novels where they're relevant to the biography, not necessarily when PKD wrote them, and expending entire chapters on points of special psychological interest, in particular the death of PKD's infant twin sister (which haunted him all his life) and the mysterious burglary of his house in 1971 (Arnold inclines towards the view, expressed also by others, that PKD trashed his own stuff in an amphetamine haze and then forgot he'd done it). And, of course, the visionary pink light he received in 1974. Arnold, a specialist in delusions and psychosis, makes a strong argument that PKD's lifelong amphetamine use, starting with childhood medications, was responsible for most of the weirdness; but shrewdly he points out that even if the specifics were delusionary they contained genuine, often metaphorical, insights into reality.

The wit, imagination, and acumen of this book are nicely summed up in a paragraph in which Arnold imagines what it would be like to be PKD's therapist:
Dick attended psychotherapy sessions religiously and says that they were helpful. Perhaps his life would have been even more painful without them. Nevertheless, it is hard to count any of Dick's long courses of therapy as successful. Indeed, a psychotherapist working with him would face a nearly insurmountable task. Imagine he walks into your consulting room. If you are a Freudian psychoanalyst, as some of Dick's therapists were, you might ask Dick to free associate. Big mistake. Speaking rapidly, Dick spins out stories about his life that are a mixture of fact and fiction. He free associates to books, theories, and fictional characters, that may or may not be relevant. You try to get clear on what is going on, try to see through the fabrications, but you can't: you are dealing with Philip K. Dick. He is familiar with all of your therapeutic procedures and outsmarts all of them. If you challenge his intellectual defenses, he pretends to agree with you, and presents brilliant pieces of self-analysis that later turn out to be specious. Eventually, you decide that it is fruitless to try to keep up with the racing twists and turns of Dick's intellect, and you fall back on brute force. You start giving Dick orders. Stop smoking dope. Eat better. Stop picking girlfriends that are bad for you. Clean up your apartment. Dick tries to follow your directives, but something is missing. He stops using drugs for a few months, but then buys some from the housekeeper he hired to clean his apartment. He pays lip service to selecting more suitable partners, but keeps ending up in unhealthy relationships. He tells you he has improved his diet, and when you ask for specifics, he says that he is dating a drug addict who cooks fantastic veggie burgers. Does he just not get it? Or is he toying with you? You wonder how serious Dick is about therapy and tell him that it does not seem to be helping him. Despondent, Dick complains that you are one of those people in his life who is going to abandon him. You are trapped. You have become another character in a Philip K. Dick story. Checkmate.

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