Books Culture

Reading and Writing Yourself to Gnosis: Philip K. Dick and the Exegesis

Philip K. Dick is a writer for our time. This is a statement that we could make just as easily in 1982, the year he died, as we can today.

Today, P.K.D. is everywhere heralded as one of the literary greats of our our recent era; right up there with any members of the so-called Western canon. Electric Dreams miniseries on Amazon is showcasing his short stories, while The Man in the High Castle, based on his 1962 novel, has become an eerily prescient exploration of an alternative history where the Axis powers won World War II and occupy the United States. Henry Farrell, in the Boston Review, has stated unequivocally that, “we live in Philip K. Dick’s future, not George Orwell’s or Aldous Huxley’s.”

Then there’s 2017’s Blade Runner: 2049, which, while it didn’t break the box office, was heralded by many critics as a film that raised science fiction to high cinematic art, rife with haunting imagery of the Anthropocene: a future riddled by technological devastation and climate change.

They say art imitates life, but from P.K.D.’s perspective, that can go both ways. When we write, we just might author ourselves. What I take a kind of secret delight in is that Philip K. Dick was nothing short of a mystic. A self-described gnostic, to be exact. Behind what popular culture has now accepted—and rightly so—as a literary prophet for the postmodern age was a man who had deeply strange, and intensely profound visionary experiences.

He was, in other words, a prophet in the real sense of the word: a seer, soothsayer, and bard.

These experiences weren’t easy. Like any form of spiritual initiation, there are trials, and just as Carl Jung had to learn to channel enormous energies of the psyche welling up in him through the now famous Red Book, Philip K. Dick worked himself through what Richard Doyle describes as an act of “writerly contemplation.” The result was 9000 pages of text. He would come to call this mountain of words The Exegesis, and it even showed up in his later meta-fictional works like VALIS.

The (Cosmic) Fish

From The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick by R Crumb

It was in 1974, 2-3-74, to be exact, when he had what can only be described as a visionary encounter.

Suffering after the removal of an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick was waiting on the delivery of pain medicine—Darvon—when a woman knocked on his door. When she gave him the medication, his attention was struck by the golden necklace that she wore. He asked her about it, and she told him what it was. Today we’d notice it just about anywhere in the United States: the Christian fish, the symbol worn by early Christians and recently a polemic symbol of Intelligent Design vs. Evolution. For the early Christians, no more than a “weird” sect in Antiquity under heavy persecution from Rome, it was a secret symbol of faith.

This encounter initiated a series of waking remembrances, or what the Greek philosophers called “anamnesis,” the “loss of forgetfulness” (the soul remembering its eternal nature). He felt that a veil of time — of Berkeley in 1974 — had been sloughed off to reveal a more substantial reality, a truer identity.

He suddenly “remembered” that he was a gnostic Christian living under the tyrannical persecution of Rome. That time had somehow become frozen in this point on—a hallucination of future history—and that only the Christian gnostics were among the few who really knew this. “The empire never ended,” he’d write in VALIS.

Dick writes about it later in The Exegesis:

The (golden) fish sign causes you to remember. Remember what?…Your celestial origins; this has to do with the DNA because the memory is located in the DNA…You remember your real nature…The Gnostic Gnosis: You are here in this world in a thrown condition, but are not of this world.[1]

These kind of spontaneous spiritual insights reached a fever pitch in what Dick would come to call V.A.L.I.S., or “vast, active, living intelligence system.” It was a pink beam of gnostic light, something like a science fiction take on Paul on the road to Damascus. He would experience a year of anomalous encounters (especially with an arguably daemonic entity he would describe as the gnostic Sophia, who helped to diagnose a previously unknown hernia affecting his infant son), weird dreams and profound visions—all written into The Exegesis.

Science Fiction as Spiritual Initiation, or The Varieties of Literary Experience

Anyone who has read Philip K. Dick knows how good he is at building, and then bending reality. Bruce Sterling coined this genre of fiction as “slipstream,” but to give it a name, to box it in, defies just what it does to the reader. Dick takes what should be an innocent SciFi pulp novel full of weird aliens and talking robots and makes it absolutely metaphysical, inducing a kind of literary vertigo in the reader that has the potential to make their lives a little, well, weirder. Even outside the pages. You don’t really put a PKD book down, you have to, in a phrase, come down from it.

Erik Davis puts it this way:

“By twisting the page-turning groove of pulp into a Mobius strip, Dick attempted to undermine the political, social, technological, and psychic structures of “reality.” He wanted a pulp guerrilla ontology that deconstructed everyone’s power trip—Nixon’s, IBM’s, God’s, the author’s.”

Similarly, Richard Doyle describes the power of Dick’s writing to be a kind of literary psychoactive:

“PKD’s fiction taps into shamanic powers to shape and bend consciousness and the realities that project from it… Dick, writing through the psychedelic sixties and seventies and into the early eighties, seems to have discovered a way to alter our consciousness entirely through language, remixing the old esoteric traditions of alchemy, shamanism, contemplation, and prayer in his wacky cauldron of science fiction and metaphysics.”

Commenting on the late Michael Harner, who developed the idea of “core shamanism,” Doyle suggests that the use of monotony and repetition to induce trance and, ultimately, an experience of “union with the cosmos.” “One can work with the effects of words themselves,” Doyle writes, “whether as a fragment of poetry or as a line of computer code, to shape consciousness and alter our experience of reality.” He tells us that reading the Exegesis can be understood as a “nine-thousand-page icaro”—a shamanic song used in the Amazon—to achieve gnosis in oneself.

And what is the gnosis of Philip K. Dick? Beyond the negative paranoia of false realities, and false gods, the gnostic vision for Dick was one of ultimate, cosmic empathy with all sentient beings. A deep reading of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep reveals that. The gnostic mythos, if we can say it is a singular one, is one in which the divine logos — that pink light — is invading our false world (The Divine Invasion) and taking us up into itself. Righting the mistake of demiurgic entropy, the doomed reality destined for heat-death. Dick would, in the Exegesis, find kinship through the writings of Teilhard de Chardin and the concept of the noosphere, of Omega Point (the point drawing all history toward itself) as one in which the divine reality, the logos, incarnated itself through cosmic evolution. Dick’s spiritual faith, if we can call it that, was a heart broken open by the suffering of the world, his aspiration looking to the invading steps of the Logos, however frail and incremental, as the ultimate alchemical transubstantiation.

So, you’ve discovered PKD. You’re interested in what this kind of postmodern, literary gnosis could mean for you. You landed in the right place—reading the right string of words—because we can now explore what it might mean to take this up as a serious part of divinatory and contemplative practice.

We Can Induce Ultra Meta-Cognition For You, Wholesale

“The spiritual aspect of human nature is not being addressed adequately in the culture, if at all. Indeed, it is aggressively denied. So people give up on elite public culture and go to popular culture, to comics and graphic novels, to film and to psychedelic sacraments. Where else are they supposed to go?”

— Jeffrey Kripal, in an interview

In an interview I held with Erik Davis a few years back, he mentioned that a spontaneous act of bibliomancy assisted him when hosting his first talk on PKD. He had forgotten to prepare a good definition of gnosis (which, in this article we really haven’t done either). So he flipped open VALIS to find the words: “This is Gnosticism.” The next lines describes gnosticism as a theological position, where “man belongs with God against the world and the creator of the world (both of which are crazy, whether they realize it or not.).”

In other words, the demiurge. The false god, and the fake world.

We should move on from the Exegesis (for now) to suggest that to really get something out of this, we would be best to adapt an occult view of books, writing, and reading. That they hold oracular function: often described as “bibliomancy,” like drawing a tarot spread, we draw the words from a random page by an intuitive flick of the wrist.

There’s a meta nature to this, as PKD himself used the I-Ching to write The Man in the High Castle just as his characters, within the book, used it to divine their potential futures.

Richard Doyle, in our recent class on Nura Learning, “PKD, VALIS and Practices of Ultra Meta-Cognition,” suggests that the awareness of yourself reading a book is an act of “meta cognition.” A technique Philip K. Dick uses just about everywhere. Nowhere is it more apparent, though, than in VALIS, where he fictionalizes himself into the novel, not once but twice. The reader moves back and forth with the protagonist between visionary gnostic delight and the sheer gravity of eviscerating self-doubt.

You can get a little dizzy. But you can also have fun.

Take UBIK, for example, a novel set on some future Earth where psychics are real—pre-cogs—and the dead aren’t completely dead. In fact, they can talk to you. The novel mostly follows a down-and-out Mr. Joe Chip as he argues with an apartment that is presciently filled with micro-transactions — Enter 10 cents to use the refrigerator door, please! Or I’ll sue. — and a reality that seems to be constantly devolving into past forms. Coffee gets cold. Food gets moldy. Cars revert to their 30-year-old counterparts. Then, of course, there’s UBIK, a strange and, yes, ubiquitous spray can which seem to temporarily reverse entropy.

Now, as you’re reading this in Dick’s involving style — his narrative voice starts to invade your inner monologue — you very much start to feel a kind of reality vertigo.

Your eyes might misperceive a street corner that you think says “UBIK.” Perhaps you even come across a Mr. Runciter Real Estate sign (you’ll get the joke when you read the book).

Reality is turning into quicksand for Mr. Joe Chip, and, by extension, so too for you. You may have to put the book down for a day. It’s not always fun when a book seems to invade your reality, bringing synchronicities along with it. This deeper substratum between interior world and exterior reality, between matter and meaning, the text of the page and the text of life is exactly the precarious path of the literary gnostic.

All the while this is happening — and many, if not all of PKD’s books have this effect — you are aware of what’s going on in your mind.

You’re watching yourself become affected by the total breakdown of the Real. So this state of mind, Doyle argues, is not just “meta cognition,” but “ultra meta-cognition.” When self, ego, and reality become dislodged, become slipstream, when the foundations of the real become as mercury, then you become capable of leaping through the porous membranes of reality and the knowable into gnostic insight.

Whether it’s through the act of reading a PKD novel, or his Exegesis, fluttering between the heights and the depths of possibilities, turning reality up and over—as Doyle mentions, the Exegesis is without the traditional hero’s journey arc, it is “without a spine“—only to do it again, you reach a point, like a Zen koan, where the rational mind cracks into the impossible.

The head breaks open. The heart too.

In these rarified conditions, a pink light of gnosis just might zap you.

Postscript: Open the Page

Over at Nura Learning, we’re doing a 7-week course with Richard Doyle on the writings of Philip K. Dick as exercises in ultra meta-cognition. Sure, it gets a little weird, but it’s always better when you “find the others,” and make community. It’s also nice to have someone pull you up for air.

If you might start reading PKD today, we’ve put together a list of helpful, ultra meta-cognitive recommendations:


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

A Scannery Darkly 


The Divine Invasion

The Exegesis

Given that we’ve just suggested there is no one path in, the linear list above is by no means a mandate. Strike out in an act of bibliomancy and find your way with us.

Finally, check out this excerpt from the Exegesis on the “ten major principles of the gnostic revelation.”

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