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Book review

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick (1928 – 1982) was a popular and brilliant American science fiction writer. For those of you who never read his work, be informed that he is probably present in your unconscious anyway, if you’ve seen such films as Blade Runner, Total Recall, The Minority Report and others.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer , the third in a trilogy, was the last book he wrote, and was inspired by a “mystical Experience” that Dick had in March 1974 and described as “an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind”.  A year after the events, in March 1975, Dick summarized the experiences that would pervade his writing for the final eight years of his life:

       "I speak of The Restorer of What Was Lost The Mender of What Was Broken."

        "March 16, 1974: It appeared - in vivid fire, with shining colors and balanced patterns - and released me from every thrall, inner and outer.

        "March 18, 1974: It, from inside me, looked out and saw the world did not compute, that I - and it - had been lied to. It denied the reality, and power, and authenticity of the world, saying, 'This cannot exist; it cannot exist.'

        "March 20, 1974: It seized me entirely, lifting me from the limitations of the space-time matrix; it mastered me as, at the same time, I knew that the world around me was cardboard, a fake. Through its power of perception I saw what really existed, and through its power of no-thought decision, I acted to free myself. It took on in battle, as a champion of all human spirits in thrall, every evil, every Iron Imprisoning thing."

So, with all due respect to our anthroposophical readers, these books, although retaining a certain style, are not science fiction, but “spiritual science fiction”.

The other two volumes of the trilogy are Valis and The Divine Invasion. I have chosen to call this a review of the last book because I consider it the best. Actually I’ve had all three in my bookcase – unread - for at least a year. Then a week or two ago, something directed my eye to them and I picked out the Timothy Archer one in order to remind myself if I had read it or not. In leafing through I realized I had not. So I began with the one I had in my hand and was enthralled. It was only after I’d finished and turned to the first, Valis, that I figured out why I hadn’t read them. Valis starts slowly and I probably tired of it thinking – God, three volumes of this – put it back resolving to return when I was in a more patient mood. So I recommend to the reader that he/she also start with number 3 – The Transmigration of Timothy Archer – and only then, when sufficiently hooked, go to Valis, and then to The Divine Invasion. You won’t regret it.

Instead of telling you about the book, or books, I prefer to cite an example of the writing and the content:

Tim is the Episcopal Bishop of California; Bill is his schizophrenic son-in-law; Kirsten is Tim’s mistress and Bill’s mother; Jeff is Tim’s son, who committed suicide; the narrator is…never mind. They are all driven by a bizarre quest for Christ. 

 

"Is there any proof of God's existence?" Bill said.

After a pause, Tim said, "A number of arguments are given. Perhaps the best is the argument from biology, advanced for instance by Teilhard de Chardin. Evolution - the existence of evolution - seems to point to a designer. Also there is Morri­son's argument that our planet shows a remarkable hospitality toward complex forms of life. The chance of this happening on a random basis is very small. I'm sorry." He shook his head. ''I'm not feeling well. We'll discuss it some other time. I would say, however, in brief, that the teleological argument, the argument from design in nature, from purpose in nature, is the strongest argument."

"Bill," I said, "the bishop is tired."

Opening the bedroom door, Kirsten, who now had on her robe and slippers, said, "The bishop is tired. The bishop is always tired. The bishop is too tired to answer the question, 'Is there any proof of the existence of God?' No; there is no proof. Where is the Alka-Seltzer?"

"I took the last packet," Tim said, remotely. "I have some in my purse," I said.

Kirsten closed the bedroom door. Loudly. "There are proofs," Tim said.

"But God doesn't talk to anybody," Bill said.

"No," Tim said. He rallied, then; I saw him draw himself up. "However, the Old Testament gives us many instances of Yahweh addressing his people through the prophets. This fountain of revelation dried up, finally. God no longer speaks to man. It is called 'the long silence.' It has lasted two thou­sand years."

"I realize God talked to people in the Bible," Bill said, "in the olden days, but why doesn't he talk to them now? Why did he stop?"

"I don't know," Tim said. He said no more; there he ceased.

I thought: You should not stop there. That is not the place to come to the end.

"Please go on," I said.

"What time is it?" Tim said; he looked around the living room. "I don't have my watch."

Bill said, "What's this nonsense about Jeff coming back from the next world?"

Oh God, I said to myself; I shut my eyes.

"I really wish you would explain it to me," Bill said to Tim.

"Because it's impossible. It's not just unlikely; it's impossible." He waited. "Kirsten has been telling me about it," he said. "It's the stupidest thing I ever heard of."

"Jeff has communicated with the two of us," Tim said. "Through intermediary phenomena. Many times, in many ways." All at once, he reddened; he drew himself up and the authority that lay deep in him rose to the surface: he changed as he sat there from a tired, middle-aged man with personal problems into force itself, the force of conviction contrived into, formed into, words. "It is God Himself working on us and through us to bring forth a brighter day. My son is with us now; he is with us in this room. He never left us. What died was a material body. Every material thing perishes. Whole planets perish. The physical universe itself will perish. Are you going to argue, then, that nothing exists? Because that is where your logic will carry you. It isn't possible right now to prove that external reality exists. Descartes discovered that; it's the basis of modem philosophy. All you can know for sure is that your own mind, your own consciousness, exists. You can say, 'I am' and that's all. And that is what Yahweh tells Moses to say when the people ask who he has talked to. 'I am,' Yahweh says. Ehyeh, in Hebrew. You also can say that and that is all you can say; that exhausts it. What you see is not world but a representation formed in and by your own mind. Everything that you experience you know by faith. Also, you may be dreaming. Had you thought of that? Plato relates that a wise old man, probably an Orphic, said to him, 'Now we are dead and in a kind of prison.' Plato did not consider that an absurd statement; he tells us that it is weighty and something to think about. 'Now we are dead.' We may have no world at all. I have enough evidence - your mother and I - for Jeff re­turning to us as I have that the world itself exists. We do not suppose he has come back; we experience him as coming back. We have lived and are living through it. So it is not our opinion. It is real."

“Real for you," Bill said.

"What more can reality give?"

"Well, I mean," Bill said, "I don't believe it."

"The problem does not lie with our experience in this mat­ter," Tim said. "It lies with your belief-system. Within the confines of your belief-system, such a thing is impossible. Who can say, truly say, what is possible? We have no knowledge of what is and isn't possible; we do not set the limits-God sets the limits." Tim pointed at Bill; his finger was steady. "What one believes and what one knows depend, in the final analysis, on God: you can't will your own consent or refusal to consent; it is a gift from God, an instance of our dependence. God grants us a world and compels our assent to that world; he makes it real for us: this is one of his powers. Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God, was God Himself? You don't believe that, either. So how can I prove to you that Jeff re­turned to us from the other world? I can't even demonstrate that the Son of Man walked this Earth two thousand years ago for us and lived for us and died for us, for our sins, and rose in glory on the third day. Am I not right about that? Do you not deny that also? What do you believe, then? In objects you get into and drive around the block. There may be no objects and no block; someone pointed out to Descartes that a malicious demon may cause our assent to a world that is not there, may impress a forgery onto us as an ostensible representation of the world. If that happened, we would not know. We must trust; we must trust God. I trust in God that he would not deceive me; I deem the Lord faithful and true and incapable of deceit. For you that question does not even exist, for you will not grant that He exists in the first place. You ask for proof. If I told you this minute that I have heard God's voice speaking to me-would you believe that? Of course not. We call people who speak to God pious and we call people to whom God speaks lunatics. This is an age where there is little faith. It is not God who is dead; it is our faith that has died."

"But-" Bill gestured. "It doesn't make any sense. Why would he come back?"

"Tell me why Jeff lived in the first place," Tim said. "Then perhaps I can tell you why he came back. Why do you live? For what purpose were you created? You do not know who created you - assuming anyone did - and you do not know why, assuming there is a why. Perhaps no one created you and perhaps there is no purpose to your life. No world, no pur­pose, no Creator, and Jeff has not come back to us. Is that your logic? Is that how you live out your life? Is that what Being, in Heidegger's sense, is to you? That is an impoverished kind of inauthentic Being. It strikes me as weak and barren and, in the end, futile. There must be something you can believe, Bill. Do you believe in yourself? Will you grant that you, Bill Lund­borg, exist? You will grant that; fine. Good enough. We have a start. Examine your body. Do you have sense organs? Eyes, ears, taste, touch and smell? Then, probably, this percept ­system was designed to receive information. If that is so, it is reasonable to assume that information exists. If information exists, it probably pertains to something. Probably, there is a world-not certainly but probably, and you are linked to that world through your sense organs. Do you create your own food? Do you out of yourself, out of your own body, generate the food that you need in order to live? You do not. Therefore it is logical to assume that you are dependent on this outer world, of whose existence you possess only probable knowl­edge, not necessary knowledge; world is for us only a contin­gent truth, not an ineluctable one. What does this world consist of? What is out there? Do your senses lie? If they lie, why were they caused to come into being? Did you create your own sense organs? No, you did not. Someone or some­thing else did. Who is that someone who is not you? Appar­ently you are not alone, the sole existent reality; apparently there are others, and one of them or several of them designed and built you and your body the way Carl Benz designed and built the first motorcar. How do I know there was a Carl Benz? Because you told me? I told you about my son Jeff returning"

"Kirsten told me," Bill corrected him.

"Does Kirsten normally lie to you?" Tim said. "No," Bill said.

"What do she and I gain by saying that Jeff has returned to us from the other world? Many people will not believe us. You yourself do not believe us. We say it because we believe it is true. And we have reasons to believe it is true. We have both seen things, witnessed things. I don't see Carl Benz in this room but I believe he once existed. I believe that the Mer­cedes-Benz is named after a little girl and a man. I am a lawyer; I am a person familiar with the criteria by which data is scrutinized. We-Kirsten and I-have the evidence of Jeff, the phenomena."

"Yeah, but that phenomena you have, all of them - they don't prove anything. You're just assuming Jeff caused it, caused those things. You don't know."

Tim said, "Let me give you an example. You look under your parked car and you find a pool of water. Now, you don't know that the water came from your motor; that is some­thing you have to assume. You have evidence. As an attorney, I understand what constitutes evidence. You as an auto­mechanic- "

"Is the car parked in your own parking slot?" Bill said. "Or is it in a public parking lot, like at the supermarket."

Slightly taken aback, Tim paused. "I don't follow you."

"If it's your own garage or parking slot," Bill said, "where only you park, then it's probably from your car. Anyhow, it wouldn't be from the motor; it'd be from the radiator or the water pump or one of the hoses."

"But this is something you assume," Tim said. "Based on the evidence."

"It could be power-steering fluid. That looks a lot like water. It's sort of pinkish. Also, your transmission, if you have an automatic transmission, uses the same kind of fluid. Do you have power steering?"

"On what?" Tim said.

"On your car."

"I don't know. I'm speaking about a hypothetical car."

"Or it could be engine oil," Bill said, "in which case, it wouldn't be pink. You have to distinguish whether it's water or whether it's oil, if it's from the power-steering or the trans­mission; it could be several things. If you're in a public place and you see a puddle under your car, it probably doesn't mean anything because a lot of people park where you're parked; it could have come from the car parked there before you. The best thing to do is-"

"But you're only able to make an assumption," Tim said. "You can't know it came  from your car."

"You can't know right away, but you can find out. Okay; let's say it's your own garage and no one else parks there. The first thing to figure out is what kind of fluid it is. So you reach under the car-you may have to back it out first and dip your finger in the fluid. Now, is it pink? Or brown? Is it oil? Is it water? Let's say it's water. Well, it could be normal; it could be overflow from the relief system of your radiator; after you turn off an engine, the water gets hotter sometimes and blows out through the relief pipe."

"Even if you can determine that it is water," Tim said, doggedly, "you can't be sure it came from your car."

"Where else would it come from?"

"That's an unknown factor. You're acting on indirect evi­dence; you didn't see the water come from your car."

"Okay-turn the engine on, let it run, and watch. See if it drips."

"Wouldn't that take a long time?" Tim said.

"Well, you have to know. You should check the level in the power-steering system; you should check your transmission level, your radiator, your motor oil; you should routinely check all those things. While you're standing there, you can check them. Some of them, like the level of fluid in the trans­mission, have to be checked while the motor's running. Mean­while, you can also check your tire pressure. What pressure do you carry?"

"In what?" Tim said.

"Your tires." Bill smiled. "There're five of them. One in your trunk; your spare. You probably forget to check that when you check the others. You won't find out you've got no air in your spare until you get a blowout someday and then you'll find out if you have air in your spare. Do you have bumper jack or an axle jack? What kind of car are you driving?"

 

"I think it's a Buick," Tim said.

"It's a Chrysler," I said quietly.

"Oh," Tim said.

 

In all three volumes, Philip K. Dick has weaved Judaism, Kabalah, Zoroastrianism and Christianity into a fascinatingly beautiful, crazy vision of life – real or not. I can’t resist taking away one surprise from “Valis”. The hero’s name is Horselover Fat. Strange name for a hero, for even an anti-hero? Yes. But Philip is Greek for horselover, and Dick means Fat in German. Get it?

 

Frank Thomas Smith



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