There is a Better World. Well, There Must Be.

Back at LSU I took a course called “Theories of Myth”, taught by Robert Segal. One of the theorists we studied (alas, I don’t remember which) said that all myth (including the myths we’ve promoted to the category of “religion”) strive to answer two questions:

1) What happens to us when we die?

2) How is it that we see people who have died in dreams?

I finished reading VALIS by Phillip K. Dick last night (which I neither loved nor hated, despite predictions) and formulated my own theory of myth (which I’m sure has been formulated by others many times over). Western myths, it seems to me, assume the following:

1) Death is scary.

2) The world is horrible and imperfect.

3) Humans are special.

4) Since humans are special and the world is horrible and imperfect, something has clearly Gone Wrong.

5) Someone who isn’t us will fix this.

That’s the 200+ pages of revelation of VALIS, pretty much in a nutshell. Oh, it’s a pretty entertaining time getting there, but that’s the gist of it. In all its talk of pink lasers, rock star messiahs, living information, escape from time, and such, the driving theological/mythological idea is, “Something is Wrong and someone needs to fix it.”

This is, of course, the same message as Christianity. For that matter, it’s the same message as Scientology. Something’s Gone Wrong, and we humans, though special, are unable to fix it without the help of Someone Else.

How do we know something’s Gone Wrong? Because clearly we special humans were meant to live in a perfect world, and this world is not perfect. There’s death and suffering, to begin with. How can there be death and suffering in the perfect world we’re obviously meant to inhabit, being special and all? So something’s Gone Wrong. And only Someone Else can help us, because if we could help us, then we would, and things would be perfect.

Can you count all the contradictions?

Of course, the difficulty in talking about VALIS is that it’s a novel, but it’s not. It’s an infuriating mixture of “reality” as perceived by Phillip K. Dick and fiction. For me, a creative work must stand on its own; I don’t care a whit about what the creator has to say about it in interviews. So it’s difficult to separate what’s intended as “real” and what isn’t. Granted, this is true in every myth.

VALIS is also infuriating because it couches all of this in an excruciating mix of Christian and New Age gobbledygook. To its credit, it seems to realize this, and recognizes that there’s always the possibility that this could just all be a load of kack. However, that possibility is never really seriously considered, because there are two things in the novel that can’t be overlooked:

1) The skeptic character, Kevin, becomes a convert. This is always a bad sign. In fact, the only character that never completely drinks the Kool-Aid is a character named David, and he only because his strong Christian beliefs won’t allow in the New Age kookiness the others are pushing on him.

2) The matter of Christopher. Nearly everything given as evidence of mystical interference in the life of the narrator/protagonist can be easily written off except for this one thing. (Unfortunately, it isn’t written off, so instead of it all coming down to a single difficult-to-explain event, the attempt is made to make it appear there are many difficult-to-explain events.) The mystical information that the character Horselover Fat allegedly receives from the entity called Zebra/God/VALIS includes a diagnosis of a then-undetected birth defect in his infant son, which turns out to be exactly true. It’s not a common birth defect, and the information supposedly comes from nowhere, and yet proves to be 100% correct and saves the child’s life.

So, Skeptic, how do you explain that? Obviously, I can’t. I wasn’t there. I’ve no idea what happened and how. For all I know, a holographic living entity time traveling Roman Christian in a satellite beamed the information into Dick’s head via pink lasers. Or maybe there’s an alternative explanation. I don’t disagree that it certainly is an intriguing story and mystery, and it’s pretty easy to understand how someone who experiences such a thing might become obsessed with figuring out what the hell happened. Nothing kooky about that.

What’s kooky is, and we see this all the time in so many circumstances, assuming that because this incredible thing happened to me, I am special and it has larger ramifications for humanity as a whole. As a kid, I once accidentally ran through a plate-glass storm door. I should have been shredded by broken glass, but I emerged unharmed except for a small cut on the palm of my hand. Am I protected by a guardian spirit because I’m a new messiah? Am I the harbinger of the race of super-entities into which we’re all evolving? Or did I get extremely lucky?

(I once read somewhere, or maybe I made it up, that “Religion is, in a sense, the worship of not understanding statistics.” Always keep in mind that anything with a “million to one” chance against it can happen eight times in New York City (population 8,104,079) alone.)

VALIS comes down to one guy trying to explain one event. And for some reason this event grows into a bizarre conspiracy and philosophy that haunts people and ruins lives. As a novel, this is interesting. As reality, it’s sad.

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4 Responses to There is a Better World. Well, There Must Be.

  1. Just linked to this from my journal. Great stuff!

  2. Yeah, Valis is pretty wacky – there’s a second novel he wrote about the same thing that’s much more grim and serves as an excellent counterpoint to VALIS.

    I liked the story about how Philip K. Dick cranked out 11 novels in a single year during his heavy-amphetamines days; if I recall correctly, that’s the same year his wife tried to shoot him.

    Of the other novels, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, and The Unteleported Man are probably my favorites. I’ve got a couple of the short story collections, too. It’s uneven. If he had bothered to take care of himself at all, he might have lived long enough to see the Matrix, but oh, no, he had to kick the bucket right after the filming for Blade Runner finished up.

  3. Kurt says:

    The ‘one in a million’ always cracks me up. I was watching ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ and they say that the guy is super rare, 1 in a million. I’m immediately thinking ‘In China there are over a HUNDRED of these guys!’.

  4. Zed says:

    (I meant to comment on this ages ago when it was current.)

    Valis SPOILERS BELOW for those concerned…

    It’s been some 15 years since I read Valis, so I could be flat-out wrong about some of my recollection.

    I, too, hate books where authors want to present a viewpoint as correct, and have disbelievers either convert, or come to a bad end for their heresies.

    I don’t think PKD did that in Valis. Kevin converts, but then, in the end, he turns on the God-figure. My reading of it (again, remembered across 15 years) is that ultimately, Kevin was a disbeliever again.

    It’s set up in the beginning that if he ever met God, Kevin wants to ask him “Why did my cat die?” And, then, he does get to meet God. And asks him. And hated the answer, and rejected God.

    If Kevin had simply been a True Believer, I’d have thrown the book against the wall. But in the end, I don’t see that the book affirms the God-figure’s godhood. Or that it says that it’s a good thing if it’s true. And that’s some of why I think Valis is a fascinating book.