Monday 14 October 2019

Review of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K Dick (1982)

Although I have owned a copy of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer for nearly forty years; it was only this weekend that I actually 'read' it - that is, I listened to the audio-book version. I found it very stimulating.

The protagonist is a type that I thoroughly despise in real life: the 'trendy', leftist-radical, media-famous, apostate Christian bishop - indeed the central character was modelled on a real life example of the breed, who was apparently a friend of the author. However, such was the depth and multi-faceted nature of this book that my irritation took a second place behind my fascination at the issues and conflicts.

Although Dick was far more sympathetic to the Tim Archer character than I would have been - seeing him as a great man who did much good and whose quest was genuinely spiritual; overall the portrait is unsparing.

This includes the way that short-termist, hedonic, personal and selfish drives are retrospectively 'validated' by the intelligent and articulate (and legally trained) Archer; who fluently distorts philosophy and Christian theology into justifying whatever he currently wants to do. Also the ways in which the bishop is de facto a parasite upon the church in terms both of his status and also of lifestyle and financially.

Dick was a very smart and cerebral writer - in this respect much like Saul Bellow; there is a wide range of artistic and cultural references, and the engagement is sufficiently deep and sincere that the book comes-across as a genuine exploration (rather than a pretentious display of names). The novel doesn't merely discuss or talk-about, but actually does philosophy.

This is unsurprising given the extraordinary and frenzied nature of PKD's final years - during which he was continually grappling with spiritual and religious issues; reading, thinking, talking and staying-up through the night writing dozens of pages of exploratory philosophy - entirely for his personal reasons (not aimed at publication, although an edited selection of these writings was posthumously made available - in 2011 - as Exegesis).

Overall, this book succeeds in rendering the spiritual quest to know Jesus, to understand and practice Christianity, as a very exciting and supremely important business; a matter that grips and obsesses the characters. And this is surely a consequence of the fact that it was so for PK Dick himself - in late life.

Nobody - least of all Dick - would recommend anybody to emulate Dick's lifestyle and life choices, which were largely disastrous - but this books focus on important things. There is a relentless pursuit of truth, a sustained and repeated attention to primary questions... and these are of greater urgency now than when the book was written, since our culture has drifted so far into shallowness and despair, feeble motivation, brief-attention and gullibility.

Dick's attitude and world is only the start of wisdom for a person (a society) sunk in distraction and intoxication, but that is something we need now more than ever.


Sackerson said...

Simply madness?

And yet one is suspicious of those whose first instinct is not to explain, but explain *away*.

And what about Thomas Aquinas?

Bruce Charlton said...

@S - Madness perhaps, but not 'simply' madness. Madness doesn't really explain content as such - but psychotic symptoms arise from certain physiological conditions; and PKD took a lot of drugs capable of inducing hallucinations. What I find so impressive is that he spent many years of hard, serious work trying to understand the implications of his revelatory experiences.