Tuesday 26 March 2024

Philip K Dick, Tim Powers, and CS Lewis

This section of Philip K Dick's novel Valis (1981) always cracks me up, whenever I re-read it: 

It was a mainstay of Kevin's bag of verbal tricks that the universe consisted of misery and hostility and would get you in the end. He looked at the universe the way most people regard an unpaid bill; eventually they will force payment. The universe reeled you out, let you flop and thrash and then reeled you in. Kevin waited constantly for this to begin with him, with me, with David and especially with Sherri. 

As to Horselover Fat, Kevin believed that the line hadn't been payed out in years; Fat had long been in the part of the cycle where they reel you back in. He considered Fat not just potentially doomed but doomed in fact. 

Fat had the good sense not to discuss Gloria Knudson and her death in front of Kevin. Had he done so, Kevin would add her to his dead cat. He would be talking about whipping her out from under his coat on judgment day, along with the cat. 

Being a Catholic, David always traced everything wrong back to man's free will. This used to annoy even me. I once asked him if Sherri getting cancer consisted of an instance of free will, knowing as I did that David kept up with all the latest news in the field of pyschology and would make the mistake of claiming that Sherri had subconsciously wanted to get cancer and so had shut down her immune system, a view floating around in advanced psychological circles at that time. Sure enough, David fell for it and said so. 

"Then why did she get well?" I asked. "Did she subconsciously want to get well?" 

David looked perplexed. If he consigned her illness to her own mind he was stuck with having to consign her remission to mundane and not supernatural causes. God had nothing to do with it 

"What C. S. Lewis would say," David began, which at once angered Fat, who was present. It maddened him when David turned to C. S. Lewis to bolster his straight-down-the-pipe orthodoxy. 


The character of Kevin in Valis was based on SciFi writer KW Jeter; while David was based on Tim Powers. These were, at the time, young undergraduate students at the California State University at Fullerton; and the three men - together with James Blaylock, who does not feature in Valis* - would meet regularly for long rambling philosophical conversations sparked by PKD's current musings from Exegesis

I find these remembered and reimagined conversations to be among my favourite sections of Valis; and the subsequent Spiritual Quest on which the "three" contrasting friends embark, is a strange but appealing twist on the Fellowship of Lord of the Rings, of St Anne's in CS Lewis's That Hideous Strength - or indeed in almost every fantasy novel, movie and role-playing game since.  

In an interview; Powers confirmed the CS Lewis theme of the debates:  

[Tim Powers]: I remember reading Valis, and at one point Phil says, “David,” that is Powers, “had withdrawn into himself in some sort of catatonic way when confronted with the savior reincarnated. The Catholic Church had taught him how to do this. How to shut down his senses when confronted with something that violated Catholic orthodoxy.” 

I remember telling Phil, “What the hell is that? What are you talking about here, man?” He just sort of went, “Heeheeheehee.” 

And at one point in the book the Phil Dick character says to the Powers character, “Would you please not tell us what C.S. Lewis would say about this? Could you do us that one favor?” 

And I said, “I don’t quote C.S. Lewis all the time.” And again, he sort of went, “Heeheehee.” 

[Interviewer]: That’s the thing I wanted to ask you about. Were you that big of a devotee of C. S. Lewis and are you still? 

[Powers]: Oh yeah, I love Lewis. I reread him all the time. Largely his nonfiction, though his fiction is lots of fun, too. And G.K. Chesterton. I’m still a practicing Catholic, not lapsed or recovering.


I think this so reliably makes me chuckle, because I too was prone to quote CS Lewis on all manner of disputes, for the first couple of years after I became a Christian. This reflected the course of my particular path, and the role that Lewis played in it. 

I am very grateful to Lewis for his role in my becoming a Christian, and several of his books and arguments have stayed with me. 

On the other hand; it was not until I began to reject many of CS Lewis's most basic assumptions that I began to attain coherence of Christian faith - and to extricate myself from enmeshment in the futile and harmful church disputes that plague modern Christianity. 

Presumably, PKD concluded something similar... 

*I guess that Blaylock was omitted from the novel either because his personality did not fit the necessary stereotypes to enable amusing arguments, or because in Valis PKD is (usually) split across two characters (in the same body): Phil, the narrator, a SciFi author; and Horselover Fat, the crazy protagonist ("Philip" means "Horselover", while "Fat" is a German translation of "Dick"). So the generation of four-way conversations did not require the presence of a Blaylock-derivative. 


Tim Powers said...

I'm curious -- which of Lewis' most basic assumptions did you decide were invalid?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Tim Powers - I don't know if you The Tim Powers, or A Tim Powers (pseudonym perhaps)?

I'll assume you are the Real Thing. So - thanks for visiting and commenting! It is strange to turn from watching a YouTube interview with you just an hour ago, to reading a comment from you...

Assuming this is your first visit to this corner; I should say that I am a great and frequent reader/ re-reader admirer of CSL in all his manifestations; and indeed have a blog devoted to the Inklings: https://notionclubpapers.blogspot.com/ . My favourite of his specifically Christian works are probably Screwtape and Great Divorce - and Narnia.

Well, the first thing was not a fundamental assumption but actually CSL's advice (eg in Screwtape) not to be bothered about specific churches - so I got confirmed into my baptismal church (C of E) and went to the nearest branch and started confirmation preparation.

But it turned out that the C of E was (this was 2009) riven with disputes, especially about the ordination of women priests and bishops, and whether homosexuality was to be encouraged. My local church was strongly in favour of women and openly homosexual priests, and practiced what it preached. The second-nearest Co of E church (where my kids attended youth groups) was on the other side on both issues - equally vehemently.

After - rather unwillingly - being *compelled* to take one or other side, I stopped attending the nearest church, and went to the second nearest; but it was on the evangelical side of Anglicanism, and I much preferred the Anglo-Catholic liturgy, and the Book of Common Prayer.

But this situation precipitated a period of several years of trying to find a church that reflected what I felt was right, when all the churches (of all Christian denominations - including Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox) I found to be riven by disagreements and conflicts and controversies - and all, it seemed to me, becoming more corrupt and worldly almost by the month.

In the end, I was compelled to make personal discernments wherever I went - and this recognition meant that I became convinced that personal discernment must be primary, and churches secondary - indeed optional (if a suitable one could not be found, which was my case).

Then in 2020, I realized that None of the churches were serious about what they said. All enthusiastically agreed to shut down until further notice. I was particularly shocked that the RCC closed Lourdes - with the excuse that this promoted "health"!

Theologically, I have ended up in a minority of one. It is not possible to encapsulate the many fundamental (metaphysical) differences with CSL succinctly - if you are interested, you could maybe look at my mini-book on the Fourth Gospel as a starting point. https://lazaruswrites.blogspot.com/

Tim Powers said...

Yes, I'm "The Tim Powers," David in Valis (though I never have, in fact, believed anything like the idea that people get sick because they willed it!)
You're right in noting that all Christian denominations are full of disagreements & factions, most of which, by necessity, must be wrong to a greater or lesser extent. I believe Roman Catholicism is the Live Wire because its dogmas are, and have always been, unchangeable. Various factions, and even (ahem) Popes have tried to add things like the ordination of women, or condoning abortion or same-sex marriage or Communion for divorced-&-remarried people, but they always have to say, "I disagree with the Church on this or that point ..." Various other Christian denominations used to condemn divorce, gay sex, etc., and later said, "Oh well, I guess God doesn't object to those things after all, but we've got it right this time ... pending future changes."
This is a bit in haste, but I wanted to reply. I'll do better tomorrow, especially assuming you have disagreements!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Tim - I am naturally argumentative! - but also I am Not out to challenge anybody else's Christianity; and what you say seems absolutely reasonable to me.

For myself; I am not satisfied by the traditional Christian (eg CS Lewis) theological explanations of several key things including free will/ agency, the origins of evil, the nature of creation, and the nature of Jesus's divinity, and Jesus's accomplishment - I find these traditions incoherent and/or excessively abstract.

I have developed a set of metaphysical assumptions that satisfy my need for coherence and clear, simple, comprehensible explanations on these points; but others who are not dissatisfied by traditional explanations in the way that I am are absolutely welcome to their own explanations.

I regard Christianity very simply: Christians are those who desire (above all) resurrected eternal life in Heaven, and seek to attain this by the one and only path of following Jesus Christ.

Behind this are a multitude of competing and mutually-incompatible explanations of detail about "how this works" - but I do not think any of this divergence of explanation should be a cause of fundamental disunity among practicing Christians.

BTW - I don't know whether you also admire JRR Tolkien, but I have just read a very interesting and detailed spiritual biography of Tolkien called Tolkien's Faith, by Holly Ordway (2023). Among other things, it has a great deal about the Roman Catholic Church of Tolkien's era, his upbringing by a priest guardian in the Birmingham Oratory (founded by Newman) and much else. I learned a lot from it.

Tim Powers said...

If we ever meet, it'd be fun to hash it all out in a hotel bar somewhere! Especially the free will/agency business. But we can let it wait until then.
And thanks for telling me about that Tolkien biography! I'll certainly get it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Tim - " fun to hash it all out in a hotel bar somewhere!"

It is certainly a pleasant notion! but I don't travel far, due to health problems; and reside in Newcastle upon Tyne - which is rather off the beaten track for most US visitors - just a place where the train stops briefly, about 2/3 from London to Edinburgh.

Jonathan said...

Bruce, this is one of those times when your comments have turned into a better post than the post.

G said...

There is a character in The Great Divorce who sounds almost exactly like Kevin in the passage you quote.

He's a cynical world weary man without a formal education but who's been educated in the school of hard knocks. His sin is that he refuses to hope. He always struck me as a bit like Orwell. I am unaccountably drawing a blank on the name that Lewis gives him at the moment

I assume everyone here is a Tim Powers fan but if not you must read the Anubis Gates. Last Call and Declare are also phenomenal

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - "comments have turned into a better post than the post"

Agreed. Except that maybe that was the unconscious reason behind the post all along? Who knows! Sometimes synchronicities are too strong to be altogether accidental.

G said...

I would of course give a great deal to be present in that hotel room

Bruce Charlton said...

@G - Would that be the Hard-Bitten Ghost, in section 7?


My core interest in Tim Powers has actually been in him as a *person*. I have watched and read several interviews (some, not all, in PKD documentaries), and read some memoirs (some, not all, about PKD); and TP has always struck me as a very interesting, and fundamentally Good individual - especially unusual for a successful writer.

(*Most* writers I do Not regard as on the side of Good!).