Transcript for Jonathan Lethem on Philip K. Dick's "The Exegesis"

Jim Fleming: Novelist Jonathan Lethem joins us again. This time he's going to talk about a book called "The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick."Lethem coedited it with Pamela Jackson.
The Exegesis is a 900-page doorstop, based on the bizarre collection of thousands of pages of typed and handwritten notes, journal entries, letters and story sketches, that Dick obsessed over during the last eight years of his life.  He was trying to come to terms with a series of strange visionary experiences.

Jonathan Lethem tells Steve Paulson about the events that changed Dick's life.

Jonathan Lethem: It's so easy to ask, and it's so hard to say, because, of course, saying what happened to him is what the whole project of The Exegesis consists of. What we're certain happened is that he began to experience an almost overwhelming sense of revelation. Visions occurred to him and concepts occurred to him, voices came to him. Dreams that weren't like regular dreams happened to him at night, and he ascribed all of this to some kind of higher power. And he didn't know what it was, but he felt contacted by something, and he began to try to interpret it.

Steve Paulson: And it goes back, originally apparently  to a visit to the dentist when he had his wisdom teeth removed.

Lethem: He had been to the dentist and he needed a painkiller, and the pharmacist sent a delivery person to his door. And he opened the door and the delivery person was a young person who was wearing a Christian fish, you know, that symbol that we see on the backs of bumpers of cars now, and she was wearing it around her neck.

And he was struck, not just by curiosity, but he felt some kind of awesome flood of information entering his body and his brain at that moment. And he asked her what it was, and she said it was a symbol of ancient Christianity. So, that seemed to him a very important clue. And from that point on, and for the next couple of months especially, although the visions were intermittent for the rest of his life, he was recipient of a flood of unsettling revelatory feelings and thoughts.

Paulson: And to the point where, I mean, in this particular case, apparently, he thought that he and this young woman who delivered the painkiller were secret Christians from way back when, I mean, there was sort of this sense of , I don't know if reincarnation's the right word, but there was a long history that went back there.

Lethem: That was one of the thoughts he had, and he became obsessed with historical interpretations, theological interpretations, philosophical concepts. At one point he thought he was being taken over by the ghost, essentially, of a dead friend of his, Bishop Pike, who had been a very important figure in the Bay Area in the religious scene a few years before, and had died in mysterious circumstances in the desert in Israel.

He believed for a while that this was evidence that the entire universe was a computer, and he generated a lot of notions and theories that actually recapitulated a lot of , some of the most far out speculations of contemporary philosophy and physics. He basically grappled with this revelation with every tool available to him, from Encyclopaedia Britannica to going to see Nicolas Roeg's film, "The Man Who Fell to Earth" with David Bowie in it, and suddenly imagining that an alien race had contacted him.

He'd use anything at hand, basically, to try to adjust and interpret and expand his guess about what kind of mystical vision he was undergoing.

Paulson: Now, it would be tempting to write off these episodes as psychotic, in some way. Maybe drug-induced, you know, after he originally had his wisdom teeth extracted, I don't know, but that seems too simple.

Lethem: Well, it's almost impossible not to want to write them off or explain them away in some form. I sort of joke in the introduction that anyone looking for a description other than revelation will be spoiled for choice.

You can guess that he was experiencing some kind of series of small strokes, you can guess that he was undergoing a very specific kind of neurological disorder called "Temporal Lobe
"Epilepsy,"  you can guess about drugs, you can guess about paranoia, you can guess about schizophrenia, you can decide he was just a science fiction writer who'd taken his own visions too seriously.

And I think that what's worth saying is that all of these things are theories he himself would have been interested in. And he generates his own guesses about psychosis in the pages of The Exegesis.
It wasn't that he insisted that there was a divine explanation or that he was somehow suddenly in an exclusive conversation with a higher power, it's that he was experiencing an intricate and extensive series of philosophical thoughts as a result and he thought it was worth trying to understand them on some term or another.

So, he himself is very open to some of the exact explanations that others would use to dismiss what was going on. And the reason it's impossible to dismiss the Exegesis is not because there could ever be any evidence that something other than one of the explanations was the cause of it. Forget the cause. The pages themselves exist. He wrote in this vein brilliantly for eight years of his life. They're basically a very brilliant mind going mano-a-mano with the universe.

Paulson: [chuckles] I love your description of The Exegesis. I mean, you say it's absolutely stultifying, it's brilliant, it's repetitive, it's contradictory, it just might contain the secret of the universe.

Lethem: [chuckles] Yeah. Well, that's a sort of a tease.

Paulson: [chuckles]

Lethem: The problem with looking to it for an answer is not that it doesn't contain one, it contains a thousand. He contradicts himself again and again. He throws everything out and goes back to the drawing board and generates another theory about how time and space and mind interact and why we're here and what the universe consists of.

So, it's useless as a compass. It won't lead you to anything in the way of a solution to the matter of existence, but it will, if you do give yourself to these pages, it will give you an immense experience of how perplexing and how rich, how extraordinary the dilemma of existence really is.

Paulson: So, do you have favorite passages or parts of the Exegesis?

Lethem: I have loads, yeah.  It switches gears a lot. You know, he was a very complicated, contradictory; very seductive and brilliant mind. He was famous for taking people on strange journeys, if they'd come and visit him. He'd tell them what they wanted to hear, and he'd do it for hours on end. He was a Rorschach blot of a mind.

The Exegesis itself, sometimes, it comes on very punitive and moralistic like a kind of a nightmarish vision of God's requirements, and other times it's very polymorphous and inviting and strange and charming, and there are times when he despairs of ever understanding what his purpose on Earth might be, and there are times when he becomes quite fascinated with his own writing and he decides the answer might lie in his earlier novels.

So, if you're interested in his writing you can find pages upon pages of him deciding all of a sudden that a book he wrote in 1964 is the answer to everything, that he accidentally already knew how everything worked, in "Ubik" or "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

I like a lot of it, and I like a lot of it in different ways. There are times, not a great number of them, where he switches into his storytelling mode and he starts to be the writer you're familiar with from his novels, writing brilliant allegories or brief fables, essentially.

Paulson: You have a copy of "The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick" there with you, and I guess I'm going to ask you to pick out something. And you have 900 pages to choose from. [chuckles] A short passage that youâ'd like to share with us?

Lethem: OK. This is a nice bit to read. So, in this sequence he's talking about one of the most important names he's given to the spirit that seems to be reaching out to him from afar, from across history or from another dimension. And he's called it "Zebra." And he's named it Zebra for its capacity to hide itself within our reality, for the stripes on its body that mean unless you're looking very closely, it becomes invisible and just is taken as a natural part of our universe, but in fact, it's an enormously energetic spirit from afar.

Paulson: OK.

Lethem: (reading)  Paul Williams visited today and I told him about Zebra. I am beginning to see in my mind's eye, Zebra itself, an actual animal, a striped horse. Shy and merry and mischievous, half hiding in the forest at the far edge of the Heide, the sun shining, and Zebra playfully advancing and then just when you think he's going to emerge fully and separate himself from the treessuddenly and unexpectedly he retreats and absolutely vanishes.

 You can't coax him out, or lure him; you can't get your hands on him. His white is the dazzle of the sun; his dark stripe the shadows in the glade and forest where, amid the shadowy green / the little things of the forest live unseen.  Ah, Zebra, why really did I choose that name for you? You mythical lovely beast of sun and safe shadow; I saw you once but can never  as if you are some fabled deity  prove to anyone that you exist. I inform them, I try to take them along with me to the special spot from which I saw you and you're not there.

But I sense the glint in your eye and your smile of understanding amusement. Are you the joy god Dionysos of root and star? of dark forest and the melting butter gold of the sun? What a psychological symbol Jung would have known you to be playful and unpredictable, shy. Pawing the ground the sharp hooves, goat hooves. "Oh, goat god Dionysus! I recognize you: you are too wise, too experienced with our dangerous race ever to expose yourself to harm at our hands.

We would kill and freeze you into stasis hypostasis, and all your pawing and advancing and disappearing and smile — light would become dead glass, warm butter only hide dead, frozen but this is only your exoskeleton! Inside this form which I glimpse, you are motion and rapid change: electrons? Sheer bioplasmic energy?

I love you, I want to grip you, but you are elusive. But I am not disappointed; you are all the lovely passing persons, things and events I would want to, freeze to stop dead. Thank God I can't; Zebra, my clutching, hugging, yearning embrace would kill you, my needs kill. My fingers are the claws of the petrified dead, yearning to hold your life. Better this petrified fossil that I am should stay dead so that you can live on in immortality. Thank you; thank you for hiding from me, thank you for your wise caution and your secret smile."

Fleming: Jonathan Lethem, reading from "The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick." Lethem is the coeditor, along with Pamela Jackson, of the book. He spoke with Steve Paulson.

Comments for this interview

VALIS (K. Riley, 03/05/2012 - 12:00pm)

Seems weird that Lethem doesn't mention Dick's own book V.A.L.I.S, which was his personal analysis and compilation of these notes on this extended episode of Dick's life.


Not mentioning it at all seems like an obvious & gaping hole, and therefore intentional.

Seriously, why?