In The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick, Kyle Arnold delves into the complicated psyche of one of the 20th century's most important writers. At the center of the subject is the profound vision Dick experienced in 1974, which he referred to as "2-3-74." Arnold, a psychologist at Coney Island Hospital and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, explains the experience and its significance.
In February of 1974, Philip K. Dick was home recovering from dental surgery when, he said, he was suddenly touched by the divine. The doorbell rang, and when Dick opened the door he was stunned to see what he described as a “girl with black, black hair and large eyes very lovely and intense” wearing a gold necklace with a Christian fish symbol. She was there to deliver a new batch of medications from the pharmacy. After the door shut, Dick was blinded by a flash of pink light and a series of visions ensued. First came images of abstract paintings, followed by philosophical ideas and then, sophisticated engineering blueprints. Dick believed the pink light was a spiritual force which had unlocked his consciousness, granting him access to esoteric knowledge.
In the following months, the visions continued. Scenes of ancient Rome appeared, superimposed over Dick’s suburban neighborhood. A local playground seemed a Roman prison. Where there was a chain-link fence, Dick saw iron bars, and where there were children playing, he saw weeping Christian martyrs about to be fed to lions. Dick saw pedestrians dressed in Roman military uniforms, stone walls, and iron bars. “I hadn’t gone back in time,” Dick wrote to a friend, “but in a sense Rome had come forward, by insidious and sly degrees, under new names, hidden by the flak talk and phony obscurations, at last into our world again.” Dick supposed time had stopped in 70 A.D., the year the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by a Roman siege. Everything that happened afterwards was an illusion, and the world was still under Rome’s dominion. Dick believed the Roman Empire was embodied in the tyrannical Nixon administration, and responsible for the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. His own role was that of an undercover Christian revolutionary fighting to overthrow the Empire. That was why the delivery girl had flashed him the fish sign. Some of this information, he claimed, was provided by three-eyed extraterrestrial time travelers who entered his bedroom through a portal of pink light. Dick fictionalized these experiences in his sci-fi novel VALIS.
There’s considerable difference of opinion among Philip K. Dick enthusiasts about what it all meant. Was it a psychotic break or a religious experience, and how would one tell the difference? Dick knew that what he called his “divine madness” would come across as mental illness. By his own admission, he grappled with paranoia, and self-depreciatingly called himself a “flipped-out freak.” The paranoia was probably the result of speed. A prolific author who published 34 novels during his lifetime, Dick used amphetamines to maintain his productivity. Friends recall that his refrigerator was stuffed with bottles of amphetamine pills jammed next to pre-made milkshakes. Dick gulped the pills by the handful and washed them down with the milkshakes. He called them his “happiness pills” and “nightmare pills.” When his addiction went into high gear, so did the paranoia. While walking in the country, Dick had a vision of a “vast visage of perfect evil” spanning the sky. “It had empty slots for eyes –it was metal and cruel, and worst of all, it was God.”
And yet, the divine madness of 1974 was different. Although it included paranoid elements–the most obvious being the nefarious Roman Empire lurking beneath appearances–there was more to it than that. Dick felt guided by tutelary spirits. Following their advice, he took better care of his health and made clever business decisions. In one instance, a hallucinated voice urged him to seek medical care for his infant son for what turned out to be a hernia. Dick’s judgment improved. He felt more alive. In a sense, his divine madness drove him saner.
It didn’t last. Eventually, “the divine spirit left.” Spiritually abandoned and in despair, Dick attempted suicide. He overdosed on his blood pressure medication and slit his wrists. Then, he climbed into his car and turned the engine on, with the garage door closed. He hoped that if the overdose and slit wrists didn’t do him in, the carbon monoxide would. The suicide failed. Dick vomited up the medication, his wrists coagulated, and the engine stalled.
For the rest of his life, Dick was obsessed with his close encounter with the pink light. Trying to make sense of it, he wrote an 8,000 page commentary he called his Exegesis. In it, he proposed that the source of the pink light may have been God, the KGB, a satellite, aliens, a 1st century Christian named Thomas with whom he was in telepathic communication, the CIA, a version of himself from a different dimension, or possibly his deceased twin sister contacting him from the spirit world. Each new theory seemed to telescope outward into further possible theories, ad infinitum.
While Dick never settled on a definitive explanation of what happened to him, he did explain why his divine madness was so captivating. Before the visions, he felt alienated for most of his life, an observer in a strange world. But in 1974 it seemed as if “the world changed to accommodate me so that I was as a result of this radical change no longer a stranger here; it became my world–and my anxiety, which tormented me every day and night, departed… all of a sudden I fitted in.” For a short time, he had a place in the universe.