December 14, 2015
Excerpt: Philip K. Dick’s Last Interview
by Melville House
This collection of conversations with Philip K. Dick—on sale tomorrow—ranges from his very first interview, when he was just a 26-year-old kid from Berkeley, to the last, conducted the day before he suffered the stroke that killed him.
Below, an excerpt from Gregg Rickman‘s final interview with Dick, a conversation that reveals a man plagued by bouts of manic paranoia and failed suicide attempts; a career fueled by alcohol, amphetamines, and mystical inspirations—and, above all, a magnificent and generous imagination at work.
INTERVIEW BY GREGG RICKMAN
APRIL 1981—FEBRUARY 1982
Gregg Rickman first read Dick’s books as a teenager. In 1981, when he was in his mid-twenties, he sent Dick an essay he had written, and Dick invited him to come visit. That led to a friendship and sixteen hours of freewheeling interviews. The conversations were collected in two volumes published in the mid-1980s, Philip K. Dick: In His Own Words and Philip K. Dick: The Last Testament. Much of the latter volume focuses on Dick’s 1974 mystical experience and his belief that the Savior, who he also called the Maitreya, was returning.
RICKMAN: I wanted to ask you how you got into philosophy—there’s so much of it underlying your work.
DICK: I was a philosophy major at Cal [Berkeley] in the ’40s, the late ’40s, and I showed a brilliance in those days—I was like eighteen, nineteen. Okay, as a freshman there, my first term at Cal, I’m sitting there in my philosophy class, see, and we’re reading Plato’s Republic. And the teacher starts talking about Plato’s theory of forms. So I raised my hand, and he says, Yes, and I say, “What is the value of this from a pragmatic standpoint?” He says, If you think you know so damned much, get out of this class and don’t come back.
I thought, This doesn’t strike me as something Socrates would have said. I had already learned enough; that is not a good argument to come back with. That is not a good answer. My criticism of the doctrine of forms was included in English empirical [philosophy]. So I thought, I’ll just pursue this on my own. I went to the library—I dropped out, and got a card for the library—and I pursued this investigation entirely on my own.
When I was twenty-one, I was reading Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. And it was real funny, because my wife Kleo was going to Cal at the time, and she came home one day and she said, “Did you tell me you were reading Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed?” and I said, “Yep, I’m reading it.” She says, “I talked to one of my professors and he says there’s probably not another human being in the United States who’s reading Moses Maimonides at this moment.” That’s a very obscure book, you know.
But I just went to the library and tracked these things down. Where I met my downfall was when I tried to read Plotinus. And I couldn’t fathom what he was saying at all. Plotinus was not in print. There were no books then of his actual writing. There was a syllabus published by the University of Chicago—or Columbia, some goddamned university—and I couldn’t make any sense of it. So I dropped philosophy at that point, and got interested in Jung, psychology, and veered off into that. So philosophy doesn’t show up as much in my early writing as psychology does. Then philosophy starts coming back later on.
RICKMAN: What got you interested in philosophy at all, as a kid?
DICK: [Long pause] I remember the incident. It’s a stupid incident, but it shows you what life is built up on. Like the Great Design hinges on these sorts of things.
I was working at this radio repair shop. I was going to high school. One of the salesmen and I were in the truck. We were bringing back someone’s giant radio-phonograph that we had fixed. And we stopped at a stoplight. This would be right after the war, 1946 or ’47.
So this salesman turns to me and he says, “See that light? What color is it?” And I say, “Red.” And he says, “I say it’s red too. But what you see that you call red may be something different than what I see that I call red.” And I said, “Well, we both call it red.” He says, “You may see as green what I call red and vice versa.” I thought, Jesus, he’s right! There’s no way we can prove it. He said, “How would you prove that we both see the same color?” I said, “I have no idea.” Most amazing thing I ever thought of. Fantastic. I was just in high school too. I thought, Shit! That’s remarkable. Struck me forcibly.
I was the kid who came and swept the floor after school. One day I was sweeping the floor. And the repairman had the radio chassis out of the cabinet, and the speaker out of the cabinet. I’d never seen the speaker out of the cabinet before. There was a wire running from the chassis to the speaker, and the radio was on and it was playing music. And I looked at the speaker and I asked how does the speaker work? The repair- man says, “Well, there’s voice coils, see, and they move back and forth and it vibrates the diaphragm.” And I say, “What makes it move back and forth?” He says, “The magnet. The wire carries this electrical charge, which changes the magnetic capacity of the magnet, so that the magnetic field varies. The voice coil, attracted and repelled by the magnetic field, moves in and out, thus vibrating the diaphragm.”
So I says, “Oh! We’re not hearing the music, we’re hear- ing the simulation of the music.” No, he says, “we’re hear- ing the music.” No, I say, “we’re hearing a conversion, a simulation”—I didn’t know the word “transduction”—that a machine makes. It so simulates the original sound that we call it music. But I can tell by looking at the structure of this speaker—he showed me the voice coil, he showed me the magnet, he showed me the diaphragm—it is a simulation. No, he said, “it’s music!” No, I said, “it’s simulation of the music.” I was making an ontological distinction when I was fifteen years old. That he could not make. That’s how I got interested in philosophy.
The big turning point came when I was nineteen. And that was a really serious matter. I woke up one day and I looked around at the world. And I said, Causality does not exist. It’s an illusion. And I talked with a guy who was in the philosophy department. I said, “I suddenly realized it was all an illusion. Because, an effect follows something, B follows A, we think A caused B. But actually it just follows it. It’s a sequence. A sequence like a sequence of integers. They’re not connected.”
PHILIP K. DICK: THE LAST INTERVIEW
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