Sunday, October 30, 2016

Let's Blog VALIS! Part 4 of 14

The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.

4. In which Horselover Fat is confined to a lunatarium.

This chapter parallels the history of the primitive church. IMHO.
The entire time of persecution, extending long after 70 C. E., is mirrored in Fat’s experiences in the Mental Hospital of the County of Orange. 

He begins by dying – watching his heart flatline on the monitor – after trying to commit suicide by Three different means (pills, razor blade, and car engine) and being treated for stage Three digitalis poisoning, Fat is delivered into captivity. As the Church, the body of Christ, he has died with Christ and been reborn.  

 In captivity, Fat is visited only by characters from outside who have been identified as Christian: Sherri, then David. Since existence is trans-temporal, they can participate, if only vicariously, in his captivity, but Kevin, the cynical voice, does not visit him, and he is glad, for he no longer needs mockery to reinforce his delusion. In captivity Fatdoes not witness boldly: like so many of the early Christians faced with persecution, he flinches from martyrdom in the face of his interrogators, and seeks to conform himself to the things of his world. But he cannot keep from saying one true thing that he states to be true: “I thought Beth would hurt Christopher.” (Elizabeth is the name I would have had if I were a girl, by the way. Just arrogantly inserting myself into the narrative.) Suicide is not in any way a rational response to the fear that Beth would hurt Christopher. What could it mean, eschatologically? I dunno.

Strangely, when Kevin does contact Fat - not in person: he rings him up - he is not the cynical voice Fat feared, but is enthusiastic in providing his own interpretation of Fat's theophany, eagerly asserting that he has in some way made contact with the 'upper realm'. This indicate, I think, that the fact of the Incarnation is so dramatic that it calls out for some explanation from even the most cynical representatives of the world.

In captivity Fat interacts with two women who have names which show that they are the archetypes of the heroine in the  Jewish and  Graeco-Roman roots of our Western Civilisation, respectively. Debbie and Penny. Deborah and Penelope. It does not matter, I think, that their names mean ‘bee’ and ‘duck’. 

Debbie is described as a Jehovah’s witness – a witness of YHWH – and having eyes like pools of fire. She represents the Jewish contribution to the early Church’s understanding of its theophany. This is what she says to Fat: “Our Lord God has prepared for us a place to live where there will be no pain and no fear and see? The animals lie happily together, the lion and the lamb, as we shall be, all of us, friends who love on another, without suffering and death, forever and ever with our Lord Jehovah who loves us and will never abandon us, whatever we do.  ... All beasts, all men, all living creatures great and small will bask in the wamrth of Jehovah’s love, when the Kingdom arrives. You think it will be a long time, but Christ Jesus is with us today.”

Penny’s words to Fat are much briefer. She is a ‘psych tech’ – two Greek fragments – and she says:  ‘Why don’t you play cards? ... I think you should play cards.” This is the Graeco-Roman contribution to Christianity. You should have rules. You should have arbitrary rules which are independent of the content of the revelation, formed by a priori human logic, and you should manipulate symbols according to these rules. There is no profit in it, says Fat; but it is the rule of the civilisation in which the Church is captive, and he and Debbie find value in it: “they play kid’s games like Fish”. They become as little children, and their games centre on the Fish symbol which was the catalyst for Fat’s theophany and the symbol of the hidden Christians.

As for Doug – well, Douglas is ‘black water’ and Dougal is ‘black stranger’ – and with his hidden knowledge and fakir-like self-abomination he represents the influence of “Eastern Mysticism” – that current of Manichaeism that led to the gnosticism that so overshadows Horselover Fat’s intepretation of his theophany. 


“When  they all made out their lunch orders Doug wrote:


“That should read ‘prefrontal’” Doug said, and wrote in the ‘pre’.

“How do you know that?” Fat said.

“There are two ways of knowing,” Doug said. “Either knowledge arises through the sense organs and is called empirical knowledge, or it arises within your head and it’s called a priori.”

  ... this assertion of Doug's regarding the two ways of knowing is one of the great harms done by this Neo-Platonist stream in Christianity, IMHO, and the same has been asserted to me in a private communication by Prof Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University, although he traces the main part of the infection to Descartes - the mind/body dualism that has so handicapped the acceptance of religion in the modern world is bound up with this esoteric assertion that knowledge can arise within your head, in a way that is not accessible to anyone else. But we can think of these two ways of knowing as the two possible ways of knowing, one of which does not actually exist, in which case Doug's assertion is harmless.

And about this time in the story – in the clearest indication yet that in this chapter Fat is recapitulating the early history of the Church – Fat begins to inscribe on the shields he draws ‘In hoc signo vinces’, just like Constantine marked on his banners.

And then, Fat's escape from his captivity when he is believed, or pretended to be believed, by a man named Stone – Stone, as in “I am Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.”  The first name of Dr Stone is “Leon”, which comes from Lion, so may indicate that he is an image of Christ: “Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”  (Revelation 5:5) Leon was a common name adopted by Jews in mediaeval Europe as a calque for Judah, which also means 'lion', btw.
I had thought that Dr Stone might possibly be emblematic of the sephirot yesod, יסוד ,“foundation” – which Wikipedia tells me corresponds to the Holy Spirit – but I am not so sure.

The chapter ends: “Now Fat would never depart from faith in his encounter with God. Dr.Stone had nailed it down.”

The Wikipedia article on the Bach remedies does not have an ‘instances in popular culture’ so does not mention VALIS. O tempora, o mores!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Let's Blog VALIS! Part 3 of 14

They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell

3. In which more theodicy happens. (Don’t backchat me, I know theodicy)

The theodical argument has gone on in this chapter from generalities to the particular case of Horselover Fat, basically, and more details of his theophany are made manifest. It is Sherri who does the theodical heavy lifting in this chapter, making a fairly decent argument about purpose emerging from purposelessness to which Kevin can only reply with the non-sequitur ‘eat shit’.

The ineffectiveness of the ‘New Atheists’ (same as the ‘Old Atheists’) is expressed vividly in this chapter: 
‘In my opinion, Kevin’s cynical stance had done more to ratify Fat’s madness than any other single factor... In no way, shape or form did Kevin represent a viable alternative to mental illness. His cynical grin had about it the grin of death: he grinned like a triumphant skull. Kevin lived to defeat life. It originally amazed me that Fat would put up with Kevin, but later I could see why. Every time Kevin tore down Fat’s system of delusions – mocked them and lampooned them – Fat gained strength. If mockery were the only antidote to his malady, he was palpably better off as he stood. Whacked out as he was, Fat could see this. Actually, were the truth known, Kevin could see it too. But he evidently had a feedback loop in his head that caused him to step up the attacks rather than abandon them.’

It doesn’t do any good to confidently proclaim: ‘the universe has no meaning.’ People want the universe to have meaning. If you go around convincing people that the universe has no meaning and they should just, as Tim Minchin says, be passionately committed to short-term goals, you are just white-anting your civilisation. Someone is going to come along more charismatic and convincing than you are, some false prophet out of the deserts of Berkeley or Arabia, saying, ‘of course the universe has a meaning, here it is,’ and like the poor-childlike peasants Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor lose sleep over they will gratefully turn from your nihilism to the false prophet’s visions and haul your lotus-eating arse in front of the Holy Tribunal.

Sherri does not seem to be at all evil in this chapter. So is the characterisation of Sherri whacked, or does she become evil in later chapters, or does PKD just see her as becoming evil as his mind disintegrates? I don’t know. Sherri’s strategy for trying to get Fat grounded in reality- going on and on about the T34 tank – is one I would use. Introspection is bunk. We are tiny, unimportant things. We need to focus on something outside ourselves, something particular, something complicated and beautiful that we can lose ourselves in, to be happy. Red army armour is as good as anything. The outside world is realer than you are: you are just an impressionistic epiphenomenon at the interface between a part of the universe that generates sense impressions and another part of the universe that reacts on those sense impressions.  (Yes, yes; I affirm at the same time that this epiphenomenal youness exists eternally in the mind of God and is created in His image, and that the two ways of looking at you are complementary, not contradictory.)

This: ‘If you grant the possibility of a divine entity, you cannot deny it the power of self-disclosure.’
The question then is, how do you distinguish a true theophany from a false theophany? I advise the use of the words of the Christ of the synoptic gospel, ‘by their fruits you shall know them.’ You should listen, Fat, to David, or to those guys who carry the oil-smeared one- it hit them last year. If you grant the possibility of theophanies, you have to look seriously at the recorded theophanies. You can’t dismiss one out of hand just because (let’s say) a billion people claim it is true and it has inspired heroic acts of selflessness for thousands of years; if 9/10 of the great art and architecture of your civilisation are bound up with this theophany, and if it is reinforced year by year by thousands of people all over the world claiming to experience the same theophany. Maybe your experience should be interpreted in the light of this reported theophany. What are the fruits of your experience? You should try to conform it the teaching of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. You don’t agree? Maybe that is because my argument isn’t very convincing. Or maybe, it is because you live in a time and place, Northern California in the 1970s, that is hyperindividualistic to an absurd degree, more than practically anywhere before or since, where you would rather go mad in your own new way than stay sane in someone else’s old way.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Let's Blog VALIS! Part 2 of 14

And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king. 


2: In which theodicy happens.

This chapter introduces Horselover Fat’s theophany, without giving a straightforward narrative of the events around it, and starts off by saying that it was mediated in two ways, by the pink beam of light and by the pot made by the high-school girl and dope dealer Stephanie.  Exactly how God slumbered in the pot is not made clear.  Then Fat and PKD go off to argue theodicy with Kevin and David. 

David is never given any very good arguments, which is a pity, because he is identified as a Catholic and I think there are good Catholic arguments to be made in answer to Fat’s questions.

viz. “Being a Catholic, David always traced everything wrong back to man’s free will. This used to annoy even me.”

Now, if I were David, I would have pointed out that this is clearly not true. It’s not all the fault of man’s free will, unless you very broadly define ‘man’ to include, in the classical understanding, many kinds of created beings who are more powerful than we are and have the capacity to misuse their free will. ‘As C. S. Lewis said,’ I would say, in an irritating way, if I were David, ‘Talking about the angel of the sphere of Jupiter: “We don’t realise how far up the ladder of created beings goes.”[1] There are things our instinct would be to worship – that would be indistinguishable to God to us unless we were great Saints – that are far less than the greatest of the angelic hierarchy. If a mere human soul can create suffering on a worldwide scale – think of Stalin – how much harm could the steward of a galactic cluster do? Misery on a scale of billions of years and millions of light years. You should be familiar with this sort of thing, PKD, with your knowledge of gnosticism, but this is fundamentally different: this is not lesser Gods creating an evil world, but created beings – incommensurable with God, who is not a thing, who is unique, who is I AM WHO I AM –created beings screwing up an intrinsically good world.

You cavil at angels? Then try this.  Those guys who carry the oil-smeared one came up with this when they were first year students at university, prompted by one of those Chick tracts about the evils of Evolution.  Without Evolution I would be unable to believe in God, they said. Because Evolution lets God off the hook in a big way.

Let’s say everything has some free will – it doesn’t have to be a lot. Rats, mosquitos, single-celled micro-organisms, electrons, quarks, neutrinos, those ‘branes’ that string theorists postulate got the cozy little thing we call ‘the universe’ started by clashing together; give them all some tiny capacity to co-operate with or reject the intrinsically good plan God invites them to be part of. It is like a big role-playing game with an unimaginably vast number of players where in playing, the players make up the rules for the players who are to come after them. So we end up with a world where not only can Stalin drag you into Siberia and kill you, and not only can the bilharzia worm bore into the wall of your bladder, an earthquake can flatten Lisbon. If everyone/thing had co-operated completely with the divine plan, the rules of the physical universe would be subtly different.  All this evil is because our free will is constrained by the accumulated actions of everyone/everything acting before us, who got it a little bit wrong. We are flawed and broken because we suffer from the original sin of All Decisions Antedating Man. Through EVEnts sin entered the world. 

That’s what I would have said, if I were David.

The name Stephanie comes from the Greek ‘στεφανος’, ‘crown’. This is the highest sephirot ‘above consciousness’ of the Kabbalah of Moshe Cordovero, keter, כתר. “Divine Will to create/Infinite Light of the Creator/the Hebrew name of God “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh-I Am that I Am”

Stephanie is a cypher, having paramount importance in the early part of the story in somehow catalysing Fat’s theophany but then mysteriously vanishing from the novel, in the same way that keter was replaced by daat in the later Kabbalah of Isaac Luria. (I love Wikipedia; it makes this sort of thing so easy...)

A crown is also the archetype of a sacramental artefact. It is an object that serves as a sign of a higher level of reality, which functions to impart power to someone, which can only be used in certain ritual ways by certain select persons. The pot Stephanie gives to Fat is a sacramental artefact: it mediates a higher level of reality. Like the EdFrank artefact of ‘The Man in the High Castle’, it reveals that what the user thought was reality is not reality, that there is another more fundamental level of reality. So those EdFrank artefacts with their mysterious ‘wu’ are the projections of Stephanie’s pot backwards in time, or this idea of sacramental artefacts is one that PKD originally employed in fiction and only later applied to his understanding of real life events.

Sherri appears in this chapter, but she is not named at first – she is just a girl the narrator once knew who was dying of cancer. This is since it is the Fat personality that knows her, not PKD, I guess. The name ‘Sherri’ comes from French ‘cheri’, beloved, so is actually the same name as David, which comes from a Hebrew root דוד meaning ‘beloved’. So the two explicitly Christian characters have the same name, but are otherwise totally opposite: Male/female, good/evil, vague/particular, laconic/verbose, lives/dies. They could embody different sides of loving-kindness, chesed, חסד, one of the primary conscious emotions in the Kabbalah of Moshe Cordovero, the sefirot which by getting out of balance with judgment, gevurah, גבורה, brought evil into the world.

I am puzzled by the rosary next to Sherri’s hospital bed here, since while she is obviously a member of a sacramental Church where Communion is the central feature of worship, we are told her priest is married so everything else points to her being an Episcopalian. I did not grow up praying the rosary but they have been praying it before Mass at the Cathedral here for October, the month of the Rosary, and there is a line in a prayer that is part of it that has been going around and in my head puzzlig me since I first heard it: “Save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of your mercy.” My knee-jerk reaction to this, which I thought was orthodox, is that surely all souls are equally in need of God’s mercy? But this is an old prayer supported at the highest levels of the Church. And why mention heaven and hell separately? Why us and everyone separately? And why not the other way around: ‘Save all souls from the fires of hell and lead us to heaven.’ I think this prayer will continue to confuse me/us until I/we realise that it is pointing to the atemporality of reality, again: somehow we can all be in heaven and all in danger of the fires of hell and this can be a contingent state of affairs and at the same time a state existing in eternity.

Kevin is from Gaelic meaning something like: ‘kind/honest/handsome born’. He says that he is racially Celtic in Chapter 9. I think this is a hint at the basically good-hearted but naive nature of his position in the discourse. He only sees the superficies of everything, and is motivated by the love of a cat: he is like a faerie, a creature that does not have Man’s knowledge of Good and Evil, that is somehow less than Man. So I think  ‘honest born’ is an appropriate name for him.

And little Christopher is here, of course. The carrier of the anointed one. The vessel through which the truth of the revelation is made manifest, fulfilling the role of John the Baptist in making straight the way of the Lord in the desert, but with a name pointing also to the atemporality of the revelation: for Christopher came after Christ, and was (1 Jan 1970, ruled mythological, and removed from the calendar of the saints. In the next chapter we find out his mother’s name is Beth – and John the Baptist’s mother’s name was Elizabeth. ‘Beth’ just means ‘house’ and isn’t a biblical name, but Eli+Zabeth means either “GOD is promise” or “GOD is Seven”.

[1]: For this was great Glund-Oyarsa, King of Kings, through whom the joy of creation principally blows across these fields of Arbol, known to men in old times as Jove and under that name, by fatal but not inexplicable misprision, confused with his Maker-so little did they dream by how many degrees the stair even of created being rises above him.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Let's Blog VALIS! Part 1 of 14

Vivat Hispania! Domino Gloria! Don John of Austria has set his people free. (G. K. Chesterton, Lepanto). 

1: In which Gloria shows rationality at the service of non-being.

This first chapter is all about Gloria, and her self-destructive behaviour in which she tries to make as many others complicit as possible. She is made to seem like the un-man in Perelandra: a husk with nothing inside, trying to negate the people around her as she goes down.  I find it very difficult to read which is why I have only managed to read this book twice; normally I start re-reading but only get a very little way, giving up on this chapter.

Chesterton: “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings; it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He canot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer.”

Nuff said.

The opening two words of the novel are ‘Horselover Fat’, which I have realised – I mean, which Those Guys Who Carry the Oil-Smeared One have realised is meant as a hint that we should find out the meaning of the names of all the characters appearing in the novel. Gloria is dead easy, since it is obviousl just ‘glory’. ‘Knudson’, her last name, means ‘son of the knot’. The other characters appearing here are Gloria’s husband, Bob Langley, which has to be Robert, hrod beraht, ‘bright fame’, ‘long glade’. And her mother is Carmina, which seems to come from Carmen, which has something to do with ‘song’ but is ultimately a corruption of the Hebrew Carmel, כרמל ‘plantation or orchard’. I thought the Timothy – Τιμοθεος, ‘honouring God’ - in this chapter was the same as the David who appears later (since I recall reading that IRL David was Tim Powers, author of the Anubis Gates), but he is introduced as someone Fat doesn’t know. These all seem to hang together to me to recall the Garden of Eden, with the glades and orchards and the Angel with the burning sword guarding the way in. 
Glory is the sephirot hod, הוד, one of the secondary conscious emotions in the Kabbalah of Moshe Cordovero.  She is described as having been at Mt Zion (Hospital), but has left it as the story begins, so eschatologically this chapter may be all about the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Which is interpreted eschatologically as a suicide: the Temple, in this vision, willed its own destruction.

Oh, and there is one more name, the cat, Chairman Mao. is the character in Mao Zedong’s name, which also means ‘hair’; the ‘mao’ that means ‘cat’ is the character .