RELIGIOLOGIQUES, 16 (automne 1997) RITUELS SAUVAGES (135-143)

Valis and Modern Gnosis

Philip L. Tite[*]

[résumé / abstract]


Philip K. Dick's novel, Valis, offers one contemporary expression of gnostic thought.[1] In Richard Smith's estimation, it is in Dick's writings (especially Valis) that "Gnosticism is most consciously employed" within science fiction literature.[2] I can also think of other science fiction stories, beyond those Smith notes, that reflect gnostic thought. The movie Star Trek V clearly employs gnostic thought, specifically in presenting a demiurge figure (as well as a need to overcome fear [passion], a cosmic barrier, and finally the climactic statement that god is within the person). The gnostic influence, however, is not as self-conscious as with Dick's work, and thus his novel serves as a useful (and influential) presentation of contemporary gnostic speculation.[3] In this brief paper I will outline the novel Valis, and then offer a reflection upon the gnostic elements within this novel.

Dick presents both a gnostic revelation and a gnostic quest within the genre of a novel. He begins this work with a traumatic setting. We are grabbed with the opening, "Horselover Fat's nervous breakdown began the day he got the phonecall..." (p. 9) We are then taken through a tale of Fat's friend Gloria's suicide. In his failed attempt to help her, Fat, in effect, assists in pushing her into committing suicide. In regard to Fat's own character development, as Dick has already signalled to us, this event results in the psychological death, crisis, of Horselover Fat. Fat enters into various traumatic events, including drug abuse, attempted suicide, and failed love/marriage relationships. Soon, however, the main character's life is permanently redirected with an esoteric experience in 1974. After a beam of pink light strikes him, Fat finds himself flooded with a sea of data that he cannot fully understand or explain. We find him desperately trying to understand what has happened to him. Much of the novel includes excerpts from his "exegesis" (i.e. an 8000 page hand-written document of trying to philosophically understand gnosis; a select form of this exegesis appears at the closing of the novel).[4] These excerpts are mixed with a series of dialogues with other characters (including "Phil Dick" &emdash; a character not entirely equivalent to the author, yet a literary expression of the author's self-understanding). Each of these characters are typological presentations of differing world views (David as the faith-oriented type, Kevin as the sceptical-type, Sherri as the hopeless believer-type, etc.). As the novel progresses, the group attempts to understand this transcendent being that transmitted this information to Fat (named "Zebra"). After seeing the film Valis (meaning Vast Active Living Intelligence System), the group is convinced that Fat's visionary experience was indeed a real one (Kevin typifies this transformation, and narratively indicates the complete reversal of unbelief to belief). They form a religious sect of sorts (the Rhipidon Society), and attempt to track down the film's producers. They locate them (the Lamptons and Mini), and come into contact with Sophia (a child incarnation of Valis). They receive a commission from Sophia (parallelled with the various commissions of the disciples by Jesus in early Christian traditions), and are miraculously removed from the fanatically dangerous Lamptons.[5] Shortly afterwards the Rhipidon Society learns of the accidental death of Sophia, and the shame of the Lamptons. In effect, their hopes are dashed, and it is Fat who continues to search for a reincarnation of Sophia. The novel ends with a sense of hope (p. 228), but also without any real solutions. An appendix closes the novel with a selection from the exegesis.

The main character of the book bears the same name as the author, Philip Dick, and is meant to be a literary portrayal of part of the author's self-understanding. In essence this novel is a philosophical autobiography of the author. As the author articulates early in the book, Fat and Dick are the same person. This dual presentation of the one author into two characters is more than a literary technique. It indicates Philip Dick's schizophrenia. Looking at the way in which Dick consciously utilizes this schizophrenic personality as a literary technique will help us in better understanding the narrative flow of Valis. The two characters, Horselover Fat and Philip Dick, are both distinct persons and the same person. We learn near the closing of the book that "Horselover Fat" is an acronym for "Philip Dick" (Philip meaning "horselover" in Greek; Dick meaning "fat" in German). At the opening of the book, Dick states that the distance he draws between himself and Fat is necessary in order to "gain some much-needed objectivity" (p. 11). The character demarcation, however, is much sharper than this statement implies. The two are kept as separate identities, with Dick sometimes wondering if he really understood Fat, or even remembered what Fat had told him (see p. 20). We find at times the two even in dialogue (see p. 21). In essence, we have two distinct characters, who happen to be the same person. Simply put, some of the differences are that (1) Dick is the narrative voice and (2) Dick represents the clear-headed persona of the author, while Fat represents his psychologically deranged drug infested persona.

As the novel progresses, we find that Dick actually becomes more of a character. His actual name is used, and when a group is together they are numerically counted as two distinct individuals by other characters. Eventually, the reader (at least myself as one reader) finds the Dick and the Fat characters being confusingly melded together into one character. Finally, after the encounter with Sophia, the Fat character is obliterated (p. 190). This establishes a "mono"-character in place of the "dual"-character. As Sophia states, "Phil, Kevin, and David. Three of you. There are no more" &emdash; as a result the narrator exclaims, "Turning to speak with Fat &emdash; I saw no one... Fat was gone. Nothing remained of him" (p. 190). The need to eliminate Fat was "to make you whole" (p. 190). After the failure of the Sophia soteriological hope, the main character is severed into two distinct individuals once again. Now, however, the separation is much sharper.

This sharp separation between Fat and Dick is illustrated by the geographical imagery used to distance the two personas. For example, on page 21 Dick states that "Fat and I spent a lot of time together, and in the course of our going out at night, a regular event with us, cruising for action, seeing..." (emphasis mine). This typifies the bulk of the book: the two are always together, spatially interconnected. Fat re-enters the story in chapter 14 (p. 216). Fat and Dick are again dialoguing with each other.

The geographic separation occurs when Fat indicates a desire to keep searching for Sophia (or a rebirth incarnation of Sophia). Fat states "I shall go over to Wide-World Travel" (p. 217), which the author qualifies with "Fat said, half to himself" (p. 217-18; emphasis mine). This qualifier marks for us a separation of the two personas, a separation that is closely related to geographic imagery. Later we find Dick, and the other characters, receiving postcards from Fat from various exotic localities around the world, and an eventual meeting of all of them (the two are kept separate due to their experiential differences which are resultant of the geographical distances).

The geography strikes me, furthermore, as being ironically symbolic of the reversal of the character roles. At the opening of the book, Dick is the one who is in charge of the situation, the even-headed character, while Fat is the misdirected and hopeless, suicidal person going around in a destructive cycle. After the new separation, the Fat character is the one with hope, still searching optimistically. It is the Dick character who is now without hope and wondering if Fat is correct or crazy.[6]

The narrative plot within the novel revolves around these two personas of the author. We find a movement from separation to near union to absolute oneness to absolute separation. The gnostic dualism of the book (and possibly of the author's thought overall) is developed around this developmental presentation. It seems to me that the supporting characters, the narrative tale, and the exegesis itself, are reflective of the searching of the author to understand his gnostic experience and his struggle with his own state of mind. This spiritual autobiography is a mythical one based upon an internal dualistic struggle and a continual search for understanding (in this case of the pink light experience, and the surrounding scenario around that experience).

Having outlined, albeit very briefly, the narrative thrust of Valis, both in a summary and in regard to the primary character, I will now explore the connections between this novel and classical Gnosticism. One of the difficulties I find with this part of the paper is the problem of defining what is essential in so-called classical gnostic systems. Given this methodological hindrance, some important connections can in fact be drawn between Dick's novel and the gnostic systems of late Antiquity. If anything, the fact that Dick both drew upon the Nag Hammadi texts explicitly[7] and claimed to be a Gnostic, indicates to me that a gnostic connection is methodologically acceptable in Dick's case.[8]

Dualism has been one key element in defining Gnosticism. Rudolph, Pétrement, and Couliano are illustrative of the importance that dualism plays within designating a text/group as "Gnostic".[9] The term "radical dualism" has been a catch-word among scholars in referring to Gnosticism. As I have already indicated, Dick's book presents a strong dualistic tendency. The dualism of Valis, however, is expressed in more personal, rather than cosmological, terms. The movement in Valis from dualism to monism and then to an even greater dualism is expressed in the development of the Dick/Fat character(s). Cosmological dualism, however, does play a role in the novel. Most notably cosmological dualism is expressed in the film VALIS and the idea of the "empire" (which has temporal connotations; i.e., in referring back to the Roman Empire and the temporal overlap between the second century and the twentieth century). The actual existence of a pneumatic-type realm is not clear within the novel, and thus the cosmological dualism of Valis is ambiguous. Dick's dualism also fits the gnostic mythos, specifically in regard to both the lost divine spark in the human/material realm (the classical Sophia myth) and the good vs. evil dualism of many religious systems (including forms of Gnosticism, Manicheanism, and various forms of Jewish and Christian sects such as the Qumran community). Mackey's comments summarize this dualism well:

The "Exegesis" is involved with metaphor-building around the basic conflict between cosmic good and evil that informs most of his work, from The Cosmic Puppets through Palmer Eldritch and Ubik. Ubik, Dick decided, was a power identical with Valis, a foreshadowing of the 1974 experience. While Valis was the "Macro Mind," Dick himself was "a micro-Pluriform of the Logos," impregnated with the "plasmate," or divine essence. By attacking him through various conspiracies, Satan would trap the divine Logos, which would then assimilate Satan's dominion, the world. Dick did not see himself as unique: every human being was Valis in seed form, but most were "occluded," or ignorant, of their true selves, and under the sway of the forces of "astral determinism."[10]

A reading of classical gnostic systems (such as in Irenaeus, Against Heresies or in the Tripartite Tractate) would parallel many of the motifs found in Mackey's quote. Mackey goes on to say that Dick's dualism does not conform totally to the typical gnostic dualism. Rather than a negative view of the world[11], and thus a separation between the true god and the creator god, Dick sees Valis being "also God the creator", viewing "the action of Valis as part of the normal governance of God over the cosmos." In a sense, the negative world is a product of humankind, a "Black Iron Prison" that Valis "is a fail-safe mechanism to get man out of the maze"[12]. Thus, Dick's soteriology fits the gnostic (and platonic) conceptualization, yet without a degraduation of a creator god. The cosmological dualism strikes me as reflecting the personal dualism (just as the film mythically presents in summary the larger drama of the novel). This personal dualism further strikes me as being closer to contemporary esoteric holistic oneness of many so-called modern gnostic groups, such as those influenced by Jungian thought.

The dualism of Valis differs from the Jungian system in that while Jung argued for union of archetypal pairs, Dick presents the need for the destruction of the negative side of the individual (i.e., Fat). Dick's concept is presented well in Sophia's destruction of Fat (p. 190). I found it troublesome at first to see that holism necessitated the elimination of one of the two personas (resulting in the statement "then he's [Fat] in me? Alive in me?" [p. 190]). Dick's dualism is closer to the classical gnostic view of the body-soul dualism, where a shedding of the physical nature is necessary for the spiritual to move forward (for example, Gospel of Thomas 37,4; Hymn of the Pearl; Gospel of Truth 31,1-12; Treatise on Resurrection 49,9-16; Apocryphon of John II,31,4; yet see Prayer of the Apostle Paul A,20 where a transformation of the body, rather than a shedding, seems to be present).

Dick's dualism, however, is not so much physicality as it is personality &emdash; in this regard he is closer to modern (especially Jungian) thought. The presentation, and development, of the main character(s) is the best representation I could find of Dick's dualism. The emphasis in Dick's novel is not on the destruction of Fat, as much as on the reintegration of Philip Dick and Horselover Fat into one being. Yet the existence of Fat within this new holistic form can only be accomplished with the destruction of Fat. An irony exists here to be sure. The irony reflects the gnostic monism-dualism mystery of antiquity. Dick has picked up on this monism-dualism irony and has caste his own spiritual autobiography in that very light.[13] Dick's dualism is closely connected to both the so-called classical dualistic theme, and yet also to the modern so-called gnostic systems (generically labelled "New Age" or "occultic"). In a sense, Dick has presented his own distinctive form of Gnosticism; one which reflects an incorporation of the ancient systems with contemporary thought/tendencies.[14]



Philip K. Dick's novel Valis is an expression of modern gnostic thought. In this brief paper, I have presented a summary of the plot development of Valis, as well as the developmental presentation of the Dick/Fat character. This book fits the classical gnostic system in various ways, most notably in Dick's dualism. However, Dick's dualism is distinct from both ancient and contemporary expressions of dualism. It is perhaps his distinctiveness that strikes me as Dick's most gnostic characteristic. Just as Dick struggled to understand for himself his own visionary experience, so also (I believe) the ancient Gnostics struggled with their own esoteric experience(s) and thereby produced distinct yet similar presentations of Gnosticism. Similar observations could be made of Carl Jung's own visionary experience. Dick is clearly connected to the ancient gnostic groups, moreso than some other modern gnostic expressions such as Star Trek V, in that he has attempted to incorporate the past gnostic traditions (e.g. Nag Hammadi) with his contemporary religious experience explicitly. In effect, Valis is an expression of gnosis.


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[* ]Philip L. Tite is a graduate student in the Department of Religion and Culture, Wilfrid Laurier University.

[1] I wish to express my appreciation to Michel Desjardins for first drawing my attention to the appropriation of gnostic thought by Philip Dick (1928-1982). Desjardins is currently preparing a study of this contemporary expression of Gnosticism, specifically on Dick's appropriation of ancient Gnosticism in understanding his own spirituality and visionary experience. This present study agrees with Desjardins that Dick utilizes Gnosticism to express his spirituality through his novels (Valis being the most explicit expression of this gnostic perspective), but is independent of Desjardins' more comprehensive study. A valuable biography of Philip Dick is Douglas A. MacKey, Philip K. Dick, Twayne's United States Author Series (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988).

[2] Richard Smith, "Afterword: The Modern Relevance of Gnosticism" in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, revised edition (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1990), p. 546.

[3] The gnostic expression in the Star Trek movie is not as explicit as in Dick's work, where a conscious utilization of Nag Hammadi and gnostic concepts is employed. Furthermore, Star Trek's atheistic and humanistic philosophy (as a result of its "creator" Gene Roddenberry's philosophical agenda) overshadows religious sensibilities as carefully developed as in this movie. Thus, one would take the "god within" statement by Kirk as a humanistic, anti-religious proposition rather than in reference to the "spark" within; i.e., inner enlightenment proposition which fits the other aspects of the gnostic mythos.

[4] Mackey, Philip K. Dick, p. 119, divides the novel into two major sections; the first two-thirds containing, mainly, Fat's philosophical exploration of his visionary experience (which Mackey calls the "intellectual apparatus" of the novel); the last third of the novel being more narrative in nature (as Mackey puts it, "the `story' really only begins in chapter 9, when Fat and his friends go to a film entitled Valis").

[5] Mackey, Philip K. Dick, p. 120, notes a narrative contrast between the Lamptons and the Rhipidon Society: "She [Sophia] charges the Rhipidon Society with the goal of spreading this word to everybody. The Lamptons represent the desire to keep the truth restricted to an elite few. They are insane."

[6] Note the negative attitude of Dick while in dialogue with Fat on page 218. While Dick states that all of Fat's spiritual beliefs (especially in believing in Zebra) are merely "psychological compensation" for a "pain-filled life", Fat responds, "you rob me of hope." Dick's atheistic, negative world view is further heightened when he exclaims, "You got it. Jesus died; Asklepios died &emdash; they killed Mini worse than they killed Jesus, but nobody even cares; nobody even remembers... Death is the real name for it; not God, not Savior, not love &emdash; death [emphasis original]. Kevin is right about his cat. It's all there in his dead cat" (p. 219). As Kevin represents (as a narrative figure) pessimism and cynical disbelief, this example of Dick's post-Sophia outlook indicates that Dick has taken on the Kevin-type persona, while Fat has continued along the David-type persona (i.e. the believing, searching eternal optimist). This example nicely illustrates how the supporting characters function as persona options for the main character (Philip Dick/Horselover Fat).

[7] For example, he has a dialogue with his therapist, while in rehabilitation, over the Nag Hammadi texts. Dick observes that within the Nag Hammadi texts lies the truth of his own visionary experience. Dick explicitly cites Nag Hammadi passages and draws upon gnostic terminology.

[8] An appreciation for the self-identification of religious groups has already been made by Michael Williams in The Immovable Race: A Gnostic Designation and the Theme of Stability in Late Antiquity, Nag Hammadi Studies 29 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985).

[9] Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, trans. Robert McL. Wilson (San Francisco: Harper, 1988 [1977]); Simone Pétrement, A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism, trans. Carol Harrison (San Francisco: Harper, 1990 [1984]): Ioan P. Couliano, The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism, trans. Hillary S. Wiesner and author (New York: Harper, 1992 [1990]).

[10] Mackey, Philip K. Dick, p. 113-14.

[11] Couliano, Tree of Gnosis, xiv-xvi, presents this negative world view as a rejection of (1) ecosystemic intelligence ("the universe is created for the good and highly intelligent cause and is basically good", xv) and (2) the anthropic principle ("the proper fit of the universe is to its human occupants", xv). Although Couliano's two-part breakdown of gnostic dualism is useful, his work has received some serious criticism. See especially the reviews by Michel Desjardins in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 5 (1993), p. 75-82, and my own in Calvin Theological Journal, 28 (1993), p. 496-99.

[12] Mackey, Philip K. Dick, p. 114.

[13] The importance of irony and gnostic paradox in this novel is indicated by Mackey, Philip K. Dick, p. 120-21.

[14] Other connections exist between Dick's gnostic thought and the Gnosticism(s) of late Antiquity. A searching theme was important for ancient gnostics, and searching is also important for Dick. Indeed, the entire novel, as well as the 8000 page exegesis, is a form of searching for understanding on the part of Dick. The novel ends with a non-conclusion filled with contemplation over searching for Sophia (as well as maintaining the commission). Another important connection is the eclectic nature of ancient Gnosticism and Dick's Gnosticism. Both draw upon various traditions, texts, theories, and are filled with continual speculation over these aspects. The trans-temporal connection between Dick and his second-century counterpart (the "empire") fits nicely with the gnostic idea of belonging to something larger (the "All" or the "Pleroma"). The phrase that the "empire never died" fits with the countercultural nature of the ancient gnostic system. I include this material here due to space constraints, and have given the emphasis to the dualism issue due to the importance of dualism for academic understandings of Gnosticism. A more comprehensive study of Dick's appropriation of Gnosticism is being prepared by Michel Desjardins.