A well known science-fiction author visits the dentist for a serious procedure. During the course of the treatment, he has a religious experience, an apparent revelation of some deep cosmic truth. He then spends most of the rest of his life attempting to refine his understanding of what he experienced.
In broad outline, this odd anecdote is the story of two famous, and rather different, twentieth-century Americans.
In 1938, L. Ron Hubbard, then a science-fiction writer for pulp magazines, underwent a dental operation. Having received a gas anesthetic, Hubbard believed that he had a brush with death, during which the secrets of the universe were revealed to him. According to the man who later became his literary agent, Hubbard had an out-of-body experience and floated through a huge gate, on the other side of which Hubbard found “an intellectual smorgasbord of everything that had ever puzzled the mind of man–you know, how did it all begin, where do we go from here, are there past lives–and like a sponge he was just absorbing all this esoteric information.” Then, as quickly as this began, he was pulled back into his body. Following this experience, Hubbard quickly wrote a novel entitled Excalibur, about a man who writes a secret text of great meaning. But Hubbard never published it. More than a decade later, however, he would write Dianetics. And later still, of course, he would create Scientology. He would later claim that everyone who had read the unpublished Excalibur had experienced a mental breakdown. The last publisher he had shown it to, according to Hubbard, had set down the manuscript and immediately leaped from a skyscraper.**
In 1974, Philip K. Dick, a prolific writer who had already published most of the novels and short stories that would later make him celebrated as one of the most significant science fiction authors, had an impacted wisdom tooth removed. His dentist gave him sodium pentathol and later sent a nurse to his home to deliver a prescription of Darvon. According to Dick, a gold Jesus fish that the nurse wore on a necklace emitted a ray of light which led Dick to have a profound religious experience. This proved to be only the first of many such experiences for the author, which would continue until his death some eight years later. Unlike Hubbard, whose experience eventually led him to launch a new religious movement, Dick turned to writing to attempt to understand an experience that he himself had trouble grasping. The remaining four novels he produced — the VALIS trilogy (VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982)) as well as the posthumously published Radio Free Albemuth (1985), were all attempts to come to grip with these experiences. He also left thousands of pages of notes and literary fragments about them, which were finally edited and published two years ago as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.***
Both Hubbard and Dick have lately been the subjects of much critical attention, largely journalistic, but also scholarly. Dozens of exposés have been written about the Church of Scientology, which has earned a reputation as America’s most notorious religion. Though Hubbard had been taken relatively seriously as a science fiction writer early in his career (he was admired by John Campbell, the most famous of the pulp editors, and Robert Heinlein thought highly of him), Dick is, for good reason, seen as the far superior writer. And it’s not surprising that the principal interest in his religious musings has come from the literary world. The Exegesis was co-edited by the novelist Jonathan Lethem (who counts Dick among his greatest influences) and literary scholar Pamela Jackson. But it has also attracted the attention of theologians and philosophers.****
But neither Hubbard’s nor Dick’s religious writings have received sustained treatment by intellectual historians. The reasons, at first blush, seem obvious. Hubbard’s ideas, though certainly influential for the unfortunate few sucked into his Church, are largely ridiculous. Most analyses of Hubbard and his movement concern themselves with the sociology of religion and the nature of the institutions that Hubbard built. Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, the latest comprehensive look at Scientology, describes the doctrines that Hubbard propounded, but is much more interested in the operations of the Church and the way it relates to its members, especially its core of Hollywood celebrity followers. Dick’s religious ideas, though more sophisticated and potentially interesting on their merits, are deeply messy; unlike Hubbard, Dick himself never entirely felt he understood the experience he went through. And, unlike Hubbard, Dick never attempted to to build a movement around his purported religious experience. Were it not for books published in the last two years of his life and after his death, his experiences would have been entirely private.
Do these sorts of questionable ideas — confused, ridiculous and possibly shot through with bad faith (in the case of Hubbard) or fascinating, inchoate, solipsistic, and possibly the result of mental illness (in the case of Dick) — have a place in the intellectual history of twentieth-century America? I think they do.
Both Hubbard and Dick are deeply influential thinkers, though their influence flows through riverbeds not much explored by intellectual historians. Hubbard’s Dianetics is only one of a number of successful, pseudo-scientific self-help books that appeared in the decade after World War II. Scientology, though unusually successful, is one of dozens of new religious movements that have sprung up throughout American history. Dick’s intellectually serious science-fiction writing has, especially in the decades since his death in 1982, had an enormous impact on the genre in books and on screen. Dick’s novels, which often feature characters whose very identity is called into question in the context of future societies in which technology seems to threaten stable individuality, have helped shape American self-understandings, directly and indirectly (for example, through the very Dickian film The Matrix). All of this helps explain the enormous attention that literary scholars, science fiction fans, and even some theologians and philosophers have been willing to devote to the apparent mess that is The Exegesis. Both Hubbard and Dick were autodidacts, who drew–consciously or not–on an extraordinarily broad series of religious and philosophical traditions in their attempts to systematize their thought.
Of course, what we intellectual historians ought to do with such figures is complicated. Certainly, we can put them in the context of larger intellectual movements (Dick’s religious writings, for example, seem related to the growing interest in gnosticism in the 1970s). But if for no other reason than that these ideas have had enormous power over people, we ought not to ignore them.
We might compare Hubbard and Dick to John Humphrey Noyes, who founded the Oneida Community in 1848. Noyes’s new religious movement, built on utopian socialist principles, including “free love” (a term Noyes coined), was widely despised in his day and today is preserved largely in the flatware produced in Oneida by a company that began within Noyes’s utopian community. But intellectual historians have long been fascinated by Noyes, because his ideas, however peculiar, had enormous historical resonance. Noyes was also helped by his rejection of Victorian values, which future generations of academics often disliked. Though I have a hard time imagining that Dick’s and especially Hubbard’s religious ideas will ever be similarly attractive to future academics, I suspect that both will one day be seen, like Noyes’s, as having historical significance and, eventually, intellectual historians will attend to them.
* I struggled with this title. I almost went with “crazy thought,” but that seemed too simply pejorative. “Fringe thought” was another possibility, but sometimes the fringe gets things right. “Disreputable thought” was another possibility. The problem with “irrational” is that some irrational thought is utterly mainstream. Oh well…come up with a better title if you can!
** Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf, 2013), 28-30.
*** Simon Critchley, “Philip K. Dick: Sci-Fi Philosopher, Part I,” The Stone, May 20, 2012.
****That Simon Critchley piece, linked above, is the first of a three-part series on Dick as a philosopher.