“a concrete worm”

Hans Memling, Saint Veronica, c.1470/1475, oil on panel

Let’s start in 1977. Philip K. Dick takes the mic at a science fiction convention in Metz, France. He delivers a speech titled, “If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others,” in which the author declares that the world in which we live is a computer simulation, and only one of many. The audience seems amused, if a bit concerned. Yet Dick goes on to make an intractable claim: that several of his novels, including The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), “are, in a literal sense, true.” He is not joking, he tells the audience. He is completely serious. The events depicted in those works, among others, Dick now realizes, are repressed memories not from past lives but from a “different, very different present life,” which he accessed in 1974 in a sudden and possibly divine anamnesis. Through this speech, Dick punctuates a life’s work concerned with the tension between hallucination and real knowledge with a final appeal to truth. Members of an audience in thrall to vertiginous tales of other dystopic times and places are, in 1977, suddenly asked not to suspend their disbelief but to abandon it.

As the years pass, science fiction starts to look like science theory, and Dick’s apparent paranoia comes to seem more and more like prescience. The Metz address is known to PKD fans as having foreseen the themes of The Matrix (1999), including the role of déjà vu. (Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, cited by Matrix directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski as a primary influence, wouldn’t be published until 1981 in the original French, and wouldn’t appear in English for another 13 years.) Elaborating the simulated reality of Plato’s cave, or of Descartes’ deus deceptor, contemporary thinkers have suggested a heightened probability of the hypothesis being true, given our technological maturity. In 2003, for example, philosopher Nick Bostrom published an influential paper on “simulation theory,” using elegant statistical models to suggest that conscious beings are much more likely to be simulations run by their hyperintelligent, far-future descendants, than they are likely to be “authentic” organisms themselves. Slavoj Žižek and Elon Musk are among those who have publicly agreed.

Dick’s fiction is to be taken not merely as a “lie that makes us realize truth,” in Picasso’s apocryphal phrase, but a direct statement of truth itself. And, as Boris Groys states in his essay “The Truth of Art” (2016), “One has to accept the truth, even if one does not like it.” 1 If Dick’s art is, as he claims, not a lie that suggests possible or metaphorical truths but an account of literal ones, then its contents cannot be dismissed as fiction; the dystopia Dick reveals is, quite simply, our own.

Dick describes the revelations of 1974 in the novel VALIS—published in 1981, the same year as Baudrillard’s Simulacra. VALIS is not only one of his most conspiracy-laden works but also among his most confessional: its narrator, Horselover Fat, is so named to function as an avatar for Philip (“friend of horse”) Dick (“fat” in German). The source of Dick’s anamnesis isn’t clear—a message from God, an extraterrestrial transmission, a pentothal-induced neuronal misfire, a psychotic break?—and even he can only speculate. Yet what is clear is that, in 1974, the rupture that pushed Dick’s life toward a knowledge of other worlds—toward gnosis—was an aesthetic one: Dick’s visions appeared accompanied, or induced, by art. When Fat has a wisdom tooth extracted, he is prescribed sodium pentothal by his dentist; what triggers his subsequent insight is not the painkillers, however, but a necklace worn by the woman delivering them:


Touching the golden fish with one slender finger, the girl said, “This is a sign used by the early Christians.” Instantly, Fat experienced a flashback. He remembered—just for a half-second. Remembered ancient Rome and himself: as an early Christian; the entire ancient world and his furtive frightened life as a secret Christian hunted by the Roman authorities burst over his mind …. A month later as he lay in bed unable to sleep, in the semi-gloom … vague colors began to rush toward him … the vague colors abruptly froze into sharp focus in the form of modern abstract paintings, literally tens of millions of them in rapid succession. … A few days later, Fat woke up and saw ancient Rome superimposed on California 1974 ….2


The name VALIS refers to an extraterrestrial satellite-based intelligence able to bridge time and space, and which sends its signals in forms resembling abstract art. Dick describes an information-rich “beam of pink light,” whose precise color is intense and artificial, and not easily recognized or described: when Fat later scrutinizes a color chart, it’s not on there. Elsewhere VALIS’ information is received as a multimedia immersion: a flood of “colored graphics which [resemble] the non-objective paintings of Kandinsky and Klee,” projected in quick succession like the “‘flash cut’ used in movie work.”3For Dick, then, art is not only the trigger for a flashback—a transtemporal, transdimensional vehicle or “switch”—it is also what gives the flashback form. Art is the semiotic technology that allows us to move between realities. And, for anyone who recognizes it, art is the sign of a metaphysical conspiracy.

VALIS is only one of Dick’s works to use small symbolic art objects—such as tokens, pendants, a novel-within-a-novel—as signs that acknowledge and transport. The artworks that facilitate Dick’s own interdimensional experience related in VALIS are prefigured in his “in a literal sense true” novel The Man in the High Castle, which unfolds a reality wherein the Axis powers seemingly won the Second World War. Both books theorize not only a mechanism by which to penetrate multiple simultaneous realities, but an aesthetics of truth.


Domenico Veneziano painting of a nude Saint John lifting clothing in a mountainous desert

Domenico Veneziano, Saint John in the Desert, c. 1445/1450, tempera on panel [courtesy of Samuel H. Kress Foundation, National Gallery of Art]

  Under the radar of High Castle’s international intrigues is a subplot that hangs on one Frank Frink, a counterfeiter of antique Americana who turns to the riskier business of making original jewelry. Just as Fat’s contemplation of his pharmacist’s Christian fish pendant transports him to the Roman Empire, prolonged meditation on a small silver pin made by Frank is what catalyzes the transportation of Tagomi, the Japanese trade minister, into an alternate San Francisco—that of the 1962 we’d recognize—of bustling hot dog carts, fat-bodied American cars, and the hulking Embarcadero Freeway. “‘Where am I?’ Tagomi thinks. ‘Out of my world, my space and time. The silver triangle disoriented me. I broke from my moorings and hence stand on nothing.’” 4 This moment is the climax of the book.

“Real time ceased in 70 C.E. with the fall of the temple at Jerusalem,” Dick writes in his “Tractates: Cryptica Scriptura,” gathered as an appendix to VALIS. “It began again in 1974 C.E.” This is the year (the also “true”) Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said was published; of Dick’s own conversion; and of the overthrow of the “lighter tyranny,” as Dick called it at Metz, of Richard Nixon’s presidency. The discovery of the concurrent truth of these seemingly distinct realities has one overarching, practical implication: “The empire never ended”—a refrain that recurs throughout VALIS. Nixon’s California is Titus’ Judaea. , and divided the world between them.

PKD’s High Castle, unlike its recent TV adaptation, isn’t a story of overthrow or revolt; it’s a novel about maintaining balance—of power, of perspective—even between the Imperial Japanese and Nazi regimes. In this parallel reality, it is Frank’s jewelry, the new American art form, that offers continuity between worlds. Here is the midcentury, materialist blush of Dick’s aesthetics: it is the art object, the product of originality and self-expression, that has the power to constitute freedom of knowledge and movement. In order to find a way to exist, to be individuals, under imperial rule, Dick’s counterfeiters must become artists.

Beyond the pendant in VALIS and the pin in High Castle, another art form takes a central, postmodern role within both books, and that is the form of the book itself. The characters in High Castle read a samizdat novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which describes an alternate reality parallel to their own—in which the United States is closer to the one we know, and in which the Allies have won (although Great Britain has emerged as a menacing autocracy). Grasshopper links the inhabitants of Dick’s The angle in VALIS is explicit: Fat’s friends are sure he’s insane, until one of them sees a feature film—also called Valis—that appears to depict the very events Fat has described. Again, an artwork confirms the literal truth of what has been taken for invention. Like Dick’s pink light, Valis the film delivers flash-cuts at subliminal speed, giving the characters information they can use; art is a clue and a vector that leads to an increasingly plain knowledge of reality.

The samizdat devices used within VALIS and High Castle thus lend the works in which they appear a samizdat quality, too. Where the characters, readers, and author start to become complicit, the work of art crystallizes a second Dickian function: one of conspiracy. Like the fictional readers of the fictional Grasshopper, the characters in VALIS the novel who view Valis the film are moved to seek out the work’s creator. Having witnessed truth through a work of art, they become initiates and pilgrims. Horselover Fat’s informative pink beam recalls the Biblical episode of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, in which faith came in a blinding “light from heaven.” 5Dick’s novels function in our world in a similarly blinding way: to “get into” Dick is in itself a kind of conversion, a gateway into mysticism, an entrance onto the path to a possible science-fictional gnosis, complete with its own lexicon. His fans follow him to 1974 and to Metz.

Again, Dick was years ahead of Baudrillard, whose The Conspiracy of Art appeared in 2005. In that book, insular and inscrutable systems and vocabularies are the means through which the “art world” signals to its members and identifies its own. Groys’ “The Truth of Art” asked if art is a medium of truth, or not; Baudrillard had already answered no. Driven by the whims of a speculative market and social order, the conspiracy of art, for Baudrillard, is to obscure the truth within a “dictatorship of images” brought about by the technological advancements of the 20th century. There, the power of picture-making is kept in the hands of the few by such mechanisms as the postmodern language of “French Theory,” whose profusion and persistence in art school discourse maintains a cloistered, self-perpetuating delusion. The structure that results is a version of Empire, present in the cascading deceptions by which those in power maintain control of culture, of nations, and indeed of time.

Whereas Baudrillard’s art world conspiracy is nefarious and oppressive, Dick’s—although just as paranoid—is accumulative and positive: it implies a gathering, an assemblage, a community forged together against a tyrannical continuity. “Life is short,” reflects a in High Castle. “Art, or something not life, is long, stretching out endless, like concrete worm. Flat, white, unsmoothed by any passage over or across it. Here I stand. But no longer.” It is one of Dick’s best descriptions of the form his conspiratorial art would take. Titus, Nixon, T***p—though the names change, the smooth continuity of a formalist, idealist art moves past them all. Dick answers yes: Art is a medium and a vehicle of truth, even if it sometimes resembles a lie. And along its gray endlessness travels the group of gnostic initiates—not to defeat the Empire, exactly, but to meditate on its true shape.


1  Boris Groys, “The Truth of Art,” e-flux journal 71, March 2016, www.e-flux.com/journal/71/60513/the-truth-of-art
2 Philip K. Dick, VALIS (New York: Bantam, 1981), 98.
3 Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem, eds. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 7.
4 Dick, The Man in the High Castle (Boston: Mariner, 2011), 246.
5 Acts 9:3 (King James Version).