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January, 2006 : Review:

NFSF: Talking to God

[Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin. Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2005. 380 pp. ISBN 0-8065-1228-8.]

[Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life compiled by Carole F. Chase. Shaw, 2003. 384 pp. ISBN 0-87788-157-X.]

At first glance these two authors have nothing to do with one another. Philip K. Dick was a speed freak whose works anticipated the paranoia and epistemological and metaphysical anxieties of the Information Age. Madeleine L’Engle is best known for her work marketed as children’s literature that blends Christian themes with science fictional concerns. The series beginning with A Wrinkle in Time is the best example of this. However, as this column will show, the two authors had far more in common than one might think, so much so that it is useful to consider these two books together.

To cut to the heart of the matter, what Dick and L’Engle have in common is God. More fully stated, the work of both Philip K. Dick and Madeleine L’Engle is shaped by a concern with the divine, with a resultant concern over clashing realities and how to know what is real and what to trust. Interestingly, both are known for reworking the details of their lives, both to work it into their fiction and in recounting what they think of as the facts. Also interesting is that both have been pigeonholed somewhat by the publishing industry; both books include accounts of the authors struggling against categories from an earlier age, with Dick fighting against being categorized as merely a science fiction writer, and L’Engle fighting against having her work marketed just for children. Both saw themselves as wrestling with universal concerns, and wanted not just to be shelved with mainstream/adult literature, but to be considered in the light of the classics.

For purposes of comparison, it would be nice if these books had a similar format, but alas, they do not. Sutin’s study, Divine Invasions (originally published in 1989 and reissued in 2005 with a new introduction), is a densely researched biography. Sutin interviewed over 100 people who knew Dick, many of them individuals whose names would be immediately familiar to readers of IROSF: Harlan Ellison, David Hartwell, Art Spiegelman, etc. Many of these individuals could be expected to know not just Dick and his work, but the context in which it was published, and to know both high and popular literature in ways that allow them to comment on Dick’s place on the literary continuum. Others knew Dick intimately enough to comment on his mental state (his ex-wives, therapists, close friends, etc.).

Dick kept copious journals in which he both recorded the events of his inner and outer life and commented on them. Sutin not only refers to these, he repeatedly quotes from them. Dick was amazingly aware of his inner reality, but it was not always consistent. In fact, given the discontinuity between some of Dick’s accounts of the external events in his life and the accounts of those who knew him, one could say that his external life may not have been consistent either. The resulting picture Sutin paints casts tremendous light on Dick’s fiction, and gives the impression that before Dick wrote in a world of shifting reality, peculiar sexual dynamics, and pervasive doubt, he lived it.

Sutin’s book also does a fine job of one of the tougher challenges facing a biographer: explaining why a writer’s work is the way it is. Here Sutin doesn’t have to reach for hidden psychological motivations, because Dick’s journals and conversations with friends provided them. Dick had a particular ability to take an actual event and make meaning accrue around it, so that whatever weight it might have had originally, it gathered new weight and luster through his meditations. The most crucial event Sutin offers readers is Dick’s loss of his twin sister when he was an infant. The death of their child contributed to the break-up of Dick’s parents’ marriage, leaving Dick at once cared for by a mother only, and bereft of a female sibling, creating a situation in which Dick was both overly close to and permanently separated from the feminine. Dick and his mother discussed this matter extensively, and Dick wrote of hearing Jane’s voice and perceiving Jane as in him.

In addition to Dick’s discussions with his mother Dorothy, as an adult he delved into Jungian thought, one component of which was the idea that each man has an anima, or female component. In Jungian thought, accessing this psychic component is one possible route to personal growth, and, perhaps, eventually to contact with the divine, which Dick repeatedly experienced. Unfortunately for those wanting easy answers, but fortunately for those wanting complete answers, Sutin’s biography documents that Dick’s spiritual contacts were over-determined—that there were many causes for them, many of which are painful to read about. Sutin reviews Dick’s phobias and psychic traumas, some of which match symptoms of childhood abuse (stories of such abuse came and went in Dick’s life); he also reviews the origins and effects of Dick’s extensive amphetamine use. Finally, there was Dick’s most direct route to divine madness: like many genuine mystics, Dick was interested from a very early age in the ultimate nature of reality. However, given the poverty he lived in, his psychological disarray, and the conflicted tools given him by American culture, the resulting portrait I extracted from Sutin’s book is of a pulp mystic: wild, visionary, and assured of pain. If you read Sutin’s book, you’ll have no problem understanding where works like Ubik and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? came from, or why Hollywood is mining Dick’s work to produce movies (Bladerunner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and others).

The picture I drew from Chase’s compilations of L’Engle’s writing is very different. To start, Madeleine L’Engle Herself is a very different book. L’Engle has written extensively about writing, literature, and her work, and has spoken on the topics at writers’ workshops and conferences. Carole F. Chase is a professor of literature who wrote Suncatcher, a literary biography of L’Engle. She was also close friends with L’Engle. This friendship shows in the deeply respectful attention she gives to L’Engle’s words; Chase reviewed both L’Engle’s published writing and tapes of L’Engle speaking and teaching in order to select the best passages. She then organized them in thematic categories. Most of the passages selected are quite short (around a paragraph long) and few are longer than a page. Each is given a title, and presented with a lot of white space. The result comes close to being a devotional or commonplace book; it presents L’Engle’s thoughts as worthy not just of being read, but being meditated and reflected upon.

Many of them are. If you’re looking for a book on writing, you could do worse. Some of L’Engle’s ideas require patience or context. For example, her statement you can’t teach creative writing, but you can teach technique—when that’s combined with her exhortations on discipline, inspiration, and the need to read, it sure seems like you can teach creative writing, or at least, that she can. There is repetition in the passages, though some of this is fruitful, as different passages show L’Engle returning to wrestle with the same theme over decades of creative work.

It would be next to impossible to follow Dick’s path to creation, but L’Engle makes a convincing argument that many could follow her path. She definitely makes demands on the reader, but she has the knack of making not just writing attractive, but also discipline. L’Engle’s particular take on her faith might even make Christianity attractive to the non-Christian. (She may also, however, succeed at making her own Christianity dangerous to Christians; though it was published in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time is one of the most regularly banned books in America, ranking 12th most commonly banned in Herbert Foerstel’s Banned in the USA from 1990–92.)

And that brings us back to the question of God, and the closely-related question of reality and speculation. Dick is seen as a science fiction writer, but he, his life, and his work were continually defined by grappling with the divine, and by . . . I was going to call it a seepage of divine voices into a mundane reality, but it was only sometimes that gradual. In Dick’s life, and his work, the intrusion was sometimes abrupt and violent. It was a disordering intrusion.

By contrast, while L’Engle underscores the reality of inspiration and serendipity, she makes it sound like one can access the divine, and regularly, almost at will, and that one can return from these encounters always touched only positively by forces beyond oneself. At times this seems na´ve, like L’Engle has forgotten both Prometheus and Saul on the road to Damascus. Other times this seems self-congratulatory, as if she can do so, and she can be your guide.

This last note cries out for context. I know that this is not the purpose of Carole’s book; indeed, the book was created by de- and re-contextualizing a number of statements. However, if one adds even a bit of outside context—say, by seeking out Cynthia Zarin’s 2004 profile of L’Engle for The New Yorker—the picture fills out nicely.

Then readers can start to see the pain involved in L’Engle’s life that led to these moments of wisdom (a child that pre-deceased her, a troubled marriage). Then they see how L’Engle’s pursuit of the divine, and to construct narratives that, like Dick’s, unified two realities. Both writers sought to create great art which dealt with eternal, even time-disrupting themes, while simultaneously integrating the most recent research in the sciences. Is it any wonder that the publishing world didn’t know what to do with either of these strange, wonderful, damaged American visionaries?


Copyright © 2006, Greg Beatty. All Rights Reserved.

About Greg Beatty

Greg Beatty lives with his wife in Bellingham, Washington, where he tries, unsuccessfully to stay dry. He writes everything from children's books to essays about his cooking debacles. He has a particular fondness for speculative poetry; he won the 2005 Rhysling Award. Greg recently published his first poetry chapbook. Titled Phrases of the Moon, it is available from Spec House
http://spechouseofpoetry.blogspot.com/

For more information on Greg's writing, visit http://gregbeatty.net

COMMENTS!

Jan 9, 21:37 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of religion in genre literature, or L'Engle and Dick, or Greg's discussion of the whole kit and caboodle.

The article is here.
Jan 13, 08:27 by Louise Marley
This is a great piece, Greg. Bravo for taking this on! I think you're right about L'Engle's brand of Christianity not being everyone's, and that's unfortunate. I find her little book "Herself" a light in the darkness, both as a writer, a teacher of writing, and a person of faith. Thanks.

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