Gnosticism is a name commonly applied to numerous early Christian sects who emphasised the necessity of receiving “gnosis” (divine knowledge of true reality) in order to be saved. While they considered themselves to be Christian, the Gnostics diverged from both Judaism and Catholic Christianity in their belief that this world was a flawed and ensnaring creation of a despotic Demiurge who had usurped the position of God. Through the agency of a redeemer Christ and his bride, Sophia (Wisdom), the Gnostics hoped to return, upon death, to the most high realm of the Pleroma (Fullness) to unite with the true Unknown God.
That, at least, is the standard potted summary of Gnosticism. If one takes a broader view, there have been many gnosticisms, and many “gnosi” – some predating the Christian Era and some quite independent of Christianity. Gnosis, as a synonym for illumination or mystical union, is equivalent to marifah (Arabic) or irfan (Persian) in esoteric Islam, for example. However, while we might assume that the state of consciousness signified by the term “gnosis” is universally accessible (or at least potentially so), it is not at all certain that those using the term were always referring to the same thing.
For instance, the gnosis of the Sufi mystics of Islam includes no admission of the existence of a Demiurge or false, lower God. Indeed, tawhid, the Unity of God and Creation, is such a fundamental assumption of Islam, that a spiritual realisation pointing to a Higher God than that of the Creator would be immediately rejected as a delusion. On the other hand, Hindu yogis might readily agree with many Gnostics that this world is a veil or delusion (maya in Sanskrit), and there is an Absolute God behind or above lesser gods. But few yogis would share the Gnostic assessment this indicates a moral flaw in the universe.
What exactly is the nature of the divine knowledge that the Gnostics and other mystics have sought? It is impossible to describe precisely, because of the non-discursive nature of that knowledge. Frithjof Schuon refers to gnosis as “our participation in the ‘perspective’ of the divine Subject which, in turn, is beyond the separative polarity, ‘subject-object’....” [3.] G.E.H. Palmer refers to it as “Wisdom made up of Knowledge and Sanctity,” and underscores the distinction “between knowledge acquired by the ordinary discursive mind and the higher Knowledge which comes of intuition by the Intellect, the term Intellect having the same sense as in Plotinus or Eckhart.” [4.]
In other words, gnosis, according to this definition, is an experiential “knowing” that results from the expansion of the Gnostic’s consciousness to the level of the divine Intellect, where the illusion of the separate self (ego) is obliterated – at least temporarily – in the vast perspective of the higher Self. Such a state cannot, of course, be sustained indefinitely. What goes up must come down. But having risen to such heights, the ego that is reassembled upon its descent, is permanently affected. It now “knows” its own place in the cosmic scheme of things.
Such “knowledge” is not easily communicated to others, in part because shared reference points are few, and because any attempt at describing the experience is bound to diminish and reify it. Thus, those who have been blessed with gnosis have used oblique strategies to impart the ineffable: poetry instead of prose; myths instead of clear-cut analysis; paradoxical statements instead of declarations.
There is still another factor contributing to the proliferation of gnosi and gnosticisms: while the experience of gnosis may be ahistorical, i.e., beyond time and place, the Gnostic himself is obviously not. A Tibetan Buddhist in the recesses of the Himalayas, who takes reincarnation for granted and believes in numerous gods, is not going to clothe his gnosis in the garments of a Muslim Sufi in Andalucia, who believes in one lifetime and one God. And vice versa.
A Gnostic whose historical era and cultural milieu is one of war and persecution is likely to have his circumstances seep into his post-gnosis explication of reality. There may still be a higher Reality beyond conflict and violence that he experiences in gnosis, but his mythic version of the journey to the Truth may feature a harsher struggle to get there than would otherwise be the case.
Finally, there is the personality and psychological condition of the Gnostic to be considered. Contrary to contemporary holistic assumptions that assume the combination of a good diet, a good life, and a good attitude are most likely to lead one to higher spiritual consciousness, this is not always so. Higher states may also be triggered by asceticism, psychoactive substances, disciplined practice, or sheer happenstance. True, an absence of cravings and obsessions may make meditative practice easier, but gnosis can also erupt in someone who is by no means a saint. In such a case, his post-gnosis understanding of the Real may well be tinged with his neurotic predisposition.
Which brings us to Philip K. Dick (PKD).
In February, 1974, Dick was living in Fullerton, California, an undistinguished city in Orange County. He’d fled his long-time residency in Northern California out of fear for his life and his sanity. He’d been mixed up in long-time illicit drug use, tax refusal in protest against the Vietnam War, and chronic poverty. In 1971, his previous home in San Rafael, north of San Francisco, had been broken into by persons unknown, his safe blasted open, and things taken. He’d attempted suicide, checked himself into drug rehab in Vancouver, and in 1972 had flown from there to Fullerton. [5.]
By 1974, he’d married his fifth wife, Tessa, and had a new child, Christopher. But most immediately, in February, he’d just had two impacted wisdom teeth removed and was awaiting the delivery of prescribed medicine from the drug store. [6.]
The doorbell rang and Dick answered the door. The delivery girl from the drug store stood before him, wearing a delicate necklace from which hung a golden fish, a symbol of Christ often worn by evangelical Christians.
As Dick later recounted it – possibly in mythologised form – a laser-like pink beam shot from the fish to Dick’s third eye. It had an extraordinary effect: “I suddenly experienced what I later learned is called anamnesis – a Greek word meaning, literally, ‘loss of forgetfulness.’ I remembered who I was and where I was. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it all came back to me. And not only could I remember it but I could see it. The girl was a secret Christian and so was I. We lived in fear of detection by the Romans. We had to communicate in cryptic signs. She had just told me all this, and it was true.” [7.]
There was plenty more to follow. For the next year or so, Dick felt his psyche invaded by a “transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life, and suddenly had become sane.” [8.] He experienced hypnagogic visions, auditions, tutelary dreams, and an eight hour all night vision of thousands of coloured graphics resembling “the nonobjective paintings of Kandinsky and Klee.” [9.]
Dick came to nickname the invasive rational mind as VALIS (for Vast Active Living Intelligence System), which became the name of his 1981 novel recounting his mind-boggling experience in fictional form.
Perhaps most significantly, he perceived that “real time had ceased in 70 CE with the fall of the temple at Jerusalem. It began again in 1974 CE. The intervening period was a perfect spurious interpolation aping the creation of the Mind....” [10.]
PKD’s life-long preoccupation with the questions of “what is reality?” and “what is man?” wouldn’t allow him to resolve his 1974 experiences into a single easy explanation. He variously explained them to himself as communications from God or from a satellite orbiting Earth, or most baroquely as psychic invasions courtesy of Soviet Academy of Sciences psychotronic transmitters. They provided fodder for several more novels before his untimely death at age 53 in 1982.
The question might be fairly asked whether Philip K. Dick’s 1974 experiences constituted a form of gnosis. Judging from his many stories and novels, Dick operated throughout his life from a gut feeling that reality, as we commonly perceive it, is a façade. He sensed there was something morally wrong in a universe where a friend’s innocent cat could walk across the street and be blithely run over by a passing car. His novels returned, time and again, to the theme of the little man caught in the machinations of powers beyond his kin or control. Dick may have nominally been an Episcopalian, but he was constitutionally a Gnostic.
But, here’s the paradox: not every Gnostic receives complete gnosis. Some Gnostics, such as the Cathars of southern France, recognised this in dividing their members between mere believers and the elect (perfecti), and it is safe to assume that not every perfecti had achieved full mystical awareness. [13.]
The Gnostics taught there are several planes or spheres between our material world and the purely spiritual realm of the Pleroma, “home” of the Unknown God. These planes were ruled by Archons, and part of the challenge for the Gnostic’s soul, at death, was to navigate past these cosmic authorities without becoming ensnared.
The Gnostic who realised complete gnosis prior to his own death, (an awareness referred to in Sufi terminology as “to die before you die,”) was blessed with the key to safely make that post-death journey. But not every gnosis is complete and some experiences might provide only a partial realisation – perhaps of an intermediate Archonic realm that more resembles our veiled world than it does the Pleroma.
Although incomplete, this Archonic gnosis could still be useful in shedding light on our present predicament – as long as its insights were not taken as the final word or the total picture.
Philip K. Dick’s gnosis, I’d suggest, was of this partial sort: troubling, compelling, ambiguous, and as political as it was spiritual. His predisposition towards paranoia – exacerbated by amphetamine abuse, and the temper of the McCarthy era and the political upheaval of the ’60s – led him to write dozens of novels prior to 1974 that were broadly Gnostic in their exploration of hallucinogenic realities, the individual’s struggle with hostile higher authorities, and in their questioning of conventional morality.
Dick’s February-March ’74 gnosis – which he experienced in a dissociated manner as the intrusion of a higher rational mind into his consciousness – came to be understood by him as a revelation of profound political implications. Given his political preoccupations, which were already in place, this is hardly a surprise.
Human history might seem to be an endless series of recurring cycles: power held by the few consolidates itself, corruption ensues, the regime falls and is replaced, and so on. PKD, however, in the thralls of his pink beam gnosis, arrived at an urgently mythic conclusion: real time stopped in 70 CE, a spurious dream-time was thrust upon us for nineteen centuries, and then, through external intervention, real time was begun again. Beneath the ordinary appearance of our modern world, Dick (and select others) were really early Christians in conflict with the Roman Empire, which was still in power.
Is this really a grand cosmic truth? I think not. Even in the 1970s it had its trivial side, such as Dick’s notion that President Nixon’s resignation after Watergate was an event of cosmic significance.
But in a metaphorical, and even archetypal, manner, PKD’s gnosis did unveil a politico-spiritual reality that is increasingly relevant to us, twenty three years after his death. “The Empire never ended,” wrote Dick, and who would argue with that, as we watch the reigning Superpower rattling its sabres at its minions and designated foes. The cultural collossi of the media conglomerates and Hollywood have spun a dreamlike fog that subsumes the past and future into an everlasting present of novelty and distraction. An effort to merely think clearly, free of clichés, cant, and consumables, takes a heroic effort, akin to dodging the Archons at every turn.
Dick thought that 1974 was a turning point – a time when Truth was beginning anew to penetrate the veil of appearances. One wishes this were really true, but the shock of 9/11 and the subsequent psyops war, lead one to conclude there is plenty of veiling still in place – perhaps more than ever.
To the degree that they slightly part the veil, recent films based on PKD stories, such as Minority Report and Paycheck, impart a whiff of Philip K. Dick’s political gnosis. Despite all the hypnotic baffling in place, sometimes a liberating signal makes it through. But no movie – and no book – is a substitute for one’s own rendezvous with the Unknown God.
Any genuine gnosis – whether partial or complete, whether political or spiritual – is more valuable than all the words that have been written about it. If there is salvation in the Gnostic universe, it is not a vicarious redemption enacted on our behalf by a savior or saviors in whatever form. Rather, the burden is on us to tear the scales from our own eyes and see the Unity behind all apparent dualities. To that end, the paring knife of Philip K. Dick is a handy utensil for peeling back the layers of ideology and hatred.
© Copyright 2005 by New Dawn Magazine and Jay Kinney. This article first appeared in New Dawn No. 93 (November-December 2005).For further information visit www.newdawnmagazine.com