By Jay Kinney
It seems hard to imagine that it has been nearly twenty years since
Bladerunner was released. That riveting and influential film
was the first movie to be inspired by the writings of
science-fiction author, Philip K. Dick. Other films, of varying
success, have followed, including Total Recall and
Screamers, but the until now the most Dickian movies have been
those that copped his dystopian and paranoid sensibility without
directly basing themselves on one of his books or short stories.
The Truman Show, They Live!, Pleasantville, and
most notably, The Matrix, were all Dick films at heart,
despite his absence from their credits.
The recently released Spielberg film, Minority
Report, returns to directly dipping from PKD’s deep well of
inspiration, and despite the inevitably Spielbergian ending,
succeeds in evoking one of Dick’s favourite themes: how does one
elude the suffocation of an encroaching police state? In Minority
Report, this trope takes the form of the local Department of
Precrime in Washington D.C., which has succeeded in eliminating
murders by arresting and incarcerating the perpetrators before
they commit their crimes. This is accomplished by drawing on the
abilities of three precogs (for precognitives), who have the
involuntary talent of seeing into the near future and glimpsing the
murders-to-be in progress. As the film unfolds, in the year 2054, a
national referendum is about to occur on whether to expand precrime
prevention to a national policy.
Given the recent moves by the Bush Administration in
the US to indefinitely detain those who have committed no crimes,
but who may have planned to, the timeliness of Minority Report
is almost uncanny. Dick’s original short story appeared in 1956, and
the script for the film was written well in advance of the shock of
9/11. But somehow, Dick’s intuitions of precrime enforcement have
been brought to the big screen at just the moment when their analog
is being enacted in real life. PKD, who died in 1982, would savour
the irony, were he still with us.
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.
“Most humans live in tank cities far below the
surface of the Earth, believing themselves to be safe from the
ongoing nuclear war above their heads. In fact, the war has
been over for ten years, and instead of a radioactive ruin,
the planet is a vast park, ruled by feudal barons who are
playing power politics with the buried masses of their fellow
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 that there is an Absolute
God behind or above lesser gods. But few yogis would share the
Gnostic assessment that 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
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
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
Crack in Space
“Frozen sleep seems like a humane way to end
unemployment and over-population pressures: Send the excess
citizens to the future. The government warehouses are filled
with bibs when a political fight erupts over whether or not to
dispose of them through a space-warp. Then some unknown
outside agency helps the sleepers to awake.”2
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
Finally, there is the personality and psychological
condition of the gnostic to be considered. Contrary to contemporary
holistic assumptions that assume that 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 back to Philip K. Dick.
In February, 1974, Dick was living in Fullerton,
California, an undistinguished city in
County. He’d fled his long-time residency in
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
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:
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
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 C.E. with the fall of the temple at Jerusalem.
It began again in 1974 C.E. 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 that 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.
“A coterie of religious seekers forms to
explore the revelatory visions of one Horelover Fat; a
semi-autobiographical analogue of PKD. The group’s
hermeneutical research leads to a rock musician’s estate where
they confront the Messiah; a two-year old named Sophia. She
confirms their suspicions that an ancient, mechanical
intelligence orbiting the Earth has been guiding their
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 that 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
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
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 C.E., 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
But in a metaphorical, and even archetypal, manner,
PKD’s gnosis did unveil a politico-spiritual reality that is
increasingly relevant to us, twenty 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.
“An air collision jeopardized the successful
conclusion of the Second Coming. Emmanuel’s Appolonian and
Dionysian selves are divided by partial amnesia. Their
reintegration is opposed by Belial’s forces of decay, which
control the Earth. The Paraclete’s foster father, Herb Asher,
faces problems with his own redemption. Herb finds allies in
the prophet Elijah, his partner in a retail audio store; and
in singer Linda Fox, his own true love, and a construct
energized by VALIS.”12
Dick thought that 1974 was a turning point – a time
when Truth was beginning anew to penetrate the veil of appearances.
One wishes that this were really true, but the shock of 9/11 and the
subsequent psyops war, lead one to conclude that there is plenty of
veiling still in place – perhaps more than ever.
To the degree that it slightly parts the veil,
Minority Report imparts 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. Above all, stay alert, and when
that knock comes at the door, say a quick prayer that it’s the girl
with the fish necklace and not the police from the Department of
Gospel of Thomas; The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels.
1. Summary from Daniel J.H. Levack, PKD: A Philip
K. Dick Bibliography (San Francisco, CA: Underwood/Miller,
1981), p. 24.
2. Ibid, p. 53.
3. Frithjof Schuon, Gnosis: Divine Wisdom (Bedfont,
Middlesex: Perennial Books, 1990) p. 76.
4. Ibid, G.E.H. Palmer, “Translator’s Forward,” p. 8.
5. For a full account of Dick’s life, see: Larry
Sutin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (New York,
NY: Harmony Books, 1989).
6. Dick’s own account has him eagerly awaiting pain
medicine. His wife’s account suggests he was already on codeine and
was awaiting medicine for his blood pressure.
7. From “How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall
Apart Two Days Later,” published as an introduction to I Hope I
Shall Arrive Soon (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1985.)
8. From interview in Charles Platt, Editor, Dream
Makers: The Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction (New York,
NY: Berkeley Books, 1980) p. 155.
9. PKD letter to Peter Fitting, June 1974.
10. Philip K. Dick, VALIS (New York, NY:
Bantam Books, 1981) p. 228.
11. Levack, p. 70.
12. Ibid, p. 27.
13. Yuri Stoyanov, The
Hidden Tradition in
(London: Penguin/Arkana, 1994) p. 162.
Kinney is the co-author, with Richard Smoley, of Hidden Wisdom:
A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (Penguin/Arkana, 1999)
and editor of the forthcoming anthology, The Inner West
(J.P. Tarcher). He was publisher and editor in chief of
from 1985-1999 (www.gnosismagazine.com).