Be a Dick-head: the Philip K. Dick way of spiritual-political resistance

philip k. dick
(Amazon Studios)

“How does one fashion a book of resistance, a book of truth in an empire of falsehood, or a book of rectitude in an empire of vicious lies?” –Philip K. Dick, Only Apparently Real [note]Williams, Paul. Only Apparently Real: The World of Philip K. Dick[/note]

I am a Dickhead—a Philip K. Dick-head, that is (it’s a term we PKD fans playfully use to refer to ourselves). But I’m more than just a fan. The writings and philosophy of Philip K. Dick are, to a degree, a model for living that I aspire to. Dick as a person was flawed, as we all are, but as a pop culture philosopher he was almost nonpareil. Specifically, in this article, I’m interested in discussing how the work of PKD offers a compelling model for political resistance (in any era, no matter what your politics). Given the resurgence of interest in Dick due to the adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, and the timeliness of the show, I’d like to discuss the shape that a Philip K. Dickian form of political resistance, in my view, could take.

Given that Dick explored so many different political themes in his work, it’s impossible to cover them all in any one article. I won’t say therefore that my model is the “correct” Philip K. Dickian model. However, I have read enough of Dick’s work, and have thought long and hard enough about it, to feel confident that my model could be said to be one correct model among other possible ones.

The spiritual basis of Philip K. Dick’s politics

art by Robert Crumb

We did not fall because of a moral error; we fell because of an intellectual error: that of taking the phenomenal world as real. Therefore we are morally innocent. It is the Empire in its various disguised polyforms which tells us we have sinned. ‘The Empire never ended.’” –VALIS [note]Dick, Philip K. VALIS[/note]

The first important point is that for Philip K. Dick, political action was inextricably linked with spirituality (also see my article on Prince). His metaphysical worldview formed the basis for his political views, so we can’t discuss the latter without at least summarizing the former. And we can’t summarize the former without mentioning the mystical experience that would come to define him.

Throughout the February and March of 1974 (or “2-3-74”), Dick had a series of intense mystical experiences that would confirm and recapitulate the themes he had obsessively explored throughout his career.[note]Dick, Philip K. The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, ed. Jonathan Lethem, Pamela Jackson[/note] This experience has been oft-written about so there’s no need to go into great detail about it here. The gist of what happened, though, was as follows:

On Feb. 20, Dick saw the Ichthys (the Christian fish symbol) being worn as a pendant by a pharmacy delivery girl who had arrived at his house to deliver pain medication that he was sorely in need of after oral surgery. The sight of this symbol triggered a flood of vivid hallucinations, insights and feelings. Dick saw images of the Roman Empire being superimposed onto his modern environment. This led to his famous declaration, “The Empire never ended,” which he would repeat in both his fiction and private journals. He saw that the world was what he called the Black Iron Prison: “Everyone who had ever lived was literally surrounded by the iron walls of the prison; they were all inside it and none of them knew it.”[note]Dick, Philip K. VALIS[/note] He also had the sense that physical reality was being revealed to him as an artificial construct, an idea that he had already long explored in his fiction.

From the cover for ‘The Cosmic Puppets’ by Philip K. Dick (1998 Voyager HarperCollins edition)

In my opinion, Dick’s visions were intuitive insights and preexisting beliefs given visual, hallucinatory form through Jungian archetypal imagery emerging from his unconscious. This isn’t to say that it wasn’t real; it’s to say it was real in a certain sense.

So what, exactly, did Dick believe? Although he was influenced by a great many philosophies including that of Plato, Heraclitus, Spinoza, the Essenes, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, for the most part it could be said as a generalization that Dick was a Gnostic and he himself confirmed this in his Exegesis.[note]Dick, Philip K. The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, ed. Jonathan Lethem, Pamela Jackson[/note]

To greatly simplify it, in Gnosticism physical reality itself is seen as not real. It is an oppressive system of political control imposed by a tyrannical creator deity called the Demiurge (the Gnostic equivalent of the Judeo-Christian personified God). But there is also a higher God who is more real and true than the Demiurge, and freedom comes from getting to know the higher God which can only be done through direct experience—or gnosis—not faith. Gnosis, in turn, must be cultivated through study and contemplative practice, though sometimes individuals can spontaneously experience divine revelations. Through gnosis the mystic comes to see that the material world is, essentially, a temporal illusion. This is the deepest form of freedom of which political freedom is but an extension.

This idea that reality is essentially a cosmic hoax is not unique to Gnosticism. Vedanta, Buddhism and Taoism, in different ways (less dualistic, more monistic), have also explored this idea and Dick drew from them as well. In any event, this basic spiritual-political paradigm was reflected very frequently in his fiction. In some stories, reality as a whole is an illusion. In other stories, as in The Penultimate Truth, physical reality itself is quite real but what people are being told does not accurately reflect the social-political reality.[note]Dick, Philip K. The Penultimate Truth[/note] So there are different ways in which the idea of reality being unreal can be interpreted and that Dick himself has explored. A Foucaultian interpretation, for instance, in which knowledge is a form of power and is socially constructed is a little more down-to-earth and yet is still nicely compatible with the Dickian worldview.

Characters in search of a Philip K. Dick novel

(Amazon Studios)

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a main character in a Philip K. Dick novel in which you’re living under a repressive totalitarian regime (belief in a fake reality is optional). What do you do? How do you resist? It isn’t such an imaginative stretch because, first of all, most of his characters tend to be ordinary people faced with the dilemma of how to survive in dystopic worlds. Second, what’s presently going on in the U.S. is increasingly becoming a disturbing reflection of many of the things that Dick wrote about.

“I don’t write about heroes,” Dick once said in an interview. What he actually meant was that he didn’t write about larger-than-life heroes in the Classical or Romantic sense. Dick was, in his own way, despite his feverishly imaginative mind, too much of a realist to write about heroes like that. With occasional exceptions Dick most often wrote about average people, without much power, in extraordinary situations.

Amidst these extraordinary situations, Dick’s characters demonstrate heroism in ways that are realistic according to their circumstances. He once said, “My characters are composites of what I’ve actually seen people do, and the only way for them to be remembered is through my books.”[note]Dick, Philip K. Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, ed. David Streitfeld[/note]

So the next important point to consider is that the model of political resistance shown by the Philip K. Dickian hero is very much one that is feasible to those of us living in the real world.

Flow my tears of empathy, the alien said


“A human being without the proper empathy or feeling is the same as an android built so as to lack it, either by design or by mistake.” –Philip K. Dick, The Dark-Haired Girl[note]Dick, Philip K. The Dark-Haired Girl[/note]

Perhaps no single work by Dick, whether novel or short story, sums up his spiritual-political creed as well as the short story “The Little Black Box.” [note]Dick, Philip K. The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Stories[/note]

In this story, a mysterious religious figure named Wilbur Mercer (hinted at as possibly being an alien) organizes the production and free distribution of so-called “empathy boxes.” When used, these empathy boxes allow the user to feel—completely—the full range of another human being’s thoughts and feelings, past and present. What happens as a result of this mind merge is that individuals become incapable of unjust actions that lead to the intentional harm, exploitation or oppression of others. The antagonists of the story are three members of the U.S. Department of State, working in cooperation with the Communist government of Cuba, who seek to eradicate the empathy boxes and to locate Mercer.

“The Little Black Box,” while short, is dense with ideas. But the gist of it is that empathy is the ultimate threat to oppressive political systems, represented in this story by both Communist Cuba and the United States (underlining Dick’s lack of faith in any political system run by leaders who lack empathy). Empathy is the ultimate threat to tyranny because when human beings experience absolute empathy for another, they find it extraordinarily difficult—if not impossible—to do nothing in the face of that person’s suffering. Also, without empathy, Dick fears that even those who wish to resist tyranny are likely to resort to “counter-aggressive tactics where they, too, become exploitative and manipulative” like the very things they seek to resist.[note]Dick, Philip K. Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, ed. David Streitfeld[/note]

In “The Little Black Box,” a specific religious movement is portrayed as being the vehicle for empathy. But this is not Dick prescribing religion as a social cure.  He was acutely aware of the tendency for religions to become oppressive systems in themselves. The difference here is that there is no misunderstanding of the religious leader’s teachings due to the empathy boxes, and his simple teaching amounts to nothing more than the importance of empathy.

So Dick believes it is empathy, not religion per se, that is the true threat to tyranny. Religion itself is often used as one of the state’s many tools. In fact, in this story even Zen Buddhism is strategically propagated as a weapon against the empathy boxes. Zen (in this story, at least) distracts people with its riddles and koans whereas with the empathy boxes everything is simple. There are no riddles to puzzle over. Empathy is the answer and that is all.

Now, it’s not in my place, or Philip K. Dick’s for that matter, to tell anyone what to do—which ideologies to adopt, which political candidates to support, which policies to fight for, etc. Whatever your politics, however, may your choices and actions be guided by empathy and the golden rule to treat others in all situations as you yourself would wish to be treated in those same situations. That is what PKD, and his hero Jesus, would have wished for.

Jesus as the ultimate model for political resistance

From the cover for ‘VALIS,’ 1981 Corgi edition

For those who have read the VALIS trilogy or The Exegesis, it seems likely that Dick was probably thinking about Jesus when he created Wilbur Mercer. Dick was by no means a Christian in the traditional sense but he revered Jesus and had a number of his own theories about him. Some of them are admittedly pretty wild, but at the heart of it Dick ultimately saw Jesus as a Gnostic master who took an elitist philosophy, in which truth was reserved for the select few, and tried to make it freely available to anyone.

There are two reasons why Dick’s admiration for Jesus is worth mentioning here.

(1) He believed that Jesus saw the Black Iron Prison for what it was: a prison but not a real one. Because the material world wasn’t real, Jesus had little interest in anything it could offer him. And being uninterested, the Empire had nothing to gain leverage against him. He was, therefore, outside the prison, his only goal in life being to free those who were trapped inside it. To Dick, Jesus was the Neo of the Matrix. As one who was completely free, he was in a better place to help free others.

(2) Jesus was the apogee of empathy. His teachings, choices and actions all revolved around that one principle. And as we see in “The Little Black Box,” empathy is antithetical to political control, manipulation and fear. Jesus was thus by his very existence a grave threat to the Empire.

Philip K. Dick thus saw the life and death of Jesus as being the pinnacle of enlightened political resistance. But we don’t necessarily have to lay down our life like Jesus to fight for what we believe in (at least not yet). There’s a middle way.

The Man in the High Castle and the middle way of Taoism

(Amazon Studios)

“[I]n our society a person might frequently have to choose between what he thinks is practical and what is ethical. He might choose the practical, and as a result he disintegrates as a human being. Taoism combines the two so that these polarizations rarely occur, and if possible never occur.” –Philip K. Dick, Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations [note]Dick, Philip K. Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, ed. David Streitfeld[/note]

Let’s rewind a bit and recall that the Dickian hero is one who is intent on surviving. And though Dick regarded Jesus as the ultimate ideal, his own heroes were not enlightened martyrs but flawed survivors.

For a Dickian way to resist the Empire while surviving in the process, let us finally turn to the PKD novel currently enjoying the biggest resurgence of attention, The Man in the High Castle (MHC).

Like all of Dick’s greatest works, MHC is about many things, but there are two primary themes that I’ll talk about here: the first is the merging of the ethical and the practical. The second is personal authenticity.

Dick was a great admirer of Taoism and has said as much in interviews.[note]Ibid.[/note] I am not sure if he fully understood Taoism, but he understood enough of certain aspects of it to make one of The Man in the High Castle’s primary themes be a Taoist principle: that one should try, as much as possible, to merge what is ethical with what is practical instead of seeing them as polar opposites as our society often seems to do.

Taoism was born in one of the most violent and politically chaotic periods in Chinese history, the Warring States Period (and here I speak of philosophical Taoism, not religious Taoism, because there are important differences). It was discovered and developed by exiled philosophers who wanted to do the right thing but who also wanted to survive. In fact, they believed that surviving in itself was, for the wise, an ethical thing to do (they’d be no good to society, after all, if they were dead). Taoism therefore by necessity evolved as a practical philosophy.

All of the main heroes in The Man in the High Castle use an ancient Chinese divination tool called the I Ching. In one of his characteristic strokes of meta flourish, Dick himself was a regular user of the I Ching, just like his characters. Not only that, he used it to make creative decisions while writing MHC just as Hawthorne Abdensen, the fictitious author in the novel, uses it to write his novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which depicts an alternate history in which the Allied powers won World War II (just like MHC depicts an alternate history in which the Axis powers won WWII).[note]Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle[/note]

While the use of the I Ching in MHC has been analyzed as being about the interplay of fate and free will, and while I agree that it partly represents that, it also represents something else. The I Ching, in this novel, represents Taoism itself, and the characters use of it reflects their not-necessarily-conscious attempt to practice one of the major principles of Taoism: the merging of the ethical and the practical.

Dick himself believed the I Ching, and by extension Taoism in general, could help him fuse the practical and the ethical. He struggled constantly with money, so much so that one of the reasons he took amphetamines was that they helped him write fast enough to pay the bills. He was also intensely paranoid about “they” being out to get him for his political outspokenness (not entirely without justification, if you know about some of the creepy incidents he experienced). Because of this, like his characters Dick rarely felt secure about his own survival. And yet he always wanted to do the right thing. So his use of the I Ching stemmed from his belief that it would help him combine these two areas. He said, “If you use the I Ching long enough and continually enough, it will begin to change and shape you as a person. It will make you into a Taoist, whether or not you have ever heard the word, whether or not you want to be.”[note]Dick, Philip K. Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, ed. David Streitfeld[/note]

Dick was right that Taoism seeks to merge the ethical and the practical. As for whether using the I Ching will help you master this, I could argue with that. Nevertheless, based on Dick’s beliefs it’s reasonable to interpret his characters’ use of the I Ching as representing their desire to survive within a fascist state while doing good. But for those of us who want to merge the ethical and practical in real life, do we start tossing sticks and consulting the I Ching? Well, no, and this is too big a topic of its own to get into in this article (though my Luke Cage article discusses it to some degree). And there are too many different ways to do this, too many different situations that people are in, so I can’t cover them all, but this article proposes one generalized way.

Remember Jesus and “The Little Black Box?” Empathy, or the desire to alleviate the suffering of another, should be the guiding light in any Philip K. Dickian model for political resistance. Unlike Jesus, however, we don’t want to just throw ourselves to the wolves. So then what?

The power of personal authenticity 

The handmade jewelry of Frank Frink becomes a symbol of authenticity which in turn becomes a symbol for resistance. (Amazon Studios)

“[T]he bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans — as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. –Philip K. Dick, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”[note]Dick, Philip K. The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, Lawrence Sutin, ed.[/note]

[*SPOILERS* here for the book version of The Man in the High Castle]

The actions and destinies of the heroes in High Castle are deeply intertwined. While their predicaments and actions all vary, the underlying factor uniting them all is authenticity. In his essay/speech “The Android and the Human,” Dick argues that one of the greatest evils of totalitarianism is that it squashes human authenticity. Authenticity is by its very nature threatening to the Empire, just like empathy and gnosis are threatening.

Authenticity is basing your values, beliefs and actions on your deepest, truest being, unencumbered by fear and social conditioning. You see, there are multiple levels of fakery in MHC. In typical Dickian fashion, at the highest level reality itself is not real. But within that fake reality are layers and layers of fakeness. The Empire thrives on fakeness. It not only manipulates and misinforms the populace through fakery, it maintains a system in which people can better succeed through fakery. This is symbolized by the industry of forged historical relics that we see in the novel. The wealthy character Wyndam-Matson has made his fortune on manufacturing fake relics. One economic stratum below him, storekeeper Robert Childan makes a comfortable living selling those fakes. At the lowest rung, artist Frank Frink ekes out a living by working at Wyndam-Matson’s factory, making the fakes that Wyndam-Matson distributes and that Childan sells. Each of these three characters occupy different rungs of the socio-economic ladder yet all of them are slaves to a system built on fakery.

Each of the major shifts from complacency and hiding to courageous action in The Man in the High Castle is triggered by acts of authenticity, which in this novel takes the form of art. Hawthorne Abdensen writes a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy about an alternate reality in which the Allied powers won WWII. This novel within a novel gets Juliana Crane to question what is “real” and frees her from not just her fear of the Nazis but fear of anything. Frank Frink decides to stop creating fake relics and creates real, authentic American jewelry which then inspires Robert Childan to stop selling those same fakes. He chooses instead to sell Frank’s authentic jewelry as a subtle act of rebellion against the Japanese empire, despite the fact that doing so will make him less money. Childan, in turn, gives a piece of this authentic jewelry to Nobusuke Tagomi and it triggers a mystical vision in which Tagomi sees an alternate dimension (perhaps the one depicted in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy) in which the Allied powers won. This fills him with the courage for an act of heroism. And so it is that acts of authenticity catalyze acts of resistance through a chain reaction of events. Dick is suggesting that authenticity, here taking the form of art, can itself be a powerful form of resistance (art is also a catalyst for action in the equally political Radio Free Albemuth).[note]Dick, Philip K. Radio Free Albemuth[/note]

Due to the omnipresence of media in our lives, and the fact that we get virtually all our information this way, we cannot ever really know for sure if certain information is “real” or not. Therefore for Philip K. Dick, the only thing whose authenticity we can directly control is the authenticity of our personal selves. His view on authenticity is similar to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s in that in order to find and assert one’s authentic self, one must often go against the grains of society.

Art is by no means the only path towards authenticity, and obviously art itself can be shallow and inauthentic. But in High Castle art is a convenient symbol for Dick to use since he himself is an artist, and it also allows him to make MHC as meta as it is. Like his heroes, Dick too is resisting the Empire by creating art and philosophy—as weird or even ridiculous as it may seem to some—that comes from his most authentic being, and this in turn has gone on to inspire others to also question what is real and to try to live more authentically.

There are many other important ways to resist Empire besides the ways discussed here, but authenticity is in itself an unavoidably political act, even if it’s not always in obvious ways. When such authenticity is combined with critical thinking that seeks to look past the surface to what’s “real”; with a refusal to see the ethical and the practical as being at odds with each other; with the courage to let empathy guide our actions; why then, my fellow D**kheads, the Empire simply cannot hold.

(EDIT: To clarify something in response to comments I’ve gotten on social media, this post isn’t idolizing Philip K. Dick the man nor is it saying that he himself lived out these ideas perfectly. I’m well aware of his flaws (and who doesn’t have them?) as a person. It is possible, however, to recognize the tortured complexity of a human being while still admiring some of his ideas and trying to implement them in one’s own life, perhaps to an even better degree than the originator of those ideas.)

We can summarize it for you wholesale  

TL;DR? Here are the main points:

  • The writings and philosophy of Philip K. Dick provide a compelling model for political resistance that fans can tap into, if they wish, in these politically anxious times (or any time).
  • While by no means necessary, for PKD a spiritual worldview served as the foundation from which his political beliefs and actions naturally followed.
  • Dick believed that reality was an illusion serving as a prison for the human spirit. This idea can be interpreted and applied in different ways that don’t require metaphysics. No matter how it’s interpreted, Dick’s idea encourages nonconformity and an instinct to look past surface appearances. This by itself is potentially threatening to political manipulation and control.
  • Empathy, by its nature, is the most powerful force for resisting tyranny. May it always guide your decisions and actions.
  • Jesus was a paragon of enlightened political resistance precisely because, in Dick’s belief, he renounced the falsehoods of this world while making empathy the foundation of his teachings.
  • The typical Dickian hero is not, however, a self-sacrificial martyr like Jesus. The Dickian hero is a survivor who wishes to merge the ethical with the practical. The Dickian hero is therefore a feasible model for the average person to aspire to.
  • The Man in the High Castle provides specific examples of merging the ethical and the practical. Other PKD novels and stories do as well, but this is the work receiving the most resurgence of interest right now and is hence worth examining closely.
  • The heroes of MHC commit subtle acts of political subversion by being authentic in a world where falsehoods exist at every level. In the novel this is symbolized by art, though art is by no means the only way to be authentic.
  • By being more authentic, the heroes of MHC cause a chain reaction of political resistance that the Empire will not be able to withstand.
  • The following four things are integral in any Dickian form of spiritual-political resistance:
    1. questioning what’s true and “real” – looking deeper
    2. being empathetic
    3. merging the ethical and the practical instead of seeing them as opposites
    4. being as authentic as possible even if it means going against what’s expected of you

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.

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