To read the first installment of this roundtable, click here.
FOUR: THE TECHNOLOGICAL SUBLIME AND EARTHINESS
Well, I finished the Hatfield book so I wanted to circle back to one of Jeet’s earlier questions and then pose another one.
4. A superhero cartoonist or a master genre mixer? Perhaps the most conservative aspect of Hatfield’s account is his placing of Kirby within the framework of superhero comics. We’re given only a cursory account of the Simon and Kirby era (when his major genre was, surprisingly, romance comics but also included boys adventure, westerns, war comics, science fiction, horror and many others). The bulk of Hatfield’s book is taken up with Kirby’s work for Marvel in the 1960s and DC in the 1970s, when he re-invented and re-invigorated the superhero genre. Again, this approach seems like common sense but I’m wondering seeing Kirby through the prism of the superhero genre doesn’t diminish his originality as a genre mixer. Here’s another way of seeing Kirby: during the long apprenticeship of the Simon and Kirby years, he mastered the rules for the many genres he worked in and then in the 1960s he confidently started to splice these genres together to create a new meta-genre that was nominally superhero comics but actually had a much wider scope. Thus the Fantastic Four can be seen as a mixture of Challengers of the Unknown style exploration stories, Sky Masters-style science fiction, monster comics (the Thing), romance and soap opera (the Reed-Sue-Submariner love triangle), space opera (Galactus and the Silver Surfer), a repurposing of older superhero and science fiction ideas (the stretching man in the tradition of Plastic Man, the human Torch, a character who can turn invisible), and many other genres. Hatfield touches on Kirby as a genre-mixer on page 22 arguing that the superhero comic in Kirby’s hand was a “mega-genre” but I’m wondering if more can’t be said about this. To put it another way, Hatfield describes the Fourth World books as “the climax of [Kirby’s] career in superheroes” (p. 143) but, thought these comics have superheroes in them, I’m not sure if they are superheroes or some new genre, a mutant cosmic fantasy.
Well, CH does a good job of explaining what Kirby did to transform the superhero comic by radically broadening its scope via his expansion-based ideas. He holds onto the superhero category, which makes sense since that was the genre which Kirby was exploding. We could call it SF or something else, but really no genre really can lay claim to the Fourth World work or the ’80s work. It’s just too deeply itself. So, Jeet, I think it occupies its own space, but I’m not sure where, aside from inventing another category to slot it into, we can go. CH is coming to the Fourth World work after calling FF a more or less SF book, which works for me, and his close readings of the Fourth World material don’t seem to be hindered by superhero expectations, so… maybe it’s OK.
Anyhow, Hatfield’s most interesting and impassioned idea about Kirby comes midway through the book (p. 145) when he discusses the “technological sublime”, which in Kirby’s case meant a quasi-romantic awareness of, and awe at, the ineffable. This feeling then bolsters Kirby’s explorations into “soft” SF futurism, lead by narrative drawing (as opposed to prose exposition) (p. 153). It’s a very good bit and one that Hatfield embroiders on for the remainder of the book. By the end, Kirby emerges as a frustrated visionary — stymied by his medium, but continually trying to ask the big questions.
But the unfortunate thing about focusing so much on the superhero stuff is that CH only gets to touch on something really important: Kirby’s earthiness. On page 151, CH qualified Kirby’s Futurism: “Kirby, though his imaginings often carried the whiff of something touchingly Old World, Mittleeuropean and folkloric, was an avid forecaster of the future.” That “though” seems like a mistake. Kirby’s roots are in that Old World as experienced by Depression-era boy. Those tales, which even us suburban Jewish boys grow up with, are pretty well ingrained. This goes towards the previously mentioned “Gothic” nature of Kirby’s imagination, but also helps account, I think, for a lot of the (sometimes goofy) humanity of the work, not to mention the constant attention paid to villagers, hills, barons, kingdoms, etc. It’s all the stuff you get as a lower-class European Jew.
Which is why I do think its regrettable (but, understandable, as it IS a tangent when you’re building an argument based on world building, Futurism, and awe) that CH omitted any real analysis of the Western and Romance comics. Kirby’s West is the the West of someone who never so much as visited before drawing those comics, and the West that you see in, for example, the German and Italian visions of it in pulps and films. It’s the great expansive place, somewhere beyond the beyond. To me, Boy’s Ranch (1950-51) is Kirby’s first great act of visual/poetic/moral expansion. The art does what CH discusses — leading the way through open description and a sense of scale that dwarfs the actors, and a story like Mother Delilah hints at what’s to come, with its riffs on parenthood, moral ambiguity and tragedy. I guess what I’m saying is that Kirby’s thematic and artistic expansion happened earlier, an in a genre that would very much appeal to a Jewish boy from the Lower East Side — it was the ultimate America. Alongside that stuff is the Romance work, also looked at only briefly in the book, and which was an enormous part of Kirby’s output.
Finally, did anyone else find it odd that the book ends with The Eternals? In his first chapter (I think), CH notes his own ambivalence to the 1980s work — Captain Victory and Silver Star being the two best books — but to me those works are key to Kirby’s oeuvre. As Glen noted about Silver Star, they look back on Kirby’s earlier themes and visually tilt towards the abstract. They kind of remind of me of an exhibition I just saw at Pace of the last two years of Jean Dubuffet’s painting career. He’d eliminated figuration and the paintings are just loose grids of line-based color. Beautiful, core works. Not as good as his earlier work, sure, but still very much his own, and an extension of his language. For a book as focused on visual language as CH’s, it seems a little strange to leave out his subject’s final, frequently beautiful, and certainly innovative works.
GLEN DAVID GOLD:
[Dan Nadel wrote:] To me, Boy’s Ranch (1950-51) is Kirby’s first great act of visual/poetic/moral expansion. The art does what CH discusses — leading the way through open description and a sense of scale that dwarfs the actors, and a story like Mother Delilah hints at what’s to come, with its riffs on parenthood, moral ambiguity and tragedy. I guess what I’m saying is that Kirby’s thematic and artistic expansion happened earlier, an in a genre that would very much appeal to a Jewish boy from the Lower East Side — it was the ultimate America.
Very nicely said. Whenever Kirby got a chance to work with continuing characters (even if no sort of “continuity” was built), it seems like his landscapes broadened. My limited knowledge of the romance comics is that the stories are surprisingly emotionally complex but the illustrations are (deliberately?) wooden, as if he was working for some reason with a finite number of poses, with characters framed conservatively. He seemed freer with the western stories.
FIVE: SUPERHEROES AND THE EMBARRASSMENTS OF COMICS
Haven’t seen the purported book we’re discussing yet, but here are my reactions to the questions posed:
The quote from Gary Groth raises an interesting point about the ethics of criticism. The reticence he expresses about wholeheartedly endorsing the work of Jack Kirby to the general public stems from the irreducibly juvenile nature of the straight-faced superhero adventure story. A reader who appreciates comic art and has no particular aversion to the straight-faced superhero adventure story can’t help but appreciate Kirby’s work. Within his particular field he’s Beethoven — always keeping in mind the relative level of artistic achievement of comic books and classical music. Part of his reticence — and mine, for that matter — about endorsing Kirby wholeheartedly to the general public is in knowing that not everyone shares this conditional acceptance of the genre, but another part is simply the fear of appearing childish. It’s less a matter of what he or I think as “What would the Goyim think?” Thomas M. Disch once wrote an essay called “The Embarrassments of Science Fiction” about how the discomfort the childish aspects of the genre cause its more artistically ambitious practitioners. The embarrassments of comic books are the same thing with gold stars and oak leaf clusters. The thing is, when you have arrogated to yourself the role of publicly judging the work of artists you have an obligation to honestly acknowledge the quality of an artists work without any thought of how that acknowledgment might be embarrassing to yourself.
The last half of the 20th century saw a popular insurrection against shame as a tool for maintaining social order. It consisted of people refusing to feel shame for anything from sexual proclivities to continuing to read comic books into adulthood. People of Gary’s and my vintage are willing to openly discuss our enthusiasm among those we know will share it but less so among the general population. We were not ashamed of ourselves but could still imagine being shamed by the opinions of others. The difference these days is you’ll have serious journalists like Ta‑Nehisi Coates, or for that matter literary novelists like Jonathan Lethem, talking about their enthusiasm for comics in front of God and everybody. It strikes us as a bit odd.
The thing that might seem curious to the innocent observer is that Gary would choke on Kamandi but swallow Donald Duck. When we speak of Carl Barks we speak of an artist who subordinated himself a set of characters and a style dictated by a corporate entity, as opposed to Kirby, who as much as anyone invented his idiom himself. For those familiar with the respective works there’s no mystery to it at all. It is a curious truth that much of what commends itself the attention of an adult reader in commercial comics was created not only for children but for pre-adolescent children. The quality in Barks’ work that leads you to recommend it without reservation to any open minded reader, beyond his absolute mastery of the medium, is sophistication. You find the same sophistication in the work of John Stanley. For all his excellencies I don’t know that you would call Kirby’s work sophisticated. His appeal is predominantly to the senses, and when he has ideas to express they tend toward the crackpot. Moreover, the emotions and motivations expressed by the anthropomorphic animals of Barks’ stories have an objective correlative with the emotions and motivations of real people. The operatic emotions expressed in Jack Kirby’s comics apply only to the godlike creatures who have them. They are in the final analysis stories about characters with attributes that are impossible battling menaces that don’t exist. While you have little reservation recommending Carl Barks or John Stanley or for that matter Jack Cole to a civilian as it were, you know that in order to engage with Kirby the reader has to be willing to sign on to the superhero idea.
It’s misleading to apply criteria developed for fine art to art produced to make a buck. In such art the desire to make a buck is the lead melody and personal expression of the artist is the counter-melody, which may harmonize or be discordant. In this type of art having one single artist to point to as the author for instance is not necessarily a great imperative. Superhero comics are an art form that exists primarily because people want to buy it. This is unlike for instance the comics of Harvey Pekar, which exist only because Harvey Pekar wanted them to, and operated at a loss for many years. By now it’s quite likely that if superhero comics ceased to be viable commercially people would still want to create them, but as they are still commercially viable there’s no reason that the commercial form won’t dominate.
The only reason superhero comics exist in the first place is that at a certain point in history children were given the privilege of deciding what kind of stories they were told, in books they bought with their personal pocket money. This isn’t something that occurs in societies that allow child labor, where the child’s earnings will all go towards their families’ bare subsistence, but in more affluent societies, where children are given spending money by their parents, or spend the proceeds from what work they are still allowed to do for their own amusement. These child-engendered artistic products appear through a process of trial and error, which in effect goes something like:
“Would you like this?”
“Would you like this?”
“How about this?”
“Maybe. Do another and we’ll see.”
“And this one?”
“Yeah! I’ll take a lot of those!”
Once the child-generated thing the superhero comic book exists in the market its appeal can spread to other readers, but it’s not something adults would have generated for themselves. As time goes on the target audience shifts to the oldest one that is likely to entertain the superhero idea.
The adults who initially come to produce this art might be craftsmen, or they might be technicians, or they might be hacks, but for some of them the material engages their creativity. The superhero comic engages the creativity of a Jack Kirby because it incites his artistic ambitions. It engages the creativity of a Jack Cole because he sees what is intrinsically comic about the concept. (If Jack Kirby is Beethoven, Jack Cole is Fats Waller.) It should be noted that while Art Spiegelman has no use for Kirby, he does have a use for Cole, and Kirby and Cole were in the same business, the business of selling comic magazines to children for pocket change. By the second generation, the one that comes after Kirby, you have cartoonists and writers drawn from the ranks of superhero comics enthusiasts, and their pursuit of the form comes naturally.
It ought to be remembered that the purpose of the “collaboration” is to maximize the number of pages produced, and when he got paid by the page Kirby had a practical interest in this system himself. What occurs to me is that most of the collaborating takes place after the work has left Kirby’s hands. As I understand the process, Lee and Kirby would discuss the basic plot orally, Kirby would pencil the entire story by himself, then hand it in for inking and writing and lettering the captions and dialog. As such Kirby is in the position of the director of a silent movie who improvises the entire story from a rough scenario, if the director played all the roles himself. Stan Lee is in the position of the writer of the title cards. The caveat here is how much input Lee actually had at the plotting stage, and since that’s become a point of contention and there’s no written evidence, by now there’s no way to know. What we do know is that since Lee was the paymaster, he would have as much input on editorial direction as he wanted. Since we have a body of work that Kirby did afterwards without Lee, we can infer that input by comparing the two. On balance, however, I think we can say that on balance, creatively speaking Lee was essentially Kirby’s caddy. A caddy might provide direction and advice, but the golfer plays the game.
This doesn’t render Lee’s contribution insignificant. The bane of the comic book had always been lousy writing, against which not even an Alex Toth could prevail. As editor Lee broke this age-old curse by writing all the captions and dialog himself, or nearly so. Having Kirby and Ditko to cook up the stories allowed him to do more captions and dialog in the same way that having someone else do the inking allowed Kirby and Ditko to draw more pages. Lee could keep things light while laying it on thick, and if he spent much of his time telling you how much fun you were having, he never forgot that fun is what it was supposed to be. If you watch recordings of Johnny Carson on the old Tonight Show you see that the key to his success was his knack for communicating enthusiasm, of signaling by his reactions that the spectacle before you was the wildest thing you’d seen in your life. Stan Lee brought a similar quality to comic book writing, and I don’t know if anyone else in the business had the brass to pull it off in the same way. More to the point, he was better at it than Kirby, whose captions and dialog, while serviceable, were flat and clumsy by comparison.
I would have to agree with Hatfield that superhero comics are the heart and soul of Kirby’s achievement. The thing that truly engaged his creativity was the titanic struggle between powerful beings, the opera on paper. While his superhero comics were enriched by what he learned working in other genres, they were ingredients and not the main dish. To put it bluntly, if Kirby’s career had consisted of everything he did besides superhero comics I don’t think any of us would be talking about him. Ever hear of Jack Kirby, did some wild monster comics in the ’50s? Invented the romance comic. Really? Hmm.
Furthermore, I believe it was not until Kirby, Ditko, and Lee remade the genre that the straight-faced, straight-ahead action-oriented superhero comic became anything more than lucrative, lousy things that kids liked. The superhero comics that had artistically distinguished themselves before that, Plastic Man and Captain Marvel, had been send-ups in whole or in significant part. It wasn’t until Kirby came into his own that the superhero story in earnest truly entered the realm of good comics.
Both Dan Nadel and Robert Fiore have posted some meaty comments, which I wanted to respond to and perhaps use to spur further discussion.
As Dan notes, it’s fair enough for a study of Kirby to focus on his superhero work. For better or worse, that’s the genre that Kirby is most associated with and the lasting repository of his reputation. When Kirby started drawing comics in the late 1930s, the superhero quickly became a popular but slightly disreputable off-shot of the pulps and adventure cartooning (fusing together the rip-roaring style of Roy Crane with the mystery-man tradition of the Scarlett Pimpernel, the Lone Ranger, and the Shadow). But as Hatfield persuasively argues, when Kirby returned to the superhero in the 1960s, he not only brought with him the lessons learned from other genres like romance and horror but also transformed the genre by giving it more cosmic ambitions.
And now nearly twenty years after Kirby’s death, the superhero has almost become the default mode of American popular entertainment, as seen not just in countless video games and Hollywood movies but also in the way that characters from other genres (I’m thinking here of the James Bondian super-spy or the Sherlock Holmesian detective or the Harry Potter-esque wizard) are transformed into superheroes.
The cultural triumph of the superhero, for good or ill, wouldn’t have happened without Kirby’s crucial reinvigoration and expansion of the genre in the 1960s.
Having said that, for reasons that Robert Fiore very powerfully outlined, the superhero has been a suspect genre for decades not only by outside critics like Fredric Wertham but even by those who love comics and have themselves been formed by the superhero. There are all sorts of reasons to question the superhero – not just for aesthetic reasons but also on political, emotional, and gender grounds.
From Marshall McLuhan in the 1940s to Art Spiegelman in the 1990s, lots of critics have seen the superhero as inherently authoritarian, if not fascistic. This accusation can be contested based not just on Kirby’s personal history (his war record and life-long commitment to liberal democracy) but also within the comics themselves where Kirby’s persistent embrace of the outsider, the freak and the underdog is as far as possible from fascism.
Emotionally the superhero is very much grounded in adolescent angst, which is both hormonally potent but also, for adults looking back in retrospect, embarrassing. (Adolescence is much more embarrassing than childhood, which perhaps explains the curious fact that Robert alluded to, that Carl Barks’ duck comics are more reputable than Kirby’s superheroes). In gender terms, the sheer hyper-masculinity of superheroes can be off-putting. All these considerations feed into aesthetics, of course, and there is a critique of Kirby that acknowledges the potency of his visual imagination but also sees him as severely constrained by his commitment to the superhero.
I don’t necessarily agree with the critiques I’ve outlined here but I wanted to put them on the table as something to think about.
In reading Hatfield’s book, it might be worth asking to what degree the focus on superheroes offers a skewed view of Kirby’s career. As Dan Nadel noted, it’s curious that the book ends on The Eternals, when Kirby went to do some more major works (in a generally science fiction vein) in the 1980s. Hatfield’s decision to end on The Eternals only makes sense if you see Kirby’s work on superheroes (and indeed more narrowly on superheroes for Marvel and DC comics) as the core of his achievement. That’s a defensible point of view, but perhaps also worth arguing with.
SIX: PHILIP K. DICK AND KIRBY
Meanwhile, I’ve got this for you folks. Plot thickens, etc. (scroll down just a bit for Kirby Kontent.)
The link Jonathan sent out reminded me that there is an entire subset of Kirby fans and commentators that basically see him as the comic book counterpart of Philip K. Dick — that is to say as a visionary or seer in the guise of a pulp hack. The major text in this tradition is Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (University of Chicago Press). Kripal — who is a big figure in religious studies — basically sees both science fiction and the superhero genre as manifestations of transcendental or supernatural experiences by various creators. He quotes a writer named Christopher Knowles who argues that, “something very, very powerful hit [Kirby] around ’65 or ’66, and transformed him from an already imaginative man into a psychedelic shaman disguised as a freelance pencil pusher.” (Kripal 154)
I have to confess that as a rather old-fashioned historical materialist, I find such claims to be absurd. Kirby was intrigued by Erich von Daniken-style pseudo-science but he took that stuff and used it the right way — as the raw material for fantasy comics! And of course the great and admirable thing about Dick’s Valis experience is that Dick (unlike say L. Ron Hubbard) resisted the temptation to become a seer and prophet of a new religion. My understanding is that Dick never came to a definitive judgement about the meaning of the Valis experience (fortunately we have the co-editor of the Exegesis of Philip K. Dick as part of this roundtable and he can correct me if I’m wrong).
I don’t want to assign any more readings but the Kripal book does pursue all this in more detail. I have to say, it strikes me as nonsense, but feel free to disagree.
Don’t see it. As these things are figured in science fiction Dick was never really considered a hack. He had aspirations to write literary fiction, he had short stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy, which were the prestige markets at the time insofar as there were any, he had stories adapted on the X Minus One radio show, he had novels published in hardcover and by the better paperback houses (as well as crummy ones), he won the Hugo award and was frequently nominated for the Hugos and Nebulas. I don’t know if you could really call Kirby a hack in the comic book world; a hack in comic books could be awfully damned hacky. I suppose Dell and DC were what you could call the reputable houses and he didn’t work for them in his early career, but he wasn’t scraping the bottom of the barrel, either. Captain America was a big seller in the 1940s. I don’t think comics fandom started establishing the pecking order of “Golden Age” comic book cartoonists until the 1960s, and by then Kirby was a star. Or am I supposed to be looking through the lens where every science fiction writer and every comic book cartoonist is a hack, rather than the way they were viewed within genre?
The main way in which Dick and Kirby were analogous was that they were both adopted as counterculture figures in the 1960s. In the world of literary fiction Dick’s reputation has been incrementally building from that of a cult figure into a literary figure. It’s sort of like watching an ape evolve. Kirby is simultaneously square in the main line of commercial comics and a cult figure in art comics, but I don’t see him being taken seriously in the art world the way some are beginning to consider Dick a major writer in the literary world. A better analogy with Dick would be Robert Crumb, who goes from being a total outlaw to a kind of Brueghel of his time. Fletcher Hanks is an example of a pure hack who comes to be seen as a primitive back door visionary.
As for Dick as a supernatural visionary, I would lean towards Michael Bishop’s theory that the Valis experience was a mild stroke. The best book on Dick is Emmanuel Carrere’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead.
These points are fair enough. Hack is too strong a term — perhaps it would be better to say that at the start of their career Dick and Kirby were both journeymen pulp creators but they managed to make a name for themselves as visionaries despite the fact that they never left the pulp tradition. The other point of comparison would be their incredible productivity (and the resultant unevenness of their work) and their engagement with Californian culture (which Kirby came to late in life but really embraced in his 1970s work). I should add that the author I mentioned — Kripal — sees them both as genuine mystics whose works contain a valid religious message (a position that I reject — or can only accept in the general form that all interesting art has a spiritual component). But perhaps it is better to say that Kirby and Dick are too idiosyncratic to be compared.
A completely fascinating series of posts and almost impossible to do it all justice.
First, suffice to say I passed that link along in a spirit of astonishment that Kirby’s omnivorous and archetypal imaginings could ever be mistaken for specifically prophetic in that way — the rabbit-hole of millennial conspiracy thinking is a deep one.
Second, as a Dick scholar, I’d want to throw in that though I enjoyed Carrerre’s book myself, his family and others who knew him seem to regard it as obnoxious affront, for the liberties taken. Lawrence Sutin’s is of course the factually reputable biography, and a solid job it is too. An Italian scholar named Umberto Rossi has just published a remarkable monograph called The Twisted World of Philip K. Dick: A Study of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels.
I like the comparison of Robert Crumb and Dick, which seems to catch something exactly.
The SF writer I’d compare to Kirby is Robert Heinlein. Neither is the inventor of the landscape, and neither transforms it upon their first arrival, but rather hatch their mature style slowly. Then, when the flowering does come, they seem as definitive as a Duke Ellington, Picasso, or Bob Dylan, and for a while every other creator has to react/bow or stand apart in defiance of their style. In both cases a dominant editor/publisher figure (Lee/Campell) holds them up as THE model for others to adapt their work to. And then they stick around long enough to become self-referentially eccentric, and to strike many readers as embarrassingly entrenched in a past style. Silver Star equals The Name of the Beast.
“Hack” is a very peculiar lens, which, as Mr. Fiore points out, either applies to everyone working outside the canons of consecrated taste — all cartoonists and SF writers, in other words — or to those within any given field who dishonor it with hurried, paltry, or imitative work. Or “hack-work” might be applied to the hurried, paltry, or imitative work done at times by those who might be seen as true artists when working at their best. It’s no secret that Dick considered himself to be doing hack work at times — depending on the context of the conversation, or the state of his self-regard, he might sometimes have called his whole career ‘hack work’. I doubt Kirby was prone to the same self-judgement…
So much more I’d like to say in reply to all of this, but no time at the moment!
To walk my casual statement back a bit, I have not read every book about Philip K. Dick (though I have read nearly every book by Philip K. Dick) and I say Carrerre’s book is the best largely because I was so taken with it that I assumed it had to be. The best book and the most factually accurate book about Dick are not necessarily going to be the same thing, though a factually accurate book on this subject presents special challenges and is entitled to extra credit.
Popular artists do their apprenticeships in public. Standards are lower, gatekeepers are indulgent, pay is poor, and young people always want to be big name professionals right now. Juvenilia which for legit authors doesn’t see the light of day until the heirs get greedy is part of popular author’s body of work from the start. Robert Bloch’s autobiography Once Around the Bloch illustrates just what making a living as a commercial writer entailed. Here you have a big name in his particular patch who made his way into slick magazines and got to wet his beak in movies and television, and yet his career is just a mad treadmill of never-slackening production.
There’s a folk perception of science fiction that was formed I think largely by low budget movies and television and an assumption that they were an accurate representation of what was going on in the magazines where the form developed. Uniquely among popular forms science fiction always had a baseline commitment to big, important ideas. It isn’t like crime fiction where you have one large segment that’s devoted to violence, thrills and sex and another large segment that’s devoted to intellectual puzzles about train schedules and exotic poisons and another segment that has literary ambitions to plumb the dark heart of the criminal act. Ideas are what science fiction is or was about and every other literary value could be sacrificed to the pursuit of ideas. What I like to say is that science fiction is literature, but it’s badly written literature. Should Philip K. Dick be admitted to the canon Theodore Dreiser will no longer be the worst prose stylist in respectable American literature.
[after mentioning his off-topic Kramers Ergot 8 review] …although whether PKD had a stroke or heard the voice of God or what’s the difference is a stretch too, so I don’t feel that bad.
I would say it would make a great deal of difference whether Dick had a genuine supernatural religious experience or a medical episode he mistook for a supernatural religious experience.
I realize I may have failed to weigh in on exactly the matter on which I would be most expected to weigh in. A part of my disinclination is simply “Exegesis burn-out”, after spending far too much of the past two years first in the editing, copyediting, and proofreading of the monstrous manuscript, and then in the aftermath, where along with light promotional duties I was asked to play the role of the sounding-board for everyone’s responses to it.
I do see an opportunity here to say a couple of things that I may never have said quite as clearly as I’d have liked — possible precisely because this exchange between Doug and Bob (“It makes no difference” v. “It makes a great deal of difference”) reduces some of the murk around the thing to an apparently simple binary:
For what it’s worth, I find this question of whether or not his explicit visionary episodes were triggered by a stroke strikes me as leaving the actual fact of the 8,000 pages of writing, and the matter of their contents, completely unconfronted. Or perhaps it would be better to say the question leaves what interests me in the late phase of this great writer’s efforts completely undescribed. Suffice to say any number of millions of humans have had strokes. Only one of them did what Philip K. Dick did.
Even if you quest around for a more exotic diagnosis — Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, say, which has been proposed for Dick (as with Kirby and PSTD, of course, none of us will ever know, but that hasn’t stopped speculation), as it has also been proposed for Saint Theresa of Avila, and Dostoyevsky, and a few other interesting people — and which has been specifically associated with bouts of graphomaniacal literary production — you still don’t find that anyone except Philip K. Dick wrote the Exegesis, or even anything very much like it, in the whole history of humankind.
And as a student of his work, I personally find the effort to split the last writings completely away from the “great novels of the ’60s” unconvincing. In fact, evidence of a visionary gnostic sensibility is traceable as far back (at least) as Cosmic Puppets, an unredeemable crappy fantasy novel written early in his 1950s apprenticeship. And by the time of the mid-’60s — in and around any of the work that would — and does — qualify him as a canonical writer (one who, as Bob points out, is canonical like Dreiser, i.e. despite the genius having to drag the prose into the canon like a butterfly dragging a lead sinker), all of the primary concerns of the impossible Exegesis material are already in play: the trapdoor philosophizing, the eschatological and ontological obsessions, the theological raptures and solipsistic terrors. He also had episodes, in his life, quite a lot like the episodes of the late ’70s (voices in the night, depression breakdowns and exultant fits of productivity). Unless you want to suggest that he began suffering a series of tiny strokes sometime in the ’50s… there’s no way to make that diagnosis really encompass the tendencies that become so explosive later on.
The only reason I can imagine getting worked up on the matter of denying Dick really heard God’s voice is if you A. believe there is a God and B. believe he spoke to you and told you stuff that contradicted the stuff Dick claimed God said (up to and including, I suppose, “that guy Dick is going around claiming he heard me speak, but I never said a word to him.”) Since I don’t believe in God, I can’t really get very interested in this — and when people who I suspect also don’t believe in God do get worked up about it, it doesn’t coming out sounding any different to me than when people say, “But Philip K. Dick was really crazy, wasn’t he?” In both cases, my translation of the remark ends up being: “I don’t really want to encounter that material. It’s easier not to have to.”
Since I don’t look on the Exegesis as revelation, or even, really, philosophy, but as “writing by a writer I like” — and since, in fact, there’s intermittently astoundingly rich and mind-bending and funny and provocative and trippy writing contained in it — all the virtues that drew me to the writer in question to begin with — I’m fighting the good fight to encourage people to abandon the “crazy/not crazy” or “God/not-God” framing that seems to be the only way anyone can think to approach the book.
Except I’m not really fighting that fight, I’ve really given it up already — except for writing this e-mail.
Hey, I even got Kirby’s name in there once, folks!
Sorry, I didn’t mean the topic was uninteresting or insignificant, just that it probably won’t make the final cut in a roundtable article on Hatfield’s Kirby book. But for the record, my understanding (and I’d hazard Dick’s and possibly Kirby’s) allows for the possibility that “a stroke” and “hearing the voice of God” are just different ways of describing the same phenomenon; from a medical/materialist POV and from a mystical/subjectivist POV. Which are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Alterations in brain function have been inextricable from supernatural religious experiences (prayer, chanting, fasting, yoga, whirling, flagellation, trepanation, mushrooms…) throughout our species’ history, and I don’t see how the possibility that PKD’s experiences may have coincided with a physiological change makes them less valid than those of, say, some one who sits in one position under a tree for forty-nine days. What I want to know — and I’m sure some of you have better intel on this than me – is whether Kirby ever dropped acid. Because my friend Scott? In 8th grade? Said there’s no way he didn’t, man.
Oh, yes, I agree with that, totally beside the point as it doesn’t relate to Kirby.
Unless he dropped acid!