Monday, March 9, 2015

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress entitled Philip K. Dick in Orange County, in which I read each of the novels that acclaimed sci-fi author Philip K. Dick wrote while living in Orange County, and write book reports about them.  This is part of a larger project that will become an art exhibit/zine release in May 2015 at Hibbleton Gallery.

The final three novels Philp K. Dick completed make up what is known as the VALIS trilogy.  It's not a trilogy in the conventional sense (like Lord of the Rings).  That is, it does not tell a linear story with a set cast of characters.  Each novel has a totally different setting and totally different characters (with the possible exception of God).  Rather, the novels form a trilogy in a more abstract, thematic sense.  Basically, what unites them is the idea of a spiritual quest, of characters struggling to understand the nature of reality, themselves, and God. 

In the first two novels (VALIS and The Divine Invasion), this spiritual quest involves science fiction conventions--space travel, virtual reality, etc.  The final novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, however, is not science fiction in the conventional sense.  It is set squarely in the real world (more specifically, California in the year 1980), and yet it deals with the same themes of the previous two novels--the theme of spiritual searching amidst ordinary life.  In fact, as I will argue in this little report, this is the novel's main theme--the struggle to reconcile the life of the mind/spirit with ordinary, day-to-day existence in late 20th century America.

The novel tells the story of a well-known episcopal bishop named Timothy Archer (based on the real-life bishop James Pike), who became famous in the 1960s for his radical views and social activism.  He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama.  He was a friend of Bobby Kennedy (who, were it not for his assassination in 1968, might have gotten elected president instead of Richard Nixon, and history would be different).  Bishop Archer supported the ordination of women, and many other "progressive" causes.

But the 1960s are over, and things have gotten darker in America.  The year is 1980, John Lennon has just been assassinated, and Bishop Archer is beginning to have doubts about his faith and the state of the world.  These doubts are exacerbated by the recent discovery of ancient, pre-Christian documents found in the Dead Sea Desert, known as the Zadokite documents.  Like the famous Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls, these new documents seem to shed light on, and call into question, certain aspects of orthodox Christianity.

The Zadokite documents, which were written over a century before Christ, contain many of the famous "I am" sayings of Jesus: I am the Resurrection, I am the bread of life, I am the vine, etc.  For bishop Archer, these ancient writings call into question the divinity of Jesus, and show him to be a follower of a much older Jewish sect, not an originator.  The followers of this ancient sect, the Zadokites, believed that by eating certain mushrooms, they were eating the spirit of God.  What the documents essentially demonstrate is that Christianity is based on an ancient Jewish mushroom cult.

In the midst of these discoveries, bishop Archer is also dealing with the suicide of his son, and the physical and mental deterioration of his lover, Kirsten.  Due to these personal and spiritual crises, Timothy Archer finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his position as a spiritual leader.  How can he preach and counsel his congregation when he is so full of pain and doubt?

Timothy Archer, like most of PKD's characters, is a complex and sympathetic protagonist.  His is likeable and highly educated.  He quotes Plato, Dante, and Shakespeare as readily as he quotes the Bible.  He is a man who has cultivated his intellectual/spiritual life to a very high degree.  He is a genuine and passionate seeker after knowledge, truth, and wisdom.  And yet, as the novel progresses, his world (both inner and outer) begins to crumble.

The narrator of the novel, Angel Archer (widow of the bishop's dead son Jeff) provides a nice contrast to Timothy.  Unlike the bishop, she leads a rather ordinary life, first as a clerk in a law office, then as manager of a record store.  Unlike the bishop, she is not religious.  She is, at heart, a realist--quick to point out and make fun of high-minded bullshit.  Which is not to say that she is uneducated.  On the contrary, she has an English degree from Berkeley, and is totally at home shooting the shit with the bishop about philosophy, literature, even theology.  The difference is that she is a skeptic, and seems more in tune with reality than the bishop who, in his time of crisis, turns to a quack spirit medium, and actually believes that his dead son is trying to reach him from the afterlife.  The title of the novel comes from the idea of transmigration of souls, which refers to the spirits of the dead transferring to the living.  It is actually a common belief in many world cultures, just not in the west so much.

For the narrator Angel Archer, the bishop's problem is that there is a gap between his intellectual/spiritual life and his ordinary existence.  Angel, who is not a Christian, sees this fusing of the spirit and body as an essential part of human life.  In biblical terms, this is called incarnation--making the word flesh.  For Angel, any idea, however grand, remains meaningless until it finds expression in real life.  When Tim is spiraling out of control, Angel sees herself as a grounding force, bringing him back to reality.

This idea of incarnation, or fusing of idea and reality, is perhaps best represented by an episode in Angel's life when these two worlds (spirit and body) collided and she was, in effect, "born again" (not in the evangelical sense).  What happened was she had a really bad toothache and could not sleep.  She stayed up all night, reading the entirety of Dante's Divine Comedy and drinking cheap bourbon, waiting for the dentist's office to open in the morning.  She describes the experience in this way:

"I read Dante's Commedia, from Inferno through Paradiso, until at last I arrived in the three colored rings of light...and the time was nine A.M. and I could get into my fucking car and shoot out into traffic and Dr. Davidson's office, crying and cursing the whole way, with no breakfast, not even coffee, and stinking of sweat and bourbon, a sorry mess indeed, much gaped at by the dentist's receptionist...So for me in a certain unusual way--for certain unusual reasons--books and reality are fused, they join through one incident, one night of my life: my intellectual life and my practical life came together."

This fusing of the intellect and practical life, of seeing and experiencing the ideas of literature embodied in real, messy, painful life--that is the great theme and insight of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.  This theme is evident throughout the novels of Philip K. Dick, but it reaches its clearest expression in the VALIS trilogy.  These deeply personal, weird, tormented books were, I think, a way for Philip K. Dick, the literary artist/intellectual, to fuse his own pain, his intense and vast intellectual pursuits, and his day-to-day life together--to incarnate spirituality from amidst the garbage, pain, and fragments of late 20th century America.  Like Angel reading Dante, ascending to the heights of heaven while still suffering like a sonofabitch--that is the magic and poetry of Philip K. Dick's art.

1 comment:

  1. Will Radio Free Albamuth be included in this series?