How Philip K. Dick Disdained American Anti-Intellectualism and Found His Inspiration in Flaubert, Stendhal & Balzac

Despite some of the stranger cir­cum­stances of Philip K. Dick’s life, his rep­u­ta­tion as a para­noid guru is far bet­ter deserved by oth­er sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers who lost touch with real­i­ty. Dick was a seri­ous thinker and writer before pop cul­ture made him a prophet. Jonathan Letham wrote of him, “Dick wasn’t a leg­end and he wasn’t mad. He lived among us and was a genius.” It’s a fash­ion­able opin­ion these days, but his genius went most­ly unrec­og­nized in his lifetime—at least in his home country—except among a sub­set of sci-fi read­ers. But Dick con­sid­ered him­self a lit­er­ary writer. He left the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia after less than a semes­ter, but the “con­sum­mate auto­di­dact” read wide­ly and deeply, favor­ing the giants of Euro­pean phi­los­o­phy, the­ol­o­gy, and lit­er­a­ture. For this rea­son, Dick sus­pect­ed that his tepid recep­tion in the U.S., by com­par­i­son with the warm regard of the French, showed a “flawed” anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism in Amer­i­cans that pre­vent­ed them from appre­ci­at­ing his work. In the 1977 edit­ed inter­view above with Dick in France, you can hear him lay out his the­o­ry in detail, offer­ing insights along the way into his lit­er­ary edu­ca­tion and influ­ences.

Dick iden­ti­fies two strains of anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism in the U.S. The first, he says, pre­vents Amer­i­can read­ers from appre­ci­at­ing “nov­els of ideas.” Sci­ence fic­tion, he says, “is essen­tial­ly the field of ideas. And the anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism of Amer­i­cans pro­hibits their inter­est in imag­i­na­tive ideas and inter­est­ing con­cepts.”

I don’t find Dick par­tic­u­lar­ly per­sua­sive here, but I live in a time when he has been ful­ly embraced, if only in adap­ta­tion. Dick’s more spe­cif­ic take on what may be a root cause for Amer­i­cans’ lack of curios­i­ty has to do with the read­ing habits of Amer­i­cans.

There’s anoth­er facet as regards my par­tic­u­lar work say com­pared to oth­er sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers. I grew up in Berke­ley and my edu­ca­tion was not lim­it­ed at all to read­ing oth­er sci­ence fic­tion nov­els pre­ced­ing my own, such as van Vogt, or Hein­lein, or peo­ple of that kind… Pad­gett, and so on…. Brad­bury. What I read, because it’s a uni­ver­si­ty city,  was Flaubert, Stend­hal, Balzac… Proust, and the Russ­ian nov­el­ists influ­enced by the French. Tur­genev. And I even read Japan­ese nov­els, mod­ern Japan­ese nov­els, nov­el­ists who were influ­enced by the French real­is­tic writ­ers.

Dick says his “slice of life” nov­els were well received in France because he based them on 19th French real­ist nov­els. His favorite, he tells the inter­view­er, were Madame Bovary and The Red and the Black, as well as Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons — all found in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks and Free Audio BooksPer­haps a lit­tle self-impor­tant­ly, in his par­tic­u­lar con­cep­tion of him­self as a lit­er­ary writer, Dick dis­tances him­self from oth­er Amer­i­can sci­ence fic­tion authors, whom he alleges share the Amer­i­can reader’s anti-intel­lec­tu­al propen­si­ties. “I think this applies to me more than oth­er Amer­i­can sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers,” says Dick, “In fact, I think that it’s a great flaw in Amer­i­can sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers, and their read­ers, that they are insu­lat­ed from the great lit­er­a­ture of the world.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Robert Crumb Illus­trates Philip K. Dick’s Infa­mous, Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Meet­ing with God (1974)

The Penul­ti­mate Truth About Philip K. Dick: Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Mys­te­ri­ous Uni­verse of PKD

Free Philip K. Dick: Down­load 13 Great Sci­ence Fic­tion Sto­ries

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • sgtoox says:

    So basi­cal­ly, “No one bought my books in Amer­i­ca, because Amer­i­ca is too stu­pid to appre­ci­ate my genius.” A bit of a nau­se­at­ing sen­ti­ment. Some­times, I wish I knew less about the authors of whose books I enjoy. Con­sid­er­ing him­self an “intel­lec­tu­al” may be a bit of an over­es­ti­ma­tion, at least if “intel­lec­tu­al” is a term in which the great, deep nov­el­ists like Dos­to­evsky, Camus, Melville, and so on would fall under.

  • sgtoox says:

    He def­i­nite­ly sounds like some­one who fin­ished about a semes­ter in col­lege, and then stopped. I still love his books all the same.…

    • Frank Bertrand says:

      Actu­al­ly, sgtoox, Philip K. Dick did­n’t even fin­ish his first semes­ter at UC-Berke­ley. The rea­sons giv­en are var­i­ous through­out his extant let­ters and essays. The most promi­nent seems to be that he did­n’t like hav­ing to take ROTC. Anoth­er would be his diag­nosed Ago­ra­pho­bia. In one place he says he majored in Phi­los­o­phy, in anoth­er Ger­man.

  • Frank Bertrand says:

    My thanks Josh for putting yet anoth­er very rel­e­vant nail in the cof­fin of those who con­tin­ue to insist that Philip K. Dick was inspired by PoMo Mys­ti­cism. NOT AT ALL. He’s very much a prod­uct of his “cul­tur­al con­text,” which was the late 1940s and through the 1950s, in that he grad­u­at­ed from High School in 1947, expe­ri­enced WWII, start of the Cold War, the UN Kore­an Con­flict and McCarthy­ism. And of course he lived at or near Univ. of Cal­i­for­nia — Berke­ley for some 20 years. These are his zeit­geist, the things that inspired his writ­ing.

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