Frank C. Bertrand on PKD: An Interview
By Tobias Harris

[Note: This interview with Frank was done by email in April/May 2000 by Tobias Harris, a Junior at Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois.]

Where did you receive your professional training and what in?

I received my "professional" training from, for me, an eclectic and important combination of formal and informal sources. The formal part was done mostly at The University of New Hampshire and The College for Lifelong Learning. At UNH I got a major in English Literature and a minor in Philosophy but did not graduate. I did eventually finish up at CLL where I got a self-designed BGS degree in Literature, along with a certificate in Computer Applications. I also studied Adult Learning & Development at CLL. This formal process started in 1969 and, with several gaps, finally finished in 1997. One reason/excuse for this length of time is that I took a lot of courses I wanted to, that I was interested in, versus the "required" ones. But all along I also engaged in informal education, that is, a lot of reading and rereading and studying on my on, accumulating at one point some 10 bookcases of books in my apartment. I'm a strong advocate of lifelong learning and informal education, pursuing what really interests you, not what someone else tells you you should/must study.

How did you meet Philip K. Dick?

I initially met PKD via his writing. Even though my early on favorites in SF were Robert Heinlein, John Brunner and Brian Aldiss, I tried to read widely in the field. I was also interested in reading about SF from which I learned of its being considered a "literature of ideas". This tied in nicely with my interest in the use of philosophical ideas in literature. And as I recall, it was from reading something about SF that included mention of PKD that caused me to seek out some of his early works, both novels and short stories. Then, as I read more and more of his work, it became clear to me, at least, that he was a strong example of the use of philosophical ideas in literature. So I started to study his work, collect secondary works about him, correspond with various individuals, and eventually I wrote to PKD asking if I could interview him.

Describe your relationship with him.

My relationship with PKD was strictly an epistolary one. We never met in person. There were several exchanges of letters, consisting of my questions about his interest in and use of philosophy in his writing. These were friendly at first, but then a disagreement arose over how to continue the interview, by letter (my preference) or by phone (PKD's wish). It's my understanding that these will be in the 6th volume of Selected PKD letters, which is suppose to be out some time this summer.

How did the events of Dick's life influence his writing?

Depending on how you choose to define "events" and which ones you want to include, I believe that PKD's writing was influenced by events in his life to the extent that he used his writing to try and understand what had and was happening to him. This is to be expected from most any writer. The best ones write about what they know, have personally experienced, and how these life experiences affected them. In PKD's case you can certainly consider his sister's death, his moving around with his mother, his living in Berkeley, etc.

The whole question of "influence" is a tricky one when discussing any writer, as even a cursory study of literary theory and history quickly makes clear. I would call to your attention a list I put together of "influences" given by PKD that is at www.philipKdick.com. But having said that, it's more a matter, I think, of reaction and interaction between a writer, his life experiences and his intellectual interests. I don't think we can point to just his works, or just his biography, to indicate influences.

How did Dick's political beliefs influence his writing?

PKD's political beliefs, along with others in his belief system, certainly influenced his writing. I believe it was Aristotle who claimed that Man is a political animal and you can find examples of this in a lot of Dick's novels and stories. As for just what his political beliefs were is a different matter. I think they evolved and changed over time. He wasn't interested in just one particular political ideology but took bits and pieces from several, to the extent that his interest was in how politics affected the "little man", his favorite kind of character/protagonist.

What philosophers was Dick a student of, and did they affect his writing?

A good answer to this can be found in the interview I did with him. From this, other interviews and his published letters, it's pretty clear that he was mostly a student of the Pre-Socratic philosophers and to a lesser extent, Pre-Socratic politics. But he also liked works by Spinoza, Kant and Hume, in fact most anything from 18th and 19th German philosophy, literature and music. Most certainly his philosophical beliefs affected his writing. I would posit that philosophy more so than psychology or religion had the strongest influence on his writing. A lot of his fiction is an attempt to explore and explicate certain philosophical concepts, in particular what is reality (metaphysics) and what is a human being (ontology). He even called himself at one point a "fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist".

What historical events had the greatest impact on his life?

It's my impression that WWII and its aftermath, along with the so called "Cold War", had the greatest impact on PKD. In particular he took from this the concept of "Totalitarianism" as manifested by the Nazis and Stalin's "reign of terror". To a lesser extent I would add the drug culture and resistance movements of the 1960s. But I think it's difficult to point to any one event or belief or philosophy as having the greatest impact. He was interested in and affected by many things, which became intertwined in his writing, sort of like DNA strands. PKD was, I think, very much a self taught polymath and Renaissance man and therefore, aware of a lot of things which at some point impacted, if not directly/indirectly influenced, his writing. And it's my sense that he was trying to figure out what kind of "reality" and what kind of "human" being could allow such a thing as Totalitarianism to happen. Just consider, for a moment, the title of his essay/speech "If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some Of The Others". It has a lot of connotative implications for what PKD was about.

How did drug use affect Philip K. Dick?

PKD has admitted using certain drugs, in particular amphetamines to give him the "energy" necessary to write a lot in a short period of time. He apparently also tried LSD a few times. So drugs certainly affected PKD personally, but I think even more so, over time he observed in the drug culture of the 1960s the effects of drugs on his friends and others. His novel A Scanner Darkly is a stark and vivid portrayal of all of this.

Can you describe his "2-3-74" revelations as he told you, or through your understanding?

Dick's so called 2-3-74 "revelation" is a controversial subject amongst both PKD fans and academics. The available evidence and hearsay is sometimes contradictory, even from PKD himself. We (he and I) never personally discussed this so my understanding comes from what is publicly in print. It would be my opinion that what he experienced was a psychological/physiological "epiphany" triggered by his physical/emotional state at that time. He had used drugs, he drank, he had high blood pressure, he had gone through several divorces, etc. Most recently he had had painful dental work done. So his "reaction" to the trigger of the "pink beam" reflecting off the fish pendant worn by the pharmacy delivery girl is not unexpected. What he made of it, via several novels and the Exegesis, has been, is and continues to be, quite debatable. There are some academics making a career of this, strip-mining and dissecting it to death. But I suspect that it was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. I think he felt a great deal of angst (what some call "spiritual despair") as did a lot of us about what was going on in the country at that time, and as he tried first this belief system then that one to try and explain it, to help him deal with this angst, he viewed this event as a good reason to use religion, in particular gnosticism, to help him understand. As Elaine Pagels writes in The Gnostic Gospels, "...many people at the time felt profoundly alienated from the world in which they lived, and longed for a miraculous salvation as an escape from the constraints of political and social existence".

How did the "2-3-74" revelations affect Dick as a person and as a writer?

Obviously, whatever it was that he "experienced" on 2-3-74 had a profound affect on him and his writing. The "Valis" trilogy and the Exegesis certainly exemplify these affects as he sought to understand just what it was that had happened. In fact, I think it could be argued that he spent so much time on this search for understanding that it contributed to his declining health.

How did his Gnostic beliefs influence his writing?

I think that over time as he learned more about Gnosticism, PKD identified more and more with some of its tenets. The Gnostics' form of quest for truth and knowledge he found intriguing and fascinating, and apparently an apt explanation for what he had personally experienced. Jung, one of PKD's favorites, thought gnostic ideas expressed "the other side of the mind" - the spontaneous, unconscious thoughts that any orthodoxy requires its adherents to repress. This "other side of the mind" was something PKD spent a lot of time exploring. One can note the prevalence of a doppelganger or double motif in a lot of his writing. And for your information, there is an interesting lecture available in Real Player audio at The Gnostic Society Web Lectures site called "Philip K. Dick - Gnostic Prophet of Science Fiction".

What are some themes present in Dick's writing?

There are, as PKD himself has indicated, two essential themes present in his work: what is reality and what is a human being. But I think he also tried to explore the nature of "love" and "politics" as they were influenced by reality and "human-ness". Or perhaps one should say that he tried to explore and explicate the interaction between reality and human-ness as manifested in things like politics, religion and relationships.

What theme did Dick explore most often, or most in depth?

The nature of "human-ness". This continually fascinated, intrigued and perplexed him. He continually explored the difference between man, android and machine, positing that man's "human-ness" is shown by empathy or the ability to balk. The best example I can think of for it in his writing is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

What inspired Dick to write about certain themes?

Well, what inspires any writer? For PKD it was a combination of his own life experiences and intellectual interests. He had a strong curiosity to learn, to know. There was a great depth and range to his philosophical questioning, but in the end he always had, ended up with, more questions than answers.