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Altered States of Reading (Part 3): A Private Part of Time’s Anatomy


A couple weeks ago, Twitter etc. went wild when a new book revealed allegations that UK Prime Minister David Cameron had, during an initiation ritual while at Oxford, inserted “a private part of his anatomy” in the mouth of a dead pig. To an entire nation, it was a hilariously obvious permutation of Charlie Brooker’s disturbing debut episode of his Black Mirror series four years earlier, which centered on a British Prime Minister being blackmailed to have sex with a pig on live television, focusing specifically on the role of social media in compelling the leader to carry out the deed.

This kind of thing—not the pig part, but “low culture” (e.g., TV, pulp) writers predicting the future, including future revelations of events that occurred in the past but of which the writer could have had no knowledge—happens all the time. Yet our collective disbelief in anything like precognition causes us to simply have a curious chuckle at these coincidences … maybe be a little “weirded out” (as Brooker said he was) … and then forget them soon afterward. It doesn’t occur to anyone to actually keep a tally. Nevertheless, I feel confident that enterprising grad students in some future department of Precognitive Media Studies will one day go back and scrutinize the whole archive of network TV from its inception, comparing dates teleplays were written with subsequent news headlines, and will turn up some pretty mind-blowing correlations.

In part one of this series, I described such a possibly prescient relationship between the planetary computer Vaal in a 1967 Star Trek episode called “The Apple,” written by science fiction writer Max Ehrlich, and Philip K Dick’s VALIS over a decade later. For various reasons, I suggested this may have been an inadvertent precognitive “plagiarism from the future” on Ehrlich’s part instead of, or in addition to, the usual forward-in-time influence of Ehrlich’s Star Trek episode on Dick’s novel.

Delving into the matter, I found that Ehrlich had not only seemingly anticipated other of Dick’s themes (and book covers), but also seems to have shared Dick’s interest in the paranormal sources of people’s dreams and obsessions. I don’t know much about Ehrlich’s life, but when writers take an interest in such things, it often arises from personal experience or at least some hunch that they themselves are in contact with sources of information that go against the prevailing mechanistic, materialistic worldview (i.e., the creative pattern Jeffrey Kripal described at length in Mutants and Mystics).

Boring Old Reincarnation

“I’ve always wondered why people have always reincarnated from the past. Those few times when I’ve had feelings of remembering another life, it was from the future.” Jacques Vallee

Ehrlich was specifically interested in reincarnation. He is most famous for his 1973 novel (turned into a 1975 movie) The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, about a young professor inexplicably obsessed with Indians and increasingly troubled by recurring dreams of living another life and being murdered by his wife while taking a swim in a lake. Proud accidentally discovers the real setting of his dreams in a TV broadcast (a motif Ehrlich no doubt precognitively borrowed from Spielberg’s Close Encounters a couple years later); urged by a parapsychologist interested in reincarnation, he travels to the New England town in the TV program to investigate his nightmares and confirm his growing belief that they are indeed memories of a past life in which he was murdered.

Proud meets and befriends a girl named Ann, the daughter of a man of Indian heritage named Jeff Chapin, who had drowned “accidentally” two weeks before he was born (and when Ann was three months old), and he clandestinely interviews Ann’s mother (and Jeff’s presumptive killer) Marcia. Marcia becomes suspicious of her daughter’s boyfriend’s uncanny similarity to her late husband, which reawakens her own guilty but also hate-filled memories of him; Jeff had drunkenly raped her on their final night together. When Peter then goes for a swim in the same lake … rather stupidly … Marcia takes a boat out and kills him—in other words, duplicating the murder of him when he was her husband, two and a half decades earlier.

It’s a very unsubtle novel, and totally predictable, but its obviousness is kind of what makes it interesting: If you squint, you can almost see it as a PhilDickian story but without Dick’s level of intellectual nuance. Dick grasped that anomalous cognition, what we assume are memories from the past, could just as easily be memories from the future. This inversion of common sense is precisely what made Dick Dick, and in fact we know from his Exegesis that he had read or seen Peter Proud and had exactly that impulse to revise its core idea: “Idea for To Scare the Dead. Dreams, but not about the past as are the dreams in Peter Proud; rather, they are like the dreams about the approaching Spaniards by the Aztecs—visions of the future.”

In other words, here, as in my suggested relationship of Vaal and VALIS, Ehrlich is clearly a lesser writer grappling with the same phenomena as Dick was (in this case, intimations of his own self haunting him from another time) but interpreting them in a less original, more culturally safe manner. Had Dick or someone with more of his sensibility rewritten Peter Proud, it would be far more interesting as well as parsimonious: We might notice how Proud’s nightmares were precognitive of a TV program, first of all, and perhaps how by automatically (mis)interpreting his visions of drowning as related to the past, Proud’s actions inadvertently elicit or fulfill precisely the tragedy he was actually foreseeing in the future; he’d be killed in order to cover up an old crime that his search had stumbled on.

It would be, in other words, exactly like a cross between any number of Dick’s stories (like Minority Report) and Nicolas Roeg’s exquisite 1973 film Don’t Look Now—a tragedy unfolding directly from a skeptic misinterpreting a precognitive vision of his own funeral as a percept in the present.* Interestingly, Ehrlich later continued his reincarnation obsession with a 1979 novel, Reincarnation in Venice, which begins just like Roeg’s movie ends: with a murder on one of Venice’s canals.

Such a revision presents us, really, with the “unconscious” of Ehrlich’s novel. I’m not saying there was a psi connection in this case, but there is a curious coincidence of names again. What is a “Peter Proud,” after all, but an erection, a filled dick?** Even though his imagination was not up to Dick’s level and thus he wrote about boring old reincarnation instead of actually seeing the future, is it too much a stretch to suppose Ehrlich may have resonated with the time-looping themes Dick was exploring and perhaps with his name as well?

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