During his short and troubled yet wildly imaginative life, California writer Philip K. Dick, whose work inspired such memorable Hollywood blockbusters as “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall” and, currently, Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” juggled an assortment of alternating and often mutually exclusive worlds with breathtaking aplomb. Not least among these was an abiding passion for German culture and music – Dick was a devotee of Richard Wagner, defending the composer against charges of anti-Semitism and during the first years of World War II, extolling the cacophonous sturm und drang of the Nazi regime. But this morphed into an eventual loathing for fascism and appreciation for Jews and Judaic values.
An Episcopalian, in 1974 Dick underwent a revelatory mystical event he would refer to as his “Exegesis” and document in a trio of later novels. In one of his final interviews before succumbing to a massive stroke in 1982, the then 54-year-old recalled becoming enraptured by the “Guide to the Perplexed.” His wife suggested he was probably the only human being on the face of the earth who at that moment was reading Moses Maimonides. “I was just sitting there eating a ham sandwich and reading it,” Dick recounted in a magazine interview. “It didn’t strike me as odd.”
No more odd than his subsequent interest in the Holocaust experiences of Martin Buber and the Biblical commentaries of Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz, formerly Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, on Deuteronomy, which for Dick belied the Christian contention that the justice proscribed in the Old Testament was harsh and loveless.
Obliquely or concretely, Jews figured prominently in Dick’s fiction, an opus of some 40 novels and 110 short stories largely ignored by the literati while he lived, but now a veritable field of dreams for Hollywood’s bone-pickers.
Dick rooted the persecuted androids of his novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968), adapted as “Blade Runner,” in the experience of Jews under German rule. He addressed that experience more directly earlier, in the seminal “The Man in the High Castle” (1962). In this book, set in what was then the present, the Axis powers triumphed in World War II, with the Nazis occupying the U.S. East coast, the Japanese the West. The novel offers a sympathetic depiction of the plight of a Jewish craftsman who strives to avoid extradition to the East.
In Dick’s last novel, “The Transformation of Timothy Archer” (1981), the protagonist is based on his friend, the lapsed Catholic-cum-Episcopalian bishop James Albert Pike, who died after becoming lost in Wadi Duraja, near Bethlehem, in 1969. Pike was buried in Jaffa.
There’s a Jaffa connection to “Minority Report,” which is based on one of the stories Dick penned during his early career. In the film, Samantha Morton portrays the precognitive Agatha, who holds the key to anticipating murders that have yet to occur. Morton was in Jaffa shooting director Amos Gitai’s “Eden” when Spielberg called offering her the role. For Morton, that seemingly far-fetched prospect seemed like something out of, well, a Philip K. Dick novel.
Still, within the multiverses of Dick’s imaginings, there were Jewish-made hells as well, none of them more terrifying than that which befalls aJewish character in “The Divine Invasion” (1981), one of Dick’s Exegesis novels about the return to Earth of God in the guise of a 10-year-old amnesiac. Here, the hapless Herb Asher holes up in a tiny, solitary bunker, where he finds himself subjected to an endless 87-string rendition of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Not even Spielberg could have come up with that.
Originally published on July 29, 2002, in The Jerusalem Report.