By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Eye of the Sibyl’ is a short story by the American writer Philip K. Dick (1928-82), written in 1975 but only first published in 1987, five years after his death. The story’s themes include prognostication and prophecy, and the nature of creativity.
First, to summarise ‘The Eye of the Sibyl’: the story is narrated by a Roman living some two thousand years ago. His name is Philos Diktos (i.e., Philip Dick), a priest at the temple at Cumae, where the famous Sibyl resides. A sibyl was a prophetess in ancient times who uttered prophecies about the future.
Because the nature of her prophecies tended to be rather vague and cryptic, the adjective ‘sibylline’ was later coined to describe something that is oracular and prophetic or mysterious and enigmatic.
Philos Diktos sees the Sibyl speak to two gods, who predict the decline of the Roman Empire. He then speaks as a young boy in twentieth-century America, an aspiring writer who shares many features with the real Philip K. Dick. He becomes distracted from his schoolwork by his calling to become a creative writer.
He has dreams, including one which prophesies the assassination of John F. Kennedy two days before the assassination actually took place; he also has dreams of space, and dreams in which he can speak Latin. He goes to see his therapist, Carol Heims, to discuss these dreams and what they might mean, but he finds himself imagining her half-naked as a belly dancer rather than really listening to her.
Then, he starts to recall occasional details from his past life as a Roman priest: for instance, when he sees an illustration of the snake-entwined staff carried by ancient healers, he knows that it’s called a ‘caduceus’, but he isn’t sure how he knows this.
Eventually, this modern-day Philip Dick recalls everything about his past: how, before he was a priest in Roman times, he came originally from the star Albemuth. He, like the Sibyl’s two gods (with whom he now converses), is immortal. At the end of the story, Philos Diktos is back in Roman times, quoting from the poet Virgil, who wrote of an ‘Iron Prison’ falling and a ‘golden race’ arising.
‘The Eye of the Sibyl’ is one of Dick’s more Borgesian stories, and it’s hard to imagine Dick wasn’t familiar with Borges’ story ‘The Immortal’, in which the Greek epic poet Homer lives for millennia under different names. Both Dick’s story and Borges’ fiction love to play with myth, prophecy, mystical experience, and the idea of the immortal figure who exists at different historical times.
‘The Eye of the Sibyl’ is also about the role of the writer. Sigmund Freud wrote an essay titled ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ in 1908, but Dick’s story suggests that all writers are dreamers in a more oracular sense, as if they are either recalling some distant past to which they are connected or foreseeing a future that will come to pass.
It may be a fairly slight story, but ‘The Eye of the Sibyl’, in Dick’s distinctive way, offers a new take on the Borgesian ‘Immortal’ in relation to the work of the writer, who is always poet and visionary.