The Black Iron Prison of the Self

The Black Iron Prison of the Self November 23, 2011

“Where (or when) is (or was) the Black Iron world I was there but am here now. Did that world go out of existence? Did this one replace it? Is this world somehow irreal, maybe stretched like a skin over (and concealing) the other? In which case can the black iron world come back?”[1]

One of the things which Philip K Dick sensed through his mystical revelations is that he was, at least at some time, trapped in a world which resembled a black iron prison. Freedom was severely crushed.  He believed what he saw was a kind of vast dominating structure which could be found throughout the world, a structure which supported various inhumane regimes throughout history. This was, to him, one of the secrets of our existence. “The first great secret is that we are slaves, in prison. The second, that help has quietly breached through the walls to inform us. To teach us how to lift the siege – what to do and when.”[2] It is something which he believes he had seen, and he saw the work of “Zebra”, of the outside force coming in to show us the way to liberation. “The Black Iron Prison is simultaneous in all time and places and it is the merciless world from which the living Corpus Christi saves us.”[3]

Thus, Zebra, God, Holy Wisdom, Christ, was seen fighting against the prison-like existence we find ourselves in. There have been all kinds of victory against it, but those victories were temporary, and often, quite short-lived. There is something infectious about the prison world. The ones who fight it, if they are not careful, somehow become one with it. It is like a virus – come in contact with it, you become infected with it. A victory against it leads to a temporary reestablishment of freedom before its newest reiteration is established – often in and through the ones who fought against it. PKD believed that the collapse of the Nixon presidency with Watergate was an example of a victory against the black iron prison, but then he was to see the development of its re-establishment in our society. The conflict in time never ends into the world itself is completely transformed:

“Zebra mimics the deterministic structures by inserting its body between it and us. This is how astral determinism is broken; instead of the blind, striving mere mechanism, there is living volition (the salvific). The previous mechanical force is rewoven for (1) the fulfillment of Zebra’s plan; and (2) the benefit of the individuals involved.”[4]

However, the question of the black iron prison is more than an external one; it deals with our own internal, existential existence.  PKD noticed this, too. He saw that, in a way, this world was the world of the dead, and we needed to be brought back to life. His writings often touched upon this theme, especially the novel Ubik. We are dead, the prison is the prison of death. And thus, in that death, much of the world as it really is cannot be properly perceived. “While you are dead the Kingdom remains invisible to you. I think in 2-75 I began to see it. It is a spiritual kingdom, and in the process of becoming actual (physical, literal, visible). We are the dead, as in Ubik, who must be roused by the sound of His voice.”[5]

PKD is, as he often is, on the right track. As his constant speculation showed, he was trying to grasp something he experienced, something which transcended his own understanding of the world and all that he had been told of it. He was grasping for the truth. Looking through his experiences, exploring them from many angles, he was able to learn much and say much which was profound. But, due to his background, there were many elements which he left out, which he didn’t know could be or should be added to it.

We can see that the black iron prison is indeed real; it is the deterministic collapse of free will in persons due to sin. Sin destroys us, it spiritually destroys us, slowly turning us into automatons, into android-like replicants of humanity which look and seem human, but only act according to the programming within. Sin turns us away from God, the source and foundation of all freedom.  To fight against sin, one kind of sin, and to gain victory over it, often leaves us open to other sins, other temptations which we did not face. If we get too caught up in our victory, we find ourselves winning the battle but losing the war. We take too much credit for our victory, and so turn in on ourselves and once again away from God, providing the foundation for the new black iron prison for our lives. In our rise to freedom we fall down through pride, and find our liberation short indeed. As long as we rely upon ourselves alone, even if we are able to break free from one barrier, the self itself becomes its own deterministic prison. Christ, the Logos, has found cracks in the surface and comes to us, showing us that we must abandon the shell of the self in order to find true life. He is there to help us, to transform us. We must not just follow him but let him come within and transfigure us so that we become one with him. Just because we might temporarily move outside of the shell, if we just walk at its outskirts, we find ourselves still trapped by it, as if we were connected to it by a leash. And if we do not push on, if do not work to deconstruct the prison of the self through the power of Christ, we will slowly find the self recreating the prison around us at our new local, turning our victory into defeat. In this way, PKD is right to worry about the return of the prison. Indeed, in his life, he was fighting against his own inner demons, with his own prison being built around him time and time again. He struggled against it, and tried to remain free. But it is only grace which frees us; if we cut ourselves off from it, turning in to ourselves and away from God, the prison world returns, possibly worse than before. This is what hell is about – the black iron prison we create for ourselves. Only when we are free persons, united with God and the infinite potential gained in a free theosis, can we find ourselves entirely outside the black iron prison and be with Buddha in the park.


[1] Philip K. Dick, Exegesis. ed. Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2011), 220.

[2] Ibid., 180.

[3] Ibid., 230.

[4] Ibid., 230.

[5] Ibid., 195.

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