Russell Galen as Renaissance Man

by Bill Ectric

I think of literary agent Russell Galen as a Renaissance Man.

Martin Torgoff calls Galen “a true lover of words and books” in the acknowledgment section of Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000.

Philip K. Dick dedicates his masterpiece VALIS, “To Russell Galen, who showed me the right way.”

Benson Bodrick writes, “My agent, Russell Galen, gave the book an early lift,” in the prologue to Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired.

One of my humanities professors told us that a “Renaissance Man” is one who places equal importance on physical, intellectual, and spiritual development.  Years later, it occurs to me that the three aforementioned books illustrate my professor’s definition.

In my zeal to categorize everything at the risk of oversimplification, I initially labeled Martin Torgoff’s Can’t Find My Way Home as physical (drugs being pleasures of the flesh), Philip K. Dick’s VALIS as intellectual (obviously), and Benson Bobrick’s Wide as the Waters as spiritual (church and Bible).

But with one turn of the transposition wheel, Can’t Find My Way Home easily clicks into the intellectual category (Harvard behaviorists compiling data from triple-blind LSD experiments); Wide As the Waters slides into the physical position (typesetting, books as art and artifact, doctrine physically enforced); and VALIS emerges in the religious slot (a Vast Active Living Intelligent System beams revelations directly into the protagonist’s mind, but is it God or is it Memorex?).

Wide as the Waters has a definite intellectual component with those prodigious multilingual scholars and the Derrida-like concept that the term literal translation might be an oxymoron. Can’t Find My Way Home has its share of the spiritual, from religious peyote ceremonies to twelve step programs and the Serenity Prayer. The physical aspect of VALIS is that the brain is still part of the body, so, while one may achieve temporary religious transcendence, we are ultimately closed systems of circling impulses. 

Maybe epiphanies glow in a fleeting nexus where the physical, intellectual, and spiritual merge and hover briefly in flux. Now, with my hippie days and my short-lived interest in going to seminary long past, I warmly recall the Zen proverb, “Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.” Profound revelations notwithstanding, I still have to go to sleep, wake up, eat breakfast, and mow the lawn.

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