William S. Burroughs had a powerful influence on many writers, two of note being Philip K. Dick and Thomas Ligotti. PKD wrote about Burroughs in his Exegesis a number of times and he experimented with Burroughs cut-up technique. Ligotti considered Burroughs to be his last artistic hero, but disliked his cut-up technique. Burroughs, for me, acts as a middle ground between these two writers and also between the visions of hope and of despair.
PKD, like Burroughs, was attracted to Gnosticism and saw something fundamentally or at least potentially good in a dark world. Burroughs cut-up technique fits in with PKD’s belief about God in the gutter, divine truth revealed where one is least likely to look for it. Both believed that, however difficult, God could be discovered.
Ligotti also started out as a spiritual seeker with his studies and meditation practice, but lost his faith along the way. Ligotti, like Burroughs, takes very seriously the suffering of the human condition. Ligotti takes the dark pessimism of Burrough’s to the extreme which he writes about in his Conspiracy Against the Human Race (an excerpt is published in the Collapse journal). Both present insights that most people would rather not know about.
PKD sought the spiritual and had revelatory visions of what to him felt divinely true. Ligotti sought the spiritual and yet discovered no truths to be consoled by. Even though both accept the world is filled with much suffering, the difference is whether one has faith in the face of it. Can our suffering be placed in a context of meanng? Or are we simply animals who can’t comprehend the trap we find ourselves in? Burroughs presents a very challenging view of reality. PKD and Ligotti represent two very different responses. So, why this difference?
PKD and Burroughs seem to have been more restless in their seeking than Ligotti (or so this is what I sense from my readings of these authors). It’s possible that Ligotti is just better medicated. He speaks about being more restless before his moods were modified with prescriptions, and also said something along the lines that this dulled his creative edge as he no longer had the extreme manic phases to motivate his writing. PKD, on the other hand, did his best to magnify his manic phases by self-medicating himself with uppers (to the point of mental breakdown.. and maybe divine breakthrough). Burroughs was also an experimenter with illicit drugs. It makes me wonder what kind of view Ligotti might’ve come to if like Burroughs and PKD he had spent his whole life destabilizing his psyche.
This is important from another perspective. For Burroughs and PKD, there instability drove their minds, their seeking, and their writing. They were restless and had long careers and wrote profusely. Ligotti has said that he at present doesn’t feel compelled to write. I don’t mean to romanticize mental illness, but their is some truth to the connection between non-ordinary (including disturbed) states of mind and the creativity of artists.
Another issue is that both Burroughs and PKD were very interested in people and the human experience. This included spirituality, relationships, and politics. They were restlessly curious about this world that humans both live in and help to create. Ligotti, however, wishes to see beyond the human, but realized that as a fiction writer he had no choice but to convey the horror of reality through the experience of the human. The truly monstrous can’t be conveyed in its own terms whatever that may mean. The problem is that this sense that one’s humanity is a failing or a limitation possibly doesn’t lead one to a long career as a fiction writer. Afterall, fiction is ultimately about human experience which necessitates to a certain extent a desire to sympathize and to understand.
I appreciate what Ligotti has written as he has a probing intellect and communicates well. However, some of Ligotti’s fans have said that Ligotti has said all that he could possibly say and has said it as best as he possibly could, and so what more is left for him to do? Ligotti easily could be argued as a consistently better writer than Burroughs and PKD, but what good does it do if his understanding of the human condition has come to a deadend?
I’m not saying that Ligotti can’t come to further insight. However, without the restless seeking that drove Burroughs and PKD, is he likely to feel a desire to seek further insight? Burroughs and PKD believed there was meaning to be found, but Ligotti dismisses meaning as just another way of avoiding suffering. Other than the momentum of his identity as a writer, what is to inspire Ligotti to continue his creative career, to continue to share his thoughts and publish them? Without a sense of purpose, what is the point of writing at all?
Anyways, Burroughs symbolizes the ideal of the person who simultaneously strives to be an artist and a truth seeker. It takes something like courage (or maybe just a perverse compulsion) to confront suffering, grapple with it, try to understand it, and to convey whatever insight one has gained. But there is danger in delving so far into the morass of the human condition. You don’t know what you’ll find… or what you’ll become in the process.