Burroughs, PKD, and Ligotti

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.

9 thoughts on “Burroughs, PKD, and Ligotti

  1. Hi, Benjamin,

    Just a quick morning note.

    First, it’s funny–once again, as happens so often with me lately–I’ll be thinking a lot about something I haven’t necessarily thought about much before, and shortly thereafter run across something directly related to it in a place I wouldn’t have expected. Anyway, that’s a long preamble to my saying that I’ve been thinking about Burroughs for the first time in a very long time. I met a very old man at our gate sale this past weekend (he bought the movie, “Freaks”, which says a lot about a person!), and then ran into and spoke to him for a long time in the grocery store yesterday. I’d believe he WAS Burroughs if I didn’t know better–appearance, voice, world-view (not always pretty–OK, not pretty at all–but fascinating), unexpected passion and sometimes rage about things and a mind that ranged from the Spanish Civil War to the Civil Rights movement to North Korea to George Raft in the space of a minute, possible heroin addict, carried a “piece” under his hat until his wife took it away…and he was also thrilled that he reminded me of Burroughs (I doubt that he expected me, or anyone else in our little suburban town, to even know who Burroughs was). Anyway, he was the most interesting person I’ve met in a long time, and I plan to speak with him again. Most people would think he’s either completely insane, or just really obnoxious (especially for a man who’s probably pushing 90)..but I’m on that “divine truth is likely to be found where one would least expect it” side of things…

    Gotta go, but I also wanted to let you know that I HIGHLY recommend Marcus Borg’s Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (I told you that I was just starting it a few days ago). I don’t necessarily agree with everything Borg concludes, but the concept of Jesus as a “spirit person” or mystic whose experience of God was direct and personal hits home.

    Sara

    • I’m always happy to find another person who is familar with Burroughs. I’ve been a fan for about a decade now and he is one of my favorite authors that I share with a good friend of mine. I’m actually more acquainteed with his “writing” through his readings. I just love his voice.

      I’ve too met someone before who reminded me of Burroughs. There used to be an old guy around town. He lived alone and would walk around collecting cans. At the end of the day, he’d go to the same bar and have one bottle of beer. He was somewhat quiet, but once you got him going he was fairly knowledgable.

      Burroughs is a very interesting writer. I like comparing him with PKD because they’re very similar in certain ways, but different in others. I tend to think of favorite writers in pairs. Burroughs and PKD as dark visionaries go together quite well. A year or so ago, I bought a bunch of books by these two and I also bought a bunch of commentaries on their writings.

      There is another thing that distinguishes them from LIgotti. Burroughs and PKD both seem to genuinely like people which I find intriguing considering their dark views of life. Suffering can either open you to the experience of others or turn you inward to your own experience. Ligotti is a very private person who doesn’t share himself as much which is a shame because he really does have some good insights. I’d like to know more about how he came to his understandings.

      I’ve written before about Burroughs and PKD. Both used their own personal lives to a great extent in their writings, both fiction and nonfiction. Both created characters using their own experience and both had their lives used to create characters in the fiction of others. By reading their writings, you get a clear picture of them as people.

      As I’m a writer who is willing to share my personal side, I appreciate authors who do the same. This one complaint I have of Ligotti. When someone seems interesting, I want to know more about how they became that way. I understanding the desire for privacy, but it makes an author’s writings less attractive to me.

      I guess what frustrates me is that Ligotti is the type of writer that I can sense writes from his own experience. His insights feel genuine. He does reveal tidbits of his life in interviews, but these only offer glimpses. Unlike Burroughs and PKD, even Ligotti’s nonfiction writing stays away from the personal.

      PKD in particular was very talented at mixing the personal into his writing. Even when talking about weird ideas and utter abstractions, he always found a way to connect it to his own personal experiences and insights. In this, he conveyed the importance of his writing. He wasn’t just writing to make money. His writing had purpose.

      BTW thanks for mentioning Borg’s book. I’ll have to check out his work one of these days. Assuming Jesus actually existed, I’d expect him to be a bit of a mystic. It’s hard for me to imagine him being any other way.

  2. The blogger of Grim Reviews linked to this blog:

    http://grimreviews.blogspot.com/2009/06/benjamin-david-steele-on-william-s.html

    He makes some good comments. I accept both his complimenting what I wrote and his criticisizing. I actually don’t disagree with his saying that my judment of Ligotti “is disagreeable and premature–especially seeing as how Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race isn’t released yet, nor is it clear what further projects he may pursue after this publication”.

    It’s true I was probably being quite unfair to Ligotti. I didn’t mean to be dismissive of Ligotti who is both a great writer and a great thinker. Plus, my reading of Ligotti is limited and so it’s extremely unfair that I imply he might’ve come to a “deadend”. But in my defense I stated it as part of a question. I must say that I hope that Ligotti continues his writing career and I can’t wait to see his nonfiction work published in its full form.

    The best criticism was the following:

    “It’s even regrettable these points aren’t explored further in a more serious form than an informal blog post. With some elaboration, this is the type of analysis that would do well online or in print to help revive the curiously stifled field of weird scholarship the past few years.”

    It is regrettable that my analysis here is so limited. Partly, that is the limit of my comprehension of Ligotti at the moment, but I plan on increasing my comprehension by further reading. I do see the potential for much more elaboration. There are many interesting connections that I’d love to follow up on. I love weird scholarship.

    “Insightful explorations of weird writers like Ligotti in connection with more “mainstream” literary sources (or semi-separated genres like the science fiction realm Philip K. Dick hails from) is also sorely needed.”

    That is exactly the type of thing I’d love to see more of. I wish I was a less depressed and apathetic person. If I only had more motivation, I could write much more than I do. Explorations along these lines are sorley needed. There are some good books out there, but not enough.

    “This would provide good grounds for plenty of new scholarship, and perhaps gain weird literature higher respect in academic circles.”

    Weird literature gaining higher respect? That could be good thing. It’s rather sad that a truly great writer like Ligotti is mostly unknown. However, these weird writers are slowly gaining respect. Sci Fi in the movies is giving a foothold for genre writers to pick themselves up out of the ghetto. PKD seems to have been a major force in bridging the gulf between weird literature and the mainstream, and his is a name that does pop up in academic writing sometimes. Burroughs should be given some credit in this regard as well.

    Collapse Journal’s had its edition about the philosophy of horror (where Ligotti’s excerpt was published), and that is one good sign. There is also a book titled the philosophy of horror which looks like it might be interersting. And there is the book The Thomas Ligotti Reader which is a collection of essays about Ligotti’s work. Interestingly, Robert M. Price is a writer who is both well known as a biblical scholar and an expert on Lovecraft. Price is one of the authors included in the Ligotti Reader. So, that is a good sign of the beginnings of more mainstream interest.

    The two best books I’ve read so far that bring some respectable analysis to the are of weird writers are Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets and Eric G. Wilson’s The Melancholy Android.

  3. I don’t know if my suspicions have yet been proven correct about Ligotti’s writing career, but I’ve recently heard of an online rumor that Ligotti is at present successfully resisting the urge to write. If this rumor is incorrect, I refuse any responsibility for spreading such lies. Whatever is the case, the rumor intrigues my curiosity. I wonder why Ligotti would feel a desire to resist further writing when at the height of his career.

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