An artist is someone who sees something that others don’t. And then makes that thing visible, in their work, for others to see.
What the artist sees is something that did not exist before it was observed by the artist. William S. Burroughs seems to equate existence with visibility. Ignore your enemies out of existence, he says, putting great emphasis on the power of the human mind to shape its own reality. Burroughs believes in ESP, witchcraft, Scientology … Whatever you think of these things, it’s impossible to truly grasp Burroughs’s approach to writing without acknowledging his deep and literal belief in the truth of many paranormal claims.
You have to take him literally: he found meaning in his dreams. But looking around it seemed to him that not many people were capable of doing the same. “Dreams mean nothing,” they say. To which Burroughs replies: “Meaningless to whom, exactly?” And he points out that he has made a living finding meaning in his dreams.
If science believes it has proven our night-time dreams to be meaningless, it also believes it has proven the daydreams of paranormal enthusiasts to be false. But, like dreams, the realm of the paranormal was a great source of inspiration for Burroughs. Would it have been better if he had listened to reason and abandoned his study of magic and UFOs? But in that case Burroughs the writer would have become a very different animal.
If the question of meaning – of what is meaningful and what is not – is decided for us in advance, then the notion of a personal quest for meaning itself becomes meaningless. And who knows by what paths you will come to the greatest understanding of yourself? While it is certainly a sign of progress that scientific method can be applied to determine the truth or falsity of any given claim, it’s worth remembering that truth and meaning are not the same thing. It’s suspension of disbelief that allows you to find meaning in what is fantastical, and by noticing where you find meaning – what stories inspire you, and what dreams nourish you – you might also find a great new truth about yourself.
(I’ve been reading My Education by William S. Burroughs.)