Pseudoreality doesn’t need to prevail 

Savage faculties?

“There was a personality who lived in the later period of Mexican civilisation and was connected with the utterly decadent, pseudo-magical Mystery cults of Mexico; with an intense thirst for knowledge he studied everything with close and meticulous exactitude”. With typical sobriety Rudolf Steiner described this dark scene to a hushed lecture hall in 1924, all the while rejecting the fashionable interest in such ancient lore by remarking that although this mysterious individual “knew that Quetzalcoatl was a Divine Being who could take hold of man in his circulating blood, in the working of his breath”, the ‘knowledge’ he possessed was automatic and unconscious, the opposite of the intentional wisdom that we develop by individual effort. Continuing his fantastic narrative, Steiner remarks that this perverse soul later incarnated into the body of the occultist known as ‘Eliphas Levi’ and offers the penetrating comment that if you read Levi’s books “you will find evidence of great wisdom spread out as it were over something extremely primitive”.

Of the nineteenth century occult revival which Levi was a figurehead, Steiner commented that it’s practitioners attempted to “convince themselves, one might say, artificially […] to accept the existence of a super-sensible world”. The word ‘artificial’ was pejoratively used by Steiner’s esoteric contemporaries Gurdjieff and Ouspensky to describe a fake world of automated or robotic perceptions, similar to the contingent state of humanity outlined by Heidegger and the existentialists that followed. One occult practitioner at this time believed himself to be Levi’s reincarnation, and seemingly possessed the same instinctive abilities as Steiner’s Mexican adept. Describing Aleister Crowley’s lumbering psychic constitution, Colin Wilson notes that “instinctive, animal faculties” were his compass, an insight given extra weight in Crowley’s memoir where he speaks of a “subconscious physical memory” connected to his motor functions (“my limbs poses a consciousness of their own that is infallible” he writes of his mountaineering skills). This faculty, he says, has led him over all manner of territories and is only thrown off balance by the interference of his conscious mind (“I have several other savage faculties” he writes in his Confessions; “in particular, I can smell snow and water”). Regarding his magical and mystical abilities, he cheerfully boasts that he “picked up the technical tricks of the trade almost by instinct”. 

It’s likely that Steiner differentiated between ‘involuntary’ and intentional perception due to his interest in the ideas of Franz Brentano, a philosopher who had stated that perception is always about something (“reference to an object”). In his Steiner biography (1985) Wilson comments that this idea of active perception is exactly what the young Steiner wanted to hear (Steiner was still enthusing about Brentano later in his career). By the time Brentano’s pupil Edmund Husserl wrote the Logical Investigations in 1900 this aboutness had developed into the vigorous “directed aiming” of intentionality, the core concept of Husserl’s phenomenology and later, of Wilson’s new existentialism. Our attentive thought, writes Husserl [VI § 38] “aims at a thing, and it hits it’s mark, or does not hit it” according to the strength of the intention. “In our metaphor an act of hitting the mark corresponds to that of aiming” [ibid. V § 13]. Husserl states that without such intentionality, the ‘shot’ is simply missed; the greater the energy, the more total the perception. In this energetically intentional act, says Husserl, “we live, as it were, principally”; in the subordinate and partial acts, we live only partially [ibid. § 19]. With reference to this variable of perception Wilson would quote Yeats’ line about completing the partial mind and note Blake’s “remarkable anticipation of phenomenology” as a possible corrective. For Blake’s fiery aphorism that energy is eternal delight is in essence the argument that Husserl makes here for the “greatest energy […] displayed by the act-character which comprehends and subsumes all partial acts”. Elsewhere [ibid. § 15 b] Husserl carefully separates intentions from sensations (“tactual, gustatory, olfactory”) so when Crowley tells us that he can smell snow and water despite his “olfactory sense [being] far below the average”, the “savage faculty” he is describing is an instinct, not an intention. 

Life in the culture-medium 

Husserl tells us that intention aims at it’s object as if it were “desirous” of it [ibid. VI § 20], something Blake clearly understood. In Blake’s mythology, the core human value is the ‘Poetic Genius’, the origin of inspiration and “the first principle” with “all the others merely derivative” – the ‘others’ being the naturalistic pantheism of antiquity. Husserl’s ironic name for partial perception is the natural attitude, a state where “we take [things] for granted […] without even thinking about it” [Ideas § 77]; the fallacy of passive consciousness, as Wilson has it in The New Existentialism. Blake thought of the Poetic Genius as a faculty – “the true faculty of knowing” and “the faculty that experiences”, in other words a phenomenological and existential faculty (“scientific common sense” which would hardly be “out of place in a a Secular Society pamphlet” comments Wilson in The Outsider). True to his anticipation of this philosophical stance, Blake notes that this pure inspiration is too often distorted when transmitted through individual “weaknesses“ – Husserl would have said ‘prejudices’ – via philosophical sects and closed religions. Husserl states [Ideas II § 59] that a faculty is “not an empty ability but a positive potentiality” in the “stream of lived experience”. Similarly, Husserl’s pupil Heidegger asserts that the “question of existence never gets straightened out except through existing itself” [Being and Time § 12]. “The understanding of oneself which leads along this way we call ‘existentiell’”. Wilson made the distinction between pantheistic ‘occult faculties’ and this existential/intentional or phenomenological faculty in his book The Occult, where the latter is known as ‘Faculty X’. Proust’s famous moment of ‘time regained’ in Swann’s Way is often used as an example of this Faculty in action, and Proust later explains that it happens rarely because our faculties lie dormant due to habit. “A slight burst of energy, for a single day, would be sufficient to change these habits for good” he writes. Like Blake, Wilson thinks this Faculty is common to poets. “What is poetry?” he asks in Poetry and Mysticism. “It is a contradiction of the everyday life-world”, Heidegger’s trivial ‘everydayness’. Another lumbering modernist novel – Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which Wilson rated higher than Proust’s – examined this existential dilemma of a diminished life. “There’s no longer a whole man confronting a whole world, only a human something moving about in a general culture-medium”. 

The Personality Surgeon

Compared to those who “work in the medium of life itself” says Musil, “mere literature” is only an illustration of living, a point also made by Wilson in the fourth chapter of The Outsider; certain existential problems cannot be solved by writing about them, as they must be lived. The ‘culture-medium’, then, can be understood as Husserl’s ‘life-world’, the surrounding ‘given’ world which he thoroughly analysed in his final book The Crisis of European Sciences. “Culture creates personality and is at the same time the product and the result of personality” said Gurdjieff, making a distinction between ‘personality’ (social self-awareness of and in response to other people) and ‘essence’ (what is ‘yours’, your unique individuality). Personality is false, he tells us, because it is created by “involuntary imitation” of the “intentional influences of other people”. Husserl likened intentionality to a “universal medium” in Ideas [§ 85], “disregarding its enigmatic forms and levels”, that is. Wilson later had it as a “distorting medium” or “distorting power”. The great gift of phenomenology and existentialism, he says, is to show that the distorting medium is the human personality – “which knows itself as an active participant in the world, in relations with other people” – not the senses. This “fine network of relations” warps our interpretations of reality. The active mind is “continuously selecting, filtering, interpreting, colouring – and sometimes distorting and misinforming” our experience, he writes. Musil understood this when he pointed out that we do not notice “the part our personality plays in directing our perceptions” just as we don’t notice the silent revolutions of the earth.

In the ‘visionary’ chapter of The Outsider Wilson comments that the poet Rimbaud knew that our inner being (Blake’s Poetic Genius) orders what we see. Later he transformed Rimbaud’s ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ into a kind of motto for phenomenology – ‘the systematic derangement of human prejudice’. Through this ‘derangement’ we can reach the inner being, which Husserl named the Transcendental Ego. Husserl describes intentionality as an attentional “Ego-ray” striking an object (“it is the target”) as the Ego “does and undergoes, is free”. This “ray of attention presents itself as emanating from the pure Ego and terminating in that which is objective”. The pure Ego or “free being” is consciousness shorn of presuppositions and prejudices which lives in these free acts, actions which he calls spontaneous doing [Ideas § 92]. Gurdjieff told Ouspensky that individual evolution is ‘doing’ and doing cannot just ‘happen’ – it is dependent upon powers and possibilities which never develop by themselves (i.e. non-mechanically). In other words, intentions, Husserl’s faculty that is a positive potentiality. Wilson grapples with this “evolutionary intentionality” in Beyond The Outsider (1965).

We are made of habits, prejudices and earth 

“Everything gained by a struggle becomes just something to be manipulated” writes Heidegger in Being and Time [§ 27]. Wilson’s mechanical metaphor for this passing of willed intentions to habits which just ‘happen’ is called ‘the robot’, who is “actually composed of compacted layer upon layer of willed intentions”. Seemingly mechanical actions like driving or typing are learned slowly and perhaps with difficultly, but eventually they become automatic or rather automated and we no longer need to concentrate on the mechanical drudge – that is passed to the robot or sedimented into a metaphorical geology of older, former willed intentions. We are made of “habits, prejudices and earth” says Walter in The Man Without Qualities. Husserl considered this problem of sedimentation (“traditionalization”) in the Crisis. He asks if this process is not tied up with presupposition and “the problem of the instincts”, and likens it to a reliable, useful machine, “a machine everyone can learn to operate correctly without in the least understanding the inner possibility and necessity” of it’s accomplishments [§ 9 h]. Musil sardonically deals with this theme in his novel, blaming Galileo for “a veritable orgy and conflagration of matter-of-factness”. Wilson noted Musil’s debt to Nietzsche, who had gone even further in this argument by declaring the philosophers Hobbes, Locke and Hume proponents of “English-mechanistic world-stupidification”. Their ‘associationism’ was succinctly explained by Wilson: that ‘you’ are just what happens to you; as in Gurdjieff’s idea of ‘personality’, we are just a bundle of sensations with no core. Although Wilson was aware of Hume’s anticipatory influence on Husserl, he agreed with Husserl’s opinion that this philosophy was guilty of taking “immediate insights […] as given truths”. This was merely “naive, uncritical, everyday experience […] a mere assumption, no more than a common prejudice” (ProlegomenaLogical Investigations). A thought experiment later in the book [V § 9] imagines a “being” as this “mere complex of sensations” who can only speak of ‘bodies’ or ‘inanimate things’ and is incapable of emotion. This he says, would be due to a hypothetical flaw in the interpretive ability of this being, it’s intentionality.

In the beginning is the Deed – Husserl, quoting Faust  

Wilson thought that Husserl began as something of a poet or mystic – his enthusiastic referencing of Goethe’s Faust would seem to suggest so, and his statement that ‘normal’ consciousness “leaves our deepest cognitive cravings unsatisfied” [ibid. § 44] would have delighted a poet and mystic like Blake. The symbol for robotic consciousness in Blake’s mythos is the ‘Spectre’, likened to “a machine which has lost its controls and is running wild” by the Blake scholar S. Foster Damon (‘Damon Reade’ In Wilson’s novel The Glass Cage). According to the final chapter of Wilson’s The New Existentialism it is the “limited everyday self” – limited because it is lazy and materialistic (it desires little beyond “security and material rewards”). At its worst, this limitation is illustrated by the cases in Wilson’s true crime books; a softer focus variant can be found in the embarrassments catalogued in his compilation of scandals from 1986 (“the ‘scandal personality’ is basically a confidence trickster who tricks himself”). In The Outsider the Spectre is “static consciousness […] the personality, the habits, the identity” which “mistakes [it’s] own stagnation for the world’s” – everything appears “solid, unchangeable, stagnant, unreal”. As Blake says, expect poison from the standing water. Gurdjieff’s notion of false personality, Husserl’s “naive man” or Wilson’s bourgeois ‘Insiders’ who think they are their own prisons; these are all the ‘Spectre’. This prison is our immediate, limited field of vision through which we consequently devalue the world, like, comments Wilson in The New Existentialism, the condemned character in Sartre’s tale The Wall. “If we could grasp this with genuine insight, we would instantly become aware of the extent to which consciousness is intentional; it would be the first and most important step in the direction of a creative phenomenological attitude to our own existence”. Blake would have agreed with the word creative when speaking of perception. He used the mythological symbol of the ‘mundane egg’ for the distorting medium of intentionality which ‘surrounds’ us (“Enlarg’d into dimension & deform’d into indefinite space”) and depicted it’s sedimentation with images of the hardening crust of matter. “Like all Nature, it is a projection of man” comments Foster Damon. Similarly, Steiner imagined the evolution from instinctive to self-aware consciousness as akin to the cooling and hardening of the crust of the earth over flowing molten magma. “When the human being develops faculties that stand in a relationship to nature, he is not free” he comments. Husserl similarly remarks that such ‘robotic’ traits are “dependent on nature” and equally unfree. The instincts, he says, are the “lowest psychic layer”, “a lower layer of all spiritual existence” and “the world of the mechanical, the world of lifeless conformity to laws” [Ideas II § 61]. Likewise, Gurdjieff thought living through instincts and sensations as the lowest form of human awareness, a state which can only produce imitative art, literal-minded religious ritual and rote knowledge. 

One must be so careful these days – T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land 

Perhaps this is the “primitive” effect which Steiner sensed in the works of Levi, a kind of aesthetic handicap or creative limitation, what Blake sarcastically meant by derivative pantheism and Husserl by natural or naive man. Wilson states that the direct method of phenomenology makes old mystical practices unnecessary and that this faculty has more in common with the freshly creative insights of poets – this is why Faculty X is not an ‘occult’ faculty. Crowley was not a good poet. His first biographer accurately pointed out that his verse lacks the numinous quality of genuine inspiration (“the dominating effect is one of insincerity”). Wilson thought his poems antiquated, “soft”, stuffed full of “overcoloured adjectives” and found more interest In the philosophical implications of the creed Thelema (one root meaning of the word is intention) and magick (defined by Crowley in the book of that name as any “intentional act”). Even so, Crowley’s school-boyish personality still looms uncomfortably over his magical writings. He had an “ego like a raging tooth” says Wilson, quoting Shaw. Had he started with a sombre tome like Steiner’s The Philosophy of Freedom (1894), he may have been taken more seriously from the beginning, writes Wilson. Ironically enough, a passage from Steiner’s book explains why he wasn’t. “Immature youths without any moral imagination like to look upon the instincts of their half developed natures as the full substance of humanity, and reject all moral ideas which they have not themselves originated, in order that they may “live themselves out” without restriction. But it goes without saying that a theory which holds for a fully developed man does not hold for half-developed boys”. 

It was only a few years later when the young Crowley began self-publishing tracts on the joys of rejecting morality and living without restriction, often presented as artificial ‘found manuscripts’ beginning with the lewd prank White Stains and grandiosely culminating in a series of alleged ‘holy books’, supposedly dictated from an alien source (despite one carefully spelling out the name of a mistress in acrostic). Acolytes believe that these codexes can be properly comprehended by cabalistic exegesis but Crowley himself said that this process works equally well on nursery rhymes, advertisements, or anything. It is fitting then that the Crowley revival was strongest during the postmodern era with all of it’s deconstructive leveling and simulated artificiality. In his memoir Crowley describes a mentality where black is white and vice-versa: this “faculty” uses “criticism of the most destructive kind”. His ultimate goal was a state of cosmic indifference, and one passage of scripture tells us to make no difference between anything as this generates “hurt”. He comments that once difference is obliterated, we will develop a post-rational faculty which does not depend on the “hieroglyphic representations” of letters and numbers. But he also takes this instruction as a “charge to destroy the faculty of discriminating between illusions” which unfortunately sounds exactly like the intentionality which magick is supposed to be. He etymologically traces that word in the book of that name [Ch. 8] and comes to remarkably similar conclusions about magic and writing to those of Jacques Derrida in the second part of Of Grammatology – a text which informs us that Husserl’s suspension of prejudices “is perhaps not possible” due to ‘différance’, the inbuilt ambiguity of language.

Unsurprisingly, Wilson wrote off Derrida’s philosophy as a “kind of defeatism” and bracketed him and his poststructural comrades – Foucault, Barthes, Althusser – alongside fake messiahs like Crowley and David Koresh. Crowley preemptively denied the inevitable charge of antinomianism in the seventeenth chapter of his memoir, but it drove his thought as much as it drives Foucault’s anti-authoritarianism. “There is no such thing as history. The facts, even if they were available, are too numerous to grasp. A selection must be made, and this can only be one-sided, because the selector is enclosed in the same network of time and space as his subject”. Not Foucault on the épistémèbut a footnote from Crowley’s memoir, complaining about his school exams. Foucault’s The Order of Things begins it’s anti-phenomenological argument with a reproduction of Las Menias by Velasquez; viewing this painting in Madrid Crowley comments on “the absurdity of trying to ascribe an order to things”, despite his previous analysis of the ordering ‘selector’ (intentional Ego) in the same book. Crowley was as serious as Blake regarding the individual search for the ‘Genius’ but he himself appeared to be in the grip of something else.

The Sun’s Light, when he unfolds it / Depends on the Organ which beholds it – William Blake, ‘What is Man’ from The Gates of Paradise 

“What man first listened to as the voice of God, to that he now listens as an independent power in his own mind which he calls conscience” writes Steiner in The Philosophy of Freedom, anticipating Julian Jaynes’ theories of the bicameral mind and the evolution of consciousness. Crowley was notably deaf to this voice, preferring to heed the advice of his garrulous subconscious. Of his childhood fixation, the Biblical number 666, Steiner said that this represents not a solar force of liberation, but a baleful possibility of “human disintegration, a universal cult of the I and of egoism” – that is to say, a cult of Gurdjieff’s ever-distracted ‘pseudo-I’, the opposite of the intentional Ego. In his cabalistic dictionary Crowley indexes his own nom de plume under this number alongside סורת [Sorath] which Steiner describes as “the adversary of the sun”, a materialistic current which places “spiritual power […] in the service of the lower “I”-principle”, i.e. the instincts and sensations. “This state in which the personality becomes one with the all-embracing spirit of life, must not be confused with an absorption in the “All-Spirit” that annihilates the personality” (Steiner uses ‘personality’ for individuality here). “No such annihilation takes place”. The only ‘annihilation’ worth seeking then is the one which Derrida thought impossible, Husserl’s suspension of the natural attitude in Ideas [§ 49: Absolute Consciousness as the Residuum After the Annihilation of the World]. Crowley’s genuine search for a “new faculty […] by the use of which I could appreciate truth directly” led him to the rather nihilistic conclusion that future humanity “will possess no consciousness of the purpose of it’s own existence”, rather like Steiner’s own gloomy picture of ‘involuntary’ ancient perception. The difference between the intentional ‘I’ and the reactive, blank self is why Blake thought pantheism derivative, why Gurdjieff warned against sinking back to instinct, why Husserl thought the natural attitude passive and why Wilson made a discrepancy between occult faculties and Faculty X. Near the end of The Occult Wilson argues that we can climb to new levels through “a gentle, cumulative effort; no frenzied leap is required”. Steiner said that our ordinary perception can lead us further into the ‘super-sensible world’ with more accuracy than any artificial occult pretensions – ‘rejected knowledge’ – so long as we elaborate these intuitions “with the aid of the intellect” (intuition aided by intellect was Wilson’s definition of philosophy). New influences will develop “in the sphere of the present-day conscious mind” even though such impulses are currently in their infancy.

In times like these, giving in to your instincts is just one more disaster – Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols 

The trouble with instinct, writes Wilson in Frankenstein’s Castle, is that it is powerful but short sighted. The logical faculties which Jaynes believed were shunted to the left hemisphere of the brain were an evolutionary necessity, not a blunder. “That simple combination of instinct and robot can be a disaster” as they are both too easily prone to defeat. “This is why we need the left-brain ego: to overrule the instinct and the robot”. Libertines like De Sade preach total freedom and the rejection of civilisation but this is laughably naive. “For better or worse, man has developed this obsessive, left brain ego with it’s passion for order. There is no going back”. In his book on the strange wonders of the pyramids and the Sphinx (1996) Wilson argues that it was necessary to pull ourselves out of this pleasant but passive state of communal awareness and into something more dynamic and individual. The controlling ego is the left brain ego, but it is “trapped in its narrow conceptual consciousness, overawed by the enormous mechanisms of the brain and body […] it sits in the corner, studying the feelings and sensations of the body, and waiting to be told what to do” (Frankenstein’s Castle). So the ego is a ‘confused Transcendental Ego’, passively sitting in the cinema seat like a spectator, not knowing that it is the projectionist. Wilson admits that this realisation left him a little shaken – surely the answer lies in an omnipotent Self, presiding over consciousness, as mysticism suggests? 

It does, but Husserl himself thought that we could only reach that ‘Self’ or Transcendental Ego through the ‘normal’ ego [cf: Ideas § 33]. Steiner’s descriptions of the evolution of consciousness tell of involuntary impulses becoming instincts and slowly transforming into individual choices. Wisdom was once given to tribes or clans – which Musil names a “pseudoself, a loose fitting group soul” – but now new faculties can only be generated by committed individuals. Wilson points out that the existential dilemma of his Outsiders – alienation, neurosis, and lack of direction – are a misunderstanding of the potentialities and possibilities that are to be found in everyday life. “What I had grasped intuitively, and what slowly formed into an intellectual conviction, was that misery and alienation are not laid upon us by fate” he writes, contradicting ancient wisdom. “They are due to the failure of the ego to accept its role as the controller of consciousness”. The ironic alternative would be that we will not be able to dispense with outside stimuli like crises and disasters, for as Wilson notes, consciousness without crisis tends to become negative. This is especially true if our “mental life is a series of sensations and ideas aroused by [our] immediate experience” – the philosophical position of Hobbes, Locke and Hume which Nietzsche and Husserl rejected. Steiner warned against the possibility of a cult of diminished human ego in thrall to nothing but sensations and instincts, and even posited a future global collapse brought about by this narcissistic ego. Fittingly, he chose the associationist Hobbes’ nihilistic phrase ‘war of all against all’ to describe it. 

Nasty, brutish and online 

“It may seem harmless to think only automatic thoughts” remarks Steiner. But true to his intuitive understanding of the distorting power of intentionality he offers a glimpse of a future where humanity becomes what they behold, to paraphrase Blake. “These materialistic thoughts will then bring forth a terrible race of automatic beings […] endowed with great power of intellect and understanding and will enclose the earth in a kind of net or spiders web”, which thinks Steiner, will resemble the caduceus of Mercury. “All modern unreal thoughts will become endowed with being” he says. Husserl’s thought experiment about a ‘being’ devoid of intentionality, a “mere complex of sensations”, could be a clue. The plot of Wilson’s horror parody The Mind Parasites revolves around Lovecraft’s Mythos, phenomenology and a plague of anhedonia beginning in the 1800’s, although it is set in the present day. This satire was drawn from a passage in The New Existentialism discussing Blake’s Spectre and the intentional limiting of consciousness. Steiner’s lectures typically hint at dark forces entering into the human subconscious during the nineteenth century, when “materialistic impulses [were] instilled into humanity”. Steiner calls these impulses “spirits of hindrance” – phenomenologically speaking, they are our sense of contingency, itself due to our self-limiting of consciousness. Expressing this in science-fiction terms, Wilson describes this limitation as “some mysterious agency, that wishes to hold men back”, a mind parasite; “active in the feeling, will and mind impulses of human beings” since the middle of the nineteenth century, according to Steiner. These impulses “spin a web of illusion over human beings and into human brains” [and] “throw people’s views into confusion, turning their concepts and ideas inside out”. Thanks to these illusions, the atmosphere of the present is “impregnated with the will to misunderstand to such an extent that one’s words are immediately interpreted as something different from what they actually mean to convey”. A massive upsurge in materialistic “subtlety of conception, acumen and critical faculties” during the nineteenth century, then, was an anticipatory cause of today’s very confused ego. 

It is amusing to read that in this 1917 lecture, Steiner was complaining how pointless is was to still be thinking as it were still 1913, with the hindsight of the war, for this is the topic of Musil’s novel. Written in the thirties but set in 1913 – the year that Husserl published his phenomenological handbook, Ideas – it’s philosophical digressions unfold within the management of a political campaign celebrating the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire. Musil’s satire on the culture world with it’s gestures and poses is timely (“reason and progress in the Western world would be displaced by racial theories and street slogans”) but even this “playacting” is an attempt to escape the past, however naive. What would you do if you could rule the world for a day? goes one conversation. “I suppose I would have no choice but to abolish reality” comes the answer. This is explained as a rejection of the here and now (“so much Present”), a craving for “a new concept of life” which grasps it directly, what Wilson meant by Faculty X, the awareness of the reality of other times and places. This Faculty cannot be activated without understanding the intentional ordering of consciousness. “The mind stands for order” says the man without qualities himself, Ulrich. He is speaking to his old General, and he asks if him you attempt to escape from “drab repetitiveness into the darkest recesses of your being, where the uncontrolled impulses live”, what do you find? “Stimuli and strings of reflexes, entrenched habits and skills, reiteration, fixation, imprints, series, monotony! That’s the same as uniforms, barracks, and regulations” he argues. Wilson compared intentionality to a barking sergeant-major, smartening up the recruits (impressions and sensations) for inspection by the conscious mind. This ordering function should protect our energy and vitality, but too much security of this kind soon curdles into the boredom and resentment which produces relativism. “It is a sign of Goethe’s astonishing genius that he managed to express this disillusionment in Faust before the scientific century was really under way” comments Wilson in The New Existentialism (Steiner also thought Goethe had preempted modern thought with Faust).

From the superficial, however, one is led into the depths – Husserl, The Origin of Geometry

“We can now see why Faust’s solution to this problem was the wrong one” he continues. “He tried to go backwards, to sink to a more instinctive level. Clearly, this is no solution. The solution is to repair the sense of purpose through a deepening of consciousness – which can be achieved by phenomenological analysis” (the practical discipline he champions at the beginning of the second part of the book). An essay he wrote on Husserl and evolution likens this process to poking a hole in stage scenery, the kind of artificial construct which Blake imagined as a mundane egg or shell. It is the ‘direct solution’ he later celebrated (cf: ‘In Search of Faculty X’ in Mysteries) and the reason why he held Proust in higher regard than Crowley and magic. His ‘evolutionary phenomenology’ challenges our presumptions about ourselves as passive beings and the conceptions we hold about the interior forces we have at our disposal, the layered strata of intentions. The aim is to become the ultimately free individual “who lives an inner reality, independent of the present, sustained from within”. Outsiders like Blake or Nietzsche are perfect examples; penniless or invalided, but indomitable. This is implicit in Husserl’s transforming of the ego to the Ego via his phenomenological method. New faculties can only be generated by a vigorous optimism and in the clear light of ‘normal’ consciousness – this is the theme of Wilson’s philosophy. Steiner understood this intuitively, even if, as Wilson thought, his imagination often got the better of him. 

But perhaps Musil put it most succinctly in The Man Without Qualities: “happiness can do wonders for a man’s latent possibilities”. 

Note: Rudolf Steiner’s lectures are archived here.
Also: numbers [§ -] refer to relevant passages in the phenomenological texts.


Howard F. Dossor – an appreciation

Howard F. Dossor, who died last month, was the author of the pioneering book Colin Wilson: the Man and his Mind, published in 1990. I bought it that year after having only read a handful of Wilson titles previously. I was unaware of both the author and this study, but plonked down ten quid on the Waterstones counter as soon as I saw it. Before reading this book my overall knowledge of Wilson was limited to what I’d seen on the blurbs of a few of his paperbacks. Mr. Dossor’s book changed all that, giving me for the first time a bird’s eye view of Wilson’s overall intentions. This was utterly invaluable; without it, I’d have struggled to see the full picture of Wilson’s ‘existential jigsaw puzzle’. To give one negative example, I was then still unaware of the critical stand off between Colin and the literary mainstream, presuming rather naively that he was as respected by them as he was by me. Not so! Chapter 9 of The Man and his Mind deals with the critical response which took me by surprise at first. Why don’t they like these books which I find so exciting and informative? Am I wrong in feeling so strongly about Wilson’s ideas when the broadsheets dismiss him with comic offhandedness, I wondered. In the long term – of course not! But with Dossor’s map the journey could begin properly. It’s certainly amusing to look at the Wilson bibliography in Howard’s book in 2022. Back in 1990 I was determined to find all those other titles – all eighty-odd of them, up to Existentially Speaking (1989). My copy of the Paupers Press Wilson bibliography lists another hundred titles, and it only covers up to 2015… 

Dossor modestly described his book as a “stop-gap” but it was so much more than that. The gathering together of much obscure information between two covers made it an indispensable guide for many years. I’m as glad that I thanked him for it (via email; his response was as courteous as I’d expected) as much as I’m grateful to have made a few ‘pilgrimages’ to Wilson’s house in Cornwall. “It seems most likely that critics analysing [Wilson’s] work in the middle of the twenty-first century, will be puzzled that his contemporaries paid such inadequate attention to him” writes Dossor at the end of his book. “But it is not merely for their sake that he should be examined”. And it isn’t. In our twenty-first century environment of divisive technological distraction and blandly orthodox ‘life failure’, of spiritual laziness and boring dogmatism, Wilson’s vigorous phenomenological existentialism remains a gift for individuals strong enough to swim against the current, to live out this lived philosophy. It certainly worked wonders for me. 

And it still does. 

So thanks again, Howard. 

Farewell also to Laura del-Rivo, Wilson’s beatnik muse, and to Thomas F. Bertonneau – a delightfully open mind from a world of closed academia. RIP both. 

With thanks to George C. Poulos for the email notification yesterday. 

The Strength to Dream, reissued

Out of print for decades, The Strength to Dream (1962) was the fourth volume of Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’ which is now reissued by Aristeia Press. They have previously reprinted Religion and the RebelThe Age of Defeat and Introduction to the New Existentialism in matching softcovers. The remaining installments, Origins of the Sexual Impulse and Beyond the Outsider, will follow (The Outsider itself has remained in print since 1956 of course). 

The Strength to Dream is described by its author as “an attempt at a classification of unrealities, with a view to defining the concept of reality”. Essentially a study of the imagination as presented by various writers of fiction, Wilson’s book was rather ahead of its time, anticipating the intellectual interest in fantasy, horror and sci-fi that exploded later in the decade. Wilson’s book marks the first time that H. P. Lovecraft shared a space with the ideas of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and Wilson would soon exploit this unlikely juxtaposition with some Mythos novels of his own, paving the way for scholarly investigations of pulp fiction. While the latter is common enough now, it comes as quite a surprise to remind ourselves that Wilson was doing this shortly after the founding of the satirical magazine Private Eye and in the same year that ‘Love Me Do’ entered the charts (fittingly, Wilson here remarks that the Sartre of Nausea should have “given closer attention […] to the blues in general” to counter his defeatist attitude; a dozen pages later Stockhausen is aptly described as ‘far out’). 

Wilson had of course already anticipated the forthcoming sixties obsession with consciousness expansion by writing about the largely unknown Hermann Hesse and the obscure thaumaturge G. I. Gurdjieff in his first book, The Outsider. Further along the ‘Cycle’, The Strength to Dream investigates many cult names who would later become iconic in their respective genres: Lovecraft, M. R. James, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Brian Aldiss. By the seventies, horror and science fiction would be a booming business for paperback publishers such as Panther (who also brought out many Wilson titles). This century, Lovecraft and Dick are finally published by the prestigious Library of America. 

The “classification of unrealities” in Wilson’s study also includes a thorough analysis of the writings of Lawrence (D.H. and T. E.) Beckett, Sartre, Strindberg, Wells, Huxley, Faulkner, Andreyev, Robbe-Grillet, Saurraute, Wilde, Yeats and Tolkien, amongst many others. As per usual with Wilson, it’s a brilliantly accessible guide to cult literature if nothing else. But also – as per usual for Wilson – it is a philosophical treatise, made explicit by his shoehorning of Husserl’s ‘phenomenological’ method into the text. The ‘intentional’ nature of consciousness which Husserl had attempted to pin down with rigorous logic in the first few decades of the twentieth century was described by Wilson as the ‘form imposing element’ in 1961 but it becomes the ‘form imposing faculty’ in The Strength to Dream and as the Outsider series progresses, the ‘phenomenological faculty’. Wilson thought this “a rather clumsy phrase” and by 1967 he was speaking of ‘Faculty X’ – a state of extreme clarity which is represented by one of the most famous moments in Modernist literature; Proust’s memory of lost time in Swann’s Way (significantly, Proust himself connects this experience of mental freshness to a “dormant faculty” in the second volume of his novel). The faculty had already appeared in nascent form in Wilson’s debut (“a sort of pictorial memory of other times and other places” he writes in the Nijinsky section) and in the sequel (similar words in the chapter on Jakob Böhme), but it could be argued that it is in this particular book on the literary imagination where it first crystalises as a solid concept. Therefore it is notable that Husserl himself discussed a “parallelism” between perception and imagination in his first major work on phenomenology (1900), a correspondence which obviously attracted Wilson. “The whole point of phenomenology is that there is no sharp dividing line between perception and imagination” he wrote in 1966 when he was summing up his ‘Cycle’. “The dividing line only applies when we think of perception as passive and imagination as active. As soon as we realise that perception is active [i.e. intentional], the old dichotomy vanishes”. A good indicator of how far Husserl was misunderstood and what an existentialist thinker like Wilson was working against at this time is a comment from Sartre in his huge ‘essay on phenomenological ontology’ (1943). Sartre states near the conclusion that perception “has nothing in common with imagination”. For Sartre, however, imagination is only the ability to “assemble images by means of sensations” which (he claims) originated with the “association theory of psychology” – that is to say, the ‘psychologism’ that Husserl had already demolished forty-three years before in his Logical Investigations. Sartre’s analysis becomes even more risible with the knowledge that Husserl had painstakingly demonstrated that sensations are not intentions in the fifth investigation of the same work. In a verbose letter from March 1930 Lovecraft matches value with association and freedom with sensation – while claiming that he is unprejudiced with regards to these “consciousness-impacts”. It comes as no surprise then that the famous opening statement from The Call of Cthulhu is anti-phenomenological in nature, stating as it does that the most most merciful thing in the world is inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. Wilson writes off this attempt at philosophising as “the usual romantic pessimism” at the start of The Strength to Dream

Sartre mentions in his essay that Heidegger’s philosophy uses “positive terms which hide the implicit negations” and it could be said that Wilson turns this on its head, using negative examples to illuminate an optimistic truth. His previous book had been an A-Z of criminal cases and Wilson admitted that this was complied partly as a dig at Sartre’s rather reductionist attitude. Sartre also writes in his essay that we can “catch a glimpse of the paradox of freedom” but only via objects, obstacles and other exterior ‘situations’. Wilson would later define Faculty X as ‘the paradox of freedom’ and he insisted that we can glimpse it with enough effort, without the need for such props and situations. Therefore the analysis of negative examples of freedom, like the sociological and existential study of murder, or the rigorous questioning of imaginative creativity should be encouraged in order to throw these problems into relief. 

A philosophical sounding quote – “people are no more than things to me. Inanimate. Cyphers. I am a pragmatist” – could have easily been said by a Beckett character, but it was actually written in a confessional letter by Klaus Gossmann, ‘the Midday Murderer’. [1] Like the index of self defeating social tragedies catalogued in his crime book, The Strength to Dream analyses another angle of this rather unhealthy attitude towards life. Ploughing through the bleak imaginative landscapes of Sartre’s fiction, and those of Beckett and Andreyev (a favourite of Lovecraft – both held the same philosophy) is a sure way of determining the strength or weakness of individual imaginations. For Wilson the imagination is not daydreaming but a way of grasping reality, analogous to Husserl’s intentional consciousness. “The faculty for ‘grasping’ a picture or a page of prose might be called the attention” writes Wilson. “But attention is a simple matter, depending on an act of will (as when a schoolteacher calls ‘Pay attention, please). This ordinary attention is often inadequate to grasp the meaning of a picture or a piece of music; it is not ‘open’ enough to allow a full and wide impact of strangeness. The instantaneous act of grasping that transcends the pedestrian ‘attention’ is the imagination. It is more active than attention; it is a kind of exploring of the object, as well as a withdrawal from it to see better”. Husserl had covered this ground in the fifth Logical Investigation, when he said that we ‘live’ inside the perceptive act when we ‘take in’ a work of fiction. Later he questions the usual meaning of the word ‘imagination’, remarking that ordinary awareness (i.e. that we are ‘merely reading’) is “inoperative” in the novel reading or aesthetic experience. It is worth noting that this latter section, like Sartre’s thoughts on imagination from Being and Nothingness, are both analyses of the quality of perceptive acts. 

Wilson begins The Strength to Dream by dismissing the realist interpretation of imagination. Both the socialist and the capitalist, he says, see it as a useful gadget, an accessory to the aims of either the state or to business, but this ‘one size fits all’ description of the imagination is hardly applicable to Poe or Dostoyevsky. About to be executed, Dostoyevsky saw life “without disguise” as Wilson phrases it here. From then on he was determined to imaginatively capture this reality in his fiction, even if it meant forever contrasting it against squalor. Nineteenth century romantics used imagination as a “kind of psychological balancing pole” to navigate a world that horrified them (Lovecraft is one of the last and best examples of this compensative mindset). Yet it was his discovery of Lovecraft in the late fifties that altered Wilson to another interpretation of imagination, one that is closely bound to values. Lovecraft states his “basic life value” in the above letter: “nothing has any intrinsic value”. So it is hardly surprising then that Lovecraft died aged only forty-six. Dostoyevsky’s purpose, writes Wilson, is an attempt to “communicate to his readers the inexpressible value of life” by contrasting this undisguised “invisible strength of the powerhouse” against misery and futility. 

“It is my contention” writes Wilson “that these value judgements are the mainspring of the imagination; they are, in fact, so closely connected with it as to be almost synonymous with imagination”. For instance, we can ask ourselves: ‘what life would be like inside Lovecraft’s Mythos?’ A state of miserable slavery underneath some tentacled cyclopean entities? This is hardly the imaginative power found in Dostoyevsky or in Blake’s prophetic books. It is significant then, that Wilson’s own satirical barb at Lovecraft, The Mind Parasites, was drawn from a phenomenological insight [2] into what Blake called ‘the Spectre’ – the rational power that negates, like Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust (the sober mystic Rudolf Steiner thought Mephistopheles the perfect symbol for the current age of materialism, neurosis and life-failure, although Steiner named this anti-zeitgeist ‘Ahriman’). The Blake scholar S. Foster Damon, a friend of Wilson’s, described the Spectre as “a machine which has lost its controls and is running wild” – a representation of the human condition that would have satisfied Gurdjieff as well as Steiner. In the second book of Ideas Husserl describes the “lower level” world of sensations and associations – that is, the philosophy of Sartre, Greene, Beckett and Lovecraft – as “the world of the mechanical, the world of lifeless conformity to laws”. This is the mental world of the cafe proprietor which was brilliantly satirised – ironically enough – in Sartre’s Nausea, a portrait of someone who is wholly dependent on outer objects and situations for meaning. This lifeless attitude flows through the literary and cultural criticism of Roland Barthes, a contemporary of Sartre: “…just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I: language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person’, and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it…” [3] Despite being written in 1967, Barthes’ value-judgement on the self sounds exactly like the Sartre of Being and Nothingness circa 1943. 

The problem with this anti-intentional attitude – which was unfortunately given a huge boost in the mid-Sixties via the philosophical lit-crit of Barthes’ semiology and Derrida’s deconstruction – is discussed by Wilson in The Strength to Dream, another reason for the book to be branded ‘ahead of its time’. He remarks that philosophers declaim their “temperamental reactions to life as if they were the result of a most careful weighing up of the whole universe”. Likewise, the novelist “sits in his armchair and writes about his vision of the world as if he is delivering the gospel”. This is the result of the fallacy of passive perception which was built into modern philosophy by Descartes, a flaw that Husserl exploded with his notion of the intentionality of consciousness, Wilson’s ‘faculty’. Wilson quotes the speech of a self indulgent nobleman in the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom: Sade’s Durcet says that it is “the weakness of our faculties [that] leads us to these abominations”. Wilson once dubbed de Sade ‘the patron saint of serial killers’, and a few years on from The Strength to Dream he wrote that real purpose of the study of murder is “to teach the human imagination to create crisis situations without the physical need to act them out” [4]. In his book on the psychologist Maslow (1972) Wilson points out that consciousness without crisis tends to become negative. This does not mean that we need to seek out physical crisis situations – although thinkers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Aleister Crowley, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Sartre and Gurdjieff all thought that we should – rather, we need to carefully analyse what actually happens in these situations. Wilson’s first book The Outsider collects many examples of these situations and amongst the most illuminating are two experiences reported by Nietzsche. These episodes, familiar to any Wilson reader, are examined again at the beginning of the sixth chapter of The Strength to Dream, the chapter which starts with the de Sade quote about the weakness of his libertines’ faculties. 

Wilson insists that while the two passages “express only an aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy” it cannot be understood without this central drive – what Nietzsche himself described in a letter as “pure will, without the confusion of intellect”. Like Blake’s maxim that energy is eternal delight, this is a confirmation that intentional consciousness must be driven by a willed momentum. Husserl says as much in (again) the fifth Logical Investigation that “the greatest energy will be displayed by the act-character which comprehends and subsumes all partial acts in its unity”. In his notebooks Nietzsche rejected mechanical Darwinism in favour of a “tremendous shaping, form creating force working from within” – what Husserl later meant by intentionality, or Wilson’s ‘form imposing faculty’. The study of imagination in action can ascertain how strong or weak an intentional grip any given author (or character) has on reality or within a situation. Sartre’s cafe proprietor Monsieur Fasquelle and Beckett’s Molloy have feeble intentional processes, as they are mostly manipulated by external objects or events. The third part of Beckett’s Molloy trilogy shares its title with an early Lovecraft tale, The Unnamable (1925). In Lovecraft’s story a rationalist character remarks that “even the most morbid perversion of nature need not be unnameable or scientifically indescribable”, a statement that a phenomenologist like Wilson would certainly agree with. Lovecraft’s narrator admires his friend’s “clearness and persistence”, a trait of his typically “analytical mood” but this tranquillity is obliterated by the typical horrors that follow. Later they dimly recall being attacked by a mass of slime (“the ultimate abomination”), a property which Sartre analyses near the end of his long ‘refutation’ of Husserl. Sartre writes that the slimy is “the best image of our own destructive power […] a retorted annihilation […] It is flaccid […] the slimy is docile”. This is hardly Nietzsche’s form creating force or Husserl’s sinewy intentionality. Writing of our “tendency to confuse sense-contents with perceived or imagined objects” Husserl describes the background of perception (i.e. Wilson’s ‘far’ behind the ‘near’) as “surrounded only by an obscure, wholly chaotic mass, a fringe, a penumbra, or however one may wish to name the unnameable”. But this ‘far’, he continues, is not actually separated from the ‘near’ but is “inwrought” with it – an observation that clearly anticipates Wilson’s Faculty X or phenomenological faculty. In literature Wilson found examples of this faculty at work in Proust and in L. H. Myers’ aptly named but rather forgotten The Near and the Far (1929). He also points to a scene from Huysmans’ À rebours (chapter XI) describing a “clumsy change in locality” as a good example of this near-far dichotomy which is often a concern of phenomenological philosophy. [5]

Further in his Investigation Husserl uses the word ‘genetic’ which would become an important factor in his later, time based phenomenology. Past experiences, he writes, “render selective notice [i.e. intentionality] possible […] the emphasis of attention involves […] generally a change in content (an ‘elaboration in fancy’)”. As Wilson wrote in his new existentialist study of Husserl in 1966, if anything is an illusion, it is the content of our present mode of consciousness, our contingent feeling that we are trapped in a world of the near and trivial. If anything demonstrates this to be an untruth, it was the historical rise of the novel and the imaginative revolution that followed, Husserl’s ‘elaboration in fancy’. 

This is implicit in Proust’s ‘dormant faculty’ and his investigations into memory and his past, or negatively in de Sade’s weak faculty which like Lovecraft’s, breeds abominations. As Wilson insists throughout The Strength to Dream, the imagination is more powerful than we think. “Can we doubt” he writes “that one of Zola’s greatest moments was the hour that he conceived his Rougon-Macquart cycle?” This activity of planning a large work – Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, Proust’s Temps Perdu or Newtons Principia – is “a preparation for a long journey away from the physical activity of the present, and therefore a kind of practice for inhabiting a new field of consciousness”. So simply remarking that ‘all perception is intentional’ misses the active nature of Husserl’s insight (which itself moved from static to genetic phenomenology). In his study of Maslow Wilson describes this active consciousness as ‘preparedness’; earlier he had described it as “anticipatory labour” – rather like an insurance policy which covers events which may never occur, or a farmer building barns for harvests that may or may not happen. [6] 

We have achieved civilisation by replacing real experience with symbols (words) and “then by learning to replace whole groups of symbols and the relations between them by formulae” writes Wilson in The Strength to Dream. “The ‘modern neurosis’ would seem to be due to a tendency to lose contact with the reality underneath the formula” (this intentional ‘formularising’ is indispensable, however). Therefore the intuitive faculty of imagination could also be called “a grip on reality”, but much of the imaginative fiction that is analysed in Wilson’s book fails this intentional test. Lovecraft’s adolescent idea that life is a hideous thing, Andreyev’s description of an embrace as “monstrous and formless, turbid and clinging”, Sartre’s “flabby, many-tentacled evasions” in reference to the novels of Nathalie Sarraute, and her own description of how “the nearest nothing makes her tremble, this Hypersensitive, lined with quivering little silken tentacles” – all are stuck the fallacy of passive perception, a legacy of Descartes’ idea that we merely look outward and receive ‘facts’, minus any selectivity or intention (note Andreyev’s use of “formless” rather than form-producing). Wilson’s book deals with “the eccentricities and imprecisions” of various imaginations and he notes that the word imprecision “implies a goal that has been missed” – in fact the book begins with a half-remembered parody of Sartre’s Nausea but set on a football pitch (“Why does that man keep blowing on a whistle?”). According to its ‘normal’ definition, each imaginative act has a different goal because it is merely a subjective fantasy, but this is countered by the phenomenological definition, which understands it as an act of intention. 

These phenomenological ideas begin to become fully formed in The Strength to Dream. “It is impossible to exercise the imagination and not be involved in this [evolutionary] current” writes Wilson. It would be fair to say that Wilson took the function of imagination as seriously as William Blake did – notably, Blake alluded to the same ‘faculty’ circa 1788 with reference to the imagination of poets (Wilson said that Faculty X is strong in good poets). A century later Rudolf Steiner began his career with a brilliant little book on the ‘philosophy of freedom’, brimming with acute phenomenological insights into consciousness (Steiner attended lectures by Husserl’s teacher Franz Brentano). Fifteen years later he made an intriguing assertion to an audience, cryptically speaking of a ‘cosmic law’ that dictates that “every capacity humanity acquires must have its beginning in one individuality. Faculties that are to become common to a large number of people must first appear in one person”. Summing up the argument for the creative use of the imagination yet again in The Misfits (1988), Wilson came to the same conclusion as Steiner (“if one single human being could learn to achieve Faculty X at will, this ability would soon spread to every member of the species”). Like Nietzsche and Gurdjieff, Wilson rejected crude behaviourism and mechanical evolution, favouring a phenomenological process – a careful reading of the ‘Analysis of Man’ chapter in Beyond the Outsider will make this ‘evolutionary intentionality’ clear. These ideas begin to form in The Strength to Dream

After the first modern novel appeared in 1740, imaginative literature exploded in Europe, transforming scores of its inhabitants from readers of village sermons into would-be revolutionary romantics. But by the end of the nineteenth century this powerful imaginative current had soured into a resigned pessimism – Wilson remarks in The Strength to Dream that if Schopenhauer or Andreyev had been honest about their philosophy of life, they would have committed suicide (both enjoyed comfortable living, of course). Wilson remarks that professionally pessimistic thinking is a cover for ineptitude; like the pile of dead bodies at the end of an Elizabethan drama, “it produces an impression of conclusiveness”. 

With characteristic wit, Nietzsche called Romanticism “that malicious fairy”. But Wilson maintained that the early Romantics like Blake had glimpsed an evolutionary purpose, a kind of proto-phenomenology. Steiner, a devotee of Goethe and a biographer of Nietzsche, made another useful comment concerning ‘universal laws’ in the above lecture. “If you merely consider the world as it presents itself to the senses, which is the modern [i.e. 1909] scientific approach, you observe past laws which are still continuing. You are really only observing the corpse of a past world”. As Husserl said, sensations are not intentions, and the sensationalistic fiction of Lovecraft, for instance, is a front for his anti-intentional philosophy. Steiner goes on to say that we need to “find the things that are outside those laws […] a second world with different laws” (my italics). This ‘world’, he says, is already present inside reality “but it points to the future” – rather like the evolutionary intentionality hinted at in The Strength to Dream and developed in further Outsider volumes. Wilson’s philosophical treatment of literature – ‘existential literary criticism’ – examines what the author was trying to say via analysis of their attitudes towards the dynamism of life, and therefore it is in opposition to Barthes’ sterile ‘semiological’ dissection of corpses. From The Outsider on, Wilson analysed the lives of writers and thinkers to see how they reacted to life, to find out what values they held as part of an active rather than entropic process. (Outside the main body of the text, The Strength to Dream also contains three essays of existential literary criticism as appendices, one each on Aldous Huxley, Nikos Kanantzakis and Friedrich Dürrenmatt).  

The core values of Wilson’s new existentialist philosophy were developed through the ‘Outsider Cycle’ and The Strength to Dream essentially marks the beginning of his mature thought, a turning away from the occasional youthful idealisms of the very earliest volumes and into a more precise analysis, thanks to his discovery of Husserl. The problem of our time, says Wilson, is to “destroy the idea of man as a ‘static observer’ both in philosophy and art”. This static observer is not Husserl’s “disinterested spectator” or Gurdjieff’s “man-without-quotation-marks” – i.e. a transcendental, self-aware subject – but a passive recording mechanism stuck in Husserl’s natural or naive attitude. The narrative voices of Lovecraft, Beckett and Sartre, for instance, all bring in this emotional distortion without questioning it. [7] Near the end of The Strength to Dream Wilson remarks that he has spoken of ‘reality’ in inverted commas throughout the book to indicate ‘everyday reality’, what Robert Musil saw as the prevailing ‘pseudoreality’ in The Man Without Qualities (1930). Everyday consciousness, said Wilson in Introduction to the New Existentialism, is a liar, what Gurdjieff called the ‘pseudo-I’, a fake self (or selves). Far from being false, the imaginative revolution has helped clear away perceptually distortions about our self-image and has been an invaluable aid to human evolution, despite the side effects (as seen in the annals of modern criminology). The imaginative rebellion against ‘reality’ generated a new faculty of perception, what Wilson here labels “an evolutionary drive”. This is an unseen or hidden drive (“of which the writers may be completely unaware”) which Wilson calls the faculty of affirmation – later Faculty X. Dostoyevsky saw it without disguise as he was about to be executed, and he could recreate the reality of this crisis situation using his powerful imaginative faculty, his strong dreaming. Through imaginative power he has ‘bracketed’ the world and become aware of himself as a ‘transcendental ego’, to use Husserl’s terminology. 

“Existentialism has been defined as the attempt to apply the mathematical intellect to the raw stuff of living experience” writes Wilson in The Strength to Dream. “It might also be an attempt to create a new science – a science of living”. Existential criticism therefore judges imaginative works as successes or failures according to this science of life; “to judge them by standards of meaning as well as impact”. So literature that is crudely sensationalistic, like Lovecraft’s, should be carefully scrutinised against Husserl’s stern philosophical reasoning that sensations are not intentions. Husserl and Lovecraft are often analysed together nowadays, but only in the opposite direction to which Wilson was pointing in 1962. The mentality of Sartre’s cafe proprietor whose head empties with his establishment is emblematic of twenty-first century thought, but Wilson’s new existentialism remains a strong and workable refutation of this passive ideology, for anybody who wants it. 

With its pioneering mixture of pulp and phenomenology The Strength to Dream remains a timely examination of the imagination and it’s strange powers. It is a crucial part of Wilson’s ‘existential jigsaw puzzle’. 

[1] Wilson, Colin, A Casebook of Murder, Leslie Frewin, 1969, p. 247. Lovecraft is mentioned in this book (p. 193). He is also discussed more thoroughly in the sequel, Order of Assassins: the Psychology of Murder (1972).

[2] ‘The Power Of the Spectre’ in Introduction to the New Existentialism, Hutchinson, p. 161. In Blake’s Vala, or the Four Zoas (1791) the Spectre describes himself: “I am thus a ravening devouring lust continuously craving and devouring”.

[3] Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’ republished in Image, Music, Text, Fontana, 1977, p. 145.

[4] Wilson, A Casebook of Murder, ibid, p. 226

[5] For instance, in the relevant sections on parts and wholes in Husserl’s Logical Investigations discussed here – first vol., RKP, 1970, pp. 416 – 417, and in the first book of Ideas (Kluwer, 1982, p. 55). Also analysed as per the “existential spatiality” in Heidegger’s Being and Time, (Blackwell, 2004, p. 171), and the “far and the near, the great and the small” in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (RKP, 1967, p. 266). In the Logical Investigations Vol. II (ibid. p. 756), Husserl dismisses “empty” signitive intentions – the life-blood of Barthes’ literary criticism and Derrida’s deconstruction – against filled imaginative intentions. Fulfillment depends on “greater or lesser completeness, liveliness and reality” – Blake’s “energy” or pulling the bowstring of perception fully taut, as Wilson would have it. 

[6] Wilson, Colin, Beyond the Outsider, Carroll and Graf, 1991, p. 177. In this primer on ‘evolutionary phenomenology’ Wilson compares the phenomenologist’s descriptive abilities to a farmer who can precisely explain how he would cultivate a tract of rough land. On page 148 he looks back at The Strength to Dream and maintains that “the phenomenological analysis of imagination” proves that it is not merely compensatory but a form of intentionality that involves the use of A. N. Whitehead’s three modes of experience – immediacy (the near), meaning (the far) and conceptual analysis (the ability to grasp ‘wholes’ through intellect “which, through the use of symbols, has a greater storage capacity”).

[7] Husserl on the disinterested spectator: cf The Crisis of European Sciences, Northwestern Uni. Press, 1970, p. 157; p. 239. Gurdjieff’s ‘man-without-quotation-marks’ in Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, RKP, 1950, p. 1191

Head Revolution

Despite his numerous writings on mysticism and visionary experience Colin Wilson remarked in 1966 that his philosophy was not for readers who want “immediate and startling results […] sudden conversion, blinding visions”. Instead, his ideas are concerned with a careful inquiry into consciousness and with our attitudes towards life. 

By the time he wrote this his controversial writing career was a decade old and he would sum up his basic philosophical credo – the ‘new existentialism’ – in an introductory book of that title. Dissatisfied with the bleak outlook of post war existentialism as represented by Heidegger and Sartre, he returned instead to the phenomenological method of Edmund Husserl, whose philosophy was a primary motivating force on existentialism (and later, Derrida’s deconstruction). Despite now being over half a century old, Wilson’s Beyond the Outsider and The New Existentialism remain the most exciting and accessible introductions to this obscure method of consciousness control outside of the incestuous bubble of academia. 

Wilson did not begin to discuss Husserl until the start of the 1960’s. He is first mentioned (to my knowledge) in Wilson’s opening essay in a pioneering true crime book, The Encyclopedia of Murder. Wilson would write a lot about phenomenology for the first half of the decade and it’s methodology can be felt lurking throughout most of the rest of his work – even a potboiler such as Unsolved Mysteries: Past and Present (“From Arthur and Merlin to vampires and zombies” reads the garish cover) manages to briefly discuss Husserl’s last work The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Wilson thought of Husserl as originally something of a poet and mystic rather than the stern logician he appears to be (originally a mathematician, Husserl’s first book was on arithmetic). 

“From the superficial, however, one is led into the depths” says Husserl, paraphrasing a line from the the second part of Goethe’s Faust. Wilson remarks that Husserl believed that the study of phenomenology would lead to the Goethe’s ‘Mothers’, the ‘keepers of the key to the ultimate sources of being’ (“goddesses unknown to mortal mind … named indeed with dread among our kind” says Mephistopheles). [1] In a somewhat underappreciated satirical move, Wilson would invoke Husserl alongside the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft in a series of ‘Brechtian’ piss-takes: The Mind ParasitesThe Return of the Lloigor and The Philosophers’ Stone, the first two of which were originally published by the Lovecraft concern Arkham House. “A round square, a regular icosahedron and similar a priori impossibila are in this sense ‘unpresentable’. The same holds of a completely demarcated piece of a Euclidean manifold of more than three dimensions…” writes Husserl in the Logical Investigations [V: §44], sounding rather like a classically educated Randolph Carter attempting to describe something equally ‘unpresentable’ from Lovecraft’s pantheon. At the end of his gripping history of occultism (1971) Wilson gives credence to the will-driven experiments of the various mages discussed but ends by announcing that the greatest step forward was made when Husserl began investigating the intentional structure of consciousness circa 1900. Despite its roots in the scientific method, phenomenology was intuited as a mystical discipline – “a doctrine of the will” – by Wilson. Understood properly, Wilson was quite brilliant at leading from the seemingly superficial – those airbrushed Panther paperback covers with their sensationalistic blurbs  – into the phenomenological depths of consciousness discussed inside. Alas, his critics scoff at the surface but almost never discuss the depths, the phenomenology. 

In his major work, the first book of Ideas, Husserl insists that there is “no ‘royal road’ into phenomenology” [§96]. “Our procedure is that of an explorer journeying through an unknown part of the world, and carefully describing what is presented along his unbeaten paths, which will not always be the shortest”. So, no immediate and startling results, sudden conversions or blinding visions. However, the first practical discipline of the phenomenological method – to become constantly aware of the intentionality of all of our conscious acts – is no more difficult that learning a language. “What is happening” writes Wilson in Beyond the Outsider “is that the problem expressed by the mystics – and by Blake in particular – has been first of all expressed in terms that would have been acceptable to Descartes”, i.e. scientifically. Phenomenology is a science of consciousness. 

The above quote appeared in an appendix detailing Wilson’s experiment with mescalin – he was disappointed. He later admitted that ‘the sixties’ essentially passed him by; he had after all already been writing about Hermann Hesse and consciousness expansion since The Outsider had appeared in 1956. Ten years on he summed up his new existentialist credo to some enthusiasm but little academic interest. 1966 was the year that the ‘counterculture’ began to assert itself and it was when Derrida introduced deconstruction to Americans via a critique of Husserl; meanwhile, Foucault was on the bestseller list in France. In his remarkable study of the soundtrack to the era, Ian Macdonald lays out a powerful description of a subliminal change of awareness which happened during this decade. He calls it the ‘revolution in the head’. Akin to the psychological effects that Marshall McLuhan had noted during the switch from print based linearity to multifocal multimedia, this revolution was “an inner one of feeling and assumption” amongst the general public. Currently living in a state of “greedy simultaneity” society is “now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional/physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity” with individuals forever guarding their own “jealously levelled standards”. [2] This can be seen, he says, in the “cynical egalitarianism” of deconstruction: “a levelling crusade on behalf of the aesthetically deprived” which ideally suits the philistinism of both left and right. “A malignant rot has spend through the Western mind since the mid Seventies: the virus of meaninglessness”. [3] Of course, Wilson had been fighting an almost single-handed battle against this virus for several decades. The third installment of his Outsider series was The Age of Defeat, a book about “unconscious assumptions” in an inner-directed/other-directed society. Husserl would have perhaps called this assumptive state the natural attitude of the ‘normal’ man, as opposed to the phenomenological attitude of his explorers (Wilson would call them Outsiders). 

The state of instantaneous/simultaneous perception that MacDonald labels the revolution in the head can be clearly heard in the music of the era. Jim Morrison sang that he wanted the world and he wanted it NOW, sounding like one of the Romantics dissected in Wilson’s debut. In light of his opening comments about instant visions, it is significant that Wilson wrote a book about the quick cures of ‘charlatan messiahs’ which – in its original edit – examined the thinkers Derrida and Foucault alongside more obvious examples such as Charles Manson and the Rev. Jim Jones. “If the definition of a messiah is one who is more concerned with collecting disciples than the truth of what he is saying, then most of France’s post-war intellectuals qualify as messiahs rather than philosophers [with their audience] expected to nod in agreement as they are subjected to a barrage of increasingly absurd propositions”. [4] 

Relevant to Wilson’s thesis would be these two sudden conversions and blinding visions, both shaped by LSD in Death Valley, California. Manson’s 1968 ‘helter-skelter’ and Foucault’s 1975 ‘limit-experience’ were mostly soundtracked by aleatory electronic noise (The Beatles’ Revolution 9 and Stockhausen’s Kontakte). Foucault’s biographer James Miller writes that the above experience, like most of the pivotal events of his life, “happened largely by chance” – hence Foucault’s rejection of what Husserl meant by ‘intentionality’, which according to MacDonald is a very dangerous attitude. “[To] treat chance-determined productions as identical with material intentionality vested with meaning is to meddle in a relativism that can only escalate towards chaos – and chaos draws psychopaths”. Use of random experiment and the free-floating meanings they generate were intended as “harmless fun for Lennon” but when interpreted by psychopaths like Manson and later, by Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman – “in the end they returned to kill him.” [5] Wilson’s studies on the psychology of crime have always challenged the selfishly ‘interpretive’ criminal mind and its ability to deceive itself. Divorced from intentionality, randomness can lead to meaninglessness which can eventually be fatal. Manson’s tedious race war and Foucault’s ludicrous ‘suicide festivals’ were brutal demands for immediate satisfaction, all too common in the ongoing age of “post-religious egotism” and the instantaneous/simultaneous state of awareness which accompanies it. Derrida’s interpretation of Husserl replaced the careful analysis of intentionality with the kind of “harmless fun” mentioned above (‘play’ was an often used term in deconstructive salvos) and the embittered, relativistic sectarianism which now underpins dialogue from both left and right is it’s legacy. Wilson rejected Derrida’s use of Husserl because he believed that Derrida did not grasp what was meant by intentionality. It is not, he said “merely the arbitrary imposition of our fantasies on a featureless ‘reality’” – a statement that unfortunately describes the mentality of the 21st century with uncanny accuracy. 

Introducing his bestselling ‘archeology of thought’ to English readers Foucault singled out “the phenomenological approach” as the one which he completely rejected. His conclusion – than man is a recent invention nearing its end – is for Wilson merely a restatement of Sartre’s ‘man is a useless passion’ which rounded off Sartre’s own epic dismissal of Husserl. In Beyond the Outsider Wilson offers the rather more optimistic statement that “man does not yet exist” – human beings are so dependent on external pressures and forces that we hardly experience what could be called reality, except in moments of intensity (like Sartre remarking he had never felt so free as when he was living in occupied France). In fact, Wilson compares our ‘normal’ state of perception to martial law. Our “capacity for distinguishing” (i.e. intentionality) filters off the information overload that surrounds us. “But our perception is still a second best, many degrees better than the original chaos, but a long way from the possibilities of seeing order and meaning in the universe”. [6] Thanks to this emergency state, we have forgotten existence, as Heidegger says at the beginning of Being and Time. We cannot begin to proclaim final judgements on universal meaninglessness or the end of man while our perceptions are so feeble. 

The illusion of ‘passive perception’, that we can only be stimulated by outward forces – like Sartre’s waiter whose head empties alongside his cafe – can be seen at work in Foucault and Derrida’s twin obsessions of history and language, immense blind forces that control us like puppets. Wilson’s own explorations into the intentional structure of consciousness clearly demonstrate the fallacy of this view. Husserl’s phenomenology “could be likened to a kind of archeology. When I speak of ‘myself’” writes Wilson, “I am speaking about the uppermost layer of willed intentions”. Underneath this “lies the realm of my acquired habits” like typing or driving. Several layers below are our sexual intentions which Wilson insists can be studied as willed intentions; his Origins of the Sexual Impulse, 1963, is an attempt to do this very thing. In archeological terms this layer would be Troy or Babylon; below this “lie the mental equivalents of the Miocene, the Jurassic, the Carboniferous”: these primal layers are examined by Wilson in his series of occult books. [7] Wilson’s term for this archeological structure (“compacted layer upon layer of willed intentions”) is ‘the robot’, a metaphorical piece of tech that transforms slowly learned willed intentions onto the layer of acquired habits, the things we do habitually or ‘instantaneously’. Unfortunately the “obsessive tidiness” of this device also transforms too much of life’s texture into a homogeneous mass, a state where everything seems static and meaningless and we feel that we are merely reflections of our environment. 

1966 was the year that Wilson fully developed one of his most intriguing concepts: the phenomenological faculty – “to coin a rather clumsy phrase” – which was shortened to Faculty X and thoroughly examined in his book The Occult. This ‘latent sense’ is the possibility, mentioned above, “of seeing order and meaning in the universe” against the “second best” of our normal (or natural, as Husserl would have it) perception. Proust devoted over three thousand pages to examining this “dormant faculty” (as he called it). This fact is itself an indication that the carefully disciplined phenomenological method cannot be an immediate quick cure or instant satisfaction; as Wilson says, it’s development requires the patience of a skilled watchmaker. “If I want to combat my boredom and life-devaluation it is necessary for me deliberately to exercise my phenomenological faculty, to train it as I would train my body for some sporting event”. Poetry and literature are by-products of this activity, he writes. [8] 

Addressing an audience in 1967 Wilson repeated the “absurd possibility” that man does not yet exist. [9] Using an image from H. G. Wells, he compares those who attempt to develop the phenomenological faculty to evolving amphibians, struggling to live on dry land. Sartre’s cafe proprietor is firmly a sea-dweller, contained by his reflective environment and dependent on external forces and objects for meaning. This ‘evolutionary phenomenology’ is fully examined in Beyond the Outsider, particularly in the final chapters. Wilson compares the habitual mentality of Sartre’s  ‘sea-creature’, totally dependent on the reflection of outward circumstances, to a vestigial tail or appendix, an evolutionary dead end. Instead we should be looking inward, towards the interior forces we have at our disposal, those layers of willed intentions that can be examined by phenomenological analysis. Through this, says Wilson, we can change our conception of ourselves. 

[1] Husserl, Edmund, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern Uni. Press, 1970, p. 355. Goethe, Faust/ Part Two, Act 1: A Gloomy Gallery, Penguin 1967, p. 76 infra. (Mephistopheles’ cry ‘Then to the deep!’ – a favourite of Husserl’s – is on p. 78). 

See also: Wilson, Colin, The New Existentialism, Wildwood House, 1980, p. 62. Speigelberg, Herbert, The Phenomenological Movement vol. one, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1976, p. 160. 

[2] MacDonald, Ian, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Fourth Estate, 1997, pp. 24-25. MacDonald dismisses the fashionable idea that the various countercultural strands – the new left, etc – were responsible for this switch; it was rather the case that they were warning against it, however ineptly. “As such, the events of 1968 were a kind of street theatre acted out by middle-class radicals too addled by theory to see that the real Sixties revolution was taking place, not in the realms of institutional power, but in the minds of ordinary people.” [ibid] 

[3] ibid. pp. 29-30 

[4] Wilson, Colin, Below the Iceberg: Anti-Sartre and other essays, Borgo Press, 1998, p. 106 (the relevant essay was cut from the book that became The Devil’s Party

[5] MacDonald, ibid p. 274. He remarks that such procedures are mostly harmless when confined to small gallery or literary audiences. However, he also points out that Revolution 9 is “the world’s most widely distributed avant-garde artifact”. 

[6] Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things: an archeology of the human sciences, Tavistock Pub. Ltd., 1970, p. xiv, p. 387. Sartre, J. P., Being and Nothingness, Routledge Classics, 2003, p. 636. Wilson, Colin, Beyond the Outsider, Carroll & Graf, 1991, p. 167. Wilson, The New Existentialism, ibid p, 70. 

[7] Wilson, Colin, ‘Existential Psychology: A Novelist’s Approach’ in The Bicameral Critic, Salem House, 1985, p. 52.

[8] Wilson Colin, ‘Phenomenology and Literature’ in  Eagle and Earwig, John Baker, 1965, p. 97

[9] Wilson, The Bicameral Critic, ibid p. 54

Are we the castle?

“Because we are in the world, we are condemned to meaning” wrote the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1]. Commenting on this famous line in the introduction to the 1965 collection Eagle and Earwig, Colin Wilson remarks that even suicide is a meaningful act. He mentions an “interesting book” entitled Suicide and Scandinavia by Herbert Hendin, who “says that if a man could be interviewed in mid air between the top of a skyscraper and the pavement, his feelings might be very different from those he had a moment before as he prepared to jump”. As Merleau-Ponty says there are no gestures which do not carry meaning – even the embarrassed silence at some political platitude is meaningful in that it expresses an intentional lack of interest, a rejection of what he calls ready-made formulas. Gurdjieff dismissed such artificial things as “the glamour of new slogans” – the shallow imitation of old racial, religious, academic and commercial ideas which would later be known at the end of last century as postmodernism. Like the existentialism that preceded it, the grandly titled ‘postmodern’ trend was based largely on the misunderstanding of an obscure philosophical method known as phenomenology. Colin Wilson soon fitted this useful method to his ‘Outsider’ credo as the sixties dawned but it would be fair to say that very few have really noticed; his summing up of an evolutionary phenomenology (‘new existentialism’) in 1966 still remains little known. In the mid sixties the academy gleefully swallowed discourse, épistémè and deconstruction and now appears to be suffering complications as if from an act of slow self-harm. 

As committed to the phenomenological method as Merleau-Ponty, Wilson knew that this recognition of meaning was obscured by what its founder Edmund Husserl called the natural standpoint or ‘natural’ (sic) or naive attitude. With under appreciated sarcasm Husserl stated that this attitude was the native environment of the ‘naive man’ or ‘normal individual’. Although Wilson did not discover Merleau-Ponty’s influence Husserl until after The Outsider, he admitted that it merely strengthened principles that he had been carrying out for most of his life. In 1957 he had defined an ‘insider’ as someone who “fills his consciousness with a selected ‘order’”, that is to say, a natural-attitude dweller [2]. A year earlier Wilson had imagined this state as a heavily fortified and technologically advanced castle on a remote island – and if this image wasn’t severe enough, the jailer had hypnotised the prisoners so that they believe they are the prison. Perhaps influenced by parables that Gurdjieff told Ouspensky and owing an obvious debt to Plato’s cave, this ‘situation’ (as Wilson calls it) is currently too close to reality to be described as purely metaphorical. 

By 1965 Wilson was describing the natural attitude as a perceptual prison, a “narrow, personal little world that is soon exhausted by the act of living” and he had likewise begun to define his term ‘outsider’ more strictly or rather, more phenomenologically. An outsider is someone who craves to live outside the natural attitude, a metaphorical sea creature who wishes to evolve and live on dry land, the terra firma of the mind and ideas. Sartre’s waiter whose head empties as his cafe clears of customers is totally at home in this “sea of static personality” as it is described in the sixth chapter of The Outsider, a chapter concerned with identity. Against this personal stasis Wilson seeks to find a way back to the “true ‘I’” – a phenomenological statement worthy of the Husserl that Merleau-Ponty admired so much, the later Husserl. In his final book Husserl spoke of a “universal life of self-responsibility” and an ability to “shape oneself into the true ‘I’, the free autonomous ‘I’” [3]. These tasks involve agency and autonomy, but unfortunately such self-motivations are absent from today’s dominant theories about identity which have their roots in ‘old’ (sic) existentialism, post-structuralism and postmodernism. 

Wilson was keen to point out that Husserl’s natural attitude is merely a temporary convenience rather than the eternal truth of the human condition. We naively or naturally think that we interpret reality as neutrally as a camera lens but even a little reflection on this process will show this to be untrue. Perception depends on paying attention, and as soon as we do that we begin to select, filter and distort – Husserl labelled this subliminal process ‘intentionality’. “The natural standpoint is as filtered and distorted with prejudices as the vision of a madman” comments Wilson (the prisoners in the castle think they are the castle). But this is not to say that everything is relative and that reality remains elusive. Husserl proscribed a method to filter out the filtering which is known as bracketing or epoché (suspension or ‘stopping’ – Gurdjieff might have approved). Descartes naively imagined the ‘I think’ as a flat polished mirror which simply reflected reality back to us, but Husserl showed that this ‘mirror’ of consciousness is a variable; sometimes concave, convex, broken into shards, distorted through powerful microscopic and telescopic lenses, covered in layers of dirt – and until we understand and clear away these distortions we will continuously mistake parts off ourselves (our prejudices) for reality itself. All attempts to eradicate individual and social prejudice will fail unless this very deep enigma is thoroughly examined. “If I carry out the [transcendental] reduction for myself” wrote Husserl, “I am not a human ego”. In the chapter on identity Wilson asks the existential question ‘who am I?’ and rejects the usual bourgeois ‘social’ answers, instead accepting that the true ‘I’ is our genuine identity [4]. Like Husserl had said, until we exist in the phenomenological attitude rather than the murky naive attitude, the clarity of genuine (‘first’) thought and philosophy is impossible. 

Wilson calls the natural standpoint ‘Zola’s fallacy’ after the novelist who was part of the literary movement known as realism or more significantly, naturalism. Émile Zola thought of himself as a neutral reporter but his selection of brutal ‘facts’ show a bias toward humanity at its worst. Based on a real criminal case, one novel was an expression of his theory that “love and death, possessing and killing, are the dark foundations of the human soul” [5]. Zola’s naturalism is a good example of the natural standpoint at work. “It is true that he believes in social justice, and it is this concern with human suffering that makes Germinal his masterpiece” writes Wilson. “But his overall view of human existence is still that it is tragic and futile”. Zola thought that to truly see things they must be seen in “as sordid and pessimistic light as possible” he comments. “The phenomenologist’s objection is that the meaninglessness is as imposed as any other meaning. Art therefore cannot be regarded as an escape from reality unless it it is a total rejection of the natural standpoint” – i.e. a rejection of the fallacy of insignificance, the given cultural attitude of ‘meaninglessness’, which according to Merleau-Ponty cannot be taken seriously. 

Husserl himself was a logician and mentioned artists such as Dürer and Böcklin only in passing. Wilson sometimes remarked that Husserl and Merleau-Ponty are rather unsatisfying as philosophers. For instance, neither are as stylistically enthralling as Nietzsche; although Husserl sometimes sounds strangely similar (“calling to us like a mystic voice from a better world … as though such a voice would have something to say to free spirits like us” he writes in the first book of Ideas, § 145). Husserl essentially jotted as he thought – very, very rapidly – and so his philosophy is not a ‘system’ and his terminology is often modified without any warning. Therefore the ‘phenomenology’ (descriptive psychology) of the Logical Investigations is nascent compared to the phenomenology presented in Ideas twelve years later. Wilson thinks that this unsatisfactoriness “is inherent in the nature of the task” and suspects that Husserl was a poet by temperament as he would eventually speak of uncovering the secrets of the transcendental ego (the true ‘I’) with reference to the ‘Mothers’ in the second part of Goethe’s lengthy poem Faust. Goethe was inspired by a passage in Plutarch who described a realm of cosmic truth “wherein lie motionless the causes, forms, and original images of all things, which have been and which shall be” – the Mothers. In the first act (‘A Gloomy Gallery’) Mephistopheles gives Faust a key and tells him that it’s “hidden power” will guide him to these Goddesses. “Then to the deep!” says Mephistopheles. Wilson remarks that the ‘hidden achievements’ of the true ‘I’ and the search for the ‘keepers of the key’ of being are part of Husserl’s feeling that the phenomenological quest would give us the possibility of occult (hidden) experience without recourse to standard yogic or ritual disciplines, two ways that Gurdjieff rejected as partial methods to enlightenment [6]. 

Despite these frustrations – Husserl was working during a chaotic period of European history – Wilson is adamant that Husserl’s method was startlingly brilliant and original and he is correct in saying that Nietzsche would have benefited from it, had he not died in 1900 when the first volume of the Logical Investigations appeared. Husserl’s method quickly sharpened Wilson’s creative ideas into a tool – an adjustable spanner that could both dismantle and assemble or simply knock someone unconscious. Despite his slight criticism Wilson placed Husserl’s method in a central position in his own philosophy of ‘new existentialism’. His real scorn was aimed at overtly academic post-Husserlian thinkers who quickly backed out of the phenomenological journey – Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, and avowed anti-phenomenologists like Foucault who “explained how important it was to break off from the phenomenological tradition, I remember his phrase, he ‘emancipated himself from the grips of the transcendental subject’”. Familiarly with his life makes it clear that his statement was little more than a narcissistic pose [7]. The frustrating thing about the existentialism and postmodernism that grew out of or reacted to Husserl’s method is not so much that most of it was such a lifeless, tedious academic bore, it is the fact that virtually all of it fails to grasp what Husserl actually said about this ‘transcendental subject’. The mystifying sight of philosophers-cum-messiahs continuing to frantically pace around the exit that Husserl had already pointed towards is something that Wilson found exasperating, bewildering and not a little bemusing. ‘There is a very clearly marked exit” he wrote at the end of The New Existentialism. Anybody with the strength of insight to break the hypnotic spell of the natural attitude and find the exit is free from the castle. 

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, RKP, 1967, p. xix 

[2] Colin Wilson, ‘Beyond The Outsider’ in Declaration, MacGibbon and Kee, 1957, p. 36

[3] Colin Wilson ‘The Question of Identity’ in The Outsider, Gollancz, 1956, p. 147. Edmund Husserl, ‘Philosophy as Mankind’s Self Reflection’ in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 338 

[4] Husserl quoted in Herbert Spiegelberg’s The Phenomenological Movement, first volume, Marcus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1976, p. 203. “The transcendental ego in us is nothing more than the mundane ego; phenomenological reflection is in no way a literal division of consciousness. It is just a reminder that, in the final moment, I am a being that is not completely absorbed into any objectification, thereby preserving my freedom and responsibility”.  Klaus Held, ‘Husserl’s Phenomenological Method’ in The New Husserl, Indiana University Press, 2003, p. 29. In the same sense Wilson has pointed out that religion tends to speak of two ‘worlds’ rather than weaker and stronger (or nearer and further) perceptions of the same world.

[5] The Beast Inside, originally serialised then published as La Bête humaine in 1890. The Zola quote is from the Penguin edition, 1982, p. 7. One of Zola’s warring railway workers, Jacques Lantier, is based upon the French murderer Eusebius Pieydagnelle; see Colin Wilson, Origins of the Sexual Impulse, Panther, 1966, p. 176. Wilson recalls his reading of Zola’s novel when he was twenty in The Books in My Life, Hampton Roads, 1998, p. 246. Like today’s left-right political zealots, Zola was obsessed with hereditary. 

[6] Colin Wilson, Introduction to the New Existentialism, Hutchinson, 1966, p. 62. Wilson was referring to Spiegelberg, ibid. p. 160. Spiegelberg comments that Merleau-Ponty helped introduce these ideas via access to Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts. For Goethe see Faust Part Two, Penguin, 1967, pp. 15 and 78. 

[7] Jurgen Habermas quoted in James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault, Harper-Collins, 1993, p. 338. Bafflingly, Foucault thought phenomenology “passive rather than active” (ibid. p. 141) and in a footnote Miller comments that in the original French texts Foucault refers to the life-world as le vécu – ‘the lived’ or ‘lived experience’. The latter phrase is now a tiresome glamorous slogan amongst many in the circular anti-arguments of identity politics and has more in common with Zola’s grim obsession with hereditary than with Husserl‘s philosophy of freedom. Wilson correctly described Miller’s book as one of the best philosophical biographies ever written (Wilson, Below The Iceberg, Borgo Press, 1998, p. 85). Like the life of that other pampered bourgeois turned shaven-headed fake messiah Aleister Crowley, it is a sordid story of ever-diminishing returns, though not as fascinating or exciting.

Against the glamour of new slogans*

Gurdjieff once “made something altogether impossible” when attempting to pronounce the title of Ouspensky’s early masterpiece Tertium Organum and remarked that if his pupil had understood everything he had written in it, he would reverse roles and beg Ouspensky to teach him. “But” he said “you do not understand either what you read or what you write. You do not even understand what the word ‘understand’ means”. Like most of Gurdjieff’s recorded utterances this is a penetrating insight. And while Colin Wilson held Gurdjieff in extremely high regard he also offered his own valuable critique, dismantling Gurdjieff’s stern description of ‘mechanical’ man via the more subtle analysis of Husserl’s phenomenology.

Wilson was in no doubt of Gurdjieff’s strange and enigmatic genius. In his exhaustive history of occultism (1971) Gurdjieff is described as the greatest magician encountered in that large book, with the likes of Blavatsky and Crowley relegated to status of “talented eccentrics”. Certainly, Ouspensky’s indispensable account of Gurdjieff’s ideas, In Search of the Miraculous, is notable for its sober, precise tone. Gurdjieff’s direct statements are free of the hectoring irrationalism of The Secret Doctrine (“And we ask the materialists: Have you ever seen Ether, or your Atoms, or, again, your FORCE?”) or the tiresome egocentricity of Crowley (“The grotesque barber Alliette, the obscurely perverse Wirth, the poseur-fumiste Peladan, dawn to the verbose ignorance of such Autolycus-quacks as Raffalovitch and Ouspensky”). Reading Ouspensky’s book after overdosing on ‘classic’ occult literature is like opening a window in a stuffy, overheated room. Wilson commended the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead for his expressive precision – such as describing Latin as a tightly packed suitcase and English as luggage with its contents strewn around the room – and rightly celebrated Ouspensky for the same reason.

Gurdjieff not only tops Wilson’s list of occultists. His system is described as “the complete, ideal Existenzphilosophie” in Wilson’s own existential salvo The Outsider, which is not bad considering that Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre are also discussed. And in a short biographical study of Gurdjieff (1980) Wilson describes his system as “the greatest single-handed attempt in the history of human thought to make us aware of the potential of human consciousness”. The phrase ‘single-handed’ could perhaps refer to Gurdjieff’s rather mysterious origins and the unique presentation of his ideas, while the use of the word ‘potential’ recalls Wilson’s connection with Maslow’s humanistic psychology. In fact, Wilson basically regards Gurdjieff as a highly original psychologist: after all, the Work deals in self-actualisation. But like all the other thinkers he analysed both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky are treated as part of larger philosophical picture. So despite his high praise Wilson came to believe that they both based their ideas on unnecessarily pessimistic foundations – i.e. that man is a machine, a somewhat reductionist metaphor which has stunted philosophical endeavour since Descartes first used it. Looking back on this ‘age of machinery’ in his book on Maslow, Wilson remarked that it has taken almost three centuries for psychology to assert that human beings posses a mind and a will. 

This overt use of the human-as-machine metaphor can be corrupting. Ouspensky’s question and answer sessions, posthumously documented in The Fourth Way, are nowhere near as exhilarating as In Search of the Miraculous or for that matter, his pre-Gurdjieff works. Books such as Tertium Organum, A New Model of the Universe, the novel The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin and the two amusing short stories collected in Talks with a Devil show that Ouspensky was a romantic wanderer of the Hermann Hesse type (read, for instance, his poetic thoughts on the ‘fashions of nature’ in the first chapter of A New Model of the Universe). Perhaps, as Wilson suggested in his study of Ouspensky (1993), meeting ‘G’ was not necessarily a good thing for a such a temperament. Never a member of any Gurdjieff group, Wilson could honestly describe his friendly relations with several devotees and observe that they hadn’t quite found what they were seeking, despite sitting at the feet of both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. 

Gurdjieff’s starting point is that we are mechanical. We are sleeping automatons like one of those semi-aware simulacrums in Philip K. Dick’s science fiction stories. In The Outsider Wilson remarks that Gurdjieff’s idea “seems to be no more than the blackest pessimism” but goes on to describe the startlingly original methods to wake up from of this – the system, the Work or the Fourth Way. As previously noted there is no better introduction to it than Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, where as Wilson notes, he is Plato to Gurdjieff’s Socrates. But as he later observed this over-stressing of mechanicalness is no way to start: he thinks that Ouspensky would have been better off meeting someone like Rudolf Steiner. Like Husserl and Freud Steiner was once a pupil of Franz Brentano, a key influence on Husserl’s development of phenomenology, first as a descriptive psychology then as the drastic Erste Philosophie of the later years. Brentano’s stamp can also be felt in Steiner’s early book The Philosophy of Freedom. Both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky could almost be as paternally dogmatic as Freud in over-stressing the helplessly mechanical nature of humanity. Gurdjieff’s assertion that it is better to scrub floors consciously rather than write books mechanically is satirically spot-on but would we really wish to replace the finest things in our rich cultural heritage with some neatly polished floors?

Gurdjieff diagram

Knowledge of Husserl’s method of intentional consciousness would have doubtless freed Ouspensky from his formal dogmatism (his lectures reminded one pupil of his own cheerless Presbyterian childhood in Scotland). Yet ironically enough, Ouspensky had almost grasped this principle of intentionality in his own books. Tertium Organum has a different heading on every right hand page, so in the section entitled ‘What is Materiality?’ he writes that “we segregate a small number of facts into a definite group” – Husserl’s selective perception, but probably arrived at via Ouspensky’s reading of Nietzsche (“there are no facts, only interpretations”). Later (‘The World of Causes and the All’) he states that what we take for ‘the world’ is “merely our incorrect perception” of a larger, total world. Husserl himself would have easily understood what was meant by this “wondrous” larger world. For Wilson this recognition of a larger, more wonderful ‘world’ – rather, a broader perception than our usual narrow everyday beam – is the driving force behind true poetry and is the foundation of all mystical experiences. 

Near the end of his life Ouspensky essentially renounced Gurdjieff’s system and suggested that his pupils find their own methods.

Wilson is correct to elevate Gurdjieff above all other occultists, but quite frankly it’s hardly stiff completion. Gurdjieff’s biographer James Webb once defined revived occultism as ‘rejected knowledge’. It is obvious that Gurdjieff’s ideas stand apart from this usual rehash of formulae found in occult literature. Wilson’s earlier description of the Work as “the ideal, complete” existential philosophy is given weight by the stark language used throughout Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s dialogues. “Man In himself is not one, he is not ‘I’, he is ‘we’, or to speak more correctly, he is ‘they’”, “the actual situation of humanity”, “contemporary culture requires automatons” – and so on. However, with his post-Outsider discovery of Husserl’s method this allusion would be modified. 

In The Unknowable Gurdjieff, Margaret Anderson describes her reaction to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. “I read on and on – discovering, indeed, ‘nothingness’”, and enthusiastically quotes Gurdjieff’s own distaste for philosophy. But further on we read her comment on Gurdjieff’s methods. “To SEE is passive. To LOOK is active”, a phenomenological statement if there ever was one. Anderson’s thoughts on Sartre’s magnum opus aren’t too far from Wilson’s own, but when she paraphrases Gurdjieff’s attitude towards this active looking, there is a notable difference. “Live a life of friction. Let yourself be disturbed as much as possible, but observe”. Wilson analysed many people living frictional lives, observing and disturbing themselves (and others) but none really found the answer they were expecting. This paradox is illustrated in the case-histories of the Outsider books and in the true-crime volumes. “The whole history of humanity is ‘the history of crime’” wrote Ouspensky in his study of eternal recurrence. Wilson once wrote a vast history of crime (1985) but he was more optimistic than Ouspensky, understanding crime as a defect of perception, the price we pay for narrow, rational vision. Therefore ‘active looking’, what Husserl called intentionality, is the key. Frictional living or disturbing ourselves are as unnecessary as the fakir’s bed of nails or the monk’s hair shirt, both rejected as partial ‘ways’ by Gurdjieff. According to him, the ‘Fourth Way’ reaches all sides of our being simultaneously. This simultaneous perception runs through Ouspensky’s own early works and is also analysed with typical thoroughness by Husserl. 

In The Occult Wilson critiques the idea that Gurdjieff was ‘unknowable’ or that his system is beyond human comprehension. “There are even vital matters upon which he was relatively ignorant”: the most important being Husserl’s discovery of the workings of intentionality. “As I go through conscious, everyday life, I am unaware of the amount of deliberate work I am putting into ‘living’”. This deliberate work is intentional, through we usually mistake it as passive or mechanical. Wilson thinks Gurdjieff grasped the latter point but not quite the former. Husserl’s importance lies in the fact that he cleared the philosophical ground of all the useless clutter and debris that had been accumulating since Descartes had first erroneously suggested that humans are machines. In his own analysis of intentional consciousness and it’s role in evolution (Beyond The Outsider, 1965) Wilson uses Husserl’s phenomenological method to dismantle man-machine philosophy. He insists that what we understand as ‘mechanisms’ are willed intentions which were originally learned, slowly or clumsily, but which soon become habitual due to repetitive effort. These habits have become ‘mechanical’ but they are not mechanisms as they were brought into being by an intentional process. Basic ‘mechanical’ (sic) or ‘robotic’ skills like driving or typing could be on the uppermost layers, but like archeological strata deeper intentions descend back to our prehistory, phenomenologically speaking. Wilson’s books such as Origins of the Sexual Impulse and The Occult are essentially attempts to describe these descending layers, via case-histories (the ‘lived philosophy’ of The Outsider et al). In making his ‘robot’ layers of compacted intentions Wilson avoids the usual literal-minded technological metaphors of the behaviourist (significantly, J. B. Watson was baffled or possibly offended at a reading by Gurdjieff). The subtle difference between the terms mechanical and robotic can be understood by recalling Wilson’s interest in the cybernetic theories of Dr. David Foster in the early seventies. In his Gurdjieff study a decade later Wilson says that Gurdjieff would have happily used a computer rather than machine metaphor had he lived closer to our time. A programme suggests a programmer; a ‘controlling consciousness’ i.e. Husserl’s transcendental ego. As Husserl tirelessly reminded us, this state marks the beginning and not the culmination of the phenomenological ‘first philosophy’. A mere starting point and not a blissful end-goal.

According to Wilson mechanisms, so-called, are willed intentions which have become automated (‘habits’) so stressing our mechanicalness is therefore unnecessarily over-dramatic, and worse, untrue. Despite the brilliant originality which excited Ouspensky so much, the Work is tainted by a basic and needless misconception, one that Husserl set out to destroy at the same time that Ouspensky was searching jungles and deserts for anything miraculous. Husserl also attacked the positivism which Ouspensky mocked in Tertium Organum and in Talks With a Devil (where the devil himself states that he is a positivist). “Positivism” says Husserl in his final, uncompleted book, “decapitates philosophy”. But Husserl strove for exacting description of things. ”Generally speaking” starts Ouspensky, “everything said in words regarding the world of causes is likely to seem absurd, and is in reality it’s mutilation” – a very strong word, also used by Husserl in the Sixth Investigation of the Logical Investigations [§ 29]. “The truth is impossible to express” continues Ouspensky, “it is possible only to give a hint at it…” Describing “mutilated” or partial intuitions, Husserl states that a true or adequate perception depends on the grasp we have on the object (“grasps it more and more vividly and fully” he says). This grasp requires a more complex act than our usual passive perception where an object is merely ‘there’ in, Husserl says, “it’s unenriched familiarity”. What Husserl is saying is not far from Ouspensky’s own arguments, but making statements like ‘truth is impossible to express’ or that humans are sleeping automatons is something he would have regarded as philosophically irresponsible. As Wilson says, we cannot be making such overarching statements until we have a fully functioning consciousness, Husserl’s starting point, the transcendental ego. 

As Wilson comments, Ouspensky essentially ‘knew’ this. A section in Tertium Organum with the misleading heading ‘Body, Soul, Spirit’ bears this out. “in saying ‘I’, a man means […] that which is in a given moment is in the focus of his consciousness” – in other words our ‘focus’ is what Husserl meant by intentionality, what we choose to focus on. But such important values “usually refer not at all to every side of his being simultaneously, but merely to some small and insignificant facet, which at a given moment holds the focus of consciousness and subjects to itself all the rest, until it in turn is forced out by another equally insignificant facet”. These differing ‘I’s’ in Gurdjieff’s sense are the same as Husserl’s intentions towards objects or situations as perceived in time-consciousness (another of Ouspensky’s obsessions – “which at a given moment…”). The key word is ‘holds’ – intentional consciousness grasps or handles perceptions in a tactile sense. Tertium Organum, A New Model of the Universe and In Search of the Miraculous are replete with these ‘phenomenological’ insights. The first chapter of New Model compares these different ‘I’s’ to a Tower of Babel, an image also used by Wilson to describe the post-Kant, pre-Husserl philosophical mess. 

Ouspensky diagram

Anybody who has attempted to read part one of Gurdjieff’s unfinished trilogy All and Everything will see a stylistic parallel with Heidegger’s Being and Time (another unfinished book: only the first part was completed). Gurdjieff’s huge tome even has its own separate indexical guide (1971) to help neophytes with the bizarre terminology. Such neologisms – “Being-as-having-been” (Heidegger), “Required-intensity-of-ableness” (Gurdjieff) – aren’t that different from the passage of Sartre that Margaret Anderson derisively quoted in her book (“a being-which-is-not-what-it-is” etc). Wilson himself makes use of simpler neologisms occasionally – ‘close-upness’, ‘upside-downness’ – and has often pointed out another similarity between Gurdjieff and Heidegger. Both suggested that the best way to wake from sleep or forgetfulness would be to become intensely aware of our own death – “useful” thinks Wilson, “but not very helpful”. Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene both toyed with imminent death and it hardly changed them. Despite the big game hunting and the Russian roulette they remained in what Husserl would call the natural standpoint or naive attitude; Gurdjieff’s ‘mechanicalness’, dependent on outer stimuli and situations. Husserl would suggest moving out of this into phenomenological consciousness and Gurdjieff and Ouspensky would recommend practising  ‘self-remembering’. Both involve a careful standing apart from our usual attitudes: Ouspensky had already spoke about standing outside ourselves when he was writing about Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and Wilson noted that the young Nietzsche was constantly attempting to capture this state through his own self-dramatisation. His term ‘Outsider’ means someone who stands outside regular perceptive attitudes, not a mere eccentric. 

Near the end of chapter nine in Miraculous, Gurdjieff tells Ouspensky that without sufficient preparation ‘ecstatic’ experiences are useless. “Only very seldom does it happen that a mind which has been better prepared succeeds in grasping and remembering something of what was felt and understood at the moment of ecstasy”.  Even so, he says, this is usually translated back into distorted three-dimensional consciousness via everyday language and ordinary concepts. Ouspensky’s early books are essential for understanding this dimensional consciousness although Wilson would probably describe these as layers rather than dimensions. For Ouspensky existence on one dimension or plane is the ‘blandest’ whereas on the fourth (or beyond) an infinitely richer simultaneous perception is achieved. This is the same spirit as Husserl’s ingenuous overturning of Descartes’ idea of the cogito as a flat plane mirror merely reflecting reality. 

An intentional consciousness will indeed be better prepared at ‘grasping’ these moments: Wilson’s writings are full of creative people who did. Husserl means the same thing when he insists that a firmly intentional grasp requires a more complex action than passively normal or naive conscious acts. “Generally the greatest energy will be displayed by the act-character which comprehends and subsumes all partial acts in it’s unity – whether it be particular act-intention like joy, or a form of unity that pervades all parts of the whole act” [1]. Blake said that energy is eternal delight and Wilson remarks that his devilish statement “anticipates the method of phenomenology, and the realisation that the ‘filter’ [i.e. an unconscious will that selects, like the ‘spectre’ In Blake] becomes more ruthless as the mind grows tired”. Alfred North Whitehead thought the same. An energetic optimism is needed to drive ‘real perception’ and despite Ouspensky’s obvious debt to Nietzsche, this joyful wisdom is mostly absent from his book of lectures, The Fourth Way

“Our energy” said Gurdjieff to Ouspensky “in one or another direction which suddenly increases and afterwards just as suddenly weakens; our moods which ‘become better’ or ‘become worse’ without any visible reason; our feelings, our desires, our intentions, our decisions – all from time to time pass through periods of ascent or descent, become stronger or weaker”. For Gurdjieff this is part of a cosmic law which he suggests was part of ancient knowledge. His thoughts on moods are similar to those of Heidegger in Being and Time [V § 29] but Wilson has criticised this by describing ‘moods’ as intentional value judgements (because, like Gurdjieff’s conflicting ‘I’s’, each mood “seems to offer [us] a different piece of advice on the question of how to live”). Gurdjieff describes our intentions becoming stronger or weaker but the simple solution to this problem would be to follow Husserl and strengthen the intention. As for ‘laws’, Wilson said of the phenomenological method that “in attempting to discover laws it is not unlikely that we shall discover that we are the makers of the laws”. Phenomenologically speaking we cannot comment on any ‘cosmic laws’ until we have a stable consciousness.  

Armed with Husserl’s method the problem of multiple, conflicting ‘I’s’ can be clearly understood as simply different viewpoints of the same object or situation. In Tertium Organum (‘Personal Emotions’) Ouspensky writes that the “constant shifting of emotions, each of which calls itself I and strives to establish power over man, is the chief obstacle to the establishment of a constant I”. Correct, but none of these selective viewpoints are trying to “establish power over man” like Cthulhu did with Randolph Carter; they are merely different viewpoints which can be controlled with careful phenomenological practice. To understand what we do strive for, read on for a Husserl quote from Ideas [§ 96] below. 

The first practical discipline of Wilson’s new existentialism, influenced by Husserl’s techniques, is to become aware of the intentionality in all conscious acts. Constant awareness and meditation (in the philosophical rather than yogic sense) on this strengthens the ability to grasp experience. There is no need for ‘shocks’, no need to live ‘frictionally’ or to disturb ourselves. Practised use of this ‘phenomenological faculty’ certainly changes daily experience in a subtle manner. It soon becomes difficult to accept that we are passive victims of life – how can we be if we ‘intend’ or build the structure of our own life-world? This is the first responsibility.

Wilson was more concerned with this ‘everyday’ practicality rather than with the overwhelming ecstasies of Proust, William James and all the poets and mystics he wrote about. Discussing Gurdjieff in The Outsider he focuses on ‘self-remembering’, with the further state of ‘objective consciousness’ put aside for the time being. As Gurdjieff more or less said to Ouspensky, mystical ecstatics are fine, but if we cannot grasp them they flow though our fingers like fine sand. The trick is to learn to grasp, to hold. But neither this nor the constant awareness of the intentional nature of perception that precedes it can be put into operation under a negative ‘victim’ mentality, the kind that Wilson labelled the age of defeat. As this unfortunately describes our own time more thoroughly than the post-war years Wilson was writing in, developing the phenomenological faculty is a challenge which only very serious outsiders will accept. As previously noted, Wilson’s term ‘Outsider’ refers to someone practising these phenomenological disciplines rather than any regular misfit. Outsiders are outside of what Husserl called the natural standpoint, not outside of society. “At first glance, the Outsider is a social problem” begins Wilson’s debut. But as the book and its series progress, this first glance is proven incorrect. The real problem is with consciousness itself, not it’s outward manifestations. 

One example of intentionality in action Wilson gives in the ‘practical disciplines’ section of The New Existentialism (at the beginning of the second part) is “reading the political news in various newspapers, or listening to speeches by members of opposed political parties”. Any “intelligent person practices an intellectual kind of phenomenology as a matter of course” he commented in 1966. This is already becoming a rare skill in the 21st century thanks to the new media. “There are periods in the life of humanity, which generally coincide with the beginning of the fall of cultures and civilisations, when the masses irretrievably lose their reason and begin to destroy everything that has been created by centuries and millenniums of culture” said Gurdjieff to Ouspensky a century ago. “Such periods of mass madness, often coinciding with geological cataclysms, climatic changes, and similar phenomena of a planetary character, release a very great quantity in the matter of knowledge”. The age of defeat is the information age, after all. “Thus the work of collecting scattered matter of knowledge frequently coincides with the beginning of the destruction and fall of cultures and civilisations”. Gurdjieff was obviously referring to valuable ‘esoteric’ knowledge back then and he was indeed correct as the occult revival (theosophy and it’s variants) preceded the gigantic events which provide a backdrop to Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s working relationship: the Bolshevik Revolution and the First World War. However, this type of apocalyptic warning is now everywhere in the “very great quantity” of information itself – these words about the fall of cultures and civilisations could have appeared in any recent broadsheet. “Phrases, phrases, sympathetic, critical, ironical, blatant, pompous, lying and, worst of all, utterly automatic, phrases which have been used a thousand times before and will be used again on entirely different, perhaps contradictory, occasions” – this is Ouspensky remembering his days as a journalist circa 1906. Nothing has changed apart from the speedier method of delivery. Gurdjieff himself would very probably say that the outward form has changed, but not the ‘essence’. 

A more realistic appraisal of our predicament is found in the last few words from Wilson’s occult trilogy – that is, as long as we accept our mental stagnation as ‘normal’ we will continue to mark time, as far as our evolution goes. This is obviously less scintillating than the atmosphere of apocalyptic doom ‘n gloom that vies for attention on our screens, but nevertheless it is far more accurate. 

Gurdjieff told Ouspensky that there cannot be any “compulsory” mechanical evolution. “Evolution is the result of conscious struggle”, the power of ‘doing’ and this doing or willing “cannot be the result of things which ‘happen’”. In Wilson’s phenomenological existentialism things do not just ‘happen’ as we innocently presume because phenomenology is the study of how (not ‘why’) things appear in our consciousness [2]. “In that case” writes Wilson, “some phenomenologist of the future will have difficulty in making [infants] understand that reading is ‘intentional’, not something that just ‘happens’ when the eye falls on written language”. In our own time we forget just how intentional, prejudiced and selective our perceptual lives are and view ourselves as victims of things which happen to us, passively. “We think of reality as a bully” says Wilson. But Brentano and Husserl reversed this: “it is our minds that are the bullies” (Wilson’s satirical horror novel The Mind Parasites plays on this irony). So claiming to be a ‘victim’ of reality makes no real philosophical sense. Performing the phenomenological operation is the equivalent of swimming against a current, or going against evolution, if evolution means entropy, that is. Obviously, it didn’t for Gurdjieff, Ouspensky or Wilson. 

“Nature does not need this evolution; it does not want it and struggles against it” says Gurdjieff. This evolution is the development of possibilities “which never develop by themselves, that is, mechanically” – therefore these evolutionary possibilities are intentional. “There is, and there can be, no other kind of evolution whatever”. In Beyond the Outsider Wilson refers to an ‘intentional evolutionary structure’ which is doubtless influenced by Gurdjieff’s pronouncements as much as Husserl’s methods (and those of that other philosopher-turned-mathematician, Whitehead). Husserl, In the first book of Ideas [§ 96] describes you, the phenomenologist, as an explorer of these new structures. “But one thing we may and must strive for: that at each step we faithfully describe what we, from our point of view and after the most serious study, actually see”. This is what we strive for – control over differing perceptive angles or ‘I’s’ (Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivism’) into “a life of universal self-responsibility, and correlatively, to shape oneself into the true ‘I’ , the free autonomous ‘I’” [3]. 

“Experiencing” says Husserl “in general, living as an ego (thinking, valuing, acting) – I am necessarily an ‘I’ that has it’s ‘thou,’ it’s ‘we,’ it’s ‘you’ – the ‘I’ or the personal pronouns. And equally necessarily, I am and we are, in the community of egos, correlates of everything to which we address ourselves as existing in the world” [4]. Ouspensky sounded uncharacteristically Lovecraftian when he said that these conflicting ‘I-viewpoints’ strive to establish power over man but Lovecraft himself introduced his most celebrated Mythos tale with the baleful statement that the most merciful thing in the world is the mind’s inability to correlate all it’s contents. However without this correlative aptitude we will never be able to explore these new relational structures. In his letters, Lovecraft referred to himself as a “rational indifferentist”. He was living below what Wilson called the indifference threshold (the latter word used in many Mythos tales, of course). Wilson’s threshold is also known as ‘the law of entropy in prehension’ – prehension being Whitehead’s ‘eating’ of experience, not too far a step from Husserl’s grasping of the same (in his cosmology, Gurdjieff insisted that sleeping humans are ‘food for the moon’). Under the indifference threshold we are only moved to action – and then, ironically, to optimism – by crisis or other negative situations. Wilson was adamant that it is the force or intention of the action and not the crisis or external event that triggers the optimism. As a self proclaimed indifferentist Lovecraft claimed to be neither optimist or pessimist, but it is obvious from reading his tales that he lived mostly under the indifference threshold like the narrator of Sartre’s Nausea, bewildered in a world of alien objects. Of course, Sartre himself famously said he had never felt so free as when he was living the ‘frictional’ life during the Second World War In Occupied France. 

Husserl diagram

We are in the position of those future infants who do not realise that reading was originally a slowly learned intentional activity. Like them, we think that things just ‘happen’, unaware of the complex layers of intentional effort which brought reading (for instance) into being. These are the possibilities “which never develop by themselves” – our intentional evolutionary structure. If we cease to think of these as mechanisms and instead understand them as programmable intentions, then the possibilities are endless, but this ‘understanding’ must be the kind that Gurdjieff was hinting at when he mispronounced Tertium Organum. In his novel Ivan Osokin Ouspensky writes “I want you to understand that when I speak about knowing, I do not mean the sort of knowing which, in reality, is only supposition.” Nietzsche claimed that neither science nor philosophy have been free of presuppositions. “He was right”, remarked Wilson, “this is inevitably so before Husserl”. Starting his work proper with the Logical Investigations, published in the year of Nietzsche”s passing, Husserl prepares the reader for his first Investigation with a section [§ 7] on the principle of freedom from presuppositions which “only seeks to express the strict exclusion of all statements not permitting of a comprehensive phenomenological realisation”. Phenomenology attempts to describe our inner states minus any subjective distortions. By the time of his final work The Crisis of European Sciences Husserl discusses [§ 69] the idea of the ‘disinterested observer’ who views the “outer surface of the spiritual world, which first becomes visible to him, and only gradually do the intentional depths open themselves up”. Without this self-observation, Wilson thinks, we will be continuously – philosophically speaking – mistaking parts of ourselves for an alien or intruder, alienated and ‘victimised’ by reality [5]. 

So Wilson thinks that the knowledge or understanding that Gurdjieff and Ouspensky spoke of is indeed possible to attain via intellectual means – for as he says in Beyond the Outsider, once properly understood, Husserl’s phenomenological intentionality will be ‘lived by’ and not merely speculative. This is a practical, immediate aim, free of the tinge of religious pessimism that runs through Gurdjieff’s cosmology and Ouspensky’s ‘Calvinistic’ interpretation. Now, this is in no way to discredit any of their achievements as there is no doubt whatsoever that Gurdjieff’s and Ouspensky’s central ideas tower over almost everything from the occult revival, in terms of originality and intellectual possibilities. And the potentialities they discuss are in truth more exciting than the dour post-Husserl existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre and more useful than the trend of anti-intentional postmodernism that followed. “Let us give them their due” says Beelzebub to his grandson; “during recent centuries [humans] have really mostly artistically mechanised themselves to see nothing real”. And of course Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s influence on Colin Wilson’s own new existentialist philosophy is notable, despite his later criticisms. If anything, Wilson genuinely added to the usefulness of the Work when he brought in Husserl’s phenomenological analysis. “As long as we remain passive” Gurdjieff said in the third part of All and Everything, “we shall have in the course of our further existence to submit slavishly to every caprice of all sorts of blind events”. But, if we strive to understand our ‘I’ – “you who have cognised this – should not be greatly, as it is said, ‘disheartened’ and should not fall into the so-called ‘pessimism’ prevalent everywhere in the abnormal life of people […] even for you, everything is not yet lost”.

*The ‘glamour of new slogans’ – Ouspensky, Miraculous, p. 60

[1] Husserl on the “function of attention in complex acts”. Logical Investigations vol. II,, Investigation V § 19 (RKP, 1970, p. 582) 

[2] “According to the scientific method, ‘Why?’ often demands an unnecessary amount of theorising, but ‘How?’ can be observed by anyone who goes to enough trouble”. Colin Wilson, Beyond The Outsider, Carroll & Graf, 1991, p. 82. And: “the ‘how’ of the appearance the surrounding world” – Husserl on the ‘new method’ of descriptive science. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 330

[3] ibid. p. 338

[4] ibid. p. 335

[5] See ‘The Problem of Vision’ section in the third chapter of Wilson’s Origins of the Sexual Impulse

The notes [§ -] reference relevant sections in the books mentioned. 

Also used: 

Anderson, Margaret – The Unknowable Gurdjieff (RKP, 1962) 

Blavatsky, H. P. – The Secret Doctrine (Theosophical Pub. House, 1938) 

Crowley, Aleister – The Book of Thoth (Kashmarin Press, 1969) 

Heidegger, Martin – Being and Time (Blackwell 2004) 

Husserl, Edmund – Ideas, First Book (Martinus Niijhoff, 1983)

Gurdjieff, G. I. – All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, (RKP 1956);

Gurdjieff, G. I. – Life is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’ (Triangle Editions, 1975) 

Lovecraft, H. P. – ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ in The Haunter of the Dark and other tales (Panther, 1970)

Lovecraft, H. P. – Selected Letters vol. III (Arkham House, 1971)

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science (Cambridge University Press, 2001) 

[no author] – Guide & Index to Gurdjieff’s All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (Traditional Studies Press, 1971) 

Ouspensky, P. D. – Tertium Organum (RKP, 1957)

Ouspensky, P. D. – A New Model of the Universe (RKP, 1953)

Ouspensky, P. D. – In Search of the Miraculous (RKP, 1950)

Ouspensky, P. D. – The Fourth Way (RKP, 1972)

Ouspensky, P. D. – The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin (Penguin, 1971)

Ouspensky, P. D. – Talks with a Devil (Arkana, 1988)

Spiegelberg, H. – The Phenomenological Movement (Martinus Niijhoff,, 1976) 

Walker, Kenneth – Venture with Ideas (Spearman, 1973)

Webb, James – The Occult Establishment (Open Court, 1988) 

Wilson, Colin – The ‘Outsider Series’ (7 volumes), The Mind Parasites, The Occult, The War Against Sleep, A Criminal History of Mankind, Rudolf Steiner: The Man and his Vision, Beyond the Occult, ‘Husserl and Evolutionin Existentially Speaking, The Strange Life of P. D. Ouspensky (cf Wilson’s bibliography here

The distorting medium is the message

The projected documentary on the life and work of Colin Wilson has achieved it’s financial goal via a combination of a crowdfunding campaign and from a very generous benefactor. The film will go ahead this year. This very interesting development deserves some reflection on Wilson’s main ideas and their relevance to today. 

“Human beings of the 21st century will be born into a forbidding world: a civilisation that is immense, aloof, heartless, and highly mechanised” wrote Colin Wilson in 1970, a fairly accurate prediction now that we’re living in it. The ‘attention economy’ is one description of this era and as one of Wilson’s primary concerns was with the fluctuations of attention in consciousness, it’s worthwhile looking into his arguments for strengthening our grip on reality. 

Nietzsche made the distinction between freedom from and freedom for. The first is negative and passive; the idea that if we throw off our chains we will be ‘free’. This was satirised by Dostoyevsky in The Devils (“We shall reduce everything to one common denominator. Full equality”) and Nietzsche dismissed it in Zarathustra (i.e. ‘On The Tarantulas’ in the second part). Wilson demonstrated it’s faults by acknowledging the ‘romantic’ origin of last century’s crime explosion and all it’s unpleasant excesses when he said that Rousseau’s “muddied anti-authoritarianism [has] created a reservoir of resentment” which is now a commonly held attitude. But Nietzsche knew that freedom is a creative act – his ironic line about throwing away values by casting off chains and Zarathustra’s question  ‘free for what?’ appears in the section ‘On the Way of the Creator’. This question was analysed via the lives of creative people in Wilson’s first book The Outsider, a meditation on identity and values. That and Wilson’s subsequent writings are concerned with the puzzle of ‘freedom’. Discussing Dostoyevsky in The Outsider Wilson remarks that “freedom is the greatest burden of all”.  We want it more than anything but when we get it, it bores us quickly. What goes wrong? Wilson thinks a quirk in perception is the problem – we have developed a strong ability to focus on minor details which has weakened our understanding of any larger patterns of meaning. Negative values (freedom from) dominate over positive (freedom for). Like Nietzsche Wilson was concerned with a re-evaluation of our values, from negative to positive. This fairly straightforward insight powers most of his output.

He cheerfully admitted that this ‘single obsessional idea’ held his large body of work together, despite the seemingly diffuse subjects he covered. Essentially a philosopher, he wrote fiction and literary criticism as well as criminology, psychology, ‘occultism’, biographies and autobiographies, and one-off examinations on everything from alcohol to astronomy. Once a common tactic in the era of ‘men of letters’ this has now fallen into disrepute in an era of academic specialisation (back in 1970 Wilson thought there would be a “discouraging amount” of this in the 21st century and unfortunately he was right). Therefore this specialisation itself is something of a handicap when it comes to understanding what Wilson actually did. Readers who specialise in one thing only – say, Jung or Jack the Ripper – will only know one or two of Wilson’s books and make the presumption that he was trying to be an expert on one or too many things. Unable to see the larger pattern of his work (which he called ‘an existential jigsaw puzzle’) they usually dismiss him as unacademic for refusing to concentrate on one subject only. Ironically enough this is the very thing that Wilson was concerned with as a philosopher, how consciousness can sharply focus on details at the expense of broader meanings. Science would be impossible without this attention to detail but the drawback with this attitude is that it makes judgements on the ‘meaninglessness’ of everything appear more plausible. Two mathematicians turned philosophers, A. N. Whitehead and Edmund Husserl, were also concerned with this tricky problem, and Wilson pays back the debt by making their ideas central to his own investigations. 

Wilson became first known as Britain’s only home grown existentialist and this a fair description. In terms of his public image in English speaking countries he is generally known for the successes of his first book The Outsider (1956) and The Occult (1971) when he was welcomed back into the fold by the same critics who dismissed the sequels to his debut. But this regular interpretation obscures a few things. Firstly, The Outsider was only one part of a seven volume series which took ten years to complete. The seventh volume, Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966) summarises all six previous titles and is both the starting point for understanding Wilson’s own philosophy (in part two of the book) and a superb primer for Husserl and his method in part one. New readers should really start with this slim volume and then tackle The Outsider and the other five books (the first has never been out of print, the rest are currently undergoing a reissue programme). Secondly, The Occult was Wilson’s first commissioned book. So for the first fifteen years of his career he essentially wrote what he wanted; 1956 to 1971 is perhaps the purest expression of his interests in both his non-fiction and the novels. This is not in any way to denigrate the work after 1971 – far from it – but afterwards it becomes more necessary to sort major from minor works as Wilson’s productivity increased. Despite that, the ‘central obsession’ never flagged until Wilson ceased to write around 2011 due to a crippling stroke (he died in 2013). 

Part one of The New Existentialism (as it’s usually referred to) remains a brilliantly concise introduction to the method of phenomenology. Wilson had noted in 1966 that such a thing was non-existent as far as the non-academic reader was concerned, and the situation has hardly improved in the past half-century. As one commentator on existentialism has noted, Husserl’s difficult method is easier to betray than to follow, and Wilson illustrates this problem by including a brief history of the phenomenological movement in the first part of his book. Considering that The New Existentialism was originally only 188 pages long, it’s quite an achievement. A new introduction to the reprint of 2018 notes that Wilson revisited and re-wrote quite a lot of it which was unusual for him. It’s also pointed out that the book enables the reader to put these ‘phenomenological’ methods into practice immediately – which it does – and indeed the second part even suggests some practical disciples for everyday use. 

Husserl himself wrote (or rather lectured) a few introductions to his method, most notably the Cartesian Meditations in the late 1920’s. But as Wilson said in his own book none are useful to the beginner, despite Husserl’s keenness to stress that phenomenology is the most useful method in all philosophy. “If the right attitude has been won, and made secure by practice, above all, however, if one has acquired the courage to obey the clear eidetic data with a with a radical lack of prejudice so as to be unencumbered by all current and learned theories, then firm results are directly produced…” (Husserl, Ideas I § 87). “The first practical necessity for the existential philosopher is to become conscious of the intentionality of all his conscious acts” (Wilson, The New Existentialism, part two, chapter one). Wilson says elsewhere that the gift of existentialism and the phenomenological method that preceded it was in it’s recognition that it is not the ‘senses’ that distort reality – as previous philosophers had thought – but in it’s insight that the ‘distorting medium’ is active human intentionality. Wilson offers a wonderful metaphor for intentionality in his book. Descartes’ cogito is like a detective questioning a room of suspects, weighing up the evidence and trying to get to the truth by doubting everybody and their excuses that they are innocent. But Husserl has pointed out that there is something that Descartes didn’t doubt – his own innocence. “Husserl has suggested a new and disturbing possibility. Suppose the detective himself is the murderer?” Nietzsche claimed that there never has been a science free of suppositions and that all philosophy is really just the autobiography of philosophers themselves. Wilson thinks this is a fair criticism, but only when aimed at the immediate period before Husserl ‘invented’ his phenomenological method (i.e before 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death and the publication of the first volume of Husserl’s Logical Investigations). “It was Husserl who pointed out this simple mistake that had kept philosophy at a standstill for two hundred years” –  and Wilson wrote a brilliantly informative and amusing chapter on this ‘strange story of modern philosophy’ in the preceding Outsider volume in 1965. Descartes had said that the only thing which we can be certain of is our consciousness – ‘cogito ergo sum’ – and that philosophy should primarily study consciousness, but this is the very thing he neglected to do! It took a few centuries for Husserl to point out that consciousness is not a flat, passive reflection but an active distorter of reality. Wilson summarised this insight with his maxim ‘perception is intentional’. Becoming aware of these intentional distortions is the first practical discipline of Wilson’s new existentialist philosophy, the basis of his life’s work, whatever the subject. Quite frankly, it’s not that difficult – no more than learning a foreign language or appreciating the history of painting. For the politically engaged, one example Wilson gives is of not reacting during a party political broadcast of the party you oppose – and we could do with more of that these days. This ‘bracketing out’ of unconscious prejudices was described by Husserl as the phenomenological reduction (epochē or suspension). 

Sartre’s existential classic Nausea is an attempt to perform this ‘operation’ as Husserl called it. Phenomenologists aim to describe phenomena without emotional prejudices or distortions – Husserl’s ‘right attitude’, a ‘radical lack of prejudice’ – but Sartre, who started out as a Husserlian, doesn’t quite get there. His description of taking a seat on a tram, for instance, sounds like something out of the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft – ‘I am in the midst of Things, which cannot be given names. Alone, wordless, defenceless, they surround me, under me, behind me, above me”. Sartre’s operations are always tinged with malevolence or pessimism, and Wilson analyses this fault in the fourth instalment of his Outsider series, a study of literature and the imagination (or rather, “a study of the inaccuracies of the imagination”). 

Husserl’s pupil Heidegger had access to his tutor’s notes on time-consciousness and Wilson says that Heidegger’s main contribution was to analyse the impact of time and of human relations in the distorting medium. The neo-Kantian Fichte had already said that to be free is nothing but to become free is heavenly and Wilson points out that this is important because it involves an active time dimension (becoming, not just ‘being’) in freedom. Philosophy is an active and not static business, it is – as Wilson points out in the Outsider books – lived or ‘lived by’, not merely speculative. Throughout the series of 1956 -‘66 Wilson developed this philosophy of intentional consciousness or ‘phenomenological existentialism’ although he shortened it to ‘new’ existentialism to distinguish it from that of Heidegger or Sartre (ironically enough he was actually going back to Husserl’s original method which they both abandoned fairly quickly). Sartre once fondly remembered that he had never felt so free as when he was in the Resistance and could have been shot at any time – Nietzsche’s ‘freedom from’, again –  so therefore commitment to action was freedom. Heidegger said that we only truly know ourselves in the face of death (when “ones potentiality-for-Being becomes authentic and wholly transparent”). But as Wilson points out, Gurdjieff – who is more like Heidegger than he first appears – essentially said the same thing as a semi-serious joke. Hemingway acted out this type of adventure, but ended up a drunk and then a suicide. Wilson names this the ‘paradox of freedom’ and it is the obsession that runs through his works. Consciousness without crisis, he says, tends to become negative (significantly, the latter term was introduced into common language via the Gurdjieff ‘work’). So does this mean, as Sartre and Hemingway think, that we should seek out danger? No – “Husserl’s discovery of ‘intentionality’ meant that the danger and hardship are not essential; they only trigger the mechanism”. By separating the object (the danger or crisis situation) from it’s intention in the reduction, it can be seen that it is a vital upsurge of energy that keeps us ‘free’ or ‘awake’ in these circumstances, not the dangerous circumstances themselves. Blake and Nietzsche said that ‘antediluvian’ or ‘cyclopean’ energies power our concepts, but their poetic inspirations were free of the the kind of emotional distortions later found in Lovecraft or Sartre. Wilson noted that underpowered perception will indeed distort the object it ‘intends’ towards; Husserl meant the same thing when he said that ‘pure perception’ requires a more complicated act than our usual passive state. “If I carry out the [transcendental] reduction for myself, I am not a human ego” he wrote in a draft for the Encyclopaedia Brittanica

This is a step towards creative ‘freedom for’, or at least a move away from it’s resentment driven opposite. We should be able to do this in any situation, especially in pleasant surroundings, but mostly this is not so. We are usually bored by that. Wilson calls this the ‘indifference threshold’, an odd handicap in which we are motivated by crisis rather than comfort. This, thinks Wilson, is a legacy of our evolution – as Wells said, most creatures have been ‘up against it’ since the dawn of time, humans included. Against this he made the intriguing alternative suggestion of an ‘evolutionary intentionality’ in his Beyond the Outsider (1965). Ideally we should no longer need danger to make us alert to meanings as meaning is ‘out there’, independent of our moods and prejudices. The ‘mechanism’ that is triggered is intention which Wilson has compared to a ‘kind of hand’ or pseudopodium. Husserl’s point was that we actively grasp reality rather than passively consume it as a spectator (significantly, Sartre was an influence on situationism and ‘the society of the spectacle’, nowadays, the attention economy). We must, Wilson stresses throughout his work, train or flex this intentional organ in order to actively become free. 

Wilson worked on his phenomenological ‘new’ existentialism thoroughly and mostly uninterrupted for the first decade or so of his career, and an interviewer once pointed out in 1993 that even some of his critics hedgingly admired his resilience in weathering endless attacks which were intended to derail it. After The Outsider he was pilloried and then virtually ignored (in his homeland, mostly) until the early seventies when he was gradually forgotten as the boy wonder of the ‘50’s and slowly became something of a sage on subjects such crime and the paranormal (the 1993 article began by saying that he rarely appeared on television or radio unless the subject was murder). However Wilson remained a philosopher and such subjects were grist for his existential and phenomenological enquires; his interest in crime and mysticism long predate even his first book. In a study of Rasputin (1964) he writes that “the distorting power” of intentionality “can be much better studied through the psychology of sex or religion, since the mind’s strongest forces are here in question”. These ‘forces’ are the antediluvian or cyclopean energies of Blake and Nietzsche and are discussed in The New Existentialism. Add to that the “fine network of human relations” (personal or social, embedded in the distorting medium) as analysed by Heidegger and the continuity of Wilson’s post-Outsider, pre-Occult method can be clearly or subliminally felt in the many studies he made of the dark sides of human nature. The Occult is a history of hermeticism – and it’s a brilliant one at that – but it’s really a continuation of The New Existentialism from five years before (discussing the cabbala, Wilson writes that there is “a fundamental error in the way human being grasp the world. We think of the mind as a helpless imponderable in a world of solid matter, a mere passive observer”). Written In Blood (1989) can be read as history of forensics but it ends on a philosophical note as he cheerfully admits that even this “grimly practical field” is a intellectual endeavour, the eradication of crime by intellect (a phenomenologist could say ‘the destruction of ambiguity by intention’). At the end of that book he again takes on Rousseau’s half truth “which can be far more dangerous than an outright lie. Freedom is a quality of consciousness…” 

Wilson’s writings could perhaps be seen as being more accessible from The Occult onwards as they’re not so densely packed with philosophical detail, but they are all part of the same quest. It’s only the lack of awareness of his central philosophy that makes his work appear haphazard (patronising journalists wanting to avoid discussing his phenomenology “at all costs” didn’t help much either). Understand the phenomenological method that underpins it and Wilson’s aims are clear (this website attempts to draw attention to it). 

Reading his work these days may be a matter of taste or expediency. Beginners could start with the compendium The Ultimate Colin Wilson which contains excerpts from many of his major works. There’s his autobiography Dreaming To Some Purpose and Gary Lachman’s study Beyond The Robot. For the philosophically minded, there’s The New Existentialism and the Outsider sequence that preceded it; for mystics, the ‘Occult trilogy’; for hardened crime aficionados probably any of the crime books. At the deeper end are the ‘Colin Wilson Studies’ series from Nottingham’s Paupers’ Press. None of this contradicts the fact that Wilson is a pleasurable read to many readers (myself included) who have simply enjoyed a few of his books – I’ve encountered a lot of people from all walks of life who have – but putting him into historical context requires standing back and seeing the larger picture. Not for nothing did he call his efforts an existential jigsaw puzzle – Husserl’s third phenomenological investigation tackles ‘the theory of wholes and parts’ (“the remotest of these parts are no further from the whole than the nearest”). 

With the publication of The Occult in 1971 Wilson discussed a concept he called ‘Faculty X’, an awareness of the reality of other times and other places (he had previously examined how ‘otherness’ is filtered out by what Husserl called the natural standpoint – our ‘normal’, naive or passive consciousness). One of the most famous examples he gives of it in action is via Proust from his novel Swann’s Way when he recalls his childhood as a reality rather than a slightly faded memory. Certainly Husserl himself would have enjoyed Proust’s description regarding “this unremembered state, which brought with it no logical proof but the indisputable evidence, of it’s felicity, it’s reality, and in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished”. Originally the ‘phenomenological faculty’ but rejected by Wilson as rather a clumsy mouthful [1] it became ‘faculty x’ circa 1967 and then Faculty X soon after. As it bridges the phenomenology of Wilson’s new existentialism to his interest in hermetic thought, it’s apt that it appeared in it’s finished form in a history of occultism (I have written about the connections between the two in more detail here). Faculty X is the sense of the reality of other times and other places; Proust could talk about his childhood and actually mean it. Husserl concerned himself with meaning with his first investigation of his Logical Investigations. His follower Maurice Merleau-Ponty once said that we are ‘condemned to meaning’ perhaps as a retort against his colleague Sartre who famously remarked that we are condemned to freedom. (Wilson called Merleau-Ponty “an existentialist stoic”). 

Faculty X is the ‘phenomenological faculty’ because it makes us clearly aware that the far is as real as the near (Husserl’s ‘remotest and nearest’, and his theories on internal time consciousness). Wilson insists that Faculty X is the key to all poetic and mystical experiences and a solution to the paradox of freedom. As a concept it is a concentrated form of Wilson’s ‘new’ existentialist philosophy and he obsessed over it in most of his books, even before it had a name. A novel from 1969, The Philosopher’s Stone, was devoted to it and it appears in nascent form throughout The Outsider – Wilson remarks that Blake “developed a certain faculty”, and Blake himself engraved some delightfully gnomic thoughts about “this faculty” circa 1788. Despite being drawn from the rigours of phenomenology Faculty X is fundamentally a visionary faculty. Rudolf Steiner, who was once the subject of a short but penetrating Wilson biography (1985) was taught by Husserl’s master Franz Brentano. Pay close attention to his words and the influence can be felt. “We have to take this step, this turning of one’s own active thinking into an organ of touch for the soul, so that we may feel ourselves thinking in the same way that we walk, grasp or touch; so that we know we are living in a real being, not just in ordinary thinking which merely creates images, but in a reality, in the soul’s organ of touch which we ourselves have become”. This is Husserl’s ‘grip’, Wilson’s ‘kind of hand’ feeling around reality. Here is Steiner again. “The third step in higher knowledge, necessary for rising to Intuition, can be achieved only by developing to its highest point a faculty which, in our materialistic age, is not recognised as a cognitional force”. According to Steiner faculties have to be willed into existence by creative effort, rather like Wilson’s layers of willed intentions (which he says, we mistakenly think of as ‘mechanisms’ because they have become automated habits, a kind of ‘robot’). Steiner’s notions on evolution of faculties are similar to Wilson’s in The Occult. “Evolution consists in one faculty being acquired at the expense of another, and thus as the epochs took their course, the faculty which man once possessed of understanding the spiritual world became less and less. Our clear reasoning and cognitional faculties, our present logical thinking which we regard as the most important feature of modern culture — these did not exist in those early times. They had to be developed by man in the epoch to which we now belong, at the expense of the old clairvoyant consciousness. Clairvoyant consciousness will have to be cultivated again in the future evolution of mankind, but in a different way. It has to be added to the purely physical consciousness that is bound up with the faculty of intellectual logic”. This is not too far from Wilson’s definition of philosophy – ‘intuition aided by intellect’. In fact it’s not that far from the philosophy of Whitehead, a critic of the ‘bifurcation of nature’. [2] 

The problem of life-devaluation has not gone away since Wilson’s time: in fact, it has seemingly become more acceptable. Steiner thought our era would involve a severe imbalance in consciousness, an obsession with what Blake called ‘number weight and measure’, the literalist and unimaginative obsession with statistics and data that drives the attention economy. We all know it well. 

“Time is the currency of human existence” wrote Wilson in 1970. And every single moment wasted in anti-intentional robotic action is completely destroyed as surely as if you burned your own money. Any genuine individualist will have already calculated the priceless value of their attention at the dawn of this century. 

[1] In the 1965 essay ‘Phenomenology and Literature’, collected in Eagle and Earwig (originally published by John Baker in the same year, now reissued

[2] Thoroughly explained in Wilson’s early books and in some excellent later essays. Like Wilson, Steiner is likely to be misunderstood unless we see the basic historical link with Brentano. Wilson states Steiner cannot be understood unless a reader starts with an early book – the aptly titled Philosophy of Freedom – and one of his last, an autobiography. 

Colin Wilson documentary crowdfunding page is live

A crowdfunding page for a projected Colin Wilson documentary entitled Dreaming To Some Purpose: The Life and Times of Colin Wilson is now live and seeking donations. The award winning filmmakers are “extremely passionate about our campaign to realize this authorized biography of the life and work of the internationally acclaimed writer and philosopher because seven years after his death, the need for a Wilson documentary is increasingly apparent. We are seeking support from Wilsonians the world over to contribute what you can to help fund this project. The plan is to make a comprehensive, two-part history of Wilson’s life, from his early days as a disaffected teenager to the success of The Outsider and Wilson’s unexpected celebrity, to his later career as a leading philosopher of consciousness and his last days as a grand old man of English letters. Wilson’s family, people who knew him, and people deeply influenced by his work, will contribute onscreen interviews to tell the story of the original Outsider”. 

This is a vital project which needs your support – for as the filmmakers go on to say, despite Wilson’s huge body of work (now housed at the University of Nottingham) and his continued cult status, “it seemed that there was a reluctance by the media to acknowledge his unique contribution to the literature of the 20th century”. This project will address that imbalance by treating Wilson’s philosophical ideas seriously and “ensure that Colin’s unique contribution to the world of literature will finally be recognised”. 

Please donate at this page

The Sage of Tetherdown

The Sage of Tetherdown: Personal recollections of Colin Wilson by his friends (Paupers’ Press, £14.95). In 1988 Cecil Woolf published Colin Wilson: A Celebration, an appreciative collection of Wilson and his work by various friends and critics. “It enjoyed some success but has been out-of-print now for many years. The current book reprints the personal recollections and adds several more contemporary ones by Laura Del Rivo, Gary Lachman, Steve Taylor, Terry Welbourn and Colin Stanley, providing a picture of Colin Wilson the man over the years”. Replacing the reviews (some of which are available elsewhere) which appeared in the original Celebration with more personal reflections gives The Sage of Tetherdown a continuity the original volume lacked. At 187 pages including 16 colour and 9 black-and-white photographs, the book is available here.



“We colour our world with attitude”

“What human beings find extremely difficult to grasp” remarked Colin Wilson to his first biographer Sidney Campion, “is that when they open their eyes and see the world, they are, as it were, seeing one of a thousand possible worlds. We colour our world with attitude”. The idea that we can simply choose one world out of thousands sounds extremely difficult to grasp, if not actually fanciful. However we can change our attitude towards the world and this must be remembered in order to understand the context in which Wilson was speaking – in fact, in order to understand Wilson’s ideas at all.

Wilson was influenced by the philosophical discipline known as phenomenology, the esoteric precursor to the more popular existentialism. Phenomenology is a method which dismantles our usual presuppositions about perception. Edmund Husserl, the founder of the method, described our so-called ‘normal’ state of perception the naive or natural attitude, the attitude we usually ‘colour’ our everyday world with. For the “naive man” [1] comfortable in the naive attitude, the world is just as it seems, static and unchangeable. But ‘naive man’ is unaware that he is confusing his own interpretation of the world, coloured by his personal attitudes, for the objective world itself. As Wilson observes in The Outsider, this attitude (‘world’) is always well captured in poetry and novels – Sartre’s Nausea is a particularly good example of this colouring (Sartre began as a follower of Husserl). Against the naive attitude which we presuppose as natural, Husserl posited the phenomenological attitude, a stepping away from naivety or acceptance of things as they ‘naturally’ are. The phenomenological attitude rejects this naivety and instead concerns itself with the selectivity (or intentionality) of perceptive acts. We choose our perceptions and therefore we choose our worlds. In the naive attitude we think perception just ‘happens’ but in the phenomenological attitude this naivety is banished (Husserl used a mathematical term, ‘bracketed’) and perceptions are closely analysed for emotional prejudices or distortions before they creep into conscious awareness.

“I know of no task more difficult than becoming aware of one’s act of selection, and trying to control it” commented Wilson to Campion. A change of attitude from the naive to the phenomenological is the first step in realising this selectivity in action. Simply becoming aware that consciousness is selective is a major step forward: Wilson summarised this awareness in his maxim ‘perception is intentional’. On a personal note, I can now recall a subliminal change of attitude when I first encountered Wilson’s writing – in his Mysteries (1978) – despite Husserl being just another obscure name amongst most of the others. It wouldn’t be until I read the last few volumes in Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’ that I’d gradually begin to understand phenomenology as a specific technique with a history, but the requisite change of attitude happened quickly after contact with his writing. Husserl’s books and lectures are formidably dense but Wilson expounded those rigorous phenomenological ideas in clarified and compulsive prose while demonstrating their efficiency via numerous and seemingly unrelated metaphors and comparisons – from literature and poetry to criminology and even occultism (truth be told, none of this is surprising if the intention behind it all is known). Once this change of attitude is understood and Husserl’s method is grasped, Wilson’s ideas can be understood and appreciated properly. It must be remembered that sightings of the magic word ‘phenomenology’ are alarmingly thin on the ground in Wilson’s press reviews and actual discussions of his use of the method are virtually non-existent outside of his occasional appearances in philosophy journals. “Talking to him about phenomenology was a sure way of putting him to sleep” said Wilson about one philosophically challenged interviewer who nodded off on Wilson’s sofa. A British ‘highbrow’ broadsheet once began an interview by refusing to discuss Wilson’s philosophy at all. Writing about Wilson without at least a basic grasp of Husserl’s method is essentially pointless and makes for an exasperating read. “His books can be best understood against the background of the European philosophical tradition; in fact, no real understanding can be arrived at without some knowledge of this background” wrote Sidney Campion.

F3D4D1FA-8C15-4D48-A930-17CC9914B209Wilson has dealt with the historical schisms of the original phenomenological movement in some of his writings but what really concerned him was making his readers understand and practice the discipline of becoming aware of and controlling our selective acts in perception, to grasp our freedom to choose whichever angle we see the world from. Nietzsche called this choice of viewing angles ‘perspectivism’ but was unaware of the beginnings of what one historian has called the “phenomenological current” which started with Franz Brentano. [2] Nietzsche’s swooping “guerrilla raids” on presuppositions (our ‘colouring’ attitudes) make enthralling and inspiring reading, but he lacked Husserl’s basic technique to truly explode them. A guerrilla, Wilson commented, “is at a psychological disadvantage, being a man without with a home, without an established position”.  At his base camp (the phenomenological method) “Husserl was luckier” says Wilson. “He was also irritated by the by the psychologism, the relativism, the nominalism, that had permeated philosophy since Locke. But he demolished them with irrefutable arguments in the Logical Investigations, and laid his own foundations”. Nietzsche’s perspectival statement that there are no facts, only interpretations is much closer to Husserl’s intentional method than to postmodernism (a philosophy stuck in Locke’s relativism, his ‘blank slate’, which both Nietzsche and Husserl rejected). Despite being strongly influenced by British empiricism  – what Nietzsche described as an “English-mechanistic-world-stupidification” – Husserl offered a precisely cutting critique of Locke’s “obviousness” in his Logical Investigations (Investigation II, chapter two, §9 – §11). Nietzsche’s statement about interpretation appears in his mid-1800’s notebooks amongst other thoughts which do suggest an intuitive affinity with what Husserl would later conceive. He writes that no event happens in isolation, what happens “is a group of phenomena selected and synthesised by an interpreting being”. And if, he later asks, this being or “our ‘I’ is our only being, on the basis in which we make everything be, or understand it to be, fine! Then it becomes very fair to doubt whether there isn’t a perspectival illusion here” – that is to say, a distortion, the kind that Sartre let slip into his rather gloomy descriptions (phenomenology depends on accurate description of intentional states). In his notebooks Nietzsche muses on a theme which he insists runs through his writings: that “the world’s value lies in our interpretations” and suggests that there could be a possibility to go beyond “merely human” or “narrower interpretations”. The world which matters to us (the one we naively ‘value’) he says, “is false, i.e., it is not a fact but but a fictional elaboration and filling out of a meagre store of observations”. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to say that these meagre observations are identical to the naive or natural attitude (also known in Husserl’s terminology as ‘the natural standpoint’ – a concept similar to Nietzsche’s metaphor of perspectivism). Our values are entwined with how we interpret, and if our selective interpretations are narrow, as Nietzsche, Husserl and Wilson insist they are, then our values will also be narrow. Analysing a ‘world without values’ in The Outsider, Wilson asked how it was possible to be less of a daily victim of circumstance, to feel less stuck in the present moment which makes us easily forget our aims toward purpose and meaning. He would find the answer in the faculty of poetic inspiration (Blake described it as the ‘Poetic Genius’, a pre-imagining of Husserl’s transcendental ego) with it’s associated expanded consciousness. Like a kind of negative proof, examining the shadows of negativity throws light on positive values. Wilson used literature to analyse such narrow or even nihilistic values and criminal cases to debunk real (as opposed to fictional) nihilism. Like Dostoyevsky, Wilson studied crime for philosophical and not morbid reasons. In The New Existentialism he makes the important point that the “first major work of existential philosophy in the twentieth-century was Jaspers’ General Psychopathology […] it should be clear that questions of mental sickness belong to philosophy as much as to psychology”. Hence Wilson’s pioneering true crime writings and the original subtitle for The Outsider: ‘an inquiry into the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth-century’ (on more modern editions it reads the more sellable ‘classic study of alienation, creativity and the modern mind’).

The existential study of murder starkly illustrates the inverse of positive values and their terrible social perils. “By it’s negative nature” says Wilson, “the act creates a resistance in the reader; when the cause of this resistance is analysed, the result is an insight into positive values”. Reading about a murder case produces a violent jolt to our naive attitudes; we are thankful to be uninvolved in such negativity. Yet very quickly this insight is forgotten and natural or naive banality returns. Aware of Husserl’s method, Wilson rejects this naive attitude as normal and notes that we are “actually selecting which things to include in [our] attention and which to dehydrate into symbols and leave in cold storage” (Nietzsche’s “meagre store of observations”). We are, Wilson continues “unconsciously valuing life. Out of thousands, perhaps millions, of facts that could be actively present to your consciousness, you choose a dozen or so”. This is what is meant by Nietzsche’s central insight that “the world’s value lies in our interpretations”. With the knowledge of crime in mind, we should be wary of negative values and choose our ‘worlds’ accordingly.

“The highest value is represented by the person who habitually bestows the highest motivational power on the genuine, true, valid, and free decisions” said Husserl in the second book of Ideas, sounding rather like Nietzsche and throwing in some unexpected thoughts on murder along the way [3]. In his later notebooks Nietzsche writes of huge numbers of habits that have become “so hardened that whole species can live upon them”. These habits, he says, constitute their external world and the oldest habit that humans themselves possess is intention – although he did not interpret ‘intention’ as Husserl did, unaware as he was of the strict technique of stepping out of the naive and into the phenomenological attitude. William Blake intuitively knew this crossing from one to the other and he anticipated  phenomenological existentialism with uncanny accuracy – “He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only”; “the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of”; “all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weaknesses of every individual” etc. “Phenomenological analysis has confirmed what Blake asserted a century earlier” remarks Wilson. In the natural, naive attitude, Husserl says, [4] we “wear the blinders of habit” which can become “rigid” if unchecked: Blake’s mind forged manacles. As Wilson says, we are like blinkered horses in traffic [5]. Wilson thinks that Nietzsche’s poor health helped him observe ideas from different angles. People who do not suffer from such fluctuating health problems as Nietzsche did tend to take up “a certain attitude towards the world – what he enjoys, what is a nuisance – and maintains it year in and year out, until it becomes a habit”. Wilson described consciousness as mostly composed of solidified habits which he labelled ‘mechanical intentions’. These intentions have become mechanical or robotic (automated) through willed repetition (learning to type or drive for instance). They ossify into habits and we forget they were once intentionally willed. We misunderstand them as ‘mechanisms’, a metaphor which drives behaviourist thought – Blake’s the “same dull round” which he envisaged as a grinding mill with complicated wheels.

71C51B16-C3DB-4CDF-A85C-169712B3F573We have forgotten that most of our mechanical actions were originally intentional and live robotically as a consequence – what Husserl called our “well known forgetfulness”, a concept later appropriated by his pupil Heidegger. Husserl’s phenomenology has much in common with the anti-robotism of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky who also concerned themselves with remembering the self via constant and vigilant meditation on the mechanicalness (sic.) of the body, it’s actions, the emotions and perception. To get around this mechanical illusion we must not forget that our intentions are willed. For Husserl, the body is an “organ of the will”, what Nietzsche meant by the will to power and Blake saw as a dynamic extension of the Poetic Genius. This keen awareness that our ‘mechanicalness’ is layer upon layer of willed intentions is the choice between the naive and phenomenological attitudes or worlds. [6] It is the choice between ‘meaninglessness’ and meaning – the former can appear valid in the naively nihilistic attitude but like ‘mechanicalness’ it is merely the product of a narrow, partial perception, a “feeling isolated in a world of objects” as Wilson puts it. In the early pages of Nausea Sartre accurately describes this state when observing a cafe proprietor – “when his establishment empties, his head empties too […] the waiters turn out the lights, and he slips into unconsciousness: when this man is alone, he falls asleep” – a statement that Gurdjieff would have perhaps appreciated (Wilson noted in his debut that ‘Outsiders’ have no problem being alone). Our consciousness is selective but as Wilson points out an “enormous area of [our] own being is inaccessible to the beam of consciousness” (the ‘beam’ is intentionality or selectivity; Husserl used the term ‘ray’).

Both Nietzsche and Husserl were adept at analysing these deep seated drives and habits – ‘habitual sedimentations’ according to Husserl – and Wilson thinks of them as a kind of archeological strata made of layers. These layers of willed intentions stretch back into our past and ‘prehistory’ phenomenologically speaking (Proust’s lengthy series of novels analysing lost and regained time contain many important insights into this theme: they compliment works on time consciousness by Husserl and Heidegger). Wilson marked out a few steps in the phenomenological investigation of this “intentional structure of consciousness”. Firstly, the rejection of Descartes’ passive consciousness, or the shift from the naive to the phenomenological attitude – the awareness that perception is intentional. Secondly, the investigation into the intentional structure of all forms of consciousness: Whitehead’s list of experience normal and experience abnormal and everything in between (Wilson’s eclectic works give numerous living or existential examples). Most fundamental is the descriptive analysis of what Wilson called the ‘indifference threshold’ (or the ‘law of entropy in prehension’ which was Wilson’s nod to Whitehead, ‘prehension’ being a kind of hunger for significance). This threshold could be imagined as a margin in consciousness, easily stimulated by inconvenience or pain but bored or indifferent by pleasure or stability. As I write this, a third of the world is in lockdown to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. I’ve lost count of how many articles I’ve seen recently which are already misty eyed and nostalgic for the world as it was only few weeks ago – a world that the same newspapers never stopped complaining about for the past few years (ironically enough the paper which refused to discuss Wilson’s philosophy, mentioned earlier, is one of the worst culprits). The writer J. W. N. Sullivan understood this grim irony when he was in a Serbian hospital during the First World War: sickened by the stench of gangrene, he dreamt of regular life back in England. “If I were ever permitted to live again my ordinary life I would never, I reflected, commit the blasphemy of thinking it dull”. Wilson often illustrated this paradox by recalling a fairy tale about an old woman who lived in a vinegar bottle. A passing fairy, hearing the old woman’s complaints, turned the bottle into a small house. Returning later to hear the woman complaining again, the spirit turned into a large palace, but this, it later found out, was too big and draughty, it took too much effort to clean and so on. It was then transformed back into the vinegar bottle. “The old woman is at the mercy of the poor quality of her consciousness”, comments Wilson. “She is a symbol of Western man, blinkered like a horse by evolution, unaware that perception can be more than peering through a slit”. This narrowing of perception – which Wilson believes was to a certain extent voluntary – has of course served a good purpose in terms of evolution for we have the scientific method. However, the more we develop “this faculty of selecting and excluding” the further we retreat from what Whitehead described as ‘meaning-perception’. Husserl’s master Brentano had noted that all conscious acts are intentional or about something, but Husserl took it further. “Husserl recognised that it is intentional in a profounder sense, that the mind is perpetually engaged in what could be called ‘subconscious prehension’” says Wilson. This may appear to be “silent, apparently purposeless”, but careful phenomenological analysis will uncover the purpose behind it, our “intentional evolutionary structure”. Evolution is the opposite of ‘entropy’, or running down, the opposite of the ‘law of entropy in prehension’ (the indifference threshold). Husserl has shown that consciousness is not passive – this goes against everything we have become accustomed to with regards our conscious lives for a very long time. We take passive consciousness for granted and wait for a stimulus to drive us into action. But as phenomenology insists on separating the intention from the perceived object this is ‘naive’ or passive, not active or intentional.

8BB1124B-13D0-4C9D-92B2-0F95182D0799As Wilson has noted, consciousness without crisis tends to become negative. We appear to be mostly unable to appreciate things until they’re threatened or have disappeared completely. When they’re in front of us we regard them with indifference, boredom or they’re simply not noticed at all. His concept of the threshold illustrates the “curious inadequacy of human consciousness”, our very limited capacity for freedom – Nietzsche understood it as freedom ‘from’ (passive) rather than freedom  ‘for’ (active).

Wilson was fond of quoting a section from H. G. Wells’ Experiment In Autobiography where Wells describes “originative intellectual workers” or people who prefer the world of the mind to that of simply existing. “Yes, you earn a living, you support a family, you love and hate” says Wells, “but what do you do?” This, he says would have been an unusual question half a century ago. These workers – Gurdjieff called his philosophy ‘Work’ – are, Wells writes, “like amphibians, so to speak, struggling out of the waters that have hitherto covered our kind, into the air, seeking to breathe in a new fashion and emancipate ourselves from long accepted and long unquestioned necessities”. Wilson says that his ‘Outsiders’ were early amphibians. As Wells remarks however “the new land has not definitely emerged from the waters” and most nineteenth-century Romantic Outsiders drowned. Nietzsche had already glimpsed this metaphor. “Never has more been demanded of living creatures than when dry land emerged” he scribbled in his notebook in the mid 1800’s. “Habituated and adapted to life in the sea, they had to turn around and overturn their bodies and customs and act in every respect differently from what they had been used to before – there has never been a more remarkable change on earth. – Just as then, through collapses, through the earth slowly breaking apart, the sea sank into the ruptures, caves and troughs and gained depth, so (to continue the metaphor) what is happening today among men perhaps offers the exact counterpart: man’s becoming whole and rounded, a disappearance of the ruptures, caves and troughs, and consequently also – a disappearance of dry land. For a man made rounded and whole by my way of thinking, ‘everything is at sea’, the sea is everywhere: however, the sea itself has lost depth”. [6]

H. G. Wells

Wilson’s Outsiders thought ordinary life in the ‘sea’ intolerable (“as for living, our servants can do that for us”) and craved to walk on this strange new continent, a ‘New Atlantis’. But their perceptions were as feeble as the flippers of the first land creatures. Without land-legs they had to return to the sea, against their will. The strengthening of intentional perception is therefore an exercise in evolution in Wells’ sense. Nietzsche’s comment that the sea is everywhere but lacks depth sums up this problem. “If man is really to evolve” wrote Wilson, “then he must develop depth, and power over his own depths”. This ‘power’ is no different from the ability to walk on land, physically speaking, but Nietzsche and Wilson have both been misunderstood by their critics who remain more or less settled in the foamy brine of the natural or naive attitude. Wilson notes that questions about ‘evolutionary intentionality’ can only be of interest to a very small minority of people. Truth be told, only a tiny fraction of that minority will ever seriously get around to practicing these phenomenological disciplines – academics who write about that subject spend most of their time debating terminology and wondering if Husserl’s epoché is even possible. With regard to this Wilson comments that “Whitehead writes: ‘Religion is what man does with his solitude’. In that sense of the word, the human race has never possessed more than five per cent of religious – or potentially religious – individuals”. (Outsiders are happy with solitude). This is perfectly reasonable historical logic, and as Wilson comments “not a disguised form of fascism”. When Sidney Campion writes that Wilson was described as a ‘filthy fascist beast’ by the poet Christopher Logue, it’s obvious that Logue was not understanding Wilson’s phenomenological position. Critics should be careful to not confuse intentional concepts with naive attitudes. The latter must be left behind (bracketed) in the phenomenological reduction or epoché. [7] An important definition of the term ‘Outsider’ was made by Wilson in the sixth volume in the series of books of that name. Although the term is vague in a social sense, “as a description of a state of consciousness definable by phenomenology, it is precise”. An Outsider wishes to leave the sea and walk on the land, phenomenologically speaking. The opening line in The Outsider itself is “At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem” but those first three words suggest the problem is deeper. The Outsider has an appetite for progress, Wilson later states, but “not primarily for social progress” [my italics]. Social progress is essential but it rarely addresses the frustrating paradoxes that Wilson concerned himself with. “Our ‘human condition’ (as we grasp it from the natural standpoint) is determined by the way we act and live, and consequently become known to ourselves” he writes in The New Existentialism. “But our actions are determined by our assumptions about their possibility of success. And our assumptions about their possibility of success are determined by our idea of the ‘human condition’ (as we grasp it according to the natural standpoint)”. This vicious circle has occasionally been interrupted by works of art, scientific Ideas and philosophies, but the impulse to break out of this self-defeating circle has been steadily diminishing in all those fields. Wilson named this problem the fallacy of insignificance in the third Outsider book, The Age of Defeat.

But all is not lost. In Beyond the Outsider Wilson writes that “if the human race ever develops it’s five per cent of human beings who are capable of an intuitive grasp of evolutionary intentionality, and a certain control of the ‘St Neot Margin’ [another term for the indifference threshold] by means of phenomenological disciplines, these beings will not experience the need for ‘subjective religion’ in Kierkegaard’s sense, since the need will already have been fulfilled on another level”. This is again in line with Blake’s attitude in works such as There Is No Natural Religion. Phenomenology – “the descriptive analysis of intentional structures” as Wilson has it – “must proceed until it becomes the descriptive analysis of evolutionary intentionality. This would be a fundamental step in the process that Nietzsche called ‘the revaluation of values’ – the changing of the direction of our pessimistically-orientated culture by reversing it’s fundamental premises”. This is implicit in Wells’ image of the amphibians. Reversal is also integral to Husserl’s method which aims to destroy the natural standpoint, Descartes’ passive spectator.

“One thing which fish know exactly nothing about is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to to perceive the element they live in” wrote media theorist Marshall McLuhan. [8] Our own daily environment is the natural or naive attitude, Nietzsche’s ‘sea’ which is losing depth, Wells’ ocean of “long accepted and long unquestioned necessities” (interrogating unquestioned presuppositions was the central drive of Nietzsche and Husserl’s philosophies, and of Wilson’s). Following on from such images Wilson compares the human condition to life in a fish tank. The glass is dirty and distorts the outside world, but occasionally we catch glimpses of that ‘world’ (attitude) and we see reality – strange, alien and above all, meaningful. Blake understood this environment as the ‘vegetable glass of nature’ or the ‘mundane shell’. Wilson pointed out that mystics tend to speak of two worlds when we should really be considering two attitudes towards reality – the natural (naive) and the phenomenological. “The problem” writes Wilson, “is the distorting medium, which Husserl labelled intentionality. The greatest achievement of existentialism has been to recognise that it is active human intentionality, not the ‘senses’, that is the distorting medium”. Again, Blake understood and anticipated this, especially in his short didactic works There Is No Natural Religion (both parts) and All Religions Are One, both etched a century before Nietzsche’s notebook musings. Becoming aware  that “the ‘world’ we naively take for granted is being seen through a distorting medium”, the glass of the tank (or the water of unquestioned habits in Wells’ image) is the first step towards what Wilson called the phenomenological quest, unveiling the secrets of the transcendental ego. Husserl insisted that until this ego is uncovered – once subconscious prejudices have been banished like demons from Faust’s circle – then and only then can philosophy finally begin.


Post Husserlian existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre concerned themselves with clearing away these distortions. Heidegger, inspired by Husserl’s lectures on time consciousness, emphasised that the problem is kinetic, not static – it is, as Fichte had noted, concerned with action (Wilson praised Fichte’s central insight that to be free is nothing, but to become free is heavenly). Sartre also emphasised action in his remarks that he had never felt so free as when he was part of the French Resistance and in danger of being shot by the Nazis at any time (the indifference threshold, again). “Sartre had stated, in less abstract terms”, says Wilson “what Husserl had already stated: that the first step in freedom lies in recognising the natural standpoint for what it is, a temporary convenience”. The destruction of this natural standpoint (naive attitude) must, Wilson says, be incorporated into everyday consciousness. This, Wilson states, is no more difficult than learning a new language which is a true enough statement. It began for me with the first Wilson book I read and had been ongoing ever since. There’s no doubt the the phenomenological method is “difficult to grasp” at first, but so is learning a language or driving a car. A rejection of (or initially, a certain cynicism towards) cultural pessimism is essential in starting this ‘revaluation of all values’. And unless the pessimistic attitude is finally abandoned, the switch from the naive to phenomenological attitude can never be truly thorough – Sartre’s misunderstanding of Husserl’s notion of intentionality bears this out. Husserl described conscious activity with the dynamic image of a ray or arrow of perception fired towards the object of attention; for Sartre, consciousness is sucked by the gravitational pull of objects – an ironic philosophical position to take after his observation of the empty headed cafe proprietor in Nausea. For his fellow existentialist Jaspers, “man encounters his true self only in the boundary situations of existence – death, suffering, guilt, sudden violence”. The same anti-intentional pessimistic fallacy can be seen in Heidegger and Camus – whose novel The Plague is back on the best seller lists these days – and even in writers like Hemingway. Genuine optimists, says Wilson, have either swallowed a large dose of pessimism early and then firmly rejected it, or were unable to afford the luxury of self-pity in the first place – Blake, Shaw and Wells are good examples. Wilson ticks both boxes as a working class provincial who ended his pessimism – rather than his life – by almost swallowing hydrocyanic acid aged sixteen. Spending the rest of his post-Outsider career in a remote part of rural Cornwall, Wilson had yet another handy metaphor for intentional consciousness. Commenting on Sartre’s narrator in Nausea who is struck by a wave of ‘absurdity’, Wilson writes that this is merely a drop in the ‘pressure’ (intentionality) of consciousness, likened to what happens to “the current supplied by the electricity board [when it] falls to a lower voltage” – as it often did in Wilson’s Cornish cottage during the winter. “It takes half an hour to boil a kettle” said Wilson of his fluctuating electricity current – phenomenology has itself been described as a current – and “the electric light becomes so dim that you begin to wonder if you need new glasses. The purpose of consciousness is to illuminate the objective world. When we are full of energy and optimism, everything looks fascinating; when we are tired, everything looks dull” – the kind of dullness that J. W. N. Sullivan looked back on as a “blasphemy” from his hospital bed. The philosopher Whitehead questioned this ‘dullness’ as a genuine perception when he spoke of Galileo’s bifurcation of nature (into primary and secondary qualities) as “a dull affair…merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly”. Whitehead also suggested that we often make gloomy perceptions into the futility of life when we are simply tired, when consciousness has dropped to a lower voltage. But intentionality takes many forms – we could go to bed exhausted and unfocused but would be fully alert if roused and told next door was on fire. To anyone skilled in phenomenology, this is not the simple stimulus-response action it seems. Sleepiness itself is intentional. According to Gurdjieff what we call normal consciousness (for Husserl, the naive attitude) is indeed ‘sleep’.

“Whenever we experience problems or serious crises” Wilson remarks “we grasp the central truth about human existence: that a life without serious problems is, in the most precise sense of the word, blessed”. Sullivan knew this in the Serbian hospital. Then why can’t we realise this all the time? Hemingway and Sartre launched themselves into action and commitment, but their solutions seem mostly unsatisfactory, much like traditional (or for that matter, non-traditional) religious solutions. ‘Yet it seems to me” Wilson continues “that the answer might be closer than we realise. It is necessary, first of all, to grasp that this is an evolutionary problem”. For this reason Wilson felt more affinity with Shaw or Bergson than with the proclamations of Eastern religions (for instance) which suggest that we are already God (remembering that Wilson was an avid reader of the Gita and practiced meditation in his younger years, and that Eastern philosophy is tackled in his first book). As Wilson noted, the intuitive grasp of  evolutionary intentionality will supplant lapsed religious cravings, at least for those keen enough to to focus on these problems very seriously – Wells’ intellectual workers desperate to leave the sea, those comfortable with solitude as per Whitehead and Wilson’s own Outsiders (if the term is properly understood).

“What distinguishes religion from speculative thought is that it is ‘lived by’; when the laws of evolutionary intentionality have been uncovered and brought to consciousness, they will also be ‘lived by’, continuously present to inspection”. So wrote Wilson in the aptly-titled Beyond The Outsider. Husserl began his lectures on time consciousness by suggesting we look into Augustine’s meditation on time in his Confessions (Book XI, chapters 14 – 28). Existentialism is “closely bound up with the problem of time” according to Wilson. Heidegger has shown that the problem is kinetic, not static, but as Wilson notes, Sartre “keeps appealing to the present as his standard of reality”. However, being stuck in the present can cause us to fall into a kind of hypnosis where we are at the mercy of triviality and negativity (it was the Gurdjieff Work which coined the term ‘negative’ in this sense). This is the ‘world without values’ or rather, an attitude without values. “Once we are stuck in negativity” writes Wilson, “it becomes one of our subconscious premises, and it is almost impossible to escape because it is, so to speak, lurking beneath the threshold”. The philosophy behind this Lovecraftian turn of phrase would bubble below the narrative of Wilson’s parodic novel The Mind Parasites. A science fiction romp set around about now, it anticipates the mood of the early twenty-first century with uncanny accuracy. Based on phenomenological conceptions from The New Existentialism via Blake’s symbol of the Spectre (or robot in Wilson’s terminology), it was anticipated in the discussions of the ‘vastations’ of William James (and his father) in The Outsider – “it attacks the mind, not the body”. [9] This is the ‘nature of the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth century’ and in the early twenty-first. The existentialism of the post-Husserl era – and this includes postmodernism – insisted that there are no transcendental values outside of our everyday consciousness and we should simply not bother looking for them, rather like the dreary logical positivism that Wilson was up against in the mid-fifties. Instead, amuse yourselves with commitment to causes or language games (or both, today). This overlooks the possibility that Wilson and his ‘new’ (phenomenological) existentialism grappled with: that there are specific states of consciousnesses which are neither everyday or transcendent but produce a definite sense of values – scores of these experiences are documented in The Outsider. If we analyse these properly the old dogmatic values of religion can be replaced with something more objective and ‘lived by’. Blake understood this when he wrote that sects of philosophy are adapted to the weaknesses of individuals from their (mis)understandings of the Poetic Genius. Nietzsche and Husserl made the same point.

“Evolution is simply the capacity to register meanings that are already there” wrote Wilson. But our limited perceptions limit our horizons; they inhibit our ability to see further. This is not so much ‘mysticism’ as simple observation made outside of the natural standpoint of everyday consciousness. This switch is initially difficult to grasp, much like the difference between the physics of Einstein were from Newton, “but the consequences of the change of viewpoint are as momentous in both cases. Phenomenology is a Copernican revolution in thought, whose full implications were hidden even from it’s founder Husserl”. Those willing to develop the phenomenological faculty can never again “mistake their own stagnation for the world’s” as Wilson put it in the Blake section of The Outsider. Blake escaped this narrow triviality by what he called imagination, but which Wilson referred to as ‘Faculty X’, his shorthand for the phenomenological faculty. We commonly think of perception as passive and imagination as active, with a sharp delineation between the two, but once we realise that perception is active this “old dichotomy” vanishes. [10] Faculty X is the knowledge of the reality of other times and places – J. W. N. Sullivan acutely understood it in his Serbian bed, but it took the First World War to make him realise it. This is the paradoxical nature of freedom with which Wilson’s philosophy is so concerned.


[1] The ‘naive man’ in Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, Volume Two, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970 p. 852. Husserl critiqued empiricism in the first volume (RKP, 1970, p. 114) by asking “what happens in hypnotic states, in delirium tremens, etc?” (cf Whitehead’s ‘experience drunk’, ‘’experience abnormal’ and so on) and protesting ideas about the “normal individual” and “normal mental constitution”. On p. 124  Husserl questions generalisations which relate to “merely normal individual minds, for how abnormal minds behave is something in which the everyday experience here adduced has nothing to tell us”. This is completely in line with Wilson’s Outsider thesis (in his debut, ‘bourgeois’ is Husserl’s ‘naive man’) Heidegger’s authentic and inauthentic, Riesman’s other and inner directed are similar concepts.

[2] Herbert Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, (second volume), Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1976, p. 396. It is noteworthy that Freud and Rudolf Steiner attended lectures by Brentano.

[3] Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, second book, Kluwer Academic Pub. 1989, p. 280. Husserl discusses murder as a “wrong act” in phenomenologically forensic terms on p. 277 and in a supplement to that section on pp. 342/3.

[4] Husserl ibid p.193.

[5] For ‘forgetfulness’, Husserl, ibid. p. 280. Section § 57 (ibid. pp. 259 – 263) analyses self-apperception or self perception – conceptually similar to self remembering in the Gurdjieff Work. Ouspensky notes a disagreement with a friend in his In Search of the Miraculous (RKP, 1950, p. 121) who stated that self remembering was merely an ‘apperception’ from Wundt’s Logic but Ouspensky believed that Wundt had “not seen the magnitude of the idea which was hidden behind his thoughts about different forms of perception”. For Husserl (Logical Investigations, ibid. pp. 187/8) Wundt and his book were guilty of psychologism. Spiegelberg (ibid. p. 92) notes that “even the great Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig” failed to make an impression on Husserl in the mid-1880’s. For the body as organ of the will, Husserl, Ideas II, ibid. p. 159. For attitudes, ibid. p. 219 where Husserl speaks about “an uncomfortable difficulty” regarding the naturalistic (naive) world of science (“This naturalistically considered world is of course not the world”). This is the attitude he previously warned could turn into a rigid habit. In his Notebooks (cf [6] p. 15) Nietzsche criticised philosophical systems for their unconscious bias – “they have always trained up one of the mind’s forces in particular, with their one-sided demand that things be seen thus and not otherwise” – against multi-perceptive techniques such as perspectivism or later, phenomenology. Wilson’s book on charlatan messiahs, The Devil’s Party, gives many illustrations of ‘blinders’ ossifying into rigid habits (Yeats’ ‘mask of power’) with catastrophic results.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 22

[7] Sidney R. Campion, The Sound Barrier: a study of the ideas of Colin Wilson [Colin Wilson Studies # 19], Paupers’ Press, 2011, p. 50. This sequel to Campion’s The World of Colin Wilson (Muller, 1962), was written in 1963 but remained unpublished until this century.

[8] Marshall McLuhan with Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village, Bantam, 1968, p. 175. McLuhan later praised Husserl’s “new strategy for philosophy” for including analysis of “occult or psychic experiences” but dismissed Derrida’s “visual matching” of language. Marshall McLuhan, Laws of Media: the New Science, University of Toronto Press, 1988, pp. 60-62, p. 122

[9]  Colin Wilson, The Outsider, Gollancz, 1956, p. 148. H. P. Lovecraft, who once described himself as an “indifferentist” in one of his numerous letters, lived mostly below the indifference threshold (his best tales are driven by the concept of a threshold being crossed). One of his finest stories begins with the assertion that “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all it’s contents” – a statement which Husserl would have found rather naive (see his Crisis of European Sciences, § 48). I have dealt with Wilson’s pioneering treatment of Lovecraft and phenomenology in my The Lurker at the Indifference Threshold [Colin Wilson Studies # 28], Paupers’ Press, 2019

[10] Wilson on the “old dichotomy” between imagination and perception; The New Existentialism, Wildwood House, 1980, p. 108. See also: Husserl, Logical Investigations Vol. 1, ibid. p. 791, and: Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893 – 1917), Kluwer Academic Pub., 1991, p. 300