Evolutionary Metaphors by David J. Moore: 21st Century New Existentialism

F857D655-07ED-4C76-AA02-A477AC3557B7
Buy this book


“The new existentialism and the UFO are not as far apart from each other as one might think”, writes David J. Moore in his debut book Evolutionary Metaphors. Moore, who has previously published pieces in several scholarly collections investigating the deep end of Wilson’s work and legacy [1] is a researcher who encountered Wilson’s existential thought at a young age and who describes a UFO experience first hand in these pages. He is then the ideal person to investigate such a connection, and if Wilson were alive in 2019 he would have doubtless written an introduction to this book – the ultimate stamp of approval.

Wilson’s influence is keenly felt here: plain autobiographical detail merges with the outlandish and fantastic subject matter, and the writing is clear and compulsive. In February 2008 the then 22 year old author, who was “mainly interested in existentialist literature of the pessimistic variety—writers such as Michel Houllebecq and the Romanian arch-pessimist, Emil Cioran”, shared an odd collective experience with three other people. They witnessed “a silent, apparently amorphous and changing series of lights” 30 feet above their heads. At least that’s what they think they saw – apart from personal memory and subjective interpretation, there “was the added problem of its inherent difficulty to simply describe; it was frankly too unusual and unlikely to convey”. However, all were convinced that what they saw was something ‘other’. Working out his new existentialist ideas in the early sixties through the ‘Outsider Cycle’ books, Colin Wilson noted in one volume that our minds have a tendency to filter out most ‘otherness’, leaving the world looking quite poker faced and seemingly indifferent to us. Wilson’s new existentialist method attempted to look into the mechanisms of this passive state and involved investigating unusual types of perception and phenomena.

Familiar with Wilson’s work, particularly The Outsider, Moore sought out Alien Dawn, Wilson’s concise 1998 study of the bewildering UFO phenomenon and it’s vast attendant literature. “Wilson’s approach to ufology” writes Moore, “retained this evolutionary spirit, for he asked the essential question: ‘What can it tell us about ourselves, our consciousness?’- a question informed by the philosophical discipline of phenomenology, which aims to reveal the mechanisms of man’s psyche, and its dynamic and interpretative role through man and towards reality”. Wilson’s influence Alfred North Whitehead famously urged philosophers that no experience should be omitted from enquiry including ‘experience abnormal’ (his full list, often quoted by Wilson, is also mentioned in the present book). Many of the cases drawn from UFO and abductee literature throughout Evolutionary Metaphors certainly sound abnormal – like the large kangaroo spotted in a car park which turned out to be a UFO, for instance – at least from our everyday rational consciousness, what Husserl called the natural standpoint. But pioneering researchers working at the dawn of UFO writing, such as Jung or Jacques Vallee, saw deeper patterns in the phenomena, recurring symbols from folklore and ancient mythology.

As Moore notes, the act of interpretation itself is significant in the analysis of the UFO enigma. And the clear interpretation of states and phenomena, unclouded by subjective emotional prejudices, is the primary goal of phenomenology, at least in it’s early stages. Wilson’s new existentialism is of course indebted to Husserl’s phenomenology and as Moore remarks, “Wilson, for me and many others, came to represent a fearless explorer of the dark and occulted recesses of the human psyche, but significantly, without a pessimistic bias”. Much classic UFO literature can be dark and forbidding in tone, with many witnesses and abductees recounting experiences of terror and dread amongst the hyper-surrealistic events unfolding around them. Speaking of Sartre’s frightening existential state of ‘nausea’, Wilson remarks that “in nausea man feels isolated in an alien world of objects”, a chaos of unconnected fragments. But, as Moore points out, phenomenology deals with wholes, not parts – Husserl devotes the third section of his Logical Investigations II examining mereology (parts and wholes) – and a phenomenologist like Wilson was always cautious to step back from emotional interpretations (terror, bewilderment, pessimistic doom) when examining paranormal phenomena (or in fact, any phenomena). Husserl and Wilson spoke of ‘relational’ consciousness and both were more concerned, like Whitehead, with delineating the whole picture, a Gestalt, and trying to read the situation as neutrally as possible, free of subjective distortions. This is also Moore’s method – “I suspect that the UFO experience is […] a metaphor towards a new understanding of reality”, he writes. And he notes that it could be interpreted as an “evolutionary metaphor”.

The Whole of the Law

Most perceptively, Moore notes how the “new existentialism enriches the reading and understanding of much occult and paranormal literature”. This is a very important point which is still not widely acknowledged by occultists. “The new existentialism”, he says, “was an attempt by Wilson to provide the foundations for an evolutionary phenomenology in which man could access these meaningful levels of reality”. Running through the large history of esoterica that is Wilson’s The Occult are the same philosophical concerns from his new existentialist period of 1956 – ‘66, a point lost on some of his early readers who presumed he had abandoned existentialism for something less rigorous.

Kenneth Grant, who was originally dismissed by mainstream occultists (but not by Wilson) for his confrontational synthesis of Lovecraft, magick, UFOlogy and decadent literature, is often thought of as one of the originators of Chaos Magic, the postmodern ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’ strain of contemporary sorcery which is briefly discussed in Evolutionary Metaphors. Like Wilson, Grant put a lot of emphasis on imaginative fiction writing, on poetry and novels: one of his early self published works states that fantastic fiction is a substitute for a long atrophied natural faculty which could originally understand truth directly (think Wilson’s ‘Faculty X’). Grant uses the term ‘adumbration’, often used by Husserl when speaking of parts and wholes, in his analysis of occult experiences (and in fact he once referred to his own work as ‘phenomenology’). Like Wilson said when quoting Yeats, our minds are ‘partial’, but completed in moments of illumination. These moments when this faculty is operative are plentiful in literature; Wilson collected scores of examples from Proust, Hesse and many others and made a careful study of them as accurate descriptions of metal states (i.e. phenomenology) rather than as merely entertaining flights of fancy. Grant once stated that we can accept these truths at a deeper holistic level whereas the conceptualising mind struggles as it can only interpret things piecemeal, via parts, sides or adumbrations. “Chaos magic”, Moore writes, “is basically a scaffolding of a system that recognises the value of phenomenology”; one well known practitioner he quotes recommends the use of pareidolia, the ability to construct forms out of the formless, like Leonardo Da Vinci looking at an old wall and seeing figures and scenes, or the familiar ability to see faces in a fire. Wilson suggested many times that this intentional perceiving is a very important evolutionary creative ability, not just a by-product of daydreaming.

Like Jung, Kenneth Grant often suggested that the UFO was a deep mythological symbol like the grail or saucer of magical lore. “Now, what we might be seeing in the modern world”, writes Moore, “is the re-emergence of a type of magical thinking that had previously gone underground, so to speak, or had remained dormant in the unconscious regions of our collective psyche”. Both Wilson and Grant spoke about a long ‘dormant’ faculty which is slowly reappearing in the post Romantic age and in it’s literature (even Proust spoke of faculties long dormant) and in our modern commercial culture. Science fiction, which once was an underground scene at the dawn of the post war UFO craze, is now big business – Hollywood has made many Philip K Dick stories yet the author of what became Blade Runner and Total Recall spent most of his writing life struggling for money. Dick’s fortunes were turned around by his extraordinary ‘1974’ experience (see chapter 7 of Wilson’s Unsolved Mysteries, Past and Present, 1993) where he was plunged into a world of high strangeness as weird as anything from his own SF books. As documented in his rambling, philosophical Exegesis and in his later novels – referenced here by Moore – Dick’s previously neurotic state was radically changed by the ‘Valis’ events. With typical synchronicity, Dick had a “strange and eerie feeling” that his early novels were coming true. Moore expertly connects Dick’s notion of Valis or ‘Zebra’ – a kind of universal architect hidden in plain sight who Dick sometimes claimed to have intuited, happily building away – with the transcendental ego of Husserl as described by Wilson in his very rare (privately published, 1995) emendation to Introduction to the New Existentialism. “Now”, Moore writes, “by forwarding a basic ‘doctrine of the will’ that aims to uncover the ‘unconscious layers of will and intention, of which you were previously not aware’, it is significant that Wilson points out that the deeper layers of our intentionality awaken in mystical experiences. For in these experiences we lose our general sense of alienation— moreover, an alienation that is ‘due to lack of contact with one’s intentional layers’”. ‘Alien’ experiences, properly understand, may not be alien after all. By developing our ability to know that parts are just that and not misunderstanding them as the totality of a whole – to know the reality of other times and other places as Wilson (and Grant, briefly) said – is to have a completed rather than partial mind, what is commonly termed mystical consciousness. In the Exegesis, Dick speaks of not seeing the Other, but seeing as the Other – Wilson pointed out that our rational minds filter out most otherness due to their relentless need for order, and that Husserl’s aim was to catch them out doing just that, perhaps as Dick did in 1974. “How did we lose certain faculties entirely?” asks Dick in the Exegesis. “Have the remaining ones occluded?” Like Wilson, he found answers in Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, with the shift from all over mythological consciousness (whole, but innocent) to the sharper rational consciousness (understanding, but only partially knowing). In evolutionary terms, we must use this sharpened consciousness to understand whole, and not merely partial meanings. “The new existentialism”, Moore continues, “lays important emphasis on the essential hierarchical nature of consciousness; lower levels of consciousness become increasingly diffuse, disintegrated, whereas higher forms of consciousness—such as the mystical experience or the ‘peak experience’—become synthesised and integrated into the greater whole of our being”.

Gurdjieff once told Ouspensky that “man cannot reconstruct the idea of the whole starting from separate facts” and he insisted that the unprepared mind, connecting with higher centres, will experience either a total blank or disjointed images and sensations – the distortions that the phenomenologist wishes to exclude. This sounds like some of the confusing abductee experiences of UFO literature. Gurdjieff insisted on training the intentional faculties to ‘grasp’ phenomena before any attempts at accessing the higher centres, and Wilson suggested a similar procedure. “Evolutionary metaphors – along with esoteric ‘correspondences’ and the logic of much anomalous phenomenon – baffle ordinary causal logic precisely by transcending its limits and by inferring beyond itself” says Moore. “Essentially they are symbols of a reality yet to become”. This bizarre sense of past/future is discussed in Philip K Dick’s fiction (Counter Clock World, etc) and in his Exegesis (he ruminated on time flowing backwards, from decay to perfection; Kenneth Grant had similar concerns and Husserl analysed internal time consciousness). Moore quotes abductee author Whitely Streiber: “What we have to learn to do […] is to learn to move out of the time stream so that we can examine it more carefully and come to understand its real meaning”. Proust of course devoted a huge novel to this very problem. And Moore goes on to say that in order to understand these possibilities (evolutionary metaphors) “we must develop imaginative as well as supra-logical faculties which can process this level of reality from which these metaphors emerge, and in doing so, it would be immediately grasped that they can become more than mere symbols but actualities”. In occultism, symbols, fantasies, dreams and desires are reified via synchronicities in the mundane world; in Wilson’s new existentialism, hidden (occluded) phenomenological structures are brought to conscious awareness in order to perceive reality more coherently. Symbols becoming actualities happened throughout the Romantic period: as Wilson has recounted, the fictional fever dreams of Richardson, Rousseau and Goethe had such an enormous impact on the Western world that we still feel it today. Philip K Dick’s novels are full of what he called ‘pre-cog’ about himself (his “strange and eerie feeling” regarding personal events happening after he wrote them) and his startling foresight about the unfolding 21st Century.

“There is the sense that there are meanings that animate the deepest substratum of existence”, writes Moore, “and that, in some odd way, these meanings are the structural blueprints not only of matter and the physical and natural world, but also the structuring forces that underlies experience as well as existence in its interior and mental form”. As Wilson once said, if we could uncover these meanings (he called them “our intentional evolutionary structure”) via phenomenological discipline, we would become a completely different type of creature – his collected ‘outsiders’ are foreshadowings of such a creature (as Moore notes, Alien Dawn concludes with a chapter entitled ‘The Way Outside’ with an analysis of science fiction stories such as Brian Aldiss’ Outside). As we read through case histories in UFO literature, Moore says, “one is reminded of the essential message of Wilson’s philosophy, and this provides a much needed reevaluation of our reductionist culture”. Reductionism is merely a symptom of our closed perceptions, and Blake and his fellow romantics satirised it and railed against it with aplomb. Wilson, who labelled his own analysis ‘Romanticism Mark Three’ (Mark Two was Existentialism) found a bulwark against reductionism in Husserl’s phenomenological method which ironically reduces everything back to the source of the transcendental ego. This, it must be noted, is the start of the phenomenological method, not, as commonly misunderstood, its end or goal. As Wilson, says, only when we rid our mental lives of this emotional colouring can we see things afresh. And as Husserl would say, philosophy can then finally begin. The strange states of consciousness documented by the writers collected and analysed by Wilson and followers such as Moore are portends of what we could become – they are evolutionary metaphors – and as disturbing and uncanny they may appear to be to our fragmented mundane consciousness, I, like the author, have no doubt that they are trying to show us something, if only we could step back and see the whole picture. 

Evolutionary Metaphors is published on the 31st of May by 6th Books

[1] Moore was a speaker at both the First and Second International Colin Wilson Conferences at Nottingham University: all lectures are presented in book form and published by Cambridge Scholars (see both links). 

Advertisements

‘The Ultimate Colin Wilson’: still the best ‘best of’

FD2C7FE8-40D5-43A9-B046-EE2A98F9698B
Buy here


First published in 1985 under the title The Essential Colin Wilson, this sampler of Wilson’s forbiddingly large bibliography was one of the first of his books I read and it quickly made me aware of the philosophical continuity throughout his work, which was otherwise obscured by the sheer number of his books and their bafflingly diverse subjects. Originally selected and edited by Wilson himself, with a specially written introduction and postscript, this new edition adds six extra post-1985 excerpts chosen by Wilson scholars.

This collection was one of the primary sources I used to navigate Wilson’s daunting work load and back catalogue back in my teens in the 1980’s. Without it, I’d have struggled to comprehend the larger picture he was offering, what he called his ‘existential jigsaw puzzle’, where clues from philosophy, literature, criminology, occultism and many other fields were examined and pieced together with highly illuminating results. In 1985, Wilson was 54 but astonishingly, this was his 74th book. And as the editor notes, “in the 28 years prior to his death in 2013, he produced another 100 titles”. I have now read them all but I can still recall the overwhelming sense of vertigo looking at a list of his published titles (even then). On top of that, there was also the endless amount of thinkers he referenced – from Proust to Gurdjieff to Husserl and Lindsay and hundreds more – all of which he discussed in such an engaging fashion that I was desperate to find out more – and did. It was exhilarating, but intimidating. In the long run, however, it was totally worth it.

By expertly placing key chapters from such lesser known books such as Beyond the Outsider and Introduction to the New Existentialism next to those from The Outsider, The Occult and Mysteries – I knew those last three – and by including a few sections from his monumental A Criminal History of Mankind and excerpts from novels like The Mind Parasites, I began to see a pattern emerging. I then started to borrow, buy and collect ever Wilson title I could find.

Most casual readers associate Colin Wilson with one book and one book only – his debut, The Outsider. A ‘smash hit’ in rock n’ roll terms (it was 1956, remember), this precociously erudite study of existential alienation still reads well today. But it reads even better with the other six volumes of the ‘Outsider Cycle’ next to it. From these, the Autobiographical Introduction from his unfairly maligned follow up Religion and the Rebel is included as are The Strange Story of Modern Philosophy and Everyday Consciousness is a Liar from Beyond the Outsider and Introduction to the New Existentialism respectively. Nothing was chosen from the other volumes (The Age of Defeat, The Strength to Dream and Origins of the Sexual Impulse) but The Outsider is represented by it’s opening chapter and helpfully preceded by The Outsider, Twenty Years On, a reminiscence of the events leading up to it’s publication date. These introductory pieces from his first two books give the novice reader the necessary background to who Wilson was and where he cane from, as well as explaining his ideas (the 1985 introduction from the first edition goes a bit further). Reading about Wilson’s struggles to pull himself out out of the apathetic torpor of regional working class consciousness and into something more dynamic is highly illuminating, especially if you’re from that background yourself. This certainly made me identify with him and wonder why his second book, from which the autobiographical section is extrapolated, was panned so badly. With these sections, a fully rounded figure emerges.

The two chapters from the sixth ‘Outsider Cycle’ volume (Beyond the Outsider) and the seventh, a summation of all the previous volumes (Introduction to the New Existentialism) are very important choices. The first, which offers a potted history of modern philosophy [1] is essential for understanding the philosophical background Wilson was investigating throughout all his interests. To simplify: modern philosophy was invented by Descartes, who suggested we doubt everything. This is the beginning of the scientific method. But as Wilson points out, “Descartes had launched modern western philosophy with a dubious proposition” and subsequent philosophers – Locke, Berkeley, Hume – left philosophy “looking like a landscape after the dropping of an H-bomb”. The neo-Kantian philosopher Fichte came up with an ingenious solution against Descartes passive ‘I think therefore I am’ by essentially asking ‘yes, but who are you?’ – but his efforts were mostly ignored. “By the end of the nineteenth century”, writes Wilson, “philosophy had fallen into a sad state”. Philosophers saw themselves as essentially passive, data collecting machines with no will, yet Fichte had stumbled on something important by noting that Descartes had failed to analyse his own identity, presuming himself to be a perfectly reflecting mirror, pointed squarely at reality. Questioning (or rather, interrogating) this ‘passive’ identity would be the basis of the work of Edmund Husserl, a mathematician turned philosopher who founded the influential school of phenomenology. Starting with his first major work in 1900, Husserl dragged philosophy out of it’s confused nineteenth century state and developed a highly original method to find out who we are. The next selection, Everyday Consciousness is a Liar, originally from Introduction to the New Existentialism, is one of the clearest (and more importantly, most compulsive) introductions to Husserl and his method ever written. In the original 1966 text that it it is drawn from, Wilson wrote that there were no general introductions to this topic available for the average person: a mere 53 years later, this still remains the best one that I can think of. (I have written more fully of Wilson’s Investigations into phenomenology here).

As an existentialist, Wilson was preoccupied with the phenomenological question of ‘who are we?’ and concerned with our tenacious habit of negative consciousness and the pessimistic culture which arises from it. “Consciousness without crisis”, he noted in New Pathways in Psychology, “tends to become negative”. But this is absurd. Why are we bored by perfectly pleasant circumstances until they’re threatened or disappear? We all seem to have a quirk which never lets us appreciate anything unless a crisis takes it away from us – we find it hard to see what is right in front of us, and focus our full attention on it.

Personal Notes on Maslow, drawn from New Pathways in Psychology (1971) is an account of Wilson’s correspondence with the humanist psychologist, instigated by Maslow himself after he read Wilson’s early book, The Age of Defeat. Frustrated by the gloomy atmosphere of Freudianism and baffled by the pessimistic turn in post war culture, Maslow began to seek out the healthiest people he could find, and collected some very surprising results. All of these people, he found, , had experienced what he called ‘peak experiences’ (PE’s), moments of serenity and joy, but in ordinary circumstances where there was otherwise nothing particular to be ecstatic about: a mother looking at her family eating breakfast, a hostess viewing the mess after a party. These people had suddenly became aware of things they previously took for granted, or barely noticed. A marine stationed into the Pacific who had not seen a woman for a few years ‘peaked’ when arriving offshore and noticed that women are different to men. It seems too obvious to even need stating, but he realised it with clarity, like Proust in Swann’s Way remembering that he was a child in Combray after he tasted the tea and cake in the famous scene. Maslow thought that such peaks just happened randomly and couldn’t be engineered, but Wilson had different ideas.

“I was able to point out to Maslow a possibility that he had overlooked” writes Wilson. “This was a concept I called ‘the indifference threshold’”. This recognises the fact that difficulties or crises can produce a deeper sense of meaning than comfortable circumstances (‘consciousness without crisis tends to become negative’). Sartre felt more alive, more free, during his dangerous time in the French Resistance, much more than he did during peacetime when he was stating than man is a useless passion and being awarded the Nobel Prize. By realising that what we take for granted is threatened we direct more concentrated energy (intentionality, Husserl would have said) into protecting it. Yet ironically we don’t bother much when it’s already there. If we could hurl enough intentional power at so called ‘ordinary’ situations, life would become a permanent peak (or ‘flow’) experience. Phenomenology is the art of training our focusing muscles to grasp reality at all times and to cease frittering attention on minor problems and exaggerating our sense of ‘meaninglessness’. This faculty or ability to grasp reality, drawn from Wilson’s phenomenological ‘new existentialist’ researches of the fifties and sixties would be thoroughly analysed in books such as The Occult (1971) and it’s sequel Mysteries (1978) here represented by the chapters Magicthe Science of the Future and The Ladder of Selves.

The Occult was Wilson’s best critically received title since his debut. Still very useful as a history of hermetic thought, it is notable in that it introduced his theory of ‘Faculty X’ (previously the less snappy ‘phenomenological faculty’ in his sixties books) to readers. When Proust was reminded of his childhood in his novel Swann’s Way, this ‘peak experience’ was a Faculty X moment. “Five minutes earlier, he could have said, ‘Yes, I was a child in Combray’ and no doubt described it in detail” says Wilson. But with his faculties wide awake he could say it and mean it – he was experiencing reality rather than a cheap carbon copy. Faculty X is the realisation of the reality of other times and places: “we know perfectly well that the past is as real as the present, and that New York and Singapore and Lhasa and Stepney Green are as real as this place I happen to be in at the moment. Yet my senses do not agree”. However, Wilson insists that this is not an occult faculty like second sight or precognition, rather it is a pure potentiality of ordinary consciousness, often recognised by the best poets (it is ‘occult’ in the etymological sense in that it is generally hidden or submerged in consciousness). This chapter is probably Wilson’s most thorough examination of it. The Ladder of Selves from Mysteries delves further into paranormal territory. Exhausted from overwork – remember that the book reviewed here was his 74th – Wilson suffered a series of debilitating panic attacks. True to his nature, he analysed these states as objectively as he possibly could, battering them into submission and bringing himself back to health. We can remember Fichte’s answer to Descartes’ statement ‘I think therefore I am’ – ‘yes, but who are you?’ – and think about Husserl’s methods of stripping all illusions away to get to the ‘true self’ or transcendental ego and this is what wilson meant by the ladder of selves. “I get the feeling that the ‘me’ I know is some kind of temporary half measure” he comments on page 144. “On top of this, I begin to believe that the pessimists are making a fundamental mistake about the rules of the game. ‘Meaning’ is revealed by a kind of inner-searchlight. (This is just another way of stating Husserl’s insight: Perception is Intentional)”.

The notion of false selves isn’t quite as unscientific as it sounds. The split brain research of Sperry and Ornstein is examined in two short pieces (The Other Mode, extrapolated from Frankenstein’s Castle and the amusingly titled Laurel and Hardy Theory of Consciousness, from 1980 and 1979 respectively). Two sections from A Criminal History of Mankind (1984) take Julian Jaynes’ notions of bicameral consciousness – similar to those of Sperry and Ornstein – into more disturbing territory: criminals appear to exist on the lowest rungs of this ladder. But there’s still cause for optimism. One of the new additions here, The Future of Mankind, is taken from the updated 2005 edition of Criminal History; another, The Psychology of Optimism from the following year is something I’ve not come across before. All hover around the same problems, analysing them from different angles. This collection makes these connections accessible to the novice reader, and enquiring minds will doubtless wish to delve further into Wilson’s catalogue, from whichever angle they want. A neat piece of continuity was once noted by Wilson scholar Howard F. Dossor. The Uncle Sam section of Wilson’s 1963 novel The World of Violence, also partly included here, contained the line “I felt as if I had been transported into a city of gigantic and hairy spiders” (p. 224 of the present collection). This is virtually the plot of Wilson’s Spider World fantasy series, written decades later – an excerpt (Inside The White Tower) from the first volume is now included in this updated edition.

Below the Iceberg (1998), the title piece from a very rare book about Sartre and post war thought, takes on the then fashionable philosophies of postmodernism and the deconstruction of Derrida, finding them lacking any real originality (Derrida began his career, like Sartre before him, by writing about Husserl; both generally misunderstood what Husserl meant by phenomenology and abandoned it quickly). Ironically enough, Wilson predated the current interest in Alfred North Whitehead – he’s mentioned often throughout this book – and also the 21st century fashion for writing about philosophy and the weird fiction of HP Lovecraft (Discovery of the Vampires from The Mind Parasites, 1967). “Western man is in the position of a conductor who is unaware that he possesses an orchestra” writes Wilson in Active Imagination, originally from a short monograph on Jung. This quest to find our hidden potential and hold onto it is the central theme which emerges throughout these collected writings. Accessing this ‘seventh degree of concentration’ (a nod to Wilson’s hero Shaw, and the title of one of the new inclusions) “is a fairly new problem for human beings.” Use of the intellect has brought an enormous amount of material comfort to the modern Western world, but “this comfort has brought the curse of ‘lukewarm’ consciousness, and we long for a simple method of being able to summon those moments of ‘Mozart and the stars’” as Hesse put it. “It seems to me”, he continues, “that all this implies that mankind has a joint purpose, and that no writer is justified in declaring that human existence is meaningless”. After all, if ‘normal’ consciousness is partial, as Husserl, Proust and split brain theory suggest, how can we make definitive statements about the totality of life from such a partial understanding? And, when Proust suggests he had ceased to feel mediocre, accidental or mortal during an ecstatic ‘peak’, does this not contradict the lazy cliches of Sartre, Beckett and other literary and philosophical pessimists? Wilson certainly thinks so, and these collected writings remain a concentrated cocktail of possibilities and insights which go far beyond the dull acceptance of how things apparently seem to us from our ‘natural standpoint’ (to use Husserl’s term).

Wilson’s boundless enthusiasm for what we could become flies off every page of this still essential collection.

[1] This edition presents an updated version of the original chapter from Beyond the Outsider (The Strange Story of Modern Philosophy) which later appeared in Superconsciousness, published by Watkins in 2009. Watkins have also republished The Occult and Mysteries. Their website is here

Two new Colin Wilson Studies now available

Paupers’ Press continue their penetrating ‘Colin Wilson Studies’ series with volumes 28 and 29. The latter, Vaughan Rapatahana’s More than the Existentialist Outsider ‘draws together a number of his important essays about, and his interview with, Colin Wilson which was held at the Victoria University of Technology in  Melbourne, Australia on September 16, 1993, adding a new essay in which he asserts that Wilson is “…an important philosopher, who not only introduced his own version of Existentialism, but also strove to unite the so-called Continental and Analytic traditions of philosophy into one seamless endeavour…” finally insisting that “…universities should now be including Wilson as an integral part of their philosophy courses’”. This title also contains several important pieces previously published in the periodical Philosophy Now, including Rapatahana’s Wilson obituary which hit the mark where the newspapers and broadsheets mostly missed.

Volume 29 is my own effort entitled The Lurker at the Indifference Threshold: Feral Phenomenology for the 21st Century, which attempts to draw various obscure threads together and suggest possibilities for Wilson’s long term rehabilitation this century. Included as an appendix is a rare 1983 Wilson interview from the defunct music magazine Sounds conducted by Sandy Robertson, author of both The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook (which has an introduction by CW) and of a study of the music of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman entitled The Phenomenology of Excess – the only book I’ve read which recommends Chapple & Garofalo’s Rock ‘n Roll Is Here To Pay and The New Existentialism on it’s reading list! My book is perceptively reviewed by Wilson researcher David Moore at his blog here and his own ‘new existentialist’  work Evolutionary Metaphors will be discussed here soon.

Both titles are £7.95 each. Full details are here.

A rare introduction to a study of the law of diminishing returns

Colin Wilson: My Interest In Murder (Being a discarded introduction to Order of Assassins). Paupers’ Press ISBN 9780995597815, £6..95 (available on the 28th of January). An autobiographical essay on how and why Wilson became interested in crime, previously unavailable. This is item number 185 in the Wilson catalogue. 

cdf48ccc-73fb-477d-acaf-74fa028b46e7“I have the kind of mind that enjoys facts” writes Colin Wilson in My Interest in Murder, a lengthy 40 page introduction originally intended for his Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder but discarded by publisher Hart-Davis in 1972. “When I get interested in any subject, it occupies my mind exclusively for months at a time”. He notes that he has been variously preoccupied with brain physiology, jazz, witchcraft, mythology, economics and Russian history, to name but a few. During these months of brooding on a topic, he remarks that he would scour the shelves of second hand bookshops for information. Once he became a professional author by 1956, he would gleefully spend an hour browsing the bookstores in Charing Cross Road and stagger into a taxi with a huge stack of titles. 

Facts regarding crime and murder were another of his interests. When he was ten years old a family friend had lent his father a volume entitled The Fifty Most Amazing Crimes of the Last Hundred Years “which had an automatic pistol and a bottle of poison embossed on the front cover”. He wasn’t supposed to read it but as it was left out he went though every case – Landru, Charley Peace, Crippen, David Smith, Vaquier and Palmer (the latter was discussed in a book by the poet Robert Graves), the Green Bicycle Mystery, the shooting of Bella Wright, and so on – and suffered appalling nightmares as a consequence. He felt a particular “tingle of horror” while reading the article on Jack the Ripper and seeing, instead of a portrait, a large imposing question mark. His maternal grandmother had told him about the terrifying atmosphere of her childhood in the East End of London circa 1888 when the Ripper was at large. That question mark, he writes, “started me on a search for Jack the Ripper that has gone on ever since”. Wilson would later coin the term ‘Ripperology’ and write extensively on the case (Order of Assassins contains an appendix discussing one theory regarding the possible identity of the killer). But back in the early 1940’s his precocious interest in crime was motivated, he says, by a sense of horror. Speaking about the Cleveland Torso Case – later incorporated in his 1966 novel The Glass Cage – he remarks that these American murders had become world wide news and “the newspapers of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy took pleasure in pointing out how a decadent democracy fostered this sort of crime”. While he was horrifying himself with the crime book (published in 1936) he was also reading True Detective magazine which his mother had received off a friend (she would spend what little money she had on romantic magazines instead). It’s also significant that around about this time Wilson was reading tatty copies of Weird Tales, the American ‘horror comic’ which featured stories by H. P. Lovecraft, a writer Wilson would study in depth long before he was regarded as ‘literature’ (or, this century, as a subject for philosophical investigations). “At the age of ten”, remembered Wilson in an introduction to one of many Lovecraft collections, “I had felt instinctively that this was a kind of pornography of violence that was designed to appeal to a kind of sickness in the reader”.  He rediscovered Lovecraft in the late fifties via a friend’s copy of The Outsider and Others (1939) the first assembled compendium of Lovecraft’s best tales and the first book published by his future friend and correspondent August Derleth at Arkham House. Inspired by this collection, he wrote The Strength to Dream, an analysis of the imagination in literature where he makes the unflattering yet philosophically accurate comparison of Lovecraft’s psychological landscape to that of the ‘vampire of Düsseldorf’, Peter Kürten. Lovecraft bolstered the dwindling circulation of Weird Tales by revising The Loved Dead by C.M. Eddy, a tale about a necrophiliac sex killer – this caused such a scandal that sales of the next issue rocketed. A year or two later, Kürten would return to Düsseldorf and began a reign of terror that parallels the irrational explosion described in Lovecraft’s most famous work, The Call of Cthulhu. Kürten would spend “longer and longer periods of solitary confinement, standing almost upright in a tiny cell” and dreaming of revenge like the Marquis de Sade (once dubbed “the patron saint of serial killers” by Wilson). The connections between these and Lovecraft’s romantic bitterness are fully discussed in Order of Assassins. 

Aged 11 in 1942, Wilson entered a public speaking competition held at his school and chose famous murder cases as his subject, but his interest ended very abruptly in the same year. “What happened was simply that I had discovered science. The outer reaches of the universe and the inside of the atom were far more interesting than emotional fools hitting one another on the head”. Suddenly, he realised that crime is due to our tendency to remain trapped in trivialities, and quickly lost interest; he remarks that he did not pick up any crime literature at all until he was 20, by then married and living in London. Intriguingly he speaks of his adolescent affair with science as “close to religious salvation” and more important than poetry or music. By the time he was 20 he dropped this scientific fundamentalism, becoming reacquainted with poetry – it relaxed his mind after a hard days manual labour – with music (he collected records as obsessively as books) and with literature and philosophy (he was, at this time a budding novelist working on a something called ‘Ritual of the Dead’, later developed into his first fictional work Ritual in the Dark). “I had not abandoned my scientific creed”, writes Wilson. “I had merely enlarged it”. He would of course later write books on astronomy, forensic pathology and hemispherical brain theory in the usual scientific spirit, but by the time he started writing about crimes, he was slowly becoming preoccupied with a ‘science of consciousness’ developed by the philosopher Edmund Husserl which is known as phenomenology. Nietzsche had previously observed that there has never been a ‘presuppositionless science’ but Husserl’s publication of the first volume of his Logical Investigations in the year of Nietzsche’s death would lay the groundwork for the possibility of such a science. So in truth Wilson had in fact enlarged his scientific outlook by making use of Husserl’s method, even if his chosen subjects were, on the surface, diverse. By deciding to set his novel in the East End – inspired by his grandmother’s stories – he researched the Ripper murders in the British Museum and roamed the streets of Whitechapel, soaking up the cold autumn atmosphere. He was once again interested in murder, but the “tingle of horror” he experienced in childhood was gone; his interest was now scientific, like Emile Zola’s researches into the worst aspects of humanity for his novels or Sherlock Holmes’ attitude towards gory facts (“knowledge of sensational literature – immense”). 

Ritual in the Dark took over ten years to complete. If it had been written to a deadline like The Outsider, Wilson thinks, his interest in murder might have waned once again. But researching the novel meant accumulating scores of true crime books and magazines (around 200 volumes by 1960) and it now seemed a pity to have no use for them. When introduced to a journalist whose wife was not only interested in murder but also possessed of an extraordinary memory for crime facts, Wilson suggested writing an A-Z encyclopaedia of cases. Co-authored with Pat Pitman, the Encyclopaedia of Murder would appear in 1961, the first book of it’s kind since The Newgate Calendar (also known as The MalefactorsBloody Register) in 1774 or thereabouts. Their book would anticipate the true crime genre by many years, although Wilson points out here that Sir Harold Scott’s Concise Encyclopaedia of Crime, which boasts no less than forty authors (including Ian Fleming) was published in the same month. A typically odd coincidence in the world of publishing no doubt, but Scott’s volume compliments Wilson and Pitman’s Encyclopaedia In that it covers legalities and procedures and has “an excellent article in crime in literature” (Wilson stuck a philosophical fragment from The Outsider at the end of his Encyclopaedia). 

After publication Wilson could add the ‘criminologist’ label to his ever expanding list of professional interests: philosopher, novelist, existentialist, mystic and phenomenologist (Husserl’s method of “phenomenalism” is discussed In the introduction of the Encyclopaedia). And so there were more facts to beef up his philosophical position and to season his novels; he compares his method to a witch mixing a brew but with the delight of a crossword puzzle addict solving clues. The philosopher Michel Foucault would also discuss crimes and punishments and although Wilson dismissed his “stormy romanticism”, he did admire Foucault’s method: he was “a kind of fact-grinding machine, pouring obscure works on history and sociology into his gullet, and coming up with startling and illuminating parallels”. Wilson admits that his his mind is similar. In A Criminal History of Mankind (1984) he recalled his study (“piled with books on violent crime and copies of True Detective magazine”) when he was aiming to compile the Encyclopaedia in the summer of 1959. He was, he says, motivated by “an obscure but urgent conviction that underneath these piles of unrelated facts about violence there must be undiscovered patterns, certain basic laws, and uncovering these might provide clues to the steadily rising crime rate”. The Encyclopaedia of Murder would be followed by A Casebook of Murder (1969), a sociological study of crime. “To put it simply”, Wilson begins the book, “my interest in murder is philosophical rather than scientific”. Three years later, Order of Assassins would complete a ‘murder trilogy’. 

Despite the gruesome subject matter, Order of Assassins is written in the same spirit as Wilson’s book on music, The Brandy of the Damned (1964) or even his self-explanatory A Book of Booze from twenty years later (which he moots in this introductory essay). This is not to say that Wilson is being flippant about crimes. “I completely lack patience with the kind of writer who talks about ‘murder for pleasure’” he writes. Against the “revolting and almost unreadable” Edmund Pearson and William Roughead, two late Victorians who regarded crimes as a fit subject for windy humour, Wilson is, like Dostoevsky, treating these facts with the utmost seriousness. Murder cases are not amusing; they are messy and horrible, but they are invaluable for study as they can starkly illuminate an opposite set of values – making us realise that life is not trivial and must not be wasted on such negativities (“emotional fools hitting one another on the head”). This is why Wilson enjoyed, if that’s the correct word, collecting these gruesome facts. He could describe Nietzsche’s rejection of Schopenhauer’s pessimism or critique the anti-intentional torpor of Beckett’s collected works, but there is nothing which illustrates the problem of life devaluation which such bludgeoning and terrible force as murder cases. Nietzsche suggested in Beyond Good and Evil that we “think pessimism through to it’s depths” – so by analysing the most violent and life denying acts objectively (phenomenologically) the possibility of a life affirming philosophy begins to take form. Wilson wasn’t being perverse when he said that whenever he studied murder he felt a glint of optimism: he was pointing out that life-devaluation, negativity and violence, taken to their logical conclusions, simply do not work. “Murder interests me because it is the most extreme form of the denial of […] human potentiality”, he remarked in A Casebook of Murder. Against Sartre’s ‘man is a useless passion’ or the romantic pessimism of Schopenhauer or Lovecraft, murder is an act, a very real act, which we cannot take a casual attitude to – our reactions to it prove we do have positive values towards life. These values are the building blocks of Wilson’s philosophical attitude; the crime facts and the interest in murder are the study of the shadows cast by the construction of the building. Our central problem, he says in this discarded introduction, is to understand our subconscious depths, to contact them at will. These intentional methods were already outlined in the volumes of his Outsider Cycle, particularly in his studies of the methods of Husserl and Whitehead. Later, Wilson would apply them to investigations into ‘occultism’ – a seemingly unlikely move, but Husserl did write that we need the “idea of a resolve of the will to shape one’s whole personal life into the synthetic unity of a life of universal self responsibility and, correlatively, to shape oneself into the true ‘I’, the free, autonomous ‘I’ which seeks to realise his innate reason, the striving to be true to himself”. This type of careful self analysis towards what Husserl calls “universal self responsibility” is precisely what the criminal lacks, so all crime is essentially a smash and grab raid, a short cut which inevitably ends in defeat or suicide. An occultist like Crowley could point out that people of “criminal nature are simply at issue with their true Wills” but any nonpartisan observer knows that it wasn’t quite so simple an issue in his own case. His contemporary Gurdjieff told the writer Ouspensky that modern society creates “an enormous amount of sexual psychopaths” and these ‘abnormalities’, as he called them, “require special study”. Wilson’s study of such psychopathological behaviour was driven by a similar need to understand the ‘human machine’ via Husserl’s phenomenological method. Like Gurdjieff, he believes that it is fatal for us to become victimised or controlled by our habits; in a gentler (but no less rigorous) sense, Husserl warned against habitual perceptions or taking the world for granted. 

“I am not interested in criminality as such, but in the relation of crime to human freedom” wrote Wilson in 1969. Analysing the catastrophic choices criminals make when they believe they are increasing their ‘freedom’ makes us all aware of our own perceptual limitations. Crime, Wilson would later write, “is a completely mistaken solution to a problem that accompanies all of us from the cradle to the grave: the problem of personal evolution”. Summing up Order of Assassins, Wilson notes that the violence in our society (i.e. of 1972) has the same roots as “the occult revival and the search for messiahs and gurus and führers”. Written during the era of the tree day week, strikes and IRA bombings, the use of the word ‘assassin’ and the opening analysis of the legend of the ‘Old Man of the Mountain, his castle at Alamut and his shadowy sect is a prescient use of symbolism when read in today’s gloomy atmosphere of global terrorism. Anybody who cares about conscious evolution should share Wilson’s interests.

Eagle and Earwig back in print

B234BC56-48B0-415A-AF29-56A20520F889
New Edition 2018

Wilson’s 1965 collection Eagle and Earwig, originally published by John Baker in 1965, gets it’s first reissue in five decades by Eyewear Publishing. Now entitled Eagles and Earwigs, this hardcover edition has a new introduction by Wilson biographer Gary Lachman, annotations by Wilson’s bibliographer Colin Stanley and is 412 pages long. Like The Age of Defeat, also just reprinted, Eagles and Earwigs is rare in it’s original edition. Both titles show the development of Wilson’s new existentialist thought, with Eagles and Earwigs being particularly strong on what he dubbed ‘existential literary criticism’ a technique for not separating an artists’ personal attitudes from their work – the title comes from Aldous Huxley who gloried in the name of Earwig. The first essay in the book is a discussion of the modern (i.e. 1957) hero in literature and anticipates the central theme of The Age of Defeat, which was two years away. It’s all relevant to the twenty-first century.

“It is my hope”, wrote Wilson exactiy sixty years ago, “that within the next two decades, the techniques of existential thinking will become a commonplace in England and America”. The opening words of Existential Criticism (the second essay here) were written a decade before the non-techniques of semiology and deconstruction began to influence the literary and philosophical departments of English and American universities, with postmodernism glibness becoming ubiquitous by the end of last century. Now commonplace and tedious, those reductionist techniques are a very tiresome cliche. Wilson’s ideas, however, remain powerfully relevant to twenty-first century individuals wishing to go beyond the acceptance of meaninglessness, a problem which is possibly more relevant now than in 1958. “Our modern culture has seen a gradual decline in the in the tacit sense of human purpose, fostered by materialist philosophies […] Consequently the notion of ‘prehension’ of the human effort to assimilate and overcome, has begun to disappear from out literature. The tacit sense of human purpose has been tacitly dropped”. Existential Criticism is a method to expose this unquestioned attitude rather than to wholeheartedly accept it whilst imagining that fine tuning linguistic ambiguities can free us from this ‘romantic defeatism’.

89F7DB7D-D629-4B36-8C98-CA4254222593
First Edition, 1965

The 1965 essay Phenomenology and Literature is short, but it is one of the best introductions to Wilson’s interest in Edmund Husserl. ”Phenomenology regards itself as the philosophical method” Wilson says, but we can forget just how important a method it is unless we practice it – “for ‘academic’ means nothing if not ‘limited’. We lose sight of the basic meaning of phenomenology if we forget that it is, at bottom, a mystical venture – the first mystical venture in human history to insist upon a strictly scientific method”. Imagining a scenario where Husserl meets William Blake, Wilson thinks they would have shared common ground. “For if the word ‘visionary’ means to penetrate through obscurities to the underlying truth, then all science and all literature are visionary in intention”. An essay on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard from 1964 finishes the first part (the book is divided into three sections: Literature and Philosophy, Individual Writers and The Writer and Society).

The second section has essays on Powys and Hemingway, on Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Madach’s Tragedy of Man and Mark Twain. There’s thoughts on the obscure L.H. Myers, The Shaw Problem and an amusing essay on Ayn Rand. Wilson receives a letter from Rand’s ‘organisation’ which reads: “Miss Rand would be very pleased to hear of your interest in her work – when and if you correct your offense against it in the same terms that the offense was committed: that is, publicly”. This section ends with ruminations on Henry Williamson, a contemporary of Myers, who wrote children’s favourite Tarka the Otter and whose reputation was tarnished due to his right wing politics (rather like Wyndham Lewis). The third section concludes the volume with rather more personal thoughts on publicity and writers (1959), particularly Wilson’s own brush with fame in 1956, and The Success Problem from the year after. “We are living, I think,  in one of the most culturally treacherous ages that has ever beset Western civilzation”. In the final essay, Personal: Influences on my Writing (1958) Wilson states that he has nothing in common with the Angry Young Men “except my age”, preferring to align himself with “the tradition of an intellectual creation with it’s roots in analysis” which has the “eventual aim of […] a new form of self-consciousness”. Wilson would develop this through his new existentialist ‘foundation work’ in the next decade, and thereafter by analysing the darkest corners of human behaviour while all the time remaining an optimistic philosopher.

Eagles and Earwigs can be purchased for £20 via Amazon. More information about Eyewear Publishing here.

The Age of Defeat reissued, The Outsider Revisited, and more…

colin-wilson-Age-Of-Defeat-cover-smallThe Age of Defeat, the third volume of Wilson’s Outsider Cycle series, has been reissued by Aristeia Press. This follows from their reissue of volume two, Religion and the Rebel, last year. You can see both books at their website here. The new edition has an introduction by academic Thomas F. Bertonneau, who has previously noted that certain Wilson books  “have been hard to find, and when found on the second-hand market command demoralizing high prices”. A case in point are the Outsider Cycle volumes themselves – while The Outsider has remained in print, the sequel was last reprinted in 1984 and The Age of Defeat was unobtainable for almost six decades, save for a very limited ‘deluxe’ reissue at the turn of the century (it was so limited that even I don’t own a copy!) Hopefully this bodes well for the remaining volumes: while second hand copies of The Strength to Dream, Origins of the Sexual Impulse and Beyond the Outsider can be obtained, their prices are rising. The seminal final volume, Introduction to the New Existentialism, which sums up the series brilliantly, is now becoming prohibitively expensive.

B65373E6-0822-4113-90DD-FAD356D31014
First Edition 1959

The Age of Defeat is produced to match the softcover design of Religion and the Rebel from last year (the original 1950’s Gollancz editions had uniform designs as per usual, but were different sizes).  A study concerned with what Wilson labelled ‘the fallacy of insignificance’, the vanishing hero and the sociology of inner and outer directed psychology, The Age of Defeat is a timely reissue for the twenty first century, with Wilson’s ideas – properly understood – being more relevant now than ever. This latter point is made by pioneering Wilson scholar Howard F. Dossor in a video lecture on Wilson’s debut here. Dossor’s 1990 book (Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind) was the only available work for quite some time to contain a summary of the huge spread and reach of Wilson’s oeuvre, as well as a bibliography and enticing quotes from his work. Along with the compendium The Essential Colin Wilson (1985) this introduced me to the breadth of his output and more importantly, it’s conceptual cohesion. This latter book will be reissued next May and, at 400 pages, is considerably longer than the original, with many extra selections of post-1985 work, chosen by Wilson scholars. Like the original, this includes the ‘Strange Story of Modern Philosophy’ chapter from Beyond the Outsider (this got me interested in philosophy instantly) and an important chapter from the hard to find Introduction to the New Existentialism as well as standalone essays. The same month will see a study of UFO phenomena as seen through the lens of Wilson’s new existentialist ethos. Evolutionary Metaphors by scholar David Moore – who presented papers at both Colin Wilson Conferences this and last year – will be available from 6th Books in 2019, more information is here. His Wilson flavoured musings are at the aptly titled blog Ritual in the Dark. Meanwhile, the Glastonbury based author Paul Weston is currently working on a study provisionally entitled The Colin Wilson Work which will be published sometime in the near future, and my own thoughts on Wilson should appear on paper next year. Against all currents and trends, Wilson is slowly becoming a true underground (and I mean seriously underground) hero of the twenty first century, thanks to the tireless support of  those willing to investigate his radical phenomenology.

Adrift in Soho and Ironfoot Jack

Pablo Brehens’ long awaited film adaptation of Colin Wilson’s classic beat novel Adrift in Soho opens at Leicester Square, starting from Wednesday the 14th of November. Full details here.

20120108-102007-PM.jpgADRIFT IN SOHO took years of research to find out what really happened in those last few years before the 60s began.  The result is a film full of wonderment but also a film that makes you think and demands your attention because the characters are talking to you and not just trying to make you dream.

One of the characters portrayed in the film (and Wilson’s novel) is Ironfoot Jack, the self-anointed ‘king of the bohemians’. A carbon copy of the manuscript of his autobiography was found amongst Colin Wilson’s papers by his bibliographer Colin Stanley, who has now edited it for publication.

The Surrender of Silence is published by Strange Attractor at £12.99 and is available direct from their website.