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Colin Wilson, Phenomenology

The Nu Exi

This summary of The New Existentialism was originally intended for a website Colin Wilson was working on which would have included “all of my books in summary”. No mean feat, unfortunately it was never completed. This essay previously appeared at the last version of this site.
Introduction the the New Existentialism (1966)
I regard this little book as a kind of appendix to the six volumes of the ‘Outsider series’. It is a conscious attempt to create what I have called ‘Romanticism Mark 3’ (bearing in mind that I regard Existentialism as Romanticism Mark 2). It was a statement of my own non-pessimistic existentialism. In Beyond the Outsider I had already spoken of Heidegger and Sartre, and tried to show that their gloomy view of human existence is not a genuinely logical consequence of their premises, but an expression of their personal temperaments. Sartre, for example, failed to see that if all consciousness is intentional, then Roquentin’s ‘nausea’ must also be intentional, not a revelation of the meaninglessness of human existence. Similarly, Heidegger speaks in Being and Time (p.173) about the ‘manifest burden of Being’ and the ‘burdensome character of Dasein’ (human existence) as if this something on which we are all agreed, failing to recognise that, for example, Nietzsche would simply declare that, as far as he is concerned, it is not at all ‘manifest’, and would go on to dismiss it as an expression of the kind of poor-spiritedness he condemns in Christianity.

I should mention that there is an important section in The New Existentialism on an interesting new concept in psychology called Transactionalism, for which Hadley Cantril was mainly responsible – it was Julian Huxley who told me about it. This could be regarded as a most interesting application of Husserl’s insights (although, in fact the transactionists were more influenced by Whitehead).

Transactionalism recognises that we do not simply ‘see’ things by opening our eyes. Perception is a transaction like buying a pound of sugar. I purchase my perceptions by ‘paying’ for them, and the coinage in which I pay is (a) energy, (b) preconceptions.

Cantril and his colleague Adelbert Ames Jnr devised an ingenious ‘trick room’, rather like something one might encounter at a fairground.

I am led to a small peephole in a screen. I look through it,and see what appears be an ordinary room. Standing in one corner is a small boy, and in the other, a tall man. There are also a couple of chairs standing somewhere near the rear wall. Now the man and the small boy advance towards one another. As they do so, they appear to change size, and when they reach opposite corners, their roles are reversed. The boy is now enormous, an the man has shrunk to half his size.

The secret is a trick of perspective. I assumed it to be a normal, square room because the wall facing me appeared to be an ordinary square. In fact, the wall was really sloping away from me, but the wall which I had assumed to be rectangular was actually trapeze -shaped, with one tall end and one short end.

The short end of the trapezium was closest to my eye, so that it appeared to be exactly the same length as the long end, which was further away. The man seemed to be getting smaller because he was walking away from me; the boy seemed to be getting bigger because he was walking towards me. (The principle is the same as in photographing a man whose feet appear huge because they are close to the camera.) Consequently I appeared to be looking at an ordinary rectangle.

Sometimes, there are two windows in the wall, also trapeze-shaped, so that they also appear to be square. This can lead to startling effects; if a man’s face looks at me first through one window, then, a moment later, through the other, it seems to me that his head has suddenly changed size.

The chairs in the room are also ‘trick chairs’, made with one leg longer than the other.

But here is the pay-off. Two of the subjects chosen to take part were a man and his wife. The man was highly distinguished and his wife’s attitude towards him was one of love and respect. And when the husband looked through one window, then the other, his wife’s respect for him prevented her vision from distorting him, and making his head appear first large, then small, and she suddenly saw through the illusion, and she said ‘Hey, those windows are different sizes’. This became known as the ‘Honi effect’ since he always called her Honi (i.e. Honey).

Now if you really wish to test how far you have understood what I have been saying about phenomenology, then just imagine that some scientist has invented a device that you put on like a pair of spectacles, and which ‘undistorts’ the world around us, and creates the Honi effect on a massive scale; i.e. it removes all the prejudices and assumptions from your ‘seeing’ and allows you to see things as they ‘really are’.

Here is the question. Bearing in mind how ‘Honi’ saw the trick behind the distorted room, what difference do you think the inventor’s ‘undistorting’ device would make to your perceptions?

Let me add quickly that there is no single answer to that question. You could go on indefinitely imagining ‘breakthroughs to reality’ – like, for example, the breakthrough I have described in Cardiff when I declined to accept the evidence of my senses that I was in an utterly dreary situation.

Mostly, in fact, the difference made by the ‘Undistorter’ would be of this kind.

Amusingly, the great science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote a story about a pair of spectacles that would show things from other points of view, and I recommend it to all students of phenomenology. (It is called The Point of View.) Similarly, C. S. Lewis wrote a delightful story about seeing things through other people’s eyes, called The Shoddy Lands, in which a professor has the strange experience of seeing the world through the unsophisticated eyes of one of his students’ girlfriends.

And as a third example, here is a page from Introduction to the New Existentialism which deals with yet another literary instance of ‘phenomenological distortion’:

George Crabbe has a narrative poem called The Lover’s Journey that would have delighted Husserl. It begins with the thoroughly phemomenological statement:

It is the soul that sees: the outward eyes

Present the object; but the mind descries

The lover sets out to see his mistress, and as he rides along, everything delights him, and his reflections on the delights of nature are of the kind we find in Goldsmith’s Deserted Village or Thompson’s Seasons. He passes some gypsies, and reflects charitably that even if they are thieves and idlers, they are nevertheless ‘merry rogues.’ But when he arrives at her house, he finds a note saying that she has had to go to visit a friend, and asking him to follow. He sets out in a thoroughly black temper; now everything displeases him:

I hate these long green lanes; there’s nothing seen

In this vile country but eternal green

The sight of a newly wedded couple emerging from church arouses cynical reflections. But now he arrives and meets his mistress, and instantly forgets his anger. They go off together, completely oblivious of everything but one another. The passing scenes arouse neither delight nor irritation; they are unnoticed.

These examples offer us a glimpse of how phenomenology could be used to transform our lives.
© Colin Wilson



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