Two books published in the Colin Wilson Studies series are very contemporary – yet the contents are four decades old.
As a reader of Wilson since the last century, reading a ‘new’ book by him is an unusual experience now. Despite knowing that his uncollected or unpublished work is a rich seam, it’s an odd feeling to know that this is all posthumous; that there’s not going to be two or more new books a year and that one might be blessed with the inevitable cut ‘n paste review containing all the old annoying cliches. This stuff, published by Paupers’ Press, is made and consumed (mostly) by hardcore readers and collectors.
In a strange sense though, it’s like the spotlight is off Colin Wilson, the person, and firmly on his ideas. (Unless you’re an obituary writer). These two books are full of ideas, despite their brevity.
Colin Wilson Studies # 21 contains two essays from 1974 or thereabouts: Comments on Boredom and Evolutionary Humanism and the New Psychology. Studies # 22 is a previously unpublished Introduction to a book which would have been called Faces of Evil, if it ever appeared. Possibly from the mid to late Seventies, the only trace left of its existence is a cover image, advertising blurb and ISBN number: 0-89104-042-0. It was to have featured 60 full colour illustrations and 30 original paintings in it’s 128 pages.
Edited and introduced by Wilson scholar Vaughan Rapatahana, these essays “make sure you cogitate and they force you to ponder further.” A well known effect for Wilson readers. Another plus is that the topics he writes about here are very relevant – a point not lost on the editor.
Boredom. (Trans)Humanism. Evil.
Humanism, as it’s understood – or should that be marketed? – today is a different beast to the Humanism that Wilson writes about here. ‘Humanism’, with it’s corporate logo, London bus adverts, celebrity atheists and it’s general sense of bourgeois self-satisfaction is not really the Humanism that Wilson is writing about. That sort of Commercial Evangelical Humanism has more in common with the creature comforts of der letzte Mensch, Nietzsche’s ‘last man”, the opposite of the bed of nails that is (will be?) Das Übermensch. Wilson’s Evolutionary Humanism has more in common with Julian Huxley’s original concept as discussed in Beyond the Outsider. Huxley, in fact described himself as a “Transhumanist” – a point we’ll need to return to. So even though he can write that “My religion is evolutionary humanism” (1) he is not advocating a simple replacement of Theology with Darwinism, as that would be too philosophically crude. Rather, he is attempting to describe, with as much phenomenological precision as possible, the access code to a “new world of super-reality and anti-futility.” (2) H G Wells’ metaphor of early amphibians struggling to stand or breathe on land is referenced, but Wilson suggests that the need to flop back into the cool waters of “repetitive little preoccupations and animal responses” is best described in the opening scenes of Goethe’s Faust, in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (3) and in Dostoyevsky’s figure of Stavrogin. These three are expositions of what Wilson calls “the values problem”, the problem of life fatigue and life failure. Our instinctive values or rather, subconscious intentionalities, have been built up over millions of years, and they need to be analysed for deep, deep prejudices in the light of everyday consciousness. Because our habit of selective consciousness is so ingrained – originally for our survival – it continuously replaces any sense of wider meaning with a sense of immediate purpose, with the ability to concentrate on getting things done, but generating unpleasant side effects of neurosis and social friction.
Wilson sees the imagination as part of perception. Imagination moulds the perceptions of the physical world, although “it has a tough sub-structure of reality to deal with. However, it colours and shapes and tints and excludes, and the resulting perception is not in any sense a perception of ‘things as they are’. It is carefully edited.” (4) This is the instinctive value mentioned earlier; in fact it is actually a “devaluing mechanism.’ Things can be perfect in life, and we take them for granted – in fact we are normally bored (this is discussed more fully in the Comments on Boredom essay). What is happening, says Wilson, is that we instinctively put aside the pleasure and move on to the next thing. “This means that, from the feeling point of view, consciousness is kept blank – that is, open and receptive. But if there happen to be no ‘in-coming’ feelings, the result is boredom.” (5) The chief value (ironically) of the devaluing mechanism is pain and inconvenience – we can get over minor physical pain or setbacks by devaluing them and moving into something else. Wilson calls this the ‘St. Neots Margin’, a kind of equator of the human mind that is affected by pain, but indifferent to pleasure. We take happiness for granted, but only start to ask questions when we suffer misfortune.
Now Wilson introduces an important concept. As our consciousness is editing our environment, certain things are left on the cutting room floor. The full beam of our intentionality is focussing on a limited number of things, whilst others are noticed, but in a less immediate way. They are out-takes, like the extras on a Directors’ Cut DVD that we will probably never watch. They are there, they are important, but taken for granted – like, Wilson remarks, a pair of guests who are so familiar to the butler that he doesn’t need to ask for their invitation card. They are accepted – but rather than call this process ‘acceptance’, Wilson describes this mechanical observation as ‘acceptation’. For convenience, acceptation “is the actual medium for the dilution of consciousness.” (6) it is, he says, like ash which prevents the consciousness from overheating. The inferno of total consciousness would generate too much heat for us at this moment, so we use our powers of abstraction and imagination to bring back enough for a camp fire. We supplement our awareness with memory and imagination.
The imagination should not be confused with daydreaming. “It is related to ordinary perception as as mathematics is related to science; it is concerned with the basic laws of the reality that perception can only grasp piecemeal.” (7) Perception is intentional, it is selective – and it is prejudiced. A strongly developed imagination can easily be used to remind ourselves of how our selective consciousness has become what it is, and why.
Wilson is keen to remind us that we are marking time with our present consciousness. We cannot go any further with these old habits, the door of the prison is opening, but far too slowly, and while we’re in this state, “we need war as a necessary outlet.” (8) Bearing in mind that these words were written forty years ago, little has changed. The problem is still staring us in the face, and people seem keen to avoid addressing it. Perhaps because, as Wilson says, we treat consciousness as a basic unit, rather than showing (or rather knowing) how it is built. Wilson once remarked that the problem of philosophy is so simple that no philosopher has ever stated it. He is on to something there.
Wilson’s Evolutionary Humanism is unlike today’s Humanism. Like Huxley’s Transhumanism, like Maslow’s self-actualising Metahuman, it is Nietzsche rather than Darwin who is the focus. So it is interesting to see the editor compare Wilson to Ray Brassier in The Faces of Evil. For although Brassier is a supporter of Transhumanism, he insists, somewhat theatrically, that we must choose Darwin over Husserl lest we “plunge headlong into intellectual disaster and the ruin of philosophy.” Brassier was once linked to the Speculative Realists, who claim originality for their use of H. P. Lovecraft in philosophical – specifically phenomenological – disciplines. They are still shamefully unaware of Wilson’s historical record here. Brassier, like Thomas Ligotti, like Houellebecq and S. T. Joshi, seem to admire Lovecraft for his fundamentalist nihilism. This is perhaps a little too convenient; Lovecraft’s nihilism is really his least interesting feature. It is a mask, the opposite of his real drive. (8) So although Wilson sounds like Brassier – or rather, vice versa – when he writes of Evil as “a vital force so tremendous that the slightest glimpse of it reveals our human values to be childish and trivial”, he is probably speaking Nietzscheian, or perhaps Blakeian (the antediluvians who are our energies etc.) rather than materialist nihilism. Lovecraft made the phenomenological mistake of describing his Things as “evil”, when they are in fact fascinating. Wilson offers Arthur Machen’s description of a similar experience, but minus any dread. (9) Perhaps Machen was a greater phenomenologist than his literary offspring…
So in these essays, forty years old, Colin Wilson is pretty much discussing today’s cultural impasse. Or maybe it’s just that not much has changed? The points he makes on these topics are certainly worth everyone’s attention.
(1) Colin Wilson, Comments on Boredom and Evolutionary Humanism and the New Psychology: two unpublished essays Paupers’ Press, 2013, p. 35
(2) ibid. p. 36
(3) Specifically the section entitled On the Tree on the Mountain (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p.29)
(4) Colin Wilson, Comments on Boredom and Evolutionary Humanism and the New Psychology: two unpublished essays Paupers’ Press, 2013, p. 42
(5) ibid. p. 43
(6) ibid. p. 44
(7) ibid. p. 45
(8) Kenneth Grant The Ninth Arch, p xxix Starfire 2002
(9) see Wilson’s introduction to The Necronomicon (Neville Spearman, 1978)
Image – Übermensch: Stan Laurel as Frankenstein Oil on Canvas, by the author.