Gary Lachman Beyond The Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (Tarcher Perigree, 2016)
I first read Colin Wilson over thirty years ago and I was stunned. Layers and layers of recondite information (no internet, you see) poured out of the exciting, accessible prose style and the attitude was astonishing – a relentless attack on all the doom ‘n gloom that permeated everything (or so it seemed). As a teenage Lovecraft aficionado I’d read in a magazine that other writers had added to the Mythos and “perhaps the most original of these have been Colin Wilson’s Return of the Lloiger and The Mind Parasites.” I went to the local library to return a few yellow jacketed Gollancz Lovecrafts but they didn’t have either of those titles. They did have his The Outsider, but it seemed a bit imposing – Kierkegaard? I picked up the bulky volume next to it – about four times longer than anything I’d usually have the patience to read – and it was familiar. I’d actually opened the very same book around four years earlier and read “Everyone who has been in a strange town knows the easiest way to get to know it is to walk around it alone” before placing it back on the shelf. Above a drawing of the head of Michelangelo’s David in a maze or something, in big letters: Mysteries. Page 237. I was in my school uniform then. Now I was searching for a way out of the grey dreariness of council estate consciousness and all it’s attendant frustrations. Borrowing that book, I started a chain reaction and received more riches then I’d ever imagine.
Such was the random nature of finding a Wilson book last century. I began to read as many of the works he had referenced and this turned out to be the best education I ever had. I bought any Wilson title I could find – they usually stuck out due to their minimal cover designs, often in gaudy fluorescent colours – but why did he write so many books on such different subjects? A compilation entitled The Essential Colin Wilson and, later a new book about him – the first one I’d ever seen – by a retired Australian minister answered that conundrum. Eventually I’d read everything by him and have the pleasure of visiting his home to tell him just how much his work influenced me. But it is perhaps only now that I’m beginning to really understand the implications of Wilson’s investigations into consciousness and it’s perverse paradox of freedom.
My discovery of Wilson isn’t too far away from Gary Lachman’s own, as recounted in his Beyond the Robot, the first full length study since Howard F. Dossor’s pioneering summation in 1990. Wilson himself often remarked that what he was trying to say was fairly straightforward – and it was. But it can get lost in the jungle of his multi disciplined output, which is perhaps now even more confusing to a 21st Century mind obsessed with intellectual specialism.
Lachman thankfully makes this ‘single obsessional idea” (as Wilson called it) the theme of his book, which although structured as a biography is a kind of non fiction Bildungsroman as much as anything. Far too much discussion of Wilson focuses on the celebrity/rejection ‘debacle’ around his debut, cuts ‘n pastes the print out cliche of “fled to Cornwall…occult…crime…churned out…serial killers…UFO’s…once met Marylin Monroe…I’m a genius…” and avoids investigating his philosophy “at all costs” (as one desperate for revenue newspaper once idiotically put it). This is, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly pathetic and Lachman avoids dwelling on it, preferring to concentrate on the serious philosophical work which Wilson developed more or less away from the spotlight.
Wilson’s single idea sounds simple enough in theory, but it is cryptically difficult in practice (at first, anyway). Wilson is concerned with freedom – which he stresses is a certainly a reality – but, perhaps with a nod towards Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, he notes a paradox. The odd thing about human freedom is that it’s only usually visible when it’s threatened. “When the German tanks rolled into Warsaw, or the Russians into Budapest, it seemed perfectly obvious what we meant by freedom; it was something solid and definite that was being stolen, as a burglar might steal the silver.” But the absurd paradox of freedom is that consciousness without crisis tends to become negative and trivial. Pain and inconvenience can make us feel free, but comfort is generally boring after a while. Wilson would label this perversity ‘the indifference threshold’ and the amusing story of it’s genesis is in the early part of Lachman’s book. Without danger and injustice, Wilson writes, we allow “a kind of inner-laziness to descend.” Does this mean that we need to seek out stressful situations to feel more alive? Not really. The inconvenience is usually arbitrary and all it does is flex our otherwise flabby perceptual muscles (our intentionality), grasping the meaning of freedom. That meaning was already there – we do not need to induce a crisis to see it, we just need to strengthen our intentional grasp. Passive perception is the culprit here: we think things just ‘happen’ to us, but the philosopher Husserl recognized that this is false, and built a science of consciousness – phenomenology – to combat it. Wilson would write a lot about Husserl in the Sixties and his lectures on his ‘new existentialism’ would be well received in American Universities, but these ideas were out of step with the counterculture and were eclipsed by the academic celebrity surrounding Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ of Husserl around the same time. (Recent scholarship has questioned Derrida’s true knowledge of Husserl’s phenomenology, and his ideas regarding linguistic domination are essentially now a mainstream state ideology – culturally speaking, at least. It is Wilson’s new existentialist theories which are about as truly radical as it’s possible to be in the 21st Century. His firm assertions regarding development of a strong, purposive consciousness and his blunt, driven language are coming from a dangerous and exciting place, far, far away from the comfy puritanical left/right identity politics blip of our present era, and miles away from the naive positivist faith in specialism and science. But I digress).
Why is consciousness so passive? Wilson suggests the problem is ‘the robot’, a kind of SF metaphor (probably derived from the Gurdjieff work, which Lachman cannily notes, Wilson was the first ‘outsider’ to report on) akin to Blake’s poetic notion of the Spectre. The robot is a kind of automatic servant buried amongst our faculties; it is the robot who drives our car once we’ve gone through the painstaking lessons of clutch control and reverse parking. They eventually become automatic so we can concentrate on other things thanks to our dependable helper. (This concept will doubtless become more apparent with the rise of automation in the near future). However this robot is a little over zealous; it often robs us of the quality of novelty or newness in the things we enjoy doing – it interferes with the freshness of things too often. “Making things typical is the robot’s job” writes Lachman. We have “allowed it to overstep it’s duties and have become to dependent on it”. But only because of our passive acceptance that “life is something that happens to us, rather than something we do.” Wilson would search for examples of this active doing consciousness and find it in everything from philosophy, literature, mysticism, science and even negative examples of it in (amongst other things) criminal cases and scandals. Lachman can clearly see the thread through all this and is keen to point out it’s continuity, rather than fall into the trap of regarding Wilson as a dilettante rambling from subject to subject.
True poetic (or aesthetic) illumination is the opposite of robotic consciousness – it’s freshness can be felt in all the early Romantics Wilson documented and dissected. Wilson’s robot (or ‘mind parasite’, in his fiction) is loosely based on Blake’s Spectre (“the reasoning power in man”) and another poetic idea would emerge out of the “new conceptology” of Wilson’s mid sixties phenomenological investigations. Blake regarded the ‘poetic genius’ as the true (non mechanical or robotic) person, and the “true faculty of knowing”, as a fully switched on state of non forgetful perception. “This faculty I treat of” wrote Blake. So would Wilson with his sharp and surprising turn into ‘occultism’ – at least that’s how the critics would see it as they welcomed him back into the fold in 1971. In reality his concept of ‘Faculty X’ – another slightly ironic science fictive label (snappier than the “phenomenological faculty”) – had easily been around since the Fifties. This faculty, Lachman remarks, had “preoccupied Wilson throughout his career” but it was not until 1971 that he gave it a name. Development of this faculty would preoccupy Wilson until the end, and he’d state and restate it over and over again, hedgehog style. Lachman notes interesting overlap here not just with Husserl but also with Whitehead. Faculty X is the antidote to the indifference threshold, or the “law of entropy in prehension” as Wilson described it in 1965, and Lachman understands it from both a theoretical and personal level, as opposed to writing it off as a piece of cranky gullibility.
Throughout the seventies and eighties Wilson would weave this phenomenological thread into work during the revival of interest in parapsychology and fringe Forteanisms, in the booming true crime genre (which he virtually invented), and on everything from alcohol to psychology to sexual deviancy, with many straight and parodic (“Brechtian”) works of fiction; not to mention the mountains of book reviews, introductions, lectures and TV appearances. A particular recommendation of Beyond the Robot is that Lachman pieces together shards of scattered information from minor works which only existed in tiny print runs – now rarities, or unobtainable – as well as core insights from the likes of Wilson’s 1966 masterpiece Introduction to the New Existentialism, (out of print since 1980), which gives a cohesion, a bird’s eye view to the existential jigsaw puzzle which too much writing on Wilson lacks. Like the ‘light detection and ranging’ technology which archeologists now use to find hidden cities under dense jungles, Lachman, like Dossor before him, maps out the alignments otherwise hidden by the debris of six decades of critical apathy and misunderstanding.
Lachman continues scanning into the nineties, where Wilson scholarship really picked up on the grassroots underground. I discovered the Wilson fanzine Abraxas from a notice in the back of his short Ouspensky study in 1993, and I took full advantage of the book signing offer. My copy of the Celebration collection has a verse of Peter Hammill’s song Faculty X in Wilson’s familiar handwriting, and Voyage to a Beginning was signed by “Lord Leicester” – who believed that human beings were grandfather clocks driven by watch springs somewhere in The Mind Parasites. I met Wilson bibliographer Colin Stanley and was so impressed at his collection of Wilson material – now housed in the University of Nottingham – that I started collecting first editions myself. Stanley continues to run the “aptly named” Paupers’ Press, a cottage industry publishing concern specializing in, but not exclusively, Wilson and his work.
All this was happening well under the radar of the critical establishment who continued to treat Wilson much as they had in 1957, and sometimes worse. He would put the record straight with his late work The Angry Years, and beautifully sum up his thoughts on the kind of super-consciousness which had preoccupied him for so long in a book of that title. The latter work was originally written for the Japanese market, where Wilson remained critically respected enough to lecture to huge audiences in 1986; back in the seventies he had been invited to lecture in Iran – his books were cult reading in the Middle East, and the red carpet had been rolled out for his arrival in Beirut in 1973. The huge sequel to The Space Vampires he had recently written was rejected by every British publisher (too long), but released in Russian (although according to Lachman, he received no royalties). His later work on lost civilizations was enthusiastically quoted – twice – by none other than cultural Marxist Slavoj Zizek. I wonder what the ‘dreadful’ Terry Eagleton made of that?
Despite the efforts of Abraxas and Paupers’ Press, despite the thoughtful nods from cultural figures like filmmaker Nic Roeg or musicians such as Julian Cope, it was only really the “brainless” British critical establishment who regarded Wilson as a joke. Typically, Beyond The Robot is written by an American ex-pat and seems to be only published in the USA. “It is depressing” wrote a Samuel Beckett devotee with little awareness of irony, “how seriously Wilson is taken in America.” In a new introduction to a 1991 edition of his Beyond the Outsider (published in New York), Wilson described England in the nineties as “the cultural wasteland that it has been since the end of the Second World War.” Britain’s premier intellectual superstar in the 21st century? Dawkins, the Billy Graham of atheism. One example (from multitudes) of Nietzsche’s Letzter Mensch…
When Wilson was once asked what he wanted to remembered for, he said for his novels and his central philosophical ideas. That’s possibly what will happen.
I received notice of Colin’s passing in an email on my iPhone in the works canteen one evening in late 2013 (shift work, 2 – 10). He’d been ill for quite a while and a few years before he’d told me from his chair at Tetherdown that “you can really feel it catching up with you.” The mainstream UK obituaries were lousy apart from one single example of insight in The Independent. In life as in death, they were totally unaware of his existential insights into the paradox of freedom and giggled behind their hands over a critical pratfall from a previous century. Great minds.
A few years before I had attended an exhibition featuring selections from the Colin Wilson archive, housed in the University of Nottingham (ironically, next to the DH Lawrence collection). There were scores of fascinating items and it was marvelous to meet old friends and make new ones. Colin was unable to attend but a festschrift of appreciative essays was collected and presented to him for his 80th birthday. This exhibition represented, to me, the start of a new era: all the hard slog and sweat of Wilson and his scholars will be easily mined by future academics. I’ll give it, oh, maybe a few decades before the critical recanting begins in earnest – what could be more self satisfying than a huge catalogue of work, popular but controversial, with tendrils reaching into a myriad of other disciplines and connections extending into the last blast of literary modernism, all forensically analyzed from a safe distance? Lachman has said in interviews that this is of course inevitable, as academic study of the humanities always runs out of things to say because it doesn’t generate it’s own content. But he was also wise enough to point out that that’s not really the important thing. The important thing is to cultivate the faculty Wilson wrote about, into a revolutionary state of perceptual and aesthetic awareness. The important thing is to get beyond the robot.
There’s barely anything in this book that hard core readers like myself won’t already know – can we have access to those phenomenological journals, please, though? – but of course the point of Beyond The Robot is to introduce new readers to a holistic picture of Wilson and his lifetime of ideas; in this it succeeds by crushing mountains of disparate information in between two covers. It grapples with possibilities regarding Wilson’s future influence. In a talk promoting this book Lachman ironically remarked that if we can go from wishing to publicly hang Aleister Crowley on a gallows to actually hanging Leon Engers Kennedy’s portrait of him in the National Gallery in a fairly short space of time, why can’t we rehabilitate Wilson? Now that Crowley has gone from being dangerous – I can remember the sense of discomfort just buying his books as recently as the Eighties – to absorption in the mainstream, where he has become just another meme, I can see a sort of parallel. Crowley’s legacy was kept alive by a tiny band of devotees after his death, remained buoyant by the counterculture, and he has ended up becoming somewhat respectable and the subject of academic studies. So is Colin Stanley our own Gerald Yorke? Yes and no. Colin Wilson could seem to be occupying the hinterland where Crowley was between 1947 and Sgt. Pepper, with a devoted following battling the revulsion of the establishment, but there are differences. Wilson avoided the trap of guru – he wrote a book critiquing the entire ‘charlatan messiah’ syndrome – and his open minded, generous accessibility, his offering of suggestions rather than rules or exercises means it’s unlikely that his readers can never end up like Crowley’s ironically non individualistic followers, with their catchphrases and identikit views. Some of us call each other “Wilsonians” but we don’t really mean it. And let’s not forget that despite the critical sniping, Wilson was always a popular author, much, much more widely read that somebody like The Great Beast, whose books are rumpled and fetishized by collectors and devotees rather than read by the public (Crowley’s best book, The Confessions, did sell quite a few in a paperback edition in 1989 though).
Lachman notes that when he first moved to London and began speaking about his interest in Wilson and the sum of his work he was surprised by the skepticism in ‘alternative’ circles, compared to those in the US – “the general impression I got was that he had written too much about too many things and had been repeating himself for years.” This specialism is endemic not just in esoterica but in other research like Ripperology (a term Wilson invented) and pretty much everything else which he wrote about. Wilson is thought of as a none too competent fox but only by those who cannot see the hedgehog for the spikes. Again, it doesn’t matter. Wilson remains a true oppositional, perhaps one of the last of his kind, and his attitude and ideas towards consciousness and its manifestations run counter to everything we see around us at the beginning of the 21st Century. That in itself is reason to celebrate him. I’ve no doubt that Wilson’s ‘new conceptolgy’, his solution to the paradox of freedom, will eventually begin to generate new and surprising revelations in an manner unexpected even by his readers.