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

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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

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