The distorting medium is the message

The projected documentary on the life and work of Colin Wilson has achieved it’s financial goal via a combination of a crowdfunding campaign and from a very generous benefactor. The film will go ahead this year. This very interesting development deserves some reflection on Wilson’s main ideas and their relevance to today. 

“Human beings of the 21st century will be born into a forbidding world: a civilisation that is immense, aloof, heartless, and highly mechanised” wrote Colin Wilson in 1970, a fairly accurate prediction now that we’re living in it. The ‘attention economy’ is one description of this era and as one of Wilson’s primary concerns was with the fluctuations of attention in consciousness, it’s worthwhile looking into his arguments for strengthening our grip on reality. 

Nietzsche made the distinction between freedom from and freedom for. The first is negative and passive; the idea that if we throw off our chains we will be ‘free’. This was satirised by Dostoyevsky in The Devils (“We shall reduce everything to one common denominator. Full equality”) and Nietzsche dismissed it in Zarathustra (i.e. ‘On The Tarantulas’ in the second part). Wilson demonstrated it’s faults by acknowledging the ‘romantic’ origin of last century’s crime explosion and all it’s unpleasant excesses when he said that Rousseau’s “muddied anti-authoritarianism [has] created a reservoir of resentment” which is now a commonly held attitude. But Nietzsche knew that freedom is a creative act – his ironic line about throwing away values by casting off chains and Zarathustra’s question  ‘free for what?’ appears in the section ‘On the Way of the Creator’. This question was analysed via the lives of creative people in Wilson’s first book The Outsider, a meditation on identity and values. That and Wilson’s subsequent writings are concerned with the puzzle of ‘freedom’. Discussing Dostoyevsky in The Outsider Wilson remarks that “freedom is the greatest burden of all”.  We want it more than anything but when we get it, it bores us quickly. What goes wrong? Wilson thinks a quirk in perception is the problem – we have developed a strong ability to focus on minor details which has weakened our understanding of any larger patterns of meaning. Negative values (freedom from) dominate over positive (freedom for). Like Nietzsche Wilson was concerned with a re-evaluation of our values, from negative to positive. This fairly straightforward insight powers most of his output.

He cheerfully admitted that this ‘single obsessional idea’ held his large body of work together, despite the seemingly diffuse subjects he covered. Essentially a philosopher, he wrote fiction and literary criticism as well as criminology, psychology, ‘occultism’, biographies and autobiographies, and one-off examinations on everything from alcohol to astronomy. Once a common tactic in the era of ‘men of letters’ this has now fallen into disrepute in an era of academic specialisation (back in 1970 Wilson thought there would be a “discouraging amount” of this in the 21st century and unfortunately he was right). Therefore this specialisation itself is something of a handicap when it comes to understanding what Wilson actually did. Readers who specialise in one thing only – say, Jung or Jack the Ripper – will only know one or two of Wilson’s books and make the presumption that he was trying to be an expert on one or too many things. Unable to see the larger pattern of his work (which he called ‘an existential jigsaw puzzle’) they usually dismiss him as unacademic for refusing to concentrate on one subject only. Ironically enough this is the very thing that Wilson was concerned with as a philosopher, how consciousness can sharply focus on details at the expense of broader meanings. Science would be impossible without this attention to detail but the drawback with this attitude is that it makes judgements on the ‘meaninglessness’ of everything appear more plausible. Two mathematicians turned philosophers, A. N. Whitehead and Edmund Husserl, were also concerned with this tricky problem, and Wilson pays back the debt by making their ideas central to his own investigations. 

Wilson became first known as Britain’s only home grown existentialist and this a fair description. In terms of his public image in English speaking countries he is generally known for the successes of his first book The Outsider (1956) and The Occult (1971) when he was welcomed back into the fold by the same critics who dismissed the sequels to his debut. But this regular interpretation obscures a few things. Firstly, The Outsider was only one part of a seven volume series which took ten years to complete. The seventh volume, Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966) summarises all six previous titles and is both the starting point for understanding Wilson’s own philosophy (in part two of the book) and a superb primer for Husserl and his method in part one. New readers should really start with this slim volume and then tackle The Outsider and the other five books (the first has never been out of print, the rest are currently undergoing a reissue programme). Secondly, The Occult was Wilson’s first commissioned book. So for the first fifteen years of his career he essentially wrote what he wanted; 1956 to 1971 is perhaps the purest expression of his interests in both his non-fiction and the novels. This is not in any way to denigrate the work after 1971 – far from it – but afterwards it becomes more necessary to sort major from minor works as Wilson’s productivity increased. Despite that, the ‘central obsession’ never flagged until Wilson ceased to write around 2011 due to a crippling stroke (he died in 2013). 

Part one of The New Existentialism (as it’s usually referred to) remains a brilliantly concise introduction to the method of phenomenology. Wilson had noted in 1966 that such a thing was non-existent as far as the non-academic reader was concerned, and the situation has hardly improved in the past half-century. As one commentator on existentialism has noted, Husserl’s difficult method is easier to betray than to follow, and Wilson illustrates this problem by including a brief history of the phenomenological movement in the first part of his book. Considering that The New Existentialism was originally only 188 pages long, it’s quite an achievement. A new introduction to the reprint of 2018 notes that Wilson revisited and re-wrote quite a lot of it which was unusual for him. It’s also pointed out that the book enables the reader to put these ‘phenomenological’ methods into practice immediately – which it does – and indeed the second part even suggests some practical disciples for everyday use. 

Husserl himself wrote (or rather lectured) a few introductions to his method, most notably the Cartesian Meditations in the late 1920’s. But as Wilson said in his own book none are useful to the beginner, despite Husserl’s keenness to stress that phenomenology is the most useful method in all philosophy. “If the right attitude has been won, and made secure by practice, above all, however, if one has acquired the courage to obey the clear eidetic data with a with a radical lack of prejudice so as to be unencumbered by all current and learned theories, then firm results are directly produced…” (Husserl, Ideas I § 87). “The first practical necessity for the existential philosopher is to become conscious of the intentionality of all his conscious acts” (Wilson, The New Existentialism, part two, chapter one). Wilson says elsewhere that the gift of existentialism and the phenomenological method that preceded it was in it’s recognition that it is not the ‘senses’ that distort reality – as previous philosophers had thought – but in it’s insight that the ‘distorting medium’ is active human intentionality. Wilson offers a wonderful metaphor for intentionality in his book. Descartes’ cogito is like a detective questioning a room of suspects, weighing up the evidence and trying to get to the truth by doubting everybody and their excuses that they are innocent. But Husserl has pointed out that there is something that Descartes didn’t doubt – his own innocence. “Husserl has suggested a new and disturbing possibility. Suppose the detective himself is the murderer?” Nietzsche claimed that there never has been a science free of suppositions and that all philosophy is really just the autobiography of philosophers themselves. Wilson thinks this is a fair criticism, but only when aimed at the immediate period before Husserl ‘invented’ his phenomenological method (i.e before 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death and the publication of the first volume of Husserl’s Logical Investigations). “It was Husserl who pointed out this simple mistake that had kept philosophy at a standstill for two hundred years” –  and Wilson wrote a brilliantly informative and amusing chapter on this ‘strange story of modern philosophy’ in the preceding Outsider volume in 1965. Descartes had said that the only thing which we can be certain of is our consciousness – ‘cogito ergo sum’ – and that philosophy should primarily study consciousness, but this is the very thing he neglected to do! It took a few centuries for Husserl to point out that consciousness is not a flat, passive reflection but an active distorter of reality. Wilson summarised this insight with his maxim ‘perception is intentional’. Becoming aware of these intentional distortions is the first practical discipline of Wilson’s new existentialist philosophy, the basis of his life’s work, whatever the subject. Quite frankly, it’s not that difficult – no more than learning a foreign language or appreciating the history of painting. For the politically engaged, one example Wilson gives is of not reacting during a party political broadcast of the party you oppose – and we could do with more of that these days. This ‘bracketing out’ of unconscious prejudices was described by Husserl as the phenomenological reduction (epochē or suspension). 

Sartre’s existential classic Nausea is an attempt to perform this ‘operation’ as Husserl called it. Phenomenologists aim to describe phenomena without emotional prejudices or distortions – Husserl’s ‘right attitude’, a ‘radical lack of prejudice’ – but Sartre, who started out as a Husserlian, doesn’t quite get there. His description of taking a seat on a tram, for instance, sounds like something out of the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft – ‘I am in the midst of Things, which cannot be given names. Alone, wordless, defenceless, they surround me, under me, behind me, above me”. Sartre’s operations are always tinged with malevolence or pessimism, and Wilson analyses this fault in the fourth instalment of his Outsider series, a study of literature and the imagination (or rather, “a study of the inaccuracies of the imagination”). 

Husserl’s pupil Heidegger had access to his tutor’s notes on time-consciousness and Wilson says that Heidegger’s main contribution was to analyse the impact of time and of human relations in the distorting medium. The neo-Kantian Fichte had already said that to be free is nothing but to become free is heavenly and Wilson points out that this is important because it involves an active time dimension (becoming, not just ‘being’) in freedom. Philosophy is an active and not static business, it is – as Wilson points out in the Outsider books – lived or ‘lived by’, not merely speculative. Throughout the series of 1956 -‘66 Wilson developed this philosophy of intentional consciousness or ‘phenomenological existentialism’ although he shortened it to ‘new’ existentialism to distinguish it from that of Heidegger or Sartre (ironically enough he was actually going back to Husserl’s original method which they both abandoned fairly quickly). Sartre once fondly remembered that he had never felt so free as when he was in the Resistance and could have been shot at any time – Nietzsche’s ‘freedom from’, again –  so therefore commitment to action was freedom. Heidegger said that we only truly know ourselves in the face of death (when “ones potentiality-for-Being becomes authentic and wholly transparent”). But as Wilson points out, Gurdjieff – who is more like Heidegger than he first appears – essentially said the same thing as a semi-serious joke. Hemingway acted out this type of adventure, but ended up a drunk and then a suicide. Wilson names this the ‘paradox of freedom’ and it is the obsession that runs through his works. Consciousness without crisis, he says, tends to become negative (significantly, the latter term was introduced into common language via the Gurdjieff ‘work’). So does this mean, as Sartre and Hemingway think, that we should seek out danger? No – “Husserl’s discovery of ‘intentionality’ meant that the danger and hardship are not essential; they only trigger the mechanism”. By separating the object (the danger or crisis situation) from it’s intention in the reduction, it can be seen that it is a vital upsurge of energy that keeps us ‘free’ or ‘awake’ in these circumstances, not the dangerous circumstances themselves. Blake and Nietzsche said that ‘antediluvian’ or ‘cyclopean’ energies power our concepts, but their poetic inspirations were free of the the kind of emotional distortions later found in Lovecraft or Sartre. Wilson noted that underpowered perception will indeed distort the object it ‘intends’ towards; Husserl meant the same thing when he said that ‘pure perception’ requires a more complicated act than our usual passive state. “If I carry out the [transcendental] reduction for myself, I am not a human ego” he wrote in a draft for the Encyclopaedia Brittanica

This is a step towards creative ‘freedom for’, or at least a move away from it’s resentment driven opposite. We should be able to do this in any situation, especially in pleasant surroundings, but mostly this is not so. We are usually bored by that. Wilson calls this the ‘indifference threshold’, an odd handicap in which we are motivated by crisis rather than comfort. This, thinks Wilson, is a legacy of our evolution – as Wells said, most creatures have been ‘up against it’ since the dawn of time, humans included. Against this he made the intriguing alternative suggestion of an ‘evolutionary intentionality’ in his Beyond the Outsider (1965). Ideally we should no longer need danger to make us alert to meanings as meaning is ‘out there’, independent of our moods and prejudices. The ‘mechanism’ that is triggered is intention which Wilson has compared to a ‘kind of hand’ or pseudopodium. Husserl’s point was that we actively grasp reality rather than passively consume it as a spectator (significantly, Sartre was an influence on situationism and ‘the society of the spectacle’, nowadays, the attention economy). We must, Wilson stresses throughout his work, train or flex this intentional organ in order to actively become free. 

Wilson worked on his phenomenological ‘new’ existentialism thoroughly and mostly uninterrupted for the first decade or so of his career, and an interviewer once pointed out in 1993 that even some of his critics hedgingly admired his resilience in weathering endless attacks which were intended to derail it. After The Outsider he was pilloried and then virtually ignored (in his homeland, mostly) until the early seventies when he was gradually forgotten as the boy wonder of the ‘50’s and slowly became something of a sage on subjects such crime and the paranormal (the 1993 article began by saying that he rarely appeared on television or radio unless the subject was murder). However Wilson remained a philosopher and such subjects were grist for his existential and phenomenological enquires; his interest in crime and mysticism long predate even his first book. In a study of Rasputin (1964) he writes that “the distorting power” of intentionality “can be much better studied through the psychology of sex or religion, since the mind’s strongest forces are here in question”. These ‘forces’ are the antediluvian or cyclopean energies of Blake and Nietzsche and are discussed in The New Existentialism. Add to that the “fine network of human relations” (personal or social, embedded in the distorting medium) as analysed by Heidegger and the continuity of Wilson’s post-Outsider, pre-Occult method can be clearly or subliminally felt in the many studies he made of the dark sides of human nature. The Occult is a history of hermeticism – and it’s a brilliant one at that – but it’s really a continuation of The New Existentialism from five years before (discussing the cabbala, Wilson writes that there is “a fundamental error in the way human being grasp the world. We think of the mind as a helpless imponderable in a world of solid matter, a mere passive observer”). Written In Blood (1989) can be read as history of forensics but it ends on a philosophical note as he cheerfully admits that even this “grimly practical field” is a intellectual endeavour, the eradication of crime by intellect (a phenomenologist could say ‘the destruction of ambiguity by intention’). At the end of that book he again takes on Rousseau’s half truth “which can be far more dangerous than an outright lie. Freedom is a quality of consciousness…” 

Wilson’s writings could perhaps be seen as being more accessible from The Occult onwards as they’re not so densely packed with philosophical detail, but they are all part of the same quest. It’s only the lack of awareness of his central philosophy that makes his work appear haphazard (patronising journalists wanting to avoid discussing his phenomenology “at all costs” didn’t help much either). Understand the phenomenological method that underpins it and Wilson’s aims are clear (this website attempts to draw attention to it). 

Reading his work these days may be a matter of taste or expediency. Beginners could start with the compendium The Ultimate Colin Wilson which contains excerpts from many of his major works. There’s his autobiography Dreaming To Some Purpose and Gary Lachman’s study Beyond The Robot. For the philosophically minded, there’s The New Existentialism and the Outsider sequence that preceded it; for mystics, the ‘Occult trilogy’; for hardened crime aficionados probably any of the crime books. At the deeper end are the ‘Colin Wilson Studies’ series from Nottingham’s Paupers’ Press. None of this contradicts the fact that Wilson is a pleasurable read to many readers (myself included) who have simply enjoyed a few of his books – I’ve encountered a lot of people from all walks of life who have – but putting him into historical context requires standing back and seeing the larger picture. Not for nothing did he call his efforts an existential jigsaw puzzle – Husserl’s third phenomenological investigation tackles ‘the theory of wholes and parts’ (“the remotest of these parts are no further from the whole than the nearest”). 

With the publication of The Occult in 1971 Wilson discussed a concept he called ‘Faculty X’, an awareness of the reality of other times and other places (he had previously examined how ‘otherness’ is filtered out by what Husserl called the natural standpoint – our ‘normal’, naive or passive consciousness). One of the most famous examples he gives of it in action is via Proust from his novel Swann’s Way when he recalls his childhood as a reality rather than a slightly faded memory. Certainly Husserl himself would have enjoyed Proust’s description regarding “this unremembered state, which brought with it no logical proof but the indisputable evidence, of it’s felicity, it’s reality, and in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished”. Originally the ‘phenomenological faculty’ but rejected by Wilson as rather a clumsy mouthful [1] it became ‘faculty x’ circa 1967 and then Faculty X soon after. As it bridges the phenomenology of Wilson’s new existentialism to his interest in hermetic thought, it’s apt that it appeared in it’s finished form in a history of occultism (I have written about the connections between the two in more detail here). Faculty X is the sense of the reality of other times and other places; Proust could talk about his childhood and actually mean it. Husserl concerned himself with meaning with his first investigation of his Logical Investigations. His follower Maurice Merleau-Ponty once said that we are ‘condemned to meaning’ perhaps as a retort against his colleague Sartre who famously remarked that we are condemned to freedom. (Wilson called Merleau-Ponty “an existentialist stoic”). 

Faculty X is the ‘phenomenological faculty’ because it makes us clearly aware that the far is as real as the near (Husserl’s ‘remotest and nearest’, and his theories on internal time consciousness). Wilson insists that Faculty X is the key to all poetic and mystical experiences and a solution to the paradox of freedom. As a concept it is a concentrated form of Wilson’s ‘new’ existentialist philosophy and he obsessed over it in most of his books, even before it had a name. A novel from 1969, The Philosopher’s Stone, was devoted to it and it appears in nascent form throughout The Outsider – Wilson remarks that Blake “developed a certain faculty”, and Blake himself engraved some delightfully gnomic thoughts about “this faculty” circa 1788. Despite being drawn from the rigours of phenomenology Faculty X is fundamentally a visionary faculty. Rudolf Steiner, who was once the subject of a short but penetrating Wilson biography (1985) was taught by Husserl’s master Franz Brentano. Pay close attention to his words and the influence can be felt. “We have to take this step, this turning of one’s own active thinking into an organ of touch for the soul, so that we may feel ourselves thinking in the same way that we walk, grasp or touch; so that we know we are living in a real being, not just in ordinary thinking which merely creates images, but in a reality, in the soul’s organ of touch which we ourselves have become”. This is Husserl’s ‘grip’, Wilson’s ‘kind of hand’ feeling around reality. Here is Steiner again. “The third step in higher knowledge, necessary for rising to Intuition, can be achieved only by developing to its highest point a faculty which, in our materialistic age, is not recognised as a cognitional force”. According to Steiner faculties have to be willed into existence by creative effort, rather like Wilson’s layers of willed intentions (which he says, we mistakenly think of as ‘mechanisms’ because they have become automated habits, a kind of ‘robot’). Steiner’s notions on evolution of faculties are similar to Wilson’s in The Occult. “Evolution consists in one faculty being acquired at the expense of another, and thus as the epochs took their course, the faculty which man once possessed of understanding the spiritual world became less and less. Our clear reasoning and cognitional faculties, our present logical thinking which we regard as the most important feature of modern culture — these did not exist in those early times. They had to be developed by man in the epoch to which we now belong, at the expense of the old clairvoyant consciousness. Clairvoyant consciousness will have to be cultivated again in the future evolution of mankind, but in a different way. It has to be added to the purely physical consciousness that is bound up with the faculty of intellectual logic”. This is not too far from Wilson’s definition of philosophy – ‘intuition aided by intellect’. In fact it’s not that far from the philosophy of Whitehead, a critic of the ‘bifurcation of nature’. [2] 

The problem of life-devaluation has not gone away since Wilson’s time: in fact, it has seemingly become more acceptable. Steiner thought our era would involve a severe imbalance in consciousness, an obsession with what Blake called ‘number weight and measure’, the literalist and unimaginative obsession with statistics and data that drives the attention economy. We all know it well. 

“Time is the currency of human existence” wrote Wilson in 1970. And every single moment wasted in anti-intentional robotic action is completely destroyed as surely as if you burned your own money. Any genuine individualist will have already calculated the priceless value of their attention at the dawn of this century. 

[1] In the 1965 essay ‘Phenomenology and Literature’, collected in Eagle and Earwig (originally published by John Baker in the same year, now reissued

[2] Thoroughly explained in Wilson’s early books and in some excellent later essays. Like Wilson, Steiner is likely to be misunderstood unless we see the basic historical link with Brentano. Wilson states Steiner cannot be understood unless a reader starts with an early book – the aptly titled Philosophy of Freedom – and one of his last, an autobiography. 

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