Against the glamour of new slogans*

Gurdjieff once “made something altogether impossible” when attempting to pronounce the title of Ouspensky’s early masterpiece Tertium Organum and remarked that if his pupil had understood everything he had written in it, he would reverse roles and beg Ouspensky to teach him. “But” he said “you do not understand either what you read or what you write. You do not even understand what the word ‘understand’ means”. Like most of Gurdjieff’s recorded utterances this is a penetrating insight. And while Colin Wilson held Gurdjieff in extremely high regard he also offered his own valuable critique, dismantling Gurdjieff’s stern description of ‘mechanical’ man via the more subtle analysis of Husserl’s phenomenology.

Wilson was in no doubt of Gurdjieff’s strange and enigmatic genius. In his exhaustive history of occultism (1971) Gurdjieff is described as the greatest magician encountered in that large book, with the likes of Blavatsky and Crowley relegated to status of “talented eccentrics”. Certainly, Ouspensky’s indispensable account of Gurdjieff’s ideas, In Search of the Miraculous, is notable for its sober, precise tone. Gurdjieff’s direct statements are free of the hectoring irrationalism of The Secret Doctrine (“And we ask the materialists: Have you ever seen Ether, or your Atoms, or, again, your FORCE?”) or the tiresome egocentricity of Crowley (“The grotesque barber Alliette, the obscurely perverse Wirth, the poseur-fumiste Peladan, dawn to the verbose ignorance of such Autolycus-quacks as Raffalovitch and Ouspensky”). Reading Ouspensky’s book after overdosing on ‘classic’ occult literature is like opening a window in a stuffy, overheated room. Wilson commended the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead for his expressive precision – such as describing Latin as a tightly packed suitcase and English as luggage with its contents strewn around the room – and rightly celebrated Ouspensky for the same reason.

Gurdjieff not only tops Wilson’s list of occultists. His system is described as “the complete, ideal Existenzphilosophie” in Wilson’s own existential salvo The Outsider, which is not bad considering that Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre are also discussed. And in a short biographical study of Gurdjieff (1980) Wilson describes his system as “the greatest single-handed attempt in the history of human thought to make us aware of the potential of human consciousness”. The phrase ‘single-handed’ could perhaps refer to Gurdjieff’s rather mysterious origins and the unique presentation of his ideas, while the use of the word ‘potential’ recalls Wilson’s connection with Maslow’s humanistic psychology. In fact, Wilson basically regards Gurdjieff as a highly original psychologist: after all, the Work deals in self-actualisation. But like all the other thinkers he analysed both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky are treated as part of larger philosophical picture. So despite his high praise Wilson came to believe that they both based their ideas on unnecessarily pessimistic foundations – i.e. that man is a machine, a somewhat reductionist metaphor which has stunted philosophical endeavour since Descartes first used it. Looking back on this ‘age of machinery’ in his book on Maslow, Wilson remarked that it has taken almost three centuries for psychology to assert that human beings posses a mind and a will. 

This overt use of the human-as-machine metaphor can be corrupting. Ouspensky’s question and answer sessions, posthumously documented in The Fourth Way, are nowhere near as exhilarating as In Search of the Miraculous or for that matter, his pre-Gurdjieff works. Books such as Tertium Organum, A New Model of the Universe, the novel The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin and the two amusing short stories collected in Talks with a Devil show that Ouspensky was a romantic wanderer of the Hermann Hesse type (read, for instance, his poetic thoughts on the ‘fashions of nature’ in the first chapter of A New Model of the Universe). Perhaps, as Wilson suggested in his study of Ouspensky (1993), meeting ‘G’ was not necessarily a good thing for a such a temperament. Never a member of any Gurdjieff group, Wilson could honestly describe his friendly relations with several devotees and observe that they hadn’t quite found what they were seeking, despite sitting at the feet of both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. 

Gurdjieff’s starting point is that we are mechanical. We are sleeping automatons like one of those semi-aware simulacrums in Philip K. Dick’s science fiction stories. In The Outsider Wilson remarks that Gurdjieff’s idea “seems to be no more than the blackest pessimism” but goes on to describe the startlingly original methods to wake up from of this – the system, the Work or the Fourth Way. As previously noted there is no better introduction to it than Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, where as Wilson notes, he is Plato to Gurdjieff’s Socrates. But as he later observed this over-stressing of mechanicalness is no way to start: he thinks that Ouspensky would have been better off meeting someone like Rudolf Steiner. Like Husserl and Freud Steiner was once a pupil of Franz Brentano, a key influence on Husserl’s development of phenomenology, first as a descriptive psychology then as the drastic Erste Philosophie of the later years. Brentano’s stamp can also be felt in Steiner’s early book The Philosophy of Freedom. Both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky could almost be as paternally dogmatic as Freud in over-stressing the helplessly mechanical nature of humanity. Gurdjieff’s assertion that it is better to scrub floors consciously rather than write books mechanically is satirically spot-on but would we really wish to replace the finest things in our rich cultural heritage with some neatly polished floors?

Gurdjieff diagram

Knowledge of Husserl’s method of intentional consciousness would have doubtless freed Ouspensky from his formal dogmatism (his lectures reminded one pupil of his own cheerless Presbyterian childhood in Scotland). Yet ironically enough, Ouspensky had almost grasped this principle of intentionality in his own books. Tertium Organum has a different heading on every right hand page, so in the section entitled ‘What is Materiality?’ he writes that “we segregate a small number of facts into a definite group” – Husserl’s selective perception, but probably arrived at via Ouspensky’s reading of Nietzsche (“there are no facts, only interpretations”). Later (‘The World of Causes and the All’) he states that what we take for ‘the world’ is “merely our incorrect perception” of a larger, total world. Husserl himself would have easily understood what was meant by this “wondrous” larger world. For Wilson this recognition of a larger, more wonderful ‘world’ – rather, a broader perception than our usual narrow everyday beam – is the driving force behind true poetry and is the foundation of all mystical experiences. 

Near the end of his life Ouspensky essentially renounced Gurdjieff’s system and suggested that his pupils find their own methods.

Wilson is correct to elevate Gurdjieff above all other occultists, but quite frankly it’s hardly stiff completion. Gurdjieff’s biographer James Webb once defined revived occultism as ‘rejected knowledge’. It is obvious that Gurdjieff’s ideas stand apart from this usual rehash of formulae found in occult literature. Wilson’s earlier description of the Work as “the ideal, complete” existential philosophy is given weight by the stark language used throughout Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s dialogues. “Man In himself is not one, he is not ‘I’, he is ‘we’, or to speak more correctly, he is ‘they’”, “the actual situation of humanity”, “contemporary culture requires automatons” – and so on. However, with his post-Outsider discovery of Husserl’s method this allusion would be modified. 

In The Unknowable Gurdjieff, Margaret Anderson describes her reaction to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. “I read on and on – discovering, indeed, ‘nothingness’”, and enthusiastically quotes Gurdjieff’s own distaste for philosophy. But further on we read her comment on Gurdjieff’s methods. “To SEE is passive. To LOOK is active”, a phenomenological statement if there ever was one. Anderson’s thoughts on Sartre’s magnum opus aren’t too far from Wilson’s own, but when she paraphrases Gurdjieff’s attitude towards this active looking, there is a notable difference. “Live a life of friction. Let yourself be disturbed as much as possible, but observe”. Wilson analysed many people living frictional lives, observing and disturbing themselves (and others) but none really found the answer they were expecting. This paradox is illustrated in the case-histories of the Outsider books and in the true-crime volumes. “The whole history of humanity is ‘the history of crime’” wrote Ouspensky in his study of eternal recurrence. Wilson once wrote a vast history of crime (1985) but he was more optimistic than Ouspensky, understanding crime as a defect of perception, the price we pay for narrow, rational vision. Therefore ‘active looking’, what Husserl called intentionality, is the key. Frictional living or disturbing ourselves are as unnecessary as the fakir’s bed of nails or the monk’s hair shirt, both rejected as partial ‘ways’ by Gurdjieff. According to him, the ‘Fourth Way’ reaches all sides of our being simultaneously. This simultaneous perception runs through Ouspensky’s own early works and is also analysed with typical thoroughness by Husserl. 

In The Occult Wilson critiques the idea that Gurdjieff was ‘unknowable’ or that his system is beyond human comprehension. “There are even vital matters upon which he was relatively ignorant”: the most important being Husserl’s discovery of the workings of intentionality. “As I go through conscious, everyday life, I am unaware of the amount of deliberate work I am putting into ‘living’”. This deliberate work is intentional, through we usually mistake it as passive or mechanical. Wilson thinks Gurdjieff grasped the latter point but not quite the former. Husserl’s importance lies in the fact that he cleared the philosophical ground of all the useless clutter and debris that had been accumulating since Descartes had first erroneously suggested that humans are machines. In his own analysis of intentional consciousness and it’s role in evolution (Beyond The Outsider, 1965) Wilson uses Husserl’s phenomenological method to dismantle man-machine philosophy. He insists that what we understand as ‘mechanisms’ are willed intentions which were originally learned, slowly or clumsily, but which soon become habitual due to repetitive effort. These habits have become ‘mechanical’ but they are not mechanisms as they were brought into being by an intentional process. Basic ‘mechanical’ (sic) or ‘robotic’ skills like driving or typing could be on the uppermost layers, but like archeological strata deeper intentions descend back to our prehistory, phenomenologically speaking. Wilson’s books such as Origins of the Sexual Impulse and The Occult are essentially attempts to describe these descending layers, via case-histories (the ‘lived philosophy’ of The Outsider et al). In making his ‘robot’ layers of compacted intentions Wilson avoids the usual literal-minded technological metaphors of the behaviourist (significantly, J. B. Watson was baffled or possibly offended at a reading by Gurdjieff). The subtle difference between the terms mechanical and robotic can be understood by recalling Wilson’s interest in the cybernetic theories of Dr. David Foster in the early seventies. In his Gurdjieff study a decade later Wilson says that Gurdjieff would have happily used a computer rather than machine metaphor had he lived closer to our time. A programme suggests a programmer; a ‘controlling consciousness’ i.e. Husserl’s transcendental ego. As Husserl tirelessly reminded us, this state marks the beginning and not the culmination of the phenomenological ‘first philosophy’. A mere starting point and not a blissful end-goal.

According to Wilson mechanisms, so-called, are willed intentions which have become automated (‘habits’) so stressing our mechanicalness is therefore unnecessarily over-dramatic, and worse, untrue. Despite the brilliant originality which excited Ouspensky so much, the Work is tainted by a basic and needless misconception, one that Husserl set out to destroy at the same time that Ouspensky was searching jungles and deserts for anything miraculous. Husserl also attacked the positivism which Ouspensky mocked in Tertium Organum and in Talks With a Devil (where the devil himself states that he is a positivist). “Positivism” says Husserl in his final, uncompleted book, “decapitates philosophy”. But Husserl strove for exacting description of things. ”Generally speaking” starts Ouspensky, “everything said in words regarding the world of causes is likely to seem absurd, and is in reality it’s mutilation” – a very strong word, also used by Husserl in the Sixth Investigation of the Logical Investigations [§ 29]. “The truth is impossible to express” continues Ouspensky, “it is possible only to give a hint at it…” Describing “mutilated” or partial intuitions, Husserl states that a true or adequate perception depends on the grasp we have on the object (“grasps it more and more vividly and fully” he says). This grasp requires a more complex act than our usual passive perception where an object is merely ‘there’ in, Husserl says, “it’s unenriched familiarity”. What Husserl is saying is not far from Ouspensky’s own arguments, but making statements like ‘truth is impossible to express’ or that humans are sleeping automatons is something he would have regarded as philosophically irresponsible. As Wilson says, we cannot be making such overarching statements until we have a fully functioning consciousness, Husserl’s starting point, the transcendental ego. 

As Wilson comments, Ouspensky essentially ‘knew’ this. A section in Tertium Organum with the misleading heading ‘Body, Soul, Spirit’ bears this out. “in saying ‘I’, a man means […] that which is in a given moment is in the focus of his consciousness” – in other words our ‘focus’ is what Husserl meant by intentionality, what we choose to focus on. But such important values “usually refer not at all to every side of his being simultaneously, but merely to some small and insignificant facet, which at a given moment holds the focus of consciousness and subjects to itself all the rest, until it in turn is forced out by another equally insignificant facet”. These differing ‘I’s’ in Gurdjieff’s sense are the same as Husserl’s intentions towards objects or situations as perceived in time-consciousness (another of Ouspensky’s obsessions – “which at a given moment…”). The key word is ‘holds’ – intentional consciousness grasps or handles perceptions in a tactile sense. Tertium Organum, A New Model of the Universe and In Search of the Miraculous are replete with these ‘phenomenological’ insights. The first chapter of New Model compares these different ‘I’s’ to a Tower of Babel, an image also used by Wilson to describe the post-Kant, pre-Husserl philosophical mess. 

Ouspensky diagram

Anybody who has attempted to read part one of Gurdjieff’s unfinished trilogy All and Everything will see a stylistic parallel with Heidegger’s Being and Time (another unfinished book: only the first part was completed). Gurdjieff’s huge tome even has its own separate indexical guide (1971) to help neophytes with the bizarre terminology. Such neologisms – “Being-as-having-been” (Heidegger), “Required-intensity-of-ableness” (Gurdjieff) – aren’t that different from the passage of Sartre that Margaret Anderson derisively quoted in her book (“a being-which-is-not-what-it-is” etc). Wilson himself makes use of simpler neologisms occasionally – ‘close-upness’, ‘upside-downness’ – and has often pointed out another similarity between Gurdjieff and Heidegger. Both suggested that the best way to wake from sleep or forgetfulness would be to become intensely aware of our own death – “useful” thinks Wilson, “but not very helpful”. Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene both toyed with imminent death and it hardly changed them. Despite the big game hunting and the Russian roulette they remained in what Husserl would call the natural standpoint or naive attitude; Gurdjieff’s ‘mechanicalness’, dependent on outer stimuli and situations. Husserl would suggest moving out of this into phenomenological consciousness and Gurdjieff and Ouspensky would recommend practising  ‘self-remembering’. Both involve a careful standing apart from our usual attitudes: Ouspensky had already spoke about standing outside ourselves when he was writing about Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and Wilson noted that the young Nietzsche was constantly attempting to capture this state through his own self-dramatisation. His term ‘Outsider’ means someone who stands outside regular perceptive attitudes, not a mere eccentric. 

Near the end of chapter nine in Miraculous, Gurdjieff tells Ouspensky that without sufficient preparation ‘ecstatic’ experiences are useless. “Only very seldom does it happen that a mind which has been better prepared succeeds in grasping and remembering something of what was felt and understood at the moment of ecstasy”.  Even so, he says, this is usually translated back into distorted three-dimensional consciousness via everyday language and ordinary concepts. Ouspensky’s early books are essential for understanding this dimensional consciousness although Wilson would probably describe these as layers rather than dimensions. For Ouspensky existence on one dimension or plane is the ‘blandest’ whereas on the fourth (or beyond) an infinitely richer simultaneous perception is achieved. This is the same spirit as Husserl’s ingenuous overturning of Descartes’ idea of the cogito as a flat plane mirror merely reflecting reality. 

An intentional consciousness will indeed be better prepared at ‘grasping’ these moments: Wilson’s writings are full of creative people who did. Husserl means the same thing when he insists that a firmly intentional grasp requires a more complex action than passively normal or naive conscious acts. “Generally the greatest energy will be displayed by the act-character which comprehends and subsumes all partial acts in it’s unity – whether it be particular act-intention like joy, or a form of unity that pervades all parts of the whole act” [1]. Blake said that energy is eternal delight and Wilson remarks that his devilish statement “anticipates the method of phenomenology, and the realisation that the ‘filter’ [i.e. an unconscious will that selects, like the ‘spectre’ In Blake] becomes more ruthless as the mind grows tired”. Alfred North Whitehead thought the same. An energetic optimism is needed to drive ‘real perception’ and despite Ouspensky’s obvious debt to Nietzsche, this joyful wisdom is mostly absent from his book of lectures, The Fourth Way

“Our energy” said Gurdjieff to Ouspensky “in one or another direction which suddenly increases and afterwards just as suddenly weakens; our moods which ‘become better’ or ‘become worse’ without any visible reason; our feelings, our desires, our intentions, our decisions – all from time to time pass through periods of ascent or descent, become stronger or weaker”. For Gurdjieff this is part of a cosmic law which he suggests was part of ancient knowledge. His thoughts on moods are similar to those of Heidegger in Being and Time [V § 29] but Wilson has criticised this by describing ‘moods’ as intentional value judgements (because, like Gurdjieff’s conflicting ‘I’s’, each mood “seems to offer [us] a different piece of advice on the question of how to live”). Gurdjieff describes our intentions becoming stronger or weaker but the simple solution to this problem would be to follow Husserl and strengthen the intention. As for ‘laws’, Wilson said of the phenomenological method that “in attempting to discover laws it is not unlikely that we shall discover that we are the makers of the laws”. Phenomenologically speaking we cannot comment on any ‘cosmic laws’ until we have a stable consciousness.  

Armed with Husserl’s method the problem of multiple, conflicting ‘I’s’ can be clearly understood as simply different viewpoints of the same object or situation. In Tertium Organum (‘Personal Emotions’) Ouspensky writes that the “constant shifting of emotions, each of which calls itself I and strives to establish power over man, is the chief obstacle to the establishment of a constant I”. Correct, but none of these selective viewpoints are trying to “establish power over man” like Cthulhu did with Randolph Carter; they are merely different viewpoints which can be controlled with careful phenomenological practice. To understand what we do strive for, read on for a Husserl quote from Ideas [§ 96] below. 

The first practical discipline of Wilson’s new existentialism, influenced by Husserl’s techniques, is to become aware of the intentionality in all conscious acts. Constant awareness and meditation (in the philosophical rather than yogic sense) on this strengthens the ability to grasp experience. There is no need for ‘shocks’, no need to live ‘frictionally’ or to disturb ourselves. Practised use of this ‘phenomenological faculty’ certainly changes daily experience in a subtle manner. It soon becomes difficult to accept that we are passive victims of life – how can we be if we ‘intend’ or build the structure of our own life-world? This is the first responsibility.

Wilson was more concerned with this ‘everyday’ practicality rather than with the overwhelming ecstasies of Proust, William James and all the poets and mystics he wrote about. Discussing Gurdjieff in The Outsider he focuses on ‘self-remembering’, with the further state of ‘objective consciousness’ put aside for the time being. As Gurdjieff more or less said to Ouspensky, mystical ecstatics are fine, but if we cannot grasp them they flow though our fingers like fine sand. The trick is to learn to grasp, to hold. But neither this nor the constant awareness of the intentional nature of perception that precedes it can be put into operation under a negative ‘victim’ mentality, the kind that Wilson labelled the age of defeat. As this unfortunately describes our own time more thoroughly than the post-war years Wilson was writing in, developing the phenomenological faculty is a challenge which only very serious outsiders will accept. As previously noted, Wilson’s term ‘Outsider’ refers to someone practising these phenomenological disciplines rather than any regular misfit. Outsiders are outside of what Husserl called the natural standpoint, not outside of society. “At first glance, the Outsider is a social problem” begins Wilson’s debut. But as the book and its series progress, this first glance is proven incorrect. The real problem is with consciousness itself, not it’s outward manifestations. 

One example of intentionality in action Wilson gives in the ‘practical disciplines’ section of The New Existentialism (at the beginning of the second part) is “reading the political news in various newspapers, or listening to speeches by members of opposed political parties”. Any “intelligent person practices an intellectual kind of phenomenology as a matter of course” he commented in 1966. This is already becoming a rare skill in the 21st century thanks to the new media. “There are periods in the life of humanity, which generally coincide with the beginning of the fall of cultures and civilisations, when the masses irretrievably lose their reason and begin to destroy everything that has been created by centuries and millenniums of culture” said Gurdjieff to Ouspensky a century ago. “Such periods of mass madness, often coinciding with geological cataclysms, climatic changes, and similar phenomena of a planetary character, release a very great quantity in the matter of knowledge”. The age of defeat is the information age, after all. “Thus the work of collecting scattered matter of knowledge frequently coincides with the beginning of the destruction and fall of cultures and civilisations”. Gurdjieff was obviously referring to valuable ‘esoteric’ knowledge back then and he was indeed correct as the occult revival (theosophy and it’s variants) preceded the gigantic events which provide a backdrop to Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s working relationship: the Bolshevik Revolution and the First World War. However, this type of apocalyptic warning is now everywhere in the “very great quantity” of information itself – these words about the fall of cultures and civilisations could have appeared in any recent broadsheet. “Phrases, phrases, sympathetic, critical, ironical, blatant, pompous, lying and, worst of all, utterly automatic, phrases which have been used a thousand times before and will be used again on entirely different, perhaps contradictory, occasions” – this is Ouspensky remembering his days as a journalist circa 1906. Nothing has changed apart from the speedier method of delivery. Gurdjieff himself would very probably say that the outward form has changed, but not the ‘essence’. 

A more realistic appraisal of our predicament is found in the last few words from Wilson’s occult trilogy – that is, as long as we accept our mental stagnation as ‘normal’ we will continue to mark time, as far as our evolution goes. This is obviously less scintillating than the atmosphere of apocalyptic doom ‘n gloom that vies for attention on our screens, but nevertheless it is far more accurate. 

Gurdjieff told Ouspensky that there cannot be any “compulsory” mechanical evolution. “Evolution is the result of conscious struggle”, the power of ‘doing’ and this doing or willing “cannot be the result of things which ‘happen’”. In Wilson’s phenomenological existentialism things do not just ‘happen’ as we innocently presume because phenomenology is the study of how (not ‘why’) things appear in our consciousness [2]. “In that case” writes Wilson, “some phenomenologist of the future will have difficulty in making [infants] understand that reading is ‘intentional’, not something that just ‘happens’ when the eye falls on written language”. In our own time we forget just how intentional, prejudiced and selective our perceptual lives are and view ourselves as victims of things which happen to us, passively. “We think of reality as a bully” says Wilson. But Brentano and Husserl reversed this: “it is our minds that are the bullies” (Wilson’s satirical horror novel The Mind Parasites plays on this irony). So claiming to be a ‘victim’ of reality makes no real philosophical sense. Performing the phenomenological operation is the equivalent of swimming against a current, or going against evolution, if evolution means entropy, that is. Obviously, it didn’t for Gurdjieff, Ouspensky or Wilson. 

“Nature does not need this evolution; it does not want it and struggles against it” says Gurdjieff. This evolution is the development of possibilities “which never develop by themselves, that is, mechanically” – therefore these evolutionary possibilities are intentional. “There is, and there can be, no other kind of evolution whatever”. In Beyond the Outsider Wilson refers to an ‘intentional evolutionary structure’ which is doubtless influenced by Gurdjieff’s pronouncements as much as Husserl’s methods (and those of that other philosopher-turned-mathematician, Whitehead). Husserl, In the first book of Ideas [§ 96] describes you, the phenomenologist, as an explorer of these new structures. “But one thing we may and must strive for: that at each step we faithfully describe what we, from our point of view and after the most serious study, actually see”. This is what we strive for – control over differing perceptive angles or ‘I’s’ (Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivism’) into “a life of universal self-responsibility, and correlatively, to shape oneself into the true ‘I’ , the free autonomous ‘I’” [3]. 

“Experiencing” says Husserl “in general, living as an ego (thinking, valuing, acting) – I am necessarily an ‘I’ that has it’s ‘thou,’ it’s ‘we,’ it’s ‘you’ – the ‘I’ or the personal pronouns. And equally necessarily, I am and we are, in the community of egos, correlates of everything to which we address ourselves as existing in the world” [4]. Ouspensky sounded uncharacteristically Lovecraftian when he said that these conflicting ‘I-viewpoints’ strive to establish power over man but Lovecraft himself introduced his most celebrated Mythos tale with the baleful statement that the most merciful thing in the world is the mind’s inability to correlate all it’s contents. However without this correlative aptitude we will never be able to explore these new relational structures. In his letters, Lovecraft referred to himself as a “rational indifferentist”. He was living below what Wilson called the indifference threshold (the latter word used in many Mythos tales, of course). Wilson’s threshold is also known as ‘the law of entropy in prehension’ – prehension being Whitehead’s ‘eating’ of experience, not too far a step from Husserl’s grasping of the same (in his cosmology, Gurdjieff insisted that sleeping humans are ‘food for the moon’). Under the indifference threshold we are only moved to action – and then, ironically, to optimism – by crisis or other negative situations. Wilson was adamant that it is the force or intention of the action and not the crisis or external event that triggers the optimism. As a self proclaimed indifferentist Lovecraft claimed to be neither optimist or pessimist, but it is obvious from reading his tales that he lived mostly under the indifference threshold like the narrator of Sartre’s Nausea, bewildered in a world of alien objects. Of course, Sartre himself famously said he had never felt so free as when he was living the ‘frictional’ life during the Second World War In Occupied France. 

Husserl diagram

We are in the position of those future infants who do not realise that reading was originally a slowly learned intentional activity. Like them, we think that things just ‘happen’, unaware of the complex layers of intentional effort which brought reading (for instance) into being. These are the possibilities “which never develop by themselves” – our intentional evolutionary structure. If we cease to think of these as mechanisms and instead understand them as programmable intentions, then the possibilities are endless, but this ‘understanding’ must be the kind that Gurdjieff was hinting at when he mispronounced Tertium Organum. In his novel Ivan Osokin Ouspensky writes “I want you to understand that when I speak about knowing, I do not mean the sort of knowing which, in reality, is only supposition.” Nietzsche claimed that neither science nor philosophy have been free of presuppositions. “He was right”, remarked Wilson, “this is inevitably so before Husserl”. Starting his work proper with the Logical Investigations, published in the year of Nietzsche”s passing, Husserl prepares the reader for his first Investigation with a section [§ 7] on the principle of freedom from presuppositions which “only seeks to express the strict exclusion of all statements not permitting of a comprehensive phenomenological realisation”. Phenomenology attempts to describe our inner states minus any subjective distortions. By the time of his final work The Crisis of European Sciences Husserl discusses [§ 69] the idea of the ‘disinterested observer’ who views the “outer surface of the spiritual world, which first becomes visible to him, and only gradually do the intentional depths open themselves up”. Without this self-observation, Wilson thinks, we will be continuously – philosophically speaking – mistaking parts of ourselves for an alien or intruder, alienated and ‘victimised’ by reality [5]. 

So Wilson thinks that the knowledge or understanding that Gurdjieff and Ouspensky spoke of is indeed possible to attain via intellectual means – for as he says in Beyond the Outsider, once properly understood, Husserl’s phenomenological intentionality will be ‘lived by’ and not merely speculative. This is a practical, immediate aim, free of the tinge of religious pessimism that runs through Gurdjieff’s cosmology and Ouspensky’s ‘Calvinistic’ interpretation. Now, this is in no way to discredit any of their achievements as there is no doubt whatsoever that Gurdjieff’s and Ouspensky’s central ideas tower over almost everything from the occult revival, in terms of originality and intellectual possibilities. And the potentialities they discuss are in truth more exciting than the dour post-Husserl existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre and more useful than the trend of anti-intentional postmodernism that followed. “Let us give them their due” says Beelzebub to his grandson; “during recent centuries [humans] have really mostly artistically mechanised themselves to see nothing real”. And of course Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s influence on Colin Wilson’s own new existentialist philosophy is notable, despite his later criticisms. If anything, Wilson genuinely added to the usefulness of the Work when he brought in Husserl’s phenomenological analysis. “As long as we remain passive” Gurdjieff said in the third part of All and Everything, “we shall have in the course of our further existence to submit slavishly to every caprice of all sorts of blind events”. But, if we strive to understand our ‘I’ – “you who have cognised this – should not be greatly, as it is said, ‘disheartened’ and should not fall into the so-called ‘pessimism’ prevalent everywhere in the abnormal life of people […] even for you, everything is not yet lost”.

*The ‘glamour of new slogans’ – Ouspensky, Miraculous, p. 60

[1] Husserl on the “function of attention in complex acts”. Logical Investigations vol. II,, Investigation V § 19 (RKP, 1970, p. 582) 

[2] “According to the scientific method, ‘Why?’ often demands an unnecessary amount of theorising, but ‘How?’ can be observed by anyone who goes to enough trouble”. Colin Wilson, Beyond The Outsider, Carroll & Graf, 1991, p. 82. And: “the ‘how’ of the appearance the surrounding world” – Husserl on the ‘new method’ of descriptive science. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 330

[3] ibid. p. 338

[4] ibid. p. 335

[5] See ‘The Problem of Vision’ section in the third chapter of Wilson’s Origins of the Sexual Impulse

The notes [§ -] reference relevant sections in the books mentioned. 

Also used: 

Anderson, Margaret – The Unknowable Gurdjieff (RKP, 1962) 

Blavatsky, H. P. – The Secret Doctrine (Theosophical Pub. House, 1938) 

Crowley, Aleister – The Book of Thoth (Kashmarin Press, 1969) 

Heidegger, Martin – Being and Time (Blackwell 2004) 

Husserl, Edmund – Ideas, First Book (Martinus Niijhoff, 1983)

Gurdjieff, G. I. – All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, (RKP 1956);

Gurdjieff, G. I. – Life is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’ (Triangle Editions, 1975) 

Lovecraft, H. P. – ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ in The Haunter of the Dark and other tales (Panther, 1970)

Lovecraft, H. P. – Selected Letters vol. III (Arkham House, 1971)

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science (Cambridge University Press, 2001) 

[no author] – Guide & Index to Gurdjieff’s All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (Traditional Studies Press, 1971) 

Ouspensky, P. D. – Tertium Organum (RKP, 1957)

Ouspensky, P. D. – A New Model of the Universe (RKP, 1953)

Ouspensky, P. D. – In Search of the Miraculous (RKP, 1950)

Ouspensky, P. D. – The Fourth Way (RKP, 1972)

Ouspensky, P. D. – The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin (Penguin, 1971)

Ouspensky, P. D. – Talks with a Devil (Arkana, 1988)

Spiegelberg, H. – The Phenomenological Movement (Martinus Niijhoff,, 1976) 

Walker, Kenneth – Venture with Ideas (Spearman, 1973)

Webb, James – The Occult Establishment (Open Court, 1988) 

Wilson, Colin – The ‘Outsider Series’ (7 volumes), The Mind Parasites, The Occult, The War Against Sleep, A Criminal History of Mankind, Rudolf Steiner: The Man and his Vision, Beyond the Occult, ‘Husserl and Evolutionin Existentially Speaking, The Strange Life of P. D. Ouspensky (cf Wilson’s bibliography here


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