Are we the castle?

“Because we are in the world, we are condemned to meaning” wrote the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1]. Commenting on this famous line in the introduction to the 1965 collection Eagle and Earwig, Colin Wilson remarks that even suicide is a meaningful act. He mentions an “interesting book” entitled Suicide and Scandinavia by Herbert Hendin, who “says that if a man could be interviewed in mid air between the top of a skyscraper and the pavement, his feelings might be very different from those he had a moment before as he prepared to jump”. As Merleau-Ponty says there are no gestures which do not carry meaning – even the embarrassed silence at some political platitude is meaningful in that it expresses an intentional lack of interest, a rejection of what he calls ready-made formulas. Gurdjieff dismissed such artificial things as “the glamour of new slogans” – the shallow imitation of old racial, religious, academic and commercial ideas which would later be known at the end of last century as postmodernism. Like the existentialism that preceded it, the grandly titled ‘postmodern’ trend was based largely on the misunderstanding of an obscure philosophical method known as phenomenology. Colin Wilson soon fitted this useful method to his ‘Outsider’ credo as the sixties dawned but it would be fair to say that very few have really noticed; his summing up of an evolutionary phenomenology (‘new existentialism’) in 1966 still remains little known. In the mid sixties the academy gleefully swallowed discourse, épistémè and deconstruction and now appears to be suffering complications as if from an act of slow self-harm. 

As committed to the phenomenological method as Merleau-Ponty, Wilson knew that this recognition of meaning was obscured by what its founder Edmund Husserl called the natural standpoint or ‘natural’ (sic) or naive attitude. With under appreciated sarcasm Husserl stated that this attitude was the native environment of the ‘naive man’ or ‘normal individual’. Although Wilson did not discover Merleau-Ponty’s influence Husserl until after The Outsider, he admitted that it merely strengthened principles that he had been carrying out for most of his life. In 1957 he had defined an ‘insider’ as someone who “fills his consciousness with a selected ‘order’”, that is to say, a natural-attitude dweller [2]. A year earlier Wilson had imagined this state as a heavily fortified and technologically advanced castle on a remote island – and if this image wasn’t severe enough, the jailer had hypnotised the prisoners so that they believe they are the prison. Perhaps influenced by parables that Gurdjieff told Ouspensky and owing an obvious debt to Plato’s cave, this ‘situation’ (as Wilson calls it) is currently too close to reality to be described as purely metaphorical. 

By 1965 Wilson was describing the natural attitude as a perceptual prison, a “narrow, personal little world that is soon exhausted by the act of living” and he had likewise begun to define his term ‘outsider’ more strictly or rather, more phenomenologically. An outsider is someone who craves to live outside the natural attitude, a metaphorical sea creature who wishes to evolve and live on dry land, the terra firma of the mind and ideas. Sartre’s waiter whose head empties as his cafe clears of customers is totally at home in this “sea of static personality” as it is described in the sixth chapter of The Outsider, a chapter concerned with identity. Against this personal stasis Wilson seeks to find a way back to the “true ‘I’” – a phenomenological statement worthy of the Husserl that Merleau-Ponty admired so much, the later Husserl. In his final book Husserl spoke of a “universal life of self-responsibility” and an ability to “shape oneself into the true ‘I’, the free autonomous ‘I’” [3]. These tasks involve agency and autonomy, but unfortunately such self-motivations are absent from today’s dominant theories about identity which have their roots in ‘old’ (sic) existentialism, post-structuralism and postmodernism. 

Wilson was keen to point out that Husserl’s natural attitude is merely a temporary convenience rather than the eternal truth of the human condition. We naively or naturally think that we interpret reality as neutrally as a camera lens but even a little reflection on this process will show this to be untrue. Perception depends on paying attention, and as soon as we do that we begin to select, filter and distort – Husserl labelled this subliminal process ‘intentionality’. “The natural standpoint is as filtered and distorted with prejudices as the vision of a madman” comments Wilson (the prisoners in the castle think they are the castle). But this is not to say that everything is relative and that reality remains elusive. Husserl proscribed a method to filter out the filtering which is known as bracketing or epoché (suspension or ‘stopping’ – Gurdjieff might have approved). Descartes naively imagined the ‘I think’ as a flat polished mirror which simply reflected reality back to us, but Husserl showed that this ‘mirror’ of consciousness is a variable; sometimes concave, convex, broken into shards, distorted through powerful microscopic and telescopic lenses, covered in layers of dirt – and until we understand and clear away these distortions we will continuously mistake parts off ourselves (our prejudices) for reality itself. All attempts to eradicate individual and social prejudice will fail unless this very deep enigma is thoroughly examined. “If I carry out the [transcendental] reduction for myself” wrote Husserl, “I am not a human ego”. In the chapter on identity Wilson asks the existential question ‘who am I?’ and rejects the usual bourgeois ‘social’ answers, instead accepting that the true ‘I’ is our genuine identity [4]. Like Husserl had said, until we exist in the phenomenological attitude rather than the murky naive attitude, the clarity of genuine (‘first’) thought and philosophy is impossible. 

Wilson calls the natural standpoint ‘Zola’s fallacy’ after the novelist who was part of the literary movement known as realism or more significantly, naturalism. Émile Zola thought of himself as a neutral reporter but his selection of brutal ‘facts’ show a bias toward humanity at its worst. Based on a real criminal case, one novel was an expression of his theory that “love and death, possessing and killing, are the dark foundations of the human soul” [5]. Zola’s naturalism is a good example of the natural standpoint at work. “It is true that he believes in social justice, and it is this concern with human suffering that makes Germinal his masterpiece” writes Wilson. “But his overall view of human existence is still that it is tragic and futile”. Zola thought that to truly see things they must be seen in “as sordid and pessimistic light as possible” he comments. “The phenomenologist’s objection is that the meaninglessness is as imposed as any other meaning. Art therefore cannot be regarded as an escape from reality unless it it is a total rejection of the natural standpoint” – i.e. a rejection of the fallacy of insignificance, the given cultural attitude of ‘meaninglessness’, which according to Merleau-Ponty cannot be taken seriously. 

Husserl himself was a logician and mentioned artists such as Dürer and Böcklin only in passing. Wilson sometimes remarked that Husserl and Merleau-Ponty are rather unsatisfying as philosophers. For instance, neither are as stylistically enthralling as Nietzsche; although Husserl sometimes sounds strangely similar (“calling to us like a mystic voice from a better world … as though such a voice would have something to say to free spirits like us” he writes in the first book of Ideas, § 145). Husserl essentially jotted as he thought – very, very rapidly – and so his philosophy is not a ‘system’ and his terminology is often modified without any warning. Therefore the ‘phenomenology’ (descriptive psychology) of the Logical Investigations is nascent compared to the phenomenology presented in Ideas twelve years later. Wilson thinks that this unsatisfactoriness “is inherent in the nature of the task” and suspects that Husserl was a poet by temperament as he would eventually speak of uncovering the secrets of the transcendental ego (the true ‘I’) with reference to the ‘Mothers’ in the second part of Goethe’s lengthy poem Faust. Goethe was inspired by a passage in Plutarch who described a realm of cosmic truth “wherein lie motionless the causes, forms, and original images of all things, which have been and which shall be” – the Mothers. In the first act (‘A Gloomy Gallery’) Mephistopheles gives Faust a key and tells him that it’s “hidden power” will guide him to these Goddesses. “Then to the deep!” says Mephistopheles. Wilson remarks that the ‘hidden achievements’ of the true ‘I’ and the search for the ‘keepers of the key’ of being are part of Husserl’s feeling that the phenomenological quest would give us the possibility of occult (hidden) experience without recourse to standard yogic or ritual disciplines, two ways that Gurdjieff rejected as partial methods to enlightenment [6]. 

Despite these frustrations – Husserl was working during a chaotic period of European history – Wilson is adamant that Husserl’s method was startlingly brilliant and original and he is correct in saying that Nietzsche would have benefited from it, had he not died in 1900 when the first volume of the Logical Investigations appeared. Husserl’s method quickly sharpened Wilson’s creative ideas into a tool – an adjustable spanner that could both dismantle and assemble or simply knock someone unconscious. Despite his slight criticism Wilson placed Husserl’s method in a central position in his own philosophy of ‘new existentialism’. His real scorn was aimed at overtly academic post-Husserlian thinkers who quickly backed out of the phenomenological journey – Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, and avowed anti-phenomenologists like Foucault who “explained how important it was to break off from the phenomenological tradition, I remember his phrase, he ‘emancipated himself from the grips of the transcendental subject’”. Familiarly with his life makes it clear that his statement was little more than a narcissistic pose [7]. The frustrating thing about the existentialism and postmodernism that grew out of or reacted to Husserl’s method is not so much that most of it was such a lifeless, tedious academic bore, it is the fact that virtually all of it fails to grasp what Husserl actually said about this ‘transcendental subject’. The mystifying sight of philosophers-cum-messiahs continuing to frantically pace around the exit that Husserl had already pointed towards is something that Wilson found exasperating, bewildering and not a little bemusing. ‘There is a very clearly marked exit” he wrote at the end of The New Existentialism. Anybody with the strength of insight to break the hypnotic spell of the natural attitude and find the exit is free from the castle. 

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, RKP, 1967, p. xix 

[2] Colin Wilson, ‘Beyond The Outsider’ in Declaration, MacGibbon and Kee, 1957, p. 36

[3] Colin Wilson ‘The Question of Identity’ in The Outsider, Gollancz, 1956, p. 147. Edmund Husserl, ‘Philosophy as Mankind’s Self Reflection’ in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 338 

[4] Husserl quoted in Herbert Spiegelberg’s The Phenomenological Movement, first volume, Marcus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1976, p. 203. “The transcendental ego in us is nothing more than the mundane ego; phenomenological reflection is in no way a literal division of consciousness. It is just a reminder that, in the final moment, I am a being that is not completely absorbed into any objectification, thereby preserving my freedom and responsibility”.  Klaus Held, ‘Husserl’s Phenomenological Method’ in The New Husserl, Indiana University Press, 2003, p. 29. In the same sense Wilson has pointed out that religion tends to speak of two ‘worlds’ rather than weaker and stronger (or nearer and further) perceptions of the same world.

[5] The Beast Inside, originally serialised then published as La Bête humaine in 1890. The Zola quote is from the Penguin edition, 1982, p. 7. One of Zola’s warring railway workers, Jacques Lantier, is based upon the French murderer Eusebius Pieydagnelle; see Colin Wilson, Origins of the Sexual Impulse, Panther, 1966, p. 176. Wilson recalls his reading of Zola’s novel when he was twenty in The Books in My Life, Hampton Roads, 1998, p. 246. Like today’s left-right political zealots, Zola was obsessed with hereditary. 

[6] Colin Wilson, Introduction to the New Existentialism, Hutchinson, 1966, p. 62. Wilson was referring to Spiegelberg, ibid. p. 160. Spiegelberg comments that Merleau-Ponty helped introduce these ideas via access to Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts. For Goethe see Faust Part Two, Penguin, 1967, pp. 15 and 78. 

[7] Jurgen Habermas quoted in James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault, Harper-Collins, 1993, p. 338. Bafflingly, Foucault thought phenomenology “passive rather than active” (ibid. p. 141) and in a footnote Miller comments that in the original French texts Foucault refers to the life-world as le vécu – ‘the lived’ or ‘lived experience’. The latter phrase is now a tiresome glamorous slogan amongst many in the circular anti-arguments of identity politics and has more in common with Zola’s grim obsession with hereditary than with Husserl‘s philosophy of freedom. Wilson correctly described Miller’s book as one of the best philosophical biographies ever written (Wilson, Below The Iceberg, Borgo Press, 1998, p. 85). Like the life of that other pampered bourgeois turned shaven-headed fake messiah Aleister Crowley, it is a sordid story of ever-diminishing returns, though not as fascinating or exciting.

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