Head Revolution

Despite his numerous writings on mysticism and visionary experience Colin Wilson remarked in 1966 that his philosophy was not for readers who want “immediate and startling results […] sudden conversion, blinding visions”. Instead, his ideas are concerned with a careful inquiry into consciousness and with our attitudes towards life. 

By the time he wrote this his controversial writing career was a decade old and he would sum up his basic philosophical credo – the ‘new existentialism’ – in an introductory book of that title. Dissatisfied with the bleak outlook of post war existentialism as represented by Heidegger and Sartre, he returned instead to the phenomenological method of Edmund Husserl, whose philosophy was a primary motivating force on existentialism (and later, Derrida’s deconstruction). Despite now being over half a century old, Wilson’s Beyond the Outsider and The New Existentialism remain the most exciting and accessible introductions to this obscure method of consciousness control outside of the incestuous bubble of academia. 

Wilson did not begin to discuss Husserl until the start of the 1960’s. He is first mentioned (to my knowledge) in Wilson’s opening essay in a pioneering true crime book, The Encyclopedia of Murder. Wilson would write a lot about phenomenology for the first half of the decade and it’s methodology can be felt lurking throughout most of the rest of his work – even a potboiler such as Unsolved Mysteries: Past and Present (“From Arthur and Merlin to vampires and zombies” reads the garish cover) manages to briefly discuss Husserl’s last work The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Wilson thought of Husserl as originally something of a poet and mystic rather than the stern logician he appears to be (originally a mathematician, Husserl’s first book was on arithmetic). 

“From the superficial, however, one is led into the depths” says Husserl, paraphrasing a line from the the second part of Goethe’s Faust. Wilson remarks that Husserl believed that the study of phenomenology would lead to the Goethe’s ‘Mothers’, the ‘keepers of the key to the ultimate sources of being’ (“goddesses unknown to mortal mind … named indeed with dread among our kind” says Mephistopheles). [1] In a somewhat underappreciated satirical move, Wilson would invoke Husserl alongside the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft in a series of ‘Brechtian’ piss-takes: The Mind ParasitesThe Return of the Lloigor and The Philosophers’ Stone, the first two of which were originally published by the Lovecraft concern Arkham House. “A round square, a regular icosahedron and similar a priori impossibila are in this sense ‘unpresentable’. The same holds of a completely demarcated piece of a Euclidean manifold of more than three dimensions…” writes Husserl in the Logical Investigations [V: §44], sounding rather like a classically educated Randolph Carter attempting to describe something equally ‘unpresentable’ from Lovecraft’s pantheon. At the end of his gripping history of occultism (1971) Wilson gives credence to the will-driven experiments of the various mages discussed but ends by announcing that the greatest step forward was made when Husserl began investigating the intentional structure of consciousness circa 1900. Despite its roots in the scientific method, phenomenology was intuited as a mystical discipline – “a doctrine of the will” – by Wilson. Understood properly, Wilson was quite brilliant at leading from the seemingly superficial – those airbrushed Panther paperback covers with their sensationalistic blurbs  – into the phenomenological depths of consciousness discussed inside. Alas, his critics scoff at the surface but almost never discuss the depths, the phenomenology. 

In his major work, the first book of Ideas, Husserl insists that there is “no ‘royal road’ into phenomenology” [§96]. “Our procedure is that of an explorer journeying through an unknown part of the world, and carefully describing what is presented along his unbeaten paths, which will not always be the shortest”. So, no immediate and startling results, sudden conversions or blinding visions. However, the first practical discipline of the phenomenological method – to become constantly aware of the intentionality of all of our conscious acts – is no more difficult that learning a language. “What is happening” writes Wilson in Beyond the Outsider “is that the problem expressed by the mystics – and by Blake in particular – has been first of all expressed in terms that would have been acceptable to Descartes”, i.e. scientifically. Phenomenology is a science of consciousness. 

The above quote appeared in an appendix detailing Wilson’s experiment with mescalin – he was disappointed. He later admitted that ‘the sixties’ essentially passed him by; he had after all already been writing about Hermann Hesse and consciousness expansion since The Outsider had appeared in 1956. Ten years on he summed up his new existentialist credo to some enthusiasm but little academic interest. 1966 was the year that the ‘counterculture’ began to assert itself and it was when Derrida introduced deconstruction to Americans via a critique of Husserl; meanwhile, Foucault was on the bestseller list in France. In his remarkable study of the soundtrack to the era, Ian Macdonald lays out a powerful description of a subliminal change of awareness which happened during this decade. He calls it the ‘revolution in the head’. Akin to the psychological effects that Marshall McLuhan had noted during the switch from print based linearity to multifocal multimedia, this revolution was “an inner one of feeling and assumption” amongst the general public. Currently living in a state of “greedy simultaneity” society is “now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional/physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity” with individuals forever guarding their own “jealously levelled standards”. [2] This can be seen, he says, in the “cynical egalitarianism” of deconstruction: “a levelling crusade on behalf of the aesthetically deprived” which ideally suits the philistinism of both left and right. “A malignant rot has spend through the Western mind since the mid Seventies: the virus of meaninglessness”. [3] Of course, Wilson had been fighting an almost single-handed battle against this virus for several decades. The third installment of his Outsider series was The Age of Defeat, a book about “unconscious assumptions” in an inner-directed/other-directed society. Husserl would have perhaps called this assumptive state the natural attitude of the ‘normal’ man, as opposed to the phenomenological attitude of his explorers (Wilson would call them Outsiders). 

The state of instantaneous/simultaneous perception that MacDonald labels the revolution in the head can be clearly heard in the music of the era. Jim Morrison sang that he wanted the world and he wanted it NOW, sounding like one of the Romantics dissected in Wilson’s debut. In light of his opening comments about instant visions, it is significant that Wilson wrote a book about the quick cures of ‘charlatan messiahs’ which – in its original edit – examined the thinkers Derrida and Foucault alongside more obvious examples such as Charles Manson and the Rev. Jim Jones. “If the definition of a messiah is one who is more concerned with collecting disciples than the truth of what he is saying, then most of France’s post-war intellectuals qualify as messiahs rather than philosophers [with their audience] expected to nod in agreement as they are subjected to a barrage of increasingly absurd propositions”. [4] 

Relevant to Wilson’s thesis would be these two sudden conversions and blinding visions, both shaped by LSD in Death Valley, California. Manson’s 1968 ‘helter-skelter’ and Foucault’s 1975 ‘limit-experience’ were mostly soundtracked by aleatory electronic noise (The Beatles’ Revolution 9 and Stockhausen’s Kontakte). Foucault’s biographer James Miller writes that the above experience, like most of the pivotal events of his life, “happened largely by chance” – hence Foucault’s rejection of what Husserl meant by ‘intentionality’, which according to MacDonald is a very dangerous attitude. “[To] treat chance-determined productions as identical with material intentionality vested with meaning is to meddle in a relativism that can only escalate towards chaos – and chaos draws psychopaths”. Use of random experiment and the free-floating meanings they generate were intended as “harmless fun for Lennon” but when interpreted by psychopaths like Manson and later, by Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman – “in the end they returned to kill him.” [5] Wilson’s studies on the psychology of crime have always challenged the selfishly ‘interpretive’ criminal mind and its ability to deceive itself. Divorced from intentionality, randomness can lead to meaninglessness which can eventually be fatal. Manson’s tedious race war and Foucault’s ludicrous ‘suicide festivals’ were brutal demands for immediate satisfaction, all too common in the ongoing age of “post-religious egotism” and the instantaneous/simultaneous state of awareness which accompanies it. Derrida’s interpretation of Husserl replaced the careful analysis of intentionality with the kind of “harmless fun” mentioned above (‘play’ was an often used term in deconstructive salvos) and the embittered, relativistic sectarianism which now underpins dialogue from both left and right is it’s legacy. Wilson rejected Derrida’s use of Husserl because he believed that Derrida did not grasp what was meant by intentionality. It is not, he said “merely the arbitrary imposition of our fantasies on a featureless ‘reality’” – a statement that unfortunately describes the mentality of the 21st century with uncanny accuracy. 

Introducing his bestselling ‘archeology of thought’ to English readers Foucault singled out “the phenomenological approach” as the one which he completely rejected. His conclusion – than man is a recent invention nearing its end – is for Wilson merely a restatement of Sartre’s ‘man is a useless passion’ which rounded off Sartre’s own epic dismissal of Husserl. In Beyond the Outsider Wilson offers the rather more optimistic statement that “man does not yet exist” – human beings are so dependent on external pressures and forces that we hardly experience what could be called reality, except in moments of intensity (like Sartre remarking he had never felt so free as when he was living in occupied France). In fact, Wilson compares our ‘normal’ state of perception to martial law. Our “capacity for distinguishing” (i.e. intentionality) filters off the information overload that surrounds us. “But our perception is still a second best, many degrees better than the original chaos, but a long way from the possibilities of seeing order and meaning in the universe”. [6] Thanks to this emergency state, we have forgotten existence, as Heidegger says at the beginning of Being and Time. We cannot begin to proclaim final judgements on universal meaninglessness or the end of man while our perceptions are so feeble. 

The illusion of ‘passive perception’, that we can only be stimulated by outward forces – like Sartre’s waiter whose head empties alongside his cafe – can be seen at work in Foucault and Derrida’s twin obsessions of history and language, immense blind forces that control us like puppets. Wilson’s own explorations into the intentional structure of consciousness clearly demonstrate the fallacy of this view. Husserl’s phenomenology “could be likened to a kind of archeology. When I speak of ‘myself’” writes Wilson, “I am speaking about the uppermost layer of willed intentions”. Underneath this “lies the realm of my acquired habits” like typing or driving. Several layers below are our sexual intentions which Wilson insists can be studied as willed intentions; his Origins of the Sexual Impulse, 1963, is an attempt to do this very thing. In archeological terms this layer would be Troy or Babylon; below this “lie the mental equivalents of the Miocene, the Jurassic, the Carboniferous”: these primal layers are examined by Wilson in his series of occult books. [7] Wilson’s term for this archeological structure (“compacted layer upon layer of willed intentions”) is ‘the robot’, a metaphorical piece of tech that transforms slowly learned willed intentions onto the layer of acquired habits, the things we do habitually or ‘instantaneously’. Unfortunately the “obsessive tidiness” of this device also transforms too much of life’s texture into a homogeneous mass, a state where everything seems static and meaningless and we feel that we are merely reflections of our environment. 

1966 was the year that Wilson fully developed one of his most intriguing concepts: the phenomenological faculty – “to coin a rather clumsy phrase” – which was shortened to Faculty X and thoroughly examined in his book The Occult. This ‘latent sense’ is the possibility, mentioned above, “of seeing order and meaning in the universe” against the “second best” of our normal (or natural, as Husserl would have it) perception. Proust devoted over three thousand pages to examining this “dormant faculty” (as he called it). This fact is itself an indication that the carefully disciplined phenomenological method cannot be an immediate quick cure or instant satisfaction; as Wilson says, it’s development requires the patience of a skilled watchmaker. “If I want to combat my boredom and life-devaluation it is necessary for me deliberately to exercise my phenomenological faculty, to train it as I would train my body for some sporting event”. Poetry and literature are by-products of this activity, he writes. [8] 

Addressing an audience in 1967 Wilson repeated the “absurd possibility” that man does not yet exist. [9] Using an image from H. G. Wells, he compares those who attempt to develop the phenomenological faculty to evolving amphibians, struggling to live on dry land. Sartre’s cafe proprietor is firmly a sea-dweller, contained by his reflective environment and dependent on external forces and objects for meaning. This ‘evolutionary phenomenology’ is fully examined in Beyond the Outsider, particularly in the final chapters. Wilson compares the habitual mentality of Sartre’s  ‘sea-creature’, totally dependent on the reflection of outward circumstances, to a vestigial tail or appendix, an evolutionary dead end. Instead we should be looking inward, towards the interior forces we have at our disposal, those layers of willed intentions that can be examined by phenomenological analysis. Through this, says Wilson, we can change our conception of ourselves. 

[1] Husserl, Edmund, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern Uni. Press, 1970, p. 355. Goethe, Faust/ Part Two, Act 1: A Gloomy Gallery, Penguin 1967, p. 76 infra. (Mephistopheles’ cry ‘Then to the deep!’ – a favourite of Husserl’s – is on p. 78). 

See also: Wilson, Colin, The New Existentialism, Wildwood House, 1980, p. 62. Speigelberg, Herbert, The Phenomenological Movement vol. one, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1976, p. 160. 

[2] MacDonald, Ian, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Fourth Estate, 1997, pp. 24-25. MacDonald dismisses the fashionable idea that the various countercultural strands – the new left, etc – were responsible for this switch; it was rather the case that they were warning against it, however ineptly. “As such, the events of 1968 were a kind of street theatre acted out by middle-class radicals too addled by theory to see that the real Sixties revolution was taking place, not in the realms of institutional power, but in the minds of ordinary people.” [ibid] 

[3] ibid. pp. 29-30 

[4] Wilson, Colin, Below the Iceberg: Anti-Sartre and other essays, Borgo Press, 1998, p. 106 (the relevant essay was cut from the book that became The Devil’s Party

[5] MacDonald, ibid p. 274. He remarks that such procedures are mostly harmless when confined to small gallery or literary audiences. However, he also points out that Revolution 9 is “the world’s most widely distributed avant-garde artifact”. 

[6] Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things: an archeology of the human sciences, Tavistock Pub. Ltd., 1970, p. xiv, p. 387. Sartre, J. P., Being and Nothingness, Routledge Classics, 2003, p. 636. Wilson, Colin, Beyond the Outsider, Carroll & Graf, 1991, p. 167. Wilson, The New Existentialism, ibid p, 70. 

[7] Wilson, Colin, ‘Existential Psychology: A Novelist’s Approach’ in The Bicameral Critic, Salem House, 1985, p. 52.

[8] Wilson Colin, ‘Phenomenology and Literature’ in  Eagle and Earwig, John Baker, 1965, p. 97

[9] Wilson, The Bicameral Critic, ibid p. 54


2 thoughts on “Head Revolution

  1. Laura

    Thank you for your blog. I appreciate your analysis of Wilson’s views which can take me to a deeper understanding of his work. I think I now might be ready to tackle his Occult book.


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