Introduction To The New Existentialism – an appraisal

Wilson’s sharp philosophical handbook, a summation of his ‘Outsider’ series, is finally back in print. This is something to celebrate.

“I would like to think that I, the supposed reactionary, am far more radical and far more revolutionary than those who in their words proclaim themselves so radical today”. Edmund Husserl [1]

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Originally published in 1966, Introduction To The New Existentialism was the summary of a series of philosophical books which began a decade before with Wilson’s debut, The Outsider. The media flurry surrounding that first book, an examination of ‘life failure’ via portraits of various thinkers and artists, overshadowed the following volumes so much that The Outsider is still not generally understood as the first part of a developing series (of course, it hasn’t been out of print since it’s original publication – the proceeding volumes weren’t quite so lucky). The second and third books in the Outsider series, the undeservedly panned Religion and The Rebel (1957) and the unjustly ignored Age of Defeat (1959) have both recently been reissued by Aristeia Press; the remaining volumes, The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination (1962), Origins of the Sexual Impulse (1963) and Beyond The Outsider (1965) are currently out of print. In those latter three volumes Wilson analyses, tentatively at first, the influential philosophical discipline known as phenomenology (‘the study of the structure of consciousness’) which was a primary influence on existentialism. Looking back on Introduction To The New Existentialism, Wilson commented that this densely packed but short work was “perhaps the best and clearest summary of my central ideas”. The first edition quickly went out of print and became a sought after hardcover rarity. Fourteen years later the publisher Wildwood House reprinted a paperback (with the truncated title The New Existentialism) after Wilson suggested a reprint. “If I have contributed anything to existentialism – or for that matter, to twentieth-century thought in general”, he wrote in a new preface, “here it is”. Now, at last, after another thirty-nine years of unavailability, here it is yet again.

Introducing the book, Wilson states that readers need not be aware of either existentialism or of his own interpretation of it throughout his previous ‘Outsider’ volumes, and indeed, one of the most important aspects of Introduction To The New Existentialism is it’s remarkably clear and concise treatment of such difficult subjects: phenomenology, existentialism and thinkers such as Husserl and Whitehead. One critique of Heidegger and Sartre that Wilson offers here is that their Investigations were “immobilised” by their stylistic compromises with academic philosophy. Kierkegaard, one of the grandparents of existentialism, lampooned the philosophy of Hegel by remarking that it was like trying to find your way around your home town via a tiny postage stamp sized map – it was too impersonal, too generalised. So although Heidegger does locate his philosophy in the everyday, “he makes very heavy weather of the business of communication”. Wilson made a point of writing for the average person as clearly, and more importantly, as compulsively as possible. Truth be told, it is not so much the obscurity of the prose of certain philosophers that bothers him – Heidegger’s mentor Edmund Husserl is hardly an easy read – his problem is with their underlying attitude towards existence.

The blurb on the back cover of the 1980 reprint said that the techniques of Wilson’s new existentialism “can bring back meaningfulness, and provide twentieth and twenty-first century man with a relevant and satisfying philosophy”. If there’s one thing that is in severely short supply in the nascent twenty-first century, it’s meaningfulness. “It seems to be generally accepted that existentialism is necessarily a philosophy of pessimism” wrote Wilson in 1966. “Anyone who opens any one of the books on the subject becomes immediately aware of a certain atmosphere of gloom”. Wilson asserts that the ‘old’ existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre “is as dead as the phlogiston theory of combustion or Hamilton’s quaternions”. This doesn’t mean that existentialism itself is dead, however: “only that in it’s Kierkegaard-Sartre form it has reached a point from which it can neither advance or retreat”. So with this problem in mind Wilson summarised the new, optimistic existentialism he had been developing from The Outsider onwards, now “based on the most rigorous phenomenological analysis” in the pages of Introduction To The New Existentialism. Wilson’s ideas had met with an enthusiastic response from audiences in America when he lectured there in the ‘60’s, but when he published his summary in 1966 Jacques Derrida presented his own interpretation of Husserl, language and literature which quickly became part of a new wave of fashionable post-existential practice later labelled ‘postmodern’.

Wilson had offered a potted history of philosophy in his Beyond The Outsider but for him it was the arrival of the modern novel in 1740 and the cultural explosion known as Romanticism that truly revolutionised human consciousness; he sees that blast of rebellion as the pivot on which our current endeavours revolve. According to Wilson, Romanticism – exemplified by Goethe’s Faust, Schiller’s Robbers and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound – was a demand to know why we are not Godlike. “If the church was an imposture and the scriptures merely inspired poetry” he writes, “then the individual suddenly had a new freedom and a new dignity thrust upon him”. However, this burden was something of a shock and many romantics crashed and burned (c.f. Wilson’s The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, etc.) and the era ended in ‘romantic defeat’, what Wilson calls the age of defeat in the book of that name. Wilson had previously suggested that although the nascent language of Romanticism – ‘rapture’, ‘ecstasy’, etc. – “lumbered to extinction” like the dinosaurs, it’s decadent attitude of gloomy defeatism was unconsciously carried on by the existentialists despite their greater linguistic precision. Later, he would say the same about that loosely defined group known as postmodernists – that although their use of words and ironic terminology was cutting, their basic philosophy remained gloomy and pessimistic. “I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the superior Life Force […] From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death” lamented the practitioner of a “vague, casual, even cynical phenomenology”, Roland Barthes. [2] It must be stressed that phenomenology cannot be ‘vague’ as it relies on accurate description, it cannot be ‘casual’ as it is a rigorous discipline and it cannot be ‘cynical’ as it’s aim is to eradicate emotional prejudices from conscious activity. Now that postmodernism itself is long dead, it is Wilson’s interpretation of Husserl, language and values in Introduction To The New Existentialism that remains fresh and invigorating. This is an accessible and practical twenty-first century philosophy which avoids the culdesac of ‘meaninglessness’ which existentialist and post-existentialist thought often finds itself sleepwalking towards.

Existentialism failed, Wilson thinks, because none of it’s practitioners could agree that there are any values outside what we think of as our ordinary passive consciousness (for Derrida there was no ‘outside’ of a network of meaningless language signs). Yet Wilson was determined to prove that nodding in agreement to this kind of romantic fatalism was the very opposite of what existentialism was all about. Wilson labelled existentialism ‘old’ and ‘new’ to distinguish philosophical pessimism from optimism.

Introduction To The New Existentialism is in two sections – the first describes the historical problem (the old existentialism) and the second introduces Wilson’s outline of a solution (the new). Via brief portraits of seminal existential thinkers, Wilson questioned their commitment to the thought of “the father-figure of modern existentialism”, Edmund Husserl. A mathematician turned philosopher, Husserl “pointed out the simple mistake that that had kept philosophy at a standstill for two hundred years”. By introducing a method of radical doubt and scepticism into philosophy – “I think, therefore I am” – Descartes gave it a firm scientific discipline. What Descartes didn’t do, Husserl noted [Crisis § 18] was doubt his own presuppositions, his own “I”. Wilson compares the Cartesian method to a detective interrogating a room full of suspects; he questions everybody, making no assumptions about anyone’s innocence. What he doesn’t question is his own innocence – the method that Husserl introduced was, in Wilson’s words, the possibility that the detective himself could be the murderer. “Descartes had said that man cannot be certain of anything except his own consciousness, and that therefore philosophy should begin with a study of consciousness; but this was the very thing that Descartes neglected to do”. He made the naive mistake of presuming that consciousness is truthful because it is passive, reflective like a flat polished mirror. Husserl’s “new and disturbing” phenomenological method pictures consciousness as a distorting mirror, constantly warping perceptions before they even rise to consciousness. This does indeed sound disturbing, but it must be understood that this only means that consciousness is active and not a passive reflector – it is, in Husserl’s terminology, ‘intentional’ – our consciousnesses selects it’s perceptual objects from a vast choice, and our selections could depend on subconscious prejudices. So we can ‘flip’ the image below to see either the four leaved clover or the cross, but we cannot see both petals and cross simultaneously because perception is selective. 4514AC16-B6DD-4B2F-83B7-164B45002DF6This is what Husserl meant by intentionality (active choice, not a passive reflection). Perhaps a horticulturist would be prone to see the four leaved clover first and a soldier the Maltese Cross. Husserl was determined to demonstrate that Descartes’ flat, polished mirror was subject to distortions, and if we “wish to philosophise in a new way” (as Husserl put it) then we must study these distortions or prejudices first. Wilson’s ‘new’ existentialism is new in that it also wishes to philosophise in a new way, and so returns to Husserl’s methods. As one commentator on existentialism put it, “Husserl’s exacting science is easier to betray than to follow”, and Wilson demonstrates this point well in the first part of Introduction To The New Existentialism.

For Wilson, the most exciting thing about the phenomenological method was that it demonstrated that consciousness is active (“perception is intentional”, he would often say). For if consciousness is active, then we choose what to experience, or how to experience: we need not be at the mercy of external pressures, or our reactions to those externals, or to our moods, like a leaf blown around in a breeze. We choose. And choice is the basis of existentialism.

As the term ‘phenomenological existentialism’ was something of a mouthful, Wilson settled on ‘new’ existentialism although they are in fact interchangeable. The first of the ‘practical disciplines’ of the new existentialism, outlined later in the book, is a cultivation of constant awareness of the intentionality of all conscious acts. Husserl was also adamant that this must be practiced at all times [Crisis, § 40] and Wilson had previously stated in The Outsider that the existential Ideas in that book “must be lived”. So the first part of Introduction To The New Existentialism briefly asks just how committed the first generation of post-Husserlian existentialists actually were to this somewhat severe discipline.

Wilson once compared his own writing method to that of Karl Jaspers – by analysing the lives of philosophers, as Jaspers also did, philosophy can be seen in action, within real life. Wilson would apply his ‘existential literary criticism’ method to philosophers, writers, artists, even to fanatics and criminals (Jaspers first major work was entitled Psychopathology); Wilson’s method refuses to separate the life lived from the work developed – they are intwined. So despite being “the best representative of the modern existentialist tradition”, Jean-Paul Sartre was blighted by a temperament spoilt by gloom and pessimism. “He is the opposite of what Heidegger meant by a poet”, comments Wilson. By way of illustration, Wilson compares Sartre’s description of a lake (in his autobiography Words) as a “rippling swamp” to Wordsworth’s description of boating on a lake in the first book of The Prelude (“unknown modes of being” – a phrase worthy of Heidegger). Sartre’s habitual tendency to see everything as alien and suspicious crippled his ability to perform the phenomenological discipline of standing apart or putting away such distortions or interpretations, what Husserl had labelled as ‘bracketing’ or the suspension (epoché) of the ‘natural attitude’ (an attitude illustrated by Descartes’ acceptance of his passive consciousness). Husserl would speak of this as a “total transformation of attitude” for a new philosophy. The word ‘attitude’ is as important as ‘new’ in the new existentialism.

Although he turned “pale with emotion” when the phenomenological method was first described to him, Sartre quickly abandoned Husserl’s techniques. Sartre was doubtless more influenced by Husserl’s former pupil Martin Heidegger whose lumbering Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) probes ‘forgetfulness of existence’, our collective amnesia towards reality. Wilson points out that Heidegger’s critique of modernity and media echoes Pascal’s concern with our constant need for distraction (it is difficult to imagine what either would have made of the present ‘attention economy’). However, Heidegger went out of his way to avoid falling into the religious trap of Kierkegaard; “whatever happened, he would never give philosophers the chance to dismiss his ideas by declaring that they fell outside philosophy” writes Wilson. “Being and Time was a magnificent opening shot in his campaign: brilliant, erudite (strung with Greek quotations), strictly phenomenological in method, and with hardly a passing reference to religion”. Sein und Zeit was meant to be completed by further volumes but all editions remind the reader that these never actually appeared. Wilson compares Heidegger’s thought to a gigantic palace which was too costly to finish building. “We can understand phenomenology only by seizing on it as a possibility” writes Heidegger in Sein und Zeit [Introduction, II, 7c].. Influenced by Heidegger, Derrida would later state that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology “is perhaps not possible”. [3] Wilson remarks that like Jaspers, Heidegger perhaps spent too much time on the problem and not enough on a practical solution, unlike Husserl.

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Martin Heidegger

Sartre, like Derrida after him, thought that Husserl’s notion of the ‘transcendental ego’ – the ‘self’ that intends all intentionality – was (Wilson comments) “a survival of romantic idealism, and a threat to the status of phenomenology as an academic philosophy”. But it must be stressed that Husserl’s transcendental ego, which Wilson symbolises as an ‘archer’ firing intentional arrows at objects and situations, is the starting point of this new, barely understood phenomenological philosophy rather than the throwback to ‘idealism’ that critics presume or presuppose. Philosophy can only begin when we are constantly in this meaningful state (Heidegger’s “possibility”) Until then, it will remain the rambling autobiography that Nietzsche described it. Nicholas Tredell points out in his preface to this new edition of Introduction To The New Existentialism that Wilson’s book “enables it’s readers to put it’s ideas into practice immediately”. No amount of academic paperwork is needed to perform these Husserlian operations, just an open minded understanding that the subject is your own consciousness and the gift is your own existential freedom. Wilson quotes a critic of existentialism who said that it “treats life in the manner of a thriller” (think Wilson’s image of the cogito as a detective and note how Husserl analysed it through a series of ‘Investigations’ in his first major work) but this is in fact what makes it accessible and dynamic. Wilson himself thinks existentialism has more in common with science fiction than with academic plodding. Philip K. Dick preferred to be known as a ‘fictionalising philosopher’ despite his apparent status as a SF hack churning out pulp for dime store weeklies, but he was right – his best work asks very probing questions about reality, time, empathy and consciousness, just like Husserl’s philosophy and indeed like Wilson’s similar faux-pulp fiction does. The plot of Wilson’s 1967 novel The Mind Parasites, which anticipates the current vogue for mutating H. P. Lovecraft’s Mythos with philosophy by decades, was drawn from a passage in Introduction To The New Existentialism. It imagines an invisible parasite – similar to the spectre in Blake’s illuminated poems – which blocks us from accessing our ‘source of power, meaning and purpose’ (i.e. the state referred to as the transcendental ego). This parasite or “mysterious agency” is merely a symbol for our narrowed consciousness – an “intentional safety device” – which is rather like those blinkers horses wear in traffic. As a species we have slowly learned to select only ‘relevant’ information but this selectivity has become so much of a habit (Husserl spoke of “habitual sedimentation”) that we often filter off far too much ‘other’ information. Recognising that consciousness is ‘blinkered’ and that we set these limits ourselves is one of the fundamental tenets of the new or phenomenological existentialism.

Husserl wanted philosophy to be a science, says Wilson. Science, knowledge of external nature, frees us from our old childhood prejudices yet it “promises something it cannot accomplish”. We can, like Goethe’s Faust, soak up gallons of knowledge and still feel “no wiser than before” (in Goethe’s words). Science appears to be a discipline beyond the ‘human, all too human’, what Bertrand Russell described in uncharacteristically Nietzschean – even Lovecraftian – language as the “vastness and fearful passionless force of non-human things”. But science essentially retains the Cartesian method and does not analyse presuppositions as Husserl demanded we constantly do (Nietzsche was also adept at analysing presuppositions). “And now it is possible to see the full significance of Husserl’s revolution” writes Wilson. “Science may appear to hurl man out of his world of provincialism and prejudice; but Husserl has shown that man’s prejudices go a great deal deeper than his intellect or his emotions”. Consciousness is prejudiced, selective (intentional). “I am born with habits of perception that have been slowly achieved over millions of years, and which science leaves untouched” he continues. Nietzsche remarked that their are no facts, only interpretations and this is now commonly misunderstood as a pre-echo of postmodern relativism. But Wilson, who once suggested that Nietzsche would have benefitted if he knew about the concept of intentionality [4] remarks in Introduction To The New Existentialism that the “whole point of intentionality means that it is not the ‘facts’ that matter so much as our interpretation of them”. Like Blake’s poetic statement about the cleansing of the doors of perception, phenomenology also understands that there is a real world ‘outside’ but our interpretations colour, filter and distort to such a degree that we take those distortions for the world itself. Sartre often makes this mistake, Wilson observes. “[The] delusions of passive consciousness make man particularly susceptible to pessimism” says Wilson. So in science fiction terms, we are continual prey for ‘mind parasites’ (Blake’s spectre) or our narrowed consciousness which tells us lies about reality. In Wilson’s novel these forces of negation stage a mass invasion during the romantic era. “To historians of the future”, he writes in Introduction To The New Existentialism, “it may well appear that the year 1800 is roughly the dividing line between the old and the new epoch”.

It is apparent from the first part of Introduction To The New Existentialism that there was indeed a difference of attitudes between Husserl and the thinkers he influenced: this can be verified by turning from Husserl’s own writings to those of Heidegger or Sartre (Wilson recommends as “elementary textbooks of ‘the new existentialism’”, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception and The Structure of Behaviour). The first part of Wilson’s examination was merely “a clearing of the ground”, the second plots out the development of a new existentialism (“foundation work”). Wilson begins by remarking that Nietzsche is the ‘founder’ of this new philosophy – the full title of his seminal 1886 text is Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future – and perhaps in homage Wilson subtitled his own Beyond The Outsider ‘The Philosophy of the Future’. Husserl would also stress the radical ‘new’ nature of his phenomenological method and attitude. While both Sein und Zeit and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness are genuinely fascinating, they do retain the acrid whiff of decadent romantic gloom that we expect to find in existentialist handbooks. Wilson wishes to to return to the optimistic attitudes of early Romanticism and to the powerful techniques of Husserl, before they were – ironically enough – distorted by the subjective readings of later interpreters.

Wilson quotes William James – an influence on Husserl – who is himself quoting a patient who is attempting to describe a ‘mystical experience’ under ether. The patient laughed at the doctors’ rational interpretations “because he felt that they ‘believed they saw real things and they didn’t…I was where the causes were and to see them required no more mental ability than to recognise a colour as blue…’” He compares them to men in a boat, surrounded by a dense fog, watching a stone skipping over the waves – they cannot see the stone thrower due to the fog, so they presume that the stone is skipping of it’s own volition. It sounds absurd, but we make this mistake with our own perception on a daily basis. Heidegger and Sartre are like the men in the boat surrounded by fog – “there is nothing actually wrong with Sartre’s thinking, or with Heidegger’s” writes Wilson. “It simply does not go far enough”. It would be correct think of the ‘old’ existentialism as fogbound and the ‘new’ existentialism as not; Wilson began his debut by pointing out that the archetypal Outsider “sees too deep and too much”. In the sixth volume of the Outsider series, Wilson would describe an ‘outsider’ not as a social misfit, as commonly understood, but as a precise “description of a state of consciousness definable by phenomenology”, someone who understands that are meanings and values outside of ‘ordinary’ consciousness – a Blake, a Nietzsche. For Sartre and Derrida there was no outside.

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Jean-Paul Sartre

Wilson notes how it is historically absurd that phenomenology predated Heidegger and Sartre. “It should have been discovered later; for it is, to some extent, a denial of the contingency they emphasise”. Simply put, the foundation of the new existentialism, it’s first practical discipline, is to realise that perception is intentional. Actually ‘realising’ this seemingly simple point requires effort or intention – as Wilson and Husserl stress, this must be lived, it must be real. When he was previously briefing us on the old existentialism, Wilson remarked that Heidegger’s central insight was that we “live in a meaningless world because [we] find it so difficult to mean anything”. G. K. Chesterton, whose first book appeared in the same year as the first volume of Husserl’s Logical Investigations, pointed out that we say the earth is round although we don’t mean it – even though it’s true. This is Heidegger’s ‘forgetfulness of existence’, an inability to realise anything much, except during danger (or the inevitable march toward death, in Heidegger’s own philosophy). Before he tasted the cake in Swann’s Way, Proust could have easily remarked that he was a child in Combray and not meant it. Yet after the ‘madeleine’ episode he did mean it: the fog has lifted. Wilson describes one of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (The Invisible Man) in which a murderer manages to escape from a house without being noticed despite the house being under observation. He was dressed as the postman “and no one has noticed him  because a postman is not thought of as a man; he is merely a symbol of a social service”. Phenomenology states that we do not immediately experience reality – Heidegger’s central theme – but instead our senses write down a kind of familiar shorthand or a formula of things that surround us (Husserl’s maxim was ‘back to the things themselves’). In order to notice something we must “give it significance” with our vision. In order to realise or mean something we really must understand it – Gnosis rather than mere ‘knowledge’. [5] It depends on the amount of intentionality we throw into perception, on how far we pull back the bowstring for the arrow to hit it’s target; how much force we use.

In part two of Introduction To The New Existentialism Wilson recommends studying Proust’s huge novel as it is “a kind of fictional counterpart of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit”. He draws attention to a particular scene in the second volume which is set during a train journey. The narrator laments our habit of forgetting the unique individual beauty of things, “mentally substituting for them a conventional type at which we arrive by striking a sort of mean […] And we deliver on life a pessimistic judgement which we suppose to be accurate…” Which is of course Wilson’s point. “As a rule it is with our being reduced to a minimum that we live; most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit…” Wilson would concentrate on a dormant faculty (the phenomenological faculty, later shortened to ‘Faculty X’) and how habits blunt our awareness of it throughout his writing career.

Proust then describes another moment of realisation like the incident in Swann’s Way: his sedentary habits have been interrupted “and all my faculties came hurrying to take their place”. He then wonders if it is merely the change of scenery which is driving this moment (in a passage worthy of the later Husserl, he writes “it gave another tonality to all that I saw, introduced me as an actor upon the stage of an unknown and infinitely more interesting universe”) but wisely decides against attempting to relive this moment by taking the same train to the same station (the train was stationary) and “providing food for the selfish, active, practical, mechanical, indolent, centrifugal tendency which is that of the human mind”. Here we can easily see what Wilson meant when he remarked that certain sections of Proust’s novel “have a psychological penetration comparable to Heidegger”. It is intriguing that Proust uses the phrase “reduced to a minimum” as this is also used by Heidegger in Sein und Zeit (Division Two, 1.§ 50) when speaking of impending death. According to Heidegger it is only the awareness of this crisis which can induce ‘authenticity’ (Wilson often compared this to Gurdjieff’s genuinely ‘woke’ concept of an implanted organ which counts down to the exact second of our demise). Sartre once said that he had never felt so free as when he was a member of the Resistance during World War Two: the prospect of imminent assassination kept his mind sharp, or so he thought. His contemporary Camus held similar ideas.

However, one of the key concepts in Wilson’s new existentialism is something he called the ‘indifference threshold’ – a kind of margin in consciousness which can be stimulated by crisis but not by simple pleasures: it can be seen in operation in many scenes throughout Proust’s novel and is obviously related to Heidegger’s idea of authenticity in the face of death. In his New Pathways In Psychology (1971) Wilson states that consciousness without crisis has a tendency towards negativity. Heidegger speaks of “pallid lack of mood – indifference – which is addicted to nothing and has no urge for anything, and which abandons itself to whatever the day may bring” [Sein und Zeit, Division Two, IV, (b)]. But Proust, during the famous madeleine scene in Swann’s Way, writes that the “vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me”. The indifference threshold is a paradox; we shouldn’t need to be forced to briefly become ‘authentic’ by inconvenience, crisis or mortal danger unless we take it as a given that we are victims of external circumstance – the opposite of Husserl’s intentionality. With this important concept understood, we can see why it was absurd that phenomenology was followed by the contingency driven ideas of Heidegger, Sartre (and later, Derrida, Barthes, etc.) who all ramble away from the intentionality which Husserl insisted was of in need of urgent and serious investigation.

The indifference threshold is the habit of ‘excluding’ which Proust discussed in the passage from his second volume of In Search of Lost Time quoted above. Obviously it is related to the intentionality of consciousness, the ability to select or choose – an ability we constantly forget, or more commonly, do not realise we possess. Remembering and forgetting link both Proust and Heidegger; realising the ‘things themselves’ (Husserl) or meaning what we say (Chesterton, Proust) cannot be lived without understanding the intentional nature of everyday perception and constantly applying the science of phenomenology to it. As noted in the new introduction to Wilson’s book, it “enables it’s readers to put it’s ideas into practice immediately”, a practice which Husserl suggested we “resolve to take up once and for all”. [Crisis § 40]

Wilson writes that the new existentialism “is founded in a dual recognition: (a) that ‘ordinary’ human consciousness is restricted, and (b) that restriction is, in a certain sense, voluntary”. It is this chosen restriction which gives rise to the paradox of the indifference threshold, the delusion of a passive consciousness which we believe can only be stimulated by crisis (the first part of Introduction To The New Existentialism is entitled The Crisis In Modern Thought; the word ‘crisis’ appears in the titles of several important late Husserl essays and texts). “Man is never so deeply aware of his freedom as when he is in chains” writes Wilson. Rousseau stated that man is free but everywhere in chains, but both Blake and Nietzsche understood that freedom is rather more paradoxical than simply throwing off physical shackles – Blake’s “mind forg’d manacles” (Wilson’s ‘mind parasites’j are far more oppressive than any linked ironwork; Nietzsche made his Zarathustra remark that freedom from is nothing compared to freedom for; the philosopher Fichte remarked that ‘to be free is nothing; to become free is heavenly’. Freedom “is a far more complex matter than Rousseau ever realised” continues Wilson. He thinks that the ‘excluding faculty’ is an inherence from our earliest humanity (he also makes this point in his A Criminal History of Mankind, 1984). “Man has evolved to his present position by his capacity to narrow his attention, to ‘exclude’ whatever has nothing to do with the business in hand” (the latter three words should be borne in mind when reading Heidegger on the ‘ready-to-hand’ in Sein und Zeit). “This excluding has become a habit, so when he ceases to strive, he becomes bored”. And of course, boredom was one of the primary existential dilemmas first noted by Kierkegaard in the 1800’s (see Wilson’s The Mind Parasites, again). 

Sartre observed an excellent image for this problem in his novel Nausea – he describes a cafe waiter with the words “when his establishment empties, his head empties too”. The truly free human, Wilson noted elsewhere, would be powered by a strong, purposeful interior drive. Although Nietzsche was unaware of the concept of intentionality, his ‘will to power’ is not too far away,. At the present, however, we are all in the position of Sartre’s waiter, more or less pushed around by external factors despite there being no real need to be if we understand existentialism correctly. The problem, Wilson notes, can also be observed as a biological one. “As H.G. Wells says, from the beginning of time, animals have been ‘up against it’”. To survive, they had to narrow their attention and remain alert, as humans habitually still do. “The biological approach”, explains Wilson, “enables us to see the problem with a new clarity”. Wells thought present day humans were in the same position as the first creatures who left the water to live on the land – amphibians who “hated the sea”. Sartre’s waiter is still a sea creature dependent on external stimuli. In Introduction To The New Existentialism Wilson discusses the ‘black room’ experiments at Princeton; these demonstrate just how much we are still dependant on external stimuli, but anyone with even a basic understanding of intentionality knows that we need not totally be. The investigators at Princeton set out to study sensory deprivation – Wilson writes that workers with monotonous jobs such as long distance lorry drivers or radar workers would often experience delusions of phantom hitch-hikers or non existent radar pips (many of these are documented in paranormal and UFO literature). Subjects were placed in a completely dark room with basic physical amenities but no ‘distractions’ – generally three days seclusion was the most any subjects could bear (Wilson also wrote a novel based on this practice). It was previously noted how Heidegger echoed Pascal on our perpetual need for distractions. But the important thing about the black room, Wilson suggests, is that it makes us aware of our enormous powers, blotted out by ‘ordinary’ (i.e. voluntarily restricted) consciousness. In the black room, colds disappeared more quickly than usual, ivy poisoning cleared up in a few days and chain smokers did not crave their habit inside the room. So Wilson wonders if intentionality, fully focused in curing a common cold, could indeed cure it. Certainly this “biological approach” can help us see the problem (habits, a consciousness dependent on novelty or stimuli) and a solution (intentionality) in action. Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, thinking about the possibility of imminent execution, realised that he would rather stand on a dark narrow ledge for eternity than die at once. He has become aware of the value of his existence – the “‘indifference threshold’ has been totally destroyed” writes Wilson; “consequently, sensory deprivation ceases to trouble him”.

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Colin Wilson

The word ‘values’, Wilson remarks, “lands us at the heart of the problem of the method of the new existentialism”; in his debut he wrote of a ‘world without values’. Nietzsche was concerned with the ‘re-evaluation of all values’, with self-affirmation and overcoming. Our values – what we regard as worth doing or not worth doing – “are the most intimate response to our conscious perception of existence” writes Wilson. If our ‘ordinary’ consciousness is indeed limited, then our knowledge of the value of existence is also limited or partial – we cannot make sweeping judgements on ‘life’ until we know the full facts. And although Wilson began his book by defining existentialism as a philosophy which asks questions usually thought of as religious – freedom, the meaning of human existence, etc. – he later states that it would be wrong to describe the new existentialism as merely resting on the notion that consciousness tells us lies but no matter, there is a ‘beyond’, another world and so on. “There is no ‘other world’; the ‘ranges of distant fact’ belong essentially to this world. If anything is an illusion, it is our present mode of consciousness; or rather, it’s content”. Wilson stresses that the epiphanies (Maslow’s ‘peak experiences’) of Wordsworth, Proust, William James and Arthur Koestler (in prison, possibly due to face a firing squad, just like Raskolnikov) all appear to have an certain – if not identical – objective meaning content, a stark realisation of the value of life. The obvious explanation would be that this is merely due to danger or death (Heidegger, Sartre in the Resistance) even though only Koestler was in any such predicament. While it is lazily convenient to continue to believe that we are totally controlled by external stimuli, no one who has grasped Husserl’s change of attitude can merely accept it. The ‘phenomenological quest’ is certainly a difficult path; after all, Husserl’s techniques are up against millions of years of sedimented habits. However, even a basic recognition of the idea and the change of attitude which comes with it is enough to start. All religions and mystical schools set out to break habits and habitual thought. However, Wilson comments that the phenomenological quest can “give man the possibility of ‘mystical’ experience without the need for specifically Christian or yogic disciplines”. Perhaps this is why, in The Outsider, he referred to Gurdjieff’s system as the “ultimate Existenzphilosophie”. Gurdjieff’s ‘Fourth Way’ dispenses with traditional yogic and mystical techniques in favour of a self-observational practice located squarely in real life. The radical self awareness that Gurdjieff and his pupils strived for is not that different to Husserl’s – the practice of ‘self-remembering’ has been compared to the ‘apperception’ of the early psychologist and Husserl’s old lecturer Wundt [6] – although neither Ouspensky or Husserl [Logical Investigations, Prolegomena Ch. 8, §49; Ideas, Second Book § 57] think that Wundt truly grasped the specific state of awareness (self-remembering, the transcendental ego) they were describing.

In the important fourth chapter of the second part, Wilson analyses both language and values, suggesting that one “rather pedestrian task” of the new existentialism involves hoisting a scaffolding of language into these foggy realms. Phenomenology depends on the sharp description of subjective states [Husserl, Ideas, First Book § 75] rather like a cartographer mapping out an obscure continent. So to speak vaguely of two worlds, as religion is prone to do, is not entirely accurate: those descriptions are rather like the Mappa mundi from the medieval period. “The difference between the religious standpoint and the ‘natural standpoint’ [Husserl’s term for ‘ordinary’ consciousness] is the difference between the ‘external values system’ of the new existentialism and the ‘total contingency’ of the old” (by ‘external values system’ he means an objective criteria outside the whims of subjective distortions, i.e. ‘meaning content’). Wilson remarks that Heidegger and Sartre are mistaken to think that authenticity towards death or danger is a kind of flash of mystical insight which cannot be carried over into our everyday life. Like William James, Wilson thinks that these epiphanies are actually a “glimpse of a consciousness of purpose” via a change in the threshold of so-called ordinary consciousness (the natural standpoint). For Wilson, like Husserl before him, consciousness is ‘relational’, perceiving parts and wholes. [Logical Investigations VI § 48] “All perceiving and imagining is, on our view, a web of partial intentions, fused together in unity of a single total intention.” [ibid. VI § 10] Wilson often spoke of consciousness having a web like structure, and if the naive or natural standpoint is like perspectival painting, then the new phenomenological perception is more Cubism, with the perceiver wandering around the object. Nietzsche’s confusingly named ‘perspectivism’ is actually closer to the latter than the former, a swooping, shifting viewpoint (“there are no facts, only interpretations”).

Wilson is correct to imagine how Nietzsche would have benefited from exposure to the concept of intentionality. Because the “whole point of intentionality means that it is not the ‘facts’ that matter so much as our interpretation of them”, the same phenomena can be described by the old existentialism as a flash of absurdity or as a “glimpse of a consciousness of purpose” by the new. It is a question of temperament; Sartre’s lake or Wordsworth’s. In Sein und Zeit (Division One, V. 29) Heidegger discusses moods (“we are never free of moods”). In Introduction To The New Existentialism Wilson notes that while we do experience life as a series of moods, these ‘moods’ are actually “intentional value judgements” – interpretations according to our own values. In religious eras we had faith to navigate these moods but in the present humanistic age, says Wilson, we appear to be at the mercy of them. In moods of pessimism, life is sinister (Sartre’s ‘rippling swamp’) but in moods of elation we can experience Wordsworth’s ‘unknown modes of being’ while looking at the same phenomena – a lake. Yet we either forget or simply fail to realise that it is ourselves who are interpreting this phenomena. What we require, Wilson continues, is an objective standard. The new existentialism “consists of a phenomenological examination of consciousness, with the emphasis on the problem of what constitutes human values”. And because moods of optimism are rarer than moods of depression or life-devaluation (negative values) it is “the phenomenology of life-devaluation [which] constitutes the most valuable field of study” (cf Wilson’s The Outsider, his true crime books). In a negative sense, clear investigation of these states can be as rewarding as studying affirmative epiphanies or peaks. The fascinating work of Alfred North Whitehead is, alongside Husserl and his derivatives, one of the main foundations of the new existentialism and I would also strongly recommenced Wilson’s book for his analysis of Whitehead. Whitehead’s assertion that “nothing can be omitted” from conscious experience [7] helps us understand why Wilson wrote about seemingly unrelated topics (his “existential jigsaw puzzle”).

It should not be misunderstood that Husserl’s phenomenological method is solipsistic – he never denied that there is a real world out there – so although we see the world through various shifting moods which Wilson compares to a pair of coloured Kantian spectacles, he remarks that it is “quite ‘other’ than we see it; it is ‘out there’, independent, indifferent to our moods”. But consciousness, being selective, filters off most of this ‘otherness’ and reduces everything to a “kind of mean” as Proust says. 

Here, in Introduction To The New Existentialism Wilson notes how Husserl’s method of descriptive analysis of consciousness, free of subjective distortions, eliminates those false (passive) ideas about ourselves, much like science attempts to do. And so Husserl suggested  (Wilson continues) “that as man loses all the false ideas about himself and the world through scientific analysis, and as he comes to recognise that he himself is responsible for so much that he assumed to be ‘objective’, he will come to recognise his true self, presiding over perception and all other acts of living. This idea seems common-sensible enough, and our intuitions about ourselves seem to support it”. As Wilson said in a previous ‘Outsider’ volume, these experimental methods can be verified be by anyone who wishes to go to the trouble, they must be lived. Husserl used the term ‘Abbau’ (‘unbuilding’, a precursor to Heidegger’s ‘Destruktion’ and Derrida’s deconstruction) to refer to this kind of dismantling of layers of prejudice. As Wilson notes in his book, a child might be overawed by a city but a civil engineer knows it can be dismantled and rebuilt. It is much the same with our everyday consciousness (one of Wilson’s chapter headings here – Everyday Consciousness Is A Liar – became a useful maxim of his). Gurdjieff thought of his own system as a kind of engineering on the human ‘machine’ and on consciousness, but we could also think of our phenomenological layers in the sense of an archeological dig. Wilson has spoken of the accrued build up of habits in our ‘life world’ (Husserl’s term) from driving a car to learning a foreign language on the uppermost layers to further down, our sexual intentions (see Wilson’s Origins of the Sexual Impulse) and below into the occluded depths (cf Wilson’s The Occult). If we develop skill in phenomenologically descriptive analysis, Wilson thinks, we can bring these layers up to conscious awareness for investigation. One of Wilson’s most brilliant observations was that what we think of as ‘mechanical’ responses aren’t mechanical at all – they are willed intentions which have slowly become automated; anyone who has learned to drive or speak another language can quite easily understand that point. Wilson annotated his personal copy of Introduction To The New Existentialism and a leaflet of these annotations was privately published in 1995. In a typed epilogue, fully reproduced in the pamphlet, Wilson states that the “main point about this book” is that we are unaware of these deeper intentional layers. “We have taken a million years to develop to the present stage, and we have done this because of our ability to turn conscious intentions into habits”. But we remain unaware that ‘perception is intentional’, i.e. a matter of will or effort. “So the secret of life is that there are great unknown layers of will and effort below the conscious level” – these are hidden or occluded (again, see Wilson’s The Occult). We develop intentions, Wilson says, as we get a ‘taste’ for something like an unusual dish, or for that matter, philosophy. But, he stresses, “the original act is intentional, without any help from the object”. [8] So just as there is no need for the head of Sartre’s waiter to empty as his cafe does, there is no need for us to presume that we are totally controlled by external circumstances, as we continue to do. Post Husserlian philosophers maintained that we are controlled by moods, by ‘terror’ or by the ambiguity of language and failed to grasp Husserl’s radically optimistic, phenomenological existentialism. Wilson comments that even Nietzsche, “who announced the advent of this new optimism” did not clearly recognise the inevitability of this optimism. Husserl speaks about the “thoroughgoing meaningfulness” of philosophy “which unifies the whole movement” with a “unity of purpose” [Crisis § 14].

Wilson’s new existentialism remains a highly relevant philosophy for the present era and Introduction To The New Existentialism still sums it up beautifully. It is a tonic challenge to the atmosphere of ‘meaninglessness’ in the early twenty-first century, an attitude generated by various philosophical misunderstandings of Husserl’s basic point (‘old’ existentialism, postmodernism). With effort and imagination, we can free ourselves from our ‘natural attitude’ into something truly radical and exciting. The word ‘imagination’ may seem out of place in a handbook on a ‘science of consciousness’ but as Wilson notes, a major point about phenomenology “is that there is no sharp dividing line between perception and imagination” [Husserl, Logical Investigations, Investigation VI, §36; §47]. “The dividing line only applies when we think of perception as passive and imagination as active” continues Wilson. “As soon as we realise that perception is active, the old dichotomy vanishes”. A quarter of a century later, Wilson wrote that “I am inclined to believe that man is on the brink of a new ‘evolutionary leap’, and that it will come about through the deliberate investigation and control of the power of imagination. This may not seem to offer much comfort in our crime-ridden world. But I nevertheless suspect it will prove to be the answer.” [9] Existentialism, far from being dead, is very much alive in Wilson’s ‘new’ interpretation. With it’s roots in the phenomenological disciplines of Husserl, it is actually a living, pulsating philosophical method available to anyone who wishes to see reality anew, to ditch tired old attitudes and embrace a creative meaningfulness. That radical revolutionary Husserl said that we should seize the idea “of a resolve of the will to shape one’s own personal life into the synthetic unity of a life of universal self-responsibility and, correlatively, to shape oneself into the true ‘I’ the free, autonomous ‘I’ which seeks to realise his innate reason, the striving to be true to himself…” [10]

In 1980 Wilson said that Introduction To The New Existentialism was his best book (“I am willing to stand or fall by it”). He would later suggest that the final part of his ‘occult trilogy’ (Beyond The Occult, 1988) was his most important non-fiction work as it united his new existentialism with his interest in the ‘paranormal’ (i.e. occluded deep layers of willed intentions). While that book is an excellent read and does indeed unite these two currents, I would strongly suggest reading Introduction To The New Existentialism first; Wilson’s diverse interests cannot be really understood without a grounding in his new existentialist practices (and if you’re really serious, a study of the phenomenological texts Wilson suggests). I would in fact recommend this book over his most famous work, The Outsider. It is excellent that this important text is finally back in print. [11]

Notes.

[1] Husserl, ‘The Vienna Lecture’ (May 1935) in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 290. NB: works in square brackets eg ‘[Crisis § 14]’ throughout this essay are suggestions for the budding phenomenologist to look up these ideas in Husserl or Heidegger texts themselves.

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Flamingo, 1984, p. 72. His free interpretation of Husserl’s science of consciousness is on page 20.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, John Hopkins University Press, 1997, p. 67

[4] Husserl’s teacher Brentano published a book in 1874 which analyses ‘intentionality’ and Wilson imagines how Nietzsche might have benefitted if he read it. Wilson, Dual Value Response (originally 1972) reprinted in The Bicameral Critic, Salem House, 1985, p.102.

[5] Chesterton’s story is referenced by Aleister Crowley in a small manual on yogic techniques (originally 1911) in a chapter concerning ‘Dhyana’ (‘union with God’, theologically); certainly a very illuminating read in the light of Wilson’s new existentialism and vice-versa. Chesterton is merely referred to as “someone or other” as he had been involved in one of the self styled Great Beast’s endlessly petty feuds. See Crowley, Magick, RKP, 1973, p. 30

[6] P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, RKP, 1950, p. 121. Also ibid. p. 107 (“sensations can be indifferent”) and Husserl, ‘Investigation VI’, Logical Investigations (volume II), RKP, 1970, p. 761 and ‘Sense and Understanding’ p. 773 infra

[7] A.N. Whitehead, Adventures In Ideas, Cambridge University Press, 1933, p. 290. Whitehead’s long list is quoted and discussed in many of Wilson’s books.

[8] Colin Wilson, Introduction To The New Existentialism: The Author’s Emendations, Maurice Bassett, Virginia, 1995, p. 5. See also: “Experiences of meaning are classifiable as ‘acts’, and the meaningful element in each such single act must be sought in the act-experience, and not in it’s object; it must lie in that element which makes the act an ‘intentional’ experience, one ‘directed’ to objects”. Edmund Husserl, ‘Investigation V’ in Logical Investigations, ibid. p. 533

[9] Sex, Crime and theOccult’ in Rapid Eye, R.E. Publishing, 1989, p. 118

[10] Edmund Husserl, Philosophy as Mankind’s SelfReflection; the SelfRealisation of Reason, Appendix IV In The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, ibid. p. 338

[11] Not once, but twice! Routledge have coincidentally also just reprinted this book as a ‘library edition’ – designed to be bought by university libraries. A nice thought that one of Wilson’s best books is now ‘academically respectable’ of course, but at £80, you would be financially much better off buying this Aristeia Press reissue (just under £12, and about half that for the kindle version) and putting money into a publisher concerned with bringing important Wilson titles back into print.

The Age of Defeat reissued, The Outsider Revisited, and more…

colin-wilson-Age-Of-Defeat-cover-smallThe Age of Defeat, the third volume of Wilson’s Outsider Cycle series, has been reissued by Aristeia Press. This follows from their reissue of volume two, Religion and the Rebel, last year. You can see both books at their website here. The new edition has an introduction by academic Thomas F. Bertonneau, who has previously noted that certain Wilson books  “have been hard to find, and when found on the second-hand market command demoralizing high prices”. A case in point are the Outsider Cycle volumes themselves – while The Outsider has remained in print, the sequel was last reprinted in 1984 and The Age of Defeat was unobtainable for almost six decades, save for a very limited ‘deluxe’ reissue at the turn of the century (it was so limited that even I don’t own a copy!) Hopefully this bodes well for the remaining volumes: while second hand copies of The Strength to Dream, Origins of the Sexual Impulse and Beyond the Outsider can be obtained, their prices are rising. The seminal final volume, Introduction to the New Existentialism, which sums up the series brilliantly, is now becoming prohibitively expensive.

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First Edition 1959

The Age of Defeat is produced to match the softcover design of Religion and the Rebel from last year (the original 1950’s Gollancz editions had uniform designs as per usual, but were different sizes).  A study concerned with what Wilson labelled ‘the fallacy of insignificance’, the vanishing hero and the sociology of inner and outer directed psychology, The Age of Defeat is a timely reissue for the twenty first century, with Wilson’s ideas – properly understood – being more relevant now than ever. This latter point is made by pioneering Wilson scholar Howard F. Dossor in a video lecture on Wilson’s debut here. Dossor’s 1990 book (Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind) was the only available work for quite some time to contain a summary of the huge spread and reach of Wilson’s oeuvre, as well as a bibliography and enticing quotes from his work. Along with the compendium The Essential Colin Wilson (1985) this introduced me to the breadth of his output and more importantly, it’s conceptual cohesion. This latter book will be reissued next May and, at 400 pages, is considerably longer than the original, with many extra selections of post-1985 work, chosen by Wilson scholars. Like the original, this includes the ‘Strange Story of Modern Philosophy’ chapter from Beyond the Outsider (this got me interested in philosophy instantly) and an important chapter from the hard to find Introduction to the New Existentialism as well as standalone essays. The same month will see a study of UFO phenomena as seen through the lens of Wilson’s new existentialist ethos. Evolutionary Metaphors by scholar David Moore – who presented papers at both Colin Wilson Conferences this and last year – will be available from 6th Books in 2019, more information is here. His Wilson flavoured musings are at the aptly titled blog Ritual in the Dark. Meanwhile, the Glastonbury based author Paul Weston is currently working on a study provisionally entitled The Colin Wilson Work which will be published sometime in the near future, and my own thoughts on Wilson should appear on paper next year. Against all currents and trends, Wilson is slowly becoming a true underground (and I mean seriously underground) hero of the twenty first century, thanks to the tireless support of  those willing to investigate his radical phenomenology.

“Prehension? Moi?” Religion and The Rebel, reissued

Colin Wilson, Religion and The Rebel (Aristeia Press, 2017) A needed reprint of Wilson’s much misunderstood “difficult second album” (as the music journalistic cliche goes) in a large dark blue covered paperback (it’s also available as an e-book). Introductory pieces from the editor, from Wilson biographer Gary Lachman; also including Wilson’s own retrospective introduction from the second Ashgrove Press edition from 1984, now long out of print like the first Gollancz edition of 1957. Aristeia Press will be reissuing Wilson’s third non fiction book The Age of Defeat in the near future – it has been out of print since 1959, apart from a very limited reissue in 2001. Aristeia Press’ website is here – where you can read a sample of Religion and The Rebel before you buy. Also available at Amazon UK 

Religion and the Rebel Cover SmashwordsEvery review, every mention or discussion of this book opens with the same statement – that it was panned upon it’s original release in 1957. When I found a first Gollancz edition, damp-spattered dust jacket and all, in a Newcastle bookshop for the princely sum of £2.50 over three decades ago, I was at the very start of my interest in Wilson – I hadn’t even read The Outsider yet – and I enjoyed Religion and the Rebel very much. I read it without much awareness of it’s reception, and it stuck me as remarkably undated despite the odd reference to James Dean or some Fifties social concept (Rimbaud is described, not altogether wrongly, as looking like a ‘teddy boy’). I quickly went out and purchased two spanking new Picador paperbacks – the complete Rimbaud and the selected Rilke – purely off the excitement generated by the lucid treatment they received here. Wilson was such a great teacher.
Reading his autobiographical introduction when I was still in my teens only made the bond stronger: here was someone from the same background as me, doing the same jobs I would do, and expertly articulating my deepest thoughts. Now, re-reading it again as I approach my fiftieth year, I have a much deeper appreciation.
I must admit, my very first impressions when I was back into the 1957 text – after introductions by the editor, by Gary Lachman, and a retrospective one by Wilson himself – didn’t seem to bode too well. His original Autobiographical Introduction which feverishly excited me so much then seemed to be surprisingly emotional for a Wilson book. Now that I’m very familiar with his ‘phenomenological tone’ it’s not exactly absent, but it is essentially in embryo here (he wouldn’t mention Husserl, fleetingly, until The Strength to Dream a few years later.) The fiery emotion which excited me so much then – when I was just a few years younger than the author – is duly noted by Wilson in his 1984 introduction. “What I notice, the moment I begin reading, is that I then had a far more narrow and intense view of the [Outsider] problem than I have nowadays, and this gives the book a sense of passionate involvement that is lacking in the later volumes of the series.” Now that I’m almost the same age as Wilson was in 1984, I’m inclined to agree; maturity certainly sharpens your perceptions for the better. Clenched fist passions give way to the visionary clenching of consciousness, which in our own emotionally driven, subjectively confused time is much more radical and necessary.
What strikes me now, reading Wilson on his own development, is how closely his early self belief parallels that of many of the case histories he analyses in his second book. When he notes that he was writing a massive history of everything as a schoolboy, he was not only learning his writing trade, he was following in the footsteps of the boy Rimbaud (“on one occasion, he produced a digest of ancient history, including Egypt, Syria and Babylon”). The self creation of Rilke discussed in part one is apposite to Wilson’s own development – “he thoroughly dramatized himself in the role of poet.” Wilson would often return to the notion of the self image in his later writings. His polymathic interests are similar to those of Swedenborg, as is his switch from the rigours of science to the ambiguous landscape of mysticism, a lesson which today’s youthful dogmatists could learn something from, if they could actually concentrate for more than a millisecond, that is – note the need for “constant diversion” which creates “perpetual misery” in the discussion of Pascal. This is written exactly sixty-one years ago, and Pascal was of course writing long before that. Again and again, timely concepts pop up throughout the text. We live in an “infant-prodigy civilization”, with the clever schoolboy a “fitting image for Western civilization”. And perhaps the most overarching theme is the inevitable end or destruction of that very civilization, something voiced with not a little force by Nietzsche, and later by the likes of Spengler in 1918 or feminist thinker Camille Paglia today.
By infant prodigy or clever schoolboy he doesn’t mean Rimbaud or himself being disciplined enough to attempt digests of knowledge at an early age: that is simply the shallow end of a long learning curve. He means the “brilliant of mind, but immature in all other things.” Think upper class logic machines like Bertrand Russell or AJ Ayer and their childish, self indulgent philandering. Or think Dawkins and his Trumpish social media tantrums – can you imagine a scientist like Swedenborg doing anything so cringeworthy? I was struck, over and over, by the uncanny relevance of the arguments. Not bad for a “scrambled egghead” and his “rubbish bin”.

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Rilke

Religion and The Rebel is dedicated to writer Negley Farson – who was in Petrograd when the Russian Revolution broke out forty years previously, and who met both Ghandi and Hitler – and his son Daniel, who was often on television in my youth. Farson junior (“a good Ayran boy” according to Herr Hitler) was the journalist responsible for Wilson’s famous assertion of his own genius which helped dismissals of this book no end. Dismissals, I might add, made by people who never had to do the kind of manual labour Wilson documents in his introduction. I never noticed, for instance, the obvious fact that Arnold Toynbee was critic Philip Toynbee’s father until I read Gary Lachman’s introduction. Arnold would remain very important to Wilson but his son would accept, then firmly reject Wilson with this book and accept him yet again fourteen years later! A younger Toynbee, still a prominent political journalist today, once worked in two (two!) factories after leaving Oxford in the Sixties but has confessed that she “quickly discovered why people who work in factories don’t usually have the energy to write when they get home”. This is the world Wilson was writing and rebelling against. He was a tough worker who couldn’t afford the luxury safety net of the Toynbee bloodline, hence his ‘arrogance’, his proletarian chutzpah, which would help foster a wave of prole autodidactism running through many streams of anti-academic underground culture in the next few decades. This attitude is more or less neutered in the British lower classes today. We can read with wonder, for instance, about the complex anti-surface philosophy of Jacob Boehme who allowed “his own rough peasant voice to explain his meaning.”
After the slice of autobiography, the book is broken up into two parts. The first section of Part One deals with imagination – this is where I first read about Rilke, carrying a long stemmed flower through the streets of Prague in his old fashioned frock coat, and Rimbaud’s tempestuous affair with Verlaine, his ‘disappearance’ into the forests of Java and his unwanted fame. F. Scott Fitzgerald – a ‘weak Outsider’, like Elvis Presley, according to Wilson, much later – is also analyzed. It’s Hollywood Babylon on the surface, but Wilson detects an undercurrent of romanticism “straight out of Schiller or Hoffman”. Wilson tries to imagine what could have happened if Rimbaud was a young American in the 1920’s: he wasn’t to know, but that mutation would be happening ten years on with the peak of the counterculture in 1967.
The second section of this first part deals with Spengler’s notions of the biological growth, decay and death of civilizations. Spengler was unknown, a schoolteacher with “no special academic qualifications” like Wilson himself, and his immense work The Decline of the West made him famous in 1918 despite “the academic cold shoulder”. Wilson finds Spengler’s dissection of our “Faustian” civilization impressive, for Goethe’s Faust represents the bifurcation of science and art, resulting in a middle ground of unappetizing ‘knowledge’. Goethe would argue with Schiller that we can actively append nature, rather than abstract it from ourselves scientifically. This idea would return in Blake, Nietzsche, Husserl and Whitehead, and Wilson would describe it as his central obsession – “a movement towards the science of living”. This philosophy, he says, “has nothing whatever to do with any science that exists at present.” Spengler intuitively saw this: that we are not mere spectators of history, but Wilson suggests his temperament was closer to the pessimism of Schopenhauer, whose fatalism Nietzsche famously rejected. So despite agreeing that the arteries of Western culture are hardening, Spengler’s ‘no escape’ from decay is rejected. Another historian, Arnold Toynbee, is more of a visionary with his extraordinary Proustian time-slips, but Wilson rejects his solution to the problem (a collage of world religions) as much as those prosented by Shaw or Aldous Huxley – “religion is not made by throwing ingredients into a cooking pot.” So how is it made? Part Two of the book is an attempt to answer that question.
Nietzsche was acutely aware that once the cement of faith has completely crumbled with the death of God, moral chaos would ensure, and this assertion was ironically prophetic. Nietzsche’s continued reievance lies in his skewering the “last men” foibles of 21st century atheism while never falling prey to the kind of relativism we saw in postmodernism.
The Outsider problem was none-existent inside the church – “from the highest intellectual types to the meanest artisan” there was a structure, a role – and by ‘church’ he means Cathedral, Mosque, Temple, and inclusive faiths of all stripes. With the rise of Humanist values, this innocent security vanishes and we are in Rousseau’s garden, ‘free’, but everywhere in chains. Wilson regards Rousseau’s statement as “rubbish”, as much as Nietzsche or Blake did. Rather, it is Blake’s “mind forged manacles”, boredom and futility, which are the problem. A discipline is needed, not a physical discipline but a mental one; a “science of living”. Rimbaud’s intense need to make himself a visionary is a start – the opposite of a “spectator and an observer, a sort of naturalist looking at the universe through a magnifying glass and murmuring: ‘Mmm. Most interesting.’” Existentialism, of course, regards us as intensely involved in the universe, but it’s major thinkers – Heidegger, Sartre and Camus – are as pessimistic as Schopenhauer. “Jaspers is a better existentialist than Heidegger”, Wilson opines, because he focused on the lives of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, and showed the real issues of life in action, rather than talk about them in ever more complex critical language and discourse. In the last part of Religion and the Rebel, Wilson gives short case histories on mystics and theologians (Boehme, Ferrar, Pascal, Law and Newman), on philosophers (Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Whitehead) on that remarkable scientist turned mystic Swedenborg and on Shaw, who Wilson regards as the most significant thinker since Dante. By analyzing their lives he pays tribute to Jaspers’ method in the same fashion as the earlier sections on Rimbaud and Rilke, and indeed in his previous book.
Goethe insisted that we could directly append nature, we could know without it fossilizing into mere ‘knowledge’, abstraction or classification. For Goethe, education (Bildung) was essential. Not school education or learning by rote, but closer to the sense he uses it in his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, a journey of self-realization. “Real education”, writes Wilson, “means existentialism, and existentialism means exploring one’s inner world scientifically.” So for Wilson, religion is not originally determined by ritual dogmatism, that is a later, unimaginative structure – pure religion, or rather, mysticism, is “exploring one’s inner world” much in the same way as existentialism. Joining all the types of religious dogma together to form a theological coalition is pointless, as they in fact have the same source, the same root.

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Jakob Boehme

This is a “science of living” and true existentialism without the needless addition of gloom. Wilson was unaware of Husserl at this point but it is easy to see how his phenomenology would exert such a profound influence on him as the Outsider sequence progressed. We must “raise the banner of a new existentialism and make war on civilized modes of thought” he says. And in another act of either precognition or conceptual continuity, he quotes Nietzsche – “I love only what a man has written with his blood” – anticipating the title of Wilson’s book on forensics some thirty years away, a book which would include a postscript on problems of freedom and consciousness. Boehme, that fascinating mystic who influenced both Blake and Yeats, would speak of the ‘signature’ of nature, whose presence is, according to Wilson, “in the outward form of all things” but can be interpreted “just as an expert can find a criminal’s fingerprint on every object from a glass vase to human throat.” Wilson is adamant that this is different to specific yogic or ritual disciplines and his discovery of phenomenology would bear that out throughout the next few decades.
Boehme, – “a dreamy type of lad” – gained a major insight by absentmindedly gazing at the reflection on a pewter dish; he fell into an involuntary state of ecstasy and felt he was looking into the heart of nature. He vowed to discipline himself and to restore this state, to make himself a visionary, as Rimbaud said. In 1610 he succeeded, with all his fragmentary insights cohering into a whole. Boehme writes that he learned more in fifteen minutes “than if I had been many years together at a university…” Here we have Goethe’s education (Bildung), his direct appending of nature, encompassing more than any form of plodding, piece by piece logical construction, (although certainly not hindered by it either). This forensic analysis of consciousness, the reading of “signatures” is not only a “science of living”, it’s an active mode of perception. And although Wilson was unaware of Husserl in 1957, his thoughts on Alfred North Whitehead, that remarkable philosopher and mathematician, show he was intuitively aware of Husserl’s general drift.
Wilson makes much of Whitehead’s concept of prehension. “Prehension is the act of reaching out to grasp experience.” Rather like an octopus using it’s tentacles to build a structure underwater, we use our minds to hold and use experience and reality. Prehension is, he says, “the most fundamental activity of life.” And it is one of the keys to Nietzsche’s much misunderstood “master and slave” morality – “master of his own complexity, or slave to of it?” asks Wilson. Prehension is power, not political power, but power over our own personal experiences; it has the same meaning as Goethe’s Bildung, but “has a far wider meaning than the term ‘education’” or addition to knowledge. Bildung, in the sense that Goethe meant it, was “growing to maturity” which is mostly unconscious. The amount of conscious effort most of us make to grow psychologically is minimal, Wilson says; we usually grow for a limited period and then stop – “beyond that, a conscious effort of prehension is needed.” What we ‘prehend’ are units (‘occasions’ or ‘events’ in Whitehead’s terminology) of living experience, and Whitehead insisted that no experience can be omitted in a lengthy quote seen here and in many other Wilson texts. Touching on phenomenology again, every element of our experience, “not just the things we can reason about”, must be interpreted, prehended – “experience drunk and experience sober, experience waking and experience sleeping…” and on goes Whitehead’s list, which each of us could doubtlessly add to. And indeed, should.
Whitehead remains significant because, like Goethe or Nietzsche he understood what he calls the “misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries” – and questions “the notion of ‘independent existence’. There is no such mode of existence; every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the Universe.” And most interestingly, Wilson remarks that “Whitehead goes on to say that ‘personal identity’ is the fusion of the World of Value with the World of Activity; in fact, the human being is a manifestation of the world of value in the world of activity”. So it would appear that we are intimately entangled with the universe and our personal identity is more of a developing process than a static construct modeled from various random bits and pieces, as suggested by Hume and his fellow travelers.
This is a relevant insight, for one dilemma we find ourselves in this particular era of the 21st century is marked by anxiety about personal identity, it’s interrelated connections and resultant power struggles. If there is “no such mode” of independent existence and every entity can only be understood in “the way it is interwoven with the rest of the Universe”, then does this not sound like the typical deterministic mantra of postmodernism? No – Whitehead remarks that our “sense experiences are superficial” and that this superficiality diversifies the “flood of self-enjoyment” into a “trickle of conscious memory and conscious anticipation”. So the fifteen minutes of learning (Bildung) which Boehme thought so important, Proust’s famous insights about memory or Dostoyevsky’s Kirilov stopping the clock in The Devils is this full self-enjoyment, this open illumination, before it is “diversified” by our superficial sense-experiences. Whitehead goes on to say – Wilson is commenting on his 1941 essay Immortality – that too much “philosophic thought is based upon the faked adequacy” of descriptions of human experience. This ‘fake’ is logical thought, abstract thought, which constantly tries to ossify lived experience into systems. Logic, Wilson says, “is meant to save time, and to give us additional freedom – but here Zarathustra’s question arises: Freedom for what? The mere logical philosopher hoards time as a miser hoards money”. Existentialism, on the other hand, is spending your money wisely and living as well as you can.

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Ashgrove Press 1984

Whitehead’s philosophy is similar to Blake’s prophetic poetry and attacks many of the same targets, and Wilson remarks that Whitehead is one of the most outstanding philosophers of the twentieth century (as Bruno Latour would explicitly assert this century). Wilson also contrasts Whitehead with Wittgenstein – they share a chapter in this book – and comes to a similar conclusion which Gilles Deleuze would come to embrace in the early nineties, in that Whitehead was far greater. Wilson notes that after “admitting that the really important important things cannot be talked about”, Wittgenstein “went on talking for the rest of his life.” For Wilson this is as much to do with the “dissatisfaction and constant change” of his life, as eventful as Whitehead’s was “serene and untroubled – the ideal life for a philosopher”. Wittgenstein, for all his “machine gun” logic, hovered on the edge of mental illness and tried on endless costumes – “engineer, scientist, mathematician, schoolteacher, monk, architect, sculptor, doctor, musician, workman” – dressing in a zipped leather jacket when delivering lectures at Cambridge for extra effect. Despite his calm logic, he comes across as dramatic and restless as the teenage Rimbaud. Kierkegaard, the religious philosopher who coined the term ‘existentialism’ was “emotionally immature, no matter how mature he may have been intellectually” and despite his obvious importance, he “wasted a great deal of his time by exaggerating his personal problems out of all proportion.” Wilson would coin the term ‘existential criticism’ in the late fifties, a way of looking not just at the work – philosophy, fiction, etc. – but at the attitudes of the creator and how these affect the work. Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, despite their brilliance, seemed to be unable to escape either their inherent self consciousness or emotional immaturity, a foible shared by Bertrand Russell, as noted earlier.
Religion and The Rebel was written prior the counterculture and before the first strains of postmodernism (of the deconstructive variety) in the next decade. Amongst our intellectual furniture in the 21st century is the clutter and detritus of both of those intertwined developments, neither of which, it must be said, are particularly useful anymore. Wilson would work through the Sixties more or less oblivious to the psychedelic revival of Rimbaud’s ‘systematic derangement of the senses’, and soon dismiss it as self indulgence. He had better things to do – his phenomenological ‘new’ existentialism is now far more liberating than Derrida’s attempted deconstruction of Husserl which he first presented in the mid Sixties. That became the very oppression it set out to destroy; present attitudes are infected by cynicism towards any universal meaning, denial of the uniqueness of the human subject – while remaining paradoxically self centered and egotistical, and fiercely protective of identity. Nietzsche saw all this on the horizon long before it happened, of course. Whitehead was adamant that everything is interrelated, that our sense impressions are superficial, and that logic is ‘fake’, but like Nietzsche, and indeed like Wilson, he never allowed himself to wallow in cynicism. Wilson writes that the “misery of the Barbusse type of Outsider is due to his having been trapped in that surface world of consciousness and separated from that inner love of life.” A statement as relevant in 2018 as it was in 1957.

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Wittgenstein

Wilson’s second book is a tonic read in the 21st century as he stresses everything opposite to what is accepted now. This is a rebellion. Clear style (“the power of vision combined with a deceptive clarity of expression” is how Wilson describes Shaw here) rather than obscure prose (designed for “knowing and over-acute readers” according to Nietzsche, and a sure sign of a bad writer wanting admiration); concentration and focused attention over constant distraction; deep conceptual thought rather than a “surface world of consciousness”; intuition over logic (we are obsessed with data and statistics these days); an open, trusting acceptance of the truthfulness of the insights of the likes of Boehme (“crack-brained” according to Dr. Johnson) in a cynical ‘post truth’ world; the development of “a science of living” over commercially generated lifestyles and real, awkward individualism over group identities; self willed education (Bildung) over specialism handed down by bureaucratic university systems (for a large fee), this list is endless. All the elements which would make Wilson great are already here. His later notion of a faculty which would combat the ‘paradox of freedom’ is sketched out in this sentence on memory – “All sorts of other places and other times are suddenly revived.” His cutting assertion that philosophy is the imaginary distinction between intuition and logic, much developed in the next decade, is essentially the point of the book itself. And his sketches of theologians are refreshingly open minded to read by the suffocating light of today’s pseudo atheistic smugness. So Nicholas Ferrar (“It is easy to see how a Lytton Stachley – or any modern ‘debunking’ biographer – could write about the life at Little Gidding in such a way to make it seem ridiculous”), William Law (who used “a novelist’s devices” much like Pascal, in his “clean, hard-hitting prose”) and J. H. Newman (“he was the first English religious figure to be sniped at by Insiders on definite anti-Outsider grounds”) are a testament to Wilson’s use of Jaspers’ existential method, of analyzing lives for philosophical insights.
Andy Warhol suggested everyone should be famous for fifteen minutes. Now that everyone is, isn’t it fundamentally shallow and insipid? What everyone should attempt to do for fifteen minutes is what Boehme did in 1610 – learn more than you could at any university, to cease being endlessly distracted by surface values and develop your faculties and perceptions. This book, and the rest of Colin Wilson’s best work – properly understood – is a great help towards that aim. Let’s stop pretending and start prehending.

(With thanks to Aristeia Press.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Religion and the Rebel – reprint from Aristeia Press

Religion and the Rebel Cover SmashwordsColin Wilson’s second book has been reprinted by Aristeia Press with a new introduction by Gary Lachman. It was generally critically scorned in 1957 but nowadays reads just as well – if not better – than his debut; it is a book in serious need of reappraisal. Out of print for decades, this is a welcome reissue of a lost classic. Watch the Aristeia Press website and this space for other rare Wilson texts to be reissued…

Religion and the Rebel reprint from Aristeia Press

The second volume of Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’, Religion and the Rebel, will be reprinted by Aristeia Press after several decades of unavailability. Unnecessarily dismissed during it’s original publication some six decades ago, it remains something of a hidden gem in the Wilson canon – I vividly recall finding a first Gollancz edition in the late Eighties and was completely dazzled by it. You can get it here