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
Liber vel Bogus: The Real Confession of Aleister Crowley by Richard T. Cole. (TBC) If Colin Wilson were still around he would have doubtless recommended, if not introduced this unusual title.
This soon to be released book has succeeded in causing some concern amongst custodians of Aleister Crowley’s legacy, but it deserves to be read by a much wider audience; it will be of interest to (Fortean) sceptics, psychologists, and possibly even criminologists (pages 30 – 32 have a expert diagnosis of Crowley’s severe personality issues, and there is a disturbing quote from his Magical Record which would be of interest to Operation Yewtree, were The Beast still living). Occultists with beliefs blowing in the direction of the 93 Current will perhaps find the details collated here somewhat unflattering to any idealised imagining of their guru, and in extreme cases (and not without a little irony) they may even suggest the book is libellous or possibly even ‘blasphemous’. Quite frankly, discrepancies and problems with Crowley’s development of his “Law” are nothing new to those familiar with his work and those of his closest commentators. The worst thing about Crowley that emerges from Liber vel Bogus is that he rendered a precise Existential, if not phenomenological truth, an essentially simple fact “for all”, obscure and possibly even impotent with an endless amount of misdirection. Coupled with unnecessary pretensions towards a full blown Messiah complex, Crowley is considered something of a fake outside of his clique. This book perhaps explains the latter reaction to The Beast’s unique career better than any biography, “hostile” or “unbalanced” ever could.
Every study of Crowley’s extraordinary life will contain a variation of the following “fact”: that between noon and 1pm on the 8th, 9th and 10th of April, 1904, a “messenger from the forces ruling this planet” bearing the name Aiwaz (there are various spellings) dictated to Crowley the three parts of a work which, according to the scribe, would solve all of mankind’s religious and social problems. This book, Liber AL vel Legis A.K.A. The Book of the Law, is a brief work written in similar poetic style to Crowley’s previous efforts – certain symbols and concepts in it have already appeared in his earlier, less sensational poetic fiction. It is difficult to align the contents of Liber Legis with its alleged utilitarian effects, yet otherwise intelligent people continue to take it’s provenance and status as an objective, or perhaps spiritual, fact. Richard T. Cole’s study is a stern yet amusing corrective to such lazy acceptance, yet the discrepancies collected in his book – which deconstruct Crowley’s patchy narrative, one by one – are almost incidental to the analysis of Crowley’s attitudes and the detrimental effects these have had on the wholesale implication of his liberating creed, The Law of Thelema (which he considered to be more important than the wheel). A century after it’s supposed praeterhuman genesis, that all encompassing Law is practised only in a tiny corner of the remains of the counterculture, and Crowley is a very minor, if not invisible, figure in scholarship and academia (he continues to be perhaps the only occultist often referenced in popular culture, though this is something of a diminished return. It’s a long way down, creatively, from Kenneth Anger, Harry Smith, The Beatles and Throbbing Gristle to Robbie Williams and Peaches Geldof *)
The discrepancies which Cole notes are fatal to any notion of genuine objectivity on Crowley’s part; nothing corresponds with Crowley’s own narrative of his crowning achievement; for such an important event, his actual recording of it is surprisingly vague. Crowley kept extensive diaries for the bulk of his life, recorded every other bowel movement, every fix, every desperate scheme for a few quid. Daily details regarding the genesis of the New Aeon are scant, missing or of secondary import to golf, of all things. The paper stock on which our new Bible is handwritten, supposedly at the dictation of Aiwaz on the selected days, is manufactured by Pirie & Sons, and it bears a watermark which actually dates the sheets to one year later than it’s alleged composition, i.e. 1905. The sheets have subsequently been backed with linen, probably, suggests Cole, to hide this flaw. A rumour abounds of two attempts existing. There are other serious problems, particularly with chronology. The Boulak Museum, Central to the reception myth, closed in 1902 when “an irreversible shift in the Nile transformed it into an impromptu swimming pool.” Relevant notebooks are also missing or have pages torn out. Crowley even mixes up his own chronology, subconsciously admitting an earlier date of composition (1902, rather than 1904). Photographs miraculously show his ageing process in reverse and Aiwaz himself suffers both memory loss and lack of basic numeracy skills. These are just a few examples. Readers wanting more (Cole has even more unpublished information) are best off reading the book, or visiting here where Crowley aficionados will rake over each and every accusation in peer-reviewed, scientific detail. But as noted, it’s the wood, not the bark patterns on the trees which are of interest. It’s not an accident that all of the “unbiased” biographies of Crowley get heavier and heavier on the minutiae – wow, did you know Crowley had a chauffeur? – and show a progressive disinclination to step back and perform a truly unbiased autopsy on Crowley’s motives.
To get the most out of Cole’s book, a familiarity with Crowley’s work is necessary. A lot of the humour is as self referential as Private Eye, and will doubtless be as uncomfortable to fundamentalist Thelemites as that esteemed organ is to Westminster. However, even without knowledge of the obeah and wanga, Crowley stands accused of fraud. The contents of Liber vel Bogus could very well be a large boulder in the road towards academic acceptability for “Crowley studies”; a shame, as postmodernist lassitude has almost allowed the old goat into the academy. There is Nuit outside the text, after all. His portrait is a fixture of popular culture – for now anyway. But a scientist of consciousness who fakes the central document which ‘proves’ a new dispensation? That’s not science or even poetry – it’s deception along the same lines as Blavatsky and her Mahatma Letters. The question is – why go to such lengths to deceive? Crowley’s April Fool prank ran until he was perplexed on his deathbed.
In his absorbing study of false messiahs, The Devil’s Party (2001), Colin Wilson remarks that Crowley’s belief “that he was the messiah was undiminished. To have abandoned it then [i.e. at Netherwood, where he died] would have been a form of psychological suicide.” It is relevant to note that Wilson regards “messiahs” from Koresh and Manson to Shoko Asahara and Yukio Mishima (and more intriguingly, Derrida and Foucault) as individuals hiding their weaknesses behind “the mask of power”. “The Mask” (a term coined by Crowley’s own bête noire, W.B. Yeats) “is the front he chooses to show the world, often the opposite of his basic type.” According to writer Robert North, from “the few contemporary accounts of A.C. that we possess, his manner was pompous and his voice had a high, nasal pitch. He was “different” and people made fun of him behind his back.” A recording of Crowley’s voice certainly confirms the second assertion. The problem with the mask, continues Wilson, “is that it condemns the wearer to hatred and resentment. Why? Because a mask implies defensiveness…[this] combination of resentment and superiority is of course, the essence of criminality.” Wilson has suggested previously (in his Aleister Crowley: The Nature of The Beast, 1987) that Crowley’s mentality was borderline ‘criminal’ – resulting perhaps from a head injury after a homemade firework knocked him unconscious for ninety six hours, and Cole delves a bit further into this. “That Crowley survived at all, is almost miraculous. That he did not suffer irreparable neurological damage is unlikely in the extreme.” Cole backs this up with testimonies from a doctor specialising in mental health issues – “a patient exhibiting five of these traits is diagnosable as suffering from NPD. Throughout his life, Aleister Crowley exhibited chronic symptoms associated with all nine [criteria of Narcissistic Personality Disorder].” Measured against Robert D. Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, Crowley scores an astonishing 38 points out of 40. And if this were not enough, application of Pincus and Lewis’ three tier principal of key triggers (psychiatric illness, neurological damage and childhood abuse) leave little doubt that despite his firm belief he was beyond human comprehension (an Ipsissimus, no less) Crowley was simply a very damaged individual.
In what is possibly the only Crowley penned book of interest to the non-partisan reader, The Confessions (a vast, near thousand page work even in it’s edited form – an unexpurgated facsimile of what should have been the original text has been “in preparation” for a decade) The Beast tells his own embroidered version of his life up to the 1920’s. Yet this isn’t any mere “autobiography” – this is an autohagiography. A close reading of this remarkable document doesn’t really convince the reader of Crowley’s saintly status. At age fourteen – pretty much adulthood then – he literally thought a cat had nine separate lives, indulging in a moronic act of animal cruelty that illustrates the destructive literal mindedness that would blunt his reactions to almost every event in his life. Cole comments “[that] Crowley labelled this barbaric act of savagery as “science” is illustrative of the sheer scale and complexity of psychological self-defence mechanisms he employed to conceal unresolved issues […] That Crowley simply assumes readers will accept his word at face value, and not see ‘the cat incident’ for the act of outright sadism it so obviously was, merely emphasises the severity of his repression, denial and increasing divergence from reality.” Unfortunately for our clear eyed, objective scientist, it gets worse.
An incident quoted on page 40 of Cole’s book sums up Crowley’s pseudo aristocratic attitude towards women and the proletariat. The fact that Crowley was still rubbing his hands with glee over this reprehensible act decades later simply reinforces at the very, very least what an appalling snob he was. Sections from his Magical Record (quoted here for those with a strong stomach) would be interesting to officers dealing with the fall out from the Savile sex abuse scandal, and let’s not forget – selected verses from his own Koran would most certainly be noted by the other “ISIS”. But don’t complain, because who was it who whined that “I want blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything, bad or good, but strong”?
So how does Crowley get taken seriously as a neutral recording mechanism of divine truths when he’s so obviously – at the very least – riddled with prejudices? Crowley supporters will usually perform their favourite act of moral bifurcation and suggest we forget what an awful person he was, and just concentrate on textual analysis, or perhaps counter with a vaguely faux-naive statement like ‘that’s just how people were in those days.’ (They most certainly weren’t). When Crowley scores an unusually high mark on Robert Hare’s Psychopath Test, and if Crowley is a documented racist, sexist, animal abusing coprophiliac fraudster – with allegations of paedophilia and the author (author, don’t go blaming any “praeterhuman” intelligences) of a ‘holy’ book which contains lines corrosive enough for a very, very serious fatwa – the only option is to pray that these ‘foibles’ will wither away unnoticed, and bend over Nuitwards to counterbalance this information with an idealised portrait of ‘chess master, mountaineer, mystic, book designer, and poet.”
To turn away from the reality of who Crowley actually was, what he did, what motivated him, and into this idealism, is not a way to discover the truth. Just as defenders of Heidegger will tie their very Daseins into philosophical knots to prove that he wasn’t really a Nazi, against all well documented evidence, those with an interest in The Beast tend to be unnecessarily over protective. There’s no need. Cole’s book, in fact, makes Crowley much more human and a damn sight more interesting than the slightly cringeworthy mollycoddling of recent studies (Tobias Churton’s Aleister Crowley – The Biography being one enjoyable, if frustrating, example). Reading Bogus, hearing other facts from the author (some hinted at in the text) makes me certain that Crowley, far from being an objective scientist recording a new creed, as he claimed, simply constructed an after the fact narrative to hide a different type of ‘revelation’ – which is slightly reconstructed by Cole. The worst thing you can truly say about Crowley isn’t that he ticks every box on the psychopathic scale, it’s isn’t that he’s stuffed full of right wing prejudices and naive resentment. It was clearly his choice to modify his behaviour,; he could have made even a token attempt to be more socially aware and empathetic. The real frustration with The Beast is that he couldn’t be honest enough to use his not inconsiderable talents to simply describe what happened to him without recourse to self reverential bluster. For a man who understood intentionality and it’s relation to “the transcendental ego’ without apparent knowledge of Husserl, for a man smart enough to see Fitche as a precursor of this new dispensation, a forgery as unconvincing as The Book of the Law is seriously underwhelming. Writers have compared it to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra – this is “optimistic to the point of blindness.” With wonderful insight, basically unacknowledged, Colin Wilson very perceptibly compared it to Gide’s Fruits of the Earth (a cult book if there ever was one). Crowley’s most creative pupil, Kenneth Grant, has suggested that Crowley was actually scrying from an akashic , and like Randolph Carter, misunderstanding severely alien cryptography then unfortunately transcribing it into the stiff prose of Liber Legis. One explanation states that Liber Legis can only be understood by applying the kabbalistic numerology of Gematria to the text. But if the text in question is of fully terrestrial origin, what can this deconstruction achieve? Grant would in fact later come to treat The Book of the Law as something of a ‘red herring’, describing it in similar – although not as materialistic – terms to Cole’s, with help from unverifiable ‘revelations’ from Crowley’s “son” (sic) Amado. Grant left a body of hugely entertaining work which suggests Crowley was genuinely in rapport with strange entities as much as Lovecraft’s own fictional antiquarian of Miskatonic University. Outré as that is, it rings a distant astral bell. But although The Beast nearly named Cthulhu before Lovecraft, Crowley’s terrifying reputation is somewhat diminished by the rather pathetic and depressing facts presented by Cole. These are squalid rather than eldritch.
Cole follows Capt. Fuller’s lead and expresses the surprising opinion that “Crowley was the single most important individual Mankind has produced in the last ten-thousand years.” A statement made all the more baffling by his suggestion that an investigation into a fake manuscript, written by a psychopath, strengthened this view. Yet Crowley, despite all his ludicrous defects, did state a major philosophical truth, perhaps the only philosophical (and I’d suggest: political) truth applicable to our present situation. Alick’s tragedy is that he buried it underneath a mountain of unresolved complexes, grudges, unanalysed prejudices and overlaid this psychic mess with too much decaying hermetic paraphernalia. And of course, fabrications. If you’re going to invent, Aleister, write a decent novel, not a “received text”. Just what the world needs – more religious dogma. Fay ce que vouldras.
That Crowley experienced extraordinary things I have never doubted. His response to these experiences, and more importantly his presentation of them, is the “bogus” of Cole’s book, and is my main problem with a character I’ve been fascinated by for decades. Philip K Dick didn’t present his bicameral Valis moment as a new Bible (the Exegesis wasn’t really an exegesis). There’s no embarrassing holy feast days or the gothic self abuse of Liber III vel Jugorum. There is however, fiction so startlingly and genuinely prophetic that it describes every next technological and psychological development in our present world with an uncanny accuracy reminiscent of one of PKD’s own fictional pre-cogs. Crowley’s archaic pantheon creaks by comparison – his reaction to what Julian Jaynes described as auditory hallucinations (voices in the head which speak with great authority) was to take everything they said the only way he knew – literally. John Symonds, Crowley’s first and best biographer (Symonds is a very, very underrated talent) remarked that Crowley lacked imagination. He was right. In the end Crowley should have done what Philp K Dick did, bewildered by his alien voices and his recherché perception of time, and just written it up as fiction.
Nietzsche asked: Freedom From or Freedom For? Crowley was most certainly in the former category., but he was convinced he belonged in the latter. Tragick in Theory and Practice. The Beast was human, all too human.
* Crowley stated that “all art is Magick” and this would explain his usefulness to the likes of Anger, etc. Magick in Theory and Practice is less of a book of strict instructions and more of an aesthetic manual, and it appeals to me more than Liber Legis. The Beatles are well known to have included Crowley’s portrait on their Sgt. Pepper – it’s a lesser known fact that Grant’s Carfax Monographs are seen – in the magicians sequence, aptly – of their Magical Mystery Tour. This is something of a mystery and I am glad to be the first to notice it. (edit. – another person to notice it. See post by David below).
Two important Wilson texts are to be released this year. Colin Stanley is to release the final, definitive version of his very comprehensive Wilson bibliography next month. Limited to just 50 numbered copies – now 49 as I’ve just bought one – it can be obtained for £25 including UK post if ordered before publication date of March 2nd 2015. Post-publication price will be £29.95, again with free post to UK addresses. This book is an essential reference tool for those who need to understand Wilson’s vast and sprawling oeuvre. This fourth edition includes –
• All 180 published books by the author.
• 626 of his published articles.
• Over 168 Introductions, Prefaces, Forewords.
• 336 book reviews.
• Over 430 books and articles about his work.
• 1500 reviews of his books.
• His television and radio appearances.
Published just a year after Colin Wilson’s death in December 2013, this comprehensive, annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources has been fully revised and updated, incorporating an author chronology and an exhaustive index. Aimed at scholars, collectors and fans worldwide it also includes details of non-English translations of Wilson’s work. An essential guide to a writer and thinker, who has left the legacy of an extraordinary body of work.
Order through booksellers or send a cheque for £29.95*, payable to Colin Stanley, to: Paupers’ Press, 37 Quayside Close, Trent Bridge, Nottingham NG2 3BP United Kingdom.
ISSN: 0959-180X (Colin Wilson Studies # 24)
Paperback; 654 pages; March, 2015.
* Includes postage and packing to UK addresses.
Or pay through PayPal to: email@example.com
Meanwhile, the book that Colin was working on before his stroke has been completed by his son Damon. Entitled An End to Murder, it will be published this September by Robinson in the UK and Skyhorse in the US. This promises to be a very interesting title:
Creatively and intellectually there is no other species that has ever come close to equalling humanity’s achievements, but nor is any other species as suicidally prone to internecine conflict. We are the only species on the planet whose ingrained habit of conflict constitutes the chief threat to our own survival. Human history can be seen as a catalogue of cold-hearted murders, mindless blood-feuds, appalling massacres and devastating wars, but, with developments in forensic science and modern psychology, and with raised education levels throughout the world, might it soon be possible to reign in humanity’s homicidal habits? Falling violent crime statistics in every part of the world seem to indicate that something along those lines might indeed be happening.
Colin and Damon Wilson, who between them have been covering the field of criminology for over fifty years, offer an analysis of the overall spectrum of human violence. They consider whether human beings are in reality as cruel and violent as is generally believed and they explore the possibility that humankind is on the verge of a fundamental change: that we are about to become truly civilised.
As well as offering an overview of violence throughout our history – from the first hominids to the twenty-first century, touching on key moments of change and also indicating where things have not changed since the Stone Age – they explore the latest psychological, forensic and social attempts to understand and curb modern human violence.
To begin with, they examine questions such as: Were the first humans cannibalistic? Did the birth of civilisation also lead to the invention of war and slavery? Priests and kings brought social stability, but were they also the instigators of the first mass murders? Is it in fact wealth that is the ultimate weapon?
They look at slavery and ancient Roman sadism, but also the possibility that our own distaste for pain and cruelty is no more than a social construct. They show how the humanitarian ideas of the great religious innovators all too quickly became distorted by organised religious structures.
The book ranges widely, from fifteenth-century Baron Gilles de Rais, ‘Bluebeard’, the first known and possibly most prolific serial killer in history, to Victorian domestic murder and the invention of psychiatry and Sherlock Holmes and the invention of forensic science; from the fifteenth-century Taiping Rebellion in China, in which up to 36 million died to the First and Second World Wars and more recent genocides and instances of ‘ethnic cleansing’, and contemporary terrorism. They conclude by assessing the very real possibility that the internet and the greater freedom of information it has brought is leading, gradually, to a profoundly more civilised world than at any time in the past.
A previously unpublished essay by Colin Wilson is released on October 14th, at £8.95 (£7.95 for pre-orders, including free post within the UK). Order direct from Paupers’ Press.
Introduction to The Faces of Evil
Edited and with a Foreword by
In the mid-1970s A & W Publishers of New York planned to publish a book by Colin Wilson entitled The Faces of Evil. The publisher’s blurb read:
“One of Britain’s foremost authors re-examines man’s haunting fear of evil, in mythology and history. Witches, the supernatural—Hitler, Stalin, Rasputin, and Richard the Third are re-appraised in an informative, fast-moving essay strikingly illustrated with historical reproductions and 30 original paintings.”
The book did not appear in print and all that remains is the substantial Introduction—over 80 pages in manuscript—written by Wilson and recently retrieved from an archive by Wilson scholar Vaughan Rapatahana.
In a stimulating essay, Wilson concludes:
“I would not like to pass a dogmatic opinion on whether there are such things as evil ‘entities’ in the universe….That would presuppose that they are living beings who, like ourselves, are struggling to evolve to a higher level. But it seems to me wholly within the bounds of possibility that human beings have released ‘evil’ forces of whose power and persistence they are unaware…”
Colin Wilson Studies # 22
I’m very sad to report that Paul Newman, editor of Abraxas magazine, amongst other talents, passed away recently. I was aware of Paul’s struggle with illness several years ago. I finally got to meet him at the Around the Outsider launch after years of amusing off-on correspondence via Abraxas. In my nascent days of Wilson fandom he was an invaluable link to the man himself, providing signed books* hot from Tetherdown, and up the minute information before the web took over. An extremely pleasant and knowledgeable man, Paul wrote several books, and I would recommend his autobiography, which turned out to be his final published work.
* Via the Abraxas book signing service, which I became aware of through the back page of CW’s Ouspensky biography in 1993, I managed to get Colin to sign my copy of Voyage to a Beginning as “Lord Leicester” – a disguised self portrait from The Mind Parasites. Neither Paul or Colin himself got the reference and thought I was merely being inventive!
There’s a lengthy appreciative essay by Colin Stanley on Ritual in the Dark at the London Fictions website here. There’s interesting photos throughout the essay too.
Two previously unpublished essays from the 70’s with an introduction by poet and Wilson scholar Vaughan Rapahatana :
Comments on Boredom and Evolutionary Humanism and the New Psychology.
Edited and Introduced by
In two important and previously unpublished essays from the 1970s, Wilson, in the first, responds to an article on boredom published in a US newspaper in 1974 and, in the second, lays the foundations for a new descriptive psychology. Vaughan Rapatahana, in his perceptive Introduction concludes:
“Most significantly, Wilson remains ever the optimist—the articles here are suffused in positiveness and both are stimulating—they make sure you cogitate and they force you to ponder further.”
Colin Wilson Studies #21
50p. paper £7.95
Special offer: £6.95 to May 31st
Cheques payable to Colin Stanley
or pay by PayPal to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Colin Stanley, Paupers’ Press, 37 Quayside Close, Trent Bridge, Nottingham NG2 3BP
Here are details of the next CW (students) Study, due May 27. Paupers’ Press are offering a pre-publication deal of £6.95 (inc post to UK addresses) to anyone who either sends a cheque (payable to Colin Stanley) or pays through PayPal before the end of May.
Colin Stanley will be launching the book at Watkins Bookshop, Cecil Court (off Charing Cross Road) London on July 18th at 6.30 where he will also be giving a talk on ‘Colin Wilson and the occult’.
The ‘Occult Trilogy’ is the collective label applied to Colin Wilson’s three major works on the occult: The Occult (1971); Mysteries: an Investigation into the Occult, the Paranormal and the Supernatural (1978) and Beyond the Occult (1988). They amounted to a monumental 1600 pages and have spawned many other lesser works.
Colin Stanley, Wilson’s bibliographer and editor of Around the Outsider: essays presented to Colin Wilson on the occasion of his 80th birthday (O-Books, 2011) and the ‘Colin Wilson Studies’ series (Paupers’ Press, ISSN: 0959-180-X), provides a perceptive analysis of each book, appending full bibliographical details to facilitate further study.
Axis Mundi Books: May 31, 2013; Paper, 97p.
£9.99. ISBN: 978-1846947063
“Colin Wilson’s ‘occult trilogy’ offers not only an encyclopaedic account of the mysterious ‘hidden’ powers of nature and the human mind, as well as a history of our pursuit of them, it also provides a clear guide to how mankind can actualize its inner resources and fulfil its evolutionary destiny. Colin Stanley’s thorough and fascinating overview gives the reader a firm grounding in this enormously important subject, and lays a solid foundation for its future development.” Gary Lachman, author of: The Secret History of Consciousness, Jung the Mystic, Turn Off Your Mind, Madame Blavatsky
“Insightful and engaging, this is an essential guide for any serious student of Colin Wilson’s books.” Steve Taylor, author of The Fall, Back to Sanity.
Valancourt continues it’s much appreciated reissue programme of CW’s fictive works with The World of Violence and The Man without a Shadow. Here’s the blurb for the former, a neglected gem in the Wilson canon….
As a child, the brilliant mathematical prodigy Hugh Greene’s two major influences were his eccentric old uncles, Nick and Sam. From Uncle Nick, Hugh learned a love of mathematics, which came to represent clarity and order, and from Uncle Sam he acquired an overwhelming fear of violence. Now seventeen and unsure of what to do with his life and whether life is even worth bothering with at all, Hugh finds his hatred of violence becoming even more intense when he witnesses a gang of brutal thugs beating an innocent man. Determined to protect himself, he purchases a gun and joins a pistol club. But when he becomes involved with a senseless shooting and gets mixed up with a group of criminals, including a sex murderer, Hugh will be forced to confront the question of whether his mathematics and philosophy have any relevance in a world of violence. . . .
Colin Wilson’s third novel, The World of Violence (1963), is a fascinating and gripping story that critic Sidney Campion called ‘one of the most complex and satisfying bildungsromans ever written in English.’ This new edition of Wilson’s brilliant novel, the first in more than twenty years, includes a new introduction by Nicolas Tredell.
A longer version of On Death by CW scholar Vaughan Rapatahana. His compendium of CW critique, Philosophical (a)Musings is available now. A portion of his PhD thesis – Wilson as Mystic – is still available from Paupers’ Press.
It is time to take far more seriously our universal lack of emphasis on the event of death, which would seem – of course – a direct reversal of asking why life occurs in the first place, but which is not a corollary at all, for life is a given. Being is undeniable. So when, for example, Albert Camus cried:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.
He was well wrong. We are already extant and will die anyway, regardless of his ‘freedom of choice.’ Suicide is merely an early enrollment in the final graduation programme.
I am inclined rather to concur with a writer like Ray Brassier, who tells us that in fact that it is precisely because there is death and ultimate extinction, that there is any life at all, thus any philosophy at all: “that it is only because life is conditioned by its own extinction that there is thought at all” as he scribes in his seminal tome Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (2007.) Philosophy is more truly a partner to non-Being. The truly serious and prime philosophical problem transmutes, then, to dealing with Death. Yet, of course, this subject of death has never been a ‘hot’ topic for most philosophers. It seems that there is a general lack of desire to even consider this universalized inevitability.
So, why do we all eventually, some far too soon, depart the scene? Why is there the deterioration of age and the often sad slink into Nothingness as opposed to Being, given that biologists will explain this as the inevitable degeneration of cells, and evolutionists will proclaim the need for death so as to encourage the next batches of life and as to maintain some living space for such?
My question is, however, a meta-question, seeking to override microcosmic physiological descriptions of this bodily degeneration and asking ‘Why is there Death, with a capital D?’ Why do we not look at others and see that in every living moment and with absolute clarity that one day they will no longer Be, and then not recoil in shock, in dread? Why are we also so damnably reluctant to self-acknowledge that our own death is inevitable? On a related or personal level, to even talk about it – our own death – down at the local? To even draw up specific death plans for our beloved to refer to when we do drop? We are necessarily contingent in hyperchaos, to paraphrase Quentin Meillassoux, but don’t ever seem to existentially internalize this.
Indeed thinkers as diverse as George Gurdjieff and Martin Heidegger expressly point out, over and over again, this inauthentic non-facing by up ‘Mankind’ to the sheer fact of Death at any given micro-second. Heidegger proclaims that ‘being-towards-death’ alone, as based on a profound experience of free-floating dread, can impel mankind towards some profound sense of their inevitable and impending and potentially immediate death at any given moment and thus enable them to grasp the sheer significance their life far more tightly. For Heidegger, once an individual is fully internally cognizant of their ability to die, they can commence to authentically exist. “As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die” (Heidegger, Being and Time,1962.) More, states, Heidegger, as expressly described by Diane Zorn (Heidegger’s Philosophy of Death, Akademia, 1991): “I alone will die my death. Since only I can know what it means for me to be going to die, death cannot be shared by anyone.”
Zorn summarizes here: “[Heidegger] interprets death as a meaningful possibility by showing that death is an existential awareness of possible not-being (ibid.)” – which, for me, at least, ties into what Brassier is himself stating: that non-being is the Ultimate Truth, given that Brassier himself would palpably see Heidegger as part of the Continental ‘correlationist’ tradition he – and other Speculative Realists – firmly disavow. Indeed Brassier sees Death as a totally non-human presence, an inevitability, or as Jon Lindblom (online, 2012) puts it so succinctly: “This is not a death that makes sense in our world – that is, the death of the individual that shapes our horizon and molds our project (Heidegger) – but an impersonal death, which, in a way, means that the philosopher is already dead, since philosophy is nothing but the anticipation (or ‘organon’, as Brassier puts it) of our own extinction, and the fact that we are already extinct, since we are not what we thought we were. Not rational agents operating in a meaningful world, but physical systems interacting in a flat, spatialized exteriority.” Brassier subtracts an individual ‘s eminent epistemological existence from the equation.
As opposed to this is the far more prevalent ‘they-self’ syndrome, whereby the crowd of mass-man/woman so influences an individual as to avoid facing up to Death, to in fact deplete it as a subject to not even think about, a “constant tranquilization about death… an untroubled indifference” (Heidegger, 1962.) Zorn once more: “The they-self tempts us to convince ourselves that death is not really our own, tranquillizes us against death-awareness because it cannot be shared by others, and thus alienates us from our authentic self by concealing death.”
Heidegger was here not alone in his notification about man’s forgetfulness of death, for: “Gurdjieff also said that people live as if they were going to live forever. In the back of their minds, they have the assumption that they’re immortal, even though they know intellectually that it’s not true” (Kevin Langdon, online, 1986) But – similarly to Heidegger, again – he also noted that: “one has moments of feeling one’s mortality, it begins to create that sense of urgency which is needed in order to remember to make efforts…He placed great emphasis on awareness of the inevitability of one’s own death. And he also suggested that it is useful to remember the mortality of everyone on whom, as he put it, “your eyes or attention rests” (ibid.)
Without doubt, the ‘they-self’ certainly reigns supreme. People die. At times their passing (to what? to where?) is recorded or mourned – and indeed, in the cases of ‘celebrities’ lengthy, often obsequious, obituaries are penned – but there is no serious questioning as to ‘Why is this person dead?’ The living all too often seize upon the occasion of death more to festoon themselves in pity, to self-gratify, as opposed to fully cognize the finality involved and declare an honest empathy for another’s departure once and for all. Sometimes a media medium also leaps onto a bizarre way of dying as a news item worthy of soliciting a wider gratuitous readership. More, certain other agencies actually profit from the proliferation of death: funeral directors, firearm sellers aka ‘merchants of death’, some bloodthirsty egotistical generals and politicians. They don’t want death to die out at all. But few, if any, take Death on board on their all too contingent voyage through life.
Worse still, if mass death occurs – particularly if it took place in non-Western countries – it is soon forgotten and quickly papered over by Western media sources, if it is even covered at all in the first place. Yet the departure of some long-forgotten Hollywood ‘star’ still rates a mention in TIME magazine. Over 1000 Filipinos wiped out in one day in Mindanao in early 2013 scarcely rates a mention in its white pages.
Death has become as undervalued as Life and is all so easily accomplished via – for example – a reckless handgun or for a helmet-less motorbike rider; through a mass-stoning or an immolation; in the midst of a suicide bombing (itself an aberration whereby one death leads to many deaths, supposedly to avenge still more deaths) or a state-sponsored execution, whereby another death somehow atones for earlier instances of same. All somewhat nutty behaviour, for the avoidance of the existential fact of death soothes the way for an incremental number of deaths..
We have become as desensitized to Death – witness the number of ‘kills’ racked up in any typical video game extravaganza – as we have to the preciousness of Life. Death is merely ‘accepted’ in passing and we quite literally quickly pass on to the next topic.
All rather odd. We should be fighting this death business as it is a manifest cop-out to be living for a certain amount of time, to accomplish a range of sometimes splendid activities, to love, to hate, to emote, to form strong bonds with loved ones and friends, and then to depart for good. This is the ‘true’ absurd, really. We should be placing far more serious attention on living, living longer, living better, fighting this death machinery. We are returning a gift to the store before it is fully appreciated. Here is where Colin Wilson, for example, clearly pointed out how ‘traditional’ Existentialism – a la Camus as one example – ‘failed’: it assumed suicide was somehow a freedom from death. In reality, suicide is merely impelling the inevitable.
Colin Wilson strides forward:
Now several thinkers have attempted to adumbrate prescriptions as to gaining more life, going further into life. Colin Wilson, again, comes to mind as a prime example – with his Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966) as just one earlier manifestation of his credo, where he also attempts to transcend Martin Heidegger’s own rather stoical appraisal of Death. However, Wilson only goes so far and ignores completely bodily death, indeed bodily presence per se. Indeed his whole thrust is purely a ‘mental’ one (I had pointed out in my own work, for example Wilson as Mystic, 2001 and more comprehensively in my earlier 1996 thesis, that Wilson writes as someone who tends to diminish, even detest body functions, as shown in his early novels in particular.) More, he also of course almost totally ignores bodily death (and disease and destruction in a wider social realm) to the absurd degree – especially early in his career – that he frequently proclaimed his own self-belief that he would sentiently live, if not forever, at least to age so as to run well over any human ‘norm’. Brassier – again, however – would claim that humanity has many self-important ‘conceits’ such as this, that require dismantling.
Sadly, Wilson never had a completely holistic approach to flogging death into submission, although all credit to him for stressing the impellment to far more life, to plunge more fully into the life-stream. However sheer mental strength or willpower is not simply going to defeat death, thus boost longevity. Wilson proclaimed in a 2003 interview with Geoff Ward (online): “Our purpose in the world is eventually to enable spirit to conquer matter, to get into matter to such an extent that there is no longer any matter.” This would seem an oversimplified underestimation of what is real, out there, extant beyond Mankind and what Wilson describes as “pure mind, intellect” (ibid.) Again, recent and younger thinkers such as Graham Harman and others of the Collapse ilk would categorically state that, as Ray Brassier noted in Nihil Unbound: “It is no longer thought that determines the object, whether through representation or intuition, but rather the object that seizes thought and forces it to think it, or better according to it.” Everything is in epistemological reversal.
Moving along, yes, there are also some historical approaches to this death business. A plenitude of ‘traditional’ religions such as Christianity and Islam have endeavoured – not particularly convincingly for this writer – to generate myths about Heaven (and Hell for that matter) and souls as a sop to the living, as a quasi-rationale for being here in the first place. But they don’t actually convince anyone with a modicum of sense that there is a need for death in the first place. They all too often grate as fairy tales told by school kids. These tales do not rate as serious rationalizations as to why we should die and indeed give the lie to what actually does eventuate when we die – we rot away. Simple as that.
Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammad are long gone, R.I.P. They are not coming back. They are dead. Ironically, however, some of the living are also making great capital from them – priests, pontiffs and prelates. As well as imams and insurrectionists.
Then there are the parapsychological parrots who prate the ‘existence’ of near-death and return-from-death and reincarnation experiences as ‘evidence’ that in fact bodily death is not the be all and end all of existence. Leaving aside the huge miasmatic glob concerning bodies as opposed to something non-physical and nominated as ‘minds’ – itself a contentious and increasingly unlikely divide – there remains still no defining and cogent evidence that such ‘death’ experiences prove anything whatsoever and that – in fact – the sheer amorphousness of such ‘experiences’ serves to completely cloud the issue as to their veracity. There hasn’t ever been a 50% – let alone a 100% verifiable case –of a returned ‘departee’ and/or an extant ‘eternalee’, given – once again – the emphatic words of Colin Wilson in his account of afterlife. More, when Wilson says “But I do feel, nevertheless, that life after death is basically true, that we don’t actually die…it seems to me it’s just a basic fact” (ibid.) he could well be accused of making an almost Camus-type statement, which would certainly be the last thing on his mind. For if we don’t die and yet somehow transcend physiological existence (something Wilson, in all his earnestness, has yet to convince us of), why on Earth bother to hang around on Earth at all?
It is a major – no, I would go further and state that it is the prime concern that we all should face far more front-on – that in 2013 we still have no final consensus as to any proven post-biological-death existence in any field whatsoever. Quite the opposite, in fact, as science and neurophysiology in particular narrow the gaps in our knowledge, toward a completely physiological construction of the human frame. Both body and mind dwindle into one. Do you know anyone who has actually been resurrected, other than via electric shock therapy or strenuous heart massage? Do you know the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus? Enough said.
Except that I would also like to – somewhat ironically – further say here that it doesn’t actually matter if there is some sort of rather unlikely “another level of existence” (Wilson, ibid.) for bodily death does not necessarily negate a ‘life after death. However my consistent point throughout this essay is that this wayward possibility is not important for us as Being here now, and most definitely always facing our impending demises at any given nano-second, while no one essentially wants to actually dive into a Wilson-type afterlife either. Think also about the thoughts of another Speculative Realist, Martin Haggland: “Immortality is impossible…also it is not desirable in the first place” (Radical Atheist Materialism: A Critique of Meillassoux The Speculative Turn, 2011.) See also my points in the Postscript below.
A Sort of Summary:
All of which leads us back to the beginning of this essay: why is there Death as opposed to Life and why aren’t we far more mystified, concerned, in alarm, confused, aware than we most evidently are? We all require an immediate epiphany as to our impending demise at any given moment, whereby questions of ‘personal identity’ as to who/what actually dies are superseded immediately as irrelevant. Why aren’t we in awe that we all will die, that some of us will die in an alarmingly surprising and unpredictable way, and more wondrously, that we waste so much of our time actually encouraging our respective and unnecessary demise through idiotic dietary habits and smoking; through stupendously stupid testosterone-fuelled warfare and the curiously American penchant for building up more and more grotesquely, more and more new-fangled weapons of mass destruction; through to a belligerent turning a blind eye to the millions starving to death and dying of curable diseases; and to the thousands being blown up by the landmines left behind after another failed ‘liberating mission’? We – or at least many of us – also steadfastly destroy our environment so as to hasten our own contingent obliteration. We seem to encourage our own demise! We go out of our ways to actually increase the chances of death, yet are inevitably very wary of our own individual extinguishing. Obliteration will happen to us all anyway – so why are we so Hell bent on hastening it?
For no one – with the exception of the clinically depressed or the heavily euthanasiac – wishes to die. When that final curtain is being drawn down, we do our utmost to keep it open, given our bodies have not become too enfeebled to even resist.
So, why don’t we have far more departments of Death Studies in all of our educational institutions right now? International forums and colloquiums? Commissions of enquiry? Prizes for coming up with some actual answers to what should always be the main question: why do we (need to) die – although, admittedly, there are now some such awards for extending life spans? Why is Death such a prime overlooked component of our Lives, given what Heidegger noted about the ‘they-self’? Why do we basically ignore it, yet are happy enough to watch the F.A. Cup final in its incessant shadow? Death is not retreating, it’s not going away. It’s just outside our windows. It’s on the soccer pitch. It lurks in the grandstands and in the pubs outside after the match.
What are we doing here is not asking a question pertaining to why we are alive. Rather it is this query: why do we die and why aren’t we staring this BIG question in the face?
Do not accept another death without at the very least questioning it, fighting it, killing it. By confronting this dragon we may well slay it once and for all.
Life is a given. Death can be otherwise. Don’t let Death kill you.
On saying this – there are some who, even as I write, are practicing what I am preaching. See below:
It is at this stage that I would like to stress the significance of thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil with his ‘Law of Accelerating Returns’ and Aubrey de Gray – who both stress that man can and will live for far longer and that, indeed, there is no reason whatsoever why they cannot live forever.
Kurzweil: “I and many other scientists now believe that in around 20 years we will have the means to reprogramme our bodies’ stone-age software so we can halt, then reverse, ageing. Then nanotechnology will let us live forever…So we can look forward to a world where humans become cyborgs, with artificial limbs and organs” (The Sun, 2009.)
For Kurzweil this is a scientific inevitability – just as it is for him the fact that The Singularity will necessarily eventuate very soon via scientific development: the revelation in essence of the “Meaning of Life.’ Obviously, for him also, this is a very long way from the human-centred credos of Colin Wilson and his quoted experts such as Dr Darryl Reanney: “Time and self are outgrown husks which consciousness will one day discard” (Reanney, quoted in Wilson’s 2003 interview.) Ironically here, both Wilson and Kurzweil would – albeit from diametrically different tangents – support the notion of an impending singular explanation to ‘it all.’
What it all comes down to, for Ray Kurzweil however, is an initially purely physiological being, itself being augmented via a concatenation of technological bits and pieces so as to be able to continue ad infinitum and whereby consciousness would consist of perhaps not just brain cells, but a vast array of non-living implants so as to increase an individual life span to such a degree that there would be not only no ‘need’ for an afterlife, but that consciousness as Wilson et al sight it, has long since ceased to exist. As would what Colin Wilson equates to a transcendental ego-ed human – however god-like he envisages suchlike – per se. Indeed, even Wilson’s other quoted expert in the same source, Dr. Peter Fenwick with his belief that: “Mind may exist outside the brain and may be better understood as a field, rather than just the actions of neurons in the brain,” would seem to be abnegated by the potential scientific usurpation of Death. (Whither then, also, would be the transcendental ego-ed individual mind, one asks?)
For Aubrey de Grey (2005, online) also, longevity and ultimate eternal life are inevitabilities. His Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) project aims to overcome the seven causes of aging so that: “Basically we’ll have made the age related problems that we suffer from these days no longer an inevitable consequence of being alive…Once the technology is available, nearly everybody is going to want it…I think it’s reasonable to suppose that one could oscillate between being biologically 20 and biologically 25 indefinitely.” Like Kurzweil, de Grey sees considerable work on vaccines, drugs, gene therapy, stem cell therapy – and “much more high tech stuff” (ibid.) and even goes so far as to preach the ‘reversability’ of aging! His institute also runs the Methuselah Mouse prize for breakthroughs in extending the lifespans of mice and it is already worth over one million dollars – very similar here to Mark Zuckerburg et al’s Breakthrough Prize in Life Science, whereby awardees will have demonstrated evidence and the sequential steps to go about extending human life per se.
To me, Kurzweil and de Gray have confronted Death in the sense that they have argued for the abnegation of Death and are making determined efforts to bring this state about. This is a radically different negation or at least denial of the inevitable process of Death from that of the ‘they-self’ and also from the way in which Romantic idealists like Colin Wilson envisage Mankind somehow extending his or her consciousness both in life and in some potentially spectral afterlife – indeed they are insinuating the non-need for this to even need to happen in their basically socialist, non-elitist formulations of the inevitably available life-extension processes for everybody. Obviously, of course, both these factions in this tripartite equation as covered in this rather speculative article have come some considerable way from Heidegger and his belief that death is “not to be out-stripped” (ibid.) Quite the contrary.
The interesting aspect now is to explore briefly just how the Speculative Realists (the other faction) – who definitely share with them (de Gray, Kurzweil et al) the need for the superimposed status of ‘scientific rationalism’ and therefore the persuasive charter of the neurophysiologists – would segue into the notions and pragmatic explorations of de Gray and Kurzweil who are right out there, so to speak, in pushing science into the contemporary-beyond. To me, the two poles now split far apart: Brassier intends the: “trauma of scientific thought, the nihilism that inevitably goes with it, and the fact that this trauma indexes something unconditioned by human thought: something that has no interest in common with human survival or instrumentality” (Lindblom, ibid.) That given, science’s revelation of an ultimate universal meaninglessness does not also negate its ability to prolong life, human survival despite this: its mission is to introduce eternity on Earth. The overthrow of (Brassier’s) extinction is possible?
Then there is the quite odd Quentin Meillassoux: “Meillassoux believes that we can trace out the shape of the next event that will transcend humanity as we know it. Humanity’s great failing for Meillassoux is the cold, hard reality of death, which keeps human intellect from fulfilling its vocation to grasp the infinite. One might hope for something like the immortality of the soul in order to overcome this obstacle, but this would not fit the pattern that Meillassoux had established for the previous events. All of those transformative events rested on the foundation of the stage before it, while the immortality of the soul would simply leave embodied human existence (and hence the organic and material levels that provide its foundation) behind. The next stage of humanity must be material, must be organic and bodily — but it will be immortal. What’s more, this event will not apply solely to those who happen to be living when it happens. It must overcome the death of all human beings, allowing them to fulfill their vocation. Adam Kotsko (2012, online.) Meillassoux’s apocalyptic and radical vision would seem to be anticipating the plausible future arrival of some mega-human individual – God if you will – who will bring about eternity and a form of atonement even for the already departed. Echoes of Colin Wilson, actually!
The more practical response, methinks, would be to concur with Kurzweil et al and state that Death and extinction of Mankind – after all – may not be so damned inevitable, given the sheer alien non-humanity of its scope – and may be overcome. Lindblom (ibid.) yet again: “We might understand what he [Brassier] says, but then we still go shopping, talk about selves, emotions and so on.” Exactly – the ‘they-self’ continues to abjure such radically worrying visions of existence. I can only further emphasize from my own personal experience that when push comes to shove the desire to retain individual life overwhelms the drive to die, even in the face of a nihilistic universe: at death’s door, one finally wants to come back inside.
Now, with de Gray et al’s efforts my initial meta-question may well never need to be posed after all. Not only will we never die, we will also manifestly not be what we are now. There are – obviously – a wide raft of ethical and practical conundrums after this – to do with pragmatic realities as regards affordability and suitability of eternal candidature. More significantly, everything I have stressed here doesn’t die away: unless we overhaul to the silly ways we encourage death on this planet, we will continue to inhabit some death-denying ‘they world’ whereby we are gifted eternity or at the very least longevity beyond our ken, but stab ourselves in our own backs by our
Death lethargy. We all still need to be in awe of Death. It won’t ever actually depart.
All the more rationale to fight Death with every plausible weapon we have, eh.
Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. W. Somerset Maugham
Vaughan Rapatahana’s life has been a swill in death. Death had always been a shadow, losing parents and children far too early and unnecessarily. And he can certainly vouch that Albert Camus’ ‘solution’ didn’t work for him.
Now he wouldn’t wish Death on anyone, anywhere. Life is for seizing forever.