“We colour our world with attitude”

“What human beings find extremely difficult to grasp” remarked Colin Wilson to his first biographer Sidney Campion, “is that when they open their eyes and see the world, they are, as it were, seeing one of a thousand possible worlds. We colour our world with attitude”. The idea that we can simply choose one world out of thousands sounds extremely difficult to grasp, if not actually fanciful. However we can change our attitude towards the world and this must be remembered in order to understand the context in which Wilson was speaking – in fact, in order to understand Wilson’s ideas at all.

Wilson was influenced by the philosophical discipline known as phenomenology, the esoteric precursor to the more popular existentialism. Phenomenology is a method which dismantles our usual presuppositions about perception. Edmund Husserl, the founder of the method, described our so-called ‘normal’ state of perception the naive or natural attitude, the attitude we usually ‘colour’ our everyday world with. For the “naive man” [1] comfortable in the naive attitude, the world is just as it seems, static and unchangeable. But ‘naive man’ is unaware that he is confusing his own interpretation of the world, coloured by his personal attitudes, for the objective world itself. As Wilson observes in The Outsider, this attitude (‘world’) is always well captured in poetry and novels – Sartre’s Nausea is a particularly good example of this colouring (Sartre began as a follower of Husserl). Against the naive attitude which we presuppose as natural, Husserl posited the phenomenological attitude, a stepping away from naivety or acceptance of things as they ‘naturally’ are. The phenomenological attitude rejects this naivety and instead concerns itself with the selectivity (or intentionality) of perceptive acts. We choose our perceptions and therefore we choose our worlds. In the naive attitude we think perception just ‘happens’ but in the phenomenological attitude this naivety is banished (Husserl used a mathematical term, ‘bracketed’) and perceptions are closely analysed for emotional prejudices or distortions before they creep into conscious awareness.

“I know of no task more difficult than becoming aware of one’s act of selection, and trying to control it” commented Wilson to Campion. A change of attitude from the naive to the phenomenological is the first step in realising this selectivity in action. Simply becoming aware that consciousness is selective is a major step forward: Wilson summarised this awareness in his maxim ‘perception is intentional’. On a personal note, I can now recall a subliminal change of attitude when I first encountered Wilson’s writing – in his Mysteries (1978) – despite Husserl being just another obscure name amongst most of the others. It wouldn’t be until I read the last few volumes in Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’ that I’d gradually begin to understand phenomenology as a specific technique with a history, but the requisite change of attitude happened quickly after contact with his writing. Husserl’s books and lectures are formidably dense but Wilson expounded those rigorous phenomenological ideas in clarified and compulsive prose while demonstrating their efficiency via numerous and seemingly unrelated metaphors and comparisons – from literature and poetry to criminology and even occultism (truth be told, none of this is surprising if the intention behind it all is known). Once this change of attitude is understood and Husserl’s method is grasped, Wilson’s ideas can be understood and appreciated properly. It must be remembered that sightings of the magic word ‘phenomenology’ are alarmingly thin on the ground in Wilson’s press reviews and actual discussions of his use of the method are virtually non-existent outside of his occasional appearances in philosophy journals. “Talking to him about phenomenology was a sure way of putting him to sleep” said Wilson about one philosophically challenged interviewer who nodded off on Wilson’s sofa. A British ‘highbrow’ broadsheet once began an interview by refusing to discuss Wilson’s philosophy at all. Writing about Wilson without at least a basic grasp of Husserl’s method is essentially pointless and makes for an exasperating read. “His books can be best understood against the background of the European philosophical tradition; in fact, no real understanding can be arrived at without some knowledge of this background” wrote Sidney Campion.

F3D4D1FA-8C15-4D48-A930-17CC9914B209Wilson has dealt with the historical schisms of the original phenomenological movement in some of his writings but what really concerned him was making his readers understand and practice the discipline of becoming aware of and controlling our selective acts in perception, to grasp our freedom to choose whichever angle we see the world from. Nietzsche called this choice of viewing angles ‘perspectivism’ but was unaware of the beginnings of what one historian has called the “phenomenological current” which started with Franz Brentano. [2] Nietzsche’s swooping “guerrilla raids” on presuppositions (our ‘colouring’ attitudes) make enthralling and inspiring reading, but he lacked Husserl’s basic technique to truly explode them. A guerrilla, Wilson commented, “is at a psychological disadvantage, being a man without with a home, without an established position”.  At his base camp (the phenomenological method) “Husserl was luckier” says Wilson. “He was also irritated by the by the psychologism, the relativism, the nominalism, that had permeated philosophy since Locke. But he demolished them with irrefutable arguments in the Logical Investigations, and laid his own foundations”. Nietzsche’s perspectival statement that there are no facts, only interpretations is much closer to Husserl’s intentional method than to postmodernism (a philosophy stuck in Locke’s relativism, his ‘blank slate’, which both Nietzsche and Husserl rejected). Despite being strongly influenced by British empiricism  – what Nietzsche described as an “English-mechanistic-world-stupidification” – Husserl offered a precisely cutting critique of Locke’s “obviousness” in his Logical Investigations (Investigation II, chapter two, §9 – §11). Nietzsche’s statement about interpretation appears in his mid-1800’s notebooks amongst other thoughts which do suggest an intuitive affinity with what Husserl would later conceive. He writes that no event happens in isolation, what happens “is a group of phenomena selected and synthesised by an interpreting being”. And if, he later asks, this being or “our ‘I’ is our only being, on the basis in which we make everything be, or understand it to be, fine! Then it becomes very fair to doubt whether there isn’t a perspectival illusion here” – that is to say, a distortion, the kind that Sartre let slip into his rather gloomy descriptions (phenomenology depends on accurate description of intentional states). In his notebooks Nietzsche muses on a theme which he insists runs through his writings: that “the world’s value lies in our interpretations” and suggests that there could be a possibility to go beyond “merely human” or “narrower interpretations”. The world which matters to us (the one we naively ‘value’) he says, “is false, i.e., it is not a fact but but a fictional elaboration and filling out of a meagre store of observations”. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to say that these meagre observations are identical to the naive or natural attitude (also known in Husserl’s terminology as ‘the natural standpoint’ – a concept similar to Nietzsche’s metaphor of perspectivism). Our values are entwined with how we interpret, and if our selective interpretations are narrow, as Nietzsche, Husserl and Wilson insist they are, then our values will also be narrow. Analysing a ‘world without values’ in The Outsider, Wilson asked how it was possible to be less of a daily victim of circumstance, to feel less stuck in the present moment which makes us easily forget our aims toward purpose and meaning. He would find the answer in the faculty of poetic inspiration (Blake described it as the ‘Poetic Genius’, a pre-imagining of Husserl’s transcendental ego) with it’s associated expanded consciousness. Like a kind of negative proof, examining the shadows of negativity throws light on positive values. Wilson used literature to analyse such narrow or even nihilistic values and criminal cases to debunk real (as opposed to fictional) nihilism. Like Dostoyevsky, Wilson studied crime for philosophical and not morbid reasons. In The New Existentialism he makes the important point that the “first major work of existential philosophy in the twentieth-century was Jaspers’ General Psychopathology […] it should be clear that questions of mental sickness belong to philosophy as much as to psychology”. Hence Wilson’s pioneering true crime writings and the original subtitle for The Outsider: ‘an inquiry into the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth-century’ (on more modern editions it reads the more sellable ‘classic study of alienation, creativity and the modern mind’).

The existential study of murder starkly illustrates the inverse of positive values and their terrible social perils. “By it’s negative nature” says Wilson, “the act creates a resistance in the reader; when the cause of this resistance is analysed, the result is an insight into positive values”. Reading about a murder case produces a violent jolt to our naive attitudes; we are thankful to be uninvolved in such negativity. Yet very quickly this insight is forgotten and natural or naive banality returns. Aware of Husserl’s method, Wilson rejects this naive attitude as normal and notes that we are “actually selecting which things to include in [our] attention and which to dehydrate into symbols and leave in cold storage” (Nietzsche’s “meagre store of observations”). We are, Wilson continues “unconsciously valuing life. Out of thousands, perhaps millions, of facts that could be actively present to your consciousness, you choose a dozen or so”. This is what is meant by Nietzsche’s central insight that “the world’s value lies in our interpretations”. With the knowledge of crime in mind, we should be wary of negative values and choose our ‘worlds’ accordingly.

“The highest value is represented by the person who habitually bestows the highest motivational power on the genuine, true, valid, and free decisions” said Husserl in the second book of Ideas, sounding rather like Nietzsche and throwing in some unexpected thoughts on murder along the way [3]. In his later notebooks Nietzsche writes of huge numbers of habits that have become “so hardened that whole species can live upon them”. These habits, he says, constitute their external world and the oldest habit that humans themselves possess is intention – although he did not interpret ‘intention’ as Husserl did, unaware as he was of the strict technique of stepping out of the naive and into the phenomenological attitude. William Blake intuitively knew this crossing from one to the other and he anticipated  phenomenological existentialism with uncanny accuracy – “He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only”; “the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of”; “all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weaknesses of every individual” etc. “Phenomenological analysis has confirmed what Blake asserted a century earlier” remarks Wilson. In the natural, naive attitude, Husserl says, [4] we “wear the blinders of habit” which can become “rigid” if unchecked: Blake’s mind forged manacles. As Wilson says, we are like blinkered horses in traffic [5]. Wilson thinks that Nietzsche’s poor health helped him observe ideas from different angles. People who do not suffer from such fluctuating health problems as Nietzsche did tend to take up “a certain attitude towards the world – what he enjoys, what is a nuisance – and maintains it year in and year out, until it becomes a habit”. Wilson described consciousness as mostly composed of solidified habits which he labelled ‘mechanical intentions’. These intentions have become mechanical or robotic (automated) through willed repetition (learning to type or drive for instance). They ossify into habits and we forget they were once intentionally willed. We misunderstand them as ‘mechanisms’, a metaphor which drives behaviourist thought – Blake’s the “same dull round” which he envisaged as a grinding mill with complicated wheels.

71C51B16-C3DB-4CDF-A85C-169712B3F573We have forgotten that most of our mechanical actions were originally intentional and live robotically as a consequence – what Husserl called our “well known forgetfulness”, a concept later appropriated by his pupil Heidegger. Husserl’s phenomenology has much in common with the anti-robotism of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky who also concerned themselves with remembering the self via constant and vigilant meditation on the mechanicalness (sic.) of the body, it’s actions, the emotions and perception. To get around this mechanical illusion we must not forget that our intentions are willed. For Husserl, the body is an “organ of the will”, what Nietzsche meant by the will to power and Blake saw as a dynamic extension of the Poetic Genius. This keen awareness that our ‘mechanicalness’ is layer upon layer of willed intentions is the choice between the naive and phenomenological attitudes or worlds. [6] It is the choice between ‘meaninglessness’ and meaning – the former can appear valid in the naively nihilistic attitude but like ‘mechanicalness’ it is merely the product of a narrow, partial perception, a “feeling isolated in a world of objects” as Wilson puts it. In the early pages of Nausea Sartre accurately describes this state when observing a cafe proprietor – “when his establishment empties, his head empties too […] the waiters turn out the lights, and he slips into unconsciousness: when this man is alone, he falls asleep” – a statement that Gurdjieff would have perhaps appreciated (Wilson noted in his debut that ‘Outsiders’ have no problem being alone). Our consciousness is selective but as Wilson points out an “enormous area of [our] own being is inaccessible to the beam of consciousness” (the ‘beam’ is intentionality or selectivity; Husserl used the term ‘ray’).

Both Nietzsche and Husserl were adept at analysing these deep seated drives and habits – ‘habitual sedimentations’ according to Husserl – and Wilson thinks of them as a kind of archeological strata made of layers. These layers of willed intentions stretch back into our past and ‘prehistory’ phenomenologically speaking (Proust’s lengthy series of novels analysing lost and regained time contain many important insights into this theme: they compliment works on time consciousness by Husserl and Heidegger). Wilson marked out a few steps in the phenomenological investigation of this “intentional structure of consciousness”. Firstly, the rejection of Descartes’ passive consciousness, or the shift from the naive to the phenomenological attitude – the awareness that perception is intentional. Secondly, the investigation into the intentional structure of all forms of consciousness: Whitehead’s list of experience normal and experience abnormal and everything in between (Wilson’s eclectic works give numerous living or existential examples). Most fundamental is the descriptive analysis of what Wilson called the ‘indifference threshold’ (or the ‘law of entropy in prehension’ which was Wilson’s nod to Whitehead, ‘prehension’ being a kind of hunger for significance). This threshold could be imagined as a margin in consciousness, easily stimulated by inconvenience or pain but bored or indifferent by pleasure or stability. As I write this, a third of the world is in lockdown to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. I’ve lost count of how many articles I’ve seen recently which are already misty eyed and nostalgic for the world as it was only few weeks ago – a world that the same newspapers never stopped complaining about for the past few years (ironically enough the paper which refused to discuss Wilson’s philosophy, mentioned earlier, is one of the worst culprits). The writer J. W. N. Sullivan understood this grim irony when he was in a Serbian hospital during the First World War: sickened by the stench of gangrene, he dreamt of regular life back in England. “If I were ever permitted to live again my ordinary life I would never, I reflected, commit the blasphemy of thinking it dull”. Wilson often illustrated this paradox by recalling a fairy tale about an old woman who lived in a vinegar bottle. A passing fairy, hearing the old woman’s complaints, turned the bottle into a small house. Returning later to hear the woman complaining again, the spirit turned into a large palace, but this, it later found out, was too big and draughty, it took too much effort to clean and so on. It was then transformed back into the vinegar bottle. “The old woman is at the mercy of the poor quality of her consciousness”, comments Wilson. “She is a symbol of Western man, blinkered like a horse by evolution, unaware that perception can be more than peering through a slit”. This narrowing of perception – which Wilson believes was to a certain extent voluntary – has of course served a good purpose in terms of evolution for we have the scientific method. However, the more we develop “this faculty of selecting and excluding” the further we retreat from what Whitehead described as ‘meaning-perception’. Husserl’s master Brentano had noted that all conscious acts are intentional or about something, but Husserl took it further. “Husserl recognised that it is intentional in a profounder sense, that the mind is perpetually engaged in what could be called ‘subconscious prehension’” says Wilson. This may appear to be “silent, apparently purposeless”, but careful phenomenological analysis will uncover the purpose behind it, our “intentional evolutionary structure”. Evolution is the opposite of ‘entropy’, or running down, the opposite of the ‘law of entropy in prehension’ (the indifference threshold). Husserl has shown that consciousness is not passive – this goes against everything we have become accustomed to with regards our conscious lives for a very long time. We take passive consciousness for granted and wait for a stimulus to drive us into action. But as phenomenology insists on separating the intention from the perceived object this is ‘naive’ or passive, not active or intentional.

8BB1124B-13D0-4C9D-92B2-0F95182D0799As Wilson has noted, consciousness without crisis tends to become negative. We appear to be mostly unable to appreciate things until they’re threatened or have disappeared completely. When they’re in front of us we regard them with indifference, boredom or they’re simply not noticed at all. His concept of the threshold illustrates the “curious inadequacy of human consciousness”, our very limited capacity for freedom – Nietzsche understood it as freedom ‘from’ (passive) rather than freedom  ‘for’ (active).

Wilson was fond of quoting a section from H. G. Wells’ Experiment In Autobiography where Wells describes “originative intellectual workers” or people who prefer the world of the mind to that of simply existing. “Yes, you earn a living, you support a family, you love and hate” says Wells, “but what do you do?” This, he says would have been an unusual question half a century ago. These workers – Gurdjieff called his philosophy ‘Work’ – are, Wells writes, “like amphibians, so to speak, struggling out of the waters that have hitherto covered our kind, into the air, seeking to breathe in a new fashion and emancipate ourselves from long accepted and long unquestioned necessities”. Wilson says that his ‘Outsiders’ were early amphibians. As Wells remarks however “the new land has not definitely emerged from the waters” and most nineteenth-century Romantic Outsiders drowned. Nietzsche had already glimpsed this metaphor. “Never has more been demanded of living creatures than when dry land emerged” he scribbled in his notebook in the mid 1800’s. “Habituated and adapted to life in the sea, they had to turn around and overturn their bodies and customs and act in every respect differently from what they had been used to before – there has never been a more remarkable change on earth. – Just as then, through collapses, through the earth slowly breaking apart, the sea sank into the ruptures, caves and troughs and gained depth, so (to continue the metaphor) what is happening today among men perhaps offers the exact counterpart: man’s becoming whole and rounded, a disappearance of the ruptures, caves and troughs, and consequently also – a disappearance of dry land. For a man made rounded and whole by my way of thinking, ‘everything is at sea’, the sea is everywhere: however, the sea itself has lost depth”. [6]

H. G. Wells

Wilson’s Outsiders thought ordinary life in the ‘sea’ intolerable (“as for living, our servants can do that for us”) and craved to walk on this strange new continent, a ‘New Atlantis’. But their perceptions were as feeble as the flippers of the first land creatures. Without land-legs they had to return to the sea, against their will. The strengthening of intentional perception is therefore an exercise in evolution in Wells’ sense. Nietzsche’s comment that the sea is everywhere but lacks depth sums up this problem. “If man is really to evolve” wrote Wilson, “then he must develop depth, and power over his own depths”. This ‘power’ is no different from the ability to walk on land, physically speaking, but Nietzsche and Wilson have both been misunderstood by their critics who remain more or less settled in the foamy brine of the natural or naive attitude. Wilson notes that questions about ‘evolutionary intentionality’ can only be of interest to a very small minority of people. Truth be told, only a tiny fraction of that minority will ever seriously get around to practicing these phenomenological disciplines – academics who write about that subject spend most of their time debating terminology and wondering if Husserl’s epoché is even possible. With regard to this Wilson comments that “Whitehead writes: ‘Religion is what man does with his solitude’. In that sense of the word, the human race has never possessed more than five per cent of religious – or potentially religious – individuals”. (Outsiders are happy with solitude). This is perfectly reasonable historical logic, and as Wilson comments “not a disguised form of fascism”. When Sidney Campion writes that Wilson was described as a ‘filthy fascist beast’ by the poet Christopher Logue, it’s obvious that Logue was not understanding Wilson’s phenomenological position. Critics should be careful to not confuse intentional concepts with naive attitudes. The latter must be left behind (bracketed) in the phenomenological reduction or epoché. [7] An important definition of the term ‘Outsider’ was made by Wilson in the sixth volume in the series of books of that name. Although the term is vague in a social sense, “as a description of a state of consciousness definable by phenomenology, it is precise”. An Outsider wishes to leave the sea and walk on the land, phenomenologically speaking. The opening line in The Outsider itself is “At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem” but those first three words suggest the problem is deeper. The Outsider has an appetite for progress, Wilson later states, but “not primarily for social progress” [my italics]. Social progress is essential but it rarely addresses the frustrating paradoxes that Wilson concerned himself with. “Our ‘human condition’ (as we grasp it from the natural standpoint) is determined by the way we act and live, and consequently become known to ourselves” he writes in The New Existentialism. “But our actions are determined by our assumptions about their possibility of success. And our assumptions about their possibility of success are determined by our idea of the ‘human condition’ (as we grasp it according to the natural standpoint)”. This vicious circle has occasionally been interrupted by works of art, scientific Ideas and philosophies, but the impulse to break out of this self-defeating circle has been steadily diminishing in all those fields. Wilson named this problem the fallacy of insignificance in the third Outsider book, The Age of Defeat.

But all is not lost. In Beyond the Outsider Wilson writes that “if the human race ever develops it’s five per cent of human beings who are capable of an intuitive grasp of evolutionary intentionality, and a certain control of the ‘St Neot Margin’ [another term for the indifference threshold] by means of phenomenological disciplines, these beings will not experience the need for ‘subjective religion’ in Kierkegaard’s sense, since the need will already have been fulfilled on another level”. This is again in line with Blake’s attitude in works such as There Is No Natural Religion. Phenomenology – “the descriptive analysis of intentional structures” as Wilson has it – “must proceed until it becomes the descriptive analysis of evolutionary intentionality. This would be a fundamental step in the process that Nietzsche called ‘the revaluation of values’ – the changing of the direction of our pessimistically-orientated culture by reversing it’s fundamental premises”. This is implicit in Wells’ image of the amphibians. Reversal is also integral to Husserl’s method which aims to destroy the natural standpoint, Descartes’ passive spectator.

“One thing which fish know exactly nothing about is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to to perceive the element they live in” wrote media theorist Marshall McLuhan. [8] Our own daily environment is the natural or naive attitude, Nietzsche’s ‘sea’ which is losing depth, Wells’ ocean of “long accepted and long unquestioned necessities” (interrogating unquestioned presuppositions was the central drive of Nietzsche and Husserl’s philosophies, and of Wilson’s). Following on from such images Wilson compares the human condition to life in a fish tank. The glass is dirty and distorts the outside world, but occasionally we catch glimpses of that ‘world’ (attitude) and we see reality – strange, alien and above all, meaningful. Blake understood this environment as the ‘vegetable glass of nature’ or the ‘mundane shell’. Wilson pointed out that mystics tend to speak of two worlds when we should really be considering two attitudes towards reality – the natural (naive) and the phenomenological. “The problem” writes Wilson, “is the distorting medium, which Husserl labelled intentionality. The greatest achievement of existentialism has been to recognise that it is active human intentionality, not the ‘senses’, that is the distorting medium”. Again, Blake understood and anticipated this, especially in his short didactic works There Is No Natural Religion (both parts) and All Religions Are One, both etched a century before Nietzsche’s notebook musings. Becoming aware  that “the ‘world’ we naively take for granted is being seen through a distorting medium”, the glass of the tank (or the water of unquestioned habits in Wells’ image) is the first step towards what Wilson called the phenomenological quest, unveiling the secrets of the transcendental ego. Husserl insisted that until this ego is uncovered – once subconscious prejudices have been banished like demons from Faust’s circle – then and only then can philosophy finally begin.


Post Husserlian existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre concerned themselves with clearing away these distortions. Heidegger, inspired by Husserl’s lectures on time consciousness, emphasised that the problem is kinetic, not static – it is, as Fichte had noted, concerned with action (Wilson praised Fichte’s central insight that to be free is nothing, but to become free is heavenly). Sartre also emphasised action in his remarks that he had never felt so free as when he was part of the French Resistance and in danger of being shot by the Nazis at any time (the indifference threshold, again). “Sartre had stated, in less abstract terms”, says Wilson “what Husserl had already stated: that the first step in freedom lies in recognising the natural standpoint for what it is, a temporary convenience”. The destruction of this natural standpoint (naive attitude) must, Wilson says, be incorporated into everyday consciousness. This, Wilson states, is no more difficult than learning a new language which is a true enough statement. It began for me with the first Wilson book I read and had been ongoing ever since. There’s no doubt the the phenomenological method is “difficult to grasp” at first, but so is learning a language or driving a car. A rejection of (or initially, a certain cynicism towards) cultural pessimism is essential in starting this ‘revaluation of all values’. And unless the pessimistic attitude is finally abandoned, the switch from the naive to phenomenological attitude can never be truly thorough – Sartre’s misunderstanding of Husserl’s notion of intentionality bears this out. Husserl described conscious activity with the dynamic image of a ray or arrow of perception fired towards the object of attention; for Sartre, consciousness is sucked by the gravitational pull of objects – an ironic philosophical position to take after his observation of the empty headed cafe proprietor in Nausea. For his fellow existentialist Jaspers, “man encounters his true self only in the boundary situations of existence – death, suffering, guilt, sudden violence”. The same anti-intentional pessimistic fallacy can be seen in Heidegger and Camus – whose novel The Plague is back on the best seller lists these days – and even in writers like Hemingway. Genuine optimists, says Wilson, have either swallowed a large dose of pessimism early and then firmly rejected it, or were unable to afford the luxury of self-pity in the first place – Blake, Shaw and Wells are good examples. Wilson ticks both boxes as a working class provincial who ended his pessimism – rather than his life – by almost swallowing hydrocyanic acid aged sixteen. Spending the rest of his post-Outsider career in a remote part of rural Cornwall, Wilson had yet another handy metaphor for intentional consciousness. Commenting on Sartre’s narrator in Nausea who is struck by a wave of ‘absurdity’, Wilson writes that this is merely a drop in the ‘pressure’ (intentionality) of consciousness, likened to what happens to “the current supplied by the electricity board [when it] falls to a lower voltage” – as it often did in Wilson’s Cornish cottage during the winter. “It takes half an hour to boil a kettle” said Wilson of his fluctuating electricity current – phenomenology has itself been described as a current – and “the electric light becomes so dim that you begin to wonder if you need new glasses. The purpose of consciousness is to illuminate the objective world. When we are full of energy and optimism, everything looks fascinating; when we are tired, everything looks dull” – the kind of dullness that J. W. N. Sullivan looked back on as a “blasphemy” from his hospital bed. The philosopher Whitehead questioned this ‘dullness’ as a genuine perception when he spoke of Galileo’s bifurcation of nature (into primary and secondary qualities) as “a dull affair…merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly”. Whitehead also suggested that we often make gloomy perceptions into the futility of life when we are simply tired, when consciousness has dropped to a lower voltage. But intentionality takes many forms – we could go to bed exhausted and unfocused but would be fully alert if roused and told next door was on fire. To anyone skilled in phenomenology, this is not the simple stimulus-response action it seems. Sleepiness itself is intentional. According to Gurdjieff what we call normal consciousness (for Husserl, the naive attitude) is indeed ‘sleep’.

“Whenever we experience problems or serious crises” Wilson remarks “we grasp the central truth about human existence: that a life without serious problems is, in the most precise sense of the word, blessed”. Sullivan knew this in the Serbian hospital. Then why can’t we realise this all the time? Hemingway and Sartre launched themselves into action and commitment, but their solutions seem mostly unsatisfactory, much like traditional (or for that matter, non-traditional) religious solutions. ‘Yet it seems to me” Wilson continues “that the answer might be closer than we realise. It is necessary, first of all, to grasp that this is an evolutionary problem”. For this reason Wilson felt more affinity with Shaw or Bergson than with the proclamations of Eastern religions (for instance) which suggest that we are already God (remembering that Wilson was an avid reader of the Gita and practiced meditation in his younger years, and that Eastern philosophy is tackled in his first book). As Wilson noted, the intuitive grasp of  evolutionary intentionality will supplant lapsed religious cravings, at least for those keen enough to to focus on these problems very seriously – Wells’ intellectual workers desperate to leave the sea, those comfortable with solitude as per Whitehead and Wilson’s own Outsiders (if the term is properly understood).

“What distinguishes religion from speculative thought is that it is ‘lived by’; when the laws of evolutionary intentionality have been uncovered and brought to consciousness, they will also be ‘lived by’, continuously present to inspection”. So wrote Wilson in the aptly-titled Beyond The Outsider. Husserl began his lectures on time consciousness by suggesting we look into Augustine’s meditation on time in his Confessions (Book XI, chapters 14 – 28). Existentialism is “closely bound up with the problem of time” according to Wilson. Heidegger has shown that the problem is kinetic, not static, but as Wilson notes, Sartre “keeps appealing to the present as his standard of reality”. However, being stuck in the present can cause us to fall into a kind of hypnosis where we are at the mercy of triviality and negativity (it was the Gurdjieff Work which coined the term ‘negative’ in this sense). This is the ‘world without values’ or rather, an attitude without values. “Once we are stuck in negativity” writes Wilson, “it becomes one of our subconscious premises, and it is almost impossible to escape because it is, so to speak, lurking beneath the threshold”. The philosophy behind this Lovecraftian turn of phrase would bubble below the narrative of Wilson’s parodic novel The Mind Parasites. A science fiction romp set around about now, it anticipates the mood of the early twenty-first century with uncanny accuracy. Based on phenomenological conceptions from The New Existentialism via Blake’s symbol of the Spectre (or robot in Wilson’s terminology), it was anticipated in the discussions of the ‘vastations’ of William James (and his father) in The Outsider – “it attacks the mind, not the body”. [9] This is the ‘nature of the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth century’ and in the early twenty-first. The existentialism of the post-Husserl era – and this includes postmodernism – insisted that there are no transcendental values outside of our everyday consciousness and we should simply not bother looking for them, rather like the dreary logical positivism that Wilson was up against in the mid-fifties. Instead, amuse yourselves with commitment to causes or language games (or both, today). This overlooks the possibility that Wilson and his ‘new’ (phenomenological) existentialism grappled with: that there are specific states of consciousnesses which are neither everyday or transcendent but produce a definite sense of values – scores of these experiences are documented in The Outsider. If we analyse these properly the old dogmatic values of religion can be replaced with something more objective and ‘lived by’. Blake understood this when he wrote that sects of philosophy are adapted to the weaknesses of individuals from their (mis)understandings of the Poetic Genius. Nietzsche and Husserl made the same point.

“Evolution is simply the capacity to register meanings that are already there” wrote Wilson. But our limited perceptions limit our horizons; they inhibit our ability to see further. This is not so much ‘mysticism’ as simple observation made outside of the natural standpoint of everyday consciousness. This switch is initially difficult to grasp, much like the difference between the physics of Einstein were from Newton, “but the consequences of the change of viewpoint are as momentous in both cases. Phenomenology is a Copernican revolution in thought, whose full implications were hidden even from it’s founder Husserl”. Those willing to develop the phenomenological faculty can never again “mistake their own stagnation for the world’s” as Wilson put it in the Blake section of The Outsider. Blake escaped this narrow triviality by what he called imagination, but which Wilson referred to as ‘Faculty X’, his shorthand for the phenomenological faculty. We commonly think of perception as passive and imagination as active, with a sharp delineation between the two, but once we realise that perception is active this “old dichotomy” vanishes. [10] Faculty X is the knowledge of the reality of other times and places – J. W. N. Sullivan acutely understood it in his Serbian bed, but it took the First World War to make him realise it. This is the paradoxical nature of freedom with which Wilson’s philosophy is so concerned.


[1] The ‘naive man’ in Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, Volume Two, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970 p. 852. Husserl critiqued empiricism in the first volume (RKP, 1970, p. 114) by asking “what happens in hypnotic states, in delirium tremens, etc?” (cf Whitehead’s ‘experience drunk’, ‘’experience abnormal’ and so on) and protesting ideas about the “normal individual” and “normal mental constitution”. On p. 124  Husserl questions generalisations which relate to “merely normal individual minds, for how abnormal minds behave is something in which the everyday experience here adduced has nothing to tell us”. This is completely in line with Wilson’s Outsider thesis (in his debut, ‘bourgeois’ is Husserl’s ‘naive man’) Heidegger’s authentic and inauthentic, Riesman’s other and inner directed are similar concepts.

[2] Herbert Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, (second volume), Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1976, p. 396. It is noteworthy that Freud and Rudolf Steiner attended lectures by Brentano.

[3] Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, second book, Kluwer Academic Pub. 1989, p. 280. Husserl discusses murder as a “wrong act” in phenomenologically forensic terms on p. 277 and in a supplement to that section on pp. 342/3.

[4] Husserl ibid p.193.

[5] For ‘forgetfulness’, Husserl, ibid. p. 280. Section § 57 (ibid. pp. 259 – 263) analyses self-apperception or self perception – conceptually similar to self remembering in the Gurdjieff Work. Ouspensky notes a disagreement with a friend in his In Search of the Miraculous (RKP, 1950, p. 121) who stated that self remembering was merely an ‘apperception’ from Wundt’s Logic but Ouspensky believed that Wundt had “not seen the magnitude of the idea which was hidden behind his thoughts about different forms of perception”. For Husserl (Logical Investigations, ibid. pp. 187/8) Wundt and his book were guilty of psychologism. Spiegelberg (ibid. p. 92) notes that “even the great Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig” failed to make an impression on Husserl in the mid-1880’s. For the body as organ of the will, Husserl, Ideas II, ibid. p. 159. For attitudes, ibid. p. 219 where Husserl speaks about “an uncomfortable difficulty” regarding the naturalistic (naive) world of science (“This naturalistically considered world is of course not the world”). This is the attitude he previously warned could turn into a rigid habit. In his Notebooks (cf [6] p. 15) Nietzsche criticised philosophical systems for their unconscious bias – “they have always trained up one of the mind’s forces in particular, with their one-sided demand that things be seen thus and not otherwise” – against multi-perceptive techniques such as perspectivism or later, phenomenology. Wilson’s book on charlatan messiahs, The Devil’s Party, gives many illustrations of ‘blinders’ ossifying into rigid habits (Yeats’ ‘mask of power’) with catastrophic results.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 22

[7] Sidney R. Campion, The Sound Barrier: a study of the ideas of Colin Wilson [Colin Wilson Studies # 19], Paupers’ Press, 2011, p. 50. This sequel to Campion’s The World of Colin Wilson (Muller, 1962), was written in 1963 but remained unpublished until this century.

[8] Marshall McLuhan with Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village, Bantam, 1968, p. 175. McLuhan later praised Husserl’s “new strategy for philosophy” for including analysis of “occult or psychic experiences” but dismissed Derrida’s “visual matching” of language. Marshall McLuhan, Laws of Media: the New Science, University of Toronto Press, 1988, pp. 60-62, p. 122

[9]  Colin Wilson, The Outsider, Gollancz, 1956, p. 148. H. P. Lovecraft, who once described himself as an “indifferentist” in one of his numerous letters, lived mostly below the indifference threshold (his best tales are driven by the concept of a threshold being crossed). One of his finest stories begins with the assertion that “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all it’s contents” – a statement which Husserl would have found rather naive (see his Crisis of European Sciences, § 48). I have dealt with Wilson’s pioneering treatment of Lovecraft and phenomenology in my The Lurker at the Indifference Threshold [Colin Wilson Studies # 28], Paupers’ Press, 2019

[10] Wilson on the “old dichotomy” between imagination and perception; The New Existentialism, Wildwood House, 1980, p. 108. See also: Husserl, Logical Investigations Vol. 1, ibid. p. 791, and: Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893 – 1917), Kluwer Academic Pub., 1991, p. 300


‘The Ultimate Colin Wilson’: still the best ‘best of’

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First published in 1985 under the title The Essential Colin Wilson, this sampler of Wilson’s forbiddingly large bibliography was one of the first of his books I read and it quickly made me aware of the philosophical continuity throughout his work, which was otherwise obscured by the sheer number of his books and their bafflingly diverse subjects. Originally selected and edited by Wilson himself, with a specially written introduction and postscript, this new edition adds six extra post-1985 excerpts chosen by Wilson scholars.

This collection was one of the primary sources I used to navigate Wilson’s daunting work load and back catalogue back in my teens in the 1980’s. Without it, I’d have struggled to comprehend the larger picture he was offering, what he called his ‘existential jigsaw puzzle’, where clues from philosophy, literature, criminology, occultism and many other fields were examined and pieced together with highly illuminating results. In 1985, Wilson was 54 but astonishingly, this was his 74th book. And as the editor notes, “in the 28 years prior to his death in 2013, he produced another 100 titles”. I have now read them all but I can still recall the overwhelming sense of vertigo looking at a list of his published titles (even then). On top of that, there was also the endless amount of thinkers he referenced – from Proust to Gurdjieff to Husserl and Lindsay and hundreds more – all of which he discussed in such an engaging fashion that I was desperate to find out more – and did. It was exhilarating, but intimidating. In the long run, however, it was totally worth it.

By expertly placing key chapters from such lesser known books such as Beyond the Outsider and Introduction to the New Existentialism next to those from The Outsider, The Occult and Mysteries – I knew those last three – and by including a few sections from his monumental A Criminal History of Mankind and excerpts from novels like The Mind Parasites, I began to see a pattern emerging. I then started to borrow, buy and collect ever Wilson title I could find.

Most casual readers associate Colin Wilson with one book and one book only – his debut, The Outsider. A ‘smash hit’ in rock n’ roll terms (it was 1956, remember), this precociously erudite study of existential alienation still reads well today. But it reads even better with the other six volumes of the ‘Outsider Cycle’ next to it. From these, the Autobiographical Introduction from his unfairly maligned follow up Religion and the Rebel is included as are The Strange Story of Modern Philosophy and Everyday Consciousness is a Liar from Beyond the Outsider and Introduction to the New Existentialism respectively. Nothing was chosen from the other volumes (The Age of Defeat, The Strength to Dream and Origins of the Sexual Impulse) but The Outsider is represented by it’s opening chapter and helpfully preceded by The Outsider, Twenty Years On, a reminiscence of the events leading up to it’s publication date. These introductory pieces from his first two books give the novice reader the necessary background to who Wilson was and where he cane from, as well as explaining his ideas (the 1985 introduction from the first edition goes a bit further). Reading about Wilson’s struggles to pull himself out out of the apathetic torpor of regional working class consciousness and into something more dynamic is highly illuminating, especially if you’re from that background yourself. This certainly made me identify with him and wonder why his second book, from which the autobiographical section is extrapolated, was panned so badly. With these sections, a fully rounded figure emerges.

The two chapters from the sixth ‘Outsider Cycle’ volume (Beyond the Outsider) and the seventh, a summation of all the previous volumes (Introduction to the New Existentialism) are very important choices. The first, which offers a potted history of modern philosophy [1] is essential for understanding the philosophical background Wilson was investigating throughout all his interests. To simplify: modern philosophy was invented by Descartes, who suggested we doubt everything. This is the beginning of the scientific method. But as Wilson points out, “Descartes had launched modern western philosophy with a dubious proposition” and subsequent philosophers – Locke, Berkeley, Hume – left philosophy “looking like a landscape after the dropping of an H-bomb”. The neo-Kantian philosopher Fichte came up with an ingenious solution against Descartes passive ‘I think therefore I am’ by essentially asking ‘yes, but who are you?’ – but his efforts were mostly ignored. “By the end of the nineteenth century”, writes Wilson, “philosophy had fallen into a sad state”. Philosophers saw themselves as essentially passive, data collecting machines with no will, yet Fichte had stumbled on something important by noting that Descartes had failed to analyse his own identity, presuming himself to be a perfectly reflecting mirror, pointed squarely at reality. Questioning (or rather, interrogating) this ‘passive’ identity would be the basis of the work of Edmund Husserl, a mathematician turned philosopher who founded the influential school of phenomenology. Starting with his first major work in 1900, Husserl dragged philosophy out of it’s confused nineteenth century state and developed a highly original method to find out who we are. The next selection, Everyday Consciousness is a Liar, originally from Introduction to the New Existentialism, is one of the clearest (and more importantly, most compulsive) introductions to Husserl and his method ever written. In the original 1966 text that it it is drawn from, Wilson wrote that there were no general introductions to this topic available for the average person: a mere 53 years later, this still remains the best one that I can think of. (I have written more fully of Wilson’s Investigations into phenomenology here).

As an existentialist, Wilson was preoccupied with the phenomenological question of ‘who are we?’ and concerned with our tenacious habit of negative consciousness and the pessimistic culture which arises from it. “Consciousness without crisis”, he noted in New Pathways in Psychology, “tends to become negative”. But this is absurd. Why are we bored by perfectly pleasant circumstances until they’re threatened or disappear? We all seem to have a quirk which never lets us appreciate anything unless a crisis takes it away from us – we find it hard to see what is right in front of us, and focus our full attention on it.

Personal Notes on Maslow, drawn from New Pathways in Psychology (1971) is an account of Wilson’s correspondence with the humanist psychologist, instigated by Maslow himself after he read Wilson’s early book, The Age of Defeat. Frustrated by the gloomy atmosphere of Freudianism and baffled by the pessimistic turn in post war culture, Maslow began to seek out the healthiest people he could find, and collected some very surprising results. All of these people, he found, , had experienced what he called ‘peak experiences’ (PE’s), moments of serenity and joy, but in ordinary circumstances where there was otherwise nothing particular to be ecstatic about: a mother looking at her family eating breakfast, a hostess viewing the mess after a party. These people had suddenly became aware of things they previously took for granted, or barely noticed. A marine stationed into the Pacific who had not seen a woman for a few years ‘peaked’ when arriving offshore and noticed that women are different to men. It seems too obvious to even need stating, but he realised it with clarity, like Proust in Swann’s Way remembering that he was a child in Combray after he tasted the tea and cake in the famous scene. Maslow thought that such peaks just happened randomly and couldn’t be engineered, but Wilson had different ideas.

“I was able to point out to Maslow a possibility that he had overlooked” writes Wilson. “This was a concept I called ‘the indifference threshold’”. This recognises the fact that difficulties or crises can produce a deeper sense of meaning than comfortable circumstances (‘consciousness without crisis tends to become negative’). Sartre felt more alive, more free, during his dangerous time in the French Resistance, much more than he did during peacetime when he was stating than man is a useless passion and being awarded the Nobel Prize. By realising that what we take for granted is threatened we direct more concentrated energy (intentionality, Husserl would have said) into protecting it. Yet ironically we don’t bother much when it’s already there. If we could hurl enough intentional power at so called ‘ordinary’ situations, life would become a permanent peak (or ‘flow’) experience. Phenomenology is the art of training our focusing muscles to grasp reality at all times and to cease frittering attention on minor problems and exaggerating our sense of ‘meaninglessness’. This faculty or ability to grasp reality, drawn from Wilson’s phenomenological ‘new existentialist’ researches of the fifties and sixties would be thoroughly analysed in books such as The Occult (1971) and it’s sequel Mysteries (1978) here represented by the chapters Magicthe Science of the Future and The Ladder of Selves.

The Occult was Wilson’s best critically received title since his debut. Still very useful as a history of hermetic thought, it is notable in that it introduced his theory of ‘Faculty X’ (previously the less snappy ‘phenomenological faculty’ in his sixties books) to readers. When Proust was reminded of his childhood in his novel Swann’s Way, this ‘peak experience’ was a Faculty X moment. “Five minutes earlier, he could have said, ‘Yes, I was a child in Combray’ and no doubt described it in detail” says Wilson. But with his faculties wide awake he could say it and mean it – he was experiencing reality rather than a cheap carbon copy. Faculty X is the realisation of the reality of other times and places: “we know perfectly well that the past is as real as the present, and that New York and Singapore and Lhasa and Stepney Green are as real as this place I happen to be in at the moment. Yet my senses do not agree”. However, Wilson insists that this is not an occult faculty like second sight or precognition, rather it is a pure potentiality of ordinary consciousness, often recognised by the best poets (it is ‘occult’ in the etymological sense in that it is generally hidden or submerged in consciousness). This chapter is probably Wilson’s most thorough examination of it. The Ladder of Selves from Mysteries delves further into paranormal territory. Exhausted from overwork – remember that the book reviewed here was his 74th – Wilson suffered a series of debilitating panic attacks. True to his nature, he analysed these states as objectively as he possibly could, battering them into submission and bringing himself back to health. We can remember Fichte’s answer to Descartes’ statement ‘I think therefore I am’ – ‘yes, but who are you?’ – and think about Husserl’s methods of stripping all illusions away to get to the ‘true self’ or transcendental ego and this is what wilson meant by the ladder of selves. “I get the feeling that the ‘me’ I know is some kind of temporary half measure” he comments on page 144. “On top of this, I begin to believe that the pessimists are making a fundamental mistake about the rules of the game. ‘Meaning’ is revealed by a kind of inner-searchlight. (This is just another way of stating Husserl’s insight: Perception is Intentional)”.

The notion of false selves isn’t quite as unscientific as it sounds. The split brain research of Sperry and Ornstein is examined in two short pieces (The Other Mode, extrapolated from Frankenstein’s Castle and the amusingly titled Laurel and Hardy Theory of Consciousness, from 1980 and 1979 respectively). Two sections from A Criminal History of Mankind (1984) take Julian Jaynes’ notions of bicameral consciousness – similar to those of Sperry and Ornstein – into more disturbing territory: criminals appear to exist on the lowest rungs of this ladder. But there’s still cause for optimism. One of the new additions here, The Future of Mankind, is taken from the updated 2005 edition of Criminal History; another, The Psychology of Optimism from the following year is something I’ve not come across before. All hover around the same problems, analysing them from different angles. This collection makes these connections accessible to the novice reader, and enquiring minds will doubtless wish to delve further into Wilson’s catalogue, from whichever angle they want. A neat piece of continuity was once noted by Wilson scholar Howard F. Dossor. The Uncle Sam section of Wilson’s 1963 novel The World of Violence, also partly included here, contained the line “I felt as if I had been transported into a city of gigantic and hairy spiders” (p. 224 of the present collection). This is virtually the plot of Wilson’s Spider World fantasy series, written decades later – an excerpt (Inside The White Tower) from the first volume is now included in this updated edition.

Below the Iceberg (1998), the title piece from a very rare book about Sartre and post war thought, takes on the then fashionable philosophies of postmodernism and the deconstruction of Derrida, finding them lacking any real originality (Derrida began his career, like Sartre before him, by writing about Husserl; both generally misunderstood what Husserl meant by phenomenology and abandoned it quickly). Ironically enough, Wilson predated the current interest in Alfred North Whitehead – he’s mentioned often throughout this book – and also the 21st century fashion for writing about philosophy and the weird fiction of HP Lovecraft (Discovery of the Vampires from The Mind Parasites, 1967). “Western man is in the position of a conductor who is unaware that he possesses an orchestra” writes Wilson in Active Imagination, originally from a short monograph on Jung. This quest to find our hidden potential and hold onto it is the central theme which emerges throughout these collected writings. Accessing this ‘seventh degree of concentration’ (a nod to Wilson’s hero Shaw, and the title of one of the new inclusions) “is a fairly new problem for human beings.” Use of the intellect has brought an enormous amount of material comfort to the modern Western world, but “this comfort has brought the curse of ‘lukewarm’ consciousness, and we long for a simple method of being able to summon those moments of ‘Mozart and the stars’” as Hesse put it. “It seems to me”, he continues, “that all this implies that mankind has a joint purpose, and that no writer is justified in declaring that human existence is meaningless”. After all, if ‘normal’ consciousness is partial, as Husserl, Proust and split brain theory suggest, how can we make definitive statements about the totality of life from such a partial understanding? And, when Proust suggests he had ceased to feel mediocre, accidental or mortal during an ecstatic ‘peak’, does this not contradict the lazy cliches of Sartre, Beckett and other literary and philosophical pessimists? Wilson certainly thinks so, and these collected writings remain a concentrated cocktail of possibilities and insights which go far beyond the dull acceptance of how things apparently seem to us from our ‘natural standpoint’ (to use Husserl’s term).

Wilson’s boundless enthusiasm for what we could become flies off every page of this still essential collection.

[1] This edition presents an updated version of the original chapter from Beyond the Outsider (The Strange Story of Modern Philosophy) which later appeared in Superconsciousness, published by Watkins in 2009. Watkins have also republished The Occult and Mysteries. Their website is here

A rare introduction to a study of the law of diminishing returns

Colin Wilson: My Interest In Murder (Being a discarded introduction to Order of Assassins). Paupers’ Press ISBN 9780995597815, £6..95 (available on the 28th of January). An autobiographical essay on how and why Wilson became interested in crime, previously unavailable. This is item number 185 in the Wilson catalogue. 

cdf48ccc-73fb-477d-acaf-74fa028b46e7“I have the kind of mind that enjoys facts” writes Colin Wilson in My Interest in Murder, a lengthy 40 page introduction originally intended for his Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder but discarded by publisher Hart-Davis in 1972. “When I get interested in any subject, it occupies my mind exclusively for months at a time”. He notes that he has been variously preoccupied with brain physiology, jazz, witchcraft, mythology, economics and Russian history, to name but a few. During these months of brooding on a topic, he remarks that he would scour the shelves of second hand bookshops for information. Once he became a professional author by 1956, he would gleefully spend an hour browsing the bookstores in Charing Cross Road and stagger into a taxi with a huge stack of titles. 

Facts regarding crime and murder were another of his interests. When he was ten years old a family friend had lent his father a volume entitled The Fifty Most Amazing Crimes of the Last Hundred Years “which had an automatic pistol and a bottle of poison embossed on the front cover”. He wasn’t supposed to read it but as it was left out he went though every case – Landru, Charley Peace, Crippen, David Smith, Vaquier and Palmer (the latter was discussed in a book by the poet Robert Graves), the Green Bicycle Mystery, the shooting of Bella Wright, and so on – and suffered appalling nightmares as a consequence. He felt a particular “tingle of horror” while reading the article on Jack the Ripper and seeing, instead of a portrait, a large imposing question mark. His maternal grandmother had told him about the terrifying atmosphere of her childhood in the East End of London circa 1888 when the Ripper was at large. That question mark, he writes, “started me on a search for Jack the Ripper that has gone on ever since”. Wilson would later coin the term ‘Ripperology’ and write extensively on the case (Order of Assassins contains an appendix discussing one theory regarding the possible identity of the killer). But back in the early 1940’s his precocious interest in crime was motivated, he says, by a sense of horror. Speaking about the Cleveland Torso Case – later incorporated in his 1966 novel The Glass Cage – he remarks that these American murders had become world wide news and “the newspapers of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy took pleasure in pointing out how a decadent democracy fostered this sort of crime”. While he was horrifying himself with the crime book (published in 1936) he was also reading True Detective magazine which his mother had received off a friend (she would spend what little money she had on romantic magazines instead). It’s also significant that around about this time Wilson was reading tatty copies of Weird Tales, the American ‘horror comic’ which featured stories by H. P. Lovecraft, a writer Wilson would study in depth long before he was regarded as ‘literature’ (or, this century, as a subject for philosophical investigations). “At the age of ten”, remembered Wilson in an introduction to one of many Lovecraft collections, “I had felt instinctively that this was a kind of pornography of violence that was designed to appeal to a kind of sickness in the reader”.  He rediscovered Lovecraft in the late fifties via a friend’s copy of The Outsider and Others (1939) the first assembled compendium of Lovecraft’s best tales and the first book published by his future friend and correspondent August Derleth at Arkham House. Inspired by this collection, he wrote The Strength to Dream, an analysis of the imagination in literature where he makes the unflattering yet philosophically accurate comparison of Lovecraft’s psychological landscape to that of the ‘vampire of Düsseldorf’, Peter Kürten. Lovecraft bolstered the dwindling circulation of Weird Tales by revising The Loved Dead by C.M. Eddy, a tale about a necrophiliac sex killer – this caused such a scandal that sales of the next issue rocketed. A year or two later, Kürten would return to Düsseldorf and began a reign of terror that parallels the irrational explosion described in Lovecraft’s most famous work, The Call of Cthulhu. Kürten would spend “longer and longer periods of solitary confinement, standing almost upright in a tiny cell” and dreaming of revenge like the Marquis de Sade (once dubbed “the patron saint of serial killers” by Wilson). The connections between these and Lovecraft’s romantic bitterness are fully discussed in Order of Assassins. 

Aged 11 in 1942, Wilson entered a public speaking competition held at his school and chose famous murder cases as his subject, but his interest ended very abruptly in the same year. “What happened was simply that I had discovered science. The outer reaches of the universe and the inside of the atom were far more interesting than emotional fools hitting one another on the head”. Suddenly, he realised that crime is due to our tendency to remain trapped in trivialities, and quickly lost interest; he remarks that he did not pick up any crime literature at all until he was 20, by then married and living in London. Intriguingly he speaks of his adolescent affair with science as “close to religious salvation” and more important than poetry or music. By the time he was 20 he dropped this scientific fundamentalism, becoming reacquainted with poetry – it relaxed his mind after a hard days manual labour – with music (he collected records as obsessively as books) and with literature and philosophy (he was, at this time a budding novelist working on a something called ‘Ritual of the Dead’, later developed into his first fictional work Ritual in the Dark). “I had not abandoned my scientific creed”, writes Wilson. “I had merely enlarged it”. He would of course later write books on astronomy, forensic pathology and hemispherical brain theory in the usual scientific spirit, but by the time he started writing about crimes, he was slowly becoming preoccupied with a ‘science of consciousness’ developed by the philosopher Edmund Husserl which is known as phenomenology. Nietzsche had previously observed that there has never been a ‘presuppositionless science’ but Husserl’s publication of the first volume of his Logical Investigations in the year of Nietzsche’s death would lay the groundwork for the possibility of such a science. So in truth Wilson had in fact enlarged his scientific outlook by making use of Husserl’s method, even if his chosen subjects were, on the surface, diverse. By deciding to set his novel in the East End – inspired by his grandmother’s stories – he researched the Ripper murders in the British Museum and roamed the streets of Whitechapel, soaking up the cold autumn atmosphere. He was once again interested in murder, but the “tingle of horror” he experienced in childhood was gone; his interest was now scientific, like Emile Zola’s researches into the worst aspects of humanity for his novels or Sherlock Holmes’ attitude towards gory facts (“knowledge of sensational literature – immense”). 

Ritual in the Dark took over ten years to complete. If it had been written to a deadline like The Outsider, Wilson thinks, his interest in murder might have waned once again. But researching the novel meant accumulating scores of true crime books and magazines (around 200 volumes by 1960) and it now seemed a pity to have no use for them. When introduced to a journalist whose wife was not only interested in murder but also possessed of an extraordinary memory for crime facts, Wilson suggested writing an A-Z encyclopaedia of cases. Co-authored with Pat Pitman, the Encyclopaedia of Murder would appear in 1961, the first book of it’s kind since The Newgate Calendar (also known as The MalefactorsBloody Register) in 1774 or thereabouts. Their book would anticipate the true crime genre by many years, although Wilson points out here that Sir Harold Scott’s Concise Encyclopaedia of Crime, which boasts no less than forty authors (including Ian Fleming) was published in the same month. A typically odd coincidence in the world of publishing no doubt, but Scott’s volume compliments Wilson and Pitman’s Encyclopaedia In that it covers legalities and procedures and has “an excellent article in crime in literature” (Wilson stuck a philosophical fragment from The Outsider at the end of his Encyclopaedia). 

After publication Wilson could add the ‘criminologist’ label to his ever expanding list of professional interests: philosopher, novelist, existentialist, mystic and phenomenologist (Husserl’s method of “phenomenalism” is discussed In the introduction of the Encyclopaedia). And so there were more facts to beef up his philosophical position and to season his novels; he compares his method to a witch mixing a brew but with the delight of a crossword puzzle addict solving clues. The philosopher Michel Foucault would also discuss crimes and punishments and although Wilson dismissed his “stormy romanticism”, he did admire Foucault’s method: he was “a kind of fact-grinding machine, pouring obscure works on history and sociology into his gullet, and coming up with startling and illuminating parallels”. Wilson admits that his his mind is similar. In A Criminal History of Mankind (1984) he recalled his study (“piled with books on violent crime and copies of True Detective magazine”) when he was aiming to compile the Encyclopaedia in the summer of 1959. He was, he says, motivated by “an obscure but urgent conviction that underneath these piles of unrelated facts about violence there must be undiscovered patterns, certain basic laws, and uncovering these might provide clues to the steadily rising crime rate”. The Encyclopaedia of Murder would be followed by A Casebook of Murder (1969), a sociological study of crime. “To put it simply”, Wilson begins the book, “my interest in murder is philosophical rather than scientific”. Three years later, Order of Assassins would complete a ‘murder trilogy’. 

Despite the gruesome subject matter, Order of Assassins is written in the same spirit as Wilson’s book on music, The Brandy of the Damned (1964) or even his self-explanatory A Book of Booze from twenty years later (which he moots in this introductory essay). This is not to say that Wilson is being flippant about crimes. “I completely lack patience with the kind of writer who talks about ‘murder for pleasure’” he writes. Against the “revolting and almost unreadable” Edmund Pearson and William Roughead, two late Victorians who regarded crimes as a fit subject for windy humour, Wilson is, like Dostoevsky, treating these facts with the utmost seriousness. Murder cases are not amusing; they are messy and horrible, but they are invaluable for study as they can starkly illuminate an opposite set of values – making us realise that life is not trivial and must not be wasted on such negativities (“emotional fools hitting one another on the head”). This is why Wilson enjoyed, if that’s the correct word, collecting these gruesome facts. He could describe Nietzsche’s rejection of Schopenhauer’s pessimism or critique the anti-intentional torpor of Beckett’s collected works, but there is nothing which illustrates the problem of life devaluation which such bludgeoning and terrible force as murder cases. Nietzsche suggested in Beyond Good and Evil that we “think pessimism through to it’s depths” – so by analysing the most violent and life denying acts objectively (phenomenologically) the possibility of a life affirming philosophy begins to take form. Wilson wasn’t being perverse when he said that whenever he studied murder he felt a glint of optimism: he was pointing out that life-devaluation, negativity and violence, taken to their logical conclusions, simply do not work. “Murder interests me because it is the most extreme form of the denial of […] human potentiality”, he remarked in A Casebook of Murder. Against Sartre’s ‘man is a useless passion’ or the romantic pessimism of Schopenhauer or Lovecraft, murder is an act, a very real act, which we cannot take a casual attitude to – our reactions to it prove we do have positive values towards life. These values are the building blocks of Wilson’s philosophical attitude; the crime facts and the interest in murder are the study of the shadows cast by the construction of the building. Our central problem, he says in this discarded introduction, is to understand our subconscious depths, to contact them at will. These intentional methods were already outlined in the volumes of his Outsider Cycle, particularly in his studies of the methods of Husserl and Whitehead. Later, Wilson would apply them to investigations into ‘occultism’ – a seemingly unlikely move, but Husserl did write that we need the “idea of a resolve of the will to shape one’s whole 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”. This type of careful self analysis towards what Husserl calls “universal self responsibility” is precisely what the criminal lacks, so all crime is essentially a smash and grab raid, a short cut which inevitably ends in defeat or suicide. An occultist like Crowley could point out that people of “criminal nature are simply at issue with their true Wills” but any nonpartisan observer knows that it wasn’t quite so simple an issue in his own case. His contemporary Gurdjieff told the writer Ouspensky that modern society creates “an enormous amount of sexual psychopaths” and these ‘abnormalities’, as he called them, “require special study”. Wilson’s study of such psychopathological behaviour was driven by a similar need to understand the ‘human machine’ via Husserl’s phenomenological method. Like Gurdjieff, he believes that it is fatal for us to become victimised or controlled by our habits; in a gentler (but no less rigorous) sense, Husserl warned against habitual perceptions or taking the world for granted. 

“I am not interested in criminality as such, but in the relation of crime to human freedom” wrote Wilson in 1969. Analysing the catastrophic choices criminals make when they believe they are increasing their ‘freedom’ makes us all aware of our own perceptual limitations. Crime, Wilson would later write, “is a completely mistaken solution to a problem that accompanies all of us from the cradle to the grave: the problem of personal evolution”. Summing up Order of Assassins, Wilson notes that the violence in our society (i.e. of 1972) has the same roots as “the occult revival and the search for messiahs and gurus and führers”. Written during the era of the tree day week, strikes and IRA bombings, the use of the word ‘assassin’ and the opening analysis of the legend of the ‘Old Man of the Mountain, his castle at Alamut and his shadowy sect is a prescient use of symbolism when read in today’s gloomy atmosphere of global terrorism. Anybody who cares about conscious evolution should share Wilson’s interests.

Proceedings of the First International Colin Wilson Conference 2016 (with video)

IMG_0006Proceedings of the First International Colin Wilson Conference, University of Nottingham July 1, 2016.
Ed. Colin Stanley, Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2017
The Sixtieth anniversary of the publication of The Outsider was commemorated by this conference of eight speakers (with a ninth paper published as an appendix) at Kings Meadow Campus in Nottingham University. Not only is this where the Dept. of Manuscripts and Special Collections have a gargantuan Wilson collection, it was also once the location of ITV’s Central Studios where David Frost spoke to Wilson on a one off show called Beyond Belief. I watched this at the time but for those who missed it, it’s here 

Please note I have linked to a clip of each lecture and as the first lecture by Simon Brighton is about Wilson’s audio archive I recommend watching part two below. These videos also have plenty of discussion not present in the book.

The Speakers
Simon Brighton: The Colin Wilson Audio Project
Colin Wilson kept an audio diary from the “provisional” date of 1982 up until 2011. I once suggested to him in an email that I’d like to digitize all of them – I’m glad I didn’t as it seems to have been something of a Herculean task even for musician Simon Brighton (The Sons of TC Lethbridge, the Mayday! Mayday! EP featuring Stan Gooch). “Over a thousand” tapes were discovered all around Wilson’s home at Tetherdown and digitized to MP3 format. So, says Brighton, “the archive consists of over 2000 hours of audio.” Although some of the tapes were tangled and some were damaged “after a small fire which occurred when the telephone lines were struck by lightning” all the audio on these cassettes was extracted and converted. Bibliographer Colin Stanley was handed a drive of some 160 gigabytes of audio – Wilson kept recordings of his talks and interviews, of ideas for books, even thoughts “while driving to the supermarket” or on a train – and all of this will eventually be available to scholars at the Nottingham University archive. Now, what about all those Betamax videotapes of CW’s TV appearances that also need digitizing before they turn to analogue dust….

Video: intropart onepart two – part three (includes the beginning of Prof. Clark’s presentation which starts around the five minute mark)

Prof. Stephen L. Clark: Lovecraft and the Search for Meaning
A lengthy and erudite talk on one of my favorite authors, now canonized but still somewhat misjudged to be a poor stylist in both The Strength to Dream and Edmund Wilson’s Classics and Commercials – the latter dismissing him as a writer of “silly stories about ‘omniscient conical snails’ and ‘whistling invisible octopuses.'” This is expertly challenged here.

Video: part one (above) part twopart threepart four  – part five

Lindsay Siviter: Colin Wilson: Researching Jack the Ripper
“One of the youngest Jack the Ripper experts” and a guide on those Ripper tours which I went on years ago, although I’m fairly sure she wasn’t the expert who showed us around. Wilson of course coined the term “Ripperology” which shows no sign of running out of steam even today: there is even a “well established” magazine entitled Ripperologist! Siviter was the first researcher to visit Sir William Gull’s descendants, to “go through all his family papers and documents AND to have discovered a cast iron alibi” for him, with a thoroughness which Colin would have doubtless applauded. Going through the bibliography of Wilson’s output, Siviter discusses how many times the Ripper case appears in his work – a lot, as it started his interest in crime when he was a child. The field of Ripperology is, er, a cut throat business and theories and speculations are hotly contested – Wilson’s place in it’s development is well argued in this paper and Siviter continues to do excellent research today.

Video:  intropart one – part two

Nigel Bray: Colin Wilson and ‘Dread of Being’
Having read Bray’s book Bargaining with the Devil: The Work of Colin Wilson in a Cultural Context recently, I think I’m correct in saying this presentation is an excerpt from that book. To get an understanding of his dialectical approach to Wilson and his work, I’d like to quote from the book itself (which is Nigel quoting himself from his own journal after a re-reading of The Man Without a Shadow):
“It’s extraordinary. Terrible, repetitive style; pasteboard, comic book characters, and everywhere a slapdash attitude – to ideas, to emotions, to general structure…and yet the whole is compulsive, captivating… He throws all (genuine) literary objectives out of the window, and hammers at our laziness, our weakness, our defeatism, with a blunt instrument – his intrepid, style-starved prose, which can only be described as a long, rattling alarum. It’s like being roughed up by a docker, who’s been sent with the express purpose of knocking some sense into you.”
The lecture concerns itself with one of Wilson’s key topics, also central to Kierkegaard: boredom. That word “did not exist in the English language before 1750.” It’s equivalent can be found in the medieval concept of ‘accidie’ or ‘sloth, torpor or despair.’ These are still key concerns even as I write this, the sixty-first anniversary of publication of a book which was “an inquiry into the nature of the sickness of mankind in the mid twentieth century.” Bray is very well read and familiar with virtually every Wilson text, and this is a good taster for his lengthy and controversial examination of Wilson (which is a bargain if you own a kindle). He used to work for Brans Head who brought out the pamphlet Science Fiction as Existentialism.

Video: intropart onepart two

Nicholas Tredell: A Ritual for Outsiders: Philosophy and Narrative in The Outsider and Ritual in the Dark
Tredell has been familiar with both The Outsider and Ritual since his early teens; this would account for the extraordinary layers of detail he is aware of in those two texts, and others – a footnote to his essay has a list of how many times various characters make themselves physically sick, for instance. He sees both The Outsider and Ritual as “quest-narratives” – real and fictional persons offer “help and hindrance” towards a search for truth. Less a book of quotations – it’s certainly not, if you’ve actually read it – The Outsider is rather “an index of evolutionary potential” but the “sense of potential is not the initial or constant note” which is probably why some lazy readers actually see it as a pessimistic book. So “that dreadful” (as Prince Charles described him) Terry Eagleton could write a piece entitled Colin Wilson’s Glumness Entranced Me As A Budding Teenage Existentialist for the Guardian. Both books with their emphasis on “control, clarity and deliberateness” contain everything with which Wilson was to concern himself in a myriad of genres which would baffle and anger critics until the end (and after). Tredell is one of Wilson’s sharpest literary critics.

Video: intropart onepart two (includes the intro for David Moore’s presentation, below)

David Moore: The Light Barrier: Existentialism and the Occult in Colin Wilson’s Science Fiction
An autodidact like Wilson, Moore runs an excellent Wilson themed blog here. In his presentation he speaks about an “apparent ‘leap'” from The New Existentialism of the mid sixties to the SF and occultism of 1967 and thereafter. He knows of course that there wasn’t really a leap – The Mind Parasites concept grew out of the Petri dish that was The New Existentialism (on p.161 to be exact) and had it’s origin in the Spectre of Blake’s Illuminated Books, familiar to any reader of The Outsider. No, as Colin Stanley has expertly pointed out, Wilson already had a fairly strong interest in the ‘occult’ – he even admitted owning about “five hundred volumes on magic and the supernatural” before 1971. In The New Existentialism, Goethe’s Faust is as much an archetypical Outsider figure as Oblomov. Wilson was as excited by the philosophical possibilities of science fiction as by the ‘philosophy of the will’ commonly known as magic(k). Moore remarks “viewed in this context, we can see how the optimistic philosopher behind the Outsider Cycle utilised science fiction as a metaphor – and a means – to the increasing of mankind’s strengths and possibilities.” Because he was using Brecht’s alienation affect with the emphasis on alien, his science fiction novels were parodies “in which Wilson can express his evolutionary implications” in an uninhibited fashion. Against Lovecraft’s misanthropy and materialism, “presenting a universe without values”, the new existentialist is concerned with creating new values of the Nietzschian kind. The core value, the most valuable, was a mysterious faculty…

Video: part onepart two – part three

Gary Lachman: Faculty X: Other Times and Places
From a former NYC punk guitarist turned prolific author (including last year’s massive and necessary Wilson study Beyond the Robot) Lachman gets to grips with the ‘phenomenological faculty’ by any other name. It’s interesting to note that Wilson’s ‘Faculty X’ concept didn’t spring up fully formed in 1971. As Lachman observes, the theory was “formulated” (in Wilson’s own words) “on a snowy day in Washington DC in 1966” slap bang in his new existential era, and he had spoke of it to Kenneth Allsop some nine years before that. But it didn’t have a name. Both Beyond The Outsider and The New Existentialism stress the need to map out new avenues of consciousness with precise language, and with his labeling of “Faculty X” in 1971, Wilson did just that. Careful readers of Proust will be familiar with it, as will eagle eyed neophytes tunneling their way through the later writings of occultist Kenneth Grant. Like David Moore, Lachman sees no real ‘break’ between the existential research of the fifties and sixties and the will powered occultism from 1971 and thereafter, and the examples he gives here bear that out. Any “attentive reader of Wilson’s first book […] who went on to read the ones that followed, […] would not have felt anything unusual” about his development of a theory regarding the reality of other times and places. Lachman quotes “the last cultural mandarin” George Steiner – “our dictionaries lag behind our needs.” It’s true; when Chesterton says we say things but don’t mean them, it’s because our ‘reality function’ is turned too far down; but when the ‘phenomenological faculty’ is fully operational “we say these things and we mean them, because we really know they are true.”

Video: intro – part one part two – part three

George C. Poulos: The Transcendental Evolutionary Philosophy of Colin Wilson
This is a fairly complex piece of psychological-scientific writing regarding Maslow’s theories and I’d strongly suggest that you buy the book to get the list of “pre-resquisists for the narrowing” as it’s difficult to summarize without losing some of it’s full impact. Mr Polous is an Australian who also spends time with his family on the Greek island of Kythera. He sums up his presentation with the words that readers of Wilson are prepared for the eventuality of imminent God-head, but it’s “how the other 7 billion people on the planet handle it that I really, really, worry about.”

Video: intropart onepart two

Vaughan Rapahatna: Colin Wilson as Existentialist Outsider [Dr. Rapahatna could not deliver his lecture due to an injury so you’ll have to buy the book to read his timely thoughts on Wilson’s posthumous location in philosophy]
Rapahatna, previously known as Robertson to CW scholars, is a New Zealander and a poet and philosopher. He has written about Wilson for Philosophy Now and as part of the Colin Wilson Studies series (# 11, which is a section of his PhD thesis).
Like Nigel Bray, Rapahatna has what could be called a critical relationship with Wilson. Some of this criticism was previously collected in his Philosophical (a)Musings, and some is on this site. This particular lecture points out something I’d not properly understood despite more than three decades of study – Wilson’s very unlikely merger of two opposed stands of philosophy, linguistic empiricism and phenomenological existentialism. Even though this juxtaposition is actually announced on page 159 of his New Existentialism, and Beyond the Outsider ends with “The way forward lies through the development of language” I’d not immediately realized the full implications until I read this essay. But going back to the two Wilson texts mentioned above has been an extraordinary experience. Rapahatna notes that Colin Wilson is a “unique philosopher – English, existentialist, optimistic and with a strong insistence on the need for a structured and rigorous linguistic approach, which will bring about a completely divergent way to perceive and practice not only philosophy per we, but to live more consciously.” After reading both the sixth and seventh volumes of his Outsider Cycle again over the past week, this is a totally justified assertion. “Live more consciously” indeed.
“As such, he remains particularly relevant today, if not more so.” Why? Because “while post post-modernism is now in it’s death thoes – we are encountering the object based mantra of Speculative Realism, where no transcendental ego is deemed feasible as pre-existing objects themselves induce meaning perception”. I don’t doubt Wilson would have scoffed at Brassier and Meillasoux’s Romantic nihilism, and I think he might have been amused at Graham Harman’s belated assertion that phenomenological Cthulhu Mythos fiction is “a method of reverent parody that deserves to become a staple of philosophy.” Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Metaphorically speaking, Wilson had already broken into Heidegger’s chalet in the Black Forest and swapped the set of Hölderlin for The Necronomicon while this lot were learning to walk. Who knows what other things he’s anticipated?
I can’t wait to see…

Wilson’s bibliographer Colin Stanley has done a huge amount to collect, disseminate, promote and discuss Wilson’s work and legacy and we should be grateful for his remarkable efforts. Remember what Gerald Yorke did for Crowley! Another Colin Wilson Conference is set for July 6th, 2018 – full details soon.


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 grimoire, 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. 

And yet…

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). 

Publishing news: An End to Murder, plus The Ultimate Colin Wilson Bibliography

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.

ISBN: 9780956866356
ISSN: 0959-180X (Colin Wilson Studies # 24)
Paperback; 654 pages; March, 2015.

* Includes postage and packing to UK addresses.
Or pay through PayPal to: stan2727uk@aol.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.