Colin Wilson’s second book has been reprinted by Aristeia Press with a new introduction by Gary Lachman. It was generally critically scorned in 1957 but nowadays reads just as well – if not better – than his debut; it is a book in serious need of reappraisal. Out of print for decades, this is a welcome reissue of a lost classic. Watch the Aristeia Press website and this space for other rare Wilson texts to be reissued…
After the success of the first conference – see the post below – a second one will be held next year on the 6th of July. The full details are –
The Second International Colin Wilson Conference; University of Nottingham, Kings Meadow Campus, Lenton Lane, Nottingham, NG7 2NR. To be held on Friday the 6th of July, between 9:30 – 17:10. Eight speakers will present papers, there will be discussion, refreshments, and a tour of the huge Colin Wilson archive housed in the University. There are only 55 places in total and tickets for Friday are £36.50 – email Colin Stanley at firstname.lastname@example.org or call/fax 0115-9863334. Please be aware that tickets will sell fast. There will also be a rare chance to see an operetta co-authored by Colin Wilson on Saturday – for those who wish to attend both this and the conference the ticket price is £42.
Nicholas Tredell – Voyager and Dreamer: Colin Wilson’s Autobiographical Writing
Davd Moore – The Evolutionary Metaphors of Colin Wilson
Gary Lachman – The Outsider and The Work: Colin Wilson, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky
George C. Poulos – The Importance of The Outsider
Jason Reza Jorjani – Understanding The Atlantean Mind
Vaughan Rapahatna – The Hunt for Colin Wilson’s Lulu
Brendan McNamee – Body, Mind, Heart: 3 Aspects of Mysticism in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities
Jonathan Lewsey – Colin Wilson and Music
Special Event, Saturday the 7th of July, 10:00 – 12:30, at the George Suite, Mercure Hotel, Nottingham: Leon Berger introduces a special showing of Donald Swann and Colin Wilson’s operetta The Man With a Thousand Faces.
Proceedings 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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.”
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.”
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 , and like Randolph Carter, misunderstanding severely alien cryptography then unfortunately transcribing it into the stiff prose of Liber Legis. One explanation states that Liber Legis can only be understood by applying the kabbalistic numerology of Gematria to the text. But if the text in question is of fully terrestrial origin, what can this deconstruction achieve? Grant would in fact later come to treat The Book of the Law as something of a ‘red herring’, describing it in similar – although not as materialistic – terms to Cole’s, with help from unverifiable ‘revelations’ from Crowley’s “son” (sic) Amado. Grant left a body of hugely entertaining work which suggests Crowley was genuinely in rapport with strange entities as much as Lovecraft’s own fictional antiquarian of Miskatonic University. Outré as that is, it rings a distant astral bell. But although The Beast nearly named Cthulhu before Lovecraft, Crowley’s terrifying reputation is somewhat diminished by the rather pathetic and depressing facts presented by Cole. These are squalid rather than eldritch.
Cole follows Capt. Fuller’s lead and expresses the surprising opinion that “Crowley was the single most important individual Mankind has produced in the last ten-thousand years.” A statement made all the more baffling by his suggestion that an investigation into a fake manuscript, written by a psychopath, strengthened this view. Yet Crowley, despite all his ludicrous defects, did state a major philosophical truth, perhaps the only philosophical (and I’d suggest: political) truth applicable to our present situation. Alick’s tragedy is that he buried it underneath a mountain of unresolved complexes, grudges, unanalysed prejudices and overlaid this psychic mess with too much decaying hermetic paraphernalia. And of course, fabrications. If you’re going to invent, Aleister, write a decent novel, not a “received text”. Just what the world needs – more religious dogma. Fay ce que vouldras.
That Crowley experienced extraordinary things I have never doubted. His response to these experiences, and more importantly his presentation of them, is the “bogus” of Cole’s book, and is my main problem with a character I’ve been fascinated by for decades. Philip K Dick didn’t present his bicameral Valis moment as a new Bible (the Exegesis wasn’t really an exegesis). There’s no embarrassing holy feast days or the gothic self abuse of Liber III vel Jugorum. There is however, fiction so startlingly and genuinely prophetic that it describes every next technological and psychological development in our present world with an uncanny accuracy reminiscent of one of PKD’s own fictional pre-cogs. Crowley’s archaic pantheon creaks by comparison – his reaction to what Julian Jaynes described as auditory hallucinations (voices in the head which speak with great authority) was to take everything they said the only way he knew – literally. John Symonds, Crowley’s first and best biographer (Symonds is a very, very underrated talent) remarked that Crowley lacked imagination. He was right. In the end Crowley should have done what Philp K Dick did, bewildered by his alien voices and his recherché perception of time, and just written it up as fiction.
Nietzsche asked: Freedom From or Freedom For? Crowley was most certainly in the former category., but he was convinced he belonged in the latter. Tragick in Theory and Practice. The Beast was human, all too human.
* Crowley stated that “all art is Magick” and this would explain his usefulness to the likes of Anger, etc. Magick in Theory and Practice is less of a book of strict instructions and more of an aesthetic manual, and it appeals to me more than Liber Legis. The Beatles are well known to have included Crowley’s portrait on their Sgt. Pepper – it’s a lesser known fact that Grant’s Carfax Monographs are seen – in the magicians sequence, aptly – of their Magical Mystery Tour. This is something of a mystery and I am glad to be the first to notice it. (edit. – another person to notice it. See post by David below).
This is the debut of what will be a long series of Wilson quotes illustrated by some retro cover art from my comprehensive library. First editions will be mined, beautifully trashy paperbacks, old newsprint and xeroxes will be reanimated. My intention is to unearth forgotten licks amongst the usual Wilson riffs – so there’ll be no Marcel ceasing to feel mediocre, accidental or mortal, no bubbles bursting over Steppenwolf and no Sheepwash. They are in heavy rotation. But do you remember this golden oldie? Slap bang in the middle of lots of terrible psychopaths, we get a deconstruction of Frydor Dostoevsky’s treatment of “the pale criminal”. Wilson sees a non PC analogy with Julian and Sandy…
“An atmosphere of triviality and hysteria pervades even his greatest work, something essentially petty, like two homosexuals having an argument. It can be seen in the prose style; characters never walk around to see someone: they run around. They trot, they rush, they exclaim. They are fond of shouting ‘What nonsense’ and ‘Would you believe it?’ Gogol’s Government Inspector has two fat little squires called Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, and one gets the feeling that they are just around the corner in all Dostoyevsky’s novels. Only in his greatest scenes does Dostoyevsky succeed in purging his prose of this incongruous touch of Enid Blyton which sprang out of a lack of self- assurance. And this in turn sprang out self-division, acceptance of his own weakness. So the great criminals in Dostoyevsky, the ‘ruthless men’, are exercises in compensatory imagination – as Sade’s criminals are. Dostoyevsky likes to portray them as ruthless men, but basically they are weak.
“Once this has been recognised, we become aware that Dostoyevsky also understood the ‘magical’ psychology of ‘the violent man’. At first sight, Raymond Morris, Arthur Hosein, Ian Brady, seem to have little in common with Svidrigailov and Stavrogin, that is because Dostoyevsky has tried to suppress the element of weakness and laziness in his villains. When this is taken into account, Stavrogin suddenly looks more like Morris or Brady.”
From Order of Assassins, p. 171 – 172 of the first UK paperback ed. Panther books 1975, with the generic CW “logo” and cover pic by Denis Rolfe. Featuring caps lock blurb on the garish back cover – “PARTICULAR INDIVIDUALS OF HIGH CREATIVE POTENTIAL ARE THWARTED IN THEIR NATURAL DRIVES AND AMBITIONS AND ARE FORCED TO TREAD THE DEADLY PATH OF THE HOMICIDE”. Verdict? The Evening Standard said – “I can think of no other writer who relates a case history so lucidly…Colin Wilson puts the Manson murders in coldly sharp perspective.” Printed on the cheapest paper, glancing at the back pages reveals something of a golden age of pulp modernism: other CW texts are available amongst Lovecraft, Philip K Dick, Asimov and Clark Ashton Smith masterpieces – and all at about 30p each. To put this book into cultural perspective, it originally came out the same year as ex-Fug Ed Sanders’ The Family (and shared a publisher – Hart-Davis; Sanders’ book was also reissued by Panther). Neil Young would release his On the Beach album with a track about Manson (whom he’d met previously – Wilson speaks about the record biz connection in this book) in 1974. The use of Manson’s image in rock n’ roll shock tactics by pioneering Industrial groups such as Throbbing Gristle – Wilson fans, to a degree – and it’s eventual absorption into the mainstream with Marilyn Manson and his goth simulacrums was quite a way off. This was still genuinely shocking reading.
Something I’ve noticed in the decades I’ve been reading Wilson is how his vital insights can become buried amongst storms of information. For my teenage mind – fundamentally Locke’s tabula rasa – coming to his books with no preparation, the first point of my focus was the sheer mass of stuff he was presenting. Confronted by endless tales of Outsiders and misfits amongst respected figures in history, the first thing I wanted was to learn more about most of them. This naive reading perhaps explains why flakey reviewers tagged him as a cut ‘n paste machine. Secondly, his attitude enthralled me – and it continues to do so – a proverbial blast of Will to Power in the bleak 1980’s. But I’ve noticed, thirdly, on re (and occasionally re-re) reading his texts, gems such as the one above glinting through the familiar case histories and anecdotes. Wilson can’t be blamed for repeating himself, but before we criticise him for playing the same tunes, take a closer look at his best work. Gurdjieff suggested readers go through his Beelzebub three times. I’ve managed two so far. But I’ve noticed very interesting things peeking out of Wilson’s oeuvre on my third readings.
* The number refers to the place of the book (A34) and it’s particular version (c.) in Colin Stanley’s monumental Wilson bibliography. The definitive, final edition (or editions – it could be two volumes) will be with us this year.
Wilson’s long out of print work on music, The Brandy of the Damned, has been reissued by Foruli Classics. “Dedicated to bringing the best music and popular culture books back into print.” I’m not sure if this is the shorter UK version or the expanded US version, but it incorporates some of the artwork from the UK version of the latter (confused?) which was published by Pan as Colin Wilson on Music. Phew! Meanwhile, Geoff Ward provides an introduction to a very welcome reissue of The Glass Cage. Published by Valancourt, it’s also available for Kindle.
Two books published in the Colin Wilson Studies series are very contemporary – yet the contents are four decades old.
As a reader of Wilson since the last century, reading a ‘new’ book by him is an unusual experience now. Despite knowing that his uncollected or unpublished work is a rich seam, it’s an odd feeling to know that this is all posthumous; that there’s not going to be two or more new books a year and that one might be blessed with the inevitable cut ‘n paste review containing all the old annoying cliches. This stuff, published by Paupers’ Press, is made and consumed (mostly) by hardcore readers and collectors.
In a strange sense though, it’s like the spotlight is off Colin Wilson, the person, and firmly on his ideas. (Unless you’re an obituary writer). These two books are full of ideas, despite their brevity.
Colin Wilson Studies # 21 contains two essays from 1974 or thereabouts: Comments on Boredom and Evolutionary Humanism and the New Psychology. Studies # 22 is a previously unpublished Introduction to a book which would have been called Faces of Evil, if it ever appeared. Possibly from the mid to late Seventies, the only trace left of its existence is a cover image, advertising blurb and ISBN number: 0-89104-042-0. It was to have featured 60 full colour illustrations and 30 original paintings in it’s 128 pages.
Edited and introduced by Wilson scholar Vaughan Rapatahana, these essays “make sure you cogitate and they force you to ponder further.” A well known effect for Wilson readers. Another plus is that the topics he writes about here are very relevant – a point not lost on the editor.
Boredom. (Trans)Humanism. Evil.
Humanism, as it’s understood – or should that be marketed? – today is a different beast to the Humanism that Wilson writes about here. ‘Humanism’, with it’s corporate logo, London bus adverts, celebrity atheists and it’s general sense of bourgeois self-satisfaction is not really the Humanism that Wilson is writing about. That sort of Commercial Evangelical Humanism has more in common with the creature comforts of der letzte Mensch, Nietzsche’s ‘last man”, the opposite of the bed of nails that is (will be?) Das Übermensch. Wilson’s Evolutionary Humanism has more in common with Julian Huxley’s original concept as discussed in Beyond the Outsider. Huxley, in fact described himself as a “Transhumanist” – a point we’ll need to return to. So even though he can write that “My religion is evolutionary humanism” (1) he is not advocating a simple replacement of Theology with Darwinism, as that would be too philosophically crude. Rather, he is attempting to describe, with as much phenomenological precision as possible, the access code to a “new world of super-reality and anti-futility.” (2) H G Wells’ metaphor of early amphibians struggling to stand or breathe on land is referenced, but Wilson suggests that the need to flop back into the cool waters of “repetitive little preoccupations and animal responses” is best described in the opening scenes of Goethe’s Faust, in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (3) and in Dostoyevsky’s figure of Stavrogin. These three are expositions of what Wilson calls “the values problem”, the problem of life fatigue and life failure. Our instinctive values or rather, subconscious intentionalities, have been built up over millions of years, and they need to be analysed for deep, deep prejudices in the light of everyday consciousness. Because our habit of selective consciousness is so ingrained – originally for our survival – it continuously replaces any sense of wider meaning with a sense of immediate purpose, with the ability to concentrate on getting things done, but generating unpleasant side effects of neurosis and social friction.
Wilson sees the imagination as part of perception. Imagination moulds the perceptions of the physical world, although “it has a tough sub-structure of reality to deal with. However, it colours and shapes and tints and excludes, and the resulting perception is not in any sense a perception of ‘things as they are’. It is carefully edited.” (4) This is the instinctive value mentioned earlier; in fact it is actually a “devaluing mechanism.’ Things can be perfect in life, and we take them for granted – in fact we are normally bored (this is discussed more fully in the Comments on Boredom essay). What is happening, says Wilson, is that we instinctively put aside the pleasure and move on to the next thing. “This means that, from the feeling point of view, consciousness is kept blank – that is, open and receptive. But if there happen to be no ‘in-coming’ feelings, the result is boredom.” (5) The chief value (ironically) of the devaluing mechanism is pain and inconvenience – we can get over minor physical pain or setbacks by devaluing them and moving into something else. Wilson calls this the ‘St. Neots Margin’, a kind of equator of the human mind that is affected by pain, but indifferent to pleasure. We take happiness for granted, but only start to ask questions when we suffer misfortune.
Now Wilson introduces an important concept. As our consciousness is editing our environment, certain things are left on the cutting room floor. The full beam of our intentionality is focussing on a limited number of things, whilst others are noticed, but in a less immediate way. They are out-takes, like the extras on a Directors’ Cut DVD that we will probably never watch. They are there, they are important, but taken for granted – like, Wilson remarks, a pair of guests who are so familiar to the butler that he doesn’t need to ask for their invitation card. They are accepted – but rather than call this process ‘acceptance’, Wilson describes this mechanical observation as ‘acceptation’. For convenience, acceptation “is the actual medium for the dilution of consciousness.” (6) it is, he says, like ash which prevents the consciousness from overheating. The inferno of total consciousness would generate too much heat for us at this moment, so we use our powers of abstraction and imagination to bring back enough for a camp fire. We supplement our awareness with memory and imagination.
The imagination should not be confused with daydreaming. “It is related to ordinary perception as as mathematics is related to science; it is concerned with the basic laws of the reality that perception can only grasp piecemeal.” (7) Perception is intentional, it is selective – and it is prejudiced. A strongly developed imagination can easily be used to remind ourselves of how our selective consciousness has become what it is, and why.
Wilson is keen to remind us that we are marking time with our present consciousness. We cannot go any further with these old habits, the door of the prison is opening, but far too slowly, and while we’re in this state, “we need war as a necessary outlet.” (8) Bearing in mind that these words were written forty years ago, little has changed. The problem is still staring us in the face, and people seem keen to avoid addressing it. Perhaps because, as Wilson says, we treat consciousness as a basic unit, rather than showing (or rather knowing) how it is built. Wilson once remarked that the problem of philosophy is so simple that no philosopher has ever stated it. He is on to something there.
Wilson’s Evolutionary Humanism is unlike today’s Humanism. Like Huxley’s Transhumanism, like Maslow’s self-actualising Metahuman, it is Nietzsche rather than Darwin who is the focus. So it is interesting to see the editor compare Wilson to Ray Brassier in The Faces of Evil. For although Brassier is a supporter of Transhumanism, he insists, somewhat theatrically, that we must choose Darwin over Husserl lest we “plunge headlong into intellectual disaster and the ruin of philosophy.” Brassier was once linked to the Speculative Realists, who claim originality for their use of H. P. Lovecraft in philosophical – specifically phenomenological – disciplines. They are still shamefully unaware of Wilson’s historical record here. Brassier, like Thomas Ligotti, like Houellebecq and S. T. Joshi, seem to admire Lovecraft for his fundamentalist nihilism. This is perhaps a little too convenient; Lovecraft’s nihilism is really his least interesting feature. It is a mask, the opposite of his real drive. (8) So although Wilson sounds like Brassier – or rather, vice versa – when he writes of Evil as “a vital force so tremendous that the slightest glimpse of it reveals our human values to be childish and trivial”, he is probably speaking Nietzscheian, or perhaps Blakeian (the antediluvians who are our energies etc.) rather than materialist nihilism. Lovecraft made the phenomenological mistake of describing his Things as “evil”, when they are in fact fascinating. Wilson offers Arthur Machen’s description of a similar experience, but minus any dread. (9) Perhaps Machen was a greater phenomenologist than his literary offspring…
So in these essays, forty years old, Colin Wilson is pretty much discussing today’s cultural impasse. Or maybe it’s just that not much has changed? The points he makes on these topics are certainly worth everyone’s attention.
(1) Colin Wilson, Comments on Boredom and Evolutionary Humanism and the New Psychology: two unpublished essays Paupers’ Press, 2013, p. 35
(2) ibid. p. 36
(3) Specifically the section entitled On the Tree on the Mountain (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p.29)
(4) Colin Wilson, Comments on Boredom and Evolutionary Humanism and the New Psychology: two unpublished essays Paupers’ Press, 2013, p. 42
(5) ibid. p. 43
(6) ibid. p. 44
(7) ibid. p. 45
(8) Kenneth Grant The Ninth Arch, p xxix Starfire 2002
(9) see Wilson’s introduction to The Necronomicon (Neville Spearman, 1978)
Image – Übermensch: Stan Laurel as Frankenstein Oil on Canvas, by the author.