TheSageofTetherdown: PersonalrecollectionsofColinWilsonbyhisfriends (Paupers’ Press, £14.95). In 1988 Cecil Woolf published ColinWilson: ACelebration, an appreciative collection of Wilson and his work by various friends and critics. “It enjoyed some success but has been out-of-print now for many years. The current book reprints the personal recollections and adds several more contemporary ones by Laura Del Rivo, Gary Lachman, Steve Taylor, Terry Welbourn and Colin Stanley, providing a picture of Colin Wilson the man over the years”. Replacing the reviews (some of which are available elsewhere) which appeared in the original Celebration with more personal reflections gives TheSageofTetherdown a continuity the original volume lacked. At 187 pages including 16 colour and 9 black-and-white photographs, the book is available here.
Wilson’s sharp philosophical handbook, a summation of his ‘Outsider’ series, is finally back in print. This is something to celebrate.
“I would like to think that I, the supposed reactionary, am far more radical and far more revolutionary than those who in their words proclaim themselves so radical today”. Edmund Husserl 
Originally published in 1966, IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism was the summary of a series of philosophical books which began a decade before with Wilson’s debut, TheOutsider. The media flurry surrounding that first book, an examination of ‘life failure’ via portraits of various thinkers and artists, overshadowed the following volumes so much that TheOutsider is still not generally understood as the first part of a developing series (of course, it hasn’t been out of print since it’s original publication – the proceeding volumes weren’t quite so lucky). The second and third books in the Outsider series, the undeservedly panned ReligionandTheRebel (1957) and the unjustly ignored AgeofDefeat (1959) have both recently been reissued by Aristeia Press; the remaining volumes, TheStrengthtoDream: LiteratureandtheImagination (1962), OriginsoftheSexualImpulse (1963) and BeyondTheOutsider (1965) are currently out of print. In those latter three volumes Wilson analyses, tentatively at first, the influential philosophical discipline known as phenomenology (‘the study of the structure of consciousness’) which was a primary influence on existentialism. Looking back on IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism, Wilson commented that this densely packed but short work was “perhaps the best and clearest summary of my central ideas”. The first edition quickly went out of print and became a sought after hardcover rarity. Fourteen years later the publisher Wildwood House reprinted a paperback (with the truncated title TheNewExistentialism) after Wilson suggested a reprint. “If I have contributed anything to existentialism – or for that matter, to twentieth-century thought in general”, he wrote in a new preface, “here it is”. Now, at last, after another thirty-nine years of unavailability, here it is yet again.
Introducing the book, Wilson states that readers need not be aware of either existentialism or of his own interpretation of it throughout his previous ‘Outsider’ volumes, and indeed, one of the most important aspects of IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism is it’s remarkably clear and concise treatment of such difficult subjects: phenomenology, existentialism and thinkers such as Husserl and Whitehead. One critique of Heidegger and Sartre that Wilson offers here is that their Investigations were “immobilised” by their stylistic compromises with academic philosophy. Kierkegaard, one of the grandparents of existentialism, lampooned the philosophy of Hegel by remarking that it was like trying to find your way around your home town via a tiny postage stamp sized map – it was too impersonal, too generalised. So although Heidegger does locate his philosophy in the everyday, “he makes very heavy weather of the business of communication”. Wilson made a point of writing for the average person as clearly, and more importantly, as compulsively as possible. Truth be told, it is not so much the obscurity of the prose of certain philosophers that bothers him – Heidegger’s mentor Edmund Husserl is hardly an easy read – his problem is with their underlying attitude towards existence.
The blurb on the back cover of the 1980 reprint said that the techniques of Wilson’s new existentialism “can bring back meaningfulness, and provide twentieth and twenty-first century man with a relevant and satisfying philosophy”. If there’s one thing that is in severely short supply in the nascent twenty-first century, it’s meaningfulness. “It seems to be generally accepted that existentialism is necessarily a philosophy of pessimism” wrote Wilson in 1966. “Anyone who opens any one of the books on the subject becomes immediately aware of a certain atmosphere of gloom”. Wilson asserts that the ‘old’ existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre “is as dead as the phlogiston theory of combustion or Hamilton’s quaternions”. This doesn’t mean that existentialism itself is dead, however: “only that in it’s Kierkegaard-Sartre form it has reached a point from which it can neither advance or retreat”. So with this problem in mind Wilson summarised the new, optimistic existentialism he had been developing from TheOutsider onwards, now “based on the most rigorous phenomenological analysis” in the pages of IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism. Wilson’s ideas had met with an enthusiastic response from audiences in America when he lectured there in the ‘60’s, but when he published his summary in 1966 Jacques Derrida presented his own interpretation of Husserl, language and literature which quickly became part of a new wave of fashionable post-existential practice later labelled ‘postmodern’.
Wilson had offered a potted history of philosophy in his BeyondTheOutsider but for him it was the arrival of the modern novel in 1740 and the cultural explosion known as Romanticism that truly revolutionised human consciousness; he sees that blast of rebellion as the pivot on which our current endeavours revolve. According to Wilson, Romanticism – exemplified by Goethe’s Faust, Schiller’s Robbers and Shelley’s PrometheusUnbound – was a demand to know why we are not Godlike. “If the church was an imposture and the scriptures merely inspired poetry” he writes, “then the individual suddenly had a new freedom and a new dignity thrust upon him”. However, this burden was something of a shock and many romantics crashed and burned (c.f. Wilson’s TheOutsider, ReligionandtheRebel, etc.) and the era ended in ‘romantic defeat’, what Wilson calls theageofdefeat in the book of that name. Wilson had previously suggested that although the nascent language of Romanticism – ‘rapture’, ‘ecstasy’, etc. – “lumbered to extinction” like the dinosaurs, it’s decadent attitude of gloomy defeatism was unconsciously carried on by the existentialists despite their greater linguistic precision. Later, he would say the same about that loosely defined group known as postmodernists – that although their use of words and ironic terminology was cutting, their basic philosophy remained gloomy and pessimistic. “I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the superior Life Force […] From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death” lamented the practitioner of a “vague, casual, even cynical phenomenology”, Roland Barthes.  It must be stressed that phenomenology cannot be ‘vague’ as it relies on accurate description, it cannot be ‘casual’ as it is a rigorous discipline and it cannot be ‘cynical’ as it’s aim is to eradicate emotional prejudices from conscious activity. Now that postmodernism itself is long dead, it is Wilson’s interpretation of Husserl, language and values in IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism that remains fresh and invigorating. This is an accessible and practical twenty-first century philosophy which avoids the cul–de–sac of ‘meaninglessness’ which existentialist and post-existentialist thought often finds itself sleepwalking towards.
Existentialism failed, Wilson thinks, because none of it’s practitioners could agree that there are any values outside what we think of as our ordinary passive consciousness (for Derrida there was no ‘outside’ of a network of meaningless language signs). Yet Wilson was determined to prove that nodding in agreement to this kind of romantic fatalism was the very opposite of what existentialism was all about. Wilson labelled existentialism ‘old’ and ‘new’ to distinguish philosophical pessimism from optimism.
IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism is in two sections – the first describes the historical problem (the old existentialism) and the second introduces Wilson’s outline of a solution (the new). Via brief portraits of seminal existential thinkers, Wilson questioned their commitment to the thought of “the father-figure of modern existentialism”, Edmund Husserl. A mathematician turned philosopher, Husserl “pointed out the simple mistake that that had kept philosophy at a standstill for two hundred years”. By introducing a method of radical doubt and scepticism into philosophy – “I think, therefore I am” – Descartes gave it a firm scientific discipline. What Descartes didn’t do, Husserl noted [Crisis § 18] was doubt his own presuppositions, his own “I”. Wilson compares the Cartesian method to a detective interrogating a room full of suspects; he questions everybody, making no assumptions about anyone’s innocence. What he doesn’t question is his own innocence – the method that Husserl introduced was, in Wilson’s words, the possibility that the detective himself could be the murderer. “Descartes had said that man cannot be certain of anything except his own consciousness, and that therefore philosophy should begin with a study of consciousness; but this was the very thing that Descartes neglected to do”. He made the naive mistake of presuming that consciousness is truthful because it is passive, reflective like a flat polished mirror. Husserl’s “new and disturbing” phenomenological method pictures consciousness as a distorting mirror, constantly warping perceptions before they even rise to consciousness. This does indeed sound disturbing, but it must be understood that this only means that consciousness is active and not a passive reflector – it is, in Husserl’s terminology, ‘intentional’ – our consciousnesses selects it’s perceptual objects from a vast choice, and our selections could depend on subconscious prejudices. So we can ‘flip’ the image below to see either the four leaved clover or the cross, but we cannot see both petals and cross simultaneously because perception is selective. This is what Husserl meant by intentionality (active choice, not a passive reflection). Perhaps a horticulturist would be prone to see the four leaved clover first and a soldier the Maltese Cross. Husserl was determined to demonstrate that Descartes’ flat, polished mirror was subject to distortions, and if we “wish to philosophise in a new way” (as Husserl put it) then we must study these distortions or prejudices first. Wilson’s ‘new’ existentialism is new in that it also wishes to philosophise in a new way, and so returns to Husserl’s methods. As one commentator on existentialism put it, “Husserl’s exacting science is easier to betray than to follow”, and Wilson demonstrates this point well in the first part of IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism.
For Wilson, the most exciting thing about the phenomenological method was that it demonstrated that consciousness is active (“perception is intentional”, he would often say). For if consciousness is active, then we choose what to experience, or how to experience: we need not be at the mercy of external pressures, or our reactions to those externals, or to our moods, like a leaf blown around in a breeze. We choose. And choice is the basis of existentialism.
As the term ‘phenomenological existentialism’ was something of a mouthful, Wilson settled on ‘new’ existentialism although they are in fact interchangeable. The first of the ‘practical disciplines’ of the new existentialism, outlined later in the book, is a cultivation of constant awareness of the intentionality of all conscious acts. Husserl was also adamant that this must be practiced at all times [Crisis, § 40] and Wilson had previously stated in TheOutsider that the existential Ideas in that book “mustbelived”. So the first part of IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism briefly asks just how committed the first generation of post-Husserlian existentialists actually were to this somewhat severe discipline.
Wilson once compared his own writing method to that of Karl Jaspers – by analysing the lives of philosophers, as Jaspers also did, philosophy can be seen in action, within real life. Wilson would apply his ‘existential literary criticism’ method to philosophers, writers, artists, even to fanatics and criminals (Jaspers first major work was entitled Psychopathology); Wilson’s method refuses to separate the life lived from the work developed – they are intwined. So despite being “the best representative of the modern existentialist tradition”, Jean-Paul Sartre was blighted by a temperament spoilt by gloom and pessimism. “He is the opposite of what Heidegger meant by a poet”, comments Wilson. By way of illustration, Wilson compares Sartre’s description of a lake (in his autobiography Words) as a “rippling swamp” to Wordsworth’s description of boating on a lake in the first book of ThePrelude (“unknown modes of being” – a phrase worthy of Heidegger). Sartre’s habitual tendency to see everything as alien and suspicious crippled his ability to perform the phenomenological discipline of standing apart or putting away such distortions or interpretations, what Husserl had labelled as ‘bracketing’ or the suspension (epoché) of the ‘natural attitude’ (an attitude illustrated by Descartes’ acceptance of his passive consciousness). Husserl would speak of this as a “total transformation of attitude” for a new philosophy. The word ‘attitude’ is as important as ‘new’ in the new existentialism.
Although he turned “pale with emotion” when the phenomenological method was first described to him, Sartre quickly abandoned Husserl’s techniques. Sartre was doubtless more influenced by Husserl’s former pupil Martin Heidegger whose lumbering SeinundZeit (BeingandTime) probes ‘forgetfulness of existence’, our collective amnesia towards reality. Wilson points out that Heidegger’s critique of modernity and media echoes Pascal’s concern with our constant need for distraction (it is difficult to imagine what either would have made of the present ‘attention economy’). However, Heidegger went out of his way to avoid falling into the religious trap of Kierkegaard; “whatever happened, he would never give philosophers the chance to dismiss his ideas by declaring that they fell outside philosophy” writes Wilson. “BeingandTime was a magnificent opening shot in his campaign: brilliant, erudite (strung with Greek quotations), strictly phenomenological in method, and with hardly a passing reference to religion”. SeinundZeit was meant to be completed by further volumes but all editions remind the reader that these never actually appeared. Wilson compares Heidegger’s thought to a gigantic palace which was too costly to finish building. “We can understand phenomenology only by seizing on it as a possibility” writes Heidegger in SeinundZeit [Introduction, II, 7c].. Influenced by Heidegger, Derrida would later state that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology “is perhaps not possible”.  Wilson remarks that like Jaspers, Heidegger perhaps spent too much time on the problem and not enough on a practical solution, unlike Husserl.
Sartre, like Derrida after him, thought that Husserl’s notion of the ‘transcendental ego’ – the ‘self’ that intends all intentionality – was (Wilson comments) “a survival of romantic idealism, and a threat to the status of phenomenology as an academic philosophy”. But it must be stressed that Husserl’s transcendental ego, which Wilson symbolises as an ‘archer’ firing intentional arrows at objects and situations, is the startingpoint of this new, barely understood phenomenological philosophy rather than the throwback to ‘idealism’ that critics presume or presuppose. Philosophy can only begin when we are constantly in this meaningful state (Heidegger’s “possibility”) Until then, it will remain the rambling autobiography that Nietzsche described it. Nicholas Tredell points out in his preface to this new edition of IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism that Wilson’s book “enables it’s readers to put it’s ideas into practice immediately”. No amount of academic paperwork is needed to perform these Husserlian operations, just an open minded understanding that the subject is your own consciousness and the gift is your own existential freedom. Wilson quotes a critic of existentialism who said that it “treats life in the manner of a thriller” (think Wilson’s image of the cogito as a detective and note how Husserl analysed it through a series of ‘Investigations’ in his first major work) but this is in fact what makes it accessible and dynamic. Wilson himself thinks existentialism has more in common with science fiction than with academic plodding. Philip K. Dick preferred to be known as a ‘fictionalising philosopher’ despite his apparent status as a SF hack churning out pulp for dime store weeklies, but he was right – his best work asks very probing questions about reality, time, empathy and consciousness, just like Husserl’s philosophy and indeed like Wilson’s similar faux-pulp fiction does. The plot of Wilson’s 1967 novel TheMindParasites, which anticipates the current vogue for mutating H. P. Lovecraft’s Mythos with philosophy by decades, was drawn from a passage in IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism. It imagines an invisible parasite – similar to the spectre in Blake’s illuminated poems – which blocks us from accessing our ‘source of power, meaning and purpose’ (i.e. the state referred to as the transcendental ego). This parasite or “mysterious agency” is merely a symbol for our narrowed consciousness – an “intentional safety device” – which is rather like those blinkers horses wear in traffic. As a species we have slowly learned to select only ‘relevant’ information but this selectivity has become so much of a habit (Husserl spoke of “habitual sedimentation”) that we often filter off far too much ‘other’ information. Recognising that consciousness is ‘blinkered’ and that we settheselimitsourselves is one of the fundamental tenets of the new or phenomenological existentialism.
Husserl wanted philosophy to be a science, says Wilson. Science, knowledge of external nature, frees us from our old childhood prejudices yet it “promises something it cannot accomplish”. We can, like Goethe’s Faust, soak up gallons of knowledge and still feel “no wiser than before” (in Goethe’s words). Science appears to be a discipline beyond the ‘human, all too human’, what Bertrand Russell described in uncharacteristically Nietzschean – even Lovecraftian – language as the “vastness and fearful passionless force of non-human things”. But science essentially retains the Cartesian method and does not analyse presuppositions as Husserl demanded we constantly do (Nietzsche was also adept at analysing presuppositions). “And now it is possible to see the full significance of Husserl’s revolution” writes Wilson. “Science may appear to hurl man out of his world of provincialism and prejudice; but Husserl has shown that man’s prejudices go a great deal deeper than his intellect or his emotions”. Consciousness is prejudiced, selective (intentional). “I am born with habits of perception that have been slowly achieved over millions of years, and which science leaves untouched” he continues. Nietzsche remarked that their are no facts, only interpretations and this is now commonly misunderstood as a pre-echo of postmodern relativism. But Wilson, who once suggested that Nietzsche would have benefitted if he knew about the concept of intentionality  remarks in IntroductionToThe New Existentialism that the “whole point of intentionality means that it is not the ‘facts’ that matter so much as our interpretation of them”. Like Blake’s poetic statement about the cleansing of the doors of perception, phenomenology also understands that there is a real world ‘outside’ but our interpretations colour, filter and distort to such a degree that we take those distortions for the world itself. Sartre often makes this mistake, Wilson observes. “[The] delusions of passive consciousness make man particularly susceptible to pessimism” says Wilson. So in science fiction terms, we are continual prey for ‘mind parasites’ (Blake’s spectre) or our narrowed consciousness which tells us lies about reality. In Wilson’s novel these forces of negation stage a mass invasion during the romantic era. “To historians of the future”, he writes in IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism, “it may well appear that the year 1800 is roughly the dividing line between the old and the new epoch”.
It is apparent from the first part of IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism that there was indeed a difference of attitudes between Husserl and the thinkers he influenced: this can be verified by turning from Husserl’s own writings to those of Heidegger or Sartre (Wilson recommends as “elementary textbooks of ‘the new existentialism’”, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ThePhenomenologyofPerception and TheStructureofBehaviour). The first part of Wilson’s examination was merely “a clearing of the ground”, the second plots out the development of a new existentialism (“foundation work”). Wilson begins by remarking that Nietzsche is the ‘founder’ of this new philosophy – the full title of his seminal 1886 text is BeyondGoodandEvil: PreludetoaPhilosophyoftheFuture – and perhaps in homage Wilson subtitled his own BeyondTheOutsider ‘The Philosophy of the Future’. Husserl would also stress the radical ‘new’ nature of his phenomenological method and attitude. While both SeinundZeit and Sartre’s BeingandNothingness are genuinely fascinating, they do retain the acrid whiff of decadent romantic gloom that we expect to find in existentialist handbooks. Wilson wishes to to return to the optimistic attitudes of early Romanticism and to the powerful techniques of Husserl, before they were – ironically enough – distorted by the subjective readings of later interpreters.
Wilson quotes William James – an influence on Husserl – who is himself quoting a patient who is attempting to describe a ‘mystical experience’ under ether. The patient laughed at the doctors’ rational interpretations “because he felt that they ‘believed they saw real things and they didn’t…I was where the causes were and to see them required no more mental ability than to recognise a colour as blue…’” He compares them to men in a boat, surrounded by a dense fog, watching a stone skipping over the waves – they cannot see the stone thrower due to the fog, so they presume that the stone is skipping of it’s own volition. It sounds absurd, but we make this mistake with our own perception on a daily basis. Heidegger and Sartre are like the men in the boat surrounded by fog – “there is nothing actually wrong with Sartre’s thinking, or with Heidegger’s” writes Wilson. “It simply does not go far enough”. It would be correct think of the ‘old’ existentialism as fogbound and the ‘new’ existentialism as not; Wilson began his debut by pointing out that the archetypal Outsider “sees too deep and too much”. In the sixth volume of the Outsider series, Wilson would describe an ‘outsider’ not as a social misfit, as commonly understood, but as a precise “description of a state of consciousness definable by phenomenology”, someone who understands that are meanings and values outside of ‘ordinary’ consciousness – a Blake, a Nietzsche. For Sartre and Derrida there was no outside.
Wilson notes how it is historically absurd that phenomenology predated Heidegger and Sartre. “It should have been discovered later; for it is, to some extent, a denial of the contingency they emphasise”. Simply put, the foundation of the new existentialism, it’s first practical discipline, is to realise that perception is intentional. Actually ‘realising’ this seemingly simple point requires effort or intention – as Wilson and Husserl stress, this must be lived, it must be real. When he was previously briefing us on the old existentialism, Wilson remarked that Heidegger’s central insight was that we “live in a meaningless world because [we] find it so difficult to mean anything”. G. K. Chesterton, whose first book appeared in the same year as the first volume of Husserl’s LogicalInvestigations, pointed out that we say the earth is round although we don’t mean it – even though it’s true. This is Heidegger’s ‘forgetfulness of existence’, an inability to realise anything much, except during danger (or the inevitable march toward death, in Heidegger’s own philosophy). Before he tasted the cake in Swann’sWay, Proust could have easily remarked that he was a child in Combray and not meant it. Yet after the ‘madeleine’ episode he did mean it: the fog has lifted. Wilson describes one of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (TheInvisibleMan) in which a murderer manages to escape from a house without being noticed despite the house being under observation. He was dressed as the postman “and no one has noticed himbecause a postman is not thought of as a man; he is merely a symbol of a social service”. Phenomenology states that we do not immediately experience reality – Heidegger’s central theme – but instead our senses write down a kind of familiar shorthand or a formula of things that surround us (Husserl’s maxim was ‘back to the things themselves’). In order to notice something we must “give it significance” with our vision. In order to realise or mean something we really must understand it – Gnosis rather than mere ‘knowledge’.  It depends on the amount of intentionality we throw into perception, on how far we pull back the bowstring for the arrow to hit it’s target; how much force we use.
In part two of IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism Wilson recommends studying Proust’s huge novel as it is “a kind of fictional counterpart of Heidegger’s SeinundZeit”. He draws attention to a particular scene in the second volume which is set during a train journey. The narrator laments our habit of forgetting the unique individual beauty of things, “mentally substituting for them a conventional type at which we arrive by striking a sort of mean […] And we deliver on life a pessimistic judgement which we suppose to be accurate…” Which is of course Wilson’s point. “As a rule it is with our being reduced to a minimum that we live; most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit…” Wilson would concentrate on a dormant faculty (the phenomenological faculty, later shortened to ‘Faculty X’) and how habits blunt our awareness of it throughout his writing career.
Proust then describes another moment of realisation like the incident in Swann’sWay: his sedentary habits have been interrupted “and all my faculties came hurrying to take their place”. He then wonders if it is merely the change of scenery which is driving this moment (in a passage worthy of the later Husserl, he writes “it gave another tonality to all that I saw, introduced me as an actor upon the stage of an unknown and infinitely more interesting universe”) but wisely decides against attempting to relive this moment by taking the same train to the same station (the train was stationary) and “providing food for the selfish, active, practical, mechanical, indolent, centrifugal tendency which is that of the human mind”. Here we can easily see what Wilson meant when he remarked that certain sections of Proust’s novel “have a psychological penetration comparable to Heidegger”. It is intriguing that Proust uses the phrase “reduced to a minimum” as this is also used by Heidegger in SeinundZeit (DivisionTwo, 1.§ 50) when speaking of impending death. According to Heidegger it is only the awareness of this crisis which can induce ‘authenticity’ (Wilson often compared this to Gurdjieff’s genuinely ‘woke’ concept of an implanted organ which counts down to the exact second of our demise). Sartre once said that he had never felt so free as when he was a member of the Resistance during World War Two: the prospect of imminent assassination kept his mind sharp, or so he thought. His contemporary Camus held similar ideas.
However, one of the key concepts in Wilson’s new existentialism is something he called the ‘indifference threshold’ – a kind of margin in consciousness which can be stimulated by crisis but not by simple pleasures: it can be seen in operation in many scenes throughout Proust’s novel and is obviously related to Heidegger’s idea of authenticity in the face of death. In his NewPathwaysInPsychology (1971) Wilson states that consciousness without crisis has a tendency towards negativity. Heidegger speaks of “pallid lack of mood – indifference – which is addicted to nothing and has no urge for anything, and which abandons itself to whatever the day may bring” [SeinundZeit, DivisionTwo, IV, (b)]. But Proust, during the famous madeleine scene in Swann’sWay, writes that the “vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me”. The indifference threshold is a paradox; we shouldn’t need to be forced to briefly become ‘authentic’ by inconvenience, crisis or mortal danger unlesswetakeitasagiventhatwearevictimsofexternalcircumstance – the opposite of Husserl’s intentionality. With this important concept understood, we can see why it was absurd that phenomenology was followed by the contingency driven ideas of Heidegger, Sartre (and later, Derrida, Barthes, etc.) who all ramble away from the intentionality which Husserl insisted was of in need of urgent and serious investigation.
The indifference threshold is the habit of ‘excluding’ which Proust discussed in the passage from his second volume of InSearchofLostTime quoted above. Obviously it is related to the intentionality of consciousness, the ability to select or choose – an ability we constantly forget, or more commonly, do not realise we possess. Remembering and forgetting link both Proust and Heidegger; realising the ‘things themselves’ (Husserl) or meaning what we say (Chesterton, Proust) cannot be lived without understanding the intentional nature of everyday perception and constantly applying the science of phenomenology to it. As noted in the new introduction to Wilson’s book, it “enables it’s readers to put it’s ideas into practice immediately”, a practice which Husserl suggested we “resolve to take up once and for all”. [Crisis § 40]
Wilson writes that the new existentialism “is founded in a dual recognition: (a) that ‘ordinary’ human consciousness is restricted, and (b) that restriction is, in a certain sense, voluntary”. It is this chosen restriction which gives rise to the paradox of the indifference threshold, the delusion of a passive consciousness which we believe can only be stimulated by crisis (the first part of IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism is entitled TheCrisisInModernThought; the word ‘crisis’ appears in the titles of several important late Husserl essays and texts). “Man is never so deeply aware of his freedom as when he is in chains” writes Wilson. Rousseau stated that man is free but everywhere in chains, but both Blake and Nietzsche understood that freedom is rather more paradoxical than simply throwing off physical shackles – Blake’s “mind forg’d manacles” (Wilson’s ‘mind parasites’j are far more oppressive than any linked ironwork; Nietzsche made his Zarathustra remark that freedom from is nothing compared to freedom for; the philosopher Fichte remarked that ‘to be free is nothing; to become free is heavenly’. Freedom “is a far more complex matter than Rousseau ever realised” continues Wilson. He thinks that the ‘excluding faculty’ is an inherence from our earliest humanity (he also makes this point in his ACriminalHistoryofMankind, 1984). “Man has evolved to his present position by his capacity to narrow his attention, to ‘exclude’ whatever has nothing to do with the business in hand” (the latter three words should be borne in mind when reading Heidegger on the ‘ready-to-hand’ in SeinundZeit). “This excluding has become a habit, so when he ceases to strive, he becomes bored”. And of course, boredom was one of the primary existential dilemmas first noted by Kierkegaard in the 1800’s (see Wilson’s The Mind Parasites, again).
Sartre observed an excellent image for this problem in his novel Nausea – he describes a cafe waiter with the words “when his establishment empties, his head empties too”. The truly free human, Wilson noted elsewhere, would be powered by a strong, purposeful interior drive. Although Nietzsche was unaware of the concept of intentionality, his ‘will to power’ is not too far away,. At the present, however, we are all in the position of Sartre’s waiter, more or less pushed around by external factors despite there being no real need to be if we understand existentialism correctly. The problem, Wilson notes, can also be observed as a biological one. “As H.G. Wells says, from the beginning of time, animals have been ‘up against it’”. To survive, they had to narrow their attention and remain alert, as humans habitually still do. “The biological approach”, explains Wilson, “enables us to see the problem with a new clarity”. Wells thought present day humans were in the same position as the first creatures who left the water to live on the land – amphibians who “hated the sea”. Sartre’s waiter is still a sea creature dependent on external stimuli. In IntroductionTo The NewExistentialism Wilson discusses the ‘black room’ experiments at Princeton; these demonstrate just how much we are still dependant on external stimuli, but anyone with even a basic understanding of intentionality knows that we need not totally be. The investigators at Princeton set out to study sensory deprivation – Wilson writes that workers with monotonous jobs such as long distance lorry drivers or radar workers would often experience delusions of phantom hitch-hikers or non existent radar pips (many of these are documented in paranormal and UFO literature). Subjects were placed in a completely dark room with basic physical amenities but no ‘distractions’ – generally three days seclusion was the most any subjects could bear (Wilson also wrote a novel based on this practice). It was previously noted how Heidegger echoed Pascal on our perpetual need for distractions. But the important thing about the black room, Wilson suggests, is that it makes us aware of our enormous powers, blotted out by ‘ordinary’ (i.e. voluntarily restricted) consciousness. In the black room, colds disappeared more quickly than usual, ivy poisoning cleared up in a few days and chain smokers did not crave their habit inside the room. So Wilson wonders if intentionality, fully focused in curing a common cold, could indeed cure it. Certainly this “biological approach” can help us see the problem (habits, a consciousness dependent on novelty or stimuli) and a solution (intentionality) in action. Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, thinking about the possibility of imminent execution, realised that he would rather stand on a dark narrow ledge for eternity than die at once. He has become aware of the value of his existence – the “‘indifference threshold’ has been totally destroyed” writes Wilson; “consequently, sensory deprivation ceases to trouble him”.
The word ‘values’, Wilson remarks, “lands us at the heart of the problem of the method of the new existentialism”; in his debut he wrote of a ‘world without values’. Nietzsche was concerned with the ‘re-evaluation of all values’, with self-affirmation and overcoming. Our values – what we regard as worth doing or not worth doing – “are the most intimate response to our conscious perception of existence” writes Wilson. If our ‘ordinary’ consciousness is indeed limited, then our knowledge of the value of existence is also limited or partial – we cannot make sweeping judgements on ‘life’ until we know the full facts. And although Wilson began his book by defining existentialism as a philosophy which asks questions usually thought of as religious – freedom, the meaning of human existence, etc. – he later states that it would be wrong to describe the new existentialism as merely resting on the notion that consciousness tells us lies but no matter, there is a ‘beyond’, another world and so on. “There is no ‘other world’; the ‘ranges of distant fact’ belong essentially to this world. If anything is an illusion, it is our present mode of consciousness; or rather, it’s content”. Wilson stresses that the epiphanies (Maslow’s ‘peak experiences’) of Wordsworth, Proust, William James and Arthur Koestler (in prison, possibly due to face a firing squad, just like Raskolnikov) all appear to have an certain – if not identical – objective meaning content, a stark realisation of the value of life. The obvious explanation would be that this is merely due to danger or death (Heidegger, Sartre in the Resistance) even though only Koestler was in any such predicament. While it is lazily convenient to continue to believe that we are totally controlled by external stimuli, no one who has grasped Husserl’s change of attitude can merely accept it. The ‘phenomenological quest’ is certainly a difficult path; after all, Husserl’s techniques are up against millions of years of sedimented habits. However, even a basic recognition of the idea and the change of attitude which comes with it is enough to start. All religions and mystical schools set out to break habits and habitual thought. However, Wilson comments that the phenomenological quest can “give man the possibility of ‘mystical’ experience without the need for specifically Christian or yogic disciplines”. Perhaps this is why, in TheOutsider, he referred to Gurdjieff’s system as the “ultimate Existenzphilosophie”. Gurdjieff’s ‘Fourth Way’ dispenses with traditional yogic and mystical techniques in favour of a self-observational practice located squarely in real life. The radical self awareness that Gurdjieff and his pupils strived for is not that different to Husserl’s – the practice of ‘self-remembering’ has been compared to the ‘apperception’ of the early psychologist and Husserl’s old lecturer Wundt  – although neither Ouspensky or Husserl [LogicalInvestigations, Prolegomena Ch. 8, §49; Ideas, SecondBook § 57] think that Wundt truly grasped the specific state of awareness (self-remembering, the transcendental ego) they were describing.
In the important fourth chapter of the second part, Wilson analyses both language and values, suggesting that one “rather pedestrian task” of the new existentialism involves hoisting a scaffolding of language into these foggy realms. Phenomenology depends on the sharp description of subjective states [Husserl, Ideas, FirstBook § 75] rather like a cartographer mapping out an obscure continent. So to speak vaguely of two worlds, as religion is prone to do, is not entirely accurate: those descriptions are rather like the Mappa mundi from the medieval period. “The difference between the religious standpoint and the ‘natural standpoint’ [Husserl’s term for ‘ordinary’ consciousness] is the difference between the ‘external values system’ of the new existentialism and the ‘total contingency’ of the old” (by ‘external values system’ he means an objective criteria outside the whims of subjective distortions, i.e. ‘meaning content’). Wilson remarks that Heidegger and Sartre are mistaken to think that authenticity towards death or danger is a kind of flash of mystical insight which cannot be carried over into our everyday life. Like William James, Wilson thinks that these epiphanies are actually a “glimpse of a consciousness of purpose” via a change in the threshold of so-called ordinary consciousness (the natural standpoint). For Wilson, like Husserl before him, consciousness is ‘relational’, perceiving parts and wholes. [LogicalInvestigations VI § 48] “All perceiving and imagining is, on our view, a web of partial intentions, fused together in unity of a single total intention.” [ibid. VI § 10] Wilson often spoke of consciousness having a web like structure, and if the naive or natural standpoint is like perspectival painting, then the new phenomenological perception is more Cubism, with the perceiver wandering around the object. Nietzsche’s confusingly named ‘perspectivism’ is actually closer to the latter than the former, a swooping, shifting viewpoint (“there are no facts, only interpretations”).
Wilson is correct to imagine how Nietzsche would have benefited from exposure to the concept of intentionality. Because the “whole point of intentionality means that it is not the ‘facts’ that matter so much as our interpretation of them”, the same phenomena can be described by the old existentialism as a flash of absurdity or as a “glimpse of a consciousness of purpose” by the new. It is a question of temperament; Sartre’s lake or Wordsworth’s. In SeinundZeit (DivisionOne, V. 29) Heidegger discusses moods (“we are never free of moods”). In IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism Wilson notes that while we do experience life as a series of moods, these ‘moods’ are actually “intentional value judgements” – interpretations according to our own values. In religious eras we had faith to navigate these moods but in the present humanistic age, says Wilson, we appear to be at the mercy of them. In moods of pessimism, life is sinister (Sartre’s ‘rippling swamp’) but in moods of elation we can experience Wordsworth’s ‘unknown modes of being’ while looking at the same phenomena – a lake. Yet we either forget or simply fail to realise that it is ourselves who are interpreting this phenomena. What we require, Wilson continues, is an objective standard. The new existentialism “consists of a phenomenological examination of consciousness, with the emphasis on the problem of what constitutes human values”. And because moods of optimism are rarer than moods of depression or life-devaluation (negative values) it is “the phenomenology of life-devaluation [which] constitutes the most valuable field of study” (cf Wilson’s TheOutsider, his true crime books). In a negative sense, clear investigation of these states can be as rewarding as studying affirmative epiphanies or peaks. The fascinating work of Alfred North Whitehead is, alongside Husserl and his derivatives, one of the main foundations of the new existentialism and I would also strongly recommenced Wilson’s book for his analysis of Whitehead. Whitehead’s assertion that “nothing can be omitted” from conscious experience  helps us understand why Wilson wrote about seemingly unrelated topics (his “existential jigsaw puzzle”).
It should not be misunderstood that Husserl’s phenomenological method is solipsistic – he never denied that there is a real world out there – so although we see the world through various shifting moods which Wilson compares to a pair of coloured Kantian spectacles, he remarks that it is “quite ‘other’ than we see it; it is ‘out there’, independent, indifferent to our moods”. But consciousness, being selective, filters off most of this ‘otherness’ and reduces everything to a “kind of mean” as Proust says.
Here, in IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism Wilson notes how Husserl’s method of descriptive analysis of consciousness, free of subjective distortions, eliminates those false (passive) ideas about ourselves, much like science attempts to do. And so Husserl suggested(Wilson continues) “that as man loses all the false ideas about himself and the world through scientific analysis, and as he comes to recognise that he himself is responsible for so much that he assumed to be ‘objective’, he will come to recognise his true self, presiding over perception and all other acts of living. This idea seems common-sensible enough, and our intuitions about ourselves seem to support it”. As Wilson said in a previous ‘Outsider’ volume, these experimental methods can be verified be by anyone who wishes to go to the trouble, they mustbelived. Husserl used the term ‘Abbau’ (‘unbuilding’, a precursor to Heidegger’s ‘Destruktion’ and Derrida’s deconstruction) to refer to this kind of dismantling of layers of prejudice. As Wilson notes in his book, a child might be overawed by a city but a civil engineer knows it can be dismantled and rebuilt. It is much the same with our everyday consciousness (one of Wilson’s chapter headings here – EverydayConsciousnessIsALiar – became a useful maxim of his). Gurdjieff thought of his own system as a kind of engineering on the human ‘machine’ and on consciousness, but we could also think of our phenomenological layers in the sense of an archeological dig. Wilson has spoken of the accrued build up of habits in our ‘life world’ (Husserl’s term) from driving a car to learning a foreign language on the uppermost layers to further down, our sexual intentions (see Wilson’s OriginsoftheSexualImpulse) and below into the occluded depths (cf Wilson’s TheOccult). If we develop skill in phenomenologically descriptive analysis, Wilson thinks, we can bring these layers up to conscious awareness for investigation. One of Wilson’s most brilliant observations was that what we think of as ‘mechanical’ responses aren’t mechanical at all – they are willed intentions which have slowly become automated; anyone who has learned to drive or speak another language can quite easily understand that point. Wilson annotated his personal copy of IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism and a leaflet of these annotations was privately published in 1995. In a typed epilogue, fully reproduced in the pamphlet, Wilson states that the “main point about this book” is that we are unaware of these deeper intentional layers. “We have taken a million years to develop to the present stage, and we have done this because of our ability to turn conscious intentions into habits”. But we remain unaware that ‘perception is intentional’, i.e. a matter of will or effort. “So the secret of life is that there are great unknown layers of will and effort below the conscious level” – these are hidden or occluded (again, see Wilson’s TheOccult). We develop intentions, Wilson says, as we get a ‘taste’ for something like an unusual dish, or for that matter, philosophy. But, he stresses, “the original act is intentional, without any help from the object”.  So just as there is no need for the head of Sartre’s waiter to empty as his cafe does, there is no need for us to presume that we are totally controlled by external circumstances, as we continue to do. Post Husserlian philosophers maintained that we are controlled by moods, by ‘terror’ or by the ambiguity of language and failed to grasp Husserl’s radically optimistic, phenomenological existentialism. Wilson comments that even Nietzsche, “who announced the advent of this new optimism” did not clearly recognise the inevitability of this optimism. Husserl speaks about the “thoroughgoing meaningfulness” of philosophy “which unifies the whole movement” with a “unity of purpose” [Crisis § 14].
Wilson’s new existentialism remains a highly relevant philosophy for the present era and IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism still sums it up beautifully. It is a tonic challenge to the atmosphere of ‘meaninglessness’ in the early twenty-first century, an attitude generated by various philosophical misunderstandings of Husserl’s basic point (‘old’ existentialism, postmodernism). With effort and imagination, we can free ourselves from our ‘natural attitude’ into something truly radical and exciting. The word ‘imagination’ may seem out of place in a handbook on a ‘science of consciousness’ but as Wilson notes, a major point about phenomenology “is that there is no sharp dividing line between perception and imagination” [cf Husserl, LogicalInvestigations, InvestigationVI, §36; §47]. “The dividing line only applies when we think of perception as passive and imagination as active” continues Wilson. “As soon as we realise that perception is active, the old dichotomy vanishes”. A quarter of a century later, Wilson wrote that “I am inclined to believe that man is on the brink of a new ‘evolutionary leap’, and that it will come about through the deliberate investigation and control of the power of imagination. This may not seem to offer much comfort in our crime-ridden world. But I nevertheless suspect it will prove to be the answer.”  Existentialism, far from being dead, is very much alive in Wilson’s ‘new’ interpretation. With it’s roots in the phenomenological disciplines of Husserl, it is actually a living, pulsating philosophical method available to anyone who wishes to see reality anew, to ditch tired old attitudes and embrace a creative meaningfulness. That radical revolutionary Husserl said that we should seize the idea “of a resolve of the will to shape one’s own personal life into the synthetic unity of a life of universal self-responsibility and, correlatively, to shape oneself into the true ‘I’ the free, autonomous ‘I’ which seeks to realise his innate reason, the striving to be true to himself…” 
In 1980 Wilson said that IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism was his best book (“I am willing to stand or fall by it”). He would later suggest that the final part of his ‘occult trilogy’ (BeyondTheOccult, 1988) was his most important non-fiction work as it united his new existentialism with his interest in the ‘paranormal’ (i.e. occluded deep layers of willed intentions). While that book is an excellent read and does indeed unite these two currents, I would strongly suggest reading IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism first; Wilson’s diverse interests cannot be really understood without a grounding in his new existentialist practices (and if you’re really serious, a study of the phenomenological texts Wilson suggests). I would in fact recommend this book over his most famous work, TheOutsider. It is excellent that this important text is finally back in print. 
 Husserl, ‘The Vienna Lecture’ (May 1935) in TheCrisisofEuropeanSciencesandTranscendentalPhenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 290. NB: works in square brackets eg ‘[Crisis § 14]’ throughout this essay are suggestions for the budding phenomenologist to look up these ideas in Husserl or Heidegger texts themselves.
 Roland Barthes, CameraLucida, Flamingo, 1984, p. 72. His free interpretation of Husserl’s science of consciousness is on page 20.
 Jacques Derrida, OfGrammatology, John Hopkins University Press, 1997, p. 67
 Husserl’s teacher Brentano published a book in 1874 which analyses ‘intentionality’ and Wilson imagines how Nietzsche might have benefitted if he read it. Wilson, DualValueResponse (originally 1972) reprinted in TheBicameralCritic, Salem House, 1985, p.102.
 Chesterton’s story is referenced by Aleister Crowley in a small manual on yogic techniques (originally 1911) in a chapter concerning ‘Dhyana’ (‘union with God’, theologically); certainly a very illuminating read in the light of Wilson’s new existentialism and vice-versa. Chesterton is merely referred to as “someone or other” as he had been involved in one of the self styled Great Beast’s endlessly petty feuds. See Crowley, Magick, RKP, 1973, p. 30
 P.D. Ouspensky, InSearchoftheMiraculous: FragmentsofanUnknownTeaching, RKP, 1950, p. 121. Also ibid. p. 107 (“sensations can be indifferent”) and Husserl, ‘Investigation VI’, LogicalInvestigations (volume II), RKP, 1970, p. 761 and ‘Sense and Understanding’ p. 773 infra
 A.N. Whitehead, AdventuresInIdeas, Cambridge University Press, 1933, p. 290. Whitehead’s long list is quoted and discussed in many of Wilson’s books.
 Colin Wilson, IntroductionToTheNewExistentialism: TheAuthor’sEmendations, Maurice Bassett, Virginia, 1995, p. 5. See also: “Experiences of meaning are classifiable as ‘acts’, and the meaningful element in each such single act must be sought in the act-experience, and not in it’s object; it must lie in that element which makes the act an ‘intentional’ experience, one ‘directed’ to objects”. Edmund Husserl, ‘Investigation V’ in LogicalInvestigations, ibid. p. 533
 Sex,Crimeandthe ‘Occult’ in RapidEye, R.E. Publishing, 1989, p. 118
 Edmund Husserl, PhilosophyasMankind’sSelf–Reflection; theSelf–RealisationofReason, Appendix IV In TheCrisisofEuropeanSciencesandTranscendentalPhenomenology, ibid. p. 338
 Not once, but twice! Routledge have coincidentally also just reprinted this book as a ‘library edition’ – designed to be bought by university libraries. A nice thought that one of Wilson’s best books is now ‘academically respectable’ of course, but at £80, you would be financially much better off buying this Aristeia Press reissue (just under £12, and about half that for the kindle version) and putting money into a publisher concerned with bringing important Wilson titles back into print.
Paupers’ Press continue their penetrating ‘Colin Wilson Studies’ series with volumes 28 and 29. The latter, Vaughan Rapatahana’s More than the Existentialist Outsider ‘draws together a number of his important essays about, and his interview with, Colin Wilson which was held at the Victoria University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia on September 16, 1993, adding a new essay in which he asserts that Wilson is “…an important philosopher, who not only introduced his own version of Existentialism, but also strove to unite the so-called Continental and Analytic traditions of philosophy into one seamless endeavour…” finally insisting that “…universities should now be including Wilson as an integral part of their philosophy courses’”. This title also contains several important pieces previously published in the periodical Philosophy Now, including Rapatahana’s Wilson obituary which hit the mark where the newspapers and broadsheets mostly missed.
Volume 29 is my own effort entitled The Lurker at the Indifference Threshold: Feral Phenomenology for the 21st Century, which attempts to draw various obscure threads together and suggest possibilities for Wilson’s long term rehabilitation this century. Included as an appendix is a rare 1983 Wilson interview from the defunct music magazine Sounds conducted by Sandy Robertson, author of both The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook (which has an introduction by CW) and of a study of the music of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman entitled The Phenomenology of Excess – the only book I’ve read which recommends Chapple & Garofalo’s Rock ‘n Roll Is Here To Pay and The New Existentialism on it’s reading list! My book is perceptively reviewed by Wilson researcher David Moore at his blog here and his own ‘new existentialist’ work EvolutionaryMetaphors will be discussed here soon.
Both titles are £7.95 each. Full details are here.
Wilson’s 1965 collection EagleandEarwig, originally published by John Baker in 1965, gets it’s first reissue in five decades by Eyewear Publishing. Now entitled Eagles and Earwigs, thishardcover edition has a new introduction by Wilson biographer Gary Lachman, annotations by Wilson’s bibliographer Colin Stanley and is 412 pages long. Like TheAgeofDefeat, also just reprinted, Eagles and Earwigs is rare in it’s original edition. Both titles show the development of Wilson’s newexistentialist thought, with Eagles and Earwigs beingparticularlystrong on what he dubbed ‘existential literary criticism’ a technique for not separating an artists’ personal attitudes from their work – the title comes from Aldous Huxley who gloried in the name of Earwig. The first essay in the book is a discussion of the modern (i.e. 1957) hero in literature and anticipates the central theme of The Age of Defeat, which was two years away. It’s all relevant to the twenty-first century.
“It is my hope”, wrote Wilson exactiy sixty years ago, “that within the next two decades, the techniques of existential thinking will become a commonplace in England and America”. The opening words of Existential Criticism (the second essay here) were written a decade before the non-techniques of semiology and deconstruction began to influence the literary and philosophical departments of English and American universities, with postmodernism glibness becoming ubiquitous by the end of last century. Now commonplace and tedious, those reductionist techniques are a very tiresome cliche. Wilson’s ideas, however, remain powerfully relevant to twenty-first century individuals wishing to go beyond the acceptance of meaninglessness, a problem which is possibly more relevant now than in 1958. “Our modern culture has seen a gradual decline in the in the tacit sense of human purpose, fostered by materialist philosophies […] Consequently the notion of ‘prehension’ of the human effort to assimilate and overcome, has begun to disappear from out literature. The tacit sense of human purpose has been tacitly dropped”. Existential Criticism is a method to expose this unquestioned attitude rather than to wholeheartedly accept it whilst imagining that fine tuning linguistic ambiguities can free us from this ‘romantic defeatism’.
The 1965 essay Phenomenology and Literature is short, but it is one of the best introductions to Wilson’s interest in Edmund Husserl. ”Phenomenology regards itself as the philosophical method” Wilson says, but we can forget just how important a method it is unless we practice it – “for ‘academic’ means nothing if not ‘limited’. We lose sight of the basic meaning of phenomenology if we forget that it is, at bottom, a mystical venture – the first mystical venture in human history to insist upon a strictly scientific method”. Imagining a scenario where Husserl meets William Blake, Wilson thinks they would have shared common ground. “For if the word ‘visionary’ means to penetrate through obscurities to the underlying truth, then all science and all literature are visionary in intention”. An essay on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard from 1964 finishes the first part (the book is divided into three sections: Literature and Philosophy, Individual Writers and The Writer and Society).
The second section has essays on Powys and Hemingway, on Lindsay’s A VoyagetoArcturus, Madach’s Tragedy of Man and Mark Twain. There’s thoughts on the obscure L.H. Myers, The Shaw Problem and an amusing essay on Ayn Rand. Wilson receives a letter from Rand’s ‘organisation’ which reads: “Miss Rand would be very pleased to hear of your interest in her work – when and if you correct your offense against it in the same terms that the offense was committed: that is, publicly”. This section ends with ruminations on Henry Williamson, a contemporary of Myers, who wrote children’s favourite Tarka the Otter and whose reputation was tarnished due to his right wing politics (rather like Wyndham Lewis). The third section concludes the volume with rather more personal thoughts on publicity and writers (1959), particularly Wilson’s own brush with fame in 1956, and The Success Problem from the year after. “We are living, I think, in one of the most culturally treacherous ages that has ever beset Western civilzation”. In the final essay, Personal: Influences on my Writing (1958) Wilson states that he has nothing in common with the Angry Young Men “except my age”, preferring to align himself with “the tradition of an intellectual creation with it’s roots in analysis” which has the “eventual aim of […] a new form of self-consciousness”. Wilson would develop this through his new existentialist ‘foundation work’ in the next decade, and thereafter by analysing the darkest corners of human behaviour while all the time remaining an optimistic philosopher.
Eagles and Earwigs can be purchased for £20 via Amazon. More information about Eyewear Publishing here.
Gary Lachman Beyond The Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (Tarcher Perigree, 2016)
I first read Colin Wilson over thirty years ago and I was stunned. Layers and layers of recondite information (no internet, you see) poured out of the exciting, accessible prose style and the attitude was astonishing – a relentless attack on all the doom ‘n gloom that permeated everything (or so it seemed). As a teenage Lovecraft aficionado I’d read in a magazine that other writers had added to the Mythos and “perhaps the most original of these have been Colin Wilson’s Return of the Lloiger and The Mind Parasites.” I went to the local library to return a few yellow jacketed Gollancz Lovecrafts but they didn’t have either of those titles. They did have his The Outsider, but it seemed a bit imposing – Kierkegaard? I picked up the bulky volume next to it – about four times longer than anything I’d usually have the patience to read – and it was familiar. I’d actually opened the very same book around four years earlier and read “Everyone who has been in a strange town knows the easiest way to get to know it is to walk around it alone” before placing it back on the shelf. Above a drawing of the head of Michelangelo’s David in a maze or something, in big letters: Mysteries. Page 237. I was in my school uniform then. Now I was searching for a way out of the grey dreariness of council estate consciousness and all it’s attendant frustrations. Borrowing that book, I started a chain reaction and received more riches then I’d ever imagine.
Such was the random nature of finding a Wilson book last century. I began to read as many of the works he had referenced and this turned out to be the best education I ever had. I bought any Wilson title I could find – they usually stuck out due to their minimal cover designs, often in gaudy fluorescent colours – but why did he write so many books on such different subjects? A compilation entitled The Essential Colin Wilson and, later a new book about him – the first one I’d ever seen – by a retired Australian minister answered that conundrum. Eventually I’d read everything by him and have the pleasure of visiting his home to tell him just how much his work influenced me. But it is perhaps only now that I’m beginning to really understand the implications of Wilson’s investigations into consciousness and it’s perverse paradox of freedom.
My discovery of Wilson isn’t too far away from Gary Lachman’s own, as recounted in his Beyond the Robot, the first full length study since Howard F. Dossor’s pioneering summation in 1990. Wilson himself often remarked that what he was trying to say was fairly straightforward – and it was. But it can get lost in the jungle of his multi disciplined output, which is perhaps now even more confusing to a 21st Century mind obsessed with intellectual specialism.
Lachman thankfully makes this ‘single obsessional idea” (as Wilson called it) the theme of his book, which although structured as a biography is a kind of non fiction Bildungsroman as much as anything. Far too much discussion of Wilson focuses on the celebrity/rejection ‘debacle’ around his debut, cuts ‘n pastes the print out cliche of “fled to Cornwall…occult…crime…churned out…serial killers…UFO’s…once met Marylin Monroe…I’m a genius…” and avoids investigating his philosophy “at all costs” (as one desperate for revenue newspaper once idiotically put it). This is, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly pathetic and Lachman avoids dwelling on it, preferring to concentrate on the serious philosophical work which Wilson developed more or less away from the spotlight.
Wilson’s single idea sounds simple enough in theory, but it is cryptically difficult in practice (at first, anyway). Wilson is concerned with freedom – which he stresses is a certainly a reality – but, perhaps with a nod towards Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, he notes a paradox. The odd thing about human freedom is that it’s only usually visible when it’s threatened. “When the German tanks rolled into Warsaw, or the Russians into Budapest, it seemed perfectly obvious what we meant by freedom; it was something solid and definite that was being stolen, as a burglar might steal the silver.” But the absurd paradox of freedom is that consciousness without crisis tends to become negative and trivial. Pain and inconvenience can make us feel free, but comfort is generally boring after a while. Wilson would label this perversity ‘the indifference threshold’ and the amusing story of it’s genesis is in the early part of Lachman’s book. Without danger and injustice, Wilson writes, we allow “a kind of inner-laziness to descend.” Does this mean that we need to seek out stressful situations to feel more alive? Not really. The inconvenience is usually arbitrary and all it does is flex our otherwise flabby perceptual muscles (our intentionality), grasping the meaning of freedom. That meaning was already there – we do not need to induce a crisis to see it, we just need to strengthen our intentional grasp. Passive perception is the culprit here: we think things just ‘happen’ to us, but the philosopher Husserl recognized that this is false, and built a science of consciousness – phenomenology – to combat it. Wilson would write a lot about Husserl in the Sixties and his lectures on his ‘new existentialism’ would be well received in American Universities, but these ideas were out of step with the counterculture and were eclipsed by the academic celebrity surrounding Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ of Husserl around the same time. (Recent scholarship has questioned Derrida’s true knowledge of Husserl’s phenomenology, and his ideas regarding linguistic domination are essentially now a mainstream state ideology – culturally speaking, at least. It is Wilson’s new existentialist theories which are about as truly radical as it’s possible to be in the 21st Century. His firm assertions regarding development of a strong, purposive consciousness and his blunt, driven language are coming from a dangerous and exciting place, far, far away from the comfy puritanical left/right identity politics blip of our present era, and miles away from the naive positivist faith in specialism and science. But I digress).
Why is consciousness so passive? Wilson suggests the problem is ‘the robot’, a kind of SF metaphor (probably derived from the Gurdjieff work, which Lachman cannily notes, Wilson was the first ‘outsider’ to report on) akin to Blake’s poetic notion of the Spectre. The robot is a kind of automatic servant buried amongst our faculties; it is the robot who drives our car once we’ve gone through the painstaking lessons of clutch control and reverse parking. They eventually become automatic so we can concentrate on other things thanks to our dependable helper. (This concept will doubtless become more apparent with the rise of automation in the near future). However this robot is a little over zealous; it often robs us of the quality of novelty or newness in the things we enjoy doing – it interferes with the freshness of things too often. “Making things typical is the robot’s job” writes Lachman. We have “allowed it to overstep it’s duties and have become to dependent on it”. But only because of our passive acceptance that “life is something that happens to us, rather than something we do.” Wilson would search for examples of this active doing consciousness and find it in everything from philosophy, literature, mysticism, science and even negative examples of it in (amongst other things) criminal cases and scandals. Lachman can clearly see the thread through all this and is keen to point out it’s continuity, rather than fall into the trap of regarding Wilson as a dilettante rambling from subject to subject.
True poetic (or aesthetic) illumination is the opposite of robotic consciousness – it’s freshness can be felt in all the early Romantics Wilson documented and dissected. Wilson’s robot (or ‘mind parasite’, in his fiction) is loosely based on Blake’s Spectre (“the reasoning power in man”) and another poetic idea would emerge out of the “new conceptology” of Wilson’s mid sixties phenomenological investigations. Blake regarded the ‘poetic genius’ as the true (non mechanical or robotic) person, and the “true faculty of knowing”, as a fully switched on state of non forgetful perception. “This faculty I treat of” wrote Blake. So would Wilson with his sharp and surprising turn into ‘occultism’ – at least that’s how the critics would see it as they welcomed him back into the fold in 1971. In reality his concept of ‘Faculty X’ – another slightly ironic science fictive label (snappier than the “phenomenological faculty”) – had easily been around since the Fifties. This faculty, Lachman remarks, had “preoccupied Wilson throughout his career” but it was not until 1971 that he gave it a name. Development of this faculty would preoccupy Wilson until the end, and he’d state and restate it over and over again, hedgehog style. Lachman notes interesting overlap here not just with Husserl but also with Whitehead. Faculty X is the antidote to the indifference threshold, or the “law of entropy in prehension” as Wilson described it in 1965, and Lachman understands it from both a theoretical and personal level, as opposed to writing it off as a piece of cranky gullibility.
Throughout the seventies and eighties Wilson would weave this phenomenological thread into work during the revival of interest in parapsychology and fringe Forteanisms, in the booming true crime genre (which he virtually invented), and on everything from alcohol to psychology to sexual deviancy, with many straight and parodic (“Brechtian”) works of fiction; not to mention the mountains of book reviews, introductions, lectures and TV appearances. A particular recommendation of Beyond the Robot is that Lachman pieces together shards of scattered information from minor works which only existed in tiny print runs – now rarities, or unobtainable – as well as core insights from the likes of Wilson’s 1966 masterpiece Introduction to the New Existentialism, (out of print since 1980), which gives a cohesion, a bird’s eye view to the existential jigsaw puzzle which too much writing on Wilson lacks. Like the ‘light detection and ranging’ technology which archeologists now use to find hidden cities under dense jungles, Lachman, like Dossor before him, maps out the alignments otherwise hidden by the debris of six decades of critical apathy and misunderstanding.
Lachman continues scanning into the nineties, where Wilson scholarship really picked up on the grassroots underground. I discovered the Wilson fanzine Abraxas from a notice in the back of his short Ouspensky study in 1993, and I took full advantage of the book signing offer. My copy of the Celebration collection has a verse of Peter Hammill’s song Faculty X in Wilson’s familiar handwriting, and Voyage to a Beginning was signed by “Lord Leicester” – who believed that human beings were grandfather clocks driven by watch springs somewhere in The Mind Parasites. I met Wilson bibliographer Colin Stanley and was so impressed at his collection of Wilson material – now housed in the University of Nottingham – that I started collecting first editions myself. Stanley continues to run the “aptly named” Paupers’ Press, a cottage industry publishing concern specializing in, but not exclusively, Wilson and his work.
All this was happening well under the radar of the critical establishment who continued to treat Wilson much as they had in 1957, and sometimes worse. He would put the record straight with his late work The Angry Years, and beautifully sum up his thoughts on the kind of super-consciousness which had preoccupied him for so long in a book of that title. The latter work was originally written for the Japanese market, where Wilson remained critically respected enough to lecture to huge audiences in 1986; back in the seventies he had been invited to lecture in Iran – his books were cult reading in the Middle East, and the red carpet had been rolled out for his arrival in Beirut in 1973. The huge sequel to The Space Vampires he had recently written was rejected by every British publisher (too long), but released in Russian (although according to Lachman, he received no royalties). His later work on lost civilizations was enthusiastically quoted – twice – by none other than cultural Marxist Slavoj Zizek. I wonder what the ‘dreadful’ Terry Eagleton made of that?
Despite the efforts of Abraxas and Paupers’ Press, despite the thoughtful nods from cultural figures like filmmaker Nic Roeg or musicians such as Julian Cope, it was only really the “brainless” British critical establishment who regarded Wilson as a joke. Typically, Beyond The Robot is written by an American ex-pat and seems to be only published in the USA. “It is depressing” wrote a Samuel Beckett devotee with little awareness of irony, “how seriously Wilson is taken in America.” In a new introduction to a 1991 edition of his Beyond the Outsider (published in New York), Wilson described England in the nineties as “the cultural wasteland that it has been since the end of the Second World War.” Britain’s premier intellectual superstar in the 21st century? Dawkins, the Billy Graham of atheism. One example (from multitudes) of Nietzsche’s Letzter Mensch…
When Wilson was once asked what he wanted to remembered for, he said for his novels and his central philosophical ideas. That’s possibly what will happen.
I received notice of Colin’s passing in an email on my iPhone in the works canteen one evening in late 2013 (shift work, 2 – 10). He’d been ill for quite a while and a few years before he’d told me from his chair at Tetherdown that “you can really feel it catching up with you.” The mainstream UK obituaries were lousy apart from one single example of insight in The Independent. In life as in death, they were totally unaware of his existential insights into the paradox of freedom and giggled behind their hands over a critical pratfall from a previous century. Great minds.
A few years before I had attended an exhibition featuring selections from the Colin Wilson archive, housed in the University of Nottingham (ironically, next to the DH Lawrence collection). There were scores of fascinating items and it was marvelous to meet old friends and make new ones. Colin was unable to attend but a festschrift of appreciative essays was collected and presented to him for his 80th birthday. This exhibition represented, to me, the start of a new era: all the hard slog and sweat of Wilson and his scholars will be easily mined by future academics. I’ll give it, oh, maybe a few decades before the critical recanting begins in earnest – what could be more self satisfying than a huge catalogue of work, popular but controversial, with tendrils reaching into a myriad of other disciplines and connections extending into the last blast of literary modernism, all forensically analyzed from a safe distance? Lachman has said in interviews that this is of course inevitable, as academic study of the humanities always runs out of things to say because it doesn’t generate it’s own content. But he was also wise enough to point out that that’s not really the important thing. The important thing is to cultivate the faculty Wilson wrote about, into a revolutionary state of perceptual and aesthetic awareness. The important thing is to get beyond the robot.
There’s barely anything in this book that hard core readers like myself won’t already know – can we have access to those phenomenological journals, please, though? – but of course the point of Beyond The Robot is to introduce new readers to a holistic picture of Wilson and his lifetime of ideas; in this it succeeds by crushing mountains of disparate information in between two covers. It grapples with possibilities regarding Wilson’s future influence. In a talk promoting this book Lachman ironically remarked that if we can go from wishing to publicly hang Aleister Crowley on a gallows to actually hanging Leon Engers Kennedy’s portrait of him in the National Gallery in a fairly short space of time, why can’t we rehabilitate Wilson? Now that Crowley has gone from being dangerous – I can remember the sense of discomfort just buying his books as recently as the Eighties – to absorption in the mainstream, where he has become just another meme, I can see a sort of parallel. Crowley’s legacy was kept alive by a tiny band of devotees after his death, remained buoyant by the counterculture, and he has ended up becoming somewhat respectable and the subject of academic studies. So is Colin Stanley our own Gerald Yorke? Yes and no. Colin Wilson could seem to be occupying the hinterland where Crowley was between 1947 and Sgt. Pepper, with a devoted following battling the revulsion of the establishment, but there are differences. Wilson avoided the trap of guru – he wrote a book critiquing the entire ‘charlatan messiah’ syndrome – and his open minded, generous accessibility, his offering of suggestions rather than rules or exercises means it’s unlikely that his readers can never end up like Crowley’s ironically non individualistic followers, with their catchphrases and identikit views. Some of us call each other “Wilsonians” but we don’t really mean it. And let’s not forget that despite the critical sniping, Wilson was always a popular author, much, much more widely read that somebody like The Great Beast, whose books are rumpled and fetishized by collectors and devotees rather than read by the public (Crowley’s best book, The Confessions, did sell quite a few in a paperback edition in 1989 though).
Lachman notes that when he first moved to London and began speaking about his interest in Wilson and the sum of his work he was surprised by the skepticism in ‘alternative’ circles, compared to those in the US – “the general impression I got was that he had written too much about too many things and had been repeating himself for years.” This specialism is endemic not just in esoterica but in other research like Ripperology (a term Wilson invented) and pretty much everything else which he wrote about. Wilson is thought of as a none too competent fox but only by those who cannot see the hedgehog for the spikes. Again, it doesn’t matter. Wilson remains a true oppositional, perhaps one of the last of his kind, and his attitude and ideas towards consciousness and its manifestations run counter to everything we see around us at the beginning of the 21st Century. That in itself is reason to celebrate him. I’ve no doubt that Wilson’s ‘new conceptolgy’, his solution to the paradox of freedom, will eventually begin to generate new and surprising revelations in an manner unexpected even by his readers.
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 email@example.com 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.
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.
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….
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.”
Appendix: 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.
The second volume of Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’, Religion and the Rebel, will be reprinted by Aristeia Press after several decades of unavailability. Unnecessarily dismissed during it’s original publication some six decades ago, it remains something of a hidden gem in the Wilson canon – I vividly recall finding a first Gollancz edition in the late Eighties and was completely dazzled by it. You can get it here
Liber vel Bogus: The Real Confession of Aleister Crowley by Richard T. Cole. (TBC) If Colin Wilson were still around he would have doubtless recommended, if not introduced this unusual title.
This soon to be released book has succeeded in causing some concern amongst custodians of Aleister Crowley’s legacy, but it deserves to be read by a much wider audience; it will be of interest to (Fortean) sceptics, psychologists, and possibly even criminologists (pages 30 – 32 have a expert diagnosis of Crowley’s severe personality issues, and there is a disturbing quote from his Magical Record which would be of interest to Operation Yewtree, were The Beast still living). Occultists with beliefs blowing in the direction of the 93 Current will perhaps find the details collated here somewhat unflattering to any idealised imagining of their guru, and in extreme cases (and not without a little irony) they may even suggest the book is libellous or possibly even ‘blasphemous’. Quite frankly, discrepancies and problems with Crowley’s development of his “Law” are nothing new to those familiar with his work and those of his closest commentators. The worst thing about Crowley that emerges from Liber vel Bogus is that he rendered a precise Existential, if not phenomenological truth, an essentially simple fact “for all”, obscure and possibly even impotent with an endless amount of misdirection. Coupled with unnecessary pretensions towards a full blown Messiah complex, Crowley is considered something of a fake outside of his clique. This book perhaps explains the latter reaction to The Beast’s unique career better than any biography, “hostile” or “unbalanced” ever could.
Every study of Crowley’s extraordinary life will contain a variation of the following “fact”: that between noon and 1pm on the 8th, 9th and 10th of April, 1904, a “messenger from the forces ruling this planet” bearing the name Aiwaz (there are various spellings) dictated to Crowley the three parts of a work which, according to the scribe, would solve all of mankind’s religious and social problems. This book, Liber AL vel Legis A.K.A. The Book of the Law, is a brief work written in similar poetic style to Crowley’s previous efforts – certain symbols and concepts in it have already appeared in his earlier, less sensational poetic fiction. It is difficult to align the contents of Liber Legis with its alleged utilitarian effects, yet otherwise intelligent people continue to take it’s provenance and status as an objective, or perhaps spiritual, fact. Richard T. Cole’s study is a stern yet amusing corrective to such lazy acceptance, yet the discrepancies collected in his book – which deconstruct Crowley’s patchy narrative, one by one – are almost incidental to the analysis of Crowley’s attitudes and the detrimental effects these have had on the wholesale implication of his liberating creed, The Law of Thelema (which he considered to be more important than the wheel). A century after it’s supposed praeterhuman genesis, that all encompassing Law is practised only in a tiny corner of the remains of the counterculture, and Crowley is a very minor, if not invisible, figure in scholarship and academia (he continues to be perhaps the only occultist often referenced in popular culture, though this is something of a diminished return. It’s a long way down, creatively, from Kenneth Anger, Harry Smith, The Beatles and Throbbing Gristle to Robbie Williams and Peaches Geldof *)
The discrepancies which Cole notes are fatal to any notion of genuine objectivity on Crowley’s part; nothing corresponds with Crowley’s own narrative of his crowning achievement; for such an important event, his actual recording of it is surprisingly vague. Crowley kept extensive diaries for the bulk of his life, recorded every other bowel movement, every fix, every desperate scheme for a few quid. Daily details regarding the genesis of the New Aeon are scant, missing or of secondary import to golf, of all things. The paper stock on which our new Bible is handwritten, supposedly at the dictation of Aiwaz on the selected days, is manufactured by Pirie & Sons, and it bears a watermark which actually dates the sheets to one year later than it’s alleged composition, i.e. 1905. The sheets have subsequently been backed with linen, probably, suggests Cole, to hide this flaw. A rumour abounds of two attempts existing. There are other serious problems, particularly with chronology. The Boulak Museum, Central to the reception myth, closed in 1902 when “an irreversible shift in the Nile transformed it into an impromptu swimming pool.” Relevant notebooks are also missing or have pages torn out. Crowley even mixes up his own chronology, subconsciously admitting an earlier date of composition (1902, rather than 1904). Photographs miraculously show his ageing process in reverse and Aiwaz himself suffers both memory loss and lack of basic numeracy skills. These are just a few examples. Readers wanting more (Cole has even more unpublished information) are best off reading the book, or visiting here where Crowley aficionados will rake over each and every accusation in peer-reviewed, scientific detail. But as noted, it’s the wood, not the bark patterns on the trees which are of interest. It’s not an accident that all of the “unbiased” biographies of Crowley get heavier and heavier on the minutiae – wow, did you know Crowley had a chauffeur? – and show a progressive disinclination to step back and perform a truly unbiased autopsy on Crowley’s motives.
To get the most out of Cole’s book, a familiarity with Crowley’s work is necessary. A lot of the humour is as self referential as Private Eye, and will doubtless be as uncomfortable to fundamentalist Thelemites as that esteemed organ is to Westminster. However, even without knowledge of the obeah and wanga, Crowley stands accused of fraud. The contents of Liber vel Bogus could very well be a large boulder in the road towards academic acceptability for “Crowley studies”; a shame, as postmodernist lassitude has almost allowed the old goat into the academy. There is Nuit outside the text, after all. His portrait is a fixture of popular culture – for now anyway. But a scientist of consciousness who fakes the central document which ‘proves’ a new dispensation? That’s not science or even poetry – it’s deception along the same lines as Blavatsky and her Mahatma Letters. The question is – why go to such lengths to deceive? Crowley’s April Fool prank ran until he was perplexed on his deathbed.
In his absorbing study of false messiahs, The Devil’s Party (2001), Colin Wilson remarks that Crowley’s belief “that he was the messiah was undiminished. To have abandoned it then [i.e. at Netherwood, where he died] would have been a form of psychological suicide.” It is relevant to note that Wilson regards “messiahs” from Koresh and Manson to Shoko Asahara and Yukio Mishima (and more intriguingly, Derrida and Foucault) as individuals hiding their weaknesses behind “the mask of power”. “The Mask” (a term coined by Crowley’s own bête noire, W.B. Yeats) “is the front he chooses to show the world, often the opposite of his basic type.” According to writer Robert North, from “the few contemporary accounts of A.C. that we possess, his manner was pompous and his voice had a high, nasal pitch. He was “different” and people made fun of him behind his back.” A recording of Crowley’s voice certainly confirms the second assertion. The problem with the mask, continues Wilson, “is that it condemns the wearer to hatred and resentment. Why? Because a mask implies defensiveness…[this] combination of resentment and superiority is of course, the essence of criminality.” Wilson has suggested previously (in his Aleister Crowley: The Nature of The Beast, 1987) that Crowley’s mentality was borderline ‘criminal’ – resulting perhaps from a head injury after a homemade firework knocked him unconscious for ninety six hours, and Cole delves a bit further into this. “That Crowley survived at all, is almost miraculous. That he did not suffer irreparable neurological damage is unlikely in the extreme.” Cole backs this up with testimonies from a doctor specialising in mental health issues – “a patient exhibiting five of these traits is diagnosable as suffering from NPD. Throughout his life, Aleister Crowley exhibited chronic symptoms associated with all nine [criteria of Narcissistic Personality Disorder].” Measured against Robert D. Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, Crowley scores an astonishing 38 points out of 40. And if this were not enough, application of Pincus and Lewis’ three tier principal of key triggers (psychiatric illness, neurological damage and childhood abuse) leave little doubt that despite his firm belief he was beyond human comprehension (an Ipsissimus, no less) Crowley was simply a very damaged individual.
In what is possibly the only Crowley penned book of interest to the non-partisan reader, The Confessions (a vast, near thousand page work even in it’s edited form – an unexpurgated facsimile of what should have been the original text has been “in preparation” for a decade) The Beast tells his own embroidered version of his life up to the 1920’s. Yet this isn’t any mere “autobiography” – this is an autohagiography. A close reading of this remarkable document doesn’t really convince the reader of Crowley’s saintly status. At age fourteen – pretty much adulthood then – he literally thought a cat had nine separate lives, indulging in a moronic act of animal cruelty that illustrates the destructive literal mindedness that would blunt his reactions to almost every event in his life. Cole comments “[that] Crowley labelled this barbaric act of savagery as “science” is illustrative of the sheer scale and complexity of psychological self-defence mechanisms he employed to conceal unresolved issues […] That Crowley simply assumes readers will accept his word at face value, and not see ‘the cat incident’ for the act of outright sadism it so obviously was, merely emphasises the severity of his repression, denial and increasing divergence from reality.” Unfortunately for our clear eyed, objective scientist, it gets worse.
An incident quoted on page 40 of Cole’s book sums up Crowley’s pseudo aristocratic attitude towards women and the proletariat. The fact that Crowley was still rubbing his hands with glee over this reprehensible act decades later simply reinforces at the very, very least what an appalling snob he was. Sections from his Magical Record (quoted here for those with a strong stomach) would be interesting to officers dealing with the fall out from the Savile sex abuse scandal, and let’s not forget – selected verses from his own Koran would most certainly be noted by the other “ISIS”. But don’t complain, because who was it who whined that “I want blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything, bad or good, but strong”?
So how does Crowley get taken seriously as a neutral recording mechanism of divine truths when he’s so obviously – at the very least – riddled with prejudices? Crowley supporters will usually perform their favourite act of moral bifurcation and suggest we forget what an awful person he was, and just concentrate on textual analysis, or perhaps counter with a vaguely faux-naive statement like ‘that’s just how people were in those days.’ (They most certainly weren’t). When Crowley scores an unusually high mark on Robert Hare’s Psychopath Test, and if Crowley is a documented racist, sexist, animal abusing coprophiliac fraudster – with allegations of paedophilia and the author (author, don’t go blaming any “praeterhuman” intelligences) of a ‘holy’ book which contains lines corrosive enough for a very, very serious fatwa – the only option is to pray that these ‘foibles’ will wither away unnoticed, and bend over Nuitwards to counterbalance this information with an idealised portrait of ‘chess master, mountaineer, mystic, book designer, and poet.”
To turn away from the reality of who Crowley actually was, what he did, what motivated him, and into this idealism, is not a way to discover the truth. Just as defenders of Heidegger will tie their very Daseins into philosophical knots to prove that he wasn’t really a Nazi, against all well documented evidence, those with an interest in The Beast tend to be unnecessarily over protective. There’s no need. Cole’s book, in fact, makes Crowley much more human and a damn sight more interesting than the slightly cringeworthy mollycoddling of recent studies (Tobias Churton’s Aleister Crowley – The Biography being one enjoyable, if frustrating, example). Reading Bogus, hearing other facts from the author (some hinted at in the text) makes me certain that Crowley, far from being an objective scientist recording a new creed, as he claimed, simply constructed an after the fact narrative to hide a different type of ‘revelation’ – which is slightly reconstructed by Cole. The worst thing you can truly say about Crowley isn’t that he ticks every box on the psychopathic scale, it’s isn’t that he’s stuffed full of right wing prejudices and naive resentment. It was clearly his choice to modify his behaviour,; he could have made even a token attempt to be more socially aware and empathetic. The real frustration with The Beast is that he couldn’t be honest enough to use his not inconsiderable talents to simply describe what happened to him without recourse to self reverential bluster. For a man who understood intentionality and it’s relation to “the transcendental ego’ without apparent knowledge of Husserl, for a man smart enough to see Fitche as a precursor of this new dispensation, a forgery as unconvincing as The Book of the Law is seriously underwhelming. Writers have compared it to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra – this is “optimistic to the point of blindness.” With wonderful insight, basically unacknowledged, Colin Wilson very perceptibly compared it to Gide’s Fruits of the Earth (a cult book if there ever was one). Crowley’s most creative pupil, Kenneth Grant, has suggested that Crowley was actually scrying from an akashic 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.
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).