BetterListen! have made three Wilson lectures from the 1990’s available as digital downloads. Their website offers a 20% discount on Peak Experiences & The New Human, Science Fiction and the Esoteric and Awakening to an Evolutionary Breakthrough. Enter the code cwilson20here or here for 20% off.
There are SoundCloud previews of Peak Experiences & The New Humanhere and here; of Science Fiction and the Esoterichere and here and a preview of Awakening to an Evolutionary Breakthroughhere.
The lecture on science fiction is particularly interesting, with Wilson discussing “how real life is not so dissimilar from the weird and wild ideas in the fictional realm”; a theme which goes back to his 1963 book The Strength to Dream as well as essays such as Science Fiction as Existentialism (1978) and indeed his own science fiction novels. “Human beings appear to have a Faculty for being where they’re not supposed to be, so to speak, for knowing things they’re not supposed to know” he says in the lecture on evolutionary breakthrough. Wilson was a formidable lecturer (no notes or PowerPoint!), and the conversational style of his works – which delighted his readers, yet alienated the literary establishment – comes through powerfully in these clear recordings which are highly recommended
Colin Wilson, Religion and The Rebel (Aristeia Press, 2017) A needed reprint of Wilson’s much misunderstood “difficult second album” (as the music journalistic cliche goes) in a large dark blue covered paperback (it’s also available as an e-book). Introductory pieces from the editor, from Wilson biographer Gary Lachman; also including Wilson’s own retrospective introduction from the second Ashgrove Press edition from 1984, now long out of print like the first Gollancz edition of 1957. Aristeia Press will be reissuing Wilson’s third non fiction book The Age of Defeat in the near future – it has been out of print since 1959, apart from a very limited reissue in 2001. Aristeia Press’ website is here – where you can read a sample of Religion and The Rebel before you buy. Also available at Amazon UK
Every review, every mention or discussion of this book opens with the same statement – that it was panned upon it’s original release in 1957. When I found a first Gollancz edition, damp-spattered dust jacket and all, in a Newcastle bookshop for the princely sum of £2.50 over three decades ago, I was at the very start of my interest in Wilson – I hadn’t even read The Outsider yet – and I enjoyed Religion and the Rebel very much. I read it without much awareness of it’s reception, and it stuck me as remarkably undated despite the odd reference to James Dean or some Fifties social concept (Rimbaud is described, not altogether wrongly, as looking like a ‘teddy boy’). I quickly went out and purchased two spanking new Picador paperbacks – the complete Rimbaud and the selected Rilke – purely off the excitement generated by the lucid treatment they received here. Wilson was such a great teacher.
Reading his autobiographical introduction when I was still in my teens only made the bond stronger: here was someone from the same background as me, doing the same jobs I would do, and expertly articulating my deepest thoughts. Now, re-reading it again as I approach my fiftieth year, I have a much deeper appreciation.
I must admit, my very first impressions when I was back into the 1957 text – after introductions by the editor, by Gary Lachman, and a retrospective one by Wilson himself – didn’t seem to bode too well. His original Autobiographical Introduction which feverishly excited me so much then seemed to be surprisingly emotional for a Wilson book. Now that I’m very familiar with his ‘phenomenological tone’ it’s not exactly absent, but it is essentially in embryo here (he wouldn’t mention Husserl, fleetingly, until The Strength to Dream a few years later.) The fiery emotion which excited me so much then – when I was just a few years younger than the author – is duly noted by Wilson in his 1984 introduction. “What I notice, the moment I begin reading, is that I then had a far more narrow and intense view of the [Outsider] problem than I have nowadays, and this gives the book a sense of passionate involvement that is lacking in the later volumes of the series.” Now that I’m almost the same age as Wilson was in 1984, I’m inclined to agree; maturity certainly sharpens your perceptions for the better. Clenched fist passions give way to the visionary clenching of consciousness, which in our own emotionally driven, subjectively confused time is much more radical and necessary.
What strikes me now, reading Wilson on his own development, is how closely his early self belief parallels that of many of the case histories he analyses in his second book. When he notes that he was writing a massive history of everything as a schoolboy, he was not only learning his writing trade, he was following in the footsteps of the boy Rimbaud (“on one occasion, he produced a digest of ancient history, including Egypt, Syria and Babylon”). The self creation of Rilke discussed in part one is apposite to Wilson’s own development – “he thoroughly dramatized himself in the role of poet.” Wilson would often return to the notion of the self image in his later writings. His polymathic interests are similar to those of Swedenborg, as is his switch from the rigours of science to the ambiguous landscape of mysticism, a lesson which today’s youthful dogmatists could learn something from, if they could actually concentrate for more than a millisecond, that is – note the need for “constant diversion” which creates “perpetual misery” in the discussion of Pascal. This is written exactly sixty-one years ago, and Pascal was of course writing long before that. Again and again, timely concepts pop up throughout the text. We live in an “infant-prodigy civilization”, with the clever schoolboy a “fitting image for Western civilization”. And perhaps the most overarching theme is the inevitable end or destruction of that very civilization, something voiced with not a little force by Nietzsche, and later by the likes of Spengler in 1918 or feminist thinker Camille Paglia today.
By infant prodigy or clever schoolboy he doesn’t mean Rimbaud or himself being disciplined enough to attempt digests of knowledge at an early age: that is simply the shallow end of a long learning curve. He means the “brilliant of mind, but immature in all other things.” Think upper class logic machines like Bertrand Russell or AJ Ayer and their childish, self indulgent philandering. Or think Dawkins and his Trumpish social media tantrums – can you imagine a scientist like Swedenborg doing anything so cringeworthy? I was struck, over and over, by the uncanny relevance of the arguments. Not bad for a “scrambled egghead” and his “rubbish bin”.
Religion and The Rebel is dedicated to writer Negley Farson – who was in Petrograd when the Russian Revolution broke out forty years previously, and who met both Ghandi and Hitler – and his son Daniel, who was often on television in my youth. Farson junior (“a good Ayran boy” according to Herr Hitler) was the journalist responsible for Wilson’s famous assertion of his own genius which helped dismissals of this book no end. Dismissals, I might add, made by people who never had to do the kind of manual labour Wilson documents in his introduction. I never noticed, for instance, the obvious fact that Arnold Toynbee was critic Philip Toynbee’s father until I read Gary Lachman’s introduction. Arnold would remain very important to Wilson but his son would accept, then firmly reject Wilson with this book and accept him yet again fourteen years later! A younger Toynbee, still a prominent political journalist today, once worked in two (two!) factories after leaving Oxford in the Sixties but has confessed that she “quickly discovered why people who work in factories don’t usually have the energy to write when they get home”. This is the world Wilson was writing and rebelling against. He was a tough worker who couldn’t afford the luxury safety net of the Toynbee bloodline, hence his ‘arrogance’, his proletarian chutzpah, which would help foster a wave of prole autodidactism running through many streams of anti-academic underground culture in the next few decades. This attitude is more or less neutered in the British lower classes today. We can read with wonder, for instance, about the complex anti-surface philosophy of Jacob Boehme who allowed “his own rough peasant voice to explain his meaning.”
After the slice of autobiography, the book is broken up into two parts. The first section of Part One deals with imagination – this is where I first read about Rilke, carrying a long stemmed flower through the streets of Prague in his old fashioned frock coat, and Rimbaud’s tempestuous affair with Verlaine, his ‘disappearance’ into the forests of Java and his unwanted fame. F. Scott Fitzgerald – a ‘weak Outsider’, like Elvis Presley, according to Wilson, much later – is also analyzed. It’s Hollywood Babylon on the surface, but Wilson detects an undercurrent of romanticism “straight out of Schiller or Hoffman”. Wilson tries to imagine what could have happened if Rimbaud was a young American in the 1920’s: he wasn’t to know, but that mutation would be happening ten years on with the peak of the counterculture in 1967.
The second section of this first part deals with Spengler’s notions of the biological growth, decay and death of civilizations. Spengler was unknown, a schoolteacher with “no special academic qualifications” like Wilson himself, and his immense work The Decline of the West made him famous in 1918 despite “the academic cold shoulder”. Wilson finds Spengler’s dissection of our “Faustian” civilization impressive, for Goethe’s Faust represents the bifurcation of science and art, resulting in a middle ground of unappetizing ‘knowledge’. Goethe would argue with Schiller that we can actively append nature, rather than abstract it from ourselves scientifically. This idea would return in Blake, Nietzsche, Husserl and Whitehead, and Wilson would describe it as his central obsession – “a movement towards the science of living”. This philosophy, he says, “has nothing whatever to do with any science that exists at present.” Spengler intuitively saw this: that we are not mere spectators of history, but Wilson suggests his temperament was closer to the pessimism of Schopenhauer, whose fatalism Nietzsche famously rejected. So despite agreeing that the arteries of Western culture are hardening, Spengler’s ‘no escape’ from decay is rejected. Another historian, Arnold Toynbee, is more of a visionary with his extraordinary Proustian time-slips, but Wilson rejects his solution to the problem (a collage of world religions) as much as those prosented by Shaw or Aldous Huxley – “religion is not made by throwing ingredients into a cooking pot.” So how is it made? Part Two of the book is an attempt to answer that question.
Nietzsche was acutely aware that once the cement of faith has completely crumbled with the death of God, moral chaos would ensure, and this assertion was ironically prophetic. Nietzsche’s continued reievance lies in his skewering the “last men” foibles of 21st century atheism while never falling prey to the kind of relativism we saw in postmodernism.
The Outsider problem was none-existent inside the church – “from the highest intellectual types to the meanest artisan” there was a structure, a role – and by ‘church’ he means Cathedral, Mosque, Temple, and inclusive faiths of all stripes. With the rise of Humanist values, this innocent security vanishes and we are in Rousseau’s garden, ‘free’, but everywhere in chains. Wilson regards Rousseau’s statement as “rubbish”, as much as Nietzsche or Blake did. Rather, it is Blake’s “mind forged manacles”, boredom and futility, which are the problem. A discipline is needed, not a physical discipline but a mental one; a “science of living”. Rimbaud’s intense need to make himself a visionary is a start – the opposite of a “spectator and an observer, a sort of naturalist looking at the universe through a magnifying glass and murmuring: ‘Mmm. Most interesting.’” Existentialism, of course, regards us as intensely involved in the universe, but it’s major thinkers – Heidegger, Sartre and Camus – are as pessimistic as Schopenhauer. “Jaspers is a better existentialist than Heidegger”, Wilson opines, because he focused on the lives of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, and showed the real issues of life in action, rather than talk about them in ever more complex critical language and discourse. In the last part of Religion and the Rebel, Wilson gives short case histories on mystics and theologians (Boehme, Ferrar, Pascal, Law and Newman), on philosophers (Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Whitehead) on that remarkable scientist turned mystic Swedenborg and on Shaw, who Wilson regards as the most significant thinker since Dante. By analyzing their lives he pays tribute to Jaspers’ method in the same fashion as the earlier sections on Rimbaud and Rilke, and indeed in his previous book.
Goethe insisted that we could directly append nature, we could know without it fossilizing into mere ‘knowledge’, abstraction or classification. For Goethe, education (Bildung) was essential. Not school education or learning by rote, but closer to the sense he uses it in his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, a journey of self-realization. “Real education”, writes Wilson, “means existentialism, and existentialism means exploring one’s inner world scientifically.” So for Wilson, religion is not originally determined by ritual dogmatism, that is a later, unimaginative structure – pure religion, or rather, mysticism, is “exploring one’s inner world” much in the same way as existentialism. Joining all the types of religious dogma together to form a theological coalition is pointless, as they in fact have the same source, the same root.
This is a “science of living” and true existentialism without the needless addition of gloom. Wilson was unaware of Husserl at this point but it is easy to see how his phenomenology would exert such a profound influence on him as the Outsider sequence progressed. We must “raise the banner of a new existentialism and make war on civilized modes of thought” he says. And in another act of either precognition or conceptual continuity, he quotes Nietzsche – “I love only what a man has written with his blood” – anticipating the title of Wilson’s book on forensics some thirty years away, a book which would include a postscript on problems of freedom and consciousness. Boehme, that fascinating mystic who influenced both Blake and Yeats, would speak of the ‘signature’ of nature, whose presence is, according to Wilson, “in the outward form of all things” but can be interpreted “just as an expert can find a criminal’s fingerprint on every object from a glass vase to human throat.” Wilson is adamant that this is different to specific yogic or ritual disciplines and his discovery of phenomenology would bear that out throughout the next few decades.
Boehme, – “a dreamy type of lad” – gained a major insight by absentmindedly gazing at the reflection on a pewter dish; he fell into an involuntary state of ecstasy and felt he was looking into the heart of nature. He vowed to discipline himself and to restore this state, to make himself a visionary, as Rimbaud said. In 1610 he succeeded, with all his fragmentary insights cohering into a whole. Boehme writes that he learned more in fifteen minutes “than if I had been many years together at a university…” Here we have Goethe’s education (Bildung), his direct appending of nature, encompassing more than any form of plodding, piece by piece logical construction, (although certainly not hindered by it either). This forensic analysis of consciousness, the reading of “signatures” is not only a “science of living”, it’s an active mode of perception. And although Wilson was unaware of Husserl in 1957, his thoughts on Alfred North Whitehead, that remarkable philosopher and mathematician, show he was intuitively aware of Husserl’s general drift.
Wilson makes much of Whitehead’s concept of prehension. “Prehension is the act of reaching out to grasp experience.” Rather like an octopus using it’s tentacles to build a structure underwater, we use our minds to hold and use experience and reality. Prehension is, he says, “the most fundamental activity of life.” And it is one of the keys to Nietzsche’s much misunderstood “master and slave” morality – “master of his own complexity, or slave to of it?” asks Wilson. Prehension is power, not political power, but power over our own personal experiences; it has the same meaning as Goethe’s Bildung, but “has a far wider meaning than the term ‘education’” or addition to knowledge. Bildung, in the sense that Goethe meant it, was “growing to maturity” which is mostly unconscious. The amount of conscious effort most of us make to grow psychologically is minimal, Wilson says; we usually grow for a limited period and then stop – “beyond that, a conscious effort of prehension is needed.” What we ‘prehend’ are units (‘occasions’ or ‘events’ in Whitehead’s terminology) of living experience, and Whitehead insisted that no experience can be omitted in a lengthy quote seen here and in many other Wilson texts. Touching on phenomenology again, every element of our experience, “not just the things we can reason about”, must be interpreted, prehended – “experience drunk and experience sober, experience waking and experience sleeping…” and on goes Whitehead’s list, which each of us could doubtlessly add to. And indeed, should.
Whitehead remains significant because, like Goethe or Nietzsche he understood what he calls the “misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries” – and questions “the notion of ‘independent existence’. There is no such mode of existence; every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the Universe.” And most interestingly, Wilson remarks that “Whitehead goes on to say that ‘personal identity’ is the fusion of the World of Value with the World of Activity; in fact, the human being is a manifestation of the world of value in the world of activity”. So it would appear that we are intimately entangled with the universe and our personal identity is more of a developing process than a static construct modeled from various random bits and pieces, as suggested by Hume and his fellow travelers.
This is a relevant insight, for one dilemma we find ourselves in this particular era of the 21st century is marked by anxiety about personal identity, it’s interrelated connections and resultant power struggles. If there is “no such mode” of independent existence and every entity can only be understood in “the way it is interwoven with the rest of the Universe”, then does this not sound like the typical deterministic mantra of postmodernism? No – Whitehead remarks that our “sense experiences are superficial” and that this superficiality diversifies the “flood of self-enjoyment” into a “trickle of conscious memory and conscious anticipation”. So the fifteen minutes of learning (Bildung) which Boehme thought so important, Proust’s famous insights about memory or Dostoyevsky’s Kirilov stopping the clock in The Devils is this full self-enjoyment, this open illumination, before it is “diversified” by our superficial sense-experiences. Whitehead goes on to say – Wilson is commenting on his 1941 essay Immortality – that too much “philosophic thought is based upon the faked adequacy” of descriptions of human experience. This ‘fake’ is logical thought, abstract thought, which constantly tries to ossify lived experience into systems. Logic, Wilson says, “is meant to save time, and to give us additional freedom – but here Zarathustra’s question arises: Freedom for what? The mere logical philosopher hoards time as a miser hoards money”. Existentialism, on the other hand, is spending your money wisely and living as well as you can.
Whitehead’s philosophy is similar to Blake’s prophetic poetry and attacks many of the same targets, and Wilson remarks that Whitehead is one of the most outstanding philosophers of the twentieth century (as Bruno Latour would explicitly assert this century). Wilson also contrasts Whitehead with Wittgenstein – they share a chapter in this book – and comes to a similar conclusion which Gilles Deleuze would come to embrace in the early nineties, in that Whitehead was far greater. Wilson notes that after “admitting that the really important important things cannot be talked about”, Wittgenstein “went on talking for the rest of his life.” For Wilson this is as much to do with the “dissatisfaction and constant change” of his life, as eventful as Whitehead’s was “serene and untroubled – the ideal life for a philosopher”. Wittgenstein, for all his “machine gun” logic, hovered on the edge of mental illness and tried on endless costumes – “engineer, scientist, mathematician, schoolteacher, monk, architect, sculptor, doctor, musician, workman” – dressing in a zipped leather jacket when delivering lectures at Cambridge for extra effect. Despite his calm logic, he comes across as dramatic and restless as the teenage Rimbaud. Kierkegaard, the religious philosopher who coined the term ‘existentialism’ was “emotionally immature, no matter how mature he may have been intellectually” and despite his obvious importance, he “wasted a great deal of his time by exaggerating his personal problems out of all proportion.” Wilson would coin the term ‘existential criticism’ in the late fifties, a way of looking not just at the work – philosophy, fiction, etc. – but at the attitudes of the creator and how these affect the work. Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, despite their brilliance, seemed to be unable to escape either their inherent self consciousness or emotional immaturity, a foible shared by Bertrand Russell, as noted earlier. Religion and The Rebel was written prior the counterculture and before the first strains of postmodernism (of the deconstructive variety) in the next decade. Amongst our intellectual furniture in the 21st century is the clutter and detritus of both of those intertwined developments, neither of which, it must be said, are particularly useful anymore. Wilson would work through the Sixties more or less oblivious to the psychedelic revival of Rimbaud’s ‘systematic derangement of the senses’, and soon dismiss it as self indulgence. He had better things to do – his phenomenological ‘new’ existentialism is now far more liberating than Derrida’s attempted deconstruction of Husserl which he first presented in the mid Sixties. That became the very oppression it set out to destroy; present attitudes are infected by cynicism towards any universal meaning, denial of the uniqueness of the human subject – while remaining paradoxically self centered and egotistical, and fiercely protective of identity. Nietzsche saw all this on the horizon long before it happened, of course. Whitehead was adamant that everything is interrelated, that our sense impressions are superficial, and that logic is ‘fake’, but like Nietzsche, and indeed like Wilson, he never allowed himself to wallow in cynicism. Wilson writes that the “misery of the Barbusse type of Outsider is due to his having been trapped in that surface world of consciousness and separated from that inner love of life.” A statement as relevant in 2018 as it was in 1957.
Wilson’s second book is a tonic read in the 21st century as he stresses everything opposite to what is accepted now. This is a rebellion. Clear style (“the power of vision combined with a deceptive clarity of expression” is how Wilson describes Shaw here) rather than obscure prose (designed for “knowing and over-acute readers” according to Nietzsche, and a sure sign of a bad writer wanting admiration); concentration and focused attention over constant distraction; deep conceptual thought rather than a “surface world of consciousness”; intuition over logic (we are obsessed with data and statistics these days); an open, trusting acceptance of the truthfulness of the insights of the likes of Boehme (“crack-brained” according to Dr. Johnson) in a cynical ‘post truth’ world; the development of “a science of living” over commercially generated lifestyles and real, awkward individualism over group identities; self willed education (Bildung) over specialism handed down by bureaucratic university systems (for a large fee), this list is endless. All the elements which would make Wilson great are already here. His later notion of a faculty which would combat the ‘paradox of freedom’ is sketched out in this sentence on memory – “All sorts of other places and other times are suddenly revived.” His cutting assertion that philosophy is the imaginary distinction between intuition and logic, much developed in the next decade, is essentially the point of the book itself. And his sketches of theologians are refreshingly open minded to read by the suffocating light of today’s pseudo atheistic smugness. So Nicholas Ferrar (“It is easy to see how a Lytton Stachley – or any modern ‘debunking’ biographer – could write about the life at Little Gidding in such a way to make it seem ridiculous”), William Law (who used “a novelist’s devices” much like Pascal, in his “clean, hard-hitting prose”) and J. H. Newman (“he was the first English religious figure to be sniped at by Insiders on definite anti-Outsider grounds”) are a testament to Wilson’s use of Jaspers’ existential method, of analyzing lives for philosophical insights.
Andy Warhol suggested everyone should be famous for fifteen minutes. Now that everyone is, isn’t it fundamentally shallow and insipid? What everyone should attempt to do for fifteen minutes is what Boehme did in 1610 – learn more than you could at any university, to cease being endlessly distracted by surface values and develop your faculties and perceptions. This book, and the rest of Colin Wilson’s best work – properly understood – is a great help towards that aim. Let’s stop pretending and start prehending.
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.
An newly updated reprint of Brad Spurgeon’s Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism is to be published by Michael Butterworth Books on December 11th. Originally published in 2006, the book contains a lengthy interview with Wilson (in two parts) plus several rare essays. This new edition contains a very personal meditation on Wilson’s optimistic phenomenology by Mr. Spurgeon.
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).
Two important Wilson texts are to be released this year. Colin Stanley is to release the final, definitive version of his very comprehensive Wilson bibliography next month. Limited to just 50 numbered copies – now 49 as I’ve just bought one – it can be obtained for £25 including UK post if ordered before publication date of March 2nd 2015. Post-publication price will be £29.95, again with free post to UK addresses. This book is an essential reference tool for those who need to understand Wilson’s vast and sprawling oeuvre. This fourth edition includes –
• All 180 published books by the author.
• 626 of his published articles.
• Over 168 Introductions, Prefaces, Forewords.
• 336 book reviews.
• Over 430 books and articles about his work.
• 1500 reviews of his books.
• His television and radio appearances.
Published just a year after Colin Wilson’s death in December 2013, this comprehensive, annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources has been fully revised and updated, incorporating an author chronology and an exhaustive index. Aimed at scholars, collectors and fans worldwide it also includes details of non-English translations of Wilson’s work. An essential guide to a writer and thinker, who has left the legacy of an extraordinary body of work.
Order through booksellers or send a cheque for £29.95*, payable to Colin Stanley, to: Paupers’ Press, 37 Quayside Close, Trent Bridge, Nottingham NG2 3BP United Kingdom.
* Includes postage and packing to UK addresses.
Or pay through PayPal to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Meanwhile, the book that Colin was working on before his stroke has been completed by his son Damon. Entitled An End to Murder, it will be published this September by Robinson in the UK and Skyhorse in the US. This promises to be a very interesting title: Creatively and intellectually there is no other species that has ever come close to equalling humanity’s achievements, but nor is any other species as suicidally prone to internecine conflict. We are the only species on the planet whose ingrained habit of conflict constitutes the chief threat to our own survival. Human history can be seen as a catalogue of cold-hearted murders, mindless blood-feuds, appalling massacres and devastating wars, but, with developments in forensic science and modern psychology, and with raised education levels throughout the world, might it soon be possible to reign in humanity’s homicidal habits? Falling violent crime statistics in every part of the world seem to indicate that something along those lines might indeed be happening.
Colin and Damon Wilson, who between them have been covering the field of criminology for over fifty years, offer an analysis of the overall spectrum of human violence. They consider whether human beings are in reality as cruel and violent as is generally believed and they explore the possibility that humankind is on the verge of a fundamental change: that we are about to become truly civilised.
As well as offering an overview of violence throughout our history – from the first hominids to the twenty-first century, touching on key moments of change and also indicating where things have not changed since the Stone Age – they explore the latest psychological, forensic and social attempts to understand and curb modern human violence.
To begin with, they examine questions such as: Were the first humans cannibalistic? Did the birth of civilisation also lead to the invention of war and slavery? Priests and kings brought social stability, but were they also the instigators of the first mass murders? Is it in fact wealth that is the ultimate weapon?
They look at slavery and ancient Roman sadism, but also the possibility that our own distaste for pain and cruelty is no more than a social construct. They show how the humanitarian ideas of the great religious innovators all too quickly became distorted by organised religious structures.
The book ranges widely, from fifteenth-century Baron Gilles de Rais, ‘Bluebeard’, the first known and possibly most prolific serial killer in history, to Victorian domestic murder and the invention of psychiatry and Sherlock Holmes and the invention of forensic science; from the fifteenth-century Taiping Rebellion in China, in which up to 36 million died to the First and Second World Wars and more recent genocides and instances of ‘ethnic cleansing’, and contemporary terrorism. They conclude by assessing the very real possibility that the internet and the greater freedom of information it has brought is leading, gradually, to a profoundly more civilised world than at any time in the past.