Introduction To The New Existentialism – an appraisal

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 [1]

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Originally published in 1966, Introduction To The New Existentialism was the summary of a series of philosophical books which began a decade before with Wilson’s debut, The Outsider. 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 The Outsider 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 Religion and The Rebel (1957) and the unjustly ignored Age of Defeat (1959) have both recently been reissued by Aristeia Press; the remaining volumes, The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination (1962), Origins of the Sexual Impulse (1963) and Beyond The Outsider (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 Introduction To The New Existentialism, 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 The New Existentialism) 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 Introduction To The New Existentialism 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 world 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 The Outsider onwards, now “based on the most rigorous phenomenological analysis” in the pages of Introduction To The New Existentialism. 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 Beyond The Outsider 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 Prometheus Unbound – 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 The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, etc.) and the era ended in ‘romantic defeat’, what Wilson calls the age of defeat 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. [2] 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 Introduction To The New Existentialism that remains fresh and invigorating. This is an accessible and practical twenty-first century philosophy which avoids the culdesac 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.

Introduction To The New Existentialism 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. 4514AC16-B6DD-4B2F-83B7-164B45002DF6This 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 Introduction To The New Existentialism.

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 The Outsider that the existential Ideas in that book “must be lived”. So the first part of Introduction To The New Existentialism 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 The Prelude (“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 Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) 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. “Being and Time 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”. Sein und Zeit 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 Sein und Zeit [Introduction, II, 7c].. Influenced by Heidegger, Derrida would later state that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology “is perhaps not possible”. [3] Wilson remarks that like Jaspers, Heidegger perhaps spent too much time on the problem and not enough on a practical solution, unlike Husserl.

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Martin Heidegger

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 starting point 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 Introduction To The New Existentialism 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 The Mind Parasites, which anticipates the current vogue for mutating H. P. Lovecraft’s Mythos with philosophy by decades, was drawn from a passage in Introduction To The New Existentialism. 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 set these limits ourselves 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). “II 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 [4] remarks in Introduction To The 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 Introduction To The New Existentialism, “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 Introduction To The New Existentialism 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 The Phenomenology of Perception and The Structure of Behaviour). 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 Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future – and perhaps in homage Wilson subtitled his own Beyond The Outsider ‘The Philosophy of the Future’. Husserl would also stress the radical ‘new’ nature of his phenomenological method and attitude. While both Sein und Zeit and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness 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 both the nascent optimism of early Romanticism and the powerful techniques of Husserl, before they were themselves 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.

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Jean-Paul Sartre

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. 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 Logical Investigations, 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’s Way, 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 (The Invisible Man) 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 him  because 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 – which is Heidegger’s obsession – 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’. [5] 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 Introduction To The New Existentialism Wilson recommends studying Proust’s huge novel as it is “a kind of fictional counterpart of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit”. 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’s Way: 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 Sein und Zeit (Division Two, 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 New Pathways In Psychology (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” [Sein und Zeit, Division Two, IV, (b)]. But Proust, during the famous madeleine scene in Swann’s Way, 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 unless we take it as a given that we are victims of external circumstance – 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 In Search of Lost Time 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 Introduction To The New Existentialism is entitled The Crisis In Modern Thought; 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 A Criminal History of Mankind, 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 Sein und Zeit). “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 Introduction To The New Existentialism 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”.

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Colin Wilson

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 is 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 The Outsider, 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 [6] – although neither Ouspensky or Husserl [Logical Investigations, Prolegomena Ch. 8, §49; Ideas, Second Book § 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, First Book § 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 crude maps of Africa 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. [Logical Investigations 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 Sein und Zeit (Division One, V. 29) Heidegger discusses moods (“we are never free of moods”). In Introduction To The New Existentialism 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 The Outsider, 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 [7] 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 Introduction To The New Existentialism 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 must be lived. 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 – Everyday Consciousness Is A Liar – 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 Origins of the Sexual Impulse) and below into the occluded depths (cf Wilson’s The Occult). 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 Introduction To The New Existentialism 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 The Occult). 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”. [8] 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 Introduction To The New Existentialism 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” [Husserl, Logical Investigations, Investigation VI, §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.” [9] 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…” [10]

In 1980 Wilson said that Introduction To The New Existentialism 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’ (Beyond The Occult, 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 Introduction To The New Existentialism 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, The Outsider. It is excellent that this important text is finally back in print. [11]

Notes.

[1] Husserl, ‘The Vienna Lecture’ (May 1935) in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, 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.

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Flamingo, 1984, p. 72. His free interpretation of Husserl’s science of consciousness is on page 20.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, John Hopkins University Press, 1997, p. 67

[4] 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, Dual Value Response (originally 1972) reprinted in The Bicameral Critic, Salem House, 1985, p.102.

[5] 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

[6] P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, RKP, 1950, p. 121. Also ibid. p. 107 (“sensations can be indifferent”) and Husserl, ‘Investigation VI’, Logical Investigations (volume II), RKP, 1970, p. 761 and ‘Sense and Understanding’ p. 773 infra

[7] A.N. Whitehead, Adventures In Ideas, Cambridge University Press, 1933, p. 290. Whitehead’s long list is quoted and discussed in many of Wilson’s books.

[8] Colin Wilson, Introduction To The New Existentialism: The Author’s Emendations, 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 Logical Investigations, ibid. p. 533

[9] Sex, Crime and theOccult’ in Rapid Eye, R.E. Publishing, 1989, p. 118

[10] Edmund Husserl, Philosophy as Mankind’s SelfReflection; the SelfRealisation of Reason, Appendix IV In The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, ibid. p. 338

[11] 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.

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Evolutionary Metaphors by David J. Moore: 21st Century New Existentialism

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“The new existentialism and the UFO are not as far apart from each other as one might think”, writes David J. Moore in his debut book Evolutionary Metaphors. Moore, who has previously published pieces in several scholarly collections investigating the deep end of Wilson’s work and legacy [1] is a researcher who encountered Wilson’s existential thought at a young age and who describes a UFO experience first hand in these pages. He is then the ideal person to investigate such a connection, and if Wilson were alive in 2019 he would have doubtless written an introduction to this book – the ultimate stamp of approval.

Wilson’s influence is keenly felt here: plain autobiographical detail merges with the outlandish and fantastic subject matter, and the writing is clear and compulsive. In February 2008 the then 22 year old author, who was “mainly interested in existentialist literature of the pessimistic variety—writers such as Michel Houllebecq and the Romanian arch-pessimist, Emil Cioran”, shared an odd collective experience with three other people. They witnessed “a silent, apparently amorphous and changing series of lights” 30 feet above their heads. At least that’s what they think they saw – apart from personal memory and subjective interpretation, there “was the added problem of its inherent difficulty to simply describe; it was frankly too unusual and unlikely to convey”. However, all were convinced that what they saw was something ‘other’. Working out his new existentialist ideas in the early sixties through the ‘Outsider Cycle’ books, Colin Wilson noted in one volume that our minds have a tendency to filter out most ‘otherness’, leaving the world looking quite poker faced and seemingly indifferent to us. Wilson’s new existentialist method attempted to look into the mechanisms of this passive state and involved investigating unusual types of perception and phenomena.

Familiar with Wilson’s work, particularly The Outsider, Moore sought out Alien Dawn, Wilson’s concise 1998 study of the bewildering UFO phenomenon and it’s vast attendant literature. “Wilson’s approach to ufology” writes Moore, “retained this evolutionary spirit, for he asked the essential question: ‘What can it tell us about ourselves, our consciousness?’- a question informed by the philosophical discipline of phenomenology, which aims to reveal the mechanisms of man’s psyche, and its dynamic and interpretative role through man and towards reality”. Wilson’s influence Alfred North Whitehead famously urged philosophers that no experience should be omitted from enquiry including ‘experience abnormal’ (his full list, often quoted by Wilson, is also mentioned in the present book). Many of the cases drawn from UFO and abductee literature throughout Evolutionary Metaphors certainly sound abnormal – like the large kangaroo spotted in a car park which turned out to be a UFO, for instance – at least from our everyday rational consciousness, what Husserl called the natural standpoint. But pioneering researchers working at the dawn of UFO writing, such as Jung or Jacques Vallee, saw deeper patterns in the phenomena, recurring symbols from folklore and ancient mythology.

As Moore notes, the act of interpretation itself is significant in the analysis of the UFO enigma. And the clear interpretation of states and phenomena, unclouded by subjective emotional prejudices, is the primary goal of phenomenology, at least in it’s early stages. Wilson’s new existentialism is of course indebted to Husserl’s phenomenology and as Moore remarks, “Wilson, for me and many others, came to represent a fearless explorer of the dark and occulted recesses of the human psyche, but significantly, without a pessimistic bias”. Much classic UFO literature can be dark and forbidding in tone, with many witnesses and abductees recounting experiences of terror and dread amongst the hyper-surrealistic events unfolding around them. Speaking of Sartre’s frightening existential state of ‘nausea’, Wilson remarks that “in nausea man feels isolated in an alien world of objects”, a chaos of unconnected fragments. But, as Moore points out, phenomenology deals with wholes, not parts – Husserl devotes the third section of his Logical Investigations II examining mereology (parts and wholes) – and a phenomenologist like Wilson was always cautious to step back from emotional interpretations (terror, bewilderment, pessimistic doom) when examining paranormal phenomena (or in fact, any phenomena). Husserl and Wilson spoke of ‘relational’ consciousness and both were more concerned, like Whitehead, with delineating the whole picture, a Gestalt, and trying to read the situation as neutrally as possible, free of subjective distortions. This is also Moore’s method – “I suspect that the UFO experience is […] a metaphor towards a new understanding of reality”, he writes. And he notes that it could be interpreted as an “evolutionary metaphor”.

The Whole of the Law

Most perceptively, Moore notes how the “new existentialism enriches the reading and understanding of much occult and paranormal literature”. This is a very important point which is still not widely acknowledged by occultists. “The new existentialism”, he says, “was an attempt by Wilson to provide the foundations for an evolutionary phenomenology in which man could access these meaningful levels of reality”. Running through the large history of esoterica that is Wilson’s The Occult are the same philosophical concerns from his new existentialist period of 1956 – ‘66, a point lost on some of his early readers who presumed he had abandoned existentialism for something less rigorous.

Kenneth Grant, who was originally dismissed by mainstream occultists (but not by Wilson) for his confrontational synthesis of Lovecraft, magick, UFOlogy and decadent literature, is often thought of as one of the originators of Chaos Magic, the postmodern ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’ strain of contemporary sorcery which is briefly discussed in Evolutionary Metaphors. Like Wilson, Grant put a lot of emphasis on imaginative fiction writing, on poetry and novels: one of his early self published works states that fantastic fiction is a substitute for a long atrophied natural faculty which could originally understand truth directly (think Wilson’s ‘Faculty X’). Grant uses the term ‘adumbration’, often used by Husserl when speaking of parts and wholes, in his analysis of occult experiences (and in fact he once referred to his own work as ‘phenomenology’). Like Wilson said when quoting Yeats, our minds are ‘partial’, but completed in moments of illumination. These moments when this faculty is operative are plentiful in literature; Wilson collected scores of examples from Proust, Hesse and many others and made a careful study of them as accurate descriptions of metal states (i.e. phenomenology) rather than as merely entertaining flights of fancy. Grant once stated that we can accept these truths at a deeper holistic level whereas the conceptualising mind struggles as it can only interpret things piecemeal, via parts, sides or adumbrations. “Chaos magic”, Moore writes, “is basically a scaffolding of a system that recognises the value of phenomenology”; one well known practitioner he quotes recommends the use of pareidolia, the ability to construct forms out of the formless, like Leonardo Da Vinci looking at an old wall and seeing figures and scenes, or the familiar ability to see faces in a fire. Wilson suggested many times that this intentional perceiving is a very important evolutionary creative ability, not just a by-product of daydreaming.

Like Jung, Kenneth Grant often suggested that the UFO was a deep mythological symbol like the grail or saucer of magical lore. “Now, what we might be seeing in the modern world”, writes Moore, “is the re-emergence of a type of magical thinking that had previously gone underground, so to speak, or had remained dormant in the unconscious regions of our collective psyche”. Both Wilson and Grant spoke about a long ‘dormant’ faculty which is slowly reappearing in the post Romantic age and in it’s literature (even Proust spoke of faculties long dormant) and in our modern commercial culture. Science fiction, which once was an underground scene at the dawn of the post war UFO craze, is now big business – Hollywood has made many Philip K Dick stories yet the author of what became Blade Runner and Total Recall spent most of his writing life struggling for money. Dick’s fortunes were turned around by his extraordinary ‘1974’ experience (see chapter 7 of Wilson’s Unsolved Mysteries, Past and Present, 1993) where he was plunged into a world of high strangeness as weird as anything from his own SF books. As documented in his rambling, philosophical Exegesis and in his later novels – referenced here by Moore – Dick’s previously neurotic state was radically changed by the ‘Valis’ events. With typical synchronicity, Dick had a “strange and eerie feeling” that his early novels were coming true. Moore expertly connects Dick’s notion of Valis or ‘Zebra’ – a kind of universal architect hidden in plain sight who Dick sometimes claimed to have intuited, happily building away – with the transcendental ego of Husserl as described by Wilson in his very rare (privately published, 1995) emendation to Introduction to the New Existentialism. “Now”, Moore writes, “by forwarding a basic ‘doctrine of the will’ that aims to uncover the ‘unconscious layers of will and intention, of which you were previously not aware’, it is significant that Wilson points out that the deeper layers of our intentionality awaken in mystical experiences. For in these experiences we lose our general sense of alienation— moreover, an alienation that is ‘due to lack of contact with one’s intentional layers’”. ‘Alien’ experiences, properly understand, may not be alien after all. By developing our ability to know that parts are just that and not misunderstanding them as the totality of a whole – to know the reality of other times and other places as Wilson (and Grant, briefly) said – is to have a completed rather than partial mind, what is commonly termed mystical consciousness. In the Exegesis, Dick speaks of not seeing the Other, but seeing as the Other – Wilson pointed out that our rational minds filter out most otherness due to their relentless need for order, and that Husserl’s aim was to catch them out doing just that, perhaps as Dick did in 1974. “How did we lose certain faculties entirely?” asks Dick in the Exegesis. “Have the remaining ones occluded?” Like Wilson, he found answers in Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, with the shift from all over mythological consciousness (whole, but innocent) to the sharper rational consciousness (understanding, but only partially knowing). In evolutionary terms, we must use this sharpened consciousness to understand whole, and not merely partial meanings. “The new existentialism”, Moore continues, “lays important emphasis on the essential hierarchical nature of consciousness; lower levels of consciousness become increasingly diffuse, disintegrated, whereas higher forms of consciousness—such as the mystical experience or the ‘peak experience’—become synthesised and integrated into the greater whole of our being”.

Gurdjieff once told Ouspensky that “man cannot reconstruct the idea of the whole starting from separate facts” and he insisted that the unprepared mind, connecting with higher centres, will experience either a total blank or disjointed images and sensations – the distortions that the phenomenologist wishes to exclude. This sounds like some of the confusing abductee experiences of UFO literature. Gurdjieff insisted on training the intentional faculties to ‘grasp’ phenomena before any attempts at accessing the higher centres, and Wilson suggested a similar procedure. “Evolutionary metaphors – along with esoteric ‘correspondences’ and the logic of much anomalous phenomenon – baffle ordinary causal logic precisely by transcending its limits and by inferring beyond itself” says Moore. “Essentially they are symbols of a reality yet to become”. This bizarre sense of past/future is discussed in Philip K Dick’s fiction (Counter Clock World, etc) and in his Exegesis (he ruminated on time flowing backwards, from decay to perfection; Kenneth Grant had similar concerns and Husserl analysed internal time consciousness). Moore quotes abductee author Whitely Streiber: “What we have to learn to do […] is to learn to move out of the time stream so that we can examine it more carefully and come to understand its real meaning”. Proust of course devoted a huge novel to this very problem. And Moore goes on to say that in order to understand these possibilities (evolutionary metaphors) “we must develop imaginative as well as supra-logical faculties which can process this level of reality from which these metaphors emerge, and in doing so, it would be immediately grasped that they can become more than mere symbols but actualities”. In occultism, symbols, fantasies, dreams and desires are reified via synchronicities in the mundane world; in Wilson’s new existentialism, hidden (occluded) phenomenological structures are brought to conscious awareness in order to perceive reality more coherently. Symbols becoming actualities happened throughout the Romantic period: as Wilson has recounted, the fictional fever dreams of Richardson, Rousseau and Goethe had such an enormous impact on the Western world that we still feel it today. Philip K Dick’s novels are full of what he called ‘pre-cog’ about himself (his “strange and eerie feeling” regarding personal events happening after he wrote them) and his startling foresight about the unfolding 21st Century.

“There is the sense that there are meanings that animate the deepest substratum of existence”, writes Moore, “and that, in some odd way, these meanings are the structural blueprints not only of matter and the physical and natural world, but also the structuring forces that underlies experience as well as existence in its interior and mental form”. As Wilson once said, if we could uncover these meanings (he called them “our intentional evolutionary structure”) via phenomenological discipline, we would become a completely different type of creature – his collected ‘outsiders’ are foreshadowings of such a creature (as Moore notes, Alien Dawn concludes with a chapter entitled ‘The Way Outside’ with an analysis of science fiction stories such as Brian Aldiss’ Outside). As we read through case histories in UFO literature, Moore says, “one is reminded of the essential message of Wilson’s philosophy, and this provides a much needed reevaluation of our reductionist culture”. Reductionism is merely a symptom of our closed perceptions, and Blake and his fellow romantics satirised it and railed against it with aplomb. Wilson, who labelled his own analysis ‘Romanticism Mark Three’ (Mark Two was Existentialism) found a bulwark against reductionism in Husserl’s phenomenological method which ironically reduces everything back to the source of the transcendental ego. This, it must be noted, is the start of the phenomenological method, not, as commonly misunderstood, its end or goal. As Wilson, says, only when we rid our mental lives of this emotional colouring can we see things afresh. And as Husserl would say, philosophy can then finally begin. The strange states of consciousness documented by the writers collected and analysed by Wilson and followers such as Moore are portends of what we could become – they are evolutionary metaphors – and as disturbing and uncanny they may appear to be to our fragmented mundane consciousness, I, like the author, have no doubt that they are trying to show us something, if only we could step back and see the whole picture. 

Evolutionary Metaphors is published on the 31st of May by 6th Books

[1] Moore was a speaker at both the First and Second International Colin Wilson Conferences at Nottingham University: all lectures are presented in book form and published by Cambridge Scholars (see both links). 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two new Colin Wilson Studies now available

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 Evolutionary Metaphors will be discussed here soon.

Both titles are £7.95 each. Full details are here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eagle and Earwig back in print

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New Edition 2018

Wilson’s 1965 collection Eagle and Earwig, originally published by John Baker in 1965, gets it’s first reissue in five decades by Eyewear Publishing. Now entitled Eagles and Earwigs, this hardcover edition has a new introduction by Wilson biographer Gary Lachman, annotations by Wilson’s bibliographer Colin Stanley and is 412 pages long. Like The Age of Defeat, also just reprinted, Eagles and Earwigs is rare in it’s original edition. Both titles show the development of Wilson’s new existentialist thought, with Eagles and Earwigs being particularly strong 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’.

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First Edition, 1965

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 Voyage to Arcturus, 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.

The Age of Defeat reissued, The Outsider Revisited, and more…

colin-wilson-Age-Of-Defeat-cover-smallThe Age of Defeat, the third volume of Wilson’s Outsider Cycle series, has been reissued by Aristeia Press. This follows from their reissue of volume two, Religion and the Rebel, last year. You can see both books at their website here. The new edition has an introduction by academic Thomas F. Bertonneau, who has previously noted that certain Wilson books  “have been hard to find, and when found on the second-hand market command demoralizing high prices”. A case in point are the Outsider Cycle volumes themselves – while The Outsider has remained in print, the sequel was last reprinted in 1984 and The Age of Defeat was unobtainable for almost six decades, save for a very limited ‘deluxe’ reissue at the turn of the century (it was so limited that even I don’t own a copy!) Hopefully this bodes well for the remaining volumes: while second hand copies of The Strength to Dream, Origins of the Sexual Impulse and Beyond the Outsider can be obtained, their prices are rising. The seminal final volume, Introduction to the New Existentialism, which sums up the series brilliantly, is now becoming prohibitively expensive.

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First Edition 1959

The Age of Defeat is produced to match the softcover design of Religion and the Rebel from last year (the original 1950’s Gollancz editions had uniform designs as per usual, but were different sizes).  A study concerned with what Wilson labelled ‘the fallacy of insignificance’, the vanishing hero and the sociology of inner and outer directed psychology, The Age of Defeat is a timely reissue for the twenty first century, with Wilson’s ideas – properly understood – being more relevant now than ever. This latter point is made by pioneering Wilson scholar Howard F. Dossor in a video lecture on Wilson’s debut here. Dossor’s 1990 book (Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind) was the only available work for quite some time to contain a summary of the huge spread and reach of Wilson’s oeuvre, as well as a bibliography and enticing quotes from his work. Along with the compendium The Essential Colin Wilson (1985) this introduced me to the breadth of his output and more importantly, it’s conceptual cohesion. This latter book will be reissued next May and, at 400 pages, is considerably longer than the original, with many extra selections of post-1985 work, chosen by Wilson scholars. Like the original, this includes the ‘Strange Story of Modern Philosophy’ chapter from Beyond the Outsider (this got me interested in philosophy instantly) and an important chapter from the hard to find Introduction to the New Existentialism as well as standalone essays. The same month will see a study of UFO phenomena as seen through the lens of Wilson’s new existentialist ethos. Evolutionary Metaphors by scholar David Moore – who presented papers at both Colin Wilson Conferences this and last year – will be available from 6th Books in 2019, more information is here. His Wilson flavoured musings are at the aptly titled blog Ritual in the Dark. Meanwhile, the Glastonbury based author Paul Weston is currently working on a study provisionally entitled The Colin Wilson Work which will be published sometime in the near future, and my own thoughts on Wilson should appear on paper next year. Against all currents and trends, Wilson is slowly becoming a true underground (and I mean seriously underground) hero of the twenty first century, thanks to the tireless support of  those willing to investigate his radical phenomenology.