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.

20% off Wilson audio lectures at BetterListen!

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BetterListen! have made three Wilson lectures from the 1990’s available as digital downloads. Their website offers a 20% discount on Peak Experiences & The New Human, Science Fiction and the Esoteric and Awakening to an Evolutionary Breakthrough. Enter the code cwilson20 here or here for 20% off.

8E536FDC-7317-419E-8F91-EEC1562E6084There are SoundCloud previews of Peak Experiences & The New Human here and here; of Science Fiction and the Esoteric here and here and a preview of Awakening to an Evolutionary Breakthrough here.

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The lecture on science fiction is particularly interesting, with Wilson discussing “how real life is not so dissimilar from the weird and wild ideas in the fictional realm”; a theme which goes back to his 1963 book The Strength to Dream as well as essays such as Science Fiction as Existentialism (1978) and indeed his own science fiction novels. “Human beings appear to have a Faculty for being where they’re not supposed to be, so to speak, for knowing things they’re not supposed to know” he says in the lecture on evolutionary breakthrough. Wilson was a formidable lecturer (no notes or PowerPoint!), and the conversational style of his works – which delighted his readers, yet alienated the literary establishment – comes through powerfully in these clear recordings which are highly recommended

“Prehension? Moi?” Religion and The Rebel, reissued

Colin Wilson, Religion and The Rebel (Aristeia Press, 2017) A needed reprint of Wilson’s much misunderstood “difficult second album” (as the music journalistic cliche goes) in a large dark blue covered paperback (it’s also available as an e-book). Introductory pieces from the editor, from Wilson biographer Gary Lachman; also including Wilson’s own retrospective introduction from the second Ashgrove Press edition from 1984, now long out of print like the first Gollancz edition of 1957. Aristeia Press will be reissuing Wilson’s third non fiction book The Age of Defeat in the near future – it has been out of print since 1959, apart from a very limited reissue in 2001. Aristeia Press’ website is here – where you can read a sample of Religion and The Rebel before you buy. Also available at Amazon UK 

Religion and the Rebel Cover SmashwordsEvery review, every mention or discussion of this book opens with the same statement – that it was panned upon it’s original release in 1957. When I found a first Gollancz edition, damp-spattered dust jacket and all, in a Newcastle bookshop for the princely sum of £2.50 over three decades ago, I was at the very start of my interest in Wilson – I hadn’t even read The Outsider yet – and I enjoyed Religion and the Rebel very much. I read it without much awareness of it’s reception, and it stuck me as remarkably undated despite the odd reference to James Dean or some Fifties social concept (Rimbaud is described, not altogether wrongly, as looking like a ‘teddy boy’). I quickly went out and purchased two spanking new Picador paperbacks – the complete Rimbaud and the selected Rilke – purely off the excitement generated by the lucid treatment they received here. Wilson was such a great teacher.
Reading his autobiographical introduction when I was still in my teens only made the bond stronger: here was someone from the same background as me, doing the same jobs I would do, and expertly articulating my deepest thoughts. Now, re-reading it again as I approach my fiftieth year, I have a much deeper appreciation.
I must admit, my very first impressions when I was back into the 1957 text – after introductions by the editor, by Gary Lachman, and a retrospective one by Wilson himself – didn’t seem to bode too well. His original Autobiographical Introduction which feverishly excited me so much then seemed to be surprisingly emotional for a Wilson book. Now that I’m very familiar with his ‘phenomenological tone’ it’s not exactly absent, but it is essentially in embryo here (he wouldn’t mention Husserl, fleetingly, until The Strength to Dream a few years later.) The fiery emotion which excited me so much then – when I was just a few years younger than the author – is duly noted by Wilson in his 1984 introduction. “What I notice, the moment I begin reading, is that I then had a far more narrow and intense view of the [Outsider] problem than I have nowadays, and this gives the book a sense of passionate involvement that is lacking in the later volumes of the series.” Now that I’m almost the same age as Wilson was in 1984, I’m inclined to agree; maturity certainly sharpens your perceptions for the better. Clenched fist passions give way to the visionary clenching of consciousness, which in our own emotionally driven, subjectively confused time is much more radical and necessary.
What strikes me now, reading Wilson on his own development, is how closely his early self belief parallels that of many of the case histories he analyses in his second book. When he notes that he was writing a massive history of everything as a schoolboy, he was not only learning his writing trade, he was following in the footsteps of the boy Rimbaud (“on one occasion, he produced a digest of ancient history, including Egypt, Syria and Babylon”). The self creation of Rilke discussed in part one is apposite to Wilson’s own development – “he thoroughly dramatized himself in the role of poet.” Wilson would often return to the notion of the self image in his later writings. His polymathic interests are similar to those of Swedenborg, as is his switch from the rigours of science to the ambiguous landscape of mysticism, a lesson which today’s youthful dogmatists could learn something from, if they could actually concentrate for more than a millisecond, that is – note the need for “constant diversion” which creates “perpetual misery” in the discussion of Pascal. This is written exactly sixty-one years ago, and Pascal was of course writing long before that. Again and again, timely concepts pop up throughout the text. We live in an “infant-prodigy civilization”, with the clever schoolboy a “fitting image for Western civilization”. And perhaps the most overarching theme is the inevitable end or destruction of that very civilization, something voiced with not a little force by Nietzsche, and later by the likes of Spengler in 1918 or feminist thinker Camille Paglia today.
By infant prodigy or clever schoolboy he doesn’t mean Rimbaud or himself being disciplined enough to attempt digests of knowledge at an early age: that is simply the shallow end of a long learning curve. He means the “brilliant of mind, but immature in all other things.” Think upper class logic machines like Bertrand Russell or AJ Ayer and their childish, self indulgent philandering. Or think Dawkins and his Trumpish social media tantrums – can you imagine a scientist like Swedenborg doing anything so cringeworthy? I was struck, over and over, by the uncanny relevance of the arguments. Not bad for a “scrambled egghead” and his “rubbish bin”.

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Rilke

Religion and The Rebel is dedicated to writer Negley Farson – who was in Petrograd when the Russian Revolution broke out forty years previously, and who met both Ghandi and Hitler – and his son Daniel, who was often on television in my youth. Farson junior (“a good Ayran boy” according to Herr Hitler) was the journalist responsible for Wilson’s famous assertion of his own genius which helped dismissals of this book no end. Dismissals, I might add, made by people who never had to do the kind of manual labour Wilson documents in his introduction. I never noticed, for instance, the obvious fact that Arnold Toynbee was critic Philip Toynbee’s father until I read Gary Lachman’s introduction. Arnold would remain very important to Wilson but his son would accept, then firmly reject Wilson with this book and accept him yet again fourteen years later! A younger Toynbee, still a prominent political journalist today, once worked in two (two!) factories after leaving Oxford in the Sixties but has confessed that she “quickly discovered why people who work in factories don’t usually have the energy to write when they get home”. This is the world Wilson was writing and rebelling against. He was a tough worker who couldn’t afford the luxury safety net of the Toynbee bloodline, hence his ‘arrogance’, his proletarian chutzpah, which would help foster a wave of prole autodidactism running through many streams of anti-academic underground culture in the next few decades. This attitude is more or less neutered in the British lower classes today. We can read with wonder, for instance, about the complex anti-surface philosophy of Jacob Boehme who allowed “his own rough peasant voice to explain his meaning.”
After the slice of autobiography, the book is broken up into two parts. The first section of Part One deals with imagination – this is where I first read about Rilke, carrying a long stemmed flower through the streets of Prague in his old fashioned frock coat, and Rimbaud’s tempestuous affair with Verlaine, his ‘disappearance’ into the forests of Java and his unwanted fame. F. Scott Fitzgerald – a ‘weak Outsider’, like Elvis Presley, according to Wilson, much later – is also analyzed. It’s Hollywood Babylon on the surface, but Wilson detects an undercurrent of romanticism “straight out of Schiller or Hoffman”. Wilson tries to imagine what could have happened if Rimbaud was a young American in the 1920’s: he wasn’t to know, but that mutation would be happening ten years on with the peak of the counterculture in 1967.
The second section of this first part deals with Spengler’s notions of the biological growth, decay and death of civilizations. Spengler was unknown, a schoolteacher with “no special academic qualifications” like Wilson himself, and his immense work The Decline of the West made him famous in 1918 despite “the academic cold shoulder”. Wilson finds Spengler’s dissection of our “Faustian” civilization impressive, for Goethe’s Faust represents the bifurcation of science and art, resulting in a middle ground of unappetizing ‘knowledge’. Goethe would argue with Schiller that we can actively append nature, rather than abstract it from ourselves scientifically. This idea would return in Blake, Nietzsche, Husserl and Whitehead, and Wilson would describe it as his central obsession – “a movement towards the science of living”. This philosophy, he says, “has nothing whatever to do with any science that exists at present.” Spengler intuitively saw this: that we are not mere spectators of history, but Wilson suggests his temperament was closer to the pessimism of Schopenhauer, whose fatalism Nietzsche famously rejected. So despite agreeing that the arteries of Western culture are hardening, Spengler’s ‘no escape’ from decay is rejected. Another historian, Arnold Toynbee, is more of a visionary with his extraordinary Proustian time-slips, but Wilson rejects his solution to the problem (a collage of world religions) as much as those prosented by Shaw or Aldous Huxley – “religion is not made by throwing ingredients into a cooking pot.” So how is it made? Part Two of the book is an attempt to answer that question.
Nietzsche was acutely aware that once the cement of faith has completely crumbled with the death of God, moral chaos would ensure, and this assertion was ironically prophetic. Nietzsche’s continued reievance lies in his skewering the “last men” foibles of 21st century atheism while never falling prey to the kind of relativism we saw in postmodernism.
The Outsider problem was none-existent inside the church – “from the highest intellectual types to the meanest artisan” there was a structure, a role – and by ‘church’ he means Cathedral, Mosque, Temple, and inclusive faiths of all stripes. With the rise of Humanist values, this innocent security vanishes and we are in Rousseau’s garden, ‘free’, but everywhere in chains. Wilson regards Rousseau’s statement as “rubbish”, as much as Nietzsche or Blake did. Rather, it is Blake’s “mind forged manacles”, boredom and futility, which are the problem. A discipline is needed, not a physical discipline but a mental one; a “science of living”. Rimbaud’s intense need to make himself a visionary is a start – the opposite of a “spectator and an observer, a sort of naturalist looking at the universe through a magnifying glass and murmuring: ‘Mmm. Most interesting.’” Existentialism, of course, regards us as intensely involved in the universe, but it’s major thinkers – Heidegger, Sartre and Camus – are as pessimistic as Schopenhauer. “Jaspers is a better existentialist than Heidegger”, Wilson opines, because he focused on the lives of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, and showed the real issues of life in action, rather than talk about them in ever more complex critical language and discourse. In the last part of Religion and the Rebel, Wilson gives short case histories on mystics and theologians (Boehme, Ferrar, Pascal, Law and Newman), on philosophers (Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Whitehead) on that remarkable scientist turned mystic Swedenborg and on Shaw, who Wilson regards as the most significant thinker since Dante. By analyzing their lives he pays tribute to Jaspers’ method in the same fashion as the earlier sections on Rimbaud and Rilke, and indeed in his previous book.
Goethe insisted that we could directly append nature, we could know without it fossilizing into mere ‘knowledge’, abstraction or classification. For Goethe, education (Bildung) was essential. Not school education or learning by rote, but closer to the sense he uses it in his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, a journey of self-realization. “Real education”, writes Wilson, “means existentialism, and existentialism means exploring one’s inner world scientifically.” So for Wilson, religion is not originally determined by ritual dogmatism, that is a later, unimaginative structure – pure religion, or rather, mysticism, is “exploring one’s inner world” much in the same way as existentialism. Joining all the types of religious dogma together to form a theological coalition is pointless, as they in fact have the same source, the same root.

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Jakob Boehme

This is a “science of living” and true existentialism without the needless addition of gloom. Wilson was unaware of Husserl at this point but it is easy to see how his phenomenology would exert such a profound influence on him as the Outsider sequence progressed. We must “raise the banner of a new existentialism and make war on civilized modes of thought” he says. And in another act of either precognition or conceptual continuity, he quotes Nietzsche – “I love only what a man has written with his blood” – anticipating the title of Wilson’s book on forensics some thirty years away, a book which would include a postscript on problems of freedom and consciousness. Boehme, that fascinating mystic who influenced both Blake and Yeats, would speak of the ‘signature’ of nature, whose presence is, according to Wilson, “in the outward form of all things” but can be interpreted “just as an expert can find a criminal’s fingerprint on every object from a glass vase to human throat.” Wilson is adamant that this is different to specific yogic or ritual disciplines and his discovery of phenomenology would bear that out throughout the next few decades.
Boehme, – “a dreamy type of lad” – gained a major insight by absentmindedly gazing at the reflection on a pewter dish; he fell into an involuntary state of ecstasy and felt he was looking into the heart of nature. He vowed to discipline himself and to restore this state, to make himself a visionary, as Rimbaud said. In 1610 he succeeded, with all his fragmentary insights cohering into a whole. Boehme writes that he learned more in fifteen minutes “than if I had been many years together at a university…” Here we have Goethe’s education (Bildung), his direct appending of nature, encompassing more than any form of plodding, piece by piece logical construction, (although certainly not hindered by it either). This forensic analysis of consciousness, the reading of “signatures” is not only a “science of living”, it’s an active mode of perception. And although Wilson was unaware of Husserl in 1957, his thoughts on Alfred North Whitehead, that remarkable philosopher and mathematician, show he was intuitively aware of Husserl’s general drift.
Wilson makes much of Whitehead’s concept of prehension. “Prehension is the act of reaching out to grasp experience.” Rather like an octopus using it’s tentacles to build a structure underwater, we use our minds to hold and use experience and reality. Prehension is, he says, “the most fundamental activity of life.” And it is one of the keys to Nietzsche’s much misunderstood “master and slave” morality – “master of his own complexity, or slave to of it?” asks Wilson. Prehension is power, not political power, but power over our own personal experiences; it has the same meaning as Goethe’s Bildung, but “has a far wider meaning than the term ‘education’” or addition to knowledge. Bildung, in the sense that Goethe meant it, was “growing to maturity” which is mostly unconscious. The amount of conscious effort most of us make to grow psychologically is minimal, Wilson says; we usually grow for a limited period and then stop – “beyond that, a conscious effort of prehension is needed.” What we ‘prehend’ are units (‘occasions’ or ‘events’ in Whitehead’s terminology) of living experience, and Whitehead insisted that no experience can be omitted in a lengthy quote seen here and in many other Wilson texts. Touching on phenomenology again, every element of our experience, “not just the things we can reason about”, must be interpreted, prehended – “experience drunk and experience sober, experience waking and experience sleeping…” and on goes Whitehead’s list, which each of us could doubtlessly add to. And indeed, should.
Whitehead remains significant because, like Goethe or Nietzsche he understood what he calls the “misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries” – and questions “the notion of ‘independent existence’. There is no such mode of existence; every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the Universe.” And most interestingly, Wilson remarks that “Whitehead goes on to say that ‘personal identity’ is the fusion of the World of Value with the World of Activity; in fact, the human being is a manifestation of the world of value in the world of activity”. So it would appear that we are intimately entangled with the universe and our personal identity is more of a developing process than a static construct modeled from various random bits and pieces, as suggested by Hume and his fellow travelers.
This is a relevant insight, for one dilemma we find ourselves in this particular era of the 21st century is marked by anxiety about personal identity, it’s interrelated connections and resultant power struggles. If there is “no such mode” of independent existence and every entity can only be understood in “the way it is interwoven with the rest of the Universe”, then does this not sound like the typical deterministic mantra of postmodernism? No – Whitehead remarks that our “sense experiences are superficial” and that this superficiality diversifies the “flood of self-enjoyment” into a “trickle of conscious memory and conscious anticipation”. So the fifteen minutes of learning (Bildung) which Boehme thought so important, Proust’s famous insights about memory or Dostoyevsky’s Kirilov stopping the clock in The Devils is this full self-enjoyment, this open illumination, before it is “diversified” by our superficial sense-experiences. Whitehead goes on to say – Wilson is commenting on his 1941 essay Immortality – that too much “philosophic thought is based upon the faked adequacy” of descriptions of human experience. This ‘fake’ is logical thought, abstract thought, which constantly tries to ossify lived experience into systems. Logic, Wilson says, “is meant to save time, and to give us additional freedom – but here Zarathustra’s question arises: Freedom for what? The mere logical philosopher hoards time as a miser hoards money”. Existentialism, on the other hand, is spending your money wisely and living as well as you can.

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Ashgrove Press 1984

Whitehead’s philosophy is similar to Blake’s prophetic poetry and attacks many of the same targets, and Wilson remarks that Whitehead is one of the most outstanding philosophers of the twentieth century (as Bruno Latour would explicitly assert this century). Wilson also contrasts Whitehead with Wittgenstein – they share a chapter in this book – and comes to a similar conclusion which Gilles Deleuze would come to embrace in the early nineties, in that Whitehead was far greater. Wilson notes that after “admitting that the really important important things cannot be talked about”, Wittgenstein “went on talking for the rest of his life.” For Wilson this is as much to do with the “dissatisfaction and constant change” of his life, as eventful as Whitehead’s was “serene and untroubled – the ideal life for a philosopher”. Wittgenstein, for all his “machine gun” logic, hovered on the edge of mental illness and tried on endless costumes – “engineer, scientist, mathematician, schoolteacher, monk, architect, sculptor, doctor, musician, workman” – dressing in a zipped leather jacket when delivering lectures at Cambridge for extra effect. Despite his calm logic, he comes across as dramatic and restless as the teenage Rimbaud. Kierkegaard, the religious philosopher who coined the term ‘existentialism’ was “emotionally immature, no matter how mature he may have been intellectually” and despite his obvious importance, he “wasted a great deal of his time by exaggerating his personal problems out of all proportion.” Wilson would coin the term ‘existential criticism’ in the late fifties, a way of looking not just at the work – philosophy, fiction, etc. – but at the attitudes of the creator and how these affect the work. Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, despite their brilliance, seemed to be unable to escape either their inherent self consciousness or emotional immaturity, a foible shared by Bertrand Russell, as noted earlier.
Religion and The Rebel was written prior the counterculture and before the first strains of postmodernism (of the deconstructive variety) in the next decade. Amongst our intellectual furniture in the 21st century is the clutter and detritus of both of those intertwined developments, neither of which, it must be said, are particularly useful anymore. Wilson would work through the Sixties more or less oblivious to the psychedelic revival of Rimbaud’s ‘systematic derangement of the senses’, and soon dismiss it as self indulgence. He had better things to do – his phenomenological ‘new’ existentialism is now far more liberating than Derrida’s attempted deconstruction of Husserl which he first presented in the mid Sixties. That became the very oppression it set out to destroy; present attitudes are infected by cynicism towards any universal meaning, denial of the uniqueness of the human subject – while remaining paradoxically self centered and egotistical, and fiercely protective of identity. Nietzsche saw all this on the horizon long before it happened, of course. Whitehead was adamant that everything is interrelated, that our sense impressions are superficial, and that logic is ‘fake’, but like Nietzsche, and indeed like Wilson, he never allowed himself to wallow in cynicism. Wilson writes that the “misery of the Barbusse type of Outsider is due to his having been trapped in that surface world of consciousness and separated from that inner love of life.” A statement as relevant in 2018 as it was in 1957.

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Wittgenstein

Wilson’s second book is a tonic read in the 21st century as he stresses everything opposite to what is accepted now. This is a rebellion. Clear style (“the power of vision combined with a deceptive clarity of expression” is how Wilson describes Shaw here) rather than obscure prose (designed for “knowing and over-acute readers” according to Nietzsche, and a sure sign of a bad writer wanting admiration); concentration and focused attention over constant distraction; deep conceptual thought rather than a “surface world of consciousness”; intuition over logic (we are obsessed with data and statistics these days); an open, trusting acceptance of the truthfulness of the insights of the likes of Boehme (“crack-brained” according to Dr. Johnson) in a cynical ‘post truth’ world; the development of “a science of living” over commercially generated lifestyles and real, awkward individualism over group identities; self willed education (Bildung) over specialism handed down by bureaucratic university systems (for a large fee), this list is endless. All the elements which would make Wilson great are already here. His later notion of a faculty which would combat the ‘paradox of freedom’ is sketched out in this sentence on memory – “All sorts of other places and other times are suddenly revived.” His cutting assertion that philosophy is the imaginary distinction between intuition and logic, much developed in the next decade, is essentially the point of the book itself. And his sketches of theologians are refreshingly open minded to read by the suffocating light of today’s pseudo atheistic smugness. So Nicholas Ferrar (“It is easy to see how a Lytton Stachley – or any modern ‘debunking’ biographer – could write about the life at Little Gidding in such a way to make it seem ridiculous”), William Law (who used “a novelist’s devices” much like Pascal, in his “clean, hard-hitting prose”) and J. H. Newman (“he was the first English religious figure to be sniped at by Insiders on definite anti-Outsider grounds”) are a testament to Wilson’s use of Jaspers’ existential method, of analyzing lives for philosophical insights.
Andy Warhol suggested everyone should be famous for fifteen minutes. Now that everyone is, isn’t it fundamentally shallow and insipid? What everyone should attempt to do for fifteen minutes is what Boehme did in 1610 – learn more than you could at any university, to cease being endlessly distracted by surface values and develop your faculties and perceptions. This book, and the rest of Colin Wilson’s best work – properly understood – is a great help towards that aim. Let’s stop pretending and start prehending.

(With thanks to Aristeia Press.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Initiating Affirmative Sequence – Beyond The Robot (a belated review)

Gary Lachman Beyond The Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (Tarcher Perigree, 2016)

B8837E1A-49CD-475C-AB75-8DD753E889DAI first read Colin Wilson over thirty years ago and I was stunned. Layers and layers of recondite information (no internet, you see) poured out of the exciting, accessible prose style and the attitude was astonishing – a relentless attack on all the doom ‘n gloom that permeated everything (or so it seemed). As a teenage Lovecraft aficionado I’d read in a magazine that other writers had added to the Mythos and “perhaps the most original of these have been Colin Wilson’s Return of the Lloiger and The Mind Parasites.” I went to the local library to return a few yellow jacketed Gollancz Lovecrafts but they didn’t have either of those titles. They did have his The Outsider, but it seemed a bit imposing – Kierkegaard? I picked up the bulky volume next to it – about four times longer than anything I’d usually have the patience to read – and it was familiar. I’d actually opened the very same book around four years earlier and read “Everyone who has been in a strange town knows the easiest way to get to know it is to walk around it alone” before placing it back on the shelf. Above a drawing of the head of Michelangelo’s David in a maze or something, in big letters: Mysteries. Page 237. I was in my school uniform then. Now I was searching for a way out of the grey dreariness of council estate consciousness and all it’s attendant frustrations. Borrowing that book, I started a chain reaction and received more riches then I’d ever imagine.
Such was the random nature of finding a Wilson book last century. I began to read as many of the works he had referenced and this turned out to be the best education I ever had. I bought any Wilson title I could find – they usually stuck out due to their minimal cover designs, often in gaudy fluorescent colours – but why did he write so many books on such different subjects? A compilation entitled The Essential Colin Wilson and, later a new book about him – the first one I’d ever seen – by a retired Australian minister answered that conundrum. Eventually I’d read everything by him and have the pleasure of visiting his home to tell him just how much his work influenced me. But it is perhaps only now that I’m beginning to really understand the implications of Wilson’s investigations into consciousness and it’s perverse paradox of freedom.
My discovery of Wilson isn’t too far away from Gary Lachman’s own, as recounted in his Beyond the Robot, the first full length study since Howard F. Dossor’s pioneering summation in 1990. Wilson himself often remarked that what he was trying to say was fairly straightforward – and it was. But it can get lost in the jungle of his multi disciplined output, which is perhaps now even more confusing to a 21st Century mind obsessed with intellectual specialism.
Lachman thankfully makes this ‘single obsessional idea” (as Wilson called it) the theme of his book, which although structured as a biography is a kind of non fiction Bildungsroman as much as anything. Far too much discussion of Wilson focuses on the celebrity/rejection ‘debacle’ around his debut, cuts ‘n pastes the print out cliche of “fled to Cornwall…occult…crime…churned out…serial killers…UFO’s…once met Marylin Monroe…I’m a genius…” and avoids investigating his philosophy “at all costs” (as one desperate for revenue newspaper once idiotically put it). This is, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly pathetic and Lachman avoids dwelling on it, preferring to concentrate on the serious philosophical work which Wilson developed more or less away from the spotlight.
Wilson’s single idea sounds simple enough in theory, but it is cryptically difficult in practice (at first, anyway). Wilson is concerned with freedom – which he stresses is a certainly a reality – but, perhaps with a nod towards Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, he notes a paradox. The odd thing about human freedom is that it’s only usually visible when it’s threatened. “When the German tanks rolled into Warsaw, or the Russians into Budapest, it seemed perfectly obvious what we meant by freedom; it was something solid and definite that was being stolen, as a burglar might steal the silver.” But the absurd paradox of freedom is that consciousness without crisis tends to become negative and trivial. Pain and inconvenience can make us feel free, but comfort is generally boring after a while. Wilson would label this perversity ‘the indifference threshold’ and the amusing story of it’s genesis is in the early part of Lachman’s book. Without danger and injustice, Wilson writes, we allow “a kind of inner-laziness to descend.” Does this mean that we need to seek out stressful situations to feel more alive? Not really. The inconvenience is usually arbitrary and all it does is flex our otherwise flabby perceptual muscles (our intentionality), grasping the meaning of freedom. That meaning was already there – we do not need to induce a crisis to see it, we just need to strengthen our intentional grasp. Passive perception is the culprit here: we think things just ‘happen’ to us, but the philosopher Husserl recognized that this is false, and built a science of consciousness – phenomenology – to combat it. Wilson would write a lot about Husserl in the Sixties and his lectures on his ‘new existentialism’ would be well received in American Universities, but these ideas were out of step with the counterculture and were eclipsed by the academic celebrity surrounding Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ of Husserl around the same time. (Recent scholarship has questioned Derrida’s true knowledge of Husserl’s phenomenology, and his ideas regarding linguistic domination are essentially now a mainstream state ideology – culturally speaking, at least. It is Wilson’s new existentialist theories which are about as truly radical as it’s possible to be in the 21st Century. His firm assertions regarding development of a strong, purposive consciousness and his blunt, driven language are coming from a dangerous and exciting place, far, far away from the comfy puritanical left/right identity politics blip of our present era, and miles away from the naive positivist faith in specialism and science. But I digress).
Why is consciousness so passive? Wilson suggests the problem is ‘the robot’, a kind of SF metaphor (probably derived from the Gurdjieff work, which Lachman cannily notes, Wilson was the first ‘outsider’ to report on) akin to Blake’s poetic notion of the Spectre. The robot is a kind of automatic servant buried amongst our faculties; it is the robot who drives our car once we’ve gone through the painstaking lessons of clutch control and reverse parking. They eventually become automatic so we can concentrate on other things thanks to our dependable helper. (This concept will doubtless become more apparent with the rise of automation in the near future). However this robot is a little over zealous; it often robs us of the quality of novelty or newness in the things we enjoy doing – it interferes with the freshness of things too often. “Making things typical is the robot’s job” writes Lachman. We have “allowed it to overstep it’s duties and have become to dependent on it”. But only because of our passive acceptance that “life is something that happens to us, rather than something we do.” Wilson would search for examples of this active doing consciousness and find it in everything from philosophy, literature, mysticism, science and even negative examples of it in (amongst other things) criminal cases and scandals. Lachman can clearly see the thread through all this and is keen to point out it’s continuity, rather than fall into the trap of regarding Wilson as a dilettante rambling from subject to subject.
True poetic (or aesthetic) illumination is the opposite of robotic consciousness – it’s freshness can be felt in all the early Romantics Wilson documented and dissected. Wilson’s robot (or ‘mind parasite’, in his fiction) is loosely based on Blake’s Spectre (“the reasoning power in man”) and another poetic idea would emerge out of the “new conceptology” of Wilson’s mid sixties phenomenological investigations. Blake regarded the ‘poetic genius’ as the true (non mechanical or robotic) person, and the “true faculty of knowing”, as a fully switched on state of non forgetful perception. “This faculty I treat of” wrote Blake. So would Wilson with his sharp and surprising turn into ‘occultism’ – at least that’s how the critics would see it as they welcomed him back into the fold in 1971. In reality his concept of ‘Faculty X’ – another slightly ironic science fictive label (snappier than the “phenomenological faculty”) – had easily been around since the Fifties. This faculty, Lachman remarks, had “preoccupied Wilson throughout his career” but it was not until 1971 that he gave it a name. Development of this faculty would preoccupy Wilson until the end, and he’d state and restate it over and over again, hedgehog style. Lachman notes interesting overlap here not just with Husserl but also with Whitehead. Faculty X is the antidote to the indifference threshold, or the “law of entropy in prehension” as Wilson described it in 1965, and Lachman understands it from both a theoretical and personal level, as opposed to writing it off as a piece of cranky gullibility.
Throughout the seventies and eighties Wilson would weave this phenomenological thread into work during the revival of interest in parapsychology and fringe Forteanisms, in the booming true crime genre (which he virtually invented), and on everything from alcohol to psychology to sexual deviancy, with many straight and parodic (“Brechtian”) works of fiction; not to mention the mountains of book reviews, introductions, lectures and TV appearances. A particular recommendation of Beyond the Robot is that Lachman pieces together shards of scattered information from minor works which only existed in tiny print runs – now rarities, or unobtainable – as well as core insights from the likes of Wilson’s 1966 masterpiece Introduction to the New Existentialism, (out of print since 1980), which gives a cohesion, a bird’s eye view to the existential jigsaw puzzle which too much writing on Wilson lacks. Like the ‘light detection and ranging’ technology which archeologists now use to find hidden cities under dense jungles, Lachman, like Dossor before him, maps out the alignments otherwise hidden by the debris of six decades of critical apathy and misunderstanding.
Lachman continues scanning into the nineties, where Wilson scholarship really picked up on the grassroots underground. I discovered the Wilson fanzine Abraxas from a notice in the back of his short Ouspensky study in 1993, and I took full advantage of the book signing offer. My copy of the Celebration collection has a verse of Peter Hammill’s song Faculty X in Wilson’s familiar handwriting, and Voyage to a Beginning was signed by “Lord Leicester” – who believed that human beings were grandfather clocks driven by watch springs somewhere in The Mind Parasites. I met Wilson bibliographer Colin Stanley and was so impressed at his collection of Wilson material – now housed in the University of Nottingham – that I started collecting first editions myself. Stanley continues to run the “aptly named” Paupers’ Press, a cottage industry publishing concern specializing in, but not exclusively, Wilson and his work.
All this was happening well under the radar of the critical establishment who continued to treat Wilson much as they had in 1957, and sometimes worse. He would put the record straight with his late work The Angry Years, and beautifully sum up his thoughts on the kind of super-consciousness which had preoccupied him for so long in a book of that title. The latter work was originally written for the Japanese market, where Wilson remained critically respected enough to lecture to huge audiences in 1986; back in the seventies he had been invited to lecture in Iran – his books were cult reading in the Middle East, and the red carpet had been rolled out for his arrival in Beirut in 1973. The huge sequel to The Space Vampires he had recently written was rejected by every British publisher (too long), but released in Russian (although according to Lachman, he received no royalties). His later work on lost civilizations was enthusiastically quoted – twice – by none other than cultural Marxist Slavoj Zizek. I wonder what the ‘dreadful’ Terry Eagleton made of that?
Despite the efforts of Abraxas and Paupers’ Press, despite the thoughtful nods from cultural figures like filmmaker Nic Roeg or musicians such as Julian Cope, it was only really the “brainless” British critical establishment who regarded Wilson as a joke. Typically, Beyond The Robot is written by an American ex-pat and seems to be only published in the USA. “It is depressing” wrote a Samuel Beckett devotee with little awareness of irony, “how seriously Wilson is taken in America.” In a new introduction to a 1991 edition of his Beyond the Outsider (published in New York), Wilson described England in the nineties as “the cultural wasteland that it has been since the end of the Second World War.” Britain’s premier intellectual superstar in the 21st century? Dawkins, the Billy Graham of atheism. One example (from multitudes) of Nietzsche’s Letzter Mensch

When Wilson was once asked what he wanted to remembered for, he said for his novels and his central philosophical ideas. That’s possibly what will happen.

I received notice of Colin’s passing in an email on my iPhone in the works canteen one evening in late 2013 (shift work, 2 – 10). He’d been ill for quite a while and a few years before he’d told me from his chair at Tetherdown that “you can really feel it catching up with you.” The mainstream UK obituaries were lousy apart from one single example of insight in The Independent. In life as in death, they were totally unaware of his existential insights into the paradox of freedom and giggled behind their hands over a critical pratfall from a previous century. Great minds.
A few years before I had attended an exhibition featuring selections from the Colin Wilson archive, housed in the University of Nottingham (ironically, next to the DH Lawrence collection). There were scores of fascinating items and it was marvelous to meet old friends and make new ones. Colin was unable to attend but a festschrift of appreciative essays was collected and presented to him for his 80th birthday. This exhibition represented, to me, the start of a new era: all the hard slog and sweat of Wilson and his scholars will be easily mined by future academics. I’ll give it, oh, maybe a few decades before the critical recanting begins in earnest – what could be more self satisfying than a huge catalogue of work, popular but controversial, with tendrils reaching into a myriad of other disciplines and connections extending into the last blast of literary modernism, all forensically analyzed from a safe distance? Lachman has said in interviews that this is of course inevitable, as academic study of the humanities always runs out of things to say because it doesn’t generate it’s own content. But he was also wise enough to point out that that’s not really the important thing. The important thing is to cultivate the faculty Wilson wrote about, into a revolutionary state of perceptual and aesthetic awareness. The important thing is to get beyond the robot.

There’s barely anything in this book that hard core readers like myself won’t already know – can we have access to those phenomenological journals, please, though? – but of course the point of Beyond The Robot is to introduce new readers to a holistic picture of Wilson and his lifetime of ideas; in this it succeeds by crushing mountains of disparate information in between two covers. It grapples with possibilities regarding Wilson’s future influence. In a talk promoting this book Lachman ironically remarked that if we can go from wishing to publicly hang Aleister Crowley on a gallows to actually hanging Leon Engers Kennedy’s portrait of him in the National Gallery in a fairly short space of time, why can’t we rehabilitate Wilson? Now that Crowley has gone from being dangerous – I can remember the sense of discomfort just buying his books as recently as the Eighties – to absorption in the mainstream, where he has become just another meme, I can see a sort of parallel. Crowley’s legacy was kept alive by a tiny band of devotees after his death, remained buoyant by the counterculture, and he has ended up becoming somewhat respectable and the subject of academic studies. So is Colin Stanley our own Gerald Yorke? Yes and no. Colin Wilson could seem to be occupying the hinterland where Crowley was between 1947 and Sgt. Pepper, with a devoted following battling the revulsion of the establishment, but there are differences. Wilson avoided the trap of guru – he wrote a book critiquing the entire ‘charlatan messiah’ syndrome – and his open minded, generous accessibility, his offering of suggestions rather than rules or exercises means it’s unlikely that his readers can never end up like Crowley’s ironically non individualistic followers, with their catchphrases and identikit views. Some of us call each other “Wilsonians” but we don’t really mean it. And let’s not forget that despite the critical sniping, Wilson was always a popular author, much, much more widely read that somebody like The Great Beast, whose books are rumpled and fetishized by collectors and devotees rather than read by the public (Crowley’s best book, The Confessions, did sell quite a few in a paperback edition in 1989 though).
Lachman notes that when he first moved to London and began speaking about his interest in Wilson and the sum of his work he was surprised by the skepticism in ‘alternative’ circles, compared to those in the US – “the general impression I got was that he had written too much about too many things and had been repeating himself for years.” This specialism is endemic not just in esoterica but in other research like Ripperology (a term Wilson invented) and pretty much everything else which he wrote about. Wilson is thought of as a none too competent fox but only by those who cannot see the hedgehog for the spikes. Again, it doesn’t matter. Wilson remains a true oppositional, perhaps one of the last of his kind, and his attitude and ideas towards consciousness and its manifestations run counter to everything we see around us at the beginning of the 21st Century. That in itself is reason to celebrate him. I’ve no doubt that Wilson’s ‘new conceptolgy’, his solution to the paradox of freedom, will eventually begin to generate new and surprising revelations in an manner unexpected even by his readers.

Updated edition of Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism

optimism 001An newly updated reprint of Brad Spurgeon’s Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism is to be published by Michael Butterworth Books on December 11th. Originally published in 2006, the book contains a lengthy interview with Wilson (in two parts) plus several rare essays. This new edition contains a very personal meditation on Wilson’s optimistic phenomenology by Mr. Spurgeon.

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