“We colour our world with attitude”

“What human beings find extremely difficult to grasp” remarked Colin Wilson to his first biographer Sidney Campion, “is that when they open their eyes and see the world, they are, as it were, seeing one of a thousand possible worlds. We colour our world with attitude”. The idea that we can simply choose one world out of thousands sounds extremely difficult to grasp, if not actually fanciful. However we can change our attitude towards the world and this must be remembered in order to understand the context in which Wilson was speaking – in fact, in order to understand Wilson’s ideas at all.

Wilson was influenced by the philosophical discipline known as phenomenology, the esoteric precursor to the more popular existentialism. Phenomenology is a method which dismantles our usual presuppositions about perception. Edmund Husserl, the founder of the method, described our so-called ‘normal’ state of perception the naive or natural attitude, the attitude we usually ‘colour’ our everyday world with. For the “naive man” [1] comfortable in the naive attitude, the world is just as it seems, static and unchangeable. But ‘naive man’ is unaware that he is confusing his own interpretation of the world, coloured by his personal attitudes, for the objective world itself. As Wilson observes in The Outsider, this attitude (‘world’) is always well captured in poetry and novels – Sartre’s Nausea is a particularly good example of this colouring (Sartre began as a follower of Husserl). Against the naive attitude which we presuppose as natural, Husserl posited the phenomenological attitude, a stepping away from naivety or acceptance of things as they ‘naturally’ are. The phenomenological attitude rejects this naivety and instead concerns itself with the selectivity (or intentionality) of perceptive acts. We choose our perceptions and therefore we choose our worlds. In the naive attitude we think perception just ‘happens’ but in the phenomenological attitude this naivety is banished (Husserl used a mathematical term, ‘bracketed’) and perceptions are closely analysed for emotional prejudices or distortions before they creep into conscious awareness.

“I know of no task more difficult than becoming aware of one’s act of selection, and trying to control it” commented Wilson to Campion. A change of attitude from the naive to the phenomenological is the first step in realising this selectivity in action. Simply becoming aware that consciousness is selective is a major step forward: Wilson summarised this awareness in his maxim ‘perception is intentional’. On a personal note, I can now recall a subliminal change of attitude when I first encountered Wilson’s writing – in his Mysteries (1978) – despite Husserl being just another obscure name amongst most of the others. It wouldn’t be until I read the last few volumes in Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’ that I’d gradually begin to understand phenomenology as a specific technique with a history, but the requisite change of attitude happened quickly after contact with his writing. Husserl’s books and lectures are formidably dense but Wilson expounded those rigorous phenomenological ideas in clarified and compulsive prose while demonstrating their efficiency via numerous and seemingly unrelated metaphors and comparisons – from literature and poetry to criminology and even occultism (truth be told, none of this is surprising if the intention behind it all is known). Once this change of attitude is understood and Husserl’s method is grasped, Wilson’s ideas can be understood and appreciated properly. It must be remembered that sightings of the magic word ‘phenomenology’ are alarmingly thin on the ground in Wilson’s press reviews and actual discussions of his use of the method are virtually non-existent outside of his occasional appearances in philosophy journals. “Talking to him about phenomenology was a sure way of putting him to sleep” said Wilson about one philosophically challenged interviewer who nodded off on Wilson’s sofa. A British ‘highbrow’ broadsheet once began an interview by refusing to discuss Wilson’s philosophy at all. Writing about Wilson without at least a basic grasp of Husserl’s method is essentially pointless and makes for an exasperating read. “His books can be best understood against the background of the European philosophical tradition; in fact, no real understanding can be arrived at without some knowledge of this background” wrote Sidney Campion.

F3D4D1FA-8C15-4D48-A930-17CC9914B209Wilson has dealt with the historical schisms of the original phenomenological movement in some of his writings but what really concerned him was making his readers understand and practice the discipline of becoming aware of and controlling our selective acts in perception, to grasp our freedom to choose whichever angle we see the world from. Nietzsche called this choice of viewing angles ‘perspectivism’ but was unaware of the beginnings of what one historian has called the “phenomenological current” which started with Franz Brentano. [2] Nietzsche’s swooping “guerrilla raids” on presuppositions (our ‘colouring’ attitudes) make enthralling and inspiring reading, but he lacked Husserl’s basic technique to truly explode them. A guerrilla, Wilson commented, “is at a psychological disadvantage, being a man without with a home, without an established position”.  At his base camp (the phenomenological method) “Husserl was luckier” says Wilson. “He was also irritated by the by the psychologism, the relativism, the nominalism, that had permeated philosophy since Locke. But he demolished them with irrefutable arguments in the Logical Investigations, and laid his own foundations”. Nietzsche’s perspectival statement that there are no facts, only interpretations is much closer to Husserl’s intentional method than to postmodernism (a philosophy stuck in Locke’s relativism, his ‘blank slate’, which both Nietzsche and Husserl rejected). Despite being strongly influenced by British empiricism  – what Nietzsche described as an “English-mechanistic-world-stupidification” – Husserl offered a precisely cutting critique of Locke’s “obviousness” in his Logical Investigations (Investigation II, chapter two, §9 – §11). Nietzsche’s statement about interpretation appears in his mid-1800’s notebooks amongst other thoughts which do suggest an intuitive affinity with what Husserl would later conceive. He writes that no event happens in isolation, what happens “is a group of phenomena selected and synthesised by an interpreting being”. And if, he later asks, this being or “our ‘I’ is our only being, on the basis in which we make everything be, or understand it to be, fine! Then it becomes very fair to doubt whether there isn’t a perspectival illusion here” – that is to say, a distortion, the kind that Sartre let slip into his rather gloomy descriptions (phenomenology depends on accurate description of intentional states). In his notebooks Nietzsche muses on a theme which he insists runs through his writings: that “the world’s value lies in our interpretations” and suggests that there could be a possibility to go beyond “merely human” or “narrower interpretations”. The world which matters to us (the one we naively ‘value’) he says, “is false, i.e., it is not a fact but but a fictional elaboration and filling out of a meagre store of observations”. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to say that these meagre observations are identical to the naive or natural attitude (also known in Husserl’s terminology as ‘the natural standpoint’ – a concept similar to Nietzsche’s metaphor of perspectivism). Our values are entwined with how we interpret, and if our selective interpretations are narrow, as Nietzsche, Husserl and Wilson insist they are, then our values will also be narrow. Analysing a ‘world without values’ in The Outsider, Wilson asked how it was possible to be less of a daily victim of circumstance, to feel less stuck in the present moment which makes us easily forget our aims toward purpose and meaning. He would find the answer in the faculty of poetic inspiration (Blake described it as the ‘Poetic Genius’, a pre-imagining of Husserl’s transcendental ego) with it’s associated expanded consciousness. Like a kind of negative proof, examining the shadows of negativity throws light on positive values. Wilson used literature to analyse such narrow or even nihilistic values and criminal cases to debunk real (as opposed to fictional) nihilism. Like Dostoyevsky, Wilson studied crime for philosophical and not morbid reasons. In The New Existentialism he makes the important point that the “first major work of existential philosophy in the twentieth-century was Jaspers’ General Psychopathology […] it should be clear that questions of mental sickness belong to philosophy as much as to psychology”. Hence Wilson’s pioneering true crime writings and the original subtitle for The Outsider: ‘an inquiry into the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth-century’ (on more modern editions it reads the more sellable ‘classic study of alienation, creativity and the modern mind’).

The existential study of murder starkly illustrates the inverse of positive values and their terrible social perils. “By it’s negative nature” says Wilson, “the act creates a resistance in the reader; when the cause of this resistance is analysed, the result is an insight into positive values”. Reading about a murder case produces a violent jolt to our naive attitudes; we are thankful to be uninvolved in such negativity. Yet very quickly this insight is forgotten and natural or naive banality returns. Aware of Husserl’s method, Wilson rejects this naive attitude as normal and notes that we are “actually selecting which things to include in [our] attention and which to dehydrate into symbols and leave in cold storage” (Nietzsche’s “meagre store of observations”). We are, Wilson continues “unconsciously valuing life. Out of thousands, perhaps millions, of facts that could be actively present to your consciousness, you choose a dozen or so”. This is what is meant by Nietzsche’s central insight that “the world’s value lies in our interpretations”. With the knowledge of crime in mind, we should be wary of negative values and choose our ‘worlds’ accordingly.

“The highest value is represented by the person who habitually bestows the highest motivational power on the genuine, true, valid, and free decisions” said Husserl in the second book of Ideas, sounding rather like Nietzsche and throwing in some unexpected thoughts on murder along the way [3]. In his later notebooks Nietzsche writes of huge numbers of habits that have become “so hardened that whole species can live upon them”. These habits, he says, constitute their external world and the oldest habit that humans themselves possess is intention – although he did not interpret ‘intention’ as Husserl did, unaware as he was of the strict technique of stepping out of the naive and into the phenomenological attitude. William Blake intuitively knew this crossing from one to the other and he anticipated  phenomenological existentialism with uncanny accuracy – “He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only”; “the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of”; “all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weaknesses of every individual” etc. “Phenomenological analysis has confirmed what Blake asserted a century earlier” remarks Wilson. In the natural, naive attitude, Husserl says, [4] we “wear the blinders of habit” which can become “rigid” if unchecked: Blake’s mind forged manacles. As Wilson says, we are like blinkered horses in traffic [5]. Wilson thinks that Nietzsche’s poor health helped him observe ideas from different angles. People who do not suffer from such fluctuating health problems as Nietzsche did tend to take up “a certain attitude towards the world – what he enjoys, what is a nuisance – and maintains it year in and year out, until it becomes a habit”. Wilson described consciousness as mostly composed of solidified habits which he labelled ‘mechanical intentions’. These intentions have become mechanical or robotic (automated) through willed repetition (learning to type or drive for instance). They ossify into habits and we forget they were once intentionally willed. We misunderstand them as ‘mechanisms’, a metaphor which drives behaviourist thought – Blake’s the “same dull round” which he envisaged as a grinding mill with complicated wheels.

71C51B16-C3DB-4CDF-A85C-169712B3F573We have forgotten that most of our mechanical actions were originally intentional and live robotically as a consequence – what Husserl called our “well known forgetfulness”, a concept later appropriated by his pupil Heidegger. Husserl’s phenomenology has much in common with the anti-robotism of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky who also concerned themselves with remembering the self via constant and vigilant meditation on the mechanicalness (sic.) of the body, it’s actions, the emotions and perception. To get around this mechanical illusion we must not forget that our intentions are willed. For Husserl, the body is an “organ of the will”, what Nietzsche meant by the will to power and Blake saw as a dynamic extension of the Poetic Genius. This keen awareness that our ‘mechanicalness’ is layer upon layer of willed intentions is the choice between the naive and phenomenological attitudes or worlds. [6] It is the choice between ‘meaninglessness’ and meaning – the former can appear valid in the naively nihilistic attitude but like ‘mechanicalness’ it is merely the product of a narrow, partial perception, a “feeling isolated in a world of objects” as Wilson puts it. In the early pages of Nausea Sartre accurately describes this state when observing a cafe proprietor – “when his establishment empties, his head empties too […] the waiters turn out the lights, and he slips into unconsciousness: when this man is alone, he falls asleep” – a statement that Gurdjieff would have perhaps appreciated (Wilson noted in his debut that ‘Outsiders’ have no problem being alone). Our consciousness is selective but as Wilson points out an “enormous area of [our] own being is inaccessible to the beam of consciousness” (the ‘beam’ is intentionality or selectivity; Husserl used the term ‘ray’).

Both Nietzsche and Husserl were adept at analysing these deep seated drives and habits – ‘habitual sedimentations’ according to Husserl – and Wilson thinks of them as a kind of archeological strata made of layers. These layers of willed intentions stretch back into our past and ‘prehistory’ phenomenologically speaking (Proust’s lengthy series of novels analysing lost and regained time contain many important insights into this theme: they compliment works on time consciousness by Husserl and Heidegger). Wilson marked out a few steps in the phenomenological investigation of this “intentional structure of consciousness”. Firstly, the rejection of Descartes’ passive consciousness, or the shift from the naive to the phenomenological attitude – the awareness that perception is intentional. Secondly, the investigation into the intentional structure of all forms of consciousness: Whitehead’s list of experience normal and experience abnormal and everything in between (Wilson’s eclectic works give numerous living or existential examples). Most fundamental is the descriptive analysis of what Wilson called the ‘indifference threshold’ (or the ‘law of entropy in prehension’ which was Wilson’s nod to Whitehead, ‘prehension’ being a kind of hunger for significance). This threshold could be imagined as a margin in consciousness, easily stimulated by inconvenience or pain but bored or indifferent by pleasure or stability. As I write this, a third of the world is in lockdown to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. I’ve lost count of how many articles I’ve seen recently which are already misty eyed and nostalgic for the world as it was only few weeks ago – a world that the same newspapers never stopped complaining about for the past few years (ironically enough the paper which refused to discuss Wilson’s philosophy, mentioned earlier, is one of the worst culprits). The writer J. W. N. Sullivan understood this grim irony when he was in a Serbian hospital during the First World War: sickened by the stench of gangrene, he dreamt of regular life back in England. “If I were ever permitted to live again my ordinary life I would never, I reflected, commit the blasphemy of thinking it dull”. Wilson often illustrated this paradox by recalling a fairy tale about an old woman who lived in a vinegar bottle. A passing fairy, hearing the old woman’s complaints, turned the bottle into a small house. Returning later to hear the woman complaining again, the spirit turned into a large palace, but this, it later found out, was too big and draughty, it took too much effort to clean and so on. It was then transformed back into the vinegar bottle. “The old woman is at the mercy of the poor quality of her consciousness”, comments Wilson. “She is a symbol of Western man, blinkered like a horse by evolution, unaware that perception can be more than peering through a slit”. This narrowing of perception – which Wilson believes was to a certain extent voluntary – has of course served a good purpose in terms of evolution for we have the scientific method. However, the more we develop “this faculty of selecting and excluding” the further we retreat from what Whitehead described as ‘meaning-perception’. Husserl’s master Brentano had noted that all conscious acts are intentional or about something, but Husserl took it further. “Husserl recognised that it is intentional in a profounder sense, that the mind is perpetually engaged in what could be called ‘subconscious prehension’” says Wilson. This may appear to be “silent, apparently purposeless”, but careful phenomenological analysis will uncover the purpose behind it, our “intentional evolutionary structure”. Evolution is the opposite of ‘entropy’, or running down, the opposite of the ‘law of entropy in prehension’ (the indifference threshold). Husserl has shown that consciousness is not passive – this goes against everything we have become accustomed to with regards our conscious lives for a very long time. We take passive consciousness for granted and wait for a stimulus to drive us into action. But as phenomenology insists on separating the intention from the perceived object this is ‘naive’ or passive, not active or intentional.

8BB1124B-13D0-4C9D-92B2-0F95182D0799As Wilson has noted, consciousness without crisis tends to become negative. We appear to be mostly unable to appreciate things until they’re threatened or have disappeared completely. When they’re in front of us we regard them with indifference, boredom or they’re simply not noticed at all. His concept of the threshold illustrates the “curious inadequacy of human consciousness”, our very limited capacity for freedom – Nietzsche understood it as freedom ‘from’ (passive) rather than freedom  ‘for’ (active).

Wilson was fond of quoting a section from H. G. Wells’ Experiment In Autobiography where Wells describes “originative intellectual workers” or people who prefer the world of the mind to that of simply existing. “Yes, you earn a living, you support a family, you love and hate” says Wells, “but what do you do?” This, he says would have been an unusual question half a century ago. These workers – Gurdjieff called his philosophy ‘Work’ – are, Wells writes, “like amphibians, so to speak, struggling out of the waters that have hitherto covered our kind, into the air, seeking to breathe in a new fashion and emancipate ourselves from long accepted and long unquestioned necessities”. Wilson says that his ‘Outsiders’ were early amphibians. As Wells remarks however “the new land has not definitely emerged from the waters” and most nineteenth-century Romantic Outsiders drowned. Nietzsche had already glimpsed this metaphor. “Never has more been demanded of living creatures than when dry land emerged” he scribbled in his notebook in the mid 1800’s. “Habituated and adapted to life in the sea, they had to turn around and overturn their bodies and customs and act in every respect differently from what they had been used to before – there has never been a more remarkable change on earth. – Just as then, through collapses, through the earth slowly breaking apart, the sea sank into the ruptures, caves and troughs and gained depth, so (to continue the metaphor) what is happening today among men perhaps offers the exact counterpart: man’s becoming whole and rounded, a disappearance of the ruptures, caves and troughs, and consequently also – a disappearance of dry land. For a man made rounded and whole by my way of thinking, ‘everything is at sea’, the sea is everywhere: however, the sea itself has lost depth”. [6]

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H. G. Wells

Wilson’s Outsiders thought ordinary life in the ‘sea’ intolerable (“as for living, our servants can do that for us”) and craved to walk on this strange new continent, a ‘New Atlantis’. But their perceptions were as feeble as the flippers of the first land creatures. Without land-legs they had to return to the sea, against their will. The strengthening of intentional perception is therefore an exercise in evolution in Wells’ sense. Nietzsche’s comment that the sea is everywhere but lacks depth sums up this problem. “If man is really to evolve” wrote Wilson, “then he must develop depth, and power over his own depths”. This ‘power’ is no different from the ability to walk on land, physically speaking, but Nietzsche and Wilson have both been misunderstood by their critics who remain more or less settled in the foamy brine of the natural or naive attitude. Wilson notes that questions about ‘evolutionary intentionality’ can only be of interest to a very small minority of people. Truth be told, only a tiny fraction of that minority will ever seriously get around to practicing these phenomenological disciplines – academics who write about that subject spend most of their time debating terminology and wondering if Husserl’s epoché is even possible. With regard to this Wilson comments that “Whitehead writes: ‘Religion is what man does with his solitude’. In that sense of the word, the human race has never possessed more than five per cent of religious – or potentially religious – individuals”. (Outsiders are happy with solitude). This is perfectly reasonable historical logic, and as Wilson comments “not a disguised form of fascism”. When Sidney Campion writes that Wilson was described as a ‘filthy fascist beast’ by the poet Christopher Logue, it’s obvious that Logue was not understanding Wilson’s phenomenological position. Critics should be careful to not confuse intentional concepts with naive attitudes. The latter must be left behind (bracketed) in the phenomenological reduction or epoché. [7] An important definition of the term ‘Outsider’ was made by Wilson in the sixth volume in the series of books of that name. Although the term is vague in a social sense, “as a description of a state of consciousness definable by phenomenology, it is precise”. An Outsider wishes to leave the sea and walk on the land, phenomenologically speaking. The opening line in The Outsider itself is “At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem” but those first three words suggest the problem is deeper. The Outsider has an appetite for progress, Wilson later states, but “not primarily for social progress” [my italics]. Social progress is essential but it rarely addresses the frustrating paradoxes that Wilson concerned himself with. “Our ‘human condition’ (as we grasp it from the natural standpoint) is determined by the way we act and live, and consequently become known to ourselves” he writes in The New Existentialism. “But our actions are determined by our assumptions about their possibility of success. And our assumptions about their possibility of success are determined by our idea of the ‘human condition’ (as we grasp it according to the natural standpoint)”. This vicious circle has occasionally been interrupted by works of art, scientific Ideas and philosophies, but the impulse to break out of this self-defeating circle has been steadily diminishing in all those fields. Wilson named this problem the fallacy of insignificance in the third Outsider book, The Age of Defeat.

But all is not lost. In Beyond the Outsider Wilson writes that “if the human race ever develops it’s five per cent of human beings who are capable of an intuitive grasp of evolutionary intentionality, and a certain control of the ‘St Neot Margin’ [another term for the indifference threshold] by means of phenomenological disciplines, these beings will not experience the need for ‘subjective religion’ in Kierkegaard’s sense, since the need will already have been fulfilled on another level”. This is again in line with Blake’s attitude in works such as There Is No Natural Religion. Phenomenology – “the descriptive analysis of intentional structures” as Wilson has it – “must proceed until it becomes the descriptive analysis of evolutionary intentionality. This would be a fundamental step in the process that Nietzsche called ‘the revaluation of values’ – the changing of the direction of our pessimistically-orientated culture by reversing it’s fundamental premises”. This is implicit in Wells’ image of the amphibians. Reversal is also integral to Husserl’s method which aims to destroy the natural standpoint, Descartes’ passive spectator.

“One thing which fish know exactly nothing about is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to to perceive the element they live in” wrote media theorist Marshall McLuhan. [8] Our own daily environment is the natural or naive attitude, Nietzsche’s ‘sea’ which is losing depth, Wells’ ocean of “long accepted and long unquestioned necessities” (interrogating unquestioned presuppositions was the central drive of Nietzsche and Husserl’s philosophies, and of Wilson’s). Following on from such images Wilson compares the human condition to life in a fish tank. The glass is dirty and distorts the outside world, but occasionally we catch glimpses of that ‘world’ (attitude) and we see reality – strange, alien and above all, meaningful. Blake understood this environment as the ‘vegetable glass of nature’ or the ‘mundane shell’. Wilson pointed out that mystics tend to speak of two worlds when we should really be considering two attitudes towards reality – the natural (naive) and the phenomenological. “The problem” writes Wilson, “is the distorting medium, which Husserl labelled intentionality. The greatest achievement of existentialism has been to recognise that it is active human intentionality, not the ‘senses’, that is the distorting medium”. Again, Blake understood and anticipated this, especially in his short didactic works There Is No Natural Religion (both parts) and All Religions Are One, both etched a century before Nietzsche’s notebook musings. Becoming aware  that “the ‘world’ we naively take for granted is being seen through a distorting medium”, the glass of the tank (or the water of unquestioned habits in Wells’ image) is the first step towards what Wilson called the phenomenological quest, unveiling the secrets of the transcendental ego. Husserl insisted that until this ego is uncovered – once subconscious prejudices have been banished like demons from Faust’s circle – then and only then can philosophy finally begin.

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Blake

Post Husserlian existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre concerned themselves with clearing away these distortions. Heidegger, inspired by Husserl’s lectures on time consciousness, emphasised that the problem is kinetic, not static – it is, as Fichte had noted, concerned with action (Wilson praised Fichte’s central insight that to be free is nothing, but to become free is heavenly). Sartre also emphasised action in his remarks that he had never felt so free as when he was part of the French Resistance and in danger of being shot by the Nazis at any time (the indifference threshold, again). “Sartre had stated, in less abstract terms”, says Wilson “what Husserl had already stated: that the first step in freedom lies in recognising the natural standpoint for what it is, a temporary convenience”. The destruction of this natural standpoint (naive attitude) must, Wilson says, be incorporated into everyday consciousness. This, Wilson states, is no more difficult than learning a new language which is a true enough statement. It began for me with the first Wilson book I read and had been ongoing ever since. There’s no doubt the the phenomenological method is “difficult to grasp” at first, but so is learning a language or driving a car. A rejection of (or initially, a certain cynicism towards) cultural pessimism is essential in starting this ‘revaluation of all values’. And unless the pessimistic attitude is finally abandoned, the switch from the naive to phenomenological attitude can never be truly thorough – Sartre’s misunderstanding of Husserl’s notion of intentionality bears this out. Husserl described conscious activity with the dynamic image of a ray or arrow of perception fired towards the object of attention; for Sartre, consciousness is sucked by the gravitational pull of objects – an ironic philosophical position to take after his observation of the empty headed cafe proprietor in Nausea. For his fellow existentialist Jaspers, “man encounters his true self only in the boundary situations of existence – death, suffering, guilt, sudden violence”. The same anti-intentional pessimistic fallacy can be seen in Heidegger and Camus – whose novel The Plague is back on the best seller lists these days – and even in writers like Hemingway. Genuine optimists, says Wilson, have either swallowed a large dose of pessimism early and then firmly rejected it, or were unable to afford the luxury of self-pity in the first place – Blake, Shaw and Wells are good examples. Wilson ticks both boxes as a working class provincial who ended his pessimism – rather than his life – by almost swallowing hydrocyanic acid aged sixteen. Spending the rest of his post-Outsider career in a remote part of rural Cornwall, Wilson had yet another handy metaphor for intentional consciousness. Commenting on Sartre’s narrator in Nausea who is struck by a wave of ‘absurdity’, Wilson writes that this is merely a drop in the ‘pressure’ (intentionality) of consciousness, likened to what happens to “the current supplied by the electricity board [when it] falls to a lower voltage” – as it often did in Wilson’s Cornish cottage during the winter. “It takes half an hour to boil a kettle” said Wilson of his fluctuating electricity current – phenomenology has itself been described as a current – and “the electric light becomes so dim that you begin to wonder if you need new glasses. The purpose of consciousness is to illuminate the objective world. When we are full of energy and optimism, everything looks fascinating; when we are tired, everything looks dull” – the kind of dullness that J. W. N. Sullivan looked back on as a “blasphemy” from his hospital bed. The philosopher Whitehead questioned this ‘dullness’ as a genuine perception when he spoke of Galileo’s bifurcation of nature (into primary and secondary qualities) as “a dull affair…merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly”. Whitehead also suggested that we often make gloomy perceptions into the futility of life when we are simply tired, when consciousness has dropped to a lower voltage. But intentionality takes many forms – we could go to bed exhausted and unfocused but would be fully alert if roused and told next door was on fire. To anyone skilled in phenomenology, this is not the simple stimulus-response action it seems. Sleepiness itself is intentional. According to Gurdjieff what we call normal consciousness (for Husserl, the naive attitude) is indeed ‘sleep’.

“Whenever we experience problems or serious crises” Wilson remarks “we grasp the central truth about human existence: that a life without serious problems is, in the most precise sense of the word, blessed”. Sullivan knew this in the Serbian hospital. Then why can’t we realise this all the time? Hemingway and Sartre launched themselves into action and commitment, but their solutions seem mostly unsatisfactory, much like traditional (or for that matter, non-traditional) religious solutions. ‘Yet it seems to me” Wilson continues “that the answer might be closer than we realise. It is necessary, first of all, to grasp that this is an evolutionary problem”. For this reason Wilson felt more affinity with Shaw or Bergson than with the proclamations of Eastern religions (for instance) which suggest that we are already God (remembering that Wilson was an avid reader of the Gita and practiced meditation in his younger years, and that Eastern philosophy is tackled in his first book). As Wilson noted, the intuitive grasp of  evolutionary intentionality will supplant lapsed religious cravings, at least for those keen enough to to focus on these problems very seriously – Wells’ intellectual workers desperate to leave the sea, those comfortable with solitude as per Whitehead and Wilson’s own Outsiders (if the term is properly understood).

“What distinguishes religion from speculative thought is that it is ‘lived by’; when the laws of evolutionary intentionality have been uncovered and brought to consciousness, they will also be ‘lived by’, continuously present to inspection”. So wrote Wilson in the aptly-titled Beyond The Outsider. Husserl began his lectures on time consciousness by suggesting we look into Augustine’s meditation on time in his Confessions (Book XI, chapters 14 – 28). Existentialism is “closely bound up with the problem of time” according to Wilson. Heidegger has shown that the problem is kinetic, not static, but as Wilson notes, Sartre “keeps appealing to the present as his standard of reality”. However, being stuck in the present can cause us to fall into a kind of hypnosis where we are at the mercy of triviality and negativity (it was the Gurdjieff Work which coined the term ‘negative’ in this sense). This is the ‘world without values’ or rather, an attitude without values. “Once we are stuck in negativity” writes Wilson, “it becomes one of our subconscious premises, and it is almost impossible to escape because it is, so to speak, lurking beneath the threshold”. The philosophy behind this Lovecraftian turn of phrase would bubble below the narrative of Wilson’s parodic novel The Mind Parasites. A science fiction romp set around about now, it anticipates the mood of the early twenty-first century with uncanny accuracy. Based on phenomenological conceptions from The New Existentialism via Blake’s symbol of the Spectre (or robot in Wilson’s terminology), it was anticipated in the discussions of the ‘vastations’ of William James (and his father) in The Outsider – “it attacks the mind, not the body”. [9] This is the ‘nature of the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth century’ and in the early twenty-first. The existentialism of the post-Husserl era – and this includes postmodernism – insisted that there are no transcendental values outside of our everyday consciousness and we should simply not bother looking for them, rather like the dreary logical positivism that Wilson was up against in the mid-fifties. Instead, amuse yourselves with commitment to causes or language games (or both, today). This overlooks the possibility that Wilson and his ‘new’ (phenomenological) existentialism grappled with: that there are specific states of consciousnesses which are neither everyday or transcendent but produce a definite sense of values – scores of these experiences are documented in The Outsider. If we analyse these properly the old dogmatic values of religion can be replaced with something more objective and ‘lived by’. Blake understood this when he wrote that sects of philosophy are adapted to the weaknesses of individuals from their (mis)understandings of the Poetic Genius. Nietzsche and Husserl made the same point.

“Evolution is simply the capacity to register meanings that are already there” wrote Wilson. But our limited perceptions limit our horizons; they inhibit our ability to see further. This is not so much ‘mysticism’ as simple observation made outside of the natural standpoint of everyday consciousness. This switch is initially difficult to grasp, much like the difference between the physics of Einstein were from Newton, “but the consequences of the change of viewpoint are as momentous in both cases. Phenomenology is a Copernican revolution in thought, whose full implications were hidden even from it’s founder Husserl”. Those willing to develop the phenomenological faculty can never again “mistake their own stagnation for the world’s” as Wilson put it in the Blake section of The Outsider. Blake escaped this narrow triviality by what he called imagination, but which Wilson referred to as ‘Faculty X’, his shorthand for the phenomenological faculty. We commonly think of perception as passive and imagination as active, with a sharp delineation between the two, but once we realise that perception is active this “old dichotomy” vanishes. [10] Faculty X is the knowledge of the reality of other times and places – J. W. N. Sullivan acutely understood it in his Serbian bed, but it took the First World War to make him realise it. This is the paradoxical nature of freedom with which Wilson’s philosophy is so concerned.

Notes.

[1] The ‘naive man’ in Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, Volume Two, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970 p. 852. Husserl critiqued empiricism in the first volume (RKP, 1970, p. 114) by asking “what happens in hypnotic states, in delirium tremens, etc?” (cf Whitehead’s ‘experience drunk’, ‘’experience abnormal’ and so on) and protesting ideas about the “normal individual” and “normal mental constitution”. On p. 124  Husserl questions generalisations which relate to “merely normal individual minds, for how abnormal minds behave is something in which the everyday experience here adduced has nothing to tell us”. This is completely in line with Wilson’s Outsider thesis (in his debut, ‘bourgeois’ is Husserl’s ‘naive man’) Heidegger’s authentic and inauthentic, Riesman’s other and inner directed are similar concepts.

[2] Herbert Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, (second volume), Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1976, p. 396. It is noteworthy that Freud and Rudolf Steiner attended lectures by Brentano.

[3] Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, second book, Kluwer Academic Pub. 1989, p. 280. Husserl discusses murder as a “wrong act” in phenomenologically forensic terms on p. 277 and in a supplement to that section on pp. 342/3.

[4] Husserl ibid p.193.

[5] For ‘forgetfulness’, Husserl, ibid. p. 280. Section § 57 (ibid. pp. 259 – 263) analyses self-apperception or self perception – conceptually similar to self remembering in the Gurdjieff Work. Ouspensky notes a disagreement with a friend in his In Search of the Miraculous (RKP, 1950, p. 121) who stated that self remembering was merely an ‘apperception’ from Wundt’s Logic but Ouspensky believed that Wundt had “not seen the magnitude of the idea which was hidden behind his thoughts about different forms of perception”. For Husserl (Logical Investigations, ibid. pp. 187/8) Wundt and his book were guilty of psychologism. Spiegelberg (ibid. p. 92) notes that “even the great Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig” failed to make an impression on Husserl in the mid-1880’s. For the body as organ of the will, Husserl, Ideas II, ibid. p. 159. For attitudes, ibid. p. 219 where Husserl speaks about “an uncomfortable difficulty” regarding the naturalistic (naive) world of science (“This naturalistically considered world is of course not the world”). This is the attitude he previously warned could turn into a rigid habit. In his Notebooks (cf [6] p. 15) Nietzsche criticised philosophical systems for their unconscious bias – “they have always trained up one of the mind’s forces in particular, with their one-sided demand that things be seen thus and not otherwise” – against multi-perceptive techniques such as perspectivism or later, phenomenology. Wilson’s book on charlatan messiahs, The Devil’s Party, gives many illustrations of ‘blinders’ ossifying into rigid habits (Yeats’ ‘mask of power’) with catastrophic results.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 22

[7] Sidney R. Campion, The Sound Barrier: a study of the ideas of Colin Wilson [Colin Wilson Studies # 19], Paupers’ Press, 2011, p. 50. This sequel to Campion’s The World of Colin Wilson (Muller, 1962), was written in 1963 but remained unpublished until this century.

[8] Marshall McLuhan with Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village, Bantam, 1968, p. 175. McLuhan later praised Husserl’s “new strategy for philosophy” for including analysis of “occult or psychic experiences” but dismissed Derrida’s “visual matching” of language. Marshall McLuhan, Laws of Media: the New Science, University of Toronto Press, 1988, pp. 60-62, p. 122

[9]  Colin Wilson, The Outsider, Gollancz, 1956, p. 148. H. P. Lovecraft, who once described himself as an “indifferentist” in one of his numerous letters, lived mostly below the indifference threshold (his best tales are driven by the concept of a threshold being crossed). One of his finest stories begins with the assertion that “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all it’s contents” – a statement which Husserl would have found rather naive (see his Crisis of European Sciences, § 48). I have dealt with Wilson’s pioneering treatment of Lovecraft and phenomenology in my The Lurker at the Indifference Threshold [Colin Wilson Studies # 28], Paupers’ Press, 2019

[10] Wilson on the “old dichotomy” between imagination and perception; The New Existentialism, Wildwood House, 1980, p. 108. See also: Husserl, Logical Investigations Vol. 1, ibid. p. 791, and: Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893 – 1917), Kluwer Academic Pub., 1991, p. 300

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.

More vintage Wilson reissued

Wilson’s long out of print work on music, The Brandy of the Damned, has been reissued by Foruli Classics. “Dedicated to bringing the best music and popular culture books back into print.” I’m not sure if this is the shorter UK version or the expanded US version, but it incorporates some of the artwork from the UK version of the latter (confused?) which was published by Pan as Colin Wilson on Music. Phew! Meanwhile, Geoff Ward provides an introduction to a very welcome reissue of The Glass Cage. Published by Valancourt, it’s also available for Kindle.

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