This piece by Vaughan Rapatahana was intended for inclusion in Around the Outsider but was replaced by his ‘scuba-ing for Colin Wilson’ poem instead. Further down the page is Rapatahana‘s review of Wilson’s Superconsciousness. Both pieces provide a good critical balance to the rest of the site.
Critique One –
Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966)
Introduction to Introduction:
Colin Wilson rates this book highly. Indeed in the Preface to the 1980 renewed edition (The New Existentialism) he states it is to be viewed as “perhaps the best and clearest summary of my central ideas…If I have contributed anything to existentialism – or, for that matter, to twentieth-century thought in general, here it is. I am willing to stand or fall by it.” Considering also the man’s own Existential Literary Criticism as the guiding tenet by which to evaluate all literature, we will return to these words later on.
Such is the importance the author attached to this book, although elsewhere he is not quite so sanguine: “I regard this little book as a kind of appendix to the six volumes of the ‘Outsider series” (Wilson, online), and a firm this is “my most important non-fiction book”, with regard to his later Beyond the Occult (1989.)
Introduction to the New Existentialism also contains strands stretching toward later novels he was ruminating about at the time (Mind Parasites and The Black Room) and is a tree-trunk sometimes festooned with branches he consistently prunes in his opus– sex, crime, the robot (here, ‘automatic pilot’.) Nothing is in isolation in the pantheon of Colin Wilson: all is connected by thick spider web and we must stress that this book has to be viewed as part of a much wider network. It is vital to further note that Introduction to the New Existentialism (hereafter INE) is a culmination of Wilson’s then life work, his ‘Outsider Cycle’ – insistent, persistent, consistent. And this cycle was largely composed well before 1966 – so one must acknowledge Colin Wilson for being so prescient and so palpably different to many of his own countrymen philosophers of that era. Good on you Colin.
Critics at the time of initial publication were, in different degrees, almost universally dismissive – some downright nasty, a firestorm of disparagement that hit Wilson from Religion and the Rebel onward. In Aotearoa (New Zealand) we call this the tall poppy syndrome – people seen as achieving success are ‘cut down to size’ because they are seen as too successful, too ‘big for their boots’, too inspiring of envy from ‘unsuccessful’ others – on many occasions critics!
So an anonymous Kirkus Review personage could profusely scorn about the writer and this book: “…[the] court jester of the paperback revolution…filled with interesting ideas (none of which are the author’s)…remains haphazard, oblique, and ineffably bogus” (1967.) Sheer vitriol.
Walter Kaufmann (editor of the well-received Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 1958) in New York Book Review complains: “the new ‘existentialism’ is a gimmick, rather than a philosophy. To return to culinary metaphors: an oral soufflé collapses in print”, while another Mr. Anonymous spouts in the British Book News about: “…a work that has the belligerent and engaging air of a do-it-yourself philosophy.”
It is a measure of Wilson’s tenacity that he chose to ignore most of the opprobrium and to continue to write at all. Indeed – to me, at least – he went on to write more clearly and more succinctly about his ‘New Existentialism’ elsewhere, as for example in the concise An Essay on the ‘New’ Existentialism’ of 1988, which is a better qua less opaque enunciation of this philosophy.
As an important aside here, let me make it clear right from the outset, this IS philosophy, English philosophy, tangential contemporaneously to the blinkered academic rigmaroles of British linguistic empiricism in the 1960s – and to a degree indeed even contemporarily in 2010, despite the influential episteme of Foucault and his Romance cousins. Colin Wilson was and is an English existentialist, a rare breed indeed. Ironically, an unknown French critic is quoted as stating on the inside dust jacket of the original issue: “…the first important contribution to existentialism ever made by an Englishman”. Indeed Wilson is now included in the most recent version of Robert Solomon’s 2005 Existentialism – he remains the only English philosopher included, if we discount Harold Pinter as a philosopher.
What I am saying however is that there is some truth in some of the other criticisms of INE, such as Frank McEachren in The Scotsman, Christopher Ricks in New Statesman and yet another anonymous writer in the Times Literary Supplement, and I will further adjudge their less vicious mullings en transit, when I examine just what Wilson is saying (which is quintessentially what he had always been saying, and is still saying – the hedgehog lives on. Long may he live.)
Then there are the far fewer Wilson strongmen who wish to prop up his regime with bravura ballistics, like Brocard Sewell aka William Tonks in The Aylesford Review: “This seems to me the best book Mr. Wilson has written” (1966), he concludes, after some earlier doubts, while Grattan Freyer in The Irish Times lavishes: “…anyone seriously concerned with twentieth-century values must make themselves familiar with Colin Wilson” (1966.) Wilson himself even acknowledges Freyer: “…a perceptive and sympathetic review…that made me realize that my time had not been entirely wasted” (1980.)
To me, any summation of Introduction to the New Existentialsm hangs somewhere in between Freyer and Ricks/McEachran. Yes, anyone with any glimmer of interest in why humankind exists on planet Earth should at the very least acknowledge Colin Wilson’s brave philosophy, as contained in this book and about one thousand others elsewhere. (A slightly hyperbolic statement, I acknowledge – rather like Wilson himself is prone to make.)
We will concentrate on just what Wilson’s underlying thesis is here. I will make reference to potential problems in interpretation of what Wilson is stating here, in Footnotes to this chapter. Let’s – a la Edmund Husserl – bracket out many potential criticisms for a while, just as Wilson himself tends to make his own such reductions in the book. [For some reflections on Wilson’s writing style in INE and, tangentially, also the effects of his status as ‘writing from the outside’ so to speak, please see Footnotes # 1 and # 2.]
What is Wilson saying here?
First of all, let’s outline the structure of this book:
Wilson compartmentalizes the book into before and after sections – BW and AW (before and after Wilson), thus: Part One is entitled The Crisis in Modern Thought and Part Two The New Existentialism. Within Part One lie the substrata of The Old Existentialism, What is Phenomenology?, The Meaning of Husserl’s Revolution, The New Picture of the Universe. In Part Two we dig in to discover The Man in the Fog, The Extension of Consciousness, Inside the Dark Room, Language and Values, Everyday Consciousness is a Liar, The Power of the Spectre.
As elsewhere in his opus, Wilson assembles a formidable first division team, many of whom are veterans in the colours of Wilsonian Old Boys: Wilson remains in goal, sometimes making blatant elementary blunders like Green in South Africa, at other times pumping sweeping kicks into the neighbouring park, ever prone to mighty saves just when you thought the opposition must score. At right back – literally – is JG Hamman, whilst Husserl here is the frontline striker, with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Whitehead his able deputies. Nietzsche provides forward impetus on the wing, and others like Wells, Shaw, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Jaspers, William James, Polyani, Teilhard de Chardin, Hesse and even Wittgenstein, play a series of scavenging roles in midfield. Sartre and Camus – although available – seem to be unwanted by their captain for this venture. Dropped completely in fact. Ernest Hemingway remains unavailable: something about ‘bullfighting’. Perhaps he is with Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset who are strangely absent here.
This team plays – it has to be further noted – in the same league as Existential Psychology Old Boys – replete with Abraham Maslow, a feared attacker in the heart of the side – manifestly supported by Cantril, Boss, Binswanger, Ames, Viktor Frankl, Minkowski, von Gebsattel, Straus, Igor Caruso…This latter club has strong affiliations to Transactional Analysis United.
So there are copious references to other writers, artists, philosophers, throughout; several of whom would not have been familiar to the reading public of the time.
I have extensively elsewhere, particularly in Existential Literary Criticism and the Novels of Colin Wilson (1996), where I borrowed extensively from Morse Peckham, categorized Wilson as a bona fide Romantic in disposition, outlook, corpus, something I do not believe he would deny. Indeed his avowed aim in INE is to transcend not only what he calls Existentialism Mark One but its immediate progenitor, the Romantic movement per se: “It is a conscious attempt to create what I have called ‘Romanticism Mark 3’ (bearing in mind that I regard existentialism as Romanticism Mark 2)” (Wilson online.) “Existentialism is romanticism, and romanticism is the feeling that man is not the mere creature he has always taken himself for” (1966.) Wilson does not say much about the genesis of the initial Romantics here, but does see their advent as co-existent with a decline in the grand narratives of religion, which left (some) men adrift in “the raging sea of meaningless that will one day engulf us all” (Wilson, 1988), and the counter discourse of science which relegated mankind to the level of a mere biological creature. [For some reflections on Wilson and religion, please see Footnote # 3.]
The difference between the spluttering spasms of intense acclamatory intensity of some of the romantics, which never lasted for any cogent length of time and thus led to despair, depression, early demise, and the insufferable negativity and at-best stoicism of Existentialism Mark One as declared by Kierkeggard, Heidegger, Sartre, Jaspers, Camus (at least as discerned by Wilson) is that his NE will be based on affirmation/optimism/positiveness and will necessarily therefore be a widening of the via media toward profuse and potent and extended long-term visions, perhaps akin to a mystical eudaimonia. So then mankind – or at least some of mankind – will evolve exponentially into something resembling grandiose creatures of the mind, tapping gigantic vista of internal freedom and what he calls the ‘objective values’ of existence: “there is a standard of values ‘external to human consciousness” (1966), which is a very difficult notion to grasp, until he later qualifies this with the word “everyday” [consciousness.]
Yes, I have also categorized Wilson elsewhere on more than one occasion as a bona fide English Mystic in the line of William Blake, Thomas Traherne and George Fox: see Wilson as Mystic (2001) He is then a mystic, a romantic and an existentialist and INE is his attempt to delineate an existential apotheosis into free-range mystic acclamation. It is interesting to note that more recently others also write of Colin as “the renowned British mystic Colin Wilson” (see for example, Robert C. Morgan, 2005.)
Indeed his mystical impetus all too often overwhelms clarity of logic, expression, sense – he is impelled to paint what he senses, in wide and colourful stokes, and damn the details. This is a significant point: because of Wilson’s very nature, he writes intensely, is impelled to convey his vision over and over again to the extent that sometimes clarity of terminology and rigid logical progression is in abeyance. [See also Footnote # 4 here.]
He is also an outsider, so his synthesis in INE is – it seems – not open to what he calls in more than one place here, ‘the man in the street’: “…no solution…can be immediately applied to the ‘man in the street’. But then, this is hardly important” (1966.)
So, Wilson wants to build on the momentary earth-shattering epiphanies of the Romantics, to abnegate the resignation of the earlier existentialists, mired unhappily in a stoic resignation to contingency, a passive kowtow to inadequacy, and to build once and for all an impenetrable edifice of permanently attainable expanded consciousness: mans’ (rarely womens’) ‘real’ or true consciousness. He points out that “everyday consciousness is a liar” (1966) even at the same time as he makes his point that this ‘limited everyday consciousness’ of all but a handful is a necessary defence mechanism so as to survive in today’s world – which seems rather a contradiction. Wilson would answer that (most) men are nowhere near ready as yet to be propelled into this next evolutionary ambit – there is a good deal of mind-mapping to do initially – tunnels must be dug and constructed with permanent frameworks into mankind’s mental caverns first, before any opening of the entry gates for all. Man – until he solidifies his phenomenologically derived and mapped out consciousness first – is not ready for such visions yet, and has, for evolutionary-safe reasons built internal firewalls, given that much more recently man has also awakened to his inner freedom and gotten bored with being bored, has suddenly remembered his being, contra Heidegger’s ‘forgetfulness of existence’.
Thus we have a series of INE (1966) proclamations like this: “But for practical, everyday purposes, the passive fallacy is inescapable, simply because our perceptions have to be limited for practical purposes” and “…if we lived all the time in this broader state of consciousness, we would become too lazy to confront the problems of everyday life” and “…at this stage of our evolution, it would not be desirable for human beings to have access to ‘wider states of consciousness.” INE, it seems, will be the precursor (it is entitled Introduction, after all) of the bigger book about how to expand to the stage when we can follow its agenda. The trouble is – I reflect – how then and when will we be ready to even comprehend the bigger book about how to expand inside?
Thus, Wilson wants an intensive and exhaustive survey of man’s inner states: “Its methods might be described as Anglo-Saxon and empirical rather than as ‘continental’ and metaphysical…Consciousness itself must be studied” (1966.)
Indeed Wilson further seizes on the need to construct at the same time, a whole new language to ratify the yet-to-be codified subterranean discoveries. In doing so he believes that: “Not the least important feature of the ‘new existentialism’ is that it is able to unite the two major traditions of twentieth century philosophy: linguistic empiricism and phenomenological existentialism” (1966.) Wow! A very ambitious project indeed.
Wilson further seizes the Peak Experiences (PEs) of Abraham Maslow to add fuel to his blazing bonfires of positiveness, although as Paul Newman has noted (2010 private correspondence) that in fact Maslow was not the progenitor of PE’s: Newman mentions Walter Raymond and his notion of ‘joyous overplus’.
Some people have these spontaneously gifted widenings of vision which are concomitant with happiness, assuredness, complete comprehension of the cosmic codes – so why not all, all the time, inculcated deliberately, and not akin to random acts of Hallelujah – although – as noted above – again Wilson somewhat contradicts himself by noting that mankind could not currently survive on a diurnal basis if they were to be incarcerated in the Oh-My-God moments of Ramakrishna for example. For Wilson at least, men – most men anyway – cannot yet afford to walk around with huge mental erections (what I have termed elsewhere mind penises/phalluses, see The Existential Hitlist online.) [For further discussions as to what Peak Experiences quintessentially may or may not be, please see Footnote # 5.]
Colin Wilson also seizes on another divergent term and concept from another divergent discipline – Edmund Husserl and phenomenology – intentionality – a meaning giving facility stemming from the consciousness. Intentionality – is a key concept in INE. Husserl is never as clear on this concept as Wilson as amaneunsis so obviously believes he is: Husserl is amorphous, profusely procreative with terminologies at best. I feel that Wilson tends to oversimplify him. [For further discussion re: Poststructural and Postmodernist deconstructions of the whole notion of ‘intentionality’, as well as ‘naïve realist’ concerns about this concept, please see Footnote # 6.]
Wilson wants to say all consciousness is intentional. Even subconsciousness, because after all “Intentionality…can exist on many levels” (1966.) All of which goes to ‘prove’ that there is a transcendental ego, a definite concrete self who aims the arrow of perception (and emotion and intellect) at something: after all “the completely passive observer is a fallacy” (1966.) There is a coherent, yet sometimes also, unconsciously so, director behind the camera and this is where Sartre, for example, went ‘wrong’ temperamentally and therefore philosophically – and yes, there is an obvious connection between the two components – the emotive side dictates the cogitative and, it seems, the perceptual. So, again, man must therefore turn inwards and look inside and map his own consciousness – here the ‘answer’ lies feels Wilson. He further calls on Whitehead to supplement Husserl here, and later in his life work has written more extensively about the former and also about phenomenology as a lodestar to mysticism. (See the two Philosophy Now articles of 2004 and 2007.) As another brief aside here, it is very interesting to se that now (2010) there is a Facebook page entitled: Colin Wilson is a better philosopher than Sartre! (See here).
Here however, somewhat alarmingly, Wilson again twists into contradiction, when in enlisting Whitehead to his cause he announces: “To some extent it [Whitehead’s ‘two modes of perception’] obviously conflicts with phenomenology”! (1966.)
More, while this investigation of the intentional process is to be rigorous and scientific, it may also be assisted by (psychedelic) drugs! A “pharmaceutically extended consciousness” as Cacaturimus wrote back in 1967.
Indeed Wilson on more than one occasion in INE claims that drugs will assist in researching the obverse states of non ‘normal’ consciousness, as will an examination of the states of madness, but here he not only starts to quagmire himself, he tends to display a naivety (witness also his claims about ‘voluntary’ alcoholism) which display a disavowal of genetics and involuntary susceptibility towards alcoholism and madness. His statements about drugs (sometimes full-on acceptance of, sometimes less fulsome as regards the ‘need’ for them – all in the same book, which tends to make me think INE was written episodically and not all in one sitting) are almost psychedelic in themselves. Consider the ingenuousness of the following:
“The alcoholic is the man for whom everyday life has become either too boring or too painful to be worth the effort…a very large percentage are certainly over-sensitive individuals who shrink from the impact of reality…Alcoholism is based on a misconception…all human beings are drunks.”
“…there is a possibility that such drugs [LSD] might be used occasionally as a stimulus to phenomenological self-analysis…If drugs like LSD can help to provide the peak experiences…”
“For most of the problems in understanding madness are problems of false assumptions, and therefore of language.”
“Insanity is an act of surrender…the ‘new language’…will be created out of a…phenomenological description of…the abnormal inner states that can be induced by drugs or mental illness.”
“…the phenomenological view of mental illness as a self-protective gesture.”
“The present need…is for a scientific investigation of these areas…to explore them by means of drugs.”
So importantly for Colin Wilson, contra for example Sartre, there is this Transcendental Ego, calling the shots viz a viz perceptive, emotive, intellectual bullseyes. Interestingly enough also at this juncture, both in INE, and a few years later when writing on Marcuse (1970), Wilson concurs that the ‘black room’ experiments showed man is not yet intentional enough, not yet fully inwardly-exploratory and that the transcendental ego may not be so cut and dried an entity after all. Thus: “…the dark-room experiments show us how far man is dependent on external stimuli” (1966) and “…some people can suffer the black room longer than others…If this does not prove the existence of the Husserlian “transcendental ego,” it at least demonstrates that such people possess some faculty…” (1970.)
I have written elsewhere (see, for example, Postmodern Mysticism, 2008) of the abstruse irony of the poststructuralist and postmodernist denials of such an entity and also of Wilson’s own manifold descriptive episodes (especially in his fiction) whereby the Transcendental Ego is completely expunged during mystical visions: that he and many postmodernist writers actually find common ground in the Joan Richmond pinoleptic-kairotic moment (See Richmond, online.) Wilson firmly wants to reinstate the individual self yet also wants this self to be the avenue to the obliteration of itself, rather a logical faux pas. (Another example of such apparent illogic in INE was pointed out by Christopher Ricks in an early review: “Mr. Wilson never makes clear how this ‘instinctive sense of life-purpose’ can be both a premise in his argument and the outcome of his argument” (1966.)
Colin Wilson here, then, synthesizes Maslow and Husserl as the two main poles of INE – intentionality and the subsequent examination of consciousness will lead inevitably to extended PEs and beyond. Wilson again shows himself to be a bona fide and autodidactic Grand Illuminator of the works of others and the self-taught Welder par excellence of what seems discordant data. Cacturimus in Minnesota Review of 1967 writes: “each significant existentialist writer offers something new. The novelty lies in either original concepts or original combinations of established concepts…[Wilson’s] novelty can be labeled “phenomenological metaphysics.”
Is Colin Wilson original? He is certainly unique in his concoctions of other’s ingredients and without peer as a populariser and harbinger of previously unrecognized writers. Indeed, as another brief aside, one would be tempted to cast Colin Wilson as Hydra, given the number of replicatory and resilient talents he displays (some of which I have mentioned here), were there not such negative connotations to this term. He is also of course a criminologist, an occultist, a sexologist, a modernist novelist, a family man, a critic, a reviewer – the list goes on. Mind you, he is definitely not an Angry Young Man and never was! Because of this sui generis essence, he is difficult, if not impossible to ‘fit into’ any ‘traditional’ pattern – even should we want to.
Where, for example, does Wilson ‘stand’ with regard to ‘traditional’ Anglo-American Philosophy of Mind? How does he segue into – for example – Berkeley or Hume and their different approaches to what the ‘physical world’ is, exactly? This is never really clear, and nor is Husserl. Where/what is their physical objective ‘reality’? McIntyre and Smith (1989) with reference to Husserl, and therefore domino-like, to Colin Wilson, note as regards the former: “…we can never completely confirm that any physical object we constitute actually does exist.” Make no mistake, Colin Wilson is a modernist explicator of a definite pool of Subjects and definite Objects, yet muddies the surface somewhat via intentionality, and throws away the bathwater somewhat more when he lunges into the ultimately incandescent internalized selflessness of the ‘new’ consciousness, despite his avowal of the need to attain such by some still unavailable objective “calculus.”
Finally then, Wilson’s borrowing of Husserl’s ‘presuppositionless philosophy’ has – after all the bracketing out/reductions away from external factors, jargons and judgments/Husserlian epoche – led to one melded yet definitive INE statement, culled from 1966 and 1988:
[If ]consciousness is intentional, then we can deliberately make it more intentional, and that the result would be a step in the direction of the mystic’s insight (1988)…The new existentialism consists of a phenomenological examination of consciousness (1966.)
So, does Colin Wilson stand or fall by Introduction to the New Existentialism?
Like everything in his mighty oeuvre, the answer has to be that he here remains remote on the tightrope with the Grand Wallendi: ‘the wire is life, all the rest is merely waiting.’ This tome is a lot like a curate’s egg: what Wilson addresses is not always matched by his letters. Some postage is missing, or it’s packaged in the wrong-sized envelope. Some of the destinations are also a little bizarre.
In 2011, at 80 also, possibly Colin has mellowed and modified somewhat away from some of the sentiments and ideas as expressed in INE (such as, for example on the book’s final page: “…most human misfortune is another name for stupidity and self-pity…even death may be a disguised form of suicide…human contingency will prove to be an illusion …he [man’s other self] cannot believe that human reason, powered by the human will to freedom, can ever encounter insurmountable obstacles” which is, at best, somewhat over-optimistic, simplistic and naïve; at worst, completely unrealistic, and plain wrong), whilst at the same time we must remember that the book is now 44 years old and more specifically refers to the ambience of that era, as for example the use of LSD. [For more on Wilson’s own aims in INE, please see Footnote # 7 as regards his emendation regarding his conscious decision to concentrate on epistemological, rather than ontological issues, in his book.]
Of course the final consideration of this book – and indeed Wilson’s entire career – is whether he ever successfully maps out our intentional inner selves, which means whether he gives us the roadmaps to a ’phenomenological’ internal assessment and the concomitant fireworks of extended euphoric and free vision.
Remembering what Hutchinson reiterated regarding INE back in 1967: “The new consciousness is not explicitly defined or described by Wilson”, the answer has to be no, here he does not. Given the – for me at least – undisputed veracity of a statement by the man himself: ”Which is true: vision or ‘nausea’, meaning or meaninglessness?…My own feeling was that the question was not only significant, but – literally – a matter of life and death” (1966), another of his proclamations from the book – here as regards Karl Jaspers – could perhaps be brought to bear as far as INE is concerned: “If a philosopher’s importance depends perhaps upon his advancing his subject to a new stage – and to handing on vital results to his successors – then [he] must be judged a failure” (1966.) Again, let me quote a percipient contemporary critic here: “A heroic attempt to rescue the basic Kierkegaard-Heidegger-Sartrean concept from the museum into which its own negativistic limitations seemed to him [Wilson] to have consigned it” [Whittington-Egan, 1966.} A heroic attempt indeed.
But this book is ‘only’ a ‘failure’ under Wilson’s own extremely high-set terms of Existential Literary Criticism. He remains so well worthy of being taken seriously as a philosopher precisely because – unlike 98.9% of other writers/philosophers – he actually does concentrate on questions of supreme importance – what is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What should we be doing about it? He also at least attempts to solve the conundrums, given that he – to me anyway – has never completely concocted what Brocard Sewell aka William Tonks suggested about Colin, and more specifically INE, all those years ago: “he should now go on to write a major exposition of the themes he here adumbrates” (1966.)
More importantly, there is one other significant factor to be addressed here – I noted at the commencement of this piece that INE cannot be considered in isolation from everything else Wilson has written. We must therefore adjudge his INE claims, and indeed the book itself, in relation to what he wrote subsequently, examine further developments of ideas started here and developed further, remembering his later delving into a vast vista of alternatives. We – like Wallendi – must therefore remain in suspension, for this is not the place to so examine Wilson’s ruminations on the Occult, Crime and so forth.
If anything Introduction to the New Existentialism should serve as motivation to read more and more of his works: it is not his ‘greatest book’, although one of his more important early ones, but – once more – given that it was published in 1966, it remains a significant tract of Wilson’s philosophy, as well as being as a significant tract of English philosophy per se. This final point really needs accepting by today’s, sadly diminishing, U.K. Philosophy departments.
I will concur with and slightly paraphrase Mathew Coniam here, as regards not only INE, but all his lifework: “[Wilson] has managed to winch the worldview of humanist existentialism free of the impasse of despair…this unique and iconoclastic English existentialist is well worth the sometimes considerable effort…” (2001.)
Finally a personal note: To me, Colin has endured as a philosopher who must always be considered, if not for his ‘solutions’, at least for his syntheses, and always for his even asking the questions we must all face. The fact that he has done so in a generally otiose academic and critical environment in his own homeland only makes his efforts all the more worthy. I will also re-quote from my own thesis from all those years ago: “Wilson remains a writer worthy of considerable study. Why? Because he focuses on what to me are the most serious questions of life…He explores a difficult territory that few of his peers even attempt… Despite his ‘failure’ according to his own criteria, he should be adjudged with words culled from his own 1960 review of Camus’ The Possessed:”…whatever ultimate criticisms can be leveled at his work, he was better than ninety-nine percent of his contemporaries” (1996.) My highlighting of these last words is deliberate – I must stress yet again this is my own permanent estimation of Colin Wilson. His books remain some of the very few I continue to purchase avidly.
Three cheers for Colin Wilson. Happy birthday to you too.
INE does contain the usual Wilsonian shouts of joy, sometimes illogically derived from what has gone before. It does contain some massive kitchen-floor sweepings which take away one’s hesitant but-but-buts in one mighty whisk. It does contain generalizations, repetitions, absurd statements, italics, repetitions, inconsistencies, repetitions, omissions, naivety, neologisms (‘the indifference threshold’/’St. Neots Margin’) – all par for the course for him. I have harped on about these factors ad nauseum elsewhere in my multifold reviews and articles about Colin’s books – see the bibliography, if you will. (Regarding a bibliography in INE – there is no such beast prowling the back of this book.)
Interestingly, Wilson, on page 179, adjudges Sartre’s thought as a “mass of inner contradictions” – I am a bit tempted to say the same of Wilson at times when reading INE. One example of Colin’s inevitable suspension of doubt and leap into faith will suffice however – witness a comment of a middle-range critic: “Mr. Wilson’s concern…is…whether philosophy has a right to ask questions about the meaning of human existence…But what he [Wilson] takes for granted is that it is clear what such questions would mean, and how one would know whether an answer was good or bad” – TLS-man (1966.)
Let’s also bracket out for a while what T.L.S-man correctly identifies as Wilson’s penchant in writing: “…very little about relationships with other people…Mr. Wilson seems tacitly to despair of the ordinary world of human affairs”, given that Wilson is the archetypal ‘Outsider’. He just does not place paramount importance on social issues, racial issues, economic issues, political issues, gender issues, and has always remained somewhat cocooned in Cornwall. One of my main concerns with Colin is this self-determined cocooning and abstention from the social ramifications of his statements – he seems rather blind and deaf re: the sheer inability of 95% of humanity to even think about increased consciousness, let alone to strive for it, even if they wished to because of the practical considerations of trying to exist at all; while the indigenous personage is akin to the Loch Ness Monster in his opus. Huge social chasms erupt when one thinks about the ramifications of his philosophy, for he basically ignores most of humanity. I wrote at length about all this in Epilogic Convergence (2009).
Thus we must further ponder – what if the elite minority do actually somehow attain increased visionary percipience, even if they want to – how can they exist diurnally in the increasingly diminishing private spaces for self in this Facebook World? Surely they would be tantamount to secluded swami in the Himalayas, for the stark reality is that the World isn’t going to change as a nova opening up for inner human evolution, but rather seems – if anything – to be burgeoning toward a black hole merging of separate selves into a mass depersonalized electronic transit of self-bytes. More, Wilson’s own incorporation of Huxley’s thoughts that “…if we all lived in a state of mescaline-awareness, there would be no wars, but there would be no civilization either” (1966) has also to be seriously considered as regards any Wilson-world. Will inner extended nirvana necessarily parallel peace, prosperity, equality, pragmatics being resolved?
My last point further begs the question somewhat as to why we should then strive for these moments of effervescence in today’s ‘globalised’ and increasingly dehumanized world (see Virilio and Baudrillard and Heidegger’s own notion of techne, and Wilson’s own pertinent point in INE that: “Improved techniques of communication have only blurred the outlines further; we live so much through books, films, television, etc., that dream and reality have only become further confused.” Exactly – the world is moving away from separate transcendental egos, towards Globman), leaving aside the point that millions of the human race will never even have a minute to even consider such PEs, because they will be too damned preoccupied with trying to eat and find shelter, avoid landmines, not succumb to HIV and so on. Indeed here and elsewhere, Wilson himself does not really even consider these poor folk – the majority of life’s creatures: “If there is going to be some “rebirth” in individuals, it will apply to a maximum of five per cent – at least to begin with…the answer must be sought in the psychology of individuals. And, it should be added, in terms of individuals remarkable enough to be exemplars” (From a piece on Marcuse in 1970, which recalls Wilson’s once more incorporating the ideas of Robert Ardrey.)
We have to acknowledge TLS-man’s point about INE here: “…his [Wilson’s] positive thesis will appeal only to those who, like himself, have rejected traditional religious and ethical systems” – that in other words many still, then and now, want to believe in so-called ‘religious solutions’ – even among scientists: “…many scientists have been, and are, and will be, believers in Christianity and other faiths”, as William Tonks scribed in 1966, while TLS-man further agreed with regard to philosophers: “…the view that most philosophers of the school of linguistic analysis ‘regard religious questions as meaningless’ is merely grotesque” (1967.)
Indeed, Wilson is perhaps constructing his own religion, with Man as God. There is room to seriously consider what Winsett wrote way back in 1968 about Wilson’s so formulating: “The “clash” Wilson mentions between the visions of inner freedom and contingency firmly establishes the religious nature of the “new existentialism.” This clash is reflected by the conflict of realities in Wilson’s basic definition of religion: “the belief that this everyday human reality is not the final truth, and that there is another order of reality that is usually inaccessible to human consciousness” (Introduction, p. 134.) This simple definition describes not only the fundamental problem of the Outsider, but also the very essence of the Religion of the Outside: man’s need to regain a feeling of individual purpose is the need for religion.”
Let’s also here bracket away Wilson’s amazing penchant for confusing us with his oxymorons, downright contradictions in terminology and frustrating vagueness with words, which only lead to confusion. Witness, for example, Frank McEachran in The Scotsman in a largely empathetic critique of INE: “The ontological problem comes out badly too…what do these [Wilson’s] terms ‘real’, ‘beyond’ and ‘external’ mean? In traditional Christian belief (or Hindu for that matter) they really would refer to an ontological reality other than this world. Mr. Wilson is determined to dissolve the other world into this…Now if it is ‘beyond’, it must be ‘transcendental’ and that is what he will not allow. Isn’t it easier and even more logical, to accept the traditional interpretation?” (1966.)
Thus, Wilson emphasizes both forms of consciousness – everyday or “ordinary”, and expanded – just as he also confusedly iterates three different types of (“almost conscious” and “completely unconscious”) intentionality “…it is only a matter of becoming aware of an emotional intentionality. It is slightly more difficult…to become aware of other kinds of intentionality: intellectual and perceptual”; and different grades of phenomenology (which we also learn is a tool, not a philosophy, while “The whole point of phenomenology is that there is no sharp dividing line between perception and imagination”) – “It should be admitted at once that there are as many different kinds of phenomenology as there are phenomenologists”: and more than one sort of man/human “…man does not yet exist. The creature we call man is a halfway house between the animals and the truly human” and “…I am using the word ‘human’ in a special sense”; and existentialism “There is, of course, no ‘old’ existentialism’ and ‘new’ existentialism”; and sanity “In short, we must distinguish ‘true sanity’ from the sanity of short-sightedness and limitation…the usual distinction between sanity and insanity is a false one. We are all insane!” (All quotes/italics from INE 1966.) All of these examples are somewhat perplexing, to say the very least.
He is then nothing if not amorphous at times and indeed reminds me of his muse here, Edmund Husserl, as regards the vagueness of some of his terminology. What are we to make of Husserl’s notions, sprouted forth over a long writing career, of noesis, noema, thetic, sinn, horizon, constitution, evidence, region? To me, and others (see for example Lachman, 1994) Wilson also simplifies and qualifies Husserl somewhat, as Bertonneau explains: “Like everything else in Wilson’s work, the interpretation of Husserl in The New Existentialism follows unorthodox lines…taking Husserl with a kind of bold literalness, which nevertheless seems intuitively right…”(2009.) Wilson never goes near the intersubjectivity or horizons of the ‘later’ Husserl, for example, where the latter attempted to ‘include’ other perspectives and other people.
Again, what are we to make of the following Wilsonism: “All perception is intentional; Van Gogh’s perception is more intentional than our everyday perception”? Indeed others have further picked up on this penchant for confusion in INE, witness Christopher Ricks once more: “Mr. Wilson continually vacillates between the limited optimism – if you so consider it – which is appropriate to the consciousness’s being to some extent a denier of contingency, and something quite different: a total optimism based (without evidence or argument) on the assertion that in man’s consciousness his passive powers are only those of a Jekyll/’dwarf’, whereas his powers of ‘intentionality’ are those of a Hyde/’giant’”(1966) and yes, Stevenson’s characters within a character play a role in INE too.
I will make a further epoche also as regards what I have also written at length about PEs (again see Epilogic Convergence) as to even if they might be self-induced by internal agency, how can they somehow be qualified or quantified; while they may also be no more than a momentary increased supply of dopamine and endorphins or tricks of light on retina. (See recent trends in Neurophilosophy here (2002). See also the interesting categorizations of PEs by Stephen Taylor, 2006.)
More than this, PEs are not morally discriminatory either, anyone can have them – and Wilson basically hints as much, especially with Austin Nunne in Ritual in the Dark (1960), who committed nefarious crimes for the buzz/transient PE it imbued, given that Wilson does declaim crime in INE.
Newman (2010) also notes succinctly re such subjectivity: “How important it is to the individual could well be a temperamental thing; to manic depressives regular surges of euphoria might seem like the elixir of life. To someone who is constitutionally happy they might pass unnoticed.”
More, PEs are not necessarily mystical experiences – Wilson writes of a rather confusing range of experiences here: “The ‘peak experience’ is not necessarily a mystical experience, although mystical experiences are one form of peak experience” while later he adds, bewilderingly: “Mysticism, it seems, is no answer” and “…it is clear that there is no real difference between mystical experience and aesthetic experience” (1966) – a further example of more vagueness in INE, whereby we are left grasping more than a little as to what these states of effervescence will actually consist of.
The entire minefield of Intentionality must be examined more closely. I must call into question Wilson (and Husserl’s) belief that intentionality is so subjective (my italics) a meaning-giving capacity – witness the former’s 1966 statements regarding “…the human tendency to negative-intentionalising.” Given that each individual brings to bear their own unique penchant for giving meaning to any thing, be it ‘physical’ or conceptual, how is there to be any consistency, any objective and systematic programme of re-programming the human computers which are consciousness? What about deliberate ‘viruses’, ‘hijackings’ and so on? How can there be inter-subject intentionality? Husserl himself never ‘answered’ this.
Reducing away further, I will quote Paul Newman again, verbatim: “The point about thought being intentional. If a Victorian lady looks down on the Victoria Falls and instantly faints at the sheer sublimity, surely it was not her intention to pass out. The object has affected the subject” (2010.) Yes, indeed. Perhaps another glitch in the gears.
Getting right down to the wire: Derrida rather devastatingly deconstructed Husserl, I believe. Husserl wanted both to say that intentionality precedes language, but at the same time that intentionality is expressed via language to communicate the universal essences of things. The difficulty is then that intentionality cannot be free of language and is corrupted accordingly. To quote Tony Schirato: “In a sense then, Husserl’s notion of intentionality falls prey to its own logic…Intentionality produces what Derrida has called differance, something beyond itself that any structure can never completely intend, take into account, or control” (Online.) I have to concur.
Indeed Schirato further decimates intentionality from different angles – Foucault and discourse; Freud and Lacan and the subconscious; Althusser and interpellation – all of which, for me at least, are very strong and sharp criticisms of what Husserl and Wilson rate so highly – intentionality.
See, for example, quotations from Schirato below as regards these European writers:
“Foucault’s point is that intentionality and other notions associated with subjectivity are valuable sites of political analysis.”
“…[Re:] the impossibility of intentionality…For Lacan, a subject and that subject’s intentionality are always “lost” in what Husserl referred to as “indicative” language.”
“For Althusser, a belief in individual intentionality is an ideological tool that allows hegemonic groups to dominate other groups in a society.”
Thus “…the subject [is] completely produced and dominated by language or ideology” for these writers – anathema to Wilson who wants to believe in individual control and above all, freedom for the transcendental self.
Wilson, of course, has responded on more than one occasion to Derrida, so the debate remains unresolved here. See his Derrida and Deconstruction from 1998.
I have – yet again – written elsewhere (Doctrine of Ultimate Pointlessness) of the ‘so what’ factor? Even if some men ‘succeeded – should they be able to/wish to – in achieving Wilson’s nirvana of majestic ‘mystical’ consciousness – whatever this may be – so what? What would be the point of their so doing? Is anything ‘solved’? Are we any closer to understanding existence, given that such ‘expanded’ vision might contain ‘solutions’ to such as yet unknowns? Wilson never really – anywhere – approaches this equation: he doggedly assumes that the doors opened via New Existentialism will necessarily reveal all (and indeed this may be the case.) In this very ‘real’ sense his proposed new epistemology ultimately brackets out the metaphysic, something he concurred with in his own emendations to the original (see Bassett, 1995): “The main point about this book is one I have taken care not to state too explicitly: its basic metaphysic.”(He then flies into a freefall of abstruse ruminations on willing one’s way (his own) beyond birth and death…)
Along similar lines to my critique above, Schulz wrote in 1967, at the end of his review of INE, as regards the ‘new values’ insisted on by Wilson: “Wilson has not suggested any reason why they should be more transcendental, or outside man, than the old ones. Once the novelty has worn off, will not man find himself in a new and bigger jail, suffering from a new and expanded boredom, perhaps a king-sized nausea?” The spectre Colin alludes to near the end of INE may ultimately therefore the spectre of infinite regress…
Anonymous (1966) Review of Introduction to the New Existentialism British Book News July, pp. 484-485
Anonymous (1967) Review of Introduction to the New Existentialism Kirkus Reviews 35 January 15 pg. 104
Anonymous (1966) Review of Introduction to the New Existentialism Times Literary Supplement January 26 pg. 72
Bassett, Maurice (1995) Author’s Emendations to The Existentialism USA: Private publishing
Bertonneau, Thomas F (2009 online) Colin Wilson: The Persistence of Meaning (link)
Cacaturimus (1967) Review of Introduction to the New Existentialism Minnesota Review 7 pp.181-183
Churchland, Patricia Smith (2002) Brain:Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy USA: MIT Press
Coniam, Mathew (2001) The Forgotten Existentialist. Philosophy Now, June/July pg. 20
Derrida, Jaques (1982) Margins of Philosophy A. Bass (Transl.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Freyer, Grattan (1966) Review of Introduction to the New Existentialism Irish Times June, 4
Hanson, Carl (1967) Scientific Philosophy: The New Existentialism Rocky Mountain News May 14
Hutchinson, J.D (1967) Review of Introduction to the New Existentialism The Denver Quarterly, Summer, Vol. 2, Number 2
Kaufmann, Walter (1967) Review of Introduction to the New Existentialism New York Times Book Review July 30, pg. 6
Lachman, Gary (1994) Lifework of Colin Wilson From Outsider to Post– Tragic Man: Colin Wilson and the Case for Optimism Re–vision, Vol. 16, 1994
McEachran, Frank (1966) Review of Introduction to the New Existentialism, Scotsman April 16
Mcintyre, Ronald and Smith, David Woodruff (1989) ‘Theory of Intentionality’ in JN Mohanty and William R. McKenna (Eds.) Husserl and Intentionality: A Textbook Washington: Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenolgy and University Press of America
Morgan, Robert C. (2005) The Interior Landscapes and the Value of Mysticism: Paintings by Martin Rees in Mystic Landscapes, New Works of Martin Rees (online) HYPERLINK “http://www.martinries.com/MysticLandscapes.pdf” http://www.martinries.com/MysticLandscapes.pdf
Newman, Paul (2010) Personal email correspondence June
Ricks, Christopher (1966) Review of Introduction to the New Existentialism, New Statesman 71 May 13 pg. 695
Richmond, Joan The Panopticon, Picnolepsy, and Implosion: The Aesthetic of Disappearance and the Picnoleptic–Kairotic Moment
Robertson, Vaughan (1996) Existential Literary Criticism and the Novels of Colin Wilson, Ph.D thesis, University of Auckland, New Zealand HYPERLINK “http://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/977” http://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/977
Robertson, Vaughan (2001) Wilson as Mystic Nottingham: Paupers Press
Robertson, Vaughan (2001) ‘Doctrine of Ultimate Pointlessness’ in Newman, Paul (Ed.) Abraxas #18 St Austell: private printing
Robertson, Vaughan (2008) ‘Postmodern Mysticism’ in Newman, Paul (Ed.) Abraxas Unbound #1 St Austell: Lulu
Robertson Vaughan (2009) ‘Epilogic Convergence’ in Newman, Paul (Ed.) Abraxas Unbound #2 St Austell: Lulu
Schirato, Tony (online) Intentionality – difference, S/Z, Sarrasine, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays HYPERLINK “http://psychology.jrank.org/pages/2053/intentionality.html” http://psychology.jrank.org/pages/2053/intentionality.html
Schulz, Howard (1967) Review of Introduction to the New Existentialism, Richmond Times–Dispatch May 28
Solomon, Robert (2004) Existentialism (second edition) USA: Oxford University Press
Stanley, Colin (2009) Colin Wilson’s Outsider Cycle Nottingham: Paupers Press
Taylor, Stephen (2006) The Sources of Higher States of Consciousness International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Vol. 24
Tonks, William aka Sewell, Brocard (1966) Review of Introduction to the New Existentialism, Aylesford Review (Summer) pp.67-68
Whittington-Egan, Richard (1966) Philosophy, Books and Bookmen 11, June pg. 38
Wilson, Colin (1966) Introduction to the New Existentialism London: Hutchinson
Wilson, Colin (1970) Notes on Marcuse, From Our Beginnings, issue 3, Spring
Wilson, Colin (1980) The New Existentialism London: Wildwood House
Wilson, Colin (1988) Essay on the New Existentialism Nottingham: Paupers Press
Wilson, Colin (1998) Derrida and Deconstruction in Below the Iceberg: Anti–Sartre and other essays San Bernardino: Borgo Press
Wilson, Colin (online) An Essay on Introduction to the New Existentialism (it’s near the bottom of this page)
Wilson, Colin (2004) Phenomenology as a Mystical Discipline, Philosophy Now #58
Wilson, Colin (2007) Whitehead as Existentialist, Philosophy Now #64
Winsett, Walter Asa (1968) The Religion of the Outside M.A thesis Texas Technological College, U.S.A.
Critique Two –
Superconsciousness: The Search for the Peak Experience by Colin Wilson. Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana (aka Robertson)
Quintessentially there is nothing new in this book from Colin Wilson, unless you have never read anything by him in the past. Admittedly he does touch on brain chemicals – endorphins – for the first time that I can recall, and he does finally refer to Sartre’s What is Literature, but other than these points, it’s all the same.
That said, there is also not too much to moan about either. It is yet another summary of his life ideas, his own Weltanschaaung.
Colin Wilson merely regurgitates his usual repasts, with his usual suspects – Romantics, Graham Greene, Proust, Dostoevsky and so on and on and on – paraded, in a well-written way, given a few ostentatious repetitions and more hyperbolic sessions and grandiose claims founded on shaky substance: ‘We have seen that…” /” This also enables us to understand…”/ “Now as we have seen…”/”Now the truth is…”/”This, of course, also explains…” Again this is nothing new from him either.
Nor is his predilection for breathing the life of truth into unproven substance. I mean did the advent of the novel, itself not as clear cut a genesis as Wilson proclaims, ‘really’ start “a phase of modern history that might be called the discovery of modern freedom”? Who else could state so firmly that “literary pessimism began with the Romantics”?
And what in blue blazes does this actually ‘mean’: “the soul is shaped like a football…For Romantic footballs did have bladders inside them”?
There are also herds of Wilson’s own pet animals roaming the pages here – the Bombard effect; the Ecclesiastes affect; Faculty X; everyday consciousness is a liar; the weight on the needles; ’whittle’; duo-consciousness; holiday consciousness; Stan & Ollie; the romantic theory of evolution – which is totally off the wall, by the way; the Sheepwash experience – and so on and so forth. Well fed and pampered, they love to inhabit his work.
There is here too a weird division of chapters so that ultimately all of his loved zones are infiltrated – sex, occult, psychology, (pre-) history of the world, crime, philosophy – but in a rather non-sequential way, so that the initial impetus is lost as one ploughs through the pages. By the chapter entitled ‘Near and Far’, where he announces somewhat absurdly “we can give an exact date for the birth of musical romanticism”, he seems to lose his way a bit and all the subsequent dives into the sagas of Samuel Beckett and the précised history of the world (!) lose flow as far as this critic is concerned. Why he feels the need to insist “what we urgently need is to see all this in historical perspective” and launch into ‘A Brief Outline of History’, escapes me. He notes late in the tome that “This book has been constructed rather like one of the seminars I used to give in the 1960s at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, near San Francisco…” and yes, sections in the guts of this book and their weird segueing are very acid trippy. Happily however, ‘Philosophy’ is one of the best chapters here. I always said he is at his best as a philosophy entrepreneur
That said, what is he saying?
That mankind is capable of a higher consciousness and oh so close to attaining it. The next evolutionary step is revealed in flashes of peak experience or ‘power consciousness’. Abraham Maslow, of course, was the fount here.
Other than the vital fact that Wilson has never shown, and here again doesn’t show us how exactly to attain the states of prolonged nirvana he stands by and which he claims he will divulge in his very first paragaraph, there are some more pragmatic reflections I must make, should his cosmic consciousness ever be more easily attainable.
Even if some people somehow did attain mastery of consciousness (Levels 5-7 – he feels Level 8 “is not, at present, our affair” – of Wilson’s ladder of selves), millions are too busy trying to eat and survive to even be bothered, let alone be aware of his exclusive notions. In the real world, the majority of mankind is struggling to live, and superconsciousness is the last thing in their consciousness. Some white middle class Westerners may well be the only potential participants in Wilson’s existential gambit. Which is rather an unfair equation, methinks.
Then, of this select few capable of the time and reflection to even consider the magic jaunt, would they even all want to? “So what” may well be the majority decision of many in this minority! They may well prefer to go sailing. Or read Samuel Beckett.
And given that a trickle of this select elite do willingly attempt some semblance of superconsciousness, will it make any difference to the real world anyway? Pollution, sexism, racism, warfare, injustice are just a few menaces that will not just subside and vanish.
In other words, will superconsciousness make any quantitative difference anyway?
I do not feel that this book is “a remarkable undertaking and, with its important implications for human evolution, a book that I feel he just had to write, sooner or later” (Geoff Ward on www.mysteriousplanet.net ) No way. Wilson has written this book at least fifty times already. It is just another shuffle of worn-out cards.
Yet I do continue to purchase and read anything by Colin Wilson and I do still subscribe to Ward’s statement that “He is one of the few thinkers who has stood out against the endemic pessimism and defeatism of our times, and the tendency to reject substance and meaning in favour of image and ephemera.” Indubitably.
I do accept the existence of peak experiences, and have had them frequently myself, and they do seem to offer some semblance of a more profound meaning process. Whether they are purely physiological flukes, which is what I tend to suspect, or are somehow ‘true’ epiphanies instigated by human agency, they do lunge an individual into querulous positivity. There is a glimpse of something more than the mundane diurnal grind. Then again, so does a sexual climax.
But for all the reasons and doubts I have briefly touched on here and have written about far, far more extensively elsewhere – see below – Superconsciousness: The Search for the Peak Experience by Colin Wilson does no more than frustrate me. It is more of the same, and by now, the same is no longer good enough.
Existential Literary Criticism and the Novels of Colin Wilson (1996) being the Ph.D thesis of DV Robertson, University of Auckland, New Zealand. Available from
http://www.researchspace.auckland.ac.nz or http://disexpress.umi.com to purchase.
Wilson as Mystic (2001) Pauper’s Press, Nottingham. ISBN: 0-946650-74-8
Epilogic Convergence (2008) in Abraxas Unbound, edited Paul Newman, Abraxas Editions, St. Austell, pp.75-91
Vaughan Rapatahana (aka Robertson)