Superconsciousness: The Search for the Peak Experience by Colin Wilson. Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana (aka Robertson)

IMG_0182Quintessentially 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 ) 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.

Also see:

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 or 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)
Hong Kong


7 thoughts on “Critique

  1. I think you entirely missed the point. Colin Wilson is talking to you when he writes. He is not talking to “his readership,” or “the book critics” when he writes. He is talking to the individual. And if this isn’t obvious to you, you probably aren’t ready to read Colin Wilson. Maybe you should try Dr Seuss, or say, Deuteronomy.

    Carey Ott


  2. Cruel but fair. But it wouldn’t be fair if you didn’t acknowledge the reasons why we read Wilson despite his flaws, which you do. Level-headed and even-handed. Hard to add anything. If one hasn’t read several other Wilsons recently, one might take it as too hard on him, but there is no denying it’s a rehash, however enjoyable.


  3. Artimus

    For a man who calls himself a poet, Mr Rapatahana’s prose really needs some work. For instance: ‘That said, there is also not too much to moan about either.’ (If you cut out the ‘also’ and the ‘too’ the sentence means exactly the same thing and makes its point with far greater clarity.) And surely ‘quintessentially’ is an unnecessarily fancy word to kick off with. ‘Essentially’ would have done the job perfectly well – although neither word is needed.

    It’s hard to take the review seriously because it’s so clogged with redundant words and pretentious phrases: ‘Merely regurgitates his usual repasts’ … ‘Predilection for breathing the life of truth into’ … ‘Some semblance of a more profound meaning process’ … ‘They do lunge (sic) an individual into querulous positivity’ … ‘A few ostentatious repetitions and more hyperbolic sessions and grandiose claims founded on shaky substance.’ Phew! Just typing this crap makes me glaze over. Also the deliberate use of cute anachronisms (‘indubitably’, ‘methinks’, ‘tome’), presumably meant to be charming, comes across as an irritating tic.

    Strangely, what the man is saying is occasionally perceptive. What grates is the clumsy self-importance of the writing.


  4. I have been reading Wilson for 45 years, and like you I’m drawn to the way he thinks and enjoy the degree to which he seems to be enjoying himself sharing his perspective with me, the reader. I also agree that this is not his best work. But I have not read Wilson in several years, and I picked up this book following having read another book called Stealing Fire – a very different approach to “peak experience.” I am enjoying reviewing many of Wilson’s stories and perspectives that I’ve read before and while in generally I agree with your criticism of this book of his, i remain loyal fan.


    1. Thanks – however the review of Superconsciousness was written by Vaughan Rapatahana, a Wilson scholar who recently introduced his ‘lost’ unfinished novel Lulu (available from Paupers Press). I’ve only been reading CW for a mere 30 years!


  5. I too have been reading CW for that long. I gave a friend Books of My Life and told him to read the Postscript. He was not impressed. I joined a philosophy club recently and yesterday we discussed Nietzsche. When I got home I re-read once again Wilson’s chapter on Nietzsche in The Outsider and was staggered at its balance and perception. It was written by someone who was 24 yet he seems to have understood then how we must say yea in spite of!


    1. Yes – I’ll often go back to one of his texts and something like that will take me by surprise. Usually things which are crammed in between the facts and narratives which maybe don’t register on first reading.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s