Pseudoreality doesn’t need to prevail 

Savage faculties?

“There was a personality who lived in the later period of Mexican civilisation and was connected with the utterly decadent, pseudo-magical Mystery cults of Mexico; with an intense thirst for knowledge he studied everything with close and meticulous exactitude”. With typical sobriety Rudolf Steiner described this dark scene to a hushed lecture hall in 1924, all the while rejecting the fashionable interest in such ancient lore by remarking that although this mysterious individual “knew that Quetzalcoatl was a Divine Being who could take hold of man in his circulating blood, in the working of his breath”, the ‘knowledge’ he possessed was automatic and unconscious, the opposite of the intentional wisdom that we develop by individual effort. Continuing his fantastic narrative, Steiner remarks that this perverse soul later incarnated into the body of the occultist known as ‘Eliphas Levi’ and offers the penetrating comment that if you read Levi’s books “you will find evidence of great wisdom spread out as it were over something extremely primitive”.

Of the nineteenth century occult revival which Levi was a figurehead, Steiner commented that it’s practitioners attempted to “convince themselves, one might say, artificially […] to accept the existence of a super-sensible world”. The word ‘artificial’ was pejoratively used by Steiner’s esoteric contemporaries Gurdjieff and Ouspensky to describe a fake world of automated or robotic perceptions, similar to the contingent state of humanity outlined by Heidegger and the existentialists that followed. One occult practitioner at this time believed himself to be Levi’s reincarnation, and seemingly possessed the same instinctive abilities as Steiner’s Mexican adept. Describing Aleister Crowley’s lumbering psychic constitution, Colin Wilson notes that “instinctive, animal faculties” were his compass, an insight given extra weight in Crowley’s memoir where he speaks of a “subconscious physical memory” connected to his motor functions (“my limbs poses a consciousness of their own that is infallible” he writes of his mountaineering skills). This faculty, he says, has led him over all manner of territories and is only thrown off balance by the interference of his conscious mind (“I have several other savage faculties” he writes in his Confessions; “in particular, I can smell snow and water”). Regarding his magical and mystical abilities, he cheerfully boasts that he “picked up the technical tricks of the trade almost by instinct”. 

It’s likely that Steiner differentiated between ‘involuntary’ and intentional perception due to his interest in the ideas of Franz Brentano, a philosopher who had stated that perception is always about something (“reference to an object”). In his Steiner biography (1985) Wilson comments that this idea of active perception is exactly what the young Steiner wanted to hear (Steiner was still enthusing about Brentano later in his career). By the time Brentano’s pupil Edmund Husserl wrote the Logical Investigations in 1900 this aboutness had developed into the vigorous “directed aiming” of intentionality, the core concept of Husserl’s phenomenology and later, of Wilson’s new existentialism. Our attentive thought, writes Husserl [VI § 38] “aims at a thing, and it hits it’s mark, or does not hit it” according to the strength of the intention. “In our metaphor an act of hitting the mark corresponds to that of aiming” [ibid. V § 13]. Husserl states that without such intentionality, the ‘shot’ is simply missed; the greater the energy, the more total the perception. In this energetically intentional act, says Husserl, “we live, as it were, principally”; in the subordinate and partial acts, we live only partially [ibid. § 19]. With reference to this variable of perception Wilson would quote Yeats’ line about completing the partial mind and note Blake’s “remarkable anticipation of phenomenology” as a possible corrective. For Blake’s fiery aphorism that energy is eternal delight is in essence the argument that Husserl makes here for the “greatest energy […] displayed by the act-character which comprehends and subsumes all partial acts”. Elsewhere [ibid. § 15 b] Husserl carefully separates intentions from sensations (“tactual, gustatory, olfactory”) so when Crowley tells us that he can smell snow and water despite his “olfactory sense [being] far below the average”, the “savage faculty” he is describing is an instinct, not an intention. 

Life in the culture-medium 

Husserl tells us that intention aims at it’s object as if it were “desirous” of it [ibid. VI § 20], something Blake clearly understood. In Blake’s mythology, the core human value is the ‘Poetic Genius’, the origin of inspiration and “the first principle” with “all the others merely derivative” – the ‘others’ being the naturalistic pantheism of antiquity. Husserl’s ironic name for partial perception is the natural attitude, a state where “we take [things] for granted […] without even thinking about it” [Ideas § 77]; the fallacy of passive consciousness, as Wilson has it in The New Existentialism. Blake thought of the Poetic Genius as a faculty – “the true faculty of knowing” and “the faculty that experiences”, in other words a phenomenological and existential faculty (“scientific common sense” which would hardly be “out of place in a a Secular Society pamphlet” comments Wilson in The Outsider). True to his anticipation of this philosophical stance, Blake notes that this pure inspiration is too often distorted when transmitted through individual “weaknesses“ – Husserl would have said ‘prejudices’ – via philosophical sects and closed religions. Husserl states [Ideas II § 59] that a faculty is “not an empty ability but a positive potentiality” in the “stream of lived experience”. Similarly, Husserl’s pupil Heidegger asserts that the “question of existence never gets straightened out except through existing itself” [Being and Time § 12]. “The understanding of oneself which leads along this way we call ‘existentiell’”. Wilson made the distinction between pantheistic ‘occult faculties’ and this existential/intentional or phenomenological faculty in his book The Occult, where the latter is known as ‘Faculty X’. Proust’s famous moment of ‘time regained’ in Swann’s Way is often used as an example of this Faculty in action, and Proust later explains that it happens rarely because our faculties lie dormant due to habit. “A slight burst of energy, for a single day, would be sufficient to change these habits for good” he writes. Like Blake, Wilson thinks this Faculty is common to poets. “What is poetry?” he asks in Poetry and Mysticism. “It is a contradiction of the everyday life-world”, Heidegger’s trivial ‘everydayness’. Another lumbering modernist novel – Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which Wilson rated higher than Proust’s – examined this existential dilemma of a diminished life. “There’s no longer a whole man confronting a whole world, only a human something moving about in a general culture-medium”. 

The Personality Surgeon

Compared to those who “work in the medium of life itself” says Musil, “mere literature” is only an illustration of living, a point also made by Wilson in the fourth chapter of The Outsider; certain existential problems cannot be solved by writing about them, as they must be lived. The ‘culture-medium’, then, can be understood as Husserl’s ‘life-world’, the surrounding ‘given’ world which he thoroughly analysed in his final book The Crisis of European Sciences. “Culture creates personality and is at the same time the product and the result of personality” said Gurdjieff, making a distinction between ‘personality’ (social self-awareness of and in response to other people) and ‘essence’ (what is ‘yours’, your unique individuality). Personality is false, he tells us, because it is created by “involuntary imitation” of the “intentional influences of other people”. Husserl likened intentionality to a “universal medium” in Ideas [§ 85], “disregarding its enigmatic forms and levels”, that is. Wilson later had it as a “distorting medium” or “distorting power”. The great gift of phenomenology and existentialism, he says, is to show that the distorting medium is the human personality – “which knows itself as an active participant in the world, in relations with other people” – not the senses. This “fine network of relations” warps our interpretations of reality. The active mind is “continuously selecting, filtering, interpreting, colouring – and sometimes distorting and misinforming” our experience, he writes. Musil understood this when he pointed out that we do not notice “the part our personality plays in directing our perceptions” just as we don’t notice the silent revolutions of the earth.

In the ‘visionary’ chapter of The Outsider Wilson comments that the poet Rimbaud knew that our inner being (Blake’s Poetic Genius) orders what we see. Later he transformed Rimbaud’s ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ into a kind of motto for phenomenology – ‘the systematic derangement of human prejudice’. Through this ‘derangement’ we can reach the inner being, which Husserl named the Transcendental Ego. Husserl describes intentionality as an attentional “Ego-ray” striking an object (“it is the target”) as the Ego “does and undergoes, is free”. This “ray of attention presents itself as emanating from the pure Ego and terminating in that which is objective”. The pure Ego or “free being” is consciousness shorn of presuppositions and prejudices which lives in these free acts, actions which he calls spontaneous doing [Ideas § 92]. Gurdjieff told Ouspensky that individual evolution is ‘doing’ and doing cannot just ‘happen’ – it is dependent upon powers and possibilities which never develop by themselves (i.e. non-mechanically). In other words, intentions, Husserl’s faculty that is a positive potentiality. Wilson grapples with this “evolutionary intentionality” in Beyond The Outsider (1965).

We are made of habits, prejudices and earth 

“Everything gained by a struggle becomes just something to be manipulated” writes Heidegger in Being and Time [§ 27]. Wilson’s mechanical metaphor for this passing of willed intentions to habits which just ‘happen’ is called ‘the robot’, who is “actually composed of compacted layer upon layer of willed intentions”. Seemingly mechanical actions like driving or typing are learned slowly and perhaps with difficultly, but eventually they become automatic or rather automated and we no longer need to concentrate on the mechanical drudge – that is passed to the robot or sedimented into a metaphorical geology of older, former willed intentions. We are made of “habits, prejudices and earth” says Walter in The Man Without Qualities. Husserl considered this problem of sedimentation (“traditionalization”) in the Crisis. He asks if this process is not tied up with presupposition and “the problem of the instincts”, and likens it to a reliable, useful machine, “a machine everyone can learn to operate correctly without in the least understanding the inner possibility and necessity” of it’s accomplishments [§ 9 h]. Musil sardonically deals with this theme in his novel, blaming Galileo for “a veritable orgy and conflagration of matter-of-factness”. Wilson noted Musil’s debt to Nietzsche, who had gone even further in this argument by declaring the philosophers Hobbes, Locke and Hume proponents of “English-mechanistic world-stupidification”. Their ‘associationism’ was succinctly explained by Wilson: that ‘you’ are just what happens to you; as in Gurdjieff’s idea of ‘personality’, we are just a bundle of sensations with no core. Although Wilson was aware of Hume’s anticipatory influence on Husserl, he agreed with Husserl’s opinion that this philosophy was guilty of taking “immediate insights […] as given truths”. This was merely “naive, uncritical, everyday experience […] a mere assumption, no more than a common prejudice” (ProlegomenaLogical Investigations). A thought experiment later in the book [V § 9] imagines a “being” as this “mere complex of sensations” who can only speak of ‘bodies’ or ‘inanimate things’ and is incapable of emotion. This he says, would be due to a hypothetical flaw in the interpretive ability of this being, it’s intentionality.

In the beginning is the Deed – Husserl, quoting Faust  

Wilson thought that Husserl began as something of a poet or mystic – his enthusiastic referencing of Goethe’s Faust would seem to suggest so, and his statement that ‘normal’ consciousness “leaves our deepest cognitive cravings unsatisfied” [ibid. § 44] would have delighted a poet and mystic like Blake. The symbol for robotic consciousness in Blake’s mythos is the ‘Spectre’, likened to “a machine which has lost its controls and is running wild” by the Blake scholar S. Foster Damon (‘Damon Reade’ In Wilson’s novel The Glass Cage). According to the final chapter of Wilson’s The New Existentialism it is the “limited everyday self” – limited because it is lazy and materialistic (it desires little beyond “security and material rewards”). At its worst, this limitation is illustrated by the cases in Wilson’s true crime books; a softer focus variant can be found in the embarrassments catalogued in his compilation of scandals from 1986 (“the ‘scandal personality’ is basically a confidence trickster who tricks himself”). In The Outsider the Spectre is “static consciousness […] the personality, the habits, the identity” which “mistakes [it’s] own stagnation for the world’s” – everything appears “solid, unchangeable, stagnant, unreal”. As Blake says, expect poison from the standing water. Gurdjieff’s notion of false personality, Husserl’s “naive man” or Wilson’s bourgeois ‘Insiders’ who think they are their own prisons; these are all the ‘Spectre’. This prison is our immediate, limited field of vision through which we consequently devalue the world, like, comments Wilson in The New Existentialism, the condemned character in Sartre’s tale The Wall. “If we could grasp this with genuine insight, we would instantly become aware of the extent to which consciousness is intentional; it would be the first and most important step in the direction of a creative phenomenological attitude to our own existence”. Blake would have agreed with the word creative when speaking of perception. He used the mythological symbol of the ‘mundane egg’ for the distorting medium of intentionality which ‘surrounds’ us (“Enlarg’d into dimension & deform’d into indefinite space”) and depicted it’s sedimentation with images of the hardening crust of matter. “Like all Nature, it is a projection of man” comments Foster Damon. Similarly, Steiner imagined the evolution from instinctive to self-aware consciousness as akin to the cooling and hardening of the crust of the earth over flowing molten magma. “When the human being develops faculties that stand in a relationship to nature, he is not free” he comments. Husserl similarly remarks that such ‘robotic’ traits are “dependent on nature” and equally unfree. The instincts, he says, are the “lowest psychic layer”, “a lower layer of all spiritual existence” and “the world of the mechanical, the world of lifeless conformity to laws” [Ideas II § 61]. Likewise, Gurdjieff thought living through instincts and sensations as the lowest form of human awareness, a state which can only produce imitative art, literal-minded religious ritual and rote knowledge. 

One must be so careful these days – T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land 

Perhaps this is the “primitive” effect which Steiner sensed in the works of Levi, a kind of aesthetic handicap or creative limitation, what Blake sarcastically meant by derivative pantheism and Husserl by natural or naive man. Wilson states that the direct method of phenomenology makes old mystical practices unnecessary and that this faculty has more in common with the freshly creative insights of poets – this is why Faculty X is not an ‘occult’ faculty. Crowley was not a good poet. His first biographer accurately pointed out that his verse lacks the numinous quality of genuine inspiration (“the dominating effect is one of insincerity”). Wilson thought his poems antiquated, “soft”, stuffed full of “overcoloured adjectives” and found more interest In the philosophical implications of the creed Thelema (one root meaning of the word is intention) and magick (defined by Crowley in the book of that name as any “intentional act”). Even so, Crowley’s school-boyish personality still looms uncomfortably over his magical writings. He had an “ego like a raging tooth” says Wilson, quoting Shaw. Had he started with a sombre tome like Steiner’s The Philosophy of Freedom (1894), he may have been taken more seriously from the beginning, writes Wilson. Ironically enough, a passage from Steiner’s book explains why he wasn’t. “Immature youths without any moral imagination like to look upon the instincts of their half developed natures as the full substance of humanity, and reject all moral ideas which they have not themselves originated, in order that they may “live themselves out” without restriction. But it goes without saying that a theory which holds for a fully developed man does not hold for half-developed boys”. 

It was only a few years later when the young Crowley began self-publishing tracts on the joys of rejecting morality and living without restriction, often presented as artificial ‘found manuscripts’ beginning with the lewd prank White Stains and grandiosely culminating in a series of alleged ‘holy books’, supposedly dictated from an alien source (despite one carefully spelling out the name of a mistress in acrostic). Acolytes believe that these codexes can be properly comprehended by cabalistic exegesis but Crowley himself said that this process works equally well on nursery rhymes, advertisements, or anything. It is fitting then that the Crowley revival was strongest during the postmodern era with all of it’s deconstructive leveling and simulated artificiality. In his memoir Crowley describes a mentality where black is white and vice-versa: this “faculty” uses “criticism of the most destructive kind”. His ultimate goal was a state of cosmic indifference, and one passage of scripture tells us to make no difference between anything as this generates “hurt”. He comments that once difference is obliterated, we will develop a post-rational faculty which does not depend on the “hieroglyphic representations” of letters and numbers. But he also takes this instruction as a “charge to destroy the faculty of discriminating between illusions” which unfortunately sounds exactly like the intentionality which magick is supposed to be. He etymologically traces that word in the book of that name [Ch. 8] and comes to remarkably similar conclusions about magic and writing to those of Jacques Derrida in the second part of Of Grammatology – a text which informs us that Husserl’s suspension of prejudices “is perhaps not possible” due to ‘différance’, the inbuilt ambiguity of language.

Unsurprisingly, Wilson wrote off Derrida’s philosophy as a “kind of defeatism” and bracketed him and his poststructural comrades – Foucault, Barthes, Althusser – alongside fake messiahs like Crowley and David Koresh. Crowley preemptively denied the inevitable charge of antinomianism in the seventeenth chapter of his memoir, but it drove his thought as much as it drives Foucault’s anti-authoritarianism. “There is no such thing as history. The facts, even if they were available, are too numerous to grasp. A selection must be made, and this can only be one-sided, because the selector is enclosed in the same network of time and space as his subject”. Not Foucault on the épistémèbut a footnote from Crowley’s memoir, complaining about his school exams. Foucault’s The Order of Things begins it’s anti-phenomenological argument with a reproduction of Las Menias by Velasquez; viewing this painting in Madrid Crowley comments on “the absurdity of trying to ascribe an order to things”, despite his previous analysis of the ordering ‘selector’ (intentional Ego) in the same book. Crowley was as serious as Blake regarding the individual search for the ‘Genius’ but he himself appeared to be in the grip of something else.

The Sun’s Light, when he unfolds it / Depends on the Organ which beholds it – William Blake, ‘What is Man’ from The Gates of Paradise 

“What man first listened to as the voice of God, to that he now listens as an independent power in his own mind which he calls conscience” writes Steiner in The Philosophy of Freedom, anticipating Julian Jaynes’ theories of the bicameral mind and the evolution of consciousness. Crowley was notably deaf to this voice, preferring to heed the advice of his garrulous subconscious. Of his childhood fixation, the Biblical number 666, Steiner said that this represents not a solar force of liberation, but a baleful possibility of “human disintegration, a universal cult of the I and of egoism” – that is to say, a cult of Gurdjieff’s ever-distracted ‘pseudo-I’, the opposite of the intentional Ego. In his cabalistic dictionary Crowley indexes his own nom de plume under this number alongside סורת [Sorath] which Steiner describes as “the adversary of the sun”, a materialistic current which places “spiritual power […] in the service of the lower “I”-principle”, i.e. the instincts and sensations. “This state in which the personality becomes one with the all-embracing spirit of life, must not be confused with an absorption in the “All-Spirit” that annihilates the personality” (Steiner uses ‘personality’ for individuality here). “No such annihilation takes place”. The only ‘annihilation’ worth seeking then is the one which Derrida thought impossible, Husserl’s suspension of the natural attitude in Ideas [§ 49: Absolute Consciousness as the Residuum After the Annihilation of the World]. Crowley’s genuine search for a “new faculty […] by the use of which I could appreciate truth directly” led him to the rather nihilistic conclusion that future humanity “will possess no consciousness of the purpose of it’s own existence”, rather like Steiner’s own gloomy picture of ‘involuntary’ ancient perception. The difference between the intentional ‘I’ and the reactive, blank self is why Blake thought pantheism derivative, why Gurdjieff warned against sinking back to instinct, why Husserl thought the natural attitude passive and why Wilson made a discrepancy between occult faculties and Faculty X. Near the end of The Occult Wilson argues that we can climb to new levels through “a gentle, cumulative effort; no frenzied leap is required”. Steiner said that our ordinary perception can lead us further into the ‘super-sensible world’ with more accuracy than any artificial occult pretensions – ‘rejected knowledge’ – so long as we elaborate these intuitions “with the aid of the intellect” (intuition aided by intellect was Wilson’s definition of philosophy). New influences will develop “in the sphere of the present-day conscious mind” even though such impulses are currently in their infancy.

In times like these, giving in to your instincts is just one more disaster – Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols 

The trouble with instinct, writes Wilson in Frankenstein’s Castle, is that it is powerful but short sighted. The logical faculties which Jaynes believed were shunted to the left hemisphere of the brain were an evolutionary necessity, not a blunder. “That simple combination of instinct and robot can be a disaster” as they are both too easily prone to defeat. “This is why we need the left-brain ego: to overrule the instinct and the robot”. Libertines like De Sade preach total freedom and the rejection of civilisation but this is laughably naive. “For better or worse, man has developed this obsessive, left brain ego with it’s passion for order. There is no going back”. In his book on the strange wonders of the pyramids and the Sphinx (1996) Wilson argues that it was necessary to pull ourselves out of this pleasant but passive state of communal awareness and into something more dynamic and individual. The controlling ego is the left brain ego, but it is “trapped in its narrow conceptual consciousness, overawed by the enormous mechanisms of the brain and body […] it sits in the corner, studying the feelings and sensations of the body, and waiting to be told what to do” (Frankenstein’s Castle). So the ego is a ‘confused Transcendental Ego’, passively sitting in the cinema seat like a spectator, not knowing that it is the projectionist. Wilson admits that this realisation left him a little shaken – surely the answer lies in an omnipotent Self, presiding over consciousness, as mysticism suggests? 

It does, but Husserl himself thought that we could only reach that ‘Self’ or Transcendental Ego through the ‘normal’ ego [cf: Ideas § 33]. Steiner’s descriptions of the evolution of consciousness tell of involuntary impulses becoming instincts and slowly transforming into individual choices. Wisdom was once given to tribes or clans – which Musil names a “pseudoself, a loose fitting group soul” – but now new faculties can only be generated by committed individuals. Wilson points out that the existential dilemma of his Outsiders – alienation, neurosis, and lack of direction – are a misunderstanding of the potentialities and possibilities that are to be found in everyday life. “What I had grasped intuitively, and what slowly formed into an intellectual conviction, was that misery and alienation are not laid upon us by fate” he writes, contradicting ancient wisdom. “They are due to the failure of the ego to accept its role as the controller of consciousness”. The ironic alternative would be that we will not be able to dispense with outside stimuli like crises and disasters, for as Wilson notes, consciousness without crisis tends to become negative. This is especially true if our “mental life is a series of sensations and ideas aroused by [our] immediate experience” – the philosophical position of Hobbes, Locke and Hume which Nietzsche and Husserl rejected. Steiner warned against the possibility of a cult of diminished human ego in thrall to nothing but sensations and instincts, and even posited a future global collapse brought about by this narcissistic ego. Fittingly, he chose the associationist Hobbes’ nihilistic phrase ‘war of all against all’ to describe it. 

Nasty, brutish and online 

“It may seem harmless to think only automatic thoughts” remarks Steiner. But true to his intuitive understanding of the distorting power of intentionality he offers a glimpse of a future where humanity becomes what they behold, to paraphrase Blake. “These materialistic thoughts will then bring forth a terrible race of automatic beings […] endowed with great power of intellect and understanding and will enclose the earth in a kind of net or spiders web”, which thinks Steiner, will resemble the caduceus of Mercury. “All modern unreal thoughts will become endowed with being” he says. Husserl’s thought experiment about a ‘being’ devoid of intentionality, a “mere complex of sensations”, could be a clue. The plot of Wilson’s horror parody The Mind Parasites revolves around Lovecraft’s Mythos, phenomenology and a plague of anhedonia beginning in the 1800’s, although it is set in the present day. This satire was drawn from a passage in The New Existentialism discussing Blake’s Spectre and the intentional limiting of consciousness. Steiner’s lectures typically hint at dark forces entering into the human subconscious during the nineteenth century, when “materialistic impulses [were] instilled into humanity”. Steiner calls these impulses “spirits of hindrance” – phenomenologically speaking, they are our sense of contingency, itself due to our self-limiting of consciousness. Expressing this in science-fiction terms, Wilson describes this limitation as “some mysterious agency, that wishes to hold men back”, a mind parasite; “active in the feeling, will and mind impulses of human beings” since the middle of the nineteenth century, according to Steiner. These impulses “spin a web of illusion over human beings and into human brains” [and] “throw people’s views into confusion, turning their concepts and ideas inside out”. Thanks to these illusions, the atmosphere of the present is “impregnated with the will to misunderstand to such an extent that one’s words are immediately interpreted as something different from what they actually mean to convey”. A massive upsurge in materialistic “subtlety of conception, acumen and critical faculties” during the nineteenth century, then, was an anticipatory cause of today’s very confused ego. 

It is amusing to read that in this 1917 lecture, Steiner was complaining how pointless is was to still be thinking as it were still 1913, with the hindsight of the war, for this is the topic of Musil’s novel. Written in the thirties but set in 1913 – the year that Husserl published his phenomenological handbook, Ideas – it’s philosophical digressions unfold within the management of a political campaign celebrating the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire. Musil’s satire on the culture world with it’s gestures and poses is timely (“reason and progress in the Western world would be displaced by racial theories and street slogans”) but even this “playacting” is an attempt to escape the past, however naive. What would you do if you could rule the world for a day? goes one conversation. “I suppose I would have no choice but to abolish reality” comes the answer. This is explained as a rejection of the here and now (“so much Present”), a craving for “a new concept of life” which grasps it directly, what Wilson meant by Faculty X, the awareness of the reality of other times and places. This Faculty cannot be activated without understanding the intentional ordering of consciousness. “The mind stands for order” says the man without qualities himself, Ulrich. He is speaking to his old General, and he asks if him you attempt to escape from “drab repetitiveness into the darkest recesses of your being, where the uncontrolled impulses live”, what do you find? “Stimuli and strings of reflexes, entrenched habits and skills, reiteration, fixation, imprints, series, monotony! That’s the same as uniforms, barracks, and regulations” he argues. Wilson compared intentionality to a barking sergeant-major, smartening up the recruits (impressions and sensations) for inspection by the conscious mind. This ordering function should protect our energy and vitality, but too much security of this kind soon curdles into the boredom and resentment which produces relativism. “It is a sign of Goethe’s astonishing genius that he managed to express this disillusionment in Faust before the scientific century was really under way” comments Wilson in The New Existentialism (Steiner also thought Goethe had preempted modern thought with Faust).

From the superficial, however, one is led into the depths – Husserl, The Origin of Geometry

“We can now see why Faust’s solution to this problem was the wrong one” he continues. “He tried to go backwards, to sink to a more instinctive level. Clearly, this is no solution. The solution is to repair the sense of purpose through a deepening of consciousness – which can be achieved by phenomenological analysis” (the practical discipline he champions at the beginning of the second part of the book). An essay he wrote on Husserl and evolution likens this process to poking a hole in stage scenery, the kind of artificial construct which Blake imagined as a mundane egg or shell. It is the ‘direct solution’ he later celebrated (cf: ‘In Search of Faculty X’ in Mysteries) and the reason why he held Proust in higher regard than Crowley and magic. His ‘evolutionary phenomenology’ challenges our presumptions about ourselves as passive beings and the conceptions we hold about the interior forces we have at our disposal, the layered strata of intentions. The aim is to become the ultimately free individual “who lives an inner reality, independent of the present, sustained from within”. Outsiders like Blake or Nietzsche are perfect examples; penniless or invalided, but indomitable. This is implicit in Husserl’s transforming of the ego to the Ego via his phenomenological method. New faculties can only be generated by a vigorous optimism and in the clear light of ‘normal’ consciousness – this is the theme of Wilson’s philosophy. Steiner understood this intuitively, even if, as Wilson thought, his imagination often got the better of him. 

But perhaps Musil put it most succinctly in The Man Without Qualities: “happiness can do wonders for a man’s latent possibilities”. 

Note: Rudolf Steiner’s lectures are archived here.
Also: numbers [§ -] refer to relevant passages in the phenomenological texts.


The Strength to Dream, reissued

Out of print for decades, The Strength to Dream (1962) was the fourth volume of Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’ which is now reissued by Aristeia Press. They have previously reprinted Religion and the RebelThe Age of Defeat and Introduction to the New Existentialism in matching softcovers. The remaining installments, Origins of the Sexual Impulse and Beyond the Outsider, will follow (The Outsider itself has remained in print since 1956 of course). 

The Strength to Dream is described by its author as “an attempt at a classification of unrealities, with a view to defining the concept of reality”. Essentially a study of the imagination as presented by various writers of fiction, Wilson’s book was rather ahead of its time, anticipating the intellectual interest in fantasy, horror and sci-fi that exploded later in the decade. Wilson’s book marks the first time that H. P. Lovecraft shared a space with the ideas of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and Wilson would soon exploit this unlikely juxtaposition with some Mythos novels of his own, paving the way for scholarly investigations of pulp fiction. While the latter is common enough now, it comes as quite a surprise to remind ourselves that Wilson was doing this shortly after the founding of the satirical magazine Private Eye and in the same year that ‘Love Me Do’ entered the charts (fittingly, Wilson here remarks that the Sartre of Nausea should have “given closer attention […] to the blues in general” to counter his defeatist attitude; a dozen pages later Stockhausen is aptly described as ‘far out’). 

Wilson had of course already anticipated the forthcoming sixties obsession with consciousness expansion by writing about the largely unknown Hermann Hesse and the obscure thaumaturge G. I. Gurdjieff in his first book, The Outsider. Further along the ‘Cycle’, The Strength to Dream investigates many cult names who would later become iconic in their respective genres: Lovecraft, M. R. James, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Brian Aldiss. By the seventies, horror and science fiction would be a booming business for paperback publishers such as Panther (who also brought out many Wilson titles). This century, Lovecraft and Dick are finally published by the prestigious Library of America. 

The “classification of unrealities” in Wilson’s study also includes a thorough analysis of the writings of Lawrence (D.H. and T. E.) Beckett, Sartre, Strindberg, Wells, Huxley, Faulkner, Andreyev, Robbe-Grillet, Saurraute, Wilde, Yeats and Tolkien, amongst many others. As per usual with Wilson, it’s a brilliantly accessible guide to cult literature if nothing else. But also – as per usual for Wilson – it is a philosophical treatise, made explicit by his shoehorning of Husserl’s ‘phenomenological’ method into the text. The ‘intentional’ nature of consciousness which Husserl had attempted to pin down with rigorous logic in the first few decades of the twentieth century was described by Wilson as the ‘form imposing element’ in 1961 but it becomes the ‘form imposing faculty’ in The Strength to Dream and as the Outsider series progresses, the ‘phenomenological faculty’. Wilson thought this “a rather clumsy phrase” and by 1967 he was speaking of ‘Faculty X’ – a state of extreme clarity which is represented by one of the most famous moments in Modernist literature; Proust’s memory of lost time in Swann’s Way (significantly, Proust himself connects this experience of mental freshness to a “dormant faculty” in the second volume of his novel). The faculty had already appeared in nascent form in Wilson’s debut (“a sort of pictorial memory of other times and other places” he writes in the Nijinsky section) and in the sequel (similar words in the chapter on Jakob Böhme), but it could be argued that it is in this particular book on the literary imagination where it first crystalises as a solid concept. Therefore it is notable that Husserl himself discussed a “parallelism” between perception and imagination in his first major work on phenomenology (1900), a correspondence which obviously attracted Wilson. “The whole point of phenomenology is that there is no sharp dividing line between perception and imagination” he wrote in 1966 when he was summing up his ‘Cycle’. “The dividing line only applies when we think of perception as passive and imagination as active. As soon as we realise that perception is active [i.e. intentional], the old dichotomy vanishes”. A good indicator of how far Husserl was misunderstood and what an existentialist thinker like Wilson was working against at this time is a comment from Sartre in his huge ‘essay on phenomenological ontology’ (1943). Sartre states near the conclusion that perception “has nothing in common with imagination”. For Sartre, however, imagination is only the ability to “assemble images by means of sensations” which (he claims) originated with the “association theory of psychology” – that is to say, the ‘psychologism’ that Husserl had already demolished forty-three years before in his Logical Investigations. Sartre’s analysis becomes even more risible with the knowledge that Husserl had painstakingly demonstrated that sensations are not intentions in the fifth investigation of the same work. In a verbose letter from March 1930 Lovecraft matches value with association and freedom with sensation – while claiming that he is unprejudiced with regards to these “consciousness-impacts”. It comes as no surprise then that the famous opening statement from The Call of Cthulhu is anti-phenomenological in nature, stating as it does that the most most merciful thing in the world is inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. Wilson writes off this attempt at philosophising as “the usual romantic pessimism” at the start of The Strength to Dream

Sartre mentions in his essay that Heidegger’s philosophy uses “positive terms which hide the implicit negations” and it could be said that Wilson turns this on its head, using negative examples to illuminate an optimistic truth. His previous book had been an A-Z of criminal cases and Wilson admitted that this was complied partly as a dig at Sartre’s rather reductionist attitude. Sartre also writes in his essay that we can “catch a glimpse of the paradox of freedom” but only via objects, obstacles and other exterior ‘situations’. Wilson would later define Faculty X as ‘the paradox of freedom’ and he insisted that we can glimpse it with enough effort, without the need for such props and situations. Therefore the analysis of negative examples of freedom, like the sociological and existential study of murder, or the rigorous questioning of imaginative creativity should be encouraged in order to throw these problems into relief. 

A philosophical sounding quote – “people are no more than things to me. Inanimate. Cyphers. I am a pragmatist” – could have easily been said by a Beckett character, but it was actually written in a confessional letter by Klaus Gossmann, ‘the Midday Murderer’. [1] Like the index of self defeating social tragedies catalogued in his crime book, The Strength to Dream analyses another angle of this rather unhealthy attitude towards life. Ploughing through the bleak imaginative landscapes of Sartre’s fiction, and those of Beckett and Andreyev (a favourite of Lovecraft – both held the same philosophy) is a sure way of determining the strength or weakness of individual imaginations. For Wilson the imagination is not daydreaming but a way of grasping reality, analogous to Husserl’s intentional consciousness. “The faculty for ‘grasping’ a picture or a page of prose might be called the attention” writes Wilson. “But attention is a simple matter, depending on an act of will (as when a schoolteacher calls ‘Pay attention, please). This ordinary attention is often inadequate to grasp the meaning of a picture or a piece of music; it is not ‘open’ enough to allow a full and wide impact of strangeness. The instantaneous act of grasping that transcends the pedestrian ‘attention’ is the imagination. It is more active than attention; it is a kind of exploring of the object, as well as a withdrawal from it to see better”. Husserl had covered this ground in the fifth Logical Investigation, when he said that we ‘live’ inside the perceptive act when we ‘take in’ a work of fiction. Later he questions the usual meaning of the word ‘imagination’, remarking that ordinary awareness (i.e. that we are ‘merely reading’) is “inoperative” in the novel reading or aesthetic experience. It is worth noting that this latter section, like Sartre’s thoughts on imagination from Being and Nothingness, are both analyses of the quality of perceptive acts. 

Wilson begins The Strength to Dream by dismissing the realist interpretation of imagination. Both the socialist and the capitalist, he says, see it as a useful gadget, an accessory to the aims of either the state or to business, but this ‘one size fits all’ description of the imagination is hardly applicable to Poe or Dostoyevsky. About to be executed, Dostoyevsky saw life “without disguise” as Wilson phrases it here. From then on he was determined to imaginatively capture this reality in his fiction, even if it meant forever contrasting it against squalor. Nineteenth century romantics used imagination as a “kind of psychological balancing pole” to navigate a world that horrified them (Lovecraft is one of the last and best examples of this compensative mindset). Yet it was his discovery of Lovecraft in the late fifties that altered Wilson to another interpretation of imagination, one that is closely bound to values. Lovecraft states his “basic life value” in the above letter: “nothing has any intrinsic value”. So it is hardly surprising then that Lovecraft died aged only forty-six. Dostoyevsky’s purpose, writes Wilson, is an attempt to “communicate to his readers the inexpressible value of life” by contrasting this undisguised “invisible strength of the powerhouse” against misery and futility. 

“It is my contention” writes Wilson “that these value judgements are the mainspring of the imagination; they are, in fact, so closely connected with it as to be almost synonymous with imagination”. For instance, we can ask ourselves: ‘what life would be like inside Lovecraft’s Mythos?’ A state of miserable slavery underneath some tentacled cyclopean entities? This is hardly the imaginative power found in Dostoyevsky or in Blake’s prophetic books. It is significant then, that Wilson’s own satirical barb at Lovecraft, The Mind Parasites, was drawn from a phenomenological insight [2] into what Blake called ‘the Spectre’ – the rational power that negates, like Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust (the sober mystic Rudolf Steiner thought Mephistopheles the perfect symbol for the current age of materialism, neurosis and life-failure, although Steiner named this anti-zeitgeist ‘Ahriman’). The Blake scholar S. Foster Damon, a friend of Wilson’s, described the Spectre as “a machine which has lost its controls and is running wild” – a representation of the human condition that would have satisfied Gurdjieff as well as Steiner. In the second book of Ideas Husserl describes the “lower level” world of sensations and associations – that is, the philosophy of Sartre, Greene, Beckett and Lovecraft – as “the world of the mechanical, the world of lifeless conformity to laws”. This is the mental world of the cafe proprietor which was brilliantly satirised – ironically enough – in Sartre’s Nausea, a portrait of someone who is wholly dependent on outer objects and situations for meaning. This lifeless attitude flows through the literary and cultural criticism of Roland Barthes, a contemporary of Sartre: “…just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I: language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person’, and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it…” [3] Despite being written in 1967, Barthes’ value-judgement on the self sounds exactly like the Sartre of Being and Nothingness circa 1943. 

The problem with this anti-intentional attitude – which was unfortunately given a huge boost in the mid-Sixties via the philosophical lit-crit of Barthes’ semiology and Derrida’s deconstruction – is discussed by Wilson in The Strength to Dream, another reason for the book to be branded ‘ahead of its time’. He remarks that philosophers declaim their “temperamental reactions to life as if they were the result of a most careful weighing up of the whole universe”. Likewise, the novelist “sits in his armchair and writes about his vision of the world as if he is delivering the gospel”. This is the result of the fallacy of passive perception which was built into modern philosophy by Descartes, a flaw that Husserl exploded with his notion of the intentionality of consciousness, Wilson’s ‘faculty’. Wilson quotes the speech of a self indulgent nobleman in the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom: Sade’s Durcet says that it is “the weakness of our faculties [that] leads us to these abominations”. Wilson once dubbed de Sade ‘the patron saint of serial killers’, and a few years on from The Strength to Dream he wrote that real purpose of the study of murder is “to teach the human imagination to create crisis situations without the physical need to act them out” [4]. In his book on the psychologist Maslow (1972) Wilson points out that consciousness without crisis tends to become negative. This does not mean that we need to seek out physical crisis situations – although thinkers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Aleister Crowley, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Sartre and Gurdjieff all thought that we should – rather, we need to carefully analyse what actually happens in these situations. Wilson’s first book The Outsider collects many examples of these situations and amongst the most illuminating are two experiences reported by Nietzsche. These episodes, familiar to any Wilson reader, are examined again at the beginning of the sixth chapter of The Strength to Dream, the chapter which starts with the de Sade quote about the weakness of his libertines’ faculties. 

Wilson insists that while the two passages “express only an aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy” it cannot be understood without this central drive – what Nietzsche himself described in a letter as “pure will, without the confusion of intellect”. Like Blake’s maxim that energy is eternal delight, this is a confirmation that intentional consciousness must be driven by a willed momentum. Husserl says as much in (again) the fifth Logical Investigation that “the greatest energy will be displayed by the act-character which comprehends and subsumes all partial acts in its unity”. In his notebooks Nietzsche rejected mechanical Darwinism in favour of a “tremendous shaping, form creating force working from within” – what Husserl later meant by intentionality, or Wilson’s ‘form imposing faculty’. The study of imagination in action can ascertain how strong or weak an intentional grip any given author (or character) has on reality or within a situation. Sartre’s cafe proprietor Monsieur Fasquelle and Beckett’s Molloy have feeble intentional processes, as they are mostly manipulated by external objects or events. The third part of Beckett’s Molloy trilogy shares its title with an early Lovecraft tale, The Unnamable (1925). In Lovecraft’s story a rationalist character remarks that “even the most morbid perversion of nature need not be unnameable or scientifically indescribable”, a statement that a phenomenologist like Wilson would certainly agree with. Lovecraft’s narrator admires his friend’s “clearness and persistence”, a trait of his typically “analytical mood” but this tranquillity is obliterated by the typical horrors that follow. Later they dimly recall being attacked by a mass of slime (“the ultimate abomination”), a property which Sartre analyses near the end of his long ‘refutation’ of Husserl. Sartre writes that the slimy is “the best image of our own destructive power […] a retorted annihilation […] It is flaccid […] the slimy is docile”. This is hardly Nietzsche’s form creating force or Husserl’s sinewy intentionality. Writing of our “tendency to confuse sense-contents with perceived or imagined objects” Husserl describes the background of perception (i.e. Wilson’s ‘far’ behind the ‘near’) as “surrounded only by an obscure, wholly chaotic mass, a fringe, a penumbra, or however one may wish to name the unnameable”. But this ‘far’, he continues, is not actually separated from the ‘near’ but is “inwrought” with it – an observation that clearly anticipates Wilson’s Faculty X or phenomenological faculty. In literature Wilson found examples of this faculty at work in Proust and in L. H. Myers’ aptly named but rather forgotten The Near and the Far (1929). He also points to a scene from Huysmans’ À rebours (chapter XI) describing a “clumsy change in locality” as a good example of this near-far dichotomy which is often a concern of phenomenological philosophy. [5]

Further in his Investigation Husserl uses the word ‘genetic’ which would become an important factor in his later, time based phenomenology. Past experiences, he writes, “render selective notice [i.e. intentionality] possible […] the emphasis of attention involves […] generally a change in content (an ‘elaboration in fancy’)”. As Wilson wrote in his new existentialist study of Husserl in 1966, if anything is an illusion, it is the content of our present mode of consciousness, our contingent feeling that we are trapped in a world of the near and trivial. If anything demonstrates this to be an untruth, it was the historical rise of the novel and the imaginative revolution that followed, Husserl’s ‘elaboration in fancy’. 

This is implicit in Proust’s ‘dormant faculty’ and his investigations into memory and his past, or negatively in de Sade’s weak faculty which like Lovecraft’s, breeds abominations. As Wilson insists throughout The Strength to Dream, the imagination is more powerful than we think. “Can we doubt” he writes “that one of Zola’s greatest moments was the hour that he conceived his Rougon-Macquart cycle?” This activity of planning a large work – Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, Proust’s Temps Perdu or Newtons Principia – is “a preparation for a long journey away from the physical activity of the present, and therefore a kind of practice for inhabiting a new field of consciousness”. So simply remarking that ‘all perception is intentional’ misses the active nature of Husserl’s insight (which itself moved from static to genetic phenomenology). In his study of Maslow Wilson describes this active consciousness as ‘preparedness’; earlier he had described it as “anticipatory labour” – rather like an insurance policy which covers events which may never occur, or a farmer building barns for harvests that may or may not happen. [6] 

We have achieved civilisation by replacing real experience with symbols (words) and “then by learning to replace whole groups of symbols and the relations between them by formulae” writes Wilson in The Strength to Dream. “The ‘modern neurosis’ would seem to be due to a tendency to lose contact with the reality underneath the formula” (this intentional ‘formularising’ is indispensable, however). Therefore the intuitive faculty of imagination could also be called “a grip on reality”, but much of the imaginative fiction that is analysed in Wilson’s book fails this intentional test. Lovecraft’s adolescent idea that life is a hideous thing, Andreyev’s description of an embrace as “monstrous and formless, turbid and clinging”, Sartre’s “flabby, many-tentacled evasions” in reference to the novels of Nathalie Sarraute, and her own description of how “the nearest nothing makes her tremble, this Hypersensitive, lined with quivering little silken tentacles” – all are stuck the fallacy of passive perception, a legacy of Descartes’ idea that we merely look outward and receive ‘facts’, minus any selectivity or intention (note Andreyev’s use of “formless” rather than form-producing). Wilson’s book deals with “the eccentricities and imprecisions” of various imaginations and he notes that the word imprecision “implies a goal that has been missed” – in fact the book begins with a half-remembered parody of Sartre’s Nausea but set on a football pitch (“Why does that man keep blowing on a whistle?”). According to its ‘normal’ definition, each imaginative act has a different goal because it is merely a subjective fantasy, but this is countered by the phenomenological definition, which understands it as an act of intention. 

These phenomenological ideas begin to become fully formed in The Strength to Dream. “It is impossible to exercise the imagination and not be involved in this [evolutionary] current” writes Wilson. It would be fair to say that Wilson took the function of imagination as seriously as William Blake did – notably, Blake alluded to the same ‘faculty’ circa 1788 with reference to the imagination of poets (Wilson said that Faculty X is strong in good poets). A century later Rudolf Steiner began his career with a brilliant little book on the ‘philosophy of freedom’, brimming with acute phenomenological insights into consciousness (Steiner attended lectures by Husserl’s teacher Franz Brentano). Fifteen years later he made an intriguing assertion to an audience, cryptically speaking of a ‘cosmic law’ that dictates that “every capacity humanity acquires must have its beginning in one individuality. Faculties that are to become common to a large number of people must first appear in one person”. Summing up the argument for the creative use of the imagination yet again in The Misfits (1988), Wilson came to the same conclusion as Steiner (“if one single human being could learn to achieve Faculty X at will, this ability would soon spread to every member of the species”). Like Nietzsche and Gurdjieff, Wilson rejected crude behaviourism and mechanical evolution, favouring a phenomenological process – a careful reading of the ‘Analysis of Man’ chapter in Beyond the Outsider will make this ‘evolutionary intentionality’ clear. These ideas begin to form in The Strength to Dream

After the first modern novel appeared in 1740, imaginative literature exploded in Europe, transforming scores of its inhabitants from readers of village sermons into would-be revolutionary romantics. But by the end of the nineteenth century this powerful imaginative current had soured into a resigned pessimism – Wilson remarks in The Strength to Dream that if Schopenhauer or Andreyev had been honest about their philosophy of life, they would have committed suicide (both enjoyed comfortable living, of course). Wilson remarks that professionally pessimistic thinking is a cover for ineptitude; like the pile of dead bodies at the end of an Elizabethan drama, “it produces an impression of conclusiveness”. 

With characteristic wit, Nietzsche called Romanticism “that malicious fairy”. But Wilson maintained that the early Romantics like Blake had glimpsed an evolutionary purpose, a kind of proto-phenomenology. Steiner, a devotee of Goethe and a biographer of Nietzsche, made another useful comment concerning ‘universal laws’ in the above lecture. “If you merely consider the world as it presents itself to the senses, which is the modern [i.e. 1909] scientific approach, you observe past laws which are still continuing. You are really only observing the corpse of a past world”. As Husserl said, sensations are not intentions, and the sensationalistic fiction of Lovecraft, for instance, is a front for his anti-intentional philosophy. Steiner goes on to say that we need to “find the things that are outside those laws […] a second world with different laws” (my italics). This ‘world’, he says, is already present inside reality “but it points to the future” – rather like the evolutionary intentionality hinted at in The Strength to Dream and developed in further Outsider volumes. Wilson’s philosophical treatment of literature – ‘existential literary criticism’ – examines what the author was trying to say via analysis of their attitudes towards the dynamism of life, and therefore it is in opposition to Barthes’ sterile ‘semiological’ dissection of corpses. From The Outsider on, Wilson analysed the lives of writers and thinkers to see how they reacted to life, to find out what values they held as part of an active rather than entropic process. (Outside the main body of the text, The Strength to Dream also contains three essays of existential literary criticism as appendices, one each on Aldous Huxley, Nikos Kanantzakis and Friedrich Dürrenmatt).  

The core values of Wilson’s new existentialist philosophy were developed through the ‘Outsider Cycle’ and The Strength to Dream essentially marks the beginning of his mature thought, a turning away from the occasional youthful idealisms of the very earliest volumes and into a more precise analysis, thanks to his discovery of Husserl. The problem of our time, says Wilson, is to “destroy the idea of man as a ‘static observer’ both in philosophy and art”. This static observer is not Husserl’s “disinterested spectator” or Gurdjieff’s “man-without-quotation-marks” – i.e. a transcendental, self-aware subject – but a passive recording mechanism stuck in Husserl’s natural or naive attitude. The narrative voices of Lovecraft, Beckett and Sartre, for instance, all bring in this emotional distortion without questioning it. [7] Near the end of The Strength to Dream Wilson remarks that he has spoken of ‘reality’ in inverted commas throughout the book to indicate ‘everyday reality’, what Robert Musil saw as the prevailing ‘pseudoreality’ in The Man Without Qualities (1930). Everyday consciousness, said Wilson in Introduction to the New Existentialism, is a liar, what Gurdjieff called the ‘pseudo-I’, a fake self (or selves). Far from being false, the imaginative revolution has helped clear away perceptually distortions about our self-image and has been an invaluable aid to human evolution, despite the side effects (as seen in the annals of modern criminology). The imaginative rebellion against ‘reality’ generated a new faculty of perception, what Wilson here labels “an evolutionary drive”. This is an unseen or hidden drive (“of which the writers may be completely unaware”) which Wilson calls the faculty of affirmation – later Faculty X. Dostoyevsky saw it without disguise as he was about to be executed, and he could recreate the reality of this crisis situation using his powerful imaginative faculty, his strong dreaming. Through imaginative power he has ‘bracketed’ the world and become aware of himself as a ‘transcendental ego’, to use Husserl’s terminology. 

“Existentialism has been defined as the attempt to apply the mathematical intellect to the raw stuff of living experience” writes Wilson in The Strength to Dream. “It might also be an attempt to create a new science – a science of living”. Existential criticism therefore judges imaginative works as successes or failures according to this science of life; “to judge them by standards of meaning as well as impact”. So literature that is crudely sensationalistic, like Lovecraft’s, should be carefully scrutinised against Husserl’s stern philosophical reasoning that sensations are not intentions. Husserl and Lovecraft are often analysed together nowadays, but only in the opposite direction to which Wilson was pointing in 1962. The mentality of Sartre’s cafe proprietor whose head empties with his establishment is emblematic of twenty-first century thought, but Wilson’s new existentialism remains a strong and workable refutation of this passive ideology, for anybody who wants it. 

With its pioneering mixture of pulp and phenomenology The Strength to Dream remains a timely examination of the imagination and it’s strange powers. It is a crucial part of Wilson’s ‘existential jigsaw puzzle’. 

[1] Wilson, Colin, A Casebook of Murder, Leslie Frewin, 1969, p. 247. Lovecraft is mentioned in this book (p. 193). He is also discussed more thoroughly in the sequel, Order of Assassins: the Psychology of Murder (1972).

[2] ‘The Power Of the Spectre’ in Introduction to the New Existentialism, Hutchinson, p. 161. In Blake’s Vala, or the Four Zoas (1791) the Spectre describes himself: “I am thus a ravening devouring lust continuously craving and devouring”.

[3] Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’ republished in Image, Music, Text, Fontana, 1977, p. 145.

[4] Wilson, A Casebook of Murder, ibid, p. 226

[5] For instance, in the relevant sections on parts and wholes in Husserl’s Logical Investigations discussed here – first vol., RKP, 1970, pp. 416 – 417, and in the first book of Ideas (Kluwer, 1982, p. 55). Also analysed as per the “existential spatiality” in Heidegger’s Being and Time, (Blackwell, 2004, p. 171), and the “far and the near, the great and the small” in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (RKP, 1967, p. 266). In the Logical Investigations Vol. II (ibid. p. 756), Husserl dismisses “empty” signitive intentions – the life-blood of Barthes’ literary criticism and Derrida’s deconstruction – against filled imaginative intentions. Fulfillment depends on “greater or lesser completeness, liveliness and reality” – Blake’s “energy” or pulling the bowstring of perception fully taut, as Wilson would have it. 

[6] Wilson, Colin, Beyond the Outsider, Carroll and Graf, 1991, p. 177. In this primer on ‘evolutionary phenomenology’ Wilson compares the phenomenologist’s descriptive abilities to a farmer who can precisely explain how he would cultivate a tract of rough land. On page 148 he looks back at The Strength to Dream and maintains that “the phenomenological analysis of imagination” proves that it is not merely compensatory but a form of intentionality that involves the use of A. N. Whitehead’s three modes of experience – immediacy (the near), meaning (the far) and conceptual analysis (the ability to grasp ‘wholes’ through intellect “which, through the use of symbols, has a greater storage capacity”).

[7] Husserl on the disinterested spectator: cf The Crisis of European Sciences, Northwestern Uni. Press, 1970, p. 157; p. 239. Gurdjieff’s ‘man-without-quotation-marks’ in Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, RKP, 1950, p. 1191

Colin Wilson documentary crowdfunding page is live

A crowdfunding page for a projected Colin Wilson documentary entitled Dreaming To Some Purpose: The Life and Times of Colin Wilson is now live and seeking donations. The award winning filmmakers are “extremely passionate about our campaign to realize this authorized biography of the life and work of the internationally acclaimed writer and philosopher because seven years after his death, the need for a Wilson documentary is increasingly apparent. We are seeking support from Wilsonians the world over to contribute what you can to help fund this project. The plan is to make a comprehensive, two-part history of Wilson’s life, from his early days as a disaffected teenager to the success of The Outsider and Wilson’s unexpected celebrity, to his later career as a leading philosopher of consciousness and his last days as a grand old man of English letters. Wilson’s family, people who knew him, and people deeply influenced by his work, will contribute onscreen interviews to tell the story of the original Outsider”. 

This is a vital project which needs your support – for as the filmmakers go on to say, despite Wilson’s huge body of work (now housed at the University of Nottingham) and his continued cult status, “it seemed that there was a reluctance by the media to acknowledge his unique contribution to the literature of the 20th century”. This project will address that imbalance by treating Wilson’s philosophical ideas seriously and “ensure that Colin’s unique contribution to the world of literature will finally be recognised”. 

Please donate at this page