An Essay on Gary Lachman’s Lost Knowledge of the Imagination (2017)

(The book is available to buy here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Knowledge-Imagination-Gary-Lachman/dp/1782504451)

In Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, Gary Lachman has crystalised his essential philosophical ideas. A short book, at 139 pages, it is nevertheless a highly concentrated and no less comprehensive survey, and like his earlier books it serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it serves as a general overview of various philosophers, authors, psychologists, occultists and mystics, many of whom have been unduly neglected, or have come to represent systems of ‘rejected knowledge’. In each case, Lachman elucidates and clarifies these unique systems of knowledge and their respective originators, allowing both to speak for themselves. Secondly, by placing these various systems and ideas side-by-side, Lachman shows that they are not as unrelated as one might think, and taken collectively they are seen to have a remarkable inner-consistency, and have also been adhered to by some of mankind’s greatest thinkers and artists. It is for this reason that an open-minded reader will perceive a vision of the world that is unduly ignored, but is nevertheless profound and enriching.

In a world increasingly orientated towards the outer at the expense of the inner, Lachman sees the value of esotericism precisely for its emphasis on this inner world of meaning, purpose and, in short, our sense of values. The occult and esoteric has become, in a sense, the culture’s repressed unconscious, which occasionally bursts forth in fin-de-siecle counter-cultures, as it did with the 1960s ‘occult revival’ and again in the 1990s, with its obsession with shamanic hallucinogens and tribal rave culture. Indeed, Lachman writes about these subjects – sometimes obscure and arcane – in a style that is accessible, intelligent and level-headed; traits often sadly lacking in the genre. There is, in his increasing oeuvre, a manifest degree of discernment and – where deserved – sympathy that is strengthened by what his fellow historian of the occult, Mitch Horowitz, called a ‘gentle but assertive purpose’.

Now, if one were to classify the true philosopher as someone concerned with ‘truth, beauty and justice’, then this new book is Lachman’s pursuit of the importance and essential dynamism at the heart of beauty, with its immense role in the revival of a culture that has placed it dangerously low on its hierarchy of values. One could say that Caretakers of the Cosmos (2013) was a call for a creative actualisation of these values, and more importantly putting them into practice, ‘doing the good that you know’. And, his forthcoming book, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (2018) looks to be a direct address on the state of world justice; an attempt to understand the streams and convergences of magical and esoteric streams in recent times and their role in a world of ‘post-truth’, and . . . well, post-everything hysteria.

Nothing in Lachman’s oeuvre is unrelated; it is all part of a deeper realisation that was already present in his earlier work. Each work is essentially informed by this vision and recognition of the importance of esoteric knowledge, particularly its psychological dimensions and its acknowledgement of an ultimately meaningful cosmos. Indeed, one of his central influences is the late encyclopedic writer and optimistic ‘new existentialist’, Colin Wilson, on whom Lachman has written the definitive biography, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (2016). Lachman, in the spirit of Wilson, is also addressing the essentially pessimistic premise on which contemporary culture has dangerously rooted itself. And with a world bereft of the very values found in this ‘rejected’ knowledge, we are left with a fragmentary and deconstructed world of matter without any larger meaningful context. Humanity also increasingly sees itself as a part of this context-free void, therefore denying the very value of meaning (merely subjective), and therefore diminishing its own stature in a materialistic cosmology that rejects, ultimately, all values. Again, driving both philosophers is a recognition that we live in world of deteriorating values, with an ‘anything goes’ attitude that effectively strips us of any real motive for freedom – or even an inspiring concept of freedom itself. The question is now: freedom for what? Lachman, in surveying many systems that recognise that freedom is something earned, and is moreover, is an urgent reminder of the value of being, offers a new orientation that includes both value and purpose. One gets from reading both writers, Wilson and Lachman, a sense that this is a crucial and important corrective for our postmodern age – an active recognition and renewal of our ability for discernment in a world dislocating itself from any centre.

Postmodernism and post-structuralism, caught in the trap of ‘object-relations’, cannot wrench itself out of its own swirling, linguistic orbit, in which, for philosophers like Jacques Lacan, we merely ‘ex-ist’ rather than exist. The philosopher Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (1991), described the outcome of these philosophical developments, which in turn led to a general belief that the ‘nature of truth and reality, in science no less than in philosophy, religion, or art’ became ‘radically ambiguous’ – or radically subjectivised. He continues by saying that man, unable to ‘transcend the manifold predispositions of his or her subjectivity’ becomes trapped in a ‘fusion of horizons’, which leads to a form of nihilistic solipsism – or, in other strains, it becomes too unbounded, leading to a paradoxically flattening form of relativism. This loss of centre, as it were, results in an atmosphere that permeates our culture – affecting the arts and their previous attempts to reflect values beyond themselves – in which our individual and existential sovereignty is so abstracted that it is often reduced to algorithmic, or even algebraic, formulations in much of postmodernism and – chillingly – in the world of social media and even, more dangerously, politics.

The great esoteric scholar, Manly P. Hall called this our problem of ‘orientation disorientation’ – we have lost our way, so to speak. And not only in ourselves, for this clearly reflects in our culture, flattening it to a husk of hyper-politicisation and is reflected in our crisis of identity. Timeless, objective, reliable value systems have been replaced with a liquid, amorphous mass uprooted from any healthy, cosmological and psychological reality; our choice, effectively, is to face our arbitrary existence in a universe indifferent to the strivings of our very being, or merely improvise with the equivalent of flimsy props in a theatre of unreality.

           We are, as Lachman argues, fundamentally adrift from the origin of meaning itself. And it is this loss of origin that led to the forgetfulness of the imagination’s essential role in grasping both meaning and reality – both culturally and individually. Indeed, is it any wonder why we have lost our ability to discern our values? Freedom, in this relativistic atmosphere, becomes an ironic freedom – and irony, moreover, becomes the only cosmological constant that informs the world of contemporary art. An atmosphere of self-referential pointlessness permeates our culture, and the only way to temporarily satiate its bitter flavor is through often stark and ill-contrasting brutality; visceral ‘shocks’ aimed solely at our baser, more automatic instincts.

Addressing this universal crisis of meaning, Lachman’s book stands in the tradition of classics like Maurice Nicoll’s Living Time (1952) and E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed (1977). These two genre-defying books proposed radically new cosmologies, incorporating in their brilliant synthesis both the unification of rationality and intuition, in an attempt to resolve the modern psyche’s widening chasm between meaning and matter. Lachman’s book, alongside these, place their emphasis on the verticality of meaning, that is, their evolutionary and convergent purposes towards higher degrees of spiritual and psychological integration. It is in direct contrast to the pervasive atmosphere of value relativism and materialistic reductionism, and instead offers a logical alternative to the manifestly problematic arrangement of our priorities.

In approaching the difficult subject of the imagination, plagued as it is by its very evanescence and vague character, Lachman nevertheless proceeds with great authority, firmness of purpose, and with many insights that transmutes knowledge of the imagination into something palpably and urgently real. He shows us that the imagination is not a mere ‘flight of fancy’, but has its own epistemology, its own disciplines and masterful practitioners.

The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination explores various thinker’s, artist’s and poet’s excursions into this important other ‘half’ of our existence – precisely the half that needs to be integrated in a world fraught with increasing polarization and dis-integration. And importantly, he unearths the knowledge they bought back with them. The imaginative source, that ‘intuitive glue’ which binds together our view of the cosmos, is called upon as a means to repair the rift between two worlds that were once complimentary; it is a call, moreover, towards an active phenomenological understanding of the true origin of meaning. Being one of the true practitioners and teachers of the imagination, the poet Samuel Coleridge is an important figure in Lachman’s book. For this poet, who contemplated the ‘objects of Nature’, was able to entwine two worlds, both inner and outer, into a state which allowed him visions of the eternal dynamism between meaning, consciousness and matter. Colerdige, in his own words, entered a new world redolent with ‘symbolic language . . . that already and forever exists’ – a world, in short, where the knowledge of the imagination reigns supreme – presaging, for the poet, a ‘dim Awakening of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature’, which Coleridge referred to as both the Creator and, importantly in light of this essay, ‘the Evolver!’.

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Lachman, much like Wilson before him, saw our future evolution being a result of cooperation between two fundamental modes of perception, and each with its own unique and complimentary type of knowledge. And while imagination ‘can be used for fantasy, illusion, make-believe, and escapism’ its most more important role is, Lachman argues, ‘to make contact with the strange world in which we live’ presenting us with the ‘possible, potential realities that it is our job to actualise.’ The imagination becomes our means, if consciously and effectively employed, to search out the possible direction of our own inner and outer evolution; it offers, in its visionary glimpses, a foretaste of our future; metaphors, in this side of the mind, become malleable essences which can be transmuted into the very thing that they once merely referred to, and vice-versa. However, as Lachman makes clear, we can still evolve the realm of quantity, but only so much as this is not at the expense of quality; that is, to broaden our focus on the outer-world at expense of the inner worlds of meaning, that motive force behind the evolution of consciousness, and the glue that binds the two worlds together. This understanding of evolution precedes Darwin, and instead refers to an inner-evolution, a more self-willed development as a product of the vision that propels the will into the future.

The crucial message at the heart of Lachman’s work is how this type of knowledge, and this modality of being, is effectively incorporated into how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. It is, as we shall see, a matter for the evolution of our perspective, and, as a result, how this transfers to our cultural cosmology and cosmogony. Fundamentally, it is the anti-entropic life-force that orders and complexifies apparently dead matter into higher, more autonomous forms. In the first chapter, ‘A Different Kind of Knowing’, Lachman discusses and outlines the various historical and cultural developments which have shaped the mental evolution of humanity, and particularly their emergent zeitgeists which reflected these different orientations, priorities and cosmologies. Of course, with the ascendancy of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, the older type of knowledge was radically replaced by the scientific spirit. This was not an isolated and sudden leap, but the product of man’s new and more urgent concerns. Philosophers, these most ‘impersonal men’, had already presaged the type of detachment necessary for the scientific spirit, and for many the creation myths of Homer and the great dramatists and poets, were losing their ‘charge’. Instead, the scientific spirit emerged in many of the early philosopher’s attempts to find the element which constitutes the world – usually reduced to, for example, simple elements such as air, water, fire, spirit, etc. We began, according to Lachman, to ‘abstract’ our knowledge, to extract it from its larger context, in a spirit of mastery and domination over the laws of the natural world. It was a far more active mind than what went before it, but it sowed the seeds of a new development that was equally fraught with its own problems.

The major problem as Lachman sees it, is precisely this trade-off in which, although producing an enormous technological upsurge that benefits mankind tremendously, nevertheless leaves us with a culture prone to forget that the abstracted world is just that, an extracted aspect of a world usually ‘thick, luxuriant, rich’. As a result, he continues, we begin to see the world ‘we encounter and love and struggle with as a kind of subjective illusion, housed without our individual island consciousness’. This is the potentially fatal consequence of a mind too one-sided and dominated by its own capacity to remove itself from the world of direct, integral and intuitive experience. And yet, for this type of thinking the imaginative world of qualities is perceived as dramatically unsubstantial and vague, this is precisely because it cannot present itself as an object, and it is a priori rejected due to its non-quantifiable essence. Instead, this type of mind attends to a different resolution of reality, which, according to Lachman, ‘does not operate with fixed, exact definitions and unchanging, sequential orders or algorithms, but with patterns, relationships, sympathies, analogies, intuitions, insights and a synoptic grasp of experience – that is, it takes it in ‘at a glance”.

Indeed, another teacher of the imagination, Stan Gooch, called this ‘the knowledge that is not science’ in his book The Paranormal (1978). He goes on to cite fairy stories and their common concern with the ‘breaking of the spell’, which he sees as the objective mind’s ‘intrusion’ into a world that obeys radically different laws of the subjective realities. This, he believes, was the problem when two realities cancel each other out, that is, if they are not carefully equilibrated, in their place and working in a dynamic sort of way. In the visionary state, as in the fairy stories, the vision vanishes leaving no trace and is over taken by the linear, abstract logic that ‘cannot compute’ this baffling, vague and wide-angle of meaningful analogies and connections. Indeed, this is essentially the bane of such research into parapsychology, with such experiences as synchronicities and other phenomenon unamenable to easy repeatability due to their subjective nature. A bridge, as we shall see, that the Germany’s greatest literary figure, Goethe, attempted to construct between his scientific works and his more visionary and poetical achievements. For him, as for Gooch, Lachman, Wilson and many others, these two types of knowing ought not contradict each other, or cancel each other out, in fact, they are fundamental to seeing the whole picture, so to speak.

Lachman draws upon a large variety sources, ranging from the British philosopher, Owen Barfield, the ‘first and last Inkling’ and friend with none other than C.S. Lewis, to Goethe, the poet and William Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, along with the French‑American historian Jacques Barzun and author Ernst Jünger among many others. Between them, Lachman shows, they shared either direct access to, or sympathetic understanding of, the subjective mind and its essential role in our individual as well as the collective psychological balance. Indeed, in the third chapter ‘The Knower and the Known’ Lachman describes an interesting early case of psychometry, in which Germany’s greatest literary figure, Goethe, is involved in a type of ‘psychic archeology’ along with an exploration into the archetypal ‘primal plant’, the ‘Urpflanze’. Lachman describes Goethe’s meaning of what he called the ‘inner necessity and truth’ in which the German author understood the imagination to harbor its own type of truth, and not, as Lachman says, ‘merely a loosening of reason and a setting free of uncontrolled fantasy. . . but a cognitive power that obeyed its own rules and disciplines’. When these ‘rules and disciplines’ are applied, the external world opens up its inner content, a whole new dimension which is laden with implicitness and knowledge beyond the reach of linear rationality. It is an intuitive knowledge, capable to effectively bypass the limits of ordinary time and space, providing a glimpse into Plato’s world of Forms, the very origin from which all corporeal forms are reflections.

This active vision into the underlying structures of reality, through what Jung called ‘active imagination’ and Goethe, before him, called ‘active seeing’, was also discovered by another German, the philosopher Edmund Husserl who established the school of phenomenology. He described this type of active perception as the underlying force behind perception, which he called ‘intentionality’, and explored its implications through the discipline of phenomenology, an attempt to understand the mechanisms of consciousness. In doing so, we would find the ‘keepers of the key to the ultimate sources of being’, which would in turn reveal the ‘hidden achievements of the transcendental ego’ , that fundamental part of us that shapes our perceptions, providing, if you will the categorical ‘grid’ through which we grasp and understand the world. To elucidate the difficult language of phenomenology, Lachman refers to the work of Paul Ricouer’s analysis, in which he summarises the mechanism of ‘intentionality’ as that which ‘culminates in seeing’ – it is a recognition that perception is double-sided; seer and seen or, as hinted at in the title of Lachman’s title for the chapter, ‘the knower and the known’. Indeed, it is this part of our selves which provides the ‘intentional glue’ which Gestalts meaning, and that which provides what Jünger called ‘the master key’ to a vast and holistic consciousness.

Access to this ‘introcosom’, as the psychologist Julian Jaynes called it, is one of the true tools of Lachman’s cosmic caretaker, for its emergent presence in the past – in those Goldilocks moments of precisely the perfect balance – resulted in a bursting forth of creative and evolutionary visions of man, recharging the vision of man and his role in the cosmos. In this surcease of the conflict between the two minds, there is a unification between analytical consciousness and visionary consciousness, in which both complement each other and provide what Wilson called a ‘background of values’ in which society, individuals and culture are reinvigorated with an evolutionary purpose. There is, of course, with this sort of vision a great responsibility which, upon initial reflection, seems more daunting than it does liberating; that is, we may be ultimately discouraged by the sheer enormity of the task. . .

Lost Knowledge of the Imagination acknowledges this difficulty, but concludes that with the right balance of mind, this task may not appear so daunting after all, and that the responsibility is enormously reciprocated. Along the way, Lachman provides an enormous range of approaches to the problem, some of them recognised by the greatest minds in history, such as Albert Einstein and Bernard Shaw, for example. In the final chapter, Lachman quotes from Einstein’s Cosmic Religion: ‘Imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to our evolution’. Again, it is an understatement to say that the job of evolution is an easy one, but, curiously enough, when it is recognised with the aid of the right mind, the process becomes self-evidently worthwhile. If, as Einstein says, the imagination embraces the world, it is in the position to perceive wholes, even, perhaps, ultimate evolutionary potentialities.

Lachman’s book is as much a survey of the knowledge of the imagination as it is an overview of the essential archetypal forces from which the human story unfolds. It is fundamentally a book about the evolutionary impetus; an attempt to ‘unveil the secrets of the transcendental ego’. As for Goethe, who saw the ‘revelation’ of evolutionary knowledge ‘emerging at the point where the inner world of man meets external reality’, it is this ‘synthesis of world and mind’ that produces the ultimate dynamism which will propel us up the spiral, in direct contrast to the nihilistic value relativism that draws us into a tighter whorl towards self-negation. Currently this schism of meanings is being played on the battlefield of politics, and whether Left or Right, in which – rather like the two hemispheres of the mind, as explored in Iain McGilchrist’s masterwork, The Master and his Emissary (2009) – the increasing polarisation causes a spectacle depressingly divided. We can see, at present, that we are in a world that Lachman describes as being in ‘a state of flux, with old boundaries breaking down without new contours being established’. It is our imperative, Lachman urgently reminds us, to reconnect with the origin of meaning, and to recognise as well as intuitively recalibrate our values towards a more vital recognition of the evolutionary imperative. He offers a way forward in which the tensions are creative rather than corrosive, providing a philosophy which elevates the imagination as the key ingredient in repairing the rifts and disconnections within our present situation. The imagination, for Lachman and the authors, philosophers, poets, artists and occultists that he explores, may provide exactly the ‘master key’ to this necessary ballast in our turbulent times.

To conclude, we may turn to the story of Goethe’s increasing familiarity with the architecture of Strasbourg Cathedral, in which, he claimed, he was able to acquire information in an apparently miraculous flash of insight. Indeed, Goethe found himself in possession of the knowledge that one of the towers was not how it was originally intended. In using this case, Lachman presents us with a crucial understanding of something even more extravagant than Strasbourg’s Cathedral’s Romanesque architecture. Now, Goethe was able to see the original intention behind the finished architecture as it stood there before him – as well as, we might recall, his claim to be able to perceive the ‘primal plant’, that ur-plant from which all other plants (plural) emerge. In doing so, is it not unreasonable to extend this vision further, and perhaps suggest that this sort of visionary consciousness may be the key to the evolutionary plan itself? That is, this may be what provides us that crucial insight into our own potentialities that are latent in our very being, the ‘primal mankind’, as it were. Indeed, if this visionary quality was directed at the foundations of our culture, society and own psyche, we might too be able to see our way through to the evolutionary directive, that very substratum from which the impulse of life flows into material becoming. And in doing so, we may bypass these confusions of the intellect too abstracted from the primal reality from which it has extracted itself, and instead survey the landscape of the inner-world. Furthermore, by turning this imagination towards the outer-world, we may create a more meaning-filled sense of being, in concordance with the evolutionary intentionality present in nature itself.

In reading Lost Knowledge of the Imagination one can acquire a foretaste of precisely the kind of revelatory consciousness that Lachman describes, and, like all great books, it will benefit re-readings for years to come, for its implications are implicit and many. I have, in this essay, only scratched the surface, even if that, of this tightly argued and equally wide-reaching book. It is a book of learning and remembering; it is, in a sense, a call for what Gurdjieff and Ouspensky called ‘self-remembering’. Indeed, revelation – that remembrance of lost knowledge – is what happens when the two-minds cooperate, each side creatively comprehending the other and its role. Instead, there is a perceptible synthesis manifest in states of inspiration or peak experiences in which two streams of knowledge converge – a sort of gnosis, a true understanding, is reached, and challenges that once seemed insurmountable seem almost trivial. Lachman has here provided a glimpse into the architectural plans of what the poet Martha Heyneman called a ‘breathing cathedral’, and with each actualization of those plans we contribute towards the repair work of the cosmos, integrating each piece into the human mind again.

 

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A New Existentialist Perspective: An Essay on Anthony Peake’s Opening the Doors of Perception (2016)

(You can buy the book here: https://www.anthonypeake.com/product/opening-the-doors-of-perception/)

                Anthony Peake is at the forefront of a controversial science that aims to unify consciousness with the literally mind-bending and time-defying processes of the subatomic world.  His work shares some similarities with the work of Lynne McTaggart, particularly her excellent book The Field (2001).  Indeed, Peake’s Opening the Doors of Perception (2016) and McTaggart’s The Field bring consciousness back into prominence; that is, consciousness as being a fundamental component of reality, and an enormously important participant in the world around us, even extending so far as the macrocosmic scale of the structures of the cosmos itself.  Much like the apparent entropy of background radiation, there is also the anti-entropic, ordering principle of consciousness – a higher formulation, if you will.

Peake asks the question of why matter, aggregated in the form of a body, suddenly generates something that can self-reflect.  Of course, consciousness has the ability to ask this very question, being as it is, by definition, self-aware.  But what is more significant for Peake are those moments in which consciousness suddenly launches itself out of time and can, from its new vantage point, look backwards and forwards in time.  This profound state of ‘timelessness’ takes place under unusual neurological and neurobiochemical states which, in a variety of different ways, remind us of the experiences of many of the great mystics such as Blake, Boehme, Swedenborg (even the science fiction author, Philip K. Dick) – and yet, and most importantly, these can also be experienced by ordinary people undergoing an extraordinary altered state of consciousness.

Moreover, people undergoing temporal lobe seizures, aura migraine or as a result of autism or Alzheimer’s disease, are more likely than us ‘neurotypicals’ (neurologically typical) to experience these radical new perspectives of time, the world around them and of themselves.  And this results, sadly, to a general misunderstanding, a sense of alienation in the one who experiences it firsthand; so, in as much as Peake’s work studies and attempts to understand these unusual states, he is also presenting a reassuring paradigm in which to understand their mysteries. Furthermore, Peake contends that these alternative modes of being are not to be treated as mere hallucinations or an imaginative concoction of a non-typical brain – they are, in a very real sense, a glimpse beyond the world of appearances into the underlying reality that constitutes the structure of the cosmos.  Indeed these individuals are seeing and experiencing an objective reality beyond what he refers to as the ‘reducing valve’ of ordinary consciousness.

The ‘reducing valve’ was term that Aldous Huxley used throughout his famous book The Doors of Perception (1954) to explain the normally constricted consciousness of our everyday experience.  And in the famous words of William Blake, if these “doors of perception were cleansed” (in other words, if the ‘reducing valve’ is removed), “everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”.

Opening the Doors of Perception is Anthony Peake’s own response to, and an updated celebration of Huxley’s seminal book; but instead of continuing with the hallucinogenic experiences of mescalin, Peake undertakes a more scientific approach of understanding brain physiology and its relationship to consciousness – particularly inter-hemispheric communication, and what he calls “neuroatypical ‘illnesses’” along the “Huxleyian spectrum”.  The Huxleyian spectrum is a means to gauge just how wide open the doors have become, and indeed how much the ‘reducing valve’ has been switched off.

Peake aims and, as I argue below, successfully achieves an enormously stimulating synthesis by re-evaluating “the model of perception suggested by Huxley and to view it through the lens of our modern science, and, more importantly, to evaluate the evidence taking into account how the web, virtual reality and holographics have changed forever the way we appreciate the external world” (7).  Now Opening the Doors of Perception is not simply an up-dated version of Huxley’s book, but is also an evolution of Peake’s previous books, namely Is There Life After Death? (2006) and The Daemon (2008) which first laid down his unique ‘Daemon-Eidolon hypothesis’, in which argues convincingly that “human consciousness is split into two independent foci of self-aware consciousnesses” which he the calls the Daemon and the Eidolon.

To place this hypothesis into perspective it is worth returning to his earlier book, The Daemon, which prefigures his later work in Opening the Doors of Perception admirably:

“I disagree with [Henry] Bergson and Huxley in their belief that the reducing valve allows direct access to the ‘outside world’ as it really is.  I argue that the ‘Doors’ open up to allow access to the everyday awareness of the Daemon.  Put simply, the Eidolon perceives the world as the Daemon does and the Daemon perceives the actual nature of ‘reality’ – a very sophisticated, internally-generated illusion – a recording of a life that was once lived, a recording generated by a process similar to holography” (58)

The Eidolon, then, is you – the normal ‘I’ who experiences our lives from position of ordinary linear time.  However the Daemon is also ‘you’, but, a much higher you that lives outside of time – the Daemon, in short, has already lived your life (maybe even thousands of times!).  When the doors of perception are cleansed, whether through hallucinogenic drugs or a temporal lobe seizure, Peake argues that what we really perceive is ‘reality’ as the Daemon sees it; that is, from a sort of timeless perspective that can offer us glimpses – by means of precognitions, déjà-vu, hallucinations or voices – of the future.  This viewpoint is simply a ‘timeless state’; it is also what Huxley called ‘Mind at Large’, a perspective that allows us insights into the structures and more importantly implicit meanings in nature and the universe.

Indeed, implicitness is enormously important when we begin to discuss meaningfulness and its relational quality later on.

This is what makes Opening the Doors of Perception such a profound book, and a treasure trove of insights for anyone interested in the nature of consciousness, and particularly – in my own case – as someone who approaches it as a text pertaining directly to the important insights of Colin Wilson’s philosophy, the new existentialism.

The new existentialism is a philosophy that emerged primarily from the philosophical discipline phenomenology created by Edmund Husserl, in short Wilson argues for a ‘positive existentialism’ that recognises that consciousness has a far greater range than we are lead to believe, indeed it has an intentional, that is an active rather than passive aspect that is underestimated, even totally disregarded by the ‘old existentialists’ such as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, etc.  Wilson argues that, in an increasing world of materialist-reductionism, and its attack on religious values, there nevertheless remains a very real and significant area of inquiry: the nature of consciousness itself, the very ability that allows us to comprehend these problems at all.

Wilson argues in Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966) that “Everyday consciousness is a liar, and most people have insights to this effect at least once a week”.  He continues by stating that the really important question is:“how to give such insights a philosophical status and how to investigate them” (152).

This is effectively what Anthony Peake succeeds in doing with Opening the Doors of Perception, for he places our consciousness into two different streams – that of the Eidolonic consciousness and that of the Daemonic.  The Eidolonic-mode is in some sense this lying and ordinary consciousness: it offers us only a slither of reality; whereas the Daemon is allowed a full-spectrum view out into time.  Wilson’s Faculty X experience is precisely a glimpse of this Daemonic consciousness, for it is “the glimpse of other times and places”.  In some sense, the peak experience is closer to the Daemonic than the Eidolonic, being as it is stuck in ‘real time’ with all the trivialities of existence.  Significantly Peake makes an extraordinary connection between these experiences of meaningfulness and the Daemon through the work of Michael Persinger:

“Persinger suggests a similar spectrum to myself with regards to religious and mystical experiences.  He is convinced that such experiences are created by the temporal lobes.  The sense of self in relation to time and space is located in the amygdaloid and hippocampal complexes.  These structures are, in turn, areas that generate anxieties and fears.  The amygdale also focuses on pleasure and pain.  Collectively these parts of the brain also facilitate intense feelings of significance, or meaningfulness” (34).

The important word here, I am certain, is the word ‘collectively’.  Indeed, I am here reminded of an event that happened to J.G. Bennett which he recorded in his biography, Witness (1962), for Bennett was apparently able to consciously control the processes created by the temporal lobes.

After intense and strenuous exercise at G.I. Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau, Bennett experienced something profoundly unique.  He had been feeling exhausted due to diarrhoea and a general sickness – he even considered whether or not he was going to die – but after the forced exercise he was suddenly “filled with the influx of an immense power.  My body seemed to have turned into light” (93).  He was so delighted by this new power that he carried on digging, indeed becoming more self-aware as his body seemed so full of energy that he could not feel the usual strain and exhaustion.  Excited by this Bennett decided to take look around, and the words:

“”in the mind’s eye” took on new meaning as I “saw” the eternal pattern of each thing I looked at: the trees, the plants, the water flowing in the canal and even the spade, and, lastly, my own body.  I recognized the changing relationship between “myself” and “my pattern” . . . Time and Eternity were the conditions of our experience” (93).

But most significantly, in terms of the amygdaloid and hippocampal complexes, he recalled a lecture by P.D. Ouspensky in which he said that it is easy enough for a man to be angry at will, but nevertheless it is very difficult to become astonished at will.  In his new and heightened state of consciousness Bennett decided to put this to the test, and said to himself “I will be astonished”, he continues:

“Instantly, I was overwhelmed with amazement, not only at my own state, but at everything that I looked at or thought of.  Each tree was so uniquely itself that I felt that I could walk in the forest for ever and never cease from wonderment.  Then the thought of “fear” came to me.  At once I was shaking with terror.  Unnamed horrors were menacing me on every side.  I thought of “joy”, and I felt pervaded with such fine shades of tenderness and compassion that I saw that I had not the remotest idea of the depth and range of love” (95)

This suggests that in some way Bennett had gained access to a ‘higher self’ – perhaps his Daemon? –  that could somehow elicit changes within the temporal lobes directly – but changes which are usually very difficult combinational process, such as the case of being ‘astonished at will’ seems to suggest.

It appears that in some way, the Eidolonic consciousness is a passive ‘first lifer’, so to speak, and that only in glimpses is it granted the freedoms which are usually bestowed solely to the Daemon.  Peake argues that each ‘mode’ of consciousness is in fact divided between both the dominant and non-dominant hemispheres of the brain; that is, roughly speaking, the Eidolon lives in our left hemisphere and the Daemon in the right.  Peake also suggests there can be times when there is a “bicamerality of consciousness, which may mirror or even override the hemispheres model” (233), that is, they can communicate to one another via the corpus callosum (the bridge of nerve fibres between the two hemispheres).  This communication, if it is effectively democratised, enables the Eidolon and the Daemon to work together harmoniously, and more importantly, in a controlled manner.

In Frankenstein’s Castle (1980), a book about the powers of the right brain, Colin Wilson says that the “fundamental human urge is not for happiness, but for control.  A man who has spent his life in a state of misery may be glad enough for a few scraps of happiness; but the moment he becomes a little accustomed to happiness, he is seized with a desire to grasp its underlying principle, so that he can turn it on  and off as he pleases” (48).  He continues: “insight is not enough.  The two halves [of the brain] need to combine their functions.  When this happens, the result is far greater than either could achieve individually” (48).  Opening the Doors of Perception offers us one of the most penetrating examples of the powers of the right brain at present, particularly with the amazing abilities of autistic savants who are able to remember and draw entire cities after a mere 30 minutes in a helicopter (in the case of Stephen Wiltshire), or even people who can remember their entire lives in extraordinary detail.  What is necessary is the understanding that this is a potentiality within every brain and each one of us, and yet for us neurotypicals it is indeed more difficult – and often very rare – to access these rich sources of information and insight.

Fortunately we can gain access to these states, and in a uniquely controlled way, but it is a matter of self-discipline and certain phenomenological exercises.  But before we discuss these it is worth taking a look at some of the hints that Anthony Peake provides us with.

In discussing hallucinogenics Peake refers to the work of the German-American psychologist Heinrich Klüver who noticed that there is a common recurrence of geometric forms in hallucinations – whether as a result of ingesting a hallucinogen or suffering from epilepsy, migraine or through hypnagogic imagery.  These ‘form constants’ can take the form of cobwebs, tunnels, spirals, lattices, etc, and are very often represented in the psychedelic artworks of the ancient shamanic cultures through to the 1960s and recent times (more recently popularised by the work of Alex Grey).  This brings us back to the example of J.G. Bennett when he said that he could see ‘in the mind’s eye’ that everything he looked at had an “eternal pattern”.  Peake suggests that Klüver’s Form Constants could be a glimpse into the holographic and fundamentally mathematical basis of reality.  This could be what Bennett saw in his vision; the interconnectedness of everything to everything else, until he was almost blinded by William James’s “sudden vision of increasing ranges of distant facts”.  Perhaps this is best represented by geometry, as Peake suggests by comparing it to the Mandelbrot set, or what Oliver Sacks called the ‘geometrization to infinity’.

Indeed, Peake suggests that the migraine sufferer may “short-circuit Aldous Huxley’s reducing valve and in doing so facilitate a perceptual viewpoint similar to that of Mind at Large” (41).  Colin Wilson also made this connection when he was studying an interesting individual called Brad Absetz, for in Access to Inner Worlds (1983) he describes some of the artworks of Absetz which exhibit an insight – by his other-self, perhaps located in the right hemisphere – with extraordinary paintings of highly geometrical flowers and so on, which seem to suggest a more holistic rather than ‘granulated’ – piecemeal – view of reality.  Wilson later on in the same book discusses the notion of an ‘inner library’ that is full of memories, insights and a vast accumulation of the whole of our lives, and when we experience this flash it is as if this library was suddenly lit up for us to see.  In these experiences we realise that we are not separate, trapped in time and personality, but instead apart of something much larger, vital and evolutionary.  Wilson continues:

“. . . this library inside of us is not merely a repository of separate memories.  What is so exciting is that these memories can blend together and connect into something much bigger.  The tarry smell of the sun-warmed fence is connected with the smell of grass, and an odd cold sensation that seems to be a memory of water, which in turn brings back the cold of a winter day and the sogginess of melting snow . . . And at this point, it becomes difficult to pinpoint the sensations because they seem to be spreading outwards, so that every one evokes half a dozen others, and so on in geometric progression.  There is a dazzling sensation of hovering above your own life, seeing it as a whole, like some enormous landscape.  And as we glimpse these ‘distant horizons’, we also become aware that this  is what memory is for.  Not fragmentary piecemeal perceptions, but a total grasp.  And not only my own life, but, by some process of deduction, of other lives, of all life” (122-123)

The philosopher and professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, Jeremy Needleman, in his book What is God? (2011) expressed a very similar notion, for he too realised that all great insights, “all visions of man and universe, all magic that called me away from my little egoism and dreams – it was the power of some force that could bring together oppositions and conflicts into a greater whole, a mysterious incomprehensible event prosaically labelled “the coincidence of opposites”” (170).  Could it be that this force that both Wilson and Needleman refer to, either indirectly or directly, a glimpse of the Daemonic consciousness of the right hemisphere?  The coincidence of opposites is certainly very evocative of the unification of both hemispheres; working most effectively in a balanced fashion and lending a certain connectedness – of reality, of vivid implicit meaningfulness – to our vision of ourselves and the world around us.

This is perhaps why the works of genius themselves seem to resonate through our cultures, constantly changing it and becoming more relevant as time goes on; there is the sense that a vision is ever unfolding, a multi-dimensional and geometrical event that transcends time and space.  Indeed, the very word genius is related to the Daimonic, for Socrates had his own guardian spirit, his own genius or inspiration.  In Prometheus and Atlas (2016) Jason Reza Jorjani argues that aesthetic ideas themselves, when in touch with genius or the inspirational spirit, transcend the ordinarily rational mind (the left brain) and these “aesthetic ideas are capable of indefinitely expanding, and hence redefining rational concepts that they spawn, and that attempt, unsuccessfully yet generatively, to clearly grasp . . . that which engendered them” it is, in an enlightening analogy, the “material supplied to it by Nature in order to surpass Nature by generating ideas that lie beyond the bounds of experience” (118).  These geometrical visions, the Klüver’s Form Constants, the paintings of Brad Absetz and the ‘eternal pattern’ as seen by Bennett all seem to be referring to the same thing; these intuitions of something beyond the time-bound appearances that are presented to us in our Eidolonic state.  The Daemonic, when it bleeds into our ordinary everyday consciousness leaves us with ideas that “lie beyond the bounds of experiences” and therefore, as the mystics constantly remind us, beyond the capacity of ordinary language to convey.

Only highly aesthetic forms of expression, music, poetry, painting, and geometries, can remind us that these realities beyond the ordinary world, and beyond our ‘reducing valve’ are incredibly rich – and this realm of incredible richness of experience is only, in reality, a very slight step away – even a matter of centimetres – if we are to consider the enormous possibilities Anthony Peake presents us in his books.

The final lines of Opening the Doors of Perception boldly state this, and Peake shares his vision of an exploration of inner space:

“We will break out of the confines of our present consensual reality and in doing so will begin the first few tentative steps in creating a new science to explain the wonders of the Pleroma [Mind at Large or the Ultimate Reality]” (241)

And this statement was similarly stated by Colin Wilson in The New Existentialism, for the ‘new existentialist’ “accepts man’s experience of his inner freedom as basic and irreducible” and ‘the new existentialism” concentrates the full battery of phenomenological analysis upon the everyday sense of contingency . . . it uncovers the complexities and safety devices in which freedom dissipates itself”.

Anthony Peake’s Opening the Doors of Perception constantly reminds us, through exploring the fascinating processes of hallucinations, to the scientific explorations of quantum physics, consciousness studies and the enlightening worlds of temporal lobe epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, near-death experiences and so on, that the reality behind the contingent world of temporal forms, there is a rich and scintillating infinity, of, in short, the evolutionary potentiality of man.

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Bibliography:

Bennett, J.G. (2007) Witness. Santa Fe, Bennett Books

Jorjani, R.J. (2016) Prometheus and Atlas. London, Arktos

Needleman, J. (2011) What is God?. New York, Tarcher Penguin

Peake, A. (2008) Daemon. London, Arcturus

Peake, A. (2016) Opening the Doors of Perception. London, Watkins

Wilson, C. (1966) Introduction to the New Existentialism. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company

Wilson, C. (1980) Frankenstein’s Castle. Bath, Ashgrove Press

Wilson, C. (1983) Access to Inner Worlds. London, Rider.

BOOK REVIEW: The Druid Code: Magic, Megaliths and Mythology (Thomas Sheridan Arts)

(To purchase The Druid Code: Magic, Megaliths and Mythology click here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/thomas-sheridan/the-druid-code-magic-megaliths-and-mythology/paperback/product-22804940.html)

Thomas Sheridan, in a number of interviews promoting his new book The Druid Code: Magic, Megaliths and Mythology (2016), provides some interesting insights into his own developments as an individual, and this moreover affords us an insight into his unique position as an independent researcher.  For example, in the Legalise Freedom interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kttXCOrn30E) he mentions that he was first trained in electronics, but found it basically unsatisfying and discovered that music became an outlet for his passions, and from his foray into the New York music scene he further developed as a visual artist, taking up the paintbrush as his tool of choice.  His independent and searching spirit effectively converges in his new book, The Druid Code, for these variety of skills, passions and insights lend themselves tremendously well when approaching the enigmatic and baffling mysteries of ancient megaliths; their technical mysteries, electromagnetic anomalies and further their artistry, their apparent symbolism of something beyond the gargantuan stone that juts out of the earth with a densely physical force.

I should imagine that such a bewildering and mysterious topic should be an immensely difficult undertaking, particularly for a writer, for as he relates in many of his interviews: they are, on initial thought, simply huge pieces of rock that confound scientists and laymen alike.  What do they mean? is effectively the only question you can ask, and measurements, carbon dating and geometry can only lead us into a cul-de-sac of ‘know how’, that is rather than the answering the more satisfactory question of: What led these ancient architects to construct such magnificent physical conundrums in the first place?  It is, in many ways a psychological question as well as a religious one, for like the great cathedrals there is manifestly a transcendent motive; a physical symbol of a consciousness beyond what we ordinarily understand.

This is where Sheridan’s artistry comes in, for throughout The Druid Code the reader is guided along with field drawings from his own journeys throughout Ireland, England, Malta and Portugal, which lend to the narrative a much more visual quality of what is, at its most visceral, a visual phenomena literally set in stone.  Their visual quality is the fact that, as Sheridan argues, that they are in some way “simulacra” that “speak to the conscious mind by . . . mysterious energy forces, archaeo-astronomy, their geological, magnetic and geographical alignments, and most importantly of all, their connectivity”.

This, I believe, is the heart of The Druid Code, for the code itself leads us back to the mysterious druids themselves (significantly known primarily as magicians and poets) is an effective act of connections that leads us through comparative mythology, contemporary archaeological and scientific developments, and even a sober adoption of occultism and its insights into the use of intuition and symbols.  It is this fearless use of various disciplines that enables the reader to make an enormous amount of connections, and moreover which makes Thomas Sheridan, a non-academic polymath, open many new areas – and methods – of investigation that reinvigorates the whole enterprise of ancient mysteries.

Sheridan says, again bringing in his own personal insights and experiences into art and music, that to interpret these archaeological mysteries without “mythology is akin to performing a piece of music without instruments.  They are inseparable and vitally interwoven in order for us to holistically determine greater insights into the people who create both, and why they did so”.  Again the ‘why’ is what is so satisfying behind Sheridan’s work, for it is the question often lacking in academic studies, which focuses too much on the mechanics and leaves out the soul, the psyche.  Consciousness, particularly the differences between 21st century man and his highly individualised and atomised view of the world as compared to what a human of 3000BC and beyond, seems to be somewhat overlooked by most researchers.  Sheridan is careful when making this distinction, for he knows only too well that artistry of this sort works on levels well beyond the ordinary daylight consciousness that most individuals of the modern world inhabit.

Sheridan adopts Julian Jaynes’ theory of the breakdown of the bi-cameral mind, and takes up the notion that mythology for the ancients was much more immediate and urgent than what it represents to us in the modern world. In fact, what we take as mythology is merely the echo of an immensely rich unconscious, constantly vital with symbolism and meaning that points to, and well beyond a fractured, post-modern worldview.  In some way, the druids understood time in ways much more wholly than contemporary man, who again has systematised it rather than observed its cycles and connection to psychological changes.  Indeed, Sheridan notes that these megalithic structures are ‘charged’, as it were, and act as “ancient relay stations of the subconscious mind, transmitting their codes outside of linear time and space”.

These ‘relay stations’ act as reminders or symbols of the ‘unseen’.  In his early biography, Voyage to a Beginning (1969), Colin Wilson writes:

“Man needs symbols of the ‘unseen’ if he is not to become a slave of his own dullness.  If I had learned the existence of a society of Sun-Worshippers, I would have joined it; not because I think the sun is a god, but because worship is the right attitude towards reality . . . Man has tried various methods of reminding himself of the insight that comes in the moments of freedom. One is writing poems and symphonies, or painting pictures and cathedrals, whose steeples and stained glass windows assert that every day reality is a liar”

From this important insight, it is clear why Sheridan contends that The Druid Code is a monolithic reminder that acted as a form of psychotherapy after deluges and massive upheavals of land and ocean.  These huge rocks, defying time and explanation, seem to stand as firmly in our consciousness as they do in physical reality, guiding us realms of insights and power-consciousness that may lead us out of the cognitive quagmire of a sterile modernity. However, it is important that Sheridan uses the word a ‘bi-directional conduit through time’ to explore these ancient mysteries, for they not only stand in the past, they also here and now.

The druid’s psychotherapeutic adoption of symbols, which can speak to our often drowned-out unconscious in moments of silence and reflection – a silence that is all too rare in modern civilisation –, allows us to reconnect to powerful currents of a repressed psychological heritage.  These Celtic forefathers intimately and intuitively knew in a more intimate way than the Abrahamic-impulse with its encroachment on the west, for it was the druids and their origins that were crudely appropriated and assimilated by Christianity as it swept through the west, and absorbing it into its vast body-politic.  Indeed, there is something very Platonic about Sheridan’s undertaking, for it is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead meant when he said that the “father of philosophy, in one of his many moods of thought, laid down the axiom that the deeper truths must be adumbrated by myths”.

Thomas Sheridan’s The Druid Code, with its many insights into psychology, all aided with the artistic temperament and Irish lyricism, is a document of a modern day Druidic-impulse making its return, adumbrating itself through the unveiling of the truths behind the myths.

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BOOK REVIEW: An Evolutionary Leap: Colin Wilson on Psychology by Colin Stanley (Karnac Books Ltd: 2016)

            An Evolutionary Leap: Colin Wilson on Psychology (2016) by Colin Wilson’s bibliographer, Colin Stanley, is a scholarly précis of Wilson’s own impressive contribution to psychology. Although Wilson is best known as either an existential philosopher with the release of his 1956 The Outsider, or otherwise as a writer on the occult with books like The Occult (1971) and Mysteries (1978), which effectively revived his career after his unfortunate and undeserved fall from respectability throughout the 1960s (during which he worked on some of his most definitive work which culminated in a completed Outsider Cycle), it is perhaps too little known – and properly realised – that what Wilson was really posing, or implying, in his earliest work was a revolutionary form of Existential Psychology.  It is also little known that The Outsider was a huge impact, in style, form and content, on R.D Laing’s famous work in existential psychology, The Divided Self.

Wilson’s own work, it could be said, is a synthesis out of which emerges a new vision of man.  Again, his early work was an in-depth look at modern philosophy, culture and the religious impulse as it stands in the post-war West; a West stripped, essentially, of a meaningful context. Modernism’s departure from the traditional values left a metaphysical black hole in man’s psyche, and the rift caused a radical departure from the meaningful foundations of religion, which at least provided a stabilisation mechanism for many sensitive individuals.  When the truly modern man stood up to his own existence, only a void stared back – a void where God had metaphorically died – which in turn either lead to the vacillating affirmations, of Yea-saying, and resultant slumps into suicidal despair as felt by the Romantics, to the eventual emergence of Existentialism and its bold attempt to provide at least a defiant stoicism against meaninglessness (it was, in a sense, a healthy impulse that affirmed man’s freedom, but nevertheless, at heart, yet still without firm foundations).

This hollowness at the heart of man in turn lead to what Wilson called a tendency towards a “sense of defeat that permeates our culture”, this resultant pessimism which informed literature, science and psychology was given critical scrutiny in Wilson’s book The Age of Defeat (1959) (otherwise known as The Stature of Man in the United States) which American psychologist Abraham Maslow read and was deeply impressed enough to initiate correspondence with its author.  This developed in a warm camaraderie, for both were unconvinced that man was a merely contingent creature adrift in a meaningless void, and believed that both man and his symptomatic culture needed to somehow recognise this fallacy, and in doing so would re-establish a sense of values from which man could productively flourish.

Wilson and Maslow were deeply convinced that a new psychology of health, rather than as a mere theory of human sickness, should be somehow developed in order to revitalise culture.  And in turn further mankind’s evolutionary leap, which would afford man more freedom and a precise directive towards which to eventually actualise (or self-actualise, in Maslow’s terms).

Colin Stanley’s book provides a chronological set of essays which introduce each of Wilson’s books on psychology and their historical and intellectual context, together with brief histories about how each book came about, and furthermore how Wilson developed his own theories by applying contemporary psychological studies in split-brain research, Maslovian psychology, and his insightful biographies into such mavericks as Wilhelm Reich, Carl Jung and the then emergent Post-Freudian Revolution.  It is to the latter which Wilson felt as the “greatest advance in psychology”; a discipline he identifies as being forwarded by “Binwanger, Minkowski, Medard Boss and others”.  He stated, again in Beyond the Outsider (1965), that existential psychology “recognises that neurosis is not the result of man’s maladjustment to society, but to the whole of existence”.

Stanley’s essays, beginning with The Age of Defeat (1959) and The Origins of the Sexual Impulse (1963) and ending with Wilson’s last book, Super Consciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience (2007/2009) effectively covers this whole spectrum of human existence, from the sexual impulse, literature, the powers of the Right Brain to Wilson’s own meetings with extraordinary individuals like Brad Absetz who seemed to embody aspects of Wilson’s own theories evolutionary psychology and its hidden powers – hidden powers, moreover, which are chillingly becoming more openly manifest in many of Wilson’s own case studies of remarkable individuals, alerting us to the sheer immanence of such an evolutionary leap.

An Evolutionary Leap: Colin Wilson on Psychology offers new and/or seasoned Wilson readers alike a brilliant opportunity to evaluate, all in one place, Wilson’s contribution to existential and evolutionary psychology, and it will, I believe, inspire and breathe a new lease of life into many of the cul-de-sacs prevalent in modern culture – and particularly in relation to ourselves as evolving individuals in search of a purpose from which to grow.  Stanley has provided the go-to book for a radical re-understanding of contemporary psychology, and as an increasing interest in positive psychology grows – in and outside of academia – I believe this book will stimulate a wider readership for those who want new, practical ideas of how to motivate a positive change within themselves, and in the modern psychoanalytic infrastructure.

The evolutionary leap that Wilson felt so near is here presented in impressive clarity of style and precision with which Wilson himself would have admired.  Stanley elaborates Wilson’s work with expertly chosen quotations, bringing Wilson’s work into such a sharp focus that effortlessly directs readers to much fruitful and stimulating future reading.

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The book itself also provides an impressive list of references and further reading for anyone wishing to undertake further research for a dissertation or thesis. Colin Stanley has also produced other useful study guides for those approaching Wilson for the first time, or indeed more veteran readers who need to brush up on Wilson’s often overwhelming oeuvre. His own publishing house, Pauper’s Press, has an invaluable collection of highly focused and authoritative series of books dedicated to Colin Wilson Studies, a growing and highly exciting field which offers much opportunity to a reinvigoration of a wide variety of disciplines.

Karnac Books have also provided an excellent service to psychology and Colin Wilson Studies by publishing such a professionally presented book with such a charming front cover!  It is a commendable piece of work, and their variety of other publications is an inspiring collection of specialist and alternative books on psychoanalysis.

 

Climbing the Ladder of Selves

Innovative Innervations

On the 11th August 2016 Nature published the results of an experiment in which they effectively utilised a virtual reality environment to help paraplegics regain sensation in their paralyzed limbs[1].  Not only that, for as a result of this returned feeling they were able to walk again, thus dramatically improving the daily life of the candidates.  In the study they took special note of the “potential occurrence of functional cortical plasticity”, which was “evaluated through longitudinal analyses of EEG recordings”.  It continues by stating that all “patients were instructed to imagine movements of their own legs while EEG signals from 11 scalp electrodes were recorded over the leg primary somatosensory and motor cortical areas”.  Each candidate was instructed to imagine movements of their legs, something most of us take for granted.

There have been several similar experiments repeated before, but one particular example will suffice, and it involves a group of physically healthy Israeli soldiers.  The experiment was conducted by Shlomo Breznitz at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  He conducted the soldiers to march twenty-five miles, but provided each group of marchers with varying and incorrect information about how much they had actually marched, or were going to march.  For example he would either exaggerate or dramatically underestimate the marcher’s mileage.  Michael Talbot summarises Brezniz’s results in which he found evidence that the “stress hormone level in the soldiers’ blood always reflected their estimates and not the actual distance they had marched”.  He continues, “[i]n other words, their bodies responded not to reality, but to what they were imagining as reality” (The Holographic Universe: 88).

This is all highly significant when considering the notion of an evolutionary self, for the embryo of the future self must also exist in the present; however, it has merely not been actualised, as Abraham Maslow may have put it. It demands the question, what if we were able to imagine a higher reality for ourselves, a more integrated and powerful form of being? Indeed to become self-actualised is an enormous challenge, and as I have mentioned before alpinism seems to be an often used metaphor for this task of self-development.  Wilson, in The New Pathways of Psychology, coined the term ‘the Self-Image’, the fact that we are only so much as capable of being what we imagine ourselves to be.  ‘The great man is the play-actor of his own ideals’, said Nietzsche.  Says Wilson:

“A man could not climb a vertical cliff without cutting hand-holds in the rock.  Similarly, I cannot achieve a state of ‘intenser consciousness’ merely by wanting to . . . We tend to climb towards higher states of self-awareness by means of a series of self-images.  We create a certain imaginary image of the sort of person we would like to be, and then try to live up to the image” (34)

This ‘series of self-images’ is precisely the means by which we can grapple with the tough and turbulent terrain of reality.  However, it must correspond with a possible and latent reality.  The Nature experiment provided the imaginary stimulus – the virtual reality headgear and exoskeleton – which provided a new, body-enhancing self-image.  Again it awakened the mind to correspond with a latent reality and thus innervated the previously derelict limbs, that is, they were re-imbued by a sort of psychological leap which became a physiological reality.

The Mind as Programmer

Wilson emphasised this in his 2006 essay, ‘The Psychology of Optimism’, in which he discusses the implications of Roger Sperry’s type of mind-body monism.

Sperry came to reject the idea that the mind and body were two basically diametrically opposed realities, where the mind cannot influence the body.  He believed that “[e]mergent mental powers . . . must logically exert downward causal control over electrophysiological events in brain activity”.  The mind for Sperry was not merely epiphenomenal; it was something outside of the brain, in which the brain merely acted as a receiver.  However, there is an altogether more immediate correlation; the body is minded, if you like.  Consciousness for Sperry existed as well as the body, not necessarily because of the body, and therefore it takes the role of an active force, having an enormously important creative will which can generate profound physiological changes (like the innervations of a paraplegic’s legs).  Wilson concludes his essay by saying that we must “persuade scientists . . . to begin experiments to try and show that brain cells can be created by a focused effort of will” (Colin Wilson: The Philosopher of Optimism, 85).

One could say that consciousness is some sort of programmer from outside the material reality, something that tends to infuse it with higher dimensions of significance.

Time and the Transcendent Self

The virtual reality experiment proves this to be a significant area of research, and although it can improve the lives of many who have lost use of their limbs, it could also potentially act as a new method by which to stimulate unused areas of our own minds.  Of course, drugs, particularly hallucinogenic, have also had a similar effect on individuals, and are in fact an influence on virtual worlds themselves. For example, in 1998 there was even a Japanese computer game called LSD which was entirely based on Hiroko Nishikawa’s dream journal, released under the title Lovely Sweet Dream.  Imagination in itself is an important means by which to “stimulate the earth-bound imagination of man to grasp the immensity around him” (Existentially Speaking, 19-20).  The mind, Wilson reminds us, is also a muscle that needs to be re-innervated so as to be able to grasp – to contract its powers so as to assimilate its experience of reality more powerfully – with a vivid intensity which enables existence to be more powerfully experienced.  (Wilson also used the virtual worlds of computer science in his 1985 novel, The Personality Surgeon for the same reason).

Interestingly, this notion of imagination, the virtual worlds and dream being a means to stimulate the earthbound imagination out of its tendency to become robotic and passive, has been picked up by many novelists.  An example is the work of J.B. Priestley whose time plays, or the novel The Magicians, enables his characters to vividly re-live the past in what he called ‘Time Alive’.  Although the novel stems directly out of Gurdjieff’s and Ouspensky’s development of system known generally as The Fourth Way, it nevertheless provides and important psychological point.  It also appears most profoundly in an even earlier play, his 1937 Time and the Conways, whereby the character Alan Conway states the multiplicity of our selves:

“. . . now, at this moment, or any moment, we’re only cross-sections of our real selves.  What we really are is a whole stretch of ourselves, all our time, and when we come to the end of this life, all those selves, all our time, will be us – the real you, the real me.  And then perhaps we’ll find ourselves in another time, which is only another kind of dream” (The Magicians, ix).

These theories of time and our multiple personalities emerged directly out of J.B. Priestley’s obsession with the time theories of J.W. Dunne, whose work An Experiment with Time (1927) postulated, as a result of Dunne’s idea of serial-time, that there must also be corresponding I’s which observe us as it were outside of time as well as inside of time; rather like an infinite hall of mirrors reflecting different versions of you – as you are, as you were, as you could be.

The late psychoanalyst Anthony Storr noted something which corroborates with this theory in a fascinating way, for he provides a cybernetic interpretation of consciousness, that is, it is essentially self-regulating and attempting to reach equilibrium.  Significantly this is noted in his aptly titled book The Integrity of the Personality (1960) when discussing the theories of Carl Jung, who also thought the psyche a self-regulating mechanism which knows what is best for it; and yet is ever thwarted in its path to self-actualisation by external and internal fluctuations. The body says Storr ‘knows’ what is “best of itself; but it is a knowledge without consciousness, and the goal of homeostasis is sought automatically without the deliberate direction of a conscious ego” (176).  Yet he presents the possibility that the psyche is also seeking a semblance of equilibrium, and that Jung provided this essential insight into the cybernetic quality of the personality, or being.  And this therefore infers a ‘right’ state of consciousness, a self that simply ‘knows’ – or is in some sense already actualised – as it were in the future, or vertically above i.e. outside of time.  Jung looked for signs of this other self in the mythologising of the unconscious mind, which seemed to him to be active in its will to equilibrium and the integration of the personality; the unconscious process which aims at developing an evolutionary self-image.  So all that was really needed to solve the problem of neurosis was to remind oneself that the solution lies inside of ourselves, and what is necessary is to correspond this ‘higher self’ and its will to integration with one’s existential reality – and then one would live more effectively at a higher level, a step towards an eventual self-individuation.

(Storr often uses the word homeostasis, which may present the reader with a fairly static sense of being rather than a dynamic one.  Yet the integrated personality is entirely dynamic, resistant and able to absorb and distribute its energies to the highest degree of efficiency).

Energetic Leaks

We have a tendency to ‘leak’ energies, as Wilson put it, and these leaks are due to a poorly integrated sense of self; a tumultuous ego which is either too easily shaken or emotions which erupt or drop our spirits like pockets of air pressure effecting an airplane’s descent.  The psychologist Roberto Assagioli who termed his own movement of psychology, Psychosynthesis, also said the same thing: that we should integrate our multiple I’s in a skilful and efficient way.  He also noted the self-regulatory aspect of the will, stating that the true will has a “directive and regulatory function; it balances and constructively utilizes all the other activities and energies of the human being without repressing any of them” (Act of Will, 10).  Abraham Maslow called these self-integrators ‘self-actualisers’, who aimed towards “the creation of a superordinate unity”.  The ‘superordinate unity’ is what Assagioli called the ‘transpersonal self’, or what Wilson meant by the title of his book Superconsciousness (2009).  Maslow’s peak experiences being the unification of the selves, resulting in an invigorating focus of all the intellectual, emotional and physical energies – that is, they are all efficiently synthesised.

What is the driving force behind our urge to unify our multiple selves?

Wilson contends that it is meaning itself, for there is a certain healthy tropism towards meaning.  He states it in his ladder-of-selves theory, which he discusses at length in Mysteries (1978).  “In moments of intensity, of excitement, of creativity, I move up the ‘ladder’, and instantly become aware that the meaninglessness was an illusion.  For I can ‘tell myself my own story’ and grasp it as a reality; I can look in a mirror and experience myself as an entire object” (The Essential Colin Wilson, 147).

As one climbs the ladder it contracts our being more tightly until all the disparate elements of our psyche are satisfactorily integrated.  We cease to be victims of vacillating moods, and become our own programmers, the director of our own existence.

The positive and beneficial self-image provides the individual with certain traction, a grip, with which they can most effectively climb the ladder-of-selves.  Again, in Wilson’s quote above we can see both the virtual sense of self and the experience of grasping oneself as a whole unit rather than as a vacillating collection of impulses.  I can tell myself my own story and grasp it as a reality.  It must be emphasised that this must correspond with a potential reality that harmonises with one’s best aspects, and not be divorced from reality totally, for it would be a dangerous delusion that would be the contrary to integration – it would become dis-integration, a loss of a sense of self.  For example, Assagioli points out an amusing misunderstanding of education, for he quotes Gustave Le Bon who said that “education is the art of making the conscious pass into the unconscious”, when in fact it should be quite the opposite in some instances.  He notes that the etymology of ‘education’ means to “draw out”, to actualise our “latent possibilities from the unconscious, to activate the energies dormant in it, particularly in its higher sphere, the superconscious” (Act of Will, 57-58).

The self-image must abide by similar pedagogical practices, for they must ‘draw out’ those latent possibilities in the most efficient way.

The Self-Image as a Symbolically Authentic Metaphor

To return to the symbolism of the mountain, Julious Evola, like René Daumal in Mount Analogue, also adopted it as a powerful metaphor for human existence.  And, much like the peak experience and its vistas of meaning, and distant fact, exuberantly energising one’s consciousness, Evola too points to the seriousness of the alpinists as a contraction of disciplined and focused energy. Says Evola:

“The […] feature of serious mountain climbers […] is inner discipline: a total control of reflexes; the style of a deliberate, lucid, and purposeful action; a boldness that is not reckless or hasty, but which is connected to the knowledge of one’s own limitatations and strengths and of the exact terms of the problem to be solved. In relation to this characteristic, we also find yet another one: the control of one’s imagination and the capability to immediately neutralize any useless and harmful inner turmoil [my italics]” (33).

Evola’s discussion of the will comes dangerously close to what Assagioli described as the Victorian caricature of will as been cold and brutal (Evola’s continuing comments are on the Nordic and Mediterranean ‘types’ seems to be a typical example of this), but nevertheless in the context of existence the metaphor is significant, for the virtual and metaphorical nature of the mountain is a sort of simulation, or as Daumal called it, “symbolically authentic”, which is perhaps the most accurate description of the self-image theory itself – it must be symbolically authentic, to quote Nietzsche again: ‘The great man is the play-actor of his own ideals’.

The paraplegics being able to walk again seems to support this idea of a bridging between the symbolical and the real – the symbolical world of the virtual reality headsets convinced the mind, and thus the body, to provide nerves and feeling to limbs that were felt – and known – to be paralysed; but in some loop of the unreal and the real, they manifested in actuality.

This posits the question: What is not impossible?  What can become an actuality?

Implicit Possibilities

“It seems preposterous that nothing except a little absent-mindedness stands between us and a life that is ten times as satisfying as the present one.  Anybody who realises this experiences [a] tremendous sense of frustration, and is willing to make the most exhausting efforts to ‘break through’” (The War Against Sleep, 60).  Opportunities, Wilson said elsewhere, have a tendency to increase as they are seized.  The spur of meaning as one ascends the ladder-of-selves should in theory make it easier and more invigorating as one is more properly integrated; but lower down the ladder there is more danger, for we can too easily become a victim of ourselves.  On the lower rungs we can much more easily become robotic and slip back into what Gurdjieff called ‘sleep’.  There must be a tremendous amount of phenomenological vigilance and self-discipline involved.

Existence itself provides us with humbling threats and reasons to be joyful, but it can – with its trivialities and bores – pull us back into a semi-comatose automaton, drifting and hypnotised by our untamed and unconscious forces.

The question of human existence itself is what Gurdjieff called “holy the firm”, the fact that “the only firm ground in human life is the seemingly uneasy ground of question, especially questions that can neither be answered nor left unanswered” (The Super Natural, 108).  The mere unanswerable nature of the question can either undermine our sense of self and cosmos, or in fact invigorate us to make a more concerted effort to create our own values.  The climbing is a means of creation, and the creative act is precisely another type of bringing together disparate facts and realities into a single actualised form. The philosopher Henri Bergson points out the essentially creative nature of evolution, whereby nature

“is more and better than a plan in course of realization.  A plan is a term assigned to a labor: it closes the future whose form it indicates.  Before the evolution of life, on the contrary, the portals of the future remain wide open.  It is creation that goes on for ever in virtue of an initial movement.  This movement constitutes the unity of the organized world – a prolific unity, of an infinite richness, superior to any that the intellect could dream of, for the intellect is only one of its aspects or products” (Creative Evolution, 106-107)

So, in a sense self-realization too is a form of creativity, a virtue of an initial movement.  It suggests therefore not an explicitness of something to become, but an implicitness that can become.  All sorts of paradoxes and contradictions can arise when considering this notion of an implicit nature, for what made the initial movement in the first place?  It was life – in whatever its form – taking a hold of matter, presenting it with a possibility of becoming more complex.  Buckminster Fuller similarly shares this notion of man, and more generally, life being a function against the automatism of the universe:

“My continuing philosophy is predicated, first, on the assumption that in counterbalance to the expanding universe of entropically increasing random disorderliness there must be a universal pattern of omnicontracting, convergent, progressive orderliness, and that man is that anti-entropic reordering function . . .” (No More Second Hand God & Other Writings, v).

If this is true, and we are able to use the Hermetic dictum of ‘As Above, So Below’, we can begin to map a correlate between cosmic evolution and psychological individuation, for as Bergson points out: the intellect is merely one of creation’s aspects.  Therefore, it would be a leap further to understand the evolutionary drive in man, who appears to be the most complex creature on Earth with apparently surplus potentialities yet to be actualised or ‘drawn forth’.  Colin Wilson, in The New Existentialism, calls the two polar states of consciousness ‘Inauthentic’ and ‘Authentic’, that is, in Fuller’s terms, he compares the mind of an entropic universe with that of an anti-entropic one, and the latter of course is the world of human consciousness.  Wilson continues:

“Inauthenticity is to feel futile, contingent, without purpose.  Authenticity is to be driven by a sense of purpose.  Such a sense of purpose cannot exist unless we first make the assumption that our sense of contingency is a liar, and that there is a standard of values external to every day human consciousness” (153).

At this point it is clear that an element of faith is necessary, and it quickly turns into the problem of religion.  However, it would be fundamentally correct to say that pessimism, like any other state, is an act of intentionality, and that the ‘act of faith’, as Wilson points out, is just another way of “concentrating these powers of intentionality” (117). We can will more intensely from a background of purposeful values.

In other words we must understand, phenomenologically, what Bergson meant by the initial movement; the creative momentum that imbues matter with consciousness.  This is an enormous task, but clues may be found in what J.G. Bennett called hyparxis which has been described by Anthony Peake as traceable “throughout all levels of existence from atoms through the simplest living forms up to a man and it is this factor that entitles us to look beyond man to the attainment of superhuman levels.  Without this factor everything would be compelled to remain wholly determined by its own eternal pattern” (The Labyrinth of Time, 97).

Why would anybody climb a mountain at all?  In many ways, it is the same question as why would consciousness need to invade matter, for surely it would be easier not to – to simply exist in a state beyond matter, perhaps in a timeless Platonic realm?  Gary Lachman in his vast study of esotericism, The Secret Teachers of the Western World (2015), suggests a possible answer to this question when he says that the force behind evolution “does not want us to remain static.  It pushed us out of the cosmic nest, into the cold and difficult regions of left-brain consciousness, because it is in those unwieldy climes that we can best actualize our capabilities” (56).

At our point in evolution we have long yearned to know why we exist, and unfortunately science offers no satisfactory answer other than the mechanisms and the ‘How’ of nature, without providing a ‘Why?’.  In fact there is no Why? in science, and if there is, it is merely a cosmological fluke – a quantum flux in a vacuum that accidentally spewed out all matter as we know it, with consciousness as a mere epiphenomena of matter.  Yet it is possibly the best time to ask precisely that question, for now we are free from the restricting dogmatises of religion (at least on a large enough scale) and at a juncture in science where its determinism and reductionism is beginning to erode.  There is a sense, especially in quantum physics, where mind is altogether interactive with matter itself, causing quantum variations which may in turn shed light on the ‘initial movement’ of the cosmos, indeed, offering us a foundational insight into the evolution of consciousness alongside, or together with, the first emanations of matter into the ‘void’ – a void, as it turns out, that is teeming with potentiality.

In Bargaining with the Devil: The Work of Colin Wilson in a Cultural Context (2016), a generally critical view of Colin Wilson’s work, Nigel Bray nevertheless concludes with a call for optimism, for in a brief analysis of contemporary trends in science, particularly quantum physics, he sees Wilson’s work as a contribution to what could be called ‘quantum psychology’.  Nevertheless, quantum or not, the entire foundation of Wilson’s work was based on an ‘evolutionary phenomenology’, which naturally integrates anything that can be verified phenomenologically or existentially.  Yet as science becomes more bizarre, it nevertheless becomes more existential, for again it is returning to that basis of phenomenology – consciousness.

[1] http://www.nature.com/articles/srep30383

Mountains, Diamonds and Peak Experiences

In Peaks and Lamas (1948), about mountaineering as much as it is about higher mystical experiences and Tibetan lamas, Marco Pallis describes what could be either something from one of Gurdjieff’s lectures, or a phenomenological observation from such writers as R.D Laing or Colin Wilson.  Says Pallis:

“Our actions and thoughts are the products of our whole nature at a given moment, and become the causes of its further development for good or ill.  A nature which is still mainly emotional, and not brought under proper control by the intellect, is a weathercock turned by every impulse.  In such a condition of irresponsibility, even if an action happens to be right, it is largely an accident; for, not being based upon relevant motives, it is properly little better than a foolish action in masquerade” (128-129).

Pallis continues, offering us a way out by describing a certain detachment, a sort of phenomenological ‘bracketing’, from which to develop a sort of ‘transcendental ego’, a standpoint which can more accurately dictate our impulses from, as it were, ‘upon high’:

“It must be one’s constant aim to withdraw as much of life as possible from the power of outside influence and accidents and to bring it into subjection to one’s informed will, so that each act may be exactly what it purports to be, no more no less, each perception a genuine perception uninfluenced by anything irrelevant” (129).

Earlier in the book he makes the observation that this “impartial approach to life” is “too exacting for it to make an instantaneous appeal”.  In other words, it is ‘easier said than done’; we tend to move on, once again falling victim to the topsy-turvy nature of our emotions, intellect and physical impulses.  Not taking up the momentous task of exacting ourselves, honing our Will and integrating our warring selves.

This is why Colin Wilson was fascinated by the idea of a sudden crisis fusing our conflicting I’s together; he often even referred to the mountain symbolically, as a sort of equivalent of Dostoevsky’s intense experience when he was withdrawn from facing the death penalty.  Interestingly, Dostoevsky divided his time, while awaiting his death, into thinking about his own life; past, present and future.  His future, of course, being the grim fate of death (and, as he was religious, perhaps an afterlife).  And yet when he was withdrawn from the claws of death, it is no doubt he grasped his future intensely, and was also immediately grateful for both his present being alive – and furthermore for having had a past at all!  In other words, life as a whole would have been completely revitalised by a sudden yea-saying affirmation.  It would have been an enormous “genuine perception uninfluenced by anything irrelevant”, all of his systems were working equally and powerfully, searing straight through banality, emotional trivialities and intellectual distractions; it was crystallised, refracting time and space into a sudden glistening awe of being.

In fact, Colin Wilson utilised a similar metaphor in his book The Black Room (1971).  This is symbolised in a section where the protagonist becomes involved in a conversation with a mountaineer, Gradwhol, who tells him about how he came to have a healthy subconscious mind.  It is the result of climbing mountains and facing the dangers head-on, where his Will had to be immensely disciplined in order to tackle the dangers and challenges climbers encounter.  In a moment of crisis, his friend asks the question: “Why are we doing this? Are we both mad?”.  To this Gradwhol is struck by a revelation, of just why they put their lives on the line simply to climb a mountain: “We have climbed this mountain to remind ourselves of something we ought to know anyway – that life is only worth living when the will is concentrated” (211 – The Essential Colin Wilson).

He continues, “For two million years man has been climbing a mountain of evolution, and his will is so weak that he dies when he is less than a century old”.  He turns to the protagonist Kit Butler, a composer, and announces that they both ought to know this fact, for their business is evolution, they both yearn for an impersonal goal rather than the personal goals of most people.  It is an end-point to which to strive, an exacting and withdrawal from mere circumstance.  One begins to act now towards an objective purpose, and with the Will driven by an objective sense of higher values; there is no more drifting in life-sapping relativism, distractions and the pains of a divided self-consciousness. In other words, one rises above time, seeing it for its vast potentiality; that is, rather than being lodged within the present like a fly on sticky paper, a mere victim of outside circumstances and triviality.

Again, this contraction of Will was realised in Dostoevsky’s close call in Siberia, and when it was withdrawn, his perception was widened enormously to grasp the essential Will to more life; the purpose of evolution rushed inwards as much as it manifested outwards with his subsequent works after the experience: he began to attack existence, assimilating it rather than being merely passive.

This is why Dostoevsky takes a central stage in Wilson’s The Outsider; he embodied the Nietzschean view of life in his novels: “six thousand feet above man and time”, the evolutionary impulse.  Aptly, this insight came to Nietzsche while looking at a huge pyramidal block of stone alongside the Lake Silvaplana. The mountain of course will always be a symbol of evolution, of an essentially evolutionary structure, for it implies a summit much like a pyramid.  The ‘peak experience’ of Maslow also implies the same, where one reaches – in a flash of insight – a taste of what he called ‘self-actualisation’.

(It has been mentioned, not entirely accurately, that the very word pyramid may be interpreted as a ‘fire in the middle’ (presumably because the word ‘pyromaniac’ and ‘middle’ sound so close phonetically!)  Yet it can serve as a useful metaphor, where the centre of our being is fusing together all of the disparate ‘selves’, rather as the heat is applied to a crucible unify a compound.  This interpretation inevitably falls victim to the symbolism of the volcano, which is altogether more volatile and unpredictable, and this is often compared to repressed emotions suddenly erupting irrationally and with devastating consequences).

Another author who used the mountain symbolically, in a non-Euclidian way, was the surrealist poet René Daumal.  He again uses the stability of a diamond’s internal structure to represent the symbolic peak of the mountain:

“There, at the summit sharper than the sharpest needle, alone stands he who fills all space.  Up there, in the finer air where all is frozen, there alone exists the crystal of ultimate stability.  Up there, in the full fire of the sky where all burns, there alone exists perpetual incandescence.  There, at the centre of all, is he who sees each thing done in its beginning and in its end” (110 ­– Mount Analogue).

The crystal is a result of great pressures, an intense fusion of rock which is so internally consistent that it reflects and refracts light in an enchanting way.  Indeed, Marie-Louise von Franz notes that a stone, in a sense “symbolizes . . . existence at the farthest remove from the emotions, feelings, fantasies and discursive thinking of ego consciousness” (209 – Man and his Symbols).  She continues by saying that the stone gives us a sense of something “eternal that man can have in those moments when he feels immortal and unalterable”, and similarly, the Irish author Thomas Sheridan, in his book The Druid Code (2016), says the same about megalithic sites, for they “present us with the paradox of solid stone being used to open pathways of perception towards the least tangible and material states”, being as they are a “solidified expression of the supernatural world expressed in stone” (106).  This may appear at first to contradict von Franz, but significantly the rock itself is still impersonal, yet it has been shaped to represent or to symbolise something beyond itself, an eternal idea, even a timeless Platonic ‘Form’.  What Sheridan is describing is the act of magic, of alchemy: the transmutation of a base substance into a higher form.

In alchemy there is, of course, the the ‘philosopher’s stone’ which bestows immortality on those who find it.  And in a novel of the same name, Colin Wilson presents this ‘stone’ as a state of consciousness which bestows more life.  This does not necessarily mean that one becomes immortal in the physical sense, but his experience of existence is so enhanced that he feels more life, his consciousness ‘takes’ more inside of itself, and thus enriches one’s experience of existence, which in effect ‘fills up’ time with more significance and meaningful content.

Again it seems to be about making a solid inside of oneself, rather than the inner-states being tumultuous like a fishing boat caught out in a fierce storm – no fish could be caught in such a turbulent state, just as nothing can be appreciated when one is distract, emotional.  It also applies to creation, for to create something demands concentration, self-discipline and Will power; it also requires an integration of self-consciousness, rather than being a victim of it, its discouragements and worries about what other people will think – one must proceed, experiment and become strong enough to persist until you have mastered your art.  Wilson often compared creativity to two tennis players playing so well that the ball goes to-and-fro, a synchronisation of the subconscious powers and the conscious mind, and both hemispheres of the brain acting harmoniously.  Where intuitions and insights are correctly handed over to the ‘you’ that has to do the typing, painting or whatever it might be.  Of course, self-consciousness can come between these two and disrupt the flow, creating a frustration of energies that can even develop into schizophrenia or a depleted sense of vitality.

Wilson himself, after taking a lot of criticism from the literary establishment, had to develop a strong sense of ‘I’, which effectively absorbed the attacks like the ballast on a ship maintains stability in choppy waters.   For after the rejection of his book Spider World books, he noticed that his heart did not immediately sink with disappointment.  He notes:

“I had, over the past year, achieved a little of what Gurdjieff calls ‘essence’, a feeling of inner solidness [my italics].  Gurdjieff said that the only way to create this is through what he called ‘intentional suffering’, like the painful self-disciplines of the ascetic.  This is the only reliable way of overcoming the laziness and weakness that does its best to hide inside you” (xxvii – Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism).

Concentration and attention is often what Wilson prescribed for this inner-development, for concentration and intentionality brings our energies into a fine focus, and suddenly it grasps what it is that it is firing its attention towards.  This does not have to be an external or physical object; it could even be an idea.  We suddenly direct our energies and pull it in, and fully digest the experience; a new idea, or an incredible book, often means that we ‘got something out of it’; but what has really happened, in a sense, is that we were inspired (which means to breath in) by what it was that we fired our attention at.  It is as Ouspensky symbolised with the two arrows, where one achieves ‘self-remembering’, as the two arrows of attention: one outwards and one inwards: work harmoniously as to jolt into us a sudden sense of reality.

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To return to diamonds and pyramids, Gary Lachman in his biography on Colin Wilson emphasises that “attention and the concentration are what count. If we do it for long enough, often enough, the billiard balls of our consciousness will slowly come together, and fuse it into a hard, diamond-like pyramid that can withstand the forces of time even better than the monuments the ancient Egyptians raised in the desert sands” (340).  This sense of contraction, of a fusing together, developed in Wilson what Gurdjieff meant by ‘essence’, a solidified, integrated psyche that has permanence and a disciplined Will.

In New Pathways of Psychology (1972), Wilson again uses the mountain to emphasise his point:

“This is why we climb mountains and irrigate deserts and send up moon rockets: the great challenge tenses the will, produces concentration, pushes back the sluggishness of the flesh, unites the mind’s diffuseness.  Underlying it all is the drive to more life – what Shaw calls the appetite for fruitful activity and a high quality of life” (117).

But what is our equivalent of a mountaineer’s crampons?  To climb the sheer wall of existence, we need some tool by which to imbed ourselves, to maintain a firm grip and secure-binding to its surface lest we slip and fall.  For this, Wilson argues, we need to develop a strong ‘self-image’; we must climb the Ladder of Selves.

To Be Continued: Climbing the Ladder of Selves

BOOK REVIEW: Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson by Gary Lachman (TarcherPerigee: 2016)

(Available 30th August: http://www.penguin.com/book/beyond-the-robot-by-gary-lachman/9780399173080)

In Gary Lachman’s new biography Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (2016), we are treated to a sort of bildungsroman – the story of an individual’s spiritual and intellectual development – of the philosopher Colin Wilson.  An English, Leicester-born and working-class ‘home grown existentialist’, whose jolting rise to fame with his 1956 The Outsider suffered an unfortunate and undeserved backlash with his second book Religion and the Rebel (1957).  For the next 50 years, up until his death in 2013, Wilson produced a genre-spanning amount of work, but received the curious silence of the literary establishment.  Nevertheless his vision has remained for many a respected, pivotal and increasingly relevant turning point in Western thought.  Wilson’s incredible contribution to philosophy was a part of a larger philosophical ‘new existentialism’, which aimed to nothing less than to tackle the pessimistic biases in literature, philosophy, culture and science.

Indeed in his most famous work, The Outsider, he dealt with the sudden sense of affirmation felt by the Romantics, indeed a somewhat a precarious sense of affirmation which often collapsed back a feeling of despondency or ‘life failure’.  Nevertheless Wilson felt these men were at the critical point of an evolutionary leap, and if one could just discipline oneself in such a way, these visions of affirmation could indeed be made permanent, and thus become more firmly rooted in the objectivity from which they blossomed.  

Wilson also went on to produce an enormous amount of subsequent works which all began from the same premise: an attempt to go beyond the problem of common existential complaints (ennui, despair, thoughts of suicide) to establish a firm set of values from which the evolutionary man could strive and thrive.  

“The vision of absurdity is one of the poles of existence.  Its correlate is the pole of reason and the will to live.  So long as a man maintains his hold on these two poles he completes the circuit, so to speak, and the vital force of life flows through him.  If he releases his hold he becomes nothing, or – which is much the same thing – the hero of a best-seller”.

These words, said by fellow Angry Young Man and working-class writer Stuart Holroyd, encapsulates Colin Wilson’s developmental dynamo of “Eternal Yes versus Eternal No”.  A sort of alchemical friction between optimism and pessimism, affirmation and negation.  But he was, as Brad Spurgeon’s book on Wilson is titled, overall a “philosopher of optimism”.  

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Lachman charts the inspiring consistency and perseverance of Wilson’s life and works, showing just how self-discipline and an optimistic frame of mind can overcome the challenges of a dispirited modern culture.  

Indeed, Lachman succinctly describes the essential ‘wonder of life’ and ‘will to live’ in Wilson’s work, for when “our wonder is strong and our curiosity wide, our vitality increases, and we are able to grip our own existence more powerfully”.  And as Wilson produced over a hundred books on subjects ranging from philosophy to the occult, criminology, sexology and psychology, Atlantis and UFOs, even booze and a polemic against gardening, we can safely say that wonder was at large in Wilson’s life, with his enormous appetite for both knowledge but more importantly insight.  

Beyond the Robot details precisely this voracious appetite for meaning, of a curiosity that was positively driven towards “eating significance”, as Wilson put it.  Lachman, having taken on Colin Wilson’s enormous oeuvre has attempted to summarise and synthesise the essence of his work, to bring it into the context not only of his life and times, but into the wider reaches of philosophy, everyday existence to the further reaches of cosmology.  And in doing so he untangles the misunderstandings of Wilson’s work, and shoots straight through the inertia of academia and much of the literary establishment which rejects Wilson’s work with unthinking reflex.  Lachman instead not only celebrates his work, but brings to the surface Colin Wilson’s important contribution as a philosopher in his own right, and also as a human being in search of the farther shores of human nature.  Wilson’s intensely driven and incredibly honest intelligence is warmly reflected by Lachman, who was a close friend and who had a great insight into his work routines and an appreciation for his ideas.

For anybody who has been following Gary Lachman’s work will be aware that he is the right man for the job.  Both share the same sort of existential urgency, the insatiable curiosity into the nature and mystery of human consciousness.  His most ‘Wilsonian’ book – and like The Outsider an incredible synthesis and unique philosophical treatise in its own right – is The Caretakers of the Cosmos (2013).  Indeed the book was poignantly dedicated to Wilson, who Lachman credits as having “certainly repaired quite a bit of the universe”.  It is therefore no surprise that the degree of sensitivity to his subject is complimented with illuminating notes and an enormous amount of reading (a result of his nearly 40 years of reading Wilson’s works).  This results in what is no doubt the most comprehensive book on Wilson since Howard Dossor’s Colin Wilson: The Man & His Mind (1990).  

And if you are like me an obsessive Colin Wilson reader there is much to be gained by reading Beyond the Robot, for Lachman carefully balances the biographical elements alongside the ideas, and what occurs is a very organic sense of development of an individual.  Due to this very reason it is a veritable goldmine for anyone new or interested in Wilson’s work, for it is as much a journey through Wilson’s ideas as it is an evocative biography of a man concerned with mankind’s deepest and most important questions: What is the meaning of human existence?  How can we control our consciousness and reach our full potential?  Is meaning objective, and if so, what are the steps to know this fact all the time?

By reading Beyond the Robot one comes away enormously intellectually enriched, for all of Wilson’s many essential insights are bought together into a huge synthesis, whereby one revelation seamlessly relates to another and so on.  At the end we can step back and take Wilson’s whole work as an optimistic existential edifice.  Lachman succeeds wonderfully at this, and I believe this is precisely the book that was needed to bring Wilson’s work together; to give it a necessary overall context which doesn’t scare people off.  The careful development of Wilson’s ideas is detailed chronologically in each chapter, enabling us see that these ideas and insights were not sudden jumps or illogical leaps, but altogether an implicit part of existential obsession that ran through all of Wilson’s work.  

Certainly, Wilson’s life and ideas were not at all divorced, or thought up in some abstract or detached sort of way, but they emerged through an obsessive phenomenological analysis of his moods, his observations, and experiences in general living.  By identifying the evolutionary dynamo of highs and lows, Lachman accurately recounts Colin Wilson’s life as it was: a search for higher states of consciousness, ways out of habit and neurosis, an understanding of our ‘sexual illusions’ and even the mysteries of Atlantis and other possible dimensions; even UFOs and their role in the vast mysterious tapestry of space and time.  

Again Lachman makes sure that it isn’t merely a selection of exotic eccentricities and Fortean fragments, a common problem with any writer on the paranormal and esoteric.

Although it is a biography about Colin Wilson the man, it is also about an essential approach to living.  Lachman shows us, through Wilson’s own adventures and refreshing insights into the human condition, that the world as we know it is often blinkered, narrowed down to the ‘here and now’.  And within rare moments we suddenly expand, and our conception of ourselves and the universe we live in inflates too.  There are ‘horizons of distant fact’, as William James called it, and these ‘distant facts’ are collated by Wilson, and pieced together in an attempt to “stimulate the earth-bound imagination of man to grasp the immensity around him”.  There is more to life.  We know this, but how can we know this fact more deeply?  Beyond the Robot is about such a man driven by precisely this question his whole life.  

Indeed the questions Wilson posed to existence were often answered by the sheer joy of the search itself, stimulating as it did ever larger vistas of thought.  Freedom, he ceaselessly reminds us, can come to the individual who can think outside of ordinary constraints, who can suddenly breathe the air of larger realities beyond the personality and life’s trivialities.  

Wilson, in the end, was such a man we can all relate to on some level.  And most significantly we should aspire, like Wilson himself, to those higher levels to which he aimed to make available to us all.  For he left us with his last book Superconsciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience (2009), in which he bookended his own contribution to linear time.  But Gary Lachman’s book may reignite veteran Wilson readers to revisit his work, and introduce and inspire future readers to take up the life-affirming and enhancing philosophy he single-handedly helped to create: the ‘new existentialism’.

Certainly Lachman and the publisher TarcherPerigee have done the world of philosophy and esotericism (and fellow new existentialists) a tremendous service by producing this incredible resource in such a timeless edition. A source of inspiration to new readers and veteran Wilson-readers alike for years to come. It will be recognised as the definitive introduction and scholarly overview of Wilson’s impressive contribution to the cannon Western thought.