Neuromancer: A Cartesian Romance (Existential Criticism) [Abandoned Draft]

(I had originally removed this from my Blog due to being unhappy with it. Nevertheless, upon finding it among my old drafts for Evolutionary Metaphors, I now feel differently about it. I have always had an unusual relationship to Neuromancer, and I hope to one day return to this novel and attempt an existential criticism as laid out in Wilson’s books of literary criticism. There is, I think, much to be said about the novel in the new existentialist context.)

In order for a human being to most effectively survive, his idea of the world around him – as it has developed – and himself must be in agreement with one another.  This is a very fundamental truth, in so far as it applies both to individuals and cultures at large; for if both have a poor grasp of its environment and of themselves, this will eventually result in destabilisation – politically, environmentally, individually.  If either one are to misidentify something even so simple as foodstuff; a danger or an opportunity; a poisonous snake for a twig – it may indeed prove fatal, catastrophic.

Our vision of the world must, from those first initial stages of growth, complexify.  First, we emerge from the safe haven of our mother’s womb and into a whole new world of opportunities.  But with opportunities comes discrimination, and first we must discriminate ourselves from our mothers, from the world around us, in order to manipulate to our own benefit.  We learn to use our voice to attract attention, and then our limbs to touch and hold, and then our legs to manoeuvre us around in search of adventure.  From one miracle to the next, our live thus begin.

Eventually we develop our ability to abstractify through the symbolic nature of language, until we are able to communicate with others, who, before us, have undergone a similar development.  Spatial as well as temporal awareness grows accordingly to misadventure and marvel, and duly we become more individuated – there is an environment ‘out there’, and then there’s ‘I’, within that environment.  At this point, through the medium of language and symbolising, to identification and self-identification, we are truly acculturated; placed into a context as necessarily circumscribed by our culture, our language, customs and environment.

In our initial stages of development we rarely rebel against our culture and environment, for this is in our best self-interest.  Only later, when we develop a strong sense of identity, can we criticise and perceive flaws in our society’s fundamental structure, and once we can communicate more effectively we may be able to initiate degrees of change, and therefore further highlight and adjust aspects of our environment as we – and perhaps many likeminded folk – may agree upon.  This, in its most basic and crude sense, is the origin of the democratic process.  At some point in our development we become aware that, as well as our selves, other people exist too.

However, there comes a point in our lives where our natural organism carries us only so far. Maturity is effectively where we stop physically, that is, biologically evolving, and what awaits us is the gradual entropy of old age, and eventually, death.  And yet, there is another type of evolution which is primarily concerned with our consciousness.  There is, of course, the sense of purpose, a purpose that may increasingly become ‘blinkered’ by our encroaching habits and biology.  This ‘blinker’, acts as what the philosopher Colin Wilson called “the gravitational pull of the ordinary”, which, due to their habitual nature dulls our consciousness to the point of almost total automatisation of perception itself.  We cease to see the world as fresh and exciting, and as we get older, it increases until we have symbolised everything.  “My ‘automatic pilot’ has taken over my perceptions” and one becomes, as Wilson put it, “condemned to the trivial”; the grey world of the increasingly robotic mind (177-178).

And yet, there is the evolution of our inner mental freedom, and of our sense of being, which, in many religious and mystical disciplines, is generally referred to as the spiritual evolution of man.  Indeed, John Shirley, in his biography of G.I. Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian mystic and originator of an immensely original and psychologically penetrating philosophy of the ‘Fourth Way’, summarises this type of evolution precisely:

Evolution is usually understood as a kind of refining and empowering of the organism, or spirit, that comes about naturally over time.  But again Gurdjieff challenges the popular notion.  We cannot evolve mechanically; we can only evolve through conscious effort.  And nature is not inclined to help us – our spiritual evolution is not necessary to nature (141)

Later on I will deal with this notion of conscious evolution in more depth, and will apply both Gurdjieff’s philosophy and his excellent interpreter, P.D. Ouspensky, who extrapolates this philosophy in its most accessible form in his 1949 book In Search of the Miraculous.  For Gurdjieff argues that certain ‘shocks’ are necessary to dislodge this habitual, robotic consciousness which robs us of a fresh experience of reality as it is.  These shocks are usually radically new experiences which challenge our state of being, are absolutely necessary to launch us beyond the basically regulatory, static nature of experience after we mature.  In short, the shocks enable us to take a glimpse into a truer reality, and by relation, they inspire in us a thirst for understanding beyond what we habitually know. “Man’s other self is geared entirely to purpose and evolution”, and this other ‘self’ is the ‘I’ that is beyond mere entrapment in the meaning-starved world of our everyday consciousness.

Our culture, our friends and family can aid us in this transition, offering us challenges, alternative ways of being and thinking which may modify our entrenched views.  And this may provide us with new modes of understanding as we navigate our way through life’s difficulties.   This collectively-glimpsed gnosis proves time and again as an invaluable tool in our self- and collective-development.  And yet, certain types of knowledge can only be gained in retrospect, or in moments of quietude, for wisdom tends to unfold gently and without force – it is, as many know too well, the fullness of a meaning that can only come through direct experience.  We can know something superficially or mechanically, but a sudden shock – an event that throws us out of our habitual thinking – can suddenly remind us of something that has eluded us, we begin, again, to see things as if anew.

These jolting experiences challenge our habits, and in turn, they may aid in forming a reciprocal dynamism in which our increased consciousness enables us to correctly integrate our psychological energies.  We begin to get from life what we put in.  Although there are many obstacles, and we are often helped by other people in our lives, it is, in the end, primarily an individual task.  We have glimmers that it is us alone who can change our own lives.  For as H.G. Wells’s character Mr Polly says “If you don’t like your life you can change it”.  In a more integrated state of mind you can identify that the normally robotic ‘I’ is robbing your life of its meaning and purpose, and it is this higher form of identity which can initiate this change – a change initiated beyond the robot.

It is this principle of individuation that shapes, not only our own lives, but our entire species. Eventually our lives spread out, affecting those closest to us; our families and friends and in turn our society, and so on.  Like Joseph Campbell says in his celebrated work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we are heroes who must first venture forth into the chaos of the world, called by the adventure of life . . . And our influence may spread further still if we’re successful in this adventure.


At this point it is important to emphasise that our very ideas about the world become the contextual lens through which we see our relationship between the world and ourselves.  And if this lens is adequately focused and calibrated to what is called the ‘real’, then our lives become, if our culture allows us, dynamic and evolutionary.

Professor Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Toronto, even goes so far as to argue that “scientific realism [is] nested inside Darwinian competition”, in other words, our moral truths are derivative from a much older struggle to survive and that our scientific view of the world – the Newtonian paradigm – is nestled in this essentially moral universe.  Moreover, this moral universe is directly connected to our survival, and if this strays away from the Darwinian truth, we enter the moral ambiguities of a Newtonian universe which is not orientated towards our survival.  Truth for Peterson is pragmatic in the sense that it is ‘true enough’ and fundamentally ‘good enough’; indeed if we act upon this truth it increases our chance of survival.

In short there is no ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ in the Newtonian universe, and if this is taken to the extreme, it may destroy our species with the development of technologies out of favour with the Darwinian universe.  In other words, we had better nestle our Newtonian one inside the larger framework of a Darwinian reality.  Furthermore, this Darwinian ‘reality’ in the form of natural processes, is orientated towards developing itself through competing species.  Our lives, our culture, even our science, essentially resonate from the sounding gong of survival, of the anti-entropic Will to Life.

This resonance is excellently exemplified in music itself, for it is a significant factor in determining our orientation by its communal and psycho-neurological effects.  There is a interesting development in the West, for music has become more and more disconnected from its community-based roots and has increasingly become individualistic – it is listened to in private, on headphones or in the environment of our own homes.  And even then, it is in the form of an MP3 or CD and is a recording of a performance, not, as it may otherwise be, a communally orchestrated and ritual celebration.  Iain McGilchrist explores this ‘privatisation’ of music, in his fascinating book, The Master and His Emissary.  Indeed, he notes that this phenomena is “rare in the history of the world”, for in “more traditionally structured societies, performance of music plays both an integral, and integrative, role not only in celebration, religious festivals, and other rituals, but also in daily work and recreational and it is above all a shared performance, not something we listen to passively” (104).

Indeed, McGilchrist argues that music itself precedes language, and that its initial usage was to communicate emotion, for the “prosody and rhythmic motion that emerge intuitively from entrainment of the body in emotional expression”, which would infer that these communications would have been immensely useful for our survival.  Indeed, he warns us that this is a controversial theory, for music is itself seen as peripheral by geneticists, and thus is regarded as playing a very unimportant role in a Darwinian universe.  However, music, it is clear, has played a crucial role in binding people together in communities, solidifying group identities and, as a result, I would argue, enhancing those parts of our brains that make us empathic (the supermarginal gyrus in the cerebral cortex), for music, in its most communal sense is the expression of collective passions, dreams, tragedies and comedies.  It is in a sense a pedagogical tool to impart an immensely complex set of imperatives, of warnings of danger and celebration of victory – it is socially binding, and this community enforcement is of enormous importance for group selection and survival.  Pythagoras quantified as well as acknowledged the qualities of music and the spheres and just as our brain-waves exhibit a rhythm and a wave, the resultant quality above and beyond these phenomena is consciousness itself.  One cannot ignore corollary that music is fundamentally more than just the sum of its parts.

Martha Heyneman’s in her extraordinary book, The Breathing Cathedral, makes the case of a moving pattern “like a dance – a four-dimensional pattern – or like music, in which an invisible unifying force is everywhere felt (however subliminally to the nonmusician) [that] exerts a unifying effect upon the listener”.  This unifying effect, as we have mentioned above, she takes “shape in time as well, so that you yourself are participating in such a pattern you can know where you are, not only in space, in relation to other players or dancer, but also in time – where you are in the sequence” (38).  Therefore, music, is fundamentally an alignment with a structure beyond that which we can comprehend ordinary Aristotelian logic; you somehow embody the meaning intuitively, or as the poet Robert Bly says, “If you memorize any work you bring it into the body.  And then you are participating in space.  And then it can become sacred space”.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

This will become more significant with some further examples of ‘sacred space’ and its relationship to human psychology and general wellbeing.  For tone has a physiological as well as a psychological effect.  For example, in Japan there is the fifth-largest bell ever made, weighing an enormous 74 tons and situated in the Chion-in at Kyoto it is evocatively referred to as ‘The Voice of Buddha’.  To strike this enormous bell it requires twenty-five monks to swing the trunk of a cedar tree to invoke its deeply moving tone.  Sir Frederick Treves describes its affect in his 1904 book, The Other Side of the Lantern:

mysterious, thrilling, and solemn beyond all imagining.  The sound comes out of the wood, and rolls downwards to the town.  It is a deep, soft, melancholy note like that of a humming gong.  It never rises skywards, it rumbles along the ground.  It flows through the listener like water through sand.  It penetrates the body like a subtle tingling current . . . It is so sad, so wandering, so desolate, that each slowly recurring boom comes like a sob.

Another example that involves a bell concerns the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who became curiously connected to a church bell which he could be seen from his study window.  For Kant this bell became a visceral reminder of the connectedness of the psyche, and its resultant categories, and its being ontologically bound to a sense of place – or, indeed, Bly’s ‘sacred space’.  Indeed, Carl Jung believed it came to signify, in some obscure sense, Kant’s own soul.  Jung argued that it had become for him a “point of reference in his life, a way of placing himself in space and time”, and so much so that when the “tower was demolished Kant was totally incapacitated for months.  He could not function.  He felt he had lost part of his soul” (112).  Again, it is interesting to note that this is a church bell tower and that moreover a church, of course, is a place of communal and religious worship. As a sacred place, it is a symbol of a consensual agreement upon a set of metaphysical values.  Furthermore, it became, unconsciously for Kant, inextricably linked with his identity in space and time, and no doubt it had become a part of his psyche as it was an integral to the psychogeography of Königsberg.

Kant, whose many categories defined the fundamental aspects of reality as apprehended by the mind, must have felt something rather strange about the bell tower’s destruction and his corresponding incapacitation.  In Adam Robert’s excellent science-fiction novel, The Thing Itself (2016), which relates closely to what we’ll be discussing in this essay – the mercurial nature of the unknown – describes the inflections of Kant’s category of Quality, these are Reality, Negation and Limitation, the character Kostritsky, elucidates:

. . . quality is the filling up of time with sensation.  When time is completely filled, we have very vivid, very strong sensations.  When it is meagrely filled, we have weaker sensations.  So that’s what reality is, for us.  It is the experience of sensation in time.  Negation is the opposite; the lack of sensation in time.  And limitation is scale between the two, the range of degrees. (98)

In this sense, the church bell tower for Kant enabled him to live with an increased existential quality, in other words, it orientated his existence towards a positive sense of identity that was aligned to a reliable sense of his place in time and space.  When this stimulus of the bell tower was removed, it interfered with his usual spatiotemporal adjustment and had sent him spiralling into a form of catatonic depression – i.e. he was lead into a negation of quality.

In Kant’s case there is a significant divide between what is objective and subjective, for in a sense the church tower is, for all purposes, a real thing – a physical object in space and time.  Yet, through the lens of the categories it is something somewhat different – it has been categorised and placed somewhere within Kant’s complex relationships between the categories.  Kant claimed that we can never know the ‘real’ world as it actually is, for we can only know it through the spectacles of the mind.  He called the real reality the Ding an Sich, the unknowable thing in itself.  This unknowableness of reality as it truly is upset the dramatist Heinrich von Kleist so much so that he committed suicide!

True objectivity, in the sense of knowing or beginning from the ultimate reality, for Kant, is impossibility.  Yet, the very least we can do is to understand consciousness itself and work from there.  Objectivity is in itself an interesting idea, for as Jeffrey Kripal points out, it is “visual distance [that is] is . . . the basis of modern reason and modern science, both of which need to create a “distance” between the subject and the object being reasoned about or measured.  Hence the modern metaphor of “objectivity”.  It’s all about creating objects, which is t say: distance, separation, not us” (274).

Significantly, in Kant’s example, this necessary distance was broken down; the church bell tower was somehow intricately connected with his psychological wellbeing.  It is interesting to think that something as symbolic, as essentially communal and religious as a church bell tower could, in some unconscious way, anchor this highly intellectual “loner of Königsberg” in a more communal and vivifying sense of reality.  Or, in a more Kantian sense, his time filled up with a “sensation” of himself in time and space.  Some deep part of his self was inextricably linked with the bell tower and its destruction.

This problem is addressed in modern works on split-brain research, such as in the aforementioned The Master and His Emissary.  However, in 1983 the philosopher Colin Wilson points out an interesting distinction between the left and right hemispheres in his book Access to Inner Worlds.  He argues, like McGilchrist, that these two hemispheres of the brain have fundamentally contrasting views of reality, and in a healthy state they basically complement one another.  In this complimentary state they align our apprehension of reality in a way which is much more holistic and integral.  Again, Wilson could be discussing the effects of music alongside religion and art, for all of these disciplines aim for a large scale view of reality rather than the ‘piecemeal’ realities presented to us through a heavy-handed and reductive left-brain.  Says Wilson:

Science came later than religion or art, and in the past century, has gained itself a bad reputation among the religious and the artistically inclined.  But this is because scientists have taken it upon themselves to dogmatize about reality, unaware that the reality they perceive through their microscopes is the two-dimensional reality of the left brain.  Science is nothing more than a reference system, like the index at the end of a book, which is meaningless without the reality that occupies the rest of the book.  And now this slow, plodding method of ‘indexing’ reality is beginning to reveal its true value.  For the left brain is never entirely convinced by the ‘revelations’ of religion and art; it is inclined to discount them as mere ‘emotions’.  But today its own investigations of the structure of the brain have made it aware that reality is unreal until it is completed by a third dimension.
(1983: p. 117)

For Kant this ‘third dimension’ of reality, however small, was added to his ordinary life by the routine acknowledgement of the church bell tower out of his study window.  In some obscure way, when it was demolished, his mind was thrown out of its usual routine and thrown into a dizzying disconnection of meaning – a meaning, moreover, that was supported by two supporting pillars of time and space.   The ‘tone’ with which Kant’s life resonated was given shape, in space, by the resonant ringing out of the church bell.

In Living Time the philosopher and student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Maurice Nicoll, invokes the metaphor of a marionette connected up to ‘outer things’ as being “dead, through lack of realisation of the mystery of the world”.  He continues by asking:

What else but the sense of strangeness can awaken us?  What else can give us new thoughts, new perceptions?  We are dead because we do not try to understand, because we never face the mystery of existence with any real thoughts of our own, because we are satisfied with explanations which prevent us from beginning to think.  Or, to put the matter differently, we rest content with the appearance of things – that is, we do not go beyond perceptual consciousness (216).

The question at this point is how can we go beyond perceptual consciousness, how can we know the ‘thing in itself’, the ‘noumena’ as Kant called it?  In Kantian terms this can only be known by the ‘transcendental ego’, the ‘I’ which is instrumental in presenting to you – the ordinarily everyday ‘I’ – the world in a pre-digested and categorised form.  What this seems to suggest, of course, is that the transcendental ego directly experiences the world as it is.  Indeed, Colin Wilson’s philosophy of the ‘new existentialism’ begins from the work of the phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, who aimed to “unveil the secrets of the transcendental ego”.

Neuromancer – A Cartesian Romance

Before we continue unpacking precisely what Husserl meant by the ‘transcendental ego’, it is worth turning once again to another extraordinarily insightful science fiction novel, which to my knowledge has not been used in a context such as presented in this essay.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is  a profound meditation on the post-modern condition that, in its own unique and circuitous way, effectively resolves the problem of a general sense of being ‘merely trapped in a body’, out-of-context, and generally haunted by entropy and unreality, indeed as were many of the Existentialists in the mid-20th century.  As we have already discussed Kant briefly (aided somewhat by Adam Robert’s science-fiction novel, The Thing Itself), an analysis of Neuromancer further enables us to sketch out the mind-body dualism of René Descartes and furthermore helps us to outline the slippery relativisms of post-modernism.  Indeed, the metaphor of cyberspace and disembodiment enables us to see a distinct relationship between the body and mind and more importantly, its relationship to its spatiotemporal environment.

Scott Bukatman in Terminal Reality, notes that the “imploded arenas of the datascape become the new phenomenal ground for bodily awareness.  It is the experience of the body that operates to centre the subject, which is why the body must serve as the locus for any interface with terminal reality” (243).  This is essentially the plight of Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, who is addicted to the disembodied state made readily available to him in the world of cyberspace.  Nevertheless, the more disembodied he becomes, and the more obsessive he becomes about cyberspace, there is a general sense of decay in his body, a disrespect for the ‘terminal’ world of entropic forms, and, fundamentally of the limits of time and space itself.  Indeed, the name Case is reminds us that he is encased in his own body, and that no matter what he does, his identity is still intrinsic to his body; he cannot experience the ecstasy of disembodiment without having a body to disembody from.

Case’s yearning for disembodiment, of the infinite kinesis of cyberspace, is strikingly similar to what Colin Wilson called ‘the discovery of inner freedom’. For this, it could be said, is the paradox of a mystical experience; it often appears to go beyond these distinctions of mind and body, conscious and unconscious, being and non-being.  Significantly, disembodiment in Neuromancer is often compared to an intense sexual orgasm.  Rather like Marcel Proust felt after he had an extraordinarily vivid remembrance of his past, he, like Case, “ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal”.  This same sensation is the general lure of cyberspace.

There is a sense that Case is merely an updated, cyberpunk version of the same Romantic quest for super-consciousness that Colin Wilson outlined in his 1957 Religion and the Rebel, in which Wilson argues that the essential drive of the Romantic or mystically-inclined is based on the “recognition of a permanent principle in man, of an element which wars to impose its will on the body conditioned by space and time, is reserved for the few who are awake enough to be aware that time drags the body towards unconsciousness, that ‘to be conscious is not to be in Time’, that the aim of all religion is increased consciousness” (135).  Like the Romantics, Case too has tasted both limitation and freedom, but for Case this intoxicating glimpse is dangerously close to hand in the form of cyberspace – in fact, it has a similar attraction as alcohol does for many ‘outsiders’; it stimulates semi-mystical experiences but in the end depletes their body’s healthiness as a result.  Eventually this means of escape becomes overwhelming and can lead to death or suicide.

In fact, fundamentally Case’s vision of the world and his body is that of a ‘fallen state’ akin to the beliefs held by the Gnostics.  Carl Jung describes the central mythology underlying Gnostic cosmology from a pre-Fallen God’s-eye perspective:

. . . the idea of Gnosis, the nous, that beholds his own face in the ocean: he sees the beauty of the earth and . . . he is caught, entangled in the problems of the world.  Had he remained the nous or pneuma, he would have kept on the wing, would have been like the image of God that was floating over the waters and never touching them; but he did touch them and that was the beginning of human life, the beginning of the world with all its suffering and beauty, its heavens and hells.

Similarly the literary critic Benjamin Fair argues that the central exploration of Neuromancer is “how technology and global capitalism influence our ontology by generating a world of images that have no original referent: meaning is cut loose from our surroundings, so that the self and the world we knew are in question” (2005).  In both the Gnostic myth and Neuromancer there is a general sense of being ‘cut loose’ from our ‘original referent’, rather like Kant’s collapse after the destruction of the church bell tower.  Interestingly, it is both a combination of a sexual encounter, music in the form of reggae dub, and a near-death experience that precisely reanimates Case’s respect for what he refers to throughout the novel as his “meat” body – and thus redeems him from this quasi-fallen state.

Contrasted to this ‘cut loose’ world of a Gnostic deity or a post-modern blurring of our identity is a Rastafarian group in the novel collectively known as the ‘Zion Cluster’.  Fair describes this group as providing an “alternative to the world that has driven Case to suicide: it is a symbol of the embodiment that contrasts with the matrix as a symbol of disembodiment”, indeed, as Case has become increasingly uncomfortable with his physical body he in fact flinches from bodily contact, and significantly observes that “[the] Zionites always touched you when they were waking, hands on your shoulder (1984: p. 106), therefore emphasising the Rastafarian’s general confidence with which they regard their own bodies, a complete contrast with Case who is generally cold, distant and non-sensual.  In fact, the Rastafarians prove vital for Case’s own physical survival.

One of the significant moments in the book is when Case’s consciousness is entrapped in a subjective time-loop by Neuromancer, the artificial intelligence within cyberspace, in which in ‘real time’ his body is ‘flat lined’.  However one of the Rastafarians, Maelcum, is still in connection with the Case’s body as it is hooked up to the computer console, and as the reggae-dub music is pumped through this acts as a defibrillator to Case’s heart, which thus saves him from a subjectively endless form of psychological torture in a state outside of time.  By extension this restores in Case a natural biological rhythm brought about by a community and through the medium of music.  Another significant event also happens within cyberspace, and thus, in an odd reversal, reminds him of the importance of his own flesh.  Again, he is captured by Neuromancer in the virtual world, this time the AI takes the tactic of simulating the love of his life, Linda.  And although Case knows this to be a mere virtual representation, he nonetheless makes love to her and, in the act he regains a powerful insight:

Something he’d lost and found so many times.  It belonged, he knew – as she pulled him down, to the mean, the flesh the cowboys mocked.  It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read (239)

Sex, like music and community, reminds Case that empathy is an enormous and important element of human existence.  It is a radical part of human embodiment, the only way that we can embrace being who we are, in our state of corporeality.  And furthermore, he realises that in its own way the ‘meat’ body is more complex than the world of cybernetics, of computer simulations and virtually-mediated disembodiment – there is, in a more real sense, a great responsibility to exist.  This reminder offers him the realisation that the human genome is similarly programmed through the DNA, embedded as it is in an evolutionary framework, an “infinite and complex thing”, mysterious and enigmatic; the wonder and appreciation for his ‘meat’ is no longer reduced, but extraordinarily increased by an almost mystical flash of his own responsibility along this mortal coil.

Says Wilson in Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966)

We are all trapped in a world of dreams inside our own skulls, and nothing short of the threat of immediate death will wake us up to intense appreciation of our lives.  We have forgotten that the world out there really exists.  For most of us, it is a shadow world.  Improved techniques of communication have only blurred the outlines further; we live so much through books, films, television, etc., that dream and reality have only become further confused (25)

Indeed, this is precisely what has happened to Case – he has forgotten about the world ‘out there’ and its immense complex beauty.  He has, instead, become seduced by a counterfeit world, a counterfeit mundas imaginalis.  The philosopher Jeremy Naydler, in Technology and the Soul Part One: Living in the Shadow of the Machine (2008) foresees a danger in our addiction in our modern times with virtual worlds, seeing them as masquerading themselves as counterfeit forms of imagination, instead of true imagination: a ‘realm of images’ that is profoundly archetypal and real, and, moreover, essentially religious.  Instead, he feels, we have rejected this mediation between “the human soul and deeper archetypal realities” and instead replaced them with “machine-generated virtual worlds” that does not “open to any numinous content”, and thus,  he concludes, “the soul is inwardly corrupted” (17).

Naydler offers us a profound glimpse into Case’s rejection of his ‘meat’ body, and as a result, of the physical organic world in general.  He has been enticed by the representation that, ironically, represents something real enough; yet, due to his spiritual and psychological degradation he has ceased to feel this inner-numinosity.  Instead, he has supplemented the rich and layered world of the imagination and saturated himself in a world of machine-generated imagery, which, Naydler points out, generally has a “cartoon-like quality” and is “the opposite of sacred it art”.  He continues: “It has neither arisen out of a contemplative or prayerful condition of soul, nor can it lead us into a state of consciousness that is open to an objective spiritual reality” (18).  Case has been pulled in by Colin Wilson’s ‘shadow world’, a world bereft of meaning, or of any significance beyond itself – in short, his imagination is entrapped with a closed-system of values.

In a sense, Case’s revelation is essentially what Colin Wilson called ‘Faculty X’, and it is to this, he realises the importance of his own mind, his own relationship to space and time.  Faculty X a sudden flash of the meaningfulness of our lives, and moreover, in a direct illumination, we see that our minds are not bound to the limits of time and space.  Indeed, Case’s realisation of “a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read” is the realisation that human beings can access a far wider reality than we are usually accustomed to in our ordinary state of consciousness.  And yet the AI, Neuromancer, is instrumental in reminding Case of this fact – with the sexual encounter in cyberspace – and he thus firmly planted firmly back into the Darwinian world of flesh and blood, of bodily survival.  But, in fact, this vision exceeds that of the boundaries of the Darwinian universe; it is a flash of evolutionary implicitness; the huge potentiality embedded within the unknown regions of DNA itself.

At this point, we should note that there is something fundamentally transgressive in Case’s encounter with his dead loved one, Linda, and particularly her presence – her ghost, if you will – haunting cyberspace.  In their intermingling there is a disturbing element of willing self-delusion on Case’s part – it is a suspension of disbelief, an instance where Case throws himself blindly into bodily lust without conscience.  It is, in a sense, a Dionysian act, which enables him for the first time to gain a Gestalt – an organised whole –, and not simply as ‘meat’ and ‘mind’, or ‘physical’ and ‘non-physical’; freedom and restriction; corporeality (meat-body) and disembodiment of cyberspace (beyond meat-body).  Arguably Case has been resurrected in the flesh with renewed value for the body’s immense complexity, its ability to “read” the language of DNA.  As the philosopher and psychonaut Terrence McKenna says, the “Earth is a place where language has literally become alive.  Language has infested matter; it is replicating and defining and building itself” (64).

The paradox – and thus redemption – of Case is that he is “embedded in the machinery of epistemic knowing itself”; yet this is the beginning of a realisation along the lines of Gödelian meta-systems.  In other words, there must be higher realities beyond the systems we are embedded in; each system nestles in a larger meta-system.  This insight into the “infinitely complex” is enough to inject mystery back into Case’s life, and thus remove the suffocating atmosphere of fundamental nihilism as a result of a closed-system of values – a result of his bodily resentment.

Case’s resentment of the body and the phenomenal world stems from the Cartesian problem.  The author Bryan Appleyard puts his finger on the origin of this philosophical crisis, for Descartes’ conclusions, of a mind-body dualism, implicate that the “inner self-awareness [is] the basis of all knowledge” and that this results in a divide “from our bodies, reason from the passions, mind from matter” and, further still, in which our “true identities” are divorced from the world (59).  This results in the body being a part of the phenomenal world, and the phenomenal world, by definition, is ‘not us’, for we reside entirely within the realm of soul or mind.  Indeed, we are left, as Descartes realised, ‘half way between being and nothingness’.  Now this is precisely an existential problem; Sartre’s book, Being and Nothingness (1943), beings from this premise.

As we have seen in Neuromancer, there is a sense that Case has already half-way solved the problem.  But the problem remains, for Case’s realisation was effectively passive in so far as he had no part in realising it for himself – there is something incidental and fundamentally contingent (an important word for the existentialists) about the whole revelation.  His insight was certainly active, but the means by which he acquired it is circumstantial.  To continue further we need to look at an active philosophy that attempts to go beyond this existential stalling of our being.  A vision that may expand further the notion of a ‘transcendental ego’ and unveil the phenomenological mechanisms which allow, inside, an increasing apprehension of what is ‘out there’ in the phenomenal world in which we are a crucial and significant part.

Shadows of Eternity – The Essence of Existentialism

In the discussion of Neuromancer, there is a close delineation of the Sartrean type of existentialism.  And in Case’s revelation, as we have seen, is a step beyond the essentially a closed system of values at the heart of Being and Nothingness, into what Alfred North Whitehead called “unbounded rationality”.  Indeed, Colin Wilson argues in his remarkable 1980 critical essay ‘Anti-Sartre’, that Sartre:

defines the nature of “for-itself” (human consciousness) as pure freedom.  The for-itself envies nature (the in-itself) its solidness, its unquestioned existence; it is the “eternal hunter of the in-itself”.  Its very emptiness, its lack of real definition, means that is free whether it likes it or not.  A stone is what it is; man isn’t what he is; therefore he is “free””

However, Wilson continues, “he does not explain how, if consciousness is a mere reflection of objects, and there is no controlling ego, we can regard consciousness as pure freedom” (166).  This mental freedom of Sartre is about as hollow as escaping into cyberspace, in which the user, deep down, knows is fundamentally false – free, but for what?  Therefore man is left, as he is, divided from the world of meaning; of solid, objective reality; his consciousness remains as if adrift, vague and yet free, but not free enough to become real or know reality.  He is, as Sartre said, ‘condemned’ to be free.

The origins of Existential philosophy is a complex history, but to put it briefly it can be generally described as a philosophical reaction against the ever enclosing and ultimately reductive philosophies of Logical Positivism, and of a general obsession with a scientifically reductive of man as he lives and experiences his life – and as a consequence, of nature itself.  The Existentialist, in short, wants to understand the ‘whole man’, his confrontation with the conditions in which he lives, and more over, how he lives and why and what he lives for.  In Sartre’s case – and Sartre is but one example in the diverse philosophy of Existentialism – we are not free for anything; we are simply free to do as we please (although Sartre would have suggested taking up a cause in social activism, such as he himself did with Marxism).  In his excellent study of Existentialism, Irrational Man (1958), William Barrett summarises the development of the modern world in which this philosophical school developed as a healthy reaction.  Barrett contends that we were lead out of the Middle Ages by an increasing tendency to ‘despiritualise’ nature that is to tear away at the symbolic framework which encased our existence prior to the developments of Science, Protestantism and Capitalism.

William Barrett argues that Protestantism, although religious in nature, was a step towards this desacralisation of nature – which arguably may have its origins further back in Gnosticism – in which it aimed to unveil nature as a “realm of objects hostile to the spirit and to be conquered by puritan zeal and industry” (27).  Of course, from this description it is easy to see where Capitalism takes off, for it works on the materialistic assumption that the stuff of nature is inherently worthless until, that is, it is charged with labour and, in turn, becomes a desirable or utilitarian object to be used and sold.  This in turn intensified the individualistic nature of the religious search, wrenching it away from idolising and outside influences, lures, deceptive charms; and yet, as a result, deconstructed the deeper and unconscious substrata of mankind’s psyche; disconnecting him with a sense of interconnectedness within – and participating along – with God’s grand creation.  In effect, we as human beings were to despiritualised, for only God himself could help us out of the psychic quandary; our inherent sense of value, of being embedded in a mysterious and ultimately meaningful universe, had in fact been subtly rejected.  In light of this, it is rather ironic that the great Protestant Reformer, Luther cursed: “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”

A struggle against the divine world is an obsession that runs throughout three centuries of philosophy.  It is, arguably, still present in modern day man; his existential anxiety is still essentially bound to his corporeality, his temporal nature against the backdrop of an entropic universe.  There is a general decreasing of the metaphysical struts to hold up the architecture of divine, intransigent meaning, there is, in the end, a sort of grim stoicism in the face of life.  We have accepted nihilism, as the existential psychologist Dr. Victor Viktor Frankl points out, that is not simply a nothingness, but a “nothing-but-ness”, in which human phenomena “are thus turned into epiphenomena” (A Guide for the Perplexed: 14).  Indeed, we exist, but our essence – that ‘what’ of us – is reduced to a mere happenstance, an evacuation of all mystery replaced, instead, with a meaningless freefall into the abyss.

And against this type of negation it is futile to ask the question: What is the thing-in-itself?  It is, in the end, like Sartre said, “meaningless that we live and meaningless that we die”.




Self-Help and the New Existentialism: Reflections on Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism by Brad Spurgeon (Michael Butterworth: 2017)

Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism by Brad Spurgeon (Michael Butterworth: 2017):

For anyone familiar with the work of Colin Wilson the term ‘self-help’ – at least in its popularly understood definition, denoting popular books on weight loss and confidence, and so on – may seem too passive to describe the stature of a writer who regularly tackled such huge philosophical systems as phenomenology, and, in so doing, erected a new counterblast against the pessimistic assumptions of 20th century philosophy. Namely the existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Now, I say this, of course, without reservations for the self-help market; simply that it has such connotations when bought up when discussing philosophy. If this helpful literature improves one’s life for the good, it matters little in what form it takes. Indeed, for many, the thought of applying a populist term such as ‘self-help’ to the works of this philosophical revolutionary would be to underestimate such great works as The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, and his excellent overview of all things evolutionary in books like The Occult and the mammoth A Criminal History of Mankind.

And yet, at its core, Wilson’s philosophy is profoundly helpful to us all. It is self-help in its truest sense.

Wilson, in all his works, wrote in an accessible style and thus provided for many invaluable introductions to notoriously challenging and arcane subjects as existentialism, the occult, crime, psychology and even wine! One might say that that in itself provides all the groundwork necessary for anyone to begin to help themselves. But, of course, there is an implicit recognition in all of Wilson’s work which, when all is said and done, is an impassioned call for people to take charge of their own minds – and therefore their own lives – and to better themselves in spite of a culture that seems hell-bent on negativity.

This essay serves three purposes. Firstly it aims to recognise the practical and beneficial elements of Wilson’s philosophy and just how, moreover, his work provides a deeply enriching and intelligent philosophical foundation for a life more abundant. Secondly it serves as a series of reflections on Brad Spurgeon’s recently republished second-edition of Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism, which provided this essay with the inspiration and insight into the great philosopher’s work as a valuable tool for navigating our troubled times – both on a personal level as well as in the larger context of our cultural zeitgeist. And thirdly it is an attempt to understand how, in integrating Wilson’s unique brand of phenomenological existentialism into our own lives, we have a form of self-help with foundations both deep and with truly effective principles. Combining these we may recongise the self-developmental ideas implicit in Wilson’s philosophy provide an intellectual robustness that far exceeds much of what we understand as self-help literature today.

With the second-edition of Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism many readers who are unacquainted with his work have an excellent opportunity to become familiar with both the man himself and his essential philosophical ideas. As the book is composed of a lengthy interview conducted by Brad Spurgeon and divided into two parts, the reader is presented with an easily digestible précis of Wilson’s optimistic brand of ‘new existentialism’. The book provides a part biography and a reflection upon his life’s work and its possible implications for the future. Included in Spurgeon’s book is perhaps one of Wilson’s most boldly optimistic and far reaching speculations on the future of mankind’s psychology, and presents a case for what the biologist T.H. Huxley saw as our destiny – as the directors of our own evolution rather than passively drifting in the laws natural selection. The evolution of consciousness, after all, requires consciousness to become more active in its own participation with the natural world. Consciousness is, effectively, nature that is aware of it itself.

Indeed, Philosophy of Optimism’s appendices offer much food for thought, and the aptly titled ‘Article for ‘Big Idea’’ provides an example of Wilson’s impressive ability to intuit potentially world-changing developments in a variety of fields.

What’s more is that Spurgeon himself frames Wilson’s philosophy in a moving and uniquely insightful preface, for we are presented with a remarkable context in which Wilson’s optimistic philosophy has proved itself to be profoundly practical and authentic in dealing with life’s most severe and challenging tests. Spurgeon, undergoing a difficult time in his own life while editing and preparing the first-edition of this book for the publisher (Michael Butterworth), indeed found the whole project deeply significant, and one in which he treated the contents contained therein as “a self-help book, as a desperately needed medicine that would help me cope” (2017: xv.). For Spurgeon there is no doubt that the values of Wilson’s powerfully argued defence of an optimistic frame of mind proved themselves to be profound in those moments when reassurances for the sake of our faith and motivation are truly needed.

Not only is Philosophy of Optimism an excellent and accessible introduction, or an invaluable contribution to Wilson’s enormous body of work, it is also a book which places Wilson’s own contribution – as a writer of ideas and as a remarkable human being – into a variety of important important contexts.

At the beginning Spurgeon describes the genesis of the book as being a way to “counter the crap” of Wilson’s too often uninformed and lazy critics. This was in the wake of much undeserved and negatively biased reviews of his excellent and culturally significant autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose. Deciding that it was time to meet his literary hero in person, Spurgeon set out to interview the author at his home in Gorran Haven, Cornwall. This, of course, resulted in the interview that makes up the bulk of Philosopher of Optimism. By presenting Wilson in the form of a long interview Spurgeon has provided a unique opportunity to see the philosopher in his true context – as an authoritative and commanding visionary of a truly substantial philosophy of optimism.

By discussing this important book’s purpose as well as its life-affirming qualities as a tool to overcome pessimism, we are able to place it in its deserving places as a truly valuable contribution towards our understanding of mental and spiritual wellbeing. Indeed, Wilson’s insights into the phenomenology of consciousness, and the intentional mechanisms which allow an increased access to meaning and purpose, were appreciated by none other than the psychologist Abraham Maslow. It was Maslow who first decided to study the psychology of health rather than focusing, like many psychologists before him, on the varieties of mental ill-health. Rather Maslow sought to define the qualities of the very healthiest people he could find, and from there go on develop a general theory of mental healthiness.

This unique approach has resulted in more recent times in a positive psychology movement which has been packaged for mass-consumption in the less academic sphere of self-help bestsellers. Indeed, there is also the American New Thought movement along with what is called “positive-mind metaphysics” which are, in their own right, crucial players in the development of the great nation’s collective psyche. For a general overview of the history of positive thinking, I’d recommend the historian Mitch Horowitz’s book on the subject, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.

Now, it was this mutual appreciation between Maslow and Wilson that provided him with the intellectual recognition, as well as the vocabulary, to strengthen and verify his intuition that heightened states of consciousness were not mere lapses in mental health, or illusions, but on the contrary these ‘peak experiences’, as Maslow called them, were rather states in which individuals recognised that their lives were truly and wonderfully meaningful. Indeed, Wilson described peak experiences as those moments in which “you see things which are true but which one doesn’t notice normally because one’s so mechanical.” (2017: 19). Furthermore, these peak experiences are the hallmark of individuals who were psychologically healthy, therefore corroborating with many accounts which recognise a truly authentic meaningfulness at the heart of human existence.

However whereas Maslow identified this trait in the healthiest amongst us, he nevertheless felt that the experience itself was fundamentally impossible to replicate by will or effort. In a sense this is quite ironic, for what happens in these states of buoyant consciousness is precisely the recognition that the mind itself has extraordinary powers – indeed, that it is causative in a very significant sense. Wilson felt that, on this issue, Maslow sold human nature short. For Wilson the peak experience could be achieved by will-power, and yet it required the basic recognition that human consciousness is intentional, that is, it reaches out and grabs meaning – and when the intentional muscles are flabby and undisciplined, as in states of boredom or depression, then we cease to make the mental effort to reach out and grip the objective meanings all around us.

This wasn’t just an intellectual dispute on Wilson’s part, for it seemed to him that Maslow’s sense that the peak experience was a happenstance event failed to take into account many such experiences which were directly invoked by conscious effort. Wilson, like many others, particularly in the New Thought movement and mystics before them, believed that the mind is essentially causative – that the mind directly causes change in the outer-world just as much as it can change its own inner-world. In other words, the mind can, quite consciously, elevate itself into a state in which it can achieve these flashes of peak experience at will.

It was precisely this recognition of the active quality of consciousness which enabled Wilson to rise out of his working-class, Leicestershire background and discipline himself to become a full-time writer. Fond of quoting H.G. Well’s Mr. Polly, Wilson himself represented his crucial ethic of self-development: “If you don’t like your life, you can change it.” This, of course, is the fundamental belief that drives the self-help market.

And yet there is something within us that prevents human consciousness from accessing these higher-states, for after all, these peak experiences would be far more common place, and a most frequent state of mind for all of us. Wilson understood, however, that without understanding the phenomenology of the restrictive mechanisms within consciousness, we would not be in a position to overcome our own inner-limitations. His own recognition of this is present in his first book, The Outsider, in which he discussed the work of the Greek-Armenian esoteric teacher, G.I. Gurdjieff, who arguably more than any other philosopher before him challenged man’s mental and physical mechanicalness. When, around 1952, Wilson first read about Gurdjieff, he immediately realized that he “was quite obviously one of the greatest minds I had ever encountered” (2004: 53). Although at times severe, Gurdjieff’s essential recognition is that man, if he understands himself fully, can bypass his limitations and gain a degree of self-mastery that would enable him to develop into a sort of superman.

Wilson immediately recognised in Gurdjieff a profound psychologist who understood man almost as well as an experienced mechanic understands cars. Indeed, Wilson would later call this mechanical part of ourselves the ‘robot’. His recent biographer, Gary Lachman, even titled his book on Wilson’s life and work, Beyond the Robot.

Like Mr. Polly states, we can change our lives, but first, Gurdjieff would reply, we must identify those parts in ourselves that inhibit or prevent that change to occur, and then we must develop a higher, more integrated, identity in which we can take full command of ourselves, and thus, our own lives. Where Wilson differs from Gurdjieff is in the belief that we require a special ‘school’ in which “one who knows” can solely can bestow upon us this knowledge. Instead, Wilson believed, we could go just as far with our development with a degree of self-discipline and phenomenological vigilance over our moods and, as a result, observing how they affect our corresponding assumptions about reality. (This, effectively, summarises his criticisms of the existentialists, for it is this understanding of phenomenology that Wilson believed they overlooked.)

In his 1978 book, Mysteries, he presents his own unique theory of a ‘ladder of selves’. Again, we may admire Wilson’s commitment to providing extremely useful tools for self-development for this, as we shall see, is as an extraordinary self-help model as I have yet come across. Also, it benefits the reader to refer to the useful appendix in Philosopher of Optimism, in which Wilson provides a brief outline of what he calls ‘The Seven Levels of Consciousness.’

Complimenting Gurdjieff’s system as well as owing a degree of credit to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the ladder of selves provides an insightful metaphor for a variety of states of consciousness, and particularly in their capacity for grasping meaning. The further one ventures up the ladder, the increasingly integrated do these ‘selves’ become. It is, at this point, we should attempt to define just what these ‘selves’ – or what Gurdjieff called our internally separated ‘I’s – are, and precisely what parts of our psyches they represent. For one such poignant example we can turn to an event in Wilson’s own life in which he realized this reality at a crucial moment.

After leaving school at the age of sixteen Wilson undertook a series of menial laboring jobs, one of which was working in a wool factory. Due to his relatively poor working-class background university was out of the question, and with his dad working in the boot and shoe trade, and earning such a small amount, he was required to work extra hours as a barman in the evenings. Wilson, along with his brothers, were expected to earn their keep.

The young Colin’s dream had always been to become a scientist of momentous importance; he even modeled himself on becoming “Einstein’s successor”! In contrast to this dream Wilson’s work-a-day existence in these mundane and repetitive jobs must have been a bitter reminder of his social position, and may even have discouraged him altogether had he not been offered a job as a lab assistant by his old headmaster. Curiously, by this point, he had started to develop two conflicting selves – Wilson-the-scientist was fast becoming eclipsed by Wilson-the-Romantic, lover of poetry. Although he was relieved to start work as a lab assistant he had, nevertheless, been devouring so much poetry that science, by contrast, seemed to him far too detached from the real questions concerning human existence – and, of course, existence as a whole: why is there something rather than nothing?

Discouraged by the vast disparity between this rich inner-world of imagination and the grim and dull reality of suffering jobs he detested, he decided that he would give ‘God back his entrance ticket’. He would commit suicide.

There were two selves at war within Wilson – and two versions of reality itself were at odds one another. Yet the gloomy teenage nihilist seemed to be taking the upper-hand, pushing aside his other ‘self’. Life for the romantic nihilist was a joke of repetition and humiliation, and he wasn’t going to sit through life and accept misery and defeat. He’d simply end it. In a sense it truly was Wilson’s romantic ‘self’ that was in revolt, for he realized later on that this was the problem of so many of the 19th Century writers, artists and poets. As he says in the interview with Spurgeon, “Rejecting everyday life and its boring triviality meant they were, in a sense, choosing death.” (2017: 7).

Arriving late at the laboratory he had resolved in himself to take down a bottle of hydrocyanic acid and proceed to take a swig of the lethal liquid. However, once he took down the bottle and received a blast of its acrid smell, he suddenly saw that he had become two people. He describes how he “was suddenly conscious of this teenage idiot called Colin Wilson, with his misery and frustration, and he seemed such a limited fool that I could not have cared less whether he killed himself or not. But if he killed himself, he would kill me too.” This other ‘me’ he refers to is the real Colin Wilson – the very same one that would go on to have a prolific writing career beginning with the world-shaking publication of The Outsider in 1956.

No doubt this intense division in himself, compounded by the life-saving flash of insight influenced Wilson’s subsequent attitude to life. Indeed, in his autobiography he mentions Marilyn Ferguson’s belief that all great originators in philosophy and literature and the arts must undergo, at some point in their lives, a serious consideration of suicide. Wilson believes that in these darkest moments one looks into the abyss, and this results in a sort of inner-alchemy in which the ‘real self’ separates from “the inessential self, which is like being reborn.” In this profound shift from a lower self to a much higher self which “glimpsed the marvelous, immense richness of reality, extending to distant horizons,” Wilson ascended up the ladder of selves until there, at the top, was the real ‘I’ who had far more authority and will-power than the robotic, meaning-starved self that had decided that life just wasn’t worth the effort.

In Philosopher of Optimism Wilson references Gurdjieff’s notion of what he called ‘essence’, that which is precisely that part of the individual which is most internally consistent with itself, and not as flighty and transient as the ‘personality’, which can change in a moment’s notice. This essence is crystalised through hard work and inner self-discipline; Gurdjieff called these efforts a form of ‘intentional suffering’ which strengthens the essential aspect in man. This essence is a high-level of inner integration, in which the higher aspect of our psyche has fully bought together the warring factions of our many conflicting impulses. “Essence”, said Gurdjieff, “has more chances of development in men who live . . . in difficult conditions of constant struggle and danger.” (2001: 162) In other words essence develops when our habitual, robotic consciousness is placed into abeyance and a higher self is forced to take over, particularly in crisis situations, or indeed, in moments of almost ecstatic happiness as with the peak experience. These moments generate a sense of inner solidity which stands firm, thus providing us with a reliable ballast for our will in the turbulent and unpredictable terrain of existence.

In the interview with Spurgeon Wilson indeed acknowledges that he had deliberately throughout his life aimed “to reach higher states of consciousness – or simple emotional stability and the state of productive optimism – through the natural methods of work, outlook, discipline and relationships.” (2017: 24) In fact, this inner stability is the development of a strong sense of purpose which Wilson embodied throughout his life despite many set-backs, attacks from critics and moments of near disastrous financial ruin.

Looking back on Wilson’s career – years after his death in 2013 – we can with confidence say that he was a truly a philosopher who developed this essence, and who, moreover, truly embodied and lived by his own philosophy of will-power and driving purpose. And perhaps, as he says in a short video excerpt with Spurgeon, it is precisely this general sense of cheerfulness that annoys and aggravates his critics so much, for after all, such optimism is generally unfashionable in our postmodern world.

Philosophy of Optimism offers an antidote and valuable guide to developing an essential part of our own being in these times of great uncertainty.


Outlined above is a very brief account of some of Wilson’s most practical and insightful truths, often hard won, into the human condition. All of Wilson’s work relates to one another, and with over a hundred books, they all, in their own unique ways, enlighten the shadowy regions of our individual as well as collective consciousness. By addressing as many subjects has he did – from crime to mysticism; wine to music; psychology and ancient mysteries – he has consistently broadened our reasons to wonder and marvel at the incredible richness of existence. By reminding us of this fact he achieved what he set out to do in his earlier philosophical works in the inter-connected ‘Outsider Cycle’, by providing a remedy for our all-too-common ‘life devaluation’ by instilling in us a phenomenological vigilance that enables us to recognise that the “fundamental premise of our lives [is] that the world of beauty and intensity has a real existence” (1966: 113).

With Philosopher of Optimism, Brad Spurgeon has provided a unique opportunity to perceive Wilson’s legacy from a ‘birds-eye view’. And by arguing his case for Wilson’s overdue recognition and reevaluation as an important cultural figure in his own right, as well as being a turning point in intellectual history as the first substantial philosopher of optimism, we have a concise book which presents, in Wilson’s own words, the interrelated, multifaceted oeuvre in which revolved around a single and admirable ethic. This ethic may well be called a will to help people develop in themselves a faculty which strengthens him or herself against the travails of life. In a word, self-help. Thus he presented a philosophy that facilitates the deep and substantial recognition in ourselves that we have the inner-resources necessary to succeed, thrive, develop and ultimately evolve, not just as individuals, but as an entire species.

We may say, then, that the term ‘self-help’ with which I began this essay, rightfully applies to Wilson’s body of work. All of Wilson’s insights into the human condition followed from his original, childhood dream of becoming an important scientist, for by analyzing his own inner-states he subjected himself to the ultimate test of life itself; offering himself as the supreme subject in the experiment of experience. And in so doing, he found that the meaning of life resounded in an affirmative and ecstatic yes.

From The Outsider to his last book, Super Consciousness, Wilson provided the philosophical framework necessary for our voyage into a life. Our minds, galvinized by this recognition of the objective reality of meaning, provides our imagination the power to ignite the fuel of our experience – and thus the transmutation of our implicit potentialities into living actualities.

This, I believe, is the ultimate proof behind anything that purports itself to be self-help in contemporary culture.




Works Cited:

Horowitz, M. (2014) One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. New York, Crown Publishing Group.

Lachman, G. (2016) Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. New York, Tarcher Perigee.

Ouspensky, P.D. (2001) In Search of the Miraculous. London, Harcourt Inc.

Spurgeon, B. (2017) Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Manchester, Michael Butterworth.

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

Wilson, C. (1985) The Essential Colin Wilson. London, HARRAP LIMITED.

Wilson, C. (2004) Dreaming to Some Purpose. London, Arrow Books Limited.

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

(The book is available to buy here:

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!’.


Lachman, much like Wilson, sees our future evolution as 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 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.



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

(You can buy the book here:

                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.



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:

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 ( 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.


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.


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.