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Evolving Metaphors: Colin Wilson and Ufology
The reason I began writing Evolutionary Metaphors was due to seeing various parallels with the UFO phenomenon, Colin Wilson’s philosophical works and the occult. And what interested me most was the essential logic which often informs the absurd and mind-bending nature of the UFO mystery.
Of course, the occult and the esoteric, along with paranormal research, is often rejected by the scientific mainstream, and to bring all these subjects together to shed some light on an already difficult subject would seem, to most, entirely illogical. That is if one desires that the UFO phenomenon to be validated – or debunked – by the scientific establishment.
There are many works that attempt to achieve this goal of absolute proof or disproof; few are agnostic. However, for my investigation I decided to take a more literary and psychological approach, feeling that it would provide a more flexible question of ‘What if?’ – a question that forms the ground of science fiction.
This heady mixture of science fiction and the occult could provide, I felt, a way out of the frameworks of the ordinary limitations of what’s possible by our standard models, and allow us to approach ‘the Other’, or truly alien, in a satisfyingly expansive and imaginative manner.
Now, Colin Wilson’s early philosophy, and subsequent works in science fiction, the occult, and paranormal phenomenon seemed to me foundational for this investigation. And much of my own work has been influenced by his 1998 book, Alien Dawn: An Investigation into the Contact Experience.
This forms the basis of today’s talk.
The subjects of this talk – Colin Wilson and ufology (the study of UFOs) – requires a general introduction, for both cover an enormous amount of ground.
Now, let’s begin with Colin Wilson himself.
His first, and most famous work, is The Outsider, which was published in 1956. It was released to great acclaim; its author was working-class, with no university education, and only 24-years old. In fact, he was a bit of an anomaly himself in intellectual circles of the time. Except that he was quickly heaped in with the ‘Angry Young Men’ – a journalist’s catchphrase for an uprising of mainly young working-class, sometimes anti-establishment figures, such as Stuart Holroyd, Bill Hopkins and John Osbourne, who wrote the famous play ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, the namesake of the movement.
Even amongst the Angry Young Men, Wilson was an outsider – he even said that he wasn’t angry at all. His literary reputation – a seemingly inevitable destiny once touched upon by British journalists – became increasingly marginalised shortly before his second book in 1957, Religion and the Rebel. As a result, Wilson’s work was ignored by the mainstream and deemed either irrelevant or, even, dangerous.
So, what was the essence of his earliest work, The Outsider, and why has it, out of all his 150 or so books, stood the test of time – indeed receiving so many translations and republications over the years?
The reason, I believe, is quite simple: it articulates with great clarity the existential awakening of the individual. More than that, in fact, it explores the problem at length and, by the end of the book, provides a series of examples of individuals who went beyond the Outsider problem; the founder of Quakerism, George Fox; the esoteric psychologist, G.I. Gurdjieff; and the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna. And for this reason, it has gained an almost universal quality; resonating with a deeply felt sense of the human predicament.
Wilson describes the essence of the book in his important essay, ‘Below the Iceberg’:
“[The] book [is] about ‘Outsiders’, people who felt a longing for some more purposeful form of existence, and who felt trapped and suffocated in the triviality of everyday life.”
“[It’s] a book about ‘moments of vision’, and about the periods of boredom, frustration and misery in which these moments are lost. [It’s] about men like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, van Gogh, T.E. Lawrence and William Blake, who have clear glimpses of a more powerful and meaningful way of living, yet who find themselves on the brink of suicide or insanity because of the frustration of their everyday life.” (2019: 275)
Now what is often overlooked is that The Outsider is just one a of a sequence of six books, which he called ‘The Outsider Cycle’. This forms the foundation of his philosophy which was summarised in an introduction to the whole cycle, the 1966 Introduction to the New Existentialism.
To begin to understand Wilson’s update of existentialism – the philosophy defined most famously by the French philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus – is to then understand the trajectory of all of his life’s work. And this provides an insight into why – and how – he went about approaching the bizarre subject of UFOs and extra-terrestrials. But more of that later.
For now, let’s turn to two summaries, in his own words, of this ‘new’ existentialism:
“The ‘new existentialism’ accepts man’s experience of his inner freedom as basic and irreducible. Our lives consist of a clash between two visions: our vision of this inner freedom, and our vision of contingency; our intuition of freedom and power, and our everyday feeling of limitation of boredom.” (1966: 180)
“The ‘new existentialism’ concentrates the full battery of phenomenological analysis upon the everyday sense of contingency, upon the problem of ‘life devaluation’.”
suggests mental disciplines through which this waste of freedom can be averted.” (Ibid.)
All of his subsequent works contain – whether it’s on crime, the occult, wine or music – insights into the essential mechanisms of the mind and are threaded through with this recognition of a phenomenology of heightened states of consciousness. In every regard, whether it is through the act of murder, indulging in alcohol, or performing ritual magic, the intensity of mind is sought, whether consciously or not. However, what mattered for Wilson is that they converge into a fundamentally creative drive and not, of course, in such destructive endeavours.
So, in essence, the new existentialism set out to define how moments of vision, purpose, and ultimate meaningfulness could be objectively grasped. This is where the crucial metaphysic arrives in Wilson’s new existentialism, for as he says in Poetry and Mysticism, “Where the mechanisms [of consciousness] ends, the mystery begins.” (17: 1970).
Wilson reasoned, quite logically, that in heightened states of consciousness – which are apprehended in moments of what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘peak experiences’ – a deeper reality of existence is objectively realised. This apprehension of reality is reached through what phenomenologists call ‘intentionality’; the mechanism of the mind’s ability to grasp what is out there, in the phenomenal world.
This can be illustrated by two simple examples:
When we feel alert and buoyed with energy, we notice more; for example, we can appreciate a sunset or feel intensely alive and connected to the environment outside of us, noticing even the intricate detail of the pavement, or the luminescence of a shop’s window. In low moods, by contrast, we notice less; we withdraw our intentional perceptual grasp and live in a vague mood of gloom and defeat.
Wilson was fond of quoting W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘Vacillation’:
fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
These moments of sudden and intense overwhelming happiness, so much so that Yeats’ felt he was “blessed and could bless” are, Wilson argues, closely related to the mystical experience, in which one somehow grasps the essential meaning of existence. And yet these often occur in moments of irrationality, that is, they cannot be logically explained; rather they appear to arise in moments of inter-section, as it were – in those brief moments of curious disengagement with the ordinary chatter of the mind.
It is this realisation that is at the heart of the new existentialism, for it reinstated what the ‘old’ existentialism had rejected – what the phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, called the transcendental ego; an ‘I’ – or an ‘other you’ – that effectively energises your perception from behind the scenes, so to speak. Intentionality, the mechanism by which our consciousness ‘reaches out’ and apprehends the world is charged by this deeper self.
More than this, in fact, this ‘other self’ behind perception exists in a state that lies outside of time, and when it emerges in closer accordance with our here-and-now perceptions, it resolves the contradictions of existence faced by our rational, everyday consciousness. In effect, one experiences a supra-logical faculty which breaks the illusory deadlock caused by many of our philosophical categories.
Wilson importantly noted: “[P]hilosophical thought is a process of perception, and therefore depends on the drive, the energy behind it. It also follows that under-energised thought will actually falsify the objects of perception”. Yeats, in ‘Vacillation’, says that his “body of a sudden blazed”, suggesting some sort of occupation of a higher self which galvanised his perception, his poetic faculty which illuminated reality beyond the nausea-inducing categories of Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of universal contingency.
Now implicit in Wilson’s new existentialism is an entirely new faculty of perception; a way in which human beings are capable of exceeding their five-senses and somehow being able to make sense of time and space in such a way that resolves the existential dilemma of Being. This is where he continued onto explore the paranormal, the mystical, and the heightened – or altered – mental states of ritual magic and occultism in his 1971 book, The Occult.
Importantly, he went through the genre of science-fiction prior to writing The Occult, with novels like The Mind Parasites (1967) and The Philosopher’s Stone (1969), which explore at length – as much science-fiction tends to do – psychic faculties and curious moments of super-consciousness. And, importantly for this talk, extra-terrestrial, alien intelligences and occult forces that meddle with human existence. Both books, I should add, were heavily influenced by the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft who is famous for his story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1927), which includes a gigantic, subterranean malevolent force that slumbers beneath mankind’s ignorance – Cthulhu, the Great Old One.
And so, what Wilson was attempting to do in his science-fiction books was to embrace the intuition that Lovecraft had about deep, underground and ‘terrifying’ forces and, instead, reframe them in Husserl’s more phenomenological recognition of a deeper level of reality that, in fact, forms the substrate of existence itself. And, by recognising this, Wilson saw that this was a misunderstanding – he called Lovecraft’s worldview a product of “curdled Romanticism” – based on a pessimistic bias which resulted in a negatively-charged “falsity of underpowered perception”.
The great poet and visionary artist, William Blake, also seemed to share Wilson’s insight, saying in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:
“The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence, and now seem to live in it in chains, are in truth the causes of its life & the sources of all activity.”
Now, this recognition of underground, untapped resources of the mind seemed almost inevitably to lead to Wilson’s development from an existentialist to writing a book on the occult, for the latter, of course, wholly acknowledges these powers – and even provides ways of enhancing and mastering them. And if these higher faculties of human perception were real, as Wilson increasingly came to believe, then it logically follows that the ‘old’ existentialism had been selling human nature short.
With this background in the occult and the paranormal, of course, it seems somewhat inevitable that he would go on to touch upon the UFO phenomenon. And although he had explored this territory in his science-fiction books before The Occult, and then in its sequels, Mysteries and Beyond the Occult, it wasn’t until 1998 that his UFO book proper was released, Alien Dawn: An Investigation into the Contact Experience. Now, although it forms a basic history to ufology – and it is not until the later chapters of the book that he outlines his philosophical developments which formed his interest in the phenomenon – the book is, as we shall see, crucial to Wilson’s intellectual development.
The Wilson scholar Geoff Ward acknowledged much the same, saying that like the psychologist Carl Jung, who wrote one of the earliest and most classic books on UFOs, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1958), Wilson saw this as very much a symbolic event, offering “a revelation that could amount to a new kind of consciousness.”
This, essentially, is where I begin in my own book, Evolutionary Metaphors, for in surveying the wide range of UFO literature there is always the sense that they are more than merely nuts-and-bolts craft that can be detected on radar and potentially shot down by our military. They are, in their deepest sense, a sociological anomaly; even a symbol – perhaps – of Cold War hysteria and fears, with the first major sightings beginning around 1947.
Kenneth Arnold, an aviator with over 9,000 flying hours, is the most classic case, and the origin of the phrase ‘flying saucer’, which was adopted feverishly by the press. On 25 June 1947 he reported, near Mount Rainer in Washington State, seeing nine unusual objects flying at incredible speeds far surpassing modern technology, which he described variously as both shaped like a “pie-pan”, a “big flat disk” and “saucer-like”. This led to, of course, the more famous combination: flying saucer. Arnold’s sighting tends to circumscribe the UFO mystery to a comfortable date, allowing it to be too easily ascribed to the ‘Cold War hysteria’ hypothesis.
In researching Alien Dawn, Wilson also came to this conclusion in the chapter, ‘The Labyrinthine Pilgrimage of Jacques Vallee’. Here Wilson explores the work of the computer scientist – who was instrumental in the French pre-run for the internet, Arpanet – Jacques Vallee, whose hobby from a young age was to collate and schematise UFO reports from around the world. He went on to write the classic, Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore, and Parallel Worlds (1969), and more recently Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times (2010), a compendium of specifically pre-20th century UFO – or ‘mysterious light’ – sightings.
More importantly, Vallee asked the question of what UFOs overall effect was on the human race, that is, merely as an observed phenomenon and growing mythology. Vallee took the in-between route, refusing to draw a line on exactly what they were, and instead observing their sociological and psychological effects on those who had apparently witnessed them.
Essentially, this is how I approach it in my own book, calling the experience a type of ‘evolutionary metaphor’, or a symbolic experience which offers alternative ways of understanding existence. Indeed, Vallee, in The Invisible College, states much the same:
“With every new wave of UFOs, the social impact becomes greater. More young people become fascinated with space, with psychic phenomena, with new frontiers in consciousness. . . changing our culture in the direction of a higher image of man.” (2010: 127) [my italics].
Now, what interested me so much about Alien Dawn was that as much as it appeared a breakaway from his earlier ‘new existentialist’ works, it quickly turned out to be much the opposite, rather that it was a bridge through his works on the occult, and an opportunity to expand his ideas into cosmology, consciousness studies and even quantum physics.
The social question of the UFO phenomenon, for Wilson, became symbolic of a change of orientation in the human drama, with a possible new vision which lifts us out of our cosmic provincialism and provides a larger context for our own existence. And with all of the interrelated topics in ufology explored in Alien Dawn, such as crop circles and the now famous alien abduction phenomenon, there appears to be something underlying the whole mystery which Wilson called a sense of “deliberate unbelievableness” – rather as if the phenomenon deliberately obscures itself. (Indeed, Carl Jung once said that the “highest truth is one and the same with the absurd”, and this seems to be the essential message of the UFO phenomenon.)
It struck me that with this ‘deliberate unbelievableness’, and apparent playfulness with time and space –even the absurd theatrics as found in the witness testimony on abduction literature – that whatever entities that were behind this phenomenon were quite at home in the strange and novel logic explored in works of popular science fiction.
One novel in particular which penetrates to the irrational heart of the UFO phenomenon is Ian Watson’s The Miracle Visitors (1978), in which he explores something he calls the ‘plus and minus factor’, saying that in ‘lower-order’ systems of logic something must either ‘change within the lower-order reality or be lost to it, to compensate’. ‘The trick was’, he continues, ‘to make the loss the least negative one possible – to create merely mystery, not damage’.
Here, I think, is the whole of ufology compressed into a single sentence: to create mystery, not damage. And that is what it appears to be doing; providing a liminal, abstract form of ‘meta-logic’ that orientates man’s vision of the cosmos to one of the mysterious, the ‘What ifs’ of science fiction; the emotional, personal, aspect that science lacks is therefore complimented by the dramas and vast possibilities – and sometimes impossibilities – of science fiction.
The UFO becomes the subject of folklore. One could argue that the alien may represent man as abstracted to himself – or, as the psychologist Stan Gooch proposed, as a part of ‘the on-going folklore’ of the Ego. Science fiction, then, becomes the avant-garde of this evolving folklore. Its metaphoric quality is, of course, oriented towards the future – towards an evolutionary beckoning – and science fiction, of course, becomes a part of the imagination’s groping towards this actualisation.
We should not, however, overlook the often dreamlike and surrealistic quality of the UFO experience reported in many books of case studies. The Harvard-trained psychiatrist, John E. Mack, collected many such reports in his book, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1998), or, for example, as can be found in the classic The Andreasson Affair (1979) by Raymond E Fowler. J Allen Hynek even said of the latter, “At certain points… [the] narrative seems to deal with a reality so alien that it can be described only in metaphors, and perhaps only understood in terms of an altered state of consciousness.” (17: 1978) [my italics]. Vallee also speculated:
“These forms of life may be similar to projections, they may be real, yet a product of our dreams. Like our dreams, we can look into their hidden meaning, or we can ignore them. But like our dreams, they may also shape what we think of our lives in ways that we do not yet understand.”
My own book is an attempt to continue where Colin Wilson left off in Alien Dawn, particularly with his analysis of science fiction, psychology, and cosmology as being fundamentals of what the phenomenon seems to urge us to examine. The cultural import of its existence cannot be doubted; it has generated popular films, TV shows and books, and shows no signs of slowing down. And if it does – and many of the best books on the subject tend to conclude – form a part of an on-going folklore in our more materialistic and less religious times, then the question may be what it supplements, or even replaces that our culture has lost?
That it forms an excellent metaphor cannot be doubted, with writers such as H.G. Wells using the alien as a base for his book War of the Worlds as far back as 1897. Carl Jung knew this well, and I’m not convinced that we’ve gone much further than his analysis of the phenomenon. He asked, as any good psychologist should of such a liminal, and apparently, deeply symbolic phenomenon: What is it doing to us, our consciousness? That it challenges us, and our models of reality, tends to suggest, that it is gently eroding our sense of cosmic provincialism.
A quote I’ve always enjoyed is by the psychologist Maurice Nicoll, and he warns us that if we become too “sunk in appearances” the world – and ourselves – quickly become numbed, for “through the lack of realisation of the mystery of the world” leads us to being “dead” due to an inability to “face the mystery of existence with any real thoughts of our own”. What I have noticed is that the UFO experience, whether real or even simply talked about, invokes mystery by its very nature; and this of course generates a lot of intense debate and polarisations within and outside the field of ufology.
In an updated introduction to Alien Dawn, Wilson noted that “civilisation has forgotten a whole dimension of consciousness that once came naturally to tribal shamans, and that we shall remain trapped in a kind of mental dungeon unless we can regain it”. He continues, “[O]ur dream of a purely rational science is a delusion, and that we shall have to learn to recapture lunar knowledge”.
This is the same realisation that hit him while writing his earlier book The Occult; he had originally thought it would be a test of his patience, a sort of collection of quaint ghost stories a section on palmistry and the curious gullibility of the human mind. Instead what he found was a subject that was overwhelming convincing, providing too many accounts by reliable witnesses to be easily swept under the carpet. More than that, he realised that it confirmed an intuition that he had had as early as the 1950s: that man is on the brink of an evolutionary leap.
In a talk as short as this one, I can only begin to scratch the surface of this mystery. So, I will here attempt to condense my own thesis in Evolutionary Metaphors – which I wrote as a sort of bridgeway between Wilson’s ‘new existentialism’, his occult studies and ufology.
Colin Wilson’s biographer, Gary Lachman, remarked that entities commonly associated with UFOs seemed to be “fans of Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges,” adding that this might be a deliberate attempt to frustrate our interpretations; forcing us out of our perceptual laziness. And, perhaps, generated a sort of camouflage so they can act outside of the restrictions of credibility. One comes away after reading much of the literature with the nagging suspicion that somewhere along the line we missed the point, rather like failing to grasp a Zen kōan – the very reason for its clownishness is because we are only aware of half the picture.
Ufology also provides much the same stimulus and attraction as the occult and provides a means of widening mankind’s sense of significance and wider meanings. And in doing so, of course, this automatically provides the groundwork for a ‘new existentialism’, for the provinciality of the diagnosis of many existentialists simply doesn’t hold up against a worldview that accepts occult powers as real.
I argue that it was inevitable that Wilson would continue to incorporate parapsychology and paranormal phenomenon into his later works, for they inferred a much stranger dimension of reality, one that suggests another way of being and, more importantly, of a purpose to human existence.
The title Evolutionary Metaphors seemed to me to capture the spirit of the UFO phenomenon and contextualises it in such a way that it can be treated almost as a work of fiction, while exploring its metaphysical implications and providing an alternative to understanding anomalous phenomenon more generally.
In other words, if they are real, they can be processed as symbols, or implications, of a deeper reality that we do not understand, and in attempting to unravel their mystery we could potentially find out more about our own minds and universe as a result. And if they turn out to be mere fictions, then what they beckon, psychologically, is an obsessive drive within us for prototyping the unknown and generating mythologies that may prove the unconscious motivation of the human enterprise.
The sixth man on the moon, Dr. Edgar Mitchell, who underwent what he described as a mystical experience while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere in Apollo 14, even commented that “life itself is a mystical experience of consciousness; it’s just that we have grown used to it through the millennia.” (1996: 187). Obviously, if you were hurtling back to Earth after stepping foot on the moon, this would inevitably adjust your perspective; jolting you out of a millennia-worth of conditioning.
In essence, Mitchell’s experience encapsulates the message of Wilson’s ‘new existentialism’ and brings us close to the heart of the UFO mystery.
Often it is commented that our culture has reached a threshold; by ejecting mystery in favour of scientific ‘problems’ – codes to be cracked, but, we feel, that we already have these tools. It is a matter only of time. Yet in certain moments we yearn for strangeness and a sense of deep otherness, and we turn to space, an apparent endlessness that becomes the backdrop of our dreams, fantasies, and possibilities. What haunts these skies of ours is, in the end, our own psyche acting as a mirror – and the mysteries that haunt it also become embroiled into these mythologies, these stories so linked to our evolutionary drives.
We have no real sense of how a truly alien intelligence might act. However, it would be interesting to wonder if it would be through symbolism and metaphors, even synchronicities – unusually significant coincidences – that these other forces would communicate; after all, each of these transcends the limitations of time and space, posing deeper levels of reality (or realities) that is/are parallel to our own.
But this might be a subject best left for science fiction –
or a future folklore – that might turn out to prove that reality is more dynamic,
even magical, than we presently suspect.
 Gary Lachman says in his biography on Colin Wilson, Beyond the Robot (2016): “The fact that, like The Outsider, it presented a religious view, rather than the strident leftism of Osborne and Co. made it a target of scorn by the socially minded critics. Kenneth Tynan in particular saw Wilson as a kind of fascist, with his talk of religion, discipline, the need for a new kind of man rather than a new society, his hatred of mediocrity, lack of interest in left-wing politics, and concern about the spiritual crises of characters like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.”
I had to get up very early yesterday to guest on George Noory’s Coast to Coast AM. I had been preparing by once again turning to my own book, Evolutionary Metaphors (I had written it a year ago), to refresh my memory on the whole UFO phenomenon, and I had of course also returned to some of the classic books on the mystery to deepen my understanding.
In returning to my UFO research I was once again reminded how the field urges us to reexamine fixed beliefs, and to set aside conventional interpretations of time and space — and more so, what constitutes meaning in our lives.
Now, witnessing any such anomalous experience readjusts what you consider possible, and this is the really important factor at stake. After all, the UFO, at its very heart, represents a deep mystery. A mystery that challenges us. But the importance is, as the writer Jasun Horsley has pointed out, that very mystery – wonder – itself should not shroud our objectivity.
As I tend to look into the more spiritual, or metaphysical, interpretations of the UFO and abduction phenomenon — focusing mainly on the works of Whitley Strieber, John E. Mack’s case studies and the stimulating, and curious works of John Keel — there will always be this openness to the deeper sense of its existential component, ” What is it doing to us?”. And this forms the basis of my book, Evolutionary Metaphors, which, really, is about an optimistic ‘new existentialism’ which has been shaped by an experience of the anomalous.
Phenomenology, the study of our perceptions of reality, and the essential mechanisms of consciousness itself, is more of a tool, a philosophical method, than a philosophy onto itself. And it is by using it actively that, I believe, we can get to the bottom of this mystery, whether dark or light.
The existentialist philosopher who has had so much influence on my work, Colin Wilson, once said that under-powered perception falsifies thinking, and that, only in heightened-modes of consciousness can we apprehend deeper levels of truth. In many ways, that is why I chose the ‘evolutionary metaphor’, or the encouraging, optimistic angle that I did; not to shun or place aside the darkest aspects of the phenomenon, but to integrate them in with a will-to-health, as it were.
I shall be returning to the subject again soon, and if my intuitions are correct, much of my more recent thoughts compliment my first work, but enrich and expand my approach.
You are free to contact me at: email@example.com
Over the Easter holiday, I visited a couple of fine Cornish coves, Sennon and Lamorna, and while at the latter, I thought of one of its past residents, the surrealist artist and occultist Ithel Colquhoun. I recalled that she had once reviewed Colin Wilson’s classic book The Occult (1971) and recommended the encyclopaedic Wilson to focus, perhaps, on just one or two occult disciplines – the Kabbalah and the tarot being her particular favourites.
Now, it would have been a great pity if Wilson had so narrowed his interests, for as many of his readers know, he covers a vast array of subject matter; from criminal psychology to wine and esotericism. But, on further reflection, I realised that what Colquhoun said was true for many of us. I had recently said much the same to my friend, the author Jason Heppenstall, who replied, “Yes, we can sometimes have incredibly greedy minds…”
And so, I thought about Wilson’s work (and Colquhoun’s recommendation) as to understand his trajectory as a philosopher; and why, moreover, he ranged so far and so wide, so near and yet so far in search of the evolutionary Faculty X – a vivid sense of the reality of “other times and places”.
Wilson was never greedy; in fact, he was generous, voracious and a master synthesiser of great swathes of inter-related topics. Indeed, his biographer Gary Lachman has said that in reading Wilson you gain the equivalent of a liberal arts education. He was, in my opinion, a philosophic tour-de-force who, from the outside, may appear as sometimes random and digressive. However, once you acquaint yourself more deeply with his work, you soon come to realise that it forms a part of his earlier philosophical methodology, which he called the ‘new existentialism’.
This, I think, is what Colquhoun had overlooked. Wilson had indeed, throughout all his work, essentially focused upon this extra-dimension of human consciousness; of sudden flashes of meaning and insight, of other times and places which, of course, forms the basic recognition of almost all of occultism.
Now, Philip Coulthard in Lurker on the Indifference Threshold: Feral Phenomenology for the 21st Century, presents an extended essay on the many threads of Wilson’s work. Coulthard takes us on a stimulating tour, stopping by at postmodernism and the challenging esoteric work of Kenneth Grant to the horror writer H.P Lovecraft’s gloomy cosmology, all the while providing a unique backdrop for the essential integration of Wilson’s formidable oeuvre – he wrote, after all, over 180 books – into the more contemporary frame of the 21st Century.
Coulthard lifts the new existentialism into new light and provides a beacon towards a more intentional – and far less nihilistic – vision of the future. And what is so remarkable about Lurker is its original insights into Wilson’s work, and, in doing so, is an example of Wilson’s own method of unifying both intuition and the intellect. Lurker is a sort of prism of the new existentialism, refracting a new light into a philosophy with a future that is imminent and a much-needed antidote to the bureaucratic academy, and more importantly, the neurosis of contemporary culture.
The new existentialism, here, becomes a remedy to our cultural malaise; the lurker of the title becomes our immense potential, and the threshold: our culture’s blind spot.
Today, it seems, philosophical trends such as postmodernism and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, are finally losing favour, and as Coulthard convincingly argues throughout Lurker, Wilson’s philosophy, by comparison, “remains diametrically opposed to such trends, even when it anticipates aspects of them” concluding that his work “is more relevant than ever.” (23). He also makes the interesting point that many who are attracted to Wilson’s philosophical works are individualists who – temperamentally or intellectually – resist the essentially passive and helpless “postmodernist legacy”, which, as Coulthard argues, places “the human subject at the mercy of external factors and [condemns us] not to freedom or meaning… but to strict identity, language, history, and cultural determinisms, [where we are] forever stuck in a grim Darwinian power struggle.” (20).
In fact, this is why I was first attracted to Wilson. He seemed to not only provide an accessible overview of history and philosophy, but also posited something radically more active, and as a result, practically more engaging.
Instead, Wilson wrote with an infectious intensity which, around every corner, opened up a new shift in perspective that enabled curious glimpses into another way of seeing. In fact, what he was effectively doing was writing from the standpoint of a more open-ended – even open-system – form of psychology that valued heightened states of consciousness as essential to grasping reality.
Of course, this was partly as a result of Wilson’s familiarity with the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who broke the psychiatric mould and sought to define the pinnacle of human psychological health. But, before being acquainted with Maslow’s positive psychology, he had clearly already developed a deep analysis of our culture’s dis-ease in his 1956 debut, The Outsider.
Reading Wilson is so refreshing because he effectively opens the door, allowing more ideas, as a direct result of his optimistic approach, to enter in; rather, that is, than sealing them off into the dry Siberia of academic obscurantism or focusing on tedious minutiae. A true existentialist, he sought for the essential meaning of existence, thus transcending the dullness of spirit, and denigration of intuition, so esteemed by our trivial-minded age, where political journalism reigns supreme.
Coulthard quotes from Wilson’s Beyond the Outsider, which encapsulates Wilson’s essential urgency and visionary spirit for a new approach:
“Western man has become so accustomed to the idea of passivity and insignificance that it is difficult to imagine what sort of creature he would be if phenomenology could uncover his intentional evolutionary structure and make it part of his consciousness.”
Lurker takes this search for the ‘evolutionary structures’ further, with the chapter titles providing a context as well as a general atmosphere of vast and impersonal forces at work: ‘Far Out, But Near’; ‘Cyclopean Architects’ and ‘Goad of the Powers’. They evoke an almost daemonic Beethoven symphony; pounding and triumphant, yet impersonal and strangely savage – rather like a splash of cold water up your back: invigorating as with a sense of electric control. This, after all, is essentially the motive underlying – often unconsciously – the great works from Lovecraft’s Mythos, to the passionate call for a revaluation of all values as found in Nietzsche’s works from The Birth of Tragedy to his masterpiece, and poetic evocation – or invocation – of the Superman, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
As Wilson said in Beyond the Outsider, the point of these Dionysian and deep subterranean energies is not to be washed away with them in frenzy and chaos, but to canalize them into consciousness; to allow them to creatively charge our lives and our art. To lose this vision – which is the reason for the general malaise of the 21st Century – is to fall into a passive state, and to dwindle our psychic resources at such imaginative distortions of this Life Force. Coulthard argues, “Art and culture not receiving these currents can only lead to banal sterility… and an acceptance of the morbid undercurrent [of defeat and pessimism].”
Now, someone who instinctively understood this subterranean force and the possibilities of super-consciousness was the great dowser and archaeologist, T.C. Lethbridge.
In his posthumous work, The Power of the Pendulum, Lethbridge crystallises the essence of Wilson’s work – who wrote at length about Lethbridge in his 1978 book, Mysteries – and his most fundamental insight. The two writers had much in common.
Lethbridge, in a similar spirit to Wilson, says:
“Man exists on many mental levels, of which the earth life appears to be the lowest… He is entirely independent, and his method of development is peculiar to himself… Only when he can realise this will he rise at all in the scale of evolution.” (44).
“If you find out anything, I feel it is your duty to pass it on to your fellows… The power is yours on the higher level … but to make use of it here, it is necessary to learn how it can be brought down to a lower level. The transformer is something which you forge mentally between one level and the next… [my italics]”
Lethbridge, like Wilson, are impressive examples of this anti-bureaucratic attitude to truth and intelligence, working with their minds in an open and vibrant way; sending off sparks of insight in a manner that is both generous and – according to Nietzsche’s analysis of what constitutes a good writer – with a fundamental willingness to be understood rather than merely to impress.
Further still, there is this recognition at the heart of their work of something lurking at the threshold of everyday consciousness, and that is that there is a higher ‘you’ – a superordinate identity, or, in more esoteric language, your daemon. This is a super-charged Self that is experienced in moments of what Maslow called ‘peak experiences’, flashes of sometimes overwhelming joy that imports feelings of immortality and a tremendous zest for living.
One of Coulthard most fascinating insights is that these “subterranean” forces, as he calls them, are in some sense repressed, and as a result, they are often misrepresented in such artistic expressions as in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. That is, as gigantic, impersonal and essentially malevolent forces. Wilson had always argued that Lovecraft’s attitude was that of “curdled Romanticism”, an essentially self-devouring, self-harming Will to Power that had backfired into destruction and nihilism.
Coulthard argues that these subterranean forces are instead “wellsprings of creativity” which are too often misunderstood and channelled into “distortions” where “no amount of rationality can supress their chthonic rumblings”. Wilson’s phenomenology navigates these negative biases towards the hidden ‘I’ of the transpersonal ego, that self that provides the very perceptual energy that fires our zest and sense of meaning. If this arrow of intentionality backfires, rather, it works as Lovecraft’s curdled romanticism – towards crime and destruction, rather like some disastrous machine that becomes recklessly out of control and destroys an entire city. Or, as Wilson would have perhaps put it, poisoned an entire culture.
The new existentialism is a form of self-analysis that attempts to rid our collective unconsciousness of these very real dangers of a negative bias, and instead provide techniques and a ‘conceptology’ that we can use to steer ourselves away from such immensely wasteful disasters.
What makes Lurker such an important book in Wilson Studies is that it presents an exceptionally wide area of analysis, pulling in Lovecraft, whose popularity is becoming ever larger – perhaps symptomatically – and providing a robust counterargument against the fundamental nihilism of postmodernism. It is, I think, something Wilson would be doing if he were still alive today. In fact, with our culture becoming evermore saturated with signs of this precise implosion, as it were, of an inadequate cosmology and sense of psychological health, Outsiders – those who feel alienated by their civilisation, yearning for more intense and serious states of consciousness – are likely to grow as a result.
Coulthard provides a precis and condensation of Wilson’s’ vast output, producing a sort of visionary manual on how to survive as well as to identify the key symptoms, culturally and phenomenologically, of an essential wrong-headedness that saps our vitalities. Furthermore, intuition is once again provided its rightful place as an arrow towards conceptual widening, and, when aided by the intellect, actualities and creativity expands exponentially, as it is only our intuitively-driven insights – usually seeping in from the transcendental ego, or hidden ‘I’ – that equips us with the key to that secret of Being, or, as Coulthard puts it, as a part of our “intentional quest for the philosopher’s stone”.
(You can buy a copy of ‘My Interest in Murder’ here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Interest-Murder-discarded-introduction-Assassins/dp/0995597812)
On a Sunday afternoon I settled down to read Paupers’ Press’ latest release – Colin Wilson’s ‘My Interest in Murder’ (2019). While reading it, I decided to begin noting down some reflections on Wilson’s work on murder, in an attempt to align some insights I had along the way together with his overall philosophy. It resulted in this essay.
‘My Interest in Murder’ was originally intended as an introduction to Wilson’s 1972 book Order of the Assassins, which explores the psychology of murder. This short book comprises of a 40-page autobiographical reflection on why and how Wilson became so interested in this dark subject.
Furthermore, he describes the creative process, and psychological and philosophical shifts, that occurred while writing his first novel, Ritual in the Dark (1960) – which took the nine years to write. And how his later novel The Glass Cage (1966) – “perhaps my own favourite among my novels” – became a crystallisation of this project to explore the mind of a murderer.
Wilson was determined to become a writer, and despite the banalities of his working-class existence, he declared that he would “make literature out of my revolt.” He comments that he had “tasted the pleasures of the imagination and intellect” and “wanted the pleasure to pursue them.” This of course led to Ritual in the Dark; or, in its earlier incarnation, Ritual of the Dead (originally titled after the Egyptian Book of the Dead). The novel is a pacey and fascinating reflection on frustration, alienation and moreover outsiderisim. It also has something of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment about it – with the main character being torn between intensities of both himself and the often shady people with whom he’s become embroiled.
Gerard Sorme, the protagonist and Wilson’s alter-ego, is what Wilson himself described as a ‘Simple Simon’, who wonders around London meeting eccentric and intensely-driven individuals, each with a backstory of semi-mystical visions which define them – for better or for worse – as outsiders.
Having recently read Wilson’s The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders (1988), I could clearly see how he had his own ‘Simple Simon’ moments. He fully admits that it dawned on him, perhaps too slowly, that a broad-shouldered, deep-voiced Charlotte Bach was, in fact, a robust Hungarian transvestite called Karoly Hajdu. Bach posited an evolutionary theory based on a dynamic and creative ‘tension’ and inter-play between the male and female counterparts in each individual (Wilson explored these themes in his book Mysteries (1978), and then later on in The Misfits). She was, in many ways, a character that could have been lifted straight out one of Wilson’s early novels.
Nevertheless, it was through meeting these liminal characters, and by exploring the psychology of the outsider or the ‘misfit’, that Wilson could begin to explore motives for such extremities – whether it be sexual fetishes or, indeed, murder.
After all, what fundamentally defines these outsiders is a search for intensity consciousness – control over one’s own emotions, environment and achieving a sense of ultimate reality. In ‘My Interest in Murder’ Wilson quotes Watson’s observation of Sherlock Holmes: “He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century”, to which Wilson responds: “And why not? – for such knowledge was a part of his working equipment.” Wilson adds that by working with such morbid and extreme material, he began to feel like a “pathologist, working with unpleasant material, but viewing it with detachment.”
What Wilson was saying is that the sexual impulse and/or the impulse for murder and sadism is driven by an intense stimulus; that is, in both acts, there is a release of enormous energy – an energy, moreover, that has the potential for great acts of creativity, but, in sadism or murder, has somehow turned against itself.
“[T]here are certain people who possess the potentiality of creation, of purposive action; if this is frustrated it turns rotten. The mind is like a forward flowing river; if it is dammed up, it will turn the land around it into a swamp.”
So, you can clearly see the trajectory of Wilson’s work from his first non-fiction book, The Outsider (1956), which explored existentialists, ballet dancers, poets, mystics and esoteric teachers like G.I. Gurdjieff. There was not so much the ‘Simple Simon’ in Wilson, but an immense openness that enabled him to actualise in his work what Alfred North Whitehead described as the most important undertaking that any existentialist should adopt: experience everything; drunk, sober, depressed, ecstatic, and so on. Not out of mere hedonism or naiveite, but as an attempt to understand the extent of the human instrument through its entire experiential spectrum.
Murder emerges out of an immense damming up of frustration, which then bursts out as a destructive and pointless act. However, it is these implicit creative potentialities that Wilson was so fascinated by. Ritual in the Dark originally developed as a literary expression of frustration, much in the same way books like Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Eugene Ionescu’s The Hermit and – the most famous novel of its type – Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, were attempts to describe this essential feeling of alienation and the slippery texture of reality. But Wilson was driven by something altogether more optimistic.
Wilson began writing out of an act of emotional revolt that creatively expressed itself; and then, once circumstances in his life began to lighten up – and his naturally cheerful temperament kicked back in – the tone and philosophy of Ritual in the Dark began to change correspondingly. This in turn provided the novel with the protagonist’s recognition that the murderer in the book, whom Sorme even shows some admiration for, is in fact insane and sick. And that these murders were, as Wilson says, a “gesture of revolt” against reality – a reality, moreover, that the murderer had completely lost touch with.
This is essentially the insight at the heart of Wilson’s work on criminology: that, in low moods, we have a weak grip on reality; and that if we let go, we fall into a ‘worms-eye view’ and our lives and the world around us – and even other people – begin to feel meaningless and uninspiring. Murderers and criminals have fallen down this hole further still, becoming stuck in a loop where reality becomes increasingly unreal, which in turn requires increasingly extreme experiences to reinvigorate what Pierre Janet called their ‘reality function’.
Now, one of the things that has always interested me is how we observe ourselves in certain moments, and how we can quickly take things for granted. I’ve worked in a number of industries, ranging from office work to apple picking and as a drayman for a brewery in the Midlands. When I first began reading Wilson’s books, I felt an immediate sense of kinship; I too had sat on lorries for long journeys and had worked in tedious offices full of neurotic petty-mindedness. Being a true existentialist, Wilson looked to his own life experiences for insights into the human condition.
Around February-March in 2018, I was working as a drayman during the ‘Beast from the East’, which was a cold wave which had blown over from Russia and North Asia, covering most of the Midlands in fine snowdrifts and freezing temperatures. I would have to get up very early, walk down a huge hill and into a warehouse full of steel casks. A forklift truck driver would come out and I’d have to jump on the back of the van and roll these heavy, ale-filled casks and secure them into place.
After the van was full, we’d seal up the curtain and drive off to about four pubs, where we would have to open the gate, crawl down into the cellar and then start lowering the barrels down with a rope as the snow whipped up, and our feet froze. The snow made it enormously difficult to push eighteen-gallon barrels, with the snow gaining up in front of it and causing a barrier which you would have to kick out of the way.
After a long day which inevitably led to exhaustion, I had to walk back up the huge hill. And on the way back, I walked past a salon full of beautiful women blow-drying hair and manicuring nails. The comparison between the two worlds was jarring – and it suddenly occurred to me the shocking ‘divide’ between these two realities. I could easily see how – if you had a severe job that involved intense labour – that the opposite sex would appear as immensely delicate and enchanting; beautifully intoxicating against your everyday reality. (I could suddenly clearly see why men working with tarmac or up scaffolding, for example, would whistle at pretty women as they walked by!)
This was a simple and fairly commonplace insight that contrasted very starkly against when I began to work in an office that same year. This work demanded far more attention to detail and concentration, and soon enough I found the atmosphere extremely constricting. Not only did the work fail to engage me – writing about Health & Safety for various councils and so on – the whole environment was such a vast contrast to working outdoors with burly, outspoken men, that I felt like I was trapped in some nightmare of pedanticism and bureaucracy.
I had had a similar experience while working at an academic bookshop in Nottingham in which the manager was immensely short-tempered and had an attention to detail that I would simply describe as ‘maniacal’. Again, here I found a curious neurosis that was lacking from working in labouring jobs, in which people could – and often would – talk loudly and honestly about their feelings – and, of course, their sexuality. There seemed to me to be a ‘pent-up-ness’ about the bookshop and office that I failed to adjust to.
This brief digression into my own experiences has been an attempt to point out how – and in what form – energies take, and how in our ordinary day-to-day lives they become frustrated, leading to tensions and forms of outburst. Of course, if you were a physical-type, you would prefer physical labour; and if you were an intellectual-type, you would perhaps prefer more intellectually-engaging pursuits and find the physical work a tedious bore.
But the crucial difference here is the level and type of frustration.
One day (in the bookshop) an electrician was fitting in some new strip lights. The atmosphere was particularly dull, with an overcast sky outside and some syrupy acoustic music playing as background music. You could describe the whole situation as the very essence of stale and static. We caught eye contact and a devilish light seemed to gleam in both our eyes, and he shouted: “Put some Cannibal Corpse on!” (Cannibal Corpse is a raucous and very heavy-heavy metal band.)
His comment, as out-of-place as it was, released the tension – the frustration we both had with the boredom of our jobs. Anybody who has children of their own will know that a child cannot bare long car journeys, and will often talk incessantly to re-direct his energies, or, kick his legs frantically. Or, there is the persistent question of ‘Are we there yet?’ – exaggerating his sense of time passing slowly.
The vitality of the child siphons off into what is called a form of displacement activity, which is defined as:
“A human activity that seems inappropriate, such as head-scratching when confused, considered to arise unconsciously when a conflict between antagonistic urges cannot be resolved.”
It seems that murder too is a form of displacement activity; an attempt to express, or channel, pent-up energy into a destructive act rather than something creative. The serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, once told police: “I was bitter at the world… Killing someone is just like walking outdoors.” For Lucas it was a matter of reconnecting with a ‘sense of reality’ which had been numbed by his own bitterness against the world.
And yet for many of us, simply walking outdoors in itself would be a release – but not for Lucas; his mind would have been unable to grasp its reality due to his mind being awash in negative emotions and frustration. Like any drunkard, the only way he could kick-start his emotional enjoyment of life would be to reach for extremity. The same, of course, relates to sex and such extreme fetishes that, for most of us, make little sense. All of these ‘extremities’ are attempts to re-experience a life that has been lost to the ‘worm’s-eye view’ of low-pressure consciousness.
Reading about murder, says Wilson, reminds us most forcibly that we could quite easily misdirect our energies. That is not to say, however, that most of us would become murderers – but simply that we can easily sink into states of passivity in which the world seems deprived of meaning. A violent act such as murder, of course, already suggests that the killer has a low estimation of the meaning of his own life – and as a result, those of others.
Wilson describes the purpose of his novel The Glass Cage as being “to confront the two extremes: the mystic and the criminal: the man whose sense of the goodness and worth-whileness of life is constant and fully conscious, and the man whose self-pity and lack of self-belief have driven him to expressing his vitality in the most negative way he can find.” Essentially the murder – in both Ritual and Cage – are failed mystics in the sense that their violent energies have turned into negation rather than affirmation.
He describes the murderer, Gaylord Sundheim, in Cage:
“[H]e is a man of immense and violent energies and appetites, whose conscious attitude to life is so negative and defeated that they cannot find ordinary expression. When he eats, he eats ravenously, with the sweat pouring down his face; when he drinks, he gulps it down until he is unconscious. And when he has sex, all the vast energies roar out like a volcanic explosion there is a desire to eat, to drink, to entirely consume his sexual partner. If he possessed the power to remould his personality to express these energies positively, he might be a Michaelangelo or a Beethoven.” [my italics]
This is, of course, no defence of the act of murder – or a celebration of the murderers’ innate potential for genius – but a recognition of intensely frustrated energies that could have been put to good use, had they found a more fulfilling, and evolutionary, outlet. The problem with a destructive act is that it is self-cancelling and is fraught by diminishing returns – no one evolves their consciousness through murder, in fact it devolves and, once the criminal is caught by the police, or when his energies are depleted, the killer often commits suicide.
I think that each of us, in his/her own life, can notice how in moments of frustration, or after an exhausted day’s work, we notice how our perceptions of things correspondingly change. Here I have used my own examples of hard-labouring work and then walking by a very alluring salon; being struck by the contrast of environment and finding in myself a strange yearning for this different world. Psychologically-speaking it is exactly the same as walking down a blustery, icy street and looking into a coal-fire-lit cottage window and wishing you were inside.
In fact, Wilson calls this experience ‘duo-consciousness’ – when you can stay in bed on a rainy day, knowing you’ve got to get up in 5-minutes, and savouring the comfort and warmth of those sheets as if your life depended on it. By contrast, however, this all changes when we know we don’t have to get up. Due to our inability to place our mind in two places at once, we cease to enjoy the moment – the actual and the symbolic fail to reflect each other and make us self-aware. Of course, we are perfectly self-aware when we await the dreaded alarm-clock. . .
Reading about murder, Wilson argues, is a phenomenological act that enables us to recreate a deeply existential version of duo-consciousness. We can read these accounts of horrific crimes and, by using it as a sort of mirror, we can contrast these stupid and destructive acts against our everyday reality, and effectively reminding ourselves that our lives could be a lot worse. Wilson says that the purpose of studying murder ought to be to “throw light upon its opposite: the passion for order, creativity, sainthood.”
‘My Interest in Murder’, in all its autobiographical digressions was written in the spirit of pleasure – much like his later book on wine and alcohol, The Book of Booze (1974). And by reading books of its kind, and understanding our essential creative drives, we too can use it as a sort of psychological mirror to ‘throw light upon its opposite’, achieving moments of duo-consciousness – and most importantly – to improve our own lives and those of others!
You can buy a copy of the latest issue of New Dawn Magazine here:
Synchronicity is a word coined by the renowned Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung, for the phenomenon of a uniquely meaningful coincidence. It is, in short, when the outer-world quite remarkably mirrors the inner-world of the individual. Jung defined synchronicity as a “psychically conditioned relativity of space and time.” He also described it as an ‘acausal connecting principal’ which is an event with no apparent – or, at least, something unknown to contemporary physics – form of ‘transmission’ that makes any logical, or causal – through cause and effect – explanation almost impossible.
Often in these experiences the mind seems to have a far more direct and active relationship with the outer-world – a world we too often assume is subject to the law of accident, entropy and a uni-directional flow of time. In this article it is not so much my intention to use just so many examples of personal and other’s reports of synchronicities, but simply to unpack a series of reflections on the implications of undergoing a synchronistic experience.
The experience of synchronicity ranges, like any such experience, from something merely curious to something far more numinous and potentially life-changing. It is also, naturally, something too slippery and mercurial for the logical, rational and time-linear mind to grasp. Indeed, it has, in many instances, a profoundly symbolic nature which seems geared towards intuition rather than rationality.
Now, the English existentialist philosopher, Colin Wilson, remarked that synchronicity may be one of the most important powers of the human mind. Reflecting upon his own experiences, Wilson noted that they tended to happen more frequently when he was feeling “cheerful and purposive” in which, he says, “convenient synchronicities begin to occur and inconveniences that might happen somehow don’t happen.” More importantly, Wilson observed that it was “as if my high inner-pressure somehow influences the world around me.”
Wilson’s phenomenological insights into the synchronicity experience helps us us in our quest to understand the essential ‘cause’ of the synchronicity – an important key, as it were, to untangling the ‘acausal’ mystery behind Jung’s ‘connecting principal’.
In a recent interview for the YouTube channel, Rebel Wisdom, the author and esoteric scholar, Gary Lachman, made the important link between intentionality – or will – and its ability to ‘nudge’ reality into its desired form. In other words, the ability to perform – in accordance with one’s will – magic. Lachman goes on to say that magic is essentially causing synchronicities to happen. Another scholar of the occult, Jeffrey K. Kripal, a Professor of Religious Thought at Rice University, has also called synchronicity “essentially a shiny new word for what we would have earlier called magic.”
So, it seems as if a crucial part of the synchronicity is indelibly a function of the mind, and that, in some magical way, this can cause meaningful events to unfold in one’s life. According to Wilson these magical events tend to cluster when the mind, the psyche, is functioning at optimum performance. We may venture to say, then, that synchronicity is the magic of a highly-charged mind, and when the vital energies are working in tandem with the individual’s will.
However, another aspect of the synchronicity we have not so far mentioned is what I have decided to call its ‘moment of interjection’. That is, it tends to ‘shock’ us by its seeming non-conformity with our usual everyday sense of time and space, while also inter-jecting itself in unexpected and unpremeditated moments. In other words, the synchronicity experience seems to be the result of another mind, as it were, that acts – sometimes ‘plays’, in a trickster-like fashion – both outside and inside one’s mind in a manner simultaneously ‘within’ time and outside of it; free from the laws of both the linear mind and the world ‘outside’ of linear causality.
We might here, then, say that Wilson’s state of healthy-mindedness provided some essential source of vital energy for this ‘other mind’ – or force – which inter-jects within our lives with curious ‘symbols’ which infer a meaning that somehow lies outside of the frame of ordinary causation. Instead the synchronistic moment acts as a ‘real life’ signifier of a deeper substrate of reality which is in direct contrast to how we normally experience it in our everyday consciousness.
Now, if we were to place the synchronicity phenomena into an evolutionary context, then one could say that evolution – or the gleaning of any new knowledge – tends to occur in moments of inter-jection, as it were, and these inter-jections into our existence are often the hall marks of both humour and the synchronicity experiences. This may at first seem like a leap too far if synchronicity is treated as a curious, and admittedly difficult phenomena, but nevertheless as fundamentally trivial. Of course, a synchronicity can be quite easily shrugged off with the pressing needs of everyday life demanding more of our attention. They can also be seen as ‘mere coincidence’ or simply a ‘minor mystery’ that affords little existential content.
However, this is all a matter of degree rather than kind, for if synchronicities come in thick and fast, then the observer will be forced to ask him/herself a number of questions, not only about him/herself, but also about the nature of reality. (And then, just to be safe that he or she isn’t going mad, to then ask questions about him/herself!)
This is where, I think, a phenomenological and psychological approach becomes an important tool for analysing the relationship between the mind – most crucially – and the world ‘out there’. Note that Wilson also commented essentially on the experience of luck and the distinct lack of accident-proneness he experienced when he was in a “purposive” state of mind. Indeed, Jung also importantly said in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961), that the synchronicity experience may force us to notice the “other-valued reality” that lies outside the “phenomenal world . . . and we must face the fact that our world, with its time, space and causality, relates to another order of things lying behind or beneath it.”
What seems to be of most important is just how we can find this crucial correlation between ‘purposive consciousness’ and this “other-valued reality”. Once this is found one ought to be able to find not only the key to psychological health, but also an orientation in life that coheres to a profoundly powerful evolutionary drive that somehow exists
“behind or beneath” reality.
Another important clue can be found in the work of the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof M.D., who has explored the realms of non-ordinary states of consciousness in his book The Cosmic Game (1990). Grof observed that synchronistic phenomena tended to increase in people’s lives “when they become involved in a project inspired from the transpersonal realms of the psyche.” He continues with the important detail that “remarkable synchronicities tend to occur and make their work surprisingly easy.” In other words, their work is somehow in accordance with Jung’s ‘other-valued reality’ which, it seems, is also the domain of Grof’s transpersonal self.
The author, Anthony Peake, in his excellent book The Daemon (2008), calls this other self the Daemon, which he describes as “the part of us that knows that we have lived this life before”, and that in moments of deja-vu, for example, is when the Daemon recognises significant moments in our lives. The ordinary-self Peake calls the Eidolon, which experiences our life in a linear fashion for, of course, this life will always seem as a surprise, a completely new experience, except in cases of deja-vu phenomena, that is. Peake also says that this other-self, the Daemon, “finds its home in the non-dominant hemisphere [of the brain] and from there acts as an ‘all knowing’ passenger.”
The Daemon is a fascinating book full of accounts of deja-vu and near-death experiences, however, in our discussion it might be said that the synchronicity is the Daemon’s tool – or method – for indicating an evolutionary turn, as it were, in the ascending spiral of self-actualisation, that is in moments when we begin to actualise these realms of the transpersonal psyche into this world of physical matter and linear time. We are, as it were, fulfilling a type of evolutionary destiny.
Rather, it seems, like a convergence of two worlds in which the laws of the other are sympathetic to a world which is becoming in a process. The purpose of existence, then, may be to converge, to unify, two ‘values’ which lie in curious cross-sections of time – and once these evolutionary ‘values’ are acted upon from ‘our side’ then two realities converge in a satisfying ‘click’ which unfolds in our lives as a synchronicity experience.
Although using the ‘convergence of worlds’ metaphor implies two or more worlds, in reality it seems more likely to function along what Jung and the physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, came to understand as the unus mundas – or ‘one world – under which two principals unfold: mind and matter.
However, it is at this point important to remember that the actualisation of wholeness – as in Jung’s individuation, or Abraham Maslow’s self-actualisation – is effectively the unification of psychological factors within the individual in order for them to work most efficiently together. And that these are precisely the components of the whole individual that work towards what the Italian psychologist, Roberto Assagioli, called ‘psycho-synthesis’.
Indeed this attempt to activate the bridge between one’s purpose in accordance with what Grof calls the ‘transpersonal self’ is the goal of Psychosynthesis therapy. The psychotherapist and author of The Way of Psychosynthesis (2017), Petra Guggisberg Nocelli says that “to promote transpersonal synthesis, Psychosynthesis indicates methods to awaken the energies of the higher unconscious” in order to “facilitate contact with its contents”. To do this the therapy includes: “the use of anagogic symbols . . . evocation of superior qualities and techniques for the development and use of intuition.”
We may now see Wilson’s comments about purposiveness as the driving force for increasing synchronicities in the context of Nocelli’s awakening of “the energies of the higher unconscious” mind, or Peake’s Daemon, which seems to awaken – or increasingly integrates – with our ‘lived reality’ once we begin making an effort to fully achieve some dimension of our potential. And, as Peake underlined, ifthe Daemon finds its temporary residence in the non-dominant right hemisphere of the brain, then it makes sense that this creative part of our selves is both buoyed by symbols and efforts to explicate, in some creative and developmental form, some of its contents. It is, rather, as if it has been heard for the first time – and the most effective way to encourage this participation is to ensure that the linear mind learns to accept its existence, and particularly, of a mode of ‘other values’, which is essentially less passive.
One of my own observations has come both through personal experience and through reading many books on the UFO and abduction phenomenon while writing my first book, Evolutionary Metaphors (2019). Throughout my research I noticed that it was commonly mentioned that people involved with this subject – including Wilson himself – were often beset with unusual and sometimes transformative synchronicities. Indeed, one of the most interesting examples is Raymond E Fowler who wrote an investigation into an abduction case called The Andreasson Affair in 1979, and then, following that book was inundated with an uncanny number of synchronicities afterwards. He records some of these in his 2004 book SynchroFile.
Now it seems to me that these may have had less to do with the UFO phenomena itself – at least directly – but with the fact that interest in such liminal and evolutionary ideas in themselves were acting as anagogic symbols and awakening layers of their higher conscious mind!
Of course, it would be absurd to deliberately set out to write books on UFOs in order to actualise unconscious forces latent within the psyche, and it is, furthermore, likely to fail more often than succeed. However, in some typically Alice in Wonderland topsy-turvy and upside-down way, considering creativity itself may aid us in peeling away some of the absurdities and mysteries of both consciousness itself and the anomalies we face in such experiences, whether mystical or in moments of synchronicity.
The curious idea is this: by looking into liminal and anomalous phenomenon we may be finding, in synchronistic moments, the very cause for these strange events we have been looking for; or, in a twist of irony, they may be the evolutionary by-product of that very search for the ‘deep reality’ in the first place.
Or, more importantly, both!
You can pre-order Evolutionary Metaphors here:
6Th Book Publishers: https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/6th-books/our-books/evolutionary-metaphors
I have also done a two-part interview with the excellent Greg Mofitt over at Legalise Freedom, which you can view here on YouTube:
Thank you for following this blog. There is more to come!
The popular understanding of the term ‘self-help’ – associated with such popular books on weight loss and confidence and so on – seems too passive a word to describe the stature of a writer who regularly tackled such huge philosophical topics like existentialism and phenomenology. The work of Colin Wilson, well-known as a counterblast against the pessimistic assumptions of 20th century philosophy (namely, but not limited to, the work of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus), seems somewhat underestimated by this trite portmanteau word.
Now I say this without any reservations for the self-help market. Simply that this term has such connotations when bought up when discussing philosophy. If this helpful branch of literature improves one’s life, then it matters little what form it takes. However, for many the thought of applying this popular term ‘self-help’ to the works of such a philosophical revolutionary as Wilson would be to reduce such great works as The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, and his excellent overview of all things evolutionary in books like The Occult to his final and most succinct statement of his life’s work, Super Consciousness.
And yet, at its core, Wilson’s philosophy is profoundly helpful to us all. Wilson’s philosophy is self-help in its truest, deepest sense.
Wilson, in all his works, wrote in an accessible style and provided for many invaluable introductions to notoriously challenging and arcane subjects: existentialism, occultism, crime, psychology and even wine! One might say that this in itself provides the foundations necessary for anyone to begin to help themselves. Implicit in all of Wilson’s work is an impassioned call for people to take charge of their own minds – to detach from the pessimistic assumptions of late 20th century philosophy and the ever increasingly rickety paradigm of Materialism. His analysis is of life itself and a challenge to the negative colouring of the postmodern psyche.
It seems to me, with the popularity of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, and the general climate of existential ‘orientation disorientation’, that Wilson’s work presents a form of what Gary Lachman has called ‘existential self-help’ (see his article in New Dawn magazine). To this purpose, I have here set out a three-step summation of Wilson’s contribution to understanding our turbulent times, and, moreover, our individual responsibility.
- Firstly, I will emphasise the practical elements of Wilson’s philosophy, recognising just how his work provides a deeply enriching and intelligent philosophical foundation for a life more abundant, more meaningful.
- Secondly, I will be taking as my base Brad Spurgeon’s recently re-published book Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism, which provides an excellent introduction both to Wilson’s ideas and his positive contribution to an optimistic frame of mind during difficult times – both personally and in the larger context of our current cultural tensions.
- Thirdly, it presents my own synthesis to understand how, in integrating Wilson’s unique brand of phenomenological existentialism into our own lives, we can have a form of self-help with foundations deep and with truly effective principals.
Combining these we may hopefully arrive at a fuller understanding of the self-developmental ideas implicit in Wilson’s philosophy, which collectively offers an intellectual robustness that far exceeds much of what we understand as self-help literature today.
Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism comprises a lengthy interview conducted by Brad Spurgeon. The reader is therefore 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 the Appendices is perhaps one of Wilson’s most boldly optimistic and far reaching speculations on the future of mankind’s psychology, presenting 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. Bypassing the typical pitfalls of the latter’s trans-humanism, Wilson instead positions consciousness where it matters, that is, in evolutionary terms. The evolution of consciousness, after all, requires consciousness itself to become more active in its own participation with the natural world. Consciousness, after all, is nature that is aware of it itself.
What’s more is that Spurgeon frames Wilson’s philosophy in a moving and uniquely insightful Preface. 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, found the whole project deeply significant; 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.
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 2004 autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose. Spurgeon, deciding that it was time to meet his literary hero in person, set out to interview the author at his home in Goran Haven, Cornwall. This 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.
It is now worth providing some extra context for Wilson’s adoption by other important thinkers. It is significant, in regards to self-help, that this should have informed the work of one of America’s greatest psychologists.
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 New Thought movement along with what is called “positive-mind metaphysics” which is a crucial player in the development of America’s collective psyche.)
Wilson became fascinated by these instances of unique healthiness, in which one experiences what Maslow called ‘peak experiences’; 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 many accounts; sometimes mystical and sometimes from ‘everyday life revelations’ – which recognise a truly authentic meaningfulness at the heart of human existence. In a sense, Maslow had taken a scientific step towards the validation of the authenticity and unique evolutionary implications of psychological health in general, a huge leap indeed for a culture seemingly obsessed with deconstructing the norms and definitions of what constitutes as ‘healthy-mindedness’. Maslow provided a direct and unique definition of heightened mental performance; noting both its functions and unique characteristics which infer an increased grip on reality.
However, whereas Maslow identified this trait in the healthiest among 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, we cease to make the mental effort to reach out and grip the objective meanings all around us. We become passive, ‘mechanical’.
This wasn’t simply 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 consider many such experiences which were directly invoked by conscious effort. Wilson, like many others, particularly in the New Thought movement as well as many of the 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 (or sometimes even sustained illuminations) 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 tenant behind self-help, and it is not as twee and quaint once it is put into practice, rather like Peterson’s almost Gurdjieffian dictum “tidy your room” – which refers to beautifying what you already have – the practice requires both will and a positive perspective.
And yet there is something within us that prevents human consciousness from accessing these higher‑states, for after all, these peak experiences would be a far more common place experience for many of us. Wilson understood, however, that without understanding the phenomenology of the restrictive mechanisms within consciousness, we would not be able 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 superhuman.
Wilson immediately recognised in Gurdjieff a profound psychologist who understood man almost as well as an experienced mechanic understands cars. Wilson would later call this mechanical part of ourselves the ‘robot’. Now, in Poetry and Mysticism, Wilson emphasises that this does not “mean that I am attempting to reduce mysticism to a matter of psychological mechanisms, any more than understanding the anatomy of the eye explains our perceptions of colour”, but rather it is where these “mechanisms end” is precisely where “the mystery begins” (1970: 17).
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. Unlike Gurdjieff, Wilson didn’t believe it required any special ‘school’ in which “one who knows” can solely bestow this knowledge upon his select students. Instead Wilson believed we could go just as far with our development with a degree of self-discipline and phenomenological vigilance over our moods; observing precisely how they affect our corresponding assumptions about reality. This, effectively, summarises his criticisms of the existentialists, for it is this aspect of phenomenology that Wilson believed they overlooked.
In his 1978 book, Mysteries, he presents his own unique theory of a ‘ladder of selves’. 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, particularly in their capacity for grasping meaning. The further one ventures up the ladder the increasingly integrated do these ‘selves’ become.
Now, it’s important here to attempt 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 experience in which he realized this reality of ‘multiple selves’ at a crucial moment in his life.
After leaving school at the age of sixteen Wilson undertook a series of menial labouring 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 earning so little while working in the boot and shoe trade, 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 modelled 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, he convinced himself, 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 all. In a sense it was Wilson’s romantic ‘self’ that was in revolt, for he later realized 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 investigates 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 marvellous, 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’, which is precisely that part of the individual which is most internally consistent with itself, and not as flighty and transient as the ‘personality’. 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 bound 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 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 – 5 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 optimism 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.
After all, such optimism is generally unfashionable in our postmodern world. But as the tide turns, and bookseller lists reflect our collective consciousness ever more – with Jordan Peterson popularising such titans as Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Eliade, Frankl and so on – Wilson’s whole oeuvre acts as a synthesising catalyst for a new existentialism; a profound vision that transcends the negative maelstrom of conflicting identities, postmodern uncertainty, and a politics which, more than anything, seems hellbent on keeping us in a mechanical and robotic state – individually and collectively.
We may say with confidence that Wilson’s output is a true phenomenological map of meaning – a way towards our humanity in an increasingly dehumanising and polarising time.
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.
—. (1970) Poetry and Mysticism. San Francisco, City Light Books,
—. (1985) The Essential Colin Wilson. London, HARRAP LIMITED.
—. (2004) Dreaming to Some Purpose. London, Arrow Books Limited.
 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.
(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”.