Although a large novel at 348 pages, The Black Room (1971) stands alongside The Personality Surgeon (1985) in the minor league of Wilson’s fiction – that is, neither of them have been re-printed anytime recently, and are often either ignored, misunderstood or are regarded as somewhat peripheral in Wilson’s oeuvre. Nevertheless, Wilson himself regarded it highly enough to include an excerpt from it in The Essential Colin Wilson (1985). However, and with the exception of the Wilson scholar Nicolas Tredell, who has written at length about every one of Wilson’s novels — including unpublished and proposed — in his immense and masterly work, Novels to Some Purpose (2015), there is, according to my own research, few other works engaging with one of his central ideas: the black room (or a sensory deprivation chamber) and its challenge to the evolution of human consciousness.
In this essay I intend to investigate the idea of the black room closely, and hopefully at the same time provide a short introduction to some of Wilson’s obsessions which run throughout all of his work. There is always a practical aspect to Wilson’s work, and I will attempt to bring this to the surface: seeing just where, if you will, the theory becomes practice.
The theory – expounded in Wilson’s philosophical works – becomes the practice for the central character, Kit Butler, who has to maintain mental strength and sanity in a room so deprived of stimulus that the mind starts to canibalise itself. It is in novels such as these — The Mind Parasites (1967), The Personality Surgeon (1985) — that Wilson’s philosophy is most effectively applied in hypothetical situations, and developed – even challenged – by the developing plot. In other words, these particular novels have a dialectic which presents Wilson’s ideas in a most satisfactory manner. Indeed a triangulation of these three novels would provide the reader with a good insight into the development of Wilson’s work, for all his novels are explorations of his philosophical concerns.
The black room itself is based on a real premise: that the human being requires outside stimulus to remain sane, healthy and, above all, just free enough to evolve his own consciousness. Deprived of these stimuli man falls into disrepair, useless and unmotivated – his consciousness is, in this environment, not sovereign at all; but entirely a victim of the body and environment. It simply cannot exist separately, or satisfactorily generate enough power to maintain itself independent of external reference.
And yet, this question of whether man can survive in an environment deprived of stimulus may at first appear to be basically pointless, because very few of us are involved in cutting-edge espionage, nor is our consciousness, or body, likely to experience a total sensory blackout in our everyday lives.
It is wise for us, therefore, to ask the question why Wilson felt it so urgent, and so piquant a metaphor for the limits of human consciousness; and indeed why he felt a need solve a problem as apparently unsolvable as the black room.
To further understand its significance, one must begin from Wilson’s central obsession, which could be summarised as overcoming our robotic nature; our tendency towards passivity and automatism. The black room, therefore, becomes the ultimate challenge; for under such deprived conditions the robot part of ourselves becomes entirely dominant, sapping our energy, shutting down our mind, and eventually either leading us into sleep, or even madness. Hence the man who could endure the black room could become a sort of superman – never succumbing to the robot’s negative effects, such as boredom, ennui and pessimism; he would, moreover, be entirely in control of himself, embracing a degree of freewill that extends beyond our usual reliance on external stimuli.
His mind would very much become his own, independent, to a degree, of the body, and strongly dictated or directed by an intensely active and powerful consciousness, a higher, more fully integrated ‘I’. Moreover, this would be an ultimate triumph for the human imagination, in which it would become an invaluable tool for defeating pessimism, and our tendency to a sense of diminishing returns as a result of our over-reliance on the robot.
Tredell notes that the black room “was an important symbol for Wilson; it is a crisis situation on the edge of everyday life, in which human beings can either fall deeper or raise themselves higher by moving towards that independence of the physical world, through the release of hidden mental powers” [my italics] (2015: p.297). In many ways, the black room is the problem of the physical world and the mental world; it is where the two are essential to one another. Wilson’s emphasis is on the mind, and how it can in some way detach itself from the limitations of the physical – it can, as it were, reach what he commonly refers to as a ‘birds-eye view’. This ‘birds-eye view’ allows consciousness to rise out of the body’s tendency to react passively to its environment. According to Howard Dossor’s analysis, this may free him from the black room’s stifling lack of stimuli by inducing a “profound sense of crisis” which can either lead to abject terror or “a feeling that he is capable of controlling his response” (1990: p.271). This recognition is of central importance to understanding the basic philosophic problem presented in The Black Room, that is to gain full control over one’s own mind.
The protagonist, composer Kit Butler is enlisted in an experiment in espionage up in the Highlands of Scotland. He is presented with many hedonistic distractions, with seemingly Dionysian indulgences between two beautiful, but mischievous twins (among many others). Nevertheless, Wilson’s protagonists rarely experience anything without attempting to understand the conscious and unconscious mechanisms. They often apply Wilson’s own brand of existential phenomenology to understand the human condition. Sex, one of the most intense experiences, appears in this instance to be juxtaposed against the lonely isolation of the black room, and the rolling beauty of the Highlands. For the mental excitation during sex, or even the mere thought of the act (during masturbation), reaches its apotheosis in the union of bodies – in this sense, the mind-body orgasm is the very opposite of the sensory deprivation experience. Butler, even before his training, is indulged on all sensual levels by being surrounded by beautiful women, fine wines, brandies and gourmet food. In the vast expanses and extravagant summers of the Highlands, he can freely swim and lay on the riverbanks meditating on his predicament, of his obsession – like Wilson’s – with the limits of ordinary human consciousness and how they can be overcome. Still despite philosophical reservations (Butler has little initial faith in solving the black room problem) he remains there nonetheless, determined to take advantage of the rare opportunity.
Deprived of all these earthly pleasures in the black room, and given a fridge of bland food, the imagination remains the only source remaining for enforcing the mind against the tedium and inevitable tiredness that result from these long sessions (most can last a number of days, and very rarely, if at all, last a week). Now Wilson has often said that masturbation is one of mankind’s highest faculties, for one can induce an orgasm entirely by imagination – and yet, this cannot be sufficiently maintained, and would moreover be impractical in a lightless room for a number of reasons. Nevertheless this provides an invaluable clue to its possible solution. In a flash of insight after reflecting on one of his many sexual encounters, Butler expounds a philosophy based on the importance of self-image and self-knowledge:
“He focused again the hardness of inner triumph as she had raised her buttocks to allow him to tug down the panties, a hardness that was a tumescence of the will itself, seeing in a lightning flash its own potentialities . . . The moment of self-knowledge, of optimistic self-knowledge. Life is a long attempt to see your own face in a mirror. Every defeat and humiliation reflects back the face of a weakling, of a victim. One’s consciousness of oneself is soft, warm, almost indecent, like a worm. He had been driven by romanticism to reject the notion of himself as a victim or a weakling, and had been favoured by a natural optimism, an excitable imagination, and an inborn preference for being alone, for rejecting the company of fools. But the sense of defeat could never be entirely thrust out of consciousness, the sense of passing time, of the power of the envious and the stupid, of one’s vulnerability to chance. And then, in the moment of self-knowledge, the doubts vanished, and the mind was suddenly staggered to confront its own strength and capacity for endurance. The moments of doubt were seen clearly to be the result of ignorance” (1971: p.68)
The ‘hardness of inner triumph’ is exactly what is challenged in the black room, in which the will fatigues due to the lack of stimulus rather like a muscle with lack of exercise. There is no opportunity to use perceptual ‘intentionality’, and the perception becomes entirely limited to the mind – and the mind is not strong enough to support itself. The mind quite simply is too diffuse, it leaks energy, and begins to devour itself rather like one’s mood during a hangover or even a panic attack; an inner-chatter becomes – if undisciplined – a cacophony echoing itself into exhaustion, of moral collapse. The black room induces this sensation, a crisis, a panic attack or simply a tiredness and boredom that leads to oversleeping. The mind as it were goes on strike. “Man”, wrote Wilson, “is the only animal who is prone to insanity; and this is because he spends so much time in this suffocating prison inside his own head” – the black room increases this mental suffocation (1983: p.14).
In a discussion about mountain climbing, Gradwhol, a professor of psychology, mentions to Butler that in extreme instances of crisis, such as the phenomena of ‘rock blindness’ or life-threatening predicaments can discipline a man’s will. Of course, under such experiences there is a certain inner pressure which, to use a Wilsonian phrase, clenches one’s will and pushes it upwards into a higher tier of self-control (this is discussed at length in the introduction to his book Mysteries (1978), which is significantly titled ‘The Ladder of Selves’). In The Black Room, however, the old mountaineer compares it to “small crystals of glass” which symbolise for him the “disconnected crystals, different feelings, thoughts, impulses”, and in such crisis situations of a powerful kind these crystals fuse together into a solid block of fully integrated and strengthened self-control, and an assertion of will over one’s fleeting and often diffuse emotions (1971: p.80).
William James’ essay ‘The Energies of Man’ is of central importance to The Black Room, for it underlines and certainly inspired Wilson’s evolutionary existentialism. As we have seen, there appears to be breaking point in which, once succeeded, allows man to evolve beyond his robot, or as James called it, ‘habit neuroses’. However, one of the key words in James’s essay is ‘dynamogenic’ which is defined as “the correlation of changes in response with changes in sensory activity”, in other words the relation between one’s energy, feelings and outside stimuli. One could also adjoin to this word the mystic philosopher Gurdjieff’s notion of ‘self-remembering’, for a ‘dynamogenic self-remembering’ is effectively what Wilson implies in his phenomenology when he points out that a certain ‘feedback’ needs to occur, whereby the will is constantly strengthened and energised – through a sort of internal clench and release – until one experiences what Abraham Maslow called the ‘peak experience’. This would cause a dynamo of sorts, a conversion of energies which sustain each other until they reach a zenith of almost overwhelming joy. Furthermore this experience of the inter-relatedness of one’s existence, which spills over into the external universe, causes a bubbling up of optimism, of energy which gives one the sensation of being above time and space. In short, not of being reduced to the body’s limitations; for the body exists in matter and obeys by its laws. If this technique were perfected one could, in theory, survive for far longer in the black room.
In an interesting discussion Butler remarks that “people get so used to staying the same after the age of twenty or so that they can’t grasp the idea of a new level of human evolution. You need a bombshell to wake up the subconscious – that’s why James says that the only religious conversion produces basic character changes” (1971: p.155). Although less extreme, I have found that in many ways the modern ‘immersion tanks’, much like sensory deprivation chambers and the dark room, offer people, outside of their hectic lifestyles, a chance to experience a complete lack of distraction. In effect, it is a form of technologically-aided meditation, placing oneself into a place which induces a sensation similar to that of meditation. Curiously, in a recent article in Vogue, the author Nathan Heller, notes that once he emerged from the tank, he started to receive little “licks of hazily remembered dialogue” which “crystallize[d] into full scenes”. He goes on to say that he “remembered everything much better” and that “it was as if I had a telescope back into my history, and the normal fuzzy light pollution of the atmosphere, the distractions of time and the moment, had been blocked, leaving the image sharp and pure”. He concludes the article by saying that the “immersion had done what I had hoped: I’d found a way of rediscovering my mind”.
The example of Heller’s real life experience of something quite like the black room demonstrates that the lack of external stimulus can enable us to breakthrough our normal habituation. Memories, a sense of one’s history, of other times and other places suddenly started to trickle into his mind without, as he describes it, the “normal fuzzy light pollution” of the mind. The black room for Butler therefore not only becomes the antithesis or the challenge against habitual consciousness, but a means to overcome it, as a tool towards raising one’s mind above the usual flaccidity behind our intentionality. In turn this may facilitate a practical approach to achieving a ‘dynamogenic self-remembering’ whereby the increased self-consciousness enables us to not only monitor, and thus to some degree control, our usual wasteful ‘thought chatter’ (an endless internal narrative of anxieties and triviality) but to become more resourceful with our psychic energy. And moreover it brings us closer to achieving what Wilson called ‘Faculty X’, a vivid experience of other times and other places.
When Butler is employed as a counter-espionage agent and sent to Prague, in order to find out more about the mysterious, independent group Station K, he describes the city as being:
“all spires and great stone buildings, interspersed with green spaces. The autumn trees looked soft and ghostly in the haze. The falling snow brought a sense of other places and other times. The sense of objective reality touched him suddenly, and for a moment he became aware of his identity as a temporary thing, false and unimportant against the immense, cold, infinitely real background of fact” (1971: p.190)
Even though it is an evocative description of Prague, Wilson however loses no opportunity in describing the fundamental mechanisms behind his ‘Faculty X’, where time, place and the relational web of interconnected facts coalesce into a solid sensation of power consciousness. In his later book, Access to Inner Worlds (1983) Wilson also shares with us an atmospheric and, at the same time, very profound description of Finland:
“There is something very soothing in the green, flat Finnish landscape, with its wooden houses and glimpses of water between the trees. As we sat in the restaurant car, drinking watery beer, I experienced suddenly that curious sense of satisfaction that can only be described in the words ‘being where you are’. That sounds absurd only until we reflect that for most of our lives we are not where we are. I am walking down a lane in Cornwall, but only my body is there; by mind is ‘elsewhere’. It is not in any particular place; it is just ‘not all there’ – a phrase we also use for the mentally defective. And then, beyond a certain point of relaxation, it happens. The left brain slows down; suddenly, it is walking in step with the right. And you are there, in the present moment, wholly and completely. You can taste the flavour of your own consciousness” (p. 32)
In describing either his own, or his protagonist’s environment Wilson takes particular note of a flowing peacefulness, particularly in water or gently falling snow. Interestingly he has mentioned elsewhere that he was always obsessed with large surfaces of water of which he often saw through the bus window as a child. However, he knew that if he managed to get out and attend to the water, the sense of mystery and odd obsession would soon subside. Yet here, whether in Prague or Finland, these delicately beautiful sensations are suddenly grasped in phenomenological terms: that in these moments the thought-chatter and obsessive left-brain tends to obscure one’s immediate experience; but in modes of peace the right-brain is allowed to ‘breath’, letting in a sense of the ‘now’, and, significantly, a sense of history; of an optimistic existential context in which all minor anxieties are seen objectively as wasteful trivialities.
In the above quote Wilson’s experience in Finland is very similar to Heller’s experience in the isolation tank. For when he emerged his left-brain had slowed down to a healthier speed, allowing the right-brain to ‘complete the partial mind’ and add a dimension of richness often reduced in so called ‘ordinary consciousness’ – both he and Wilson had found their mind; a mind moreover in which the hemispheres are balanced and complimentary. It is precisely these sorts of examples that give phenomenology its importance, for it is clear that these experiences are fundamentally the same thing: that the recognition is based on an objective fact, rather than mere subjective involvement. The world has this dimension of beauty, and it is our minds – or our hemispheres – that often usurp our attention, blinding us to the immensity of existence, this objective dimension of inter-related facts.
Kit Butler calls these moments ‘holiday consciousness’:
“… when I have plenty of energy, I feel more awake than usual. I’m like a fire with a good draught. My consciousness is usually narrow, muffled, limited, like playing a piano with your feet on the damper pedal. In moments of holiday consciousness, I take my foot off the pedal, and every thought and feeling seems to vibrate, to arouse all kinds of echoes and memories” (1971: p.71)
These vibrations and echoes which reverberate through the mind causes a feedback loop of optimism and results in the ‘peak experience’. And furthermore, the Faculty X aspect of other times and places suggests a sort of vertical leap out of time, into a richer field of consciousness. Now this would be the most effective way to overcome the black room experiments. Indeed to be able to achieve this at will would presage a tremendous evolutionary leap. It would not be inaccurate to say that the above examples of how to achieve power consciousness – self-remembering; Faculty, X; Heller’s experience after the deprivation tank and holiday consciousness – are the essence of Wilson’s entire lifework.
One can also see that it does not necessitate a crisis to throw us into these exalted states, but a careful understanding and moreover knowledge – perhaps gained through our own past experiences – of these deep reserves of energy. Wilson emphasises time and again that these can be achieved by an imaginative technique. An imaginative technique, moreover, which comes with the territory of our own minds. It is an inherent evolutionary potential within all of us.
The mysterious Station K, as it turns out, appears to be a secret base for the development of the superman. This I believe to be the most fascinating part of the book, giving an unusual twist to the plot by introducing a grand and fascinating conspiracy within Europe. The head of which is Ernst Theodore Wilhelm Staufmann, a huge man who is severely scarred. After being incarcerated and observed by Station K, Butler emerges and is treated very kindly by his captors – they admire his strength and ability to remain for so long in the black room. Interestingly their own concerns run parallel with Butler’s, for they too are obsessed with human evolution. They abide by a strict regimen of “austere diet, vigorous physical exercise, concentration sessions and a rigorous program of language learning” which all amount to an immense means of self-discipline (2015: p.308). In a fascinating description of Hitler, Staufmann uses the word ‘dynamo’ in relation to ones will power; of the important feedback involved in reaching higher degrees of consciousness, in which, he describes how Adolf Hitler “deliberately cultivated will-power until it acquired the force of a dynamo”. This is controversial for obvious reasons; however within The Black Room this is a part of an embedded story and wraps up a huge European conspiracy which is ever ongoing. Station K, in some ways, is an extension of this will-to-power consciousness, and also attempts to sidestep – somewhat ironically under the circumstances – the limitations of conventional society by becoming a sort of elitist cult outside of nationalism and other political straight jackets.
However cult-like they might appear, their fundamental goal is that of the evolution of consciousness and not, per se, Europe’s political infrastructure. This dynamo, which Staufmann refers to, is essential to understanding their fundamental point. Butler encapsulates this conservation and dynamism of energy when he says:
“Anything that arouses optimism or gives [us] something to look forward to, re-charges the batteries . . . we completely underrate our capacities. We should be able to discharge vitality like an electric eel, and recharge the batteries in five minutes. . . anyone who could learn this would probably live twice as long as the average human being” (1971: p.292)
What unfolds is a fascinating experiment in which Butler can observe his own brainwaves on an electroencephalograph, which gives him a visual representation of his own highly-disciplined mind. This is a common theme in Wilson’s work whereby physical apparatus or some chemical compound becomes an important step in developing a more direct control of one’s own consciousness. However, it is rarely the source or the reason for reaching these states – it is always a tool, or a ‘means-by-which’. It is important to recognise and have direct experience of these states of consciousness to understand their mechanisms, and once properly grasped one should be able to replicate these states by sheer willpower. It is, in a sense, a natural mode of perception that should be cultivated in mankind, and should not be entirely mediated by drugs or any other outside source. In fact, one could argue that this is the essential purpose of the black room: to discipline an individual to make an effort totally unaided by external stimulus.
This essay was intended as a short excursion into one of Wilson’s central themes first developed in his Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966), whereby he describes the “world itself” as a:
“. . . gigantic ‘dark room’ that proves that we are too dependent on physical stimuli. The countries of the mind may be vast, but man cannot get a visa to stay there. He can only get a day ticket that forces him to return every night” (1980: p.125)
A common source of reference for Wilson is the nineteenth-century romantics who attempted to undertake the leap into the mind, and who found, upon return, that reality had been divested of meaning. That, in their attempt to flee reality through their mind, they kept on meeting up with the inevitability of a cold, harsh reality. Furthermore this caused a huge wave of depression and resultant mass suicide. In effect, they concluded that the world of the mind was just as futile and as flawed as the material world; that the mind was chained to the body and its environment and could never ‘take off’. They had slumped back into the ‘worms-eye view’ after having glimpsed, albeit briefly, the light and expanse of the ‘birds-eye view’. And yet Wilson’s own methodology shows where their essential flaw lies: in the habitual mechanism of the robot.
Although Kit Butler is one of Wilson’s many protagonists who attempt to make the evolutionary leap into a higher tier of consciousness, he remains a better-rounded hero than can be found in some of Wilson’s early science-fiction novels like The Mind Parasites or The Philosopher’s Stone. He is somewhere in between man and superman; who seems to be on the very cusp of understanding the real beauty and the enormous breadth of freshness within being and creation. In one of the final scenes of The Black Room is a powerful image that urges the reader to pay attention, to make sure that his own ‘intentionality’ does not become flat and passive. And in moments of crisis, or imaginative insight, or sharpened intentionality the objective world rushes both inwards and outward to generate a dynamic experienced as a fervent evolutionary Lifeforce:
“. . . the weight of cold metal in his hand brought a sudden hallucinatory memory of a perfume; it was so distinct that it might have been sprinkled on the furry lining of the collar that was now damp with his breath. It was the perfume that Jane had been wearing when she had said goodbye on Victoria Station; he had intended to ask her its name. This clear sense of another time and place brought with it a feeling of affirmation and detachment. He was intensely aware of the night, of the trees, of the flowing water and the snow-covered stones at the edge of the stream, and also of his own identity suspended amongst these things. But it seemed unimportant whether he was there or elsewhere. It was as if he could make time standstill by an act of concentration” (1971: pp.347-348).
This is where the novel ends abruptly. But in this standstill of time, it is implied that the future of Kit Butler is now in his own mind; that, no matter what, his mind can sustain its own integrity either in the intense world of international espionage, the sensorial barrenness of a black room, and, most importantly, under his own will.
Butler shows the dao, the way, of a New Existentialism. . .
Dossor, H.F. (1990) Colin Wilson The Man & His Mind. Dorset, Element Books Ltd.
Heller, A. (2015). Getting Tanked: One Writer’s 60 Minutes in Sensory Deprivation. Available: http://www.vogue.com/13294276/sensory-deprivation-tanks-float-spa/. Last accessed 28th Jan 2016.
Tredell, N. (2015) Novels to Some Purpose. Nottingham, Pauper’s Press.
Wilson, C. (1971) The Black Room. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London
Wilson, C. (1980) The New Existentialism. London, Wildwood House Ltd.
Wilson, C. (1983) Access to Inner Worlds. London, Rider.