Some reflections on The Personality Surgeon

The Personality Surgeon, one of Colin Wilson’s lesser-known, and minor fictional works, is in some ways an essential insight into his most pressing philosophical problems expressed in The Outsider.  For what he diagnoses as the ‘outsider’, is, by some people’s standards vague and imprecise, for he lists people from F. Scott Fitzgerald in the same breath as George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, as if they were one and the same.  These leaps are indeed large, but, as one steps back and grasps the book’s central theme, you realise that, whatever their essential – and sometimes huge – differences, there is still the central problem of identity.

Here is a line from The Personality Surgeon which I believe is typical, not just of an outsider, but of those moments in between life when we look around ourselves, perceiving others, and think that there is something deeply familiar and yet simultaneously uncanny.  As if there is a nauseating double-exposure of our being, of self-consciousness, awkwardly compounded with the  oddly repetitious, ordinary world, and human-all-too-human:

“Personalities seem to run in types, as if God had decided to take a short cut when he was handing them out. People of completely different types would have one or two odd features in common; a way of raising an eyebrow, pursing the lips, narrowing the eyes. But in many cases, it was even subtler than that, as if the underlying structure of the personality was the same, like some basic family characteristic that you could recognise in fathers and children and aunts and nephews, even though they all looked quite different. He found himself thinking: it’s as if personalities came in construction kits…” (p. 130)

I am certain that many of us, as children, have looked up to adults and have been alienated by their ways of expression and gesticulation, for they suddenly seem oddly automatic – having picked these up out of years of habit.  It is only when we grab their attention that they seem to become suddenly aware of you, and then, accordingly they become another individual – that of a caring, responsible adult who has to deal with his child’s requests.  At this point, a juncture occurs, and many a child realises it: there is the adult world and the world of childhood.  And yet, at that naïve age, we cannot see exactly where one becomes the other, if, indeed, it does at all (it has a subtle gradient which, in experience, is difficult to pinpoint).  We seem to suddenly occur into life, and, over time, we acquire mechanisms which make us who we are.  The child too, in many ways, is endowed with inquiring and acquiring mechanisms, and once these have fully developed, thus become mechanical.  In another stage, perhaps the teenage years and early twenties, the personality and socially interactive qualities come more into play, and therefore develop rapidly in order to deal with the more complex world of emotions, inter-personal relationships and sexual rituals.  And yet, once we again step-back, so to speak, we still remain bewildered with our existence, as if something, after all of these learnt tricks, is simply not satisfied.

When one has ‘pulled-back’, it is easy to see man as a mechanical being, entirely at the mercy of the external environment and other people.  He learns entirely for their sake, and the mind eventually recedes from reality, and in turn becomes almost entirely socialised, and a victim of the physical world.  The Romantic, as much as the Existentialist, has realised this more fully than most, and he flees almost entirely into mind, in a rebellious gesture of reaction, and then is mercilessly thrown back into the so-called reality of the world, with its coarse rules, banality and tendency to reduce the importance of imagination.

The outsider is effectively someone who realises that he is betraying his ‘essence’, that which is most essential to his being.  That is, something beyond the ephemeral and transient mask of personality.  The personality was designed to deal with the world of appearances, and more precisely, its social-aspects and everyday interactions.  But the essence – for that is what Gurdjieff called it – is something that wants to actualise itself further, that is, it wants to achieve what Carl Jung called ‘self-actualisation’.  In short, the personality has very little to do with this ‘self’, and the essence is entirely more primal, essential – it could even be even referred to as the ‘soul’ or the ‘spiritual’, most deepest element in the individual.

Wilson’s personality surgeon does not quite identify this aspect in these extreme and almost religious terms.  Instead, it is bought down to a more ordinary, and what is in effect a more relatable realm of just what constitutes individuality.  This, I believe, is what makes the book so accessible, and somewhat goes beyond the ‘outsider’ hypothesis, by recognizsng that in every man and woman there is some aspect to them which strives for the same sort of ‘self-actualisation’, as the outsider perhaps does more consciously.  The outsider, it could be said, is more painfully aware of this juncture between personality and essential being.  Mere personality has its limits, but the essence has an evolutionary quality that, in the outsider, demands to be evolved (whether it is an emotional, physical or intellectual disposition).

The friction between himself and the world is precisely that evolutionary urge.  And the pain that the outsider feels is precisely in that unconscious drive, paradoxically, towards more consciousness.  The entire point, with which Wilson dedicated all of his work, was to making this evolutionary drive a conscious effort towards more consciousness.  For once that is reached, half the battle is already dealt with, and the rest is entirely down to self-discipline towards some purpose, that is, to actualise one’s self.

There is a brutal quality to ‘outsiderism’, and that is why it is difficult to simply ignore; one may attempt to satisfy this drive by escaping into alcoholism, escapism or even suicide.  But its essential urge is towards the building of more being, despite everything else, and it is often due to this very friction of being with which it welds the most divided aspects being.  In an enormously useful analogy in his novel The Black Room, one character compares this to the intense heat required to fuse fractured glass together into one huge, singular block of hardened crystal.  This is the level of being Wilson strived to achieve in himself, and which can be seen time and time again in his work and his insistence on discipline, particularly concerning the mind and its tendency to lapsing into flaccid, passive states of ennui and despair.

The ‘peak experience’, although it can appear spontaneously, is just as much a product of climbing and building towards that ‘peak’; it is essentially a recognition that it can be done.  Once there, one can view reality from upon a height of relationality, where the valleys, troughs and peaks can be seen in the context of one’s whole life, and that, in a point above the time, one’s whole existence is perceived as a whole of ‘other times and places’.  In his book Mysteries, he says that there’s a curious ‘higher I’, which, when it looks back on life realises that even the most severe moments of struggle were due to some ‘lower I’, and that, in the long run, there is a state of mind which always resides above these problems, looking on benignly, with due respect and sympathy.

Charles Peruzzi, the main protagonist in The Personality Surgeon realises that the job of the psychotherapist is to release them from their own ‘narrowness’:

“All at once, he could see that this was the real problem of human beings; their narrowness, their inability to escape their trivial personal limitations. This was real aim of all psychotherapy; to help people escape from their own limitations, to bring them a glimpse of that immense richness that lay out there in the world beyond the immediacy of here-and-now.” p.221

Again, time plays an important role in Wilson’s work, and is expressed in his notion of the ‘Faculty X’, the idea of sensing ‘other times and places’.  I have always been fascinated with Wilson’s treatment of the ‘here-and-now’, due to many of the spiritual texts and the modern New Age movement being obsessed with the ‘power of now’, encapsulated in the title of Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now (1971).  Wilson does not seem to be dismissing a more intense awareness of the now or the present – far from it, that is precisely what he means – but of our sense of being bound to and in time, that we are,  no matter, intrinsically and inescapably limited to the forward march of time, and thus entirely victim of it.  The ‘here-and-now’ which is so restricting is the mind’s tendency to be trapped along the horizontal axis of matter and its course, whereas the mind, Wilson argues, is able somehow able to launch vertically out of time.  And in this case, the personality is really this ‘horizontal axis’ of being, running concurrently with time, whereas the very real essence of a being is in a way urging us beyond ourselves, that is, into what Richard Maurice Bucke called ‘cosmic consciousness’.

The personality surgeon, in Wilson’s novel, is not so much about adjusting the personality, but of diminishing its overall grip on consciousness.  There are many characters which are completely crippled by minor ailments, defects, or personal hang-ups which in turn drain their energy and cause their lives to be a ‘fabric of errors’.  In each instance, the surgery does not so much enhance, enrich or expand their personality, but reduces its size to a more reasonable level, whereby the character can see his or own tendency towards triviality – and how, in that sense, trivialities blind us to our evolutionary impulse, which is far less personal.  In fact, he offers most of the characters an impersonal development opportunity, through either the arts, self-expression or some naturally evolving counterpart to their being.  It is significant, I thought, that he chooses the image of the individual – in the form of a video recording – in order to highlight just what these personality flaws are.  They are usually physical, movement-orientated manifestations to deeper modes of being (where a mere muscular spasm might be a significant pointer towards a lack of self-confidence, or emotional armour or defence mechanism).  In other words, the personality surgeon somehow aligns the personality with the essence, that is, where the personality strays from the deepest aspects of the individual, he synchronises – makes parallel – with their natural inclination towards ‘self-actualisation’.

I am very much reminded of Abraham Maslow’s realising that a bored manager of a chewing gum factory ­– who ceased to menstruate due to sheer unconscious boredom – required some intellectual stimulation in the form of a night course on sociology.  For in this instance, Maslow realised that the woman had a natural tendency towards intellectual efforts, and in the boring job, her unconscious mind was leaking enormous energy which resulted in her profound depression.  Maslow aligned her personality – her ordinary, developed sense of self – with her deeper being – her innate quality, or ‘essence’, which was that of an intelligent woman who would flourish in an intellectual environment.  Her ordinary life, and her ‘personality’, which had to deal with the banalities of a chewing gum factory, was suffocating some deeper, unconscious ‘self’, which thrived to evolve itself.


Wilson had realised by Religion and the Rebel (1957) that the ‘outsider’ was a loose term, and although very useful, tended to be too general.  Although that is not particularly my own view, for I consider the ‘outsider’ a useful and vague enough term to define someone who is aware, more intensely than some, that their evolutionary potential is somehow being squandered or repressed.  Due to this they become disenchanted, and moreover, due to the intensity and sensitivity of their being, may produce enormous volcanic eruptions of energy into their works, producing powerful and visionary masterpieces, may just the same crumble under the same intense inner pressures.  Wilson never ceases to remind us that these individuals need to ‘galvainize’ their will, and thus ‘cannalize’ these intense energies into the force of evolution itself.  These individuals may indeed be closer to super-humanity than they realise, had they managed to correctly direct their own intense powers.

Yet, these are powers innate, perhaps, in most people, and which moreover are simply not recognised.  I believe that most problems are due to this repression or lack of recognition, and this is exploited by predatory companies and social media.  This very lack, and this very focus and over-emphasis on the personality as the sole arbiter of being, dismisses the essential being at the centre of a person – the evolutionary need to build one’s being, to imbue perception with an intensity which throws-forward using the developing mind’s impetus towards more life force.  The mind, particularly the imagination, resists this mechanisation of being, and is always more severe and alive than the personality – with its endless and ephemeral identifications – can ever be.

The Personality Surgeon, in this sense, is the most contemporary of Wilson’s novels, for it deals directly with this over exaggeration of the personality, and more so, deconstructs the cult-of-personality which is so self-evidently rife with trauma, anxiety and thoroughly capitalised on by pharmaceutical companies.

In the modern world, at least as I see it, there are too many shallow exits for those struggling with their being, and instead of actually developing this intensely interesting part of themselves, their most essential essence, they are once against fooled by what Wilson called ‘Upside-Downness’.  It is a society, in the New Age especially, which inflates itself with platitudes, and in the world of social media, encourages only a semblance of genuine being.

The mere illusion of more being is chosen over the reality of super-consciousness.  We have itemised ourselves, and not, like Wilson suggested, welded our essential parts together to form a permanent, essential higher ‘I’.

The Personality Surgeon is perhaps the most popularly viable of Wilson’s novels in the sense that it deals less with outsiders, and particularly addresses general anxieties, and particularly how to transform them.  It assumes, quite rightly, that many people suffer – often silently – from a frustrating sense of under-fulfilment.  It is clear with the advent of social-media, with Facebook and so on, that the development of a simulacrum of personality is easier than ever.  Inspirational quotes run rife, and all sorts of political, dietary revolutions are spread like wildfire as each individual identifies with some other community.  And, at the same time, it is easy to step back and see what Wilson pointed out as the ‘construction kit’ of personality, identifying the strange sort of mechanicalness of man.  The Personality Surgeon strikes right down the middle of this divide, addressing the most superficial aspect of man with his deepest yearning to evolve.  And in that sense, it is a neutralising force, bringing both the personality and essential being into focus, or along the same parallel tracks.

For those people who are disillusioned with the shallow façade of a media and personality soaked world, this novel offers a refreshing and optimistic take on how, in the height of superficiality, we might be able to marshal our full forces by correctly developing the personality in concordance with our more deeply evolutionary needs.  It points towards the dangers of an ever encroaching materialism, and its dangers of smothering the evolutionary mind.  And yet, it does so by utilising precisely the benefits of technology and its ability to reflect our own will to being.  Long before the development of Artificial Intelligence, of self-conscious machines, we might use machines to develop our own consciousness, and moreover, an objective self-consciousness of our true being.

This may be the ironic outcome of too much indulgence; that, in reaching a certain limit, it develops more outsiders than ever – a mass of people who yearn for more meaning in their lives than can possibly be reached by personality alone.


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