This will be a simple sketch of some ideas that, I believe, lend themselves well to Wilson’s new existentialism. They are, in a sense, my own approach to Wilson’s work; that which I have taken from his work and have helped to shape my own insights. For, in a sudden insight, I realised just how important it is to develop a more disciplined consciousness; curiously it is in relatively unremarkable moments that the mind can suddenly jolt you into a semblance of self-consciousness, a new type of remembering.
In my instance, I was walking the grounds of Newstead Abbey on a visit with my family, and I felt oddly tired all day, for as I walked past the satyr statues in the front gardens, thinking of Lord Byron, I suddenly realised that I was not taking it in. That is, my knowledge of Byron and Shelley’s lives and their works, is at best, skeletal and limited – I only know, like my knowledge of the history of China, for example, key events, names and a few dates – but, in the other sense, it is about not fully embracing my own being, for if Byron has been long gone, but his work remains, the ghost of his being is still with us, and I can become aware of Byron’s existence by increasing my knowledge and sense of what he was about. (It is interesting to note that Byron was too much embodied – he was particularly prone to an overindulgence of the senses!) And even though I was in these beautiful gardens, Japanese, French and Spanish, I was reminded of Wilson’s ‘Faculty X’ experience which I was, at the time, nowhere near to invoking – my mind, as I looked out, was too tired, and even though I knew that these were obviously tremendously stimulating and rich environments, full of natural and historical significance, my mind only reflected a dull sense of being, as if I was basically a ghost in the present. It is certainly a frustrating experience, and I believe everybody has felt like at some point in their life.
In moments like these, and especially being aware – to some degree – of the mechanisms of consciousness, and yet, still feeling like a victim of low energies is enough to encourage you to take up a more disciplined and active approach to your own consciousness. Superconsciousness (2009), Wilson’s last book, is a reminder of this, and an excellent summary of his life’s work. At that time, amusingly walking between two female lead satyr statues erected by Lord Byron, I began to think: “Here I am, in this rare opportunity, and I can’t be fully present!”. Obviously, I was also aware of my own distraction, my tendency to intellectualise in moments when I should be doing the contrary – causing a temporary surcease in what Steve Taylor calls ‘thought-chatter’, and to simply be in the moment, allowing as it were, the objective rather than the subjective world to come more into presence. It was then that I really grasped the importance of superconsciousness, for it is more important than anything else; that it is, right at the centre of being and being in being. In some strange way, those lead satyrs were more there than I was, and if I could be, I could too be in existence rather than being oddly distant, without the force of energy to settle my mind into a greater degree of receptivity.
Ouspensky really emphasised this fact in The Psychology of Mankind’s Possible Evolution when he said that man, when he apparently emerges from the subjective world of dreams, in fact only has one added dimension – that is, he is conscious but also simultaneously asleep. In other words, man remains asleep, and much of his mind is still awash with subjectivities which sway either way like a boat on a rough sea. Ordinary consciousness is basically a minor ballast added to this boat, adding at least a small degree of active self-control, but nowhere near enough. A yet higher degree of consciousness is an increase of ballast, which again adds another dimension of self-control which stabilises the mind in the rush of distracting subjectivities which tends to pull us out of life and the ‘now’. These are the states that we need to ‘build’, and which nature, unfortunately, has not necessarily endowed us with. Gurdjieff always emphasised this fact that the mind can, after a certain point, only consciously evolve; we cannot sit back on our laurels, drifting through life like a ghost on a misty lake (although we can, but it would be immensely unsatisfying!).
One of Wilson’s best attributes, I believe, is that he was ready to share his own experiences, which is the mark of a genuine existentialist. He often remarks on his own panic attack situations, most notably in Mysteries (1978) and Access to Inner Worlds (1983), and I believe he too, like myself, had a tendency to ‘over think’. This is perhaps whyI am so indebted to his work, for before reading him, I always felt oddly frustrated with a lot of other writers – that they seemed to mask themselves, and were oddly clouded by subjectivities. I could certainly see it in the work of Emil Cioran, for example, whose work is emphatically a series of subjective outbursts. Wilson, I thought, could ‘step back’ from himself, and this is what The Outsider (1956) is a result of being able to do; he stepped back from the passively accepted pessimism of his time, and was not, as is so easy in our culture, to be pulled under by the current of negativity and the over-emphasis of personality and its trivialities. It is a bold statement, I know, but a lot of modern culture seems to me like bad conscience! Perhaps that’s why Wilson felt so annoyed when people could relate to Samuel Beckett’s work, because, he instinctively felt that this was only because people tended to accept unquestioningly that the mind is a passive observer of reality. Again, this is the ghost in the mist, who has simply stopped rowing his boat because he doesn’t believe there are further shores of being. It is rather like terminal boredom.
Curiously Cioran was a huge admirer of Beckett, and even remarked that his favourite word was ‘lessness’. A good character portrait can be found in Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston’s Searching for Cioran (2009), where one can see that Cioran was a relatively pleasant individual (aside from being in Romania’s Iron Guard), but had somehow inverted Nietzsche’s ‘will to life’ to a ‘will to negation’ – I am convinced he felt a sort of thrill out of what he called ‘slandering the universe’; it was as if his energies were so depleted he turned into some sort of Gollum.
In one of my favourite chapters in The Essential Colin Wilson (a series of extracts chosen by Wilson from his own work, which I highly recommend), called The Ladder of Selves, Wilson puts his finger on our over-tendency to narrow down our consciousness. He notes that one of mankind’s greatest attributes is his ability to concentrate the mind, but its major disadvantage is that, as he notes, “when I concentrate on something, I ignore everything else”, he continues, “I lock myself in a kind of prison”. As a writer, and a very productive one, Wilson realised that in his obsessive routine of work, that he was probably finding it difficult to unwind his mind. He did so, he mentions, by settling down in the evening with a bottle of wine and his vinyl collection. Wilson shares this interesting phenomenological anecdote, and says that in his moments of anxiety his consciousness becomes narrowed to this minor ‘I’, and this is at the expense of the:
“… universe that exists outside us until it becomes a distant memory. Even when the task is finished, we often forget to re-establish contact and open the windows. The inner watchspring can get so overwound that we become permanently blind and deaf”.
Again, he continues:
“The tendency is dangerous because our mental health depends on the ‘meaning’ that comes from the world around us. Meaning is something that walks in through the senses on a spring morning, or when you arrive at the seaside and hear the cry of the seagulls. All obsession cuts us off from meaning. My panic attacks began when I had overwound the watchspring and lost the trick of unwinding it. I was like a man slowly suffocating to death, and, what is more, suffering because I was gripping my own windpipe” [my italics]
As I walked through the Newstead gardens, I had also become a victim to this, to a lesser degree. I was distant, and I knew it, and as I fought it I then in turn wasted energy. Following this, I became frustrated, and then thought of the importance of superconsciousness. It seemed, as I threw a coin into a well, to make a wish, that this is what it was for; for what is life if we are not living it in presence, passively drifting on our laurels. It is ironic, I thought, that we should wish at all, for that is too one of the great follies of human existence. That ghost in the mist is wishing to be, but cannot come into full being – he is diffuse, as gaseous as the mist itself. Reality for him, is as imprecise as himself. His ‘I’s’ are all over the place, floating, undisciplined and profoundly difficult to collect into any form of disciplined concentration. But this is precisely what he must do, and it is a part of building his being into something more solid, so to speak. It is, like one of my favourite metaphors of Wilson’s, this ability to apply an intense heat to our fractured being in order to develop a sort of hardened crystal of a soul which perfectly reflects and refracts objective existence, like still water reflects the sky.
It seems to me that that is what matter is for, for the mind, on its own, would be unimaginably diffuse. To imbue matter with freedom is perhaps the closest to answer to the mystery of human existence that we can currently formulate – and it has the benefit of having an evolutionary directive. I have always been struck, too, by the idea of a tulpa, which is a Tibetan word for a ‘thought form’. It is an exotic idea, and is an exciting one for its notion that we can animate a thought, somehow harden it into physical existence, and somehow bestow it with an independent consciousness. But, that all being well, it is perhaps more of a metaphor for ourselves. And this is why Wilson’s writings on the occult and esoteric are so refreshing, for he does not have a tendency of drifting off into abstraction, merely celebrating the exotic for the mere sake of it. The author Michael Waldberg in his book Gurdjieff: An Approach to his Ideas (1981) highlights this irony when he says that we
“… complain about our destiny, our ignorance and our weaknesses, although we will never form any objective image of either ourselves or of reality. We advance our own dullness as an excuse for ignoring the divine, not realising that it is we ourselves who are responsible for this dullness, and that the more we renounce our essential privilege of consciousness, the more our dullness grows” (p. 40)
Wilson, like Gurdjieff, emphasised this need to have a solid sense of self, a fully realised and objective self-image. He was also fond of quoting Nietzsche’s: “A great man? I always see only the actor of his own ideal”. The tulpa may well be ‘realised’ into existence, but so are we ourselves. Too often our own self-image is too vague, and our ‘dullness’, as Waldberg refers to, is this impreciseness, this vagueness of essence. All the outsiders, to some degree, realised some immense aspect of themselves, particularly T.E. Lawrence, who knew too well, that he was plagued by a ‘thought-riddled nature’, which was both his genius and his downfall. Wilson managed to diagnose these essential characteristics in his outsiders in his first book, and this is precisely why he is so important. It is as I have mentioned in my previous Blog, Some Reflections on The Personality Surgeon, that we have to somehow know what our best and worst asset is: do we have a tendency to over emoting, intellectualising or placing our physical body and its pleasures before everything else? Now, this is a fairly crude reduction, but I think it is a beginning; from observing ourselves, and our phenomenological and intentional habits – our more robotic aspects – we can begin to ‘shock’ them out of their usual theft of our important energies. Wilson always knew the value of a crisis to shock the mind out of its normal habituation, what he called ‘the robot’ which can usurp important moments in our lives. The tumultuous unconscious mind, with its multiple ‘I’s’ and subjective currents often pulls our higher ‘I’ into its undisciplined triviality, its identifications with the personal. And yet, at other instances, we climb the ladder of selves, and solidify our being, producing a ballast in our hull of being. Wilson expresses our identity as being passed around like a Rugby ball, or as if we live on a “horizontal plane”, while there is also “different levels like a ladder”, that is, the vertical plane of being. He uses William James’s insight as an example, whereby
“… the musician might play his instrument with a certain technical virtuosity for years and then one day enter so thoroughly into the spirit of the music that it is as if the music is playing him; he reaches a kind of effortless perfection. A higher more efficient ‘I’ takes over.”
He has not only ‘actualised’ himself, but he has also actualised the music itself. The creation, like the tulpa, becomes imbued with objective reality. This is the act of creation as well as the act of creation of the self. This is what I mean when I say that the outsider must learn to build his being. The entire corpus of Colin Wilson’s work could be summed up as The Outsider and the Building of Being. For Wilson identified the man who at some unconscious level knew that he had an evolutionary imperative, but was frustrated by his lack of self-realisation of this impetus towards further complexity. Gary Lachman’s book, The Caretakers of the Cosmos (2013), is an excellent expression of this idea, for he states that man’s real purpose is to repair the cosmos, that is, by first acknowledging that the individual is inextricably apart of this actualisation of the universe’s tendency towards more meaning. Again, it is an evolutionary directive that emphasises the significance of consciousness being imbued in matter (unlike the Gnostic notion of matter being a fallen state, it is quite the contrary; that matter is a means to an evolving).
(It is interesting to note a phenomenological description of the problem of modern atheism at this point, for Adam Roberts in his novel The Thing Itself (2015), expresses it perfectly: “Twenty-first century atheists peer carefully at the world around them and claim to see no evidence for God, when what they’re really peering at is the architecture of their own perceptions. Spars and ribs and wire-skeletons—there’s no God there. Of course there’s not. But strip away the wire-skeleton, and think of the cosmos without space or time or cause or substance, and ask yourself: is it an inert quantity? If so, how could… how could all this?”)
It as if a vertical impulse needs to be actualised into the horizontal plane of matter. This is an insight that is particularly indebted to the work of Maurice Nicoll, and which I often refer to when I bring this notion of an existential ‘axis’ into use.
The leaden sculptures of mythological satyrs in Byron’s garden seemed to be more objective than I on that day. And as I was viewing Byron’s ancestral home, I realised that this is what Wilson meant by ‘Faculty X’, the sense of other times and places. I was ironically reminded of it when wandering through continental gardens, past solid lead mythological figures that seemed ironically more fully realised into the objective universe. Although I was basically just hungover, and a mere coffee would have invigorated me at the time, I realised that it is towards materiality – not in the materialist-reductionist sense of ‘matter’ – that we were intended in the first place. If existence is simply a school in being able to imbue the vast energies of consciousness into a concentrated form, like the implicit statue in a lump of rock, we can actualise ourselves by becoming a material being with self-consciousness (it as if we are some sort of transducer valve of subtler energies into more density). It also reminds me of Howard Bloom’s theory in his book The God Problem (2011), which he calls ‘the corollary-generator theory’, which is his answer to the nature of creativity in the cosmos. It is strangely similar to ‘relationality’ which Wilson talks about, when one’s consciousness naturally seems to infer something more, relating to something else and so on, until we experience William James’s ‘horizons of distant fact’. But, as I would say, it seems to be two horizons intersecting – and these two, when they meet, cause a collision into matter which manifests as our own being. When we can somehow synchronise the vertical, objective evolutionary meaning beyond time into the ordinary time-stream itself, it is as an act of cosmic creativity generating further complexities – and that is urged through man’s evolution of his own consciousness, and ‘building’ of objective being.
The vagueness of being that the ghost feels, might be solved when he takes up the oars and starts rowing towards a more solid shore of defined matter. This teasing ambiguity of existence is precisely its urge, like some sort of singularity in the act of becoming. Nicolas Tredell called his chapter on Wilson’s science-fiction, ‘Arrows to a Distant Shore’, which I think pretty much sums up Wilson’s intention – and intentionality – when he points out those curious moments of ‘Faculty X’, when we suddenly have flashes of meaningful insight into our evolutionary purpose. This is the intuition behind when J.G. Bennet said “Now I see why God hides Himself from us”.
Wilson understood this, and recognising the outsider in himself, and through applied phenomenological analysis of his own impulses, panic attacks and insights he started to ‘build’ himself. And that, I think, is his big contribution towards repairing the rift in the cosmos – by bringing mind back into matter. But it is also to realise, as he did in the Ladder of Selves, to throw off our tendency to mental diffuseness, and in moments of ‘shock’, or realisation of ‘Faculty X’, one is released as if by a “thunderclap, like a sudden reprieve from death” and our minds are imbued with a “sense of overwhelming joy and gratitude, and the recognition that meaning is always there. It is we who close our senses to it”.
Or in one of Byron’s famous quotes:
“Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life. The evening beam that smiles the clouds away, and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray”.