As the prolific author of over 182 books, hundreds of essays and introductions, Colin Wilson is the supreme example of a ‘full-time writer’. After being catapulted to fame in 1956 with The Outsider, he continued to write furiously, producing the ‘Outsider Cycle’, a series of dense and penetrating philosophical works, alongside many novels. No mean feat. So there is little wonder why any would-be writer would look up to Wilson – who was self-taught – as a model of a self-disciplined man blessed – or more precisely developed through sheer determination! – with a highly effective, easy-to-read style for conveying often obscure and fascinating ideas. Certainly he never alienates his readers (if you deduct a rigid academic orthodoxy), and many have commended his leisurely style and brilliant analogies.
Human beings, he says, are like “grandfather clocks driven by watch springs”, thus highlighting our immense powers and our comparatively weak trickle of will-power; our lack of motivation and tendency towards passivity. There are many such examples, and one of the most popular is: “opportunities increase as they are seized”; which is, in my opinion, exactly the mechanism behind both evolution and the writing process itself. For behind Wilson’s ‘will-to-write’ was tremendous self-discipline, vision and a sense of increasing returns and moreover a grasping of new insights with the invigorating sense of self-expression that writing can provide.
Self-discipline and a direction was the reason I started to write this Blog in the first place, for it was intended to ‘make the leap’, to properly begin to write down and express my ideas. The reason I chose Colin Wilson in particular is because he parallels my own obsessions very closely; I also regard his work as a fundamental expression of the ‘Outsider’s’ crisis, after all, he most clearly defined it!
His work also has a developmental quality to it which is infectious. I found that I was always waiting for Colin Wilson’s next book to see how he fits together another part of the jigsaw, and I was saddened when he passed away in 2013. It was not an ordinary sadness, but a realisation that I had been journeying along with him in his explorations. His writing is so infused with a personal obsession – which I share – that he felt, like he probably does to many, a ‘friend you never met’.
Wilson’s voice has a great familiarity to any ‘Outsider’.
Colin Wilson is obviously one of my favourite thinkers and represents my ideal writer – someone who can share his own personal insights in a warm and accessible way, but also offer a constructive and imaginative expansion of knowledge. One only has to pick up The Outsider to realise that Wilson had read an incredible amount of books, and not only that, he understood them deeply; he read, moreover, because of some sort of basic survival mechanism: he grew out of meaning; he also thrived on it. He was, in short, a typical existentialist who cannot, for the life of him, passively accept existence on its own terms. He must have an active knowledge and understanding of his existence, and to this end, literature is one of the most direct voices of the human experience.
Music, art, and other forms reach deep into us, affecting us in tremendous ways that can also inform us of a meaning in our own lives as well as the cosmos. But it is literature which, in the end, communicates quite directly by asking the question: “Well, what is it all about?”. Literature, in my own experience at least, has a more explicit quality, where we can ‘hear the author’s voice’ as if partaking in a dialogue. Novels, by such writers as Hesse, Sartre, Rilke and Ionesco all seem to be diaries of existential anguish and revelation, whereby the reader can gain a phenomenological mirror into which one can more clearly see his or her fundamental position on life.
We can feel like the Steppenwolf of Hesse’s novel (Harry Haller), who is divided between the strong, animal lusts and violence of one’s primal aspects, that are furthermore in conflict with our reserved, rather tepid (by comparison) personality which is refined, restrained by our social responsibility. And by reading the novel, we can gain the added benefit of an analysis of what it is that plagues, not simply Hesse or the protagonist himself, but also ourselves in those Steppenwolfian moments.
Wilson was fascinated with the idea of a ‘self-image’, which he also felt was the purpose of the novel (see The Craft of the Novel). That is, not only the reading of a novel should enable the reader to examine his own inner thoughts, but also by writing – either a novel, non-fiction or even a Blog like this one – the individual should be able to understand himself with more exactitude. My own aim is to both increase my skill as a writer; but, more fundamentally, to gain insight into my own mechanisms as well as more deeply understanding the work of Colin Wilson.
Wilson dedicated himself to understanding the mechanisms of human existence, and geared it primarily towards self-expression. Anyone who took him on his word, with his tremendous gift of providing us with psychological and, not a word I use lightly, spiritual insights, would be a fool to drift passively in life and allow their deepest yearnings to go unanswered. He often invokes this important realisation when he uses the example of Abraham Maslow’s patient who was so bored with life that she ceased to menstruate. Or as in The Occult he uses the example of the film Forbidden Planet, where one character, left alone on a planet with a peculiar amplifying effect on the unconscious, generates semi-physical invisible monsters which forcibly demonstrate his own inner-conflicts and hatreds (rather like the poltergeist phenomenon).
To write is to somehow give shape to both conscious and unconscious forces, bringing them if you will into a dialogue in which the self-image can be more properly integrated.
Indeed there is, as Wilson pointed out, an important integration of brain hemispheric sympathy involved in writing. In his book Frankenstien’s Castle, which is about the two hemispheres of the brain, he discusses the idea of two ‘me’s’, how in each of us there resides two individuals, one silent, rather like the unconscious mind, and the other the ordinary ‘I’, which we take for granted.
He uses an example of his own career as a writer:
“When I started writing in my teens, it was because I was fascinated by the possibilities of self-expression as I saw them in writers I admired. But as soon as I began trying to turn my own intuitions and insights into words, I found I crushed them flat. Words seemed to be the enemy of insight, and their inability to reflect intuition seemed a mockery. But I went on writing, because there seemed nothing else to do; and gradually, I got better at it”
He continues, using the hemispheres of the brain to describe the process, with the “left was slowly becoming more expert in turning the insights of the right into language”. This is a very important and, at first, disarmingly simplistic notion that can be acknowledged, but not properly understood. This idea of ‘understanding’ something is what the author John Shirley meant when he said that true understanding was a “hologram of knowledge”. A hologram is something which, if broken down into smaller pieces, nevertheless includes the whole even in the fragments. So an understanding, in its true sense, has a vast, implicitness which folds and enfolds on itself like some endless Mandelbrot fractal. When we truly understand something we say “A-ha! Now I understand it”. It’s a strange phenomenon when it happens, because we felt we understood it before, but when we ‘truly’ understand it, is arrives like a revelation.
Good writing, I believe, has this quality; and Wilson’s certainly does. He remarked that he had wrote the same book a hundred times over, as all his work is obsessed with the same fundamental thing, what he called ‘the other mode of consciousness’. In that sense, all of his work is interconnected by that fact alone, but, with a more careful consideration you can take a book, such his science fiction novel, The Mind Parasites, and see that in it he presents all of his work from beginning to end: the ‘outsiders’, psychic vampirism, the occult, criminality, even ancient archaeology and extra-terrestrials. But there is more to it than that, and that is what gives it its timeless quality. It reaches deeply into these phenomena, and even though they are the same fundamental themes, they are nevertheless nearly inexhaustible in their vastness and sheer breadth. When we say a work ‘resonates’, we basically mean the same thing: it sounds like a gong and vibrates many such notes simultaneously; it is rich, inspires alertness and attunes us into another way of seeing, feeling or understanding. And, in turn, it is relational; that is, it connects us inevitably with everything else, like William James’s ‘horizons of distant fact’.
Wilson’s huge corpus of work is the resonation of this ‘birds-eye view’, and by discussing these modalities of being, it leads the sympathetic reader inevitably into either practicing this mode-of-consciousness, or at least being aware of it when it does happen to them: those spontaneous feelings of a ‘peak experience’, or even a sense of larger horizons of ‘fact’. By being reminded of this alone makes it all the more easier to fully grasp the mechanisms of consciousness; we can begin hoist ourselves upwards, using as it were the various topics, such as esotericism or the ‘new existentialism’, as what Joyce-Collin Smith called spiritually-enriching climbing frames for the mind. They each exert and stimulate our imaginations, giving what Rhea White called ‘the exceptional human experience’ (which Wilson aimed at achieving in his fantasy series, Spider World).
As the Zen teacher often pointed out, it is not the finger itself that is doing the pointing that we should concentrate on, it is the object to which it refers. Wilson was, in every one of his works, pointing to a ‘further shore’ of possibility, urging us towards self-actualisation. His own act was our own, if we too felt the same impulse to increased consciousness, for his books are developmental journals of a man passionately dedicated to evolving himself as a human being and even into the superman.
‘Outsider’ as Dominant ‘Mental Escaper’
In reflecting on his own work, Wilson remarked that there are a small percentage of people who were in “revolt against the confinement of everyday consciousness”, and these are precisely his ‘Outsiders’. He continues by saying that this is why people find it hard to understand them, and particularly their obsessions and omnivorous drive towards understanding themselves and the universe. If one man’s life is all about ego, he will interpret it as an egotistical drive towards knowledge for its own sake, and towards an expansion of ego. All other priorities are basically seen through this stained-glass window of subjectivity, whereby the ‘Outsider’ is perceived as just another one of them i.e. another deluded ‘Insider’ driven by the same basic impulses as the rest.
However, I believe that the Outsider’s drive is towards objectivity at all costs. And this is an enormously difficult challenge, for we too easily fall back into life as human-all-too-human, with all of our habits, neuroses and worldly-problems.
Perhaps in all ‘Outsiders’ there was some ‘promise’ they made to themselves at some point, and have firmly stuck to it. They have had a flash of awareness where they have noticed their own – or other people’s minds – suddenly become stuck in spiritual mud, pulled down by reality and turned into strange and ghostly automatons. Children understand this process better than most, for they are more clearly right-hemisphere orientated, but it is rather underdeveloped without the precise grasp that a left-hemisphere provide. It is rather like swearing an oath never to become unconscious, dead inside; and sadly, the world seems hell-bent on trivialities and boredom. One realises that it is too easy to become robotic and riddled with habits; we start to hand over our mental energies for a sort of numbed lethargy. This is the point where we cease to ‘do’ anything, and this was the mystic Gurdjieff’s primary message, that mankind cannot ‘do’ without first becoming conscious – or for the rest of his life he will merely drift, victim of circumstance and animated only by the endlessly churning relativisms and excuses of a dream-filled mind.
The ‘Outsider’ has managed to maintain above the threshold and, due to this, he remains an ‘Outsider’; to go further beyond the threshold would be a step into self-actualisation, whereby he could produce something out of himself and establish, rather like driving a nail into a mountain, a strong grip and maintaining an upward surge of being through creative self-expression. It is little wonder when The Outsider was being written, Wilson felt like a boat finally setting out from its harbour – he had built his being and now it was setting sail for the first time. He had concentrated his being, his conflicting ‘I’s’ and made them coordinate an active manifestation of objective values (unlike the insubstantial, vapour-like quality of our usually more subjective expressions).
Writing as Self-Actualisation
Writing has often been the refuge of the sick, the outcast and reclusive. One only has to look at the correspondence of someone like H.P. Lovecraft to realise he was most manifestly a man of letters, if of little else (although my own temperament finds great catharsis in Lovecraft’s brilliantly evocative cosmic horrors)! To write is a means of directed attention and creation, and even if it is horror or slander directed at the universe, the act of writing is nevertheless an act of creation. A fully honest pessimist would probably not even put pen to paper, resorting instead to a sitting out of his time until death, contributing nothing to a world he believes not worthy of contributing. But to write is a solitary affair, and even if you have no friends, or any sympathetic family, to express your ideas is to crystallise them to some degree, to actualise your ideas rather than allowing them to float in and out of consciousness. In fact, it is a great way of building a scaffolding around one’s psyche so the real work of integration can begin; the great novels always seem to have flowed naturally out of their authors, and I believe some of the recent great novels – I am thinking Atomised by Michel Houellebecq – are a strange sort of catharsis for its author, who would probably implode otherwise from despair.
Even though these are deeply pessimistic works which state the authors’ hatreds and violence towards the world, they nevertheless give expression to it in a way that transmutes the energies into more creative endeavours. But it is to Colin Wilson’s work where this can be properly balanced, for he deals primarily with the darkest expressions of mankind – particularly in his books on murder – and tries to understand their essential vitality, and, once understood, this upsurge of a war cry can in turn be transformed into a triumph of expanded consciousness, rather than a vicious collapse into despondency. He identified their basic intelligence and sensitivities, and diagnosed their wrong method of expression; their violent and undirected expression of a force that was perhaps objectively correct in its analysis (the modern world certainly can bore and sometimes does deserves nothing but contempt and rejection), but sadly offers no convincing alterative, and mere acknowledgement of a situation is still passive. But, Wilson argues, there is an alternative, and it is to firmly understand – objectively – that meaning is there all the time, and it is only our consciousness – our everyday consciousness – which reduces its impact through habit, ‘generalised hypertension’ and our entrapment in the trivial. Above all of this is required a purpose that is beyond our personality, beyond the mere horizontal axis of linear entrapment in the present. It is the sun to which D.H. Lawrence referred to when he said:
And be, oh be,
A sun to me
Not a weary, importunate
Any form of evolution is towards something, even if it is unconsciously groping blindly by means of experimental development. Writing too, is a form of experimental development towards a perfected form of self-expression. All music attempts to emanate the feeling, the sensation and the emotions of whatever it is attempting to represent in its bodiless form. Everything infers something greater or beyond itself, and so does writing or thinking – it is a connective act of becoming of yet more. This is why Wilson realised to never retreat from meaning, into a ‘particular’ and isolated world-view, for it can suffocate an individual from the vast horizons of implicit ‘more-ness’. For to retreat from meaning logically absurd, and when we do, we have merely been duped by one of our ‘I’s’, which is the more absurd as it is precisely our very own selves who should adhere firmly – with full support of the intellect and the left-brain – to the sense of an infinitely vast and eternally fascinating reality.
The Faculty X experience could just as well be a literary experience of ‘other times and other places’, for that is one of its greatest benefits. And so, writing itself is an act of passing insights and intuitions into the capable hands of the left-brain’s ability to place one word in front of another, sculpting, as it does so, the extra-dimensions with which the right-brain provides it with. It is fundamentally about building a bridge between the explicit and the implicit, and creating something that resonates the ‘web of relationality’.
Conclusion: An Idea to Grow Towards
One of my own insights came through reading Wilson’s work, and in some ways owes its debt to Maurice Nicoll and Ouspensky. It is the notion of an idea having a growth, or sort of geometrical network of growth rather like tree branches emerging from a central trunk. Indeed, ideas seem to have a life of their own, and the more you think about one idea, the more it seems to increase in its dimensions. There is even a certain limit to which you can entertain one idea, but once this is reached, it is as if there was a ‘moment of grace’, where once again it expands and continues to grow once more. I had this when I wrote about The Mind Parasites and The Philosopher’s Stone, for there came a point where I thought I had said everything about those two novels, but then a quote from The Philosopher’s Stone encouraged me to continue:
“For several hundreds of years now, evolution has been aiming at creating a new type of human being, who sees the world with new eyes all the time, who can readjust his mind a hundred times a day to see the familiar as strange”.
To see the familiar as strange is an act of ‘intentionality’, we have to actively shift our perspective to see it from an angle we may have missed due to the habituation of our own thought. And as I practiced this ability to ‘see with new eyes’, I realised that a novel, as much as anything else, has a strangely interior quality that can simply continue on forever. These are basically what William James meant when he talked about ‘horizons of distant fact’, when everything seems to unveil yet more dimensions. Again it is the ‘hologram of understanding’. It is not at all strange to think of the act of writing as an act of intentionality, indeed, as an active attempt to ‘see with new eyes all the time’. Wilson obviously understood this to a profound degree, and purposely cultivated it in his novels, particularly, perhaps, with his larger works of imagination in science fiction and fantasy. Yet it informs all of his works. So if he is indeed what Isaiah Berlin’s ‘hedgehog’ (a writer who only writes about one thing), unlike a ‘fox’ (who writes about many things) he nevertheless explores a single vision, a persistent modality of being which can unify the whole. All of his work is about a way of seeing newness, of meaning; a meaning which infers more, growing each aspect of us like branches of a tree. He provides an inner-sun, as such, which is as enlightening as it is conducive to growth and development.
This ‘modality of being’ is curiously called a ‘dance’ by essayist Martha Heyneman, in her book The Breathing Cathedral (1993). She describes her experience as a zoology student at the University of California, when one day she was looking through a microscope at a section of a kidney, and she suddenly thought “I will never understand this thing by this method”. Her description is insightful, for it precisely describes Wilson’s own ‘Faculty X’, or more precisely relationality and the ‘bird’s eye view’:
“When I tried to make clear to myself what I meant by “understand”, the best I could come up with was that I would have to be able to dance the development of this remarkable organ from its origin in the fertilized egg to its maturity, and moreover to dance the development of the whole of which it was a part – and of the whole of which that whole was a part, and so on”
Heyneman felt that, for her at least, nature could be best known through poetry instead of science. For the expressions of poetry enabled her to dance, to gain a ‘bird’s eye view’ of reality as it stands correspondingly with everything else. It is, again, a right-hemisphere function of the extra dimension of meaning added to isolated facts; where in our day-to-day experience we apprehend both our lives and even our dearest out of the larger contexts in which we exist. Abraham Maslow often used the example of a woman washing her dishes and suddenly realising how lucky she was, to have a family, to be alive and so on, and due to this she achieved the ‘peak experience’. Some dance of sunlight enabled her mind to launch itself into its meaningful context, and for a moment at least both hemispheres of her brain were functioning simultaneously.
It is important, in any creative activity, to have a symbol, and through this essay and my idea of a ‘tropism of meaning’, or a sort of sun to which one grows ideas, is basically such a symbol. In The Craft of the Novel (1976), Colin Wilson emphasises this importance of a symbol of freedom, and it usually felt as a being ‘cool and clear inside’. If one recognises this sensation when creating something, it should, in theory flow outwards, rather like what the Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi meant in his book The Flow (1992). However, the trouble with the idea of ‘flow’ seems to be its insinuation of a stream-of-consciousness, a mere abandonment to the whims of the unconscious, rather like taking mescalin, or daydreaming to no purpose. Wilson did not mean this, and was especially fond of the left-brain’s ability to grasp, to discipline and direct the unconscious forces towards increased complexity, development and self-knowledge. The symbol, then, is what he identifies as something which “contrasts… with the dreariness or chaos of the world of immediacy. A writer’s ‘symbol’ is basically his own idea of freedom, and his work is about the journey towards freedom”.
To know or to even seek out this symbol is in a sense Heyneman’s dance. It is a cause worth growing towards; and an evolutionary imperative that is at the heart of Wilson’s huge volume of work. The task of writing is like any other journey: it must begin somewhere. By careful steps you may find your symbol of freedom, and when you have, you grasped the first step up an evolutionary staircase.