Horizons of Distant Fact: Wilson and Creativity: An Idea to Grow Towards

Mandelbrot’s Hedgehog?

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

Personality.

 

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.

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The Outsider and the Physical, Emotional and Intellectual ‘Bodies’

“It is far better to struggle with a purpose than to struggle with no purpose.”

­– The Personality Surgeon

I have always been interested in the way various philosophers, esoteric teachers and writers have divided the human mind and body.  There is, of course, the popular ‘mind, body and spirit’ section in many popular book stores, but although this is interesting, I was most struck by Gurdjieff’s division – along with many others – into the ‘physical’, ‘emotional’ and ‘intellectual’ bodies.  Now, as we experience ourselves we know that these are not so neatly divided; they are seamlessly connected, and if one observes oneself in an impartial way, you can see how one ‘centre’ or ‘body’ can quickly usurp the other.  My own tendency, for example, is to allow my emotions to guide my intellect.  And although I think that it is my intellect doing the work, it is in fact my emotions masquerading as my intellect.  Often this is the case in philosophy, for Nietzsche encapsulates this when he said: “It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of – namely, the confession of its inventor, and a sort of involuntary and subconscious biography”.

A misanthrope, for example, can rationalise his contempt for mankind all he likes, but he is essentially misdirecting two centres: one validates the other, and in turn, the confirmation – through so-called logic – then sinks the emotions lower, until eventually he is afraid to go outdoors or engage with the general public.  And eventually, such as the fate of many misanthropes, their physical body too starts to suffer.  Even Ouspensky, the author of In Search of the Miraculous (1949), later in his life, succumbed to alcoholism and urged that it was the ‘higher emotional’ centre that needed to be developed.  Colin Wilson pointed this interesting fact out in his short biography on Ouspensky, noting that although an enormous intellect, he was sadly underdeveloped in the emotional sense and turned to alcohol.  Interestingly it was the same Ouspensky who, in Tertium Organum (1931), wrote:

“Emotions are the stained-glass windows of the soul; coloured glasses through which the soul looks at the world.  Each such glass assists in finding in the contemplated object the same or similar colours, but it also prevents the finding of opposite ones.  Therefore it has been correctly said that the one-sided emotional illumination cannot give a correct perception of an object.  Nothing gives one such a clear idea of things as the emotions, yet nothing deludes one so much”

Low emotions, or a sense of apathy, can quite easily be remedied by alcohol, for it induces a relaxation and a sudden sense of excitement which feeds itself with reminiscences, associations, and the freedom of being freed of too much self-awareness.  It bubbles up from below, sometimes over spilling and turning sour.  The trouble is that emotions have a vacillating quality, and behave like a spoiled child all of a sudden excited and then quickly bored, evacuating all its energy with little self-control or discipline.  And it has a sort of feedback-loop effect, whereby the more energy wasted in depression leads to more of the same, until we are finally led into a form of absolute passivity.  The vision of life becomes so narrow we are, as Wilson says, prone to ‘close-upness’, a vision of reality so reduced of its grandeur that it is difficult to see any reason to carry on.  Again, he basically suggests this as the problem with the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and others.  In Beyond the Occult (1988), Wilson calls this state ‘Upside-Downness’ and diagnoses many writers and artists whose vision of the world was almost completely inverted, so they only saw the ‘close-upness’ of reality without ever really being able to step back and allow larger meanings to re-establish themselves.  Like the misanthrope, they closed all the windows, locked all the doors while intellectually validating his choice to withdraw from society.  However, he is left alone with poor air and reduced experience which in turn makes him feel even more certain that human existence is a bad joke.

However, if key figures in our intelligentsia are stricken with this same fallacy, it quickly leaps into everyday culture, and thus causes a validation of the lowest instincts in man, and produces a certain misplaced pride in being cynical and misanthropic.  In fact, to have a low opinion of human existence is now associated with a degree of intelligence, for to utter a remark about the blight of man on the environment, or the meaninglessness of the cosmos, will no doubt inspire congratulation for your perceptive and state-sanctioned remarks.  Whereas to suggest the other would perhaps be misconstrued as naïve and/or ‘the very reason we got into this mess in the first place!’. For it is perhaps seen as mankind’s high-opinion of himself, and low opinion of nature, that we have generated the ecological crisis.  Usually the perceived intellectual who is driven by social mores will agree, not out of logic or reason, but because he or she finds mutual agreement too emotionally gratifying – so therefore it is fundamentally still an emotional drive, however masking as a reasoned opinion.

Amusingly, it would seem that what we are after here is what Gurdjieff subtitled his book Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, that is, ‘an objectively impartial criticism of the life of man’.  But how does one go about approaching this?  It seems to me that Wilson attempted to do just this with phenomenological analysis, and he made a huge leap with the identification of the ‘outsider’. For in his first book, The Outsider (1956), he presents extremely insightful character studies into men who were intensely driven – either by their emotions, their physical bodies or their intellect.  He argues that, in a sense, these drives were precisely the death or demise of them, and had they been able to step-back from themselves, and correctly identified their impulses, these men would have been even greater, that is, more fully integrated.  And yet they kept slipping gear, falling into deep depressions, suicides or toxic ennui.

The ‘outsider’, with which he identifies these intensely driven, socially detached individuals, I believe is somewhere within us all (to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the individual).  It is certainly not difficult to identify with one or more of them.  One can see, I think, that in certain moments of our lives we are  taken over by one of these ‘modes’ of being; we may over-intellectualise, be victim to our emotions or pulled along by the physical body and its desires.  We know intuitively that if these could be correctly understood, we would cease to struggle with our identities and become great, evolutionary individuals.  Instead of being a victim, we could instead make a start at evolving our being.  In moments of ‘peak experience’ we know this, for we are above our normal state of consciousness and have momentarily stepped into a ‘birds-eye view’, where we can as if from a mountain, our lives in a suddenly intensely meaningful context.  Yet when we slip back down, we are subject to a ‘close-upness’, and deprived of any large-scale perspective.  The ‘purpose’, whatever it might be, suddenly seems so distant as to be basically irrelevant, barely worth pursuing.  It is what Gurdjieff basically meant when he said most people are incapable of ‘doing’ anything; and that the development of the individual increases freedom to ‘do’.

Mysteries is perhaps Wilson’s most Gurdjiefian book, dealing as it does with a ‘Ladder of Selves’ and the notion of multiple, conflicting ‘I’s.  Indeed, Wilson’s ‘schoolmistress effect’ is basically what Gurdjieff called a ‘shock’, which causes a change in the ‘octave’ of being, thus silencing, if you will, the collective of squabbling I’s and bringing them under discipline.  Wilson has always referred to Gurdjieff throughout his work, and it is remarkable that it is in The Outsider, for it tallies so well with the ‘outsider’ that it may well be ‘the Work’ – as it is called by individuals involved in the Fourth Way of Gurdjieff’s method – was particularly designed for outsiders!

There is a tremendous and invigorating sense of a ‘way out’ of the ‘outsider’s crisis’ by reading The Outsider and In Search for the Miraculous in tandem, for the two complement each other wonderfully.  Indeed, a non-‘Work’ writer on Gurdjieff’s ideas, Michel Waldberg, dedicates a chapter (in Gurdjieff An Approach to his Ideas) particularly to ‘The four ‘bodies’ of man’ and ‘Man’s possible evolution’, which argue that the emotions, in the ‘second body’, are prone to “whims and crazes” which may lead even to a form of sickness, where the man not only knows what he likes, but becomes obsessed with what he dislikes.  Of course, most existentialists seem to be in the ‘second body’, obsessed with what they dislike – for if one reads a lot of existentialist literature, it is effectively a diary of a misanthrope, trapped as he is, in a cosmos reduced of value.  Even the work of the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, or the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran strikes one of this sickly man, obsessed with the void.

In The World of Violence (1963) Wilson has a character called Uncle Sam who locks himself away in a room as a revolt against god, a character who is very much an intellectual-emotional in extremis.  He has entirely ceased to ‘do’ anything apart from a metaphysical strike against existence itself.  Uncle Sam describes his realisation thus:

“Certain malcontent intellectuals have taught the workers to feel dissatisfaction with their employers.  But it seems to have struck no one that human beings are grossly exploited by God.  We are expected to bear misfortune, to learn from experience (like obedient schoolchildren), to offer thanksgiving for benefits received; our role is in every way that of a slave and the sycophant.  We are entrapped in the body, which we carry around like a suit of armour weighing a ton, and we have to endure with patience its stupidities and enfeeblements”.

I cannot think of a more succinct example of the existential problem, and this, in its logical way, is hard to disagree with – for life is full of banalities, boredoms and physical discomforts. And yet, by ceasing to move or evolve seems more like slavery than anything else, for one – despite the freedom of mind – has essentially consigned oneself to a vegetative state.  Neither do you alleviate the problem of the body, the emotions or the intellectual problem by simply refusing to go on like a character from a Samuel Beckett play.  Wilson understood this, and said that “opportunities increase as they are seized” and opportunities only come about in being active.  Passivity in fact reduces the development of opportunities.  What Uncle Sam is really asking for is to be blessed with a mystical insight, or profound alleviation out of the material realm by some sort of cosmic pity which hands out, to its stubborn ‘victims’ a get-out-of-jail-free-card!  To cease to ‘do’ is to pause the evolution of your mind, for the mind requires a certain discipline – that of friction of existence – to acquire a healthy purpose.  In fact, a purpose is a form of detachment from the trivialities of everydayness, and a re-focussing on what really matters.  Victor Frankl knew only too well that an impersonal goal in fact reinvigorates the mind and body, and that even death itself seems banal in the light of the meaningful purpose implicit in human existence.

Wilson expresses idea again in a much later essay, The Human Condition (1984), in which he talks about ‘left-brain awareness’ and its tendency to focus on the particulars out of their context, thus reducing the world to “magnified objects” where we can see the individual trees but not the wood.  He continues: “And at this point, the emotional body intervenes, with its negativity and self-pity and mistrust, and turns the wood into a forest of nightmare. . . It can be overcome only by recognising that it is a mistake”.

Modern life, unfortunately, blinds us with temporal values, which diminish as soon as they are grasped; instantaneousness seems to be the unifying goal for all things.  Long-distance purpose, the notion of a careful development of one’s psyche through ‘self-observation’ sounds, I think, too archaic for the modern mind.  It is little wonder why a book like The Power of Now can become a best-seller, as I have seen it, being placed alongside business and economic books alongside other entrepreneurship and prep-talk guides.  Ironically Eckhart Tolle’s book is precisely about expanding one’s awareness of the present moment, reducing the mind’s tendency to ‘magnify’ reality and time into consumable items, without the savouring quality present in appreciating the relatedness, the unfolding horizons of correspondences.  The over-active left-brain awareness tends to plague our reality in the modern world, and it is to this right-brained sense of an authentic meaningful context that we have unwisely ejected.  Moreover, the emotional body is starved, provided with no positive ‘background of values’ due to the overarching materialism and its rejection of a meaningful universe.  Instead materialism only has value, which, although fleeting and perfectly adapted to the emotional tendency to vacillation, ends up by cancelling itself out, causing a leakage of energy and an upsurge of anxieties, depressions and ennui.

In an important insight from Gurdjieff, the struggle with emotions is given a very significant purpose:

“In the sphere of the emotions it is very useful to try to struggle with the habit of giving immediate expression to all one’s unpleasant emotions. .  . Besides being a very good method for self-observation, the struggle against expressing unpleasant emotions has at the same time another significance. It is one of the few directions in which a man can change himself or his habits without creating other undesirable habits.  Therefore self-observation and self-study must, from the first, be accompanied by the struggle against the expression of unpleasant emotions

Again, a struggle against oneself is precisely where evolution occurs.  And yet, there are more opportunities than ever in our society to express ourselves, particularly in public, online and so on, whereby the act of self-observation can become either more difficult, or, conversely, easier than ever.  This is why Wilson’s The Personality Surgeon is so important, in fact, and stands as one of his most accessible and contemporary novels.  The outsider who ceases to be an outsider through self-analysis and applied phenomenology is an extraordinary leap in human consciousness, for it has with it the higher development of self-consciousness directed towards an evolving purpose.  If man is defined by his self-awareness, which animals have a lesser degree, plants even less so and the mineral kingdom none whatsoever, the rising of a ‘life force’ can be seen as an exponential increase of conscious freedom, of matter being imbued with the inner world of consciousness and imagination.

To be able to ‘do’ as Gurdjieff expressed it is to struggle, but also to manifest one’s self in life most satisfactorily.  First there has to be a realisation of purpose, and a working towards it.  Learning to ride a bike is a painful and tedious process at first, but as the child tries more, and can balance for longer, his confidence increases until eventually he can freely glide along, predicting the terrain and compensating for the bumps and curbs.  A musician too, once he grasps his instrument finds that he can express himself in a most exciting way; he can feel himself evolving as he pursues his music, being transported by its relational aspects and touching others.  This is the positive side to emotions, that they can feed energy into other pursuits such as physical – in lovemaking or sports – and intellectual, for the sheer joy of thinking is buoyed up by the emotional body, providing an exciting dynamic where an individual becomes immensely satisfied by the energy his own creative impulses provide him.

A mystical experience, similarly, is an overwhelming feeling of joy, whereby all the facilities glisten with potentiality – that from upon the ‘peak experience’ they can see the relational canyons and vaulting possibilities of man’s coming-to-be.  The ‘higher emotional centre’ is a form of relationality of the emotions, reaching out over larger distances and pulling inwards and intentionally firing outwards the evolutionary impulse as it is realised as well as made manifest in acts of creativity.

To be able to ‘do’ is what freedom is all about, for without it we are effectively passively accepting our fate, and by doing this we are, as Gurdjieff pointed out, victims of circumstance; drifting and pulled under by any current of emotion, once again without ballast or steering.  Wilson often emphasised that it is always the mind which falls victim, being oddly separated both from the world and the body, and when this happens a sense of unreality sets in – much like Uncle Sam, who fled entirely from the world by locking himself in a windowless room.  The poet Zenrin Kushu expresses the mind-body problem in a satisfying metaphor:

Trees show the bodily form of wind;
Waves give vital energy to the moon
.

It is, of course, pointing out the ‘invisible’ forces which shape the more physical, visceral reality of matter.  Yet the mind is what bestows freedom into matter and particularly into physical existence – we can exist, and yet, like Sisyphus pushing the rock up and over the hill for eternity, still maintain a high degree of inner freedom.  The trouble is that left-brain awareness symbolises reality, and thus turns our experience into a surreal, dream-like set of simplistic associations.  We become detached from reality, which the right-brain adds a dimension of ‘realness’, or an extra dimension of meaning and relationships.  Alan Watts, in his book, The Way of Zen, describes this situation perfectly:

“Convention therefore encourages him to associate his idea of himself with equally abstract and symbolic roles and stereotypes, since these will help him to form an idea of himself which will be definite and intelligible. But to the degree that he identifies himself with the fixed idea, he becomes aware of ‘life’ as something which flows past him – faster and faster as he grows older, and his idea becomes more rigid, more bolstered with memories.  The more he attempts to clutch the world, the more he feels it as a process in motion”

Man thus becomes a victim of time, his own ‘immediacy perception’ and becomes adrift in the reduced meaning of a symbolic, detached form of consciousness which decreases the processing of sensory and existential information.  For our experience of time is very much relative to the amount of information-processing we undergo in our lives (time goes slower for a child because everything seems so new), and as we habituate our consciousness we thus become mechanical, passive and are therefore prone to developing a pessimistic, fatalist view of our existence.

The way out, then, it would seem, should be to develop the mind’s muscles, and to somehow shock it out of its passivity; its over-reliance on what Wilson called ‘the Robot’.  For we are like Roquentin in Sarte’s Nausea:

“… when I suddenly woke up from a six-year slumber . . . I couldn’t understand why I was in Indo-China.  What was I doing there?  Why was I talking to these people?  Why was I dressed so oddly? . . . Before me, posed with a sort of indolence, was a voluminous, insipid idea.  I did not see clearly what it was, but it sickened me so much I couldn’t look at it”

He had clearly been adrift too long, but, in a sudden flash he realises the essential absurdity of his existence.  What he does not proceed to do is identify it as his over-reliance on the left-brain, its automatisms which rob our experience from us by its tendency to habituate.  I believe Ouspensky, in his later life, also fell victim to this, but he knew that it was the ‘higher emotional centre’ that needed developing, that through drinking, he could experience its opening up, its widening of vision which allows more meaning in.  Sadly, Ouspensky seemed to fall a victim to it in the end.  However, Wilson managed to most clearly identify this problem, and this is his biggest contribution to philosophy.

Strangely, this act of reducing reality to symbols feeds back into the emotional centre, robbing us of its important energies; in turn, it becomes vacillating, undisciplined and trivial-minded.  Again, sensory information of the objective world is something it thrives on, and yet our left-hemisphere tends to push things away, place them into isolated, vacuum-packed chambers where the right-hemisphere can’t grasp and project its extra-dimension of inter-related facts upon the world.  It is as if we fire out the arrow of attention, but we get a trickle of a resonance from what it is we perceive; a mere echo, faint and vague returns, and we take this lack of hemispheric communication as if it were an objective fact of existence.  So it is not exactly only one ‘body’ of ours which robs the whole, it is a combination of all three, but also the way in which we apprehend reality.  There is a knock-on effect, where the energy of each centre steals from the other, which in turn, is confirmed intellectually, felt emotionally and expressed physically (we become lazy, tired, our eyes – we say – ‘fall upon the object’).

It is as important to see with all the centres, to energise the body, to suddenly look out of our eyes at the world, while being embodied, and also to bring the emotions up, to invigorate its excitability which in turn can stimulate the intellect – all of a sudden, if all three centres are working correctly, it is like a well-disciplined, highly motivated force singing, passing on energy and encouraging each and every one.  Eventually it grows, grasping meanings, increasing our ‘birds-eye view’ and resultantly leading into greater degrees of freedom as our purpose is grasped, our seized opportunities expand.

Existence, in a sense, is a form of traction which we can get our feet into, and the gravity, although pulling us down, helps us not to float off into a dispersed, vaporous quality of a mind too detached from reality (which the intellect has a tendency to do).  And all of Wilson’s ‘outsiders’, in one way or another, represented each centre – each centre at its greatest and its weakest.  He knew that these individuals, despite their shortcomings, were also embryonic superman, making the leap, but without the necessary scaffolding of an insight to correctly judge, what it was necessary to do, to reach these summits of peak experience.

At this point Rene Daumal wonderfully demonstrates human existence in an allegorical description of mountain climbing:

“A climber far more experienced than I told me, “when your feet will no longer carry you, you have to walk with your head.” And that’s true. It is not, perhaps, in the natural order of things, but isn’t it better to walk with your head than to think with your feet, as often happens?

If you slip or have a minor spill, don’t interrupt your momentum but even as you right yourself recover the rhythm of your walk. Take note of the circumstances of your fall, but don’t allow your body to brood on the memory. The body always tries to make itself interesting by its shivers, its breathlessness, its palpitations, its shudders, sweats, and cramps. But it is very sensitive to its master’s scorn and indifference. If it feels he is not fooled by its jeremiads, if it understands that enlisting his pity is a useless effort, then it falls back into line and compliantly accomplishes its task”.

Its severity, at first, may seem too much.  And yet, it is a certain amount of self-discipline and perseverance that seems necessary to ‘do’ anything.  People are all very well, but it is more about realising your own existence first by an act of phenomenological analysis (or self-observation).  At some point, one may be able to crystallise a purpose higher than their three ordinary bodies, which understands that the three below it have a tendency to exaggerate.

The philosopher Edmund Husserl basically meant this with the idea of a ‘transcendental ego’.  It is a purposive, evolutionary aspect of our psyche which acts rather like an inner-sun to which we grow our mind and bodies.  An impersonal idea, which seems both distant and vividly more real, is often correctly positioned far in the distance like the real sun – for if it was too close there would be no life on Earth.  Meaning and purpose, when fully realise, are self-evident as the light of the sun illuminates every day.  And yet, it is taken for granted, habituated and we cease to grow.  Yet an idea, or an evolutionary philosophy like Wilson’s, can be used as a ‘guide for the perplexed’ (E.F. Schumacher’s book of the same name is a highly recommended), which acts and encourages our tropism towards some greater purpose. . .