In Peaks and Lamas (1948), about mountaineering as much as it is about higher mystical experiences and Tibetan lamas, Marco Pallis describes what could be either something from one of Gurdjieff’s lectures, or a phenomenological observation from such writers as R.D Laing or Colin Wilson. Says Pallis:
“Our actions and thoughts are the products of our whole nature at a given moment, and become the causes of its further development for good or ill. A nature which is still mainly emotional, and not brought under proper control by the intellect, is a weathercock turned by every impulse. In such a condition of irresponsibility, even if an action happens to be right, it is largely an accident; for, not being based upon relevant motives, it is properly little better than a foolish action in masquerade” (128-129).
Pallis continues, offering us a way out by describing a certain detachment, a sort of phenomenological ‘bracketing’, from which to develop a sort of ‘transcendental ego’, a standpoint which can more accurately dictate our impulses from, as it were, ‘upon high’:
“It must be one’s constant aim to withdraw as much of life as possible from the power of outside influence and accidents and to bring it into subjection to one’s informed will, so that each act may be exactly what it purports to be, no more no less, each perception a genuine perception uninfluenced by anything irrelevant” (129).
Earlier in the book he makes the observation that this “impartial approach to life” is “too exacting for it to make an instantaneous appeal”. In other words, it is ‘easier said than done’; we tend to move on, once again falling victim to the topsy-turvy nature of our emotions, intellect and physical impulses. Not taking up the momentous task of exacting ourselves, honing our Will and integrating our warring selves.
This is why Colin Wilson was fascinated by the idea of a sudden crisis fusing our conflicting I’s together; he often even referred to the mountain symbolically, as a sort of equivalent of Dostoevsky’s intense experience when he was withdrawn from facing the death penalty. Interestingly, Dostoevsky divided his time, while awaiting his death, into thinking about his own life; past, present and future. His future, of course, being the grim fate of death (and, as he was religious, perhaps an afterlife). And yet when he was withdrawn from the claws of death, it is no doubt he grasped his future intensely, and was also immediately grateful for both his present being alive – and furthermore for having had a past at all! In other words, life as a whole would have been completely revitalised by a sudden yea-saying affirmation. It would have been an enormous “genuine perception uninfluenced by anything irrelevant”, all of his systems were working equally and powerfully, searing straight through banality, emotional trivialities and intellectual distractions; it was crystallised, refracting time and space into a sudden glistening awe of being.
In fact, Colin Wilson utilised a similar metaphor in his book The Black Room (1971). This is symbolised in a section where the protagonist becomes involved in a conversation with a mountaineer, Gradwhol, who tells him about how he came to have a healthy subconscious mind. It is the result of climbing mountains and facing the dangers head-on, where his Will had to be immensely disciplined in order to tackle the dangers and challenges climbers encounter. In a moment of crisis, his friend asks the question: “Why are we doing this? Are we both mad?”. To this Gradwhol is struck by a revelation, of just why they put their lives on the line simply to climb a mountain: “We have climbed this mountain to remind ourselves of something we ought to know anyway – that life is only worth living when the will is concentrated” (211 – The Essential Colin Wilson).
He continues, “For two million years man has been climbing a mountain of evolution, and his will is so weak that he dies when he is less than a century old”. He turns to the protagonist Kit Butler, a composer, and announces that they both ought to know this fact, for their business is evolution, they both yearn for an impersonal goal rather than the personal goals of most people. It is an end-point to which to strive, an exacting and withdrawal from mere circumstance. One begins to act now towards an objective purpose, and with the Will driven by an objective sense of higher values; there is no more drifting in life-sapping relativism, distractions and the pains of a divided self-consciousness. In other words, one rises above time, seeing it for its vast potentiality; that is, rather than being lodged within the present like a fly on sticky paper, a mere victim of outside circumstances and triviality.
Again, this contraction of Will was realised in Dostoevsky’s close call in Siberia, and when it was withdrawn, his perception was widened enormously to grasp the essential Will to more life; the purpose of evolution rushed inwards as much as it manifested outwards with his subsequent works after the experience: he began to attack existence, assimilating it rather than being merely passive.
This is why Dostoevsky takes a central stage in Wilson’s The Outsider; he embodied the Nietzschean view of life in his novels: “six thousand feet above man and time”, the evolutionary impulse. Aptly, this insight came to Nietzsche while looking at a huge pyramidal block of stone alongside the Lake Silvaplana. The mountain of course will always be a symbol of evolution, of an essentially evolutionary structure, for it implies a summit much like a pyramid. The ‘peak experience’ of Maslow also implies the same, where one reaches – in a flash of insight – a taste of what he called ‘self-actualisation’.
(It has been mentioned, not entirely accurately, that the very word pyramid may be interpreted as a ‘fire in the middle’ (presumably because the word ‘pyromaniac’ and ‘middle’ sound so close phonetically!) Yet it can serve as a useful metaphor, where the centre of our being is fusing together all of the disparate ‘selves’, rather as the heat is applied to a crucible unify a compound. This interpretation inevitably falls victim to the symbolism of the volcano, which is altogether more volatile and unpredictable, and this is often compared to repressed emotions suddenly erupting irrationally and with devastating consequences).
Another author who used the mountain symbolically, in a non-Euclidian way, was the surrealist poet René Daumal. He again uses the stability of a diamond’s internal structure to represent the symbolic peak of the mountain:
“There, at the summit sharper than the sharpest needle, alone stands he who fills all space. Up there, in the finer air where all is frozen, there alone exists the crystal of ultimate stability. Up there, in the full fire of the sky where all burns, there alone exists perpetual incandescence. There, at the centre of all, is he who sees each thing done in its beginning and in its end” (110 – Mount Analogue).
The crystal is a result of great pressures, an intense fusion of rock which is so internally consistent that it reflects and refracts light in an enchanting way. Indeed, Marie-Louise von Franz notes that a stone, in a sense “symbolizes . . . existence at the farthest remove from the emotions, feelings, fantasies and discursive thinking of ego consciousness” (209 – Man and his Symbols). She continues by saying that the stone gives us a sense of something “eternal that man can have in those moments when he feels immortal and unalterable”, and similarly, the Irish author Thomas Sheridan, in his book The Druid Code (2016), says the same about megalithic sites, for they “present us with the paradox of solid stone being used to open pathways of perception towards the least tangible and material states”, being as they are a “solidified expression of the supernatural world expressed in stone” (106). This may appear at first to contradict von Franz, but significantly the rock itself is still impersonal, yet it has been shaped to represent or to symbolise something beyond itself, an eternal idea, even a timeless Platonic ‘Form’. What Sheridan is describing is the act of magic, of alchemy: the transmutation of a base substance into a higher form.
In alchemy there is, of course, the the ‘philosopher’s stone’ which bestows immortality on those who find it. And in a novel of the same name, Colin Wilson presents this ‘stone’ as a state of consciousness which bestows more life. This does not necessarily mean that one becomes immortal in the physical sense, but his experience of existence is so enhanced that he feels more life, his consciousness ‘takes’ more inside of itself, and thus enriches one’s experience of existence, which in effect ‘fills up’ time with more significance and meaningful content.
Again it seems to be about making a solid inside of oneself, rather than the inner-states being tumultuous like a fishing boat caught out in a fierce storm – no fish could be caught in such a turbulent state, just as nothing can be appreciated when one is distract, emotional. It also applies to creation, for to create something demands concentration, self-discipline and Will power; it also requires an integration of self-consciousness, rather than being a victim of it, its discouragements and worries about what other people will think – one must proceed, experiment and become strong enough to persist until you have mastered your art. Wilson often compared creativity to two tennis players playing so well that the ball goes to-and-fro, a synchronisation of the subconscious powers and the conscious mind, and both hemispheres of the brain acting harmoniously. Where intuitions and insights are correctly handed over to the ‘you’ that has to do the typing, painting or whatever it might be. Of course, self-consciousness can come between these two and disrupt the flow, creating a frustration of energies that can even develop into schizophrenia or a depleted sense of vitality.
Wilson himself, after taking a lot of criticism from the literary establishment, had to develop a strong sense of ‘I’, which effectively absorbed the attacks like the ballast on a ship maintains stability in choppy waters. For after the rejection of his book Spider World books, he noticed that his heart did not immediately sink with disappointment. He notes:
“I had, over the past year, achieved a little of what Gurdjieff calls ‘essence’, a feeling of inner solidness [my italics]. Gurdjieff said that the only way to create this is through what he called ‘intentional suffering’, like the painful self-disciplines of the ascetic. This is the only reliable way of overcoming the laziness and weakness that does its best to hide inside you” (xxvii – Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism).
Concentration and attention is often what Wilson prescribed for this inner-development, for concentration and intentionality brings our energies into a fine focus, and suddenly it grasps what it is that it is firing its attention towards. This does not have to be an external or physical object; it could even be an idea. We suddenly direct our energies and pull it in, and fully digest the experience; a new idea, or an incredible book, often means that we ‘got something out of it’; but what has really happened, in a sense, is that we were inspired (which means to breath in) by what it was that we fired our attention at. It is as Ouspensky symbolised with the two arrows, where one achieves ‘self-remembering’, as the two arrows of attention: one outwards and one inwards: work harmoniously as to jolt into us a sudden sense of reality.
To return to diamonds and pyramids, Gary Lachman in his biography on Colin Wilson emphasises that “attention and the concentration are what count. If we do it for long enough, often enough, the billiard balls of our consciousness will slowly come together, and fuse it into a hard, diamond-like pyramid that can withstand the forces of time even better than the monuments the ancient Egyptians raised in the desert sands” (340). This sense of contraction, of a fusing together, developed in Wilson what Gurdjieff meant by ‘essence’, a solidified, integrated psyche that has permanence and a disciplined Will.
In New Pathways of Psychology (1972), Wilson again uses the mountain to emphasise his point:
“This is why we climb mountains and irrigate deserts and send up moon rockets: the great challenge tenses the will, produces concentration, pushes back the sluggishness of the flesh, unites the mind’s diffuseness. Underlying it all is the drive to more life – what Shaw calls the appetite for fruitful activity and a high quality of life” (117).
But what is our equivalent of a mountaineer’s crampons? To climb the sheer wall of existence, we need some tool by which to imbed ourselves, to maintain a firm grip and secure-binding to its surface lest we slip and fall. For this, Wilson argues, we need to develop a strong ‘self-image’; we must climb the Ladder of Selves.
To Be Continued: Climbing the Ladder of Selves