BOOK REVIEW: An Evolutionary Leap: Colin Wilson on Psychology by Colin Stanley (Karnac Books Ltd: 2016)

            An Evolutionary Leap: Colin Wilson on Psychology (2016) by Colin Wilson’s bibliographer, Colin Stanley, is a scholarly précis of Wilson’s own impressive contribution to psychology. Although Wilson is best known as either an existential philosopher with the release of his 1956 The Outsider, or otherwise as a writer on the occult with books like The Occult (1971) and Mysteries (1978), which effectively revived his career after his unfortunate and undeserved fall from respectability throughout the 1960s (during which he worked on some of his most definitive work which culminated in a completed Outsider Cycle), it is perhaps too little known – and properly realised – that what Wilson was really posing, or implying, in his earliest work was a revolutionary form of Existential Psychology.  It is also little known that The Outsider was a huge impact, in style, form and content, on R.D Laing’s famous work in existential psychology, The Divided Self.

Wilson’s own work, it could be said, is a synthesis out of which emerges a new vision of man.  Again, his early work was an in-depth look at modern philosophy, culture and the religious impulse as it stands in the post-war West; a West stripped, essentially, of a meaningful context. Modernism’s departure from the traditional values left a metaphysical black hole in man’s psyche, and the rift caused a radical departure from the meaningful foundations of religion, which at least provided a stabilisation mechanism for many sensitive individuals.  When the truly modern man stood up to his own existence, only a void stared back – a void where God had metaphorically died – which in turn either lead to the vacillating affirmations, of Yea-saying, and resultant slumps into suicidal despair as felt by the Romantics, to the eventual emergence of Existentialism and its bold attempt to provide at least a defiant stoicism against meaninglessness (it was, in a sense, a healthy impulse that affirmed man’s freedom, but nevertheless, at heart, yet still without firm foundations).

This hollowness at the heart of man in turn lead to what Wilson called a tendency towards a “sense of defeat that permeates our culture”, this resultant pessimism which informed literature, science and psychology was given critical scrutiny in Wilson’s book The Age of Defeat (1959) (otherwise known as The Stature of Man in the United States) which American psychologist Abraham Maslow read and was deeply impressed enough to initiate correspondence with its author.  This developed in a warm camaraderie, for both were unconvinced that man was a merely contingent creature adrift in a meaningless void, and believed that both man and his symptomatic culture needed to somehow recognise this fallacy, and in doing so would re-establish a sense of values from which man could productively flourish.

Wilson and Maslow were deeply convinced that a new psychology of health, rather than as a mere theory of human sickness, should be somehow developed in order to revitalise culture.  And in turn further mankind’s evolutionary leap, which would afford man more freedom and a precise directive towards which to eventually actualise (or self-actualise, in Maslow’s terms).

Colin Stanley’s book provides a chronological set of essays which introduce each of Wilson’s books on psychology and their historical and intellectual context, together with brief histories about how each book came about, and furthermore how Wilson developed his own theories by applying contemporary psychological studies in split-brain research, Maslovian psychology, and his insightful biographies into such mavericks as Wilhelm Reich, Carl Jung and the then emergent Post-Freudian Revolution.  It is to the latter which Wilson felt as the “greatest advance in psychology”; a discipline he identifies as being forwarded by “Binwanger, Minkowski, Medard Boss and others”.  He stated, again in Beyond the Outsider (1965), that existential psychology “recognises that neurosis is not the result of man’s maladjustment to society, but to the whole of existence”.

Stanley’s essays, beginning with The Age of Defeat (1959) and The Origins of the Sexual Impulse (1963) and ending with Wilson’s last book, Super Consciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience (2007/2009) effectively covers this whole spectrum of human existence, from the sexual impulse, literature, the powers of the Right Brain to Wilson’s own meetings with extraordinary individuals like Brad Absetz who seemed to embody aspects of Wilson’s own theories evolutionary psychology and its hidden powers – hidden powers, moreover, which are chillingly becoming more openly manifest in many of Wilson’s own case studies of remarkable individuals, alerting us to the sheer immanence of such an evolutionary leap.

An Evolutionary Leap: Colin Wilson on Psychology offers new and/or seasoned Wilson readers alike a brilliant opportunity to evaluate, all in one place, Wilson’s contribution to existential and evolutionary psychology, and it will, I believe, inspire and breathe a new lease of life into many of the cul-de-sacs prevalent in modern culture – and particularly in relation to ourselves as evolving individuals in search of a purpose from which to grow.  Stanley has provided the go-to book for a radical re-understanding of contemporary psychology, and as an increasing interest in positive psychology grows – in and outside of academia – I believe this book will stimulate a wider readership for those who want new, practical ideas of how to motivate a positive change within themselves, and in the modern psychoanalytic infrastructure.

The evolutionary leap that Wilson felt so near is here presented in impressive clarity of style and precision with which Wilson himself would have admired.  Stanley elaborates Wilson’s work with expertly chosen quotations, bringing Wilson’s work into such a sharp focus that effortlessly directs readers to much fruitful and stimulating future reading.

*

The book itself also provides an impressive list of references and further reading for anyone wishing to undertake further research for a dissertation or thesis. Colin Stanley has also produced other useful study guides for those approaching Wilson for the first time, or indeed more veteran readers who need to brush up on Wilson’s often overwhelming oeuvre. His own publishing house, Pauper’s Press, has an invaluable collection of highly focused and authoritative series of books dedicated to Colin Wilson Studies, a growing and highly exciting field which offers much opportunity to a reinvigoration of a wide variety of disciplines.

Karnac Books have also provided an excellent service to psychology and Colin Wilson Studies by publishing such a professionally presented book with such a charming front cover!  It is a commendable piece of work, and their variety of other publications is an inspiring collection of specialist and alternative books on psychoanalysis.

 

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