Self-Help and the New Existentialism

The popular understanding of the term ‘self-help’ – associated with such popular books on weight loss and confidence and so on – seems too passive a word to describe the stature of a writer who regularly tackled such huge philosophical topics like existentialism and phenomenology. The work of Colin Wilson, well-known as a counterblast against the pessimistic assumptions of 20th century philosophy (namely, but not limited to, the work of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus), seems somewhat underestimated by this trite portmanteau word.

Now I say this without any reservations for the self-help market. Simply that this term has such connotations when bought up when discussing philosophy. If this helpful branch of literature improves one’s life, then it matters little what form it takes. However, for many the thought of applying this popular term ‘self-help’ to the works of such a philosophical revolutionary as Wilson would be to reduce such great works as The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, and his excellent overview of all things evolutionary in books like The Occult to his final and most succinct statement of his life’s work, Super Consciousness.

And yet, at its core, Wilson’s philosophy is profoundly helpful to us all. Wilson’s philosophy is self-help in its truest, deepest sense.

Wilson, in all his works, wrote in an accessible style and provided for many invaluable introductions to notoriously challenging and arcane subjects: existentialism, occultism, crime, psychology and even wine! One might say that this in itself provides the foundations necessary for anyone to begin to help themselves. Implicit in all of Wilson’s work is an impassioned call for people to take charge of their own minds – to detach from the pessimistic assumptions of late 20th century philosophy and the ever increasingly rickety paradigm of Materialism. His analysis is of life itself and a challenge to the negative colouring of the postmodern psyche.

It seems to me, with the popularity of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, and the general climate of existential ‘orientation disorientation’, that Wilson’s work presents a form of what Gary Lachman has called ‘existential self-help’ (see his article in New Dawn magazine). To this purpose, I have here set out a three-step summation of Wilson’s contribution to understanding our turbulent times, and, moreover, our individual responsibility.

  • Firstly, I will emphasise the practical elements of Wilson’s philosophy, recognising just how his work provides a deeply enriching and intelligent philosophical foundation for a life more abundant, more meaningful.
  • Secondly, I will be taking as my base Brad Spurgeon’s recently re-published book Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism, which provides an excellent introduction both to Wilson’s ideas and his positive contribution to an optimistic frame of mind during difficult times – both personally and in the larger context of our current cultural tensions.
  • Thirdly, it presents my own synthesis to understand how, in integrating Wilson’s unique brand of phenomenological existentialism into our own lives, we can have a form of self-help with foundations deep and with truly effective principals.

Combining these we may hopefully arrive at a fuller understanding of the self-developmental ideas implicit in Wilson’s philosophy, which collectively offers an intellectual robustness that far exceeds much of what we understand as self-help literature today.

*

Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism comprises a lengthy interview conducted by Brad Spurgeon. The reader is therefore presented with an easily digestible précis of Wilson’s optimistic brand of ‘new existentialism’. The book provides a part biography and a reflection upon his life’s work and its possible implications for the future. Included in the Appendices is perhaps one of Wilson’s most boldly optimistic and far reaching speculations on the future of mankind’s psychology, presenting a case for what the biologist T.H. Huxley saw as our destiny – as the directors of our own evolution rather than passively drifting in the laws natural selection. Bypassing the typical pitfalls of the latter’s trans-humanism, Wilson instead positions consciousness where it matters, that is, in evolutionary terms. The evolution of consciousness, after all, requires consciousness itself to become more active in its own participation with the natural world. Consciousness, after all, is nature that is aware of it itself.

What’s more is that Spurgeon frames Wilson’s philosophy in a moving and uniquely insightful Preface. We are presented with a remarkable context in which Wilson’s optimistic philosophy has proved itself to be profoundly practical and authentic in dealing with life’s most severe and challenging tests. Spurgeon, undergoing a difficult time in his own life while editing and preparing the first-edition of this book for the publisher, Michael Butterworth, found the whole project deeply significant; one in which he treated the contents contained therein as “a self-help book, as a desperately needed medicine that would help me cope” (2017: xv.). For Spurgeon there is no doubt that the values of Wilson’s powerfully argued defence of an optimistic frame of mind proved themselves to be profound in those moments when reassurances for the sake of our faith and motivation are truly needed.

Spurgeon describes the genesis of the book as being a way to “counter the crap” of Wilson’s too often uninformed and lazy critics. This was in the wake of much undeserved and negatively-biased reviews of his excellent and culturally significant 2004 autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose. Spurgeon, deciding that it was time to meet his literary hero in person, set out to interview the author at his home in Goran Haven, Cornwall. This resulted in the interview that makes up the bulk of Philosopher of Optimism. By presenting Wilson in the form of a long interview Spurgeon has provided a unique opportunity to see the philosopher in his true context – as an authoritative and commanding visionary of a truly substantial philosophy of optimism.

It is now worth providing some extra context for Wilson’s adoption by other important thinkers. It is significant, in regards to self-help, that this should have informed the work of one of America’s greatest psychologists.

Wilson’s insights into the phenomenology of consciousness, and the intentional mechanisms which allow an increased access to meaning and purpose, were appreciated by none other than the psychologist Abraham Maslow. It was Maslow who first decided to study the psychology of health rather than focusing, like many psychologists before him, on the varieties of mental ill-health. Rather Maslow sought to define the qualities of the very healthiest people he could find, and from there go on develop a general theory of mental healthiness.

(This unique approach has resulted in more recent times in a positive psychology movement which has been packaged for mass-consumption in the less academic sphere of self-help bestsellers. Indeed, there is also the New Thought movement along with what is called “positive-mind metaphysics” which is a crucial player in the development of America’s collective psyche[1].)

Wilson became fascinated by these instances of unique healthiness, in which one experiences what Maslow called ‘peak experiences’; moments in which “you see things which are true but which one doesn’t notice normally because one’s so mechanical.” (2017: 19). Furthermore, these peak experiences are the hallmark of individuals who were psychologically healthy – therefore corroborating many accounts; sometimes mystical and sometimes from ‘everyday life revelations’ – which recognise a truly authentic meaningfulness at the heart of human existence. In a sense, Maslow had taken a scientific step towards the validation of the authenticity and unique evolutionary implications of psychological health in general, a huge leap indeed for a culture seemingly obsessed with deconstructing the norms and definitions of what constitutes as ‘healthy-mindedness’. Maslow provided a direct and unique definition of heightened mental performance; noting both its functions and unique characteristics which infer an increased grip on reality.

However, whereas Maslow identified this trait in the healthiest among us, he nevertheless felt that the experience itself was fundamentally impossible to replicate by will or effort. In a sense this is quite ironic, for what happens in these states of buoyant consciousness is precisely the recognition that the mind itself has extraordinary powers – indeed, that it is causative in a very significant sense. Wilson felt that, on this issue, Maslow sold human nature short. For Wilson the peak experience could be achieved by will-power. And yet it required the basic recognition that human consciousness is intentional, that is, it reaches out and grabs meaning – and when the intentional muscles are flabby and undisciplined, as in states of boredom or depression, we cease to make the mental effort to reach out and grip the objective meanings all around us. We become passive, ‘mechanical’.

This wasn’t simply an intellectual dispute on Wilson’s part, for it seemed to him that Maslow’s sense that the peak experience was a happenstance event failed to consider many such experiences which were directly invoked by conscious effort. Wilson, like many others, particularly in the New Thought movement as well as many of the mystics before them, believed that the mind is essentially causative – that the mind directly causes change in the outer-world just as much as it can change its own inner-world. In other words, the mind can, quite consciously, elevate itself into a state in which it can achieve these flashes (or sometimes even sustained illuminations) of peak experience at will.

It was precisely this recognition of the active quality of consciousness which enabled Wilson to rise out of his working-class, Leicestershire background and discipline himself to become a full-time writer. Fond of quoting H.G. Well’s Mr. Polly, Wilson himself represented his crucial ethic of self-development: “If you don’t like your life, you can change it.” This, of course, is the fundamental tenant behind self-help, and it is not as twee and quaint once it is put into practice, rather like Peterson’s almost Gurdjieffian dictum “tidy your room” – which refers to beautifying what you already have – the practice requires both will and a positive perspective.

And yet there is something within us that prevents human consciousness from accessing these higher‑states, for after all, these peak experiences would be a far more common place experience for many of us. Wilson understood, however, that without understanding the phenomenology of the restrictive mechanisms within consciousness, we would not be able to overcome our own inner-limitations. His own recognition of this is present in his first book, The Outsider, in which he discussed the work of the Greek-Armenian esoteric teacher, G.I. Gurdjieff, who arguably more than any other philosopher before him challenged man’s mental and physical mechanicalness. When, around 1952, Wilson first read about Gurdjieff, he immediately realized that he “was quite obviously one of the greatest minds I had ever encountered” (2004: 53). Although at times severe, Gurdjieff’s essential recognition is that man, if he understands himself fully, can bypass his limitations and gain a degree of self-mastery that would enable him to develop into a sort of superhuman.

Wilson immediately recognised in Gurdjieff a profound psychologist who understood man almost as well as an experienced mechanic understands cars. Wilson would later call this mechanical part of ourselves the ‘robot’. Now, in Poetry and Mysticism, Wilson emphasises that this does not “mean that I am attempting to reduce mysticism to a matter of psychological mechanisms, any more than understanding the anatomy of the eye explains our perceptions of colour”, but rather it is where these “mechanisms end” is precisely where “the mystery begins” (1970: 17).

Like Mr. Polly states, we can change our lives, but first, Gurdjieff would reply, we must identify those parts in ourselves that inhibit or prevent that change to occur. And then we must develop a higher, more integrated, identity in which we can take full command of ourselves and thus our own lives. Unlike Gurdjieff, Wilson didn’t believe it required any special ‘school’ in which “one who knows” can solely bestow this knowledge upon his select students. Instead Wilson believed we could go just as far with our development with a degree of self-discipline and phenomenological vigilance over our moods; observing precisely how they affect our corresponding assumptions about reality. This, effectively, summarises his criticisms of the existentialists, for it is this aspect of phenomenology that Wilson believed they overlooked.

In his 1978 book, Mysteries, he presents his own unique theory of a ‘ladder of selves’. Complimenting Gurdjieff’s system as well as owing a degree of credit to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the ladder of selves provides an insightful metaphor for a variety of states of consciousness, particularly in their capacity for grasping meaning. The further one ventures up the ladder the increasingly integrated do these ‘selves’ become.

Now, it’s important here to attempt define just what these ‘selves’ – or what Gurdjieff called our internally separated ‘I’s – are, and precisely what parts of our psyches they represent. For one such poignant example we can turn to an event in Wilson’s own life experience in which he realized this reality of ‘multiple selves’ at a crucial moment in his life.

After leaving school at the age of sixteen Wilson undertook a series of menial labouring jobs, one of which was working in a wool factory. Due to his relatively poor working-class background, university was out of the question; and with his dad earning so little while working in the boot and shoe trade, Wilson, along with his brothers, were expected to ‘earn their keep’.

The young Colin’s dream had always been to become a scientist of momentous importance; he even modelled himself on becoming “Einstein’s successor”! In contrast to this dream Wilson’s work-a-day existence in these mundane and repetitive jobs must have been a bitter reminder of his social position and may even have discouraged him altogether had he not been offered a job as a lab assistant by his old headmaster. Curiously, by this point, he had started to develop two conflicting selves: Wilson-the-scientist was fast becoming eclipsed by Wilson-the-Romantic, lover of poetry. Although he was relieved to start work as a lab assistant he had, nevertheless, been devouring so much poetry that science, by contrast, seemed to him far too detached from the real questions concerning human existence – and, of course, existence as a whole: why is there something rather than nothing?

Discouraged by the vast disparity between this rich inner-world of imagination and the grim and dull reality of suffering jobs he detested, he decided that he would give ‘God back his entrance ticket’ – he would, he convinced himself, commit suicide.

There were two selves at war within Wilson – and two versions of reality itself were at odds one another. Yet the gloomy teenage nihilist seemed to be taking the upper-hand, pushing aside his other ‘self’. Life for the romantic nihilist was a joke of repetition and humiliation, and he wasn’t going to sit through life and accept misery and defeat. He’d simply end it all. In a sense it was Wilson’s romantic ‘self’ that was in revolt, for he later realized that this was the problem of so many of the 19th Century writers, artists and poets. As he says in the interview with Spurgeon, “Rejecting everyday life and its boring triviality meant they were, in a sense, choosing death.” (2017: 7).

Arriving late at the laboratory he had resolved in himself to take down a bottle of hydrocyanic acid and proceed to take a swig of the lethal liquid. However, once he took down the bottle and received a blast of its acrid smell, he suddenly saw that he had become two people. He describes how he “was suddenly conscious of this teenage idiot called Colin Wilson, with his misery and frustration, and he seemed such a limited fool that I could not have cared less whether he killed himself or not. But if he killed himself, he would kill me too.” This other ‘me’ he refers to is the real Colin Wilson – the very same one that would go on to have a prolific writing career beginning with the world-shaking publication of The Outsider in 1956.

No doubt this intense division in himself, compounded by the life-saving flash of insight influenced Wilson’s subsequent attitude to life. Indeed, in his autobiography he mentions Marilyn Ferguson’s belief that all great originators in philosophy and literature and the arts must undergo, at some point in their lives, a serious consideration of suicide. Wilson believes that in these darkest moments one investigates the abyss, and this results in a sort of inner-alchemy in which the ‘real self’ separates from “the inessential self, which is like being reborn.” In this profound shift from a lower self to a much higher self which “glimpsed the marvellous, immense richness of reality, extending to distant horizons,” Wilson ascended up the ladder of selves until there, at the top, was the real ‘I’ who had far more authority and will-power than the robotic, meaning-starved self that had decided that life just wasn’t worth the effort.

In Philosopher of Optimism Wilson references Gurdjieff’s notion of what he called ‘essence’, which is precisely that part of the individual which is most internally consistent with itself, and not as flighty and transient as the ‘personality’. This essence is crystalised through hard work and inner self-discipline; Gurdjieff called these efforts a form of ‘intentional suffering’ which strengthens the essential aspect in man. This essence is a high-level of inner integration, in which the higher aspect of our psyche has fully bound together the warring factions of our many conflicting impulses. “Essence”, said Gurdjieff, “has more chances of development in men who live . . . in difficult conditions of constant struggle and danger.” (2001: 162) In other words essence develops when our habitual, robotic consciousness is placed into abeyance and a higher self is forced to take over, particularly in crisis situations, or indeed, in moments of almost ecstatic happiness as with the peak experience. These moments generate a sense of inner solidity which stands firm, thus providing us with a reliable ballast for our will in the turbulent and unpredictable terrain of existence.

In the interview with Spurgeon Wilson acknowledges that he had deliberately throughout his life aimed “to reach higher states of consciousness – or simple emotional stability and the state of productive optimism – through the natural methods of work, outlook, discipline and relationships.” (2017: 24) In fact, this inner stability is the development of a strong sense of purpose which Wilson embodied throughout his life despite many set-backs (attacks from critics and moments of near disastrous financial ruin).

Looking back on Wilson’s career – 5 years after his death in 2013 – we can with confidence say that he was a truly a philosopher who developed this essence, and who, moreover, truly embodied and lived by his own philosophy of optimism and driving purpose. And perhaps, as he says in a short video excerpt with Spurgeon, it is precisely this general sense of cheerfulness that annoys and aggravates his critics so much[2].

After all, such optimism is generally unfashionable in our postmodern world. But as the tide turns, and bookseller lists reflect our collective consciousness ever more – with Jordan Peterson popularising such titans as Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Eliade, Frankl and so on – Wilson’s whole oeuvre acts as a synthesising catalyst for a new existentialism; a profound vision that transcends the negative maelstrom of conflicting identities, postmodern uncertainty, and a politics which, more than anything, seems hellbent on keeping us in a mechanical and robotic state – individually and collectively.

We may say with confidence that Wilson’s output is a true phenomenological map of meaning – a way towards our humanity in an increasingly dehumanising and polarising time.

 

Works Cited:

Horowitz, M. (2014) One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. New York, Crown Publishing Group.

Lachman, G. (2016) Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. New York, Tarcher Perigee.

Ouspensky, P.D. (2001) In Search of the Miraculous. London, Harcourt Inc.

Spurgeon, B. (2017) Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Manchester, Michael Butterworth.

Wilson, C. (1966) Introduction to the New Existentialism. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.

­ . (1970) Poetry and Mysticism. San Francisco, City Light Books,

. (1985) The Essential Colin Wilson. London, HARRAP LIMITED.

. (2004) Dreaming to Some Purpose. London, Arrow Books Limited.

[1] For a general overview of the history of positive thinking, I’d recommend the historian Mitch Horowitz’s book on the subject, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myEgr3glF-0

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