Over the Easter holiday, I visited a couple of fine Cornish coves, Sennon and Lamorna, and while at the latter, I thought of one of its past residents, the surrealist artist and occultist Ithel Colquhoun. I recalled that she had once reviewed Colin Wilson’s classic book The Occult (1971) and recommended the encyclopaedic Wilson to focus, perhaps, on just one or two occult disciplines – the Kabbalah and the tarot being her particular favourites.
Now, it would have been a great pity if Wilson had so narrowed his interests, for as many of his readers know, he covers a vast array of subject matter; from criminal psychology to wine and esotericism. But, on further reflection, I realised that what Colquhoun said was true for many of us. I had recently said much the same to my friend, the author Jason Heppenstall, who replied, “Yes, we can sometimes have incredibly greedy minds…”
And so, I thought about Wilson’s work (and Colquhoun’s recommendation) as to understand his trajectory as a philosopher; and why, moreover, he ranged so far and so wide, so near and yet so far in search of the evolutionary Faculty X – a vivid sense of the reality of “other times and places”.
Wilson was never greedy; in fact, he was generous, voracious and a master synthesiser of great swathes of inter-related topics. Indeed, his biographer Gary Lachman has said that in reading Wilson you gain the equivalent of a liberal arts education. He was, in my opinion, a philosophic tour-de-force who, from the outside, may appear as sometimes random and digressive. However, once you acquaint yourself more deeply with his work, you soon come to realise that it forms a part of his earlier philosophical methodology, which he called the ‘new existentialism’.
This, I think, is what Colquhoun had overlooked. Wilson had indeed, throughout all his work, essentially focused upon this extra-dimension of human consciousness; of sudden flashes of meaning and insight, of other times and places which, of course, forms the basic recognition of almost all of occultism.
Now, Philip Coulthard in Lurker on the Indifference Threshold: Feral Phenomenology for the 21st Century, presents an extended essay on the many threads of Wilson’s work. Coulthard takes us on a stimulating tour, stopping by at postmodernism and the challenging esoteric work of Kenneth Grant to the horror writer H.P Lovecraft’s gloomy cosmology, all the while providing a unique backdrop for the essential integration of Wilson’s formidable oeuvre – he wrote, after all, over 180 books – into the more contemporary frame of the 21st Century.
Coulthard lifts the new existentialism into new light and provides a beacon towards a more intentional – and far less nihilistic – vision of the future. And what is so remarkable about Lurker is its original insights into Wilson’s work, and, in doing so, is an example of Wilson’s own method of unifying both intuition and the intellect. Lurker is a sort of prism of the new existentialism, refracting a new light into a philosophy with a future that is imminent and a much-needed antidote to the bureaucratic academy, and more importantly, the neurosis of contemporary culture.
The new existentialism, here, becomes a remedy to our cultural malaise; the lurker of the title becomes our immense potential, and the threshold: our culture’s blind spot.
Today, it seems, philosophical trends such as postmodernism and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, are finally losing favour, and as Coulthard convincingly argues throughout Lurker, Wilson’s philosophy, by comparison, “remains diametrically opposed to such trends, even when it anticipates aspects of them” concluding that his work “is more relevant than ever.” (23). He also makes the interesting point that many who are attracted to Wilson’s philosophical works are individualists who – temperamentally or intellectually – resist the essentially passive and helpless “postmodernist legacy”, which, as Coulthard argues, places “the human subject at the mercy of external factors and [condemns us] not to freedom or meaning… but to strict identity, language, history, and cultural determinisms, [where we are] forever stuck in a grim Darwinian power struggle.” (20).
In fact, this is why I was first attracted to Wilson. He seemed to not only provide an accessible overview of history and philosophy, but also posited something radically more active, and as a result, practically more engaging.
Instead, Wilson wrote with an infectious intensity which, around every corner, opened up a new shift in perspective that enabled curious glimpses into another way of seeing. In fact, what he was effectively doing was writing from the standpoint of a more open-ended – even open-system – form of psychology that valued heightened states of consciousness as essential to grasping reality.
Of course, this was partly as a result of Wilson’s familiarity with the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who broke the psychiatric mould and sought to define the pinnacle of human psychological health. But, before being acquainted with Maslow’s positive psychology, he had clearly already developed a deep analysis of our culture’s dis-ease in his 1956 debut, The Outsider.
Reading Wilson is so refreshing because he effectively opens the door, allowing more ideas, as a direct result of his optimistic approach, to enter in; rather, that is, than sealing them off into the dry Siberia of academic obscurantism or focusing on tedious minutiae. A true existentialist, he sought for the essential meaning of existence, thus transcending the dullness of spirit, and denigration of intuition, so esteemed by our trivial-minded age, where political journalism reigns supreme.
Coulthard quotes from Wilson’s Beyond the Outsider, which encapsulates Wilson’s essential urgency and visionary spirit for a new approach:
“Western man has become so accustomed to the idea of passivity and insignificance that it is difficult to imagine what sort of creature he would be if phenomenology could uncover his intentional evolutionary structure and make it part of his consciousness.”
Lurker takes this search for the ‘evolutionary structures’ further, with the chapter titles providing a context as well as a general atmosphere of vast and impersonal forces at work: ‘Far Out, But Near’; ‘Cyclopean Architects’ and ‘Goad of the Powers’. They evoke an almost daemonic Beethoven symphony; pounding and triumphant, yet impersonal and strangely savage – rather like a splash of cold water up your back: invigorating as with a sense of electric control. This, after all, is essentially the motive underlying – often unconsciously – the great works from Lovecraft’s Mythos, to the passionate call for a revaluation of all values as found in Nietzsche’s works from The Birth of Tragedy to his masterpiece, and poetic evocation – or invocation – of the Superman, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
As Wilson said in Beyond the Outsider, the point of these Dionysian and deep subterranean energies is not to be washed away with them in frenzy and chaos, but to canalize them into consciousness; to allow them to creatively charge our lives and our art. To lose this vision – which is the reason for the general malaise of the 21st Century – is to fall into a passive state, and to dwindle our psychic resources at such imaginative distortions of this Life Force. Coulthard argues, “Art and culture not receiving these currents can only lead to banal sterility… and an acceptance of the morbid undercurrent [of defeat and pessimism].”
Now, someone who instinctively understood this subterranean force and the possibilities of super-consciousness was the great dowser and archaeologist, T.C. Lethbridge.
In his posthumous work, The Power of the Pendulum, Lethbridge crystallises the essence of Wilson’s work – who wrote at length about Lethbridge in his 1978 book, Mysteries – and his most fundamental insight. The two writers had much in common.
Lethbridge, in a similar spirit to Wilson, says:
“Man exists on many mental levels, of which the earth life appears to be the lowest… He is entirely independent, and his method of development is peculiar to himself… Only when he can realise this will he rise at all in the scale of evolution.” (44).
“If you find out anything, I feel it is your duty to pass it on to your fellows… The power is yours on the higher level … but to make use of it here, it is necessary to learn how it can be brought down to a lower level. The transformer is something which you forge mentally between one level and the next… [my italics]”
Lethbridge, like Wilson, are impressive examples of this anti-bureaucratic attitude to truth and intelligence, working with their minds in an open and vibrant way; sending off sparks of insight in a manner that is both generous and – according to Nietzsche’s analysis of what constitutes a good writer – with a fundamental willingness to be understood rather than merely to impress.
Further still, there is this recognition at the heart of their work of something lurking at the threshold of everyday consciousness, and that is that there is a higher ‘you’ – a superordinate identity, or, in more esoteric language, your daemon. This is a super-charged Self that is experienced in moments of what Maslow called ‘peak experiences’, flashes of sometimes overwhelming joy that imports feelings of immortality and a tremendous zest for living.
One of Coulthard most fascinating insights is that these “subterranean” forces, as he calls them, are in some sense repressed, and as a result, they are often misrepresented in such artistic expressions as in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. That is, as gigantic, impersonal and essentially malevolent forces. Wilson had always argued that Lovecraft’s attitude was that of “curdled Romanticism”, an essentially self-devouring, self-harming Will to Power that had backfired into destruction and nihilism.
Coulthard argues that these subterranean forces are instead “wellsprings of creativity” which are too often misunderstood and channelled into “distortions” where “no amount of rationality can supress their chthonic rumblings”. Wilson’s phenomenology navigates these negative biases towards the hidden ‘I’ of the transpersonal ego, that self that provides the very perceptual energy that fires our zest and sense of meaning. If this arrow of intentionality backfires, rather, it works as Lovecraft’s curdled romanticism – towards crime and destruction, rather like some disastrous machine that becomes recklessly out of control and destroys an entire city. Or, as Wilson would have perhaps put it, poisoned an entire culture.
The new existentialism is a form of self-analysis that attempts to rid our collective unconsciousness of these very real dangers of a negative bias, and instead provide techniques and a ‘conceptology’ that we can use to steer ourselves away from such immensely wasteful disasters.
What makes Lurker such an important book in Wilson Studies is that it presents an exceptionally wide area of analysis, pulling in Lovecraft, whose popularity is becoming ever larger – perhaps symptomatically – and providing a robust counterargument against the fundamental nihilism of postmodernism. It is, I think, something Wilson would be doing if he were still alive today. In fact, with our culture becoming evermore saturated with signs of this precise implosion, as it were, of an inadequate cosmology and sense of psychological health, Outsiders – those who feel alienated by their civilisation, yearning for more intense and serious states of consciousness – are likely to grow as a result.
Coulthard provides a precis and condensation of Wilson’s’ vast output, producing a sort of visionary manual on how to survive as well as to identify the key symptoms, culturally and phenomenologically, of an essential wrong-headedness that saps our vitalities. Furthermore, intuition is once again provided its rightful place as an arrow towards conceptual widening, and, when aided by the intellect, actualities and creativity expands exponentially, as it is only our intuitively-driven insights – usually seeping in from the transcendental ego, or hidden ‘I’ – that equips us with the key to that secret of Being, or, as Coulthard puts it, as a part of our “intentional quest for the philosopher’s stone”.