Evolving Metaphors: Colin Wilson and Ufology
The reason I began writing Evolutionary Metaphors was due to seeing various parallels with the UFO phenomenon, Colin Wilson’s philosophical works and the occult. And what interested me most was the essential logic which often informs the absurd and mind-bending nature of the UFO mystery.
Of course, the occult and the esoteric, along with paranormal research, is often rejected by the scientific mainstream, and to bring all these subjects together to shed some light on an already difficult subject would seem, to most, entirely illogical. That is if one desires that the UFO phenomenon to be validated – or debunked – by the scientific establishment.
There are many works that attempt to achieve this goal of absolute proof or disproof; few are agnostic. However, for my investigation I decided to take a more literary and psychological approach, feeling that it would provide a more flexible question of ‘What if?’ – a question that forms the ground of science fiction.
This heady mixture of science fiction and the occult could provide, I felt, a way out of the frameworks of the ordinary limitations of what’s possible by our standard models, and allow us to approach ‘the Other’, or truly alien, in a satisfyingly expansive and imaginative manner.
Now, Colin Wilson’s early philosophy, and subsequent works in science fiction, the occult, and paranormal phenomenon seemed to me foundational for this investigation. And much of my own work has been influenced by his 1998 book, Alien Dawn: An Investigation into the Contact Experience.
This forms the basis of today’s talk.
The subjects of this talk – Colin Wilson and ufology (the study of UFOs) – requires a general introduction, for both cover an enormous amount of ground.
Now, let’s begin with Colin Wilson himself.
His first, and most famous work, is The Outsider, which was published in 1956. It was released to great acclaim; its author was working-class, with no university education, and only 24-years old. In fact, he was a bit of an anomaly himself in intellectual circles of the time. Except that he was quickly heaped in with the ‘Angry Young Men’ – a journalist’s catchphrase for an uprising of mainly young working-class, sometimes anti-establishment figures, such as Stuart Holroyd, Bill Hopkins and John Osbourne, who wrote the famous play ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, the namesake of the movement.
Even amongst the Angry Young Men, Wilson was an outsider – he even said that he wasn’t angry at all. His literary reputation – a seemingly inevitable destiny once touched upon by British journalists – became increasingly marginalised shortly before his second book in 1957, Religion and the Rebel. As a result, Wilson’s work was ignored by the mainstream and deemed either irrelevant or, even, dangerous.
So, what was the essence of his earliest work, The Outsider, and why has it, out of all his 150 or so books, stood the test of time – indeed receiving so many translations and republications over the years?
The reason, I believe, is quite simple: it articulates with great clarity the existential awakening of the individual. More than that, in fact, it explores the problem at length and, by the end of the book, provides a series of examples of individuals who went beyond the Outsider problem; the founder of Quakerism, George Fox; the esoteric psychologist, G.I. Gurdjieff; and the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna. And for this reason, it has gained an almost universal quality; resonating with a deeply felt sense of the human predicament.
Wilson describes the essence of the book in his important essay, ‘Below the Iceberg’:
“[The] book [is] about ‘Outsiders’, people who felt a longing for some more purposeful form of existence, and who felt trapped and suffocated in the triviality of everyday life.”
“[It’s] a book about ‘moments of vision’, and about the periods of boredom, frustration and misery in which these moments are lost. [It’s] about men like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, van Gogh, T.E. Lawrence and William Blake, who have clear glimpses of a more powerful and meaningful way of living, yet who find themselves on the brink of suicide or insanity because of the frustration of their everyday life.” (2019: 275)
Now what is often overlooked is that The Outsider is just one a of a sequence of six books, which he called ‘The Outsider Cycle’. This forms the foundation of his philosophy which was summarised in an introduction to the whole cycle, the 1966 Introduction to the New Existentialism.
To begin to understand Wilson’s update of existentialism – the philosophy defined most famously by the French philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus – is to then understand the trajectory of all of his life’s work. And this provides an insight into why – and how – he went about approaching the bizarre subject of UFOs and extra-terrestrials. But more of that later.
For now, let’s turn to two summaries, in his own words, of this ‘new’ existentialism:
“The ‘new existentialism’ accepts man’s experience of his inner freedom as basic and irreducible. Our lives consist of a clash between two visions: our vision of this inner freedom, and our vision of contingency; our intuition of freedom and power, and our everyday feeling of limitation of boredom.” (1966: 180)
“The ‘new existentialism’ concentrates the full battery of phenomenological analysis upon the everyday sense of contingency, upon the problem of ‘life devaluation’.”
suggests mental disciplines through which this waste of freedom can be averted.” (Ibid.)
All of his subsequent works contain – whether it’s on crime, the occult, wine or music – insights into the essential mechanisms of the mind and are threaded through with this recognition of a phenomenology of heightened states of consciousness. In every regard, whether it is through the act of murder, indulging in alcohol, or performing ritual magic, the intensity of mind is sought, whether consciously or not. However, what mattered for Wilson is that they converge into a fundamentally creative drive and not, of course, in such destructive endeavours.
So, in essence, the new existentialism set out to define how moments of vision, purpose, and ultimate meaningfulness could be objectively grasped. This is where the crucial metaphysic arrives in Wilson’s new existentialism, for as he says in Poetry and Mysticism, “Where the mechanisms [of consciousness] ends, the mystery begins.” (17: 1970).
Wilson reasoned, quite logically, that in heightened states of consciousness – which are apprehended in moments of what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘peak experiences’ – a deeper reality of existence is objectively realised. This apprehension of reality is reached through what phenomenologists call ‘intentionality’; the mechanism of the mind’s ability to grasp what is out there, in the phenomenal world.
This can be illustrated by two simple examples:
When we feel alert and buoyed with energy, we notice more; for example, we can appreciate a sunset or feel intensely alive and connected to the environment outside of us, noticing even the intricate detail of the pavement, or the luminescence of a shop’s window. In low moods, by contrast, we notice less; we withdraw our intentional perceptual grasp and live in a vague mood of gloom and defeat.
Wilson was fond of quoting W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘Vacillation’:
fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
These moments of sudden and intense overwhelming happiness, so much so that Yeats’ felt he was “blessed and could bless” are, Wilson argues, closely related to the mystical experience, in which one somehow grasps the essential meaning of existence. And yet these often occur in moments of irrationality, that is, they cannot be logically explained; rather they appear to arise in moments of inter-section, as it were – in those brief moments of curious disengagement with the ordinary chatter of the mind.
It is this realisation that is at the heart of the new existentialism, for it reinstated what the ‘old’ existentialism had rejected – what the phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, called the transcendental ego; an ‘I’ – or an ‘other you’ – that effectively energises your perception from behind the scenes, so to speak. Intentionality, the mechanism by which our consciousness ‘reaches out’ and apprehends the world is charged by this deeper self.
More than this, in fact, this ‘other self’ behind perception exists in a state that lies outside of time, and when it emerges in closer accordance with our here-and-now perceptions, it resolves the contradictions of existence faced by our rational, everyday consciousness. In effect, one experiences a supra-logical faculty which breaks the illusory deadlock caused by many of our philosophical categories.
Wilson importantly noted: “[P]hilosophical thought is a process of perception, and therefore depends on the drive, the energy behind it. It also follows that under-energised thought will actually falsify the objects of perception”. Yeats, in ‘Vacillation’, says that his “body of a sudden blazed”, suggesting some sort of occupation of a higher self which galvanised his perception, his poetic faculty which illuminated reality beyond the nausea-inducing categories of Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of universal contingency.
Now implicit in Wilson’s new existentialism is an entirely new faculty of perception; a way in which human beings are capable of exceeding their five-senses and somehow being able to make sense of time and space in such a way that resolves the existential dilemma of Being. This is where he continued onto explore the paranormal, the mystical, and the heightened – or altered – mental states of ritual magic and occultism in his 1971 book, The Occult.
Importantly, he went through the genre of science-fiction prior to writing The Occult, with novels like The Mind Parasites (1967) and The Philosopher’s Stone (1969), which explore at length – as much science-fiction tends to do – psychic faculties and curious moments of super-consciousness. And, importantly for this talk, extra-terrestrial, alien intelligences and occult forces that meddle with human existence. Both books, I should add, were heavily influenced by the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft who is famous for his story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1927), which includes a gigantic, subterranean malevolent force that slumbers beneath mankind’s ignorance – Cthulhu, the Great Old One.
And so, what Wilson was attempting to do in his science-fiction books was to embrace the intuition that Lovecraft had about deep, underground and ‘terrifying’ forces and, instead, reframe them in Husserl’s more phenomenological recognition of a deeper level of reality that, in fact, forms the substrate of existence itself. And, by recognising this, Wilson saw that this was a misunderstanding – he called Lovecraft’s worldview a product of “curdled Romanticism” – based on a pessimistic bias which resulted in a negatively-charged “falsity of underpowered perception”.
The great poet and visionary artist, William Blake, also seemed to share Wilson’s insight, saying in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:
“The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence, and now seem to live in it in chains, are in truth the causes of its life & the sources of all activity.”
Now, this recognition of underground, untapped resources of the mind seemed almost inevitably to lead to Wilson’s development from an existentialist to writing a book on the occult, for the latter, of course, wholly acknowledges these powers – and even provides ways of enhancing and mastering them. And if these higher faculties of human perception were real, as Wilson increasingly came to believe, then it logically follows that the ‘old’ existentialism had been selling human nature short.
With this background in the occult and the paranormal, of course, it seems somewhat inevitable that he would go on to touch upon the UFO phenomenon. And although he had explored this territory in his science-fiction books before The Occult, and then in its sequels, Mysteries and Beyond the Occult, it wasn’t until 1998 that his UFO book proper was released, Alien Dawn: An Investigation into the Contact Experience. Now, although it forms a basic history to ufology – and it is not until the later chapters of the book that he outlines his philosophical developments which formed his interest in the phenomenon – the book is, as we shall see, crucial to Wilson’s intellectual development.
The Wilson scholar Geoff Ward acknowledged much the same, saying that like the psychologist Carl Jung, who wrote one of the earliest and most classic books on UFOs, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1958), Wilson saw this as very much a symbolic event, offering “a revelation that could amount to a new kind of consciousness.”
This, essentially, is where I begin in my own book, Evolutionary Metaphors, for in surveying the wide range of UFO literature there is always the sense that they are more than merely nuts-and-bolts craft that can be detected on radar and potentially shot down by our military. They are, in their deepest sense, a sociological anomaly; even a symbol – perhaps – of Cold War hysteria and fears, with the first major sightings beginning around 1947.
Kenneth Arnold, an aviator with over 9,000 flying hours, is the most classic case, and the origin of the phrase ‘flying saucer’, which was adopted feverishly by the press. On 25 June 1947 he reported, near Mount Rainer in Washington State, seeing nine unusual objects flying at incredible speeds far surpassing modern technology, which he described variously as both shaped like a “pie-pan”, a “big flat disk” and “saucer-like”. This led to, of course, the more famous combination: flying saucer. Arnold’s sighting tends to circumscribe the UFO mystery to a comfortable date, allowing it to be too easily ascribed to the ‘Cold War hysteria’ hypothesis.
In researching Alien Dawn, Wilson also came to this conclusion in the chapter, ‘The Labyrinthine Pilgrimage of Jacques Vallee’. Here Wilson explores the work of the computer scientist – who was instrumental in the French pre-run for the internet, Arpanet – Jacques Vallee, whose hobby from a young age was to collate and schematise UFO reports from around the world. He went on to write the classic, Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore, and Parallel Worlds (1969), and more recently Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times (2010), a compendium of specifically pre-20th century UFO – or ‘mysterious light’ – sightings.
More importantly, Vallee asked the question of what UFOs overall effect was on the human race, that is, merely as an observed phenomenon and growing mythology. Vallee took the in-between route, refusing to draw a line on exactly what they were, and instead observing their sociological and psychological effects on those who had apparently witnessed them.
Essentially, this is how I approach it in my own book, calling the experience a type of ‘evolutionary metaphor’, or a symbolic experience which offers alternative ways of understanding existence. Indeed, Vallee, in The Invisible College, states much the same:
“With every new wave of UFOs, the social impact becomes greater. More young people become fascinated with space, with psychic phenomena, with new frontiers in consciousness. . . changing our culture in the direction of a higher image of man.” (2010: 127) [my italics].
Now, what interested me so much about Alien Dawn was that as much as it appeared a breakaway from his earlier ‘new existentialist’ works, it quickly turned out to be much the opposite, rather that it was a bridge through his works on the occult, and an opportunity to expand his ideas into cosmology, consciousness studies and even quantum physics.
The social question of the UFO phenomenon, for Wilson, became symbolic of a change of orientation in the human drama, with a possible new vision which lifts us out of our cosmic provincialism and provides a larger context for our own existence. And with all of the interrelated topics in ufology explored in Alien Dawn, such as crop circles and the now famous alien abduction phenomenon, there appears to be something underlying the whole mystery which Wilson called a sense of “deliberate unbelievableness” – rather as if the phenomenon deliberately obscures itself. (Indeed, Carl Jung once said that the “highest truth is one and the same with the absurd”, and this seems to be the essential message of the UFO phenomenon.)
It struck me that with this ‘deliberate unbelievableness’, and apparent playfulness with time and space –even the absurd theatrics as found in the witness testimony on abduction literature – that whatever entities that were behind this phenomenon were quite at home in the strange and novel logic explored in works of popular science fiction.
One novel in particular which penetrates to the irrational heart of the UFO phenomenon is Ian Watson’s The Miracle Visitors (1978), in which he explores something he calls the ‘plus and minus factor’, saying that in ‘lower-order’ systems of logic something must either ‘change within the lower-order reality or be lost to it, to compensate’. ‘The trick was’, he continues, ‘to make the loss the least negative one possible – to create merely mystery, not damage’.
Here, I think, is the whole of ufology compressed into a single sentence: to create mystery, not damage. And that is what it appears to be doing; providing a liminal, abstract form of ‘meta-logic’ that orientates man’s vision of the cosmos to one of the mysterious, the ‘What ifs’ of science fiction; the emotional, personal, aspect that science lacks is therefore complimented by the dramas and vast possibilities – and sometimes impossibilities – of science fiction.
The UFO becomes the subject of folklore. One could argue that the alien may represent man as abstracted to himself – or, as the psychologist Stan Gooch proposed, as a part of ‘the on-going folklore’ of the Ego. Science fiction, then, becomes the avant-garde of this evolving folklore. Its metaphoric quality is, of course, oriented towards the future – towards an evolutionary beckoning – and science fiction, of course, becomes a part of the imagination’s groping towards this actualisation.
We should not, however, overlook the often dreamlike and surrealistic quality of the UFO experience reported in many books of case studies. The Harvard-trained psychiatrist, John E. Mack, collected many such reports in his book, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1998), or, for example, as can be found in the classic The Andreasson Affair (1979) by Raymond E Fowler. J Allen Hynek even said of the latter, “At certain points… [the] narrative seems to deal with a reality so alien that it can be described only in metaphors, and perhaps only understood in terms of an altered state of consciousness.” (17: 1978) [my italics]. Vallee also speculated:
“These forms of life may be similar to projections, they may be real, yet a product of our dreams. Like our dreams, we can look into their hidden meaning, or we can ignore them. But like our dreams, they may also shape what we think of our lives in ways that we do not yet understand.”
My own book is an attempt to continue where Colin Wilson left off in Alien Dawn, particularly with his analysis of science fiction, psychology, and cosmology as being fundamentals of what the phenomenon seems to urge us to examine. The cultural import of its existence cannot be doubted; it has generated popular films, TV shows and books, and shows no signs of slowing down. And if it does – and many of the best books on the subject tend to conclude – form a part of an on-going folklore in our more materialistic and less religious times, then the question may be what it supplements, or even replaces that our culture has lost?
That it forms an excellent metaphor cannot be doubted, with writers such as H.G. Wells using the alien as a base for his book War of the Worlds as far back as 1897. Carl Jung knew this well, and I’m not convinced that we’ve gone much further than his analysis of the phenomenon. He asked, as any good psychologist should of such a liminal, and apparently, deeply symbolic phenomenon: What is it doing to us, our consciousness? That it challenges us, and our models of reality, tends to suggest, that it is gently eroding our sense of cosmic provincialism.
A quote I’ve always enjoyed is by the psychologist Maurice Nicoll, and he warns us that if we become too “sunk in appearances” the world – and ourselves – quickly become numbed, for “through the lack of realisation of the mystery of the world” leads us to being “dead” due to an inability to “face the mystery of existence with any real thoughts of our own”. What I have noticed is that the UFO experience, whether real or even simply talked about, invokes mystery by its very nature; and this of course generates a lot of intense debate and polarisations within and outside the field of ufology.
In an updated introduction to Alien Dawn, Wilson noted that “civilisation has forgotten a whole dimension of consciousness that once came naturally to tribal shamans, and that we shall remain trapped in a kind of mental dungeon unless we can regain it”. He continues, “[O]ur dream of a purely rational science is a delusion, and that we shall have to learn to recapture lunar knowledge”.
This is the same realisation that hit him while writing his earlier book The Occult; he had originally thought it would be a test of his patience, a sort of collection of quaint ghost stories a section on palmistry and the curious gullibility of the human mind. Instead what he found was a subject that was overwhelming convincing, providing too many accounts by reliable witnesses to be easily swept under the carpet. More than that, he realised that it confirmed an intuition that he had had as early as the 1950s: that man is on the brink of an evolutionary leap.
In a talk as short as this one, I can only begin to scratch the surface of this mystery. So, I will here attempt to condense my own thesis in Evolutionary Metaphors – which I wrote as a sort of bridgeway between Wilson’s ‘new existentialism’, his occult studies and ufology.
Colin Wilson’s biographer, Gary Lachman, remarked that entities commonly associated with UFOs seemed to be “fans of Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges,” adding that this might be a deliberate attempt to frustrate our interpretations; forcing us out of our perceptual laziness. And, perhaps, generated a sort of camouflage so they can act outside of the restrictions of credibility. One comes away after reading much of the literature with the nagging suspicion that somewhere along the line we missed the point, rather like failing to grasp a Zen kōan – the very reason for its clownishness is because we are only aware of half the picture.
Ufology also provides much the same stimulus and attraction as the occult and provides a means of widening mankind’s sense of significance and wider meanings. And in doing so, of course, this automatically provides the groundwork for a ‘new existentialism’, for the provinciality of the diagnosis of many existentialists simply doesn’t hold up against a worldview that accepts occult powers as real.
I argue that it was inevitable that Wilson would continue to incorporate parapsychology and paranormal phenomenon into his later works, for they inferred a much stranger dimension of reality, one that suggests another way of being and, more importantly, of a purpose to human existence.
The title Evolutionary Metaphors seemed to me to capture the spirit of the UFO phenomenon and contextualises it in such a way that it can be treated almost as a work of fiction, while exploring its metaphysical implications and providing an alternative to understanding anomalous phenomenon more generally.
In other words, if they are real, they can be processed as symbols, or implications, of a deeper reality that we do not understand, and in attempting to unravel their mystery we could potentially find out more about our own minds and universe as a result. And if they turn out to be mere fictions, then what they beckon, psychologically, is an obsessive drive within us for prototyping the unknown and generating mythologies that may prove the unconscious motivation of the human enterprise.
The sixth man on the moon, Dr. Edgar Mitchell, who underwent what he described as a mystical experience while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere in Apollo 14, even commented that “life itself is a mystical experience of consciousness; it’s just that we have grown used to it through the millennia.” (1996: 187). Obviously, if you were hurtling back to Earth after stepping foot on the moon, this would inevitably adjust your perspective; jolting you out of a millennia-worth of conditioning.
In essence, Mitchell’s experience encapsulates the message of Wilson’s ‘new existentialism’ and brings us close to the heart of the UFO mystery.
Often it is commented that our culture has reached a threshold; by ejecting mystery in favour of scientific ‘problems’ – codes to be cracked, but, we feel, that we already have these tools. It is a matter only of time. Yet in certain moments we yearn for strangeness and a sense of deep otherness, and we turn to space, an apparent endlessness that becomes the backdrop of our dreams, fantasies, and possibilities. What haunts these skies of ours is, in the end, our own psyche acting as a mirror – and the mysteries that haunt it also become embroiled into these mythologies, these stories so linked to our evolutionary drives.
We have no real sense of how a truly alien intelligence might act. However, it would be interesting to wonder if it would be through symbolism and metaphors, even synchronicities – unusually significant coincidences – that these other forces would communicate; after all, each of these transcends the limitations of time and space, posing deeper levels of reality (or realities) that is/are parallel to our own.
But this might be a subject best left for science fiction –
or a future folklore – that might turn out to prove that reality is more dynamic,
even magical, than we presently suspect.
 Gary Lachman says in his biography on Colin Wilson, Beyond the Robot (2016): “The fact that, like The Outsider, it presented a religious view, rather than the strident leftism of Osborne and Co. made it a target of scorn by the socially minded critics. Kenneth Tynan in particular saw Wilson as a kind of fascist, with his talk of religion, discipline, the need for a new kind of man rather than a new society, his hatred of mediocrity, lack of interest in left-wing politics, and concern about the spiritual crises of characters like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.”