Neuromancer: A Cartesian Romance (Existential Criticism) [Abandoned Draft]

(I had originally removed this from my Blog due to being unhappy with it. Nevertheless, upon finding it among my old drafts for Evolutionary Metaphors, I now feel differently about it. I have always had an unusual relationship to Neuromancer, and I hope to one day return to this novel and attempt an existential criticism as laid out in Wilson’s books of literary criticism. There is, I think, much to be said about the novel in the new existentialist context.)

In order for a human being to most effectively survive, his idea of the world around him – as it has developed – and himself must be in agreement with one another.  This is a very fundamental truth, in so far as it applies both to individuals and cultures at large; for if both have a poor grasp of its environment and of themselves, this will eventually result in destabilisation – politically, environmentally, individually.  If either one are to misidentify something even so simple as foodstuff; a danger or an opportunity; a poisonous snake for a twig – it may indeed prove fatal, catastrophic.

Our vision of the world must, from those first initial stages of growth, complexify.  First, we emerge from the safe haven of our mother’s womb and into a whole new world of opportunities.  But with opportunities comes discrimination, and first we must discriminate ourselves from our mothers, from the world around us, in order to manipulate to our own benefit.  We learn to use our voice to attract attention, and then our limbs to touch and hold, and then our legs to manoeuvre us around in search of adventure.  From one miracle to the next, our live thus begin.

Eventually we develop our ability to abstractify through the symbolic nature of language, until we are able to communicate with others, who, before us, have undergone a similar development.  Spatial as well as temporal awareness grows accordingly to misadventure and marvel, and duly we become more individuated – there is an environment ‘out there’, and then there’s ‘I’, within that environment.  At this point, through the medium of language and symbolising, to identification and self-identification, we are truly acculturated; placed into a context as necessarily circumscribed by our culture, our language, customs and environment.

In our initial stages of development we rarely rebel against our culture and environment, for this is in our best self-interest.  Only later, when we develop a strong sense of identity, can we criticise and perceive flaws in our society’s fundamental structure, and once we can communicate more effectively we may be able to initiate degrees of change, and therefore further highlight and adjust aspects of our environment as we – and perhaps many likeminded folk – may agree upon.  This, in its most basic and crude sense, is the origin of the democratic process.  At some point in our development we become aware that, as well as our selves, other people exist too.

However, there comes a point in our lives where our natural organism carries us only so far. Maturity is effectively where we stop physically, that is, biologically evolving, and what awaits us is the gradual entropy of old age, and eventually, death.  And yet, there is another type of evolution which is primarily concerned with our consciousness.  There is, of course, the sense of purpose, a purpose that may increasingly become ‘blinkered’ by our encroaching habits and biology.  This ‘blinker’, acts as what the philosopher Colin Wilson called “the gravitational pull of the ordinary”, which, due to their habitual nature dulls our consciousness to the point of almost total automatisation of perception itself.  We cease to see the world as fresh and exciting, and as we get older, it increases until we have symbolised everything.  “My ‘automatic pilot’ has taken over my perceptions” and one becomes, as Wilson put it, “condemned to the trivial”; the grey world of the increasingly robotic mind (177-178).

And yet, there is the evolution of our inner mental freedom, and of our sense of being, which, in many religious and mystical disciplines, is generally referred to as the spiritual evolution of man.  Indeed, John Shirley, in his biography of G.I. Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian mystic and originator of an immensely original and psychologically penetrating philosophy of the ‘Fourth Way’, summarises this type of evolution precisely:

Evolution is usually understood as a kind of refining and empowering of the organism, or spirit, that comes about naturally over time.  But again Gurdjieff challenges the popular notion.  We cannot evolve mechanically; we can only evolve through conscious effort.  And nature is not inclined to help us – our spiritual evolution is not necessary to nature (141)

Later on I will deal with this notion of conscious evolution in more depth, and will apply both Gurdjieff’s philosophy and his excellent interpreter, P.D. Ouspensky, who extrapolates this philosophy in its most accessible form in his 1949 book In Search of the Miraculous.  For Gurdjieff argues that certain ‘shocks’ are necessary to dislodge this habitual, robotic consciousness which robs us of a fresh experience of reality as it is.  These shocks are usually radically new experiences which challenge our state of being, are absolutely necessary to launch us beyond the basically regulatory, static nature of experience after we mature.  In short, the shocks enable us to take a glimpse into a truer reality, and by relation, they inspire in us a thirst for understanding beyond what we habitually know. “Man’s other self is geared entirely to purpose and evolution”, and this other ‘self’ is the ‘I’ that is beyond mere entrapment in the meaning-starved world of our everyday consciousness.

Our culture, our friends and family can aid us in this transition, offering us challenges, alternative ways of being and thinking which may modify our entrenched views.  And this may provide us with new modes of understanding as we navigate our way through life’s difficulties.   This collectively-glimpsed gnosis proves time and again as an invaluable tool in our self- and collective-development.  And yet, certain types of knowledge can only be gained in retrospect, or in moments of quietude, for wisdom tends to unfold gently and without force – it is, as many know too well, the fullness of a meaning that can only come through direct experience.  We can know something superficially or mechanically, but a sudden shock – an event that throws us out of our habitual thinking – can suddenly remind us of something that has eluded us, we begin, again, to see things as if anew.

These jolting experiences challenge our habits, and in turn, they may aid in forming a reciprocal dynamism in which our increased consciousness enables us to correctly integrate our psychological energies.  We begin to get from life what we put in.  Although there are many obstacles, and we are often helped by other people in our lives, it is, in the end, primarily an individual task.  We have glimmers that it is us alone who can change our own lives.  For as H.G. Wells’s character Mr Polly says “If you don’t like your life you can change it”.  In a more integrated state of mind you can identify that the normally robotic ‘I’ is robbing your life of its meaning and purpose, and it is this higher form of identity which can initiate this change – a change initiated beyond the robot.

It is this principle of individuation that shapes, not only our own lives, but our entire species. Eventually our lives spread out, affecting those closest to us; our families and friends and in turn our society, and so on.  Like Joseph Campbell says in his celebrated work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we are heroes who must first venture forth into the chaos of the world, called by the adventure of life . . . And our influence may spread further still if we’re successful in this adventure.


At this point it is important to emphasise that our very ideas about the world become the contextual lens through which we see our relationship between the world and ourselves.  And if this lens is adequately focused and calibrated to what is called the ‘real’, then our lives become, if our culture allows us, dynamic and evolutionary.

Professor Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Toronto, even goes so far as to argue that “scientific realism [is] nested inside Darwinian competition”, in other words, our moral truths are derivative from a much older struggle to survive and that our scientific view of the world – the Newtonian paradigm – is nestled in this essentially moral universe.  Moreover, this moral universe is directly connected to our survival, and if this strays away from the Darwinian truth, we enter the moral ambiguities of a Newtonian universe which is not orientated towards our survival.  Truth for Peterson is pragmatic in the sense that it is ‘true enough’ and fundamentally ‘good enough’; indeed if we act upon this truth it increases our chance of survival.

In short there is no ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ in the Newtonian universe, and if this is taken to the extreme, it may destroy our species with the development of technologies out of favour with the Darwinian universe.  In other words, we had better nestle our Newtonian one inside the larger framework of a Darwinian reality.  Furthermore, this Darwinian ‘reality’ in the form of natural processes, is orientated towards developing itself through competing species.  Our lives, our culture, even our science, essentially resonate from the sounding gong of survival, of the anti-entropic Will to Life.

This resonance is excellently exemplified in music itself, for it is a significant factor in determining our orientation by its communal and psycho-neurological effects.  There is a interesting development in the West, for music has become more and more disconnected from its community-based roots and has increasingly become individualistic – it is listened to in private, on headphones or in the environment of our own homes.  And even then, it is in the form of an MP3 or CD and is a recording of a performance, not, as it may otherwise be, a communally orchestrated and ritual celebration.  Iain McGilchrist explores this ‘privatisation’ of music, in his fascinating book, The Master and His Emissary.  Indeed, he notes that this phenomena is “rare in the history of the world”, for in “more traditionally structured societies, performance of music plays both an integral, and integrative, role not only in celebration, religious festivals, and other rituals, but also in daily work and recreational and it is above all a shared performance, not something we listen to passively” (104).

Indeed, McGilchrist argues that music itself precedes language, and that its initial usage was to communicate emotion, for the “prosody and rhythmic motion that emerge intuitively from entrainment of the body in emotional expression”, which would infer that these communications would have been immensely useful for our survival.  Indeed, he warns us that this is a controversial theory, for music is itself seen as peripheral by geneticists, and thus is regarded as playing a very unimportant role in a Darwinian universe.  However, music, it is clear, has played a crucial role in binding people together in communities, solidifying group identities and, as a result, I would argue, enhancing those parts of our brains that make us empathic (the supermarginal gyrus in the cerebral cortex), for music, in its most communal sense is the expression of collective passions, dreams, tragedies and comedies.  It is in a sense a pedagogical tool to impart an immensely complex set of imperatives, of warnings of danger and celebration of victory – it is socially binding, and this community enforcement is of enormous importance for group selection and survival.  Pythagoras quantified as well as acknowledged the qualities of music and the spheres and just as our brain-waves exhibit a rhythm and a wave, the resultant quality above and beyond these phenomena is consciousness itself.  One cannot ignore corollary that music is fundamentally more than just the sum of its parts.

Martha Heyneman’s in her extraordinary book, The Breathing Cathedral, makes the case of a moving pattern “like a dance – a four-dimensional pattern – or like music, in which an invisible unifying force is everywhere felt (however subliminally to the nonmusician) [that] exerts a unifying effect upon the listener”.  This unifying effect, as we have mentioned above, she takes “shape in time as well, so that you yourself are participating in such a pattern you can know where you are, not only in space, in relation to other players or dancer, but also in time – where you are in the sequence” (38).  Therefore, music, is fundamentally an alignment with a structure beyond that which we can comprehend ordinary Aristotelian logic; you somehow embody the meaning intuitively, or as the poet Robert Bly says, “If you memorize any work you bring it into the body.  And then you are participating in space.  And then it can become sacred space”.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

This will become more significant with some further examples of ‘sacred space’ and its relationship to human psychology and general wellbeing.  For tone has a physiological as well as a psychological effect.  For example, in Japan there is the fifth-largest bell ever made, weighing an enormous 74 tons and situated in the Chion-in at Kyoto it is evocatively referred to as ‘The Voice of Buddha’.  To strike this enormous bell it requires twenty-five monks to swing the trunk of a cedar tree to invoke its deeply moving tone.  Sir Frederick Treves describes its affect in his 1904 book, The Other Side of the Lantern:

mysterious, thrilling, and solemn beyond all imagining.  The sound comes out of the wood, and rolls downwards to the town.  It is a deep, soft, melancholy note like that of a humming gong.  It never rises skywards, it rumbles along the ground.  It flows through the listener like water through sand.  It penetrates the body like a subtle tingling current . . . It is so sad, so wandering, so desolate, that each slowly recurring boom comes like a sob.

Another example that involves a bell concerns the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who became curiously connected to a church bell which he could be seen from his study window.  For Kant this bell became a visceral reminder of the connectedness of the psyche, and its resultant categories, and its being ontologically bound to a sense of place – or, indeed, Bly’s ‘sacred space’.  Indeed, Carl Jung believed it came to signify, in some obscure sense, Kant’s own soul.  Jung argued that it had become for him a “point of reference in his life, a way of placing himself in space and time”, and so much so that when the “tower was demolished Kant was totally incapacitated for months.  He could not function.  He felt he had lost part of his soul” (112).  Again, it is interesting to note that this is a church bell tower and that moreover a church, of course, is a place of communal and religious worship. As a sacred place, it is a symbol of a consensual agreement upon a set of metaphysical values.  Furthermore, it became, unconsciously for Kant, inextricably linked with his identity in space and time, and no doubt it had become a part of his psyche as it was an integral to the psychogeography of Königsberg.

Kant, whose many categories defined the fundamental aspects of reality as apprehended by the mind, must have felt something rather strange about the bell tower’s destruction and his corresponding incapacitation.  In Adam Robert’s excellent science-fiction novel, The Thing Itself (2016), which relates closely to what we’ll be discussing in this essay – the mercurial nature of the unknown – describes the inflections of Kant’s category of Quality, these are Reality, Negation and Limitation, the character Kostritsky, elucidates:

. . . quality is the filling up of time with sensation.  When time is completely filled, we have very vivid, very strong sensations.  When it is meagrely filled, we have weaker sensations.  So that’s what reality is, for us.  It is the experience of sensation in time.  Negation is the opposite; the lack of sensation in time.  And limitation is scale between the two, the range of degrees. (98)

In this sense, the church bell tower for Kant enabled him to live with an increased existential quality, in other words, it orientated his existence towards a positive sense of identity that was aligned to a reliable sense of his place in time and space.  When this stimulus of the bell tower was removed, it interfered with his usual spatiotemporal adjustment and had sent him spiralling into a form of catatonic depression – i.e. he was lead into a negation of quality.

In Kant’s case there is a significant divide between what is objective and subjective, for in a sense the church tower is, for all purposes, a real thing – a physical object in space and time.  Yet, through the lens of the categories it is something somewhat different – it has been categorised and placed somewhere within Kant’s complex relationships between the categories.  Kant claimed that we can never know the ‘real’ world as it actually is, for we can only know it through the spectacles of the mind.  He called the real reality the Ding an Sich, the unknowable thing in itself.  This unknowableness of reality as it truly is upset the dramatist Heinrich von Kleist so much so that he committed suicide!

True objectivity, in the sense of knowing or beginning from the ultimate reality, for Kant, is impossibility.  Yet, the very least we can do is to understand consciousness itself and work from there.  Objectivity is in itself an interesting idea, for as Jeffrey Kripal points out, it is “visual distance [that is] is . . . the basis of modern reason and modern science, both of which need to create a “distance” between the subject and the object being reasoned about or measured.  Hence the modern metaphor of “objectivity”.  It’s all about creating objects, which is t say: distance, separation, not us” (274).

Significantly, in Kant’s example, this necessary distance was broken down; the church bell tower was somehow intricately connected with his psychological wellbeing.  It is interesting to think that something as symbolic, as essentially communal and religious as a church bell tower could, in some unconscious way, anchor this highly intellectual “loner of Königsberg” in a more communal and vivifying sense of reality.  Or, in a more Kantian sense, his time filled up with a “sensation” of himself in time and space.  Some deep part of his self was inextricably linked with the bell tower and its destruction.

This problem is addressed in modern works on split-brain research, such as in the aforementioned The Master and His Emissary.  However, in 1983 the philosopher Colin Wilson points out an interesting distinction between the left and right hemispheres in his book Access to Inner Worlds.  He argues, like McGilchrist, that these two hemispheres of the brain have fundamentally contrasting views of reality, and in a healthy state they basically complement one another.  In this complimentary state they align our apprehension of reality in a way which is much more holistic and integral.  Again, Wilson could be discussing the effects of music alongside religion and art, for all of these disciplines aim for a large scale view of reality rather than the ‘piecemeal’ realities presented to us through a heavy-handed and reductive left-brain.  Says Wilson:

Science came later than religion or art, and in the past century, has gained itself a bad reputation among the religious and the artistically inclined.  But this is because scientists have taken it upon themselves to dogmatize about reality, unaware that the reality they perceive through their microscopes is the two-dimensional reality of the left brain.  Science is nothing more than a reference system, like the index at the end of a book, which is meaningless without the reality that occupies the rest of the book.  And now this slow, plodding method of ‘indexing’ reality is beginning to reveal its true value.  For the left brain is never entirely convinced by the ‘revelations’ of religion and art; it is inclined to discount them as mere ‘emotions’.  But today its own investigations of the structure of the brain have made it aware that reality is unreal until it is completed by a third dimension.
(1983: p. 117)

For Kant this ‘third dimension’ of reality, however small, was added to his ordinary life by the routine acknowledgement of the church bell tower out of his study window.  In some obscure way, when it was demolished, his mind was thrown out of its usual routine and thrown into a dizzying disconnection of meaning – a meaning, moreover, that was supported by two supporting pillars of time and space.   The ‘tone’ with which Kant’s life resonated was given shape, in space, by the resonant ringing out of the church bell.

In Living Time the philosopher and student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Maurice Nicoll, invokes the metaphor of a marionette connected up to ‘outer things’ as being “dead, through lack of realisation of the mystery of the world”.  He continues by asking:

What else but the sense of strangeness can awaken us?  What else can give us new thoughts, new perceptions?  We are dead because we do not try to understand, because we never face the mystery of existence with any real thoughts of our own, because we are satisfied with explanations which prevent us from beginning to think.  Or, to put the matter differently, we rest content with the appearance of things – that is, we do not go beyond perceptual consciousness (216).

The question at this point is how can we go beyond perceptual consciousness, how can we know the ‘thing in itself’, the ‘noumena’ as Kant called it?  In Kantian terms this can only be known by the ‘transcendental ego’, the ‘I’ which is instrumental in presenting to you – the ordinarily everyday ‘I’ – the world in a pre-digested and categorised form.  What this seems to suggest, of course, is that the transcendental ego directly experiences the world as it is.  Indeed, Colin Wilson’s philosophy of the ‘new existentialism’ begins from the work of the phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, who aimed to “unveil the secrets of the transcendental ego”.

Neuromancer – A Cartesian Romance

Before we continue unpacking precisely what Husserl meant by the ‘transcendental ego’, it is worth turning once again to another extraordinarily insightful science fiction novel, which to my knowledge has not been used in a context such as presented in this essay.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is  a profound meditation on the post-modern condition that, in its own unique and circuitous way, effectively resolves the problem of a general sense of being ‘merely trapped in a body’, out-of-context, and generally haunted by entropy and unreality, indeed as were many of the Existentialists in the mid-20th century.  As we have already discussed Kant briefly (aided somewhat by Adam Robert’s science-fiction novel, The Thing Itself), an analysis of Neuromancer further enables us to sketch out the mind-body dualism of René Descartes and furthermore helps us to outline the slippery relativisms of post-modernism.  Indeed, the metaphor of cyberspace and disembodiment enables us to see a distinct relationship between the body and mind and more importantly, its relationship to its spatiotemporal environment.

Scott Bukatman in Terminal Reality, notes that the “imploded arenas of the datascape become the new phenomenal ground for bodily awareness.  It is the experience of the body that operates to centre the subject, which is why the body must serve as the locus for any interface with terminal reality” (243).  This is essentially the plight of Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, who is addicted to the disembodied state made readily available to him in the world of cyberspace.  Nevertheless, the more disembodied he becomes, and the more obsessive he becomes about cyberspace, there is a general sense of decay in his body, a disrespect for the ‘terminal’ world of entropic forms, and, fundamentally of the limits of time and space itself.  Indeed, the name Case is reminds us that he is encased in his own body, and that no matter what he does, his identity is still intrinsic to his body; he cannot experience the ecstasy of disembodiment without having a body to disembody from.

Case’s yearning for disembodiment, of the infinite kinesis of cyberspace, is strikingly similar to what Colin Wilson called ‘the discovery of inner freedom’. For this, it could be said, is the paradox of a mystical experience; it often appears to go beyond these distinctions of mind and body, conscious and unconscious, being and non-being.  Significantly, disembodiment in Neuromancer is often compared to an intense sexual orgasm.  Rather like Marcel Proust felt after he had an extraordinarily vivid remembrance of his past, he, like Case, “ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal”.  This same sensation is the general lure of cyberspace.

There is a sense that Case is merely an updated, cyberpunk version of the same Romantic quest for super-consciousness that Colin Wilson outlined in his 1957 Religion and the Rebel, in which Wilson argues that the essential drive of the Romantic or mystically-inclined is based on the “recognition of a permanent principle in man, of an element which wars to impose its will on the body conditioned by space and time, is reserved for the few who are awake enough to be aware that time drags the body towards unconsciousness, that ‘to be conscious is not to be in Time’, that the aim of all religion is increased consciousness” (135).  Like the Romantics, Case too has tasted both limitation and freedom, but for Case this intoxicating glimpse is dangerously close to hand in the form of cyberspace – in fact, it has a similar attraction as alcohol does for many ‘outsiders’; it stimulates semi-mystical experiences but in the end depletes their body’s healthiness as a result.  Eventually this means of escape becomes overwhelming and can lead to death or suicide.

In fact, fundamentally Case’s vision of the world and his body is that of a ‘fallen state’ akin to the beliefs held by the Gnostics.  Carl Jung describes the central mythology underlying Gnostic cosmology from a pre-Fallen God’s-eye perspective:

. . . the idea of Gnosis, the nous, that beholds his own face in the ocean: he sees the beauty of the earth and . . . he is caught, entangled in the problems of the world.  Had he remained the nous or pneuma, he would have kept on the wing, would have been like the image of God that was floating over the waters and never touching them; but he did touch them and that was the beginning of human life, the beginning of the world with all its suffering and beauty, its heavens and hells.

Similarly the literary critic Benjamin Fair argues that the central exploration of Neuromancer is “how technology and global capitalism influence our ontology by generating a world of images that have no original referent: meaning is cut loose from our surroundings, so that the self and the world we knew are in question” (2005).  In both the Gnostic myth and Neuromancer there is a general sense of being ‘cut loose’ from our ‘original referent’, rather like Kant’s collapse after the destruction of the church bell tower.  Interestingly, it is both a combination of a sexual encounter, music in the form of reggae dub, and a near-death experience that precisely reanimates Case’s respect for what he refers to throughout the novel as his “meat” body – and thus redeems him from this quasi-fallen state.

Contrasted to this ‘cut loose’ world of a Gnostic deity or a post-modern blurring of our identity is a Rastafarian group in the novel collectively known as the ‘Zion Cluster’.  Fair describes this group as providing an “alternative to the world that has driven Case to suicide: it is a symbol of the embodiment that contrasts with the matrix as a symbol of disembodiment”, indeed, as Case has become increasingly uncomfortable with his physical body he in fact flinches from bodily contact, and significantly observes that “[the] Zionites always touched you when they were waking, hands on your shoulder (1984: p. 106), therefore emphasising the Rastafarian’s general confidence with which they regard their own bodies, a complete contrast with Case who is generally cold, distant and non-sensual.  In fact, the Rastafarians prove vital for Case’s own physical survival.

One of the significant moments in the book is when Case’s consciousness is entrapped in a subjective time-loop by Neuromancer, the artificial intelligence within cyberspace, in which in ‘real time’ his body is ‘flat lined’.  However one of the Rastafarians, Maelcum, is still in connection with the Case’s body as it is hooked up to the computer console, and as the reggae-dub music is pumped through this acts as a defibrillator to Case’s heart, which thus saves him from a subjectively endless form of psychological torture in a state outside of time.  By extension this restores in Case a natural biological rhythm brought about by a community and through the medium of music.  Another significant event also happens within cyberspace, and thus, in an odd reversal, reminds him of the importance of his own flesh.  Again, he is captured by Neuromancer in the virtual world, this time the AI takes the tactic of simulating the love of his life, Linda.  And although Case knows this to be a mere virtual representation, he nonetheless makes love to her and, in the act he regains a powerful insight:

Something he’d lost and found so many times.  It belonged, he knew – as she pulled him down, to the mean, the flesh the cowboys mocked.  It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read (239)

Sex, like music and community, reminds Case that empathy is an enormous and important element of human existence.  It is a radical part of human embodiment, the only way that we can embrace being who we are, in our state of corporeality.  And furthermore, he realises that in its own way the ‘meat’ body is more complex than the world of cybernetics, of computer simulations and virtually-mediated disembodiment – there is, in a more real sense, a great responsibility to exist.  This reminder offers him the realisation that the human genome is similarly programmed through the DNA, embedded as it is in an evolutionary framework, an “infinite and complex thing”, mysterious and enigmatic; the wonder and appreciation for his ‘meat’ is no longer reduced, but extraordinarily increased by an almost mystical flash of his own responsibility along this mortal coil.

Says Wilson in Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966)

We are all trapped in a world of dreams inside our own skulls, and nothing short of the threat of immediate death will wake us up to intense appreciation of our lives.  We have forgotten that the world out there really exists.  For most of us, it is a shadow world.  Improved techniques of communication have only blurred the outlines further; we live so much through books, films, television, etc., that dream and reality have only become further confused (25)

Indeed, this is precisely what has happened to Case – he has forgotten about the world ‘out there’ and its immense complex beauty.  He has, instead, become seduced by a counterfeit world, a counterfeit mundas imaginalis.  The philosopher Jeremy Naydler, in Technology and the Soul Part One: Living in the Shadow of the Machine (2008) foresees a danger in our addiction in our modern times with virtual worlds, seeing them as masquerading themselves as counterfeit forms of imagination, instead of true imagination: a ‘realm of images’ that is profoundly archetypal and real, and, moreover, essentially religious.  Instead, he feels, we have rejected this mediation between “the human soul and deeper archetypal realities” and instead replaced them with “machine-generated virtual worlds” that does not “open to any numinous content”, and thus,  he concludes, “the soul is inwardly corrupted” (17).

Naydler offers us a profound glimpse into Case’s rejection of his ‘meat’ body, and as a result, of the physical organic world in general.  He has been enticed by the representation that, ironically, represents something real enough; yet, due to his spiritual and psychological degradation he has ceased to feel this inner-numinosity.  Instead, he has supplemented the rich and layered world of the imagination and saturated himself in a world of machine-generated imagery, which, Naydler points out, generally has a “cartoon-like quality” and is “the opposite of sacred it art”.  He continues: “It has neither arisen out of a contemplative or prayerful condition of soul, nor can it lead us into a state of consciousness that is open to an objective spiritual reality” (18).  Case has been pulled in by Colin Wilson’s ‘shadow world’, a world bereft of meaning, or of any significance beyond itself – in short, his imagination is entrapped with a closed-system of values.

In a sense, Case’s revelation is essentially what Colin Wilson called ‘Faculty X’, and it is to this, he realises the importance of his own mind, his own relationship to space and time.  Faculty X a sudden flash of the meaningfulness of our lives, and moreover, in a direct illumination, we see that our minds are not bound to the limits of time and space.  Indeed, Case’s realisation of “a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read” is the realisation that human beings can access a far wider reality than we are usually accustomed to in our ordinary state of consciousness.  And yet the AI, Neuromancer, is instrumental in reminding Case of this fact – with the sexual encounter in cyberspace – and he thus firmly planted firmly back into the Darwinian world of flesh and blood, of bodily survival.  But, in fact, this vision exceeds that of the boundaries of the Darwinian universe; it is a flash of evolutionary implicitness; the huge potentiality embedded within the unknown regions of DNA itself.

At this point, we should note that there is something fundamentally transgressive in Case’s encounter with his dead loved one, Linda, and particularly her presence – her ghost, if you will – haunting cyberspace.  In their intermingling there is a disturbing element of willing self-delusion on Case’s part – it is a suspension of disbelief, an instance where Case throws himself blindly into bodily lust without conscience.  It is, in a sense, a Dionysian act, which enables him for the first time to gain a Gestalt – an organised whole –, and not simply as ‘meat’ and ‘mind’, or ‘physical’ and ‘non-physical’; freedom and restriction; corporeality (meat-body) and disembodiment of cyberspace (beyond meat-body).  Arguably Case has been resurrected in the flesh with renewed value for the body’s immense complexity, its ability to “read” the language of DNA.  As the philosopher and psychonaut Terrence McKenna says, the “Earth is a place where language has literally become alive.  Language has infested matter; it is replicating and defining and building itself” (64).

The paradox – and thus redemption – of Case is that he is “embedded in the machinery of epistemic knowing itself”; yet this is the beginning of a realisation along the lines of Gödelian meta-systems.  In other words, there must be higher realities beyond the systems we are embedded in; each system nestles in a larger meta-system.  This insight into the “infinitely complex” is enough to inject mystery back into Case’s life, and thus remove the suffocating atmosphere of fundamental nihilism as a result of a closed-system of values – a result of his bodily resentment.

Case’s resentment of the body and the phenomenal world stems from the Cartesian problem.  The author Bryan Appleyard puts his finger on the origin of this philosophical crisis, for Descartes’ conclusions, of a mind-body dualism, implicate that the “inner self-awareness [is] the basis of all knowledge” and that this results in a divide “from our bodies, reason from the passions, mind from matter” and, further still, in which our “true identities” are divorced from the world (59).  This results in the body being a part of the phenomenal world, and the phenomenal world, by definition, is ‘not us’, for we reside entirely within the realm of soul or mind.  Indeed, we are left, as Descartes realised, ‘half way between being and nothingness’.  Now this is precisely an existential problem; Sartre’s book, Being and Nothingness (1943), beings from this premise.

As we have seen in Neuromancer, there is a sense that Case has already half-way solved the problem.  But the problem remains, for Case’s realisation was effectively passive in so far as he had no part in realising it for himself – there is something incidental and fundamentally contingent (an important word for the existentialists) about the whole revelation.  His insight was certainly active, but the means by which he acquired it is circumstantial.  To continue further we need to look at an active philosophy that attempts to go beyond this existential stalling of our being.  A vision that may expand further the notion of a ‘transcendental ego’ and unveil the phenomenological mechanisms which allow, inside, an increasing apprehension of what is ‘out there’ in the phenomenal world in which we are a crucial and significant part.

Shadows of Eternity – The Essence of Existentialism

In the discussion of Neuromancer, there is a close delineation of the Sartrean type of existentialism.  And in Case’s revelation, as we have seen, is a step beyond the essentially a closed system of values at the heart of Being and Nothingness, into what Alfred North Whitehead called “unbounded rationality”.  Indeed, Colin Wilson argues in his remarkable 1980 critical essay ‘Anti-Sartre’, that Sartre:

defines the nature of “for-itself” (human consciousness) as pure freedom.  The for-itself envies nature (the in-itself) its solidness, its unquestioned existence; it is the “eternal hunter of the in-itself”.  Its very emptiness, its lack of real definition, means that is free whether it likes it or not.  A stone is what it is; man isn’t what he is; therefore he is “free””

However, Wilson continues, “he does not explain how, if consciousness is a mere reflection of objects, and there is no controlling ego, we can regard consciousness as pure freedom” (166).  This mental freedom of Sartre is about as hollow as escaping into cyberspace, in which the user, deep down, knows is fundamentally false – free, but for what?  Therefore man is left, as he is, divided from the world of meaning; of solid, objective reality; his consciousness remains as if adrift, vague and yet free, but not free enough to become real or know reality.  He is, as Sartre said, ‘condemned’ to be free.

The origins of Existential philosophy is a complex history, but to put it briefly it can be generally described as a philosophical reaction against the ever enclosing and ultimately reductive philosophies of Logical Positivism, and of a general obsession with a scientifically reductive of man as he lives and experiences his life – and as a consequence, of nature itself.  The Existentialist, in short, wants to understand the ‘whole man’, his confrontation with the conditions in which he lives, and more over, how he lives and why and what he lives for.  In Sartre’s case – and Sartre is but one example in the diverse philosophy of Existentialism – we are not free for anything; we are simply free to do as we please (although Sartre would have suggested taking up a cause in social activism, such as he himself did with Marxism).  In his excellent study of Existentialism, Irrational Man (1958), William Barrett summarises the development of the modern world in which this philosophical school developed as a healthy reaction.  Barrett contends that we were lead out of the Middle Ages by an increasing tendency to ‘despiritualise’ nature that is to tear away at the symbolic framework which encased our existence prior to the developments of Science, Protestantism and Capitalism.

William Barrett argues that Protestantism, although religious in nature, was a step towards this desacralisation of nature – which arguably may have its origins further back in Gnosticism – in which it aimed to unveil nature as a “realm of objects hostile to the spirit and to be conquered by puritan zeal and industry” (27).  Of course, from this description it is easy to see where Capitalism takes off, for it works on the materialistic assumption that the stuff of nature is inherently worthless until, that is, it is charged with labour and, in turn, becomes a desirable or utilitarian object to be used and sold.  This in turn intensified the individualistic nature of the religious search, wrenching it away from idolising and outside influences, lures, deceptive charms; and yet, as a result, deconstructed the deeper and unconscious substrata of mankind’s psyche; disconnecting him with a sense of interconnectedness within – and participating along – with God’s grand creation.  In effect, we as human beings were to despiritualised, for only God himself could help us out of the psychic quandary; our inherent sense of value, of being embedded in a mysterious and ultimately meaningful universe, had in fact been subtly rejected.  In light of this, it is rather ironic that the great Protestant Reformer, Luther cursed: “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”

A struggle against the divine world is an obsession that runs throughout three centuries of philosophy.  It is, arguably, still present in modern day man; his existential anxiety is still essentially bound to his corporeality, his temporal nature against the backdrop of an entropic universe.  There is a general decreasing of the metaphysical struts to hold up the architecture of divine, intransigent meaning, there is, in the end, a sort of grim stoicism in the face of life.  We have accepted nihilism, as the existential psychologist Dr. Victor Viktor Frankl points out, that is not simply a nothingness, but a “nothing-but-ness”, in which human phenomena “are thus turned into epiphenomena” (A Guide for the Perplexed: 14).  Indeed, we exist, but our essence – that ‘what’ of us – is reduced to a mere happenstance, an evacuation of all mystery replaced, instead, with a meaningless freefall into the abyss.

And against this type of negation it is futile to ask the question: What is the thing-in-itself?  It is, in the end, like Sartre said, “meaningless that we live and meaningless that we die”.




Self-Help and the New Existentialism: Reflections on Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism by Brad Spurgeon (Michael Butterworth: 2017)

Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism by Brad Spurgeon (Michael Butterworth: 2017):

For anyone familiar with the work of Colin Wilson the term ‘self-help’ – at least in its popularly understood definition, denoting popular books on weight loss and confidence, and so on – may seem too passive to describe the stature of a writer who regularly tackled such huge philosophical systems as phenomenology, and, in so doing, erected a new counterblast against the pessimistic assumptions of 20th century philosophy. Namely the existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Now, I say this, of course, without reservations for the self-help market; simply that it has such connotations when bought up when discussing philosophy. If this helpful literature improves one’s life for the good, it matters little in what form it takes. Indeed, for many, the thought of applying a populist term such as ‘self-help’ to the works of this philosophical revolutionary would be to underestimate such great works as The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, and his excellent overview of all things evolutionary in books like The Occult and the mammoth A Criminal History of Mankind.

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

Wilson, in all his works, wrote in an accessible style and thus provided for many invaluable introductions to notoriously challenging and arcane subjects as existentialism, the occult, crime, psychology and even wine! One might say that that in itself provides all the groundwork necessary for anyone to begin to help themselves. But, of course, there is an implicit recognition in all of Wilson’s work which, when all is said and done, is an impassioned call for people to take charge of their own minds – and therefore their own lives – and to better themselves in spite of a culture that seems hell-bent on negativity.

This essay serves three purposes. Firstly it aims to recognise the practical and beneficial elements of Wilson’s philosophy and just how, moreover, his work provides a deeply enriching and intelligent philosophical foundation for a life more abundant. Secondly it serves as a series of reflections on Brad Spurgeon’s recently republished second-edition of Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism, which provided this essay with the inspiration and insight into the great philosopher’s work as a valuable tool for navigating our troubled times – both on a personal level as well as in the larger context of our cultural zeitgeist. And thirdly it is an attempt to understand how, in integrating Wilson’s unique brand of phenomenological existentialism into our own lives, we have a form of self-help with foundations both deep and with truly effective principles. Combining these we may recongise the self-developmental ideas implicit in Wilson’s philosophy provide an intellectual robustness that far exceeds much of what we understand as self-help literature today.

With the second-edition of Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism many readers who are unacquainted with his work have an excellent opportunity to become familiar with both the man himself and his essential philosophical ideas. As the book is composed of a lengthy interview conducted by Brad Spurgeon and divided into two parts, the reader is 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 Spurgeon’s book is perhaps one of Wilson’s most boldly optimistic and far reaching speculations on the future of mankind’s psychology, and presents 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. The evolution of consciousness, after all, requires consciousness to become more active in its own participation with the natural world. Consciousness is, effectively, nature that is aware of it itself.

Indeed, Philosophy of Optimism’s appendices offer much food for thought, and the aptly titled ‘Article for ‘Big Idea’’ provides an example of Wilson’s impressive ability to intuit potentially world-changing developments in a variety of fields.

What’s more is that Spurgeon himself frames Wilson’s philosophy in a moving and uniquely insightful preface, for 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), indeed found the whole project deeply significant, and 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.

Not only is Philosophy of Optimism an excellent and accessible introduction, or an invaluable contribution to Wilson’s enormous body of work, it is also a book which places Wilson’s own contribution – as a writer of ideas and as a remarkable human being – into a variety of important important contexts.

At the beginning 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 autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose. Deciding that it was time to meet his literary hero in person, Spurgeon set out to interview the author at his home in Gorran Haven, Cornwall. This, of course, 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.

By discussing this important book’s purpose as well as its life-affirming qualities as a tool to overcome pessimism, we are able to place it in its deserving places as a truly valuable contribution towards our understanding of mental and spiritual wellbeing. Indeed, 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 American New Thought movement along with what is called “positive-mind metaphysics” which are, in their own right, crucial players in the development of the great nation’s collective psyche. 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.

Now, it was this mutual appreciation between Maslow and Wilson that provided him with the intellectual recognition, as well as the vocabulary, to strengthen and verify his intuition that heightened states of consciousness were not mere lapses in mental health, or illusions, but on the contrary these ‘peak experiences’, as Maslow called them, were rather states in which individuals recognised that their lives were truly and wonderfully meaningful. Indeed, Wilson described peak experiences as those 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 with many accounts which recognise a truly authentic meaningfulness at the heart of human existence.

However whereas Maslow identified this trait in the healthiest amongst 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, then we cease to make the mental effort to reach out and grip the objective meanings all around us.

This wasn’t just 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 take into account many such experiences which were directly invoked by conscious effort. Wilson, like many others, particularly in the New Thought movement and 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 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 belief that drives the self-help market.

And yet there is something within us that prevents human consciousness from accessing these higher-states, for after all, these peak experiences would be far more common place, and a most frequent state of mind for all of us. Wilson understood, however, that without understanding the phenomenology of the restrictive mechanisms within consciousness, we would not be in a position 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 superman.

Wilson immediately recognised in Gurdjieff a profound psychologist who understood man almost as well as an experienced mechanic understands cars. Indeed, Wilson would later call this mechanical part of ourselves the ‘robot’. His recent biographer, Gary Lachman, even titled his book on Wilson’s life and work, Beyond the Robot.

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. Where Wilson differs from Gurdjieff is in the belief that we require a special ‘school’ in which “one who knows” can solely can bestow upon us this knowledge. Instead, Wilson believed, we could go just as far with our development with a degree of self-discipline and phenomenological vigilance over our moods and, as a result, observing how they affect our corresponding assumptions about reality. (This, effectively, summarises his criticisms of the existentialists, for it is this understanding of phenomenology that Wilson believed they overlooked.)

In his 1978 book, Mysteries, he presents his own unique theory of a ‘ladder of selves’. Again, we may admire Wilson’s commitment to providing extremely useful tools for self-development for this, as we shall see, is as an extraordinary self-help model as I have yet come across. Also, it benefits the reader to refer to the useful appendix in Philosopher of Optimism, in which Wilson provides a brief outline of what he calls ‘The Seven Levels of Consciousness.’

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, and particularly in their capacity for grasping meaning. The further one ventures up the ladder, the increasingly integrated do these ‘selves’ become. It is, at this point, we should attempt to 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 in which he realized this reality at a crucial moment.

After leaving school at the age of sixteen Wilson undertook a series of menial laboring 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 working in the boot and shoe trade, and earning such a small amount, he was required to work extra hours as a barman in the evenings. 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 modeled 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 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. In a sense it truly was Wilson’s romantic ‘self’ that was in revolt, for he realized later on 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 looks into 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 marvelous, 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’, that which is precisely that part of the individual which is most internally consistent with itself, and not as flighty and transient as the ‘personality’, which can change in a moment’s notice. 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 bought 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 indeed 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 – 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 will-power 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, for after all, such optimism is generally unfashionable in our postmodern world.

Philosophy of Optimism offers an antidote and valuable guide to developing an essential part of our own being in these times of great uncertainty.


Outlined above is a very brief account of some of Wilson’s most practical and insightful truths, often hard won, into the human condition. All of Wilson’s work relates to one another, and with over a hundred books, they all, in their own unique ways, enlighten the shadowy regions of our individual as well as collective consciousness. By addressing as many subjects has he did – from crime to mysticism; wine to music; psychology and ancient mysteries – he has consistently broadened our reasons to wonder and marvel at the incredible richness of existence. By reminding us of this fact he achieved what he set out to do in his earlier philosophical works in the inter-connected ‘Outsider Cycle’, by providing a remedy for our all-too-common ‘life devaluation’ by instilling in us a phenomenological vigilance that enables us to recognise that the “fundamental premise of our lives [is] that the world of beauty and intensity has a real existence” (1966: 113).

With Philosopher of Optimism, Brad Spurgeon has provided a unique opportunity to perceive Wilson’s legacy from a ‘birds-eye view’. And by arguing his case for Wilson’s overdue recognition and reevaluation as an important cultural figure in his own right, as well as being a turning point in intellectual history as the first substantial philosopher of optimism, we have a concise book which presents, in Wilson’s own words, the interrelated, multifaceted oeuvre in which revolved around a single and admirable ethic. This ethic may well be called a will to help people develop in themselves a faculty which strengthens him or herself against the travails of life. In a word, self-help. Thus he presented a philosophy that facilitates the deep and substantial recognition in ourselves that we have the inner-resources necessary to succeed, thrive, develop and ultimately evolve, not just as individuals, but as an entire species.

We may say, then, that the term ‘self-help’ with which I began this essay, rightfully applies to Wilson’s body of work. All of Wilson’s insights into the human condition followed from his original, childhood dream of becoming an important scientist, for by analyzing his own inner-states he subjected himself to the ultimate test of life itself; offering himself as the supreme subject in the experiment of experience. And in so doing, he found that the meaning of life resounded in an affirmative and ecstatic yes.

From The Outsider to his last book, Super Consciousness, Wilson provided the philosophical framework necessary for our voyage into a life. Our minds, galvinized by this recognition of the objective reality of meaning, provides our imagination the power to ignite the fuel of our experience – and thus the transmutation of our implicit potentialities into living actualities.

This, I believe, is the ultimate proof behind anything that purports itself to be self-help in contemporary culture.




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.

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

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

BOOK REVIEW: The Druid Code: Magic, Megaliths and Mythology (Thomas Sheridan Arts)

(To purchase The Druid Code: Magic, Megaliths and Mythology click here:

Thomas Sheridan, in a number of interviews promoting his new book The Druid Code: Magic, Megaliths and Mythology (2016), provides some interesting insights into his own developments as an individual, and this moreover affords us an insight into his unique position as an independent researcher.  For example, in the Legalise Freedom interview ( he mentions that he was first trained in electronics, but found it basically unsatisfying and discovered that music became an outlet for his passions, and from his foray into the New York music scene he further developed as a visual artist, taking up the paintbrush as his tool of choice.  His independent and searching spirit effectively converges in his new book, The Druid Code, for these variety of skills, passions and insights lend themselves tremendously well when approaching the enigmatic and baffling mysteries of ancient megaliths; their technical mysteries, electromagnetic anomalies and further their artistry, their apparent symbolism of something beyond the gargantuan stone that juts out of the earth with a densely physical force.

I should imagine that such a bewildering and mysterious topic should be an immensely difficult undertaking, particularly for a writer, for as he relates in many of his interviews: they are, on initial thought, simply huge pieces of rock that confound scientists and laymen alike.  What do they mean? is effectively the only question you can ask, and measurements, carbon dating and geometry can only lead us into a cul-de-sac of ‘know how’, that is rather than the answering the more satisfactory question of: What led these ancient architects to construct such magnificent physical conundrums in the first place?  It is, in many ways a psychological question as well as a religious one, for like the great cathedrals there is manifestly a transcendent motive; a physical symbol of a consciousness beyond what we ordinarily understand.

This is where Sheridan’s artistry comes in, for throughout The Druid Code the reader is guided along with field drawings from his own journeys throughout Ireland, England, Malta and Portugal, which lend to the narrative a much more visual quality of what is, at its most visceral, a visual phenomena literally set in stone.  Their visual quality is the fact that, as Sheridan argues, that they are in some way “simulacra” that “speak to the conscious mind by . . . mysterious energy forces, archaeo-astronomy, their geological, magnetic and geographical alignments, and most importantly of all, their connectivity”.

This, I believe, is the heart of The Druid Code, for the code itself leads us back to the mysterious druids themselves (significantly known primarily as magicians and poets) is an effective act of connections that leads us through comparative mythology, contemporary archaeological and scientific developments, and even a sober adoption of occultism and its insights into the use of intuition and symbols.  It is this fearless use of various disciplines that enables the reader to make an enormous amount of connections, and moreover which makes Thomas Sheridan, a non-academic polymath, open many new areas – and methods – of investigation that reinvigorates the whole enterprise of ancient mysteries.

Sheridan says, again bringing in his own personal insights and experiences into art and music, that to interpret these archaeological mysteries without “mythology is akin to performing a piece of music without instruments.  They are inseparable and vitally interwoven in order for us to holistically determine greater insights into the people who create both, and why they did so”.  Again the ‘why’ is what is so satisfying behind Sheridan’s work, for it is the question often lacking in academic studies, which focuses too much on the mechanics and leaves out the soul, the psyche.  Consciousness, particularly the differences between 21st century man and his highly individualised and atomised view of the world as compared to what a human of 3000BC and beyond, seems to be somewhat overlooked by most researchers.  Sheridan is careful when making this distinction, for he knows only too well that artistry of this sort works on levels well beyond the ordinary daylight consciousness that most individuals of the modern world inhabit.

Sheridan adopts Julian Jaynes’ theory of the breakdown of the bi-cameral mind, and takes up the notion that mythology for the ancients was much more immediate and urgent than what it represents to us in the modern world. In fact, what we take as mythology is merely the echo of an immensely rich unconscious, constantly vital with symbolism and meaning that points to, and well beyond a fractured, post-modern worldview.  In some way, the druids understood time in ways much more wholly than contemporary man, who again has systematised it rather than observed its cycles and connection to psychological changes.  Indeed, Sheridan notes that these megalithic structures are ‘charged’, as it were, and act as “ancient relay stations of the subconscious mind, transmitting their codes outside of linear time and space”.

These ‘relay stations’ act as reminders or symbols of the ‘unseen’.  In his early biography, Voyage to a Beginning (1969), Colin Wilson writes:

“Man needs symbols of the ‘unseen’ if he is not to become a slave of his own dullness.  If I had learned the existence of a society of Sun-Worshippers, I would have joined it; not because I think the sun is a god, but because worship is the right attitude towards reality . . . Man has tried various methods of reminding himself of the insight that comes in the moments of freedom. One is writing poems and symphonies, or painting pictures and cathedrals, whose steeples and stained glass windows assert that every day reality is a liar”

From this important insight, it is clear why Sheridan contends that The Druid Code is a monolithic reminder that acted as a form of psychotherapy after deluges and massive upheavals of land and ocean.  These huge rocks, defying time and explanation, seem to stand as firmly in our consciousness as they do in physical reality, guiding us realms of insights and power-consciousness that may lead us out of the cognitive quagmire of a sterile modernity. However, it is important that Sheridan uses the word a ‘bi-directional conduit through time’ to explore these ancient mysteries, for they not only stand in the past, they also here and now.

The druid’s psychotherapeutic adoption of symbols, which can speak to our often drowned-out unconscious in moments of silence and reflection – a silence that is all too rare in modern civilisation –, allows us to reconnect to powerful currents of a repressed psychological heritage.  These Celtic forefathers intimately and intuitively knew in a more intimate way than the Abrahamic-impulse with its encroachment on the west, for it was the druids and their origins that were crudely appropriated and assimilated by Christianity as it swept through the west, and absorbing it into its vast body-politic.  Indeed, there is something very Platonic about Sheridan’s undertaking, for it is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead meant when he said that the “father of philosophy, in one of his many moods of thought, laid down the axiom that the deeper truths must be adumbrated by myths”.

Thomas Sheridan’s The Druid Code, with its many insights into psychology, all aided with the artistic temperament and Irish lyricism, is a document of a modern day Druidic-impulse making its return, adumbrating itself through the unveiling of the truths behind the myths.


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.


Climbing the Ladder of Selves

Innovative Innervations

On the 11th August 2016 Nature published the results of an experiment in which they effectively utilised a virtual reality environment to help paraplegics regain sensation in their paralyzed limbs[1].  Not only that, for as a result of this returned feeling they were able to walk again, thus dramatically improving the daily life of the candidates.  In the study they took special note of the “potential occurrence of functional cortical plasticity”, which was “evaluated through longitudinal analyses of EEG recordings”.  It continues by stating that all “patients were instructed to imagine movements of their own legs while EEG signals from 11 scalp electrodes were recorded over the leg primary somatosensory and motor cortical areas”.  Each candidate was instructed to imagine movements of their legs, something most of us take for granted.

There have been several similar experiments repeated before, but one particular example will suffice, and it involves a group of physically healthy Israeli soldiers.  The experiment was conducted by Shlomo Breznitz at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  He conducted the soldiers to march twenty-five miles, but provided each group of marchers with varying and incorrect information about how much they had actually marched, or were going to march.  For example he would either exaggerate or dramatically underestimate the marcher’s mileage.  Michael Talbot summarises Brezniz’s results in which he found evidence that the “stress hormone level in the soldiers’ blood always reflected their estimates and not the actual distance they had marched”.  He continues, “[i]n other words, their bodies responded not to reality, but to what they were imagining as reality” (The Holographic Universe: 88).

This is all highly significant when considering the notion of an evolutionary self, for the embryo of the future self must also exist in the present; however, it has merely not been actualised, as Abraham Maslow may have put it. It demands the question, what if we were able to imagine a higher reality for ourselves, a more integrated and powerful form of being? Indeed to become self-actualised is an enormous challenge, and as I have mentioned before alpinism seems to be an often used metaphor for this task of self-development.  Wilson, in The New Pathways of Psychology, coined the term ‘the Self-Image’, the fact that we are only so much as capable of being what we imagine ourselves to be.  ‘The great man is the play-actor of his own ideals’, said Nietzsche.  Says Wilson:

“A man could not climb a vertical cliff without cutting hand-holds in the rock.  Similarly, I cannot achieve a state of ‘intenser consciousness’ merely by wanting to . . . We tend to climb towards higher states of self-awareness by means of a series of self-images.  We create a certain imaginary image of the sort of person we would like to be, and then try to live up to the image” (34)

This ‘series of self-images’ is precisely the means by which we can grapple with the tough and turbulent terrain of reality.  However, it must correspond with a possible and latent reality.  The Nature experiment provided the imaginary stimulus – the virtual reality headgear and exoskeleton – which provided a new, body-enhancing self-image.  Again it awakened the mind to correspond with a latent reality and thus innervated the previously derelict limbs, that is, they were re-imbued by a sort of psychological leap which became a physiological reality.

The Mind as Programmer

Wilson emphasised this in his 2006 essay, ‘The Psychology of Optimism’, in which he discusses the implications of Roger Sperry’s type of mind-body monism.

Sperry came to reject the idea that the mind and body were two basically diametrically opposed realities, where the mind cannot influence the body.  He believed that “[e]mergent mental powers . . . must logically exert downward causal control over electrophysiological events in brain activity”.  The mind for Sperry was not merely epiphenomenal; it was something outside of the brain, in which the brain merely acted as a receiver.  However, there is an altogether more immediate correlation; the body is minded, if you like.  Consciousness for Sperry existed as well as the body, not necessarily because of the body, and therefore it takes the role of an active force, having an enormously important creative will which can generate profound physiological changes (like the innervations of a paraplegic’s legs).  Wilson concludes his essay by saying that we must “persuade scientists . . . to begin experiments to try and show that brain cells can be created by a focused effort of will” (Colin Wilson: The Philosopher of Optimism, 85).

One could say that consciousness is some sort of programmer from outside the material reality, something that tends to infuse it with higher dimensions of significance.

Time and the Transcendent Self

The virtual reality experiment proves this to be a significant area of research, and although it can improve the lives of many who have lost use of their limbs, it could also potentially act as a new method by which to stimulate unused areas of our own minds.  Of course, drugs, particularly hallucinogenic, have also had a similar effect on individuals, and are in fact an influence on virtual worlds themselves. For example, in 1998 there was even a Japanese computer game called LSD which was entirely based on Hiroko Nishikawa’s dream journal, released under the title Lovely Sweet Dream.  Imagination in itself is an important means by which to “stimulate the earth-bound imagination of man to grasp the immensity around him” (Existentially Speaking, 19-20).  The mind, Wilson reminds us, is also a muscle that needs to be re-innervated so as to be able to grasp – to contract its powers so as to assimilate its experience of reality more powerfully – with a vivid intensity which enables existence to be more powerfully experienced.  (Wilson also used the virtual worlds of computer science in his 1985 novel, The Personality Surgeon for the same reason).

Interestingly, this notion of imagination, the virtual worlds and dream being a means to stimulate the earthbound imagination out of its tendency to become robotic and passive, has been picked up by many novelists.  An example is the work of J.B. Priestley whose time plays, or the novel The Magicians, enables his characters to vividly re-live the past in what he called ‘Time Alive’.  Although the novel stems directly out of Gurdjieff’s and Ouspensky’s development of system known generally as The Fourth Way, it nevertheless provides and important psychological point.  It also appears most profoundly in an even earlier play, his 1937 Time and the Conways, whereby the character Alan Conway states the multiplicity of our selves:

“. . . now, at this moment, or any moment, we’re only cross-sections of our real selves.  What we really are is a whole stretch of ourselves, all our time, and when we come to the end of this life, all those selves, all our time, will be us – the real you, the real me.  And then perhaps we’ll find ourselves in another time, which is only another kind of dream” (The Magicians, ix).

These theories of time and our multiple personalities emerged directly out of J.B. Priestley’s obsession with the time theories of J.W. Dunne, whose work An Experiment with Time (1927) postulated, as a result of Dunne’s idea of serial-time, that there must also be corresponding I’s which observe us as it were outside of time as well as inside of time; rather like an infinite hall of mirrors reflecting different versions of you – as you are, as you were, as you could be.

The late psychoanalyst Anthony Storr noted something which corroborates with this theory in a fascinating way, for he provides a cybernetic interpretation of consciousness, that is, it is essentially self-regulating and attempting to reach equilibrium.  Significantly this is noted in his aptly titled book The Integrity of the Personality (1960) when discussing the theories of Carl Jung, who also thought the psyche a self-regulating mechanism which knows what is best for it; and yet is ever thwarted in its path to self-actualisation by external and internal fluctuations. The body says Storr ‘knows’ what is “best of itself; but it is a knowledge without consciousness, and the goal of homeostasis is sought automatically without the deliberate direction of a conscious ego” (176).  Yet he presents the possibility that the psyche is also seeking a semblance of equilibrium, and that Jung provided this essential insight into the cybernetic quality of the personality, or being.  And this therefore infers a ‘right’ state of consciousness, a self that simply ‘knows’ – or is in some sense already actualised – as it were in the future, or vertically above i.e. outside of time.  Jung looked for signs of this other self in the mythologising of the unconscious mind, which seemed to him to be active in its will to equilibrium and the integration of the personality; the unconscious process which aims at developing an evolutionary self-image.  So all that was really needed to solve the problem of neurosis was to remind oneself that the solution lies inside of ourselves, and what is necessary is to correspond this ‘higher self’ and its will to integration with one’s existential reality – and then one would live more effectively at a higher level, a step towards an eventual self-individuation.

(Storr often uses the word homeostasis, which may present the reader with a fairly static sense of being rather than a dynamic one.  Yet the integrated personality is entirely dynamic, resistant and able to absorb and distribute its energies to the highest degree of efficiency).

Energetic Leaks

We have a tendency to ‘leak’ energies, as Wilson put it, and these leaks are due to a poorly integrated sense of self; a tumultuous ego which is either too easily shaken or emotions which erupt or drop our spirits like pockets of air pressure effecting an airplane’s descent.  The psychologist Roberto Assagioli who termed his own movement of psychology, Psychosynthesis, also said the same thing: that we should integrate our multiple I’s in a skilful and efficient way.  He also noted the self-regulatory aspect of the will, stating that the true will has a “directive and regulatory function; it balances and constructively utilizes all the other activities and energies of the human being without repressing any of them” (Act of Will, 10).  Abraham Maslow called these self-integrators ‘self-actualisers’, who aimed towards “the creation of a superordinate unity”.  The ‘superordinate unity’ is what Assagioli called the ‘transpersonal self’, or what Wilson meant by the title of his book Superconsciousness (2009).  Maslow’s peak experiences being the unification of the selves, resulting in an invigorating focus of all the intellectual, emotional and physical energies – that is, they are all efficiently synthesised.

What is the driving force behind our urge to unify our multiple selves?

Wilson contends that it is meaning itself, for there is a certain healthy tropism towards meaning.  He states it in his ladder-of-selves theory, which he discusses at length in Mysteries (1978).  “In moments of intensity, of excitement, of creativity, I move up the ‘ladder’, and instantly become aware that the meaninglessness was an illusion.  For I can ‘tell myself my own story’ and grasp it as a reality; I can look in a mirror and experience myself as an entire object” (The Essential Colin Wilson, 147).

As one climbs the ladder it contracts our being more tightly until all the disparate elements of our psyche are satisfactorily integrated.  We cease to be victims of vacillating moods, and become our own programmers, the director of our own existence.

The positive and beneficial self-image provides the individual with certain traction, a grip, with which they can most effectively climb the ladder-of-selves.  Again, in Wilson’s quote above we can see both the virtual sense of self and the experience of grasping oneself as a whole unit rather than as a vacillating collection of impulses.  I can tell myself my own story and grasp it as a reality.  It must be emphasised that this must correspond with a potential reality that harmonises with one’s best aspects, and not be divorced from reality totally, for it would be a dangerous delusion that would be the contrary to integration – it would become dis-integration, a loss of a sense of self.  For example, Assagioli points out an amusing misunderstanding of education, for he quotes Gustave Le Bon who said that “education is the art of making the conscious pass into the unconscious”, when in fact it should be quite the opposite in some instances.  He notes that the etymology of ‘education’ means to “draw out”, to actualise our “latent possibilities from the unconscious, to activate the energies dormant in it, particularly in its higher sphere, the superconscious” (Act of Will, 57-58).

The self-image must abide by similar pedagogical practices, for they must ‘draw out’ those latent possibilities in the most efficient way.

The Self-Image as a Symbolically Authentic Metaphor

To return to the symbolism of the mountain, Julious Evola, like René Daumal in Mount Analogue, also adopted it as a powerful metaphor for human existence.  And, much like the peak experience and its vistas of meaning, and distant fact, exuberantly energising one’s consciousness, Evola too points to the seriousness of the alpinists as a contraction of disciplined and focused energy. Says Evola:

“The […] feature of serious mountain climbers […] is inner discipline: a total control of reflexes; the style of a deliberate, lucid, and purposeful action; a boldness that is not reckless or hasty, but which is connected to the knowledge of one’s own limitatations and strengths and of the exact terms of the problem to be solved. In relation to this characteristic, we also find yet another one: the control of one’s imagination and the capability to immediately neutralize any useless and harmful inner turmoil [my italics]” (33).

Evola’s discussion of the will comes dangerously close to what Assagioli described as the Victorian caricature of will as been cold and brutal (Evola’s continuing comments are on the Nordic and Mediterranean ‘types’ seems to be a typical example of this), but nevertheless in the context of existence the metaphor is significant, for the virtual and metaphorical nature of the mountain is a sort of simulation, or as Daumal called it, “symbolically authentic”, which is perhaps the most accurate description of the self-image theory itself – it must be symbolically authentic, to quote Nietzsche again: ‘The great man is the play-actor of his own ideals’.

The paraplegics being able to walk again seems to support this idea of a bridging between the symbolical and the real – the symbolical world of the virtual reality headsets convinced the mind, and thus the body, to provide nerves and feeling to limbs that were felt – and known – to be paralysed; but in some loop of the unreal and the real, they manifested in actuality.

This posits the question: What is not impossible?  What can become an actuality?

Implicit Possibilities

“It seems preposterous that nothing except a little absent-mindedness stands between us and a life that is ten times as satisfying as the present one.  Anybody who realises this experiences [a] tremendous sense of frustration, and is willing to make the most exhausting efforts to ‘break through’” (The War Against Sleep, 60).  Opportunities, Wilson said elsewhere, have a tendency to increase as they are seized.  The spur of meaning as one ascends the ladder-of-selves should in theory make it easier and more invigorating as one is more properly integrated; but lower down the ladder there is more danger, for we can too easily become a victim of ourselves.  On the lower rungs we can much more easily become robotic and slip back into what Gurdjieff called ‘sleep’.  There must be a tremendous amount of phenomenological vigilance and self-discipline involved.

Existence itself provides us with humbling threats and reasons to be joyful, but it can – with its trivialities and bores – pull us back into a semi-comatose automaton, drifting and hypnotised by our untamed and unconscious forces.

The question of human existence itself is what Gurdjieff called “holy the firm”, the fact that “the only firm ground in human life is the seemingly uneasy ground of question, especially questions that can neither be answered nor left unanswered” (The Super Natural, 108).  The mere unanswerable nature of the question can either undermine our sense of self and cosmos, or in fact invigorate us to make a more concerted effort to create our own values.  The climbing is a means of creation, and the creative act is precisely another type of bringing together disparate facts and realities into a single actualised form. The philosopher Henri Bergson points out the essentially creative nature of evolution, whereby nature

“is more and better than a plan in course of realization.  A plan is a term assigned to a labor: it closes the future whose form it indicates.  Before the evolution of life, on the contrary, the portals of the future remain wide open.  It is creation that goes on for ever in virtue of an initial movement.  This movement constitutes the unity of the organized world – a prolific unity, of an infinite richness, superior to any that the intellect could dream of, for the intellect is only one of its aspects or products” (Creative Evolution, 106-107)

So, in a sense self-realization too is a form of creativity, a virtue of an initial movement.  It suggests therefore not an explicitness of something to become, but an implicitness that can become.  All sorts of paradoxes and contradictions can arise when considering this notion of an implicit nature, for what made the initial movement in the first place?  It was life – in whatever its form – taking a hold of matter, presenting it with a possibility of becoming more complex.  Buckminster Fuller similarly shares this notion of man, and more generally, life being a function against the automatism of the universe:

“My continuing philosophy is predicated, first, on the assumption that in counterbalance to the expanding universe of entropically increasing random disorderliness there must be a universal pattern of omnicontracting, convergent, progressive orderliness, and that man is that anti-entropic reordering function . . .” (No More Second Hand God & Other Writings, v).

If this is true, and we are able to use the Hermetic dictum of ‘As Above, So Below’, we can begin to map a correlate between cosmic evolution and psychological individuation, for as Bergson points out: the intellect is merely one of creation’s aspects.  Therefore, it would be a leap further to understand the evolutionary drive in man, who appears to be the most complex creature on Earth with apparently surplus potentialities yet to be actualised or ‘drawn forth’.  Colin Wilson, in The New Existentialism, calls the two polar states of consciousness ‘Inauthentic’ and ‘Authentic’, that is, in Fuller’s terms, he compares the mind of an entropic universe with that of an anti-entropic one, and the latter of course is the world of human consciousness.  Wilson continues:

“Inauthenticity is to feel futile, contingent, without purpose.  Authenticity is to be driven by a sense of purpose.  Such a sense of purpose cannot exist unless we first make the assumption that our sense of contingency is a liar, and that there is a standard of values external to every day human consciousness” (153).

At this point it is clear that an element of faith is necessary, and it quickly turns into the problem of religion.  However, it would be fundamentally correct to say that pessimism, like any other state, is an act of intentionality, and that the ‘act of faith’, as Wilson points out, is just another way of “concentrating these powers of intentionality” (117). We can will more intensely from a background of purposeful values.

In other words we must understand, phenomenologically, what Bergson meant by the initial movement; the creative momentum that imbues matter with consciousness.  This is an enormous task, but clues may be found in what J.G. Bennett called hyparxis which has been described by Anthony Peake as traceable “throughout all levels of existence from atoms through the simplest living forms up to a man and it is this factor that entitles us to look beyond man to the attainment of superhuman levels.  Without this factor everything would be compelled to remain wholly determined by its own eternal pattern” (The Labyrinth of Time, 97).

Why would anybody climb a mountain at all?  In many ways, it is the same question as why would consciousness need to invade matter, for surely it would be easier not to – to simply exist in a state beyond matter, perhaps in a timeless Platonic realm?  Gary Lachman in his vast study of esotericism, The Secret Teachers of the Western World (2015), suggests a possible answer to this question when he says that the force behind evolution “does not want us to remain static.  It pushed us out of the cosmic nest, into the cold and difficult regions of left-brain consciousness, because it is in those unwieldy climes that we can best actualize our capabilities” (56).

At our point in evolution we have long yearned to know why we exist, and unfortunately science offers no satisfactory answer other than the mechanisms and the ‘How’ of nature, without providing a ‘Why?’.  In fact there is no Why? in science, and if there is, it is merely a cosmological fluke – a quantum flux in a vacuum that accidentally spewed out all matter as we know it, with consciousness as a mere epiphenomena of matter.  Yet it is possibly the best time to ask precisely that question, for now we are free from the restricting dogmatises of religion (at least on a large enough scale) and at a juncture in science where its determinism and reductionism is beginning to erode.  There is a sense, especially in quantum physics, where mind is altogether interactive with matter itself, causing quantum variations which may in turn shed light on the ‘initial movement’ of the cosmos, indeed, offering us a foundational insight into the evolution of consciousness alongside, or together with, the first emanations of matter into the ‘void’ – a void, as it turns out, that is teeming with potentiality.

In Bargaining with the Devil: The Work of Colin Wilson in a Cultural Context (2016), a generally critical view of Colin Wilson’s work, Nigel Bray nevertheless concludes with a call for optimism, for in a brief analysis of contemporary trends in science, particularly quantum physics, he sees Wilson’s work as a contribution to what could be called ‘quantum psychology’.  Nevertheless, quantum or not, the entire foundation of Wilson’s work was based on an ‘evolutionary phenomenology’, which naturally integrates anything that can be verified phenomenologically or existentially.  Yet as science becomes more bizarre, it nevertheless becomes more existential, for again it is returning to that basis of phenomenology – consciousness.


Mountains, Diamonds and Peak Experiences

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

BOOK REVIEW: Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson by Gary Lachman (TarcherPerigee: 2016)

(Available 30th August:

In Gary Lachman’s new biography Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (2016), we are treated to a sort of bildungsroman – the story of an individual’s spiritual and intellectual development – of the philosopher Colin Wilson.  An English, Leicester-born and working-class ‘home grown existentialist’, whose jolting rise to fame with his 1956 The Outsider suffered an unfortunate and undeserved backlash with his second book Religion and the Rebel (1957).  For the next 50 years, up until his death in 2013, Wilson produced a genre-spanning amount of work, but received the curious silence of the literary establishment.  Nevertheless his vision has remained for many a respected, pivotal and increasingly relevant turning point in Western thought.  Wilson’s incredible contribution to philosophy was a part of a larger philosophical ‘new existentialism’, which aimed to nothing less than to tackle the pessimistic biases in literature, philosophy, culture and science.

Indeed in his most famous work, The Outsider, he dealt with the sudden sense of affirmation felt by the Romantics, indeed a somewhat a precarious sense of affirmation which often collapsed back a feeling of despondency or ‘life failure’.  Nevertheless Wilson felt these men were at the critical point of an evolutionary leap, and if one could just discipline oneself in such a way, these visions of affirmation could indeed be made permanent, and thus become more firmly rooted in the objectivity from which they blossomed.  

Wilson also went on to produce an enormous amount of subsequent works which all began from the same premise: an attempt to go beyond the problem of common existential complaints (ennui, despair, thoughts of suicide) to establish a firm set of values from which the evolutionary man could strive and thrive.  

“The vision of absurdity is one of the poles of existence.  Its correlate is the pole of reason and the will to live.  So long as a man maintains his hold on these two poles he completes the circuit, so to speak, and the vital force of life flows through him.  If he releases his hold he becomes nothing, or – which is much the same thing – the hero of a best-seller”.

These words, said by fellow Angry Young Man and working-class writer Stuart Holroyd, encapsulates Colin Wilson’s developmental dynamo of “Eternal Yes versus Eternal No”.  A sort of alchemical friction between optimism and pessimism, affirmation and negation.  But he was, as Brad Spurgeon’s book on Wilson is titled, overall a “philosopher of optimism”.  


Lachman charts the inspiring consistency and perseverance of Wilson’s life and works, showing just how self-discipline and an optimistic frame of mind can overcome the challenges of a dispirited modern culture.  

Indeed, Lachman succinctly describes the essential ‘wonder of life’ and ‘will to live’ in Wilson’s work, for when “our wonder is strong and our curiosity wide, our vitality increases, and we are able to grip our own existence more powerfully”.  And as Wilson produced over a hundred books on subjects ranging from philosophy to the occult, criminology, sexology and psychology, Atlantis and UFOs, even booze and a polemic against gardening, we can safely say that wonder was at large in Wilson’s life, with his enormous appetite for both knowledge but more importantly insight.  

Beyond the Robot details precisely this voracious appetite for meaning, of a curiosity that was positively driven towards “eating significance”, as Wilson put it.  Lachman, having taken on Colin Wilson’s enormous oeuvre has attempted to summarise and synthesise the essence of his work, to bring it into the context not only of his life and times, but into the wider reaches of philosophy, everyday existence to the further reaches of cosmology.  And in doing so he untangles the misunderstandings of Wilson’s work, and shoots straight through the inertia of academia and much of the literary establishment which rejects Wilson’s work with unthinking reflex.  Lachman instead not only celebrates his work, but brings to the surface Colin Wilson’s important contribution as a philosopher in his own right, and also as a human being in search of the farther shores of human nature.  Wilson’s intensely driven and incredibly honest intelligence is warmly reflected by Lachman, who was a close friend and who had a great insight into his work routines and an appreciation for his ideas.

For anybody who has been following Gary Lachman’s work will be aware that he is the right man for the job.  Both share the same sort of existential urgency, the insatiable curiosity into the nature and mystery of human consciousness.  His most ‘Wilsonian’ book – and like The Outsider an incredible synthesis and unique philosophical treatise in its own right – is The Caretakers of the Cosmos (2013).  Indeed the book was poignantly dedicated to Wilson, who Lachman credits as having “certainly repaired quite a bit of the universe”.  It is therefore no surprise that the degree of sensitivity to his subject is complimented with illuminating notes and an enormous amount of reading (a result of his nearly 40 years of reading Wilson’s works).  This results in what is no doubt the most comprehensive book on Wilson since Howard Dossor’s Colin Wilson: The Man & His Mind (1990).  

And if you are like me an obsessive Colin Wilson reader there is much to be gained by reading Beyond the Robot, for Lachman carefully balances the biographical elements alongside the ideas, and what occurs is a very organic sense of development of an individual.  Due to this very reason it is a veritable goldmine for anyone new or interested in Wilson’s work, for it is as much a journey through Wilson’s ideas as it is an evocative biography of a man concerned with mankind’s deepest and most important questions: What is the meaning of human existence?  How can we control our consciousness and reach our full potential?  Is meaning objective, and if so, what are the steps to know this fact all the time?

By reading Beyond the Robot one comes away enormously intellectually enriched, for all of Wilson’s many essential insights are bought together into a huge synthesis, whereby one revelation seamlessly relates to another and so on.  At the end we can step back and take Wilson’s whole work as an optimistic existential edifice.  Lachman succeeds wonderfully at this, and I believe this is precisely the book that was needed to bring Wilson’s work together; to give it a necessary overall context which doesn’t scare people off.  The careful development of Wilson’s ideas is detailed chronologically in each chapter, enabling us see that these ideas and insights were not sudden jumps or illogical leaps, but altogether an implicit part of existential obsession that ran through all of Wilson’s work.  

Certainly, Wilson’s life and ideas were not at all divorced, or thought up in some abstract or detached sort of way, but they emerged through an obsessive phenomenological analysis of his moods, his observations, and experiences in general living.  By identifying the evolutionary dynamo of highs and lows, Lachman accurately recounts Colin Wilson’s life as it was: a search for higher states of consciousness, ways out of habit and neurosis, an understanding of our ‘sexual illusions’ and even the mysteries of Atlantis and other possible dimensions; even UFOs and their role in the vast mysterious tapestry of space and time.  

Again Lachman makes sure that it isn’t merely a selection of exotic eccentricities and Fortean fragments, a common problem with any writer on the paranormal and esoteric.

Although it is a biography about Colin Wilson the man, it is also about an essential approach to living.  Lachman shows us, through Wilson’s own adventures and refreshing insights into the human condition, that the world as we know it is often blinkered, narrowed down to the ‘here and now’.  And within rare moments we suddenly expand, and our conception of ourselves and the universe we live in inflates too.  There are ‘horizons of distant fact’, as William James called it, and these ‘distant facts’ are collated by Wilson, and pieced together in an attempt to “stimulate the earth-bound imagination of man to grasp the immensity around him”.  There is more to life.  We know this, but how can we know this fact more deeply?  Beyond the Robot is about such a man driven by precisely this question his whole life.  

Indeed the questions Wilson posed to existence were often answered by the sheer joy of the search itself, stimulating as it did ever larger vistas of thought.  Freedom, he ceaselessly reminds us, can come to the individual who can think outside of ordinary constraints, who can suddenly breathe the air of larger realities beyond the personality and life’s trivialities.  

Wilson, in the end, was such a man we can all relate to on some level.  And most significantly we should aspire, like Wilson himself, to those higher levels to which he aimed to make available to us all.  For he left us with his last book Superconsciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience (2009), in which he bookended his own contribution to linear time.  But Gary Lachman’s book may reignite veteran Wilson readers to revisit his work, and introduce and inspire future readers to take up the life-affirming and enhancing philosophy he single-handedly helped to create: the ‘new existentialism’.

Certainly Lachman and the publisher TarcherPerigee have done the world of philosophy and esotericism (and fellow new existentialists) a tremendous service by producing this incredible resource in such a timeless edition. A source of inspiration to new readers and veteran Wilson-readers alike for years to come. It will be recognised as the definitive introduction and scholarly overview of Wilson’s impressive contribution to the cannon Western thought.