Some Comments on Colin Wilson’s ‘My Interest in Murder’ (Paupers’ Press: 2019)

(You can buy a copy of ‘My Interest in Murder’ here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Interest-Murder-discarded-introduction-Assassins/dp/0995597812)

On a Sunday afternoon I settled down to read Paupers’ Press’ latest release – Colin Wilson’s ‘My Interest in Murder’ (2019). While reading it, I decided to begin noting down some reflections on Wilson’s work on murder, in an attempt to align some insights I had along the way together with his overall philosophy. It resulted in this essay.

‘My Interest in Murder’ was originally intended as an introduction to Wilson’s 1972 book Order of the Assassins, which explores the psychology of murder. This short book comprises of a 40-page autobiographical reflection on why and how Wilson became so interested in this dark subject.

Furthermore, he describes the creative process, and psychological and philosophical shifts, that occurred while writing his first novel, Ritual in the Dark (1960) – which took the nine years to write. And how his later novel The Glass Cage (1966) – “perhaps my own favourite among my novels” – became a crystallisation of this project to explore the mind of a murderer.

Wilson was determined to become a writer, and despite the banalities of his working-class existence, he declared that he would “make literature out of my revolt.” He comments that he had “tasted the pleasures of the imagination and intellect” and “wanted the pleasure to pursue them.” This of course led to Ritual in the Dark; or, in its earlier incarnation, Ritual of the Dead (originally titled after the Egyptian Book of the Dead). The novel is a pacey and fascinating reflection on frustration, alienation and moreover outsiderisim. It also has something of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment about it – with the main character being torn between intensities of both himself and the often shady people with whom he’s become embroiled.   

Gerard Sorme, the protagonist and Wilson’s alter-ego, is what Wilson himself described as a ‘Simple Simon’, who wonders around London meeting eccentric and intensely-driven individuals, each with a backstory of semi-mystical visions which define them – for better or for worse – as outsiders.

Having recently read Wilson’s The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders (1988), I could clearly see how he had his own ‘Simple Simon’ moments. He fully admits that it dawned on him, perhaps too slowly, that a broad-shouldered, deep-voiced Charlotte Bach was, in fact, a robust Hungarian transvestite called Karoly Hajdu. Bach posited an evolutionary theory based on a dynamic and creative ‘tension’ and inter-play between the male and female counterparts in each individual (Wilson explored these themes in his book Mysteries (1978), and then later on in The Misfits). She was, in many ways, a character that could have been lifted straight out one of Wilson’s early novels.  

Nevertheless, it was through meeting these liminal characters, and by exploring the psychology of the outsider or the ‘misfit’, that Wilson could begin to explore motives for such extremities – whether it be sexual fetishes or, indeed, murder.

After all, what fundamentally defines these outsiders is a search for intensity consciousness – control over one’s own emotions, environment and achieving a sense of ultimate reality. In ‘My Interest in Murder’ Wilson quotes Watson’s observation of Sherlock Holmes: “He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century”, to which Wilson responds: “And why not? – for such knowledge was a part of his working equipment.” Wilson adds that by working with such morbid and extreme material, he began to feel like a “pathologist, working with unpleasant material, but viewing it with detachment.”

What Wilson was saying is that the sexual impulse and/or the impulse for murder and sadism is driven by an intense stimulus; that is, in both acts, there is a release of enormous energy – an energy, moreover, that has the potential for great acts of creativity, but, in sadism or murder, has somehow turned against itself.

Says Wilson:

“[T]here are certain people who possess the potentiality of creation, of purposive action; if this is frustrated it turns rotten. The mind is like a forward flowing river; if it is dammed up, it will turn the land around it into a swamp.”

So, you can clearly see the trajectory of Wilson’s work from his first non-fiction book, The Outsider (1956), which explored existentialists, ballet dancers, poets, mystics and esoteric teachers like G.I. Gurdjieff. There was not so much the ‘Simple Simon’ in Wilson, but an immense openness that enabled him to actualise in his work what Alfred North Whitehead described as the most important undertaking that any existentialist should adopt: experience everything; drunk, sober, depressed, ecstatic, and so on. Not out of mere hedonism or naiveite, but as an attempt to understand the extent of the human instrument through its entire experiential spectrum.

Murder emerges out of an immense damming up of frustration, which then bursts out as a destructive and pointless act. However, it is these implicit creative potentialities that Wilson was so fascinated by. Ritual in the Dark originally developed as a literary expression of frustration, much in the same way books like Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Eugene Ionescu’s The Hermit and – the most famous novel of its type – Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, were attempts to describe this essential feeling of alienation and the slippery texture of reality. But Wilson was driven by something altogether more optimistic.

Wilson began writing out of an act of emotional revolt that creatively expressed itself; and then, once circumstances in his life began to lighten up – and his naturally cheerful temperament kicked back in – the tone and philosophy of Ritual in the Dark began to change correspondingly. This in turn provided the novel with the protagonist’s recognition that the murderer in the book, whom Sorme even shows some admiration for, is in fact insane and sick. And that these murders were, as Wilson says, a “gesture of revolt” against reality – a reality, moreover, that the murderer had completely lost touch with.  

This is essentially the insight at the heart of Wilson’s work on criminology: that, in low moods, we have a weak grip on reality; and that if we let go, we fall into a ‘worms-eye view’ and our lives and the world around us – and even other people – begin to feel meaningless and uninspiring. Murderers and criminals have fallen down this hole further still, becoming stuck in a loop where reality becomes increasingly unreal, which in turn requires increasingly extreme experiences to reinvigorate what Pierre Janet called their ‘reality function’.

Now, one of the things that has always interested me is how we observe ourselves in certain moments, and how we can quickly take things for granted. I’ve worked in a number of industries, ranging from office work to apple picking and as a drayman for a brewery in the Midlands. When I first began reading Wilson’s books, I felt an immediate sense of kinship; I too had sat on lorries for long journeys and had worked in tedious offices full of neurotic petty-mindedness. Being a true existentialist, Wilson looked to his own life experiences for insights into the human condition.

Around February-March in 2018, I was working as a drayman during the ‘Beast from the East’, which was a cold wave which had blown over from Russia and North Asia, covering most of the Midlands in fine snowdrifts and freezing temperatures. I would have to get up very early, walk down a huge hill and into a warehouse full of steel casks. A forklift truck driver would come out and I’d have to jump on the back of the van and roll these heavy, ale-filled casks and secure them into place.

After the van was full, we’d seal up the curtain and drive off to about four pubs, where we would have to open the gate, crawl down into the cellar and then start lowering the barrels down with a rope as the snow whipped up, and our feet froze. The snow made it enormously difficult to push eighteen-gallon barrels, with the snow gaining up in front of it and causing a barrier which you would have to kick out of the way.

After a long day which inevitably led to exhaustion, I had to walk back up the huge hill. And on the way back, I walked past a salon full of beautiful women blow-drying hair and manicuring nails. The comparison between the two worlds was jarring – and it suddenly occurred to me the shocking ‘divide’ between these two realities. I could easily see how – if you had a severe job that involved intense labour – that the opposite sex would appear as immensely delicate and enchanting; beautifully intoxicating against your everyday reality. (I could suddenly clearly see why men working with tarmac or up scaffolding, for example, would whistle at pretty women as they walked by!)

This was a simple and fairly commonplace insight that contrasted very starkly against when I began to work in an office that same year. This work demanded far more attention to detail and concentration, and soon enough I found the atmosphere extremely constricting. Not only did the work fail to engage me – writing about Health & Safety for various councils and so on – the whole environment was such a vast contrast to working outdoors with burly, outspoken men, that I felt like I was trapped in some nightmare of pedanticism and bureaucracy.

I had had a similar experience while working at an academic bookshop in Nottingham in which the manager was immensely short-tempered and had an attention to detail that I would simply describe as ‘maniacal’. Again, here I found a curious neurosis that was lacking from working in labouring jobs, in which people could – and often would – talk loudly and honestly about their feelings – and, of course, their sexuality. There seemed to me to be a ‘pent-up-ness’ about the bookshop and office that I failed to adjust to.  

This brief digression into my own experiences has been an attempt to point out how – and in what form – energies take, and how in our ordinary day-to-day lives they become frustrated, leading to tensions and forms of outburst. Of course, if you were a physical-type, you would prefer physical labour; and if you were an intellectual-type, you would perhaps prefer more intellectually-engaging pursuits and find the physical work a tedious bore.

But the crucial difference here is the level and type of frustration.

One day (in the bookshop) an electrician was fitting in some new strip lights. The atmosphere was particularly dull, with an overcast sky outside and some syrupy acoustic music playing as background music. You could describe the whole situation as the very essence of stale and static. We caught eye contact and a devilish light seemed to gleam in both our eyes, and he shouted: “Put some Cannibal Corpse on!” (Cannibal Corpse is a raucous and very heavy-heavy metal band.)

His comment, as out-of-place as it was, released the tension – the frustration we both had with the boredom of our jobs. Anybody who has children of their own will know that a child cannot bare long car journeys, and will often talk incessantly to re-direct his energies, or, kick his legs frantically. Or, there is the persistent question of ‘Are we there yet?’ – exaggerating his sense of time passing slowly.   

The vitality of the child siphons off into what is called a form of displacement activity, which is defined as:

“A human activity that seems inappropriate, such as head-scratching when confused, considered to arise unconsciously when a conflict between antagonistic urges cannot be resolved.”

It seems that murder too is a form of displacement activity; an attempt to express, or channel, pent-up energy into a destructive act rather than something creative. The serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, once told police: “I was bitter at the world… Killing someone is just like walking outdoors.” For Lucas it was a matter of reconnecting with a ‘sense of reality’ which had been numbed by his own bitterness against the world.

And yet for many of us, simply walking outdoors in itself would be a release – but not for Lucas; his mind would have been unable to grasp its reality due to his mind being awash in negative emotions and frustration. Like any drunkard, the only way he could kick-start his emotional enjoyment of life would be to reach for extremity. The same, of course, relates to sex and such extreme fetishes that, for most of us, make little sense. All of these ‘extremities’ are attempts to re-experience a life that has been lost to the ‘worm’s-eye view’ of low-pressure consciousness.

Reading about murder, says Wilson, reminds us most forcibly that we could quite easily misdirect our energies. That is not to say, however, that most of us would become murderers – but simply that we can easily sink into states of passivity in which the world seems deprived of meaning. A violent act such as murder, of course, already suggests that the killer has a low estimation of the meaning of his own life – and as a result, those of others.

Wilson describes the purpose of his novel The Glass Cage as being “to confront the two extremes: the mystic and the criminal: the man whose sense of the goodness and worth-whileness of life is constant and fully conscious, and the man whose self-pity and lack of self-belief have driven him to expressing his vitality in the most negative way he can find.” Essentially the murder – in both Ritual and Cage­ – are failed mystics in the sense that their violent energies have turned into negation rather than affirmation.  

He describes the murderer, Gaylord Sundheim, in Cage:

“[H]e is a man of immense and violent energies and appetites, whose conscious attitude to life is so negative and defeated that they cannot find ordinary expression. When he eats, he eats ravenously, with the sweat pouring down his face; when he drinks, he gulps it down until he is unconscious. And when he has sex, all the vast energies roar out like a volcanic explosion there is a desire to eat, to drink, to entirely consume his sexual partner. If he possessed the power to remould his personality to express these energies positively, he might be a Michaelangelo or a Beethoven.” [my italics]

This is, of course, no defence of the act of murder – or a celebration of the murderers’ innate potential for genius – but a recognition of intensely frustrated energies that could have been put to good use, had they found a more fulfilling, and evolutionary, outlet. The problem with a destructive act is that it is self-cancelling and is fraught by diminishing returns – no one evolves their consciousness through murder, in fact it devolves and, once the criminal is caught by the police, or when his energies are depleted, the killer often commits suicide.

I think that each of us, in his/her own life, can notice how in moments of frustration, or after an exhausted day’s work, we notice how our perceptions of things correspondingly change. Here I have used my own examples of hard-labouring work and then walking by a very alluring salon; being struck by the contrast of environment and finding in myself a strange yearning for this different world. Psychologically-speaking it is exactly the same as walking down a blustery, icy street and looking into a coal-fire-lit cottage window and wishing you were inside.

In fact, Wilson calls this experience ‘duo-consciousness’ – when you can stay in bed on a rainy day, knowing you’ve got to get up in 5-minutes, and savouring the comfort and warmth of those sheets as if your life depended on it. By contrast, however, this all changes when we know we don’t have to get up. Due to our inability to place our mind in two places at once, we cease to enjoy the moment – the actual and the symbolic fail to reflect each other and make us self-aware. Of course, we are perfectly self-aware when we await the dreaded alarm-clock. . .

Reading about murder, Wilson argues, is a phenomenological act that enables us to recreate a deeply existential version of duo-consciousness. We can read these accounts of horrific crimes and, by using it as a sort of mirror, we can contrast these stupid and destructive acts against our everyday reality, and effectively reminding ourselves that our lives could be a lot worse. Wilson says that the purpose of studying murder ought to be to “throw light upon its opposite: the passion for order, creativity, sainthood.”

‘My Interest in Murder’, in all its autobiographical digressions was written in the spirit of pleasure – much like his later book on wine and alcohol, The Book of Booze (1974). And by reading books of its kind, and understanding our essential creative drives, we too can use it as a sort of psychological mirror to ‘throw light upon its opposite’, achieving moments of duo-consciousness – and most importantly – to improve our own lives and those of others!

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Self-Help and the New Existentialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”.

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

(To purchase The Druid Code: Magic, Megaliths and Mythology click here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/thomas-sheridan/the-druid-code-magic-megaliths-and-mythology/paperback/product-22804940.html)

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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kttXCOrn30E) 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.

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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.

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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.

[1] http://www.nature.com/articles/srep30383