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

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Mountains, Diamonds and Peak Experiences

In Peaks and Lamas (1948), about mountaineering as much as it is about higher mystical experiences and Tibetan lamas, Marco Pallis describes what could be either something from one of Gurdjieff’s lectures, or a phenomenological observation from such writers as R.D Laing or Colin Wilson.  Says Pallis:

“Our actions and thoughts are the products of our whole nature at a given moment, and become the causes of its further development for good or ill.  A nature which is still mainly emotional, and not brought under proper control by the intellect, is a weathercock turned by every impulse.  In such a condition of irresponsibility, even if an action happens to be right, it is largely an accident; for, not being based upon relevant motives, it is properly little better than a foolish action in masquerade” (128-129).

Pallis continues, offering us a way out by describing a certain detachment, a sort of phenomenological ‘bracketing’, from which to develop a sort of ‘transcendental ego’, a standpoint which can more accurately dictate our impulses from, as it were, ‘upon high’:

“It must be one’s constant aim to withdraw as much of life as possible from the power of outside influence and accidents and to bring it into subjection to one’s informed will, so that each act may be exactly what it purports to be, no more no less, each perception a genuine perception uninfluenced by anything irrelevant” (129).

Earlier in the book he makes the observation that this “impartial approach to life” is “too exacting for it to make an instantaneous appeal”.  In other words, it is ‘easier said than done’; we tend to move on, once again falling victim to the topsy-turvy nature of our emotions, intellect and physical impulses.  Not taking up the momentous task of exacting ourselves, honing our Will and integrating our warring selves.

This is why Colin Wilson was fascinated by the idea of a sudden crisis fusing our conflicting I’s together; he often even referred to the mountain symbolically, as a sort of equivalent of Dostoevsky’s intense experience when he was withdrawn from facing the death penalty.  Interestingly, Dostoevsky divided his time, while awaiting his death, into thinking about his own life; past, present and future.  His future, of course, being the grim fate of death (and, as he was religious, perhaps an afterlife).  And yet when he was withdrawn from the claws of death, it is no doubt he grasped his future intensely, and was also immediately grateful for both his present being alive – and furthermore for having had a past at all!  In other words, life as a whole would have been completely revitalised by a sudden yea-saying affirmation.  It would have been an enormous “genuine perception uninfluenced by anything irrelevant”, all of his systems were working equally and powerfully, searing straight through banality, emotional trivialities and intellectual distractions; it was crystallised, refracting time and space into a sudden glistening awe of being.

In fact, Colin Wilson utilised a similar metaphor in his book The Black Room (1971).  This is symbolised in a section where the protagonist becomes involved in a conversation with a mountaineer, Gradwhol, who tells him about how he came to have a healthy subconscious mind.  It is the result of climbing mountains and facing the dangers head-on, where his Will had to be immensely disciplined in order to tackle the dangers and challenges climbers encounter.  In a moment of crisis, his friend asks the question: “Why are we doing this? Are we both mad?”.  To this Gradwhol is struck by a revelation, of just why they put their lives on the line simply to climb a mountain: “We have climbed this mountain to remind ourselves of something we ought to know anyway – that life is only worth living when the will is concentrated” (211 – The Essential Colin Wilson).

He continues, “For two million years man has been climbing a mountain of evolution, and his will is so weak that he dies when he is less than a century old”.  He turns to the protagonist Kit Butler, a composer, and announces that they both ought to know this fact, for their business is evolution, they both yearn for an impersonal goal rather than the personal goals of most people.  It is an end-point to which to strive, an exacting and withdrawal from mere circumstance.  One begins to act now towards an objective purpose, and with the Will driven by an objective sense of higher values; there is no more drifting in life-sapping relativism, distractions and the pains of a divided self-consciousness. In other words, one rises above time, seeing it for its vast potentiality; that is, rather than being lodged within the present like a fly on sticky paper, a mere victim of outside circumstances and triviality.

Again, this contraction of Will was realised in Dostoevsky’s close call in Siberia, and when it was withdrawn, his perception was widened enormously to grasp the essential Will to more life; the purpose of evolution rushed inwards as much as it manifested outwards with his subsequent works after the experience: he began to attack existence, assimilating it rather than being merely passive.

This is why Dostoevsky takes a central stage in Wilson’s The Outsider; he embodied the Nietzschean view of life in his novels: “six thousand feet above man and time”, the evolutionary impulse.  Aptly, this insight came to Nietzsche while looking at a huge pyramidal block of stone alongside the Lake Silvaplana. The mountain of course will always be a symbol of evolution, of an essentially evolutionary structure, for it implies a summit much like a pyramid.  The ‘peak experience’ of Maslow also implies the same, where one reaches – in a flash of insight – a taste of what he called ‘self-actualisation’.

(It has been mentioned, not entirely accurately, that the very word pyramid may be interpreted as a ‘fire in the middle’ (presumably because the word ‘pyromaniac’ and ‘middle’ sound so close phonetically!)  Yet it can serve as a useful metaphor, where the centre of our being is fusing together all of the disparate ‘selves’, rather as the heat is applied to a crucible unify a compound.  This interpretation inevitably falls victim to the symbolism of the volcano, which is altogether more volatile and unpredictable, and this is often compared to repressed emotions suddenly erupting irrationally and with devastating consequences).

Another author who used the mountain symbolically, in a non-Euclidian way, was the surrealist poet René Daumal.  He again uses the stability of a diamond’s internal structure to represent the symbolic peak of the mountain:

“There, at the summit sharper than the sharpest needle, alone stands he who fills all space.  Up there, in the finer air where all is frozen, there alone exists the crystal of ultimate stability.  Up there, in the full fire of the sky where all burns, there alone exists perpetual incandescence.  There, at the centre of all, is he who sees each thing done in its beginning and in its end” (110 ­– Mount Analogue).

The crystal is a result of great pressures, an intense fusion of rock which is so internally consistent that it reflects and refracts light in an enchanting way.  Indeed, Marie-Louise von Franz notes that a stone, in a sense “symbolizes . . . existence at the farthest remove from the emotions, feelings, fantasies and discursive thinking of ego consciousness” (209 – Man and his Symbols).  She continues by saying that the stone gives us a sense of something “eternal that man can have in those moments when he feels immortal and unalterable”, and similarly, the Irish author Thomas Sheridan, in his book The Druid Code (2016), says the same about megalithic sites, for they “present us with the paradox of solid stone being used to open pathways of perception towards the least tangible and material states”, being as they are a “solidified expression of the supernatural world expressed in stone” (106).  This may appear at first to contradict von Franz, but significantly the rock itself is still impersonal, yet it has been shaped to represent or to symbolise something beyond itself, an eternal idea, even a timeless Platonic ‘Form’.  What Sheridan is describing is the act of magic, of alchemy: the transmutation of a base substance into a higher form.

In alchemy there is, of course, the the ‘philosopher’s stone’ which bestows immortality on those who find it.  And in a novel of the same name, Colin Wilson presents this ‘stone’ as a state of consciousness which bestows more life.  This does not necessarily mean that one becomes immortal in the physical sense, but his experience of existence is so enhanced that he feels more life, his consciousness ‘takes’ more inside of itself, and thus enriches one’s experience of existence, which in effect ‘fills up’ time with more significance and meaningful content.

Again it seems to be about making a solid inside of oneself, rather than the inner-states being tumultuous like a fishing boat caught out in a fierce storm – no fish could be caught in such a turbulent state, just as nothing can be appreciated when one is distract, emotional.  It also applies to creation, for to create something demands concentration, self-discipline and Will power; it also requires an integration of self-consciousness, rather than being a victim of it, its discouragements and worries about what other people will think – one must proceed, experiment and become strong enough to persist until you have mastered your art.  Wilson often compared creativity to two tennis players playing so well that the ball goes to-and-fro, a synchronisation of the subconscious powers and the conscious mind, and both hemispheres of the brain acting harmoniously.  Where intuitions and insights are correctly handed over to the ‘you’ that has to do the typing, painting or whatever it might be.  Of course, self-consciousness can come between these two and disrupt the flow, creating a frustration of energies that can even develop into schizophrenia or a depleted sense of vitality.

Wilson himself, after taking a lot of criticism from the literary establishment, had to develop a strong sense of ‘I’, which effectively absorbed the attacks like the ballast on a ship maintains stability in choppy waters.   For after the rejection of his book Spider World books, he noticed that his heart did not immediately sink with disappointment.  He notes:

“I had, over the past year, achieved a little of what Gurdjieff calls ‘essence’, a feeling of inner solidness [my italics].  Gurdjieff said that the only way to create this is through what he called ‘intentional suffering’, like the painful self-disciplines of the ascetic.  This is the only reliable way of overcoming the laziness and weakness that does its best to hide inside you” (xxvii – Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism).

Concentration and attention is often what Wilson prescribed for this inner-development, for concentration and intentionality brings our energies into a fine focus, and suddenly it grasps what it is that it is firing its attention towards.  This does not have to be an external or physical object; it could even be an idea.  We suddenly direct our energies and pull it in, and fully digest the experience; a new idea, or an incredible book, often means that we ‘got something out of it’; but what has really happened, in a sense, is that we were inspired (which means to breath in) by what it was that we fired our attention at.  It is as Ouspensky symbolised with the two arrows, where one achieves ‘self-remembering’, as the two arrows of attention: one outwards and one inwards: work harmoniously as to jolt into us a sudden sense of reality.

*

To return to diamonds and pyramids, Gary Lachman in his biography on Colin Wilson emphasises that “attention and the concentration are what count. If we do it for long enough, often enough, the billiard balls of our consciousness will slowly come together, and fuse it into a hard, diamond-like pyramid that can withstand the forces of time even better than the monuments the ancient Egyptians raised in the desert sands” (340).  This sense of contraction, of a fusing together, developed in Wilson what Gurdjieff meant by ‘essence’, a solidified, integrated psyche that has permanence and a disciplined Will.

In New Pathways of Psychology (1972), Wilson again uses the mountain to emphasise his point:

“This is why we climb mountains and irrigate deserts and send up moon rockets: the great challenge tenses the will, produces concentration, pushes back the sluggishness of the flesh, unites the mind’s diffuseness.  Underlying it all is the drive to more life – what Shaw calls the appetite for fruitful activity and a high quality of life” (117).

But what is our equivalent of a mountaineer’s crampons?  To climb the sheer wall of existence, we need some tool by which to imbed ourselves, to maintain a firm grip and secure-binding to its surface lest we slip and fall.  For this, Wilson argues, we need to develop a strong ‘self-image’; we must climb the Ladder of Selves.

To Be Continued: Climbing the Ladder of Selves

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

(Available 30th August: http://www.penguin.com/book/beyond-the-robot-by-gary-lachman/9780399173080)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horizons of Distant Fact: Wilson and Creativity: An Idea to Grow Towards

Mandelbrot’s Hedgehog?

As the prolific author of over 182 books, hundreds of essays and introductions, Colin Wilson is the supreme example of a ‘full-time writer’.  After being catapulted to fame in 1956 with The Outsider, he continued to write furiously, producing the ‘Outsider Cycle’, a series of dense and penetrating philosophical works, alongside many novels.  No mean feat.  So there is little wonder why any would-be writer would look up to Wilson – who was self-taught – as a model of a self-disciplined man blessed – or more precisely developed through sheer determination! – with a highly effective, easy-to-read style for conveying often obscure and fascinating ideas.  Certainly he never alienates his readers (if you deduct a rigid academic orthodoxy), and many have commended his leisurely style and brilliant analogies.

Human beings, he says, are like “grandfather clocks driven by watch springs”, thus highlighting our immense powers and our comparatively weak trickle of will-power; our lack of motivation and tendency towards passivity.  There are many such examples, and one of the most popular is: “opportunities increase as they are seized”; which is, in my opinion, exactly the mechanism behind both evolution and the writing process itself.  For behind Wilson’s ‘will-to-write’ was tremendous self-discipline, vision and a sense of increasing returns and moreover a grasping of new insights with the invigorating sense of self-expression that writing can provide.

Self-discipline and a direction was the reason I started to write this Blog in the first place, for it was intended to ‘make the leap’, to properly begin to write down and express my ideas.  The reason I chose Colin Wilson in particular is because he parallels my own obsessions very closely; I also regard his work as a fundamental expression of the ‘Outsider’s’ crisis, after all, he most clearly defined it!

His work also has a developmental quality to it which is infectious.  I found that I was always waiting for Colin Wilson’s next book to see how he fits together another part of the jigsaw, and I was saddened when he passed away in 2013.  It was not an ordinary sadness, but a realisation that I had been journeying along with him in his explorations.  His writing is so infused with a personal obsession – which I share – that he felt, like he probably does to many, a ‘friend you never met’.

Wilson’s voice has a great familiarity to any ‘Outsider’.

Colin Wilson is obviously one of my favourite thinkers and represents my ideal writer – someone who can share his own personal insights in a warm and accessible way, but also offer a constructive and imaginative expansion of knowledge.  One only has to pick up The Outsider to realise that Wilson had read an incredible amount of books, and not only that, he understood them deeply; he read, moreover, because of some sort of basic survival mechanism: he grew out of meaning; he also thrived on it.  He was, in short, a typical existentialist who cannot, for the life of him, passively accept existence on its own terms.  He must have an active knowledge and understanding of his existence, and to this end, literature is one of the most direct voices of the human experience.

Music, art, and other forms reach deep into us, affecting us in tremendous ways that can also inform us of a meaning in our own lives as well as the cosmos.  But it is literature which, in the end, communicates quite directly by asking the question: “Well, what is it all about?”.  Literature, in my own experience at least, has a more explicit quality, where we can ‘hear the author’s voice’ as if partaking in a dialogue.  Novels, by such writers as Hesse, Sartre, Rilke and Ionesco all seem to be diaries of existential anguish and revelation, whereby the reader can gain a phenomenological mirror into which one can more clearly see his or her fundamental position on life.

We can feel like the Steppenwolf of Hesse’s novel (Harry Haller), who is divided between the strong, animal lusts and violence of one’s primal aspects, that are furthermore in conflict with our reserved, rather tepid (by comparison) personality which is refined, restrained by our social responsibility.  And by reading the novel, we can gain the added benefit of an analysis of what it is that plagues, not simply Hesse or the protagonist himself, but also ourselves in those Steppenwolfian moments.

Wilson was fascinated with the idea of a ‘self-image’, which he also felt was the purpose of the novel (see The Craft of the Novel).  That is, not only the reading of a novel should enable the reader to examine his own inner thoughts, but also by writing – either a novel, non-fiction or even a Blog like this one – the individual should be able to understand himself with more exactitude.  My own aim is to both increase my skill as a writer; but, more fundamentally, to gain insight into my own mechanisms as well as more deeply understanding the work of Colin Wilson.

Wilson dedicated himself to understanding the mechanisms of human existence, and geared it primarily towards self-expression.  Anyone who took him on his word, with his tremendous gift of providing us with psychological and, not a word I use lightly, spiritual insights, would be a fool to drift passively in life and allow their deepest yearnings to go unanswered.  He often invokes this important realisation when he uses the example of Abraham Maslow’s patient who was so bored with life that she ceased to menstruate.  Or as in The Occult he uses the example of the film Forbidden Planet, where one character, left alone on a planet with a peculiar amplifying effect on the unconscious, generates semi-physical invisible monsters which forcibly demonstrate his own inner-conflicts and hatreds (rather like the poltergeist phenomenon).

To write is to somehow give shape to both conscious and unconscious forces, bringing them if you will into a dialogue in which the self-image can be more properly integrated.

Indeed there is, as Wilson pointed out, an important integration of brain hemispheric sympathy involved in writing.  In his book Frankenstien’s Castle, which is about the two hemispheres of the brain, he discusses the idea of two ‘me’s’, how in each of us there resides two individuals, one silent, rather like the unconscious mind, and the other the ordinary ‘I’, which we take for granted.

He uses an example of his own career as a writer:

“When I started writing in my teens, it was because I was fascinated by the possibilities of self-expression as I saw them in writers I admired.  But as soon as I began trying to turn my own intuitions and insights into words, I found I crushed them flat. Words seemed to be the enemy of insight, and their inability to reflect intuition seemed a mockery.  But I went on writing, because there seemed nothing else to do; and gradually, I got better at it”

He continues, using the hemispheres of the brain to describe the process, with the “left was slowly becoming more expert in turning the insights of the right into language”.  This is a very important and, at first, disarmingly simplistic notion that can be acknowledged, but not properly understood.  This idea of ‘understanding’ something is what the author John Shirley meant when he said that true understanding was a “hologram of knowledge”. A hologram is something which, if broken down into smaller pieces, nevertheless includes the whole even in the fragments.  So an understanding, in its true sense, has a vast, implicitness which folds and enfolds on itself like some endless Mandelbrot fractal.  When we truly understand something we say “A-ha! Now I understand it”.  It’s a strange phenomenon when it happens, because we felt we understood it before, but when we ‘truly’ understand it, is arrives like a revelation.

Good writing, I believe, has this quality; and Wilson’s certainly does.  He remarked that he had wrote the same book a hundred times over, as all his work is obsessed with the same fundamental thing, what he called ‘the other mode of consciousness’.  In that sense, all of his work is interconnected by that fact alone, but, with a more careful consideration you can take a book, such his science fiction novel, The Mind Parasites, and see that in it he presents all of his work from beginning to end: the ‘outsiders’, psychic vampirism, the occult, criminality, even ancient archaeology and extra-terrestrials.  But there is more to it than that, and that is what gives it its timeless quality.  It reaches deeply into these phenomena, and even though they are the same fundamental themes, they are nevertheless nearly inexhaustible in their vastness and sheer breadth.  When we say a work ‘resonates’, we basically mean the same thing: it sounds like a gong and vibrates many such notes simultaneously; it is rich, inspires alertness and attunes us into another way of seeing, feeling or understanding.  And, in turn, it is relational; that is, it connects us inevitably with everything else, like William James’s ‘horizons of distant fact’.

Wilson’s huge corpus of work is the resonation of this ‘birds-eye view’, and by discussing these modalities of being, it leads the sympathetic reader inevitably into either practicing this mode-of-consciousness, or at least being aware of it when it does happen to them: those spontaneous feelings of a ‘peak experience’, or even a sense of larger horizons of ‘fact’.  By being reminded of this alone makes it all the more easier to fully grasp the mechanisms of consciousness; we can begin hoist ourselves upwards, using as it were the various topics, such as esotericism or the ‘new existentialism’, as what Joyce-Collin Smith called spiritually-enriching climbing frames for the mind.  They each exert and stimulate our imaginations, giving what Rhea White called ‘the exceptional human experience’ (which Wilson aimed at achieving in his fantasy series, Spider World).

As the Zen teacher often pointed out, it is not the finger itself that is doing the pointing that we should concentrate on, it is the object to which it refers.  Wilson was, in every one of his works, pointing to a ‘further shore’ of possibility, urging us towards self-actualisation.  His own act was our own, if we too felt the same impulse to increased consciousness, for his books are developmental journals of a man passionately dedicated to evolving himself as a human being and even into the superman.

‘Outsider’ as Dominant ‘Mental Escaper’

In reflecting on his own work, Wilson remarked that there are a small percentage of people who were in “revolt against the confinement of everyday consciousness”, and these are precisely his ‘Outsiders’.  He continues by saying that this is why people find it hard to understand them, and particularly their obsessions and omnivorous drive towards understanding themselves and the universe.  If one man’s life is all about ego, he will interpret it as an egotistical drive towards knowledge for its own sake, and towards an expansion of ego.  All other priorities are basically seen through this stained-glass window of subjectivity, whereby the ‘Outsider’ is perceived as just another one of them i.e. another deluded ‘Insider’ driven by the same basic impulses as the rest.

However, I believe that the Outsider’s drive is towards objectivity at all costs.  And this is an enormously difficult challenge, for we too easily fall back into life as human-all-too-human, with all of our habits, neuroses and worldly-problems.

Perhaps in all ‘Outsiders’ there was some ‘promise’ they made to themselves at some point, and have firmly stuck to it.  They have had a flash of awareness where they have noticed their own – or other people’s minds – suddenly become stuck in spiritual mud, pulled down by reality and turned into strange and ghostly automatons.  Children understand this process better than most, for they are more clearly right-hemisphere orientated, but it is rather underdeveloped without the precise grasp that a left-hemisphere provide.  It is rather like swearing an oath never to become unconscious, dead inside; and sadly, the world seems hell-bent on trivialities and boredom.  One realises that it is too easy to become robotic and riddled with habits; we start to hand over our mental energies for a sort of numbed lethargy.  This is the point where we cease to ‘do’ anything, and this was the mystic Gurdjieff’s primary message, that mankind cannot ‘do’ without first becoming conscious – or for the rest of his life he will merely drift, victim of circumstance and animated only by the endlessly churning relativisms and excuses of a dream-filled mind.

The ‘Outsider’ has managed to maintain above the threshold and, due to this, he remains an ‘Outsider’; to go further beyond the threshold would be a step into self-actualisation, whereby he could produce something out of himself and establish, rather like driving a nail into a mountain, a strong  grip and maintaining an upward surge of being through creative self-expression.  It is little wonder when The Outsider was being written, Wilson felt like a boat finally setting out from its harbour – he had built his being and now it was setting sail for the first time. He had concentrated his being, his conflicting ‘I’s’ and made them coordinate an active manifestation of objective values (unlike the insubstantial, vapour-like quality of our usually more subjective expressions).

Writing as Self-Actualisation

Writing has often been the refuge of the sick, the outcast and reclusive.  One only has to look at the correspondence of someone like H.P. Lovecraft to realise he was most manifestly a man of letters, if of little else (although my own temperament finds great catharsis in Lovecraft’s brilliantly evocative cosmic horrors)!  To write is a means of directed attention and creation, and even if it is horror or slander directed at the universe, the act of writing is nevertheless an act of creation.  A fully honest pessimist would probably not even put pen to paper, resorting instead to a sitting out of his time until death, contributing nothing to a world he believes not worthy of contributing.  But to write is a solitary affair, and even if you have no friends, or any sympathetic family, to express your ideas is to crystallise them to some degree, to actualise your ideas rather than allowing them to float in and out of consciousness.  In fact, it is a great way of building a scaffolding around one’s psyche so the real work of integration can begin; the great novels always seem to have flowed naturally out of their authors, and I believe some of the recent great novels – I am thinking Atomised by Michel Houellebecq – are a strange sort of catharsis for its author, who would probably implode otherwise from despair.

Even though these are deeply pessimistic works which state the authors’ hatreds and violence towards the world, they nevertheless give expression to it in a way that transmutes the energies into more creative endeavours.  But it is to Colin Wilson’s work where this can be properly balanced, for he deals primarily with the darkest expressions of mankind – particularly in his books on murder – and tries to understand their essential vitality, and, once understood, this upsurge of a war cry can in turn be transformed into a triumph of expanded consciousness, rather than a vicious collapse into despondency.  He identified their basic intelligence and sensitivities, and diagnosed their wrong method of expression; their violent and undirected expression of a force that was perhaps objectively correct in its analysis (the modern world certainly can bore and sometimes does deserves nothing but contempt and rejection), but sadly offers no convincing alterative, and mere acknowledgement of a situation is still passive.  But, Wilson argues, there is an alternative, and it is to firmly understand – objectively – that meaning is there all the time, and it is only our consciousness – our everyday consciousness – which reduces its impact through habit, ‘generalised hypertension’ and our entrapment in the trivial.  Above all of this is required a purpose that is beyond our personality, beyond the mere horizontal axis of linear entrapment in the present.  It is the sun to which D.H. Lawrence referred to when he said:

And be, oh be,

A sun to me

Not a weary, importunate

Personality.

 

Any form of evolution is towards something, even if it is unconsciously groping blindly by means of experimental development.  Writing too, is a form of experimental development towards a perfected form of self-expression.  All music attempts to emanate the feeling, the sensation and the emotions of whatever it is attempting to represent in its bodiless form.  Everything infers something greater or beyond itself, and so does writing or thinking – it is a connective act of becoming of yet more.  This is why Wilson realised to never retreat from meaning, into a ‘particular’ and isolated world-view, for it can suffocate an individual from the vast horizons of implicit ‘more-ness’.  For to retreat from meaning logically absurd, and when we do, we have merely been duped by one of our ‘I’s’, which is the more absurd as it is precisely our very own selves who should adhere firmly – with full support of the intellect and the left-brain – to the sense of an infinitely vast and eternally fascinating reality.

The Faculty X experience could just as well be a literary experience of ‘other times and other places’, for that is one of its greatest benefits.  And so, writing itself is an act of passing insights and intuitions into the capable hands of the left-brain’s ability to place one word in front of another, sculpting, as it does so, the extra-dimensions with which the right-brain provides it with.  It is fundamentally about building a bridge between the explicit and the implicit, and creating something that resonates the ‘web of relationality’.

Conclusion: An Idea to Grow Towards

One of my own insights came through reading Wilson’s work, and in some ways owes its debt to Maurice Nicoll and Ouspensky.  It is the notion of an idea having a growth, or sort of geometrical network of growth rather like tree branches emerging from a central trunk.  Indeed, ideas seem to have a life of their own, and the more you think about one idea, the more it seems to increase in its dimensions.  There is even a certain limit to which you can entertain one idea, but once this is reached, it is as if there was a ‘moment of grace’, where once again it expands and continues to grow once more.  I had this when I wrote about The Mind Parasites and The Philosopher’s Stone, for there came a point where I thought I had said everything about those two novels, but then a quote from The Philosopher’s Stone encouraged me to continue:

“For several hundreds of years now, evolution has been aiming at creating a new type of human being, who sees the world with new eyes all the time, who can readjust his mind a hundred times a day to see the familiar as strange”.

To see the familiar as strange is an act of ‘intentionality’, we have to actively shift our perspective to see it from an angle we may have missed due to the habituation of our own thought.  And as I practiced this ability to ‘see with new eyes’, I realised that a novel, as much as anything else, has a strangely interior quality that can simply continue on forever.  These are basically what William James meant when he talked about ‘horizons of distant fact’, when everything seems to unveil yet more dimensions.  Again it is the ‘hologram of understanding’.  It is not at all strange to think of the act of writing as an act of intentionality, indeed, as an active attempt to ‘see with new eyes all the time’.  Wilson obviously understood this to a profound degree, and purposely cultivated it in his novels, particularly, perhaps, with his larger works of imagination in science fiction and fantasy.  Yet it informs all of his works.  So if he is indeed what Isaiah Berlin’s ‘hedgehog’ (a writer who only writes about one thing), unlike a ‘fox’ (who writes about many things) he nevertheless explores a single vision, a persistent modality of being which can unify the whole.  All of his work is about a way of seeing newness, of meaning; a meaning which infers more, growing each aspect of us like branches of a tree.  He provides an inner-sun, as such, which is as enlightening as it is conducive to growth and development.

This ‘modality of being’ is curiously called a ‘dance’ by essayist Martha Heyneman, in her book The Breathing Cathedral (1993).  She describes her experience as a zoology student at the University of California, when one day she was looking through a microscope at a section of a kidney, and she suddenly thought “I will never understand this thing by this method”.  Her description is insightful, for it precisely describes Wilson’s own ‘Faculty X’, or more precisely relationality and the ‘bird’s eye view’:

“When I tried to make clear to myself what I meant by “understand”, the best I could come up with was that I would have to be able to dance the development of this remarkable organ from its origin in the fertilized egg to its maturity, and moreover to dance the development of the whole of which it was a part – and of the whole of which that whole was a part, and so on”

Heyneman felt that, for her at least, nature could be best known through poetry instead of science.  For the expressions of poetry enabled her to dance, to gain a ‘bird’s eye view’ of reality as it stands correspondingly with everything else.  It is, again, a right-hemisphere function of the extra dimension of meaning added to isolated facts; where in our day-to-day experience we apprehend both our lives and even our dearest out of the larger contexts in which we exist.  Abraham Maslow often used the example of a woman washing her dishes and suddenly realising how lucky she was, to have a family, to be alive and so on, and due to this she achieved the ‘peak experience’.  Some dance of sunlight enabled her mind to launch itself into its meaningful context, and for a moment at least both hemispheres of her brain were functioning simultaneously.

It is important, in any creative activity, to have a symbol, and through this essay and my idea of a ‘tropism of meaning’, or a sort of sun to which one grows ideas, is basically such a symbol.  In The Craft of the Novel (1976), Colin Wilson emphasises this importance of a symbol of freedom, and it usually felt as a being ‘cool and clear inside’.  If one recognises this sensation when creating something, it should, in theory flow outwards, rather like what the Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi meant in his book The Flow (1992).  However, the trouble with the idea of ‘flow’ seems to be its insinuation of a stream-of-consciousness, a mere abandonment to the whims of the unconscious, rather like taking mescalin, or daydreaming to no purpose.  Wilson did not mean this, and was especially fond of the left-brain’s ability to grasp, to discipline and direct the unconscious forces towards increased complexity, development and self-knowledge.  The symbol, then, is what he identifies as something which “contrasts… with the dreariness or chaos of the world of immediacy.  A writer’s ‘symbol’ is basically his own idea of freedom, and his work is about the journey towards freedom”.

To know or to even seek out this symbol is in a sense Heyneman’s dance.  It is a cause worth growing towards; and an evolutionary imperative that is at the heart of Wilson’s huge volume of work.  The task of writing is like any other journey: it must begin somewhere.  By careful steps you may find your symbol of freedom, and when you have, you grasped the first step up an evolutionary staircase.

The Outsider and the Physical, Emotional and Intellectual ‘Bodies’

“It is far better to struggle with a purpose than to struggle with no purpose.”

­– The Personality Surgeon

I have always been interested in the way various philosophers, esoteric teachers and writers have divided the human mind and body.  There is, of course, the popular ‘mind, body and spirit’ section in many popular book stores, but although this is interesting, I was most struck by Gurdjieff’s division – along with many others – into the ‘physical’, ‘emotional’ and ‘intellectual’ bodies.  Now, as we experience ourselves we know that these are not so neatly divided; they are seamlessly connected, and if one observes oneself in an impartial way, you can see how one ‘centre’ or ‘body’ can quickly usurp the other.  My own tendency, for example, is to allow my emotions to guide my intellect.  And although I think that it is my intellect doing the work, it is in fact my emotions masquerading as my intellect.  Often this is the case in philosophy, for Nietzsche encapsulates this when he said: “It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of – namely, the confession of its inventor, and a sort of involuntary and subconscious biography”.

A misanthrope, for example, can rationalise his contempt for mankind all he likes, but he is essentially misdirecting two centres: one validates the other, and in turn, the confirmation – through so-called logic – then sinks the emotions lower, until eventually he is afraid to go outdoors or engage with the general public.  And eventually, such as the fate of many misanthropes, their physical body too starts to suffer.  Even Ouspensky, the author of In Search of the Miraculous (1949), later in his life, succumbed to alcoholism and urged that it was the ‘higher emotional’ centre that needed to be developed.  Colin Wilson pointed this interesting fact out in his short biography on Ouspensky, noting that although an enormous intellect, he was sadly underdeveloped in the emotional sense and turned to alcohol.  Interestingly it was the same Ouspensky who, in Tertium Organum (1931), wrote:

“Emotions are the stained-glass windows of the soul; coloured glasses through which the soul looks at the world.  Each such glass assists in finding in the contemplated object the same or similar colours, but it also prevents the finding of opposite ones.  Therefore it has been correctly said that the one-sided emotional illumination cannot give a correct perception of an object.  Nothing gives one such a clear idea of things as the emotions, yet nothing deludes one so much”

Low emotions, or a sense of apathy, can quite easily be remedied by alcohol, for it induces a relaxation and a sudden sense of excitement which feeds itself with reminiscences, associations, and the freedom of being freed of too much self-awareness.  It bubbles up from below, sometimes over spilling and turning sour.  The trouble is that emotions have a vacillating quality, and behave like a spoiled child all of a sudden excited and then quickly bored, evacuating all its energy with little self-control or discipline.  And it has a sort of feedback-loop effect, whereby the more energy wasted in depression leads to more of the same, until we are finally led into a form of absolute passivity.  The vision of life becomes so narrow we are, as Wilson says, prone to ‘close-upness’, a vision of reality so reduced of its grandeur that it is difficult to see any reason to carry on.  Again, he basically suggests this as the problem with the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and others.  In Beyond the Occult (1988), Wilson calls this state ‘Upside-Downness’ and diagnoses many writers and artists whose vision of the world was almost completely inverted, so they only saw the ‘close-upness’ of reality without ever really being able to step back and allow larger meanings to re-establish themselves.  Like the misanthrope, they closed all the windows, locked all the doors while intellectually validating his choice to withdraw from society.  However, he is left alone with poor air and reduced experience which in turn makes him feel even more certain that human existence is a bad joke.

However, if key figures in our intelligentsia are stricken with this same fallacy, it quickly leaps into everyday culture, and thus causes a validation of the lowest instincts in man, and produces a certain misplaced pride in being cynical and misanthropic.  In fact, to have a low opinion of human existence is now associated with a degree of intelligence, for to utter a remark about the blight of man on the environment, or the meaninglessness of the cosmos, will no doubt inspire congratulation for your perceptive and state-sanctioned remarks.  Whereas to suggest the other would perhaps be misconstrued as naïve and/or ‘the very reason we got into this mess in the first place!’. For it is perhaps seen as mankind’s high-opinion of himself, and low opinion of nature, that we have generated the ecological crisis.  Usually the perceived intellectual who is driven by social mores will agree, not out of logic or reason, but because he or she finds mutual agreement too emotionally gratifying – so therefore it is fundamentally still an emotional drive, however masking as a reasoned opinion.

Amusingly, it would seem that what we are after here is what Gurdjieff subtitled his book Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, that is, ‘an objectively impartial criticism of the life of man’.  But how does one go about approaching this?  It seems to me that Wilson attempted to do just this with phenomenological analysis, and he made a huge leap with the identification of the ‘outsider’. For in his first book, The Outsider (1956), he presents extremely insightful character studies into men who were intensely driven – either by their emotions, their physical bodies or their intellect.  He argues that, in a sense, these drives were precisely the death or demise of them, and had they been able to step-back from themselves, and correctly identified their impulses, these men would have been even greater, that is, more fully integrated.  And yet they kept slipping gear, falling into deep depressions, suicides or toxic ennui.

The ‘outsider’, with which he identifies these intensely driven, socially detached individuals, I believe is somewhere within us all (to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the individual).  It is certainly not difficult to identify with one or more of them.  One can see, I think, that in certain moments of our lives we are  taken over by one of these ‘modes’ of being; we may over-intellectualise, be victim to our emotions or pulled along by the physical body and its desires.  We know intuitively that if these could be correctly understood, we would cease to struggle with our identities and become great, evolutionary individuals.  Instead of being a victim, we could instead make a start at evolving our being.  In moments of ‘peak experience’ we know this, for we are above our normal state of consciousness and have momentarily stepped into a ‘birds-eye view’, where we can as if from a mountain, our lives in a suddenly intensely meaningful context.  Yet when we slip back down, we are subject to a ‘close-upness’, and deprived of any large-scale perspective.  The ‘purpose’, whatever it might be, suddenly seems so distant as to be basically irrelevant, barely worth pursuing.  It is what Gurdjieff basically meant when he said most people are incapable of ‘doing’ anything; and that the development of the individual increases freedom to ‘do’.

Mysteries is perhaps Wilson’s most Gurdjiefian book, dealing as it does with a ‘Ladder of Selves’ and the notion of multiple, conflicting ‘I’s.  Indeed, Wilson’s ‘schoolmistress effect’ is basically what Gurdjieff called a ‘shock’, which causes a change in the ‘octave’ of being, thus silencing, if you will, the collective of squabbling I’s and bringing them under discipline.  Wilson has always referred to Gurdjieff throughout his work, and it is remarkable that it is in The Outsider, for it tallies so well with the ‘outsider’ that it may well be ‘the Work’ – as it is called by individuals involved in the Fourth Way of Gurdjieff’s method – was particularly designed for outsiders!

There is a tremendous and invigorating sense of a ‘way out’ of the ‘outsider’s crisis’ by reading The Outsider and In Search for the Miraculous in tandem, for the two complement each other wonderfully.  Indeed, a non-‘Work’ writer on Gurdjieff’s ideas, Michel Waldberg, dedicates a chapter (in Gurdjieff An Approach to his Ideas) particularly to ‘The four ‘bodies’ of man’ and ‘Man’s possible evolution’, which argue that the emotions, in the ‘second body’, are prone to “whims and crazes” which may lead even to a form of sickness, where the man not only knows what he likes, but becomes obsessed with what he dislikes.  Of course, most existentialists seem to be in the ‘second body’, obsessed with what they dislike – for if one reads a lot of existentialist literature, it is effectively a diary of a misanthrope, trapped as he is, in a cosmos reduced of value.  Even the work of the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, or the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran strikes one of this sickly man, obsessed with the void.

In The World of Violence (1963) Wilson has a character called Uncle Sam who locks himself away in a room as a revolt against god, a character who is very much an intellectual-emotional in extremis.  He has entirely ceased to ‘do’ anything apart from a metaphysical strike against existence itself.  Uncle Sam describes his realisation thus:

“Certain malcontent intellectuals have taught the workers to feel dissatisfaction with their employers.  But it seems to have struck no one that human beings are grossly exploited by God.  We are expected to bear misfortune, to learn from experience (like obedient schoolchildren), to offer thanksgiving for benefits received; our role is in every way that of a slave and the sycophant.  We are entrapped in the body, which we carry around like a suit of armour weighing a ton, and we have to endure with patience its stupidities and enfeeblements”.

I cannot think of a more succinct example of the existential problem, and this, in its logical way, is hard to disagree with – for life is full of banalities, boredoms and physical discomforts. And yet, by ceasing to move or evolve seems more like slavery than anything else, for one – despite the freedom of mind – has essentially consigned oneself to a vegetative state.  Neither do you alleviate the problem of the body, the emotions or the intellectual problem by simply refusing to go on like a character from a Samuel Beckett play.  Wilson understood this, and said that “opportunities increase as they are seized” and opportunities only come about in being active.  Passivity in fact reduces the development of opportunities.  What Uncle Sam is really asking for is to be blessed with a mystical insight, or profound alleviation out of the material realm by some sort of cosmic pity which hands out, to its stubborn ‘victims’ a get-out-of-jail-free-card!  To cease to ‘do’ is to pause the evolution of your mind, for the mind requires a certain discipline – that of friction of existence – to acquire a healthy purpose.  In fact, a purpose is a form of detachment from the trivialities of everydayness, and a re-focussing on what really matters.  Victor Frankl knew only too well that an impersonal goal in fact reinvigorates the mind and body, and that even death itself seems banal in the light of the meaningful purpose implicit in human existence.

Wilson expresses idea again in a much later essay, The Human Condition (1984), in which he talks about ‘left-brain awareness’ and its tendency to focus on the particulars out of their context, thus reducing the world to “magnified objects” where we can see the individual trees but not the wood.  He continues: “And at this point, the emotional body intervenes, with its negativity and self-pity and mistrust, and turns the wood into a forest of nightmare. . . It can be overcome only by recognising that it is a mistake”.

Modern life, unfortunately, blinds us with temporal values, which diminish as soon as they are grasped; instantaneousness seems to be the unifying goal for all things.  Long-distance purpose, the notion of a careful development of one’s psyche through ‘self-observation’ sounds, I think, too archaic for the modern mind.  It is little wonder why a book like The Power of Now can become a best-seller, as I have seen it, being placed alongside business and economic books alongside other entrepreneurship and prep-talk guides.  Ironically Eckhart Tolle’s book is precisely about expanding one’s awareness of the present moment, reducing the mind’s tendency to ‘magnify’ reality and time into consumable items, without the savouring quality present in appreciating the relatedness, the unfolding horizons of correspondences.  The over-active left-brain awareness tends to plague our reality in the modern world, and it is to this right-brained sense of an authentic meaningful context that we have unwisely ejected.  Moreover, the emotional body is starved, provided with no positive ‘background of values’ due to the overarching materialism and its rejection of a meaningful universe.  Instead materialism only has value, which, although fleeting and perfectly adapted to the emotional tendency to vacillation, ends up by cancelling itself out, causing a leakage of energy and an upsurge of anxieties, depressions and ennui.

In an important insight from Gurdjieff, the struggle with emotions is given a very significant purpose:

“In the sphere of the emotions it is very useful to try to struggle with the habit of giving immediate expression to all one’s unpleasant emotions. .  . Besides being a very good method for self-observation, the struggle against expressing unpleasant emotions has at the same time another significance. It is one of the few directions in which a man can change himself or his habits without creating other undesirable habits.  Therefore self-observation and self-study must, from the first, be accompanied by the struggle against the expression of unpleasant emotions

Again, a struggle against oneself is precisely where evolution occurs.  And yet, there are more opportunities than ever in our society to express ourselves, particularly in public, online and so on, whereby the act of self-observation can become either more difficult, or, conversely, easier than ever.  This is why Wilson’s The Personality Surgeon is so important, in fact, and stands as one of his most accessible and contemporary novels.  The outsider who ceases to be an outsider through self-analysis and applied phenomenology is an extraordinary leap in human consciousness, for it has with it the higher development of self-consciousness directed towards an evolving purpose.  If man is defined by his self-awareness, which animals have a lesser degree, plants even less so and the mineral kingdom none whatsoever, the rising of a ‘life force’ can be seen as an exponential increase of conscious freedom, of matter being imbued with the inner world of consciousness and imagination.

To be able to ‘do’ as Gurdjieff expressed it is to struggle, but also to manifest one’s self in life most satisfactorily.  First there has to be a realisation of purpose, and a working towards it.  Learning to ride a bike is a painful and tedious process at first, but as the child tries more, and can balance for longer, his confidence increases until eventually he can freely glide along, predicting the terrain and compensating for the bumps and curbs.  A musician too, once he grasps his instrument finds that he can express himself in a most exciting way; he can feel himself evolving as he pursues his music, being transported by its relational aspects and touching others.  This is the positive side to emotions, that they can feed energy into other pursuits such as physical – in lovemaking or sports – and intellectual, for the sheer joy of thinking is buoyed up by the emotional body, providing an exciting dynamic where an individual becomes immensely satisfied by the energy his own creative impulses provide him.

A mystical experience, similarly, is an overwhelming feeling of joy, whereby all the facilities glisten with potentiality – that from upon the ‘peak experience’ they can see the relational canyons and vaulting possibilities of man’s coming-to-be.  The ‘higher emotional centre’ is a form of relationality of the emotions, reaching out over larger distances and pulling inwards and intentionally firing outwards the evolutionary impulse as it is realised as well as made manifest in acts of creativity.

To be able to ‘do’ is what freedom is all about, for without it we are effectively passively accepting our fate, and by doing this we are, as Gurdjieff pointed out, victims of circumstance; drifting and pulled under by any current of emotion, once again without ballast or steering.  Wilson often emphasised that it is always the mind which falls victim, being oddly separated both from the world and the body, and when this happens a sense of unreality sets in – much like Uncle Sam, who fled entirely from the world by locking himself in a windowless room.  The poet Zenrin Kushu expresses the mind-body problem in a satisfying metaphor:

Trees show the bodily form of wind;
Waves give vital energy to the moon
.

It is, of course, pointing out the ‘invisible’ forces which shape the more physical, visceral reality of matter.  Yet the mind is what bestows freedom into matter and particularly into physical existence – we can exist, and yet, like Sisyphus pushing the rock up and over the hill for eternity, still maintain a high degree of inner freedom.  The trouble is that left-brain awareness symbolises reality, and thus turns our experience into a surreal, dream-like set of simplistic associations.  We become detached from reality, which the right-brain adds a dimension of ‘realness’, or an extra dimension of meaning and relationships.  Alan Watts, in his book, The Way of Zen, describes this situation perfectly:

“Convention therefore encourages him to associate his idea of himself with equally abstract and symbolic roles and stereotypes, since these will help him to form an idea of himself which will be definite and intelligible. But to the degree that he identifies himself with the fixed idea, he becomes aware of ‘life’ as something which flows past him – faster and faster as he grows older, and his idea becomes more rigid, more bolstered with memories.  The more he attempts to clutch the world, the more he feels it as a process in motion”

Man thus becomes a victim of time, his own ‘immediacy perception’ and becomes adrift in the reduced meaning of a symbolic, detached form of consciousness which decreases the processing of sensory and existential information.  For our experience of time is very much relative to the amount of information-processing we undergo in our lives (time goes slower for a child because everything seems so new), and as we habituate our consciousness we thus become mechanical, passive and are therefore prone to developing a pessimistic, fatalist view of our existence.

The way out, then, it would seem, should be to develop the mind’s muscles, and to somehow shock it out of its passivity; its over-reliance on what Wilson called ‘the Robot’.  For we are like Roquentin in Sarte’s Nausea:

“… when I suddenly woke up from a six-year slumber . . . I couldn’t understand why I was in Indo-China.  What was I doing there?  Why was I talking to these people?  Why was I dressed so oddly? . . . Before me, posed with a sort of indolence, was a voluminous, insipid idea.  I did not see clearly what it was, but it sickened me so much I couldn’t look at it”

He had clearly been adrift too long, but, in a sudden flash he realises the essential absurdity of his existence.  What he does not proceed to do is identify it as his over-reliance on the left-brain, its automatisms which rob our experience from us by its tendency to habituate.  I believe Ouspensky, in his later life, also fell victim to this, but he knew that it was the ‘higher emotional centre’ that needed developing, that through drinking, he could experience its opening up, its widening of vision which allows more meaning in.  Sadly, Ouspensky seemed to fall a victim to it in the end.  However, Wilson managed to most clearly identify this problem, and this is his biggest contribution to philosophy.

Strangely, this act of reducing reality to symbols feeds back into the emotional centre, robbing us of its important energies; in turn, it becomes vacillating, undisciplined and trivial-minded.  Again, sensory information of the objective world is something it thrives on, and yet our left-hemisphere tends to push things away, place them into isolated, vacuum-packed chambers where the right-hemisphere can’t grasp and project its extra-dimension of inter-related facts upon the world.  It is as if we fire out the arrow of attention, but we get a trickle of a resonance from what it is we perceive; a mere echo, faint and vague returns, and we take this lack of hemispheric communication as if it were an objective fact of existence.  So it is not exactly only one ‘body’ of ours which robs the whole, it is a combination of all three, but also the way in which we apprehend reality.  There is a knock-on effect, where the energy of each centre steals from the other, which in turn, is confirmed intellectually, felt emotionally and expressed physically (we become lazy, tired, our eyes – we say – ‘fall upon the object’).

It is as important to see with all the centres, to energise the body, to suddenly look out of our eyes at the world, while being embodied, and also to bring the emotions up, to invigorate its excitability which in turn can stimulate the intellect – all of a sudden, if all three centres are working correctly, it is like a well-disciplined, highly motivated force singing, passing on energy and encouraging each and every one.  Eventually it grows, grasping meanings, increasing our ‘birds-eye view’ and resultantly leading into greater degrees of freedom as our purpose is grasped, our seized opportunities expand.

Existence, in a sense, is a form of traction which we can get our feet into, and the gravity, although pulling us down, helps us not to float off into a dispersed, vaporous quality of a mind too detached from reality (which the intellect has a tendency to do).  And all of Wilson’s ‘outsiders’, in one way or another, represented each centre – each centre at its greatest and its weakest.  He knew that these individuals, despite their shortcomings, were also embryonic superman, making the leap, but without the necessary scaffolding of an insight to correctly judge, what it was necessary to do, to reach these summits of peak experience.

At this point Rene Daumal wonderfully demonstrates human existence in an allegorical description of mountain climbing:

“A climber far more experienced than I told me, “when your feet will no longer carry you, you have to walk with your head.” And that’s true. It is not, perhaps, in the natural order of things, but isn’t it better to walk with your head than to think with your feet, as often happens?

If you slip or have a minor spill, don’t interrupt your momentum but even as you right yourself recover the rhythm of your walk. Take note of the circumstances of your fall, but don’t allow your body to brood on the memory. The body always tries to make itself interesting by its shivers, its breathlessness, its palpitations, its shudders, sweats, and cramps. But it is very sensitive to its master’s scorn and indifference. If it feels he is not fooled by its jeremiads, if it understands that enlisting his pity is a useless effort, then it falls back into line and compliantly accomplishes its task”.

Its severity, at first, may seem too much.  And yet, it is a certain amount of self-discipline and perseverance that seems necessary to ‘do’ anything.  People are all very well, but it is more about realising your own existence first by an act of phenomenological analysis (or self-observation).  At some point, one may be able to crystallise a purpose higher than their three ordinary bodies, which understands that the three below it have a tendency to exaggerate.

The philosopher Edmund Husserl basically meant this with the idea of a ‘transcendental ego’.  It is a purposive, evolutionary aspect of our psyche which acts rather like an inner-sun to which we grow our mind and bodies.  An impersonal idea, which seems both distant and vividly more real, is often correctly positioned far in the distance like the real sun – for if it was too close there would be no life on Earth.  Meaning and purpose, when fully realise, are self-evident as the light of the sun illuminates every day.  And yet, it is taken for granted, habituated and we cease to grow.  Yet an idea, or an evolutionary philosophy like Wilson’s, can be used as a ‘guide for the perplexed’ (E.F. Schumacher’s book of the same name is a highly recommended), which acts and encourages our tropism towards some greater purpose. . .

Some reflections on The Personality Surgeon

The Personality Surgeon, one of Colin Wilson’s lesser-known, and minor fictional works, is in some ways an essential insight into his most pressing philosophical problems expressed in The Outsider.  For what he diagnoses as the ‘outsider’, is, by some people’s standards vague and imprecise, for he lists people from F. Scott Fitzgerald in the same breath as George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, as if they were one and the same.  These leaps are indeed large, but, as one steps back and grasps the book’s central theme, you realise that, whatever their essential – and sometimes huge – differences, there is still the central problem of identity.

Here is a line from The Personality Surgeon which I believe is typical, not just of an outsider, but of those moments in between life when we look around ourselves, perceiving others, and think that there is something deeply familiar and yet simultaneously uncanny.  As if there is a nauseating double-exposure of our being, of self-consciousness, awkwardly compounded with the  oddly repetitious, ordinary world, and human-all-too-human:

“Personalities seem to run in types, as if God had decided to take a short cut when he was handing them out. People of completely different types would have one or two odd features in common; a way of raising an eyebrow, pursing the lips, narrowing the eyes. But in many cases, it was even subtler than that, as if the underlying structure of the personality was the same, like some basic family characteristic that you could recognise in fathers and children and aunts and nephews, even though they all looked quite different. He found himself thinking: it’s as if personalities came in construction kits…” (p. 130)

I am certain that many of us, as children, have looked up to adults and have been alienated by their ways of expression and gesticulation, for they suddenly seem oddly automatic – having picked these up out of years of habit.  It is only when we grab their attention that they seem to become suddenly aware of you, and then, accordingly they become another individual – that of a caring, responsible adult who has to deal with his child’s requests.  At this point, a juncture occurs, and many a child realises it: there is the adult world and the world of childhood.  And yet, at that naïve age, we cannot see exactly where one becomes the other, if, indeed, it does at all (it has a subtle gradient which, in experience, is difficult to pinpoint).  We seem to suddenly occur into life, and, over time, we acquire mechanisms which make us who we are.  The child too, in many ways, is endowed with inquiring and acquiring mechanisms, and once these have fully developed, thus become mechanical.  In another stage, perhaps the teenage years and early twenties, the personality and socially interactive qualities come more into play, and therefore develop rapidly in order to deal with the more complex world of emotions, inter-personal relationships and sexual rituals.  And yet, once we again step-back, so to speak, we still remain bewildered with our existence, as if something, after all of these learnt tricks, is simply not satisfied.

When one has ‘pulled-back’, it is easy to see man as a mechanical being, entirely at the mercy of the external environment and other people.  He learns entirely for their sake, and the mind eventually recedes from reality, and in turn becomes almost entirely socialised, and a victim of the physical world.  The Romantic, as much as the Existentialist, has realised this more fully than most, and he flees almost entirely into mind, in a rebellious gesture of reaction, and then is mercilessly thrown back into the so-called reality of the world, with its coarse rules, banality and tendency to reduce the importance of imagination.

The outsider is effectively someone who realises that he is betraying his ‘essence’, that which is most essential to his being.  That is, something beyond the ephemeral and transient mask of personality.  The personality was designed to deal with the world of appearances, and more precisely, its social-aspects and everyday interactions.  But the essence – for that is what Gurdjieff called it – is something that wants to actualise itself further, that is, it wants to achieve what Carl Jung called ‘self-actualisation’.  In short, the personality has very little to do with this ‘self’, and the essence is entirely more primal, essential – it could even be even referred to as the ‘soul’ or the ‘spiritual’, most deepest element in the individual.

Wilson’s personality surgeon does not quite identify this aspect in these extreme and almost religious terms.  Instead, it is bought down to a more ordinary, and what is in effect a more relatable realm of just what constitutes individuality.  This, I believe, is what makes the book so accessible, and somewhat goes beyond the ‘outsider’ hypothesis, by recognizsng that in every man and woman there is some aspect to them which strives for the same sort of ‘self-actualisation’, as the outsider perhaps does more consciously.  The outsider, it could be said, is more painfully aware of this juncture between personality and essential being.  Mere personality has its limits, but the essence has an evolutionary quality that, in the outsider, demands to be evolved (whether it is an emotional, physical or intellectual disposition).

The friction between himself and the world is precisely that evolutionary urge.  And the pain that the outsider feels is precisely in that unconscious drive, paradoxically, towards more consciousness.  The entire point, with which Wilson dedicated all of his work, was to making this evolutionary drive a conscious effort towards more consciousness.  For once that is reached, half the battle is already dealt with, and the rest is entirely down to self-discipline towards some purpose, that is, to actualise one’s self.

There is a brutal quality to ‘outsiderism’, and that is why it is difficult to simply ignore; one may attempt to satisfy this drive by escaping into alcoholism, escapism or even suicide.  But its essential urge is towards the building of more being, despite everything else, and it is often due to this very friction of being with which it welds the most divided aspects being.  In an enormously useful analogy in his novel The Black Room, one character compares this to the intense heat required to fuse fractured glass together into one huge, singular block of hardened crystal.  This is the level of being Wilson strived to achieve in himself, and which can be seen time and time again in his work and his insistence on discipline, particularly concerning the mind and its tendency to lapsing into flaccid, passive states of ennui and despair.

The ‘peak experience’, although it can appear spontaneously, is just as much a product of climbing and building towards that ‘peak’; it is essentially a recognition that it can be done.  Once there, one can view reality from upon a height of relationality, where the valleys, troughs and peaks can be seen in the context of one’s whole life, and that, in a point above the time, one’s whole existence is perceived as a whole of ‘other times and places’.  In his book Mysteries, he says that there’s a curious ‘higher I’, which, when it looks back on life realises that even the most severe moments of struggle were due to some ‘lower I’, and that, in the long run, there is a state of mind which always resides above these problems, looking on benignly, with due respect and sympathy.

Charles Peruzzi, the main protagonist in The Personality Surgeon realises that the job of the psychotherapist is to release them from their own ‘narrowness’:

“All at once, he could see that this was the real problem of human beings; their narrowness, their inability to escape their trivial personal limitations. This was real aim of all psychotherapy; to help people escape from their own limitations, to bring them a glimpse of that immense richness that lay out there in the world beyond the immediacy of here-and-now.” p.221

Again, time plays an important role in Wilson’s work, and is expressed in his notion of the ‘Faculty X’, the idea of sensing ‘other times and places’.  I have always been fascinated with Wilson’s treatment of the ‘here-and-now’, due to many of the spiritual texts and the modern New Age movement being obsessed with the ‘power of now’, encapsulated in the title of Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now (1971).  Wilson does not seem to be dismissing a more intense awareness of the now or the present – far from it, that is precisely what he means – but of our sense of being bound to and in time, that we are,  no matter, intrinsically and inescapably limited to the forward march of time, and thus entirely victim of it.  The ‘here-and-now’ which is so restricting is the mind’s tendency to be trapped along the horizontal axis of matter and its course, whereas the mind, Wilson argues, is able somehow able to launch vertically out of time.  And in this case, the personality is really this ‘horizontal axis’ of being, running concurrently with time, whereas the very real essence of a being is in a way urging us beyond ourselves, that is, into what Richard Maurice Bucke called ‘cosmic consciousness’.

The personality surgeon, in Wilson’s novel, is not so much about adjusting the personality, but of diminishing its overall grip on consciousness.  There are many characters which are completely crippled by minor ailments, defects, or personal hang-ups which in turn drain their energy and cause their lives to be a ‘fabric of errors’.  In each instance, the surgery does not so much enhance, enrich or expand their personality, but reduces its size to a more reasonable level, whereby the character can see his or own tendency towards triviality – and how, in that sense, trivialities blind us to our evolutionary impulse, which is far less personal.  In fact, he offers most of the characters an impersonal development opportunity, through either the arts, self-expression or some naturally evolving counterpart to their being.  It is significant, I thought, that he chooses the image of the individual – in the form of a video recording – in order to highlight just what these personality flaws are.  They are usually physical, movement-orientated manifestations to deeper modes of being (where a mere muscular spasm might be a significant pointer towards a lack of self-confidence, or emotional armour or defence mechanism).  In other words, the personality surgeon somehow aligns the personality with the essence, that is, where the personality strays from the deepest aspects of the individual, he synchronises – makes parallel – with their natural inclination towards ‘self-actualisation’.

I am very much reminded of Abraham Maslow’s realising that a bored manager of a chewing gum factory ­– who ceased to menstruate due to sheer unconscious boredom – required some intellectual stimulation in the form of a night course on sociology.  For in this instance, Maslow realised that the woman had a natural tendency towards intellectual efforts, and in the boring job, her unconscious mind was leaking enormous energy which resulted in her profound depression.  Maslow aligned her personality – her ordinary, developed sense of self – with her deeper being – her innate quality, or ‘essence’, which was that of an intelligent woman who would flourish in an intellectual environment.  Her ordinary life, and her ‘personality’, which had to deal with the banalities of a chewing gum factory, was suffocating some deeper, unconscious ‘self’, which thrived to evolve itself.

*

Wilson had realised by Religion and the Rebel (1957) that the ‘outsider’ was a loose term, and although very useful, tended to be too general.  Although that is not particularly my own view, for I consider the ‘outsider’ a useful and vague enough term to define someone who is aware, more intensely than some, that their evolutionary potential is somehow being squandered or repressed.  Due to this they become disenchanted, and moreover, due to the intensity and sensitivity of their being, may produce enormous volcanic eruptions of energy into their works, producing powerful and visionary masterpieces, may just the same crumble under the same intense inner pressures.  Wilson never ceases to remind us that these individuals need to ‘galvainize’ their will, and thus ‘cannalize’ these intense energies into the force of evolution itself.  These individuals may indeed be closer to super-humanity than they realise, had they managed to correctly direct their own intense powers.

Yet, these are powers innate, perhaps, in most people, and which moreover are simply not recognised.  I believe that most problems are due to this repression or lack of recognition, and this is exploited by predatory companies and social media.  This very lack, and this very focus and over-emphasis on the personality as the sole arbiter of being, dismisses the essential being at the centre of a person – the evolutionary need to build one’s being, to imbue perception with an intensity which throws-forward using the developing mind’s impetus towards more life force.  The mind, particularly the imagination, resists this mechanisation of being, and is always more severe and alive than the personality – with its endless and ephemeral identifications – can ever be.

The Personality Surgeon, in this sense, is the most contemporary of Wilson’s novels, for it deals directly with this over exaggeration of the personality, and more so, deconstructs the cult-of-personality which is so self-evidently rife with trauma, anxiety and thoroughly capitalised on by pharmaceutical companies.

In the modern world, at least as I see it, there are too many shallow exits for those struggling with their being, and instead of actually developing this intensely interesting part of themselves, their most essential essence, they are once against fooled by what Wilson called ‘Upside-Downness’.  It is a society, in the New Age especially, which inflates itself with platitudes, and in the world of social media, encourages only a semblance of genuine being.

The mere illusion of more being is chosen over the reality of super-consciousness.  We have itemised ourselves, and not, like Wilson suggested, welded our essential parts together to form a permanent, essential higher ‘I’.

The Personality Surgeon is perhaps the most popularly viable of Wilson’s novels in the sense that it deals less with outsiders, and particularly addresses general anxieties, and particularly how to transform them.  It assumes, quite rightly, that many people suffer – often silently – from a frustrating sense of under-fulfilment.  It is clear with the advent of social-media, with Facebook and so on, that the development of a simulacrum of personality is easier than ever.  Inspirational quotes run rife, and all sorts of political, dietary revolutions are spread like wildfire as each individual identifies with some other community.  And, at the same time, it is easy to step back and see what Wilson pointed out as the ‘construction kit’ of personality, identifying the strange sort of mechanicalness of man.  The Personality Surgeon strikes right down the middle of this divide, addressing the most superficial aspect of man with his deepest yearning to evolve.  And in that sense, it is a neutralising force, bringing both the personality and essential being into focus, or along the same parallel tracks.

For those people who are disillusioned with the shallow façade of a media and personality soaked world, this novel offers a refreshing and optimistic take on how, in the height of superficiality, we might be able to marshal our full forces by correctly developing the personality in concordance with our more deeply evolutionary needs.  It points towards the dangers of an ever encroaching materialism, and its dangers of smothering the evolutionary mind.  And yet, it does so by utilising precisely the benefits of technology and its ability to reflect our own will to being.  Long before the development of Artificial Intelligence, of self-conscious machines, we might use machines to develop our own consciousness, and moreover, an objective self-consciousness of our true being.

This may be the ironic outcome of too much indulgence; that, in reaching a certain limit, it develops more outsiders than ever – a mass of people who yearn for more meaning in their lives than can possibly be reached by personality alone.

Part 1: The New Existentialism & Approaching the UFO Phenomenon

 

“[A] frog sees the sky as no bigger than the mouth of its well.  We think that we see the whole sky: this infinity of possibilities.  But perhaps we’re only a special sort of frog in a special sort of well?  We must seek the essence behind the appearance.”

– God’s World by Ian Watson

 

Alongside the UFO phenomena, this essay will be concerned with common existential themes; isolation, solipsism and the sense of being trapped in a meaningless universe.  It also aims to tackle these problems by using the insights of Colin Wilson’s ‘new existentialism’ – a means by which to overcome the pessimism at the heart of many of the existentialist’s dour pronouncements.  Existentialism as a philosophy has a history that goes back to Kierkegaard, and was more recently expounded in the works of Sartre – but, particularly after the millennium, it has been treated as a somewhat anachronistic affair, and as a basically irrelevant philosophical trend of the 1950s.  Yet, it is my belief, and shared by many others (but perhaps too few!), that existentialism’s essential materialism, and essential sense of futility – even syllogistically accepted without further reflection – has been absorbed into our culture, and has merely taken up the guise in more contemporary approaches such as post-modernism, post-humanism and particularly in scientific materialism.  A science moreover which rejects philosophy, but nevertheless, still takes philosophical biases on-board without examination[1].  In other words, the basic problems that existentialism presented still remain unresolved, at least in popular culture.  The existential crisis, as such, remains repressed and ignored.

I hope to challenge these basic fallacies by considering something which the above approaches essentially reject (if the UFO is accepted, it is usually seen as a literal technological object from another planet – on materialistic terms), and which may, by its very nature, offer us something with which we can evaluate the human condition in a new light.  Whether or not these discredited phenomenon, the UFO and the extraterrestrial, will be accepted on their own terms or not, in this particular essay, is not pursued – it is however pursued as a phenomenological exercise of both the imagination and reason, much like the great works of science fiction attempted to illuminate urgent issues of both society and the psyche, and the hyphen that should lie between them (as space and time became, after Einstein, space-time, being as they were, inseparable).

Yet, this essay is less concerned with social panaceas, but with what Wilson expressed as “establishing a new dimension in human freedom”, a problem which runs obsessively throughout all his work.

Indeed, this essay may be treated as a work of speculation; a ‘What if?’ scenario which aims to offer a new and unusual way of thinking about ourselves in relation to the universe and our role thereof.  And for this task I have deliberately invoked the theme UFOs and extraterrestrials, which Wilson explored in his 1998 work, Alien Dawn.

Foremost Wilson was a philosopher, and throughout all of his work he presented an alternative ‘new’ existentialism which aimed to urge us out of the pervasive philosophical and cultural nihilism.  No doubt to many readers the notion that such a philosopher, concerned with such pressing and important issues of a philosophical revolution, should concern himself a phenomena that is generally dismissed, or treated as entirely trivial and irrelevant seems to be majorly side-stepping the point.  For how could this possibly give any light on the existential position of the individual?  The notion of existentialism being discussed in the same breath as UFOs may at first appear as a folly, an impossible divergence at odds with existentialism’s central premise – mankind’s freedom, or lack of it.

But a careful consideration of the facts, and in turn, a temporary suspension of disbelief, will benefit for the time being as we develop the ‘new’ existentialism from the bottom up.  For it will soon become apparent how the spectrum of existentialism can include extrasensory powers, extraordinary human potentialities and other realities.  In its crudest expression, it is really an expansion of man’s freedom beyond the normal limitations of matter and social circumstance (some existentialists felt that freedom, of the social kind, could be found in Marxism, for example, which is materialist in the extreme).  It aims, therefore, at an almost mystical extension of the human mind, whereby freedom is not merely a material circumstance, but a state of mind whereby the evolutionary urge is further encouraged.  It is not, to use Herbert Marcuse’s term, a ‘repressive-desublimation’ of mankind’s urge, but a positive encouragement of growth, of a freedom which is essentially one-and-the-same with the expansion and evolution of human consciousness.

The ‘new’ existentialism, in short, is an evolutionary philosophy concerned primarily with consciousness, and moreover, the application of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology towards understanding the mechanisms of consciousness and the evolutionary impulse itself.

To this purpose, the imagination acquires a significant position in the new existentialism. And to this end – that is of an evolutionary phenomenology – the imaginative leap is in itself at the very heart of Wilson’s philosophy.  In a very real sense, it is the imagination and particularly the active use of it, that enables one to transcend Heidegger’s ‘triviality of everydayness’, or the contingent and futile world that Sartre portrayed in his novel Nausea.  The ‘everyday’ world may lose its freshness with age or depression, but this is as much an imaginative issue as it is a problem of perception (for the two are effectively one and the same) – the imagination being inextricably a part of one’s perception of the universe.  If, as Wilson argues convincingly, this imaginative organ of perception could be invigorated, the world would not appear as flat and lifeless as it is portrayed by the existentialists, but as an alien (in the sense of eternally ‘new’) and vivifying place of possibilities and could, moreover, even usher in an evolutionary leap.

It will be wise to consider the worldview presented by scientific materialism, and just how it understands mankind’s position in the universe.

*

The German computer scientist, Joseph Weizenbaum, noted that:

“Time after time science has led us to insights that diminish man.  Thus Galileo removed man from the center of the universe, Darwin removed him from his place separate from the animals, and Freud showed his rationality to be an illusion.  Yet man pushes his inquiries further and deeper.  I cannot help but think that there is an analogy between man’s pursuit of scientific knowledge and the individual’s commitment to psychoanalytic therapy”. (p. 201: Nature of Things)

In a sense, the UFO phenomena, added to this simultaneously morbid and valiant effort of mankind to understand himself and the world in which he lives, offers itself up as a panacea.  Or at least a mirror in which to examine himself.

The alien is often invoked as a metaphorical stance, as a possible observer of mankind’s progress and follies, having with it the advantage of being impartial and exempt from the fog of subjectivity and bias.  I have often noticed this position being adopted by anthropologists or psychologists who want a context from which to observe mankind as if from outside.  For example, Steve Taylor in his book, The Fall (2005) begins his social and psychological survey of man with this insightful paragraph:

“If alien beings have been observing the course of human history over the last few thousand years they might well have reached the conclusion that human beings are the product of a scientific experiment which went horribly wrong.  Perhaps, they might hypothesise, other aliens chose the earth as the site for an experiment to try to create a perfect being with amazing powers of intelligence and ingenuity.  And create this being they did – but perhaps they didn’t get the balance of chemicals exactly right, or maybe some of their laboratory equipment broke down half way through because, although the creature did possess amazing intelligence and ingenuity, it also turned out to be a kind of monster, with defects which were just as great as – or even greater than – its abilities”. (p. 12)

Of course this is using the notion of an extraterrestrial intelligence in a metaphorical sense simply to make a point, and to bring in a larger context with which to diagnose – and generalise – large swathes of the human experience as it looks to an outside observer.  Suddenly through imagination we are projecting ourselves into the mind of a visiting extraterrestrial, and are able to simulate a modicum of self-consciousness (although this of course is basically impossible, for the alien itself is merely anthropomorphism, and would no doubt have a radically different set of criterion with which to compare its own developments and mankind’s).  Nevertheless, this is an interesting example of phenomenology in action, and particularly one of the uses of mankind’s imagination towards a degree of self-consciousness which is almost entirely absent in most animals.  We can already see that, if we were to approach the alien symbolically, we receive a reflection of ourselves – and whatever we project on to the backcloth of the concept of an alien, we are in turn given insight into conscious and unconscious drives behind our perceptions.  It is an imaginary concept by which we intend meaning upon (again consciously or unconsciously).  Therefore the alien quickly becomes a vehicle of metaphor, presenting as it does aspects of the psyche or society into which it comes into contact – that is, by the author’s conception of what the alien ought to be.  This, moreover, makes the alien a very mercurial concept that cannot be fully grasped, for it is always out of reach, being as it is, fundamentally ‘other’.

Yet that is considering it in the form of a concept only, and if the reality of an extraterrestrial were to present itself, it would inevitably be subject to the similar misunderstandings and projections.  But this time perhaps with a clearer context of having a visible physiognomy, customs and a language which may have certain recognisable linguistic structures – there is something objective there to study, and it obeys – if it obeys at all – strict laws of matter and mind.  Perhaps the closest we can get to this, in effect, is two cultures developing in isolation, and then one finding the other, rather like the conquistadors and their conquest of the Americas.  However, meeting an extraterrestrial would have of a more disorientating quality, for it is two or more intelligent species – man and alien – coming into contact.  This would no doubt have fundamental biological, cultural, psychological and perhaps even chemical and neurological differences which makes the gap far harder to bridge – and within this gap, this essential unknowableness, man projects compensatory fictions, and again falls victim of unconscious forces, habits and pitfalls of anthropocentrism – of our minds being Earth-bound.  This sort of thing is one of the most painful effects of colonialism, and plagues us here on Earth, let alone with visitors from another solar system.

This may appear at first to be an unnecessary digression, but I think at this point we arrive at an interesting existential problem – that is, that man’s own values are entirely relative to himself, and have no objective reality out of his small domain.  If the world were to implode tomorrow, the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven would have never have left the Earth’s atmosphere – all that man knows is the work of man’s knowing. The projection of ‘compensatory fictions’ is exactly what Sartre was obsessed with, and this is the realisation behind the nausea that so plagues Roquentin in the novel Nausea.  The problem is, fundamentally, that nothing is knowable in any objective sense, for this would require what the Greek-Armenian mystic, Gurdjieff, called ‘objective consciousness’ – the ability to know Kant’s noumenon, ‘the thing in itself’ or reality as it is.

The existential crisis may have more personal origins, but the above examples are fundamentally the ‘visionary’ sort of existentialist, and has much more in common with a religious crisis.  He has something of a drive towards the impersonality of a God, of an ultimate Truth, or a standard of values which have a transcendent source rather like Plato’s forms.  When he has this crisis, he knows that now his own life – personal or otherwise – is based on false values which are entirely fictional, mere compensatory fictions which ease the pain of the realisation of man’s ultimate contingency in a meaningless universe.  In this state, it is easy to resort to solipsism, whereby one thinks that one’s own mind is the closest thing to any sort of ultimate value – for you realise that, at root, experience is an entirely personal one, shared only through the ephemera of language and the five senses.  And even those have enormous subjective ‘fuzziness’, having almost no relation to the object to which they refer.

Consciousness is accepted as essentially passive.

It is understandable that from this position man feels entirely a slave, and if he is free, he is free for nothing, for there is no transcendent purpose.  At best he can commit to a political ideal, or be concerned for the welfare of others – which is an admirable enough commitment in itself – but deep down, and in any dimension of life, there remains only death, our bondage to time and the laws of matter.  And the mind is merely epiphenomena of matter, subject to its laws, and beyond that, a limited sort of tool cursed with a dismal self-awareness of its limitations.  There is even, in a bleak sort of way, a celebration of this struggle; that in spite of this, man marches on, stoically accepting the bleak fate of annihilation – with the universe eventually cooling down, removing even the possibility of further life, or consciousness, ever occurring even in the remotest galaxy.

No one nor no thing is safe.

Hospitality, or a ‘cosmological anthropic principle’, in the universe is at best treated with contempt, dismissed – in scientific materialism – as a throwback to religious thinking, or as a fantasy dreamed up out of an inability to stare the grim truth in the eye.  In fact, I believe the latter to be a part of the appeal of existentialism (aside from its aesthetic appeal, or its often penetrating analysis of the human condition), and especially some of the more despairing writers like the Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran (who in his work, Syllogisms of Bitterness, encapsulated his own disposition in the aphorism: “How I’d like to be a plant, even if I had to keep vigil over a piece of shit!”) or in the works of the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, for it gives the sense that you are brave enough to look into the void – that in some way, you are valiantly accepting reality on its own terms.  Or, perhaps, a sort of masochism.

Optimism, from this perspective, seems like a weakness, or at best a poor measure of character, a basic naivety.

For Lovecraft all of us “live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not mean that we should voyage far” and even science, with its visions of technological progress and resulting social change, should come to such “terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age” (p. 61).  These philosophies of pessimism are essentially a closed-system of human values, whereby nothing ‘higher’ can enter, for it goes on the assumption that nothing ‘higher’ exists, and if it did, it would probably be malevolent or indifferent – having at its core, a merciless need to survive, fitted – like the rest of us – with an inherent Darwinism.  An extraterrestrial, from this point of view, would also be at the mercy of the cosmos to greater or lesser degrees – so in a sense, to meet one would only further entrench us in a materialistic cosmos, shared with a variety of life forms, but nevertheless still fundamentally no better off in the grand scheme of things.

We would still remain Nietzsche’s madman, proclaiming the unanswerable questions such as “Are we not plunging continually?  Backwards, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left?  Are we not straying through an infinite nothing?  Do we not feel the breath of empty space?  Has it not become colder?. . .”.  The infinite relativity undermines all of our values, of extraterrestrial origin or not.

Yet it was the same Nietzsche who wrote in 1875 that the highest reason would truly liberate “if only it could be produced consciously, [and this] would result in a still greater feeling of reason and happiness; for example, the course of the solar system, begetting an educating a human being” (p. 50 Portable Nietzsche).  In one of the earliest insights which predicted the ‘new existentialism’ by over a hundred years, he notes that: “Happiness lies in the swiftness of feeling and thinking: all the rest of the world is slow, gradual, and stupid.  Whoever could feel the course of a light ray would be very happy, for it is swift” (p. 50).

Nietzsche’s vision of the universe above is not presented as purposeless, but as a higher dimension of rationality, of meaning and in terms of relationships.  Significantly the artist, for him, represented one of the highest expressions of reason, for it is a creative force of increasing complexity and, strangely in the last note, of light speed.

At this juncture of speculation, it is interesting to note that as one proceeds towards the speed of light, time starts to slow down, when the speed of light is reached time effectively stops altogether – for a photon there is no time.  At this point, the levels of consciousness may be reconsidered, not as necessarily restricted to the three dimensions of space, but also within that of time – and beyond.  The philosopher E.F. Schumacher, for example, divides consciousness into a number of levels, whereby at the lowest level there is time:

“only in the sense of duration.  For creatures endowed with consciousness there is time in the sense of experience; but experience is confined to the present, except where the past is made present through memory, and the future is made present through foresight.  The higher the Level of Being, the ‘broader’, as it were, is the present; the more it embraces of what, at lower Levels of Being, is past and future.  At the highest imaginable Level of Being there would be the ‘eternal now’” (p. 46).

If one’s consciousness were to somehow reach the speed of light, these feelings of contingency would be seen as an illusion of the lower-state of consciousness; a consciousness lumbering behind, unable to outreach the limitations of the gravitational well of personality and triviality.

Indeed, these levels of consciousness are in themselves different dimensions of levels of freedom.

Now this is really where the ‘new existentialism’ really begins, for it recognises that there are certain levels of consciousness which cannot be ignored when taking into account human experience.  And within these higher states, the relativity of human values suddenly becomes a self-evident absurdity, and a mere problem of one’s perception.  Contingency fades away and reality loses its ephemeral, vague and subjective quality and becomes vividly real, and one becomes infused with a sense of life-force, an élan vital which vivifies our perceptions by flooding them with a re-energised intentionality (intentionality will be considered more in depth in Part 2).

In Religion and the Rebel (1957), Wilson argues that the ‘old existentialism’:

“make[s] imprisonment in time, consciousness and personality – to which human beings are only too prone – seem quite natural and inevitable.  And since this way of thought has become the prevalent way in our modern world, the Outsider must raise the banner of a new existentialism, and make war on civilised modes of thought” (1984: p. 192).

And it seems to me that the UFO phenomenon is, as good as any, making war on our ‘civilised modes of thought’ (much like Wilson’s advance into the occult later on in his career was an enormous rebuff to ‘civilised modes of thought’).  But without drifting far from the implications of Wilson’s optimistic existentialism, – indeed remaining steadfastly close to this form of phenomenological analysis – we shall now see just how this odd phenomena of strange lights seen in our skies, and hallucinatory abduction scenarios, somehow tie in to a development of a new human consciousness.  From this position some of the ambiguities of the phenomena come more sharply into focus, offering up a potential view in to the workings of mankind’s evolution of consciousness, and particularly, how the unconscious, in some instances, may be facilitating the necessary challenges of human experience.

After all, one lifelong UFO witness and abductee, Whitley Strieber, said that the phenomena “might be what the force of evolution looks like when it is applied to a conscious mind”. . .

This will be continued in Part 2 . . .

Notes:

[1] As pointed out, somewhat ironically, by the arch-materialist Daniel Dennett.