Morrab Library Talk: Evolutionary Metaphors: Colin Wilson & Ufology

Evolving Metaphors: Colin Wilson and Ufology

The reason I began writing Evolutionary Metaphors was due to seeing various parallels with the UFO phenomenon, Colin Wilson’s philosophical works and the occult. And what interested me most was the essential logic which often informs the absurd and mind-bending nature of the UFO mystery.

Of course, the occult and the esoteric, along with paranormal research, is often rejected by the scientific mainstream, and to bring all these subjects together to shed some light on an already difficult subject would seem, to most, entirely illogical. That is if one desires that the UFO phenomenon to be validated – or debunked – by the scientific establishment.

There are many works that attempt to achieve this goal of absolute proof or disproof; few are agnostic. However, for my investigation I decided to take a more literary and psychological approach, feeling that it would provide a more flexible question of ‘What if?’ – a question that forms the ground of science fiction.

This heady mixture of science fiction and the occult could provide, I felt, a way out of the frameworks of the ordinary limitations of what’s possible by our standard models, and allow us to approach ‘the Other’, or truly alien, in a satisfyingly expansive and imaginative manner.

Now, Colin Wilson’s early philosophy, and subsequent works in science fiction, the occult, and paranormal phenomenon seemed to me foundational for this investigation. And much of my own work has been influenced by his 1998 book, Alien Dawn: An Investigation into the Contact Experience.

This forms the basis of today’s talk.

*

The subjects of this talk – Colin Wilson and ufology (the study of UFOs) – requires a general introduction, for both cover an enormous amount of ground.  

Now, let’s begin with Colin Wilson himself.

His first, and most famous work, is The Outsider, which was published in 1956. It was released to great acclaim; its author was working-class, with no university education, and only 24-years old. In fact, he was a bit of an anomaly himself in intellectual circles of the time. Except that he was quickly heaped in with the ‘Angry Young Men’ – a journalist’s catchphrase for an uprising of mainly young working-class, sometimes anti-establishment figures, such as Stuart Holroyd, Bill Hopkins and John Osbourne, who wrote the famous play ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, the namesake of the movement.

Even amongst the Angry Young Men, Wilson was an outsider – he even said that he wasn’t angry at all. His literary reputation – a seemingly inevitable destiny once touched upon by British journalists – became increasingly marginalised shortly before his second book in 1957, Religion and the Rebel. As a result, Wilson’s work was ignored by the mainstream and deemed either irrelevant or, even, dangerous.[1]

So, what was the essence of his earliest work, The Outsider, and why has it, out of all his 150 or so books, stood the test of time – indeed receiving so many translations and republications over the years?

The reason, I believe, is quite simple: it articulates with great clarity the existential awakening of the individual. More than that, in fact, it explores the problem at length and, by the end of the book, provides a series of examples of individuals who went beyond the Outsider problem; the founder of Quakerism, George Fox; the esoteric psychologist, G.I. Gurdjieff; and the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna. And for this reason, it has gained an almost universal quality; resonating with a deeply felt sense of the human predicament.

Wilson describes the essence of the book in his important essay, ‘Below the Iceberg’:

“[The] book [is] about ‘Outsiders’, people who felt a longing for some more purposeful form of existence, and who felt trapped and suffocated in the triviality of everyday life.”

“[It’s] a book about ‘moments of vision’, and about the periods of boredom, frustration and misery in which these moments are lost. [It’s] about men like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, van Gogh, T.E. Lawrence and William Blake, who have clear glimpses of a more powerful and meaningful way of living, yet who find themselves on the brink of suicide or insanity because of the frustration of their everyday life.” (2019: 275)

Now what is often overlooked is that The Outsider is just one a of a sequence of six books, which he called ‘The Outsider Cycle’. This forms the foundation of his philosophy which was summarised in an introduction to the whole cycle, the 1966 Introduction to the New Existentialism.

To begin to understand Wilson’s update of existentialism – the philosophy defined most famously by the French philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus – is to then understand the trajectory of all of his life’s work. And this provides an insight into why – and how – he went about approaching the bizarre subject of UFOs and extra-terrestrials. But more of that later.

For now, let’s turn to two summaries, in his own words, of this ‘new’ existentialism:

“The ‘new existentialism’ accepts man’s experience of his inner freedom as basic and irreducible. Our lives consist of a clash between two visions: our vision of this inner freedom, and our vision of contingency; our intuition of freedom and power, and our everyday feeling of limitation of boredom.” (1966: 180)

“The ‘new existentialism’ concentrates the full battery of phenomenological analysis upon the everyday sense of contingency, upon the problem of ‘life devaluation’.”

“It

[also]

suggests mental disciplines through which this waste of freedom can be averted.” (Ibid.)

All of his subsequent works contain – whether it’s on crime, the occult, wine or music – insights into the essential mechanisms of the mind and are threaded through with this recognition of a phenomenology of heightened states of consciousness. In every regard, whether it is through the act of murder, indulging in alcohol, or performing ritual magic, the intensity of mind is sought, whether consciously or not. However, what mattered for Wilson is that they converge into a fundamentally creative drive and not, of course, in such destructive endeavours.

So, in essence, the new existentialism set out to define how moments of vision, purpose, and ultimate meaningfulness could be objectively grasped. This is where the crucial metaphysic arrives in Wilson’s new existentialism, for as he says in Poetry and Mysticism, “Where the mechanisms [of consciousness] ends, the mystery begins.” (17: 1970).

Wilson reasoned, quite logically, that in heightened states of consciousness – which are apprehended in moments of what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘peak experiences’ – a deeper reality of existence is objectively realised. This apprehension of reality is reached through what phenomenologists call ‘intentionality’; the mechanism of the mind’s ability to grasp what is out there, in the phenomenal world.

This can be illustrated by two simple examples:

When we feel alert and buoyed with energy, we notice more; for example, we can appreciate a sunset or feel intensely alive and connected to the environment outside of us, noticing even the intricate detail of the pavement, or the luminescence of a shop’s window. In low moods, by contrast, we notice less; we withdraw our intentional perceptual grasp and live in a vague mood of gloom and defeat.

Wilson was fond of quoting W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘Vacillation’:

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

These moments of sudden and intense overwhelming happiness, so much so that Yeats’ felt he was “blessed and could bless” are, Wilson argues, closely related to the mystical experience, in which one somehow grasps the essential meaning of existence. And yet these often occur in moments of irrationality, that is, they cannot be logically explained; rather they appear to arise in moments of inter-section, as it were – in those brief moments of curious disengagement with the ordinary chatter of the mind.

It is this realisation that is at the heart of the new existentialism, for it reinstated what the ‘old’ existentialism had rejected – what the phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, called the transcendental ego; an ‘I’ – or an ‘other you’ – that effectively energises your perception from behind the scenes, so to speak. Intentionality, the mechanism by which our consciousness ‘reaches out’ and apprehends the world is charged by this deeper self.

More than this, in fact, this ‘other self’ behind perception exists in a state that lies outside of time, and when it emerges in closer accordance with our here-and-now perceptions, it resolves the contradictions of existence faced by our rational, everyday consciousness. In effect, one experiences a supra-logical faculty which breaks the illusory deadlock caused by many of our philosophical categories.

Wilson importantly noted: “[P]hilosophical thought is a process of perception, and therefore depends on the drive, the energy behind it. It also follows that under-energised thought will actually falsify the objects of perception”. Yeats, in ‘Vacillation’, says that his “body of a sudden blazed”, suggesting some sort of occupation of a higher self which galvanised his perception, his poetic faculty which illuminated reality beyond the nausea-inducing categories of Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of universal contingency.

Now implicit in Wilson’s new existentialism is an entirely new faculty of perception; a way in which human beings are capable of exceeding their five-senses and somehow being able to make sense of time and space in such a way that resolves the existential dilemma of Being. This is where he continued onto explore the paranormal, the mystical, and the heightened – or altered – mental states of ritual magic and occultism in his 1971 book, The Occult.

Importantly, he went through the genre of science-fiction prior to writing The Occult, with novels like The Mind Parasites (1967) and The Philosopher’s Stone (1969), which explore at length – as much science-fiction tends to do – psychic faculties and curious moments of super-consciousness. And, importantly for this talk, extra-terrestrial, alien intelligences and occult forces that meddle with human existence. Both books, I should add, were heavily influenced by the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft who is famous for his story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1927), which includes a gigantic, subterranean malevolent force that slumbers beneath mankind’s ignorance – Cthulhu, the Great Old One. 

And so, what Wilson was attempting to do in his science-fiction books was to embrace the intuition that Lovecraft had about deep, underground and ‘terrifying’ forces and, instead, reframe them in Husserl’s more phenomenological recognition of a deeper level of reality that, in fact, forms the substrate of existence itself. And, by recognising this, Wilson saw that this was a misunderstanding – he called Lovecraft’s worldview a product of “curdled Romanticism” – based on a pessimistic bias which resulted in a negatively-charged “falsity of underpowered perception”.

The great poet and visionary artist, William Blake, also seemed to share Wilson’s insight, saying in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:

“The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence, and now seem to live in it in chains, are in truth the causes of its life & the sources of all activity.”[2]

Now, this recognition of underground, untapped resources of the mind seemed almost inevitably to lead to Wilson’s development from an existentialist to writing a book on the occult, for the latter, of course, wholly acknowledges these powers – and even provides ways of enhancing and mastering them. And if these higher faculties of human perception were real, as Wilson increasingly came to believe, then it logically follows that the ‘old’ existentialism had been selling human nature short.

With this background in the occult and the paranormal, of course, it seems somewhat inevitable that he would go on to touch upon the UFO phenomenon. And although he had explored this territory in his science-fiction books before The Occult, and then in its sequels, Mysteries and Beyond the Occult, it wasn’t until 1998 that his UFO book proper was released, Alien Dawn: An Investigation into the Contact Experience. Now, although it forms a basic history to ufology – and it is not until the later chapters of the book that he outlines his philosophical developments which formed his interest in the phenomenon – the book is, as we shall see, crucial to Wilson’s intellectual development.

The Wilson scholar Geoff Ward acknowledged much the same, saying that like the psychologist Carl Jung, who wrote one of the earliest and most classic books on UFOs, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1958), Wilson saw this as very much a symbolic event, offering “a revelation that could amount to a new kind of consciousness.”

This, essentially, is where I begin in my own book, Evolutionary Metaphors, for in surveying the wide range of UFO literature there is always the sense that they are more than merely nuts-and-bolts craft that can be detected on radar and potentially shot down by our military. They are, in their deepest sense, a sociological anomaly; even a symbol – perhaps – of Cold War hysteria and fears, with the first major sightings beginning around 1947.

Kenneth Arnold, an aviator with over 9,000 flying hours, is the most classic case, and the origin of the phrase ‘flying saucer’, which was adopted feverishly by the press. On 25 June 1947 he reported, near Mount Rainer in Washington State, seeing nine unusual objects flying at incredible speeds far surpassing modern technology, which he described variously as both shaped like a “pie-pan”, a “big flat disk” and “saucer-like”. This led to, of course, the more famous combination: flying saucer. Arnold’s sighting tends to circumscribe the UFO mystery to a comfortable date, allowing it to be too easily ascribed to the ‘Cold War hysteria’ hypothesis.

In researching Alien Dawn, Wilson also came to this conclusion in the chapter, ‘The Labyrinthine Pilgrimage of Jacques Vallee’. Here Wilson explores the work of the computer scientist – who was instrumental in the French pre-run for the internet, Arpanet – Jacques Vallee, whose hobby from a young age was to collate and schematise UFO reports from around the world. He went on to write the classic, Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore, and Parallel Worlds (1969), and more recently Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times (2010), a compendium of specifically pre-20th century UFO – or ‘mysterious light’ – sightings.

More importantly, Vallee asked the question of what UFOs overall effect was on the human race, that is, merely as an observed phenomenon and growing mythology. Vallee took the in-between route, refusing to draw a line on exactly what they were, and instead observing their sociological and psychological effects on those who had apparently witnessed them.

Essentially, this is how I approach it in my own book, calling the experience a type of ‘evolutionary metaphor’, or a symbolic experience which offers alternative ways of understanding existence. Indeed, Vallee, in The Invisible College, states much the same:

“With every new wave of UFOs, the social impact becomes greater. More young people become fascinated with space, with psychic phenomena, with new frontiers in consciousness. . . changing our culture in the direction of a higher image of man.” (2010: 127) [my italics].

Now, what interested me so much about Alien Dawn was that as much as it appeared a breakaway from his earlier ‘new existentialist’ works, it quickly turned out to be much the opposite, rather that it was a bridge through his works on the occult, and an opportunity to expand his ideas into cosmology, consciousness studies and even quantum physics.  

The social question of the UFO phenomenon, for Wilson, became symbolic of a change of orientation in the human drama, with a possible new vision which lifts us out of our cosmic provincialism and provides a larger context for our own existence. And with all of the interrelated topics in ufology explored in Alien Dawn, such as crop circles and the now famous alien abduction phenomenon, there appears to be something underlying the whole mystery which Wilson called a sense of “deliberate unbelievableness” – rather as if the phenomenon deliberately obscures itself. (Indeed, Carl Jung once said that the “highest truth is one and the same with the absurd”, and this seems to be the essential message of the UFO phenomenon.)

It struck me that with this ‘deliberate unbelievableness’, and apparent playfulness with time and space –even the absurd theatrics as found in the witness testimony on abduction literature – that whatever entities that were behind this phenomenon were quite at home in the strange and novel logic explored in works of popular science fiction.

One novel in particular which penetrates to the irrational heart of the UFO phenomenon is Ian Watson’s The Miracle Visitors (1978), in which he explores something he calls the ‘plus and minus factor’, saying that in ‘lower-order’ systems of logic something must either ‘change within the lower-order reality or be lost to it, to compensate’. ‘The trick was’, he continues, ‘to make the loss the least negative one possible – to create merely mystery, not damage’.

Here, I think, is the whole of ufology compressed into a single sentence: to create mystery, not damage. And that is what it appears to be doing; providing a liminal, abstract form of ‘meta-logic’ that orientates man’s vision of the cosmos to one of the mysterious, the ‘What ifs’ of science fiction; the emotional, personal, aspect that science lacks is therefore complimented by the dramas and vast possibilities – and sometimes impossibilities – of science fiction.  

The UFO becomes the subject of folklore. One could argue that the alien may represent man as abstracted to himself – or, as the psychologist Stan Gooch proposed, as a part of ‘the on-going folklore’ of the Ego. Science fiction, then, becomes the avant-garde of this evolving folklore. Its metaphoric quality is, of course, oriented towards the future – towards an evolutionary beckoning – and science fiction, of course, becomes a part of the imagination’s groping towards this actualisation.

We should not, however, overlook the often dreamlike and surrealistic quality of the UFO experience reported in many books of case studies. The Harvard-trained psychiatrist, John E. Mack, collected many such reports in his book, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1998), or, for example, as can be found in the classic The Andreasson Affair (1979) by Raymond E Fowler. J Allen Hynek even said of the latter, “At certain points… [the] narrative seems to deal with a reality so alien that it can be described only in metaphors, and perhaps only understood in terms of an altered state of consciousness.” (17: 1978) [my italics]. Vallee also speculated:

 “These forms of life may be similar to projections, they may be real, yet a product of our dreams. Like our dreams, we can look into their hidden meaning, or we can ignore them. But like our dreams, they may also shape what we think of our lives in ways that we do not yet understand.”

My own book is an attempt to continue where Colin Wilson left off in Alien Dawn, particularly with his analysis of science fiction, psychology, and cosmology as being fundamentals of what the phenomenon seems to urge us to examine. The cultural import of its existence cannot be doubted; it has generated popular films, TV shows and books, and shows no signs of slowing down. And if it does – and many of the best books on the subject tend to conclude – form a part of an on-going folklore in our more materialistic and less religious times, then the question may be what it supplements, or even replaces that our culture has lost?

That it forms an excellent metaphor cannot be doubted, with writers such as H.G. Wells using the alien as a base for his book War of the Worlds as far back as 1897. Carl Jung knew this well, and I’m not convinced that we’ve gone much further than his analysis of the phenomenon. He asked, as any good psychologist should of such a liminal, and apparently, deeply symbolic phenomenon: What is it doing to us, our consciousness? That it challenges us, and our models of reality, tends to suggest, that it is gently eroding our sense of cosmic provincialism.

A quote I’ve always enjoyed is by the psychologist Maurice Nicoll, and he warns us that if we become too “sunk in appearances” the world – and ourselves – quickly become numbed, for “through the lack of realisation of the mystery of the world” leads us to being “dead” due to an inability to “face the mystery of existence with any real thoughts of our own”. What I have noticed is that the UFO experience, whether real or even simply talked about, invokes mystery by its very nature; and this of course generates a lot of intense debate and polarisations within and outside the field of ufology. 

In an updated introduction to Alien Dawn, Wilson noted that “civilisation has forgotten a whole dimension of consciousness that once came naturally to tribal shamans, and that we shall remain trapped in a kind of mental dungeon unless we can regain it”. He continues, “[O]ur dream of a purely rational science is a delusion, and that we shall have to learn to recapture lunar knowledge”.

This is the same realisation that hit him while writing his earlier book The Occult; he had originally thought it would be a test of his patience, a sort of collection of quaint ghost stories a section on palmistry and the curious gullibility of the human mind. Instead what he found was a subject that was overwhelming convincing, providing too many accounts by reliable witnesses to be easily swept under the carpet. More than that, he realised that it confirmed an intuition that he had had as early as the 1950s: that man is on the brink of an evolutionary leap.

In a talk as short as this one, I can only begin to scratch the surface of this mystery. So, I will here attempt to condense my own thesis in Evolutionary Metaphors – which I wrote as a sort of bridgeway between Wilson’s ‘new existentialism’, his occult studies and ufology.

Colin Wilson’s biographer, Gary Lachman, remarked that entities commonly associated with UFOs seemed to be “fans of Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges,” adding that this might be a deliberate attempt to frustrate our interpretations; forcing us out of our perceptual laziness. And, perhaps, generated a sort of camouflage so they can act outside of the restrictions of credibility. One comes away after reading much of the literature with the nagging suspicion that somewhere along the line we missed the point, rather like failing to grasp a Zen kōan – the very reason for its clownishness is because we are only aware of half the picture.

Ufology also provides much the same stimulus and attraction as the occult and provides a means of widening mankind’s sense of significance and wider meanings. And in doing so, of course, this automatically provides the groundwork for a ‘new existentialism’, for the provinciality of the diagnosis of many existentialists simply doesn’t hold up against a worldview that accepts occult powers as real.

I argue that it was inevitable that Wilson would continue to incorporate parapsychology and paranormal phenomenon into his later works, for they inferred a much stranger dimension of reality, one that suggests another way of being and, more importantly, of a purpose to human existence.

The title Evolutionary Metaphors seemed to me to capture the spirit of the UFO phenomenon and contextualises it in such a way that it can be treated almost as a work of fiction, while exploring its metaphysical implications and providing an alternative to understanding anomalous phenomenon more generally.

In other words, if they are real, they can be processed as symbols, or implications, of a deeper reality that we do not understand, and in attempting to unravel their mystery we could potentially find out more about our own minds and universe as a result. And if they turn out to be mere fictions, then what they beckon, psychologically, is an obsessive drive within us for prototyping the unknown and generating mythologies that may prove the unconscious motivation of the human enterprise.

The sixth man on the moon, Dr. Edgar Mitchell, who underwent what he described as a mystical experience while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere in Apollo 14, even commented that “life itself is a mystical experience of consciousness; it’s just that we have grown used to it through the millennia.” (1996: 187). Obviously, if you were hurtling back to Earth after stepping foot on the moon, this would inevitably adjust your perspective; jolting you out of a millennia-worth of conditioning.

In essence, Mitchell’s experience encapsulates the message of Wilson’s ‘new existentialism’ and brings us close to the heart of the UFO mystery.

Often it is commented that our culture has reached a threshold; by ejecting mystery in favour of scientific ‘problems’ – codes to be cracked, but, we feel, that we already have these tools. It is a matter only of time. Yet in certain moments we yearn for strangeness and a sense of deep otherness, and we turn to space, an apparent endlessness that becomes the backdrop of our dreams, fantasies, and possibilities. What haunts these skies of ours is, in the end, our own psyche acting as a mirror – and the mysteries that haunt it also become embroiled into these mythologies, these stories so linked to our evolutionary drives.

We have no real sense of how a truly alien intelligence might act. However, it would be interesting to wonder if it would be through symbolism and metaphors, even synchronicities – unusually significant coincidences – that these other forces would communicate; after all, each of these transcends the limitations of time and space, posing deeper levels of reality (or realities) that is/are parallel to our own.

But this might be a subject best left for science fiction – or a future folklore – that might turn out to prove that reality is more dynamic, even magical, than we presently suspect.   


[1] Gary Lachman says in his biography on Colin Wilson, Beyond the Robot (2016): “The fact that, like The Outsider, it presented a religious view, rather than the strident leftism of Osborne and Co. made it a target of scorn by the socially minded critics. Kenneth Tynan in particular saw Wilson as a kind of fascist, with his talk of religion, discipline, the need for a new kind of man rather than a new society, his hatred of mediocrity, lack of interest in left-wing politics, and concern about the spiritual crises of characters like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.”

[2] http://www.itu.dk/~metb/Exercise2/memorable3.html

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An Essay on Gary Lachman’s Lost Knowledge of the Imagination (2017)

(The book is available to buy here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Knowledge-Imagination-Gary-Lachman/dp/1782504451)

In Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, Gary Lachman has crystalised his essential philosophical ideas. A short book, at 139 pages, it is nevertheless a highly concentrated and no less comprehensive survey, and like his earlier books it serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it serves as a general overview of various philosophers, authors, psychologists, occultists and mystics, many of whom have been unduly neglected, or have come to represent systems of ‘rejected knowledge’. In each case, Lachman elucidates and clarifies these unique systems of knowledge and their respective originators, allowing both to speak for themselves. Secondly, by placing these various systems and ideas side-by-side, Lachman shows that they are not as unrelated as one might think, and taken collectively they are seen to have a remarkable inner-consistency, and have also been adhered to by some of mankind’s greatest thinkers and artists. It is for this reason that an open-minded reader will perceive a vision of the world that is unduly ignored, but is nevertheless profound and enriching.

In a world increasingly orientated towards the outer at the expense of the inner, Lachman sees the value of esotericism precisely for its emphasis on this inner world of meaning, purpose and, in short, our sense of values. The occult and esoteric has become, in a sense, the culture’s repressed unconscious, which occasionally bursts forth in fin-de-siecle counter-cultures, as it did with the 1960s ‘occult revival’ and again in the 1990s, with its obsession with shamanic hallucinogens and tribal rave culture. Indeed, Lachman writes about these subjects – sometimes obscure and arcane – in a style that is accessible, intelligent and level-headed; traits often sadly lacking in the genre. There is, in his increasing oeuvre, a manifest degree of discernment and – where deserved – sympathy that is strengthened by what his fellow historian of the occult, Mitch Horowitz, called a ‘gentle but assertive purpose’.

Now, if one were to classify the true philosopher as someone concerned with ‘truth, beauty and justice’, then this new book is Lachman’s pursuit of the importance and essential dynamism at the heart of beauty, with its immense role in the revival of a culture that has placed it dangerously low on its hierarchy of values. One could say that Caretakers of the Cosmos (2013) was a call for a creative actualisation of these values, and more importantly putting them into practice, ‘doing the good that you know’. And, his forthcoming book, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (2018) looks to be a direct address on the state of world justice; an attempt to understand the streams and convergences of magical and esoteric streams in recent times and their role in a world of ‘post-truth’, and . . . well, post-everything hysteria.

Nothing in Lachman’s oeuvre is unrelated; it is all part of a deeper realisation that was already present in his earlier work. Each work is essentially informed by this vision and recognition of the importance of esoteric knowledge, particularly its psychological dimensions and its acknowledgement of an ultimately meaningful cosmos. Indeed, one of his central influences is the late encyclopedic writer and optimistic ‘new existentialist’, Colin Wilson, on whom Lachman has written the definitive biography, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (2016). Lachman, in the spirit of Wilson, is also addressing the essentially pessimistic premise on which contemporary culture has dangerously rooted itself. And with a world bereft of the very values found in this ‘rejected’ knowledge, we are left with a fragmentary and deconstructed world of matter without any larger meaningful context. Humanity also increasingly sees itself as a part of this context-free void, therefore denying the very value of meaning (merely subjective), and therefore diminishing its own stature in a materialistic cosmology that rejects, ultimately, all values. Again, driving both philosophers is a recognition that we live in world of deteriorating values, with an ‘anything goes’ attitude that effectively strips us of any real motive for freedom – or even an inspiring concept of freedom itself. The question is now: freedom for what? Lachman, in surveying many systems that recognise that freedom is something earned, and is moreover, is an urgent reminder of the value of being, offers a new orientation that includes both value and purpose. One gets from reading both writers, Wilson and Lachman, a sense that this is a crucial and important corrective for our postmodern age – an active recognition and renewal of our ability for discernment in a world dislocating itself from any centre.

Postmodernism and post-structuralism, caught in the trap of ‘object-relations’, cannot wrench itself out of its own swirling, linguistic orbit, in which, for philosophers like Jacques Lacan, we merely ‘ex-ist’ rather than exist. The philosopher Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (1991), described the outcome of these philosophical developments, which in turn led to a general belief that the ‘nature of truth and reality, in science no less than in philosophy, religion, or art’ became ‘radically ambiguous’ – or radically subjectivised. He continues by saying that man, unable to ‘transcend the manifold predispositions of his or her subjectivity’ becomes trapped in a ‘fusion of horizons’, which leads to a form of nihilistic solipsism – or, in other strains, it becomes too unbounded, leading to a paradoxically flattening form of relativism. This loss of centre, as it were, results in an atmosphere that permeates our culture – affecting the arts and their previous attempts to reflect values beyond themselves – in which our individual and existential sovereignty is so abstracted that it is often reduced to algorithmic, or even algebraic, formulations in much of postmodernism and – chillingly – in the world of social media and even, more dangerously, politics.

The great esoteric scholar, Manly P. Hall called this our problem of ‘orientation disorientation’ – we have lost our way, so to speak. And not only in ourselves, for this clearly reflects in our culture, flattening it to a husk of hyper-politicisation and is reflected in our crisis of identity. Timeless, objective, reliable value systems have been replaced with a liquid, amorphous mass uprooted from any healthy, cosmological and psychological reality; our choice, effectively, is to face our arbitrary existence in a universe indifferent to the strivings of our very being, or merely improvise with the equivalent of flimsy props in a theatre of unreality.

           We are, as Lachman argues, fundamentally adrift from the origin of meaning itself. And it is this loss of origin that led to the forgetfulness of the imagination’s essential role in grasping both meaning and reality – both culturally and individually. Indeed, is it any wonder why we have lost our ability to discern our values? Freedom, in this relativistic atmosphere, becomes an ironic freedom – and irony, moreover, becomes the only cosmological constant that informs the world of contemporary art. An atmosphere of self-referential pointlessness permeates our culture, and the only way to temporarily satiate its bitter flavor is through often stark and ill-contrasting brutality; visceral ‘shocks’ aimed solely at our baser, more automatic instincts.

Addressing this universal crisis of meaning, Lachman’s book stands in the tradition of classics like Maurice Nicoll’s Living Time (1952) and E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed (1977). These two genre-defying books proposed radically new cosmologies, incorporating in their brilliant synthesis both the unification of rationality and intuition, in an attempt to resolve the modern psyche’s widening chasm between meaning and matter. Lachman’s book, alongside these, place their emphasis on the verticality of meaning, that is, their evolutionary and convergent purposes towards higher degrees of spiritual and psychological integration. It is in direct contrast to the pervasive atmosphere of value relativism and materialistic reductionism, and instead offers a logical alternative to the manifestly problematic arrangement of our priorities.

In approaching the difficult subject of the imagination, plagued as it is by its very evanescence and vague character, Lachman nevertheless proceeds with great authority, firmness of purpose, and with many insights that transmutes knowledge of the imagination into something palpably and urgently real. He shows us that the imagination is not a mere ‘flight of fancy’, but has its own epistemology, its own disciplines and masterful practitioners.

The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination explores various thinker’s, artist’s and poet’s excursions into this important other ‘half’ of our existence – precisely the half that needs to be integrated in a world fraught with increasing polarization and dis-integration. And importantly, he unearths the knowledge they bought back with them. The imaginative source, that ‘intuitive glue’ which binds together our view of the cosmos, is called upon as a means to repair the rift between two worlds that were once complimentary; it is a call, moreover, towards an active phenomenological understanding of the true origin of meaning. Being one of the true practitioners and teachers of the imagination, the poet Samuel Coleridge is an important figure in Lachman’s book. For this poet, who contemplated the ‘objects of Nature’, was able to entwine two worlds, both inner and outer, into a state which allowed him visions of the eternal dynamism between meaning, consciousness and matter. Colerdige, in his own words, entered a new world redolent with ‘symbolic language . . . that already and forever exists’ – a world, in short, where the knowledge of the imagination reigns supreme – presaging, for the poet, a ‘dim Awakening of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature’, which Coleridge referred to as both the Creator and, importantly in light of this essay, ‘the Evolver!’.

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Lachman, much like Wilson, sees our future evolution as being a result of cooperation between two fundamental modes of perception, and each with its own unique and complimentary type of knowledge. And while imagination ‘can be used for fantasy, illusion, make-believe, and escapism’ its most more important role is, Lachman argues, ‘to make contact with the strange world in which we live’ presenting us with the ‘possible, potential realities that it is our job to actualise.’ The imagination becomes our means, if consciously and effectively employed, to search out the possible direction of our own inner and outer evolution; it offers, in its visionary glimpses, a foretaste of our future; metaphors, in this side of the mind, become malleable essences which can be transmuted into the very thing that they once merely referred to, and vice-versa. However, as Lachman makes clear, we can still evolve the realm of quantity, but only so much as this is not at the expense of quality; that is, to broaden our focus on the outer-world at expense of the inner worlds of meaning, that motive force behind the evolution of consciousness, and the glue that binds the two worlds together. This understanding of evolution precedes Darwin, and instead refers to an inner-evolution, a more self-willed development as a product of the vision that propels the will into the future.

The crucial message at the heart of Lachman’s work is how this type of knowledge, and this modality of being, is effectively incorporated into how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. It is, as we shall see, a matter for the evolution of our perspective, and, as a result, how this transfers to our cultural cosmology and cosmogony. Fundamentally, it is the anti-entropic life-force that orders and complexifies apparently dead matter into higher, more autonomous forms. In the first chapter, ‘A Different Kind of Knowing’, Lachman discusses and outlines the various historical and cultural developments which have shaped the mental evolution of humanity, and particularly their emergent zeitgeists which reflected these different orientations, priorities and cosmologies. Of course, with the ascendancy of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, the older type of knowledge was radically replaced by the scientific spirit. This was not an isolated and sudden leap, but the product of man’s new and more urgent concerns. Philosophers, these most ‘impersonal men’, had already presaged the type of detachment necessary for the scientific spirit, and for many the creation myths of Homer and the great dramatists and poets, were losing their ‘charge’. Instead, the scientific spirit emerged in many of the early philosopher’s attempts to find the element which constitutes the world – usually reduced to, for example, simple elements such as air, water, fire, spirit, etc. We began, according to Lachman, to ‘abstract’ our knowledge, to extract it from its larger context, in a spirit of mastery and domination over the laws of the natural world. It was a far more active mind than what went before it, but it sowed the seeds of a new development that was equally fraught with its own problems.

The major problem as Lachman sees it, is precisely this trade-off in which, although producing an enormous technological upsurge that benefits mankind tremendously, nevertheless leaves us with a culture prone to forget that the abstracted world is just that, an extracted aspect of a world usually ‘thick, luxuriant, rich’. As a result, he continues, we begin to see the world ‘we encounter and love and struggle with as a kind of subjective illusion, housed without our individual island consciousness’. This is the potentially fatal consequence of a mind too one-sided and dominated by its own capacity to remove itself from the world of direct, integral and intuitive experience. And yet, for this type of thinking the imaginative world of qualities is perceived as dramatically unsubstantial and vague, this is precisely because it cannot present itself as an object, and it is a priori rejected due to its non-quantifiable essence. Instead, this type of mind attends to a different resolution of reality, which, according to Lachman, ‘does not operate with fixed, exact definitions and unchanging, sequential orders or algorithms, but with patterns, relationships, sympathies, analogies, intuitions, insights and a synoptic grasp of experience – that is, it takes it in ‘at a glance”.

Indeed, another teacher of the imagination, Stan Gooch, called this ‘the knowledge that is not science’ in his book The Paranormal (1978). He goes on to cite fairy stories and their common concern with the ‘breaking of the spell’, which he sees as the objective mind’s ‘intrusion’ into a world that obeys radically different laws of the subjective realities. This, he believes, was the problem when two realities cancel each other out, that is, if they are not carefully equilibrated, in their place and working in a dynamic sort of way. In the visionary state, as in the fairy stories, the vision vanishes leaving no trace and is over taken by the linear, abstract logic that ‘cannot compute’ this baffling, vague and wide-angle of meaningful analogies and connections. Indeed, this is essentially the bane of such research into parapsychology, with such experiences as synchronicities and other phenomenon unamenable to easy repeatability due to their subjective nature. A bridge, as we shall see, that Germany’s greatest literary figure, Goethe, attempted to construct between his scientific works and his more visionary and poetical achievements. For him, as for Gooch, Lachman, Wilson and many others, these two types of knowing ought not contradict each other, or cancel each other out, in fact, they are fundamental to seeing the whole picture, so to speak.

Lachman draws upon a large variety sources, ranging from the British philosopher, Owen Barfield, the ‘first and last Inkling’ and friend with none other than C.S. Lewis, to Goethe, the poet and William Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, along with the French‑American historian Jacques Barzun and author Ernst Jünger among many others. Between them, Lachman shows, they shared either direct access to, or sympathetic understanding of, the subjective mind and its essential role in our individual as well as the collective psychological balance. Indeed, in the third chapter ‘The Knower and the Known’ Lachman describes an interesting early case of psychometry, in which Germany’s greatest literary figure, Goethe, is involved in a type of ‘psychic archeology’ along with an exploration into the archetypal ‘primal plant’, the ‘Urpflanze’. Lachman describes Goethe’s meaning of what he called the ‘inner necessity and truth’ in which the German author understood the imagination to harbor its own type of truth, and not, as Lachman says, ‘merely a loosening of reason and a setting free of uncontrolled fantasy. . . but a cognitive power that obeyed its own rules and disciplines’. When these ‘rules and disciplines’ are applied, the external world opens up its inner content, a whole new dimension which is laden with implicitness and knowledge beyond the reach of linear rationality. It is an intuitive knowledge, capable to effectively bypass the limits of ordinary time and space, providing a glimpse into Plato’s world of Forms, the very origin from which all corporeal forms are reflections.

This active vision into the underlying structures of reality, through what Jung called ‘active imagination’ and Goethe, before him, called ‘active seeing’, was also discovered by another German, the philosopher Edmund Husserl who established the school of phenomenology. He described this type of active perception as the underlying force behind perception, which he called ‘intentionality’, and explored its implications through the discipline of phenomenology, an attempt to understand the mechanisms of consciousness. In doing so, we would find the ‘keepers of the key to the ultimate sources of being’, which would in turn reveal the ‘hidden achievements of the transcendental ego’ , that fundamental part of us that shapes our perceptions, providing, if you will the categorical ‘grid’ through which we grasp and understand the world. To elucidate the difficult language of phenomenology, Lachman refers to the work of Paul Ricouer’s analysis, in which he summarises the mechanism of ‘intentionality’ as that which ‘culminates in seeing’ – it is a recognition that perception is double-sided; seer and seen or, as hinted at in the title of Lachman’s title for the chapter, ‘the knower and the known’. Indeed, it is this part of our selves which provides the ‘intentional glue’ which Gestalts meaning, and that which provides what Jünger called ‘the master key’ to a vast and holistic consciousness.

Access to this ‘introcosom’, as the psychologist Julian Jaynes called it, is one of the true tools of Lachman’s cosmic caretaker, for its emergent presence in the past – in those Goldilocks moments of precisely the perfect balance – resulted in a bursting forth of creative and evolutionary visions of man, recharging the vision of man and his role in the cosmos. In this surcease of the conflict between the two minds, there is a unification between analytical consciousness and visionary consciousness, in which both complement each other and provide what Wilson called a ‘background of values’ in which society, individuals and culture are reinvigorated with an evolutionary purpose. There is, of course, with this sort of vision a great responsibility which, upon initial reflection, seems more daunting than it does liberating; that is, we may be ultimately discouraged by the sheer enormity of the task. . .

Lost Knowledge of the Imagination acknowledges this difficulty, but concludes that with the right balance of mind, this task may not appear so daunting after all, and that the responsibility is enormously reciprocated. Along the way, Lachman provides an enormous range of approaches to the problem, some of them recognised by the greatest minds in history, such as Albert Einstein and Bernard Shaw, for example. In the final chapter, Lachman quotes from Einstein’s Cosmic Religion: ‘Imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to our evolution’. Again, it is an understatement to say that the job of evolution is an easy one, but, curiously enough, when it is recognised with the aid of the right mind, the process becomes self-evidently worthwhile. If, as Einstein says, the imagination embraces the world, it is in the position to perceive wholes, even, perhaps, ultimate evolutionary potentialities.

Lachman’s book is as much a survey of the knowledge of the imagination as it is an overview of the essential archetypal forces from which the human story unfolds. It is fundamentally a book about the evolutionary impetus; an attempt to ‘unveil the secrets of the transcendental ego’. As for Goethe, who saw the ‘revelation’ of evolutionary knowledge ‘emerging at the point where the inner world of man meets external reality’, it is this ‘synthesis of world and mind’ that produces the ultimate dynamism which will propel us up the spiral, in direct contrast to the nihilistic value relativism that draws us into a tighter whorl towards self-negation. Currently this schism of meanings is being played on the battlefield of politics, and whether Left or Right, in which – rather like the two hemispheres of the mind, as explored in Iain McGilchrist’s masterwork, The Master and his Emissary (2009) – the increasing polarisation causes a spectacle depressingly divided. We can see, at present, that we are in a world that Lachman describes as being in ‘a state of flux, with old boundaries breaking down without new contours being established’. It is our imperative, Lachman urgently reminds us, to reconnect with the origin of meaning, and to recognise as well as intuitively recalibrate our values towards a more vital recognition of the evolutionary imperative. He offers a way forward in which the tensions are creative rather than corrosive, providing a philosophy which elevates the imagination as the key ingredient in repairing the rifts and disconnections within our present situation. The imagination, for Lachman and the authors, philosophers, poets, artists and occultists that he explores, may provide exactly the ‘master key’ to this necessary ballast in our turbulent times.

To conclude, we may turn to the story of Goethe’s increasing familiarity with the architecture of Strasbourg Cathedral, in which, he claimed, he was able to acquire information in an apparently miraculous flash of insight. Indeed, Goethe found himself in possession of the knowledge that one of the towers was not how it was originally intended. In using this case, Lachman presents us with a crucial understanding of something even more extravagant than Strasbourg’s Cathedral’s Romanesque architecture. Now, Goethe was able to see the original intention behind the finished architecture as it stood there before him – as well as, we might recall, his claim to be able to perceive the ‘primal plant’, that ur-plant from which all other plants (plural) emerge. In doing so, is it not unreasonable to extend this vision further, and perhaps suggest that this sort of visionary consciousness may be the key to the evolutionary plan itself? That is, this may be what provides us that crucial insight into our own potentialities that are latent in our very being, the ‘primal mankind’, as it were. Indeed, if this visionary quality was directed at the foundations of our culture, society and own psyche, we might too be able to see our way through to the evolutionary directive, that very substratum from which the impulse of life flows into material becoming. And in doing so, we may bypass these confusions of the intellect too abstracted from the primal reality from which it has extracted itself, and instead survey the landscape of the inner-world. Furthermore, by turning this imagination towards the outer-world, we may create a more meaning-filled sense of being, in concordance with the evolutionary intentionality present in nature itself.

In reading Lost Knowledge of the Imagination one can acquire a foretaste of precisely the kind of revelatory consciousness that Lachman describes, and, like all great books, it will benefit re-readings for years to come, for its implications are implicit and many. I have, in this essay, only scratched the surface, even if that, of this tightly argued and equally wide-reaching book. It is a book of learning and remembering; it is, in a sense, a call for what Gurdjieff and Ouspensky called ‘self-remembering’. Indeed, revelation – that remembrance of lost knowledge – is what happens when the two-minds cooperate, each side creatively comprehending the other and its role. Instead, there is a perceptible synthesis manifest in states of inspiration or peak experiences in which two streams of knowledge converge – a sort of gnosis, a true understanding, is reached, and challenges that once seemed insurmountable seem almost trivial. Lachman has here provided a glimpse into the architectural plans of what the poet Martha Heyneman called a ‘breathing cathedral’, and with each actualization of those plans we contribute towards the repair work of the cosmos, integrating each piece into the human mind again.

 

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