by Geoff Ward
An Evolutionary Leap: Colin Wilson on Psychology
Karnac Books UK £17.99 (September 2016)
Here’s one of my favourite Colin Wilson quotes, from Part 3 of his New Pathways in Psychology: Maslow and the post-Freudian Revolution (1972):
‘We are capable of boredom – a sullen refusal to be interested in anything – when surrounded by meaning. And poets experience sudden storms of ‘meaning’ when they seem to catch a glimpse of an endless staircase stretching beyond the stars. I can state this with confidence: there is something bloody fishy about human existence.’
Indeed there is. And this ‘something fishy’ is brilliantly illuminated in Colin Stanley’s valuable new handbook: as Wilson emphasises, human consciousness operates at too low a pressure for efficiency.
It was the American psychologist Abraham Maslow who, studying transcendent or intensity experiences, introduced the term ‘peak experience’ and, from the 1960s, Wilson built on Maslow’s work to establish a theory for the attainment of an intensified or higher consciousness, and its inducement.
The issue over how we can achieve these powerful ecstatic moments of inner freedom, of absolute delight, when we feel our energies are more than adequate to cope with any challenge – those moments of ‘wonderful optimism about the future, the feeling that life is infinitely complex and infinitely exciting’, as Wilson says in Super Consciousness (2007/2009) - is paramount in Wilson’s work.
With clarity and succinctness, An Evolutionary Leap brings out the key points in Wilson’s pioneering investigations of the peak experience, the robot, the will, intentionality, the self-image and other important strands of his existential, or evolutionary, psychology, founded on a phenomenology of consciousness.
Nine Wilson books dealing with psychology are considered, from The Age of Defeat (1959) through to Super Consciousness, providing both an indispensable introduction to Wilson’s thinking in the field for those new to his writing, and an ideal reference book for those already familiar with his work, drawing together, as it does, the essential texts in one volume.
As Colin Stanley states in his preface, Wilson’s contributions to the field of psychology are much underrated, and perhaps so, too, are Maslow’s – Wilson regarded Maslow as ‘the single most important figure in psychology since Freud, and a real turning point’.
Wilson says, again in New Pathways in Psychology, that it would not be inaccurate to say we are actually mentally ill all the time we are not having peak experiences, or at least capable of having them. The basic human problem is to maintain continually the state in which peak experiences are possible – to keep up the ‘pressure’ of consciousness – for this is when we are open to sudden spurts of energy and the mind receives a ‘shock of meaning’.
And this is a major area where Wilson parts company with mainstream philosophy, which has never considered this kind of meaning but in the past century has preferred to get itself into tangles almost exclusively with linguistic meaning.
Sartre, of course, believed that our minds create meaning and impose it on an otherwise meaningless world, but later post-structuralist thinkers, such as Derrida, denied the existence of meaning altogether, or at least placed it in an infinite regress.
Wilson’s stance is directly opposed to such ideas: the phenomenological position, for him, is that meaning exists as a reality outside us whether we are there to recognise it or not. It is inherent in the ‘universal organism’, he says, which, to me, places him firmly in the metaphysical camp.
Derrida’s mission to deconstruct the entire tradition of Western metaphysics – with its postulation of a unified presence of meaning, as distinct from a secondary, derivative inscription of that meaning in written language –would have been anathema to Wilson.
It was his belief that an affirming and optimistic existential psychology (and philosophy) heralded an evolutionary leap into a new and expanded consciousness for the human race. In the 21st century, having become accustomed to ‘the strange new medium of the mind’ since entering a new phase of evolution around 250 years ago, we might be balanced on the edge of this leap forward. If that isn’t enough to attract new readers to Wilson – and such works as An Evolutionary Leap – then what is?
An Evolutionary Leap has unexpected delights to offer in addition to the preface and nine chapters about Wilson on psychology.
There are lists of essays on psychology by Wilson and of further reading, and two appendices, Wilson’s ‘Notes on Psychology for George Pransky’ – the New York psychiatrist with whom Wilson discussed ‘positive psychology and how unhappiness is created by negative thinking – and Colin Stanley’s vignette, ‘Remembering the Outsider: Colin Wilson 1931-2013’.
Despite Wilson’s proleptic call, nearly half a century ago, for a science of consciousness, which has been accumulating only in recent decades, phenomenology has become only a part of the undertaking. Husserlian phenomenology, held in such high esteem by Wilson, today seems to be regarded as a search for essences, not facts of existence, particularly.
Nevertheless, Wilson was true to the real spirit of the phenomenological method, and the correlation between noesis (attention) and noema (object).
At the risk of sounding a little churlish – after all, this auspicious volume brings together for the first time Wilson’s essays on 17 philosophers, some of whom he met personally to discuss their ideas – I can’t help feeling it would have been better if the essays had been placed in their chronological order, rather than in the alphabetical order of the philosophers.
This would have shown Wilson’s thinking in a developmental progression, rather than having the reader jump back and forth between phases of his career and, to a certain extent, disrupting context. Admittedly, of course, it is possible to read the essays in chronological order, if desired, by drawing up a list from the dates on the essays’ title pages.
Ideally, says Colin Wilson, a volume of philosophy, to an intelligent reader, should change ones normal relation to the world and provide a sense of mystery and excitement: ‘Philosophy is very closely related to music, and hardly at all to physics.’ Thus, in Collected Essays on Philosophers, we might say we have Wilson as conductor of his ‘orchestra’ of philosophies, finding how they harmonise, or not, with his own philosophical ‘score’.
As John Shand – associate lecturer in philosophy with the Open University – points out in his introduction, each essay gives an insight into Wilson’s own ideas as well as the works of each philosopher: Ayer, Broad, Camus, Cassirer, Derrida, Foucault, Husserl, Marcuse, Nietzsche, Popper, Russell, Sartre, Spinoza, Strawson, Warnock, Whitehead and Wittgenstein.
Writing about Spinoza, Wilson says: ‘Philosophers are never so entertaining – or so instructive – as when they are beating one another over the head.’ It is such convictions as this that makes these essays by Wilson, the ‘new existentialist’ philosopher, both revelatory and provocative. But what stands out most is his down-to-earth, common-sense approach to his subject matter, which always draws in the reader, and the example he provides of positive, universalist thinking as against the pessimistic, reductionist standpoint.
Most of the attention, as one might have expected, falls on Sartre (60 pages out of 235) and Camus (22 pages). Wilson’s demolition job on Sartre is intense – ‘ordinary consciousness is sub-normal, and any philosophy that accepts it as a norm is based on a fallacy’ – while Camus is ‘typical of the lack of logic that characterises French philosophy in general’.
In a 1968 Daily Telegraph Magazine essay on Wittgenstein – an introduction to ‘The Thinkers’ series – Wilson concludes: ‘Ideally, philosophy should fill the place of religion. It can move towards this by becoming a science of consciousness … This science of consciousness is called phenomenology. There is certainly not a philosopher in England today who would agree with me.’ (Wilson’s italics).
Colin Wilson: Collected Essays on Philosophers
Edited by Colin Stanley
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK £47.99 (May 2016)
Bargaining with the Devil: The Work of Colin Wilson in a Cultural Context
Amazon Media, UK £10 / US $14.50 (May 2016)
The first thing to mention about this book is the ambivalence of the author towards Colin Wilson – a necessary ambivalence as far as Nigel Bray is concerned, as he says he wrote his book to establish a balance between the ‘two extremes of blind admiration and critical dismissal’ which, as he sees it, affect Wilson (see Bray’s ‘autobiographical introduction’ under Features on this website).
I must say that a good deal of what Bray has to say is incisive and penetrating – it is clear he has subjected certain of Wilson’s works to close reading, and it is good to read someone who engages seriously with Wilson’s ideas.
However, much effort is spent in discussing negative aspects of the man and his works (readers are likely to be bemused by accusations of autism and misogyny). One gets to p373 before reading that study of Wilson's work is 'vital, despite the shortcomings...' (following a discussion of the 'fallacy of insignificance').
Bray sees New Pathways in Psychology (1972) as Wilson’s central work because it contains ‘the most coherent body of ideas in his entire output’ – ‘free of the later tint of Atlantean and alien lunacy’.
I’d like to comment on some of Bray’s remarks that stand out for me. While Bray does position Wilson at the centre of a philosophical debate, his book is more of a critical biography, I feel, than one that actually places Wilson in a cultural context, as the sub-title claims – if we take ‘cultural’ as referring to the achievements, institutions and customs of Western civilisation.
We are given Wilson in a philosophical context, certainly and, to a much lesser extent, a literary context, and Bray does seem well read in philosophy, but we are offered little in terms of an appraisal of Wilson’s cultural status, his influence or legacy – for example, his relevance to the ‘counter-culture’ since the 1960s, or to the growth in consciousness studies over the past 25 years.
Indeed, on p1, Bray refers to Wilson’s ‘long estrangement from the cultural scene’. So there’s no wider context: hardly anything on Wilson as an ideas-led literary critic in the manner of Coleridge, George Eliot or Henry James, for example, and nothing about Wilson’s place in the Western esoteric tradition, an essentially optimistic body of thought helpful to inner well-being.
Bray does not discuss the evolutionary potential aspects of existential literary criticism – Wilson’s assertion that the purpose of literature is nothing less than to liberate the imagination so as to point the way forward for human evolution – nor the crucial question for literature of whether an author takes existence as a standard of value.
The significance of the title, Bargaining with the Devil, is not at all clear to me. It might arise from a reference to Nietzsche, Blake and the 'devil's party' in a quote from George Bernard Shaw which Bray uses as an epigraph. Maybe Bray sees himself as a ‘devil’s advocate’ in writing about Wilson (the ambivalence), or perhaps he sees Wilson as a member of the ‘devil’s party’ (started by Blake, according to Shaw). It’s difficult to say. There's no explanation of, or allusion to, the title in the text of the book itself, as far as I can see.
Bray’s first 60 pages or so, Part 1, are a description of Wilson’s ‘savage treatment at the hands of the media and the critical establishment’, combined with Bray’s own barbed critique of discrepancies which he finds in Wilson’s work caused by ‘over-production’ – errors that arose due to pressure of work. Bray sees ‘two Wilsons struggling against each other: ‘the rational sceptical scientist … and the philosopher of the evolutionary imperative who would travel down any path that may lead to a greater understanding of this urge’.
In Part 2, Bray’s admonitory tone changes somewhat; he becomes more conciliatory. He notes that, for Wilson, the dilemma of boredom and the way in which we waste our lives is the polar opposite of the evolutionary urge.
To me, a vibrant inner life is the antidote to boredom; after all, again as Bray remarks, the ‘higher evolutionary types’ inhabit the world of the mind, the noösphere, to certain extents. And Wilson saw the solution in a self-sustaining mental activity grounded in a sense of objective values so that it could not be assailed by trivial distractions.
Bray claims Wilson found no vitality in aesthetics and that this was his ‘undoing’, particularly as a novelist. Bray identifies the central problem in Wilson’s fiction as a distrust of the emotions ‘so acute that it amounts almost to a clinical condition’, with ‘the imposition of naked will on narrative’, leaching characters of feeling.
And yet, the prime motivation of Wilson’s protagonists, their ‘odyssey’, is ‘the creation and maintenance of values once the perils of nihilism, atheism and sheer human stupidity and laziness have been negotiated’, portraying, indeed, the crux of existentialism.
* Nigel Bray speaking at the Colin Wilson Conference held at Nottingham University on July 1, 2016.
Wilson’s espousal of the Brechtian ‘alienation effect’ has the consequence of making him responsible for the moral and intellectual stance of his characters, Bray says. But isn’t every author of fiction responsible for this, alienation effect or no? It does not follow, therefore, that Wilson’s own existential criticism ‘doubly condemns him on this ground’.
Nor does it then follow that Wilson is ‘a rather poor novelist, slipshod, aesthetically drab, unable to create “free-standing” characters who are not anchored to his own sense of self’. Nevertheless, Bray still seems to think that Wilson’s novels do have a vitality that outweighs any cavils about style.
For Bray, Wilson’s thinking is teleological in the extreme, but his ends are vague. Bray says: ‘Discovery of an objective meaning in nature is cited as the purpose of our evolutionary quest, but we are given no clue to the actual content of this meaning.’ But surely, the content is the realisation of unlimited human potential as encountered in the peak experience. For Wilson, it is not ‘process’ alone.
Bray is right to say that Wilson does not accept the concept of utter passivity that denies the self as an active agent, or as a conscious entity, as promulgated by Sartre and the later ‘post-structuralist’ theorists. It would be interesting set Wilson’s thinking against the recent surge of interest in the self among Western philosophers, psychologists and cognitive scientists (although it has been central to Indian and Tibetan philosophy for the last 2,000 years)
Bray is probably at one with many Wilson readers when he writes that, reading Wilson, ‘one constantly gets the feeling that we are being encouraged to break through a barrier, beyond which is our progressive destiny as a species’. However, those readers are unlikely to agree with Bray’s follow-up comment that Wilson’s ‘only interest’ is in individuals who are ‘breasting the tape’ ahead of the mass of humankind. Surely, Wilson’s aim is to awaken his readers to their hidden potential, whether they’re about to ‘breast the tape’ or are still way back down the track.
With today’s liberalist agenda holding sway, and charges of elitism against Wilson’s ideas, followers of Wilson – doubtless including those Bray rather condescendingly refers to as ‘acolytes’ – are ‘swimming against the current – outsiders in virtually all senses of the word: a situation that many of them, no doubt, relish.’ No doubt!
The quotes I have taken from Bray indicate the general tenor of his approach. Apart from Bendau, Dossor, Tredell and Campion, Bray appears to have read little criticism that might have tempered his attitude; for example, he seems unaware of Colin Stanley’s ‘Colin Wilson Studies’ series, or Professor John Weigel's 1975 assessment. While Bray cites many instances of critical dismissal, he cites none of ‘blind admiration’, as I recall.
Bray does not include a biography in the book so the reader is left in the dark as to his background (but see the ‘autobiographical introduction’). Nor does he include an index which would have offset his random, non-chronological approach by collating the references to Wilson’s books; nor does Bray give page references for Wilson quotes which would have allowed context to be established – crucial when so many Wilson quotes have been taken out of context and used against him.
Overall, then, a provocative but energising take on Wilson, although, as I’ve indicated above, Bray contradicts himself on some of the issues he raises.
Two other epigraphs to Bargaining with the Devil quote Wilson’s like for ‘discriminating admiration’ and his hopes for a critical biography, and Nicholas Tredell’s view that a ‘full biography’ of Wilson could also shed light on the ‘complex cultural history of our time’. Bray rises to the former – possibly seeing Wilson’s statement as providing a justification for ambivalence – but not, to be honest, to the latter.
The Writing of Colin Wilson’s ‘Adrift in Soho’
Edited by Colin Stanley
Paupers’ Press (Colin Wilson Studies No. 26) £8.95 (July 2016)
The issue of literary genesis – how and why inspiration comes to the author – is always an intriguing subject. Yet, in the case of Colin Wilson’s second novel, Adrift in Soho (1961), the outcome of asking the how and why questions is somewhat prosaic.
This latest in the Colin Wilson Studies series – doubtless with one eye on the Pablo Behrens movie of Adrift in Soho due out this year – includes the full text of the memoir by Charles Compton Street (aka Russell/Belchier) on which the first part of Adrift in Soho was based. It also contains Wilson’s hitherto unpublished ‘author’s note’ to the novel; the text of his Sunday Dispatch article, ‘My Night with the Beatniks’, of January 15, 1961 (highly risible from today’s vantage point - see the original item under 'By Colin' on this website); an essay by editor Colin Stanley on the writing of the novel; and an extract about Adrift in Soho from early Wilson biographer Sidney R Campion’s The World of Colin Wilson (1962).
Re-reading Adrift in Soho, one is reminded of how compelling the fast-moving narrative is: Nicholas Tredell, in his Novels to Some Purpose: the Fiction of Colin Wilson (2015), says that ‘for all its lightness’, the novel manages to be many things – bildungsroman, picaresque tale, documentary, period piece, fairy story, and an investigation of freedom.
And all this arising from a tranche of ready-made material which enabled the 29-year-old Wilson to concoct the book in January 1960: the brief memoir he bought from the unemployed actor Charles Compton Street for £100, his reworking of parts of his own play, The Metal Flower Blossom, and anecdotes supplied to him by a neighbour.
As Colin Stanley writes: ‘…the novel works remarkably well. The evocation of Soho, during that fascinating period in the 1950s, and the descriptions of some of its characters, bring a vibrancy to the narrative’.
Although Wilson was at pains to point out that the young protagonist Harry Preston was not him, one can’t help but read Wilson into the character – indeed, Wilson, clad in period duffle coat and looking straight at the reader, was depicted in the front cover illustration of the 1993 Brainiac Books edition.
Preston ('pressed on', perhaps) arrives in London from the provinces in the mid-1950s looking for excitement and begins to make sense of his life and the world within a ragtag milieu of struggling artists and hopeless romantics.
For Preston, London is a ‘massive concrete denial of reality’. As with Laura Del-Rivo’s central character Beckett in The Furnished Room, published in the same year as Adrift in Soho, Preston has the ‘occasional visions into super-reality given to the victims of unreality’. Although Preston often seems more of an opponent of unreality than a victim of it, it is a kind of existential angst that draws him into his adventures in the shabby demi-monde of London's 1950s counter-culture.
A key theme of Adrift in Soho is the limiting consciousness of the quotidian, and how these limits might be transcended. 'It is not enough for the human consciousness to expand beyond its own narrow existence,' ponders Harry Preston. 'It wants to penetrate simultaneously into every other existence in the universe.' A truly remarkable statement to be found in a novel written in 1960, amazingly resonant with consciousness theory today, and indicative of Wilson's lifelong preoccupation.
Although Adrift in Soho might be perceived as a ‘light’ novel, its characters reflect different aspects of Wilson’s philosophical concerns – as in the debate in the artist’s studio, for example – and plentiful are the literary allusions and the nuggets of Wilsonian wisdom, such as this: ‘the glory and the greatness of human history are hidden from most human beings, and we live like beggars on time’s charity’.
Forming perhaps a sub-genre of the 'working-class novel' of the 1950s and early 1960s, Adrift in Soho seems to call for a re-evaluation of the literary scene of the time.