That was the title of a talk that I attended last Saturday (February 29th 2020) at the Theosophical Society London, given by Gary Lachman, prolific writer on spiritual and esoteric topics. (It is also the title of a book by him, for reviews click here.) That has inspired me to write this article, which will be partly about my readings of Wilson, to acquaint anyone unaware of him with this significant writer, and partly a review of Lachman’s talk.
Colin Wilson is one of my favourite authors. He investigates and writes intelligently in an open-minded way about controversial topics, which could leave him open to ridicule by scientific sceptics. Reading him is an adventure in the discovery of how the universe really works, as opposed to how such sceptics think it works. It’s also interesting to note that Lachman’s book inspired Jack Preston King, a popular writer on Medium.com, to adopt Beyond the Robot as one of his pseudonyms.
The advance publicity of the talk said: “From his bestselling debut with The Outsider in 1956, to his death in 2013, Colin Wilson — a friend and mentor — was one of the most incisive, stimulating, and prolific writers and thinkers in recent times. His oeuvre covers an astoundingly wide range of interests, including philosophy, psychology, literature, the paranormal, mysticism, consciousness, criminality, literature, and history. At the central core of Wilson’s work is the insight that ‘there is something wrong with human consciousness,’ a problem Wilson investigated thrillingly in books like The Occult, Mysteries, A Criminal History of Mankind and novels such as The Mind Parasites and Ritual in the Dark. This talk, based on my book Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, will focus on the fundamental questions at the heart of Wilson’s lifelong study of ‘the mechanics of enlightenment,’ and argue that his conclusions offer a tremendous hope for the future”.
I first became acquainted with Wilson following a weird period in my life, which could loosely be described as a spiritual awakening. I then started to read widely about all sorts of subjects that I would previously have considered out of bounds. One such book was The Occult, but I no longer remember how I came across it.
Since then I have read Afterlife¹, which introduced me to the work and writing of psychotherapist Adam Crabtree. The title of his book Multiple Man: Explorations in Possession and Multiple Personality² is self-explanatory. This is a salutary lesson for any materialist who hangs on to the notion that consciousness is a by-product of the brain. Crabtree went on to join a team of writers responsible for two incredibly important books Irreducible Mind³, and Beyond Physicalism⁴. (I’ve described the former briefly in an earlier article, click here.)
Afterlife also introduced me to Wilson van Dusen, a clinical psychologist involved in work similar to that of Crabtree’s. Perhaps his most important book is The Presence of Other Worlds⁵. There is one chapter related to Crabtree’s work called ‘The Presence of Spirits in Madness’. The following account comes from Wilson: “The patients felt as if they had contact with another world or order of beings. ‘Most thought these other persons were living. All objected to the term “hallucination” ’… His patients seemed to experience two distinct kinds of ‘voices’; he speaks of these as the ‘higher order’ and the ‘lower order’… The lower order are basically tormenters. But about one-fifth of the hallucinations seem to be of a higher order, and they… seem concerned with helping the patient… While the lower order ‘is consistently non-religious and anti-religious’, jeering at the least mention of religion, the higher order ‘appeared strangely gifted, sensitive, wise and religious’ ”⁶.
Isn’t that fascinating? This is obviously a controversial suggestion, but it leads me to wonder whether the modern generation of vociferous and aggressive new atheists have been possessed unknowingly by these lower order spirits.
Wilson’s book Mysteries⁷ contains much interesting material. Here I’ll focus on one extraordinary topic. Readers will perhaps be familiar with the theory of C. G. Jung that alchemy was not really about the literal transmutation of lead into gold, but that the texts were symbolic descriptions of psychological and spiritual transformation. This is now perhaps considered to be the most likely explanation. In Mysteries, for the first time, I was introduced to the idea that alchemy can also be understood literally.
Wilson’s account focuses upon a young woman Mary Anne South. This is a brief summary of the salient material. She and her father were fascinated by ancient texts and their wisdom, including the ceremonies known as the Mysteries (e.g. Eleusinian). As is well known, these traditions taught secret knowledge to initiates, which they were forbidden to reveal upon pain of death. She wrote a book entitled A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery With a Dissertation on the More Celebrated of the Alchemical Philosophers, which was published. At the time her father was too absorbed in his own work, and merely glanced at the manuscript.
Later he read the book. “His reaction was instantaneous. He went to enormous trouble to call in the copies that had been sent out, made a pile of all available copies… and burnt them”. His attempt to eradicate completely the book’s existence was unsuccessful, however, and it was eventually reprinted. (Several editions are currently available. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know if they are the full, original text.)
Why did he have this extreme reaction? It is interesting that, upon reflection, Mary Anne seemed to agree with her father’s decision, for after he died “she made no effort to have the book reprinted, although she admitted that its destruction had been a ‘crushing sorrow’ ”. It seems that he thought she had been revealing secrets from the ancient Mystery traditions which they had guarded so zealously. As Wilson observes: “Her long ‘Preliminary Account’ is a history of alchemy showing that there is plenty of evidence to prove that alchemists really could transmute base metals into gold”⁸. He then goes on to explore this possibility.
Also worth reading is Alien Dawn⁹, an open-minded and intelligent investigation into the UFO phenomenon, described in the jacket notes as “Wilson’s own attempt to piece together a vast, complex jigsaw puzzle, whose components include poltergeists, lake monsters, ancient folklore, time slips, out-of-body experiences, mystical awareness and psychic travel to other worlds, as well as allegations of worldwide government cover-ups. It is the most comprehensive bird’s eye view of the subject ever undertaken, and the conclusions Wilson draws are of overwhelming significance to us all”.
I’ll turn now to Gary Lachman’s talk. As noted above, it was entitled ‘The Life and Work of Colin Wilson’. It was scheduled to last two hours. Given that Wilson was such a prolific writer, and explored in depth such a wide range of topics, only time would tell whether this would be manageable. As it turned out, this was too ambitious; Lachman reached his planned halfway point after about 80 minutes. There was then some discussion as to whether the talk should be extended, or whether he should be invited back at a later date to give the second half. As it turned out, following a short break, we had a brief summary of the second half, which turned into a question-and-answer session. Hopefully there will be the suggested return visit.
This actually suited me, because it became obvious that Wilson’s work was divided into two phases. I was much more familiar with the second part: the occult, the paranormal, parapsychology, and so on. I was aware of, but less familiar with, the first phase, which began with The Outsider, and which dealt with existential issues of consciousness and freedom. As the title of that book suggests, there are certain people who somehow simply do not feel at home, comfortable in the world. I was struck by two phrases: “the outsider sees too deep, and too much, and what he sees is chaos”, and “civilisation has not found a place for such people; they see through the world, the falseness”. (Obviously, if we are ever going to address the world’s problems seriously, we will need many more such people.)
Lachman told us that Wilson was from a working-class background, had no university degree, yet was incredibly widely read (and was obviously very intelligent). The Outsider was a surprise bestseller, which suggests that it struck a chord with its themes of angst and alienation, yet Wilson was never accepted by the literary establishment or the press, and became a persona non grata, a pariah. (This surprised me because I had always thought of Wilson as a best-selling author. It seems, however, to confirm his thesis, that the world will reject those who see through it for what it is, and they will remain outsiders.)
Lachman did not make this connection explicitly, but his presentation of Wilson’s ideas reminded me strongly of the ancient Gnostics’ contempt for the world, and their struggle for deeper consciousness. So, much of the content of his works was concerned with techniques for waking people up from their habitual complacency. Playing Russian Roulette, although perhaps not recommended for everyone, seemed to have the required effect upon Graham Greene. Abraham Maslow believed that what he called peak experiences only happen spontaneously, and could not be induced. Wilson rejected this, and sought to find techniques to make them happen.
Here are some random key phrases from the talk:
- “if freedom is threatened in detail, you then know how important it is”.
- “when we have freedom, we don’t know what to do with it”.
- “the confrontation with death energises life”.
This first part of the talk turned out also to be a whirlwind tour of recent Western philosophy and literature. Figures not mentioned in this article so far were: the Romantic poets, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Hermann Hesse, William James, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, H. G. Wells, Edmund Husserl, Kathleen Raine, A. N. Whitehead, Ludwig Wittgenstein, T. S. Eliot, Gurdjieff, and Samuel Beckett.
So Lachman’s book on Wilson promises to be very informative, and highly interesting to anyone interested in spirituality, expanding consciousness, the paranormal etc. Lachman also made me aware for the first time that Wilson was a critic of Darwinian biology. I’m looking forward to reading up on that!
1. Grafton Books, 1987
2. Grafton Books, 1988
3. Rowman & Littlefield, 2010
4. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015
5. Wildwood House, 1975
6. as footnote 1, p20–23
7. Panther, Granada Publishing, 1979
8. Mysteries, p400–405
9. Virgin Publishing, 1998