From The Outsider onwards, published in 1956, Colin Wilson was concerned to investigate the nature of human consciousness: an ‘outsider’, a term he sought to refine later, was/is a person with a cast of mind different from the norm. In The Age of Defeat he is explicit about the way consciousness can be defined as ‘ordinary’ and extraordinary or ‘visionary’ – at any rate going way beyond whatever one might think of as ‘ordinary’. He quotes David Reisman (The Lonely Crowd) who makes a useful distinction between people whose consciousness is ‘tradition-directed’ (driven by ritual, common observances and standard belief in a fundamentally rigid orthodoxy of some kind), ‘other-directed’ (subject to the whims of other people, conformity to the norms of organisation, self-demolishing) and ‘inner-directed’. A consciousness which contains an impulse towards being inner-directed is one that can cope with change & confusion and has the self-discipline to drive towards self-chosen goals. Of course, these are not exclusive categories, just more or less clearly definable fixations (which can always be unfixed!).
Being other-directed, with a ‘…strong sense of society, of laws and taboos, a sense of constant responsibility to other people…’, tends to be associated with a feeling of inferiority (or ‘ordinariness’), lack of self-purpose and increased passivity. Dependency on the dictates of others results in the feeling that one can’t make decisions for oneself since other people are in charge and/or more clever at doing so. While individuals with some degree of inner-directedness are at least more able to channel their own energies; lack of it has the individual more reliant on socially defined outlets for energetic action.
How does one acquire true inner-directedness? As opposed to the inner-direction assumed by murderers, terrorists & discontented youth…
Complete isolation – that is what the Outsider is driving at. He knows that, if he could only achieve it, there is a completely different way of seeing the world – a way so different that one might almost say that it would no longer be the same world. The Outsider’s final problem is to become a visionary. The first and most obvious step is to cut himself off from other people, so as not to be conditioned by their way of seeing.
(Colin Wilson: Religion and the Rebel)
Isolation from other people, from ritual & obeisance to creed, from organisational conformity so as to develop the possibility of entry into a higher or even visionary state of consciousness. The latter kind of consciousness might be called the result of ‘mystical’ experiences bearing in mind that they ‘…are not experiences of another order of reality, but insights into this order [here before our very eyes & ears, experienced] with extraordinarily clear vision and greater concentration…’
All experiences can be used as the building bricks of a visionary consciousness if there is a conscious effort at assimilation… Not being supermen, our brains are not big enough to contain all the world at once: we have to select what is to be remembered; and we remember only those experiences that we allow to penetrate our indifference… The moments of supreme detachment, when we stand above our own experience and somehow see a meaning in it, come too rarely. In those moments, we feel unified, and have a keener sense of being alive; the world no longer presses on us so that it seems to flatten us; it is withdrawn, at arm’s length…
(op cit – my italics)
Wilson says that ‘…the mystic’s notion of psychology starts with the question HOW DOES ONE BECOME A VISIONARY? Rather than subscribe to something that sounds a bit high-flown, I have developed the habit of defining this state as being endowed with Meta-I consciousness – Mr G’s capital C Consciousness, literally standing above or outside experience, putting everything at arm’s length. A mysterious if not ‘mystical’ place to be. In 1957 Colin Wilson defined it as ‘existentialism’ – ‘the revolt against mere logic and reason… a plea for intuition and vision… recognising oneself as being involved in the problems of existence as a participant [and]… as a spectator…’ The Fourth Way perspective. But we get diverted from the Path by A Influences; there is an increasing tendency for people in general to be other-directed.
Here is modern man – for all his scientific knowledge, as stupid as his forefathers, and turning to all kinds of political charlatans for leadership – wanting only to be possessed, possessed by anything, by the latest politician or the latest crooner or film star – anything to escape his own futility and emptiness…
Among the many works by influential people Colin Wilson refers to in Religion and the Rebel, with great authority for one so young (the amazing number of books he’s already absorbed by then!), is Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. From it he draws out the idea that ‘…the ruling classes decline as they allow themselves to relax and become decadent, effete. Toynbee uses the Greek word for this, and calls it hybris, which can be translated pride, conceit, swelled-headedness, egotism…’ Having met the challenge of Hitler & Co successfully the ruling classes relax and get out of condition, and fail to meet the next challenges.
…Hybris, in one form or another, is the cause of the breakdown of civilisations. For instance, a nation that develops an effective army to meet the challenge of barbarians at its frontiers is likely to become militaristic, and the military mentality is invariably stupid. This stupidity prevents it responding to challenges that require intelligence, and also means that it suppresses Outsiders, and tries to drill them into a military mould… Having crippled its Outsiders, it crashes. Modern Western civilisation is in this position… individuals depend upon moral vitality to create and evolve: civilisations need it too…
As an antidote, Toynbee advocates self-determination, self-control, self-discipline, and mastery of one’s own problems. Inner-directedness – precisely what the Outsider is striving for, says Wilson… Some kind of spiritual renewal, defined in the widest possible way.
Religion and the Rebel concludes with this statement:-
The Outsider was an attempt to argue the thesis that man is not complete without a religion. The inspiration of the book was William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. James’ argument amounts to this: Man is at most complete when his imagination is at its most intense. Imagination is the power of [ANWhitehead’s concept of] prehension; without it, man would be an imbecile, without memory, without forethought, without power interpreting what he sees and feels. The higher the form of life, the greater its power of prehension; and in man, prehension becomes a conscious faculty, which can be labelled imagination. If life is to advance yet a stage higher, beyond the ape, beyond man the toiler or even man the artist, it will be through a further development of the power of prehension. This craving for greater intensity of imagination is the religious appetite.
I wonder if the whole book could not have been reduced to a study of the writings of ANWhitehead. In The Principle of Relativity, he talks about ‘bifurcation of nature’ the way in which Western philosophy has divided the world ‘…into things as they really are and things as they seem…’ Whereas ‘…our experiences of the apparent world are nature itself…’, just the way it is. We are part of the natural world and cannot possibly have experiences that are separate from it. The non-dualism of Zen is a more appropriate way of coming to terms with experience: we are part of what Whitehead calls the ‘organism’ called the world and must find some way of grasping its nature from within.
Whitehead developed the idea of ‘prehension’. Colin Wilson says this can be best defined by quoting a passage from Whitehead’s last book, Modes of Thought:-
…the notion of life implies a certain absoluteness of self-enjoyment. This must mean a certain immediate individuality, which is a complex process of appropriating into a unity of existence the many data presented as relevant by the physical processes of nature. Life implies the absolute, individual self-enjoyment arising out of this process of appropriation. I have, in my recent writings, used the word ‘prehension’ to express this process of appropriation. Also I have termed each individual act of immediate self-enjoyment an ‘occasion of experience.’ I hold that these unities of existence, these occasions of experience, are the really real things which .., compose the evolving universe, ever plunging into the creative advance.
In other words, prehension is the somewhat mystical act of reaching out to grasp experience and make it your own possession.
Our sense-experiences are superficial, and fail to indicate the massive self-enjoyment derived from internal bodily functioning. Indeed human experience can be described as a flood of self-enjoyment, diversified by a trickle of conscious memory and conscious anticipation…
Religion and the Rebel was first published in 1957 while I was doing so-called National Service getting ready for full-blown pacifism, a year after the dubious success (as Colin Wilson at the age of 24 saw it) of The Outsider which ‘…stayed on the English & American bestseller lists for a long time …translated into a dozen or so languages…’ mostly because it was dumped in a category, all the rage at the time, of things produced by ‘Angry Young Men’. It had a great effect on me.
Twenty-seven years later a publisher asked Wilson if Religion and the Rebel could be reprinted. Because it had been ‘hatcheted by the critics, and sank without a trace’ the ‘Scrambled Egghead’ Colin Wilson had not read it since but he found the experience ‘pleasantly surprising’. He was ‘…fascinated by this insight into the workings of my mind at 25…’ and, perhaps more importantly, ‘…for the first time I understood the miscalculation that had left me wide open to the barbs of the critics…’ – he had referred to ‘the Outsider’ ‘…as if it is a precisely definable type of human being, like an Eskimo or a cannibal. The truth is, of course, that most people contain an element of ‘outsiderism’ – a sense of alienation from society… the constant use of the term ‘Outsider’ gives the book an element of oversimplification…’
I finished reading it with the feeling that it was full of repetitive assertions (what the author recognises as ‘its crudities’) that a range of characters somehow fitted the label ‘Outsider’ but there was a constant feeling of losing track of the essential theme of the book. Certainly the main purpose was clear: those who think on our behalf, as it were, seemed to arrive at the general conclusion that some kind of spiritual renewal was necessary if humankind is to be rescued from its plight. The ‘Outsider Cycle’ continued into The Age of Defeat, The Strength to Dream, Origins of the Sexual Impulse, and Beyond the Outsider, with The New Existentialism as a postscript. Colin Wilson sought to make up for ‘…The debacle of Religion and the Rebel...’: it ‘at least taught me to stop throwing around the word Outsider…’ As well as the ‘…conviction that the Outsider is a lonely beacon of integrity in a sea of cheapness and futility’ he wanted to remove ‘90% of its references to ‘the Outsider’; he saw this as a ‘surely inevitable [desire] ‘when a man of fifty-two reads a book by a man exactly half his age…’ There is not a single reference to the offending word in The Age of Defeat! In a way one misses it but the approach to the subject of an outsider’s state of mind, when one links it to the previous analysis, is more subtle, if overdone.
The central issue as Wilson saw it in 1981 was to gain the ability ‘…to learn those mental disciplines that can raise us momentarily into states of ‘mystical’ perception…’ or the discipline of self-transformation. Or even conquering the mental slope that helps one to arrive at Maslow’s ‘peak experiences’, ‘…sudden glimpses of objective awareness,.. a sudden recognition of how lucky we are, avoiding the descent ‘…into self-pity, a tendency to look for somebody else to blame for problems…’ – ‘…if we lack ‘spiritual tension’, the cause lies within ourselves, not in the ‘botched civilisation’. That’s important.
Studying an extraordinary range of writers, Wilson came to the now familiar conclusion that ‘…the controller of intensity of consciousness – lies in the ordinary conscious mind: ‘…we have two people living in our heads, in the left and right cerebral hemispheres, and the person you call ‘you’ is the ‘conscious self living in the left brain. The right-brain self is a stranger, and is also the source of so-called ‘psychic powers’ and of the peak experience. Yet it is the left-brain ego, the [ordinary] conscious self, which is the controller of awareness…’ We just have to become aware of this dual function and take charge of it in cataloguing experience, to get the left brain, ‘the gatherer of power’, to take conscious charge of the process. Mr G’s ‘self-remembering’: me being me in the here & now.
Wilson was heartened that ‘by the mid-1960’s, the works of Hermann Hesse – which were almost unknown in the English-speaking countries when I discussed them in The Outsider – had become best sellers again. A new generation plunged with enthusiasm into the disciplines of Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga, transcendental meditation and even ritual magic. No doubt many of these movements – like the psychedelic revolution – were mere fads, but there can be no doubt that the impulse behind them was a dissatisfaction with the quality of ‘everyday consciousness’, and the feeling that it ought to be possible to change it…’
Forty years later, where are we at now?
In the early 1960’s I began to define myself as an ‘Tolstoyan anarchist’ with many of the characteristics of Outsiderism and inner-directedness. This must have been the result of the influence of having read The Outsider when it first came out! Though I didn’t define it this way consciously, I took up the task of educating young minds (and much later, the older minds of executives and people in responsible positions in industry) in the same spirit. I don’t suppose that ‘ANWhitehead’ has the same resonance in the general populace’s consciousness as he has in mine…
POSTSCRIPT It has occurred to me now (as it should have done before!) that Reisman’s distinction between Inner- & Outer-directed fixations falls into the meta-program analysis in NLP. The Tradition-directed fixation is equivalent to the Must-do/Could-do meta-program; the Inner- & Outer-directed fixations are equivalent to the Self/Other meta-program. There are six other formally recognised meta-programs – which catalogue the ways in which we sort experience: same-as/different-from, internal/external observation, in-time/through-time, proactive/reactive and so on.