There are moments in our lives that stand out clear and shining against the sun of the soul, and in those moments the Being becomes suffused by a radiant light. This light blots out for a time the dark texture of the years through which we have passed. The soul becomes charged with new life ; the heart renewed with hope, the body with sap, even as the tree, which, though ageing is pregnant with Beauty. In those moments there seems to ring in our ears the very music of Being. So intense is this manifestation of beauty, so strong, that the heart and soul become trapped in its very trellis-work, blinded by its light, made feverish by its richness.
James Hanley: Drift
Revisiting The Outsider
I’ve just finished re-reading The Outsider for what is, I think, the first time in 60 years. It’s been akin to revisiting a beloved bookshop (Beaches in Salisbury, for example – see https://wp.me/p1QjJc-177) only to find that it has become a place where they deal in mobile phones. So let’s skip to Super Consciousness, Colin Wilson’s last finished work (2009) where he writes:-
Now my first book The Outsider (1956) was also basically about peak experiences. It was a study of those Romantic poets and painters of the 19th century who experienced marvellous states of ‘transcendent consciousness’, moods in which it was self-evident that the whole universe was a wonderful place, so exciting that it seems absurd that anyone should ever want to die. Yet when they woke up the next morning, they would find themselves wondering what on earth they meant by it. It now seemed an illusion. Life was now self-evidently trivial and dull and ordinary, and it seemed grimly apparent that we are all trapped in this. This accounted for the despair that led to high levels of suicide and death by tuberculosis among such ‘outsiders’. These romantic outsiders seemed to feel that the world is a bad joke, a trap devised by the gods – that we long for the ‘transcendent’, yet always end by being forced to accept the everyday triviality, like children gulping down a nasty medicine.
Maslow’s concept of ‘Peak Experiences’ (see appendix 2) emerged in 1964; Colin Wilson is therefore here retrospectively defining ‘transcendent consciousness’ as ‘having a Peak Experience’. In doing so it seems to me that he conflates what could be perhaps a more or less permanent state of being with the briefest of moments when we seem to enter states that CSLewis described, after Wordsworth, as happening when one is ‘Surprised by Joy’ – see later… Pursuing CW’s argument, I doubt very much that it was finding things ‘trivial dull & ordinary’ after a bout of ‘transcendent consciousness’ that in itself ‘accounted for the despair that led to high levels of suicide’, when artists wanted ‘…their work to reflect the ‘higher reality of the Land of Dreams’, as CW calls it in The Strange Life of PDOuspensky – ‘they found reality too much for them and died in droves…’ This seems a highly exaggerated assertion when there will surely have been many other variables resulting in artistic death. On the other hand it might certainly be the case that any person on the way to ‘self-actualisation’ having a peak experience would consider it to be a useful thing if such an experience became permanently possible; I think that, against Maslow’s advice, this is what CW is attempting to prove to be achievable in Super Consciousness (2009), a book which was seemingly intended to round off his life’s mission.
He offers it as ‘a DIY manual of how to achieve’ super consciousness but, while offering much anecdotal evidence of people having peak experiences, including himself, it’s disappointing to find not much in the way of a suggestion of a practical process to do so. He concludes that by overcoming tiredness in order to put extra effort into a challenging situation he achieves more focus which in turn apparently takes him into a heightened state of awareness. He argues that when peak experiences are able to be deliberately manufactured the cumulative experience of them will somehow remedy what the subtitle of The Outsider describes as the ‘sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth century’. But that’s about it. He neglects the idea that various recalcitrant parts of one’s being (‘I’s) might put up a fight against indulging in ‘extra effort’.
In all his books (The Outsider written in a slightly different way many times, it seems to me now), CW seems determined to link the achievement of a peak experience with the category ‘Outsider’ yet in the above quotation in his confused (and confusing) sort of way, he suggests that we are all, Outsiders and Insiders, in the same boat – ‘it seemed grimly apparent that we are all trapped in this’ – having a peak experience and then regretting that it doesn’t go on forever. CSLewis is a good example of a writer who having experienced the briefest of moments of ‘transcendent consciousness’ felt unhappy that they didn’t last forever. I shall refer to his experiences later.
Re-reading The Outsider now I cannot imagine how in 1957 I made sense of a book that hops around all over the place and spends much time wading off into litcrit book analyses that tend to obscure the central argument. I cannot really imagine how in itself it became for me a kind of ‘peak experience’ except that the concept ‘Outsider’, divorced from all CW’s qualificatory confusion, has always since represented the character of a person admirably out of step with ordinary people – the kind who Eliot in The Wasteland describes as part of
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many…
‘Outsider’ is a category into which I was innocently quite happy to consign myself all those years ago and would never wish to escape from even now – disregarding CW’s simple assertion that ‘…the outsider’s chief desire is to cease to be an outsider…’ – to be a ‘balanced’ person, perhaps he meant. But, unless there’s a third possibility, not being an outsider makes one fit the pattern of the Insiders who daily flow over London Bridge to their offices – they are unlikely to have striven to get their somatic manifestations into a balanced state. In 1955/56, before I had studied Eliot seriously and before I possessed the catchall ‘outsider’ word, I was one of the crowd that flowed daily over Waterloo (not London!) Bridge at the same time as I was thinking of myself as somehow out of step, content to be, as I thought, beyond ‘normal’ people – without feeling ‘superior’ in any way; they just seemed to lack the quality of being a ‘seeker after the truth of things’. Though I didn’t have Gurdjieff-speak then and was never inclined to want to enjoy a ‘Will to power’, I did want to fit three of CW’s Outsider attributes – to ‘escape triviality forever’ and, like that other outsider hero of mine, Richard Jefferies, to have ‘more life’. Above all I was intent on developing self-expression. But I was not a crank.
If you are living a very ordinary dull life at low pressure, you can safely regard the Outsider as a crank who does not deserve serious consideration. But if you are interested in man in extreme states, or in man abnormally preoccupied by questions about the nature of life, then whatever answer the Outsider may propound should be worth your respectful attention. The Outsider is interested in high speeds and great pressures; he prefers to consider the man who sets out to be very good or very wicked rather than the good citizen who advocates moderation in all things.
By the mechanist’s standards Outsiders can only be dismissed as misfits and neurotics. But they are the most powerful evidence of the reality of a new phase of evolution…
and, therefore, hardly likely to wish to stop being outsiders unless the whole of the human race joined them so there’d be nothing to be outside of!
Do we ever get a clear definition of ‘Outsider’?
I now question what exactly CW was presenting as ‘Outsider’; he provides us with so many descriptors that conflict with one another or don’t seem to me to make sense: for example, I have always thought of Roquentin’s chestnut root experience (in Sartre’s Nausea) as a positive, even mystical, experience, the unveiling of things just as they are, ‘the very paste of things’, istigkeit. But CW, constantly seeking evidence of modern pessimism in literature, calls it ‘the rock bottom of self-contempt’. Roquentin feels ‘insignificant before things’. Have I been misguided, I wonder, all these years in holding on to the chestnut root experience as an anchor for the positive affirmation of Being in the face of contingency?
CW tells us that Outsiders make a thing out of the ‘benign indifference of the universe’ (Camus). To an Outsider then, says CW, ‘all this is unreal’ and ‘since freedom depends on the real… the Outsider’s sense of unreality cuts them off from freedom at the roots…’ Apparently, it seems, ‘one becomes an outsider when one chafes against the idea of lack of freedom… requiring freedom in some kind of reality…’ Well, I think that the indifferent universe exists in & of itself; it goes on entirely separate from us; in what I regard as the unlikely event that it possesses any feelings whatsoever, it couldn’t care less about us; on the other hand, there’s nothing ‘unreal’ about what goes on in it though one might well assert that neither it, nor the life it sustains, has any ultimate purpose. For me, this offers total freedom to decide on one’s own little purposes.
As an outsider belief, CW quotes Blake approvingly: ‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s’ – mantra I’ve had in my mind for sixty years; I’ve run my life by it; it makes me an Outsider!
CW, then, asserts that the Outsider is not a freak just more sensitive; though there is a problem of releasing self into freedom. Being more sensitive conflicts with thinking ‘…it is more important to have a powerful intellect than a highly developed capacity to feel…’ Grand contradiction – one of many in the book. ‘TELawrence could never achieve immediacy of perception because he could never stop thinking…’ But then CW examines Van Gogh who was too much into feeling and Hemingway who excelled in action. CW says ‘we must become a unity rather than a multiplicity’ which is exactly what Gurdjieff says. Becoming a unity rather than a multiplicity is a universal human need – not just for Outsiders. Being able to operate from a judicious balance of intellect/emotion and action is one of the purposes of the 4th Way which CW should have picked up from Nicoll’s goldmine of Commentaries which he is supposed to have reviewed for The Sunday Times in 1956.
Adding to the mix, ‘The romantic Outsider is a dreamer of other worlds’, says CW. Whereas Insiders know exactly what to do with their lives and just get on with it unthinkingly, going to work, having fun, crossing London Bridge on the way to work, watching telly and so on, Outsiders are always asking ‘What are we to do with our lives?’ But then CW asserts that ‘The Outsider is never alive in what he does…’ which doesn’t follow at all: the Outsider is certainly alive when she asks such a question – being a seeker after the truth of things…
‘The Outsider must make his position look more positive before we can consider any claim to superiority over the person in the street…’ as though outsiders are elitist. The question ‘What are we to do with our lives?’ is about as positive a question as one could ever ask; people in the street, brainwashed by mass media and so on, rarely ask it. CW says that detachment from self, requiring stepping out of the general unexamined melée, leads to self-knowledge. Correct but how to manage the ‘stepping out’ process? ‘The Outsider is not sure who he is. He has found an ‘I’ but it is not his true ‘I’. His main problem is to find the way back to himself…’ First come to terms with all the other ‘I’s.
In my experience, it’s quite easy to find our thousands of ‘I’s if we take the appropriate steps and we can even be led towards being able to occupy Meta-I or Observer-I. It’s not just something an Outsider needs to do. CW is well aware of Multiple-I’s: in The War Against Sleep (1980) he writes:-
…later meetings… left Ouspensky in no doubt that Gurdjieff possessed real knowledge. He told Ouspensky two things that instantly impressed him: that man is basically a machine, who merely responds to his environment, and that we are mistaken to think that we possess an ego, an individual ‘I’. We possess dozens of ‘I’s, probably thousands. This is why it is so hard to work or behave consistently. One ‘I’ makes a new year’s resolution, but another ‘I’ takes over a few hours later and decides to break it. This was the kind of down-to-earth psychology that appealed to Ouspensky’s basically scientific outlook.
But, not being a teacher, CW develops no way of following up the ramifications of the profound study of Multiple-I’s, and in various places, repeating himself as he does, refers to the concept as ‘pessimistic’ – in his view, one of the many beliefs Mr G fed to Ouspensky which resulted in his becoming a negative force.
Knowing One’s Prison
In The Outsider, going along with Gurdjieff, CW suggests that, to make any kind of progress we need to know our prison – the prison of the mind, however it performs. But he focusses on what he calls strengthening our Will.
There is no general Will; if anything it may be said that every one of the multiplicity of ‘I’s has its own little version of being able to make something happen by willing it with a combination of intention and attention; there is no single undivided Will. Gurdjieff asserts that we will not be able to advance unless we first of all recognise our imprisonment, tackle the multiplicity of ‘I’s, and achieve a balance of intellect, emotion & action; then the question is how we may work with all the related small ‘willnesses’ to work towards Unified-I. Currently we are not a unity, a view that CW, intent on pursuing his aim to cure humankind’s 20th Century sickness, regards as ‘pessimistic’. He also frequently uses the word ‘I’ as a unity – as I shall demonstrate shortly – a fundamental lack of 4th Way understanding.
Throughout the whole of The Outsider, without due attribution, CW applies Gurdjieff’s division of internal behaviour into Intellectual/Emotional/Moving processes. In The Strange Life of PDOuspensky (1993) he tell us that having come across G&O at the age of 20 ‘…it was inevitable that they should figure prominently…’ in The Outsider – they don’t! They are given seven cursory pages in the final chapter when they could have been related throughout explicitly to the ideas that thinking is not enough, pure feeling/emotion is woolly and action is no good on its own: a balance, insists Mr G, is what we all need, outsiders and insiders. The message is confused by all the seemingly learned references to novels and other writings in the book.
Did CW really grasp the ideas of G&O?
CW says how important it is, not just to know the ideas of the 4th Way but, sensibly using a kinaesthetic word, a whole active body notion, to ‘grasp’ them. I’m not sure he ever did.
He is uncritically fond of the idea that we are two different selves monitored separately by brain divisions. He runs over the idea in several books but his analysis is not accurate. For example, he says that Personality is left and Essence is right brain, which is nonsense.
And, continuing his enthusiasm for the dichotomy…
…the person you call ‘you’ lives in the left half – the half that copes with the real world. The person who lives in the right is a stranger… The person we call ‘I’ is the scientist. The artist lives in the shadow…’
In terms of Multiple-I’s you could say that there is an Operating-out-of-the-left-brain-I , (Being-an-accountant-I, Writing-a-shopping-list-I) and an Operating-out-of-the-right-brain-I (Creating-a-work-of-art-I, Concocting-a-haiku-I). It’s quite wrong to suggest that ‘you’ (or ‘I’) ‘…live/s in the left brain coping with the real world…’, whatever that might be, as though the ‘I’ operating from the right brain was not trying to do the same.
Then CW invents a ‘robot’ who lives somewhere… By doing this I suppose, if he was thinking about it at all, he might have been trying to get round the idea he regarded as ‘pessimistic’ that we are machines – or ‘computers’ as he would rather have it. A robot is a kind of diabolus ex machina and could easily be exterminated whereas to assert that we are machines is a different kettle of fish, a permanence, and requires a good deal of self-observation to cope with; it’s not a matter of just hunting the robot.
Though well aware of the idea of Multiple-I’s, CW never goes beyond talking about two ‘selves’ and a robot. Here’s a passage, full of Unfied-I’s, from Super Consciousness which would be much more accurately couched in terms of Multiple-I’s. My alternatives appear in italicised square brackets.
I would suggest that in order to understand the nature of freedom, we need first of all to look more carefully at the ‘mechanisms of despair’. [He requires a handleable ‘mechanism’ to replace the somewhat abstract idea that we operate mechanically.]
The first thing to understand is that we are quite literally speaking of a ‘mechanism’. Each of us has a robot inside us who acts as a kind of valet. When I learn something new – like driving a car or how to type –1 have to do it painfully and consciously. But my robot valet soon takes over, and proceeds to type or drive the car far more efficiently than ‘I’ could. He will drive me home when I am tired, and I can’t even remember the journey. [No! There’s simply a Being-a-robot-I from time to time and a Learning-to-drive-a-car-etc-I. There is no general robot – it’s a limp Wilsonian invention.]
The trouble is that he not only takes over tasks I want him to do, like driving and talking French. He also takes over things I don’t want him to do. I listen to a symphony and am deeply moved; the tenth time I listen, the robot is listening too and I don’t enjoy it as much. I like to joke that I have even caught him making love to my wife. This robot is what Gurdjieff means when he says we are machines. [Gurdjieff doesn’t mean that at all! And note the way CW uses ‘I’ as though it were always the same ‘I’ – there are seven ‘I’s each with a quite different working reality since the beginning of this paragraph!] He [Gurdjieff] tried to devise methods of forcing his pupils to make far more effort, to foil the robot. […No! the aim was to put them in a position to overcome their mechanicalness for themselves.] But he was rather pessimistic about our chance of defeating it permanently. In order to do this, the mind would have to develop a rock-like solidness that he calls ‘essence’. [Essence has always been there but we’ve lost touch with it. There is nothing at all ‘rock-like’ about it – it has to be prised out of its uncertain existence buried under the habits of Personality. And there is nothing pessimistic about the idea that when we imagine that we already have a Unified-I we can make no progress – it just happens to be the case: first recognise the multiplicity and then work on it.]
This leads me to one of my own central insights. [If this is a ‘central insight’ it doesn’t say much for all CW’s other insights, some of which I actually find really useful…] You might say that, in our normal healthy state we are roughly 50 per cent ‘robot’, and 50 per cent ‘real you’. [The numerical proportions are nonsense. Sometimes, it’s true, we may find ourselves in Being-robotic-I – maybe when we are in Being-tired-I…] When I am tired and low, I become 51 per cent robot and only 49 per cent ‘real me’. [Until one reaches Being-an-observer-I or Meta-I, altogether beyond daily I-ness, there is no ‘real me’, just a multiplicity of ‘I’s including Being-a-robot-I…] On the other hand, when I am happy and full of energy, I am 49 per cent robot, and 51 per cent ‘real me’. [Once again, the numerical proportions are nonsense: there’s a Being-happy-I and a Being-full-of-energy-I, in neither case are they to be confused with an invented ‘real me’ or Unified-I…] Now consider what happens if I am so permanently tired [Being-tired-I – not a permanent condition at all…] that my normal condition is only 49 per cent ‘real me’ [an invention…] and 51 per cent robot [In-a-temporary-state-of-being-robotic-I] Because I see [Perceiving-I] the world as a duller place, I cease to make so much effort [moving into Ceasing-to-make-an-effort-I], so my vital batteries get low. This makes it look duller still [Seeing-the-world-as-a-dull-place-I], and makes effort seem even more pointless [Thinking-that-making-effort-is-pointless-I – just look at all the ‘I’s treated as though they were Unified-I!]. If I am not careful [need for Being-careful-I], I go into ‘negative feedback’, [Downward-spiralling-I] when I become 55 per cent robot and only 45 per cent ‘real me’. This is a highly dangerous state, because I now feel so low that all effort seems pointless, and I may slide downhill into mental illness – such as catatonia and become a kind of vegetable [Becoming-a-vegetable-I…].
On the other hand, if I use the insight of my optimistic moods [Using-insight-I & Being-in-optimistic-mode-I] when I am 51 per cent ‘real me’ – to keep me at a high level of drive and optimism, I may achieve states in which I am 52 or 53 per cent ‘real me’. This is what had happened to Maslow’s ‘peakers’. [The %ages are such nonsense! Nothing to do with Maslow’s peak experiences though, of course, there is a Having-a-peak-experience-I…]
It is also immensely important not to attach too much importance to temporary setbacks [Ignoring-temporary-setbacks-I], and above all, to avoid the stupid habit of allowing ourselves, when discouraged, to start looking into the future and seeing it as a series of impending disasters and defeats [Knowing-that-the-past-does-not-predict-the-future-I]. Ninety per cent of our problems are self-created. This is what the Hindu scripture means by ‘the mind is the slayer of the real’.
I much regret not making an effort in 2006 to send Colin Wilson a copy of my book (The Campaign against Abstractionism) relating to how it’s possible to use Multiple-I’s to make progress towards Meta-I. I would like to have discussed this with him. Inventing an inner robot is to impose an unnecessary layer in the process. Every one of our Multiple-I’s is mechanical – Typing-I, Driving-a-car-I, Talking-French-I. When our ‘doings’ become relatively efficient we move into different ‘I’s: Being-a-proficient-typist-I, etc, or even Behaving-robotically-as-a-typist-I. There is no separate robot.
But CW is absolutely right when he says ‘…the mind can deliberately change the way it sees things…’ I would like to have discussed the HOW? with him.
What is the ‘Real’?
As an enthusiast for miserable novels, I find CW’s assertion that ‘literary pessimism is a mistake’ absurd. Pessimism is a legitimate human trait; one can be full of optimistic pessimism as JBPriestley said he was. My own pessimistic optimism delights in the thoroughly miserable novels of writers from Hardy to James Hanley.
CW is over the top when he says he reacts strongly against what he describes as the ‘pessimism’ of Samuel Beckett with only the briefest of acknowledgement of his humour describing him outlandishly ‘as a polluter of the well-springs of our culture’…
At the end of Super Consciousness, as though the climax of the book, CW announces his understanding of possible levels of consciousness. Either he has forgotten about what he will most certainly have read about ‘levels of consciousness’ in 4th Way terms or he chooses not to acknowledge his debt to Gurdjieff but he says: ‘Driving from Big Sur to San Francisco in 1987, I began thinking about how many levels of consciousness I could distinguish…’
Deep sleep he calls ‘Level 0′ then there’s…
Level 1 – dream consciousness
Level 2 – waking consciousness or just awareness but not ‘self-awareness’
Level 3 – the world around you is ‘merely what it is’ and you feel stuck there – what Sartre called ‘nausea’. The meaningless state. Greyness and boredom.
Level 4 – ‘ordinary’ consciousness, of the kind we are experiencing at the moment. At its best there’s ‘an odd feeling of inner strength…’ almost at peak experience.
Level 5 – ‘spring morning consciousness’. Intellect not engaged.
CW says that ‘in this state you know life is good, and can now see clearly that the gloom of Level 3 was a delusion. You also know that we must learn never to give way to it. Our main ally is a high degree of courage and determination. But ‘gloom & boredom’ can emerge at any level; it’s a common human sense of being from time to time.
Level 6 – ‘magic consciousness’, JBPriestley’s sense of pure delight. Can last for days or weeks…
Level 7 – ‘Faculty X’, when the mind seems so energized – or deeply relaxed – that other times and other places are somehow as real as the present.
Level 8 – Ouspensky’s mystical consciousness – eg ‘I am nothing and everything…’
‘The peak experience is a sudden recognition that Level 5 is a possibility. Below Level 4, you suspect that you are going to be defeated, that all your efforts will terminate in Van Gogh’s ‘Misery will never end’. Above Level 4, you know this is untrue… But you can also see that what really matters is to know about the seven levels of consciousness, and precisely where we [human kind] are situated at the present…’
This is an incorrect conclusion. The fact is that individuals go from one level to another (barring CW’s Level 8) as & when. Because CW seems constantly upset by the idea that life might very well prove to be meaningless, as his anti-heroes (Sartre, Beckett, Camus etc) suggest, he has to find a level of consciousness that represents the ‘meaningless state’ – hence Level 3. Level 4 duplicates his Level 2 – ‘waking’ consciousness is the same as the ‘ordinary’ variety. And then there’s a progression to Gurdjieff’s Capital C Consciousness which is signalled by undergoing ‘peak experiences’ but of which it cannot possibly entirely consist.
CW is quite right to say that before we can deal with the levels we must know that they exist while adopting the idea that ‘the mind can deliberately change the way it sees things…’: for example making a deliberate move from Looking-close-up-I to Looking-from-a-distance-I (‘bird’s eye view’, as he says – ‘near and far’). Then he could have adopted his favourite philosopher Husserl’s concept of bracketing to separate out Looking-from-a-distance-I from all other ‘I’s and describe it something close to ‘Meta-I’, out of time & space, ‘nothing and everything’ – his Level 8 which can be prepared for by thoroughly undergoing exercises that will get one through his Levels 6 &7. He was not a teacher and so never worked out practical exercises.
An exercise that would help to become alive to ‘moments of delight’ (Level 6) would start by having people make a collection of past experiences of such moments to ponder – ‘positive anchors’ they might be called; then we could do ‘time-line’ exercises (Level 7) to realise how past positive experiences can be brought into the NOW without the aid of his invented ‘Faculty X’. This would offer a ‘sense of newness’ and ‘readiness potential’ which CW rightly suggests is one useful awareness that will help us to wake up from ‘ordinary consciousness’ (his Levels 2,3&4)
Compare CW’s convolutions with Gurdjieff’s straightforward account of all that’s needed in the way of ‘Levels’:-
The first state of consciousness – asleep in bed at night.
The second state of consciousness – waking sleep in ordinary life.
The third state of consciousness – higher consciousness, said to be the birthright of Man, experienced as rare flashes in ordinary life, especially when there is an experience which is unexpected or out of the normal. Self-remembering.
The fourth state – objective consciousness. In this state we can know objective truth about everything. Some modern philosophy has referred to the Fourth State as Cosmic Consciousness.
While I was pondering Colin Wilson’s enthusiasm for the idea of ‘Peak Experiences’ I was reminded of the time when I first came across something else that influenced me greatly which could now be put in the same category. I think I was put on to CSLewis’ Surprised by Joy by one of my teachers in Grammar School, ‘Bunter’ Brown, who told me that my then keen delight in woodland walks would be replaced by an even keener delight in hills & valleys as I grew up. It was after I left school (it must have been early 1956 when I visited him for the last time) that he talked about the book which I found mesmerising. I don’t remember whether I was sorely disappointed at the end of my first read but going back to it now I find its final pages a devastating collapse into a dire flaccidity: I find the completely pointless and absurd abandonment of self into first Deism and then Christianity a complete intellectual let-down after all that went before.
The early account of his being ‘surprised by Joy’ chimed with my own experience in all kinds of ways. He records moments the like of which were very familiar to me from childhood onwards. I used to contrive miniature gardens in wooden boxes for an annual Flower Show.
The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me… It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? not, certainly, for a biscuit-tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past… and before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.
Simply standing by ‘a flowering currant bush on a summer day’ fires a memory and creates a sudden somehow elevated moment out of time and the commonplace; a state of obscure desire and longing coming out of which can be a bit of a anticlimax. The same kind of heightened consciousness emerges from the experience of reading or listening to music; it’s a firing up of something in a sudden amalgam of feeling/intellect/action that provides a big buzz of somatic excitement. Lewis provides two more examples near the beginning of his book. The second of the three came from reading Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin story.
…it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamoured of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire… but to reawaken it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension’.
The very idea of ‘Autumn’… Hmmm…
Reading Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf Lewis found himself initially ‘…fond of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms… [but at a certain moment he was suddenly] uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it…’
He defines these three experiences as consisting of
…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. 1 doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.
Later he came under the influence of Wagner, music & myth. He had a cycling holiday in Ireland. Wagner & then nature itself became joint sources of Joy.
[Up in] the Wicklow mountains, I was always involuntarily looking for scenes that might belong to the Wagnerian world, here a steep hillside covered with firs where Mime might meet Sieglinde, there a sunny glade where Siegfried might listen to the bird, or presently a dry valley of rocks where the lithe scaly body of Fafner might emerge from its cave. But soon (I cannot say how soon) nature ceased to be a mere reminder of the books, became herself the medium of the real joy. I do not say she ceased to be a reminder. All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’. But Nature and the books now became equal reminders, joint reminders, of – well, of whatever it is. I came no nearer to what some would regard as the only genuine love of nature, the studious love which will make a man a botanist or an ornithologist. It was the mood of a scene that mattered to me; and in tasting that mood my skin and nose were as busy as my eyes.
He continued to get ‘the stab of Joy’ from reading Teutonic myths but it became a rarer occurrence in part perhaps because
…my secret, imaginative life [my life as concerned with Joy – including in the outer life much that would ordinarily be called imagination] began to be so important and so distinct from my outer life that I almost have to tell two separate stories. The two lives do not seem to influence each other at all. Where there are hungry wastes, starving for Joy, in the one, the other may be full of cheerful bustle and success; or again, where the outer life is miserable, the other may be brimming over with ecstasy.
The discrepancy between inner and outer life became difficult to deal with.
What keen, tingling sunlight there was! The mere smells were enough to make a man tipsy – cut grass, dew-dabbled mosses, sweet pea, autumn woods, wood burning, peat, salt water. The senses ached. I was sick with desire; that sickness better than health… I am telling a story of two lives. They have nothing to do with each other: oil and vinegar, a river running beside a canal, Jekyll and Hyde. Fix your eye on either and it claims to be the sole truth. When I remember my outer life I see clearly that the other is but momentary flashes, seconds of gold scattered in months of dross, each instantly swallowed up in the old, familiar, sordid, hopeless weariness. When I remember my inner life [it is clear that all the ‘ordinary things are] merely a coarse curtain which at any moment might be drawn aside to reveal all the heavens I then knew.
Eventually there ‘…arose the fatal determination to recover the old thrill’ and …’at last the moment when I was compelled to realise that all such efforts were failures…’
At that very moment there arose the memory of a place and time at which I had tasted the lost Joy with unusual fullness. It had been a particular hill-walk on a morning of white mist. The other volumes of the Ring (The Rheingold and The Valkyrie) had just arrived as a Christmas present from my father, and the thought of all the reading before me, mixed with the coldness and loneliness of the hillside, the drops of moisture on every branch, and the distant murmur of the concealed town, had produced a longing (yet it was also fruition) which had flowed over from the mind and seemed to involve the whole body. That walk I now remembered. It seemed to me that I had tasted heaven then. If only such a moment could return! But what I never realised was that it had returned – that the remembering of that walk was itself a new experience of just the same kind. True, it was desire, not possession. But then what I had felt on the walk had also been desire, and only possession in so far as that kind of desire is itself desirable, is the fullest possession we can know on earth; or rather, because the very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There, to have is to want and to want is to have. Thus, the very moment when I longed to be so stabbed again, was itself again such a stabbing.
Simply remembering the moment of heightened awareness was in itself a moment that could be called Joy.
Is it possible to set up conditions for undergoing the experience of Joy? Lewis concludes that it can only arrive when ‘your whole attention and desire are fixed on something else’ such as a ‘…distant mountain, or the past, or the gods of Asgard…’
It is a by-product. Its very existence presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer. If by any perverse askesis [spiritual discipline] or the use of any drug it could be produced from within, it would at once be seen to be of no value. For take away the object, and what, after all, would be left? – a whirl of images, a fluttering sensation in the diaphragm, a momentary abstraction. And who could want that? …And the second error is, having thus falsely made a state of mind your aim, to attempt to produce it… To ‘get it again’ became my constant endeavour; while reading every poem, hearing every piece of music, going for every walk, I stood anxious sentinel at my own mind to watch whether the blessed moment was beginning and to endeavour to retain it if it did. Because I was still young and the whole world of beauty was opening before me, my own officious obstructions were often swept aside and, startled into self-forgetfulness, I again tasted Joy. But far more often I frightened it away by my greedy impatience to snare it, and, even when it came, instantly destroyed it by introspection, and at all times vulgarised it by my false assumption about its nature.
The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’. Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.
Then he read George MacDonald’s Phantasies, a faerie Romance in which
The woodland journeyings, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery [to offer the sensation that] for the first time the song of the sirens sounded like the voice of my mother or my nurse. Here were old wives’ tales; there was nothing to be proud of in enjoying them. It was as though the voice which had [previously] called to me from the world’s end were now speaking at my side. It was with me in the room, or in my own body, or behind me. If it had once eluded me by its distance, it now eluded me by proximity – something too near to see, too plain to be understood, on this side of knowledge. It seemed to have been always with me; if I could ever have turned my head quick enough I should have seized it. Now for the first time I felt that it was out of reach not because of something I could not do but because of something I could not stop doing. If I could only leave off, let go, unmake myself, it would be there… never had the wind of Joy blowing through any story been less separable from the story itself… Thus, when the great moments came I did not break away from the woods and cottages that I read of to seek some bodiless light shining beyond them, but gradually, with a swelling continuity (like the sun at mid-morning burning through a fog) I found the light shining on those woods and cottages, and then on my own past life, and on the quiet room where I sat… That was the marvel. Up till now each visitation of Joy had left the common world momentarily a desert… Even when real clouds or trees had been the material of the vision, they had been so only by reminding me of another world; and I did not like the return to ours. But now I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow… In the depth of my disgraces, in the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptised; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.
For me this is akin to the exercise of identifying a number of examples of heightened awareness, distilling the essence of what makes them ‘work’ and then bringing it back into the present moment to notice how it relates to things as they are, recognising ‘peak experiences’ for the impact they can have on what Colin Wilson called ‘super consciousness’.
CSLewis’s disappointment at the disappearance of moments of ‘Joy’ did not lead to misery & thoughts of suicide. Throwing in the intellectual towel and picking up the emotional soap, he was straightforwardly struck down by Goddishness & then Christianity…
As for Joy, I labelled it ‘aesthetic experience’ and talked much about it under that name and said it was very ‘valuable’. But it came very seldom and when it came it didn’t amount to much.
The last page of the book is a very miserable let-down enough to want to toss the book into the abyss except for the memory of it (I put it in Husserl’s brackets!) as a glorious whole constituting for me a peak experience in the mid-1950’s:-
To tell you the truth, the subject [of Joy] has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bitter sweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.
He came to believe that ‘…all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it!” had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed. All that, such watching and waiting ever could find would be either an image… or a quiver in the diaphragm…’
He wouldn’t have ‘…to bother again about these images or sensations. I knew now that they were merely the mental track left by the passage of Joy…’ He had been ‘…wrong in supposing that I desired Joy itself. Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring. And that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or body at all… I had asked if Joy itself was what I wanted; and, labelling it ‘aesthetic experience’, had pretended I could answer Yes. But that answer too had broken down…’ He kids himself (or maybe I’m missing something) ‘… that in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with something which, by refusing to identify itself with any object of the senses, or anything whereof we have biological or social need, or anything imagined, or any state of our own minds, proclaims itself sheerly objective…’
Certainly there’s a way out of ‘self’ but not into some imaginary ‘something-or-other’ in the outside world – the Absolute, for example, which turns out to be his ‘utter reality’, in which we have ‘a root’.
Joy was not a deception. Its visitations were rather the moments of clearest consciousness we had, when we became aware of our fragmentary and phantasmal nature and ached for that impossible reunion which would annihilate us or that self-contradictory waking which would reveal, not that we had had, but that we were, a dream. This seemed quite satisfactory intellectually. Even emotionally too; for it matters more that Heaven should exist than that we should ever get there…
The way out is to wade through the multiplicity of ‘I’s to find our route to Meta-I which, in itself a state of heightened awareness, will observe the incidence of it in other ‘I’s and build a complex structure of enlightenment.
Ouspensky being ‘Surprised by Joy…’
It was in the sea of Marmora, on a rainy day of winter, the far-off high and rocky shores were of a pronounced violet colour of every shade, including the most tender: fading into grey and blending with the grey sky. The sea was the colour of lead mixed with silver. I remember all these colours. The steamer was going north. I remained at the rail, looking at the waves. The white crest of waves were running towards us. A wave would run at the ship, raised as if desiring to hurl its crest upon it, rushing up with a howl. The steamer heeled, shuddered and slowly straightened back; then from afar a new wave came running. I watched this play of waves with the ship, and felt them draw me to themselves. It was not at all that desire to jump down which one feels in mountains but something infinitely more subtle. The waves were drawing my soul to themselves. And suddenly I felt that it went to them. It lasted an instant, perhaps less than an instant, but I entered into the waves, and with them rushed with a howl at the ship. And in that instant I became all. The waves – they were myself; the far violet mountains, the wind, the clouds hurrying from the north, the great steamship, heeling and rushing irresistibly forward – all were myself. I sensed the enormous heavy body – my body – all its motions, shudderings, waverings and vibrations, fire, pressure of steam and weight of engines were inside me, the unmerciful and unyielding propelling screw which pushed and pushed me forward, never for a moment releasing me, the rudder which determined all my motion – all this was myself: also two sailors… and the black snake of smoke coming in clouds out of the funnel … all. It was an instant of unusual freedom, joy and expansion. A second – and the spell of the charm disappeared. It passed like a dream when one tries to remember it. But the sensation was so powerful, so bright and so unusual that I was afraid to move and waited for it to recur. But it did not return, and a moment later I could not say that it had been – could not say whether it was a reality or merely the thought that, looking at the waves, it might be so.
Maslow & Peak Experience
Reference to the 16 aspects of Peak Experience can be found by Googling ‘theperformatist.com › maslow-peak-experience’
In Summary, overlapping, intertwined and ultimately inseparable, they are as follows:-
• Sense of Unity of Self – a feeling of unity of the self, wholeness, apparent single-mindedness
• Oneness with the Environment – the musician becomes the music; the artist becomes the drawing.
• Experience of Peak Power – able to use all capacities to the best…
• Non-Forcing – effortlessness and ease of functioning. Things just happen…
• Self Determination – self-assured & confident
• Free of Inhibition – absence of inhibition, fear, doubt or worry.
• Spontaneity – innocence, naivety and unguardedness. Flow state.
• Purposeless Creativity – lack of self-consciousness, improvisation and self-expression
• Timelessness – free of past and future.
• Pinnacle of Individuality – uniqueness, individuality, idiosyncrasy. Egoless.
• Merging of I and Other – pure psyche and less an object in the world. Bonding.
• Unmotivated by Needs – non-striving, non-needing, self-validation
• Artistic Expression – poetic, mythical, and rhapsodic as if expressing a natural language of being.
• Sense of Completion – total discharge, catharsis, or climax.
• A Higher Level of Playfulness – delight in both the smallness and the largeness of the human being…
• Surprise Happenings – authentic letting things just happen.
All of which could be said to describe the activity of making a haiku…
5 thoughts on “COLIN WILSON, PEAK EXPERIENCES AND DISAPPOINTMENT (R18)”
Here is yet another of your posts that I will need to come back and re-read, Colin, when the day finally comes that I make the time to read The Outsider. Armed with the analysis you’ve provided above, I expect to be able to read it much more critically now than I ever might have in the past. So thank you in advance! And also, let me say ‘thanks’ for my copy of Room 16, which just arrived in my mailbox a day or two ago. Wonderful list of book appearances, as always – I’m particularly interested to read what you have to say about Alan Watts, Mark Epstein, and DTSuzuki. Onward!!
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This glob covers so much ground concerning “peak experiences” it seemed at first that there was no where else to go, so I turned to my own such experiences less they have with much of this.
I only know Colin Wilson from his work on the occult and mostly Aleister Crowley, although I am familiar with the concept of the Outsider, a term I once felt a great affinity for but now it seems another romantic notion, one of my I’s that barely strikes a chord, although that might not be true, it’s difficult to tell these days.
In the sixties and early seventies expanding one’s consciousness was all the rage, folks like Terrance McKenna, Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, the Beatles, and thousands more were experimenting with LSD and passing on its virtues. A Peak Experience could be had for a mere five dollars and for me it transformed my life. Without the help provided by this magical drug I could see myself as a violent offender instead of the loving man I’ve become. Did Wilson ever trip?
I was on the road for five years, hitchhiking around america and this was for me a plethora of peak experiences, I mean just the women I met along the way were charged with this type of energy. I remember hitchhiking to Virginia when I was just 14 with a friend of mine. We left no note and so you can imagine how our parents felt. But it was a wondrous adventure, full of danger and excitement. Before it was over we watched Easy Rider in Washington, this was 1969, and that film was a peak experience, can a film be a peak experience? I think so.
Literature has also been a vital force in my life, along with music, poetry, haiku, and the mythology of many cultures. Where would I be without the mind-blowing novels of the 19th century: Lawrence, Woolf, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Twain, Melville… All peak experiences.
As an older man these experiences darkened for a time, as is expected, although I’m not sure about this. My tastes moved on to meditation, studying Gurdjieff, meeting Colin B. This sort of deep mining provided me with a more discerning eye, a more balanced life. Now my peak experiences consist of holding my grandchildren, especially Leo who has Down Syndrome and will never know what the hell we are talking about here and yet he shines with a different light, a light I’ve come to rely on for a simple JOY.
I’m prone to sense that these experiences are all around us, it’s us who get buggered up by the past or the future.
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Thanks for this, Patrick! I’ve not read Colin Wilson’s occult books nor of his taste for the oddest of wayout sex and probably don’t intend to. Somewhere he is emphatic that the extreme bizarre or the mystical is merely an extension of ‘ordinary life’ – that’s the emphasis I follow, always with the understanding that ordinariness can shift into the extraordinary. I seem to remember that he did toy with drugs but I can’t remember where I read it. He puts Mr G in the occult paradigm – I think this is incorrect!
You’ve made me begin to write another Glob about all the things that make ‘peak experiences’ for me – just as you say, music, poetry, haiku, myths & legends, relationships, film, novels.
So much in life has the makings of a peak experience. Though he didn’t put it like this, nor does he ever seem to me to grasp the practical activity involved, I agree with Colin Wilson that one can have a mental set that acknowledges the onset or presence of a peak experience: for example “If I were going to watch Casablanca for the umpteenth time this evening, I’d know it would provide me with the repetition of a peak experience…”
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I’m not sure if watching Casablanca will have the same effect or just a memory of a peak experience and then what is that?
I agree, G shouldn’t be placed in the category of the Occult but I understand why this would happen. The word occult has been replaced by esoteric in the past couple of decades.
What is a Peak Experience? Is it like many of these recent spiritual terms? Either way I think it’s a valuable topic to discuss. Maybe we should begin with some measurements, some degrees, a scale of some sort. Or is it our stories, our experiences that weave our Peak Experiences into some form of reality.
For me I’d like to leave out the LSD stories because my Peak Experiences later in my life were all based on real work, the type of work described by G and You, this work proved to be rewarding on a level more in-line with the sacred.
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I think it must depend on how one suspends Intellect whether Casablanca maintains its peakiness. But if the memory of such an experience remains then it too is peaky.
Your posts have made me toss ‘peak experience’ (the words) out of the window, Patrick! In the Glob just posted I have taken your idea of ‘weaving’ grand experiences (all experience) into a grand gestalt. That way, it strikes me, all experience gets to a higher plane – what Mr G called ‘Higher Consciousness’…
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