Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson by Gary Lachman
Reviewed by Nicholas Colloff
What if the world ‘as it really is’ is the one you see when in your most joyous state of mind? When your perception reaches out and dances; and, everything you see, even the most mundane thing, is full of its own life, resonating harmoniously? And if so, what is it, without or within us, that inhibits our ability to dwell there permanently?
Believing in and articulating the reality of the first proposition and seeking a comprehensive answer to the second was Colin Wilson’s life’s work. That work was carried out as a writer, working in both fiction and non-fiction, as lecturer and television presenter. The work poured forth, over fifty years, and explored a wide range of subject matter – philosophy, psychology, the occult, crime, sexology, literature, archaeology and science. He ignored T.S. Eliot’s advice not to write as much and, as Gary Lachman shows in this exemplary intellectual biography, this veritable flood was shaped by a guiding set of core concerns and corresponding ideas.
Why do we not see reality as it really is?
First, because we misconceive perception. It is not simply the passive reception and organisation by association of sense impressions but a reaching out and apprehending of reality that intentionally co-creates what is seen. Second, because this tendency towards a mistaken passivity is reinforced by that part of our mind that Wilson dubbed the ‘robot’. The robot has utility. It handles the need we have to analyse, to break down the world into manageable chunks, deal in simple cause and effect and help us navigate, and make habitual, many features of our everyday lives so we run on the rails of certainty. But this helpful servant has a tendency to overreach itself, imagine itself dominant, close off more holistic, vivid and ultimately meaningful ways of seeing. Wilson comes to locate this differentiated mental life in the two halves of the brain. Third, because habit is comfortable, less effort is required and the vast majority of us appear disposed to laziness! Fourth, because we inhabit a culture that has identified the world seen only through the robot’s eyes as ‘the real world’ – fragmented and meaningless – a vision of the world Wilson found in what he dubbed the old existentialism of Sartre or in the literature of Beckett. Such a cultural subscription becomes self-fulfilling – why make an effort if the effort is ultimately futile?
But there are positive reasons too. As Bergson argued and Huxley found in his mescaline experience, the brain as a whole is a necessarily limiting filter. The world seen without a filter may be a dazzling display of intuitive knowledge or the lively unwashed plates in Huxley’s sink being of untold significance but this may be equally disabling unless translated into forms of assimilated knowledge and living performance. So too, though in the past, our ancestors may have had access to a more holistic form of knowing and acting – and Wilson saw the apparently unrepeatable feats of, say, the Pyramids, as evidence of this – this knowledge led to a static form of life.
Our conscious evolution requires a more dynamic, conscious relationship to the unfolding universe; thus, the long journey of differentiation (and alienation) such that in stepping back from the world, we are propelled towards finding a more creative, dynamic relationship in and to reality. Ultimately the task was to be so in control of one’s transcendental ego (to use Husserl’s nomenclature) as to be able to navigate between clear seeing and conscious acting such that you stepped permanently beyond the robot or, more accurately, that the robot’s necessary functions became wholly transparent within a wider field of apprehended meaning.
These ideas were informed by Wilson’s own experience of breakthrough to this more vivid reality and by an informed and experimental practice and Lachman gives us wonderful examples of both of these. So, for example, in the latter case, learning from Maslow that the act of remembering a prior ‘peak experience’ as being a gateway into a new one or through paying intelligent attention to the clues of synchronicity learning better to navigate one’s purpose. Most especially too in engagement with a host of thinkers and imaginative writers. An early wrestling with the Romantics (broadly conceived) that he immortalised in ‘The Outsider’, his at first lionised then denigrated book, was followed by the key influence of Husserl (on perception, intentionality and phenomenology), of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Shaw, Wells and Whitehead (on conscious evolution) and James, Maslow and Frankl (on a positive and meaningful psychology) to name but a few!
This is the great virtue of Lachman’s book – to anchor it in Wilson as a thinker and explorer about the nature and potentiality of consciousness, both in its positive direction, and Wilson was undoubtedly an optimist, and in his realistic assessment of the ways its evolution and development could be side tracked or thwarted, that, for example, forms the basis of his, undoubtedly relished, interest in crime and sex!
It is true that not everywhere Wilson took his explorations will have the same value for every reader. We may doubt the validity of archaic lost civilisations of telepathic Neanderthal (though personally I am perfectly happy to entertain the speculation and assess the evidence) or we may want to sidestep the criminal mind as a diversion (or descent) too far though Wilson would maintain only one of degree not of kind. Nevertheless, anyone seriously interested in our human potential should find somewhere to inhabit in Wilson’s capacious landscape and, in the company of this witty, intelligent, serious and accessible interlocutor, wrestle with a fascinating constellation of ideas. They will emerge challenged and enriched.
Meanwhile, it must be said too that Wilson was never lacking in self-confidence, an attribute, that Lachman confesses, is part of the reason that his home country – where self-depreciation and disguising your intellect are the somewhat stultifying norm – has found it so difficult to embrace him. Lachman’s biography, it is hoped, will go some way to addressing this. It is a balanced, sympathetic, and highly lucid one and of a man who obviously exerted a significant and acknowledged influence on the author; and, they share the ability to convey complex ideas simply without ever being simplistic. Wilson, also, emerges as a generous writer willing to help and promote the work of others.
It was probably not the place then to make a critical assessment of Wilson’s ideas rather than provide sympathetic exposition but in closing I, myself, do want to suggest a missing dimension. Wilson’s emphasis on the active, on the will, concentrating its way to liberation is understandable as is his criticism of the potential passivity of our everyday life but it does so sometimes at the risk of simply devaluing the receptive, the influx of creative grace, gift, that as an essential part of the phenomenology of consciousness as Husserl’s out going intentionality. Intention and reception are the yang and yin of becoming (and being whole). Likewise, though a happy Cancerian and loving husband and father, love and compassion as a cultivator of real seeing and acting tends to be more noticeable by their absence (as does in Wilson’s key thinkers and writers, unless I am mistaken, any women)! But then we simply have to recognise that our ways to liberation are, in truth, more manifold than any person can, or indeed should, encompass – even as one as gifted and companionable as Wilson.
Nicholas Colloff studied theology, philosophy and psychology at London and Oxford. He is the director of the Argidius Foundation.