--Gary Lachman, author of 'A Secret History of Consciousness'
Colin Wilson's 'Occult Trilogy': A Guide for Studentsby Colin Stanley
The 'Occult Trilogy' is the collective label applied to Colin Wilson's three major works on the occult: The Occult (1971); Mysteries: an Investigation into the Occult, the Paranormal and the Supernatural (1978) and Beyond the Occult (1988). They amounted to a monumental 1600 pages and have spawned many other lesser works.
--Gary Lachman, author of 'A Secret History of Consciousness'
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Colin Wilson's 'Occult Trilogy'
A Guide for Students
By Colin Stanley
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2012 Colin Stanley
All rights reserved.
* * *
The Occult was Colin Wilson's first commissioned book and he made no secret of the fact that, at first, it was not a subject that interested him greatly. When he sought the advice of Robert Graves on whether he should write it, he was told very firmly that he should not. However, with a young family to support, Wilson needed the money and fortunately went ahead with the project. During the course of his research, he found his attitude to the subject changing:
"Although I have always been curious about the 'occult' ... it has never been one of my major interests, like philosophy, or science, or even music.... It was not until two years ago, when I began the systematic research for this book, that I realised the remarkable consistency of the evidence for such matters as life after death, out-of-body experiences (astral projection), reincarnation. In a basic sense my attitude remains unchanged; I still regard philosophy—the pursuit of reality through intuition aided by intellect—as being more relevant more important, than questions of the 'occult'. But the weighing of the evidence ... has convinced me that the basic claims of 'occultism' are true."
The completed book, dedicated to Graves, was published on October 4, 1971, by Hodder & Stoughton in the U.K. and Random House in the U.S. In his new Introduction to a 2003 reprint, published by Watkins Publishing, he wrote, "The publication of this book had the effect of changing my life". Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee who, as critics, were instrumental in turning his The Outsider into a bestseller in 1956, but had subsequently changed their minds and then ignored his work for fifteen years, relaxed their embargo and came out in support of him again.
"But for me, The Occult did a great deal more than make me 'respectable', it also served as a kind of awakening. Before 1970, I had been inclined to dismiss 'the occult' as superstitious nonsense. Writing The Occult made me aware that the paranormal is as real as quantum physics (and, in fact, has a great deal in common with it), and that anyone who refuses to take it into account is simply shutting his eyes to half the universe." (Wilson (1), xxii)
A huge book (over 600 pages), it became the first in a trilogy of equally bulky volumes on the subject. Mysteries followed in 1978 (London: Hodder and Stoughton) and Beyond the Occult (London, New York: Bantam Press) in 1988. The book also spawned numerous popular, illustrated books on the subject which have been issued under his name since the 1970s and, indeed, continue to appear today [see following checklist].
The Occult is divided into three parts, preceded by a short Introduction. The first part, 'A Survey of the Subject', states Wilson's own preoccupations and convictions. The second, 'A History of Magic', concentrates on individual 'mages' and adepts. The third part, 'Man's Latent Powers', looks at witchcraft, spiritualism and ghosts with a final chapter that discusses the metaphysical questions that arise out of occultism.
"The thesis of this book is revolutionary ..." Wilson declares on the first page of his Introduction. Primitive man believed the world to be full of unseen forces whereas today our rational minds tell us that these forces existed only in his imagination. The problem, says Wilson, is that we have become "thinking pigmies" who have forgotten "the immense world of broader significance that stretches around [us]". It is his belief that civilisation cannot evolve until the occult is taken for granted "on the same level as atomic energy" and he recommends that we re-learn the technique of expanding inwardly and relax our hard-headed approach to subjects such as premonition, life after death etc.
"Man has reached a point in his evolution where he must ... turn increasingly inward. That is, he must turn to the hidden levels of his being, to the 'occult', to meanings and vibrations that have so far been too fine to grasp."
He claims that the science of cybernetics has suggested that there is a certain order and meaning behind the universe and that:
"All this means that for the first time in Western history a book on the occult can be something more than a collection of marvels and absurdities. Religion, mysticism and magic all spring from the same basic 'feeling' about the universe: a sudden feeling of meaning...."
In Part 1, Chapter 1, which has the seemingly paradoxical title 'Magic—The Science of the Future', Wilson explains that although he had read books on magic and mysticism in his youth, he did so "because they confirmed my intuition of another order of reality, an intenser and more powerful form of consciousness ...". But if, at that time, he had been asked whether he literally believed in magic, he would have answered: No. "Magic, I felt, was no more than a first crude attempt at science, and it had now been superseded by science". He continues:
"If I still accepted that view, I would not be writing this book. It now seems to me that the exact reverse is true. Magic was not the 'science' of the past. It is the science of the future. I believe that the human mind has reached a point in evolution where it is about to develop new powers—powers that would once have been considered magical."
In the animal kingdom 'magical' powers (such as the homing instinct) are commonplace:
"Civilised man has forgotten about them because they are no longer necessary to his survival ... In fact, his survival depends upon 'forgetting' them. High development of the instinctive levels is incompatible with the kind of concentration upon detail needed by civilised man."
Wilson then recounts some incidents of premonition and telepathy in his personal life before outlining recorded cases of astral projection by John Cowper Powys and August Strindberg. This encourages Wilson to produce his own basic theory of the power of the human mind, introducing the important concept of 'Faculty X': "that latent power that human beings possess to reach beyond the present":
"Faculty X is a sense of reality of other places and other times, and it is the possession of it—fragmentary and uncertain though it is—that distinguishes man from all other animals."
He quotes examples of 'Faculty X' from Marcel Proust's autobiographical novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu and Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History. These examples are of central importance to Wilson and will be referred to on numerous occasions in future works. 'Faculty X', Wilson insists, is an ordinary potentiality of consciousness, "... it is the key not only to so-called occult experience, but to the whole future evolution of the human race". [Wilson considered this chapter important enough to include, in its entirety, in the self-edited collection The Essential Colin Wilson (London: Harrap, 1985).]
Although he advised Wilson against writing such a book, Robert Graves seems to have contributed to it significantly. Part 1, Chapter 2: 'The Dark Side of the Moon', opens with a discussion between the two in which Graves asserts that 5 per cent of human beings have occult powers. This, of course, fascinates Wilson because "this is also the figure for the 'dominant minority' among human beings". He feels that there are "many reasons for assuming that the two groups are identical". But when he speaks of 'occult powers':
"Graves's concern is less with witches or mystics than with poets, and his important work The White Goddess contains a theory of the nature of poetry that links it not only with the powers of the subconscious, but with traditional magical cults."
Graves's idea is that there are two kinds of poetry: 'muse poetry' which he associates with the White Goddess of primitive lunar cults and 'Apollonian poetry' which attempts to banish lunar superstitions with pure solar reason. A poet, according to Wilson,
"... is a person who is naturally mentally healthy and resilient, and who frequently experiences moments in [which] he is suddenly amazed and delighted to realise how interesting everything is.... He perceives that the world is rich with meanings that he would ordinarily overlook."
He concludes that "Graves's 'lunar knowledge' is a reality—a reality of which poets become aware in moments of stillness". And:
"If we agree, then, that the 'muse poet' or the 'magician' is a person whose mind is able to relax and grasp these deeper levels of meaning, we must also recognise that this is a two-way affair. The meaning is already there, external to his own mind, and his power to 'tune in' to it is only the beginning."
We have now reached the essence of Wilson's philosophy: "The true 'direction' for consciousness lies in knowledge expansion, a wider and wider grasp of the relations of the actual world, to illuminate and supplement the 'lunar' insights of the subconscious."
In order to prove that magical systems should not be relegated merely to the status of unsuccessful attempts at science, Wilson then devotes several pages to the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, and concludes that its profoundest level of meaning is revealed when thinking about its symbols and ideas and not its power to foretell events:
"... the primary meaning of Yin is 'the cloudy, the overcast', while that of Yang is 'banners waving in the sun'. Could one devise more basic symbols of the central problem of human existence? Dullness and boredom versus the 'moments of insight'."
In Chapter 3: 'The Poet as Occultist' Wilson states:
"The poet is a man in whom Faculty X is naturally more developed than in most people. Whilst most of us are ruthlessly 'cutting out' whole areas of perception, thus impoverishing our mental lives, the poet retains the faculty to be suddenly delighted by the sheer reality of the world 'out there'."
This is made possible by their ability to concentrate and to still the mind—an ability most of us seem to have lost. He presents examples of telepathy, and the ability to project one's body elsewhere, recorded by August Strindberg, W.B. Yeats , A.L. Rowse, Louis Singer and others.
"Art, music, philosophy, mysticism are all escape routes from the narrowness of everyday reality; but they all demand a large initial outlay of conscious effort; you have to sow before you can reap."
In contrast, 'magic' or occultism is a simple direct method of escaping the narrowness of everydayness. The student of the occult looks within himself and "tries to reach down to his subliminal depths". This, says Wilson, explains the importance of symbols, which have a power to appeal to the subconscious mind, and suggests there may be, as W.B. Yeats and Carl Jung asserted:
"... a racial memory, which works in terms of symbols. This racial memory can be reached by 'hushing the unquiet mind', by reaching a certain depth of inner stillness where it becomes accessible to the limited individual memory."
This brings Wilson back to the I Ching and initiates a discussion on the symbolism of the Tarot which contains "... shocks to jar the mind out of 'the triviality of everydayness', to induce concentration upon essentials".
In Part Two, Chapter 1, 'The Evolution of Man', Wilson argues that life is a purposive process:
"... science insists that the universe can be explained entirely in mechanical terms. If we can show this to be untrue, then we have provided the case for magic with the most solid kind of foundation."
When we make an effort, says Wilson, for example when learning to play a musical instrument, we slowly master the difficult process. If, however, we make no effort, then we barely achieve a coherent note:
"As soon as I have observed the enormous difference between purposeful concentration and aimless drifting, I find it hard to believe that life has reached its present stage by drifting."
Like Aldous Huxley, Wilson believes that if the mind has a 'subconscious' why should it not also have a 'super-conscious':
"The powers of the 'superconscious' are within reach of the human will, provided it is fresh and alive. As soon as habit takes over—or what I have called elsewhere 'the robot'—they dwindle.... All disciplines aimed at increased use of these powers depend on a high level of optimism and will-drive.... A science—or knowledge system—which has no place for will or purpose is an obstruction to human evolution ..."
In Chapter 2, 'The Magic of Primitive Man', Wilson attempts to "outline the development of man's 'hidden powers' from the dawn of history to its 'Tower of Babel' period, the period of degeneration". He presents evidence to suggest that Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man were monotheistic, employing shamans as intermediaries who used intense concentration to achieve their aims. Then, as man's activities expanded so did the need for more gods:
"All religion and occultism that spring from this intense concentration tend to be simple and mystical.... All the great religions ... are simple in this sense. In the hands of the common people—the non-religious 99 per cent—they soon lose this simplicity, this clarity of vision, and develop hoards of angels, gods and demons."
In the next two chapters, Wilson considers the lives of some of the principal figures in the history of Western magic: "... the mage or adept is a fundamental human 'archetype': he symbolises man's evolutionary destiny". The Magi, according to Wilson, derived their magic powers from 'positive consciousness' which he defines as:
"... a happy, open state of mind.... It is a sense of the marvellous interestingness of the world. We still use the word 'magic' in this sense—talking about 'the magic of summer nights', 'magic moments' and so on. This is not a misuse of language; that is what real magic is about."
Sections are devoted to studies of the Magi, Orphism, the Essenes, the worship of the god Dionysius, alchemy, the Mystical Kabbalah and Gnosticism. The life and work of Pythagoras: "... the first 'great initiate' of recorded history", Apollonius of Tyana, Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, Nostradamus, Paracelsus and many others are considered.
At the beginning of Chapter 5, 'Adepts and Impostors', Wilson writes: "After the great sixteenth century there is a falling off in the quality of magic". In it he considers the life and work of Dr. John Dee, Giacomo Casanova, Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, the Count of Saint-Germain and "the greatest occultist of the eighteenth century" Emanuel Swedenborg.
In Chapter 6, 'The Nineteenth Century—Magic and Romanticism', we move into more familiar Wilson territory: "The romantics were driven by the spirit of magic, which is the evolutionary spirit of the human race" but "wrapped in self-pity, they fail to stay the course" ending in pessimism and despair: "with the exception of Goethe, the romantics seem unaware of that other form that ecstasy takes: the violent raging appetite for more life". However, the romantic revival brought with it a revival of interest in magic: Madame Blavatsky and theosophy, W.B. Yeats, MacGregor Mathers and the Order of the Golden Dawn.
'The Beast Himself', Aleister Crowley, is the subject of Chapter 7. Wilson had previously based a character—Caradoc Cunningham—in his novel Man Without A Shadow: the diary of an existentialist (London: Arthur Barker, 1963) on Crowley and would go on to write a short biography Aleister Crowley: the nature of the Beast (Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1987). Chapter 8 is shared between Grigori Rasputin and the philosopher/mystic G.I. Gurdjieff. Wilson had already written a biography of Rasputin, Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs (London: Arthur Barker, 1964) and would write a novel based on his life, The Magician From Siberia (London: Robert Hale, 1988). But it is Gurdjieff whom he describes as "the most interesting of all magicians.... There can be no doubt that he achieved a large degree of Faculty X" (502). Again, he had written about Gurdjieff before, most notably in his Outsider Cycle and would go on to write a short biography, The War Against Sleep: the philosophy of Gurdjieff (Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1980). Clearly Gurdjieff's message resonates with Wilson and, to a great extent, correlates with his own ideas about the inadequacy of human consciousness:
"In the moments of 'higher consciousness' there is always a feeling of 'But of course!' Life is infinitely meaningful; its possibilities are suddenly endless, and 'normal consciousness' is seen as being no better than sleep. For, like sleep, it separates man from reality."
Following his assessment of Gurdjieff, Wilson moves The Occult forward to its third and final part: 'Man's Latent Powers'. In Chapter 1 he presents a history of witchcraft including vampirism and lycanthropy. Chapter 2, 'The Realm of Spirits', contains accounts of spiritualism, ghosts, reincarnation and clairvoyance. In Chapter 3, 'Glimpses', he attempts "to suggest a general theory that might impose some order on the bewildering mass of occult phenomena already examined". Wilson is convinced that, if can we learn to raise our consciousness above the 'everyday norm' we could re-acquaint ourselves with "various powers and faculties that at present are 'occult' (latent, hidden) and would discover that they are perfectly natural after all". He recounts documented instances of telepathy, precognition and mystical experiences seeing these as evidence that we can, albeit fleetingly, tune into higher levels of consciousness. But why only 'fleetingly'?
"The answer is of fundamental importance. Because the 'muscles' that could hold it are flabby and undeveloped. We only make use of these muscles involuntarily, when suddenly stirred by beauty or a sense of crisis.... We possess the muscles for compressing consciousness and producing states of intensity, but we use them so seldom that we are hardly aware of their existence."
Excerpted from Colin Wilson's 'Occult Trilogy' by Colin Stanley. Copyright © 2012 by Colin Stanley. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Meet the Author
Colin Stanley is a freelance writer and Managing Editor of Paupers' Press. He edits the series, Colin Wilson Studies, which features extended essays on Wilson's work by scholars worldwide. He lives in the UK.
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