Dark Star Rising

Yesterday I submitted the manuscript of my new book, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, to Mitch Horowitz, my editor at Tarcher/Perigee. Mitch must like it, at least that’s how I read his tweet about it. It’s a report on the strange “occult politics” that seems to have come out of the shadows with the recent US presidential election, and which I discovered has been at work in Russia for some years prior to this. Researching it I came upon some odd pairings, between “positive thinking” and chaos magick, Traditionalism and a resurgent Russia, and a cartoon frog and postmodernism, to name a few. The book will be out next year. In the meantime you can look forward to The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination which will be available in the fall. In a sense Dark Star Rising begins where Lost Knowledge ends.

Criminal Outsiders

Steven Greenleaf has written a very insightful review of my first book, a collection of  essays on Wilsonian themes that Colin Stanley at Paupers’ Press took a chance on publishing back in 1994, unambiguously entitled Two Essays on Colin Wilson. It is somewhat humbling to recognize that one’s juvenilia was written in one’s late thirties – but then I’ve always thought of myself as a late bloomer, at least in terms of writing. Some encouragement, perhaps, to others who have put off getting their thoughts down on paper – or a computer screen – until their later years. Some of the material on William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller later found a home in Turn Off Your Mind and originally started life as an essay for a film class when I was working an a soon-to-be-aborted Ph.D in English Literature at USC. My professor thought my criticism of Burroughs etc was “vitiated by moral snipping” – remarkable what we remember. I doubt if the professor, Leo Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown, remembers it though.

The Outsider Strikes Back!

Here is a letter I wrote in response to a review of Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson published in Fortean Times No. 353, for May 2017. While I am open to criticism, I believe the reviewer did little more than repeat much of the calumny Wilson received in his lifetime. I am very happy that David Sutton, editor of Fortean Times, was open to my letter and published it in Fortean Times No. 355, for July 2017.

Dear Fortean Times,
Many thanks for David Barrett’s review of my latest book, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, which appears in FT 353 for May 2017. I appreciate that you devote ample space to the book, but I would like to clarify some remarks that, I believe, may give readers a wrong impression about it.
The reviewer remarks that “aside from the early pages,” most of the book is about Wilson’s work, and hence is not really a biography, but more of a ‘philosophy textbook’. Would that such textbooks had such philosophy. He does acknowledge that because Wilson wrote about ideas, this makes the book more about their development than his. Perhaps, although I do believe I follow Wilson’s life fairly closely, linking the ideas he is grappling with to their expression in his life. I don’t believe it is true that aside from charting his early years as a struggling wannabe before The Outsider threw him into a celebrity spotlight he never really wanted, there is nothing about his life. There is plenty about it. But Wilson himself would say that what is really important about a writer is what he says. As the majority of material written about Wilson ignores practically everything he wrote aside from The Outsider, I believe, as he did, that the books that followed, and which made up what he called ‘the Outsider cycle’, warrant serious consideration,and I was determined to give them that. As I say in the Introduction, my aim was to present an ‘introductory overview’ of Wilson’s life and work and to ‘make clear some of the basic ideas and aims of Wilson’s philosophy’ so that it may ‘prompt readers unfamiliar with his work to seek out his books and read them for themselves.’
My reason for doing this is, as the reviewer remarks, because Wilson wrote an enormous amount about a wide range of different but related subjects. Yet all of his subjects are linked by a common theme, what Wilson calls ‘the paradoxical nature of freedom’. My aim was to show to readers how this common and, to my mind, absolutely important insight, informs all his work. The reviewer’s cursory assessment of this as ‘common sense’ and his brief remarks about it suggests that in his case I failed.
The reviewer also suggests that I did not sufficiently question Wilson’s assessment of himself as a ‘genius’. Yet he seems to have missed several places in which I do just that, or at least question a 24 year-old’s too frequent acknowledgement of it. So, on p. 54, I write: ‘It was that word “genius” that began to irritate the mostly modest reading public” and I suggest that the fact that “he himself breathed it somewhat injudiciously did not help.” I also suggest that “Wilson’s own inexperience and lack of guile also ensured that he would put his foot in it” (p. 56) in interviews.There are other examples of my questioning as well. But then, reviewers like Cyril Connolly, Philip Toynbee, Edith Sitwell and others were themselves announcing Wilson’s ‘genius’ to their readers from the moment The Outsider appeared. Who are we – or Wilson – to disagree? And do I consider him a ‘genius’? Well, Wilson himself points out the difference between having genius and being one, and I have no doubt that he had it, and on more occasions than only The Outsider. I let the reader know up front that I am a ‘fan’ and that Wilson was a ‘mentor’ to me – and to many others who found in his work important and essential ideas about human existence and consciousness. But then the ‘totally brainless’ English approach is very often to castigate anyone who believes in anything and to celebrate either mediocrity or the kind of cynical know-it-all pessimism that is forever fearful of any wool being pulled over its eyes. By the way, two other English thinkers I met and wrote about, Owen Barfield and Kathleen Raine, said exactly the same thing about the English, so perhaps this insight is not limited to Wilson.
The reviewer also points out that there is only one paragraph about Wilson’s politics, mentioning his support for Thatcher. Yet he fails to mention that Wilson also wrote an open letter calling for her resignation. He also says that Wilson had views ‘much further to the right’. That Wilson was labeled a ‘fascist’ by people like John Osborne, Kenneth Tynan and other fashionably left writers, solely because he was interested in existential concerns, not social ones,  is simply name-calling. Wilson was not in the least interested in politics – in fact, he started his public career as an anarchist at Speaker’s Corner –  although, as I do point out, some of his Angry Young friends, like the novelist Bill Hopkins, were. Wilson did edit a book called Marx Refuted, which included contributions by Karl Popper, Leszek Kolakowski, and Arthur Koestler, among others. Calling them ‘far-right’ is rather like called Tony Blair ‘far-left’. I also say, on p. 359, that Wilson ‘could show surprising political naivete’, apropos of a lunch he once had with Oswald Mosley. On the same page I have Wilson saying that he ‘always labelled myself a socialist’ but he later came to reject socialism while writing a book about Shaw. But he has ‘been against the Tories all my life’. With all this, I somehow can’t find the views that the reviewer says were ‘much further to the right.’
I can’t agree that most readers would see ‘arrogance or blindness or both’ about Wilson’s confidence in his work. My experience and that of the readers of my book has been quite the opposite: in this we see the kind of self-belief that anyone attempting to do something out of the normal run of things must have in order to survive the kind of disparagement and sheer disdain that most often comes from being – dare I say it? – an ‘Outsider’. And what are we to think of a reviewer for the Fortean Times who thinks that all of what Wilson had to say about synchronicity – a phenomenon whose reality I am as convinced of as I am of anything else – came from one experience? That is simply not the case, and the reviewer misrepresents the incident in question egregiously.
The other supposed flaws in the book are, sadly, duly acknowledged. I would have liked to have had more room to discuss Wilson’s fictions, although I do go into detail about his first novel Ritual in the Dark and do comment on The Mind Parasites, The Philosopher’s Stone, and, at greater length, The Black Room. This lack must be chalked up to sheer space and time; the book is over 200,000 words (twice the word count allotted) and I was already far behind schedule by the time I delivered it. (Readers interested in an excellent study of Wilson’s fictions should find Novels to Some Purpose: The Fiction of Colin Wilson by Nicolas Tredell.) And the index was the publisher’s work. I did want to include a bibliography, but space and time again precluded that.
I should point out though, that the reviewer’s dismay about not being able to look up ‘key Wilsonian concepts like “Factor X” is perhaps more home-grown than he may think. Wilson does not write about ‘Factor X’ but ‘Faculty X‘. Such an obvious mistake from a reviewer whose tone throughout suggests a prejudice against Wilson’s work, and whose review fails to do justice in any way to any of Wilson’s ideas- a fate Wilson had to endure endless times over during his life- suggests that he may have profited from grasping the key phenomenological insight – which Wilson spelled out in many ways in many books – about how our expectations can obscure what is right in front of us.

The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

Floris Books has posted the cover art for my new book, The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, which is due out in October of this year. Amazon has it listed as coming out in January 2017, but this is inaccurate. I’ll be posting excerpts from the book closer to publication, but for now let me say that it is a kind of distillation of some of the main themes of The Secret Teachers of the Western World and also of Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin WilsonThe central idea is that of imagination as a cognitive faculty; that is, not as something concerned with ‘make believe’ but with a deeper perception, grasp, and understanding of reality. Oddly enough, as I was writing the book the whole question of ‘reality’ became a hot news item, with our descent into a ‘post-truth’ world make of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. And soon after finishing it I was commissioned to do a new book about precisely that, about how ‘reality’ seems to have become peculiarly flexible and pliable these days, and subject to the influence of – the imagination. Some kind of sychronicity seems to be at work – or am I letting my imagination get the better of me? You can find out some time next year when Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump sees the light of day.

The Outsider Goes On

Here’s a brief report on some current Colin Wilson related activities:

I recently sent the text to my talk “Colin Wilson and the Angry Young Outsiders,” given at the British Museum last October as part of the Folk Horror Revival Event, to be included in a book of the proceedings of the day. I hope the editor will be able to include some of the photographs I used in my lecture, especially the one from the Life magazine photo-shoot re-enacting Wilson’s days sleeping on Hampstead Heath.

Speaking of proceedings, Cambridge Scholars has announced that it will be publishing the Proceedings of the First International Colin Wilson Conference  on June 1 2017. The conference was held last year to commemorate the 60th anniversary of The Outsider’s publication. Colin Stanley, Wilson’s bibliographer and the editor in chief of Paupers’ Press – which specializes in Wilson studies – has edited an eclectic collection of Wilsonian essays on a wide range of topics and produced a handsome volume. My own contribution was a talk on Faculty X. It’s pricey. But pester your local university library into getting a copy.

On May 11 2017 I’ll be giving a talk on “Colin Wilson: The Outsider and Beyond” as part of the Brighton Festival. I’ll be focusing on the books that came after The Outsider, such as Religion and the Rebel and the others making up Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’. This was his attempt to work out a new, positive existentialism, that could find a way out of the cul-de-sac old existentialists, like Heidegger, Sartre and Camus had found themselves in.

And finally, I am just now working on an Introduction to a new Paupers’ Press re-issue of Wilson’s rare collection of essays, Eagle and Earwig. Here Wilson applies his ‘existential criticism’ to writers like Ayn Rand, Robert Musil, David Lindsay – author of the marvelous A Voyage to Arcturus – and the sadly forgotten L. H. Myers, whose The Near and the Far is one of the best ‘novel of ideas’ written in the twentieth century. I’ve suggested to Colin Stanley that he should bring Eagle and Earwig out in a Paupers’ Press edition many times, and I am glad to see that he has taken my advice.

Who Will Save Us From the Saviors?

Here is my review of a recent book that, to my mind, offers a questionable solution to an undeniably pressing problem. We need to ensure that our cures are not worse than our afflictions. My thanks to Quest Magazine for posting the review, which originally appeared in their Winter 2017 issue.


How Soon Is Now? From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation
Daniel Pinchbeck
London: Watkins, 2017. 232 pp., hardcover, $24.95.

In September 2005, Daniel Pinchbeck had a revelation. In order to save planet earth, he would have to start a global revolution. Such thoughts were not foreign to him, or to many others at the scene of his visitation, the Burning Man festival, held in the Nevada desert.

Many were on his wavelength and shared his ideals. But a strange urgency had come over him, and he went through a kind of personal enantiodromia, when one’s values suddenly turn about face and become their opposite. In a flash, the whole Burning Man scene, full of New Age highflyers, corporate shamans, and psychedelic entrepreneurs (and of which Pinchbeck was a significant part), seemed phony and unreal, an empty shadow world cast by well-heeled seekers of enlightenment, himself included.

He now spread a new gospel, or at least tried to. Rather than culminate the festival with its traditional Wicker Man–like finale, he argued, all the various tribes and clans should work together to create a spontaneous model of what a “regenerative society” would be like as an example for the rest of the world. Rather than return to their lives, they should remain with him and create the kind of new social experience that, as Pinchbeck’s vision had shown him, was absolutely necessary if the planet was going to be saved from ecological meltdown. It would require sacrifice and a total change of being. They would have to work hard and give up a lot. The stakes were high—nothing less than the end of civilization as we know it—and could not be ignored. But it could be done if only they all pulled together.

Two things emerged from Pinchbeck’s vision. One was that he was cast out from Burning Man as an apostate, a fairly common status for visionaries, having failed to get his message across to his people. The other is this book, in which he labors to do just that. If the title suggests a certain impatience, we should remember that a decade passed between the vision and its realization, at least in theory, and that like all visionaries, Pinchbeck is raring to get things going, and has little time for those who might want to drag their heels.

An apocalyptic sense—itself a kind of impatience—informs Pinchbeck’s other work, most recognizably in 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (2006), which concerned certain possibilities for that year according to prophecies associated with the Mayan calendar. In 2016 Pinchbeck is understandably keen to distance himself from his earlier millennial work, yet the unavoidable planetary catastrophe that awaits us if we fail to fulfill the demands of the moment, of now!, casts as disheartening a shadow as any Mesoamerican deity. The end times are upon us again, it seems, only the time lag between prophecy and fulfillment is considerably shorter.

This is a book of three parts. One is a kind of confessional, in which the author repents for his previous life as a kind of celebrity shaman, a mea culpa aimed perhaps at anchoring his message in some personal soul-searching. Here readers may find out more than they need or want to know about his sex life, drug use, and famous friends.

Another part is a disturbing, at times numbing, report on the multiple ecological and environmental crises that face us and which, according to Pinchbeck, the powers that be are doing practically nothing to prevent. If I do not list these here, it is not out of any desire to minimize them. Their number is simply too great, and the stats and studies Pinchbeck musters are equally numerous and, unfortunately, convincing.

We can get an idea of the situation from what Pinchbeck calls Nine Planetary Boundaries, limits of excess that once breached are irreparable. According to Pinchbeck, most of these are stretched to breaking and will soon snap; the result will be a global catastrophe that will bring on the next mass extinction, humans included. I would think anyone aware of our environmental realities will have some idea of the seriousness of the situation, global warming and climate change being only two of the many disasters looming from a many-headed ecological Hydra. Wars over natural resources are another. Social breakdown too. And famine. Mass migrations. The list, I think, is all too familiar, and Pinchbeck adds to it, softening us up, as it were, for the punchline of the book.

Which is this: Pinchbeck sees a hidden evolutionary plan behind our time of troubles. What we are experiencing now is a self-inflicted shock that will, according to him, compel us to make the next step in our evolution. Borrowing from the French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and, in my opinion, misinterpreting him, Pinchbeck sees this as humanity’s “transition” to a kind of world-mind.

And this brings us to the book’s third and most important part, from the perspective of Pinchbeck’s vision: his blueprint for the new, regenerative society that must take the place of our current degenerative one, if we are not to go to hell in a handbasket.

I emphasize must. It, and other urgent words like force and impel, are voiced throughout the book by an insistent we, using Pinchbeck as their spokesperson. “Whatever it takes,” Pinchbeck tells us, “we” must “force” and “impel” civilization to, well, adopt his plan for planetary salvation. Things are so bad that nothing short of a wise, spiritually-minded authoritarian elite can effect the kinds of global changes necessary to avert catastrophe in time. The crises we face will force us to give up our personal interests and pursuits in order to find our proper place within the new planetary superorganism that humanity, if it doesn’t blow it, is destined to become.

This means that if today you might be interested in art, literature, philosophy, or some other nonutilitarian (from the point of view of saving the planet) pursuit, forget it. Get with the program and learn how to mulch or to design self-sustaining geodesic domes. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those useful skills, but not everyone is interested in them, even if, according to Pinchbeck, they should be, for the good of the planet. Pinchbeck’s belief that in the future—if we have one—we will have to abandon the idea of a “private sector” because there is “no private interest within an organism” sounds chillingly fascistic, while his calls to forgo our own pursuits for those of the “collective” sound dangerously like similar directives of the Soviet era.

The changes necessary in order to save the world will come about, Pinchbeck envisions, through a cadre of social media gurus spreading the regenerative message through tweets and postings that will make the new world order “ a seductive, hip, glamorous adventure.” Like a benevolent dictator, Pinchbeck sees no wrong in using the mesmerism of advertising—now enrolled in perpetuating the evil system— to covertly persuade people to “transition” to the new state.

One would think, though, that the aim of a truly free and enlightened society would be to reject such measures wholly, rather than use them for our “own good.” And if sages and saints from Buddha to Mother Teresa have had a hard task prodding us to evolve, I doubt if a team of shamanic Mad Men can get the job done in the time remaining. But then Pinchbeck believes that consciousness—yours and mine—is “mass produced by the corporate industrial mega-machine” anyway, so if enough enlightened IT heads are put together, they just might shape “new patterns of behavior and new values for the multitudes,” a “new subjectivity,” just in time. To me this is reminiscent of B.F. Skinner’s dictum that we need to get “beyond freedom and dignity” and submit ourselves to benign social conditioning in order to save the world, and it is just as unappetizing.

Much of Pinchbeck’s master plan smacks of microwaved utopias of the 1960s, like Skinner’s, including chestnuts like free love, or at least guilt-free casual sex, as a panacea for our existential ills, plucked from the countercultural Marxist Herbert Marcuse. How it could pass the author by that love has been free and sex casual for some time now, without the mass “liberation” these developments were supposed to bring about? Freud and Reich were clearly wrong, and Marcuse’s calls for a “polymorphous perversity” adolescent.

Darkly there is also the sense that, as was said in the ’60s, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem—a very dangerous slogan, which can only feed a divisive sense of “us and them.” But Pinchbeck has a vision, and it can be summed up in two phrases, which murmur in the background of this book like a mantra: if only; we must. No one is saying that the times do not require vision. They do. But let us not embrace one that calls for measures as frightening as the dangers that inspired it.

Gary Lachman

Gary Lachman’s latest book is Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, published by Tarcher Perigee.