My latest book, Revolutionaries of the Soul, is a collection of essays and articles written over the last twenty years or so, taken from various journals and magazines, such as Fortean Times, Quest Magazine, Lapis and others. The many mini-biographies that make up the selection – 16 pieces in all – amount to a brief introduction to modern esotericism, and include figures like C.G. Jung, Aleister Crowley, P.D Ouspensky, Rudolf Steiner, as well as some lesser known but important characters like the brilliant historian of the occult James Webb and Manly P. Hall, author of the classic The Secret Teachings of All Ages, as well as the subject of the excerpt included below, the late Colin Wilson. This piece, “Colin Wilson and Faculty X,” is the earliest of the lot, and was published longer ago than I care to remember. You can see it as a kind of test run for my book on Wilson, which, gods and goddesses willing, I will start work on in the new year. As readers of my work and this blog know, I am a great reader of Wilson, and I placed this article at the head of the collection as a small gesture of tribute and respect to one of the most important thinkers of our time. If you’d like to read the rest of the piece, not to mention the book, there’s one sure way of doing that…
Colin Wilson and Faculty X
There is a passage in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf that never fails to move me. The Steppenwolf, Harry Haller, a lonely middle-aged intellectual, has spent an evening as he has spent other evenings, walking aimlessly through town, avoiding his room where awaits the product of his fruitless, listless days: the razor. Weary of avoiding his dismal fate, Harry enters a tavern for a brief respite, and there drinks a glass of wine. Slowly his mood shifts. The process is gradual, but as he sips his wine, the Steppenwolf’s thoughts expand, like a gas lighter than air. “A refreshing laughter rose in me,” Harry tells us. “It soared aloft like a soap bubble, reflecting the whole world in miniature on its rainbow surface.” He sinks into the warmth. Perhaps his fate is not so terrible. He meditates further still, then slowly, hesitantly, looks into his soul. “In my brain,” Hesse writes, “were stored a thousand pictures.”
Harry thinks of an ancient weathered wall; of old, forgotten illuminated texts; of poems long gone to oblivion; of a solitary cypress on a forlorn hill; of the movement of clouds at night above the Rhine. A thousand pictures come to him, more numerous than the Steppenwolf can imagine, each one contributing its own secret import, its own special significance to the seeming absurdity and chaos of his life. Harry reflects on these and realizes he is happy. “The golden trail was blazed. I was reminded of the eternal, of Mozart, and the stars.” Harry wouldn’t keep his appointment with the razor that night.
What exactly has happened? Has the Steppenwolf merely got drunk and forgotten his burden? Has the wine obscured something from his vision, namely the fact that he is a miserable middle-aged man who will sooner or later slit his throat? Or does it reveal something that until then had been obscured? The same sort of experience happens again and again throughout the novel. Lying in bed with a woman after an evening of love-making, the ordinarily miserable Harry feels that “For moments together my heart stood still between delight and sorrow to find how rich was the gallery of my life, and how thronged the soul of the wretched Steppenwolf with high eternal stars and constellations.” Does this sound like a man who wants to kill himself? What has happened?
Harry, the wretched Steppenwolf, has had an experience of what Colin Wilson calls “Faculty X.” Harry may have known about all these things before, but now he really knows about them. This “really knowing” is the basic idea behind Wilson’s philosophy.
Developed in his major studies on the paranormal – The Occult (1971), Mysteries (1978), and Beyond the Occult (1988) – and running through practically all his work, the central idea behind Wilson’s notion of Faculty X is that it is a sense of the reality of other times and places. As Wilson points out, probably the most famous example of Faculty X – so-called because we have yet to recognize it clearly and give it its own name – in modern literature is the opening of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927). There, the narrator, Proust himself, tells of his curious experience eating his famous madeleine dipped in tea. Suddenly, from some dark forgotten psychic recess, the memory of his youth in Combray wells up in him, and it is as if he is there once again. The effect is tremendous; as Wilson quotes, Proust had “ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.” Proust, too, suddenly realized the reality of his own life and the rest of his 1,100 page novel is an attempt to “recapture the past.”
Another example comes from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” where the poet writes that “the lost heart stiffens and rejoices for the lost sea air and the lost sea voices.” This is essentially the same experience as Hesse and Proust describe: the sudden realization that the past really happened and that, in some strange way, it is just as real now as it was then. Which is another way of saying that reality, however we want to define it, is not confined to the present moment.
This is strange. As Wilson points out, we tend to believe that reality is confined to the present moment. This is why the realization of the reality of other times and places has such a profound effect on writers like Hesse, Proust and Eliot. Clearly this suggests one thing: there is something wrong with our ideas about space and time.
If you hold a chicken’s beak to the ground and draw chalk line from its eyes, it will not move. When it comes to time, human beings are very much like paralyzed chickens: we seem to be stuck to a particular chalk line we call “now.” The situation, Wilson argues, is absurd: human beings, he believes, are capable of transcending the limitations of the present moment and of achieving, as he calls it, a “mastery over time, as if every moment of your life could be recalled as clearly as the last ten minutes.”
We have seen three of the most important figures in modern literature bear this speculation out. There is also evidence from science. As Wilson points out, one of the most fascinating discoveries about human memory came from the work of the neurologist Wilder Penfield. While operating on a patient, Penfield tested the effect of electrical stimulation of the temporal cortex. The result was astonishing. Penfield discovered that when the probe stimulated the patient’s cortex, the patient would immediately be “sent back” to sometime in the past. (As neurosurgery is done without anesthetic – the brain feels no pain – patients were able to report their experiences.)
Penfield came to the conclusion that every moment of our lives is stored in some way in our brain, and that if triggered by the proper stimulus – an electric probe or a piece of cake – we can relive these moments in vivid detail. We might say that the brain has a built-in “virtual reality” machine. We also remember the enduring belief that at the point of death people see their entire lives pass before them.
Wilson has his own ideas about the part the brain plays in Faculty X, an altogether easier and less cumbersome means of grasping the reality of other times and places than having a near-death experience or undergoing brain surgery. One of the most curious facts about human anatomy is that we have two brains. In Frankenstein’s Castle (1980) Wilson discusses the split-brain research of Roger Sperry and Robert Ornstein. The basic findings of split-brain research are well known, that the left brain seems to control our logical functions, like language and mathematics, and the right our more intuitive powers. These have by now become a cliché: we say the left brain is a scientist, the right an artist. What seems less commonly known, Wilson suggests, is the strange fact that these two, the scientist and the artist, are literally two different people. You, reading these words, live in the left brain. In the right is a strange silent partner whom we call “the unconscious.”
Most of Frankenstein’s Castle deals with the interaction between the two sides of the brain. Wilson believes that the right brain is responsible for paranormal phenomena like synchronicities, and for mystical experiences and the curious bursts of affirmation that the psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences.” In a later book Wilson suggests the peculiar contribution that brain physiology may make to our question about the “reality” of other times and places. Relating how the novelist John Cowper Powys “appeared” one evening in the Manhattan apartment of his fellow novelist Theodore Dreiser, while at the same time sitting in his cottage in upstate New York – a phenomenon the 19th century psychic investigator Fredrick Myers call “phantasms of the living” – Wilson writes that:
“We take it for granted that we live in a ‘solid’ world of space and time, advancing from moment to moment according to unchangeable laws, and that we are stuck in the place that we happen to be at the moment. We are, in a sense, “trapped.” We fell this particularly strongly when we are bored or miserable – that we are helplessly at the mercy of this physical world into which we happen to have been born. Yet these odd experiences all seem to show that this is untrue. The ‘real you’ is not trapped in space and time. With a certain kind of effort of will, it can rise above space and time and be ‘elsewhere.'”
Commenting on the fact that neuroscientists really have no idea why we should have two brains, Wilson goes on to make a remarkable suggestion:
“My own belief is that we have two brains, so we can be in two places at the same time. Human beings are supposed to be capable of being in two places at the same time. Yet we have not quite discovered the “trick”. When we do, we shall be a completely different kind of creature – no longer the same kind of human being who lives out his life so incompetently on this long-suffering planet, but something far more powerful and purposeful.”
This is why Wilson believes that man is on the point of an evolutionary leap.