Colin Wilson and Faculty X: An Excerpt from Revolutionaries of the Soul

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.

Advertisements

17 thoughts on “Colin Wilson and Faculty X: An Excerpt from Revolutionaries of the Soul

  1. Gary – I owe you the most heartfelt of thank you’s. Almost two years ago I began the transformation from a strict scientific materialist to anything but that. The journey has accelerated in the past six months and I came across your writing.

    My thank you is for your writing of course, but also for putting me onto Colin Wilson. He is truly is one of the great thinkers of our time and I agree with him that we are on the point of some trans-formative process. So I guess that makes him perhaps simply one of the great thinkers, within no time period, which is consistent with your piece here.

    A whole world of ideas is opening up to me and you, Colin, among others, are opening up the world of literature to me. I had largely ignored this broader world, limited by my materialist world view.

    I ordered your book, Revolutionaries of the Soul, but Amazon in Canada won’t get it to me until the middle of the month – no Kindle version. Until then, thank you for this brief excerpt on my new favorite thinker. I look forward to reading it, and the continuing evolutionary leap.

    1. Dear John, many thanks for your message. I’m glad you liked the excerpt from the book and that it’s introduced you to Wilson. I wholeheartedly agree with you that he is one of the most important thinkers of our or any other time. I’ll be working on a book about him in the new year and I will do my best to get that message across. I hope you like the rest of the book when it arrives. Not to push my writing on you, but I have some chapters on Wilson in A Secret History of Consciousness, where I put him in the context of other evolutionary thinkers. And there’s an interview I did with him some years back too. You may also be interested in one of Wilson’s last books, Superconsciousness, which is an excellent introduction to and summary of his central ideas. All the best, Gary

      1. Gary – many thanks for your reply – I anticipated your recommendations. I actually started with your book on Hermes Trismegistus and then you set me off on Colin and I started with “G.I. Gurdjieff: The War Against Sleep and The Strange Life.. ” and then I read “Superconssciousness” which led me to “New Pathways in Psychology”. I will stop here – needless to say I have a fever to catch up on the non-material world. And here I am.

        I just got “Dreaming to Some Purpose” – I am so fascinated by Colin WIlson that I want to read his autobiography. I think I am drawn to Colin’s and your writing because you are both such integraters – big thinkers. I love seeing, or trying to see, the big picture. Now that I am beginning to see just how big that is, my fever to know is growing. I am also reading your book, “A Secret History of Consciousness” – excellent. Make no apologies to recommend anything, including your own books. I see you as Colin Wilson’s intellectual heir. I have never been so excited to learn more, but I am also eager to put this knowledge to use. So I have a question.

        Colin talks about his techniques of concentration in your interview with him at Fortean Times, and of course in the two books I mentioned. Is there any more information on his approach or have you tried it yourself?

      2. Hi John. I’m glad to see you’re diving into Colin’s work. There’s enough there to last some years and I envy someone coming to his work for the first time. I’ve read and re-read everything that I often dream of some unpublished book turning up, and in fact his bibliographer, Colin Stanley, who heads Paupers Press, a small publisher specializing in Wilsonia, has told me about a diary that may see the light of day. But as for your question, yes I have tried one of Colin’s concentration techniques, what he calls “the pen trick” and I have got some results. if you’ve read about this already, forgive the repetition. Basically he says to take a pen – any object will do really – and hold it up in front of you. Then focus your attention solely on the pen, letting the background go out of focus. After you’ve done this for a bit, relax your concentration so you take in the rest of the room. Then after a few moments, focus on the pen again. Keep repeating this cycle of concentrating and relaxing. After a while you’ll start to feel a bit of a pain, like a headache – which is exactly what it is. Colin says that at that moment, don’t give up. Keeping going. In my own experience I’ve found myself suddenly filled with a kind of renewed energy and, odd to say, laughter. I once attended a workshop he gave in San Francisco when everyone tried this – accompanied by deep breathing – and I found myself giggling. The main point is the concentration. That’s the key. It’s as Colin says: in doing this we are learning how to flex a muscle we didn’t know we had. I’ll be working on a book about Colin’s ideas in the new years and in it I’ll include some examples of how in my own experience I learned that he was right. All the best, Gary

  2. Gary, it has been many years since we last spoke (wrote), and my discovery of your work could not be more timely. I enjoyed this post enormously and can’t wait to dive into your books. Which to start with when there are so many lovely options? Your references to Steppenwolf make me think that great literature is wasted on the young. I experience on reading those passages now, from having lived and suffered; I merely read them at 17 when I was assigned Steppenwolf in school.

    Please write me. I would love to catch up.
    Suzanna

    1. Hi Suzanna. Very good to hear from you. How are you and what are you doing these days? I’m glad you enjoyed the bit from my book. I read Steppenwolf as a teenager back in the 70s and it stayed with me the rest of my life. In some ways this has been a problem, as I’ve identified with the lone wolf perhaps a bit too much. In any case, thanks for getting in touch and I hope life is treating you well. All the best, Gary

      1. I’d love to share more if you will send me your email. Maudeheartblossom@gmail.com

        Maude is my 1893 upright grand Steinway piano (given to me by my father when he died two years ago). She makes my heart open when play her. That’s the genesis of the email address.

  3. Thank you again Gary. I am just finishing The Outsider. I think I was avoiding it because I thought it may not live up to its reputation, having read more recent writing of Colin’s. I was totally mistaken. I was not prepared for the depth of analysis.

    I am eager to attend the upcoming Colin Wilson conference in 2016. My sister lives just north of Oxford. I also have an idea for a paper – so I might limber up my more former writing skills. Your books figure prominently in my thinking as well. This is absolutely brilliant stuff. Once more, I cannot thank you enough and good luck with your future writing and especially your book on Colin Wilson. I cannot get enough of it. I am just a bit younger than you and I cannot believe the world of ideas that has opened up to me.

    1. Hello John. I’m glad you’re getting so much out of Wilson and am happy to have pointed you in his direction. Here are a couple of sites you might be interested in: http://colinwilsononline.com/category/paupers-press/ and http://pauper.stormloader.com/, both devoted to his work. I’ll be giving a talk at the conference, and Colin Stanley, who is organizing it and who is responsible for setting up the Wilson archive at the University of Nottingham is a friend, and is editor and publisher at Pauper’s Press. All the best, Gary

  4. Hi Gary, I sure enjoyed your biography of Rudolf Steiner and am somewhat surprised about your big endorsement of Colin Wilson. No doubt, he had a brilliant mind, but he lacked somewhat in the most important virtue needed for spiritual investigation: humility. Please explain,- I’ve been reluctant to read anymore of his works. Thanks!

    1. Sorry Margarete, but I can’t say I agree with you. I knew Colin and he was a warm, generous, and friendly person – not to mention the most important thinker of the last two centuries. That covers it, I think. All the best, Gary

      1. Thanks Gary, I’d like to have my impression of Colin Wilson corrected and am looking forward to reading your biography of his life and ideas… when will it become available?!

      2. I’ll be happy to introduce you to Colin’s ideas. I’m gathering material for the book now and I’m hoping it will come out by late 2016, to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the publication of his first book The Outsider, which appeared in 1956. I’ll be writing an introduction to a new edition of this, which should come out around the same time as my book, Beyond the Robot: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Colin Wilson. Best, Gary

    2. Margarete, I’m relatively new to Colin Wilson. He had not been on my radar until I stumbled on his writing last year, thanks to Gary, whom I had stumbled upon shortly before.

      I am curious how you find Colin lacking in humility. My experience with his writing only, has him coming across as very inquisitive and open to new ideas. I think that anyone who is so interested in so many ideas can come across as being less than humble as his enthusiasm can mask that quality.

      For me, Colin Wilson bridges the world of the scientific and of the spiritual better than anyone I have read. I don’t want to hijack Gary’s blog, but I am genuinely wondering what you saw in Colin Wilson to make your conclusion.

      I would give almost anything to spend a few hours speaking with Colin personally. I cannot imagine a better conversation.

      1. Hi John. Good hear from you and I couldn’t say it better. One thing I would add is that I don’t think Colin ever aimed at being “spiritual.” He had a more philosophical approach and very rightly felt he had made some headway in understanding human consciousness. That’s why he became an important influence on my own work and why I am about to start gathering material for a book about his ideas. All the best, Gary

      2. I think you’re right – Colin didn’t aim to be spiritual, but his philosophic inquiry took him in that direction. I’ve found the same thing in my own studies of life, the universe and everything. Colin simply had a great mind that loved pursuing knowledge and understanding, wherever it led.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s