There are at least two good reasons to read “Beyond the Robot.” First, it is an enthralling account of the life and work of Colin Wilson, the often controversial writer who explored the nature of human consciousness in dozens of books, starting with his most famous, “The Outsider,” which appeared in 1956 when he was just 24. If you’ve never encountered this celebration of alienated artists and intellectuals, Tarcher has just reissued it in a 60th anniversary edition.
The other reason to read “Beyond the Robot” is because it will introduce you to Gary Lachman, who writes about philosophical and mystical ideas with exceptional grace, forcefulness and clarity. One of the leading students of the western esoteric tradition, Lachman has published critical studies of Swedenborg, Madame Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, Rudolf Steiner, P.D. Ouspensky and Jung — and he has done so without being raptly worshipful or casually dismissive. He has also brought out several general surveys of the occult, most recently “The Secret Teachers of the Western World.” This begins with magic in antiquity and goes on to consider Gnosticism, Jewish Kabbalah, Renaissance alchemy, the secrets of the Rosicrucians, 19th-century Theosophy, the strange practices of Russian guru George Gurdjieff and New Age speculations about Ley lines, Atlantis and cosmic consciousness.
As Lachman reveals in “Beyond the Robot,” he owes his fascination with outside-the-box thinking to Colin Wilson. Back in the 1970s under the name Gary Valentine, he was the bass guitarist in the rock group Blondie when he happened upon a copy of Wilson’s “The Occult.” A massive, anecdote-rich history, it enticed him to learn more, and he soon started visiting metaphysical societies in New York and Los Angeles. Eventually, Lachman moved to England, gave up his music career and remade himself into a freelance writer and scholar of the occult. To this day, he views himself as a Wilsonian.
But what does that mean?
Colin Wilson was born into a blue-collar family in Leicester, England, left school at 16, and spent his youth drifting around Europe, working at short-term menial jobs in London, sometimes sleeping on Hampstead Heath to save money, and constantly reading and scribbling in his journals. While trying to finish a philosophical shocker about a serial killer — later published as “Ritual in the Dark ”— this lonely autodidact found himself wondering about the relationship between rebellion and creativity. He realized that visionary misfits and troublemakers such as William Blake, van Gogh, T.E. Lawrence, Nijinsky and Sri Ramakrishna rejected the meretricious facade of the world around them and tried to break through to some larger, truer reality. When “The Outsider” was published, it was rightly described as an intellectual thriller and became a bestseller.
With the money he earned — never matched by any of his later works — Wilson and his wife bought a house in rural Cornwall, which he gradually filled with 30,000 books. Defining himself as an optimistic existentialist, Wilson then embarked on a lifelong exploration of humankind’s ache for spiritual purpose and meaning, an ache that people usually try to assuage through art, sex, drugs, religion or even crime. Men and women deeply yearn, in Lachman’s summary, for “an inner expansiveness, a release from trivia and banality, a sensation of more ‘life.’ ” We really should awake each day as if it were Christmas morning, as if the dawn were bringing us — in G.K. Chesterton’s phrase — “absurd good news.”
Throughout his life Wilson always remained an intellectual magpie. Abraham Maslow’s theories about “peak experiences,” those meaningful coincidences that Jung dubbed “synchronicities,” Robert Graves’s fantastic scholarship about the White Goddess — they all enriched Wilson’s thinking. He grew particularly excited by the implications of the division between the brain’s rational, verbal left lobe and its imaginative, pattern-oriented right. The world we experience, he deduced, is actually highly edited, created by what we choose to perceive. In fact, we sleepwalk through much of our lives, relying on an internalized robot self that automatically attends to our routine tasks and ignores the richness and wonder around us. The more we rely on the robot, the less authentic we feel.
However, some of us — like Proust when he nibbled on a tea-soaked madeleine — discover that we carry whole universes within ourselves and by using what Wilson calls “Faculty X” we can escape the present moment and dwell in the spirit whenever and wherever we choose. But this doesn’t mean we should just go with the flow, become lotus eaters. People flourish best, says Wilson, when confronted by obstacles and challenges. Life’s setbacks shock us out of our mental laziness and allow us, through disciplined effort, to reshape and strengthen our inner selves. An active will is the key to psychological health.
Over the years Wilson’s investigations of fringe science, the paranormal and extreme behavior yielded an astonishing diversity of books: “Encyclopedia of Murder” (co-authored with Patricia Pitman) and “A Criminal History of Mankind,” surveys of the supernatural such as “Mysteries” “From Atlantis to the Sphinx” and “Super Consciousness,” and even several fictional “thought experiments,” including two Lovecraftian science fiction novels, “The Mind Parasites” and “The Philosopher’s Stone,” as well as “The Space Vampies,” later made into the Tobe Hooper movie “Lifeforce. ” This self-described “intellectual worker” also taught and gave talks, while tirelessly persevering with his outlier researches right up to his death in 2013 at age 82.
Needless to say, Colin Wilson’s immensely readable books and nearly all his ideas were generally dismissed by the literary establishment as the lunatic imaginings of a crank or gullible naif. How could anyone actually treat dowsing, UFOs and alien abductions seriously? Yet no matter how wild his ostensible subject, Wilson invariably stressed its connection to crucial humanistic concerns: We need to break free of our mind-forged manacles, cast aside our proclivity for existential despair and strive to live heroic and fulfilling lives. To me, that doesn’t sound at all crazy.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.
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By Gary Lachman
Tarcher. 399 pp. Paperback, $26