Saturday, September 24, 2016

Moving beyond the Robot

What if the world ‘as it really is’ is the one you see when in your most joyous state of mind? When your perception reaches out and dances; and, everything you see, even the most mundane thing, is full of its own life, resonating harmoniously? And if so, what is it, without or within us, that inhibits our ability to dwell there permanently?

Believing in and articulating the reality of the first proposition and seeking a comprehensive answer to the second was Colin Wilson's life's work. That work was carried out as a writer, working in both fiction and non-fiction, as lecturer and television presenter. The work poured forth, over fifty years, and explored a wide range of subject matter - philosophy, psychology, the occult, crime, sexology, literature, archaeology and science. He ignored T.S. Eliot's advice not to write as much and, as Gary Lachman shows in this exemplary intellectual biography, this veritable flood was shaped by a guiding set of core concerns and corresponding ideas. Important too, as Lachman demonstrates, was Wilson's ability to swing from intellectual exposition to, in his fiction, imaginative realisation - both streams seeking to reinforce and illuminate each other. The most obvious parallel being Aldous Huxley - even if Wilson did think Huxley's fictional heroes were a touch 'chinless'!

So why do we not see reality as it really is?

First because we misconceive perception. It is not simply the passive reception and organization by association of sense impressions but a reaching out and apprehending of reality that intentionally co-creates what is seen. Second because this tendency towards a mistaken passivity is reinforced by that part of our mind that Wilson dubbed the 'robot'. The robot has utility. It handles the need we have to analyse, to break down the world into manageable chunks, deal in simple cause and effect and help us navigate, and make habitual, many features of our everyday lives so we run on the rails of certainty. But this helpful servant has a tendency to overreach itself, imagine itself dominant, close off more holistic, vivid and ultimately meaningful ways of seeing. Wilson comes to locate this differentiated mental life in the two halves of the brain. Third because habit is comfortable, less effort is required and the vast majority of us appear disposed to laziness! Fourth because we inhabit a culture that has identified the world seen only through the robot's eyes as 'the real world' – fragmented and meaningless - a vision of the world Wilson found in what he dubbed the old existentialism of Sartre or in the literature of Beckett. Such a cultural subscription becomes self-fulfilling - why make an effort if the effort is ultimately futile?

But there are positive reasons too. As Bergson argued and Huxley found in his mescaline experience, the brain as a whole is a necessarily limiting filter. The world seen without a filter may be a dazzling display of intuitive knowledge or the lively unwashed plates in Huxley’s sink being of untold significance but this may be equally disabling unless translated into forms of assimilated knowledge and living performance. So too, though in the past, our ancestors may have had access to a more holistic form of knowing and acting - and Wilson saw the apparently unrepeatable feats of, say, the Pyramids, as evidence of this - this knowledge led to a static form of life.

Our conscious evolution requires a more dynamic, conscious relationship to the unfolding universe; thus, the long journey of differentiation (and alienation) such that in stepping back from the world, we are propelled towards finding a more creative, dynamic relationship in and to reality. Ultimately the task was to be so in control of one’s transcendental ego (to use Husserl’s nomenclature) as to be able to navigate between clear seeing and conscious acting such that you stepped permanently beyond the robot or, more accurately, that the robot’s necessary functions became wholly transparent within a wider field of unifying apprehended meaning.

These ideas were informed by Wilson's own experience of breakthrough to this more vivid reality and by an informed and experimental practice and Lachman gives us wonderful examples of both of these. So, for example, in the latter case, learning from Maslow that the act of remembering a prior ‘peak experience’ as being a gateway into a new one or through paying intelligent attention to the clues of synchronicity learning better to navigate one’s own purpose. 

Most especially too in engagement with a host of thinkers and imaginative writers. An early wrestling with the Romantics (broadly conceived) that he immortalized in 'The Outsider', his at first lionised then denigrated book, was followed by the key influence of Husserl (on perception, intentionality and phenomenology), of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Shaw, Wells and Whitehead (on conscious evolution) and James, Maslow and Frankl (on a positive and meaningful psychology) to name but a few!

One of the great virtues of Lachman's book is to anchor it in Wilson as an important thinker and explorer about the nature and potentiality of consciousness, both in its positive direction, and Wilson was undoubtedly an optimist, and in his realistic assessment of the ways its evolution and development could be side tracked or thwarted, that, for example, forms the basis of his, undoubtedly relished, interest in crime and sex!

It is true that not everywhere Wilson took his explorations will have the same value for every reader. We may doubt the validity of archaic lost civilizations of telepathic Neanderthal (though personally I am perfectly happy to entertain the speculation and assess the evidence) or we may want to sidestep the criminal mind as a diversion (or descent) too far though Wilson would maintain only one of degree not of kind. Nevertheless, anyone seriously interested in our human potential should find somewhere to inhabit in Wilson’s capacious landscape and, in the company of this witty, intelligent, serious and accessible interlocutor, wrestle with a fascinating constellation of ideas. They will emerge challenged and enriched.

Meanwhile, it must be said too that Wilson was never lacking in self-confidence, an attribute, that Lachman confesses, is part of the reason that his home country –where self-depreciation and disguising your intellect are the somewhat stultifying norm – has found it so difficult to embrace him. Lachman’s biography, it is hoped, will go some way to addressing this. It is a balanced, sympathetic, and highly lucid one and of a man who obviously exerted a significant and acknowledged influence on the author; and, they share the ability to convey complex ideas simply without ever being simplistic. Wilson, also, emerges as a generous writer willing to help and promote the work of others.

It was probably not the place then to critically assess Wilson’s ideas rather than to provide a sympathetic, contextual exposition that makes the compelling case for Wilson as a public intellectual and important thinker. Nevertheless in closing I, myself, do want to suggest a missing dimension. Wilson’s emphasis on the active, on the will, concentrating its way to liberation is understandable as is his criticism of the potential passivity of our everyday life but it does so sometimes at the risk of simply devaluing the receptive, the influx of creative grace, gift, that as an essential part of the phenomenology of consciousness as Husserl’s out going intentionality. Intention and reception are the yang and yin of becoming (and being) whole. 

Likewise, though a happy Cancerian and loving husband and father, love and compassion as a cultivator of real seeing and acting tends to be more noticeable by their absence (as does in Wilson’s key thinkers and writers, unless I am mistaken, any women)! But then we simply have to recognise that our ways to liberation are, in truth, more manifold than any person can, or indeed should, encompass – even as one as gifted and companionable as Wilson.

Friday, September 16, 2016

What I most lack is?

In Western Europe in the eleventh century, I might have answered 'assurance of salvation'. The world had not ended in 1000 and so corporate salvation was postponed.  Thus, the focus shifted from this corporate transformation (though it always remained a possibility) to personal achievement.

How is my lack, my sinfulness to be addressed? By developing a juridical system whereby Jesus has liberated us from past debt - St Anselm's penal substitution theory of the atonement - and, going forward, the Church will catalogue sins and develop ways of penance - private confession, or a pilgrimage and that gold star of penitential acts - a Crusade. It will 'invent' purgatory, so even death will not present an insuperable obstacle if 'you have n't made it' yet. Lack is addressed by a living system full of present act and future promise.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, what do I most lack? I might still answer 'assurance of salvation' though even if I did, its grip as an answer might be less sure and might compete with other absences. I lack an 'adequate' pension fund, I lack someone to love (or, more ideally, to love me) and will anyone remember me after I am dead for where is my renown? Even if I have a 'Trump Tower' will that carry any significance to anyone in a hundred years from now? (In this instance, you kind of hope not)!

You may notice in this shift two things - that in the first instance 'lack' is an existential and ontological reality that must be wrestled with and addressed and it is so addressed: a system is in place that offers the possibility of closure on lack. In the second instance, there is less consciousness of that which is missing being 'mine' - an existential crisis for me - rather more the absence of the world's conforming to my desires - and there is no system in place that can guarantee closure - how much money is enough? Even if I find the right person, I might lose them? Trump who?

A conscious 'religious' process for addressing what I lack has been replaced with an unconscious 'secularised' process (with strikingly insistent spiritual undertones - money, for example, as the sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out in his monumental, 'The Philosophy of Money' carries many similarities to God. It is, after all, a source of value that is pursued as an end in itself. One that can create things out of its 'nothingness')!

But what is this 'lack' really? This pervasive sense of there being something missing. Ernest Becker, the anthropologist, suggested it was death and its denial. We are all going to die. We are all finite. But how many (and in what complexity) are the masks we wear to disguise this fact from ourselves. Masks that change over time with the historical and sociological contexts we find ourselves in but masks nonetheless.

David R Loy is his 'The Buddhist History of the West' agrees with Becker on the second point - how we address lack changes over time and indeed can be more or less successful in doing so - but disagrees on the first. Our fundamental 'lack' is of a stable, grounded self and seeking this stability drives us, through time, to multiple 'solutions' - only to find ourselves trapped in an ego continually in need of reassurance of its existence. Why not, suggests Loy, explore the Buddhist suggestion that such a self is in truth 'void' 'non-existent' and in forgetting this self dissolve the fundamental dualism between self and an other that creates 'lack' in the first place? Dissolving self births the realisation of interdependence and unleashes a more compassionate world.

Loy's book's brilliance is to take this lens of 'lack' and explore fundamental shifts in the history of West and see if it helps illuminate what happened and why. Critically too, he wants to argue that our 'liberation' from lack depends on us developing structural as well as personal solutions to lack. Liberation becomes a reality the more deeply embedded in social systems and well as individual hearts. There is no trade off between personal and social transformation. It is a call, developed  elsewhere, by Loy into an engaged Buddhism.

Loy picks five crucial 'turning points' in the history of the West - the development of freedom in Ancient Greece, of a legal system in the eleventh century, of the Renaissance, of modernity and of the market - and explores what a 'lack' lens would look like. Each phase is seen as a different way of accommodating to shifts in society that require new forms of addressing lack. This is not to reduce 'lack' to an explanation of everything - the complex dynamics of each period is fully recognised - but as an invitation to see each period in this new, and potentially, renewing perspective.

Certain things stand out as a result.

First that many projects that we think of as 'secularising' are helpfully seen as being driven by religious motivations - Weber's account of the Protestant origins of capitalism being an obvious reference point - and even when those momentums expire consciously, many of their characteristics continue unconsciously. We may no longer be Puritans but we may reassure ourselves of our 'election' through the accumulation of goods and social standing. Second that increasingly ends have vanished leaving us only with means (and thus with little critical apparatus to course correct). We accumulate wealth for what precisely? Economies grow beyond enough for the sake of their growth etc. Third that raising our motivations to consciousness, both as individuals and in society, is the start of a road to freedom.

This only scratches the surface of an extraordinarily rich text. Who would have imagined, for example, that the move from corporate confession in Church to private confession to a priest and the accompanying move from the act itself to the intention behind the act was a trigger to the (re)birth of interiority and a significant step on the road to Reformation? The book is a treasure trove of insight and can be seen as a history of our anxieties and how they become encoded in our social structures - and that some codes are decidedly better than others. That we need new codes is a truism which is a driver for much of Loy's other works.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Boldly going

As a child, every Monday evening I would wait hopefully for my aunt to ring. Not because I wanted to speak to her or even hear her news but because it would take my mother away from the television set. Her desire was to watch a particular soap, mine was to watch the original series of Star Trek as, once more, it was recycled. This time on prime time on the BBC.

I cannot say that any of its sophisticated promotion of humanist values made any surface impression on my mind. I was interested in the characters, the unfolding plots and the sense of dangers overcome. Nevertheless as Gaston Bachelard remarked the depths are touched before they reach the surfaces so I fully expect that Star Trek was one of my tutors in liberalism.

I have been re-watching in this its fiftieth year the original series (courtesy of Netflix) and find myself periodically pausing to reflect on how it resonates.

First I am struck by the obvious probing of the relationship of the rational and the emotional. The two necessary parts of a single whole but how do they fit together, find a harmonious balance? It is a repeating meme, carried with the sense that there can be no full humanity without a comprehensive answer. Even Spock with his championing of logic (and reason) recognises that there is yet something other to be seen and found.

Second I notice the consistent championing of friendship. It is classical in its intensity. Whatever may be true of the hierarchical requirements of commanding a starship, this is only fully possible, can only fulfil its possibilities, if people's deepest fullness is found in friendship. When the straight lines of organisation are tested by the messy disordering of reality, it is the complexities and bondings of friendship that find a route out and to resolution. We inhabit a community, first and always, before we inhabit a structure or organisation (helpful as they can be).

Third that every constructed value system is a reflection of the aspiration of its transcendence and the reality of its time. The intentionality of the Star Trek inventors is towards a harmonious community, rooted in humanist values, but cannot help be a reflection of its time. The gender/race relations are both in advance of the period (when it was composed) but for the 23rd century (one hopes) suck! And even when some, if not all, of these are corrected in the Star Trek franchise, there is always the subtle privileging of the 'human' as the standard of measurement. This is probably inevitable (and helpfully so) to remind us that we always see from where we are but nonetheless is something to continually remain vigilant of.

Finally, and it is has been noticed by more than one reviewer of the anniversary, Star Trek remains strangely anachronistic here and now, for being so relentless optimistic about the human future. Whilst dystopia crowds around us in post apocalyptic versions of Orwell or Huxley's brave new worlds (or, more darkly, still zombies pop up and out and clout all in sight or vampires commune on our blood or the road runs on into simply inexplicable ash ridden darkness), the Enterprise carries on, incarnation after incarnation, boldly going where none has gone before in hope, vulnerability and enthusiasm. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Second Sight

Harry is walking down off the hills with his gillie, Alick, after a day's deer stalking. Alick is suddenly arrested in his tracks and watches intently at a scene only he can see. Harry vividly notices and, on interrogation, Alick reluctantly reveals what he has seen. A dead man carried by four others. It is a future prophecy. Alick is afflicted with the second sight.

From this incident, Neil M Gunn, weaves his novel, 'Second Sight' that comes to its tragic denouement as foretold, leaving you with the question whether the prophecy itself has become the mechanism of its very fulfilment?

The novel is not one of Gunn's best as the plot feels too contrived a mechanism by which Gunn works out what he himself thinks about such 'paranormal' phenomena as 'Second Sight'. Where do they sit in the nature of things? Where do they sit within the material world, as delusions or as experiences yet to be explained? How, if they are real, do they relate to any wider spiritual significance?

On this level, as a novel of ideas, the book is splendid as the protagonists in the hunting lodge, Harry and Helen (for the believers) and Geoffrey (for the skeptics) argue it out. There cannot be any key argument in and around the 'paranormal' that Gunn does not touch on, showing both a sympathetic interest and wide knowledge.

Thus, a miracle need not be an arbitrary supernatural intervention, simply, as St Augustine himself maintained, a happening that reveals something of the ordering of things not yet understood by our current paradigm of knowledge. So too, at a dinner party, a Colonel Brown manages to inject a discussion of Dunne's 'An Experiment with Time' and of multi-dimensional universes to explain how one might grasp the future in the present. Meanwhile, the wonderful Dean Cameron expounds how such secondary phenomena as 'second sight' might emerge as one deepens one's mystical consciousness of oneness. Everything being revealed as lovingly interconnected, we are enfolded in the lives of others, seeing into them. The waning of this tradition of seeing in the Highlands is, itself, traced to the dissolving of the bounds of community as an outward, imperfect expression of a grounding love.

None of which impresses Geoffrey, who pushing towards an exposure of superstition, steps too far and triggers his own death.

Running alongside the to and fro of talk is the backdrop of the stalking (and the real divide between English interlopers and local Scottish folk, between one class and another too) where Gunn can rehearse his deep feeling for landscape and of landscape as a character, a shaping presence every bit as important as any person. Geoffrey's ultimate failure is not skepticism, for all enquiry is legitimate, but his failure to genuinely listen to the presences in his life - neither the people he encounters nor the land he traverses (notably, in a set piece, refusing to 'be lost' in the fog, staying put, and needlessly pressing on towards potential catastrophe) nor the animals he hunts with unfeeling proficiency.

He is a man setting himself apart and above the reality he inhabits such that its reality shrinks to the level of his reason. He never allows himself to imagine differently, imagine into difference, empathise into unity, and thus never truly sees.

Wild Geese Overhead: Where does reform begin?

"Wild Geese Overhead" is an atypical novel for Neil Gunn. It is not set in the Highlands that were his home but in Glasgow. It is...