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The Plot Against the Hero:
Colin Wilson’s Absurd Magick

7,981 words

Colin Wilson
The Age of Defeat
London: Aristeia Press, 2018 (reprint; original edition 1959)

“You get to be a superhero by believing in the hero within you and summoning him or her forth by an act of will. Believing in yourself and your own potential is the first step to realizing that potential. Alternatively, you could just do as [Dr. Manhattan] did: fall into a nuclear reactor and hope for the best. On the whole I think I prefer to stick to my own methods.” Ozymandias, Watchmen[1]

“I want to fit in.” –Patrick Bateman, American Psycho

Here’s another volume in Colin Wilson’s “Outsider Cycle,” resubmitted for our approval by the folks at Aristeia Press. Having reviewed – with I think considerable enthusiasm – their previous reissue of Religion and the Rebel, you can bet I immediately added The Age of Defeat to my Kindle library.

Unlike The Outsider, which continues to benefit from Wilson’s initial popularity, these next two volumes in what he would later call his “Outsider Cycle” were subjected to a merciless critical backlash, and pretty much disappeared. This edition benefits from the inclusion of Wilson’s Introduction to the 2001 Pauper’s Press edition (itself so rare that even some Wilson scholars admit never seeing it!), as well as an erudite Introduction by Thomas F. Bertonneau[2] and a Publisher’s Note from the estimable Samantha Devin. The latter highlights the relevance of Wilson’s book to the contemporary war on the very idea of masculinity, while the former provides a wide-ranging survey of the book’s sources and contemporary intellectual relevance, concluding that “The Age is Wilson’s call for a renewed heroism to be based on a revived Existentialism rooted in visionary acuity.” Note that word: visionary.

Words like “renewed” and “revived” show that by taking up The Hero, Wilson is only apparently changing his focus from previous examinations of The Outsider and The Rebel; as Wilson says in the 2001 Introduction, the “basic theme would be the ‘vanishing hero’,” and The Hero he defines in the book itself as “the man who cannot accept the status quo.”

So we seem to be on familiar ground, where the protagonist faces the hostile or uncomprehending world, only to be rescued from pessimism and defeat by Wilson’s discovery of some grounds for what he likes to call “absurd good news.”

What’s unusual here is that Wilson starts off by examining “The Evidence of Sociology,” specifically those chroniclers of Mad Man-era angst, David Riesman and Nathan Glazer (The Lonely Crowd, 1950), William H. Whyte (The Organization Man, 1956), and, to a lesser extent, Vance Packard (The Hidden Persuaders, 1957). All these document “an increasing emphasis on man as a member of society”; there has been a trend to “over-emphasize the social virtues until most men think of nothing but ‘what the neighbours think.’”[3]

In particular, Wilson seems taken with Riesman’s typology of social characters: tradition-directed, inner-directed, and other-directed. As Wilson explains it:

The society of the Middle Ages was mainly tradition-oriented (i.e., directed by ritual, social routine, religion). The inner-directed type of man is the man with pioneer qualities; he possesses the self-discipline to drive towards a goal he has himself chosen.

The other-directed man cares more for what the neighbours think than for what he wants in his own person; in fact, his wants eventually become synonymous with that the neighbours think. . . . The other-directed man demands security, and all his desires and ambitions are oriented towards society.

The problem of the vanishing hero is that, according to Riesman, “the American character is slowly changing from inner-directed to other-directed.” Indeed:

The terrifying part of [Whyte’s] study is not merely the observation that men are willing to swallow the organisation ethic; it is the fact that they swallow it and like it.

And the problem with other-direction is that “it conceals . . . a generalization about mankind, a judgement about the ‘stature of man’”[4] in which “the extraordinary man seems to belong almost to a different species.”

So far, it might seem that Wilson has simply found a new set of terms for his Outsider mythos, with the advantage of having added some sociological backing. Having never read any of these three sociological “classics,” I might have been inclined to just go along with Wilson and see what developed.

But then, in one of those synchronic moments Wilson would have delighted in, no sooner had I downloaded this book, but another crossed my digital landscape, with the click-baity title Jordan Peterson and the Second Religiousness: Explaining the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon by one John Tierney (Amazon Digital, 2018). Here, the stick used to beat poor Peterson like a Great White Piñata is Spengler’s idea of the Second Religiousness that occurs in declining civilizations, right before the rise of Caesarism.[5]

It’s an interesting approach; but more relevant here is that Tierney also uses Riesman’s model, although it’s rather different than Wilson presents it, and used here for very different purposes. This led me to examine Riesman, and indeed, things are a bit more complicated than Wilson lets on.

First of all, the three types are by no means arranged in any Piaget-like order of value;[6] each are equally valid ways of adjusting to one’s society.[7] Moreover, being psychological types, no actual person is simply one or another type:

There can be no such thing as a society or a person wholly dependent on tradition-direction, inner-direction, or other direction: each of these modes of conformity is universal, and the question is always one of the degree to which an individual or a social group places reliance on one or another of the three available mechanisms. And you can move from greater dependence on one to greater dependence on another during the course of your life.

And in fact, there are actually five types, although one, the Anomic, we can likely ignore, as this is simply a failure to adjust at all (some of the more sociopathic Outsiders might fall into this category). More important is the fifth, the Autonomous.

Here’s how some folks[8] view it:

Instead (and this often gets ignored), at the end of The Lonely Crowd Riesman argues that the ideal to strive for is a fourth type: the autonomous.

The autonomous has “clear cut, internalized goals,” but unlike the inner-directed, he chooses those goals for himself; his “goals, and the drive toward them, are rational and non-authoritarian and not compulsive.” He can cooperate with others like the other-directed, but “maintains the right of private judgment.” He’s involved in his world, but his “acceptance of social and political authority is always conditional.”

Essentially, the autonomous “are those who on the whole are capable of conforming to the behavioral norms of their society . . . but are free to choose whether to conform or not.” The autonomous stands outside and above the other types; he understands them, can reflect on them, and then can freely choose when and if to resist them or act in accordance with them.[9] He is able to transcend his culture – by turns overruling it and joining in with it as he himself chooses in order to further his goals. The autonomous man is both idealistic and pragmatic.

Note particularly that “unlike the inner-directed, he [the Autonomous One][10] chooses those goals for himself.” What Wilson seems to miss is that while the inner-directed one does not look outside, to either tradition or his fellows, what he looks to instead is what his parents (or their surrogates) taught him. He may, as Riesman says, have an “inner gyroscope,” but it is a gyroscope nonetheless.

Tierney emphasizes this, and gets great enjoyment from mocking not only tradition-directed conservatives (Catholics, Mormons, evangelicals, etc.) but also those conservative and alt-Rightists who think they are acting from some kind of moral or intellectual principle when they oppose other-directed initiatives – denouncing them as “PC,” “virtue-signalling,” and so on – whereas they are only psychologically stunted losers, still living in their parents’ psychological basements. Progressives, by contrast, are just “open-minded” and polite, not demonic SJWs.[11]

Ultimately, for Tierney as for Riesman or Spengler, the three types are not only equally valid (that is, as Kuhn would say, incommensurable), but the evolution of society makes the transition from tradition- to inner- to outer-directed inevitable, and there’s nothing Wilson or anyone else can do about it.

At this point the reader may be saying, who is this John Tierney, anyway? A good question, calling for a brief pause.

Excursus: The Armageddon Conspiracy

I haven’t been able to pin down who this “John Tierney” is, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts it’s not the guy who occasionally writes for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Internal evidence from telltale tropes – Leibniz the genius, believe the “experts,” “conspiracy theories” are crazy, the Frankfurt School has no influence because more people know Kim Kardashian than Marcuse, globalism is inevitable, Muslims are bad (but no more than any other Abrahamic cult) and so immigrants in general are to be welcomed as a sign of our higher consciousness, globalism is inevitable and to be welcomed, etc. – show that this is another pseudonymous product of the online group calling itself the Armageddon Conspiracy, funded no doubt by the CIA or Soros, so as to soften up or cool down the marks. I guess the “Mike Hockney” and other pseudonyms didn’t make enough of an impact.[12]

Oh look, a whole chapter on “The Illuminati”!

For once, the pearl-clutching cry of “Satanic deception” seems appropriate; the plot of those behind the Armageddon Conspiracy is to produce a series of small Kindles by various anonymous “authors”[13] (suggesting a growing movement of top-flight intellects rather than a guy in his basement, or a team at Langley) which start off promoting some hyper-intellectual, academic position – Leibniz versus Descartes as the key to the modern mind, say, and use it to critique various modern fashions – and then, when the reader is feeling very much “in the know,” you hit him with: “Experts like you, me, and Leibniz should be in charge, you’re not one of those dopes who doubts experts and believes conspiracy theories, right? The experts say globalization is inevitable; you’re not one of those who doubted Leibniz’s authorship of the calculus, like some inbred, dope-smuggling British empiricist, are you?”[14]

I must give “them” credit, though, as it’s intellectually ambitious: they use Spengler’s organic model to marginalize, via Riesman, not only Peterson, but importantly (Peterson’s only the bait) the whole Dissident Right (“placed,” as F. R. Leavis would say, as unself-aware inner-directed mamma’s boys).

***

Back to Wilson. Surely no one other than someone teaching a “History of Sociology” course cares about whether he gets Riesman’s terminology straight. We should think of Wilson’s appropriation as what Harold Bloom would call “creative misprision” in order to set up a system of his own. He has, in short, bigger fish to fry:

The reasons for the disappearance of the hero figure go deeper than [Riesman’s notion of] a shift from ‘an age of production to an age of consumption’; they are bound up with the inner-dynamics of the hero.

As we’ll see, after examining those “inner-dynamics,” Wilson has his reasons for hijacking Riesman’s terminology, and his version will make an interesting comparison with Tierney’s. But first, let’s turn, as Wilson does, to “The Evidence of Literature.”

Here, Wilson and his reader are back on familiar ground, and Wilson gives another excellent example of his “existential criticism,” locating the styles and themes of writers in their lived experience.[15]

Just as Wilson examined three big sociological books of the ‘50s, he now examines the Big Three novels of the ‘50s: Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, and James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed. The results horrify him; as Whyte had already determined regarding Caine, in each novel the “hero” is actually an organization, and the protagonist’s task is to successfully assimilate himself into the larger group.[16]

Of course, these are bestselling “blockbusters,” but fancier writing is no better, and even somewhat worse: in F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, the theme is the defeat of the hero, either by society or his own flaws. In short:

American literature in the twentieth century, then, supports the analyses of Riesman and Whyte, it shows two main tendencies, which could be labelled Society as Hero and Society as Villain. In either case, the individual is reduced to a cipher to be defeated and crushed, or to fit in quietly and place his virtues at the service of the Organization.

Wilson’s England is hardly any better: “modern English society is more ‘other-directed’ than a good Englishman might like to think”; “its literature is designed to flatter the audience and amounts to a “cult of the ‘ordinary chap’.” Even the “Angry Young Men” merely “launched a new cult of the ‘ordinary chap’, who is only Riesman’s ‘other-directed’ man with a veneer of rebelliousness,” although Wilson finds “a revival of the inner-directed hero” in the works of John Braine and Bill Hopkins.

While Wilson, as per usual, has interesting things to say here, especially about the fancier writers, I feel that he really doesn’t do justice to the organizational novels.[17] Some fifty years on from The Age, I find them quite fascinating, as detailed portraits of recent eras that seem to have vanished like the Babylonian Empire; and since the fancy writers have continued relentlessly to explore individual failure, it seems rather refreshing and, indeed, healthier to read about men who may not be existential Heroes, but who at least seek personal and professional success. They also answer to the contemporary feeling of a need for instruction on how to become a man, a genre which is perhaps not entirely alien to Wilson’s concern for the Hero.[18]

Excursus: Wartime Literature

One thing neither Wilson nor Bertonneau seem to notice is that all three novels are by and for the Second World War generation; it’s not at all surprising that novelists would be interested in, and find an audience for, novels about wartime military service; and having served themselves, it’s not surprising to find them interested in how the services tick.[19]

What has changed is that novelists, especially of the post-Korea generation, no longer consider the military to be an efficient or effective machine, or even an honorable one, and their novels tend to emphasize the supposed oxymoron of “military intelligence.” The locus classicus, of course, is Catch-22 (Heller, 1961; written from 1953 on), a kind of anti-Guard of Honor, whose “black humor” is entirely unlike the gentle, knowing mockery of a No Time for Sergeants (Hyman, 1954).

Ironically, these later novels are clearly no advance over the wartime novels Wilson denigrates; indeed, though critical of “the Organization,” they typically center around the antics of the “anti-heroes” he deplores; what I’ve previously called “cockroach literature.”

While Jim Dixon, Kingsley Amis’ angry young yobbo battling Lucky Jim’s academic stuffed shirts, might finally earn his ironic nickname with an implausible job offer to London (a sign of Amis’s latent conservatism; the true Cockroach disdains anything like a job), usually The Man triumphs through prison (Judaic Paul Newman’s blond haired, blue eyed Cool Hand Luke) or the mental institution (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or the draft board (Richard Fariña’s masterpiece of hipster Castroite misogyny Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me); or else he accidentally blows himself up in a gas-filled attic, like Beckett’s solipsistic proto-slacker Murphy, or jumps on a bus to anywhere as we fade out (The Graduate). Think of the contrasting worlds where first James Gould Cozzens’ sympathetic study of wartime airmen dealing with boredom and duty in Guard of Honor, then Joseph Heller’s malicious hatchet job on the same theme, Catch 22, could be both best-selling and showered with honors. Never heard of Cozzens? – that’s my point.

The archetypal Cockroach is, of course, Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and this is quite appropriate, since the Cockroach and his literature is both the product, and the instrument, of the Judaic strategy of demoralizing goyische society by “uncovering” the “truth” behind its ideals.[20]

Wilson’s analysis of Caine is uncharacteristically off-center. When Bertonneau says that “those who know the story either in its original form or in its cinematic adaptation will recognize in Captain Queeg’s behavior the signs of cowardice and neurosis,” I am reminded of something somebody said somewhere, that the hero of the novel is Willie Keith; the hero of the stage play is the defense attorney, Barney Greenwald; the hero of the TV play is Captain Queeg;[21] and the hero of the movie is the Navy.

When Bertonneau says Queeg is “clearly incompetent,” he’s quite wrong; as the defense attorney states to the court, we can only assume that a man who attains command of a US naval vessel is highly competent and certainly not a coward; hence his distasteful task is to prove that Queeg is mentally ill. Queeg’s service in the pre-war Navy is impeccable, and even heroic; but apart from what today would be called PTSD, he has – as we would also say today – been promoted to his “level of incompetence.”[22] The tragedy is that rather than rallying behind the increasingly overwhelmed Queeg and supporting him, the officers, egged on by the Iago-like Lt. Keefer – a Joyce-reading college smartass Wilson would have rightly despised – conspire to mock and ultimately depose him.[23]

Wouk has in mind a different kind of “hero” than does Wilson, although they may not be that far apart; as another unfriendly critic says:

Greenwald tries to get out of defending Maryk but then accepts when he realizes that Maryk, a real salt of the earth type, is merely a dupe for the intellectual of the conspiracy, the writer Keefer. At the court martial Greenwald wins an acquittal for Maryk, depicting Queeg as crazy. But at a party afterwards celebrating the publication of Keefer’s novel as well as Maryk’s acquittal, a drunk and angry Greenwald dresses down the mutineers saying that, “It is the Queegs of the world, the regular officers of the U.S. Army and Navy” that prevented his mother “from being cooked down to soap over there.”

Not lawyers, not “sensitive intellectuals,” not the readers of modern literature who like Marcel Proust and James Joyce, but the officers of the regular army and navy. They stopped Hitler and saved his mother from the crematorium. Greenwald adds, “[Queeg] stopped Hermann Goering from washing his fat behind with my mother.” With that, Greenwald throws his wine in Keefer’s face, the true instigator of the mutiny of the Caine. Later in the war, Keefer is further discredited when he displays physical cowardice in battle, prematurely abandoning his ship under fire.[24]

This may chafe against Wilson’s Outsider tendencies, but such group solidarity is, at least at times, necessary.[25]

Cozzens’s concern is with more than just the plight of an Outsider, important as that may be for society as well; he examines:

The intense and even severe moral testing – in one place, in tightly arranged action, and over a brief time (in accord with the classical unities) – of good, although flawed, men. Without causing undue damage to others or themselves, these men must chart the gray seas between duty and temptation, ease and labor, right and wrong—and trust to luck as well.[26]

It might even be not unlike what Wilson would call “existential”:

Heller wished to show that war is ludicrous, Cozzens wished to show that war [just] is, and that people are complex and that what they do and what they think about what they do, matters. That actions taken today and the next day make us who we will be tomorrow and that there are no inconsequential choices.[27]

One might hazard the guess that Wilson is simply constitutionally unable to understand or “get” the whole idea of military service; he is, after all, quite proud of getting himself out of his own military service by claiming, falsely, to be a homosexual.[28]

***

Summarizing the case against Arthur Miller – the best of a bad lot – Wilson gives a hint of his own solution to the disappearing Hero:

Miller’s weakness lies in his lack of imaginative vision. He can condemn the Protestant Ethic, but he has nothing to put in its place. He can reject the Organization, but he has not shown a single example of fruitful individualism.

As will become clear, the modern Hero will depend on the power of his imagination. But to start with, Wilson, in “Part Three: The Anatomy of Insignificance,” admits “it would be valuable to have a provisional definition of the word ‘hero’.” Indeed, it would, even if we are now, according to my Kindle, fifty-nine percent of the way through the book.

The Hero is not about physical courage, or at least not only courage; as we’ve seen, Wilson approves of the instigator of the Caine mutiny, even though he proves to be a coward. Heroism is “directed courage; and what it is directed towards is all-important.”

What the appropriate direction is, depends on the kind of society the potential Hero lives in; in simpler, perhaps more brutal, times, sheer physical courage would have been sufficient.

But in a more complex and peaceful society, a man who feels the craving for expansion, for freedom, needs to possess intelligence and some degree of self-knowledge.

The Hero is no longer the man who can simply hunt or steal the most food; nor the man who can simply charge ahead to defend his Lord or find the Grail. And why is that?

The increase of other-direction is not merely a matter of the increase of big business, advertising, mass-production, and so on. It has also been helped by the fact that the cultural forces of inner-direction have been self-divided for a very long time now; its enemies are internal as well as external.

The reasons for the disappearance of the hero figure go deeper than a shift from “an age of production to an age of consumption” [as Riesman would have it]; they are bound up with the inner-dynamics of the hero.

Cervantes dealt the death blow to the old, simple hero with his sadistic mockery of the insane Don Quixote; at about the same time, Shakespeare – perhaps unintentionally – created the first great modern self-divided Hero in the character of Hamlet. This Hero is “self-divided” because, as Wilson says of Goethe’s Faust, “he suspects that his craving for freedom is incapable of being satisfied in the world.”

And Faust finds the answer:

As he is about to drink poison, he hears the Easter bells, and experiences a rush of ‘temps perdu’, of memories of his childhood, and an absurd, paradoxical feeling of immortality.

The Easter bells bring back the living essence of his past, and stimulate a consuming desire to live more. Faust realizes, in a flash of intuition, that truth is subjectivity; that it is no use looking for it in the outside world; that it is contained within himself, in his memories, in the subconscious power-house he carries inside him.

And now we see why Wilson was so taken with Riesman’s terminology. The solution to the Hero’s problem – how to obtain the power and will to impose oneself on the world, in the face of harsh reality – can only be solved by going further within, becoming more inner-directed, not by outer-direction. The problem arose within the individual, and the answer is more subjectivity, not less.

Wilson seems to be proposing a kind of “good” and “bad” dialectic that could be schematized thus:

Bad:

Tradition-directed (which becomes increasingly)

Inner-directed (but which under modern conditions becomes less inner- and increasingly) Other-directed.

Good:

Tradition-directed (which becomes increasingly)

Inner-directed (but which under modern conditions becomes less inner- and increasingly) Other-directed (although in some cases, inner-direction continues, reaching a maximum, at which point the individual becomes)

 The Hero who, by his example and his will, can provide new values for society.

“Tierney” sees things differently:

Tradition-directed (which becomes increasingly)

Inner-directed (which is simply a familial kind of tradition-directed and which under modern conditions becomes less inner- and increasingly)

Other-directed (until at some point, for some reason, there emerges a higher type)

The Autonomous.

And indeed, Wilson is not far from Riesman himself; for The Hero is indeed Riesman’s Autonomous Man:

If the other–directed people should discover . . . that their own thoughts, and their own lives are quite as interesting as other people’s, that, indeed, they no more assuage their loneliness in a crowd of peers than one can assuage one’s thirst by drinking sea water, then we might expect them to become more attentive to their own feelings and aspirations.

Whereas, for all Tierney’s mockery of the inner-directed Dissident Right (rather reminiscent of the mockery Wilson’s Outsiders came in for from the smug critics of his own time), and all his Spenglerian cigar smoke about historical inevitability, the obvious contemporary product of increased other-directedness – the NPC[29]– hardly gives one confidence that modern conditions, left unchecked, will produce Autonomous Men rather than Last Men.[30]

So, in answer to the question, “Why is the Hero vanishing?” it is a loss of faith in one’s own inner resources; and the solution is to increase that faith by exploring those inner resources. The problem with the original existentialists, like Sartre or Camus, or writers like Huxley or Beckett (Wilson’s particular bete noir), is that they are natural pessimists, and won’t make the effort to draw on what may be within.

And the most powerful of those resources (Wilson’s “subconscious powerhouse”), the root of them all, is the imagination. In sum:

Heroism, in its purest definition, is an appetite for freedom, a desire to live more intensely. But its realisation depends upon the liveliness of the potential hero’s imagination.

For this reason, Wilson thinks Proust actually had more on the ball than Goethe, since the former not only appreciated the importance of the experience of timelessness and immortality, but also sought – and largely achieved – a method for domesticating it, having it “on tap” as it were. But alas, twentieth-century writers (Joyce and the other “avant garde”) and philosophers (whether existentialists or logical positivists) have instead fallen for the “fallacy of insignificance,” the “defeat hypothesis,” and resigned themselves to playing games with literary innovations and logical minutiae until death grants them merciful release.

On the other hand, Proust was pretty hermetic himself, and failed to complete the cycle; Wilson is not advising us to retreat to our own cork-lined rooms and forget society for good:

The problem of the hero goes deeper than this. It is not simply a question of turning inwards, but of coming to terms with the interior problems and then turning outwards again.

The final hero will be the man who has healed the self-division, and is again prepared to fling himself back into the social struggle.

Nietzsche, “who was in every way an inner-directed man,” attempted to “portray the authentic hero” but also failed:

Zarathustra begins by turning his back on society and coming to grips with his own problems. . . . But his ‘action’ amounts only to preaching, and the world in which he preaches is an anonymous realm of fantasy.

Wilson finds Shaw’s Julius Caesar to be “the only serious attempt in twentieth-century literature to create an undefeated hero”; most twentieth-century literature is just “literary faking” which “depends on the reader not possessing enough imagination to envisage a higher destiny for the hero (and, by implication, for himself) than the one the author has selected for him –  collective farming, the Catholic Church, or being Lady Chatterley’s lover.” Again, despite its prestige, essentially more literature for cockroaches.

The existentialism of Sartre and Camus is examined and found wanting as well: “the analysis halts before it reaches the point of synthesis. Is it possible for existentialism to become something more positive?” This is Wilson’s task in the final section, “The Stature of Man.”

Rather than “begin where Sartre and Camus left off,” since this has led to a dead end, “a new existentialism would have to begin further back, utilising only their psychological method.” More and better subjectivity, rather than less.

The flaw in this French existentialism is that it has “failed to place sufficient emphasis on the creative drives,” which are “sub-personal” and “originate on a level below the ‘social personality.’”

At this point, the problem links up with the main subject of this essay, the hero. The aim of the ‘new existentialism’ is identical with that of ‘the hero’ and the ‘inner-directed man’ – to be re-connected with the vital impulses and the sense of purpose. His salvation [lies] in a deepening of internal experience.

At this point as well, we have reached familiar ground; Wilson’s search for a method, which, as he describes it, seem closer and closer to what the American New Thought exponent Neville Goddard described as his “simple method for changing the future.”[31]

In short, Magick.

The hero can be defined as the absurd man. In effect, he is the man who can perform a conjuring trick.

If he does not believe in himself sufficiently to direct his desire towards the unattainable, he is no hero.

The existentialism of Sartre and Camus fails to take full account of the dualism of man. Their heroes are brought to earth by ‘reality.’ But in fact, man never has to face anything as finally as that. No matter what ‘realities’ he has to face, a part of him remains detached. Upon this rests our optimism and strength. If there is any reality that must be faced without alternative, then man is damned. His hope lies in his ultimate and indestructible freedom, a freedom that implies that he always has the choice of realities because he is the final reality.

[The Hero] can affirm or deny, according to an act of will. And he is determined by that act of will, not by ‘the facts’. There are no ‘facts’, only experiences of the facts that are determined by the individual’s attitude. Sartre’s insistence on man’s fundamental freedom is only a restatement of the religious concept of faith, and ‘faith’ is another name for belief in the absurd.

All this, as we’ve said before, is pure Neville: reject supposed “facts” or “reality,” assume the feeling of your wish fulfilled, act as if it has already been accomplished, and it will come to pass.[32]

Turning, as an existentialist, to his own experience, Wilson relates how he shook off his teenage ennui and reasserted his will to live during a tour of France, and again, it’s pure Neville: First, he had to induce a “mood of relaxation”; then, he had “to concentrate upon a certain ‘dramatic’ vision of myself, and to play the part continuously, without interruption from acquaintances or relations, until it had become an accepted facet of my personality.”[33]

I don’t think Neville ever used the term “hero,” but otherwise the parallel is pretty exact:

You know, people are totally unaware of this fantastic power of the imagination, but when man begins to discover this power within him, he never plays the part that he formerly played. He doesn’t turn back and become just a reflector of life; from here on in he is the affector of life. The secret of it is to center your imagination in the feeling of the wish fulfilled and remain therein. For in our capacity to live IN the feeling of the wish fulfilled lies our capacity to live the more abundant lifeMost of us are afraid to imagine ourselves as important and noble individuals secure in our contribution to the world just because, at the very moment that we start our assumption, reason and our senses deny the truth of our assumption. We seem to be in the grip of an unconscious urge which makes us cling desperately to the world of familiar things and resist all that threatens to tear us away from our familiar and seemingly safe moorings. [Fallacy of insignificance]

Well, I appeal to you to try it. If you try it, you will discover this great wisdom of the ancients . . . You see, imagination puts us inwardly in touch with the world of states. These states are existent, they are present now, but they are mere possibilities while we think OF them. But they become overpoweringly real when we think FROM them and dwell IN them.[34]

In fact, Neville goes beyond mere heroism and asserts that “our own, wonderful human imagination” is, in fact, God; and Wilson agrees that this is indeed the stature of man, if we could only admit it to ourselves:

The central preoccupation of existentialism can be defined in one phrase: the stature of man. Is he a god or a worm? Modern literature takes the latter view . . . the tendency of the age has been to emphasise the insignificance of man, his misery and weakness. It is all a question of emphasis.

I’ve called Neville’s teachings, and New Thought in general, our home-grown Hermeticism, our native-born Neoplatonism, and our two-fisted Traditionalism. Wilson calls attention to a stream of Anglo-American thought that he calls “a native tradition of ‘positive existentialism’. It is a tradition of affirmative and irrational mysticism that can be found in Blake, Whitman, Yeats, Joyce and Shaw, as well as in a host of lesser figures”; adding that “[i]t is a mood that seems foreign to French and German writers[35] (Nietzsche being the sole exception I can bring to mind).”[36]

Speaking of streams, ultimately Wilson recognizes that the task of the hero is what Counter-Currents readers will recognize as metapolitics:

Any ‘solution’ offered cannot be ‘popular’ in the sense that Marxism has become popular. The very nature of Riesman’s analysis makes it impossible for him to develop remedies.

Inner-directed thought (which is to say, existential thought) cannot, by its nature, hope for some mass-vehicle for its interpretation. If it is to gain influence, it will do so by ‘infiltration’ from the higher levels downward. A thinker like Camus has recognised and accepted this.[37]

[The Hero] may never be a Karl Marx, but he has only to look to the examples of Joyce and Eliot to see how wide the influence of the solitary worker can be.

In the end, despite all the magick and metapolitics, The Age of Defeat – the third book in the Outsider Cycle – seems a bit thin, especially compared to its predecessor.[38] By hijacking Riesman’s terminology, Wilson seems to have simply restated his basic ideas in new dress, without much new development; by contrast, later encounters with Abraham Maslow and even H. P. Lovecraft provided new directions for his thought.

It may sound like I’ve been rather negative here, or damning with some faint praise. But Wilson’s early books are all worth reading,[39] as this reviewer of the next book, The Strength to Dream, insists:

Few readers will fail to learn something from Mr. Wilson about the books they have not read. None can fail, save through his own lack of imagination, to be thoroughly stimulated by [his] conclusions.[40]

Again, Aristeia Press are to be congratulated for bringing this book back in print, and in a finely made edition; hopefully, they have the rest of the Outsider Cycle in the planning stages.

Notes

[1] Watchmen: The Annotated Edition; edited with an introduction and notes by Leslie S. Klinger (Burbank, Ca.: DC Comics, 2017), p. 380. Veidt’s interrogator goes on say, “You’ll forgive me for saying so, but isn’t that philosophy a little Norman Vincent Peale?”

[2] Familiar to some here from his contributions to The Brussels Journal and the Sydney Traditionalist Forum.

[3] From Mad Magazine to MST3k to Mad Men, mocking the supposed soul-destroying, yet trivial, horror of what Crow T. Robot calls “life in Eisenhower’s America” has been the source of some admittedly pretty funny routines – for a rather un-self-aware example, see “Learning Empathy From Robots: How MST3K Helped Explain My Parents” by Leah Schnelbach – although one might wonder how much of this reflected the subversive agenda of certain ethnic groups (nota bene Riesman’s co-author; and as for Riesman himself, New Leftist Todd Gitlin, in his Foreword to the 2000 Yale Nota Bene edition, praises him as “a longtime critic of nationalism” and for his enthusiastic efforts as that ‘60s cliché, the old guy who helps the kids stick it to the man (my words, not his, of course).

[4] The American publishers of the original edition substituted this phrase as the title.

[5] “The yearning for something more meaningful is satisfied by returning to earlier forms of the Culture that preceded the democratic age. These forms are no longer capable of development but through a reengagement with them the population of the Imperial Civilization is once more able to regain a sense of nobility and the connection with the numinous that had been lost. Spengler refers to this return to earlier forms as a ‘Second Religiousness.’ The earlier religious impulses are now ossified but they still provide sufficient inspiration to give impetus to the Imperium, as they are at least paradigmatically superior to the reign of money and triviality. In this particular phase we can see a plethora of new cults emerging as people gradually lose faith with the democratic money age, and look for something more perennial.” Christopher Pankhurst, “Spengler: The Numinous Genesis of Culture.”

[6] See Richard Duchesne, “Jean Piaget & the Superior Psychogenetic Cognition of Europeans.”

[7] Wilson, by contrast, claims that “[i]t has been universally taken for granted that inner-direction is preferable to other-direction.”

[8] Brett & Katie McCay, “How to Be Autonomous in an Other-Directed World,” The Art of Manliness, June 11, 2012.

[9] Riesman’s model thus recalls Paul Fussell’s outline of the American class structure, where the working/middle/upper classes are sandwiched between the Top or Bottom Out of Sight (the global plutocrats and the destitute homeless), with a supposed Class X – actually upper-middle college professors like Fussell – supposedly able to stand aside and live by its own rules; see Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (New York: Summit Books, 1983).

[10] Presumably related to Stirner’s Unique; see my review “The Sad, Sour Spook: Max Stirner & His Proper Ties.”

[11][11] See this, from Esquire (formerly a “men’s magazine”): “’Diversity’ is second only to ‘tolerance’ as the most palatable and completely un-radical social justice goal. It literally just means sharing space – a school, a workplace, a nation – with people who are in some way different from you. And who could have a problem with that in America, a country that holds the melting pot among its foundational myths? Tucker Carlson, that’s who.” Answering David Brooks’ titular question, “Why Do Youth Hate Freedom of Speech,” a commenter at Unz  explains the outer-directed mentality: “Because they’ve been taught that Progressivism and Political Correctness protects everyone’s feelings from being hurt and prevents triggering and microaggressions. You can’t argue with them about it, because the words used to define it belong to them and their generation; it’s like Sixties parents using words like ‘groovy.’ The expression ‘freedom of speech’ is now a euphemism for white supremacist hate-mongering. Or maybe homophobic ranting. Because that’s the only reason you’d want to have it.”

[12] See “Who is Mike Hockney,” and for a pro viewpoint, see this.

[13] The usual team from Langley or MI6, as Miles Mathis would say.

[14] Riesman, ironically, discusses the “inside-dopester,” a modern type whose goal is “never to be taken in by any person, cause or event.”

[15] “Writing never has been and never can be anything of the sort. At its centre, there must be a completely personal statement of its author’s attitude to life and to freedom.”

[16] Jones deals with the Army, Wouk with the Navy, but Cozzens deals with a small town; Wilson makes the interesting point that “this tendency to make a town or a city, rather than any particular individual, the hero of a book, has become an accepted tradition in American literature since Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio”; even Faulkner “thinks of himself as a historian of an imaginary county.” I wish he had been more consistent and had examined Cozzens’ earlier Guard of Honor – a better novel, and also a Pulitzer winner – which covers the Air Force (then called the Army Air Forces), and also involves a mutiny; see C. F. Robinson, “An Unhealthy Adaptation: What Cozzens’ Guard of Honor Tells Us About Race & the US Government.”

[17] One might point out that such novels are hardly unique to America, or the mid-century. Scandinavia has its tradition of the “business novel,” which is most likely familiar to American readers in the form of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which is intended as a kind of Baltic German variant.

[18] It’s no surprise that the three TV series that have been heralded as exemplifying a “new, cinematic maturity” in the medium – The Sopranos, Mad Men, and especially Breaking Bad – deal with these very themes; see Jef Costello’s examinations of the latter.

[19] Similarly, it’s not at all “proof of a conspiracy” that many, if not most, of the “hippie” cultural figures had military backgrounds, since they were born during and just after the Second World War; see “Allen Dulles’ Lonely Hearts Club Band: The CIA & the Construction of the Sixties Counter-Culture.”

[20]Andy Nowicki’s The Columbine Pilgrim”; reprinted in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others: Traditionalist Meditations on Literature, Art, & Culture; ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

[21] Played by Lloyd Nolan; I seem to have ignored his contributions to Mike Hammer’s The Girl Hunters here.

[22] See Laurence J. Peter & Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (New York: William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1969; 40th anniversary edition, with a Foreword by Robert I. Sutton, HarperBusiness, 2014), and the discussion here and here.

[23] On a much lower – indeed, inverted – level, one might compare it to the plight of Pvt. Pyle in Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987). Although anti-Organization (here, the Marines), it is the DI’s final attempt to toughen up Pyle by turning the rest of the group against him that convinces the latter that he’s “living in a world of shit” and has nothing to lose by killing the DI and himself.

[24] Joel Brodkin, “The First Neoconservative: Herman Wouk, the Americanization of the Holocaust, and the Rise of Neoconservatism,” New Politics, Vol. X, No. 3, Whole Number 39.

[25] As an additional layer, Jewish author Wouk is clearly identifying himself with Keith, whose struggles to adapt to the alien ways of the Navy, and his girlfriend’s WASP family, parallel Wouk’s love/hate relationship with goyishe America; see Brodkin, op. cit. Conversely, a white author could be expected to lack the visceral hatred and contempt for the American middle class found in most Jewish and Jewish-influenced writers; Wilson seems unable to comprehend why “Babbitt was no bitter condemnation; Babbitt is a bumbling, pottering, American Mr. Polly and rather loveable.”

[26] Whitney Balliett, “War at the Top,” The New York Review of Books, November 4, 1999.

[27] Amazon review of Guard of Honor. A recent example is Samuel Finlay’s Breakfast with the Dirt Cult (Red Dirt Syndicate, 2012). In my review here, I noted that “[t]he contrast between Cozzens and Heller is the same as what sets Finlay apart from most writers of ‘war stories’: he isn’t concerned with smugly mocking the military, nor with making things go boom and cool ways to turn people into hamburger. Finlay, like Cozzens, is studying how children become adults — or not — on the basis of their choices under extreme conditions. For example: ‘[Being] in charge [Tom Walton, Finlay’s protagonist learns], meant more than just telling people what to do or how to think. It meant loyalty to your own, and giving a damn about what things were like on the grunt-level, and being willing to give your life for the lowest-ranking private in your team if you had to. Leadership demanded that a man never gave an order that he wasn’t prepared to carry out himself. That he had to fight like hell to try to rise above his flaws and hold himself to a higher standard than those under his charge.’.”

[28] Unlike Neville – the American mystic whom we’ll soon be comparing with Wilson – who extricated himself from the US Army with an honorable discharge by using his imaginal method; see “Lord Kek Commands! A Look at the Origins of Meme Magic,” reprinted in Magick for Housewives: Essays on Alt-Gurus (Melbourne, Victoria: Manticore, 2018).

[29] Mitch Horowitz says at the beginning of The Miracle Club that “the basic sense of human identity,” at least since Shakespeare expressed it in Macbeth, has been pretty much indistinguishable from the NPC: “Each of us ‘plays his part,’ living, serving, struggling, until ‘mere oblivion.’ We sometimes bring a ripple of change to our surroundings. But overall, we remain bound to a familiar pattern.” See Mitch Horowitz, The Miracle Club (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2018), which I reviewed here. Horowitz goes on to explore the alternative: We can take control of our lives, through methods of consciousness control that have traditionally been called “magic.” Wilson, as we’ll see, reaches the same conclusion.

[30] I’ve presented the Armageddon Conspiracy, and Tierney’s little book, as an elite mind-control project, intending to keep us resigned to our increasing other-directedness. Perhaps, as Greg Johnson has suggested regarding Kojève, there is a secret intent to thwart the plan, by painting this supposed Utopia as dismally as possible.

[31] See “Neville and the Rebel,” op. cit.

[32] For the best account of Neville’s methods, including the idea (similar to the many-world hypothesis) that our real self exists outside time and can select what will come to pass in the “future,” see Mitch Horowitz’s The Miracle Club, and my review here.

[33] In a key chapter, “The Centrality of Neville Goddard,” Horowitz, op. cit., presents a three-step method, based on Neville’s many books and lectures: “First, clarify a sincere and deeply felt desire. Second, enter a state of relaxed immobility, bordering on sleep. Third, enact a mental scene that contains the assumption and feeling of your wish fulfilled. Run the little drama over and over in your mind until you experience a sense of fulfillment. Then resume your life. Evidence of your achievement will unfold at the right moment in your outer experience.”

[34]How to Use Your Imagination,” 1955.

[35] Camille Paglia made the same point about the evil influence of pessimistic post-war European thinkers on American academia; see “The North American intellectual tradition; Paglia: To hell with European philosophers: The breakthroughs of non-European thinkers are the 1960’s greatest legacy,” Salon, March 4, 2000; reprinted in Provocations: Collected Essays (New York: Pantheon, 2018).

[36] Nietzsche, of course, was heavily influenced by Emerson, the fount of New Thought; see, for instance, David Mikics, The Romance of Individualism in Emerson and Nietzsche (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003). “One can show that Emerson anticipated many of Nietzsche’s most famous utterances. There is a direct line from Emerson’s ‘oversoul’ to the ‘overman.’ Several decades before Nietzsche wrote, ‘What does not kill me makes me stronger,’ Emerson wrote, ‘In general, every evil to which we do not succumb, is a benefactor.’ More profoundly, Emerson foreshadowed Nietzsche’s concern with the ubiquity of flux and power, and the value of overcoming the past. ‘Life only avails,’ Emerson once wrote, ‘not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transitions from a past to a new state.’” Alexander Star, “What Friedrich Nietzsche Did to America,” The New York Times, January 13, 2012.

[37] Compare Baron Evola: “This has to happen in rather more essential terms than what might be called a ‘party’ . . . [or] even than a simple “movement’ . . . What we are hoping for, rather, is a silent revolution, proceeding in the depths, in which the premises are created, first internally and in individuals, of that Order that will later have to affirm itself externally as well, supplanting suddenly, at the right moment, the forms and forces of a world of subversion.” A Traditionalist Confronts Fascism, tr. E. Christian Kopff (London: Arktos, 2015), p. 5.

[38] Ironically, Wilson described Religion and the Rebel as “overstuffed.”

[39] The later potboilers are a little more hit and miss.

[40] Peter Russell, The Aylesford Review (Vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 31-36); quoted in Colin Stanley: Colin Wilson’s “Outsider Cycle”: A Guide for Students (Nottingham: Paupers’ Press, 2009, Colin Wilson Studies #15), in the chapter on Book Four.

Related

9 Comments

  1. Chris On Vacation
    Posted December 7, 2018 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Yet more question marks to the collection, but these are golden.

    Not just h/t: Thank You.

  2. Peter Quint
    Posted December 4, 2018 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    John Tierney is Spencer J. Quinn, or maybe Greg Johnson.

    • James O'Meara
      Posted December 4, 2018 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Egbert Sousè (with accent grave) is my candidate.

  3. Rhodok
    Posted December 3, 2018 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, I have not read any Wilson so far, but will now certainly do so!

    I am currently reading “The Origins and History of Consciousness” which concerns itself with the same theme but approaches it from the psychoanalytical POV starting with the earliest myths.

    It would be fun to read Wilson afterwards and see how he viewed the developments in his time and map these onto the archetypes developed by Jung and Neumann.

    • Minsc
      Posted December 4, 2018 at 4:02 am | Permalink

      Now that is a damn good book…
      Basically, all that Joseph Campbell makes you work for in “The Hero With Thousand Faces”, never stating it clearly but rather hiding it behind his impressionistic prose and countless excerpts and summaries of myths, Neumann spells out with incredible clarity.

      • James O'Meara
        Posted December 4, 2018 at 5:05 am | Permalink

        Interesting to compare Campbell and Neumann, since Campbell has acquired a posthumous reputation as something of an anti-semite.

        Camile Paglia called Neumann “one of my central, galvanizing discoveries” and wrote a essay called “Erich Neumann: Tehoritst of the Great Mother” which is reprinted in her new collection Provocations.

        • EF
          Posted December 5, 2018 at 8:18 am | Permalink

          “since Campbell has acquired a posthumous reputation as something of an anti-semite.”

          Campbell whilst watching the moon landing in 1969 said, “That would be a good place to put the Jews” That is from memory but close enough. Jews, to this day, hate his guts for that remark, and, for all I know others as well.

          I had once all the Colin Wilson books but I think they’ve been lost over the years.
          He certainly ENTERTAINED me and I sometimes wonder about the influence his writings have had upon me.

          I’ve said it before but it needs repeating CC is the MOST amazing website on the internet.

      • Rhodok
        Posted December 4, 2018 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        It is!
        Hard to read though, mostly because every other page I read something so profound that I lose myself in contemplation…

    • James O'Meara
      Posted December 4, 2018 at 4:57 am | Permalink

      By all means read any and all of Wilson!

      I don’t recall any mention of Neumann, but he wrote a whole (small) book on Jung; it goes in and out of print but you can find copies on the internets.

      Wilson was quite taken with Julian Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness and even titled one of his books The Bicameral Critic.

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