A Review of Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, by Gary Lachman (New York: TarcherPerigee, 2016), with reflections on Wilson’s astrological chart and Sun in Cancer’s search for meaning and purpose
Whether or not you are a fan of Colin Wilson (1931-2013), Gary Lachman’s biography of his life and thought is a rewarding read that clarifies much of the thinking that underpinned that second half of the 20th century, relates a human story, and anticipates our increasing preoccupation with evolving consciousness. My prior knowledge of Wilson’s work was sketchy and not wholly positive. Lachman’s biography, with its interweaving anecdotes and philosophical explanations, has alerted me to just how influential Wilson was, and allowed me to fully appreciate his quest for “a ‘new existentialism,’ an ‘evolutionary,’ optimistic philosophy which would eventually include areas of the occult and mysticism” (pp. xi-xii).
Lachman devotes considerable space to Wilson’s early life leading to publication of his overnight success, The Outsider (1956). Although I had skimmed its pages some years ago, by the end of chapter 3, I set aside the biography to study it in depth. The Outsider, seeking meaning and purpose beyond the everyday, robotic wheel of fortune, is a sub-personality with whom I resonate, and I was astounded by the extent of this book’s influence on mine and my schoolmates’ choice of reading in the early 1960s.
I purchased a copy of The Occult (1971) three or four years after its publication, a fat, lurid green paperback, stuffed with information on all kinds of irrational beliefs and activities, much of which I found tedious. At the start of the decade, I had been hurled down the evolutionary ladder from competent student of literature with easy access to what Wilson dubbed the “angel of the library”—an alter ego that finds and opens reference books at appropriate places to extract and assimilate precisely the information required to complete successful essays. This fall from grace shattered my intellectual confidence, and I found myself in a state of what Wilson called “upside-downness,” just about functioning with the stoic existentialism of Albert Camus’s (1913-1960) Sisyphus (pp. 89 & 254). Wilson didn’t provide a breakthrough, but the doorway began to open when I started working with astrological charts.
Colin Wilson was born on 26 June 1931, at 4.30am in Leicester, as the Sun was rising, and I was delighted to find I had filed Joan Revill’s witty horoscope of Wilson, published in Prediction (May 1979, pp. 4-6). It begins: “You cannot gambol in the field of the paranormal nowadays without the threat of the author Colin Wilson snaring you in his ectoplasmic net and studying you through his aura goggles.” Referring to the restless Mercury on his Gemini Ascendant, Revill adds: “Small wonder that Colin Wilson’s output grasshoppers about between straight novels, reviews and articles, psychological thrillers, sci-fi, the supernatural, drama, biography, espionage, criticism, analyses of murder and music, a guide to sex for teenagers and—A Book of Booze!”
Mercury and the Ascendant, both in the last degree of airy Gemini, are in conjunction with Sun at the beginning of watery Cancer, creating “a tug-of-war between intellect and feeling.” Apart from this all-important conjunction, Mercury presides over Wilson’s chart with no other planetary aspects. The overall picture has the mobile appearance of an opening envelope, comprising mutable triangles and linear extensions, with colour combinations of 4 green, 4 red, and 4 blue aspects, conveying the impression of a highly-strung, active intelligence that seldom relaxes, corresponding closely to Lachman’s portrayal of Wilson’s personality.
Venus in Gemini, quincunx Moon in Scorpio, makes a projection triangle with North Node in Aries, connecting houses 12, 5, and 10. Scorpio, the fixed water sign, is intercepted between the house cusps, and Wilson’s introspective Moon, approaching the low point in the fixed 5th house of creativity, evidently spearheaded his fascination for the dark recesses of the criminal mind, leading to his assertion that “we are seeing the appearance of a kind of murder that is a dark mirror-image of self-actualization, in which the killer’s actions are a twisted expression of our need to evolve and live creatively” (p. 221).
Mars is in a one-way conjunction with Neptune, both in Virgo, intercepted in the 4th house, Mars is quincunx North Node, and both Mars and Neptune are sextile Sun. Therefore, all three planets in the 2nd instinctive quadrant of conditioning in the lower hemisphere of the chart are intercepted. Here we find keys to Wilson’s interest in deviant eroticism, as well as criminology, and hidden motivations in the dark recesses of the unconscious. Wilson concluded that sexual deviancy is a by-product of evolution, whose real driving force is the imagination (p. 267). His espionage novel, The Black Room (1971), explores the concept that, “A human being who could motivate himself without the need of being stimulated by something outside would have taken an important step toward the next stage in human evolution—would, in fact, be acting out of true free will” (p. 91).
Intercepted planets and their sensory antennae are often misunderstood, both by the individuals themselves and their detractors. Lachman evidently had access to Wilson’s intimate personal diaries as well as his publications, and used what he understood from both to disentangle situations that arose between Wilson and his critics. Wilson was sometimes naïve, and Lachman, an American living in London, observes that his openness was more attractive to his North American readership than to an often nastily cynical British press looking for someone to lampoon.
Jupiter and Pluto in Cancer, at the beginning of the 2nd house, are in opposition to Saturn in Capricorn in the 8th. Pluto and Saturn are both square Uranus in Aries in the 11th, making an achievement triangle in cardinal signs and fixed houses. Pluto and Uranus make aspects to Moon, forming a dominant learning triangle, and together these configurations convey the intensity with which Wilson worked and his ongoing quest for knowledge. Moon excepted, all these planets are very close to the cusps of their houses, in the cardinal zones, projecting themselves actively into the world. Uranus is indicative of Wilson’s innovative way of presenting his ideas using different genres. Although he reworked similar material in his prolific output, he invariably found an alternative perspective, new pieces to add to a familiar jigsaw, and conclusions that take forward his evolving philosophy. One example is Starseekers (1980), an illustrated journey through the history of astronomy I was given as a birthday present thirty years ago, in which Wilson begins by citing writers like Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) who had foreknowledge of cosmic entities prior to their discovery.
It appears that Wilson was fond of saying he was a “typical Cancer” who loved his home and family (p.96). As one Sun Cancer interpreting the life and work of another, I would expand this stereotype to encompass a need to be surrounded by significant books and an instinctive desire to leave a philosophical imprint wherever possible. Having escaped the rigour of a university education, Wilson felt freer than most to put a personal stamp on his encyclopaedic researches, and voyage mentally wherever curiosity, intuition, and book advances took him, exercising freedom with an “inherent direction, a purposiveness,” in pursuit of “evolutionary intentionality, the new dimension of the mind and inner experience” (p, 148). Keeping that momentum required unshakeable self-belief and incredible stamina, and Joy must have been an exceptional wife, managing the nest and supporting Wilson in his intellectual endeavours. Lachman’s admiration for her shines through his biography.
Wilson’s work isn’t new to readers of APA’s journal, and Barry Hopewell’s review of New Pathways in Psychology: Maslow and the post-Freudian Revolution (1972; 2nd ed. 2001), published in Conjunction 55 (July 2012, pp. 21-22), includes an outline of Edmund Husserl’s (1859-1938) phenomenology, establishing the transcendental ego with the central “I” reaching out. Wilson realized that continental existentialists like Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) were indebted to Husserl’s phenomenology but ignored his “central insight that perception is intentional,” determined by the will, an argument that is central to Wilson’s new existentialism (p. 109). In contrast to Camus’s concept of the artist as realist, Wilson believed that, not only should the artist be “able to see the world” but he must also be “able to alter his perception of it” (p. 103). Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), a pioneering exponent of the Human Potentials Movement, was one of Wilson’s early admirers, and the two men had a fruitful correspondence. According to Maslow, self-actualizers—who had successfully ascended the hierarchy of needs beyond anxieties around survival and self-esteem to embrace their creative potential—were most likely to have peak experiences, and Wilson experienced many such moments of pure happiness (p. 114). The title of Lachman’s biography, Beyond the Robot, reflects not only Wilson’s appreciation of the robot as a versatile operating system, enabling us to get by in life, but also the outsider’s, or self-actualizer’s, need to turn the robot off at appropriate moments, so as to live a more fulfilling life and reach a higher state of consciousness (pp. 154-56). Wilson’s survey of life’s mysteries includes precognitive dreams, which, if acted upon, can help us to master destiny. In his view, “most of us have the power to alter events. But only if we do not allow ourselves to let our robot do the living for us”, a conclusion that corresponds to the message of John Grove’s Life Passages (2017), which combines age progression through the horoscope with dream interpretation (p. 256).
Later chapters flag a little, along with Wilson’s energy. He was not a happy traveller in the physical world and felt more comfortable exploring archaeo-astronomy from his home in Cornwall than touring Egyptian temples and Pre-Columbian sites. By then, many minds besides his own were at work in these contentious areas of research, incorporating UFOs and aliens—are they physically real or projections of the psyche? Wilson formed the view that aliens want to help us to evolve and encourage us to keep on the right track (pp. 299-301).
In 2009, Wilson summarized his ideas in Super Consciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience. A central feature was his ladder of selves:
- level 0 is deep dreamless sleep;
- level 1, dreams and hypnagogic experiences;
- level 2, sleepy awareness, mirroring the outside world;
- level 3, stuck in consciousness, sleepwalking through life;
- level 4, ordinary consciousness battling with life, discovering inner strength and determination, capable of peak experience to access the next level;
- level 5, spring morning consciousness, where we know that life is good;
- level 6, magic consciousness, a feeling of total reconciliation with life;
- level 7, Faculty X, where we are no longer trapped in the present, can range over wide areas of reality and gain mastery over time;
- level 8 represents cosmic consciousness, universal interconnection, mystical gnosis for which most humans are unready.
In the pivotal space between levels 4 and 5, an individual can choose whether to consciously evolve or allow the robot to take control and slip back into sleepwalking. Huber astrologers and esotericists are familiar with levels of being and ascent. This modern interpretation of the mystical ladder of Jacob’s dream might or might not convince us.
The real reason why this biography has gripped my attention and proved worthy of thorough reading and consideration is set out by Lachman in the final paragraph:
“Colin Wilson left behind a huge body of writing which is there for old readers to remember and new ones to discover. In it he opened the door to a special kind of knowledge, a kind of insight with which each of us, in our own peculiar way, can discover our ‘secret life’ and explore other times and places. There is no one path for all, as his many Outsiders, those he wrote about and those who discovered themselves through his writing, knew. He wouldn’t have it any other way. I end this book with the hope that through reading it some of us can take that evolutionary leap forward that Wilson was certain was on its way and finally get beyond the robot” (p. 350).
Yes, this book has taken me back to the 1960s, encouraged me to relive the intervening years between then and now, integrate my thinking and let go of the residing negativity. So, I am emerging into a positive space, after nearly half a century, with renewed self-belief and purpose that I never hoped to recapture. Thank you, Colin Wilson and Gary Lachman.