Alberto Manguel, in his preface to A Reader on Reading, (Yale University Press, 2010), writes this about the act of reading: “What we believe a book to be reshapes itself with every reading. Over the years my experiences, my tastes, my prejudices have changed: as the days go by, my memory keeps reshelving, cataloguing, discarding the volumes in my library; my words and my world – except for a few constant landmarks – are never one and the same.” A few pages later, he expands the same idea: “A book becomes a different book every time we read it.”
These words were pertinent as I recalled reading The Occult for the first time in 1984, and compared it to my impressions upon re-reading it more than a quarter of a century later to write about it here. I feel it important to bring up this personal aspect to this first commissioned book of Wilson’s, which he himself hesitated in writing, as the subject was such dangerous territory for a serious writer. Indeed, Robert Graves had advised Wilson against doing the book.
But Wilson was nearing 40 years old and he was low on money for his young family, and he took it on. It would turn out to be a book that not only helped to re-launch his career – with positive critical responses of a kind that he had not had since The Outsider – but also it was one that was, oddly, at the centre of his own general philosophy.
Although Wilson had always been interested in matters of the occult – as readers of his autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose, become aware – he was also a sceptic with a scientific background. That attitude would begin to change with the research he did for The Occult, and the experience of writing the book would ultimately change the direction not only of his writing career – as he continued to write about the subject at length in books like Poltergeist, and Afterlife – but also of his life and philosophy. In his Introduction to a reprint The Occult, by Watkins Publishing in 2003, he wrote, “The publication of this book had the effect of changing my life.” He added that it was an awakening to the paranormal, which he said, “is as real as quantum physics (and, in fact, has a great deal in common with it), and that anyone who refuses to take it into account is simply shutting his eyes to half the universe.” (Wilson (1), xxii)
Indeed, my own experience was that I too was a strong sceptic on the occult before I read the book, but the book opened my mind largely and in a way I never expected. But unlike with Manguel, although the intervening years from my first reading once again strengthened my scepticism I again began to return to many of the same conclusions about the book as I had in 1984.
My memories told me that this was a book about hauntings, supernatural powers, weird tales, and a general history of the supernatural from ancient times to the present. But even after 200 pages of the nearly 800-page book, Wilson had barely written a word about ghosts, ghouls or other aspects of what we consider the occult and supernatural.
It now struck me that this book deals with the same themes that have preoccupied Wilson through nearly all of his books, including his fiction. Above all, it has to do with his lifelong search for what he calls, Faculty X, a state of being in which the intellect and emotions and instinct mix to give a person insight into the greatness of life and the world around us – in a sense of a higher state of being from that of our normal daily state of dullness.
He defines it on page 73 also as, “that latent power that human beings possess to reach beyond the present”, saying also that it is “the key to all poetic and mystical experience; when it awakens, life suddenly takes on a new, poignant quality.” On the next page he expands, writing that “Faculty X is a sense of reality of other places and other times, and it is the possession of it—fragmentary and uncertain though it is—that distinguishes man from all other animals.”
Indeed, in The Occult, he merely uses the shell of the occult as the structure within which to write about the same subject of Faculty X again. Indeed, as the book progresses, it becomes evident that what we call the occult is, in fact, at the core of Wilson’s preoccupations.
To quote from page 418 of my Granada paperback edition of 1983, which progressively fell apart during my re-reading, Wilson writes in the chapter on Magic and Romanticism, and the section on Saint-Martin, the French mystic:
“Without realising it, man possesses immense powers. He is ‘engendered from the fount of wonder and the fount of desire and intelligence’. And his most vital faculty is his imagination – imagination in the sense that Paracelsus used the word, the faculty for reaching beyond himself, beyond his everyday life. Man wears blinkers; imagination is the power to see beyond them. Most men sit dully, like sheep in a field, imagining that ‘there’s nothing to be done’, that everyday reality is a kind of prison from which there is no escape except through drugs, drink or suicide. In fact, the doors are open. Man’s chief trouble is his curious passivity, which is like hypnosis. The beginning of his ‘salvation’ are the glimpses of freedom that come in times of crisis or in moments of sudden ecstasy.” …. He then quotes Blake, and then Saint-Martin on how man’s soul stays in the body but that he may use his senses to break away from the confines of his body, adding: “He is speaking about Faculty X. At every moment, man is freer than he realises.”
Still, the book is indeed full of stories of what we consider classical hauntings, ghost stories, tales of the weird and wonderful and portraits of the main players in the history of the supernatural and the occult. Wilson recounts the lives of Cagliostro, Casanova, Daniel Dunglas Home, Madame Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, George Gurdjieff, and the odd drunk, Ted Serios, who claimed to send images from his mind onto Polaroid film to produce photos of buildings, cityscapes and other objects.
Upon re-reading the book, my feeling about these descriptions of the strange stories of levitation, flying pianos and all manner of oddity, and Wilson’s apparent acceptance of them, was much less open than in 1984. Many of these passages read too far out to accept as anything other than make believe or magicians’ tricks. Take, for example, this description of Homes’s goings on in the chapter on “The Realm of Spirits”:
“[Lord] Adare and his three friends witnessed so many wonders that the sheer quantity overwhelms the imagination. Fireballs wandered over the room and through solid objects; spirits appeared as dim shapes, and sometimes as walking clouds; draughts howled through the room when all doors and windows were closed; doors opened and closed; flowers fell from the ceiling; spirit hands appeared; furniture moved around as though it was weightless. Home himself floated around like a balloon. He floated out of one window head first – it was only open a foot – and returned through another window.”
It is impossible to verify any of this scientifically. Unfortunately it even dates from before moving images, so it remains nothing but hearsay, despite the authority of some of the witnesses. And if it did happen then why does it not happen now? Surely someone with such exceptional powers must come about every hundred years or so, if they ever did?
Since the publication of The Occult, James Randi, a magician debunker of all things supernatural, decided to unmask Serios, by performing the same miracle himself with Polaroid film. And it has been claimed that Serios was caught cheating by placing a glass device with a photo on it in a tube over the camera lens. But there are other sceptics who have debunked the debunker, by pointing out that Randi’s efforts were not as rigorous as those of the original eye-witnesses to Serios’s powers. In short, the jury is still out on Serios, as it most certainly is on most of the other strange people described in this book.
The true message that Wilson is presenting to us in The Occult, is not that strange things have happened or that powerful and supernatural people have lived. It is that we all have more powers available to us in our personal lives than we accept to use. It is that we must learn in our everyday lives to keep our minds more open, exercised, active and alive through intelligence, instinct, intuition and our Faculty X. As he writes in the introduction:
“I am certainly not suggesting that we should spend our lives worrying about dreams and premonitions, or patronise fortune-tellers; it is a healthy instinct that makes us ignore them and get on with the practical business of living. But the hard-headed, tough-minded attitude towards such things is a mistake in the most ordinary, logical sense of that term. A mere two centuries ago, the most respected scientists declared that it was absurd to assert that the earth is more than a few thousand years old, or that strange monsters had once walked its forests. When workmen in quarries discovered fossilised sea-creatures, or even the skull of a dinosaur, this was explained as a freak rock formation, nature imitating living forms by way of a joke.”
In fact, this book could only have been written by the young working class man from Leicester who did not finish a classical education, who was always himself an outsider. It is for that very reason that Wilson has to be listened to, and has succeeded in writing what many members of the establishment would consider ridiculous. The result is a book that lays out a serious history of the occult in the following manner:
It is broken down into three parts:
Part One is a “Survey of the Subject,” with a section on Magic, another on occult powers, and then a study of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Tibetan Bardo Thodol, the I Ching and the study of Taosim and Zen. He then writes about poets and occult powers, the Tarot pack and the Kabbalah.
Part Two is a “History of Magic,” and a cross-section of such things as contemplative objectivity and the peak experience, drugs, and sex and the tantric yoga, and the powers of the subconscious and the superconscious mind. There is a section about “The Magic of Primitive Man,” about how ancient man had more animal-like natural magical abilities that were put to sleep by civilization in around 4000 BC. Wilson visits the very rich period of the 19th century under the heading “Magic and Romanticism,” where he writes about Saint-Martin and his study of ritual magic and mystical doctrines and his idea that man is basically a god. Here too Wilson gets into “The Outsider as a key figure of the nineteenth century.” He writes about Eliphaz Levi and the magical revival, the beginnings of Spiritualism, and Madame Blavatsky, the Theosophical Society and the Society for Psychical Research. He also looks at French occultism, Satanism and then the Order of the Golden Dawn. In the next part he moves into the chapter on Aleister Crowley (Wilson had based Caradoc Cunningham in his novel Man Without A Shadow: the diary of an existentialist (London: Arthur Barker, 1963) on Crowley and later wrote a biography Aleister Crowley: the nature of the Beast (Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1987). He then moves on to the Russian mages Gregory Rasputin and Gurdjieff, who is another favourite Wilson subject (he had written about Gurdjieff in the Outsider Cycle and later wrote a biography The War Against Sleep: the philosophy of Gurdjieff (Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1980).)
Part Three has a chapter on “Witchcraft and Lycanthropy,” in which he recounts the horrors of man and the church and state’s treatment of witches for 400 years. He also looks at werewolves and vampires. In the second part of this final section he studies the Realm of the Spirits, harking back to the Fox family and Daniel Dunglas Home, and he spends a great deal of this chapter also drawing on the ideas and observations of such literary and psychological men as G. Wilson Knight, Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley and John Cowper Powys. Finally, in the third part of this last section, he comes to his conclusions, drawing together all of the strands, summing up his view of the occult and showing why it is a significant subject that we should not ignore or pass off as a waste of time. He writes here about Wilhelm Reich, J.B. Priestley, Ouspensky and Robert Graves. Above all, he returns to Faculty X and his own experiments with drugs and the psychedelic experience, along with his theory of ‘the other world’.
And this leads to the question of what is precisely the stance of Colin Wilson on the occult. He concludes:
“I do not regard myself as an ‘occultist’ because I am more interested in the mechanisms of everyday consciousness. In the past, man’s chief characteristic has been his ‘defeat-proneness’; even the giants of the nineteenth century were inclined to believe that insanity is a valid refuge from the ‘triviality of everydayness’. But the answer lies in understanding the mechanisms. Once they are understood, they can be altered to admit more reality. The operation requires concentration and precision, the virtues of a skilled watchmaker.
“We return to the assertion of the opening chapter: man’s future lies in the cultivation of Faculty X.”
What is clear is that, however we may interpret Wilson’s interest in the occult, it is central to the main intellectual preoccupations of his life. And he brings up another point several times in the book. He notes that one reason much of the scientific, or even literary, establishment has little interest in the occult is best expressed by Nathaniel Hawthorne about Home’s feats of mediumship and levitation: They are interesting, but irrelevant. I.E., “so what”?
To that, Wilson provides the following answer at the end of the book, and herein lies the key to his reason for his interest in the occult:
“The old theological question ‘Why evil?’ is answered by the recognition that without evil, there would be universal mediocrity, terminating in death. It is only at this point in the earth’s history that this has ceased to be wholly true. With the development of art, science, philosophy, man has acquired the possibility of a positive purpose, a purpose towards which he can drive forward, instead of being driven from behind. (It is true that religion has always been an expression of this purpose; but religion was content with paradox: the assertion that ‘the world’ must somehow be denied by ‘the spirit’, without trying to understand why this should be necessary.) If positive purpose could be established as the human driving force,” he writes on page 761, “it would be a turning point in evolution, for it is many times stronger than the negative purpose of avoiding pain. A man can do things out of love or enthusiasm that would be impossible out of fear. His chief problem at the moment is to escape the narrowness of everyday triviality and grasp the nature of his goal; this, in turn, will require the development of what Blake called ‘imagination”, but which it would be more accurate to call Faculty X.”