I’ve owned the book Time and Free Will by French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) since university days – but regretfully never quite got around to fully reading it. It still resides on my bookshelf, awaiting the day… I was also interested in American polymath William James, and did at that time read some of his work, including The Varieties of Religious Experience, which proved quite influential. These philosophers were reverently referred to by other thinkers I was also reading at university, notably Colin Wilson’s then-popular The Outsider. So I was quite interested to come across this story about Bergson in Iain McGilchrist’s seemingly infinitely giving book The Matter with Things.
In 1907 Bergson published the book Creative Evolution, which built on Darwin’s idea of evolution, but rejected ‘natural selection’ as the main means of progress, proposing instead the idea of the life force, or elan vital, which was notably the source of human creativity. It seems that these ideas generated great interest in the US at the time, related as they were to the work of William James, who had died two years previously. Bergson was invited to Manhattan to give six public lectures on ‘Spirituality and Freedom’.
According to an essay by historian Larry McGrath both Sigmund Freud’s 1909 and Bertrand Russell’s 1914 visits to the US met with popular excitement similar to Bergson’s. How different from today, when such major thinkers largely do not meet with such popular acclaim. It appears that it was perhaps the scientists, such as Einstein, who took over the public imagination.
It’s not really my purpose to explore why this might be the case, in this brief post, but I will be coming back to Bergson in a future post, as his ideas are strikingly relevant today.
Featured image of Henri Bergson by unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
There is an increasingly frequently told tale of the vicissitudes in the development of human consciousness over historic times, of the loss and reconnection with an understanding of who we are and our place in the scheme of things, of the golden thread that runs through history, of the recovery of balance in the human psyche, of the various periods of renaissance of the highest spirit of humanity…
Gary Lachman is an able storyteller. In his book The Secret Teachers of the Western World he tells this tale, giving pictures of the significance of many key actors along the way – the secret teachers. To my mind this story of the polarity of movement of humanity between the extremes of darkness and renaissance is of utmost significance, particularly given the dark times that threaten.
Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson by Gary Lachman.
I remember being totally inspired when I came across Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider while at university in the early 1960s. It gave an introduction to philosophy/psychology and literature that had been much neglected in my early education. It was very readable and even had sexy bits to titillate one of such an age. And it was on a theme related to those who felt a bit outside the norms of conventional society, who were a bit different because not just preoccupied with the daily grind of the material world. It also had the intriguing backstory of Wilson’s having lived rough on Hampstead Heath for a period while researching and writing it in the British Museum, of his subsequent popularity as one of the ‘angry young men’ of the 1950s, and how he had fallen out of favour with the literary establishment.
Over the years I have dipped into quite a lot of the books of Wilson’s prolific work, both fiction and non-fiction. He seemed to move from philosophy/literature into more specific fields such as criminality and the occult, but always related to similar themes on the potential development of the individual human being. Generally what he wrote was very readable and seemed to make sense, but making it a reality in one’s own daily life was quite a different matter. So this was but one thread on my own extensive explorations of other authors and systems.
It was a delight to recently discover that Gary Lachman had written this biography of Wilson, which enables the books and their ideas to be put into context with each other and with the realities of Wilson’s life as an author earning a living through his writing. To my mind, Lachman has done a great job, and the clarity of his writing bears comparison with that of Wilson himself. He demonstrates clearly the development of Wilson’s ideas and suggests he should be regarded as a leading thinker of his time, notably playing a part in the development of a modern positive version of the existentialism that reached a negative cul-de-sac with Sartre and Camus. (After The Outsider I read Sartre’s Nausea and hated it.)
The robot of the title refers to our capacity to hand over parts of our lives to an inner ‘robot’ that handles things for us, filtering out parts of our experience of the ‘outside world’. Wilson’s aim is always to help us to move beyond the robot and reclaim meaning in our lives, but at the same time recognising the valuable functions that the robot does perform. It won’t help if I try to explain this much further in a few paragraphs. You’ll just have to read it for yourself. It will repay the effort.
This book will be a valuable reference to Wilson’s oeuvre, and will particularly give an insight into which of his books to begin with if you wish to delve further into his world.
According to Gary Lachman, the ‘Right Man’ was an idea developed by science fiction writer AE Van Vogt.
“It describes the type of person who under no circumstances can accept that he is wrong. His need for self-esteem is so great and his grasp of it is so tenuous that the slightest contradiction sends him into a rage. His belief in the absolute correctness of all his actions is so unshakeable that he treats any question of it as a personal betrayal.”
In modern parlance we might see this as an extreme form of narcissism.
Lachman reports that from Colin Wilson’s Criminal History of Mankind that it is clear that “most of history has been written by right men” quoting examples such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Nero, Caligula, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane – the great tyrants of history. Obvious modern examples will come to mind.Read More »