Monday, July 24, 2017

Two Essays on Colin Wilson: "World Rejection and Criminal Romantics" and "From the Outsider to Post-Tragic Man" by Gary Lachman

When your first encounter a book by Colin Wilson and begin to investigate what else he wrote, you can very quickly become intimidated by the number and scope of his works. After looking over his impressive body of work, you can find some recurring recurrent topics among the titles, but you’d have a long slog to find a common thread without a guide. In 2016, Gary Lachman published what I believe constitutes the definitive long-form (book length) guide to Wilson’s work, his biography of Wilson, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. But some might be intimidated by a book-length dive into Wilson. So, is there a work that allows one to dip one’s toe into the water, so to speak? In this case, I can recommend Lachman’s Two Essays on Colin Wilson: “World Rejection and Criminal Romantics” and “From Outsider to Post-Tragic Man.” The two essays date from 1994, thus pre-dating the end of Wilson’s career (as a writer he was truly prolific), but they still capture the essence of Wilson’s project.
Colin Wilson

The first essay plunges the reader into Wilson’s ideas about optimists and pessimists and how they arrive at their respective positions. The pessimistic view (‘world rejection’) gained the upper hand with the advent of the Romantic movement, and it has continued to maintain its prominence, especially in the artistic class. Of course, Wilson and Lachman can identify vital counter-examples (e.g., Nietzsche (his dourness and occasional vitriol notwithstanding), William James, and George Bernard Shaw), but many writers and artists in the 20th century tended toward ‘world rejection.' After discussing various viewpoints, Lachman makes the following point (referring to Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov)

The whole point of Wilson’s The Outsider [Wilson’s first book and the one that brought him widespread acclaim-sng] and practically all of his subsequent books is that any halfway sensitive consciousness is faced with this dilemma: which vision is true, Alyosha’s or Ivan’s? In a way it comes down to a variation on Pascal’s wager: if the universe is pointless and worth rejecting, then to act as if it isn’t, as if it is meaningful and worth affirming, is a mistake with no worse consequence than any action or belief in a meaningless universe. But to act as if it is meaningless and worth rejecting when it is indeed meaningful and worth affirming is to throw away the possibility of having the kind of experience that Alyosha does when he feels that his consciousness is linked to the stars, or Nietzsche when he felt “6,000 feet above man and time,” or the Steppenwolf’s vision of “Mozart and the stars,” and the other visions of meaning and affirmation that Wilson has catalogued throughout his enormous body of work.
The thing to be remembered is that the affirmative vision is not the outcome of a reasoned argument, although after it one can use reason to remind oneself of its reality. The affirmative vision always arrives unexpectedly, from some source in ourselves deeper than our conscious egos. 
Lachman, Gary. Two Essays on Colin Wilson: “World Rejection and Criminal Romantics” and “From Outsider to Post-Tragic Man” (Colin Wilson Studies Book 6) (Kindle Locations 148-157). Paupers' Press. Kindle Edition.
Gary Lachman
Throughout the remainder of the essay, Lachman continues to explicate on this fundamental theme, just as Wilson did throughout his lengthy career. Both Wilson and Lachman embrace the view that life is worth living and counter the arguments of the world rejecters, although both Wilson and Lachman eschew Pollyannaish views on the subject. It’s not that evil and suffering don’t exist, it’s that these realities don’t carry the day.

One of Wilson’s key insights is that one overcomes the abundant prompts toward pessimism by “peak experiences” (Maslow’s term; Wilson was an admirer, then friend and biographer of Maslow). Of course, the Romantics (the originals and their descendants) craved peak experiences and sought them, often by drugs and alcohol, but Maslow and Wilson both believed that peak experiences were not “gifts of the gods,” but how ordinary consciousness should work. Indeed, the “criminal” part of the essay, reflecting a part of Wilson’s investigation, is the fact that at least some criminal behavior is sparked by the need for thrill and adventure, as well as power. While greed and simple lack of self-control (e.g., alcohol consumption) are behind most crimes according to my 30 years of experience as a criminal defense lawyer, in some cases, the motive seems to have been the thrill of it all. (Two check-kiters (back in the day) pop into my mind; they loved to tell how played the game so well—for a while.) Wilson cites many instances of either actual and imagined debauchery pursued by artists to heighten and engage consciousness to the level of a peak experience. But whatever temporary high they achieve then dissolves and becomes merely an elusive vision of a paradise lost. Some writers, like “William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer” almost deify the criminal and debauched elements in their writings, as against, for instance, Shaw, who created characters who sought out the extraordinary and to achieve and aspire greatly. (Again, my 30 years of experience with “criminals” prevents me from giving any credence to romanticizing them; the overwhelming number of them were simply occasional screw-ups; some wise-guy blow-hards with a bit of luck; and the congenitally anti-social. I never mustered any admiration for my clients, although I hasten to add that I always treated them with dignity and respect.) Thus, Wilson-Lachman (it is hard to separate the thinking of the two within the context of these essays) don’t have to work very hard to convince me of the folly of the romancing the criminal, or of ‘world rejection’ in general. Yet, because these authors are still read and perhaps have some following (beyond English departments?), the exercise is a worthwhile one.

So, while some of the essay critiques the futile (and to me, frankly boring) worldviews espoused by the pessimists, the other part looks at the problem from the affirmative perspective. Lachman notes:

While the Criminal Romantics treat the symptoms of what Wilson calls ‘life-failure’ by throwing themselves into one adventure after another, Wilson addresses the source of the problem.
That source, ultimately, is consciousness itself. Two things, Wilson argues, are essential in understanding the problem of ‘affirmation consciousness’; one is the curious relation between the conscious and unconscious minds, the other is recognizing the fact that we are all in a state of what he calls ‘upside-downness’. Since Sigmund Freud’s ‘discovery’ of the unconscious, the popular notion has been that the conscious mind is in a sub-ordinate relation to the unconscious. We are all, the common myth goes, driven by unconscious forces. There is a one-way relationship between the two; in computer-talk, the unconscious ‘downloads’ into the conscious mind, but not vice versa. With Freud this scenario is exceedingly dark, since for him the unconscious is a kind of cellar full of nasty business we’d rather not think about. In Jung the situation is better; for him the unconscious is not a dumping ground for ‘repressions’ but a creative, purposeful centre in the psyche. But still, in Jungian psychology, the unconscious calls the shots. 
If. 619-628.
Wilson posits that the opposite may be the case: that the active, conscious mind may affect the unconscious to our benefit. In other words, our conscious, intentional acts—our active mind—may be the vehicle of our well-being and not a passive, “leave-it-to-the-unconscious” attitude that depth psychology (Freud and Jung) suggests. It’s certainly more than just “think happy thoughts,” but does begin with “don’t focus on negative thoughts.” Some balance, some lines of communication, between the conscious and unconscious mind must be opened, and Wilson suggests (and Lachman agrees) that the conscious mind can have a much greater role in promoting this increased communication that all too many have heretofore believed.

In the second essay, “From Outsider to Post-Tragic Man: Colin Wilson and the Case for Optimism” many of the same themes are further explored and developed. As Lachman explains in the opening paragraph:

Colin Wilson is a very good example of what Isaiah Berlin called a hedgehog, he who “knows one big thing.” Whether he is writing about the Düsseldorf sex murderer Peter Kürten or the Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, Wilson’s subject is invariably the same, and has been so since his first book, The Outsider. For nearly forty years Wilson has been fascinated with the potentials of human consciousness and has produced under this rubric a massive and highly readable oeuvre on topics as diverse as existential philosophy, the occult, crime and the psychology of murder, literary criticism and sociology. In pursuit of his investigations, biographies of such dissimilar characters as Bernard Shaw, Wilhelm Reich and Grigory Rasputin have emerged from his pen, as well as many novels and much incidental writing. His output is unquestionably prodigious: at last reckoning the number of volumes from Wilson’s hand exceeds 100.

Id. 734-740.
Lachman’s opening comment that Wilson is a “hedgehog” according to Isaiah Berlin's distinction between thinkers as hedgehogs and foxes is a designation that wouldn’t on first blush attribute to Wilson, as I alluded in the opening of my review. His array of book topics, non-fiction and fiction, is astonishing, but Lachman is right: an overriding theme ties all of Wilson’s work together. Wilson is all about the potentials of human consciousness. As Lachman aptly puts it: “[W]hat is the “one big thing?” Put as briefly as possible, Wilson’s underlying theme is that questions of the meaning of human existence cannot be satisfactorily addressed without taking into account the intensity—or lack thereof—of human consciousness.” Id. 743-745. If like me, you perceive everything that we humans do as motivated by a desire to alter or sustain a particular state of consciousness, then you realize that Wilson must be right. Feeling sleepy? Then change to sleep consciousness (which has various levels as well). Hungry? Act to alleviate that uncomfortable state by eating. Bored? Turn on the television or attend to your smartphone (which may well lead to greater boredom, but it may distract you for a while. Horny? Well, you get the idea. Of course, my examples focus on basic needs and drives, but we can say the same about the need to create, to be inspired, to share emotions with a group, to feel the body in action, and so on. We constantly act to alter our state of consciousness. But not all courses of action are useful, and some are counter-productive to our (often ill-defined) intentions. I think that this is what Wilson (and Lachman) are getting at.

In the remainder of the essay, Lachman catalogs the developments of Wilson’s thought through his Outsider cycle (five books at the beginning of Wilson’s career). By the time he’d completed these books, Wilson had developed an alternative take on the existentialism of Sartre and Camus. A positive existentialism, if you will, is outlined in Wilson’s An Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966). In this work, Wilson pens his answer to Sartre, Camus, and others in their line of thinking. Husserl’s phenomenology and its emphasis on intentionality and Whitehead’s distinction between ‘causal efficacy’ and ‘presentational immediacy,’ are the main ingredients with which Wilson brews his ‘new existentialism.’

Lachman continues his explication to include the “St. Neot margin” (a peculiar phrase but based on a terrifically telling story told by Wilson that brings it alive), ‘life failure,’ ‘the robot,’ and ‘Faculty X.’ Each of these terms expands and clarifies Wilson’s essential insights. In fact, my notes and highlights go on at some length in the book from this point, but I’ll stop here because for the few dollars it will cost you to buy this and read it on your Kindle (or free Kindle software), you should. Just writing the review makes me want to go back and read the two essays again cover-to-cover. The team of Wilson and Lachman is a potent one and one that you can return to repeatedly for inspiration and insight. To me, this is high praise indeed.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

Yes, he looks a bit like my dad, and he said this:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” “Is there no other way the world may live?”

I must admit it upfront: I like Ike. I’ve always liked Ike.

It might be in part because he was the first president I knew was in office. But more likely because my parents were “Eisenhower Republicans” (later referred to as “moderate Republicans,” an extinct species today). In fact, in the year before my birth, my prematurely bald father (only about 30 at the time) was outfitted with an Army uniform and played the role of Ike in a local Republican victory parade to celebrate Ike’s election in 1952. And, yes, my dad and Ike do bear a resemblance. Even over the intervening years when my political views have changed (for the better, of course), my admiration for Ike has held firm. After reading Smith’s fine biography, that opinion has been deepened, not dampened.

As historian Garry Wills put it, Ike was a political genius. “It is no mere accident that he remained, year after year, the most respected man in America.”

Before this I’d read the second volume of Stephen Ambrose’s two-volume biography, the second volume dealt with Ike’s presidency and post-presidency, and so this was a first extended exposure to Ike’s early life and military career. From this period, I learned from fascinating aspects of Ike’s life. For one, Ike had a reputation for luck, and luck certainly played a contributing role in his success. Also, he had mentors—General Fox Conner, General Pershing, and General George Marshall—who boosted his career at crucial times. But while luck and patronage certainly helped Ike along his path, he worked hard and grew in his assignments. He was never a combat commander in war time (at the fighting level), but he honed a variety of skills that made him indispensable. For instance, while working for General Fox Conner at a Panama Canal posting during the 1920s, he took advantage of the General’s extensive library to extend his knowledge of history and military affairs. While serving General Pershing in Paris, he learned a great deal about the French countryside. (Ike missed combat during WWI.) He also served under Douglas MacArthur in Washington, D.C. (during the sad conduct of MacArthur and the political leadership in its treatment of the Bonus Army), and Ike served again under MacArthur in the Philippines in the 1930s. (Reading about MacArthur in this book, I better understand why William Manchester’s biography of MacArthur was entitled American Caesar; he was a pompous, ambitious man. George Patton, Ike’s slightly older peer, was as gung-ho and sanguinary as the George C. Scott bio-pic portrayed him to be.) The most surprising thing about Ike was that in WWII, when he took direct control of field operations as the Allies prepared for the final push into Germany, proved wasn’t much of a military strategist. The British general Montgomery did a much better job of that, although, he, like MacArthur and Patton, was a prima donna. But when it came to the incredibly challenging task of keeping an international coalition functioning with the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Charles DeGaulle to please, Ike was a miracle-worker.

While certainly ambitious, Ike remained an uncertain office-seeker. Former general Lucius Clay, along with New York lawyer Herbert Bromwell (later Ike’s Attorney General) and Thomas Dewey, were all needed to propel Ike into the presidency. Ike was uncertain, and he was probably wary of the dirt that might be slung at him. (He mistreated his predecessor Harry Truman, although Truman admired him, and unbeknownst to Ike on inauguration day—when Ike snubbed Truman—Truman has removed a very damaging letter from Ike’s army file that concerned Ike's relationship during WWII with Kay Summersby, his driver, aid, and lover.) But none of this came out, and the nation loved him, giving him a sound victory over the Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson.

“Someday there is going to be a man sitting in my present chair who has not been raised in the military services and who will have little understanding of where slashes in [the Pentagon’s] estimates can be made with little or no damage. If that should happen while we still have the state of tension that now exists in the world, I shudder to think of what could happen to this country.”

After his election, Ike mostly left the choice of his cabinet to his chief advisors (listed above). It wasn’t that Ike was indifferent, but he delegated to subordinates and trusted them to take charge of what they could while leaving the final, big decision to him. Thus, they recommended Nixon as vice-president (as a sop to the Republican right that Ike—in the person of “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft—had defeated for the nomination.) He also accepted John Foster Dulles as his Secretary of State. Like Nixon, Dulles proved very un-Eisenhower-like. Dulles had a Manichean, Cold War mentality, while Nixon was a shifty—even then—political animal. But Ike managed both, along with a gung-ho military. I was shocked about how on various occasions Ike refused the advice of the military to use nuclear weapons. In fact, Eisenhower wanted peace and to limit the arms race. If there is one fact to take away about his Administration, it’s that after the Korean armistice in July 1953, no American troops were killed in combat during the remainder of his presidency. And he deployed troops overseas only once, in Lebanon, without loss of life and only for a limited duration (to counter Arab nationalist sentiment). He declined to try to deliver the French from their defeat at Dien Bien Phu, to attack the Chinese over islands around Formosa, to aid the British-French-Israeli coalition to take the Suez Canal from Egypt, or to actively intervene in the Hungarian uprising in 1956. 

On May 1 [1953], Robert Cutler, the president’s national security assistant, presented Eisenhower with the Joint Chiefs’ plan for Operation VULTURE [in Vietnam]. Ike dismissed it out of hand. “I certainly do not think that the atomic bomb can be used by the United States unilaterally,” he told Cutler. “You boys must be crazy. We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God.”

“I believe hostilities are not so imminent as is indicated by the forebodings of a number of my associates. I have so often been through these periods of strain that I have become accustomed to the fact that most of the calamities that we anticipate really never occur.”

This is not to say Ike’s judgment was flawless. Ike approved of covert activities in Guatemala and in Iran that deposed legitimate governments that were pursuing policies that didn’t endanger U.S. security, but that endangered U.S. and U.K. multinational corporations with financial interests. In the case of Iran, a line can be drawn from the U.S. role in deposing the Mossadegh government and imposing the Shah and the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought to power the current regime.

The GOP majority in the Eighty-third Congress seemed less interested in grappling with the problems of the day than in repudiating the work of Truman and Roosevelt. [Sound familiar?]

But in two other areas where some of criticized him, Eisenhower, Smith argues, called the right plays. Before becoming president and after his service in WWII, Eisenhower served as Columbia University’s president (a fine place, I’m told). And while Ike wasn’t very attuned to the academic world, he resisted those who wanted to limit free speech or engage in witch hunts. 

 “Don’t join the book burners,” he said. “Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend your own sense of decency. That should be the only censorship.… How will we defeat communism unless we know what it is?"

This attitude continued into his presidency. He declined to take McCarthy head-on, not wanting to give McCarthy a stage and not wanting to get into a brawl with a skunk. Although McCarthy and his fellow-traveling anti-Communist radicals (and cynics) did a lot of damage, McCarthy and his movement crashed as Ike had predicted. One could argue that a frontal attack was called for, but I think that Smith’s assessment makes sense. 

Ike always believed that if he had attacked McCarthy directly, the Senate would never have taken action. Later he wrote, “McCarthyism took its toll on many individuals and on the nation. No one was safe from charges recklessly made from inside the walls of congressional immunity.… Un-American activity cannot be prevented or routed out by employing un-American methods; to preserve freedom we must use the tools that freedom provides.”

Ditto with civil rights. Ike was not a crusader for civil rights (it was not an issue that he faced directly before becoming president), but Brown was decided on his watch after his appointment of Chief Justice (Earl Warren), and Ike would have none of the insubordination to the law that so many in the South were willing to pursue. His showdown with Arkansas governor Orville Faubus was a masterpiece of Eisenhower maneuvering and political skill, augmented by the 101st Airborne. In the end, Little Rock High was integrated.

Adam Clayton Powell—scarcely anyone’s Uncle Tom—put it best in a speech to his constituents on February 28, 1954. “The Honorable Dwight D. Eisenhower has done more to eliminate discrimination and to restore the Negro to the status of first-class citizenship than any President since Abraham Lincoln,” he said.

A few days before he left office, Ike addressed the nation in a farewell address, just as Washington had done after his two terms in office. The concerns of Eisenhower for peace and against militarism had not changed much. His words are worth noting at some length, as Smith does. Smith describes and quotes the address: 
“Our military organization bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime.” Until World War II, “the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could … make swords as well.” But now, because of the Cold War, “we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend more on military security than the net income of all United States corporations.” Eisenhower’s voice continued with somber intonation. “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new to the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.” Then, in the most widely quoted passage, Ike said: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. 
Then, in a timeless warning for the future, Eisenhower said America “must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.” [Emphasis added.]
After learning a great deal more about this man—warts and all—I do so we wish we will soon have again a person serve as president who can provide the level of leadership, dignity, skill, and wisdom as did this man from Abilene, Kansas