I know I’m talking a lot, here, about my personal story. But I’m trying to use it to talk about something else, something not always so easy to get hold of. It is as Henry Thoreau said in Walden: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.”
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Colin Wilson’s body of work revolves around one premise that could be summarized as follows. “There is something wrong with life. The unsatisfactory way we live isn’t the way it should be or has to be. We possess vast unsuspected powers and abilities of which we are slowly becoming half-aware. It is our task to exert the intelligently-directed will to learn to develop and use these powers.”
That message filled me with excitement partly because it was pretty much without precedent. I had read Jess Stearn’s Edgar Cayce — the Sleeping Prophet, and Ruth Montgomery’s A Gift of Prophecy, but not much else that could be called parapsychology or occult (or, now, New Age). My mental world was filled with history, biography, politics, current affairs.
The only thing in my life touching on what people call the paranormal was the fact that in college I had hypnotized a couple of my fraternity brothers, eliciting stories that purported to be past lives of theirs. (More about this another time.) As to drugs, I went to George Washington University, a very conservative school, slow to catch up with the times. Also, I was a very conservative person, and a timid one — who had his future political career to consider. I graduated without having tried any drug stronger than alcohol and tobacco.
But I had been raised a naturally pious, naturally mystical Catholic in the time before Vatican II. The Latin Mass and all it symbolized — the entire theology — was as real to me as secular, technological America, and that was the gift of the situation. I lived with one foot set firmly in 20th-century postwar America and the other set equally firmly in a medieval worldview whose assumptions about reality were radically different.
Because I had embraced both, without feeling tension between them, and without putting them into watertight compartments in my mind, I experienced a certain freedom. Looking back, I realize that most of my contemporaries and probably most of the clergy lived by constructing separate mental compartments and making sure the contents of one stayed separate from the contents of the other. But I — for reasons I never troubled to examine, because I never realized the situation — did not.
To me, there was no split between being a good medieval Catholic and a good twentieth-century technological American. Not only was I very metaphysically inclined by nature, I was also either intellectually lazy about reconciling different compartments of my mental world, or was particularly shielded. Or both.
I left Catholicism intellectually with a violent lurch in my teens, though it took much longer to leave it emotionally. My reasons (my Downstairs reasons, I should say) don’t do much credit to my emotional maturity or even common sense. Certainly they show that eleven years of Catholic school had left my theological understanding essentially untouched. I didn’t want to believe in a God who could let Kennedy be killed. (That’s how closely I identified with JFK!)
This wasn’t the only reason, of course. I was unwilling to admit anyone’s right to tell me what to read, say, or think. I didn’t any longer believe that the church’s rules were ordained by God. And I couldn’t believe that God would condemn people to hell when I knew I wouldn’t. I had many reasons. But as I see it now, primarily I was disappointed in God and creation.
Those were my Downstairs reasons. I do not mean to imply that they were not real to me. But I can see now that they were not the whole story. Upstairs had its own agenda, which involved being sure that I would be free to go where I needed to go. I couldn’t do that and stay a good Catholic too.
This seeming digression about Catholicism is mostly to assure you that my Upstairs/Downstairs concept is not a disguised remnant of theology. This will become obvious after a while, but it seems as well to spell out the fact now. And there is another, seemingly contradictory, reason. What I had been taught in the medieval Catholic church was not merely fairy tales made up to enhance an institution’s control of its members. I from personal experience learned that what I had been taught was someone’s best shot at describing what I now see and experience in a radically different framework.
So I cut my anchor to the church, and wound up drifting. It was Colin Wilson’s work , and then Carl Jung’s (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, first), that helped me find a rudder to steer by. We’ll talk about that rudder by and by.