Saturday, August 2, 2014

Colin Wilson: THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE, an SF novel

Colin Wilson
The Philosopher's Stone

                                             PART ONE

                                The Quest of the Absolute

 I was reading a book on music by Ralph Vaughan Williams the other day, while listening to a gramophone record of his remarkable Fifth Symphony, when I came across the following remark: 'I have struggled all my life to conquer amateurish technique, and now that perhaps I have mastered it, it seems too late to make any use of it.'  I found myself moved almost to tears by the poignancy of those words of a great musician.  Admittedly, he was eighty-six when he died, but for practical purposes--the value of the music he wrote in his last years--it might well have been twenty years earlier.  And I found myself thinking:  Supposing by some fluke, Vaughan Williams had lived another twenty-five years .  .  . or supposing he had been  born a quarter of a century later.  Could I have passed on to him what I now know, so that he might still be alive and writing great music? .  .  .

It was this train of thought that decided me to tell the story of my discovery exactly as it happened.  In doing so, I break my own vow of secrecy; but I shall see that the account is withheld from those whom it might harm--that is to say,  from most of the human race.  It should exist, even if it never leaves a bank vault.  The carbon copy of memory grows thinner year by year.   

It's hard to decide whether to call this a two-part novel or two novels (the second being a sequel) between the same covers.  It's only 300 plus pages, but it's small print and much of which is narrative, which can provide far more information in a short space than dialogue. The strange turn occurs about two-thirds of the way into the book.


The following is taken from the Wikipedia entry on "the philosopher's stone."

 "The philosophers' stone or stone of the philosophers is a legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning  base metals such as lead into gold or silver. It was also sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immorality. For many centuries, it was the most sought-after goal in alchemy. The philosophers' stone was the central symbol of the mystical terminology of alchemy, symbolizing perfection at its finest, enlightenment, and heavenly bliss. Efforts to discover the philosophers' stone were known as the Magnum Opus ("Great Work")."

The title is quite apt as the novel is an autobiographical account of the narrator's (first person narrative) details the results of  his lifelong attempts to discover the means of increasing the life span of humans.  He has noted that many of the greatest writers and composers have lived far longer than the average person and attempts to discover whether their genius is the result of a long lifespan or conversely, their long life span is somehow connected to their genius.

The first part of the novel is an extensive portrait of the narrator's life and the various experiments and theoretical considerations that he worked his way through in his attempt to discover ways of further developing human thinking and consciousness.  Wilson has obviously done considerable research for this part of the novel, for I recognize many of  the concepts from various psychology courses that I had taken many years ago.  Eventually, as it happens so often in science, the breakthrough was made completely by accident.

The second part concentrates on the process of  determining just what his new powers are and how to use them.   The breakthrough comes from an experiment that initially involved inserting a small probe into a part of the brain.  In one experiment, a minute piece of a metal breaks off and remains embedded in the cortex of the subject.  This results in changes in the person's thinking and behavior.   Eventually, the narrator tries the experiment on himself and begins an extended process of studying the changes occurring in himself.

The narrator discovers that his expanded consciousness and ability to focus allows him to detect details about objects that normally go unnoticed.  In short, he can take an object and "see" its past history to a far greater extent than was considered possible.  It is this new ability that is responsible for the sudden change in the novel.  The effect of this  is quite startling, and it turns the novel into a totally unexpected (unexpected by me, anyway) direction.

One example given occurs when he looks at a print of Goethe, Werner, and Napoleon.  After studying it for a short time, he is able to see the scene as the sketch for the print is being made.  It is in a large ballroom and he can see the three principles in the print and even hear the music.   

Shortly after this, he is shown a figurine that comes from a sacrificial well in Mexico.  His expanded powers of observation tell him that this comes from a period long before any human civilization, at least a half million years before this.  He begins to study mythology, since there is no archeological or anthropological evidence.  Eventually he stumbles across The Secrets of Atlantis, by Gabriel Guenon, who apparently really existed.  There are references to a book with that title, but, according to The H. P. Lovecraft Archive web page, the book can not now be located.

In the book, Guenon supposedly states that H. P. Lovecraft had written a number of stories about "the Ancient Old Ones [who] had come from the stars, and once dominated the earth.  .  ."   It is at this point that the narrator discovers that there are forces that are attempting to prevent any further research into this topic and seemingly are willing to do anything to stop him.

This is not an easy book to read.  It, again, is one of those books that one settles down with over a period of several nights and concentrates solely on it.   It was first published in 1969, but it has a very distinctly older ambiance about it.  I'm reminded of works by Jules Verne by it or a more recent novel which I commented on a short time ago--Franz Werfel's Star of the Unborn.

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