Thursday, 3 December 2009

The St Neot Margin

I first read Colin Wilson’s The Outsider in 1957. It made an impact on me that lasted far longer than the brief chorus of popular acclaim which it aroused as part of what those desperate to find pigeon-holes called The Angry Young Man phenomenon. With youthful enthusiasm I saw myself as an outsider and used the book half-consciously as a guide to my reading life for the next twenty years: Hesse, Wells, Dostoevsky, Camus and particularly Sartre—his Nausea became a kind of bible for me.

But, for some strange reason, it was not till relatively recently—beginning in the 1990s—that I have started to catch up with the books Colin Wilson wrote in the long years between.

What renewed my enthusiasm was the discovery that he’d written about two of my heroes: The Strange Life of PDOuspensky (1993) and The War Against Sleep (The Philosophy of Gurdjieff) (1980). So I acquired several of his other books and have to some extent made up for ‘lost time’.

In Beyond the Outsider (1965), which I read recently, Colin Wilson continues to argue for a new existentialism which I nutshell as the drive to realise one’s capacity for conscious action through intentionality and complexification (making the richest picture possible of the universe).

Although in the Preface of Beyond the Outsider he says he’s not too happy about using the term, Colin Wilson frequently mentions the ‘St Neot Margin’ without explaining its origin at all. It seemed to make sense to replace it in my interpretative apparatus with ‘Margin of Indifference’. But the very words ‘St Neot Margin’ continued to intrigue me.

I began also to get a bit excited about the possible practical application of the process Colin Wilson was describing. Words being inadequate to depict ‘process’—they lead too often to reification—I tinkered with a diagrammatic representations:-





Here was something that I felt could be made into a teaching exercise: what kinds of things contribute to the mood of indifference that overtakes us sometimes and eliminates, let’s say, ‘enthusiasm’ from our being? How might we develop ‘enthusiasm’ in order to redress the balance? What is indifference? Can it be defined as a Life Debilitating Trance? How can we change gear in order to get into a Life Enhancing Trance?

But why the ‘St Neot Margin’?

Mirabile dictu, I got to page 7 in Voyage to a Beginning this morning and experienced a grand explosion in the neurons. On that page, Colin Wilson describes how he was hitch-hiking up the A1 in the mid-1950s reflecting on the fact that he was also experiencing a mood of extreme indifference to life—how does one grasp such awareness, track its onset and make sense of it?

And then arrived my extreme delight at a moment of ‘Recognition’:-

We happened to be passing through the town of St Neots at the time, and to keep the conception in my head until I could write about it I scrawled on a piece of paper ‘St Neot Margin’. It would probably have been as effective if I had simply called my conception the indifference margin (except that, since the concept needs defining anyway, it might be preferable to have a term that does not look deceptively self-explanatory).

It’s the bracketed comment that now seems so important to me: the mysterious tag ‘St Neot Margin’ captures the imagination and engages thought in a way that ‘indifference margin’ does not; it’s just as Gurdjieff says—‘nothing should be given in a ready-made form...’ because something apparently done and dusted does not inspire effort after meaning.

Having had the mystery of the origin of ‘St Neot Margin’ solved for me, I can now begin to fill it with meaning and significance for myself. To do this I simply figured out how I would respond to my own evolving teaching exercise; during the course of my thinking three diagrams emerged—two were a refinement of the original diagrams and a third presented itself out of nowhere.


The first part of my teaching exercise might pose the question—What are the things that cause one to be swamped by ‘indifference’ from time to time?

I tend to be swamped by indifference when I

● find that whatever I’m doing is contaminated by alien thoughts or worries
● think of something that crops up as a ‘problem’ rather than look for solutions—being in a ‘problem-frame’
● have no clearly defined aim or purpose
● lack intention
● find that there are too many variables to juggle them successfully
● feel dogged by mortality
● am enveloped by purposelessness
● identify with negativity—in others or in myself
● when my inner voice goes steely and dismal or races hares

When any of these things happen I tend to throw up my hands and say, “What the hell...!”

The second question I might ask is—When does ‘indifference’ disappear under the pressure of ‘enthusiasm’?

Indifference tends to disappear when I

● get hooked by the excitement of learning (as when I discovered the origin of the ‘St Neot Margin’!)
● get an ‘aha!’ experience
● get into an Outcome Frame rather than wallow in a Problem Frame
● know where I’m going to
● get a sense of ‘fit’ or (at least temporary) congruence
● move towards a feeling of completion (as now when I know I’ve nearly finished this piece of writing...)
● can keep all my plates spinning
● have a feeling of achievement
● have what Sartre calls a ‘project’
● have annihilated ‘Time’
● feel I’m on to an idea
● put a plan into operation
● am externally focussed
● am generally on ‘Top Form’

While was jotting down possible answers to these two questions a third bit of the diagram seemed to suggest itself: the third box came to represent a fertile point of stasis, nowness, neither up nor down, divorced from past and future (see previous Blog). The question which emerges—What is the benefit of being just here?

● It feels like a margin of balance
● It is where one can get to when one practises Gurdjieff’s STOP! exercise
● When one is truly still, Pure Potential exists there
● It is an opportunity to make existential choice

How does simply knowing about the ‘St Neot Margin’ make it possible to hitchhike oneself there?

Thanks to Colin Wilson for the concept!

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