“Good writers have two things in common; they prefer to be understood rather than admired; and they do not write for knowing and over-acute readers.” [Nietzsche, Human, all too Human, 1886].
Judged by Nietzsche’s criteria, Colin Wilson is a good writer. To Wilson’s critics – usually “knowing and over-acute readers” – his motivation is to be “admired” and nothing more. An objective reading of his work will demonstrate this to be quite untrue, but as Wilson’s oeuvre is vast and sometimes difficult to locate, this type of objectivity cannot be realised without some long term effort and a little cultural de-conditioning.
Any reader of Wilson who is unburdened with either academic specialism or an obsession with yesterday’s papers is able to engage directly with his ideas. As Wilson’s work is concerned with the problems of prejudice within consciousness, the tradition of missing the point critically is a revealing one. From The Outsider onwards, far too much of the English speaking media has concentrated on his brief fame – and subsequent lack of it – at the expense of engaging with his highly intriguing mix of philosophy, fiction and criticism. In the long term, this will be regrettable; future readers will find it curious that hardly any commentators bothered to grapple with his ideas. Ultimately this a is reflection of our “age of defeat” with which Wilson is so concerned.
Ironically, one reason for Wilson’s neglect is his sheer stylistic accessibility: there is no ‘code’ to translate, and there is a presumption that such easy access must lack depth. Postmodern philosophy is sustained by the illusion that impenetrable linguistic pyrotechnics equals erudition and Wilson cannily notes that this intellectual sleight of hand is also a technique used by all cults and quacks. Another reason is because he continues to attack unquestioned prejudices in philosophy and literature. Such as the assumption – you could even call it a tradition – that brooding pessimism is more serious, is ‘deeper’ than optimism because it is discussed and reported in more detail and with greater frequency. Wilson’s method is to reverse this and meticulously dissect and document moments of affirmation in all areas of experience, in literature, philosophy, poetry and personal anecdote without prejudice or snobbery. As Alfred North Whitehead said: “Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them. It takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.”
Perhaps the real reason for his continuing neglect has less to do with his working class roots and his autodidactic learning curve, his clarified presentation, or even his brief flirtation with celebrity. None of these things are as surprising as they were in 1956. It has everything to do with his suggestions of practical solutions to major perceptual problems and their applications to the individual and society. The formulaic parade of embarrassing ad hominem attacks that laughably appear as some kind of dialogue with Wilson’s work are really just checklists of individuals who wish to abdicate all responsibility for any kind of ‘phenomenological’ self development. As a shameful illustration of this, a ‘highbrow’ Sunday broadsheet once ran an interview with Wilson which attempted to avoid talking about his phenomenological existentialism “at all costs”. In The Treason of the Intellectuals section of Beyond the Outsider he notes how thinkers who propose solutions to problems are usually condemned as shallow. “Such men are never popular with their ‘intellectual peers’, since their very existence is an implied reproach.” Wilson himself falls into this category.
Despite the snubs from the press and the academy, Wilson has a dedicated and unusual fan base. Groucho Marx was an admirer: “Gollancz sent me a copy of his autobiography…he told me that Groucho had ordered him to send copies to three people in England only: Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham and Colin Wilson. Naturally I was flattered.” Philip Pullman, the author of the important His Dark Materials trilogy, told the BBC that “Wilson has written very interestingly on David Lindsay and I am grateful to him for making me aware not only of Lindsay, but several other people it would have taken me a lot longer to find otherwise”. Mark E. Smith credits him as an influence on his seminal underground band: “if you know what Wilson does… he’ll write a science fiction book but it’s not really about science fiction… which I think is amazing. Or he’ll write a detective novel [Necessary Doubt, 1964] and tell you who the murderer is on the second page, you know, and then just go off to describe his own theories all the way through the book (chuckling) …it’s very similar to what The Fall do.” And indeed it is. He is said to be a cult hero in the Middle East, read in English and Arabic translation (bizarrely, Colonel Gaddafi was such a avid reader of Wilson’s debut that he wanted to meet the author.) According to the Times Literary Supplement, he is “among the most discussed English authors in Moscow” [his ‘lost’ vampire novel has only been published in Russian], and he has admitted he makes most of his money from Japan where they print literally everything he writes. He has written approximately one hundred and seventy books, from treatises on philosophy, literature and poetry, to studies of violence and deviancy, the latter anticipating the explosion of true crime writing by several decades. He has written novels which manage to be genuinely high/low cultured without having to make an issue about it, and has deconstructed irrationality with a completely rational sceptical mind. He has written studies on classical music and even on the history of wine and alcohol.
Wilson’s democratic style – the descriptive method – is unfashionable today. Yet this method is used to challenge an environment still wallowing in ‘the fallacy of insignificance.’ This dull cultural pessimism – repackaged decade after decade and all described and rejected in Wilson’s books – is somehow still thought to be objective and normal, “natural” in fact. This was Wilson’s starting point in his first book, The Outsider, and has been ever since. A 2005 article in Philosophy Now pointed out that he “has been unjustly neglected by academia, in the case of philosophy almost totally so. This may be because he has worked outside the university system almost all his life, and therefore attracts an irredeemable suspicion of not really being ‘sound’. One does not have to agree with every turn in his writings in general to believe that his specifically philosophical work is in fact of significant value. Wilson’s criticism of Sartre” [in Anti-Sartre] “echoes Nietzsche’s charge that what are presented by philosophers as universally valid conclusions based on cool reasoning may often be “…an audacious generalization of very narrow, very personal, very human, all too human facts.” [Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil].” One of the few philosophers to engage with Wilson’s ideas in any meaningful sense is Slavoj Žižek, in books such as The Ticklish Subject and The Puppet and the Dwarf . Yet even this “Elvis of cultural theory” [ironic to note that the young Wilson was also compared to Elvis] appears to be surprised to find inspiration in a Wilson book. So much for the post-everything eradication of all boundaries!
Continuing to swim against the tide of easy, misanthropic hesitancy Wilson offers something unique that is very relevant, and it’s relevance is described succinctly on the other pages here. The subjects are organised in sections for brevity, but Wilson does not write in simple categories: he is able to see important parallels in many apparently unrelated disciplines, so that many themes overlap in many apparently different studies.