Philosophical (a)Musings: Colin Wilson, Me + the Meaning of Life, by Vaughan Rapatahana. Entropy Press 2012.
We’re all aware of the glib hack work that has passed for criticism of CW’s work since time immemorial – well, around 1957 -that dreary, repetitive template of personal sniping which masks a lazy, anti intellectual non-interest in Colin’s ‘phenomenonological existentialism’ and it’s applications/implications. Thankfully, there are other voices: careful readers familiar with the gist of Wilson’s oeuvre, and willing to debate. Many of these voices could be heard in the recent Around the Outsider anthology, a festschrift celebrating Colin’s 80th birthday. Vaughan Rapatahana was one such voice.
He’s written about CW before – as Vaughan Robertson, he published part of his PhD thesis as the Paupers’ Press booklet “Wilson as Mystic” (Colin Wilson Studies #11). Now, with this large soft-back of 142 pages, he’s collected various thought provoking pieces. Some were only previously available in Paul Newman’s now sadly defunct Abraxas magazine, one is from Philosophy Now, some have appeared online at Colin Wilson World, and some have appeared on this very site. There’s also some rare morsels of Wilsonia that have never appeared before, making it a must buy for hardcore CW fanatics.
I once asked Colin what he thought of Vaughan’s work. “He’s curious”, he said – “sometimes he thinks I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread, and then he decides I’m not” (or words to that effect; I certainly have the recording somewhere, but I can’t locate it). While it’s true that he can be the most cuttingly critical of all the ‘Wilson defenders’, Rapatahana is doing it out of an obsessive interest in Wilson’s texts, despite an occasionally repeating negative tone. He is obviously familiar with everything Wilson has written – no mean feat – and many secondary sources, some of which I’ve never come across (The Sexual World of Colin Wilson, The Journal of Sex, 1977, for instance). So the criticism in this book is, unlike the usual boring press ‘criticisms’, grounded on a thorough knowledge of the Wilson canon.
Writing about Wilson is (as his bibliographer Colin Stanley noted) a surprisingly difficult art. Wilson’s ideas can be complex, yet are always written in accessibly comprehensible language, so attempts at interlocution can sometimes be clumsily counter productive. Yet Wilson does need help with his ‘message’ – his oeuvre is so vast and scattered, with far too many important titles out of print, that discussions are necessary to give shape to the “existential jigsaw puzzle”. Despite the hugeness of the bibliography and apparently confusing shifts of topic, Wilson’s thesis is surprisingly simple. (I personally only began to understand the whole picture after reading Howard F Dossor’s 1990 study, as at the time I was only familiar with about a dozen CW books).
Rapatahana’s writings collected here make use of Wilson’s own concept of Existential Literary Criticism (ELC). It is, the author says, “the one great criterion with which to judge (written) work and I always use it.” (p.35). ELC is put to use throughout Philosophical (a)Musings, deconstructing both published and unpublished Wilson tomes. For the hardcore, the reviews of the unpublished texts are obviously the most intriguing – we have treatments of Will Shakespeare’s Hand, The Anatomy of Human Greatness and Metamorphosis of the Vampire, none of which have been published yet. There’s also a very tantalising fragment of his ‘lost’ novel, Lulu, which despite it’s brevity, is completely brilliant. Out of Left Field (p. 8), is an enthusiastic review of the vampire novel, and it made me want to see it published so much that I sent the original article (in Abraxas 14) to Starfire – the publishers of occultist Kenneth Grant. They were enthused, but there’s still been no show for Metamorphosis of the Vampire. It “needs and has to be published. It contains so much and I have only scratched the surface.” (p.10).
The Anatomy of Human Greatness is a summary of the Outsider Cycle written in 1964 and is also unpublished. Discovered by Wilsonian Maurice Bassett, Rapatahana’s treatment of it does make it sound as vital as Metamorphosis. Like Vaughan, I too desperately wanted CW to write Derrida Deconstructed, which he threatened to in Abraxas # 8. “I wish he would, whereby he might decimate the truculent triviality of the cult of insignificance as sanctioned by Derrida and his band of merry men and later the fulminating followers of his fashion: Lyotard/Baudrillard/Deleuze et al.” (p.14). Rapatahana wants CW to “restring his bow, clean up his quills and shoot to kill.” (ibid.) While I’d dearly love to read more Wilson-generated hard philosophy – think Anti-Sartre/Below the Iceberg – I’m not so sure that his tunnelling into popular narratives such as Fortean occultism (or grim true crime) was that much of a move away from his phenomenology. Much in the same way that Hitchcock still made great films after leaving his native country, or that Frank Zappa’s fabled ‘conceptual continuity’ remained intact after “selling out” (at around the same time Wilson published The Occult), I feel that his archery skills remained untouched. It was just that the target itself got larger.
Colin Stanley cannily pointed out in his recent lecture on CW’s Occult Trilogy that despite his assertions that he had no real interest in the subject – despite owning a ton of paperbacks on the paranormal! – Wilson’s early work contains quite a few splatters of ectoplasm. The World of Violence, for instance, even has this telling phrase – “some new faculty in me had been awakened”.
Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs has a typical digression inside the narrative of the ‘mad monk’. Speaking of Husserl’s insight that simple perception virtually never occurs due to the selective nature of consciousness, Wilson notes that this distorting power “can be much better studied through the psychology of sex or religion, since the mind’s strongest forces are here in question.” For me, the occult books are just as phenomenological as the Outsider Cycle, just less explicit. They are narratives to get you thinking in a particular way. As are the true crime books – all that sordid grime makes you feel glad to be clean. Having said that, an equal disappointment to the (apt!) non-appearance of the Derrida book was the mooted (in Abraxas, I’m sure) but never actually written History of Philosophy which was to be published by Robinson. That could have been a 600 page expansion of the important philosophical history chapter from Beyond the Outsider, and a truly great read. It is interesting that Colin Stanley also noted in his lecture that The Occult was Wilson’s first commissioned book. “Not many people realise, in fact, that this was Wilson’s first commission. Effectively, from 1956 to the late 1960s he wrote ‘as he pleased’.” Hmmm.
I recall being very excited when Gary Lachman ended a CW interview in Fortean Times by mentioning that Colin was working on a book about Shakespeare. I’ve had the pleasure of reading the manuscript, but it’s still not been published. It’s an odd book for Wilson; as Rapatahana says, it’s unusual probably because he barely touches on his usual themes. A relief, almost, to read CW writing about something I am relatively ignorant about, and free of his usual “foot soldiers” – his riffs on Proust/Nietzsche/Steppenwolf etc. Rapatahana tires of Wilson’s constant riffing to the same tunes – and I completely sympathise – but he returns to it so often that it’s almost like he’s doing exactly what he’s criticising Colin for (!)
The piece on what became The Devil’s Party (p.19) is interesting because it mentions the deleted sections, the essay on Foucault – “presumably not messianic enough” – which, along with a brief history of French philosophy was cut but thankfully published in Below the Iceberg. I can’t, however agree that his use of Yeats’ concept of the mask in TDP is unworthy or unfocused, for me, it’s one of the most interesting ideas in the whole book. The “mask of power” is usually the exact opposite of what a messiah actually appears to be: behind Aleister Crowley’s Beastly 666 persona, for instance, was an overweight Midlands schoolboy obsessed with fame. Reading Crowley’s own vast “autohagiography”, The Confessions, tends to support this assertion. It gets interesting thinking about this and his excluded digressions on Derrida, Barthes and Foucault for sure. A shame they were cut out of the book.
But back to Philosophical (a)Musings. There are also reviews of prime ELC texts – The Angry Years, The Books in My Life, and the (as then untitled) autobiography. Plus reviews of Spiderworld vol 4, The Atlantis Blueprint, Superconsciousness, and Serial Killer Investigations. There’s also a review of Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals – a hodgepodge of missing bits from The Atlantis Blueprint – called How to Make a Milkshake. Amusingly scathing, yes, though I did actually enjoy the book, believe it or not! To paraphrase Nick Hornby, “I’ll read anything by Colin Wilson”. Probably because even at his most cut n’ paste, even reading the read n’ throw 99p World Famous books, Wilson still reminds me of something very important, a fact not lost on Vaughan Rapatahana throughout this book, even at his most critical.
The book continues with other, non-review sections, Colin Wilson as Hydra from Philosophy Now being one of the best essays. Perhaps more so than the book reviews, Rapatahana can speak of Wilson’s general philosophical strengths rather than the shortcomings of any particular book, with it’s attendant commercial compromises and deadlines. It’s a fine example of what I mentioned earlier about a birds’ eye view over the existential jigsaw puzzle, and is worthy of the price of the book itself. “To me, Colin has endured as a philosopher who must always be considered, if not for his ‘solutions’, at least for his syntheses, and always for his asking the questions we must all face. The fact that he has done so in a generally otiose academic and critical environment in his own homeland only makes his efforts all the more tenacious.” (p.85).
Postmodern Mysticism is an essay which originally appeared in the glossy Abraxas Unbound, aka Abraxas 20. It’s a very useful essay as it discusses the PoMo suggestiveness of Colin’s fiction; “what I would call Wilson’s ‘tangentalism'” (p. 89) which Rapatahana compares to Lodge and Ravichandran. This is important because it pulls Wilson out of the mid fifties time zone and inserts his voice where it should be, in the present. “Foucault and Wilson are brothers, both calling for disintegration of self-essence, even if Wilson abrogates it!” (p. 92). Wilson rejected this – “I am deeply opposed to everything they [Foucault, Derrida, Barthes] stand for, which is why I react with incredulity to your assertion that they and I are saying the same thing.” (see Abraxas Unbound, p. 216 for the full exchange). Yet odd concepts from Foucault and Derrida have since popped up in Wilson texts; Foucault’s epistemes are described as a “useful concept” in the introduction to Oliver Cyriax’s Encyclopaedia of Crime, for instance.
One of my favourite pieces in here is the essay on p. 110 – Jim Morrison and Colin Wilson – Partners in Crime. It’s noted that the teenage Lizard King read Wilson, yet also reveals that Wilson admired Morrison’s music. Interesting, for despite the fact that Wilson has influenced many rock ‘n rollers, punks and industrial musicians – he’s even recorded with some – he very rarely mentions any (give or take, off the top of my head: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Shadows, The [sic] H P Lovecraft and The Sex Pistols!) As Rapatahana reminds us, Wilson has influenced all kinds of well, Outsiders, rather than the “entrenched academic or critical squadrons armed to the teeth to withstand his full frontal assaults on their impervious and imperial ivory towers.” (p. 115).
Philosophical (a)Musings rounds off with some philosophical essays, all peppered with Wilsonia. There’s also some of Vaughan’s poetry and some correspondence with CW himself.
Rapatahana is one of the few commentators on Wilson who tries to put his New Existentialism in the modern philosophical jungle, and this is to be totally commended. While I obviously don’t agree with every assertion – just as I don’t with Wilson himself – there are an awful lot of suggestive pieces fitting into the Existential Jigsaw Puzzle. Plus many nods to obscure Wilsonian bits and pieces, some of which I was previously unaware of. Philosophical (a)Musings made me want to read my complete Wilson collection all over again, and find more if I possibly could. A recommendation if there was one.
You can buy Vaughan Rapatahana’s book here