Existential Literary Criticism – CW Studies # 23

The work goes on.

Colin Wilson’s
Existential Literary Criticism:
a guide for students
Colin Stanley

For nearly sixty years, throughout his career, Colin Wilson has championed existential criticism, asserting that a book should not just be judged by the tenets of literary criticism or theory alone but also on what it has to say, in particular about the meaning and purpose of existence.
​In this study, a companion to his students’ guides to Colin Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’ (Paupers’ Press, 2009) and ‘Occult Trilogy’ (Axis Mundi, 2013), Colin Stanley provides assessments of nine of his subject’s essential book-length studies on existential criticism and bibliographical details for the hundreds of essays and reviews he has written during the course of his long career.
​Appended to this is Wilson’s groundbreaking essay ‘Existential Criticism’ first published in The Chicago Review in 1959.
Due January 6th, 2014
201 pages. Paperback. £12.95.
I.S.B.N. 9780956866349
(Colin Wilson Studies #23)

Pre-publication offer: £11.95 (including postage/packing to UK addresses and delivery before Christmas)
Pay by PayPal to: stan2727uk@aol.com
or cheque, payable to Colin Stanley, from:
Paupers’ Press, 37 Quayside Close, Trent Bridge, Nottingham NG2 3BP.

Footnote: After generally disappointing run of the mill obituaries, Colin Stanley has written a rather more considered tribute. These two assertions stand out –
Those critics who have failed to see and appreciate [Wilson’s] talent are invariably those who have been intimidated by such a vast body of work and unable to distinguish between his ephemeral and essential books.
And –
When all is said and done, it is in [the] field of Consciousness Studies, that his true legacy lies.

Colin Henry Wilson 26 June 1931 – 5 December 2013.

By Vaughan Rapatahana

Given that Colin was himself rather prone to sweeping generalizations, indeed could on occasion be accused of hyperbolic rushes, I do not think that it is an exaggeration for me to state quite simply that Wilson was one of the more important writers and thinkers of his generation and as such that he will remain of considerable significance for many generations to come. Surely his huge oeuvre will be of even more exponentially increasing import as time headlongs itself forward, as readers and critics increasingly untrove the massive arsenal that is his written work, from libraries, second-hand bookstores and on the web.

The key to this rather prolix statement above is that Wilson was both a very good writer and a very good thinker – two polar opposites for the vast majority of writers and thinkers per se, who did not have his bicameral gift. In other words, not only could he write clearly, cogently and enthusiastically about a wide vista of – to him, always interrelated topics – but he would write about them existentially, always existentially, for everything he wrote, down to his lesser fictive excursions and his rants on subjects such as gardening – always had some ontological and epistemological grounding in this, his overall Existentialist Weltanshauung.

It is this, his quasi-obsession drive to relate everything to and from his own profound inner nuclear warhead, his mystic overview of how things ‘really should be’, that impelled him to write, transcribe, read, rave and produce prodigiously for a healthy number of years and indeed for well into two distinct centuries.

This impellation was, of course, to translate and codify his prime philosophic truth: that man is greater than he/she thinks he/she is and that – damn it – he/she bloody well should be doing something about evolving a lot faster, transmogrifying into the true mighty Being they inherently all are.

It is this, Colin Wilson’s DNA of preaching and teaching our evolution into something natural yet supernatural, for which we will remember him, I think and not at all for the rampant bullshit written about him, nor for any foibles that he may or may not have had as a man, as an author.

In the end then, as I write a tribute according to the parameters of Wilson’s very own Existential Literary Criticism, I can unhesitatingly say that he is a taonga (as we Māori say) – a veritable vibrant treasure to be shared for years and years to come.

CW obituary – from The Independent (and many others)

Writer and philosopher whose work, beginning with ‘The Outsider’, searched for the meaning of man’s existence
Colin Wilson was one of the most prolific and eclectic writers of the 20th century. In more than 150 books and countless articles and contributions to other works, published over 50 years, he covered subjects as diverse as existentialism, esotericism and the occult, religion, biography and several volumes of autobiography. It is his groundbreaking work on existentialism and creative thinking, The Outsider, published to wide critical acclaim in 1956, that remains his best known work.
Wilson was born in Leicester in 1931, the son of a shoemaker. He left school aged 16 and over the next eight years took on a variety of unskilled jobs while writing. “I kept a voluminous journal, which was several million words long by the time I was 24,” he recalled. Since the age of 12 he had been preoccupied with asking the meaning of human existence and at 14 had read George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, from which he realised that “I was not the first human being to ask the question.”
Living rough on Hampstead Heath, working at a café and spending his days at the Reading Room of the British Museum, he had been trying to write a novel when the outline of The Outsider came to him. Photographs from the time show the handsome bohemian figure sitting alone, leant against a tree, wrapped in a sleeping bag and with a book in hand.
Inspired by the title and content of Camus’ novel l’Etranger (The Outsider, 1942), he sought to rationalise the psychological dislocation associated with Western creative thinking. Wilson took the outline and sample pages to the publisher Victor Gollancz, who immediately accepted the book. Published on 26 May 1956, The Outsider sold out of its initial print run of 5,000 copies in one day.
Cyril Connolly said it was “one of the most remarkable first books I have read for a long time” while Philip Toynbee called it “a real contribution to our understanding of our deepest predicament”. It shows how artists and writers such as Van Gogh, Kafka and Hemingway are affected by society and how they in turn, as “outsiders”, impact on society. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had just opened at the Royal Court and the term “Angry Young Men”, invented by JB Priestley, was first used in the New Statesman the following week and stuck. Although Wilson said it was not a group with which he identified, his later work The Angry Years (2007), recalls the period and the characters of Osborne, Kingsley Amis and others.
The Outsider made Wilson £20,000 (equivalent to £430,000 today) in its first year. He said later that he had not been surprised by the positive reaction but had not anticipated what followed – “the tremendous backlash, and the attacks on me which I found pretty hard going.” Referring to Religion and the Rebel (1957), his novel Ritual in the Dark (1959) and other works over the coming decade, he noted, “I’d produce some book which I knew to be brilliant and I’d get lousy reviews.” Evidently, the literary Establishment was not pleased at an uneducated, working class writer getting so much attention and praise, despite their initial enthusiasm. With media attention now focused on Wilson’s domestic affairs, his publisher suggested he leave London for Cornwall, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Wilson’s book The Strength to Dream (1962), a study of imagination in literature, had a title he later said he should have used for his autobiography, based on a phrase by George Bernard Shaw: “Every dream can become a reality in the womb of time for those who have the strength to dream.” Wilson was one who had that strength to dream and to see his dreams become reality in print.
In his Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966), Wilson revisited the themes of The Outsider, suggesting that the “old” existentialism “was a philosophy of man without an organised religion… Man stood alone.” He believed the challenge the “new existentialism” has to face is this: “Can it again point to a clear, open road along which thought can advance with the optimism of the early romantics?” He goes on to demonstrate that it indeed can. Elsewhere he speaks of those “curious moments of inner freedom” or (in his memoir Voyage to a Beginning) “visionary intensity”, which hint at a purpose in an otherwise meaningless world.
Towards the end of the 1960s an American publisher commissioned Wilson to write a book on the occult. This took him in a new direction, towards the realms of the esoteric and alternative history, at a time of considerable interest in New Age subjects. The Occult: A History (1971), revived Wilson’s critical reputation. “The reviews had a serious and respectful tone that I hadn’t heard since The Outsider,” he wrote. “With a kind of dazed incredulity, I realised that I’d finally become an establishment figure.” He developed an interest in crime, particularly the psychology of murder; his later works continued in the dual veins of existentialism and mysticism, but all touching in some way on what he called the “curious power of the mind that we hardly understand”.

Wilson had suffered a stroke in June 2012 and was no longer able to speak. He died in hospital with his wife Joy and daughter Sally at his side.

Colin Henry Wilson, philosopher and writer: born Leicester 26 June 1931; married firstly Betty Troop (one son), secondly Joy Stewart (two sons, one daughter); died St Austell, Cornwall 5 December 2013.

(Obituary written by Marcus Williamson).

The few other newspaper obits that have appeared aren’t as knowledgable as the above, sadly. It’s all about knowing your place and not getting too clever.
The Times actually expect money for this scissors and paste atrocity. Read it here for nothing, as that’s all it’s worth. (Thanks to Colin S. and Frank).
The Torygraph (didn’t they know CW edited the Thatcher-friendly Marx Refuted?) has this rather more generous attempt.

Another from The Guardian. Apparently written by someone who died in 2010! Fortean Times have been informed of this remarkable achievement.

NY Times piece by Margalit Fox. CW scholar Brad Spurgeon “contributed reporting” it notes.

Nice personal piece by CW scholar Gary Lachman

Philosophy Now piece by poet Vaughan Rapatahana. Great stuff – [Wilson’s] “‘New Existentialism’ remains a lodestone in an increasingly bleak world peopled by the Dauphins of fundamentalist religions and the fundamentally anti-fundamentalist acolytes of Dawkins.”

This is an excellent appraisal of CW, concentrating on The Occult and it’s central thesis.

Here’s an interesting piece at The Daily Grail by David Metcalfe.

Local obituary from This is Cornwall.

And another from the other end of England

BBC piece. I do like this sentence, describing the post-Outsider Cycle era – “In later years, however, he confounded critics with a prolific output in dozens of unconnected genres”.

An ill-timed attempt at humour backfired at The Indy, causing it’s author a little concern. Here is a refutation of most of the points made.
A letter appeared in The Independent on the 15th of December –

This writer was no ‘silly myth’

“Don’t create silly myths about yourself,” writes Terence Blacker of Colin Wilson (“Eternal Outsider”, 10 December). He declares himself unimpressed by the photograph of the writer with “swotty polo-neck and specs” which appeared on the back cover of Wilson’s book The Outsider.

Yet the “silly myth” of a provincial taking a sleeping bag to Hampstead Heath and reading Kafka and Nietzsche in the reading room of the British Museum proved to be an inspirational one. The nobody from nowhere who had attended a technical school showed he had something original to say, and – even to this day – many members of the Oxbridge-educated literary establishment have never forgiven him for that.

Ivor Morgan, Lincoln



This blog page has the interesting end comment that “if his greatest achievement was to reveal the fallibility of the critical establishment, that was something worth doing, even if not what he intended”.

This obit argues that CW’s autodidactic nature is relevant in our Information Age.

X marks the treasure. A Colin Wilson appreciation – part one.

He changed my life. No irony, he really did. And I’d like to show my gratitude.
When I read that Colin Wilson told Iris Murdoch that he wanted to live until he was 300, I seriously imagined that he would. Every year, a CW book or two (or more) would appear without fail, usually in the same minimalist paperback cover from Grafton. There was also his vast back catalogue to find. Far too much for my teenage purse to obtain, yet I found it all, eventually. There was also an impossible yet complete necessity to read everything he discussed – yes, all of it, because everything he described sounded completely fucking amazing. I’m still working in that one. Now it feels very strange to know that the only writings I’ll be reading by him will be posthumous. The obvious fact that a serious illness left him unable to write for the past year has still not prepared me for this feeling. Neither has the appearance of several “lost” essays and articles, some decades old, instead of any brand new CW product.
Not only is it hard to comprehend to that Colin isn’t with us any more, it’s disappointing to me that I’ll never know his opinion on say, a contemporary criminal case, no longer wonder at some obscure theory or author he’s distributing.
I simply cannot possibly underestimate the influence he has had on me. Without him, I’d never have felt confident tackling padlocked literary citadels such as Ulysses, Time Regained and The Man without Qualities; yet he made it seem not only easy, but actually exciting. Can we say the same for That Dreadful Terry Eagleton? I’d never be attempting Husserl. Never. Ever. How could I? To make Phenomenology and the Crisis of the European Sciences seem as necessary, as vital as, oh, Anarchy in the UK blew my youthful mind. And the list of discoveries via CW goes on and on, from the ivory tower to the gutter. That for me was one of his best aspects originally, enabling complete access to recondite knowledge. In pre-information superhighway days this was unbelievably liberating for a council estate Proletariat such as myself. Class, of course, was one reason why Wilson wasn’t appreciated by academia; who needs a Bourgeois middleman when you can have easy access to the source, from one plain speaking autodidact to another? Another extraordinary aspect was his tone. It was as direct and enthralling as the Rock n’ Roll I loved, and as intrinsically meaningful as the ‘high culture’ which I was told I couldn’t understand. With a pellucid prose style ringing out as loud as Faust’s Easter bells – it was never “prairie flat”- narrating life affirming patter like a phenomenological cab driver, well, this obliterated my adolescent angst and confusion. And not a moment too soon. Without his honest guidance I’d be much less happy and intellectually frustrated. And I’m very satisfied that I made the difficult journey to Gorran Haven to tell him this. Not once, but twice. I wish there had been more.
So far, so good. Just the above reasons would be enough for me to celebrate CW. But twenty five years later, I’m still finding amazing angles in his work that escaped me the first few times around. Whenever I read about a terrible crime in the news, for instance, I’m never depressed or angry; I can analyse with a cool head, as learned from CW. His writings have strong utility value, and will continue to do so for a long, long time.
Philip K. Dick, by his own admission, a “fictionalising philosopher” rather than a mere SF hack, was ignored for most of his life. Scratching out a meagre existence, like Lovecraft before him, by writing pulp for pennies. Yet PKD’s ‘pre-cog’ oeuvre so accurately describes the world we live in now, you could call it a documentary. Several decades too early, but still uncannily accurate. His time has come, however belatedly. Colin once said with regard to the perception of his own work that “the times are out of joint”- quoting The Bard and unconsciously paraphrasing PKD himself. I certainly think so, but perhaps not as out of sync as that. I have noticed a few recent plagiaristic pointers to CW’s originality; for one, Graham Harman’s juxtaposition of Lovecraft and Husserl has been described as “surprising”, for instance, but only if you’ve not read The Mind Parasites or The New Existentialism. There are others, like the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s book on the history of violence, the same argument backed up with endless graphs demonstrating The Science, but years after Order of Assassins and A Criminal History of Mankind. Much more importantly, Colin’s phenomenological technique, which he ironically labelled “Faculty X” is the next step. It’s a new aesthetic. I can see it everywhere. You want it, we all want it. Why settle for less? (Descriptions and analysis will be forthcoming, right here, in 2014).
So let’s delete the critics’ android cut ‘n paste –

Outsider – Hampstead Heath – “Scrambled Egghead” = Cornwall/potboilers @ crime/occult

which attempted to obscure the usefulness of his actual ideas (that half century project seems to have failed, judging by warm responses to his passing). It’s now time to celebrate and use his remarkably original work.
Thank you, Colin.

PS. It’s no accident that I discovered CW via the music press; I’d like to say thanks to former Sounds scribe Sandy Robertson (who later wrote a book about Crowley with a CW introduction – copies still available!) for namedropping the man in articles and doing a three page spread on CW for Sounds circa 1983. Colin’s style doubtless appealed to everybody from The Silver Beatles to Bowie, from Peter Hammill to Throbbing Gristle, The Fall and Julian Cope and to R’n R fans like myself because of its accessibility, it’s directness, and it’s optimistically endless possibilities.