X marks the treasure. A Colin Wilson appreciation

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 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.
Without Wilson’s conversational discussions of literary theory, I’d otherwise have been seriously intimidated tackling the modernist heavyweights such as Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time and The Man without Qualities; yet he made these – and many others – accessible and exciting. To make Husserl’s Phenomenology and the Crisis of the European Sciences equally accessible is an even more striking achievement. And the list of my discoveries via Wilson 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-internet days this was very liberating for a council estate kid such as myself. Class, of course, was perhaps one reason why Wilson wasn’t appreciated by academia during his life; who needs a 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.
Philip K. Dick, by his own admission, a “fictionalising philosopher” rather than a mere SF hack, was critically 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). This is true, but Wilson never really worked in that much of vacuum despite the ups and downs of the mainstream critical response (mostly in his homeland). He has a large fanbase and a cottage industry devoted to analysing his work and keeping obscurities in print. That alone is enough to keep his work alive and there’s no doubt that this will slowly pave the way for Wilson to eventually be fully analysed by academia in the coming century.; it’s inevitable as academia (in the humanities) do not generate their own content. Will they be able resist (from a safe posthumous distance) a huge and controversial body of work which anticipated several genres (true crime and Lovecraft as philosophy for two) with so many tendrils of the Wilson narrative entwined with post war and late twentieth century culture? I doubt it. But this isn’t really what Wilson’s life-work was about. His work was about each of us developing own own intentional consciousness, understanding the creativity of consciousness far away from the pessimism and relativism if his era. For his astounding impact on my education and his deep influence on my own civscuousbess, I’m forever grateful. Thank you Colin Wilson.

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6 thoughts on “X marks the treasure. A Colin Wilson appreciation

  1. sandy robertson

    Thanks for the plug, Phli! As I hurtle (crawl?) toward my 61st birthday I’m honoured to be mentioned in the same breath as CW. I simply can’t believe he’s gone although we knew it was probably inevitable after his stroke. Now they’re remaking Lifeforce/Space Vampires as a tv series, the long cut of the original film is on blu ray…and maybe the sequel to SV will be finally issued in English. As you know, it is only out in Russian. Odd that other lands take CW seriously while the UK sniggers about ‘cut and paste man’ just because (like Machen) he had to write a lot of work in order to survive financially – but even in cheap and cheerful paperbacks that recycle his more serious works on crime and the paranormal, Colin never shortchanges the reader or treats him/her like an idiot. The Colin Wilson revival starts here.

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  2. Thanks, I enjoyed that. I admit I haven’t read much of his criminology writing, but like you I have been impressed with his work, his enthusiasm in grappling with ideas, the vigour and enjoyment he conveys. I also think he deals with really important ideas, he turned me onto other writers and gave me interesting perspectives on those I knew. I discovered John Cowper Powys through his book the Craft of the Novel which was an absolutely captivating book reflecting the change in human consciousness brought about by the novel. His work on the Occult, ancient history and UFOs was again muscular and to the point and also probably helped to cement him as beyond the pale of the literati. I’m hoping the world will catch up with him.

    Any idea if “Metamorphosis of the Vampire” is likely to see publication, When Colin died I re-read Dreaming to Some Purpose and what he said about this novel made it sound utterly fascinating.

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    1. Thanks for your comment – I always enjoy seeing someone discovering a writer such as Powys through Colin’s work; I discovered so many through The Craft of the Novel alone.
      Regarding Metamorphosis of the Vampire, there’s a few publishing concerns who have expressed interest in presenting it in English. It most definitely deserves to be in print. We may be lucky this year so watch this space…

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  3. ‘He changed my life.’ This is what distinguishes CW fans from others I think. I have an article in Litro Mag online which is a tribute but I don’t shy away from mentioning CW’s weaknesses.

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