Colin Wilson’s Existential Literary Criticism [Colin Wilson Studies # 23] By Colin Stanley (Paupers’ Press, 2014)
The third in the ‘guide for students’ series on Colin Wilson’s work and the 23rd instalment in the Colin Wilson Studies series sees Wilson’s bibliographer turning his attention to one of Wilson’s best inventions – Existential Literary Criticism.
Existential Literary Criticism (ELC) is described by Wilson himself as a “different approach” to literature. After he published a tentative demonstration of ELC on the work of Aldous Huxley in a periodical in 1958, a reader complained to say that the only difference between criticism of the Existential and ordinary kind was the former’s pretentiousness. You proud Anglo philistines crack me up! Misunderstandings never change, it seems. So one year later Wilson wrote his important essay Existential Criticism which is now handily reproduced as an appendix to this volume.
It used to be annoying reading the opening sentence of that essay. Frustrating, because when I first read it, Deconstruction was the trendiest thing on the catwalk. Now that Derrida’s Politically Correct relativism is consigned to the landfill, like so much of last season’s high street fashion, it’s interesting to read it – “It is my hope that, within the next two decades, the techniques of existential thinking will become a commonplace in England and America. They would undoubtably provide a solution to many problems…” Needless to say, that hasn’t happened – the academy will always take the easy route. But ELC as a technique is a definite solution to still ongoing problems. “The disease of our time is the diffidence, the sense of personal insignificance, that feels the need to disguise itself as academic objectivity when it attempts to philosophise.” Fifty five years later and it’s still true. The garments have changed several times down the decades, but the deceit is still there. Contemporary writer/philosophers like Thomas Ligotti and Ray Brassier are still at it, like Japanese soldiers who don’t realise World War Two is over. Nihilism salesmen are an extreme example, and they do at least advertise their prejudices loudly enough to safely ignore them. Although their bland acceptance is of no actual use in studies of intentional consciousness, it does serve as an historical illustration of how much resistance – or rather, ignorance – there has been to Wilson’s bounty of ideas. The past fifty odd years of posh culture have generally ignored Wilson’s usefulness and have been mostly treading the same puddle in different togs.
So what does ELC have to do with this problem of ‘the fallacy of insignificance’? It mercilessly tracks a spotlight on any indulgence, any weak spot that confuses personal prejudices with objective perception. It is fundamentally a phenomenological technique, and it is relentless. There is no detail – however excruciating – spared when Wilson is in full flight (see, for instance, his The Misfits, 1988). ELC is not interested in style over content; David Lindsay is higher in the Wilson canon than many other technically proficient writers. It isn’t interested in reinforcing illusions of handed-down greatness; James Joyce is dissected as a self obsessive foghorn. It is only interested in meaning and values. In a much more dramatic and direct way, Wilson investigated criminals and murderers who would narcissistically lay their deceptive minds and life rejection on the autopsy slab for all it see. ELC is of course dealing with something more subtle and useful – literature – but Wilson’s method is essentially the same; to draw attention to the negative prejudices in documents that claim to be objective (in literature, his prime target is the I-am-a-camera type of novel).
For the rest of his career Wilson used this technique as a tool to extract intentions and meanings from an extraordinary number of texts, without any specific need to draw attention to the apparent difference between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture – that obsession with ‘difference’ is slowly rotting academia away from the inside like a septic tooth. Jane Austen or Juan Butler, H.P. Lovecraft or Heidegger – they were all trying to say something. And that something is far more important that the styles they clothed it in. That is merely outward appearance, not the hardcore rigour of phenomenological analysis.
The inclusion of the (quite scarce) 1959 Wilson essay in this volume is the best place to start. Elsewhere, Colin Stanley gives the neophyte the meat of the ELC books, and for the obsessive, a list of even more books, pamphlets and articles to hunt out, all drawn from from his immense CW bibliography.
The books discussed in the main trunk of the text are some of Wilson’s most focused. The Strength to Dream, Eagle and Earwig, Poetry & Mysticism, The Craft of the Novel, The Bicameral Critic, Existentially Speaking, The Books In My Life, The Angry Years and Existential Criticism: selected book reviews are separated by quite large gaps of time and, after the first two, hidden in between large thickets of occult esoterica and criminal texts, amongst other things. Most are all still in fairly easy to find, save Eagle and Earwig (some of it’s content is in Existential Criticism, 2009) so the summary here is welcome. Colin Stanley has himself noted a dilemma in that, when writing about such a clear voice as Wilson’s, there is a danger in obscuring his essentially simple message. Wilson was aware of this when thinking about his own vast catalogue. What makes this book valuable to those not familiar with his work – apart from the summaries of the texts – are the quotations that are on nearly every page. For instance:
“…the novel – and to a lesser extent, the play – represented a new dimension in human freedom…it seemed there were no limits to the human imagination; using this vehicle of the novel, it could explore all time and space.” (Quoted from The Craft of the Novel).
Colin Stanley’s guide series is an extremely useful map for those daunted by the size of Wilson’s catalogue – which is still large when the best books have been cherry picked. Like Howard Dosser’s 1990 study Colin Wilson, the Man and his Mind, it is a necessary to understanding a big and fascinating territory. This particular volume brings notice to an often overlooked part of Wilson’s thought and for that alone it is welcomed.
Colin Wilson’s Existential Literary Criticism is available at Amazon or direct from the publishers.