A rare introduction to a study of the law of diminishing returns

Colin Wilson: My Interest In Murder (Being a discarded introduction to Order of Assassins). Paupers’ Press ISBN 9780995597815, £6..95 (available on the 28th of January). An autobiographical essay on how and why Wilson became interested in crime, previously unavailable. This is item number 185 in the Wilson catalogue. 

cdf48ccc-73fb-477d-acaf-74fa028b46e7“I have the kind of mind that enjoys facts” writes Colin Wilson in My Interest in Murder, a lengthy 40 page introduction originally intended for his Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder but discarded by publisher Hart-Davis in 1972. “When I get interested in any subject, it occupies my mind exclusively for months at a time”. He notes that he has been variously preoccupied with brain physiology, jazz, witchcraft, mythology, economics and Russian history, to name but a few. During these months of brooding on a topic, he remarks that he would scour the shelves of second hand bookshops for information. Once he became a professional author by 1956, he would gleefully spend an hour browsing the bookstores in Charing Cross Road and stagger into a taxi with a huge stack of titles. 

Facts regarding crime and murder were another of his interests. When he was ten years old a family friend had lent his father a volume entitled The Fifty Most Amazing Crimes of the Last Hundred Years “which had an automatic pistol and a bottle of poison embossed on the front cover”. He wasn’t supposed to read it but as it was left out he went though every case – Landru, Charley Peace, Crippen, David Smith, Vaquier and Palmer (the latter was discussed in a book by the poet Robert Graves), the Green Bicycle Mystery, the shooting of Bella Wright, and so on – and suffered appalling nightmares as a consequence. He felt a particular “tingle of horror” while reading the article on Jack the Ripper and seeing, instead of a portrait, a large imposing question mark. His maternal grandmother had told him about the terrifying atmosphere of her childhood in the East End of London circa 1888 when the Ripper was at large. That question mark, he writes, “started me on a search for Jack the Ripper that has gone on ever since”. Wilson would later coin the term ‘Ripperology’ and write extensively on the case (Order of Assassins contains an appendix discussing one theory regarding the possible identity of the killer). But back in the early 1940’s his precocious interest in crime was motivated, he says, by a sense of horror. Speaking about the Cleveland Torso Case – later incorporated in his 1966 novel The Glass Cage – he remarks that these American murders had become world wide news and “the newspapers of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy took pleasure in pointing out how a decadent democracy fostered this sort of crime”. While he was horrifying himself with the crime book (published in 1936) he was also reading True Detective magazine which his mother had received off a friend (she would spend what little money she had on romantic magazines instead). It’s also significant that around about this time Wilson was reading tatty copies of Weird Tales, the American ‘horror comic’ which featured stories by H. P. Lovecraft, a writer Wilson would study in depth long before he was regarded as ‘literature’ (or, this century, as a subject for philosophical investigations). “At the age of ten”, remembered Wilson in an introduction to one of many Lovecraft collections, “I had felt instinctively that this was a kind of pornography of violence that was designed to appeal to a kind of sickness in the reader”.  He rediscovered Lovecraft in the late fifties via a friend’s copy of The Outsider and Others (1939) the first assembled compendium of Lovecraft’s best tales and the first book published by his future friend and correspondent August Derleth at Arkham House. Inspired by this collection, he wrote The Strength to Dream, an analysis of the imagination in literature where he makes the unflattering yet philosophically accurate comparison of Lovecraft’s psychological landscape to that of the ‘vampire of Düsseldorf’, Peter Kürten. Lovecraft bolstered the dwindling circulation of Weird Tales by revising The Loved Dead by C.M. Eddy, a tale about a necrophiliac sex killer – this caused such a scandal that sales of the next issue rocketed. A year or two later, Kürten would return to Düsseldorf and began a reign of terror that parallels the irrational explosion described in Lovecraft’s most famous work, The Call of Cthulhu. Kürten would spend “longer and longer periods of solitary confinement, standing almost upright in a tiny cell” and dreaming of revenge like the Marquis de Sade (once dubbed “the patron saint of serial killers” by Wilson). The connections between these and Lovecraft’s romantic bitterness are fully discussed in Order of Assassins. 

Aged 11 in 1942, Wilson entered a public speaking competition held at his school and chose famous murder cases as his subject, but his interest ended very abruptly in the same year. “What happened was simply that I had discovered science. The outer reaches of the universe and the inside of the atom were far more interesting than emotional fools hitting one another on the head”. Suddenly, he realised that crime is due to our tendency to remain trapped in trivialities, and quickly lost interest; he remarks that he did not pick up any crime literature at all until he was 20, by then married and living in London. Intriguingly he speaks of his adolescent affair with science as “close to religious salvation” and more important than poetry or music. By the time he was 20 he dropped this scientific fundamentalism, becoming reacquainted with poetry – it relaxed his mind after a hard days manual labour – with music (he collected records as obsessively as books) and with literature and philosophy (he was, at this time a budding novelist working on a something called ‘Ritual of the Dead’, later developed into his first fictional work Ritual in the Dark). “I had not abandoned my scientific creed”, writes Wilson. “I had merely enlarged it”. He would of course later write books on astronomy, forensic pathology and hemispherical brain theory in the usual scientific spirit, but by the time he started writing about crimes, he was slowly becoming preoccupied with a ‘science of consciousness’ developed by the philosopher Edmund Husserl which is known as phenomenology. Nietzsche had previously observed that there has never been a ‘presuppositionless science’ but Husserl’s publication of the first volume of his Logical Investigations in the year of Nietzsche’s death would lay the groundwork for the possibility of such a science. So in truth Wilson had in fact enlarged his scientific outlook by making use of Husserl’s method, even if his chosen subjects were, on the surface, diverse. By deciding to set his novel in the East End – inspired by his grandmother’s stories – he researched the Ripper murders in the British Museum and roamed the streets of Whitechapel, soaking up the cold autumn atmosphere. He was once again interested in murder, but the “tingle of horror” he experienced in childhood was gone; his interest was now scientific, like Emile Zola’s researches into the worst aspects of humanity for his novels or Sherlock Holmes’ attitude towards gory facts (“knowledge of sensational literature – immense”). 

Ritual in the Dark took over ten years to complete. If it had been written to a deadline like The Outsider, Wilson thinks, his interest in murder might have waned once again. But researching the novel meant accumulating scores of true crime books and magazines (around 200 volumes by 1960) and it now seemed a pity to have no use for them. When introduced to a journalist whose wife was not only interested in murder but also possessed of an extraordinary memory for crime facts, Wilson suggested writing an A-Z encyclopaedia of cases. Co-authored with Pat Pitman, the Encyclopaedia of Murder would appear in 1961, the first book of it’s kind since The Newgate Calendar (also known as The MalefactorsBloody Register) in 1774 or thereabouts. Their book would anticipate the true crime genre by many years, although Wilson points out here that Sir Harold Scott’s Concise Encyclopaedia of Crime, which boasts no less than forty authors (including Ian Fleming) was published in the same month. A typically odd coincidence in the world of publishing no doubt, but Scott’s volume compliments Wilson and Pitman’s Encyclopaedia In that it covers legalities and procedures and has “an excellent article in crime in literature” (Wilson stuck a philosophical fragment from The Outsider at the end of his Encyclopaedia). 

After publication Wilson could add the ‘criminologist’ label to his ever expanding list of professional interests: philosopher, novelist, existentialist, mystic and phenomenologist (Husserl’s method of “phenomenalism” is discussed In the introduction of the Encyclopaedia). And so there were more facts to beef up his philosophical position and to season his novels; he compares his method to a witch mixing a brew but with the delight of a crossword puzzle addict solving clues. The philosopher Michel Foucault would also discuss crimes and punishments and although Wilson dismissed his “stormy romanticism”, he did admire Foucault’s method: he was “a kind of fact-grinding machine, pouring obscure works on history and sociology into his gullet, and coming up with startling and illuminating parallels”. Wilson admits that his his mind is similar. In A Criminal History of Mankind (1984) he recalled his study (“piled with books on violent crime and copies of True Detective magazine”) when he was aiming to compile the Encyclopaedia in the summer of 1959. He was, he says, motivated by “an obscure but urgent conviction that underneath these piles of unrelated facts about violence there must be undiscovered patterns, certain basic laws, and uncovering these might provide clues to the steadily rising crime rate”. The Encyclopaedia of Murder would be followed by A Casebook of Murder (1969), a sociological study of crime. “To put it simply”, Wilson begins the book, “my interest in murder is philosophical rather than scientific”. Three years later, Order of Assassins would complete a ‘murder trilogy’. 

Despite the gruesome subject matter, Order of Assassins is written in the same spirit as Wilson’s book on music, The Brandy of the Damned (1964) or even his self-explanatory A Book of Booze from twenty years later (which he moots in this introductory essay). This is not to say that Wilson is being flippant about crimes. “I completely lack patience with the kind of writer who talks about ‘murder for pleasure’” he writes. Against the “revolting and almost unreadable” Edmund Pearson and William Roughead, two late Victorians who regarded crimes as a fit subject for windy humour, Wilson is, like Dostoevsky, treating these facts with the utmost seriousness. Murder cases are not amusing; they are messy and horrible, but they are invaluable for study as they can starkly illuminate an opposite set of values – making us realise that life is not trivial and must not be wasted on such negativities (“emotional fools hitting one another on the head”). This is why Wilson enjoyed, if that’s the correct word, collecting these gruesome facts. He could describe Nietzsche’s rejection of Schopenhauer’s pessimism or critique the anti-intentional torpor of Beckett’s collected works, but there is nothing which illustrates the problem of life devaluation which such bludgeoning and terrible force as murder cases. Nietzsche suggested in Beyond Good and Evil that we “think pessimism through to it’s depths” – so by analysing the most violent and life denying acts objectively (phenomenologically) the possibility of a life affirming philosophy begins to take form. Wilson wasn’t being perverse when he said that whenever he studied murder he felt a glint of optimism: he was pointing out that life-devaluation, negativity and violence, taken to their logical conclusions, simply do not work. “Murder interests me because it is the most extreme form of the denial of […] human potentiality”, he remarked in A Casebook of Murder. Against Sartre’s ‘man is a useless passion’ or the romantic pessimism of Schopenhauer or Lovecraft, murder is an act, a very real act, which we cannot take a casual attitude to – our reactions to it prove we do have positive values towards life. These values are the building blocks of Wilson’s philosophical attitude; the crime facts and the interest in murder are the study of the shadows cast by the construction of the building. Our central problem, he says in this discarded introduction, is to understand our subconscious depths, to contact them at will. These intentional methods were already outlined in the volumes of his Outsider Cycle, particularly in his studies of the methods of Husserl and Whitehead. Later, Wilson would apply them to investigations into ‘occultism’ – a seemingly unlikely move, but Husserl did write that we need the “idea of a resolve of the will to shape one’s whole personal life into the synthetic unity of a life of universal self responsibility and, correlatively, to shape oneself into the true ‘I’, the free, autonomous ‘I’ which seeks to realise his innate reason, the striving to be true to himself”. This type of careful self analysis towards what Husserl calls “universal self responsibility” is precisely what the criminal lacks, so all crime is essentially a smash and grab raid, a short cut which inevitably ends in defeat or suicide. An occultist like Crowley could point out that people of “criminal nature are simply at issue with their true Wills” but any nonpartisan observer knows that it wasn’t quite so simple an issue in his own case. His contemporary Gurdjieff told the writer Ouspensky that modern society creates “an enormous amount of sexual psychopaths” and these ‘abnormalities’, as he called them, “require special study”. Wilson’s study of such psychopathological behaviour was driven by a similar need to understand the ‘human machine’ via Husserl’s phenomenological method. Like Gurdjieff, he believes that it is fatal for us to become victimised or controlled by our habits; in a gentler (but no less rigorous) sense, Husserl warned against habitual perceptions or taking the world for granted. 

“I am not interested in criminality as such, but in the relation of crime to human freedom” wrote Wilson in 1969. Analysing the catastrophic choices criminals make when they believe they are increasing their ‘freedom’ makes us all aware of our own perceptual limitations. Crime, Wilson would later write, “is a completely mistaken solution to a problem that accompanies all of us from the cradle to the grave: the problem of personal evolution”. Summing up Order of Assassins, Wilson notes that the violence in our society (i.e. of 1972) has the same roots as “the occult revival and the search for messiahs and gurus and führers”. Written during the era of the tree day week, strikes and IRA bombings, the use of the word ‘assassin’ and the opening analysis of the legend of the ‘Old Man of the Mountain, his castle at Alamut and his shadowy sect is a prescient use of symbolism when read in today’s gloomy atmosphere of global terrorism. Anybody who cares about conscious evolution should share Wilson’s interests.

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2 thoughts on “A rare introduction to a study of the law of diminishing returns

  1. Your survey of Wilson-books brings back memories of being a rather introverted art teacher in Oldham and then Bradford in the late sixties and early 70s. I lapped up his criminology books along with Ritual, Brandy of the Damned ( which kept me motivated to buy used LPs from a music shop in Manchester) and Beyond the Outsider. In Bradford I coincidentally found a Gurdjieff Group which I attended. We compiled a glossary of Beelzubub terms and even put on a play of Strange Life on Ivan Osokin! I took the part of a schoolboy. In Oldham I stayed in a bedsit with the landlady living downstairs. Once she saw me reading Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous and said, “Ee lad, you won’t find any of that round here!” Mostly, this interest in Wilsononia was covert- like most outsiders I lived a double life!

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