Paupers’ Press continue their penetrating ‘Colin Wilson Studies’ series with volumes 28 and 29. The latter, Vaughan Rapatahana’s More than the Existentialist Outsider ‘draws together a number of his important essays about, and his interview with, Colin Wilson which was held at the Victoria University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia on September 16, 1993, adding a new essay in which he asserts that Wilson is “…an important philosopher, who not only introduced his own version of Existentialism, but also strove to unite the so-called Continental and Analytic traditions of philosophy into one seamless endeavour…” finally insisting that “…universities should now be including Wilson as an integral part of their philosophy courses’”. This title also contains several important pieces previously published in the periodical Philosophy Now, including Rapatahana’s Wilson obituary which hit the mark where the newspapers and broadsheets mostly missed.
Volume 29 is my own effort entitled The Lurker at the Indifference Threshold: Feral Phenomenology for the 21st Century, which attempts to draw various obscure threads together and suggest possibilities for Wilson’s long term rehabilitation this century. Included as an appendix is a rare 1983 Wilson interview from the defunct music magazine Sounds conducted by Sandy Robertson, author of both The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook (which has an introduction by CW) and of a study of the music of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman entitled The Phenomenology of Excess – the only book I’ve read which recommends Chapple & Garofalo’s Rock ‘n Roll Is Here To Pay and The New Existentialism on it’s reading list! My book is perceptively reviewed by Wilson researcher David Moore at his blog here and his own ‘new existentialist’ work EvolutionaryMetaphors will be discussed here soon.
Both titles are £7.95 each. Full details are here.
Colin Wilson: MyInterestInMurder (BeingadiscardedintroductiontoOrderofAssassins). 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.
“I have the kind of mind that enjoys facts” writes Colin Wilson in MyInterestinMurder, a lengthy 40 page introduction originally intended for his OrderofAssassins: ThePsychologyofMurder 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 TheFiftyMostAmazingCrimesoftheLastHundredYears “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 (OrderofAssassins 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 TheGlassCage – 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 TrueDetective 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 WeirdTales, 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 TheOutsiderandOthers (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 TheStrengthtoDream, 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 WeirdTales by revising TheLovedDead 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, TheCallofCthulhu. 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 OrderofAssassins.
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 RitualintheDark). “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 LogicalInvestigations 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”).
RitualintheDark took over ten years to complete. If it had been written to a deadline like TheOutsider, 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 EncyclopaediaofMurder would appear in 1961, the first book of it’s kind since TheNewgateCalendar (also known as TheMalefactors‘ BloodyRegister) 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 ConciseEncyclopaediaofCrime, 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 TheOutsider 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 ACriminalHistoryofMankind (1984) he recalled his study (“piled with books on violent crime and copies of TrueDetective 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 EncyclopaediaofMurder would be followed by ACasebookofMurder (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, OrderofAssassins would complete a ‘murder trilogy’.
Despite the gruesome subject matter, OrderofAssassins is written in the same spirit as Wilson’s book on music, TheBrandyoftheDamned (1964) or even his self-explanatory ABookofBooze 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 BeyondGoodandEvil 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 ACasebookofMurder. 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 OutsiderCycle, 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 OrderofAssassins, 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.
Wilson’s 1965 collection EagleandEarwig, originally published by John Baker in 1965, gets it’s first reissue in five decades by Eyewear Publishing. Now entitled Eagles and Earwigs, thishardcover edition has a new introduction by Wilson biographer Gary Lachman, annotations by Wilson’s bibliographer Colin Stanley and is 412 pages long. Like TheAgeofDefeat, also just reprinted, Eagles and Earwigs is rare in it’s original edition. Both titles show the development of Wilson’s newexistentialist thought, with Eagles and Earwigs beingparticularlystrong on what he dubbed ‘existential literary criticism’ a technique for not separating an artists’ personal attitudes from their work – the title comes from Aldous Huxley who gloried in the name of Earwig. The first essay in the book is a discussion of the modern (i.e. 1957) hero in literature and anticipates the central theme of The Age of Defeat, which was two years away. It’s all relevant to the twenty-first century.
“It is my hope”, wrote Wilson exactiy sixty years ago, “that within the next two decades, the techniques of existential thinking will become a commonplace in England and America”. The opening words of Existential Criticism (the second essay here) were written a decade before the non-techniques of semiology and deconstruction began to influence the literary and philosophical departments of English and American universities, with postmodernism glibness becoming ubiquitous by the end of last century. Now commonplace and tedious, those reductionist techniques are a very tiresome cliche. Wilson’s ideas, however, remain powerfully relevant to twenty-first century individuals wishing to go beyond the acceptance of meaninglessness, a problem which is possibly more relevant now than in 1958. “Our modern culture has seen a gradual decline in the in the tacit sense of human purpose, fostered by materialist philosophies […] Consequently the notion of ‘prehension’ of the human effort to assimilate and overcome, has begun to disappear from out literature. The tacit sense of human purpose has been tacitly dropped”. Existential Criticism is a method to expose this unquestioned attitude rather than to wholeheartedly accept it whilst imagining that fine tuning linguistic ambiguities can free us from this ‘romantic defeatism’.
The 1965 essay Phenomenology and Literature is short, but it is one of the best introductions to Wilson’s interest in Edmund Husserl. ”Phenomenology regards itself as the philosophical method” Wilson says, but we can forget just how important a method it is unless we practice it – “for ‘academic’ means nothing if not ‘limited’. We lose sight of the basic meaning of phenomenology if we forget that it is, at bottom, a mystical venture – the first mystical venture in human history to insist upon a strictly scientific method”. Imagining a scenario where Husserl meets William Blake, Wilson thinks they would have shared common ground. “For if the word ‘visionary’ means to penetrate through obscurities to the underlying truth, then all science and all literature are visionary in intention”. An essay on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard from 1964 finishes the first part (the book is divided into three sections: Literature and Philosophy, Individual Writers and The Writer and Society).
The second section has essays on Powys and Hemingway, on Lindsay’s A VoyagetoArcturus, Madach’s Tragedy of Man and Mark Twain. There’s thoughts on the obscure L.H. Myers, The Shaw Problem and an amusing essay on Ayn Rand. Wilson receives a letter from Rand’s ‘organisation’ which reads: “Miss Rand would be very pleased to hear of your interest in her work – when and if you correct your offense against it in the same terms that the offense was committed: that is, publicly”. This section ends with ruminations on Henry Williamson, a contemporary of Myers, who wrote children’s favourite Tarka the Otter and whose reputation was tarnished due to his right wing politics (rather like Wyndham Lewis). The third section concludes the volume with rather more personal thoughts on publicity and writers (1959), particularly Wilson’s own brush with fame in 1956, and The Success Problem from the year after. “We are living, I think, in one of the most culturally treacherous ages that has ever beset Western civilzation”. In the final essay, Personal: Influences on my Writing (1958) Wilson states that he has nothing in common with the Angry Young Men “except my age”, preferring to align himself with “the tradition of an intellectual creation with it’s roots in analysis” which has the “eventual aim of […] a new form of self-consciousness”. Wilson would develop this through his new existentialist ‘foundation work’ in the next decade, and thereafter by analysing the darkest corners of human behaviour while all the time remaining an optimistic philosopher.
Eagles and Earwigs can be purchased for £20 via Amazon. More information about Eyewear Publishing here.
The Age of Defeat, the third volume of Wilson’s Outsider Cycle series, has been reissued by Aristeia Press. This follows from their reissue of volume two, Religion and the Rebel, last year. You can see both books at their website here. The new edition has an introduction by academic Thomas F. Bertonneau, who has previously noted that certain Wilson books “have been hard to find, and when found on the second-hand market command demoralizing high prices”. A case in point are the Outsider Cycle volumes themselves – while The Outsider has remained in print, the sequel was last reprinted in 1984 and The Age of Defeat was unobtainable for almost six decades, save for a very limited ‘deluxe’ reissue at the turn of the century (it was so limited that even I don’t own a copy!) Hopefully this bodes well for the remaining volumes: while second hand copies of The Strength to Dream, Origins of the Sexual Impulse and Beyond the Outsider can be obtained, their prices are rising. The seminal final volume, Introduction to the New Existentialism, which sums up the series brilliantly, is now becoming prohibitively expensive.
The Age of Defeat is produced to match the softcover design of Religion and the Rebel from last year (the original 1950’s Gollancz editions had uniform designs as per usual, but were different sizes). A study concerned with what Wilson labelled ‘the fallacy of insignificance’, the vanishing hero and the sociology of inner and outer directed psychology, The Age of Defeat is a timely reissue for the twenty first century, with Wilson’s ideas – properly understood – being more relevant now than ever. This latter point is made by pioneering Wilson scholar Howard F. Dossor in a video lecture on Wilson’s debut here. Dossor’s 1990 book (Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind) was the only available work for quite some time to contain a summary of the huge spread and reach of Wilson’s oeuvre, as well as a bibliography and enticing quotes from his work. Along with the compendium The Essential Colin Wilson (1985) this introduced me to the breadth of his output and more importantly, it’s conceptual cohesion. This latter book will be reissued next May and, at 400 pages, is considerably longer than the original, with many extra selections of post-1985 work, chosen by Wilson scholars. Like the original, this includes the ‘Strange Story of Modern Philosophy’ chapter from Beyond the Outsider (this got me interested in philosophy instantly) and an important chapter from the hard to find Introduction to the New Existentialism as well as standalone essays. The same month will see a study of UFO phenomena as seen through the lens of Wilson’s new existentialist ethos. Evolutionary Metaphors by scholar David Moore – who presented papers at both Colin Wilson Conferences this and last year – will be available from 6th Books in 2019, more information is here. His Wilson flavoured musings are at the aptly titled blog Ritual in the Dark. Meanwhile, the Glastonbury based author Paul Weston is currently working on a study provisionally entitled The Colin Wilson Work which will be published sometime in the near future, and my own thoughts on Wilson should appear on paper next year. Against all currents and trends, Wilson is slowly becoming a true underground (and I mean seriously underground) hero of the twenty first century, thanks to the tireless support of those willing to investigate his radical phenomenology.
Pablo Brehens’ long awaited film adaptation of Colin Wilson’s classic beat novel Adrift in Soho opens at Leicester Square, starting from Wednesday the 14th of November. Full details here.
ADRIFT IN SOHO took years of research to find out what really happened in those last few years before the 60s began. The result is a film full of wonderment but also a film that makes you think and demands your attention because the characters are talking to you and not just trying to make you dream.
One of the characters portrayed in the film (and Wilson’s novel) is Ironfoot Jack, the self-anointed ‘king of the bohemians’. A carbon copy of the manuscript of his autobiography was found amongst Colin Wilson’s papers by his bibliographer Colin Stanley, who has now edited it for publication.
The Surrender of Silence is published by Strange Attractor at £12.99 and is available direct from their website.
BetterListen! have made three Wilson lectures from the 1990’s available as digital downloads. Their website offers a 20% discount on Peak Experiences & The New Human, Science Fiction and the Esoteric and Awakening to an Evolutionary Breakthrough. Enter the code cwilson20here or here for 20% off.
There are SoundCloud previews of Peak Experiences & The New Humanhere and here; of Science Fiction and the Esoterichere and here and a preview of Awakening to an Evolutionary Breakthroughhere.
The lecture on science fiction is particularly interesting, with Wilson discussing “how real life is not so dissimilar from the weird and wild ideas in the fictional realm”; a theme which goes back to his 1963 book The Strength to Dream as well as essays such as Science Fiction as Existentialism (1978) and indeed his own science fiction novels. “Human beings appear to have a Faculty for being where they’re not supposed to be, so to speak, for knowing things they’re not supposed to know” he says in the lecture on evolutionary breakthrough. Wilson was a formidable lecturer (no notes or PowerPoint!), and the conversational style of his works – which delighted his readers, yet alienated the literary establishment – comes through powerfully in these clear recordings which are highly recommended
Colin Wilson, Religion and The Rebel (Aristeia Press, 2017) A needed reprint of Wilson’s much misunderstood “difficult second album” (as the music journalistic cliche goes) in a large dark blue covered paperback (it’s also available as an e-book). Introductory pieces from the editor, from Wilson biographer Gary Lachman; also including Wilson’s own retrospective introduction from the second Ashgrove Press edition from 1984, now long out of print like the first Gollancz edition of 1957. Aristeia Press will be reissuing Wilson’s third non fiction book The Age of Defeat in the near future – it has been out of print since 1959, apart from a very limited reissue in 2001. Aristeia Press’ website is here – where you can read a sample of Religion and The Rebel before you buy. Also available at Amazon UK
Every review, every mention or discussion of this book opens with the same statement – that it was panned upon it’s original release in 1957. When I found a first Gollancz edition, damp-spattered dust jacket and all, in a Newcastle bookshop for the princely sum of £2.50 over three decades ago, I was at the very start of my interest in Wilson – I hadn’t even read The Outsider yet – and I enjoyed Religion and the Rebel very much. I read it without much awareness of it’s reception, and it stuck me as remarkably undated despite the odd reference to James Dean or some Fifties social concept (Rimbaud is described, not altogether wrongly, as looking like a ‘teddy boy’). I quickly went out and purchased two spanking new Picador paperbacks – the complete Rimbaud and the selected Rilke – purely off the excitement generated by the lucid treatment they received here. Wilson was such a great teacher.
Reading his autobiographical introduction when I was still in my teens only made the bond stronger: here was someone from the same background as me, doing the same jobs I would do, and expertly articulating my deepest thoughts. Now, re-reading it again as I approach my fiftieth year, I have a much deeper appreciation.
I must admit, my very first impressions when I was back into the 1957 text – after introductions by the editor, by Gary Lachman, and a retrospective one by Wilson himself – didn’t seem to bode too well. His original Autobiographical Introduction which feverishly excited me so much then seemed to be surprisingly emotional for a Wilson book. Now that I’m very familiar with his ‘phenomenological tone’ it’s not exactly absent, but it is essentially in embryo here (he wouldn’t mention Husserl, fleetingly, until The Strength to Dream a few years later.) The fiery emotion which excited me so much then – when I was just a few years younger than the author – is duly noted by Wilson in his 1984 introduction. “What I notice, the moment I begin reading, is that I then had a far more narrow and intense view of the [Outsider] problem than I have nowadays, and this gives the book a sense of passionate involvement that is lacking in the later volumes of the series.” Now that I’m almost the same age as Wilson was in 1984, I’m inclined to agree; maturity certainly sharpens your perceptions for the better. Clenched fist passions give way to the visionary clenching of consciousness, which in our own emotionally driven, subjectively confused time is much more radical and necessary.
What strikes me now, reading Wilson on his own development, is how closely his early self belief parallels that of many of the case histories he analyses in his second book. When he notes that he was writing a massive history of everything as a schoolboy, he was not only learning his writing trade, he was following in the footsteps of the boy Rimbaud (“on one occasion, he produced a digest of ancient history, including Egypt, Syria and Babylon”). The self creation of Rilke discussed in part one is apposite to Wilson’s own development – “he thoroughly dramatized himself in the role of poet.” Wilson would often return to the notion of the self image in his later writings. His polymathic interests are similar to those of Swedenborg, as is his switch from the rigours of science to the ambiguous landscape of mysticism, a lesson which today’s youthful dogmatists could learn something from, if they could actually concentrate for more than a millisecond, that is – note the need for “constant diversion” which creates “perpetual misery” in the discussion of Pascal. This is written exactly sixty-one years ago, and Pascal was of course writing long before that. Again and again, timely concepts pop up throughout the text. We live in an “infant-prodigy civilization”, with the clever schoolboy a “fitting image for Western civilization”. And perhaps the most overarching theme is the inevitable end or destruction of that very civilization, something voiced with not a little force by Nietzsche, and later by the likes of Spengler in 1918 or feminist thinker Camille Paglia today.
By infant prodigy or clever schoolboy he doesn’t mean Rimbaud or himself being disciplined enough to attempt digests of knowledge at an early age: that is simply the shallow end of a long learning curve. He means the “brilliant of mind, but immature in all other things.” Think upper class logic machines like Bertrand Russell or AJ Ayer and their childish, self indulgent philandering. Or think Dawkins and his Trumpish social media tantrums – can you imagine a scientist like Swedenborg doing anything so cringeworthy? I was struck, over and over, by the uncanny relevance of the arguments. Not bad for a “scrambled egghead” and his “rubbish bin”.
Religion and The Rebel is dedicated to writer Negley Farson – who was in Petrograd when the Russian Revolution broke out forty years previously, and who met both Ghandi and Hitler – and his son Daniel, who was often on television in my youth. Farson junior (“a good Ayran boy” according to Herr Hitler) was the journalist responsible for Wilson’s famous assertion of his own genius which helped dismissals of this book no end. Dismissals, I might add, made by people who never had to do the kind of manual labour Wilson documents in his introduction. I never noticed, for instance, the obvious fact that Arnold Toynbee was critic Philip Toynbee’s father until I read Gary Lachman’s introduction. Arnold would remain very important to Wilson but his son would accept, then firmly reject Wilson with this book and accept him yet again fourteen years later! A younger Toynbee, still a prominent political journalist today, once worked in two (two!) factories after leaving Oxford in the Sixties but has confessed that she “quickly discovered why people who work in factories don’t usually have the energy to write when they get home”. This is the world Wilson was writing and rebelling against. He was a tough worker who couldn’t afford the luxury safety net of the Toynbee bloodline, hence his ‘arrogance’, his proletarian chutzpah, which would help foster a wave of prole autodidactism running through many streams of anti-academic underground culture in the next few decades. This attitude is more or less neutered in the British lower classes today. We can read with wonder, for instance, about the complex anti-surface philosophy of Jacob Boehme who allowed “his own rough peasant voice to explain his meaning.”
After the slice of autobiography, the book is broken up into two parts. The first section of Part One deals with imagination – this is where I first read about Rilke, carrying a long stemmed flower through the streets of Prague in his old fashioned frock coat, and Rimbaud’s tempestuous affair with Verlaine, his ‘disappearance’ into the forests of Java and his unwanted fame. F. Scott Fitzgerald – a ‘weak Outsider’, like Elvis Presley, according to Wilson, much later – is also analyzed. It’s Hollywood Babylon on the surface, but Wilson detects an undercurrent of romanticism “straight out of Schiller or Hoffman”. Wilson tries to imagine what could have happened if Rimbaud was a young American in the 1920’s: he wasn’t to know, but that mutation would be happening ten years on with the peak of the counterculture in 1967.
The second section of this first part deals with Spengler’s notions of the biological growth, decay and death of civilizations. Spengler was unknown, a schoolteacher with “no special academic qualifications” like Wilson himself, and his immense work The Decline of the West made him famous in 1918 despite “the academic cold shoulder”. Wilson finds Spengler’s dissection of our “Faustian” civilization impressive, for Goethe’s Faust represents the bifurcation of science and art, resulting in a middle ground of unappetizing ‘knowledge’. Goethe would argue with Schiller that we can actively append nature, rather than abstract it from ourselves scientifically. This idea would return in Blake, Nietzsche, Husserl and Whitehead, and Wilson would describe it as his central obsession – “a movement towards the science of living”. This philosophy, he says, “has nothing whatever to do with any science that exists at present.” Spengler intuitively saw this: that we are not mere spectators of history, but Wilson suggests his temperament was closer to the pessimism of Schopenhauer, whose fatalism Nietzsche famously rejected. So despite agreeing that the arteries of Western culture are hardening, Spengler’s ‘no escape’ from decay is rejected. Another historian, Arnold Toynbee, is more of a visionary with his extraordinary Proustian time-slips, but Wilson rejects his solution to the problem (a collage of world religions) as much as those prosented by Shaw or Aldous Huxley – “religion is not made by throwing ingredients into a cooking pot.” So how is it made? Part Two of the book is an attempt to answer that question.
Nietzsche was acutely aware that once the cement of faith has completely crumbled with the death of God, moral chaos would ensure, and this assertion was ironically prophetic. Nietzsche’s continued reievance lies in his skewering the “last men” foibles of 21st century atheism while never falling prey to the kind of relativism we saw in postmodernism.
The Outsider problem was none-existent inside the church – “from the highest intellectual types to the meanest artisan” there was a structure, a role – and by ‘church’ he means Cathedral, Mosque, Temple, and inclusive faiths of all stripes. With the rise of Humanist values, this innocent security vanishes and we are in Rousseau’s garden, ‘free’, but everywhere in chains. Wilson regards Rousseau’s statement as “rubbish”, as much as Nietzsche or Blake did. Rather, it is Blake’s “mind forged manacles”, boredom and futility, which are the problem. A discipline is needed, not a physical discipline but a mental one; a “science of living”. Rimbaud’s intense need to make himself a visionary is a start – the opposite of a “spectator and an observer, a sort of naturalist looking at the universe through a magnifying glass and murmuring: ‘Mmm. Most interesting.’” Existentialism, of course, regards us as intensely involved in the universe, but it’s major thinkers – Heidegger, Sartre and Camus – are as pessimistic as Schopenhauer. “Jaspers is a better existentialist than Heidegger”, Wilson opines, because he focused on the lives of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, and showed the real issues of life in action, rather than talk about them in ever more complex critical language and discourse. In the last part of Religion and the Rebel, Wilson gives short case histories on mystics and theologians (Boehme, Ferrar, Pascal, Law and Newman), on philosophers (Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Whitehead) on that remarkable scientist turned mystic Swedenborg and on Shaw, who Wilson regards as the most significant thinker since Dante. By analyzing their lives he pays tribute to Jaspers’ method in the same fashion as the earlier sections on Rimbaud and Rilke, and indeed in his previous book.
Goethe insisted that we could directly append nature, we could know without it fossilizing into mere ‘knowledge’, abstraction or classification. For Goethe, education (Bildung) was essential. Not school education or learning by rote, but closer to the sense he uses it in his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, a journey of self-realization. “Real education”, writes Wilson, “means existentialism, and existentialism means exploring one’s inner world scientifically.” So for Wilson, religion is not originally determined by ritual dogmatism, that is a later, unimaginative structure – pure religion, or rather, mysticism, is “exploring one’s inner world” much in the same way as existentialism. Joining all the types of religious dogma together to form a theological coalition is pointless, as they in fact have the same source, the same root.
This is a “science of living” and true existentialism without the needless addition of gloom. Wilson was unaware of Husserl at this point but it is easy to see how his phenomenology would exert such a profound influence on him as the Outsider sequence progressed. We must “raise the banner of a new existentialism and make war on civilized modes of thought” he says. And in another act of either precognition or conceptual continuity, he quotes Nietzsche – “I love only what a man has written with his blood” – anticipating the title of Wilson’s book on forensics some thirty years away, a book which would include a postscript on problems of freedom and consciousness. Boehme, that fascinating mystic who influenced both Blake and Yeats, would speak of the ‘signature’ of nature, whose presence is, according to Wilson, “in the outward form of all things” but can be interpreted “just as an expert can find a criminal’s fingerprint on every object from a glass vase to human throat.” Wilson is adamant that this is different to specific yogic or ritual disciplines and his discovery of phenomenology would bear that out throughout the next few decades.
Boehme, – “a dreamy type of lad” – gained a major insight by absentmindedly gazing at the reflection on a pewter dish; he fell into an involuntary state of ecstasy and felt he was looking into the heart of nature. He vowed to discipline himself and to restore this state, to make himself a visionary, as Rimbaud said. In 1610 he succeeded, with all his fragmentary insights cohering into a whole. Boehme writes that he learned more in fifteen minutes “than if I had been many years together at a university…” Here we have Goethe’s education (Bildung), his direct appending of nature, encompassing more than any form of plodding, piece by piece logical construction, (although certainly not hindered by it either). This forensic analysis of consciousness, the reading of “signatures” is not only a “science of living”, it’s an active mode of perception. And although Wilson was unaware of Husserl in 1957, his thoughts on Alfred North Whitehead, that remarkable philosopher and mathematician, show he was intuitively aware of Husserl’s general drift.
Wilson makes much of Whitehead’s concept of prehension. “Prehension is the act of reaching out to grasp experience.” Rather like an octopus using it’s tentacles to build a structure underwater, we use our minds to hold and use experience and reality. Prehension is, he says, “the most fundamental activity of life.” And it is one of the keys to Nietzsche’s much misunderstood “master and slave” morality – “master of his own complexity, or slave to of it?” asks Wilson. Prehension is power, not political power, but power over our own personal experiences; it has the same meaning as Goethe’s Bildung, but “has a far wider meaning than the term ‘education’” or addition to knowledge. Bildung, in the sense that Goethe meant it, was “growing to maturity” which is mostly unconscious. The amount of conscious effort most of us make to grow psychologically is minimal, Wilson says; we usually grow for a limited period and then stop – “beyond that, a conscious effort of prehension is needed.” What we ‘prehend’ are units (‘occasions’ or ‘events’ in Whitehead’s terminology) of living experience, and Whitehead insisted that no experience can be omitted in a lengthy quote seen here and in many other Wilson texts. Touching on phenomenology again, every element of our experience, “not just the things we can reason about”, must be interpreted, prehended – “experience drunk and experience sober, experience waking and experience sleeping…” and on goes Whitehead’s list, which each of us could doubtlessly add to. And indeed, should.
Whitehead remains significant because, like Goethe or Nietzsche he understood what he calls the “misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries” – and questions “the notion of ‘independent existence’. There is no such mode of existence; every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the Universe.” And most interestingly, Wilson remarks that “Whitehead goes on to say that ‘personal identity’ is the fusion of the World of Value with the World of Activity; in fact, the human being is a manifestation of the world of value in the world of activity”. So it would appear that we are intimately entangled with the universe and our personal identity is more of a developing process than a static construct modeled from various random bits and pieces, as suggested by Hume and his fellow travelers.
This is a relevant insight, for one dilemma we find ourselves in this particular era of the 21st century is marked by anxiety about personal identity, it’s interrelated connections and resultant power struggles. If there is “no such mode” of independent existence and every entity can only be understood in “the way it is interwoven with the rest of the Universe”, then does this not sound like the typical deterministic mantra of postmodernism? No – Whitehead remarks that our “sense experiences are superficial” and that this superficiality diversifies the “flood of self-enjoyment” into a “trickle of conscious memory and conscious anticipation”. So the fifteen minutes of learning (Bildung) which Boehme thought so important, Proust’s famous insights about memory or Dostoyevsky’s Kirilov stopping the clock in The Devils is this full self-enjoyment, this open illumination, before it is “diversified” by our superficial sense-experiences. Whitehead goes on to say – Wilson is commenting on his 1941 essay Immortality – that too much “philosophic thought is based upon the faked adequacy” of descriptions of human experience. This ‘fake’ is logical thought, abstract thought, which constantly tries to ossify lived experience into systems. Logic, Wilson says, “is meant to save time, and to give us additional freedom – but here Zarathustra’s question arises: Freedom for what? The mere logical philosopher hoards time as a miser hoards money”. Existentialism, on the other hand, is spending your money wisely and living as well as you can.
Whitehead’s philosophy is similar to Blake’s prophetic poetry and attacks many of the same targets, and Wilson remarks that Whitehead is one of the most outstanding philosophers of the twentieth century (as Bruno Latour would explicitly assert this century). Wilson also contrasts Whitehead with Wittgenstein – they share a chapter in this book – and comes to a similar conclusion which Gilles Deleuze would come to embrace in the early nineties, in that Whitehead was far greater. Wilson notes that after “admitting that the really important important things cannot be talked about”, Wittgenstein “went on talking for the rest of his life.” For Wilson this is as much to do with the “dissatisfaction and constant change” of his life, as eventful as Whitehead’s was “serene and untroubled – the ideal life for a philosopher”. Wittgenstein, for all his “machine gun” logic, hovered on the edge of mental illness and tried on endless costumes – “engineer, scientist, mathematician, schoolteacher, monk, architect, sculptor, doctor, musician, workman” – dressing in a zipped leather jacket when delivering lectures at Cambridge for extra effect. Despite his calm logic, he comes across as dramatic and restless as the teenage Rimbaud. Kierkegaard, the religious philosopher who coined the term ‘existentialism’ was “emotionally immature, no matter how mature he may have been intellectually” and despite his obvious importance, he “wasted a great deal of his time by exaggerating his personal problems out of all proportion.” Wilson would coin the term ‘existential criticism’ in the late fifties, a way of looking not just at the work – philosophy, fiction, etc. – but at the attitudes of the creator and how these affect the work. Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, despite their brilliance, seemed to be unable to escape either their inherent self consciousness or emotional immaturity, a foible shared by Bertrand Russell, as noted earlier. Religion and The Rebel was written prior the counterculture and before the first strains of postmodernism (of the deconstructive variety) in the next decade. Amongst our intellectual furniture in the 21st century is the clutter and detritus of both of those intertwined developments, neither of which, it must be said, are particularly useful anymore. Wilson would work through the Sixties more or less oblivious to the psychedelic revival of Rimbaud’s ‘systematic derangement of the senses’, and soon dismiss it as self indulgence. He had better things to do – his phenomenological ‘new’ existentialism is now far more liberating than Derrida’s attempted deconstruction of Husserl which he first presented in the mid Sixties. That became the very oppression it set out to destroy; present attitudes are infected by cynicism towards any universal meaning, denial of the uniqueness of the human subject – while remaining paradoxically self centered and egotistical, and fiercely protective of identity. Nietzsche saw all this on the horizon long before it happened, of course. Whitehead was adamant that everything is interrelated, that our sense impressions are superficial, and that logic is ‘fake’, but like Nietzsche, and indeed like Wilson, he never allowed himself to wallow in cynicism. Wilson writes that the “misery of the Barbusse type of Outsider is due to his having been trapped in that surface world of consciousness and separated from that inner love of life.” A statement as relevant in 2018 as it was in 1957.
Wilson’s second book is a tonic read in the 21st century as he stresses everything opposite to what is accepted now. This is a rebellion. Clear style (“the power of vision combined with a deceptive clarity of expression” is how Wilson describes Shaw here) rather than obscure prose (designed for “knowing and over-acute readers” according to Nietzsche, and a sure sign of a bad writer wanting admiration); concentration and focused attention over constant distraction; deep conceptual thought rather than a “surface world of consciousness”; intuition over logic (we are obsessed with data and statistics these days); an open, trusting acceptance of the truthfulness of the insights of the likes of Boehme (“crack-brained” according to Dr. Johnson) in a cynical ‘post truth’ world; the development of “a science of living” over commercially generated lifestyles and real, awkward individualism over group identities; self willed education (Bildung) over specialism handed down by bureaucratic university systems (for a large fee), this list is endless. All the elements which would make Wilson great are already here. His later notion of a faculty which would combat the ‘paradox of freedom’ is sketched out in this sentence on memory – “All sorts of other places and other times are suddenly revived.” His cutting assertion that philosophy is the imaginary distinction between intuition and logic, much developed in the next decade, is essentially the point of the book itself. And his sketches of theologians are refreshingly open minded to read by the suffocating light of today’s pseudo atheistic smugness. So Nicholas Ferrar (“It is easy to see how a Lytton Stachley – or any modern ‘debunking’ biographer – could write about the life at Little Gidding in such a way to make it seem ridiculous”), William Law (who used “a novelist’s devices” much like Pascal, in his “clean, hard-hitting prose”) and J. H. Newman (“he was the first English religious figure to be sniped at by Insiders on definite anti-Outsider grounds”) are a testament to Wilson’s use of Jaspers’ existential method, of analyzing lives for philosophical insights.
Andy Warhol suggested everyone should be famous for fifteen minutes. Now that everyone is, isn’t it fundamentally shallow and insipid? What everyone should attempt to do for fifteen minutes is what Boehme did in 1610 – learn more than you could at any university, to cease being endlessly distracted by surface values and develop your faculties and perceptions. This book, and the rest of Colin Wilson’s best work – properly understood – is a great help towards that aim. Let’s stop pretending and start prehending.