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.
(With thanks to Aristeia Press.)