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.
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.
Gary Lachman Beyond The Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (Tarcher Perigree, 2016)
I first read Colin Wilson over thirty years ago and I was stunned. Layers and layers of recondite information (no internet, you see) poured out of the exciting, accessible prose style and the attitude was astonishing – a relentless attack on all the doom ‘n gloom that permeated everything (or so it seemed). As a teenage Lovecraft aficionado I’d read in a magazine that other writers had added to the Mythos and “perhaps the most original of these have been Colin Wilson’s Return of the Lloiger and The Mind Parasites.” I went to the local library to return a few yellow jacketed Gollancz Lovecrafts but they didn’t have either of those titles. They did have his The Outsider, but it seemed a bit imposing – Kierkegaard? I picked up the bulky volume next to it – about four times longer than anything I’d usually have the patience to read – and it was familiar. I’d actually opened the very same book around four years earlier and read “Everyone who has been in a strange town knows the easiest way to get to know it is to walk around it alone” before placing it back on the shelf. Above a drawing of the head of Michelangelo’s David in a maze or something, in big letters: Mysteries. Page 237. I was in my school uniform then. Now I was searching for a way out of the grey dreariness of council estate consciousness and all it’s attendant frustrations. Borrowing that book, I started a chain reaction and received more riches then I’d ever imagine.
Such was the random nature of finding a Wilson book last century. I began to read as many of the works he had referenced and this turned out to be the best education I ever had. I bought any Wilson title I could find – they usually stuck out due to their minimal cover designs, often in gaudy fluorescent colours – but why did he write so many books on such different subjects? A compilation entitled The Essential Colin Wilson and, later a new book about him – the first one I’d ever seen – by a retired Australian minister answered that conundrum. Eventually I’d read everything by him and have the pleasure of visiting his home to tell him just how much his work influenced me. But it is perhaps only now that I’m beginning to really understand the implications of Wilson’s investigations into consciousness and it’s perverse paradox of freedom.
My discovery of Wilson isn’t too far away from Gary Lachman’s own, as recounted in his Beyond the Robot, the first full length study since Howard F. Dossor’s pioneering summation in 1990. Wilson himself often remarked that what he was trying to say was fairly straightforward – and it was. But it can get lost in the jungle of his multi disciplined output, which is perhaps now even more confusing to a 21st Century mind obsessed with intellectual specialism.
Lachman thankfully makes this ‘single obsessional idea” (as Wilson called it) the theme of his book, which although structured as a biography is a kind of non fiction Bildungsroman as much as anything. Far too much discussion of Wilson focuses on the celebrity/rejection ‘debacle’ around his debut, cuts ‘n pastes the print out cliche of “fled to Cornwall…occult…crime…churned out…serial killers…UFO’s…once met Marylin Monroe…I’m a genius…” and avoids investigating his philosophy “at all costs” (as one desperate for revenue newspaper once idiotically put it). This is, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly pathetic and Lachman avoids dwelling on it, preferring to concentrate on the serious philosophical work which Wilson developed more or less away from the spotlight.
Wilson’s single idea sounds simple enough in theory, but it is cryptically difficult in practice (at first, anyway). Wilson is concerned with freedom – which he stresses is a certainly a reality – but, perhaps with a nod towards Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, he notes a paradox. The odd thing about human freedom is that it’s only usually visible when it’s threatened. “When the German tanks rolled into Warsaw, or the Russians into Budapest, it seemed perfectly obvious what we meant by freedom; it was something solid and definite that was being stolen, as a burglar might steal the silver.” But the absurd paradox of freedom is that consciousness without crisis tends to become negative and trivial. Pain and inconvenience can make us feel free, but comfort is generally boring after a while. Wilson would label this perversity ‘the indifference threshold’ and the amusing story of it’s genesis is in the early part of Lachman’s book. Without danger and injustice, Wilson writes, we allow “a kind of inner-laziness to descend.” Does this mean that we need to seek out stressful situations to feel more alive? Not really. The inconvenience is usually arbitrary and all it does is flex our otherwise flabby perceptual muscles (our intentionality), grasping the meaning of freedom. That meaning was already there – we do not need to induce a crisis to see it, we just need to strengthen our intentional grasp. Passive perception is the culprit here: we think things just ‘happen’ to us, but the philosopher Husserl recognized that this is false, and built a science of consciousness – phenomenology – to combat it. Wilson would write a lot about Husserl in the Sixties and his lectures on his ‘new existentialism’ would be well received in American Universities, but these ideas were out of step with the counterculture and were eclipsed by the academic celebrity surrounding Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ of Husserl around the same time. (Recent scholarship has questioned Derrida’s true knowledge of Husserl’s phenomenology, and his ideas regarding linguistic domination are essentially now a mainstream state ideology – culturally speaking, at least. It is Wilson’s new existentialist theories which are about as truly radical as it’s possible to be in the 21st Century. His firm assertions regarding development of a strong, purposive consciousness and his blunt, driven language are coming from a dangerous and exciting place, far, far away from the comfy puritanical left/right identity politics blip of our present era, and miles away from the naive positivist faith in specialism and science. But I digress).
Why is consciousness so passive? Wilson suggests the problem is ‘the robot’, a kind of SF metaphor (probably derived from the Gurdjieff work, which Lachman cannily notes, Wilson was the first ‘outsider’ to report on) akin to Blake’s poetic notion of the Spectre. The robot is a kind of automatic servant buried amongst our faculties; it is the robot who drives our car once we’ve gone through the painstaking lessons of clutch control and reverse parking. They eventually become automatic so we can concentrate on other things thanks to our dependable helper. (This concept will doubtless become more apparent with the rise of automation in the near future). However this robot is a little over zealous; it often robs us of the quality of novelty or newness in the things we enjoy doing – it interferes with the freshness of things too often. “Making things typical is the robot’s job” writes Lachman. We have “allowed it to overstep it’s duties and have become to dependent on it”. But only because of our passive acceptance that “life is something that happens to us, rather than something we do.” Wilson would search for examples of this active doing consciousness and find it in everything from philosophy, literature, mysticism, science and even negative examples of it in (amongst other things) criminal cases and scandals. Lachman can clearly see the thread through all this and is keen to point out it’s continuity, rather than fall into the trap of regarding Wilson as a dilettante rambling from subject to subject.
True poetic (or aesthetic) illumination is the opposite of robotic consciousness – it’s freshness can be felt in all the early Romantics Wilson documented and dissected. Wilson’s robot (or ‘mind parasite’, in his fiction) is loosely based on Blake’s Spectre (“the reasoning power in man”) and another poetic idea would emerge out of the “new conceptology” of Wilson’s mid sixties phenomenological investigations. Blake regarded the ‘poetic genius’ as the true (non mechanical or robotic) person, and the “true faculty of knowing”, as a fully switched on state of non forgetful perception. “This faculty I treat of” wrote Blake. So would Wilson with his sharp and surprising turn into ‘occultism’ – at least that’s how the critics would see it as they welcomed him back into the fold in 1971. In reality his concept of ‘Faculty X’ – another slightly ironic science fictive label (snappier than the “phenomenological faculty”) – had easily been around since the Fifties. This faculty, Lachman remarks, had “preoccupied Wilson throughout his career” but it was not until 1971 that he gave it a name. Development of this faculty would preoccupy Wilson until the end, and he’d state and restate it over and over again, hedgehog style. Lachman notes interesting overlap here not just with Husserl but also with Whitehead. Faculty X is the antidote to the indifference threshold, or the “law of entropy in prehension” as Wilson described it in 1965, and Lachman understands it from both a theoretical and personal level, as opposed to writing it off as a piece of cranky gullibility.
Throughout the seventies and eighties Wilson would weave this phenomenological thread into work during the revival of interest in parapsychology and fringe Forteanisms, in the booming true crime genre (which he virtually invented), and on everything from alcohol to psychology to sexual deviancy, with many straight and parodic (“Brechtian”) works of fiction; not to mention the mountains of book reviews, introductions, lectures and TV appearances. A particular recommendation of Beyond the Robot is that Lachman pieces together shards of scattered information from minor works which only existed in tiny print runs – now rarities, or unobtainable – as well as core insights from the likes of Wilson’s 1966 masterpiece Introduction to the New Existentialism, (out of print since 1980), which gives a cohesion, a bird’s eye view to the existential jigsaw puzzle which too much writing on Wilson lacks. Like the ‘light detection and ranging’ technology which archeologists now use to find hidden cities under dense jungles, Lachman, like Dossor before him, maps out the alignments otherwise hidden by the debris of six decades of critical apathy and misunderstanding.
Lachman continues scanning into the nineties, where Wilson scholarship really picked up on the grassroots underground. I discovered the Wilson fanzine Abraxas from a notice in the back of his short Ouspensky study in 1993, and I took full advantage of the book signing offer. My copy of the Celebration collection has a verse of Peter Hammill’s song Faculty X in Wilson’s familiar handwriting, and Voyage to a Beginning was signed by “Lord Leicester” – who believed that human beings were grandfather clocks driven by watch springs somewhere in The Mind Parasites. I met Wilson bibliographer Colin Stanley and was so impressed at his collection of Wilson material – now housed in the University of Nottingham – that I started collecting first editions myself. Stanley continues to run the “aptly named” Paupers’ Press, a cottage industry publishing concern specializing in, but not exclusively, Wilson and his work.
All this was happening well under the radar of the critical establishment who continued to treat Wilson much as they had in 1957, and sometimes worse. He would put the record straight with his late work The Angry Years, and beautifully sum up his thoughts on the kind of super-consciousness which had preoccupied him for so long in a book of that title. The latter work was originally written for the Japanese market, where Wilson remained critically respected enough to lecture to huge audiences in 1986; back in the seventies he had been invited to lecture in Iran – his books were cult reading in the Middle East, and the red carpet had been rolled out for his arrival in Beirut in 1973. The huge sequel to The Space Vampires he had recently written was rejected by every British publisher (too long), but released in Russian (although according to Lachman, he received no royalties). His later work on lost civilizations was enthusiastically quoted – twice – by none other than cultural Marxist Slavoj Zizek. I wonder what the ‘dreadful’ Terry Eagleton made of that?
Despite the efforts of Abraxas and Paupers’ Press, despite the thoughtful nods from cultural figures like filmmaker Nic Roeg or musicians such as Julian Cope, it was only really the “brainless” British critical establishment who regarded Wilson as a joke. Typically, Beyond The Robot is written by an American ex-pat and seems to be only published in the USA. “It is depressing” wrote a Samuel Beckett devotee with little awareness of irony, “how seriously Wilson is taken in America.” In a new introduction to a 1991 edition of his Beyond the Outsider (published in New York), Wilson described England in the nineties as “the cultural wasteland that it has been since the end of the Second World War.” Britain’s premier intellectual superstar in the 21st century? Dawkins, the Billy Graham of atheism. One example (from multitudes) of Nietzsche’s Letzter Mensch…
When Wilson was once asked what he wanted to remembered for, he said for his novels and his central philosophical ideas. That’s possibly what will happen.
I received notice of Colin’s passing in an email on my iPhone in the works canteen one evening in late 2013 (shift work, 2 – 10). He’d been ill for quite a while and a few years before he’d told me from his chair at Tetherdown that “you can really feel it catching up with you.” The mainstream UK obituaries were lousy apart from one single example of insight in The Independent. In life as in death, they were totally unaware of his existential insights into the paradox of freedom and giggled behind their hands over a critical pratfall from a previous century. Great minds.
A few years before I had attended an exhibition featuring selections from the Colin Wilson archive, housed in the University of Nottingham (ironically, next to the DH Lawrence collection). There were scores of fascinating items and it was marvelous to meet old friends and make new ones. Colin was unable to attend but a festschrift of appreciative essays was collected and presented to him for his 80th birthday. This exhibition represented, to me, the start of a new era: all the hard slog and sweat of Wilson and his scholars will be easily mined by future academics. I’ll give it, oh, maybe a few decades before the critical recanting begins in earnest – what could be more self satisfying than a huge catalogue of work, popular but controversial, with tendrils reaching into a myriad of other disciplines and connections extending into the last blast of literary modernism, all forensically analyzed from a safe distance? Lachman has said in interviews that this is of course inevitable, as academic study of the humanities always runs out of things to say because it doesn’t generate it’s own content. But he was also wise enough to point out that that’s not really the important thing. The important thing is to cultivate the faculty Wilson wrote about, into a revolutionary state of perceptual and aesthetic awareness. The important thing is to get beyond the robot.
There’s barely anything in this book that hard core readers like myself won’t already know – can we have access to those phenomenological journals, please, though? – but of course the point of Beyond The Robot is to introduce new readers to a holistic picture of Wilson and his lifetime of ideas; in this it succeeds by crushing mountains of disparate information in between two covers. It grapples with possibilities regarding Wilson’s future influence. In a talk promoting this book Lachman ironically remarked that if we can go from wishing to publicly hang Aleister Crowley on a gallows to actually hanging Leon Engers Kennedy’s portrait of him in the National Gallery in a fairly short space of time, why can’t we rehabilitate Wilson? Now that Crowley has gone from being dangerous – I can remember the sense of discomfort just buying his books as recently as the Eighties – to absorption in the mainstream, where he has become just another meme, I can see a sort of parallel. Crowley’s legacy was kept alive by a tiny band of devotees after his death, remained buoyant by the counterculture, and he has ended up becoming somewhat respectable and the subject of academic studies. So is Colin Stanley our own Gerald Yorke? Yes and no. Colin Wilson could seem to be occupying the hinterland where Crowley was between 1947 and Sgt. Pepper, with a devoted following battling the revulsion of the establishment, but there are differences. Wilson avoided the trap of guru – he wrote a book critiquing the entire ‘charlatan messiah’ syndrome – and his open minded, generous accessibility, his offering of suggestions rather than rules or exercises means it’s unlikely that his readers can never end up like Crowley’s ironically non individualistic followers, with their catchphrases and identikit views. Some of us call each other “Wilsonians” but we don’t really mean it. And let’s not forget that despite the critical sniping, Wilson was always a popular author, much, much more widely read that somebody like The Great Beast, whose books are rumpled and fetishized by collectors and devotees rather than read by the public (Crowley’s best book, The Confessions, did sell quite a few in a paperback edition in 1989 though).
Lachman notes that when he first moved to London and began speaking about his interest in Wilson and the sum of his work he was surprised by the skepticism in ‘alternative’ circles, compared to those in the US – “the general impression I got was that he had written too much about too many things and had been repeating himself for years.” This specialism is endemic not just in esoterica but in other research like Ripperology (a term Wilson invented) and pretty much everything else which he wrote about. Wilson is thought of as a none too competent fox but only by those who cannot see the hedgehog for the spikes. Again, it doesn’t matter. Wilson remains a true oppositional, perhaps one of the last of his kind, and his attitude and ideas towards consciousness and its manifestations run counter to everything we see around us at the beginning of the 21st Century. That in itself is reason to celebrate him. I’ve no doubt that Wilson’s ‘new conceptolgy’, his solution to the paradox of freedom, will eventually begin to generate new and surprising revelations in an manner unexpected even by his readers.
The second volume of Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’, Religion and the Rebel, will be reprinted by Aristeia Press after several decades of unavailability. Unnecessarily dismissed during it’s original publication some six decades ago, it remains something of a hidden gem in the Wilson canon – I vividly recall finding a first Gollancz edition in the late Eighties and was completely dazzled by it. You can get it here