“So crime is not [….] some kind of horrible legacy of our cave-man ancestry. It is an attempt to compensate for the narrowed awareness produced by split-brain differentiation; and, in that sense, it springs from the same source as human creativity. Shakespeare said that the lunatic, the lover and the poet ‘are of imagination all compact’; he could have added the criminal to the list.” (A Criminal History of Mankind p. 664)

“It is a banquet – for those with that kind of appetite – of perversion and atrocity” wrote Kenneth Allsop about the Encyclopedia of Murder in 1961. Of all the subjects Wilson wrote about, crime was the most controversial, and rightly so. Naive readers see an interest in crime as voyeuristic morbidity, but for Wilson studying murder is a forensic method which demonstrates exactly what is wrong with human consciousness. As humans developed rational, left brain consciousness which enabled them to build modern civilization, they were also turning into ruthless egotists. In A Criminal History of Mankind, we see the development of human ingenuity and genius running on a parallel track with shocking selfishness and acts of cruelty. Writing in an updated version of that work, Wilson maintained that “the most powerful human appetite is a craving for meaning, and if this is denied, it may turn sour and violent.” 

Wilson was clear headed and analytical enough to see that crime isn’t “irrational” – in fact, it is an outcome – a waste product – of rational development itself. It is also strongly determined by identity. He remarks that the “self-image is necessary to all effecient action.” The philosopher Fitche noted that no amount of armchair thinking can make the Cartesian subject as free as actual doing. Aleister Crowley referenced Fitche’s insight when writing commentaries on his Law of θέλημα, hence “Do what Thou Wilt.” [1] Husserl demonstrated that consciousness itself is active. Experiments on the projection of the self image – some successful, some not – are discussed by Wilson in The Craft of the Novel (1975). More concerned with the creation of a strong fictional self image than with the embroidery or style of a text, Wilson would choose Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus as a powerful illustration of Nietzsche’s will to power (“the key to human psychology.”) A blurry self image “is synonymous with feeling weak and passive.” This problem (and a solution) was described in a short story by Machado de Assis entitled The Looking Glass. The self image problem has a large bearing on criminal behaviour. Inadequate personalities, “deficient in energy and foresight” are likely to commit petty crimes – a short cut such as theft. Highly dominant personalities, although equally aware of a partial self image, are committing crimes because this action confers a sense of purpose. Blaming the self image problem on other people – after all, as Machado’s story demonstrates, our image is dependent on other people – the dominant criminal has a feeling “of behaving logically, of inflicting punishment on a society that deserves it.” Wilson called this type of criminal “assassins” – they are criminals “whose motive is frustration of the will-drive.” 

When he groups Brady, Manson, van Zon, Dean Corll and Ted Bundy with other “irrationals” such as Billy Graham, Wilhelm Reich, L. Ron Hubbard and Meher Baba, “the occult revival and the search for messiahs and gurus and fuhrers” he is merely describing negative and positive manifestations of the same drive. 

Wilson regards Schiller’s drama The Robbers (1781) as particularly formative influence on this will-drive. “It’s mad dialectic of freedom inspired generations of visionaries, dreamers and revolutionaries.” (Nietzsche once quoted a German military man – “If God could have foreseen The Robbers he would not have created the world.”) Two centuries later, “a baffled Los Angeles jury would hear Karl Moor’s arguments from Charles Manson [and] they have been echoed by every type of political activist, from the Russian anarchists if the 1890’s to the Symbionese Liberation Army”.

In his Origins of the Sexual Impulse (1963), discussing “the Husserl-Brentano picture of the world” where the mind “imposes shapes on the ‘things perceived'” – Wilson writes that although we naively think of ourselves as “merely ‘receiving’ impressions and perceptions from ‘out there’; we think of ourselves, in a sense, as the ‘victims’ of things that happen to us.” This is what Husserl called The Natural Standpoint, and the key word here is victims. Wilson goes on to say that we “tend to think of reality as a bully, constantly imposing itself on us.” But Brentano and Husserl have gone a long way to show us that the reverse is true: “it is our minds that are the bullies. Impressions and sensations present themselves to us timidly; our unconscious minds promptly form them into ranks, and batter them into some kind of order, so that they are presentable for inspection by the conscious mind. The conscious mind imagines that these smart recruits were always orderly and disciplined; it knows nothing of the work that went on before it’s inspection.” 

So if we think it is ‘natural’ to be victims of reality, “things that just happen to us”, it is not particularly surprising that the criminal is someone who takes the path of least resistance into total self indulgence and negation. 

Crime can be understood as one particularly dramatic outcome of our habit of turning complexities into symbols (phenomenology). The criminal does not see his victim as a real person but as an object to be moved out of the way. Also, it should be remembered that according to Husserl, consciousness is prejudiced; a root cause of prejudice in human beings, and by extension, society. So the origin of rationality is the enabler of criminality. A good illustration of this lack of reality would the case of the philosopher Louis Althusser. The author of such page-turners as Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation, strangled his wife in 1980. His plea of insanity was not only an abdication of his responsibility, but a typical ‘post everything’ denial of his own subjectivity.

This sense of helpless unreality is not merely held by criminals and post-stucturalists. It is a problem with human perception, what Sartre calls “magical thinking” in his early book A Sketch of a Theory of the Emotions. Stranded in the mechanistic left brain – which Wilson compares to being hypnotized – violence is like the clicking of the hypnotist’s fingers. This is why the poet Rupert Brooke welcomed the First World War. Wilson once told an interviewer: “All of these things that interest me like crime and so on, interest me for that reason. That once you start to read about some particularly nasty crime, it does have this kind of shock effect on the emotions, which make you aware of it as a reality.” In A Casebook of Murder Wilson writes that “murder interests me because it is the most extreme form of the denial of human potentiality. Life-devaluation has become a commonplace of our century. We talk glibly about social disintegration, about our moral bankruptcy, about the depth of our sense of defeat, and existentialist philosophers have been the chief exponents of this type of pessimism…We can accept boredom and philosophical pessimism as somehow inevitable, like the weather; but we cannot take this casual attitude towards murder…Our interest in murder is a form of stirring in our sleep.” (pp. 22/23). It was whilst writing the above that Wilson noticed a parallel between types of criminal acts in history and Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs‘, the ladder which consists of five rungs: food, shelter, love, esteem and self-actualisation. Until the first part of the nineteenth century, most crimes were committed simply out of starvation, but with the industrial revolution, we see crimes of security in domestic middle class settings. Wilson remarks that “Daniel Defoe died in the age of Dick Turpin; Karl Marx in the age of Jack the Ripper.” With the Ripper murders at the end of the century, sex crime emerges: “The Ripper is the first in a long line of ‘maniac’ killers that extends down to Heath and Glatman, and that still throws up appalling examples such as Dean Corll, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy.” (A Criminal History of Mankind, p15). But even after this there is another level of crime, the self-esteem crime. Order of Assassins documents this type of crime, tracing a line from the notorious assassins of Persia and the Thugs of India through to modern terrorists and thrillkill cultists such as Charles Manson. This type of violence is all too familiar to us today, with self esteem or wounded pride the motive for mass carnage. Wilson was clearly ahead of his time with Order of Assassins. [2]

Crime is then, a completely mistaken solution to a problem that accompanies all of us from the cradle to the grave […] But then as we have seen… most human solutions tend to be mistaken – from the paradise of the religious fanatic to the simplistic materialism of the Marxist. The criminal simply goes farther than most of us in embracing the wrong solution; and, in doing so, provides the rest of us with a flash of insight into our own stupidity… (A Criminal History of Mankind p. 665)

Maslow’s final stage is self-actualisation, the creative level. This emerges after the other four levels have been successfully completed, but “Manson was a self-actualiser whose progress was blocked on every level.” Spending most of his formative years in prison, he was a frustrated rock star who thought he should be as famous as The Beatles or Bob Dylan but had “no capacity for inner – direction, for working alone.” (Order of Assassins, p. 188/9). Wilson maintained that artists rarely commit serious crimes – in Serial Killer Investigations he rules out Patricia Cornwell’s theory that painter Walter Sickert was Jack The Ripper. “This kind of murder is an explosion of frustration – this is why we so often say that a killer is a ‘walking time bomb’. No artist or creative person is likely to experience this degree of mental stress and frustration. In fact, I have pointed out in A Criminal History of Mankind that no creative artist has ever committed a murder. A few have killed in the course of quarrels or duels, such as Ben Jonson and Caravaggio, or to revenge honour, like the composer Gesualdo, but never a premeditated crime of violence.” (p.282). In Order of Assassins he notes the violent streak in expressionism, particularly Edvard Munch’s work. He could have mentioned the Viennese ‘Actionist’ (performance artist) Otto Muehl whose works broke so many taboos that he was charged with sex crimes and imprisoned in 1991. “The assassin is a man for whom murder is not only an ultimate purpose, but also a means to self-fulfilment, a creative act. This sounds paradoxical: the notion of destructiveness as a creative act. But creation itself has an element of destruction, a welling up of violence.” (ibid, p.1). The philosopher Alain Badiou calls this paradox La passion du réel – the passion of the real: “That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life.” [2]
This “passion du réel” is completely the wrong solution to the problem – see Chapter Three of The New Existentialism where Wilson notes that “This (changing viewpoint of the child) may explain why most of us can never quite outgrow a certain pleasure in destruction; it remains associated with freedom.” Books such as Origins of the Sexual Impulse and Criminal History etc. undo Badiou’s theory. As for the ‘morbid’ interest in crime that appalled Mr. Allsop: “Our response to a murder – and to crime in general – proves that we possess a sense of values that lies deeper than everyday consciousness – a feeling that life is not here to be wasted.” (ibid. p 168). It is this stirring in our sleep rather than some kind of misplaced romantic notion of the “master criminal” that makes studying crime worthwhile. “It might be objected that many people are interested in murder because they feel a curious and ambiguous form of admiration for the murderer. This is true, but it is a question of inauthentic imagination; the murderer is vaguely identified with the rebel, the adventurer. Synge, in Playboy of the Western World, shows what happens when such inauthentic imagination is confronted with the ‘real thing’; it recoils with horror, recognising that murder is the outcome of brutality and stupidity, not of creative rebellion.” (ibid. p. 169)

The Cyclops of Culture. — When we behold those deeply-furrowed hollows in which glaciers have lain, we think it hardly possible that a time will come when a wooded, grassy valley, watered by streams, will spread itself out upon the same spot. So it is, too, in the history of mankind: the most savage forces beat a path, and are mainly destructive; but their work was nonetheless necessary, in order that later a gentler civilization might raise its house. The frightful energies—those which are called evil – are the cyclopean architects and road-makers of humanity. (Nietzsche, Human, All To Human)

Crime is a childish tantrum against the complexity of the world. “Everyday consciousness is a liar.” And, in extreme cases, a criminal. Wilson notes in case after case the sheer wasteful triviality of ‘life-devaluation’, and the sad legacy of the shrinking of our faculties. But the very existence of studies such as the classic A Criminal History of Mankind document a nightmare from which we will eventually awaken. As early as 1956 Wilson noted “What is the worst form of Ultimate No? We have mentioned some appalling examples: Hiroshima, the Armenian massacre – and there are pages in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom that are terrible enough to put a sensitive person off his dinner. But after all, they are not ultimate forms of evil; they are old stuff, quite familiar in history. […] No, these evils are oppressive, but they do not hang over us with a sense of being inescapable.” (The Outsider, p. 148)
The criminal is “the distorted reflection of the human face”, the “collective nightmare of mankind”. So “’criminal man’ has no real, independent existence. He is a kind of shadow, a Spectre of the Brocken, an illusion.” This insight “is in itself a cause for optimism. As Novalis says: When we dream that we dream, we are beginning to awaken.” (A Criminal History of Mankind, p. 670).


In New Pathways in Psychology, (p. 198) Wilson draws up a list of Maslow’s holistic model of the individual and society.

“(1) Neurosis may be regarded as the blockage of the channels of self-actualisation.
(2) A synergic society – one in which all individuals may reach a high level of self-satisfaction, without restricting anybody else’s freedom – should evolve naturally from our present social system.
(3) Business efficiency and the recognition of ‘higher ceilings of human nature’ are not incompatible; on the contrary, the highest levels of efficiency can only be obtained by taking full account of the need for self-actualisation that is present in every human being.”

Notes – 

[1] Aleister Crowley, Magical and Philosophical Commentaries on The Book of the Law, Ed. Symonds and Grant, 93 Publishing, 1974, p. 128; and also discussed in Wilson’s Nature of the Beast, p. 165 

[2] This essay makes a link between these concepts, The Outsider and the 7/7 London bombings

[3] Slavoj Zizek quoting Badiou in a interview I can’t find the link for. It was pretty boring anyway…

Further reading:

Wilson’s Crime trilogy :
The Encyclopedia of Murder. (Arthur Barker, 1961, Pan, 1966, reprinted 1984)
A Casebook of Murder. (Leslie Frewin, 1969, Mayflower, 1971)
Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder. (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1972, Panther, 1975)


Encyclopedia of Modern Murder 1962-82. (Arthur Barker, 1983, Pan 1986)
A Criminal History of Mankind. (Granada, 1984, revised and expanded: Mercury Books, 2005)
Jack-The-Ripper: Summing Up and Verdict [with Robin Odell] (Bantam, 1987, Corgi, 1988)
True Crime [2 volumes] (Robinson, 1988/1990)
Written in Blood: A History of Forensic Detection. (Equation, 1989, Grafton, 1990)
The Serial Killers. (W.H. Allen, 1990, True Crime, 1992, revised ed. 1997)
A Plague of Murder. (Robinson Publishing, 1995)
The Gates of Janus. Wilson wrote the introduction to Brady’s confrontational text. (Feral House, 2001)
The Corpse Garden. (True Crime Library, 1998, Pan Macmillan, 2003)
The Devil’s Party. (Virgin Publishing Ltd. , 2000, same, paper, 2001)
Illustrated True Crime: A Photographic History. (Robinson, 2002)
Crimes of Passion: The Thin Line Between Love and Hate. (Carlton, 2006)
Serial Killer Investigations. (Summersdale, 2008)

An End to Murder (posthumously published with Damon Wilson, Robinson, 2015) 

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