It is a banquet – for those with that kind of appetite – of perversion and atrocity” wrote critic Kenneth Allsop about the Encyclopaedia of Murder in 1961. When Wilson co-authored this compendium with Patricia Pitman, the true crime genre was virtually nonexistent; their work was the first in depth catalogue of criminal cases accessible to the general public since The Newgate Calendar in the eighteenth century. Unlike that work however, the Encyclopaedia attempted to analyse criminal cases philosophically. “Can one learn anything from the study of murder?” asks Wilson in his introduction. In the era of The Newgate Calendar, crime was essentially a moral issue; by the twentieth century, it was analysed via psychology or sociology. For Wilson, crime is “raw material” which helps us understand our existential dilemmas, how much we value life. Dostoyevsky understood such absolute values. His character Raskolnikov, the murderer from Crime and Punishment, thinks that living on a narrow ledge surrounded by raging tempests for eternity is preferable to dying immediately (this is analysed in Wilson’s earlier book, The Outsider). “It is precisely this this knowledge of the value of life that the murderer lacks” Wilson writes. But we all lack this knowledge, this total value. “Only a few saints and mystics break though the hedge of daily trivialities to some partial awareness of the reality. Murder is a manifestation of the universal  failure of values”. And so, Wilson continues, the Encyclopaedia of Murder “has for the existentialist the same kind of message that the lives of the saints have for the devout Christian”. A banquet of Existential values, essentially.

Existentialism attempts to evaluate human existence ‘without appeal’ to theological scripture or supernatural authority. It’s field of study, Wilson says, is everyday existence, including what Heidegger labelled ‘the triviality of everydayness’ – dramatised throughout the Encyclopaedia and subsequent volumes by descriptions of motiveless crimes, crimes of boredom. Existentialism “finds a washerwoman’s quarrel with her husband as interesting as Kant’s speculations about time and space,. It could be defined as the method of the scientist applied to the material of the novelist”. The strange effect of reading about these crimes, written in a blankly descriptive style, is how their horrifying details throw our sense of freedom into stark relief – we are glad to be uninvolved in such  brutish triviality, relieved to be alive – despite our usual ambivalence towards ‘life’, an attitude summed up by Sartre’s mantra that “man is a useless passion”.  It is apt, therefore, that Wilson included a discarded fragment from his debut at the end of the lengthy A – Z of cases which make up the bulk of the Encyclopaedia as The Outsider examined this very question. The fragment, The Faust Outsider, speaks of Peter Kürten (the ‘Vampire of Düsseldorf’) a criminal whose horrific acts still disturb almost a century later. Kürten, Wilson insists, was attempting “to stimulate a faculty that could not be stimulated otherwise”. But how could Kürten’s appaling activities – which are too gruesome to repeat, even now – be attempts to stimulate any type of ‘faculty’?

Influenced by the philosopher Edmund Husserl and his methods of investigating the intentionality of conscious acts (phenomenology) Wilson describes this as the “form-imposing element of consciousness”, a powerful drive which is mostly hidden from our everyday selves. “We tend to think” writes Wilson in the Encyclopaedia, “of the world as governed by laws which impose a form on our perceptions; and because the act of choice remains unconscious, we are unaware of the choice that governs the form under which the perceptions present themselves”. This phenomenological insight into the intentionality of consciousness was the foundation of Wilson’s ‘new existentialist’ work of his ‘Outsider’ series which ran to seven volumes from 1956 to 1966. In the fifth volume he states that by analysing intentionality we realise that we are much less passive than we suppose, and “in attempting to discover laws it is not unlikely that we shall discover the we are the makers of the laws”. By presenting a collection of murder cases “as a series of exhibits in a lecture on the meaning of existentialism” as Wilson and Pitman did in the Encyclopaedia. the choice of how life can be valued is presented in starkly visceral terms. What is the ultimate value of human life to a murderer? You could get an answer in precise physical terms, says Wilson – “ten pounds, a snub, my wife’s infidelity, a broken engagement etc”. And the cases in the Encyclopaedia demonstrate this time and time again, in a way that the abstract language of philosophy cannot quite manage. Studying crime enables to understand the attitude of ‘life rejection’ as a miscalculation, a misunderstanding of the potentionalties of our ‘phenomenological’ consciousness. Intentional consciousness cuts out huge amounts of perceptional data, helping us to concentrate on details, but the sharp focus of this selectivity makes our conscious picture of the world very narrow. This narrowness can become claustrophobic – Beckett’s plays are perfect example of this state – and eventually dangerous. Wilson later notes how the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft compensated for the dreary frustration of his everyday existence in Providence by inventing the Cthulhu Mythos, a universe full of terrible monsters inimical to human life. Like Kürten‘s fantasies which involved blowing up cities with dynamite, Lovecraft’s horror tales aim to shock – Wilson points out that Lovecraft always chose the context of the horror story (rather than the science fiction he was later writing) “because the horror story expresses aggressions, and science fiction doesn’t”. Lovecraft detested modern civilisation, and his fantasy world was a powerful and influential illustration of that rejection – Wilson describes his work as “curdled romanticism”. This is analysed in Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder (1972) where reduced consciousness is like a suffocating, stuffy room and violent acts, supported by the imagination, are a brutal and clumsy attempt to break open the doors of perception. “If man is deprived of meanings beyond his everyday routine, he becomes disgusted and bitter, and eventually violent. A society that provides no outlet for man’s idealist passions is asking to be torn apart by violence”. It is almost as if we exist in a semi-hypnotised state and violence is the clicking of the hypnotist’s fingers.

Murder is the denial of human potentiality in it’s most extreme form, says Wilson in A Casebook of Murder (1969). Yet this is why he wrote about it: ironically, studying murder cases can make us feel strangely optimistic as it is life devaluation in a very real and stark form. Reading about the sheer wasteful triviality of these crimes jars us into an appreciation of our own lives, they make us appreciate what we already have – a central point of Wilson’s philosophical stance. ‘We can accept boredom and pessimism as somehow inevitable, like the weather; but we cannot take this casual attitude towards murder.” A murder arouses a “sick curiosity” because “we instinctively recognise it as a denial of [our] secret potentialities of freedom. Our interest in murder is a form of stirring in our sleep”. Wilson considered these three books as a “tentative contribution to a subject that does not exist as a definite entity, a science that has not yet taken shape”. Rather like Frazer’s investigations into the history of miseltoe which became The Golden Bough and then the discipline of anthropology, Wilson wanted to study crime in relation to human freedom and intentional consciousness – he would also define Husserl’s phenomenology as a ‘science of consciousness’. Like Raskolnikov’s preference to living on a narrow ledge forever, a murder “confronts us with this act of decision about the value of life more directly than most human acts”. Of course, every minute of existence is as valuable, but we rarely understand this unless faced with a crisis of some sort (Wilson called this paradox ‘the indifference threshold’, where inconvenience or disaster make us more aware of freedom than we usually are with our social freedoms). ‘To a reader with deep enough perceptions” Wilson writes, “James Joyce’s Ulysses would serve as well as a book on murder to illustrate the act of human choice”. Joyce’s detailed description of a single day is certainly excellent material for this ‘science’, but until then, Wilson thought the Encyclopaedia of Murder as a “nursery textbook of existentialism”. The sequel, A Casebook of Murder, documented the pattern of crimes from the seventeenth century onwards. A study of another aspect of crime which Wilson calls “murder by conviction” was too long to be included, and formed the basis of a third, Order of Assassins, which took in the thugs of India, the Old Man of the Mountains (Hassan bin Saba) and murder as a political weapon, with contemporary horrors such as the Moors Murderers and the Manson killings. These three books laid the groundwork for Wilson’s future investigations into the dark side of humanity, culminating in his masterpiece in the field, the immense A Criminal History of Mankind (1984).

The third chapter in the first section of Wilson’s summation of his ‘Outsider Cycle’, Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966) is titled ‘The Meaning of Husserl’s Revolution’. We are born into a world we take for granted, he begins. We derive our ideas about ourselves from how other people see us, and therefore our early years are a series of surprises as we often see things we take for granted from the differing points of view of other people. Every time this happens, we experience a shock of freedom; this may explain, Wilson continues, “why most of us can never quite outgrow a certain pleasure in destruction; it remains associated with freedom”. Husserl’s method was revolutionary because it demonstrated just how impacted our selective prejudices are – even something as impersonal as science leaves these deep layers untouched. Phenomenology is a science of consciousness which attacks this deep strata, like an archeological dig. We all suffer from what Wilson calls the ‘passive fallacy’ which takes consciousness as a given – “that as things are, so they must remain” – and the criminal suffers from this malady more than most. Criminals never quite outgrow this association of freedom with destruction, but then again, neither do many artists or writers (Lovecraft is just one example: his letters document his violent loathing of modernity). Crime is not “some kind of horrible legacy of our caveman ancestry” says Wilson. Rather, it is an attempt to compensate for the narrowed awareness of our present consciousness, which Wilson would also examine through his new existentialist work and in his investigations into mysticism. Out of this he would develop the idea that consciousness is a kind of organ which can grasp reality, like a tentacle or a hand, but only when it’s intentional grip is firm, when the muscles are fully fiexed. Usually these underworked muscles cannot ‘clench’ and reality remains somewhat second hand, although a powerful stimulus or a crisis can appear to focus our mind to form into a fist (the indifference threshold). In fact, the stimulus can be completely arbitrary – it is the intentional grasp around the object of attention, not the object or stimulus itself which is doing the work. Criminals, in their efforts to feel ‘more alive’ via acts of repeated (and escalating) violence are doomed to a vicious circle.

“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”. This mistaken solution can manifest itself in everything from embarrassing scandals to horrific murder sprees and genocide, but the underlying problem is what William James described as ‘a certain blindness in human beings’. In the case of scandals, Wilson says, this is “not so much blindness as a kind of astigmatism”, an indulgence in childish egotism which, when exposed, reveal a split between the public and private image of an individual (the philandering or petty cheating of intellectuals such Bertrand Russell, Professor Joad and Albert Camus are typical contrasts: this difference between the mask of the outer personality and the opposed inner self are analysed in Wilson’s book on ‘charlatan messiahs’, The Devil’s Party). The petty criminal takes this indulgence further, and the murderer and despot even further still; this is discussed in Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind with the broad sweep of evolution and history as an illustration. Wilson dissected scandalous behaviour and analysed war and genocide historically, but individual murder cases illustrate ‘a certain blindness in human beings’ very accurately – studying such cases is a method which demonstrate the problems within human consciousness with a forensic precision. As Wilson pointed out in Beyond the Outsider, we are all disabled by a perceptual ‘lop-sidedness’ due to our exaggerated faculty of ‘immediacy perception’ (selecting small details) which causes the faculty of ‘meaning perception’ (i.e. of broader meanings – the terms are Wilson’s interpretation of Whitehead) to be almost atrophied most of the time. This domination of rationality has been enormously successful in terms of evolution, for the remarkable development science and the invention of technologies, but it comes with a hefty price – existential despair at ‘meaninglessness’ and a consciousness which becomes so narrow and claustrophobic that criminals think an explosion of violence can ‘free’ them (Nietzsche’s freedom from rather than freedom for).

Some criminals, like Carl Panzram or Ian Brady, chose to commit crimes which they erroneously believed would illustrate this ‘meaninglessness’ and in Brady’s case attempt to push it as a philosophy (Wilson wrote an introduction to Brady’s document The Gates of Janus; Panzram also wrote a memoir). But this acceptance of meaningless is in the air we breathe. Wilson’s biographer Gary Lachman quotes the physicist Steven Weinberg who says “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”. Beckett and Lovecraft thought the universe devoid of meaning and Sartre thought it meaningless that we live and meaningless that we die. Panzram, who declared that he hated the entire human race during his trial, said in a letter that it had taken him a lifetime to acquire his ‘habits’ “and I believe it would take me more than another lifetime to break myself of these same habits if I wanted to”. He had, Wilson notes, “achieved complete self-alienation”. He chose to be out of control but tried to place the blame on society; Nietzsche termed this ressentiment and Sartre called itbad faith’. The Russian murder Vassili Merkhouloff, who committed suicide in his prison cell by strangling himself with his own chains, was “obsessed with the thought that if life could be taken away so easily [after his first murder], then human existence must be meaningless.” We can accept that the universe is meaningless from a safely abstract distance, via a physicist or a Nobel laureate, but not from acting criminals like Panzram or Merkhouloff. The nauseating  reality of their actions demonstrates that ‘meaninglessness’ is a fallacy, and with brutal effect. Confronted with this very real nihilism, the mind recoils in horror and disgust. Intellectual nihilism is a habit – the kind of habit which Panzram feebly admitted he could not break – and an inability to discard such an attitude signifies immaturity and self indulgence rather than ‘depth’ (Nietzsche scoffed at Schopenhauer’s academic pose of nihilism and Wilson called it “a nineteenth century bad habit”). 

Crime can be understood as one particularly dramatic outcome of our deep habit of turning complexities into symbols: the criminal mentality reduces other people to mere objects. It should be remembered that according to Husserl, consciousness is prejudiced; a root cause of prejudice in human beings, and by extension, society. But Wilson insisted when discussing Husserl’s methods of phenomenology, that by analysing this ‘prejudice’ we would no longer think of ourselves as victims of reality. With even a rudimentary understanding of this technique, it is difficult to take the indulgence of ‘meaninglessness’ very seriously. In his early book A Sketch of a Theory of the Emotions, Sartre spoke of ‘magical thinking’, a kind of self deception where you allow an emotion (or desire) to convince you of something even though your reason knows it to be untrue; Sartre provides an example of someone fainting when they are going to be attacked, a purely physical reaction. Wilson points to a term invented by the science fiction writer A.E. van Vogt – the ‘violent male’ or ‘right man’ – to describe ‘mauvaise foi’ (self deception) or magical thinking. The right man (or woman – Wilson gives examples) cannot be wrong. He or she lives in a fantasy world of power, but at the slightest glimpse of reality, they crack, go insane or even commit suicide. Obsessed by their self-esteem, and paranoid about losing face, the right man is usually an idealist, ironically enough, who lives in his or her own mental world and avoids aspects of reality that do not correspond with it. Fundamentally this is an attitude of adolescent fantasy, with the ‘decision to be out of control’ – the basis of criminality – simmering away at it’s centre. “This tendency to to allow our emotions to reinforce our sense of being justified is a basic part of the psychology of violence” says Wilson. “We cannot understand cruelty without understanding this particular mechanism”. The right man craves primacy, he or she needs to dominate other people, or in other words, they need an audience to reflect their selves back; Wilson calls these ‘the dominant 5%’ after an acecdote by Shaw. Every famous or talented person, every politician or boss and so on, is a member of this percentage; unfortunately, so are most criminals and psychopaths who are also highly dominant. Wilson thinks that a tiny, tiny fraction of this percentage – perhaps 1% – are able to work on their own without the craving for an audience. Scientists like Einstein, poets like Blake, philosophers like Nietzsche and monks or ‘outsiders’ who turn their back on society to go their own way are in this minuscule group. Those craving attention can end up cheating or taking short cuts despite the obvious consequences – like Professor Joad – or burn their bridges and become out and out criminals like Panzram, with his loathing of humanity, his self-alienation. There are degrees of course; “Beethoven”, Wilson writes, “once flung a dish of lung soup in the face of a waiter who annoyed him – typical Right Man behaviour. But Beethoven did not rely upon violence to assert his ‘primacy’; he realised his long term objective could only be achieved by patience and self-discipline”. Charles Manson, on the other hand, demanded he be as famous as The Beatles of Bob Dylan despite his very mediocre musical talent; his orchestrated murder spree was ‘revenge’ on the music business for rejecting him: “in planning Helter Skelter, the revolution that would transform American society, he was asserting his primacy, his uniqueness”. Manson thought himself an assassin ‘punishing’ society – classic magical thinking. The explosive tantrums of the right man illustrate the discrepancy between the intentional nature of true creativity and the self indulgent illusions of narcissists who easily cave in to ressentiment.

“All of these things that interest me like crime and so on”, Wilson once told an interviewer, “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.” While writing A Casebook of Murder 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.” 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 cultists such as Manson. This type of violence is all too familiar to us today, with self esteem or wounded pride often the motive for mass carnage. (Wilson was clearly ahead of his time with Order of Assassins).

Maslow’s final stage is self-actualisation, the creative level. This emerges after the other four levels have been successfully completed. “Manson was a self-actualiser whose progress was blocked on every level” says Wilson. Spending most of his formative years in prison, he had “no capacity for inner-direction, for working alone” unlike the smallest percentage of the 5%. While noting the paradoxical violence within the creativity of artists such as Van Gogh or Munch, 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.” The underlying “pleasure in destruction” which “remains associated with freedom” from our early years can often be observed in many cultural artefacts, however.  But 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.” 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” writes Wilson.”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.”

Crime is a childish tantrum against the complexity of the world. As Wilson says “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 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.”

Appendix –

In New Pathways in Psychology 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.”

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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