Bildungsroman – Verfremdungseffekt

“The French philosopher Michel Foucault proposed the useful concept of ‘epistemes’, which means a cultural period which is quite distinct from what has gone before. We can see at a glance that an immense change has come about between the age of Dr. Johnson and the age of Byron, Keats and Shelley. But how does this help us explain why an intelligent but feckless young Welshman [1] should decide to attack ladies’ clothes with a sharp knife? We can see that the eighteenth century was an age when attitudes towards sex were healthy and down-to-earth, and that the age of Byron and Shelley is dominated by a feverish romanticism that exalted women into goddesses and objects of infinite desire. When did this change begin? The date can be given precisely. It was in the year 1740, when a novel called Pamela appeared in London bookshops.” (Encyclopedia of Crime, p. xii, 2005)

At the end of his unjustly neglected 1975 tome on literary criticism, Wilson describes his use of Brecht’s ‘alienation effect‘ in his own novels. This famous theatrical idea is a suspension of the illusion of realism on stage: “The audience is told: ‘This is a play, an entertainment. It is not supposed to be real.’ After that, the author can do what he likes: introduce songs or dances, acrobatics, political lectures, even fragments of documentary film.” (The Craft of the Novel p. 238.) With novels such as Necessary Doubt, The Glass Cage, The Mind Parasites, and The Black Room, Wilson describes how he was instinctively making use of Brecht’s principle in that he was using popular forms (detective, sci-fi and spy stories) as parody to disguise his philosophical message. As Nicholas Tredell noted in his study of Wilson’s fiction: “A major feature of Wilson’s novels is their use of elements and forms from popular fiction. Of course, he is not the only modern novelist to use such materials, but he does so more wholeheartedly, and with less attempt to safeguard his ‘serious’ credentials.”
The Mind Parasites, for instance, was born from a passage in Introduction to the New Existentialism, and written at the request of H.P.L’s custodian August Derleth who thought that Wilson had been overtly harsh to Lovecraft in The Strength to Dream. The novel is a parody – and an improvement – on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The Parasites are a form of Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones” who invaded the human mind during the Romantic Age. “In the history of art and literature since 1780, we see the results of the battle with the mind vampires. The artists who refused to preach a gospel of pessimism and life devaluation were destroyed. The life-slanderers often lived to a ripe old age. It is interesting, for example, to contrast the fate of the life-slanderer Schopenhauer with that of the life-affirmer Nietzsche, or that of the sexual degenerate De Sade with that of the sexual mystic Lawrence.” (The Mind Parasites, p.66). In The Necronomicon, Wilson states that all of three of his Mythos novels – the above, along with The Return of the Lloigor and The Philosopher’s Stone were his method of ‘criticizing’ Lovecraft. In Order of Assassins he maintains the psychological similarities between H.P.L and misanthropic mass murderers like Peter Kurten. Lovecraft’s racism is well documented in his letters. Occultist Kenneth Grant – whose work stresses the objectivity of H.P.L’s imaginings – noted his disappointment with these unfortunate leanings in his “Typhonian Trilogies”. Michel Houellebecq suggested it was the driving force behind the entire Mythos. Wilson digs a bit deeper and rejects a simple correlation between Lovecraft and Mein Kampf and sees his hatred as “curdled romanticism” (see Order of Assassins, Chapter 6). The Mind Parasites are a metaphor for criminal consciousness, for phenomenological limitations that we have set ourselves. “It would seem that their is some mysterious agency that wishes to hold men back, to prevent them from gaining full use of their powers. It is as if man contained an invisible parasite, whose job it is to keep man unaware of his freedom. Blake called this parasite ‘the spectre’.” (The New Existentialism, p. 161). Here we see the lineage from Gothic Romanticism to horror and sci-fi. “The Spectre is invisible, like a shadow, but when he has the ascendency in man, everything is solid, unchangeable, stagnant, unreal.” (The Outsider, p. 238). A good description of the “worm’s eye view”, the kind of torpor you see in Beckett, who is the “ultimate example of of faulty artistic logic. His work begins from the premise that ‘the near and the far’ are irreconcilable”. (The Craft of the Novel p. 206).
Blake described the Spectre in his long prophetic poem, Jerusalem. “The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man, and when separated from Imagination and closing itself as in steel in a Ratio of Things of Memory, It thence frames Laws and Moralities…” Marshall Mcluhan commented on this passage: “Imagination is that ratio among the perceptions and faculties which exists when they are not embedded or outered in material technologies. When so outered, each sense and faculty becomes a closed system. Prior to each outering there is entire interplay among experiences. This interplay or synesthesia is a kind of tactility such as Blake sought in the bounding line of sculptural form and engraving.” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 265). Wilson would describe this “tactility” as a sort of perceptual hand grasping the world. “Your consciousness puts out a kind of arm, a pseudopodium, and envelops [the object]” (The Sex Diary of Gerard Sorme, Nov. 18th). This clenching of consciousness is his method of defeating what he calls the robot (or the mind parasites, or Blake’s Spectre).

For Wilson, writing novels is a way of philosophizing. “Philosophy may only be a shadow of the reality it tries to grasp, but the novel is altogether more satisfactory. I am also tempted to generalise and say that no philosopher is qualified to do his job unless he is also a novelist.” (Voyage to a Beginning, p. 160.) “It is easy to stumble into the pessimism of Kierkegaard, into feeling that philosophy is the intellectual’s favourite way of lying to himself. But then, Kierkegaard was a very bad novelist.” (ibid). In a pamphlet investigating the existential tone of science fiction Wilson argues that this logic also works in the opposite direction: “Descartes invented a method of philosophy that consists of ‘questioning everything’. If you proceed to question all your values, in an attempt to arrive at some basic, unquestionable value, you soon end up with a feeling of having been left without a single certainty. Only material things are left. This was the question Kierkegaard was asking. And he was only capable of asking it because of a habit of detachment learned from novels.” 

Wilson builds his own novels with material from his philosophical work. Ritual in the Dark and The Outsider, Man without a Shadow and Origins of the Sexual Impulse, The Glass Cage and Beyond the Outsider interplay with ideas in a fictional/factual manner. His novels are in the tradition of the bildungsroman or the novel of education, and he follows Shaw in seeing the novel as magic mirror which reflects our ‘I’ back at ourselves. The Personality Surgeon, for instance, references Shaw’s Pygmalion but with use of an antecedent of Photoshop to digitally transform the self images of patients.
With an intuitive leap which bordered on the psychic, Wilson wrote in 1975 that it “is conceivable, then, that future generations may see the publication of The Lord of the Rings (1954-6) as one of the cultural watersheds of the twentieth century.” This view was not held by many people at that time. It is amusing to read in a contemporary review of The Craft of the Novel, this dated little gem: “And all the time Wilson is setting little squibs, little firecrackers under the skirts of the gods of the novel, he is rushing about propping up second raters…” These ‘second raters’ would be Lovecraft, David Lindsay, Tolkien, Juan Butler, Powys, Myers, etc., all of them included as useful for their insights. Today such hierarchical judgement would be regarded as sheer elitism. Literary criticism has swung in the opposite direction, into an inverse snobbery, equally absurd as the Times hack quoted above.
Professor Christopher Frayling once said of Wilson that he couldn’t think of any other modern writer who suddenly went from writing for academic journals to writing the kind of paperback books that you would see at motorway service stations. Today, such a move would be seen as a postmodernist coup, and the idea of a phenomenological Cthulhu Mythos tale, or pornographic overkill in The God of the Labyrinth would be toasted as an ironic success. When these were published they were mostly taken at face value, and presumed to be mere potboilers. The best thing about Wilson’s fiction, however, is that rather than attempt to deconstruct the cliches that are often expressed in novels, he uses these cliches to reinforce the sense of ‘double reality’ or Faculty X , that strange aesthetic revelation of being aware of other times and other places. He describes the novel as a kind of new technology, a key that opens up the door to this new faculty. Wilson rejects Derrida’s technique of deconstruction, as a kind of myopia. “He has no respect for ‘masterpieces’ and insists that creation is a kind of free play, and that there is a sense in which a critic is just as creative as a poet or novelist. Naturally the critics are delighted with this up-grading of their function.” Successful novels should attempt to reconcile the ‘near and the far’, rather than be a shopping list of the author’s prejudices and dislikes.
Maybe this is why many contemporary novels are technically accomplished, but thin on content, all wordy style over meaning. In Mythologies [1957], Roland Barthes attacks what he calls Neither-Nor criticism: “the opposite of good writing is not necessarily bad writing: today it is perhaps just writing.” Ironically, the postmodernism that Barthes helped create is now “just writing”. For instance: “It seems sad that, since Martin Amis is one of the most intelligent literary critics since V. S. Pritchett, his skillful novels should be devoted to conjuring up negative states of mind and some of the nastiest people in modern fiction. The satisfaction we are supposed to derive from them is the dubious one of seeing them getting their come-uppance.” (The Angry Years, p 216).

The novel, insists Wilson, is an experiment in freedom. A successful novel should contrast the author’s “symbols of value” against the world he or she rejects. And too many novels are ‘top heavy’ when they describe the latter at great length at the expense of the former.
The extraordinary success of the first popular novels such as Richardson’s Pamela or Goethe’s teenage suicide Young Werther dramatically altered the mental landscape of Europe; libraries lent out Rousseau’s New Heloise by the hour. But the retreat into camera-like subjectivity which has at it’s apex the ‘holy trinity’ of Twentieth Century Modernism, Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Musil’s underrated masterpiece The Man without Qualities is described by Wilson as a kind of cul de sac. He explains that “the novel tends to find itself stuck in immediacy, like a fly on a fly paper, unable to extricate itself from mere descriptions of passing events. Most of the world’s novels – the ‘great’ novels as well as the fairly commonplace – are little more than a series of snapshots taken with a narrow angle lens.” (The Craft of the Novel p. 168.) In volume four of his massive novel, Proust writes: “If I do not know a whole section of the memories that are behind me, if they are invisible to me, if I do not have the faculty of calling them to me, how do I know in the mass that is unknown to me that there may not be some that extend back much further than my human existence?” (Sodom and Gomorrah, Vintage ed. p.444). Proust’s pessimism held him back from knowing the truth of his own discoveries.
This state of double consciousness is at the heart of Wilson’s fiction. His ‘parodic’ novels go beyond mere postmodern whimsy. Reading Wilson’s fiction makes one aware of this doubling of experience where the fictional structure of rationality can be seen functioning aesthetically. Rather than telling us that there is nothing outside the text, he makes us aware that the text’s power is to change the world: the novel was responsible for tearing people away from the world of the witch trials and into the Romantic and industrial revolutions. (The Occult, p. 432, and Mysteries, p. 259.) The legacy of postmodernism’s denial of genius and it’s myopic obsession with the “worm’s eye view” (a.k.a. Lyotard’s “incredulity towards metanarratives” – The Angry Years, page 214) is now seen in a culture which concentrates on petty details to the point of psychosis. Wilson knows that literature is a tool which can reassert our genius: in his biography of Ouspensky (p 41), he even remarks that the act of reading is analogous to Gurdjieff’s self remembering. This involves looking at an object and being aware that you are looking at it; Gurdjieff typically stressed how difficult this was, but Wilson writes: “if you concentrate your attention while reading this book, you will note that you become aware of yourself as well as of the book.”

[1] “What fascinates me is that Renwick Williams was the first recorded sexual deviant in the annals of modern crime. But why should it have started when it did? What was there about the late eighteenth century that explains the emergence of the first recorded criminal sex deviant?” (The Encyclopedia of Crime, p. xi-xii)
In the year 1790, when Williams was caught, Wilson records that this also happened:

The first year of the French Revolution
The year that the city of Washington D.C. was founded
The Forth-Clyde canal was completed
The rotary press was invented
The first steam-powered rolling mill in England operative
The year Lavoisier produced the first table of the elements.

“As this short list makes apparent, important changes were taking place, and Renwick Williams’ bizarre acts of deviancy were in some way a part of an emergent pattern of history.” (ibid p. xii).

Further reading:

Literary Criticism:

Eagle and Earwig: Essays on Books and Writers. (John Baker, 1965)
The Strange Genius of David Lindsay. (John Baker, 1970, Borgo Press, 1979, included in the lavish Savoy reissue of A Voyage to Arcturus, 2002)
The Craft of the Novel. (Gollancz, 1975, Ashgrove, 1985)
Science Fiction as Existentialism (Bran’s Head, 1978)  Reprinted in Existentially Speaking (Borgo)  The Books in My Life. (Hampton Roads, 1998

Existential Criticism: Selected Book Reviews (Paupers’ Press, 2009. Contains some essays from Eagle and Earwig)


Ritual in the Dark. (Gollancz, 1960, Pan, 1962, Panther, 1976, Grafton,1991)
Adrift in Soho. (Gollancz, 1961, Pan, 1964, Brainiac Books, 1993, Five Leaves 2012)
The World of Violence. (Gollancz, 1963, Pan, 1965, Grafton, 1991)
Man without a Shadow. (Arthur Barker, 1963, Pan, 1966, Ronin Publishing, 1988)
Necessary Doubt. (Arthur Barker, 1964, Panther, 1968, Village Press, 1974)
The Glass Cage. (Arthur Barker, 1966, Pan Books, 1968, Village Press, 1974)
The Mind Parasites. (Arthur Barker, 1967, Arkham House, 1967, with new preface, Panther 1969, 1973, Monkfish Book Publishing, 2005)
The Philosopher’s Stone. (Arthur Barker, 1969, Panther, 1974)
Strindberg (play). (Calder & Boyars, 1970, Paupers’ Press, 2008)
The God of the Labyrinth. (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1970, Mayflower, 1971)
The Killer. (NEL, 1970, Panther, 1977, uncut ed. Savoy Books, 2002)
The Black Room. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971, Heron books, 1971, Sphere Books, 1977)
The Return of the Lloigor. (Village Press, 1974, also in: Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Grafton, 1988)
The Schoolgirl Murder Case. (Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1974, Panther 1975)
The Space Vampires. (Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1976, Panther, 1977)
The Janus Murder Case. (Granada, 1984, 1985)
The Personality Surgeon. (NEL, 1985, 1987)
Spider World (4 Vols.). (Granada, Hampton Roads etc.)
The Magician from Siberia. (Robert Hale, 1988, Kindle Book available from Amazon)
Mozart’s Journey to Prague: a playscript. (Paupers’ Press 1992)

The Novels of Colin Wilson (Critical Studies Series) by Nicholas Tredell (Vision Press, 1982)

The Death of God’ and Other Plays (Paupers’ Press, 2010)

Colin Wilson’s Existential Literary Criticism: a guide for students [Colin Wilson Studies #23] by Colin Stanley (Paupers’ Press 2014) 

The Writing of Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho Including Charles Russell’s The Other Side of Town [Colin Wilson Studies # 26] Ed. Colin Stanley. (Paupers’ Press 2016)

Colin Wilson’s Lulu: an unfinished novel [Colin Wilson Studies # 27] Intro. by Vaughan Rapatahana. (Paupers’ Press 2016)

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