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Starry Nights and Endless Miseries
Paul Newman reviews the career of the writer Colin Wilson.
Colin Wilson is an internationally acclaimed writer living in Cornwall. He moved to Gorran Haven in 1957 and has remained there ever since. His memories go back to the early art colony of Mevagissey that featured characters like the critic and militant pacifist Derek Savage, the artist Lionel Miskin, the novelist Frank Baker, the poet Sidney Graham, and the psychologist and anthropologist John Layard.
He favoured the Duchy because of its bracing cliff scenery, its old-fashioned, companionable pubs and remoteness from the bustle and gossip of London. It was a place where he could walk, think and get down to serious work. Now, with over a hundred published books behind him, he can be regarded as a grand old man of letters, but he is still clear-headed, hardworking and quietly determined.
Hailed as a genius when he published his first book The Outsider in June 1957, Colin Wilson was later pilloried and lambasted for the follow-up work Religion and the Rebel and for a disreputably readable oeuvre that, as the years advanced, took in pulp fiction with philosophical overtones, critical essays, books on booze, murder, astronomy, sexology, weird phenomena, history and ancient wisdom, several of which are blatantly infused with ‘ideas’ about how man may bring about personal transformation by developing the capacity to have endless ‘peak experiences’.
The Angry Years
His last book The Angry Years was an account of the cultural phenomenon of the Angry Young Men who dominated the latter half of the 1950s. Often compared to America’s ‘Beat Generation’, the Angries were more restrained and conventional; also, with the exception of Wilson, they had little interest in Buddhism or religious mysticism, being more interested in the persevering with the class war. The book is unique in that it is written by one of the few surviving 'Angries' who skilfully recreates the literary battle-zone of the period. In his overview of his contemporaries, Colin Wilson combines an Orwellian plainness of style with panoramic panache as he dispenses judgements that are philosophical and personal as well as literary. Instead of evaluating writers like John Braine, Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch and Arnold Wesker by their imaginative or narrative skills, he asks of them, “How does the attitude they embody take us forward, enlarge our understanding of the problems with which the century presents us?” For a start, John Osborne’s groundbreaking Look Back in Anger is found wanting – “It was like a furious letter that someone writes to get pent-up anger and frustration off his chest – but then usually thinks better of sending, and throws in the fire. It was too personal, too vindictive, too undisciplined.” Neither is Kingsley Amis’s comic masterpiece Lucky Jim thought to be particularly rib-tickling or the plays of Samuel Beckett especially profound.
On the other hand, John Braine’s Room at the Top receives a respectful salutation. So do the plays of Arnold Wesker, the novels of Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing. Wilson also commends Alan Sillitoe, an outstanding novelist of working class angst and one of the finest British short story writers of the century. His treatment is thorough, painstaking and magisterial, convincing the reader that the AYM was not a mid-century farce with literary overtones (as the late Humphrey Carpenter preferred it) but a cluster of highly distinctive, vehemently impressive talents who wrote aggressively and humorously about social and political issues, especially that sense of class-ridden constriction and stagnation that prevailed before the ‘wind of change’ blasted through society and ruffled hairstyles and reputations.
In order to produce this book, a great deal of hard reading was required, shadowing the careers of many of the forgotten figures into terminal decline, commenting intelligently on their later works and not just the titles that grabbed the headlines. (Never before have I met anyone prepared to discuss the later novels of, say, John Wain.) As Colin Wilson appraises these writers from his own special ‘existential’ viewpoint, he rules rather harshly on Sam Beckett, “a writer who poisons our cultural reservoirs”, but is appreciative, say, of the later political plays of Arnold Wesker.
For his research, obviously Colin Wilson ransacked not only his memory and journals of the period, but many standard biographies and sources, finally producing a commentary that was far livelier and more gripping than most cultural studies, yet nearly all the critics received it in a dazed, deadpan, lacklustre fashion, as if it were a deadly boring work about deadly boring people. One got the impression the reviewers had not bothered to read the writers whose works were summarised and were therefore unable to dispute or agree with what was expressed. However, despite an overall ignorance, they had nevertheless acquired the attitude of writing about Wilson in a mildly derogatory fashion. Obviously, if the book had been that bad, Robson Books would not have accepted it, for most publishers are aware that cultural studies are not that easy to sell. Although it had done its job in a lively, provocative and approachable way, diligently setting out the facts and combining them with personal insight, not a single critic, with the possible exception of Gary Lachman in The Independent, was alert or polite enough to acknowledge that point. Not one of them applauded Wilson for delivering readable goods and providing information not elsewhere available. How does one account for this stagnant critical reaction, utterly at odds with Wilson’s enthusiastic fan base, many of whom proclaim him as a genius, as he once hinted himself, much to his regret (thus inheriting a journalistic legacy of catcalls, jeers and cartoons). How much is Wilson responsible for this inability of others to listen or comprehend his basic message?
First let us set the basic biographical record straight. Colin Henry Wilson was born in Leicester in 1931 and received most of his formal education at the local Gateway secondary school. Afterwards he took jobs as a laboratory assistant at the Gateway and later as an office worker in the city. In his autobiography Voyage to a Beginning, he recalled working for the Collector of Taxes. His boss was a jolly sympathetic gentleman named Mr Sidford and he remembered the other employees: Joyce, “a highly attractive young married woman who wore expensive clothes and obviously longed for the Riviera”; Desmond, “a handsome, smart and highly efficient young man in rimless glasses, who looked like Ian Fleming’s James Bond but actually seemed to lead a blameless life”; Ken, “who was about to marry, and often talked to me at length about the joys of married life”; Millicent, “an attractive short-sighted Jewish girl with a sensual mouth and a contralto voice” with whom Colin Wilson was to become romantically involved. There is little point in adding further details – one can only recommend readers to acquire this entertaining autobiography or its less intense if more broadly informative update Dreaming To Some Purpose. Both books capture well the flavour of the times as well as providing a fund of anecdotes, hilarious, provocative and intriguing.
Although his employers were more sympathetic to a deeply introspective young intellectual masquerading as an average trainee than they would be in these ruthless times, Wilson found it difficult to settle into an orderly rhythm. Eventually he jacked in the clerical job and began looking around for other outlets – all the time reading intensely and evolving his philosophy.
The New Lost
During an interlude, he joined the RAF, but found the routines of service life stifling. When his discontent became unbearable, he feigned homosexuality in order to gain a discharge. Once again a citizen of the world, he met and married his first wife, Betty, produced a son, Roderick, and wandered on the Continent, eventually settling back in London. Owing to a paucity of suitable accommodation and money problems, his marriage faltered and he continued to work as a washer-up in sundry coffee bars and, during his spare time, drafted the outline of The Outsider (1956). This turned out to be one of the major titles of the decade, a seminal work influencing the reading matter and outlook of a generation. Containing arresting profiles of men like Van Gogh, Vaslav Nijinsky, T.E. Lawrence, Herman Hesse and Frederick Nietzsche, it explored their isolation and revolt in an urgent, arresting way. Even their neuroses was presented as vital and exciting, a necessary distress rather than a dreary encumbrance. Only by feeling ‘outside’ society, Wilson argued, could such men have gained insight into its ailments and thereby propose a route of healing.
Equally significantly, The Outsider pin-pointed a new underclass of more-than-averagely intelligent young men and women, too restless and imaginative to settle for conventional jobs, yet not integrated and disciplined enough to make it as free-standing writers or artists. These, disparagingly called the “new lost”, are best epitomised – or satirised – by the vehemence of Jimmy Porter, the hero of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, who vented his spleen on every available target. Although classed as one of the ‘Angry Young Men’, along with John Osborne, Kingsley Amis and John Wain, Wilson spurned both the label and Osborne’s play. He thought Porter’s rantings should be the start of a long educative process and not an interminable circulatory exercise like swallowing one’s tail.
James Dean of Literature
The Outsider found a prestigious, brilliant publisher in Victor Gollancz, who employed marketing techniques that exaggerated the popularity of his titles, thereby encouraging buyers. The Outsider fielded glowing reviews in the Sunday Times and The Observer, with the result that Colin Wilson achieved instant fame. He woke one morning like Lord Byron to find cultural London whispering his name. The time was right. For years people had been asking: Where was the postwar generation of British artists and intellectuals? With the accompanying appearances of John Osborne’s emotionally harrowing Look Back in Anger and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, an enjoyable, iconoclastic novel of university life, it seemed they had officially arrived. Within a few months, the phrase Angry Young Man was on everyone’s lips and Wilson, with his forthright views, was fixed as one of their ringleaders. At the same time, in America, the Beats – deriving from ‘beatitude’ or spiritual illumination – were pursuing paths of crazy wisdom. Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and their entourage were travelling restlessly from state to state, listening to jazz, drinking, smoking marijuana or stealing cars.
Prior to publication, Wilson had been sleeping on Hampstead Heath in order to save money and secure time in which to write and study. This anecdote made perfect fodder for the British press, and the young intellectual was subject to a rapid makeover. One morning he was a nonentity; the next photographers were perpetuating images of him enshrouded in his sleeping bag reading Nietzsche or Shaw or even Wilson. Highbrow critics knelt in obeisance before his “luminous intelligence” and every variety of human being - from milkmen to solicitors – pounced on him exclaiming, “Mr Wilson, I believe I’m an Outsider!”
Looking back on the fifties, a correspondent to an arts magazine summarised the atmosphere. “I remember,” wrote Louis Sterton, “spending a good part of my youth drinking coffee and chatting with fellow ‘intellectuals’ about existentialism, the beat generation, etc. ad nauseam. Wilson was a kind of young intellectuals’ icon, a James Dean of the book world, who seemed both rebellious and individualistic, a bloke who was determined to do things his way. Of course we understood hardly anything he wrote – I’m afraid The Outsider lost me inside the first fifty pages - but we were all happy to say, ‘Good on yer mate’ when he got up the Establishment’s nose.”
Oscar Wilde remarked style is more important than sincerity – an aphorism borne out in the press’s early treatment of Wilson. They mangled and mocked the metaphysics and concentrated on the image to which they could attach stories. Wilson provided them with the right type of bait. Tall, confident, romantically scruffy and effortlessly eloquent, his views were sought on subjects as varied as women's fashion, space satellites, CND and socialism. At one point in his career, he was even asked to write an introduction to a gardener’s yearbook. “But I hate gardening,” he protested. “That’s fine,” the editor responded. “Just tell us how you hate it.” So Wilson went ahead and wrote the essay – a lively denunciatory piece that still reads well.
Sex and Metaphysics
Wilson backed up criticism with novels. His first Ritual in the Dark (1959) dealt with a series of Jack the Ripper type killings in London. It was in some ways a gaunt, jokeless tract, heavily overcast in tone, but irradiated by a prowling energy. There was plenty of violence, plenty of sex, plenty of philosophy, and the odd thing was that all three areas were blended. If the central character, Gerard Sorme, caught sight of the edge of a girl’s slip, a lengthy disquisition might follow on what was taking place in the hero’s body and soul. I imagine that many of its male readers were entranced to learn that ogling was a major branch of philosophy and from then on would pace the streets, ball-eyed, eager to drink in all the metaphysics on display.
Savagely attacked in several papers, Ritual received an accolade by Dame Edith Sitwell writing in The Sunday Times and was followed by Adrift in Soho (1961), a picaresque story of a young writer from the provinces seeking refuge in the companionable squalor of bedsit London. The Kerouac-like charm of the narrative takes in a varied cast of dropouts, actors, sex-crazed painters, soulful poets and weasel-nosed landladies - “so good is Mr Wilson's prose you can see and smell it all”, The Times Literary Supplement enthused.
In Ritual and two other of his novels Wilson used as an alter ego a man named Gerard Sorme who is best characterised as a freelancing intellectual with a penchant for wine, whisky and copulation. Sorme made his debut in Ritual as an owlishly serious young man who was constantly taking off and putting on his cycle clips before and after seducing some lapsed Jehovah's witness or pretty student nurse. As he progressed through a cycle of novels, Sorme became more financially secure, shedding his cycle clips for a saloon car, but somehow less human than that dank fifties figure shivering as he holds a dripping raincoat over a paraffin stove in some barren bedsit. “Poor Gerard Sorme,” a critic wrote of The God of the Labyrinth (1970) – an engaging phallocentric jaunt amid the rakes of the 18th century – “nothing between the library list in his head and that vital organ down there.”
Leakage of Energy
Despite these lighter moments, Wilson was regarded as a ‘serious’ – indeed passionately earnest – young writer, an existentialist who sought to promote a religious attitude. Not like Kierkegaard, say, who was a Christian, but more like Shelley who sensed and reverenced a principle behind creation larger than anything an individual might divine. The vastness of the cosmos and the multiplicity of its created forms became a source of vexation to Kierkegaard, creating fear and trembling. This abyss of potentialities, this dizzying maze of meaning, was similar to what Sartre’s nausea at life’s steaming multiplicity. But Wilson denied the validity of such responses. Why be forced into a leap of faith or be overcome with disgust merely because one is faced with infinite variety? These are superficial responses, he argued. If you look at all these living forms and choices with the right set of intentions, they become merely tools and agents of your inner certainty or sense of purpose. They have the power to trigger elation as well as doubt. So, in a sense, while using an existential scaffold, Wilson reached a different conclusion. He saw life as a bed of hope and inspiration while Sartre viewed it as a hard-faced taskmaster.
Above all, the problem of life-failure or the inability of the human mind to sustain hope and enthusiasm obsessed him . Deploring the manner in which men and women of genius (Keats, Byron, Shelley) had blazed trails of glory and later succumbed to self-doubt or suicide, he wrote The Mind Parasites (below left), an eloquent sci-fi parable in which this process is demonised as an alien infiltrator. If only this debilitating tendency could be overcome, mankind might take the next step forward. Styling himself as a hedgehog - a thinker motivated by a single big idea - Wilson restated this theme in essay and fiction. He regarded the human will as fundamentally at fault, too prone to depression and self-doubt:
Van Gogh painted ‘The Starry Night’, which seems to be a pure affirmation of life; but he committed suicide, and left behind a note that said, “Misery will never end.” According to Ayer [Freddy Ayer, the logical positivist philosopher], this merely amounted to the expression of two different moods, and it was as meaningless to ask which was “truer” as to ask whether a rainy day is truer than a sunny day. My own feeling was that the question was not only significant, but - literally - a matter of life and death.
Essay on the New Existentialism (1986)
An answer to this dilemma was found in the latent power of the will or the transformative ability of the mind to convert plummeting ‘lows’ to surging ‘highs’. If we cannot alter the weather by our thoughts, we can at least try to change the climate of our thinking. In such a context, the “peak experience” offered an important lead, a euphoric state first chronicled by the psychologist Abraham Maslow. Instead of trying to find out what made sick people sick, Maslow decided to investigate what made healthy people healthy. His answer was that ‘self-achievers’ are regularly topped up by the “peak experience”, a surge of unity and joy at being here. It is this ability of the mind to energise itself – to re-fuel itself on distant horizons and limitless possibilities – which is the key to overcoming depressed and defeated states. Wilson criticised thinkers like Jean Paul Sartre for underrating such moments of vision and putting undue emphasis on contingency or the “absurdity” of the human situation.
Poisoning the Cultural Wells
So far, so good, but Wilson covers a great deal of ground swiftly. There are times when he almost goes so far as creating his own enemies, whether they are aware of it or not. For instance, the writer Samuel Beckett is accused of poisoning the cultural wells by dint of his pessimistic, downbeat writings, thereby equivalently inflating the import of Wilson’s attack. To him Beckett’s vision of life is too dreary and distorted to be pertinent to anyone but Beckett.
Similarly the opinions of Jean Paul Sartre, to whom Wilson’s personal philosophy is partly indebted, tends to receive a coolish appraisal. Academically speaking, Wilson’s system might be called an Anglo-Saxon offshoot of Sartre’s existentialism that just draws short of mysticism. The precise point of its origin or ‘breakaway’ is Sartre’s reaction to the physical world or what he calls ‘nausea’, a kind of sickness brought on by the unrelenting assault of sensual and visual information that life on earth supplies. Roquentin, a character in Sartre’s novel Nausea, is shown to be overwhelmed and revolted by things like the many roots of a tree, “a knotty mass, entirely beastly…”
Wilson, rightly, points out that this is partial rather than clear thinking. Surfaces that meet the eye are neither one thing nor another, not intrinsically revolting, pleasing or absurd. Wilson does not incorporate revulsion at surface appearances or politics in his philosophical manifesto, arguing that once people achieve mental health or repeated ‘peak experiences’, they are able to realise their potential and live in a reality of heightened values, meaning and sensation. Their life will take the right turn and, hopefully, responsible political decisions will emerge as a natural outcome. This is certainly an optimistic statement that has attracted a following as well as scepticism.
Propagandists for Existence
Wilson can appear too prescriptive about a writer’s negativity or lack of optimism. For, in a sense, writers and artists are almost doomed to be propagandists for existence, however much they squirm, protest, deny or descry it. Each time they put a word to paper they are affirming their participation in the drama of ‘being here’ and, if they choose to describe suffering, they are still singling out and privileging their perception of it. Wilson maintains there is too much trivia and pessimism around, particularly in literary culture, holding us back from solving vitally important issues. But this is a debatable proposition. It could be equally argued that it is man’s irrepressible, foolish optimism that is the culprit, the notion that however many wars he wages or devastations he wreaks, always a victor will spring up at the end to take things forward or backward. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini were all optimists, assuming they would quash resistance and never get their comeuppance. A blind, tunnel-visioned optimism is responsible for the destruction of the rain forest and nearly every other major ecological problem.
There is also a problem about the ‘peak experience’. Is it explicitly ethical and improving? Do these ‘peak experiences’ motivate monsters and tyrants as well as healthy men? In several of his books, Wilson talks about the intensity that murderers seek, the need to release themselves through an act of violence, and suggests an equivalence in the sexual orgasm. Doesn’t this sound dangerously near a peak experience? His reply to this, I imagine, would run along these lines. The peak experience is neither moral nor amoral. It is simply a bedrock vision of how things actually are beyond the veil of habit, desensitisation and dumb acceptance many of us acquire over the years. Someone whose character was inherently warped or corrupted would be unable to grasp this truth in a purely objective way simply because his personal urges would tend to distort things.
Although I raise various issues and problems of definition, they do not add up to an adequate reason to reject Wilson’s basic outlook and philosophy which is healthy, restorative and gripping on a purely investigative level, in that he draws the whole history of philosophy into it. In the same essay in which he refers to Van Gogh’s misery and suicide, he promotes the role of vision – of seeing beyond the problems that afflict everyday life and rejects the levelling notion that all humanity must be viewed in the same light. In particular, he recalled a conversation with the French intellectual, Albert Camus. Praising the latter’s work, he suggested that it contained the germ of an optimistic existentialism. Shaking his head, Camus pointed to a Parisian teddy boy slouching past in the street. “What is good for him must be good for me also,” he told Wilson.
“I got very excited and said that was preposterous. I could see, of course, what he meant: that his starting point had to be the same “triviality of everydayness” (Heidegger's phrase) that confronted the teddy boy when he opened his eyes in the morning. But Camus was saying that he was unable to see beyond that triviality. And it is a philosopher’s job to see beyond. All revolutions in thought begin with an attempt to “see beyond”. What if Einstein had decided that he could not publish his theory of relativity because a Parisian teddy boy would find it incomprehensible?”
In other words, it is the duty of men and women to rise to the challenge presented by people like Einstein – by making an effort at understanding – rather than negate their contributions. The idea that, if you cannot be heard by everybody, you might as well talk to nobody, is hardly applicable to Camus, who was born to a poor, practically bookless family in Algeria. All his innate ability would have been wasted without the persistence and determination inspired by his own self-belief. You have to convince yourself before you have half a chance of convincing others.
I have dealt at length with the early years and The Outsider because they hold the key to Colin Wilson’s subsequent development. But I am aware that many people have become acquainted with him through books like The Occult (1971) or compendious tomes on murder and mysterious happenings or through his articles in the Daily Mail or occasional television appearances with personalities like Yuri Geller. At this very moment, for instance, they might be reading Alien Dawn, a readable and profound analysis of the historical backdrop and implications of all those reports of UFOs and abductees, or one of his many short lucid expositions on spiritual teachers like Carl Jung, Rudolf Steiner, George Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky.
How do these many strands connect? What is their crowning knot?
Wilson’s reply might run along these lines. Outsiders have often been rescued from misery and oppression by moments of deep insight and near-drunken joy. Mystics and occultists also seek this feeling of breadth and expansion. Even magic is a kind of ‘imaging’ or concentrating and deepening one’s mental powers. Phenomena like UFOs force dramatic changes in those who see them; they are never quite the same again, for they have glimpsed the potential of other worlds, other modes of being. Murderers, too, crave expansion and release, but their methods are crude and brutal. Repeated acts of violence release opiates in the brain but the effect wears off, leaving them trapped in the coils of their viciousness.
So Wilson is saying, despite different paths, the goal is identical. Men and women, in order to fulfil the destiny implicit in being here, seek new intensities of being. They long to open the door in the wall, the window in the mind, the gate that leads to the farthermost shore. They want their lives to stay permanently open to spiritual and physical possibilities. In a sense he is a modern religious visionary, seeking to draw heaven down to earth and to re-unite sensation and spirit. But this is a highfalutin way of describing a philosophy that is pre-eminently practical, a method of grasping and configuring the reality with which each of us is confronted.
Japan’s Literary Idol
To return to the original question, posited and left unanswered at the outset of this article, if Wilson has so much to offer, why are his books routinely reviewed in a perfunctory way and his ideas dismissed or passed over lightly?
Many critics thinks it is because he writes too much, an almost irritating variety, and that so many of his books are potboilers, crime compendiums, books on serial killers and ancient wisdom and the occasional sci-fi fantasy. But a secondary reason is that he has no fixed literary niche.
Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, advanced an argument that combined philosophy, psychological theories, social and literary criticism. It appeared to be urging on a spiritual or cultural renaissance, a creative evolutionism, and was developed through a cycle of works, loosely linked in theme and picking up new insights en route. But he realised the audience for these works was select and (relatively) highbrow. Hence, side by side, he developed a more popular line, turning out crime novels and novels of ideas that incorporated similar consciousness-raising ideas to his non-fiction. In each book, he tended to slip in a bit of personal philosophy. If Wilson had been a popular religious writer of the 19th century, this might have proven an extraordinarily effective technique, but as this is very much an age of specialisation, such a versatile, piecemeal approach does not build up the solid readership of, say, a popular thriller writer who delivers a consistent commercial package.
There was a brief period when he almost slipped below the horizon of public recognition, not for long though, producing the massive The Occult (1971) which rekindled the spotlights and received rapturous reviews from highbrow and lowbrow alike and sustained publicity for several years. So, although Wilson is an internationally acknowledged author, the most-read English writer in Japan (“In England, Mr Wilson,” began a Japanese interviewer, “you must be as famous as Charles Dickens?”), he still occupies an odd, overlooked position in Britain as the last of the Angry Young Men who has slightly cranky ideas and a conviction about his own genius.
In a sense, the marketing factors that held him back have become strengths in that by now he has acquired enough zealous readers to buy a book on any topic he handles, believing they are vital links in the author’s unique chain of creation. Furthermore, however much he’s criticised, each year he throws a new title into the face of his detractors. His latest, in fact, written in collaboration with Don Hotson, is called Will Shakespeare’s Hand and boldly goes where no existentialist has gone before, for it penetrates the sacred academic grove of William Shakespeare, being a provocative new interpretation of his life and its relation to the plays and sonnets. If this is not met with approval by the critics, no doubt Wilson will cheerfully weather the storm and supply another title by next year. This process will carry on even after they come up with the goods and assess in fair, responsible fashion the spectacular oeuvre of a fascinating, historically important author.