The Curmudgeon


Saturday, December 07, 2013

Colin Wilson

The death of Colin Wilson, as a spring chicken of eighty-two, will have surprised nobody more than himself. The basis of his philosophy, so far as I can discern it, was that optimism is truer than pessimism because it feels better; that the universe, having produced George Bernard Shaw and then, in relatively short order, Colin Henry Wilson, must be a rather jolly place; that human beings have vast reservoirs of as yet untapped psychic potential; and that, given sufficient mental discipline, a man might become anything he wanted and live as long as he wished.

Wilson wrote The Outsider at twenty-five, became a best-seller, and promptly stopped developing. In his preface to an anniversary edition of Religion and the Rebel decades later, he stated that the only possible improvements he could make to the latter would be in the vocabulary (the word "Outsider" came in a bit too much, he thought). He ascribed his lack of acceptance by British academia to the fact that he never attended a university; that may have been so, but it is also a fact that far too much of his massive output was sloppy, superficial and, from an alarmingly early stage, outright silly.

In The Strength to Dream Wilson took on modern literature, analysing various authors including Lovecraft, Graham Greene, Beckett, Nathanael West and others, and sometimes taking as many as five or six pages to discuss their entire career and then dismiss them for not being cheerful enough. Significantly, his analysis of Lovecraft proclaimed "The Shadow out of Time" a failure as a horror story because its alien civilisation is revealed as comparatively benign; Wilson missed completely the real horror in the novella, namely that (to put it in New Existentialist terms) the universe is rather bigger than Colin Wilson. Religion and the Rebel dealt with various thinkers, and in a fine example of psychological projection dismissed Bertrand Russell and Arthur Koestler as "clever schoolboys".

The Occult was an engaging look at mystical figures, including Blavatsky, Crowley and Gurdjieff; but its tendency to take such figures' achievements at their disciples' valuation led to the disaster of Mysteries. The thesis of Mysteries was that humanity is on the verge of a great evolutionary leap, anticipated in the present by the emergence of abilities such as precognition, telekinesis, thought-reading and so forth, which Wilson lumps in together as a hypothetical "Faculty X." The book as a whole is a massive catalogue of paranormal anecdote, but it offers no evidence on the reliability of its sources and explores no alternative explanations for the phenomena discussed. The incidents prove the presence of Faculty X, and the presence of Faculty X proves the truth of the incidents; and this from a man who preached that religious truth ought to be "glorified common sense" and whose childhood heroes were scientists.

This is all the more disheartening because Wilson was often a very good writer. If he lacks the social conscience of his idol Bernard Shaw, he is also mercifully free of the patronising waggishness which makes so many of Shaw's prefaces so worthy of being thrown across a room. Wilson's discussions of books he enjoys are perceptive and concise, and he deserves credit for his efforts to bring brilliant, eccentric writers like David Lindsay and E H Visiak to a wider audience. Any work of literature with a Wilson introduction is probably worth reading, and the edition of The Strength to Dream which I read was almost redeemed by a long and interesting essay on the work of Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Another long essay on Hermann Hesse is well worth a look; I think Wilson claimed to be the first to analyse Hesse in English, only to be ignored by respectable critics. Then again, he also claimed to have introduced Lovecraft to British readers, which S T Joshi has exposed as delusional at best.

Wilson's foolish comments on Lovecraft drew a response from the latter's friend and posthumous publisher, August Derleth, challenging Wilson to try writing something in the Lovecraftian vein. The result was The Mind Parasites, one of the few mythos books to play with the spirit of Lovecraft's work rather than the props. A later Lovecraftian novel, The Philosopher's Stone, is Wilson's modest attempt at "the definitive novel of time travel". Although highly readable, it is a ludicrous mish-mash, incorporating science fiction, disquisitions on positive thinking, and theories about the authorship of Shakespeare, who apparently is no great shakes in any case. The Philosopher's Stone does have a superb sequence near the end, about an ancient Lovecraftian civilisation, which is worth any hundred pages of the rest; a loosely connected novella, "The Return of the Lloigor", starts off well with an academic discovering that the Voynich manuscript is the Necronomicon, but loses its momentum and ends in anticlimax. Consciously or otherwise, it also echoes Lovecraft's racism, which in this case is applied not to blacks, Hispanics or Poles, but to the Welsh. In the non-fiction Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs, incidentally, Wilson ascribed the lateness of the Russian Revolution to "laziness" in the Slavonic character.

Wilson interested himself in crime, particularly in sex-murders and serial killers (he compared Lovecraft to Peter Kürten, whose literary career seems to have eluded most people); and doubtless the tidal wave of true-crime books which he produced, introduced and edited helped keep the wolf from his door once serial killers became fashionable. Like a number of mystics, Wilson placed a certain importance on sex as a transcendent experience, at least for the male; Wilson's women divide quite neatly into the beddable and the non-beddable, with nothing much left over, and in Ritual in the Dark Wilson's mouthpiece asserts that women, like homosexuals, don't make very good thinkers. Sex and serial murder were the subjects of three of his best books, the "Sorme trilogy" comprising Ritual in the Dark (a fictionalised version of The Outsider with a bit of Jack the Ripper thrown in), The God of the Labyrinth (a literary detective story about Sorme's investigation of an eighteenth-century rake) and Man Without a Shadow (also regrettably known as Sex Diary of a Metaphysician, about Sorme's encounter with a Crowley-like religious leader). In addition, he wrote Lingard, also known as The Killer, a novel in which the serial murderer is the central figure, which may be the most unremittingly bleak thing he ever produced. I read it a long time ago and don't remember much about it, except that I was impressed.

These works were interspersed with pot-boilers in various genres, such as the bland detective story The Schoolgirl Murder Case, the daft science fiction novel The Space Vampires, and The Black Room, which starts as an intriguing look at the effects of sensory deprivation but ends up going nowhere much. I have not read Wilson's Spider World series of science fiction novels, or any of his later non-fiction; but it seems he became ever more stridently credulous, and one of his last books apparently speculated in all seriousness that the continent of Atlantis was inhabited by telepathic Neanderthals. He died, presumably, neither sadder nor wiser.


  • At 5:38 am , Blogger Puddleg said...

    Lingard is a very good book IMO, and I believe it is the first ever example of the "profiler" genre that gave us "Silence of the Lambs" and much else besides.
    If you read the later books, some are very good indeed, and he doesn't always come across as credulous at all. Spider World is the novel of ideas conceived as enjoyable pulp fantasy - it works.
    Coming back to Wilson in my 50's I found him more directly useful to the problems, so to speak, of my living my own life than a thousand more cautious writers.
    He has always been good at inspiring curmudgeons, see Kingsley Amis reviewing The Outsider ("The Legion of the Damned").

  • At 11:10 am , Blogger Philip said...

    I'm going to have another look at Lingard, and maybe the Sorme and Spider World books too. Surprising that Lingard doesn't seem to have been resurrected for the serial-killer generation, but perhaps Wilson or his publishers thought there was more mileage in true crime. On the other hand, perhaps Wilson himself took a dislike to the novel; as I recall, it was very dark indeed.

    Presumably when he reviewed The Outsider Amis felt that Wilson had betrayed his Angry Young Heritage. One can only imagine the impact Wilson's later metaphysical attitude to sex must have had on Amis' Carry On Camping sensibility.

  • At 6:18 pm , Blogger Unknown said...

    Lingard, aka The Killer was reissued in a deluxe hardcover by Savoy Books, containing the uncut text. Still available it seems! I seem to recall CW saying in the intro that he was still fond of it. Nic Roeg wanted to film it, but couldn't raise the cash, mores the pity.
    Nice appraisal of a fascinating thinker.

  • At 7:13 pm , Blogger Philip said...

    And here it is, with a terrific Francis Bacon cover. I hope Savoy's books have better proofreaders than their website - "whipped curr", indeed!


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