The prolific authorship of the late Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013) began with the publication in 1956 of The Outsider, a phenomenological study of the alienation theme in the modern novel, and continued unto the year of his death, and even beyond, thanks to the activity of his literary executors.* With Stuart Holroyd and Bill Hopkins, Wilson constituted a peculiar hiccough in the British literary and cultural scene of the 1950s. The three writers thought of themselves as having established a right-leaning English school of Existentialism that rejected the materialist orientation and politicized cynicism of the French school. Although critics tended to lump the trio together with the distinctly leftwing coterie dubbed the Angry Young Men, Wilson and his two fellow writers could hardly have differentiated themselves more from such as John Osborne, Kenneth Tynan, Kingsley Amis, and the other “Angries.” Wilson and the two others were decidedly intellectual, their early fiction and non-fiction alike rightly deserving the label philosophical. The “Angries” by contrast revolted, in an all-too-contrived manner, against a disciplined phronesis. Finding himself suddenly a celebrity on the basis of The Outsider, Wilson followed up with Religion and the Rebel (1957), The Age of Defeat (1958), and three other titles that would eventually add up to a coherent “Outsider Cycle.” Wilson also produced a steady stream of occasional work for a wide variety of journals and reviews. Some of these found their way in Wilson’s lifetime into single-author anthologies – Eagle and Earwig in 1965 and The Essential Colin Wilson in 1985, among others. The former was for a long time the most elusive of Wilson’s titles; the latter constituted one of the best introductions to Wilson’s thought, as he, himself, had selected the contents.
Colin Stanley and Gary Lachman, both of them scholars of Wilsoniana, have collaborated to bring Eagle and Earwig back into print, but under the name that Wilson originally gave it before his publisher made an alteration: Eagles and Earwigs, in the plural. The book carries the subtitle Essays on Books and Writers. Lachman, author of a critical biography of Wilson (Beyond the Robot ), supplies a new Preface, which supplements Wilson’s original Introduction to the volume. Lachman writes that he first encountered Eagle and Earwig in the library of the British Museum in the early 1970s – and that it impressed him vividly. Commenting on the book’s fugitive quality, Lachman remarks that “there is something about finding a much-sought after book in a second-hand book-shop that carries its own magic, as rare that is these days”; nevertheless, as he adds, in forty-two years of inveterate bibliophile questing, no copy of it ever came into his hands. Lachman puts his finger on the appeal of Wilson’s literary essays, especially for a contemporary reader of the Twenty-First Century. Wilson’s “existential criticism” concerns itself, in Lachman’s words, “with how a writer sees the world, his actual perception of it, and with his or her qualifications for making general assessments about that mysterious thing, life.” Existential criticism exercises the primary criterion of visionary quality in establishing its hierarchy of writers and books. It has little patience with ideological tendencies and rejects hackneyed formulas.
Wilson organizes Eagles and Earwigs in tripartite form, with sections on “Literature and Philosophy,” “Individual Writers,” and “The Writer and Society.” While every item in Eagles and Earwigs will interest a curious and open-minded reader, the intellectual heavy-hitting occurs largely in the first four essays of the first section – “Humanism and the Religious Attitude,” “I Glory in the Name of Earwig,” “Existential Criticism,” and “The Existential Temper of the Modern Novel” – and in two entries in the second section: “Lindsay – Voyage to Arcturus” and “The Work of Ayn Rand.” In “Humanism and the Religious Attitude,” Wilson undertakes a study in contrasting worldviews. Like Søren Kierkegaard in the Nineteenth Century and Nicolas Berdyaev in the Twentieth, Wilson identifies humanism with bourgeois complacency on the one hand and a paltry materialism, in both senses of the word, on the other. Humanism, in Wilson’s view, runs in parallel with a smug and pervasive scientism that regards everything not susceptible to proof by the experimental method as other than real knowledge and by virtue of that fact irrelevant to the understanding of life. This would include will and spirit. Humanism endorses the agenda of progress. Echoing Protagoras, it makes man – man as he currently is and in his current state of self-satisfaction – the measure of all. By “the religious attitude,” Wilson emphatically does not mean a conventional church-going mentality or the occasional piety of the public square but rather the visionary intensity that sees in human existence a tragically unexploited potentiality and that nourishes itself on meaning.
The “religious attitude” pits itself emphatically against complacency, against the scientistic dogma that no significance inheres in the universe, but that humanity can organize for itself a system of material conveniences and social programs, which substitute for meaning. The “religious attitude” expresses itself in imagination; it spurns the settled social reality and struggles to transcend itself. “Art is one of its potent methods,” Wilson writes, “of bursting out of the meaninglessness of the natural standpoint.” For Wilson, indeed, “Art has been the chief medium of man’s evolution and literature has perhaps contributed most of all.” A good deal of recent Western literature, however, has conformed itself to Humanism in Wilson’s pejorative sense. Wilson’s philosophical themes emerge in the context, as the essay begins, of a comparison pitting Emile Zola against James Joyce. Wilson argues that Zola’s espousal of naturalism, his treatment of man as a mere animal, leads by stages inevitably to pessimism and to nihilism. Joyce’s characters, mired in the same misery as Zola’s, can rise above themselves (some of them, at any rate) and come into attunement with the cosmic order. Zola’s novels resemble sociological field-notes, written up as narrative. Joyce for his part and in contrast with Zola cultivates the epiphanic consciousness. But really, as Wilson asserts, “all artists, whether they know it or not, possess a fundamental identity of aim,” such that “’pessimistic’ art is a contradiction in terms.” Is Zola’s oeuvre other than art? Wilson leaves the question in abeyance, but the implication is difficult to evade. Academic opinion will, of course, be scandalized. Having set forth his basic premises Wilson undertakes a general survey.
“I Glory in the Name of Earwig,” with the subtitle “A Study of the Modern Hero,” summarizes the extended analysis of literary modernity that Wilson made in his Age of Defeat (1958), published in the U.S.A. as The Stature of Man. As in that book, so too in the “Earwig” essay, Wilson canvasses the major novelists of the Twentieth Century. He finds them damnably impoverished in courage, will, and imagination, and prone to a sickly nihilism. The novelists project their own limitations in those of their protagonists. Whereas, “the drama is, in essence, heroic,” it has so fallen out that “in the language of the twentieth century the hero has come to mean the central character in the play or book,” and no more than that. Whereas in ancient myth and medieval romance the hero consisted of “the man loved by the gods” and “the undefeatable man,” in the modern novel “these meanings have disappeared almost completely.” Ernest Hemingway, for example, enjoys the reputation of having created tough-guy anti-heroes. On examination, however, Wilson discovers “not one lucky hero in his whole gallery”; but rather fatalistic personalities prone to exhaustion whose survival, when it occurs, is more or less accidental. Wilson cites “the tired old man of The Old Man and the Sea,” who hangs on tenaciously through his ordeal but never initiates any action. Many anti-heroes of the late Nineteenth Century and the first half of the Twentieth Century lead the lives of rogues and criminals or endure incorrigible poverty from which they have insufficient imagination to escape.
The problem reaches acuity in the novels of the French school of Existentialism. Writing of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads to Freedom, Wilson observes that its main personage, Mathieu, “suffers from the same old inability to believe in himself, to feel himself a solid, positive person.” According to Wilson, Mathieu “possesses intelligence without principles or discipline” and “he is a slave of his own laziness and cowardice.” Albert Camus has not descended as far as Sartre into the ubiquitous nihilism of his era, but the distance between the two authors is hardly so great as to establish a hard distinction. For Wilson, Sartre and Camus falsify the label of Existentialism even as they adopt it. Neither Sartre nor Camus can find any persuasive reason to endorse existence; neither finds any pervasive reason for the individual to exist. “The whole climate of our time,” Wilson writes, “is against the creation of the existential hero.” Wilson means a genuinely existential hero who can see purpose in his own life and meaning in existence; who recognizes a teleological principle inherent in the ego and the cosmos. Nihilism and defeatism have one of their causes in a loss of contact with anything transcendent. Existence is only partly accessible to reason. It includes a symbolic component or stratum that only a kind of religio-mytho-poetic intuition can access. The modern mentality regards religion and myth as “an unreasonable farrago of nonsense.” In doing so, the modern mentality cuts itself off from spiritual refreshment and dooms itself to the desiccation of matter and nothing but matter and the paltry here-and-now of pragmatic immediacy. Indeed, “heroism is impossible for a man without belief.”
The essays on “Existential Criticism” and “Phenomenology and Literature” extend the themes of the “Earwig” essay. The essays of the section on “Individual Writers” allow Wilson to apply his idiosyncratic criteria in detail to selected items that he treats at length. The essay on Rand will be shocking but salutary reading for adherents of Objectivism and defenders of the author. Wilson appreciates the ambition of Rand’s two big novels, but judges them, especially Atlas Shrugged, to share the same noetic limitations as the run of modern novels. Ultimately, Rand is as nihilistic as Sartre. Wilson’s essay on the Scottish fantasist David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus (1920) stands as the first extended critical analysis of any of that author’s then-obscure works. It also serves to underline Wilson’s point that writers like Lindsay, marginal to the literary establishment, can rise to visionary heights where the Sartres and Hemingways of the world, although lauded by the establishment, fear to tread. Wilson incidentally rejects Lindsay’s ultra-Calvinist dualistic view of the world, but the fantasist’s intensity of vision wins him over. Wilson writes: “A carping critic might find A Voyage to Arcturus no more than an attempt to write The World as Will and Idea as a novel; but, as with Schopenhauer’s work, Arcturus has a power that enables it to survive one’s disagreement with its ideas.” The Lindsay essay also offers a thesis that Wilson revisited elsewhere in his work – that genre attracts the eccentric, the “Outsider,” who more likely communes with vision than the conformists of institutional literature.
Stanley and Lachman worked together to bring Eagles and Earwigs back into print. The Ultimate Colin Wilson appears to have been Stanley’s project solely. As mentioned previously, The Ultimate Colin Wilson corresponds mainly to The Essential Colin Wilson, a self-organized anthology drawing on Wilson’s by then quite large authorship that hit the shelves in the mid-1980s. The book boasts the subtitle Writings on Mysticism, Consciousness and Existentialism. In addition to the original contents, Stanley has included excerpts from six of Wilson’s post-1985 books. The Ultimate Colin Wilson opens on a wider vista than Eagles and Earwigs. It signals, for example, Wilson’s growing interest in the occult, excerpting his book of that name from 1971; his absorption in the psychology of Abraham Maslow, concentrating on Maslow’s notion of the “Peak Experience”; and his investment in Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology and the broader investigation of consciousness. The collection does not confine itself to its author’s non-fiction, but avails itself of his fictional oeuvre as well. In his original Introduction to the book, Wilson acknowledges his debt to Romanticism: “The Romantics were always experiencing these strange moods of delight and relaxation in which they seemed to see the answer to all the problems of existence.” On the other hand, the Romantics were prone to lapsing from exaltation into despair. The problem poses itself how to sustain those “strange moods” that, illuminating reality and vitalizing consciousness, lift the subject out of the rut of routine.
The Ultimate Colin Wilson contains the “Autobiographical Introduction” that prefaces Religion and the Rebel (1957). Wilson would go on to pen several autobiographies, the last being The Angry Years (2007). Wilson, a remarkably self-actualizing person, came from a lower working-class background. His father worked in a shoe factory and spent a good deal of his earnings in his favorite pub. Nothing in Wilson’s milieu would have suggested the development of an intellectual, but Wilson’s life tends to repudiate facile sociology. Wilson tells the story how “when I was eleven years old, my grandfather gave me a tattered and coverless science fiction magazine.” As Wilson adds that “the stories… excited me more than anything I had ever read.” The magazine also introduced him to “a name of which I had never heard,” and that was Albert Einstein. Wilson followed up his excitement. He read Einstein’s Relativity, the Special and the General Theory and Sir James Jeans’ Mysterious Universe. He would eventually attend a science high school. In light of Wilson’s judgments about modern literature, the fact that a science-fiction monthly catalyzed his intellectual awakening takes on significance. Amazing and Astounding offered stories – no matter how badly written – optimistic in their outlook. When Wilson rehearses his employment history of low-end, go-nowhere jobs in offices and factories, one can see why he escaped into books – soon moving away from science into philosophy and literature.
In the same “Autobiographical Introduction,” readers learn of Wilson adolescent passage through atheism. The conviction came over him that “God either didn’t care, or didn’t exist.” This conviction corresponded with long period during which Wilson, as he puts it, “felt that ‘futility’ was the final comment on human life.” In this bleak stretch, “my admiration went to a certain ideal of cold brutality of intellect.” Later, it would dawn on him that “the idea that there was no God, no longer gave me a feeling of freedom.” After arranging to have himself kicked out of the RAF, into which he had been conscripted under the National Service Act, Wilson became a vagabond, wandering about England, working at odd jobs when necessary, and crossing the Channel to do the same in France. He wandered, however, with a satchel full of books. Back in London, he formed a coherent plan. He would work to earn enough money so that he could feed himself for some months. As long as the weather remained clement, he would not pay for lodging but would sleep nights in a pup-tent on Hampstead Heath. By day he would work, reading and writing, in the library of the British Museum. The plan came to fruition with the appearance of The Outsider, after which Wilson lived by writing. And yet, as he avers, “I have never thought of myself primarily as a writer.” What really concerned him at the time of his second book was “achieving a certain state of mind called ‘vision’; and above all other things I prefer to study the evidence that men have left of their moments of vision.”
The Ultimate Colin Wilson draws from Beyond the Outsider (1965) the chapter entitled “The Strange Story of Modern Philosophy,” as rewritten for inclusion in Superconsciousness (2009). Wilson’s account of modern philosophy parallels his account of modern literature. “By the beginning of the [nineteenth] century,” Wilson writes, “philosophy had fallen into a sad state.” He explains: “For the doubts planted by Locke, Berkeley and Hume had made the philosopher see himself as essentially passive – someone who sat in an armchair asking what his reason could tell him about the world.” Again, Wilson regards Romanticism as an attempt to restore active engagement with the world. He contrasts Auguste Comte’s Positivism with Georg Friedrich Hegel’s metaphysics. Hegel, Wilson writes, “began as a skeptic and rationalist, but then had some kind of revelation in which he saw the ‘Idea’ as the ultimate reality from which all other things derive, including Nature and Spirit.” He links Hegel’s insight with the opening of St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.” According to Wilson, “this led [Hegel] to a vision of history… in which all the miseries and torments… nevertheless drive man ‘upward and on,’ towards the expression of pure spirit.” Wilson’s remarks on Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are worth quoting. “Foucault,” he writes, “was a homosexual with powerful sado-masochistic leanings, so his works become a disguised polemic, arguing for a kind of Dionysian explosion of repressed impulses.” Of Derrida: “Taking from the linguistic philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure the view that words have no innate ‘meanings,’ but vary freely in different contexts, he applied this notion to philosophy, which he sees as a kind of spume on… the sea of language.”
How many writers of the 1950s own any pull on memory in Anno Domine 2020? Very few. I have recently written about Stuart Holroyd, a friendly acquaintance of Wilson’s, whose early authorship began in the same year as Wilson’s and addressed the same topics from a similar perspective. The name of Holroyd – unfortunately for so fine a writer – has had no cachet for decades. I would expect that my departmental colleagues, most of them several decades younger than I, have never heard of Holroyd, despite their claim to wide reading. I would expect the same result frankly were I to bring up Wilson’s name. There is a difference, however. Holroyd’s books are entirely out of print, but many of Wilson’s titles remain available and their republication occurs fairly frequently. (Aristeia Press has been reissuing the “Outsider Cycle” in handsome, trade-paperback editions.) Since publishing is a commercial enterprise, the steady salability of Wilsoniana indicates that an audience for Wilson persists. It no doubt consists of enthusiasts, but they cannot all be as superannuated as I, who first read Wilson in 1970 when a high-school English teacher named Bill Clawson saw me looking bored and gave me his copy of The Outsider on loan. As a college undergraduate, I scoured UCLA’s Research Library for books by Wilson. I bought the ones that I could not find in the stacks in adjacent Westwood’s many book stores.
I put the question of Wilson’s stubborn presence to Colin Stanley and Gary Lachman, asking who constitutes the current readership for Wilson, and whether the persistence is, to them, surprising. Stanley responds that “there’s no denying that the majority of delegates at the two conferences [on Wilson] have been mainly elderly but reassuringly there were also some university-educated young people.” At the London memorial to Wilson in 2014, Stanley, who served as Master of Ceremonies, spoke the following words: “So we are nearing the end of our celebration of the life of an extraordinary man; a man whose work survives him and whose work will, I predict, survive the lives of everyone here today.” He adds, “Yes, [Wilson] wrote too much but, when all the ephemeral titles fade into obscurity (as they are beginning to do) there remains a remarkable body of work.” If there were still vestiges of a hostile elite attitude to Wilson, then in Stanley’s analysis, the “snobbishness of the literati” that dismissed him “personally” years ago is dying off with its personae. “They will be replaced,” Stanley believes, “by those who will hopefully judge the work and not the man.” Lachman echoes many of Stanley’s notions. As to Wilson’s current readership, Lachman says, “I get emails and messages from people who are just discovering Wilson, people who read him in the past and are re-discovering him, and people who didn’t know about him and are surprised that they didn’t – so really the response is from all sides.” He adds that, “Newcomers to his work again seem to come from different backgrounds; and as esotericism, consciousness and other subjects that [Wilson] wrote about and which I write about too have become to some extent ‘respectable’ academic topics, a good deal of interest in his work comes from a new generation engaged in this.”
* Eagles and Earwigs: Essays on Books and Writers – With a Publisher’s Statement by Todd Swift, With a Preface by Gary Lachman, and Editorial Notes by Colin Stanley. Eyewear Publishing, Limited, London, United Kingdom, 2018. (409 Pages)
* The Ultimate Colin Wilson: Writings on Mysticism, Consciousness and Existentialism, edited by Colin Stanley. Watkins Publishing, London, United Kingdom, 2019. (313 Pages)