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Wilson, Colin 1931–
Wilson is a British novelist, essayist, and playwright. Essentially a phenomenologist, he has pursued the "sources of human energy" into the dark corners of witchcraft and the occult in his many books of fiction and nonfiction. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
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My contention is that The Outsider contains the key idea to understanding the twentieth century, and that it contains all the seminal ideas of Wilson's later works, though I would agree quickly that Wilson was probably unaware at that time of the direction his theories would take. The initial premise in The Outsider is that since about 1800, with the development of the Romantic Movement in art, literature, and philosophy, a group of outstanding individuals has developed who are no longer satisfied with the dead-end streets of scientific or existential thought. They insist upon breaking out of their "prisons" of the mind in search of ultimate reality, whatever that may be…. In defending his outsider concept, Wilson has surveyed the works of a staggering number of writers, artists, and philosophers. (p. 63)
Wilson has said that, for the sake of convenience, his starting point lies in William James's essay "The Energies of Man." Add to the James essay Shaw's evolutionary concepts of the philosopher-scholar, as found in the rarely performed "Don Juan in Hell" from Man and Superman, plus Husserl's concept of intentionality (as Wilson uses it to extend the borders of existential thought), and you have the bare bones of Wilson's recurrent themes. He has expounded these themes in science fiction, sex novels, and some really good detective-spy fiction. In his The Occult: A History, he relates the outsider theme to major figures in the occult. Maintaining an objective distance from the flamboyance involved in reports of magic, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, water-witching, mind-altering drugs, the I Ching, the Kabbalah, and the tarot cards, he states:
Faculty X is simply that latent power that human beings possess to reach beyond the present…. It would be a mistake to think of Faculty X as an "occult" faculty. It is not; it is the power to grasp reality, and it unites the two halves of man's mind, conscious and subconscious…. Faculty X is not a "sixth sense," but an ordinary potentiality of consciousness … it is the key not only to so-called occult experience, but to the whole future evolution of the human race.
"Faculty X" is probably the key term in Wilson's The Occult, and it is quite as serviceable as other terms being used these days for forces in the human mind we have not explained. It relates to the outsider concept in that many, perhaps all, outsiders possessed it to one degree or another and were, through its use, able to extend their creativity. (p. 64)
In most Wilson novels, the hero begins to suspect that there is more to life than appears on the surface. Through an exercise of the will, "Faculty X" is mobilized….
In Voyage to a Beginning, Wilson states additional convictions found repeatedly in his novels: (1) that consciousness needs to be expanded by an act of will—not through hallucinogens and not through the trance state achieved by a number of religious groups—and (2) that there is meaning in the evolving world, as opposed to the popular existential view that planet Earth is a meaningless, accidental, and absurb fiasco. (p. 65)
Wilson claims to be thoroughly existentialist. He denies Sartre's belief that "there is no essential you," nevertheless, and finds Sartre's negative attitude phenomenologically unsound because it distorts intentionality. He emphasizes the limitless possibilities for his own "new existentialism," maintaining that its optimism is a more valid stance than Sartre's pessimistic "nausea" because he (Wilson) has taken Maslow's "peak experiences," Frankl's "will to meaning," and Husserl's "need to know" (intentionality) into consideration…. Wilson suggests that someday—through evolution, the collective unconscious, even DNA coding—humankind will be able to use "Faculty X" quite as easily as it uses any of the five physical senses today. (pp. 65-6)
I feel fairly strongly that Wilson has not developed any clear understanding of mysticism as distinguished from or related to the occult. All his novels and nonfiction so far seem to indicate that he is not particularly interested in spiritual development nor in implications of consciousness expansion in a social context. His chief interest seems to be simply in individual mind control per se. (p. 68)
I would like to leave my nagging concern about social consequences for the nonce, then, and look briefly at what happens to the individual with an expanded consciousness, who has made use of his "Faculty X." In God of the Labyrinth, Wilson creates a hero who decides that "nothing is worth possessing except intensity of consciousness." Soon after coming to this decision, the hero finds himself capable of giving an exhibition in sexual athletics which might boggle the pedestrian mind…. What Wilson does in the particular novel … [mentioned] is, simply, to apply the old occult ideas to a twentieth century fictional context. (pp. 69-70)
The most fascinating aspect of the book to me personally, and presumably to Wilson also, was the possiblility that two personalities might exist in the same body. While the hero searches physically and psychically for the author of an eighteenth century sex journal, he gradually permits the personality of the dead author to "return" from the dead and inhabit his (the hero's) very alive body…. What Colin Wilson does not bother to tell the uninitiated reader is that this development would be called, in occultist circles, "possession." Not reincarnation, mind you. And Possession is not a desirable state of affairs, witness The Three Faces of Eve as its nearest psychological analogy. In God of the Labyrinth, then, mind control has traveled full circle to become mind domination. (p. 70)
Martha Eckman, "Colin Wilson and the Occult" (originally an address delivered at the Third National Meeting of the Popular Culture Association), in The Contemporary Literary Scene 1973, edited by Frank N. Magill (copyright © 1974 by Frank N. Magill), Salem Press, Inc., 1974, pp. 62-74.
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In Mysteries, Colin Wilson reveals that the germ of his subjective compendium of psychology and the occult began when he was trying to write over 3,000 words a day for a compendium of crime. Wilson kept waking up in the night with a terrible sense of anxiety. Standing back from this tale, it seems to be about the consequences of trying to write too much dreck too fast, but for Wilson his 'panic effect' came from a weaker personality and required a supra-natural cure, which he calls 'the school-mistress effect'. The rest of his 667-page book is a similar mélange of willed over-reading and gullible summary. Kabbalism, hermeticism, gnosticism and alchemy are relatively unsympathetically treated, probably because they are related to major religions and so aren't entirely prey to the whims of the post-rational mind….
Modern occultism of the sort enthusiastically described by Colin Wilson is not about knowledge, however non-scientific, but about not knowing. Again and again its structure is that of horror: the small lit room reminding one of the dark limitless space beyond and beneath.
Helen McNeil, "A Severed Head," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 96, Nos. 2492 & 2493, December 22 & 29, 1978, p. 885.∗
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[In Mysteries] Colin Wilson addresses the same theme that has consistently threaded its way through all of his books, beginning with The Outsider, which brought him world attention in his early twenties—that so-called "conscious" human beings are pygmies, mere fragments of their true selves.
But, he avers, "human beings will one day recognize, beyond all possibility of doubt, that consciousness is freedom….
Part of Wilson's hopeful conclusion is directly based on his personal confrontation with a series of what he calls "panic anxiety attacks" which lasted several months and brought him to the edge of a nervous breakdown….
Wilson's account of how he finally overcame these attacks is a courageous example of how it is possible to deal with oppressive problems through introspection….
Wilson lays a large share of the blame for this state of affairs on our incessant search for security. He maintains that while freedom from risk and doubt is essential to human experience, to overemphasize it slows down the learning experience we have come upon this planet to acquire….
The unfortunate truth is that humans, in the present stage of their evolution, appear all too ready to accept lack of meaning, just as animals accept physical suffering. Wilson believes that only shock or crisis can release them from a state of suffocation and bring them to a realization of higher purpose and a feeling of being totally alive….
Readers of Mysteries will be called upon … to adjust their thinking to worlds beyond the bleakly materialist and limited version of the cosmos presently expounded by mainstream science. In so doing, they will be introduced to an encyclopedic panoply of marvels and worthwhile philosophical insights, all of which are as entertaining as they are disturbing.
Christopher Bird, "The Robot within Us," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), December 24, 1978, p. E3.
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[Mysteries] marks a new 'high' in Wilson's prodigious output, placing him in the top rank of serious contemporary investigators of the paranormal.
The detail and wide range of the book (well documented) defies analysis in these few pages. But each and every example and subject is described, probed and weighed-up with such an eagle-eye that the volume immediately becomes 'definitive'. Moreover, the flow of writing is so natural and unaffected that nothing could be easier to read. There is, I think, only a single word which adequately sums up the qualities of this enormous opus of over 260,000 words—already a 'classic' in its own right—and that word is superlative. I might add that, after many years of study of such works, my opinion is a carefully considered one. And it is a volume one 'simply can't put down', but must go on reading, and reading … and re-reading. (p. 41)
[Wilson] writes in a style which any intelligent man or woman can grasp quite simply. Indeed his lengthy examples and explanations have all the compulsion and thrill of a masterly who-done-it?…
I have suggested … that some of the best and more perceptive scientists … are already beginning to accept 'the unusual' and paranormal, and to investigate them…. [But] the vast mass of scientists still remain unwilling to leave their comfortable cubby-holes or take off their blinkers. Which is one more reason why this book is so important. It will give all such individuals a severe jolt—and cause them to think again…. (p. 42)
[If] the reader will turn to Wilson's Magnum Opus, I think he will agree with me that it reflects an almost superhuman amount of research and magically ruminative thought, both of which belong to that quality defined as 'genius'. (p. 43)
Alan Hull Walton, "Colin Wilson's 'Magnum Opus'" (© copyright Alan Hull Walton 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 24, No. 6, March, 1979, pp. 41-3.
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[Mysteries] is an encyclopedic treatment of the supernatural that begins with the assumption that seers, UFO watchers, dowsers, and people haunted by ghosts are not kidding. They honestly believe they've seen something, Wilson maintains, and on this basis he recites case after spooky case of happenings that seem to defy explanation. If he had stopped at storytelling, Mysteries could be written off as an unfortunate triumph of gullibility over good sense. But Wilson goes three reckless steps further. He tells why people have seen whatever they've seen, how someday we all will be able to see, and why the ability is a good thing…. As proof of his bizarre theory, Wilson offers the testimony of persons widely regarded as cranks. He puts inordinate trust in hunches: he praises one source for putting across a "feeling of revelation." Trying to validate the unknown by invoking the unknown, he calls upon the "unconscious," the "subconscious," "higher levels" of thought. When these devices fail, the weapon of last resort is emotion. "This vast computer we call the brain was meant to operate at a far higher level of efficiency." Wilson, in search of otherworldly meaning, argues with simple earthly shouting. (pp. 1448, 1451)
Paul T. Hornak, "Books in Brief: 'Mysteries'," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1979; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXI, No. 45, November 9, 1979, pp. 1448, 1451.
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Colin Wilson is not an academic. Not tied to a specific discipline, he concerns himself with the entire spectrum of the humanities. His case-book studies of the human condition are written with a sense of urgency, often ignoring the formal guidelines of academic writing. As a result, he has been criticized as self-righteous in expression, and unsound in analysis. In some respects, the critics are right. When subjected to analysis, his arguments often fall short. Isolated from the whole, individual works may appear to be hasty generalizations. But logical analysis and isolated dissection, while valid for criticism, do not justify a complete rejection of Wilson's ideas. These are not the only criteria available.
Wilson is concerned with the truth of the world "out there," not with formal logic. His writings are the response of an individual to the problems of existence. When he says that his beliefs are true, the justification is grounded in their usefulness in dealing with the practical problems of existence. Wilson is not a spectator. Unlike the scientist or mathematician, he is not interested in discovering universal theoretical truths. He is interested in the particulars of existence, here and now. He is oriented practically to the way reality could and should be….
Confidence in his own genius, coupled with an unquestioning belief in his significance as a writer, enabled Wilson to draw heavily from his own experiences. His first book The Outsider, was largely a recapitulation of his personal journal entries. after the initial critical reaction, Wilson's subjective approach was not well received. Yet he has never tried to conceal the personal nature of his work. On the contrary, his aims and motives were clearly established in his autobiography as the attempt to investigate facts and relate those facts to his own experience. (p. 5)
Although his work at first glance seems diverse and unconnected, there are consistent and unifying themes that permeate the whole. These themes, embryonic in his first book, develop with Wilson's maturation as a writer. The first seven books, the Outsider Cycle, were written as a reexamination of modern philosophy. The cycle provided a foundation for a new existentialism that would go beyond the impasse created by the old existentialism. Wilson contends that certain European existentialists, due to narrow vision and improper methodological tools, failed to transcend the apparent negativity of life; consequently, by mid-century philosophy was stuck in the dead end of pessimism. Likewise, the Logical Positivist approach failed. Logical and linguistic analysis are fine on paper, but do not, claims Wilson, affect life in the real world. Modern philosophy has failed to reveal the underlying meaning to be found in human existence.
The new existentialism is an attempt to take over where the old existentialism failed. Wilson's thematic development progresses toward this goal. He asserts that the nihilism of modern philosophy is a result of a distortion of thought. It is imperative that man find a new philosophy to "prevent these distortions and reestablish a more direct contact with existence." Through the tool of phenomenology, the philosopher can combat the distortions imposed by the mind on thought itself…. To focus on the boredom, the meaninglessness, the incapacity for freedom while overlooking the moments of broadened perception is philosophically myopic [Wilson says]. The momentary "glimpse of meaning" that is occasionally perceived through the clouds of despair is in itself enough to disclaim the meaning of nihilism. These "glimpses of meaning" are the key issue in Wilson's writings on the imagination….
Wilson approaches the problem of freedom through the concept of the outsider. The outsider is an evolutionary type of person confronted by a specific problem. He, more sensitive than the ordinary man, sees beyond the facade of meaning erected by society to conceal the chaos of life. He stands outside institutionalized values because "he alone knows he is sick, in a civilization that does not know it is sick." Without the values of society and without values of his own, the outsider witnesses his life with a sense of futility—he is not free, but is born into the bondage of a world policed by ordinary men who neither see the triviality of their concerns, nor recognize the horrors and contingency lurking behind the facade of order. (p. 6)
If existentialism was a "philosophy of freedom," then its greatest oversight was its concern with the freedom of "ordinary everyday consciousness." Wilson sees another aspect to human freedom, an extraordinary consciousness that strives for the more objective and positive evolutionary values, those values that reside outside of man….
It is the problem of contingency, claims Wilson, that is the major obstacle for the new existentialism. By using the word "contingency," Wilson is referring to the uncertain, unpredictable, and insecure nature of the universe….
In rejecting the notion of contingency, Wilson contends that meaning and values reside in the world. The real problem is that man, due to the narrowness of ordinary consciousness, does not see them. Belief in life's contingency naturally flows out of "the fallacy of passive perception." Wilson contends that the mistaken belief that human consciousness is passive, coupled with the narrowness of consciousness, is the cause of the inability to grasp the meaning present in the world. (p. 8)
The Logical Positivist claims that it is meaningless to ask questions about the meaning of life. The Existentialist claims that it is existence itself that is meaningless. Wilson, in declaring that meaning is revealed in moments of intensity, claims "to have produced the only acceptable alternative." The poetic, mystic, and religious experience are moments that seem to deny the contingency of life. They give insight into meaning, deny the accidental quality of existence, and go beyond the distortions man imposes on his own consciousness. They can no longer be regarded as abnormal. (pp. 9-10)
Aligning himself with William James, Wilson believes that these experiences are not supernatural, but merely extensions of the ordinary everyday consciousness. Unlike James, Wilson does not feel the need to suspend judgment; the answer to the problem of meaning is found in the structure of consciousness….
Wilson asserts that an act of will boosts perception, that perception can be intensified by an effort of concentration. In short, evolution can be seen as the product of the will to purpose. (p. 10)
Through his concept of the evolutionary will, Wilson brings us back to the problem of the outsider. The outsider is the harbinger of evolutionary change. He, more sensitive than the average human being, is prone to insight experiences that reveal man's higher destiny. Because he is different, because language fails him, because ordinary life among ordinary man bores him, he steps outside of society. (p. 11)
Although it is true that Wilson frequently deals with the mystic-religious experience, it would be misleading to label him a mystic. His books often deal with individuals described as mystics or visionaries, but throughout all of his writings he does not make a strong personal claim to mystic experience. (p. 14)
To Wilson's mind, man, through a heroic effort, and by learning how to discipline the mind, can experience the world in an entirely different way. The human being, like no other animal, has the ability to choose what and how he perceives. Because of his imagination, because of his ability to see further, because he can choose to evolve toward greatness or fall by the way of triviality, man is responsible for his own destiny. He must learn the subtleties of thinking. When he masters the process of rationality and recognizes that the reality of the moment of vision is a better alternative than everyday reality, he will occupy the realm of mind. It is the imagination, claims Wilson, that will bring us closer to this realm of mind. (p. 16)
The Age of Defeat is a continued search for the heroic. Dealing with not only literature, but also dabbling in sociology and economics, Wilson attempts to show that the absence of the hero in literature is a reflection of the modern writer's perception of reality. As such, it is not a mere literary problem. He sees "defeatism" as an interdisciplinary problem, and calls on the combined forces of literature and philosophy to overcome it….
If there is no true portrait of the hero in modern literature, then what, one might ask, is a "true" hero?… [In] The Introduction to the New Existentialism, Wilson carefully defines the "existential hero" as one who "has glimpses of joy that are beyond anything possible to the born coward: the ecstacy of power and freedom." Wilson explains that this awareness is coupled with the knowledge of the human condition with all of its existential pain and misery. Although the existential hero is aware of the negative qualities, he does not believe in them as ultimate reality. His reality is permeated with a belief in "freedom as absolute power." He is strong in his ability to overcome human frailties. He believes that even "human contingency will prove to be an illusion in the light of absolute freedom." In short, Wilson concludes, the hero "is totally the optimist and adventurer," one who does not recognize the legitimacy of "insurmountable obstacles." The existential hero may be destroyed, but never defeated. This definition is one that, if somewhat implausible, certainly cannot be criticized as lacking in ambition. Considered in the overall framework of Wilson's philosophical system, it reveals a developmental consistency.
Wilson's concept of the "existential hero" draws together his philosophical ideas concerning freedom, will, and evolution. As a part of his philosophy, it reflects his belief in the positive nature of reality, as well as his theoretical positions on the nature and function of imagination. Thus, it is also a part of his literary theory. (p. 18)
If the function of the creative writer is to help restore man's sense of purpose, and, in turn, man's sense of significance, then literature, claims Wilson, must be value-laden. The imagination, literature, and values are all tightly interwoven. Any attempt to separate them is purposeless…. Within the writer's material there is always a subtle and implicit value claim. Meaning, in the sense of the purpose of human existence, is a prerequisite for the writer. (p. 19)
An author employs existential realism only if he goes beyond the narrowly perceived reality of everyday consciousness. He must investigate reality phenomenologically, and present the reader with an undistorted vision that goes beyond the "natural standpoint." It is here that the reader actively involves himself in the writer's picture of reality. The novel, for this reason, must be somewhat didactic. The writer's vision must be communicated to, and accepted by, the reader. This dynamic interchange between the writer and the reader is the element most often criticized in Wilson's own fictional works, in addition to his evident self-confidence and attitude of supreme self-righteousness. Whether justified or not in the eyes of his critics, Wilson not only stood fast to his literary theory, but proceeded to establish new grounds for evaluating literature. These grounds, concerned with existential human values, would be the cornerstone of "Existential Criticism." (p. 21)
[Existential] criticism "is an attempt to judge works of art by the contribution they make to the science of living, to judge them by standards of meaning as well as impact." The two types of criticism are necessarily related. Existential criticism and literary criticism are complimentary. One deals with the interpretation of the technical "facts" of creative writing. The other deals with the interpretation of the existential "facts" of the writer's reality. Both tacitly recognize that "facts" do not live apart from their interpretation. (p. 22)
[Wilson's] work has been unfairly scrutinized…. Many of the critical challenges have been supported by fallacious reasoning, unfair generalization, attacks to the person, and irrelevant conclusions….
Some critics, directly or indirectly, have attacked Wilson's work on the basis of a "low-level intellectual quality." They seem to have been preoccupied with his lack of formal education. Ironically, Wilson's success as a literary "working class hero" was an outgrowth of the same factor. What was originally described as the "luminous intelligence" of a twenty-four-year-old writer soon became the fraudulent outpourings of a "British type, lower middle class, self-educated bohemian." The same qualities that critics used to support the belief that Colin Wilson was a genius were used to denounce him as a "scrambled egghead." (p. 27)
The critics were not altogether wrong. Wilson's early books were in many ways the works of a young and inexperienced writer. His urgency for expression often betrayed his intent. At twenty-four he felt confident that his ideas were important. Where many writers derive their "authority" and confidence from their advanced degrees, Wilson's confidence evolved from his extensive reading and life experiences. He viewed himself as having no less authority because of his lack of formal education. Unlike more humble writers, he never alluded to his authority sheepishly. He proclaimed it. In this light it is understandable why his person was the primary target of attack…. There was, in spite of an early toxic reaction to success, an urgency in Wilson's concerns. His search for truth seems honest and sincere, even at this early date.
Wilson's holistic approach to his subject matter has been another point of critical attack. His positions often exemplified as well as justified connecting and interrelated elements in literature, philosophy, music, art, psychology and history. In short, Wilson was a pioneer in the interdisciplinary approach to problem solving; he could never justify the separation of philosophy from art or literature. (p. 28)
The Outsider  is one of the trenchant argumentative statements of the middle-Fifties. Considered within the placid mood of the times, the torrential outpourings of the previously unknown Colin Wilson were challenging not only to the literary establishment, but also to the popular market as well.
Whether Wilson set out deliberately to dazzle or perplex his readership is uncertain. The text of The Outsider is far from self-explanatory; one can search frustratingly for a specific theme. Yet Wilson displays an obvious erudition that, in this case, does not dazzle for its own sake…. Wilson studies those individuals, in fact and fiction, who fit his concept of outsider types; those who search for a way out, pursuing truth at all costs, striving to be free from the banality of ordinary existence. (p. 30)
In many ways, the ideas in The Outsider represent an embryonic stage in Wilson's search for a "religious" answer to the problem of alienation. A special type of religiosity will begin to develop, and continues to develop, throughout the remainder of his work. (pp. 30-1)
If the success of The Outsider was phenomenal, the failure of his next book [Religion and the Rebel (1957)] was equally so. (p. 31)
[George Bernard Shaw's] idea of the life force is clearly seen in Religion and the Rebel [where] the outsider is an evolutionary development of the life force in man. This Shavian life-force is, in times of crisis, capable of creating a higher, more developed form of life. Wilson, like … Shaw, is anti-Darwinian and anti-determinist. Human beings and animals change through evolution because they want to change. Change is not an accident. It is a function of the evolutionary will. The outsider is the noble knight who meets the crisis of the Western world.
It is, to some degree, true that Wilson's "megalomania" does reveal itself in Religion and the Rebel. However, one must recognize the urgency of his concerns. If there are "inconsistencies" and "wild thrashings about," these come from a self-appointed mission to deliver a message. (pp. 31-2)
Shorter, but no less controversial, than his previous books, [The Age of Defeat (1959)] takes issue with the overwhelming attitude of defeat and disaster present in contemporary literature. Here, Wilson hypothesizes that literature is merely a reflection of the world of its creators, and that it is modern society in general that suffers from the "fallacy of insignificance." This malady must be cured if man is to evolve to his proper stature….
The Age of Defeat prompted some criticism from those who felt that Wilson did not generate any ideas of his own. This may be true, but, for all of the palaver and nit-picking, Wilson here takes on a rather difficult task: the restructuring of literature. His approach builds upon casebook examples from life and literature, and is not intended merely to display creative insights. His studies are methodical and empirical, yet no less creative than those of the mathematician or scientist. (p. 32)
Wilson's first novel [Ritual in the Dark (1960)] is a study that aims at a different sensibility in the reader. Focusing on the inevitable frustrations that arise out of the conflict between self and society, this existential tale puts literary theory into practice through the lives of several outsiders. As evidenced by the title, the story deals with the mythic appeal of both sex and violence, and lends itself to a questioning of both human motives and actions.
The novel chronicles the slowly-awakening consciousness of Gerard Sorme. This is a "novel of initiation," and, like any initiation rite, there is a painful encounter that leads to growth and an added dimension of insight. (pp. 32-3)
By portraying two outsider types in conjunction with each other, Wilson develops conflicting interpretations of certain events. Set against the semi-misanthropic Gerard Sorme is an outsider of a different sort. Austin Nunne is wealthy and knowledgeable, a refined dilettante writer who has a penchant for Nijinsky and sadistic murder. The interactions between Sorme and Nunne create most of the tension in the story. (p. 33)
Sorme represents the outsider who is able to integrate creative energies into his search for the positive aspects of freedom, while Nunne represents the outsider who is unable to deal with these forces. In Nunne we see the destruction of both self and society….
Wilson's fiction is didactic. It is the nature of his style to make fiction and non-fiction complementary as instructional devices; an unusual, but not illegitimate technique aimed concurrently at different sensibilities in the reader. At times, however, Wilson goes too far: his characters not only preach Wilson's ideas, but often resemble that man himself. In the case of Ritual, this resemblance is a minor flaw, and the book remains an extraordinary first novel. (p. 34)
In The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination , Wilson continues to expand his earlier statements on literary theory as set out in Age of Defeat.
Strength is a chronicle of the "inaccuracies of imagination" that are considered to be literature. Wilson, because he is intent on finding an underlying order or pattern to the general laws of imagination, carefully evaluates literary history. Although the book is ostensibly about literature, this fourth volume in the outsider cycle is really a study "with a view to defining the concept of reality." (p. 35)
The World of Violence  is the third novel dealing with the underlying theme of "initiation." Its basic premise is the "conflict between the world of the intellect and the world of physical violence."…
Wilson intends to involve the reader in the conflict. Thus, the violence and low-key sexuality are never meant for sensationalist purposes, but to create a tension between the reader and the characters. Whether Wilson succeeds is questionable. (p. 36)
Considered within the framework of the creation of an evolutionary hero, The World of Violence, like Ritual in the Dark and Adrift in Soho, is a positive step in the right direction. At this point, Wilson is still at an experimental stage in his fiction. What is apparent in The World of Violence is that Wilson is making progress. The maturation of the hero is displayed through a new ability to make positive value choices and to act upon those choices. (pp. 36-7)
Roughly, the theory of symbolic response [in Origins of the Sexual Impulse (1963)] states that the origins of the sexual impulse are not found within the Freudian libido. Sexual activity is a response to symbols, and symbols are invested with meaning from a separate source. In human sexuality the symbol is given meaning by a curious aspect of the inner self that is continually searching for purpose from within. In other words, the imagination invests a particular object with sexual meaning. The source of meaning is found within man rather than without.
If the source of sexual meaning is found within the individual, then, according to the theory, ideas of "normal" sex and "perversion" fall apart. The standard is subjective rather than objective. Meaning is now seen as the projection of inner meaning upon the world. This projection of meaning or, as Wilson calls it, intentionality, is the origin of the sexual impulse.
The book received a cool response from the critics, who considered the book to be an excuse to write luridly about sexual matters. Others felt that Wilson was living up to his reputation for putting forth incomprehensible studies that were nothing more than a "hodgepodge." (p. 37)
Whether or not Wilson is qualified to develop a theory of sexual psychology is a legitimate question. But whether Wilson had ever intended to formulate a grand theory of sexuality for its own sake is doubtful. What is most important to Wilson's overall thesis is the idea of the intentionality of consciousness. In this light, Origins of the Sexual Impulse is closely aligned with his writings on the evolutionary purposiveness of life.
Wilson's novels often illustrate the ideas of his philosophical works. In Man Without a Shadow , he unabashedly demonstrates that the ideas discussed in Origins of the Sexual Impulse can be approached from the fictional angle. (pp. 37-8)
Wilson's most obvious concern is with the demonstration of the points made in Origin of the Sexual Impulse: the apparent interrelationship between the sexual drive, criminality, and the imagination, or, more specifically, the role sex plays in man's total being.
Wilson's heroes, up to this point, have been thinking men prone to philosophizing and intellectualizing. As they slowly become aware of the passion and intensity of life, the limitless potential of freedom, and the virtual "powerhouse" within them, they experience a broadening perception of their own consciousness. Wilson's heroes have evolved, and after the fourth novel continue to evolve. [Next,]… Wilson "moves into new forms which plunge their heroes from thought into action, from understanding into being." (p. 38)
[Necessary Doubt (1964) is] a step in Wilson's evolutionary development as a writer. Although on the level of intellectual thriller it is a little overstated, it still remains an engaging story. What keeps the reader involved through the intellectual digressions is the enthusiasm of the presentation, and Wilson himself. (p. 39)
[Wilson's] fiction consistently strives to meet the stringent demands of existential realism, and the philosophy found within is constructed situationally throughout the narratives. The characters in Wilson's novels live in a world that abounds with negativity, yet are able to see beyond their squalid surroundings. In their inner dialogue, as well as in their conversations, they expound the new existentialism. In the past Wilson had, on occasion, been a bit too enthusiastic about the new philosophy; many of the novels suffer from didacticism. However, most of his recent fiction has been more subtle…. (p. 42)
Murder is of interest to Wilson because "it is the most extreme form of denial of this human potential." His approach, in The Casebook of Murder , is to splash his readers in the face with enough cold water to rouse them from their passivity, and generate an active interest in their own freedom. Looking for homicidal patterns, Wilson surveys violent crimes of the last few centuries. In doing so he is making an attempt to establish the "changing fashions in murder," and gathering evidence to support his thesis that these crimes are crimes of freedom.
Voyage to a Beginning: A Preliminary Autobiography , criticized as resembling the "miracle promising ads" often found "in the back of sex magazines," is Wilson's attempt to present his life and ideas in a straightforward narrative. In general, the critics seemed to be affronted by an autobiography from someone so young. But the book, in spite of the caustic comments it received, is recommended for anyone interested in the "aims and motives" of Wilson's work up to 1969. Its value is in the insight it gives the reader into Colin Wilson's version of his own story. (pp. 45-6)
[Strindberg (1970)] is a psychological drama that portrays one night in the life of August Strindberg. Unlike the politically controversial work of the late sixties, Wilson's play is concerned with the matter of the individual. The individual, August Strindberg, is struggling with the internal and external conflicts of his own personality. The play, through techniques of dream dramatization and the juxtaposition of conscious and unconscious realities, questions what is genuinely real.
The overt question of Strindberg is that of sanity. Wilson presents his audience with a macabre situation replete with incongruous incidents. Strindberg, whether awake or asleep, is confronted by his past through the accusations of various influential participants. In a surrealistic trial the man and his work are "tried" and defended. The covert question of Strindberg is the question of reality. Through "experimental" dramatic techniques Wilson divests the stage of its linear quality. He offers his audience a new kind of dramatic space in which to perceive differently. He gives his audience different perceptual realities that obscure the fundamentalist notion of what is real. Strindberg is a penetrating, almost voyeuristic, glimpse into the artist's inner conflict as he is confronted by "his own existence." (p. 49)
Wilson's earlier documentations of murder and violent crime were the first two parts of a murder trilogy completed in 1972 with publication of The Order of Assassins. Whereas An Encyclopedia of Murder was a reference book, and A Casebook of Murder was a social history of homicide, The Order of Assassins is about the psychology of murder. It is the most readable of the series, and is concerned with a special type of murder. Assassination is "murder committed for its own sake." The assassin, one who has a personal concern with the insidious act, commits murder as a "means of self-fulfillment, a creative act." This is similar to what is presented in the novel Lingard.
Through an analysis of "high I.Q." murders, the book presents the reader with an interesting twist to the outsider theory. The word "assassin" goes back to an early Moslem religious sect whose members killed out of personal conviction or obedience to orders. There is an almost "demonic" quality associated with this type of murder, a "need for violence," "an indifference" to the victim. When outsiders become killers they are prone to become assassins. They are highly or at least moderately intelligent; they are rebellious by nature; they are seething with excess energy. These men are similar to, yet different from, the artistic outsider. Like the artist, the criminal knows he is not ordinary, he tends to defy social tradition, and he releases outbursts of psychic energy in his acts. Unlike the artist, the criminal's acts are violent crimes. The artist commits acts that have the effect of integrating him into society; the "assassin always walks alone." The assassin, unable to release energy in a positive way, suffers from "frustration of the will-drive." (pp. 53-4)
[The Order of Assassins] is interwoven with actual literary characters and criminals, and with differing psychological theories. It is well integrated and documented. Its major fault lies in the repetition of subject matter. But this is true, of course, for the entire spectrum of Wilson's work. (p. 54)
The Space Vampires (1976) is Wilson at his best. His writing always works well when he chooses subjects that can carry his philosophical weight, when he builds on philosophical foundations that galvanize his fiction with the non-fiction. Written with a simplicity of style and language, Vampires is a compelling and thought-provoking fictional work. This is Wilson's third science-fiction novel, and it is a further adaption of the mind parasites theme. Focusing on ideas of will and human potential, he takes his metaphor one step into the future. The space vampire, like the mind parasite, is an invading force that drains its human host of all vitality and will. Like its Draculan counterpart, it controls the minds of its victims but unlike its historical predecessor, the space vampire sucks out, not the blood, but the life force of its unfortunate prey.
The Space Vampires is more pointedly science-fictional than any of Wilson's earlier attempts. (p. 57)
Although much of the format seems to parallel Wilson's earlier novels, there are several clear differences in Vampires. In many of his other books Wilson falls into philosophical rambling and didacticism. What keeps the reader interested in The Space Vampires is the rapid-fire quality to the development of plot and story. And where some of the earlier fictions reveal the mystery or solution too early in the story, Vampires is quite different. Throughout the tale the reader is aware of a progression of events. The hero develops and awakens to an understanding of the problem in logical fashion, the plot is reasonably clear cut, and the resolution is anticipated in advance. The major difference between this most recent book and the earlier ones is to be found in Wilson's reversals. The last ten or twenty pages change the reader's understanding of the story through a rapid series of sudden changes. (pp. 58-9)
Wilson's basic underlying themes of the strength of the human will to resist invasion, the laziness and self-obsessed stupidity of most human beings, the second-hand nature of what man calls knowledge, and the recognition of the glimpse of meaning available when consciousness is fully used, are all present in this story. The Space Vampires remains one of Wilson's most successful creations, philosophical without being dull, a thoroughly entertaining fiction in every respect. (p. 59)
All persons, according to Wilson, have creative potentiality that remains untapped. The ability to tap into this potential depends upon positive, rather than negative, energy. Human boredom, resulting from the overefficiency of human habit systems, the robot-like response to daily life, and the resultant narrowing of perceptions, generates negative energy. Negative energy tends to obscure meaning, and this in turn slackens the will, making positive assertion difficult if not impossible.
The essence of Wilson's position is that man can and must expand the present modes of consciousness. His casebook studies are meant to give people an idea of what can be developed. The phenomenon of man's resignation to littleness is used to show the reader that man is perceptually aware of very little; but moreover, that man is conscious or unconsciously choosing not to be aware. If this is not changed, if man fails to concentrate on the assertion of will, he will ultimately forget how to be aware. (p. 60)
Clifford P. Bendau, in his Colin Wilson: The Outsider and Beyond (copyright © 1979 by Clifford P. Bendau), The Borgo Press, 1979, 63 p.
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