Colin Wilson’s Idiosyncratic Literary Legacy

Brett Taylor

Colin Wilson burst onto the paranormal scene with The Outsider in 1956, and his reputation and public image have been on a slow decline ever since. Some of his 118 books sold well, and some didn’t. Wilson, a self-taught laborer who wrote his way into the literary scene and grew to be yet another example of the English eccentric—mild mannered but obviously idiosyncratic—was clearly an odd duck.

Gary Lachman, author of a 2016 book about Wilson (Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, Tarcher Perigee, New York) is also a rare bird, since few musicians have thrown away rock stardom in order to study the occult. An original member of the New Wave band Blondie, he gave up rock and roll to research the paranormal and eventually write a number of books on esoteric subjects, including biographies of the usual oddball thinkers including Jung, Swedenborg, Madame Blavatsky, and Aleister Crowley.

Lachman bills Beyond the Robot as a “rediscovery” of Colin Wilson. In spite of the title, it is mainly Wilson’s work being studied here. Many pages are spent explaining his philosophical ideas, while his life is often overshadowed. Though Lachman has known Wilson’s widow and two sons for years, they often seem like peripheral figures, and the subject seems to have been completely absorbed by his work, in more than one sense.

Overall, I enjoyed Lachman’s biography, but a more critical author might have written a book that argued for the subject’s worth in a broader and more convincing context. Lachman displays credulity on occult matters and an admiration for Wilson’s sometimes dodgy philosophy. Among other preoccupations, he has absorbed Wilson’s stylistic tendency to use italics to imprint some salient point or another on the consciousness of the reader. Actually, Lachman utilizes italics more than Wilson did, but the stylistic tendency nonetheless has the effect of recalling the late author’s style even if the usage is not always exactly the same. For someone who resented public interest in his private life, Wilson had no problem disclosing juicy tidbits about the lives of dead authors, and here Lachman does the same. Do we really need to read about the fondness author Kingsley Amis had for smacking women directly on the anus? Especially in a book that tells us so little of the private life of its subject?

Both author and subject place a great deal of importance on coincidence. This is basically the same old Jungian synchronicity, and Wilson’s fascination with it is more than a little ironic for someone who dismissed Jung so easily. One biographical anecdote finds Lachman recounting, without any apparent amusement or irony, an incident in which Wilson harnessed the power of his right brain in order to deliver producer Dino De Laurentiis an uncredited rewrite on the campy Flash Gordon remake. Lachman seems to find some vague significance in the fact that the Flash Gordon script deals with one of Wilson’s favorite preoccupations, the right-brain/left-brain conflict. But the simple explanation is that Wilson personally inserted this theme into the script.

Whatever one thinks of Wilson, it seems obvious to say that his “new existentialism” failed to supplant the old existentialism in the philosophy canons of most universities. Wilson’s “peak experience” was borrowed from Abraham Maslow and was basically the same concept that Kant had previously termed “the sublime.” I think this is the main reason Wilson is not widely remembered today—he was more an analyzer of previous philosophies than a blazingly original thinker. Wilson promised nothing less than a heightened new direction in human consciousness. Yet Wilson’s results in this direction were somewhat meager. Wilson claimed he could use his willpower to experience changes in consciousness, but what impact this ability had on his own life and career is rather vague, to say nothing of how the human race benefitted from it. As for achieving this heightened consciousness, Wilson’s techniques of breath control and meditation would be nothing new to anyone familiar with Asian religions.

It is perhaps not so much Wilson’s insistence on his own genius that is his most annoying trait but rather his tendency to disdain the work and philosophy of the greatest minds of literature with an appallingly casual sense of ease. Wilson disliked the work of Samuel Beckett and was critical of Graham Greene, but at least he was sensible enough to be polite to these authors when he met them. With Eugene Ionesco he didn’t even bother with pleasantries. Wilson began his career by calling out these greats on their failings and by promising to counter their pessimistic leanings with a newer and more positive philosophy. The bohemians of the sixties branched off into three directions. Some chose the Huxley path and sought expanded consciousness through drugs. Wilson detested mescaline after one sole experiment with it, and he claimed he could invoke the psychedelic state of mind without drugs, simply by concentrating on a radish. Clearly we are dealing with an advanced state of mind, as Wilson would have you think, or perhaps just someone with mild schizophrenia.

Then there was the path of political change, which Wilson rejected. Wilson abandoned socialism in his youth. In later years he endorsed Margaret Thatcher only to abandon this position as well. Lachman takes Wilson at his word in claiming to have no strong political opinions, but I wonder about this. A man with no political opinions is unlikely to edit a book titled Marx Refuted, as Wilson did in 1987. Forsaking drugs and politics, Wilson chose the path of inner enlightenment, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but which has a way of encouraging self-absorption. The primary question that dominated his writing—How can troubled intellectuals avoid boredom and find happiness?—seems a bit elitist and somewhat shortsighted when you consider all the problems of the world.

But rather than creating a glorious new literature of positive art, Wilson went on to write flaky (though sometimes entertaining) books on the paranormal. Wilson scoffed at much occult literature as lowbrow trash and sought to bring “reason” to the occult field. But Wilson’s idea of deductive logic was noticeably backward. It is obvious from The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries, cowritten with son Damon, that Wilson began every occult “investigation” by granting credence to any supernatural concept that came his way. It was this fuzzy kind of “logic” that allowed Wilson to accept the possibility of the Loch Ness monster and the like. Reading Wilson’s work in the paranormal field is a frustrating experience. For any rational reader, it is infuriating to see a man of such intelligence wasting his brilliance on theories about Yeti, psychic vampires, and the Cottingley fairies. Yet at least this book makes an amusing reference work, however gullible. When Wilson devoted his time to writing entire books on such subjects as Atlantis or the proven fraud Uri Geller, the results were simply tiresome to those not enchanted or fooled by the subject matter.

Once praised by the likes of Cyril Connolly, the author of The Outsider ended up writing pulp novels such as the Spider World series, in which the barbarians of a postapocalyptic Earth battle to overcome their arachnid overlords. Wilson promised great things, but what he delivered was an odd mix of pulp novels and paranormal studies—the latter often downright silly. Here was an author who had no qualms about disdaining any noted author he found overly pessimistic, be it Kafka or Sartre, but who quickly succumbed to a kind of intellectual soft headedness, rushing off in the direction of any and every supernatural fad. By contrast, Lachman is particularly dismissive of Wilson’s true crime studies, which at least have the advantage of being grounded in recorded fact.

Lachman digs up an old dispute between Martin Gardner of CSICOP (now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), and he expresses dismay that the paranormal periodical Fortean Times has taken an increasingly skeptical tone since its initiation. He expresses dismay that the English are a more skeptical lot than their Yank counterparts, which seems to me like a mark in favor of the English. He even claims to have gotten into “skirmishes” in which he found himself defending Wilson in pubs. The notion of the former rocker being forced to defend his idol’s views on the paranormal with fisticuffs strikes me as irresistibly comic. I like to think the ruffians Lachman battled were attired with bicycle caps and shabby overcoats in the best Andy Capp tradition, and I strongly suggest that the recreation of these encounters would make a fine framing device for a BBC telefilm of Wilson’s life, should one ever be made.

Will Lachman succeed in reviving and improving Wilson’s reputation? It seems a bit doubtful. In a way, Wilson’s semi-prudery is a kind of highbrow alternative to religious moralism. He was critical of so-called sexual perversions such as S&M, not because they were immoral but because they were a waste of time and energy in his estimation. This seems to be a highly subjective judgment, since even Wilson was at a loss to find a definitive definition of what exactly “perversion” is. Further, I am unaware of any scientific proof of the Wilsonian conviction that perversion eventually becomes boring and disappointing to those who try it. The mainstreaming of such so-called alternative lifestyles as homosexuality and S&M makes the tsk-tsking in Wilson’s The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders look fustier than ever. And modern psychiatry has shed much light on the chemical roots of depression and mental illness, making it easy to speculate that many of the artists and thinkers Wilson critiqued were victims of bipolar disorder or other mental disorders rather than their own philosophical failings. The philosophical trends of the sixties bent in the direction of deconstructionism, and Wilson bristled to see the likes of Jacques Derrida, rather than his own ideas, being studied at the universities. In many ways, Wilson’s self-proclaimed optimism and emphasis on the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps work ethic had more in common with popular psychology than with any well-developed existentialism, old or new. Even as Wilson was quick to criticize such seeming forbears as Freud and Jung, he saw fit to note approvingly that Norman Vincent Peale had spotted something Freud had overlooked, namely optimism. This was surely a highwater mark in highbrow acceptance for the author of The Power of Positive Thinking.

Wilson’s novels are, at the least, unique. These books, in which heroes who resemble more dynamic versions of the author square off against sex criminals and super aliens through metaphysical debate and philosophical digression, are either clever re-imaginings of lurid thriller formats as vehicles for serious thought or simply the most pseudo-intellectual potboilers on record. The novels accomplish the weird trick of describing luridly outrageous scenarios in a style that is cerebral and professorial. Lachman considers Wilson to be a trailblazer in that he turned the detective format into a philosophical-postmodern genre, though I would point out that Borges had already pioneered this idea to some extent in Death and the Compass.

I see Wilson as a fine example of the classic English oddball who could have emerged from a Peter Cook comedy sketch. Indeed, it is an amusement of such figures that allows me to enjoy much of Wilson’s work even while I am dismayed by his lapses in judgment. I understand that Lachman’s point of view is different, and I liked reading his biography. But I still think a more well-rounded biography could have been achieved by placing the late author in a more critical context. Given that Wilson was basically to blame for trapping himself into an occult corner, it is perhaps no surprise this has not happened.

Colin Wilson burst onto the paranormal scene with The Outsider in 1956, and his reputation and public image have been on a slow decline ever since. Some of his 118 books sold well, and some didn’t. Wilson, a self-taught laborer who wrote his way into the literary scene and grew to be yet another example …

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