An appreciation of the author Colin Wilson (1931-2013) - philosopher, critic, novelist
* Gary Lachman addressing the First International Colin Wilson Conference at the University of Nottingham in July 2016.
Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson
Tarcher Pedigree US $26 (August 2016) UK £11.95 (October 2016)
Colin Wilson (Introduction by Gary Lachman)
Tarcher Pedigree US $17 / UK £12.79 (August 2016)
Gary Lachman’s Beyond the Robot is based on Colin Wilson’s autobiographical writings, especially, of course, Dreaming to Some Purpose (2004) and Voyage to a Beginning (1969) – Lachman admits: ‘I plunder both gleefully’ – and includes supportive commentary on the key titles in Wilson’s oeuvre, and on how Wilson’s ideas were drawn from, and came to influence, his own life experiences – indeed, how his life was inextricably bound up with these ideas.
With this approach, Lachman couldn’t help but tick the important Wilsonian philosophical and psychological boxes that merit a new study, making Beyond the Robot an excellent primer for newcomers to Wilson and one which might well attract new readers to his works, and this would be a very good thing.
While it is not really a ‘life’ in the sense of a conventional biography, and certainly not a critical biography of the kind attempted by Nigel Bray in his Bargaining with the Devil, published earlier in 2016, it has the distinction of presenting and bringing together all the threads of Wilson’s work into a single cogent volume. Indeed, Lachman says readers can see his book as ‘a kind of rough guide to Wilson’s philosophy’.
It was Goethe – the arch-Romantic whom Wilson was always fond of quoting – who said that a sure sign of genius was ‘posthumous productivity’, and since Wilson’s death in December 2013, no fewer than nine new books have appeared either by or about him, Beyond the Robot and the new edition of The Outsider being the latest of them.
Lachman describes Wilson as ‘a non-academic popular thinker who wrote for the intelligent general reader, a type of public intellectual rarely seen in our more cloistered time’. He seemed able to absorb more material for one book than most scholars do in a lifetime and he offered his findings to an intelligent public in a seemingly effortless readable style.
Avid readers of Wilson often found themselves in familiar territory, but it was always seen from a new angle, a different perspective, and like Wilson, this allowed readers to share in his new meanings and implications – and also keep pace with his thought, I would add.
Crucially, Wilson recognised ‘the robot’ – his term for how our consciousness operates on ‘auto-pilot’, narrowing our perception so as to enable us to handle everyday life – and the need to get beyond it in order to evolve. Lachman says it’s ‘the central human problem’; hence, presumably, his choice of title for his book.,emulating Wilson's own titles of Beyond the Outsider (1965) and Beyond the Occult (1988).
Wilson came to understand evolution not as a mechanical process, driven by chance mutations and the ‘survival of the fittest’, but as purposive and aiming at increased consciousness. He regarded life not as a ‘bottom-up’ process, a case of blind will gradually developing the means of understanding itself, but rather as a descent into matter, of life or spirit leaving realms of greater freedom and purposefully entering into matter in order to colonise it.
He might have been influenced here by T E Hulme, the poet and aesthetic philosopher, referred to in The Outsider, who saw evolution as ‘the gradual insertion of more and more freedom into matter’; freedom being a kind of leak of creativity into matter with evolution’s aim being ‘the gradual enlargement of this leak’.
It seems to me that such ‘freedom’ might be equated with consciousness if it gradually entered human beings rather than being gradually generated by our brains (how that could possibly have been done – consciousness arising from inert matter – is the infamous ‘hard problem’ of consciousness).
The ‘new mysterian’ model, the idea that consciousness, and not matter, could be the ground of all existence, and that our minds participate in it as a universal informational continuum rather than enfold a small part of it discretely, puts the understanding of consciousness beyond the scope of physical theory.
Consciousness, after all, as Wilson doubtless would have agreed, is the point of intersection between the cosmic and human dimensions, between timelessness and time, where we receive the numinous and the ‘life-force’, as well as the facility to recognise patterns and derive meaning, both in the external world and in one’s inner life.
Where consciousness studies in recent decades has been mired in reductionist materialism, one of Wilson’s convictions was that we are now at a stage of evolution when we are capable of giving our consciousness a boost, if only we can bring our imagination to bear on the issue, as an evolutionary force..
I must say that, although Beyond the Robot is blurbed as a ‘rollicking biography’, it’s actually far from ‘rollicking’ – Lachman’s prose is reserved and measured – and some biographical content that one might have expected to be included is absent.
Strangely, there's no mention of Damon Wilson's collaboration with his father in the writing of An End to Murder (2015), a book which included Colin Wilson's last original writing. The story of Wilson’s ten-year correspondence with Moors Murderer Ian Brady is not told (yet there’s half a page about the Japanese ‘cannibal killer’ Issei Sagawa), and there's a lack of anything about how Wilson was regarded by his his wife Joy, his children (or grandchildren), or any of his associates (co-authors, for example), which would have been interesting.
But then, Lachman’s emphasis is on acclamatory exposition of Wilson’s thinking over seven decades, rather than this kind of detail (although there could have been more on Wilson's existential literary criticism, I feel, because it is so important when considering the question of what literature is for).
Lachman was a friend of Wilson and is the author of a number of books on consciousness, culture and the Western esoteric tradition. He writes for several journals in the US and UK and lectures on his work around the world. He is an assistant professor in the evolution of consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies. A founding member of the rock group Blondie, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
A cornerstone of a practical, intuitive philosophy for life
First published in 1956, and never out of print since in the UK, USA and Japan, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider opened my mind in so many ways and set me on a path of personal discovery. Publication of this new Tarcher Pedigree edition in 2016, 60 years on, therefore invites a personal retrospective.
I remember clearly a school friend handing me his copy of the 1963 Pan paperback. I have to confess I never returned it and, indeed, it’s still in the (very large) Wilson section on my bookshelves, along with later editions. I identified immediately with Wilson's inspired study of alienation in the modern world, and how certain writers, poets, artists and other thinkers reflected it in their lives and works. For me, it was a literary and philosophical springboard.
C S Lewis once said: ‘A book sometimes crosses one's path which is ... like the sound of one’s native language in a strange country.’ That was it exactly. I have a lot to thank that school friend for. I went on to read as many of Wilson’s books as I could lay my hands on, and I must credit the cumulative effect of his ideas for a significant expansion of my consciousness over the years.
Wilson is broadly a humanist thinker in the Romantic tradition, and doubtless this was the basis of his original appeal to me – his assertion of the importance of self and the value of individual experience, his insistence on the ability to realise human potential through the expansion of consciousness, his explorations of the non-rational, his sense of the infinite and the transcendental, and his response to the idea of pressure on the ‘reason why’ of human existence. He suited my temperament.
It seemed that Wilson set out to achieve a balance between the rational and the non-rational, and between psychological and philosophical approaches. Because he wove a pattern which resonated with my own perceptions, my experience of the opposing pulls of that same duality, rational/non-rational, I was able freely to internalise the ideas, and begin to understand the vital principles guiding my own development and functioning.
Wilson’s work, indeed, impinges upon all aspects of existence, and offers persuasive explanations of human behaviour and endeavour. The existentialist approach, of course, is the oldest in philosophy, dating back to Plato, and existentialism necessarily embraces all other philosophies, but Wilson's brand of existentialism is not the pessimistic kind of the Continental school, that of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus – quite the opposite.
Wilson's ‘new existentialism’ provides an optimistic and practicable philosophy, complementing, for me, the Jungian idea of the individuation process, and Jung's view that a deliberate act of will on the part of the individual can select a path of self-development (Wilson wrote a book about Jung, of course, C G Jung: Lord of the Underworld, published in 1984).
The Outsider remains the cornerstone of this practical, intuitive philosophy for life, the ‘new existentialism’, which surely makes Wilson the first optimistic philosopher in European history. Being a non-religious person, I had misgivings about his ‘religious solution’ at the conclusion of The Outsider – even though he was not referring to organised religion – and was glad when later he revised this to a widened existentialist concept of ‘consciousness solution’.
Lachman describes Wilson’s character of the Outsider as a person who has a hunger for meaning and purpose that the modern world cannot provide, and who must discover the ‘secret life’ within or face death, madness or quiet despair. In Beyond the Robot, Lachman says the Outsider’s misery is really the ‘teething pain’ of a new form of consciousness trying to emerge through him and others like him.
In his brief foreword to the new edition, Lachman writes that the Outsiders Wilson writes about – a group, we must remember, that comprises a pre Second World War phenomenon – might have found a path to a sense of purpose sooner ‘if they had had a copy of The Outsider to show them the way.’
But an interesting question is: do Outsiders exist today, in the Wilsonian context as described by Lachman? Today’s Outsiders would surely stand removed from the world of mass communication, information overload, off-the-shelf spirituality and celebrity culture, and the ascendance of image over substance. They would be ‘off the grid’.
And what has happened to the Outsider’s literary manifestations? Are serious writers any longer interested in the Outsider as protagonist? I suspect not; just about the time The Outsider was being written and published, the element of the metaphysical was beginning its departure from literature, leaving in due course a crushing secularism, a retrogression which might well account for such a lack of interest.
I remember once asking Wilson, on one of my visits to him in Cornwall, if there were any novelists nowadays using ‘Outsiderism’ and a ‘new existential’ approach, consciously or unconsciously. ‘Only me,’ he replied with a grin.
Yet how would we define the ‘meaning and purpose’ that an Outsider – if he or she existed – might crave in the 21st century? It seems, as ever, it would go well beyond the satisfaction of artistic or philosophical expression, and mere recognition of the inner life of the mind.
For we are still not ‘creatures of the mind’: the real problem facing humankind, according to Wilson in From Atlantis to the Sphinx (1996) is not now ‘wickedness or male domination or scientific materialism’ but, generally speaking, boredom, our inability to feel alive unless faced with a challenge. This allied with the failure to use our imagination to ‘pump consciousness to a higher level of pressure’ and spur evolutionary development.
In Beyond the Robot, following the 1996 Wilson quote above, Lachman agrees that the ever-present ‘challenge of no challenge’ is one of the drawbacks of the consciousness achieved by modern man. But the higher consciousness envisaged by Wilson promises a surmounting of the passive mental state, and potential achievement of that greater meaning and purpose and discovery of the ‘secret life’.
There must be a greater risk to our future in remaining at our current level of consciousness than in expanding it to a new consciousness, the ‘teething pain’ of which, in psychological terms, I believe, has begun to be sublimated today through the ‘martyrdom’, as it were, of Wilson’s Outsiders, evidenced by new large-scale, internet-generated critiques within the populace of politics and government, of business and commerce, and in altering attitudes to science, nature and our place in the universe.
In his 1967 postscript to The Outsider, included in the new edition – a pity, though, that the chapter-by-chapter postscripts and index to the 2001 Phoenix edition were not also included – Wilson asserts that we spend too much time looking at the external world to make any close acquaintance with the world of the inner mind: ‘We have no maps, no geography, no signposts, of this inner world. But my own work has been a consistent attempt to create such a geography.’ So it had been up to that time, and so it remained for the rest of his career.
I was 17 years old when I first read The Outsider back in the 1960s. What would be its relevance to readers coming to it for the first time today? First, of course, for anyone seeking an understanding of Wilson’s works, it is the gateway to his vast territory; it is the foundation of that ‘geography’ of the inner life.
There remains a great deal to be gained from The Outsider – and, of course, Wilson’s later works – for students of the humanities, especially in literature and philosophy, although I feel I have to say that the sweeping claim by Tarcher Pedigree that Wilson ‘shaped the way most of us think about literature … and a good number of authors who may have never experienced a revival without him’ is, at best, wishful thinking: ‘The way some of us think’ would be accurate, but not suitable for PR spin. Wilson has been ignored (mistakenly, I’d contend) in literary and cultural studies.
As I’ve stated elsewhere, it’s so ironic that Wilson, who was among the first critics in the twentieth century to spell out a literary theory, should have been overlooked following the explosion of theory in academia from the 1960s which failed utterly to acknowledge his work. The general turn to theory was actually the revolution in literature, and not the techniques of existential thinking which Wilson hoped would become commonplace.
The Outsider also proves how force of intellect and dogged determination and personal conviction can raise someone from humble beginnings to the status of global visionary. Historically, the book also has a seminal role in consideration of the Western esoteric tradition, the rise of the counter-culture and as a progenitor of consciousness studies. Readers interested in these areas will find The Outsider a most rewarding text.
I first met Wilson during a holiday in Cornwall in the summer of 1999 at the time of the total solar eclipse and, early in 2004, I launched the Colin Wilson World website as an appreciation of his life and works. I was fortunate to meet and interview him on a number of occasions, a special one being in 2006 when we discussed his feelings as he looked back on The Outsider after 50 years.
Sadly, he has left us now, but his foremost position in the pantheon of ‘new consciousness’ pioneers was long assured.