I was introduced to the work of Colin Wilson by the occultist and Arthurian scholar, John Matthews, in his modest London flat. The year would have been 1976 or 1977. At that time, Matthews worked in Kensington Library close by and shared the flat with his mother, who complained constantly about the proliferation of books in piles on the floor of every room, on the narrow landing, creeping up the walls in precarious columns – books on literature, the occult, folklore, philosophy, art – books of his own, and those borrowed from the library.
He was like the modern equivalent of Denys the Alexandrian, who had been commanded by God to read all the books in existence – an injunction that had apparently been given to Wilson also. Matthews told me he’d been writing a novel on the theme of the labyrinth for nearly fifteen years – a novel that he feared would never be completed – a novel he’d lost himself in. Material for the book lay in filing cabinets, folders and index boxes in his bedroom, and for the first time in my life, I felt as if I’d walked inside someone’s mind.
I was there to get acquainted with the man who was going to bring out my first collection of poems. Together with a writer named Graeme Barrasford-Young, he had established a publishing house, Bran’s Head (which later issued Wilson’s science fiction and existentialism), and started a magazine entitled, appropriately enough, Labrys. A series of limited edition books was planned combining poetry and drawings, the first of which – by Mervyn Peake – had already appeared. My own collection of poems on the theme of birds of prey was due to follow it. But it was here that Matthews earnestly recommended the works of Colin Wilson to me.
Of course, I had seen Wilson’s books on sale, but they were mass- market paperbacks, upon the covers of which his name stood out in crude, blunt type above titles like The Space Vampires and The Mind Parasites, and I would have thought it an act of bad taste to even pick up a copy and administer the Cabman’s Test. So Matthews’s recommendation surprised me, to say the least.
When I finally followed his advice and read The Outsider, I immediately understood the reason for his enthusiasm. There was a feeling that Wilson was creating the conditions in which great literature could be taken seriously again – that after the vapid mutterings of the Movement writers we could fulfil the desire expressed by D H Lawrence and re-unite philosophy with the novel. Being a writer of the adventurous, experimental type myself, I was ripe for a reading of what I still consider to be a book of significant cultural importance.
The appeal of Colin Wilson must be gauged by reference to the literature available in English at that time. With rare exceptions, we subsisted on a diet of novels obsessed with arrested development, whose authors wrote of repression and disillusionment in the manner of furtive schoolboys smoking cigarettes behind the bike-shed while leafing through a well-thumbed copy of Playboy, or we had the ‘middle class infidelities in Hampstead’ sort of book, where emotions on the scale of a bonsai tree were expanded into towering oaks of suffering by means of studied, lapidary prose.
To produce a work of experimental fiction in England of the late Seventies was an act of appalling bad manners, rather like farting in the presence of the Queen: a transgression for which the Earl of Oxford – guilty of this offence before the first Elizabeth – punished himself with seven years’ exile in Europe: a penalty that the developing writer might relish – the writer who, following Wilson’s example, could look across the Channel where the likes of Dostoevsky, Mann and Nietzsche held sway.
If, like me, you were becoming familiar with the European literary canon – feasting on the aforementioned authors and their descendants – the offerings on the contemporary home front left you feeling as if you’d dined on a lettuce leaf. Reading Wilson put you in touch with greatness. Here was a living writer – English at that – who had blithely ignored this domestic twittering, and presented his readers with an enormous challenge: great ideas, great questions were at the heart of his work. The expression may have been hasty and crude at times, but this was immaterial in view of what was on offer.
Hardly surprising then, that in 1978 I sent Wilson an extract from a novel in progress entitled The Rot. With extraordinary critical acumen he identified Lautréamont as the chief source of inspiration (although I had never read Octave Mirbeau, whom he also cited). Quite clearly, Maldoror had got under my skin during my college years when the concept of the book was forming. His advice to me was given tongue-in-cheek in the form of a beginning for a novel that would grab a publisher’s attention: ‘I slipped my hand beneath her dress and unfastened her bra.’ Not a put-down exactly, but a way of expressing impatience with Decadent writing, which had never been high on Wilson’s list of literary genres.
Colin Wilson, from a public point of view, had two careers: the one that began in 1956 with the publication of The Outsider, and the second which was initiated by the appearance of The Occult in 1971. There is an argument to be made that The Occult deflected him from his true path: poltergeist and little green men ousting phenomenology and the psychology of consciousness, but Wilson himself would not have seen it in this light. He always considered his separate areas of interest to be integrated in the pursuit of conscious evolution, though one is left to wonder what he might have produced had the commission to write The Occult not landed on his desk. He had already started on this path, in fact: the preface to The Occult reveals that he had formulated the notion of Faculty X in 1966, and nine years before this he had spoken to Kenneth Allsop about man’s sixth sense – ‘a sense of the purpose of life’. The success of The Occult naturally led to a demand for more of the same, and the phenomenally hard-working Wilson was able to meet that demand, but the line between the inner-directed author and the outer-directed journeyman is blurred here.
an autobiographical introduction
In my book, I made a derisory reference to ‘Colin’s pals’, in tandem with a complaint about the dearth of serious Wilson scholars. These ‘pals’ are the space cadets who joined Wilson’s readership at some stage after 1971 – the Däniken-kinder who, ignoring the existential critic and founder of New Existentialism, latched on to the author of Alien Dawn and Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals – the sort of flakeheads who mark out landing grounds for UFOs on their back lawns, and whom one can imagine turning up on Wilson’s doorstep with the present of a home-made, silver foil helmet to help him ward off attempts at alien mind control. We’ve all met them, and while inoffensive and even entertaining in themselves, they leave behind a sense of frustration at the possible damage they do to Wilson’s reputation. I have talked to a number of intelligent people who reject Wilson purely on these grounds, and who refuse even to consider his early work, despite The Outsider’s pre-eminence.
And on the subject of The Outsider’s influence, I recently discovered that the famed American astrophysicist, Allan Sandage, came upon the book soon after publication, and enthusiastically pressed copies of it on his friends, seeing himself as a form of ‘outsider’: a man in constant quest of meaning – meaning in his case derived from his researches into the nature and origin of the universe.
Wilson located the living exemplar of – to borrow F R Leavis’s phrase – the ‘Great Tradition’ in the person of Alfred Reynolds, whom he met in London shortly before the writing of The Outsider. Reynolds was a central European sage in the line of Koestler, Benjamin and Canetti. Through such men the most vital stream of philosophical thought flowed: a rich tide that found its focus in the religious existentialism of the twentieth century. And the phrase ‘religious existentialism’ is by no means an oxymoron. There was a fertile field of tension between faith and speculation, into the soil of which Kierkegaard stuck his finger and began questioning the nature of existence. Dostoevsky and Nietzsche provided the real motive force of this theme, with Thomas Mann being its most fascinating, if self-conscious voice: the stage at which Romanticism and Decadence met, and from which the likes of Sartre and Camus were to lead into pessimism and absurdity. Wilson explored this terrain like a Japanese tourist, forever moving from thinker to thinker, his camera ever at the ready, taking hundreds of snapshots for his album, which grew over a number of years into his final major achievement: the ‘Outsider cycle’.
I met Alfred Reynolds in 1984, and can remember vividly conversations about this legacy, although he looked upon Wilson’s work with a sort of indulgence, partly due to the early disagreement between them, which I characterised in my book, Bargaining with the Devil, as similar to that between Settembrini and Naphta in Mann’s Magic Mountain – Reynolds, the humanist Settembrini; Wilson, the religious reactionary, Naphta – but also because Wilson was sacrificing depth for extension. It was much later, when my own intellectual development had reached a certain point, that I hit upon the true significance of Wilson as a cultural taxonomist, classifying thinkers like a latter-day Linnaeus.
But before this, a phase of critical disillusionment set in. The slipshod approach to form in the fiction that is a result of haste and overwork began to grate; the looseness of argument in the non-fiction failed to convince; the rhapsodising, evangelical attitude to the evolutionary urge began to seem like the rabbit produced from the conjuror’s hat – a gesture rather than the statement of an ideological position. We expect accuracy from engineers and scientists because an error in their calculations can result in the collapse of a bridge or a spacecraft overshooting its objective, but even though the errors have consequences less dire than these, we cannot accept a cavalier attitude to facts in literary criticism or philosophy. Precision counts here as well. And style is not just a showing off – a suit of peacock’s feathers in which the novelist struts around merely to amaze his readers. In a true writer, form and content are indivisible or, more accurately, mutually dependent. The True and the Beautiful go hand in hand: figures as diverse as Einstein and Keats realised this.
I wrote the book, Bargaining with the Devil, to establish a balance between these two extremes of blind admiration and critical dismissal. There’s no point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What the hedgehog has discovered, the fox shouldn’t sneer at, and the central ideas in Wilson’s work – whether borrowed from others or proved in existential experiment – are crucial to future thought, particularly at this juncture, when the tension between the relative and the absolute has slackened to the point of atrophy, and the problem of meaning has degenerated into the fashionable exercise of choice.
* Nigel Bray: He decided against including his autobiographical introduction in Bargaining with the Devil but was invited to publish it at Colin Wilson World. See also the CWW Reviews section, under '2016' on the pull-down menu.