An appreciation of the author Colin Wilson (1931-2013) - philosopher, critic, novelist
by Geoff Ward
Colin Wilson’s Existential Literary Criticism: A Guide for Students
Paupers’ Press (Colin Wilson Studies No. 23) £12.95 (January 2014)
Colin Wilson believed that existentialism was the one certain road to the creative development of literature in the future and, with this book, a companion to the students’ guides to Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’ (Paupers’ Press, 2009) and ‘Occult Trilogy’ (Axis Mundi, 2013), Colin Stanley has done a magnificent job in drawing together and assessing nine indispensable Wilson books concerning existential literary criticism, published between 1962 and 2009, as well as providing bibliographical details for hundreds of essays and reviews.
The nine books are The Strength to Dream (1962), Eagle and Earwig (1965), Poetry & Mysticism (1970), The Craft of the Novel (1975), The Bicameral Critic (1985), Existentially Speaking (1989),The Books in My Life (1998), The Angry Years (2007) and Existential Criticism: Selected Book Reviews (2009). Colin Stanley provides a valuable synopsis of each title, together with generous selections of Wilson quotes and an appraisal of the critical reception at the time of publication, plus full bibliographical details. It’s a potent package, and a splendid tribute to this vital aspect of Wilson’s thought.
I have found that Wilson’s theory of existential literary criticism supercharges humanistic formalism, taking it to a whole other level, that is to say, to evaluate literature by assessing it in terms of its capacity to satisfy the depths of human need, to clarify the image of ‘what we are yet to become’ on the evolutionary ladder. Wilson wants to know what, ultimately, a writer is saying, what concepts of human purpose lie in the basic assumptions of the work, and how far the work succeeds in revealing existence as potentiality. Certainly, it’s an approach that sorts the literary wheat from the chaff.
There is no doubt in my mind that existential literary criticism is one of the most important legacies left by Wilson as a writer and thinker. As an ideas-led critic, rather than a text-led one, he stands in the illustrious line of Sidney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, George Eliot and Henry James, all of whom tackled the big general issues affecting literature. For Wilson, the purpose of literature is nothing less than to liberate the imagination in order to point the way forward for human evolution, to act as a ‘magic mirror’ in which the reader can see reflected his or her own soul. Wilson roundly rejects Derridean attacks on the ‘metaphysics of presence’ in favour of a humanistic critique capable of elucidating an original meaning, or centre, of a text which can be approached, and sometimes reached, through perceptive reading. Such ideas, of course, are the very antithesis of the typical tenets of literary theory since the 1960s which generally rejects the possibility of any single or central meaning to a text, and is bedevilled by the imposition of socio-political attitudes, whereas Wilson’s approach, essentially, is philosophical, and eschews such baggage.
As I wrote in my essay ‘Super Consciousness: The Literary Crux’ in Around the Outsider: Essays presented to Colin Wilson on the occasion of his 80th birthday (O-Books, 2011), it is ironic that Wilson, who was one of the first critics in the twentieth century, in the English-speaking world, to formulate a literary theory, should have been eclipsed by the multifarious explosion of literary theory from the 1960s which failed utterly to acknowledge his work. It’s worth reiterating some of the other points I made in that essay. The general turn to theory in academia was actually the revolution, and not the techniques of existential thinking which Wilson hoped would become commonplace in England and America when he wrote his landmark essay on existential criticism for the Chicago Review in 1959 (reprinted, with slight amendments, in his 1965 book, Eagle and Earwig). Sensibly, this essay, entitled simply ‘Existential Criticism’, is included as an appendix in Colin Stanley’s new guide.
A qualitative increase in human vitality, providing a keener perception of the world, can be achieved through the ability of the arts to attain an intensified and more comprehensible awareness of values. Art can expand the range of individual freedom by increasing awareness of possibilities for action and modes of human relationships beyond those that present themselves in everyday life, something of which Wilson was acutely aware in his statement in The Craft of the Novel that the novelist’s task is to use a ‘wide-angle lens’ to make readers aware of their freedom.
In ‘Existential Criticism’, Wilson comments that any attempt to impose a scheme of values through his approach at least would have the virtue of forcing its opponents to scrutinise their own values: ‘At the worst, existential criticism might stimulate an interest in the relation between literature and society. At its best, it could lead to a revitalising of literature in the twentieth century.’ In that final sentence, ‘twenty-first century’ can be substituted easily for ‘twentieth century’.
Mark William Roche, in his important book Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century (Yale University Press, 2004), is very much concerned with literature as a teacher of values and virtue. The arts and humanities involve themselves with the prospects and fate of the human race, which are now increasingly influenced by technology; in a techno-digital age, literature gains in importance precisely to the extent that our sense of intrinsic value is lost – making the validity of existential literary criticism even greater today than fifty years ago. As an analogue of the human person, a literary work interests us, says Roche, because it ‘provides a vision, a critique, an epiphany, a mood, something of value to a broader consciousness’, and he laments the loss from literary criticism, as a result of prevailing theory, of artwork aesthetics, of intelligibility, and of the‘existential interest’. Wilson’s existential criticism complements Roche’s position on the existential worth of literature, ‘not only the value of the existential relationship to literature but also appreciation of literature as an end in itself and recognition of those virtues elicited in aesthetic experience but neglected in modernity’.
Wilson, for whom the intentionality of consciousness is a concept of central importance, wants us to see the novel as an instrument of intentionality with the capacity, through heightened perception, to extend us in the direction of selfhood, the true purpose of the novelist being ‘to liberate the human imagination and to give man a glimpse of what he could become’.
One has no argument with all this, involving as it does the main plank of existential literary criticism. After all, why do we write? And, more important, why should we write, and what do we have to say? Wouldn’t Wilson today ask if we are we using our imaginations to the full? Shouldn’t the novel be able to raise the reader’s consciousness acutely – just as it did when it was invented more than 250 years ago, and as it attempted to do again (by different means) in the early 20th century under the pens of the ‘high modernists’? The question to be addressed to the writer is not merely ‘what do you see?’ but ‘how wide do you see?’ What relation does your work bear to the whole of life? An innovative existentialist approach would surely find that new pathway to the creative development of fiction that Wilson envisaged, now in the 21st century. However, Wilson’s desire to supplement the essence of existential literary criticism with ‘sufficient background reading (or personal knowledge) to provide some insight into the psychology of the author’, as Colin Stanley puts it in his preface, is a deeply problematical aspect of the theory, one has to say. Colin Stanley does not deal with this issue in his book – it is a students’ guide, of course, not a critical guide – but one cannot shy away from it. I will not do so, in stating why I believe it should be bracketed out from existential criticism.
In ‘Existential Criticism’, Wilson says his method is ‘an attempt to bypass intellectual values – the values that literary criticism is so skilled in expounding – and to place the work in the context of the writer’s life and his relation to humanity’. During an interview, Wilson once explained existential criticism to me in this way: ‘If a wife began to criticise her husband in a private conversation with her best friend – that would be existential criticism because it’s based upon a total knowledge of her husband, or at least a much fuller knowledge than somebody who lives around the corner has. Now it seems to me that’s quite important in an age like ours where we’re often moving forward into absurdity.’
But the main philosophical thrust of existential criticism, as demonstrated amply in the pages of the nine books covered in Colin Stanley’s laudable survey, is more than enough to tackle absurdity in our times without the appendage of placing the work ‘in the context of the writer’s life’. The problem lies with those phrases ‘total knowledge’ and ‘much fuller knowledge’, if they are to be applied to an author. And, whatever Wilson has said about making an attempt to bypass intellectual values, there is no question that existential criticism is a literary theory and, as such, embraces a certain ideology and intellectual stance.
Paralleling Wilson’s application of existential criticism, concepts of ‘the author’ have long been problematised in literary theory. It began with ‘the intentional fallacy’, the term used by Wimsatt and Beardsley in an essay first published in 1946 dealing with the question of what an author meant or intended. They argued that the design or intention of an author was neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging a literary work. All we have are the words on the page, which might suggest intention but, ultimately, can never prove it. Thus the author remains elusive, a kind of ghost, only haunting the text. In the late 1960s, came the paradoxical idea of ‘the death of the author’ (Barthes, 1968), a metaphor for the author’s absence from the text, which argues against the common ascription of authorial authority: ‘... a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning ... but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture’ (Barthes, in Image Music Text, 1977). Then there were the extrapolations from Saussurean linguistics which led to the perceived indeterminacy of all texts (Derrida, Lacan) where all meaning is endlessly deferred. The ‘linguistic turn’ in literary theory has been, and still is, tremendously influential. Within academia, Wilson’s theory would always be refracted through this lens.
But having said that, literary theory, which I have always regarded at best as a form of mental tyre-kicking when studying literature, has always been incomprehensible to ordinary readers and, unfortunately, has served to alienate them from literary criticism over the last forty years. This is where existential criticism scores because it can readily involve the ordinary reader in its ethic.
It is true that when we think, say, of a particular novel, how we read and understand it, we cannot separate it from what we know, or think we know, about the author. The fact that we have knowledge of Colin Wilson’s life in London in the 1950s affects the way we read parts of Adrift in Soho or The Glass Cage, for example. But we have to bear in mind that all such familiar valorisations of the author are unavoidably compromised. The relationship between life and work is extremely complex and highly mediated, and knowledge of an author’s life by no means necessarily provides a key to the literary text. We cannot look inside an author’s mind, and can never know anything about his or her psychology or approach to life, or ‘relation to humanity’, with any certainty at all. Our identifications with and ideas about authors are, in the end, themselves forms of fiction open to interpretation.
This is why, although one can justify the use of existential literary criticism to develop a standard of meaning and a moral perception to help ascertain, from ‘the words on the page’, what we think a literary text fundamentally has to say about human existence, one would be misguided to make categorical statements about the inner or outer life of the author with a view to assisting this exercise.
* See my 'A Checklist for the Existential Critic', and my application of existential criticism to the movie Vanishing Pointelsewhere on this website.
Introduction to The Faces of Evil
Edited and with Foreword by Vaughan Rapatahana
Paupers’ Press (Colin Wilson Studies No. 22) £8.95, October 2013)
What happened to the actual book The Faces of Evil – ‘strikingly illustrated with historical reproductions and 30 original paintings’ – remains a mystery of Colin Wilson’s career during the 1970s.
New York publishers A&W planned to bring it out but it never appeared, and Wilson’s introduction, dated February 1976, is all that remains. At the time, Wilson had just completed his science fiction novel The Space Vampires, which was published in 1976, and was probably thinking about his next book, Men of Mystery (Dark Dimensions in the US), which came out in 1977.
A&W described The Faces of Evil thus: 'One of Britain's foremost authors re-examines man's haunting fear of evil, in mythology and history. Witches, the supernatural, Hitler, Stalin, Rasputin and Richard III are reappraised in an informative, fast-moving essay...'
The introduction was retrieved recently from an archive at the University of California, Riverside, by Wilson scholar Vaughan Rapatahana. In his foreword, Vaughan says The Faces of Evil would have run to 128 pages, which is curious, because the introduction alone covers 75 pages, amounting to two-thirds of the volume, not to mention all those illustrations!
Publication of the introduction is another feather in the cap for Vaughan and Paupers’ Press as it sheds important light on Wilson’s thinking on the subject of good and evil. For Wilson, as Vaughan points, there could be no denying the existential status of evil: there is a ‘power of darkness’ with which we have to reckon. Evil, fundamentally, is the ‘spirit of negation or mistrust'.
Wilson does not seem to believe that evil is an inherent principle of creation, as some mystics do, but rather as arising from the dark side of the human mind. Nature, after all, is neutral, indifferent, disinterested, neither good nor evil in itself.
In the introduction, Wilson refers to the ‘feedback effect’ leading to the peak experience, as identified by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, discussion of which figures greatly in Wilson’s works. People completely absorbed in what they are doing get more out of it because they put so much in: ‘Such people come to build up reserves of optimism and vitality, and these suddenly overflow, in certain moments, in a burst of almost mystical delight.’
A man who commits evil, Wilson maintains, usually does so because long ago he lost the patience and the optimism to try to do good. Yet couldn’t the twisted mind of a serial killer exhibit optimism, vitality and patience in a killing spree?
Once in an interview, I asked Wilson about the possibility of a ‘negative peak experience’ which might be triggered, say, in a serial killer by murder – indeed, the very possibility of a murderer finding a ‘mystical delight’ in the crime. ‘That’s a very good question,’ was Wilson’s only reply, with a grin, as if the idea had never occurred to him.
Comments on Boredom/Evolutionary Humanism and the New Psychology: Two Unpublished Essays
Edited and Introduced by Vaughan Rapatahana
Paupers‘ Press (Colin Wilson Studies No. 21) £7.95 (May 2013)
Wilson scholar Vaughan Rapatahana discovered these two articles in the Wilson collection at the University of California Riverside, an archive mainly of papers from a bequest by June O’Shea, and he is to be congratulated for bringing them to publication for the first time.
The former essay is an impassioned response to an article, ’The act of partly living, partly dying: experts see boredom as a child of civilisation‘, in the US publication The Victoria Advocate in October 1974, and the other is Wilson firmly in ’pathfinder‘ mode seeking a new descriptive psychology to deal with the question of human purpose.
The common thread in the two articles, dating from late 1974 and early 1975, as Vaughan tells us in his introduction, are that ‘mankind is free to and should explore his own inner vistas of consciousness to repudiate not only boredom per se ... but to aim far higher for an evolutionally re-attuned consciousness ...‘
Boredom, says Wilson, involves a frustrated longing for meaning, and a tension due to that frustration. He suggests humans will never evolve further unless they can generate a sense of purpose so deep that they are incapable of boredom. And here is the key: ‘The life of the mind is the opposite of futility,’ he writes in the second essay, ‘And the more I develop my mind, the richer the possibilities for future development appear.’
On a personal note, I can say with all honesty that I have never experienced boredom. I recognise that others suffer from it, but I have no knowledge of it myself. I am sure that having a vibrant inner life nullifies it. As Jung said, ‘who looks outside dreams, who looks inside awakes‘ – I have found that one can be as alert in one’s inner life as in one’s outer, sometimes maybe more so. It is there that one can see the evolutionary potential beckoning.
Wilson writes that humans are ready to take the next step in evolution, but are ‘marking time’. We cannot go further unless old habits are let go. Many more people would share this view today than in the mid-1970s. As Wilson has always shown, whether one meets life with a belief in the possibility of mastering its difficulties or with the expectation of defeat is an extremely important existential issue.
‘The next problem that faces human consciousness is of consciousness itself,’ adds Wilson – how right and ahead of his time he was 40 years ago! Only in the last decade or so has the nature of consciousness become a serious topic of study among psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists, as well as systems theorists and physicists. It is being found that, as readers of Wilson’s works will have long inferred, the mysteries of consciousness and existence might not be separable from one another.
These two essential essays comprise no. 21 in the Colin Wilson Studies series, and few authors can have or deserve such a comprehensive series of guides as these produced by Colin Stanley and Paupers‘ Press. More congratulations are in order
Colin Wilson’s Occult Trilogy: A Guide for Students
Axis Mundi Books UK £9.99 / US $14.95 (May 2013)
Following up on the admirable Colin Wilson’s Outsider Cycle: A Guide for Students (2009), Colin Stanley’s latest guide, to Wilson’s ‘Occult Trilogy’ – The Occult (1971), Mysteries (1978) andBeyond the Occult (1988) – is a must for all Wilson readers who, of course, might also be regarded as his ‘students’.
Running to a vast 1,600 pages, these three books constitute a major exploration of the occult tradition and stand central in the Wilson canon. They were reissued recently by Watkins Publishing with new introductions by Wilson who, after writing The Occult, felt sure that ‘the basic claims of occultism are true’.
Colin Stanley’s succinctly penetrating appraisal lets us see, in retrospect, how the occult tradition, as a coherent intellectual stream rooted in metaphysics, cosmology and religion, and which has endeavoured to bring together widely disparate aspects of creation within a complex structure of connections, sympathies and affinities, resonates strongly within Wilson’s overall philosophical body of work.
Behind it all lies the conviction that there is an underlying structure, or organising principle, to the universe, and if only we might comprehend it, not only would the knowledge make us content, but we might even be able to manipulate its operation through the latent and generally untapped powers of the mind.
In Beyond the Occult, which Wilson himself regards as one of his most important books, he said he was attempting to show that these hidden powers were a sign of human evolutionary potential, and that anyone willing to consider this with an open mind would find the evidence ‘overwhelming’. It is from this context, this key message of Wilson’s works, that Colin Stanley’s indispensable guide gains its value and significance.
Philosophical (a)Musings: Colin Wilson, Me and the Meaning of Life
Entropy Press/Lulu UK UK £30 (August 2012)
'Slicing the sluice gates of mind down the giddy existential arroyo...' Thus Vaughan Rapatahana (Robertson) begins a poem about Colin Wilson. The line might well be applied to what Vaughan is doing in this idiosyncratic volume of ramshackle but generally engaging prose. Kindly, he sent me a copy for review all the way from Hong Kong..
Something of a bête noire among Colin Wilson aficionados, Vaughan is both a fierce critic and a fierce supporter, yet somehow the terms are not mutually exclusive in his oeuvre. He criticises Wilson for repetition, wooliness, contradictory statements and lack of clarity, often providing a useful corrective, and praises him for tackling head-on the big questions of life and existence.
With a sub-title fit for every Wilson fan, Vaughan offers many valuable insights into Wilson's work, of which his knowledge is undoubtedly second to none. The book gathers together Vaughan's reviews (undated, unfortunately) of fiction and non-fiction works by Wilson over the years, including even unpublished manuscripts which are of particular interest.
Vaughan also includes essays which, based largely on Wilson works, expound his own ideas, and his 'philosophical and social interpretations of what the existential world and Being, per se, is "all about".' There's also the above-mentioned poem, and a lively piece about Wilson's connections with another 'outsider', as Vaughan sees it, the rock singer Jim Morrison.
Philosophical (a)Musings is a fascinating record of Wilson's impingement on one man's (expanding) consciousness, and the ferment of ideas it has generated. It adds up to a unique and laudable effort to widen 'Wilsonite' scholarship and bring it into the realm of western philosophical debate where, woefully, it has been ignored.
However, there is an element of Vaughan's stance that I find problematical. One has to take issue with his 'doctrine of ultimate pointlessness' which claims that if there is any meaning at all to human existence, the meaning ascribed can always be countered with the exclamation 'so what?' Well, of course, you can say 'so what?' to anything if you are so disposed. It's merely a refusal, or an inability, to engage seriously with the statement to which the response is being made. It's the phrase 'so what?' that's really pointless, not the issue that prompts it.
And its usage smacks of the very defeatism and 'fallacy of insignificance' in modern life that Wilson has spent his life refuting. So is Vaughan's response to the Wilson canon, therefore, 'so what?' Evidently not, or his book would not exist (although one is at liberty to say 'so what?' to it). A Derridean paradox is that linguistic meaning is constantly deferred but Derrida continued to write books about it. Similarly, Vaughan asks 'so what?' but continues to write about 'what if?' Wilson adherents will find this provocative but enlivening.