An appreciation of the author Colin Wilson (1931-2013) - philosopher, critic, novelist
Missed opportunities in a
long overdue documentary
A review by Geoff Ward of the film documentary Strange is Normal: The Amazing Life of Colin Wilson (Reality Films UK, 2010)
A film documentary like this about the life and times of Colin Wilson has been long, long overdue, and this 100-minute offering from Philip Gardiner and Dennis Price is a worthy effort in putting matters right.
For half a century, Wilson has been one of the major figures in the pantheon of 'alternative' science and philosophy and an intrepid pioneer in studies of consciousness, as well as one of our most ground-breaking novelists, critics and literary theorists. However, while this film recognises Wilson's greatness and does provide a useful introduction to his ideas, there are, sadly, some missed opportunities.
Commendably, if somewhat drily, it deals with key moments and turning points in Wilson's long life - he's 80 next June - but at times there's too much emphasis on the celebrities he's encountered during his career when the time could have been better spent discussing his works in more detail. There seems to be a fundamental misconception here - Wilson is not and never has been about celebrity, quite the opposite, in fact. However, having said that, one has to admit that in today's cultural climate the celebrity aspect of the film might just attract some new readers to the Wilson canon.
Similarly, the concluding five-minute interview with Joy Wilson fails to ask the crucial question that any interviewer worth his salt would ask - 'What has it been like living with Colin Wilson for more than 50 years?' The question is not put. We would have loved to know. Instead, there are more tiresome questions about celebrities she has met. I think the problem lies in Dennis Price's rather woolly and awestruck approach to interviewing Wilson when a more rigorous, journalistic attitude would have delivered even more of substance from a man who is undoubtedly one of the major writers and thinkers of our day.
For example, 'existentialism' is not mentioned, although the cover of Wilson's 1966 book, Introduction to the New Existentialism, does appear (along with images of many of Wilson's other titles which, hopefully, will boost sales of his back catalogue). This is surely a major oversight as it is Wilson's optimistic 'new existentialism', since its formulation half a century ago, which remains a great challenge to Western philosophy. Perhaps Gardiner and Price felt this would have gone over the heads of their envisaged audience, but surely viewers could have been given the chance to learn about it.
Most of the film is a face-to-face interview with Wilson at his home in Gorran Haven, Cornwall, interspersed with linking sequences of him giving a guided tour (to a hand-held camera) of his cobwebby library sheds which hold tens of thousands of books, and of his jungle of a garden.
Revealing the breathtaking sweep of Wilson's interests explored in at least 120 books, the film goes straight into his long-held conviction that humankind is on the verge of an evolutionary leap forward, his concept of the untapped potential of the mind, and the power of the imagination, and then switches to discussion of the possibility of life after death, poltergeists and hauntings.
Wilson talks about his studies of serial killers and his 10-year correspondence with Moors murderer Ian Brady, his criticism of major literary figures, the purpose of the universe in which he sees an underlying intelligence, and how our minds can influence our destiny.
We hear about Wilson's early life in Leicester, his conversion from science to literature, his teenage contemplation of suicide and how he realised that it was more life he wanted, not less; his time in the RAF, his first marriage, the media prejudice which hit hard upon publication of Religion and the Rebel, his follow-up to The Outsider, and how he has always felt he has been 'swimming against the current' of mainstream thinking.
Crucially, he tells of his association with the American existential psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1960s and his investigation over four decades of the 'peak experience' - that moment when perception suddenly soars to ineffable glimpses of a higher reality - and how he has learned to induce and sustain these periods of heightened consciousness which he believes is the key to our evolutionary development.
I like the apt title of the film although it is not drawn from anything Wilson actually says in it. There's scarce mention of how he was involved in the 'angry young man' scene of the 1950s, or of his pacesetting explorations of ancient civilisations and how they were much more advanced intellectually and technologically than conventional science will allow. And, inexplicably, the concluding interview with Joy suddenly cuts straight to trailers for other Reality films without any credits rolling, or any pause for reflection.
Despite such shortcomings, Gardiner and Price are to be congratulated in directing resources to this informative documentary which gives a welcome insight into a man whose life's work is so hugely relevant to our rapidly changing times.