Colin Wilson was a popular author and philosopher who wrote well over a hundred books on subjects as diverse as Mysticism, Crime and Serial Killers, Existentialism, the Occult and the Paranormal, History, Art and Literature . His first book ‘The Outsider' (1956), which made him famous overnight, was an examination of the social ‘Outsider' found in the works of Sartre, Camus, Dostoyevsky, William James, T.E.Lawrence, Hesse, Van Gogh, Nijinsky and others. In both his non-fiction and the many novels that followed this success, he continued to expand and develop a philosophy of the inner powers that human beings possess. This study of Wilson's ‘New Existentialism', uses Sartre and Freud, as a lens, through which to examine Wilson's ideas.
I attended the first international conference on Colin Wilson (at Nottingham University) a while ago and met, again, my first publisher, Colin Stanley, who organised the conference. Stanley is a long time devotee of Colin Wilson’s (as were most of the attendees) and has published numerous books, articles and studies of Wilson, over many years.
My book came out shortly after I graduated and I was always grateful to Colin Stanley for accepting the manuscript. It was a very pleasing feeling, to have a book accepted by a publisher and feel validated in some way. I do a lot of self-publishing these days, which is fine, but there’s nothing quite like an outside agency taking up your words and saying, ‘Yes that’s good enough to publish’. How fragile the artist’s mind and assessment of his own talent is I guess!
I’ve changed my opinions on Colin Wilson, in a number of ways, over the years. However, I didn’t rewrite, ‘The Guerilla Philosopher’ for the audio version but I did record a kind of self-interview, a slightly rambling monologue, just to update the book a little.
I met many interesting people at the conference, many writers on Colin Wilson but the one who stayed in my mind most I guess was Gary Lachman. Partially, I’m sure, because his back story is in itself interesting as he was a member of the pop group Blondie but also he followed in the footsteps of Colin Wilson, literally and metaphorically. Having read The Occult and gotten interested in Wilson’s ideas, Gary decided to go and visit the man himself in Gorren Haven, Cornwall.
They met, and with his usual generosity, Colin, welcomed Gary with open arms and they got to know each other over the years, I think, reasonably well. At least, well enough for Gary to now have written a biography of Colin Wilson called ‘Beyond the Robot’ which I’m reading just now (having been meaning to read it for quite some time!).
I guess, meeting Gary and his very interesting Norweigan (I think!) partner, at a party, at Colin Stanley’s house after the conference, I was reminded of myself when I was younger. Not that I am anything like Gary, rather the reverse. Gary actually went out and did what I only timidly imagined doing thirty years ago i.e. he went to visit Colin Wilson.
I watched an interview with Gary recently and he was talking of his days with Blondie, saying how he wasn’t much of a bass guitar player and that, in fact, there were many better players around at the time. Only, they were in their bedrooms becoming great players, for sure, but not taking themselves ‘out’ into the world. Gary did and that I admire.
I realise that all my ‘intellectualising’, when I was younger, was an intellectualising ‘away’. I gave myself all the reasons as to why one wouldn’t write a letter or go and visit an interesting author. The truth I now realise, after many years, is that I simply wasn’t brave enough to confront the world, to get out there and see what happened.
Sure, I did, to some extent, I had my first performance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe around this time, for instance, but I didn’t adopt the attitude for long enough or persistently enough and, in fact, made a major decision about my life in the negative.
I decided that I couldn’t be an actor. I knew one or two professional actors and the life they led required an enormous stamina for rejection. And I, stupidly, decided that, because I wasn’t great at taking criticism, I should not pursue the only thing I knew I wanted to do. This was one of the greatest mistakes of my life and it came about because I didn’t trust in life.
One thing I can honestly say about living and being creative, is that, when I have ‘trusted’ in life, when I have ‘gone out into the world’ and taken a risk, it has never backfired. Never. Almost always, in fact, it has turned out well. Synchronicity has kicked in, doors have opened, people I feared would say ‘No’, have said ‘Yes’ and with enthusiasm.
On the rare occasion nothing has happened I’ve at a minimum been able to say ‘Ah well at least I tried and failed’ which is better than to have the regret of never having tried. Honestly, even the failures have, in the end, felt like modest victories. Victories over timidity, over oneself, if not the world.
I was once in Tunisia with my mother, sister and brother-in-law. Mum and I wanted to go to the ancient site of Carthage but Karen and Jim wanted to do something else (I can recall what, which is testament in itself). We didn’t go. We knew, we knew even then, that we would regret it.
We regretted it for the rest of our lives.
Mum died earlier this year and so she never got to Carthage and I also have not yet made it to Carthage. Mum and I, actually developed our ‘choosing not to go to Carthage’, as a kind of touchstone, a reminder as to what not to do when seeing an opening or opportunity. If you have the opportunity, take it now, tomorrow it just may not be there. The stars may not line up, the fates may not roll around again in your life time. Such thinking prompted me to go and see an eclipse of the sun in France onetime instead of reading about it in the newspapers. I went to Jura, to visit the farmhouse George Orwell wrote ‘1984’ in on the basis of the same reasoning and over the years I have taken more opportunities.
I am now a professional actor. I am a member of the actor’s union Equity to prove or validate the feeling, when once I thought it wasn’t possible for someone like me to be a member. In those days it was the case that you had to have done three months paid acting before you could get the Equity card, and to get an acting job, you needed an Equity card, so… someone like me could never get an Equity card. Or so I ‘intellectualised’ and talked myself out of becoming an actor.
The most basic point was that this was negative thinking. Ironically, this is the antithesis of anything Colin Wilson ever wrote. He believed we all could move beyond our ‘Robot’ self. The ‘self’ that accepts the world as it is, the ‘self’ that is fearful and decides to stay at home.
To be honest I’m still learning the lesson. As I kept telling people recently, ‘I’m an autodidact… it’s just that I’m not a very good teacher!’ I see younger people, some of whom are exploiting their talents to the maximum, utilising the great energy and in-built fearlessness of youth to the full - and whilst I don’t envy them their youth (not too much!) as I have enjoyed learning all the things I’ve learnt (though I could do with less aches and pains!) - but equally I’m happy not to have the callowness of youth and the sometimes, slightly silly, hubris. But I do envy, the time they have to expand even further and the positive outlook (if they have it) that I envy too.
Some of this, I realise, is about one’s upbringing and that old bugbear one’s Class. The better (in this case, I mean, wealthier) one’s up bringing, the more one can exploit the natural fearlessness and positivity of youth that I spoke of. That is true. I see people I know, from similar backgrounds as mine (not poor but working class) and they have not ‘exploited’ their potential, they have not fulfilled their capacities and developed their abilities to the full because something inside has held them back. Arrogant speakers, call it, ‘Poverty of ambition’, when really it is simply ‘poverty’ that built that ‘lack’.
Colin Wilson was not very sympathetic to this kind of notion. Because people can ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ or ‘Get on their bike to find work’ as Norman Tebbit once put it, doesn’t mean everyone will and, in this world, it doesn’t mean, literally, everyone can or could. Whatever Wilson may have felt, about how great we can become, if your brain is damaged by malnutrition as an infant, to use an extreme example, or more moderately, by very poor schooling, it may be impossible or certainly much harder, to ever attain that ‘greatness’.
Class aside (and that’s quite a ‘putting aside’!) if you are from a wealthy country and reasonably well-off (as many of us, who are from such a country, are), then Wilson’s ideas of inner power and potential are worth looking at.
The reason, I ended up reading some many of Wilson’s books, was not because I thought him the greatest literary figure I’d come across but because his books are kind of ‘self-help books for the soul’. This is a backhanded sounding compliment I know but I mean it quite sincerely. If you aspire to creativity, Wilson’s books feed that aspiration. The contradiction, with Wilson, is the same as it is with Nietzsche, the call from these writers, is to be an original, to be an original powerhouse of creativity and to not follow in the footsteps of others; to not be a ‘sheep’ as Nietzsche would have said. Yet in reading their books and ‘following’ their notions, one is, at least moderately, just tagging along and being, unoriginal. To fall under their ‘spell’ is to lose one’s own drive and uniqueness as is the case with any Guru, thinker, scientist or god-head, be it Einstein or Jesus.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on much longer than I intended! Wilson is a flawed writer, I would admit, but heck, he was industrious, positive and interested in the world. He believed in human creativity and endeavour, even if he was a bit dismissive of much of humanity at the same time!
The main thing is I would recommend reading perhaps four or five of his books say ‘The Outsider’ and ‘The Occult’ definitely, if nothing else they are packed with interesting literary and historical information which rather undersells them because they’re great reads too. Then one of his books on murder, perhaps ‘Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder’ or ‘A Casebook of Murder’, which delve into murky areas of the human psyche but areas which most of us are still interested in (if you can stomach them because they are quite grisly at times).
The novel ‘God of the Labyrinth’ is a powerful book about the sexual drive I seem to remember, (though be warned it is not a feminist tract) or a non-fiction version might be ‘Misfits’ on sexual abnormalities (which again is dated in its gender attitudes but still full of unusual and interesting information).
I also liked ‘Access to Inner Worlds: The Story of Brad Absetz’ about an artist I’d never heard of but it’s probably more about Wilson’s ideas than it is the artist, which is a general rule with Wilson. Any of the figures he speaks of be it Jung, Hesse, Ouspensky, Blatvasky, Gurdierff, Nijinsky, Van Gogh and so on, the truth is, is that he is always glossing their ideas with his own. But the journey along the way is worthwhile, for a few books at least.
I’ve recommended a few titles, but reall, in terms of his ideas, if you read any one of his hundred or so books, you will get his central thesis of positivity. In some it’s less clear than others and the material itself occludes his central ideas but usually it’s pretty plain, for most people, we have more in us than we allow out. Be a ‘Yea-sayer’ as Nietzsche put it and with that I agree.