Colin Wilson 1931- 2013: More than just an Outsider.

Colin Wilson has passed away. My hope is that, as sometimes happens with a writer’s passing, his body of work might enjoy some objective re-evaluation.

But don’t hold your breath.  While the obituary notices in the British press have been, for the most part, largely objective, very few get beyond trotting out the usual Colin Wilson cliches which largely concern his fame then infamy  in the 1950’s. All the key elements of the story have been duly noted: his self-proclaimed genius, the penchant for roll-neck jumpers, sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, the critical superlatives lavished on his first book The Outsider,  the waspish critical backlash that followed and from which he never really recovered so far as the mainstream was concerned, and his move from London to Cornwall.

Of all the things to have been written about him so far, I think the fairest is here in The Guardian. Even this, however, does fall for the cliched summary of Wilson’s work, which says that he wrote The Outsider then quickly turned to potboilers on crime and the occult.

I’ve blogged elsewhere  that, for all its quirks and limitations, there is a value to Wilson’s best work. (The Occult, for instance, really is a reliable crash course in Western esoteric thought. If some might even dismiss this as a ‘potboiler’, at least Wilson has the sense to chuck in all of the key ingredients so nothing of note is missed, and to spice the lot with a few interesting thoughts and theories of his own.)Those of us who may have read him when younger, and then moved inevitably on to other authors, would do well to give him the credit he’s due. Not everything he wrote was great or original, but at his best he can be provocative and stimulating.  His writing acted as a galvanising force for so many.

If you are interested in Colin Wilson but don’t know where to begin amid the 100+ books, perhaps the best place to start is with the book that he himself intended to be a grand summing up of his life’s main work, his excellently readable autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose (2004). Never one for understatement, Wilson said in The Guardian at the time that he hoped it would do for his oeuvre what the publication of The Essential William Faulkner did for the American’s career: that is to give an overview and shape to the work as a whole, and hopefully garner renewed interest. At the time Wilson’s book was met with the usual sniffy indifference from the British book critics. Don’t let that put you off, however. If you are interested in its core subject matter of the human mind, the paranormal, the generally esoteric, or even what it’s like to be a self-proclaimed important writer, then Dreaming… is well worth dipping into. As for Wilson’s description of his brush with fame in the 1950’s, it’ll give you some idea of how the incestuous and essentially conservative  British cultural establishment works, and of how keenly the British press love to build someone up and then bring them crashing down.

Colin Wilson, Terry Eagleton and the paying of dues.

Krapp: Just been listening to [a recording of] that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.

-from Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett.

It seems that it’s not just poor old VICTOR KRAPP who can’t look back on his younger self  without feelings of scorn and pity. This post has been provoked by a piece in The Guardian which appeared a couple of days ago. As part of a series of articles entitled “A book that changed me” the English academic and literary critic TERRY EAGLETON contributed a piece on the spell cast on his youthful 50’s self by COLIN WILSON’S THE OUTSIDER.

You can read the article here:

“Colin Wilson’s glumness entranced me as a budding teenaged existentialist” runs the article’s header, as Eagleton goes on to mock his younger self for the fact that the book helped him play the poseur. It fed his teenage sense of how to seem terribly serious and clever and in so doing, he hoped, it would help him pull equally serious and angst-ridden girls, who would be entranced by his anguished cleverness.  But who is Eagleton fooling? However much he tries to distance himself from his youthful self and Wilson’s book, it’s obvious that the work was one of those stepping stones towards an academic career of lofty thoughts and high seriousness. My bet is that from The Outsider he went on to read more about many of the authors referenced in that book.

As such you might expect Eagleton to show some positive feeling towards Wilson, but the whole article is not only a put-down of his youthful pretentious self: it also delivers a metaphorical slap in the face to the older writer.

This passage struck me as being gratuitous, not to mention just plain discourteous:

The Outsider is second-rate, off-the-peg philosophy from start to finish. There was also a glowing commendation from Cyril Connolly, who later confessed he hadn’t read it. The book was declared by one commentator to have turned its 24-year-old author into the most controversial intellectual in Britain. So it did, but only for about six weeks. He went on to publish a rather dismal series of potboilers on crime and the occult.

“SECOND-RATE, OFF-THE-PEG PHILOSOPHY”? A tad emotive, but maybe Eagleton has a point. When I tried to read The Outsider it struck me as being over-reliant on quotations at the expense of more original material. However, to give Wilson credit, while he does quote copiously he quotes relevantly. Despite the misgivings of some, the book has been continuously in print since 1956.

The parts about controversy, celebrity and unreliable recommendations at least seem to have some basis in fact, and are covered in, among other places, Wilson’s own autobiography.

But it’s the final sentence that I object to most. Colin Wilson is a much maligned figure in the United Kingdom. While a lot of people have enjoyed his books and got a lot from them, as far as the media are concerned it’s been pretty much a given that you can put him down.  Now I’ll cut Eagleton a bit of slack and admit that anyone whose spent their career as an academic knows the meaning of the word dismal.  For all the good days, in his career he must also have read a fair few indifferent student essays, and would have had to wade through reams of the poorer kind of literary criticism.  However, in Wilson’s case, though not all of his works are A1 quality, there are certain standout books. So for Eagleton to dismiss all of the man’s 150 plus volumes as dismal is not only lazy.


Take THE OCCULT, for example. I’m not sure that was a potboiler. Yes it tapped into that late 60’s/ early 70’s vogue for all things esoteric and occult, but in many ways it helped shaped tastes and interests too. In fact, alongside The Outsider I think it may be Wilson’s most representative work. Essentially these books are digests of other thinkers’ and writers’ work. Wilson is a voracious reader and a great synthesiser of material. Although he tries to marshall this formidable reading to illustrate an underlying thesis of his own, where I think a lot of people find him of most use is as a conduit. It was through The Occult that I moved on to  writers like Francis Yates. But I still keep a copy of The Occult because it’s almost a one-stop encyclopaedia of folklore, esoteric beliefs and weird stuff that have been a constant strand of european thought and culture for millennia. It’s also entertainingly written, even when it asks me to suspend my personal sense of disbelief almost beyond endurance.

Another book of Wilson’s that totally defies Eagleton’s description is POLTERGEIST! Again this is Wilson at his best: engaged, engaging, and an enthusiastic guide to a strange and deeply unsettling set of events that gripped a particular house in 70’s England. At the end of that book I am not sure if I bought Wilson’s theory as to what was actually going on. However, whether one sees the poltergeist phenomenon as the result of diabolical intervention, or the result of some incredibly talented hoaxers, surely it would be only the most materially fixated of Marxist critics who could exhibit not even a shred of interest in something which has been puzzling, perplexing and fascinating people for aeons.

I could mention other books, but I will readily admit that there are whole chunks of Wilson’s canon that I haven’t looked at, like his fiction.

At his worst I will readily admit that Wilson rehashes material, goes over the same old ground, or produces books that are just generalised surveys of a particular subject. I suspect that on a number of occasions he has been guilty of hacking out work to please his bank manager. Nonetheless, this too in its way is grounds for respecting him. After all this is a man who has lived and brought up his family by the proceeds of his pen. By and large he has been true to his muse and retained his integrity.  To put it bluntly he’s worked his arse off.

There is one anecdote concerning Wilson which I’ve always thought was very telling. In his excellent and not-dismal-at-all autobiography DREAMING TO SOME PURPOSE, he mentions meeting Iris Murdoch at a function during the late 50’s. He says that Murdoch suggested that he should go to Oxford University in order to take his  philosophical studies further.  Wilson did not take up the offer.  No doubt he felt happier going his own way. Neither did the older Wilson looking back on this express regret. Now I am no-one to tell other people how to live their lives, and of course it’s all (excuse pun) academic now at Wilson’s age. But it strikes me that Murdoch had a point, and that she knew that, in the United Kingdom at least, it’s easier to get a hearing for your views- however controversial,  left-of-centre or speculative they may be- if you are covered by a veneer of academic respectability. After all, this has  certainly helped Terry Eagleton.

For the record I’ll say that I don’t read Colin Wilson much anymore. But I am glad that I had a spell of reading him.  His books have done their job for me and enabled me to go deeper into certain subjects, but I wouldn’t have been aware of them were it not for his work in the first place. Wilson’s prodigious output seems to have tailed off at last, but he is getting on in years. Perhaps fate will be kind and see him publish one more book.

As for Terry Eagleton, I’ve only read Marxism and Literary Theory (at least I think that’s the title). While I can’t remember anything of what he said about how to interpret texts from a hard left standpoint, I’ll give him credit for two things. Firstly he made me realise that literary criticism could be accessible, and that some academic critics were writers of clear, plain english. That made it a lot easier to pick my way through that field of writing. Secondly he added to my then-emerging sense that if you wanted to make sense of the world you’d better have a pretty sound grasp of economics and its influence on human behaviour, artistic or otherwise.