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The Forgotten Existentialist
Matthew Coniam on Colin Wilson.
Colin Wilson, who is seventy this year, is a name familiar to many as a popular writer on a bewildering variety of topics: crime and deviancy, paranormalism, archaeology and alien abduction to name just a few that have commanded his attention most recently. Older readers may remember him as the 26-year old author of The Outsider (1956), the philosophical blockbuster of its decade in which Wilson analyses the preoccupation with alienation in twentieth century culture and defines the personality-type of its title. The book catapulted its author to fame as the prototypical ‘angry young man’, but unfortunately the resultant overexposure (and the superficiality of much of the coverage) led to a backlash. His second book, Religion and the Rebel (1957) was panned, in many cases by the same critics who praised his debut so fulsomely, and he has remained in the wilderness ever since. But he did not stop writing, and the work he produced throughout the nineteen-sixties, before the needs of the marketplace and an innate susceptibility to the passions of mystics and crackpots diverted his attention towards the unscientific and bizarre, is long overdue serious exhumation and attention.
As that rarest of creatures, an English existentialist, Wilson’s ideas were strikingly at odds with the general direction of anglophone philosophy in the twentieth century. He despised what he felt to be the dry, passionless formality of positivism, linguistic philosophy and the empirical tradition generally, argued that Descartes had not so much kick-started modern philosophical thought as backed it into a cul-de-sac, and dismissed Bertrand Russell as a clever schoolboy. For a while, he and A J Ayer amused themselves writing dismissive reviews of each other’s books (until Wilson stopped getting reviewing work and his own books stopped getting reviewed). More interestingly, however, Wilson felt equally alienated by the fatalistic existentialism of Sartre and Camus, despite his basic sympathy with their preoccupations and method. For Wilson, existentialism was undoubtedly the most important movement in philosophy, but it had taken a wrong turn as far back as 1927, when Heidegger’s Being and Time had strayed too radically from its starting-point in Husserlian phenomenology. Wilson went back to Husserl and proposed his own variant which he called New Existentialism. Developed through the ensuing volumes of his ‘Outsider cycle’, Wilson’s new existentialism was characterised by a prevailing sense of optimism quite alien to the tone of its continental equivalents, and an optimism what’s more which Wilson seeks to validate rationally. To him, though Heidegger, Sartre and Camus were correct in their fundamental conception of existence, their inference that life is therefore a tragedy was an unwarranted editorial intrusion quite insupportable by logic. This, he argued, represents not objective truth at all, but instead merely reflects the personalities of the writers themselves. Being a naturally optimistic chap, Wilson had no time for the gloominess of Sartre and Camus, who were both naturally pessimistic chaps. Both are personal reactions: the ‘evidence’ of existentialism is such that the only emotional response it could possibly justify is a detached neutrality.
The other most distinctive aspect of Wilson’s work is its fascination with human potential. (This, admittedly, is an early manifestation of the mystic impulse that would in time propel Wilson down a variety of all more or less regrettable paranormal avenues, but as expressed in the Outsider cycle is moderate and impressive.) Wilson is obsessed with the idea that everyday consciousness operates at a level far inferior to that of which it is capable and that the origin of existential futility lies in the human mind’s tendency to slip into automatic pilot when not cranked to a permanent state of total awareness. This state, which Wilson calls Faculty X, is exactly the same as that of a child the night before Christmas: the feeling that life is infinitely rich and full of potential. Existentialists and Romantics tended to dismiss these states as illusory and prone to dissipation, but according to Wilson it is the pessimistic worldview that is the illusion, and the higher levels of consciousness (what psychologist Abraham Maslow – a huge influence on Wilson – termed ‘peak experiences’) that are (potentially at least) the reality. Thus he dismisses Sartre’s ‘nausea’ and Camus’s ‘the absurd’ as products of mental laziness. In one extraordinarily confrontational passage he accuses writers like Sartre and Beckett of poisoning the collective culture as cynically and despicably as somebody poisoning a city’s water supply. But it is important to realise that Wilson is not here advocating consciousness expanding in any vague, stimulant-enhanced, counter-cultural sense. Rather he is compelling us to a serious intellectual process of rigorous mental discipline. Human beings, he feels, are mired in triviality, and the resultant tensions he analyses so brilliantly are directly attributable to this willing underrating of our own potential. Put so simply and crudely, this will inevitably seem like Utopianism; yet one of the greatest strengths of Wilson’s early writing is its always rigorous and strict grounding in reason and logic: never has reaching for the stars seemed so sane and reasonable.
Whether or not we agree, the Outsider cycle (along with some of the later books, notably the simply magnificent A Criminal History of Mankind, 1975) does offer solid grounds for taking seriously Wilson’s assertion that his ideas constitute a mini-revolution in philosophy, for he has managed to winch the worldview of humanist existentialism free of the impasse of despair in which it had been reluctantly abandoned by Sartre and Camus. There has not been room in this brief overview to outline anything more than the bare bones of Wilson’s intricate and wide-ranging thought, but hopefully I have said enough to stimulate your curiosity. If I have, the next step is to seek out the original titles, but ‘seek’, alas, is the correct word: all but the first two volumes of the Outsider cycle and most of his subsequent philosophical writings have been out of print for many years. But a complete appreciation of the work of this unique and iconoclastic English existentialist is well worth the sometimes considerable effort of tracking it down.
© Matthew Coniam 2001
Matthew Coniam is currently preparing a crtitical study of the films of Michael Winner in collaboration with the subject.