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Colin Wilson As Hydra
Vaughan Rapatahana examines the many heads of the English Existentialist.
On June 26, 2011, the writer Colin Wilson turned 80. I believe he has been seriously underrated and undervalued in his homeland, as a philosopher, as a novelist, as a critic, and as a polymath explorer into the sometimes eldritch realms of human potential. Part of the reason for this lack of academic and popular recognition within Britain and the US – he is certainly vitally popular elsewhere – is because Colin Wilson is something of a Hydra.
In Greek mythology, the Hydra had seven or nine heads, stemming from one massive body. If one were to slice off any head it would grow back. Indeed in some versions, two heads would return. A similarly resilient and prolific beast, Wilson is seen on TV, in the press, in any number of second-hand bookshops in any number of formats, and now on DVD with his Strange is Normal. Some of his more recent heads can look rather bizarre, and are said by some to be uttering gobbledygook. Others say he spreads himself too thinly, and is always saying the same thing anyway. He himself is succinct on this point: “Isaiah Berlin once said that there are two kinds of writers, hedgehogs and foxes. He said the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows just one thing. So Shakespeare is a typical fox; Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are typical h edgehogs. Now, I’m a typical hedgehog. I know just one thing, and I repeat it over and over again. I try to approach it from different angles to make it look different, but it’s the same thing.”
The Hydra Heads of Colin Wilson
Outsider. Wilson’s first book, published in 1956, was the excellent The Outsider, and he has been out there ever since, in a huge tangential orbit of his own.
Novelist. He’s written novels in several different genres – science fiction, fantasy, realist, crime fiction – always subsumed under his philosophy, and mostly patterned in the modernist tradition, albeit Wilson is sometimes postmodern in the delivery of his message: his fictive forays often owe more to Derrida than Dickens, although he would disavow this connection.
Literary theorist. Wilson is a consistent theorist regarding how novels and poems should be both written (see, for example, his fine Craft of the Novel) and critiqued, via his own Existential Literary Criticism. In this critical theory, literary craft takes a back seat to approaching questions about the meaning of life, and how to live one’s life more powerfully (which for Wilson means being more evolutionary in focus).
Paranormalist, albeit somewhat innocent and over-trusting, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Both Conan Doyle and Wilson gave credence to the Cottingley fairies, for example. Wilson continues to seriously consider all sorts of what many would in a polite mood call “weird stuff, man.”
Fantastic Anthropologist/Historian. There’s a whole New Age Hydra head here. Space ships, Atlantis, a homosexual Shakespeare, mix themselves up in Wilson’s more recent speculations out on the fringe. Although he has gained many fans there, he has also probably lost some of his earlier more philosophical adherents.
Criminologist particularly fascinated with sex crime and heinous murders, which are the dark side of the evolutionary drive.
Over the years Colin Wilson has reared other heads too: Sexologist, Musicologist, Playwright & Scriptwriter, Columnist & TV Personality, Family Man and Collector of, among other things, books and music. Wilson however never sprouted the head of an Angry Young Man (he was not such an animal, despite being occasionally grouped with Kingsley Amis and John Osborne); university-trained academic (probably a good thing!); deliberate postmodernist (what a contradiction in terms); Feminist; Marxist; or postcolonially-aware Englishman.
I wish to concentrate on the two heads which are arguably his most significant: Existentialist Philosopher and Romantic Mystic.
Colin Wilson, Existentialist Romantic
Wilson’s core ideas are explained in several books which he calls his ‘Outsider Cycle’, and which appeared in the 1950s and 60s. His is an English existentialism, remote from to the narrowly academic British linguistic empiricism of the 1960s. He is a unique phenomenon. For example, in Robert Solomon’s book, Existentialism (2005), Wilson is the only British, let alone English, philosopher included, if we discount Harold Pinter as a philosopher. A French critic was quoted on the inside dust jacket of the original 1966 edition of Wilson’s Introduction to the New Existentialism as calling it: “the first important contribution to Existentialism ever made by an Englishman.” (As an ironic aside, there’s now a Facebook page entitled ‘Colin Wilson is a better philosopher than Sartre’!) Reviewing it in The Irish Times, Grattan Freyer wrote: “Anyone seriously concerned with twentieth-century values must make themselves familiar with Colin Wilson.”
What then is Wilson saying? Generally, he wants an intensive and exhaustive survey of man’s inner states. More specifically, Wilson’s avowed aim in the Introduction, as in several of his earlier philosophical works, is to improve not only on what he calls ‘Existentialism Mark One’ (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Jaspers, Camus, etc), but on its immediate progenitor, the Romantic movement. “Existentialism is Romanticism, and Romanticism is the feeling that man is not the mere creature he has always taken himself for,” he says.
Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement which began in the late 18th century as a reaction to Enlightenment rationalism and the growing hegemony of science. Lasting until the mid 19th century, it was a movement of men and women who sensed that there was ‘more’ to life – as experienced through the magnificence of Nature. It included poets such as Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, visual artists such as Blake and Turner, and writers as diverse as Goethe and H.D. Thoreau. It was marked by intense passion and the elevation of aesthetic feeling. Existentialism, which was born in the 19th century but became very prominent in the mid 20th with Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, saw men and women as alienated, lonely creatures born into a universe which is coldly indifferent to us, rendering our values absurd and condemning us to an inescapable freedom and responsibility.
The difference between Wilson’s New Existentialism and the intense emotional spasms of the Romantics (which never lasted for any length of time and thus led to despair, depression and early demise) or the insufferable negativity of Existentialism Mark One, is that the New Existentialism is based on optimism and positivity.
Wilson wants to build on the momentary earth-shattering epiphanies of the Romantics and renounce the unhappy stoicism of the earlier Existentialists to point the way to a permanently-expanded state of consciousness. Then humans – or at least some of them – will evolve exponentially into grandiose creatures of the mind, tapping our giant vista of internal freedom and what Wilson calls the objective values of existence – “there is a standard of values external to [everyday] human consciousness,” he claims in the Introduction. As he points out, “everyday consciousness is a liar.”
Here I want to cast in bronze what to me is Wilson’s most significant Hydra head – the headmaster of the heads, if you will, the driving force of the Colin Wilson creature: Wilson is by nature both a Romantic and a Mystic. Elsewhere, particularly in my PhD, Existential Literary Criticism and the Novels of Colin Wilson (1996), I have categorized Wilson as a bona fide Romantic in disposition, outlook and corpus – something I believe he would not deny. I believe he is also an English Mystic in the line of William Blake, Thomas Traherne and George Fox (see my Wilson as Mystic, 2001, for example). A mystic is somebody who claims an awareness of some transcendent reality beyond the restrictions of everyday life, and who believes that this numinous realm can be explored only through some means other than scientific rationality – for example by introspection. New Existentialism is Wilson’s attempt to delineate an Existentialism which expands into free-range mysticism. Indeed his mystical impetus all-too-often overwhelms clarity of logic, expression, and sense: he is impelled to paint what he senses, in wide and colourful stokes, and damn the details. This is a significant point about his work: Wilson writes intensely, compelled to convey his vision over and over again, to the extent that often clarity of terminology or rigid logical progression are not priorities.
Colin Wilson’s Mystical Peaks
The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) developed a theory that people have what he called ‘peak experiences’. These are moments of intense inspiration, love, happiness, insight or heightened consciousness, when the individual is in complete harmony with himself and his surroundings. Maslow said that people who have developed to their full potential have peak experiences often – perhaps even many times a day – while others have them less frequently. Wilson seized on this idea, seeing how well it fitted with his project to develop an emotionally positive existentialism. He asked: why not have peak experiences all the time, inculcated deliberately? Part of Wilson’s mission is to promote the deliberate pursuit of peak experiences through focused thought.
Another key concept in this New Existentialist mission, intentionality derives originally from Edmund Husserl and phenomenology, and has become a central concept in philosophy of mind. Intentionality is the power of mental activity to be about or to stand for things or states of affairs. It refers to the directedness or deliberate attentiveness of consciousness. Wilson believes that all consciousness is intentional, even subconsciousness, as “Intentionality … can exist on many levels.”
Wilson then synthesizes Maslow and Husserl as the two poles of New Existentialism: the intentional examination of consciousness itself leads inevitably to extended peak experiences, and beyond. Here Wilson shows himself to be a Grand Illuminator of the works of others, welding together what seems discordant data. Two statements, from 1966 and 1988, together give a clear picture of his approach: “The New Existentialism consists of a phenomenological examination of consciousness” (Introduction). “If consciousness is intentional, then we can deliberately make it more intentional, and that the result would be a step in the direction of the mystic’s insight” (Essay on the New Existentialism).
Wilson argues that the intentional nature of human thought proves that there’s a transcendental ego, a self who aims the arrow of perception, emotion and intellect at something – a coherent, sometimes unconscious director behind the camera. To Wilson “the completely passive observer is a fallacy.” This is where he thinks Sartre went wrong philosophically.
Wilson wants to philosophically reinstate the individual self; yet he also wants this self to be the avenue to the obliteration or overcoming of itself. This is rather a logical faux pas, I think, and I have written elsewhere (e.g. in Postmodern Mysticism, 2008) of the irony of Wilson’s many descriptions – especially in his fiction – of the transcendental ego being completely expunged during mystical visions.
Positive and Negative Evaluations
Wilson is an outsider. The synthesis that is New Existentialism is not meant for most people, it seems: “no solution… can be immediately applied to the ‘man in the street’. But then, this is hardly important,” he says in the Introduction. He would argue that most people are nowhere near ready to be propelled into the next evolutionary ambit which he has discovered. There is a good deal of mind-mapping to do initially – tunnels must be dug into humanity’s mental caverns, and rooms constructed with permanent frameworks, before any opening of the entry gates for all. Until we solidify or map out our phenomenologically-derived consciousness, man is not yet ready for visions such as Wilson’s: for evolutionary reasons, we have built internal firewalls. But Wilson also takes it that much more recently man has also awakened to his inner freedom, and contra Heidegger’s ‘forgetfulness of existence’, having become bored with being bored, has suddenly remembered his Being. Yet the final evaluation of the New Existentialism – and indeed, of Wilson’s entire career – turns on whether he ever successfully maps out our inner selves. Does he give us the roadmaps to his sort of internal assessment of ourselves, and to the concomitant experiential fireworks of extended euphoric, free vision?
According to the extremely high standards which Wilson himself sets for Existential Literary Criticism, the answer has to be ‘No’. He hints, rather than explicitly draws out for us, how we are to live at a self-aware peak. Yet he remains well worth taking seriously as a philosopher precisely because he concentrates on questions of supreme importance: What is life’s meaning? Why are we here? What should we be doing about it? Thus I will concur with and only slightly paraphrase Matthew Coniam’s piece back in Philosophy Now Issue 32, regarding not only the New Existentialism, but Colin Wilson’s life’s work: “He has managed to winch the worldview of humanist Existentialism free of the impasse of despair… this unique and iconoclastic English Existentialist is well worth the sometimes considerable effort.”
Finally, let me add a personal note. To me, Colin Wilson has endured as a philosopher who must always be remembered, if not for his solutions, then at least for his syntheses, and for his always asking the questions we must all face. The fact that he has done so in a generally otiose academic and critical environment in his own homeland only shows his tenacity. He explores a difficult territory that few even attempt and despite his ‘failure’ according to his own literary critical criteria, Wilson should be judged with words culled from his 1960 review of Albert Camus’ The Possessed: “whatever ultimate criticisms can be leveled at his work, he was better than ninety-nine percent of his contemporaries.” Though I have several reservations against a wholehearted acceptance of his New Existentialism, and some concerns about the relevance of some of his later writings, this is my own estimation of Wilson. So three cheers for Colin Wilson! Happy birthday to him, too.
© Dr Vaughan Rapatahana 2011
Vaughan Rapatahana has a PhD from the University of Auckland, is a published poet, and lives in Hong Kong.