The author Colin Wilson died last week. Here’s a piece I wrote about him for an SFX supernatural-themed special a couple of years back. Wilson’s nonfiction writings gave me great inspiration and impetus during my twenties. I feel that he was unfairly neglected during his lifetime. He was never afraid to go where his inquisitive mind led him, even if it was into some intellectual cul-de-sacs.
Colin Wilson: The Search For The Extraordinary
Few living writers have applied themselves to the subject of the paranormal with the same level of seriousness and intellectual rigour as Colin Wilson. In a career spanning more than fifty years he has penned nearly 200 books, and of those a significant proportion concern occult matters, from ghosts and magic to Atlantis and aliens. His work combines readability with a remarkable breadth of research, and even if one may not always agree with his conclusions, one has to admire the logic of the argument by which he reaches them and the persuasive, good-natured style in which they’re conveyed.
Wilson was born in 1931 in Leicester, and at an early age fled to London to escape what he feared would be a life of working-class drudgery. He was a precocious, bookish young man, and digging trenches for the local electricity board – his first proper job – was clearly not for him. As he puts it in his autobiography Dreaming To Some Purpose, “I didn’t want to do other people’s work; I wanted to get on with my own.”
In the capital, he slept rough on Hampstead Heath and spend his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum, where he wrote what was to become his first publication and his signature work. The Outsider appeared in 1956 and was an instant, spectacular success both with the critics and in terms of sales. It propelled its 25-year-old author into the limelight and almost as quickly drove him into self-imposed exile in the wilds of Cornwall.
The Outsider is an absorbing and erudite study of great men – thinkers, artists, doers – who have thrived outside the limits of societal norms. They are those who are impelled by their creativity, their Nietzschean “will to power”, to follow their own visions and remake reality in their own image, whether it’s T.E. Lawrence fighting on the side of the Arabs as a kind of messianic warrior-preacher or Nijinsky striving through intense discipline and abnegation of the ego to create ballet of a complexity and sublimeness never seen before.
The book was a sharp riposte to the prevailing philosophical tenor of the times: the existential pessimism of the post-war austerity years. It asserts that humans can achieve great things, even superhuman feats, by the simple application of positivity and concentration. Lawrence, Nijinsky and other geniuses such as Van Gogh and T.S. Eliot, each an Outsider in his own way, pushed the boundaries of thought and self-expression and thereby changed the world.
Almost all of them, however, ended up defeated, disillusioned, even mad. Wilson contends that this fate could have been avoided, had they not allowed themselves to succumb to an overwhelming sense of futility. These Outsiders lost sight of the big picture. Though extraordinary individuals, they failed to grasp that the everyday life which they surpassed is extraordinary too. Having excelled, they came to the conclusion that there was nothing else, nothing more. They gave in.
After The Outsider’s considerable impact there came, inevitably, a backlash. Wilson’s next few books were either viciously mauled and derided in the review columns or, perhaps worse, roundly ignored. In part this was because he had the misfortune to become tangentially associated with the Angry Young Men movement of the 1950s, that loose agglomeration of authors and playwrights such as John Osborne and John Braine who kicked against the pricks of the British establishment and then found establishment pricks kicking them back. But also, it seemed that the public was unable to digest, or lacked the appetite for, further helpings of Wilson’s message of logical positivism. Nor did his immodesty help. Rather like Oscar Wilde, but without the irony, Wilson was fond of declaring his own genius.
He retreated with his wife and family to the West Country, where he still lives and where he has continued to write prolifically and productively but by and large in obscurity. There have been novels, many of them SF, for instance the Spider World series and The Space Vampires, which was turned into the trashy but oddly enjoyable movie Lifeforce by director Tobe Hooper in 1985. There have been further volumes in the “Outsider cycle”, notably The Age Of Defeat and The Strength To Dream, alongside books on a whole host of topics – literature, astronomy, deviant sexuality, wine, true crime. Eminent among these are a fascinating study of the Fred and Rose West serial killings, A Plague Of Murder, and a valuable appraisal of the author David Lindsay, best known for the beguiling, phantasmagoric Edwardian fantasy masterpiece A Voyage To Arcturus.
Further Outsider-level success has eluded Wilson, but he came close with The Occult (1971) and its follow-ups Mysteries (1978) and Beyond The Occult (1988). This trio of investigations into the paranormal constitutes as grounded and penetrating a survey of the subject as one could hope for. The books also espouse a core belief of Wilson’s that humans are far too prone to blinkeredness – to a wilful obliviousness of the extraordinary – and would achieve greater fulfilment in life and perhaps even gnostic revelation if they would only open their minds to the range of amazing phenomena that the universe has to offer. It is as if we are at the circus but have turned round in our seats and are looking the other way. In the ring the clowns, acrobats, lion tamers and other performers are putting on a wonderful show, and we’re sitting there paying no attention and having a hard time fathoming why we’re so bored.
The Occult opens with Wilson stating that magic and mysticism are not the sole province of neurotics and madmen, nor should they be. He says they first became of interest to him personally because “they confirmed my intuition of another order of reality, an intenser and more powerful form of consciousness” (his italics). He goes on to argue that supranormal abilities such as telepathy, premonition and thaumaturgy (the power to heal) are innate and part of our cultural heritage as a race. Our tendency now to dismiss their existence or ignore evidence of them is the fault of modern rationalism, an erroneous worldview that divides everything up into that which can be empirically proven and that which can’t. Anything in the latter category, by our strict, over-reductive standards, must be untrue, and therefore worthless.
The entire book seeks to refute this, drawing together numerous diverse examples to build a very plausible case. Wilson discusses how the I-Ching and the Kabbalah can bring insights by stirring up dormant regions of the mind. He talks of the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who identified “peak experiences”, the moments when the self breaks free from its prison of doubt and grasps objectively the essential meaningfulness of reality. He scrutinises famous exponents of spiritualism, among them the Fox sisters and Daniel Dunglas Home, and acknowledges that fraud may have played a part in some of the phenomena such people produced but suggests, too, that in many instances genuine communication with the dead did occur – the facts allow for no other interpretation.
An impressive array of sources are marshalled to reinforce Wilson’s claims. Bertrand Russell, Robert Graves, W.B. Yeats, the Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky, Carl Jung, William James, Arthur Koestler and many others are cited. The passages the book devotes to Rasputin, the “Great Beast” himself Aleister Crowley, and Wilhelm Reich – he, you’ll remember, postulated the existence of a field of “orgone energy” that interpenetrates all living matter, rather like the Force in Star Wars – are particularly compelling.
Key to The Occult, and to a lesser extent its two successors, is Wilson’s notion of something he calls “Faculty X”, which he summarises as “that latent power that human beings possess to reach beyond the present” (again, his italics). Faculty X, he avers, lies behind all poetic and mystical experience. It is the moment when the conscious mind relaxes, lets go, and an intense, dazzling focus of our energies is possible. Trivialities fall away. We break through to some kind of deeper understanding, and from there creativity and inner power may flow, in abundance. Athletes and musicians are apt to refer to this state of calm brilliance as being “in the zone”. They find themselves performing better than they have before, better than they perhaps thought possible.
One might infer that all of Wilson’s Outsiders share the ability to access Faculty X, whether knowingly or not. The same goes for anyone who has had direct contact with the supernatural, anyone who is born with some uncanny knack such as the gift for dowsing for water or the capacity to pluck multiple-digit primes from the air, and anyone who is touched by genius or by genius’s dark twin insanity – they are able to tap into a bottomless reservoir of mental power which is common to us all. We all possess Faculty X, but the mundanity of our material lives prevents the majority of us from taking advantage of it.
With effort, goes Wilson’s argument, the situation can be reversed. Indeed, he suggests that mankind’s next collective evolutionary leap will be backwards not forwards, a break away from pure intellect towards instinct again, feeling making a resurgence over thought, left brain rising up to challenge the dominance of right brain.
We see Wilson expanding on this point in more recent works, books which purport to be one thing but are in fact another. From Atlantis To The Sphinx (1996), for example, is ostensibly a distillation of the theses of archaeological “heretics” such as Graham Hancock, Robert Bauval and Robert Temple, all of whom are convinced that ancient civilisations were far more advanced, and for that matter far more ancient, than is generally reckoned. But in fact From Atlantis… is a restatement of Wilson’s contention that modern man has lost or forgotten valuable knowledge and skills which our distant ancestors took for granted.
Similarly Alien Dawn (1998) seems to have been commissioned and written solely in order to cash in on the late-nineties fever for all things esoteric and extraterrestrial that was sparked by the huge popularity of The X-Files. Actually, though, the book recasts the long and often bizarre history of UFO sightings, contact and abduction as a modern gloss on a pre-existing set of psychological phenomena. That is to say, Wilson treats “close encounters” as inner events rather than outer, instances of altered states of consciousness rather than genuine realworld occurrences. Our imaginations, cloistered by too much materiality, are rebelling and trying to make themselves heard, and they’re doing so dressed up in the pop-culture paraphernalia of aliens and spaceships.
For Colin Wilson, his life’s goal seems to have been exhorting people to liberate themselves from the grey valleys of laziness, anxiety and depression where they spend too much of their lives. Through sheer willpower alone, he says, one can elevate oneself to sunlit uplands where the views are broad and breathtaking.
It isn’t a very fashionable stance to adopt but it has earned him a hardcore following of admirers, among them David Bowie. Wilson tells us over and over again that the world is weirder than we realise but that we need not be frightened or intimidated by this. We should instead, as the lyric of Bowie’s song “Changes” tells us, “turn and face the strange”, for by embracing what we don’t understand we can unlock our own true potential. We can all, chrysalis into butterfly, transform into Outsiders and soar.