“[Colin] Wilson,” Clive James wrote, “Can’t think straight and that’s that”. I agree. Wilson, a novelist, critic, philosopher and esotericist, had no talent for rational thought. If he suspect that something was true, be it the existence of ghosts or the validity of Julian Jaynes’ ideas about the “divided self”, any evidence, however flimsy, confirmed it for him.
In his book on Alister Crowley, for example, he wrote of a letter from a young women whose claims about her life “left [him] in no doubt that she was another victim of voodoo”. He did not meet the young woman, as far as one can tell. He did not observe the happenings she claimed to have endured. He just trusted that she had been honest and assumed that there could be no other explanations. It was voodoo. That was that.
Given this, one sympathises with the critics who tip-toed away from Wilson after lauding his debut book The Outsider. It is easy to get overenthusiastic, and embarrassing to admit that one has been wrong. Yet was there nothing to the young, earnest and often astonishingly arrogant young writer? One should not dismiss him because of his kookiest ideas. Sartre, after all, was a communist, which is a far more damaging delusion than believing in the Loch Ness Monster, yet that is no reason to dismiss existentialism.
Wilson couldn’t think straight, but he could think at angles. This can be a valuable talent to have. People with sober, cautious and scientific brains can think narrowly and blinkeredly. It is good, sometimes, to be thrown off course, even if one then forges a straighter, firmer path.
Wilson wrote more than a hundred books, on subjects as diverse as philosophy, consciousness, wine, music, sex, crime, spirits and himself. At the core of his work, however, was his idea of an optimistic existentialism – one that held that men were not condemned to be free but blessed to be free. In our normal lives, he wrote, the inner “robots” of men blind us to the “infinite interestingness of things“. We glimpse it through what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences” – moments of intense artistic, religious and mystical satisfaction – but an evolutionary leap could make us more receptive to enlightenment.
That peak experiences exist is undeniable. What is at issue is their nature. Do they give us a clearer perspective on reality? To some extent, yes. Often, a concern or grievance that has bothered me is rendered trivial by moments of deeper, broader insight. Wilson gave a touching example of this change in perspective when he wrote of an abandoned suicide attempt. Just as he prepared to swallow chemicals he felt the sense of there being two Wilsons, “this silly, bloody little idiot called Colin Wilson who was in a state of self-pity and about to kill himself” and a Colin Wilson whose imagination, curiosity and cleverness offered enormous and exciting potential.
But there is an illusory aspect to peak experiences as well. The light of the world blinds us to areas of darkness, and the scale of the world obscures its complexities. I think Wilson would have found it difficult to maintain that life was “self-evidently good” if instead of becoming a professional author with a devoted wife and a beautiful home he had worked in boring jobs and endured broken relationships. Even this Colin Wilson would have been spared the violence and deprivation that afflicts other peoples. There is, indeed, a quality of our “robots” ignored: while they can make it difficult to appreciate goodness they can help us adapt to and, thus, tolerate suffering. If life was lived with the intensity of our keenest moments the pain of heartache, bereavement and physical agonies would be magnified so as to make them unendurable.
There is something to be said for the quotidian as well. Wilson compared the “worm’s eye view” of our everyday life to the “bird’s eye view” of enlightenment. Yet a bird watches the ground in all of its minute details. It must, of course, because it has to locate worms. Man has to feed and clothe himself. He has to work around the conflicts and compromises of relationships. Such mundane duties are as separable from life as the troublesome questions of equipment, routes and cardio are from mountaineering. Even Maslow accepted this, for in his famous hierarchy of needs “self-actualization” stood atop a pyramid that rested on a firm foundation of our basic physical and emotional needs.
Wilson might have argued that such charges will be made redundant by an “evolutionary leap” into a higher realm of consciousness. Perhaps I am too cynical but I see no chance of this happening. While I am not a convinced materialist I think consciousness, whatever it is, operates within the limits of our physical make-up. The most extreme “peak experiences”, indeed, are the result of material causes, by which I mean narcotics. (I remember being the only person at a party not on drugs, and hearing cries of “the shower curtains are amazing“.) Even these subside, of course, often with terrible effects.
Wilson’s unsceptical embrace of occult and parapsychological theories strikes me as an attempt to extend the boundaries of the human soul. I would defend (and have defenced) the claim that paranormal phenomena might exist, but his belief in almost any spiritual idea – including dowsing, ghosts, spoon-bending, poltergeists, astrology, levitation, ESP and life after death – speak to a need to make the universe more interesting and meaningful than it would be without them.
In a curious sense, Wilson’s optimism leaves one feeling pessimistic. It requires such implausible heights of the imagination, and such implausible rewritings of science and history, that it makes one feel that normal life has to be deficient. It can be. For some people it is. Yet between the pessimism of Emil Cioran and the optimism of Colin Wilson are millions of people living happily as children, parents, lovers and friends. That this does not satisfy the outsider does not make it any less true.
So what do I admire about Colin Wilson? Less his answers than his questions. He was right to challenge the austerity of Cioran and Samuel Beckett, who, for all their merits, were perversely pessimistic about human life. He was right to challenge the narrowness of philosophers who, tinkering with logic, ignored most of our existence. He was right to spurn the temptations of those forms of utopianism which pursued meaning through revolutionary change. He was right to oppose the encroachment of materialism into all areas of our social and personal lives.
Wilson, in his clumsy way, stoked our spiritual flames. His insistence on positive psychology, for all its faults, challenges our complacent inclination to take average minds for granted and focus all of our energies on the mentally ill. But just as physical health is not merely about avoiding illness but achieving optimal fitness and strength, mental health is not merely about avoiding mental illness but achieving optimal happiness, concentration and fulfillment.
Wilson, more than anyone, popularised the novels of Hermann Hesse in Great Britain, which are priceless inspiration for a more contemplative and curious existence. He kept alive the names of imposing eccentrics like George Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, who, whatever their merits, are intriguing fossils of the esoteric tradition. He was a voracious reader, and, even if we might hope to be more reasonable, we should take inspiration from such boundless inquisitiveness.