Monday 4 December 2017

Colin Wilson - England's John the Baptist

Portrait of Colin Wilson by Rob Floyd (2009)


As discussed in my previous post, I discovered both Kathleen Raine and Colin Wilson (1931-2013) in the Language and Literature Library on the top floor of Manchester's Central Library. For a long time, during the summer and autumn of 1997, I had become increasingly aware of a book called Colin Wilson: The Man and His Mind. I wondered who this Wilson was and what was so intriguing about his mind. I walked past the book and asked myself the question many times but didn't take it from the shelf. I mustn't have been ready for it at some level. At that time, I was just beginning to emerge from a long black hole of aimlessness and bereavement. So I read George MacDonald's Phantastes instead, which healed and re-baptised my imagination in a similar way to how C.S. Lewis describes his encounter with the book in Surprised by Joy.

That was September. In the October I came across Wilson's name again in a book about David Lindsay, the author of Voyage to Arcturus, but again, I didn't take down The Man and His Mind. When I eventually picked it up, it was for no particular reason on a Monday evening in early December, about half past six. I took the book from the shelf, flicked through it for five seconds, knew straightaway that I had to take it out, looked in my pocket for my library ticket and found that it wasn't there. Without any hesitation I put the book back, raced downstairs and caught the bus home, five miles to the suburb where I lived, got my ticket and jumped on a bus straight back. It was a quarter to eight when I got there, fifteen minutes before closing. I was terrified that someone might have taken the book out while I'd been gone, but no, it was still there, thank God. There had been no question whatsoever of waiting until the Library opened the next day. I had to read about Colin Wilson there and then. His ideas leapt and burst off the page. They had an immediacy - a ferocity even - that compelled my attention and focused my mind like a laser beam, banishing in an instant (or so it seemed) all the fears, inhibitions, doubts and anxieties that had formerly assailed me.

Colin Wilson: The Man and His Mind was published in 1990 and written by an Australian pastor and academic, Howard F Dossor. I find it a terrific book still and highly recommend it as an introduction to Wilson's work. I remember how impressed I was by the chapter headings - 'The Philosophy', 'The Fiction', 'The Literary Criticism', 'The Criminology', 'The Sexology', 'The Psychology', 'The Occultism'. I was astonished at how wide-ranging Wilson's oeuvre was and at the clarity and directness of his message - we are asleep, we can wake up if we choose, we are capable of far more than we currently think or imagine, we only need to make the effort and concentrate our minds fully on what we are doing right this minute.

Wilson's philosophy worked on me like a tonic. I had been feeling adrift on what Pope Benedict XVI later called the 'dictatorship of relativism', where one thing is as good or bad as another and nothing has ultimate value or significance. Well, here was a man who had none of that, a man of passion and conviction who believed that finding meaning, pattern and purpose was the most important thing a man or woman could do. It isn't enough to be free from external forces - oppression, poor living/working conditions, etc - life has to be for something as well. It has to have an inner direction and focus, two factors which the modern and post-modern worlds mitigate decisively against. But only then will our inner energies become sufficiently sharp for higher levels of consciousness to awaken and unfold within us. What is more, it is those among us who feel most trapped and alienated in our contemporary, un-heroic milieu - Wilson's 'Outsiders' - who are most likely to develop into the standard bearers for evolution's next leap forward - not a materialistic advance - better technology, more mod-cons, and so forth - but an intellectual and spiritual surge, the continuing and ongoing conquest of matter by mind.

It was a heady brew. Intoxicating even. No wonder I had been wary of picking up the book. But now I was ready, and the next half-decade saw me plough through more Wilson titles than I can recall now - The Outsider, The Occult, Mysteries, Beyond the Occult, The Black Room, The Mind Parasites, The Philosopher's Stone, and many more. Around the mid-2000s, however, I started to realise that even though I regarded Wilson as the most important writer alive, my life didn't actually appear to be all that much better than it had been in 1997. I didn't share his natural optimism for one thing, and I began to get frustrated at my inability to find meaning simply by willing meaning to be there. I grew increasingly irritated with his approach. His continual deference to science annoyed me, the way he tried to express what were essentially spiritual realities in scientific terms (such as his 'ladder of selves' theory) as if those were the only terms that mattered. What I once found dynamic and counter-cultural I now found repetitive and one-dimensional. I continued to admire and respect Colin Wilson, but he was my 'North Star' no longer and I perceived that I needed to dig deeper and more thouroughly if I was to effect the root and branch changes required to purge me of my ego and properly orient my life towards goodness, truth and light. 

'Metanoia', it's called in the Gospel's original Greek - turning one's life around - the English 'repent' being a rather weak translation. This 'turning around' was to lead me back at length to the Christian faith I had fallen away from, via a rediscovery of the writers I had loved most as a child - C.S Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roger Lancelyn Green and Rosemary Sutcliff. In Christ, I began to sense and feel everything I had yearned for but hadn't been able to locate in Wilson's philosophy - a personal God, warmth, tenderness, tradition, and an emphasis on silence and listening - waiting on God - rather than making repeated attempts to instigate change through will power alone. Taking the Kingdom of Heaven by force, in other words.

So it was a real eye-opener, earlier this year, when I read Religion and the Rebel (1957), Wilson's sequel to his wildly successful d├ębut, The Outsider, for the first time. To the same extent that  The Outsider had been lauded by the critics, so Religion and the Rebel had been panned and derided. I think, looking back, that this negative reception must have influenced me subconsciously. How else could it have been that I had devoured so many Wilson titles down the years and never felt tempted by this one?

It is rich fare indeed, a survey of religious Outsiders - including Blaise Pascal, John Henry Newman and Soren Kierkegaard - which showcases a different Wilson altogether - mystical, intuitive, and strongly marked by the poetry and esoteric thought of William Blake and W.B. Yeats. What makes the book extra special in my eyes is that it contains a wider, civilisational element, which is almost entirely lacking from his later work. Wilson links the emergence of the Outsider to the ongoing (and now precipitous) decline of the West. Then he goes further by stating that the Outsider stands as both symptom and remedy of our civilisation's spiritual and cultural malaise. He or she is capable of bringing a new religious revelation to the table, or at least of injecting a fresh burst of impetus to the existing revelation. This is particularly germane in 2017, I feel, especially in Europe, where we are beginning to see how a people who have ceased to believe in God might start to cede place to a people for whom God is still active and real.

As Bruce Charlton has pointed out on these pages, Colin Wilson appeared to be on the brink of becoming a Christian at the time he wrote Religion and the Rebel. He did not do so, and his writing took on a different hue. I was given a clue as to why this might have happened when, together with my friend, the painter, Rob Floyd (see portraits above and below), I visited Wilson at his Cornwall home in 2009. Wilson and his wife, Joy, were most hospitable and generous hosts, but I remember him saying at one point how disappointed he was that his 2004 autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose, had been so poorly received by the critics. This surprised both Rob and myself as Wilson always gave the impression in his books that he was utterly impervious to the broadsheets' attempts to marginalise and belittle him.

My guess is that just as the critical hostility to Religion and the Rebel impacted on me in ways I didn't realise, so it impacted subconsciously on Wilson himself, diverting him from a spiritual approach to a more science-flavoured one, which might, on paper at least, have stood a greater chance of finding favour with the establishment that had lifted him so high then cast him so brutally down. It's just a theory, as I say, and I might be completely wrong, but my sense is that it accounts for a lot and that there's potentially more than a grain of truth there.


Might have been. Could have been. Should have been. Wilson's life, like all our lives, is littered with what ifs and maybes. But whatever his shortcomings, they pale into insignificance when weighed against his largeness of spirit, his breadth of vision, and the sheer ambition and scale of his intellectual project. For twenty years now, since that night in the Library, I've regarded him as the foremost British thinker of the age, even during the period when I distanced myself from his work. It's a national scandal that UK academia views Wilson as a crank at best and a crypto-fascist at worst, while life-denying, nihilistic pseudo-thinkers who can't or won't express themselves clearly such as Foucault and Derrida are held up as paragons of cutting-edge thought. I'm convinced that that if young people were encouraged to read and think about Wilson's ideas then the mental health crisis currently engulfing our country would be greatly ameliorated. Unless that isn't what the authorities want? Maybe they don't want any more Colin Wilsons. Perhaps they've never forgiven him for daring to step beyond the role prescribed for him as a working class boy from Leicester, which - despite the reburial of Richard III and the recent success of its football team - remains one of the most deeply unfashionable and looked down-upon cities in England.

A prophet, as we know, is never accepted in his own country, and certainly Wilson has received a warmer welcome overseas than here, especially in Eastern Europe, the Far East and parts of the Middle East. As we enter Advent, it seems natural to me to see him as a kind of John the Baptist figure, standing alone in the wilderness, calling us to Metanoia, a radical reorientation and restructuring of our lives in preparation for the One who is to come.

Advent also urges us to reflect on the second coming of Christ, and that could occur at any time, of course. Before it does, however, I suspect we might be granted one last shot at redemption - one more revival and rebirth - the end, as Blake put it, of Albion's long sleep on Britain's rocky shores - a resurgence of religion, creativity, beauty and nobility throughout the land. On that day, Wilson's true status will be plain to see - as clear and bright as the lightning blazing across the sky - a herald and forerunner of a new level of spiritual and imaginative intensity in this realm.

'Come the three corners of the world in arms,' says Faulconbridge in Shakespeare's King John, 'And we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue, if England to itself do rest but true.'

Colin Wilson shocked many, from all corners of the world, out of mental slumber during his career. He will carry on doing so as the years and decades ahead unfold.

Thank you, O Lord, for his life and his work. Grant him, we pray, some well-deserved rest from his labours. Welcome him into the light of your face, and may he find in your presence a place of light, happiness, refreshment and peace.

Portrait of Colin Wilson by Rob Floyd (2009)


Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I endorse your evaluation of Colin WIlson - and also your reservations.

I agree that Religion and the Rebel includes CW's very best work - and I find your account of how its reception redirected Wilson's writing; esepcially bearing in mind that he had decided to make-a-living from writing - and would therefore need to have an eye to book sales.

His next Outsider book was The Age of Defeat which, although containing much good stuff, comes across as a deliberately topical 'potboiler' (focusing on analysing three then-fashionable and much-discussed popular sociologists) and a step down from level and intensity of The Outsider and Religion and the Rebel.

Although Religion and the Rebel did not have any chance of getting well-reviewed in context of the backlash against Wilson; it does have problems as a book, because it takes a good while to get to the point; and many readers would give-up before reaching the best part.

Thus, the book opens with a c. forty page biographical essay; then in part one (another 80 plus pages) it approaches its subject rather tentatively and indirectly, via writers usually regarded as secular.

Only when Part Two begins - with The Making of Christianity, and then jumping into a consideration of Jacob Boehme - do we get to the crux of the matter.

It looks to me as if Part Two was The Real Book, but running at only c. 150 pages, was judged to be too short to be publishable; and it was therefore perhaps 'padded-out' (urgently, in order - as the author and published no doubt supposed while the volume was being-assembled - to capitalise on Wilson's meteoric success and name-recognition).

Due to the back-lash, this haste back-fired! - and we were left with a sub-optimally-structured volume which has been difficult (and usually extremely expensive) to obtain until its re-publication this year.

As I have written, another 'it's a pity' about CW's life was that he did not take more seriously his friend WIlliam Arkle's work - which can be seen as a completion of CW's early and religious phase. Arkle became a very good friend. Arkle's son Nick remembers many visits from CW, when he would come to stay, and the two men would converse at length.

However, meeting Arkle was itself too late - being (according to CW's account) apparently more than a year after the Outsider's success, therefore after the critical panning of R and the R, and therefore *after* the putative change-of-direction and Christian-spiritual-aversion of Wilson had already begun to set-in...

Consequently, I don't think Wilson took Arkle's religousness - his cosmic theological focus on God's intentions for creation - sufficiently seriously; and I think the two engaged mainly on matters such as the shared ground of levels of consciousness and 'the robot'; and later the fact that Bill Arkle's wife Liz had various spiritual gifts (e.g healing, and a kind of life-reading hand-palmistry) some of which Wilson mentions in some of his post-Occult/ Mysteries line of work. A version of Arkle himself is also written into couple of novels and has a few other scattered mentions and acknowledgements.

In sum; CW was fascinated by Arkle 'The man' as an example of a happy, living, modern Blakean mystic with a creative and autonomous lifestyle; but there is an element of condescension about Arkle's mystical Christianity - which was in fact *precisely* what Wilson himself most needed!

Sam Charles Norton said...

As a student with Rowan Williams c1991 I vividly remember asking him about Colin Wilson; the answer was along the lines of 'I'd be very happy with students coming up having read Wilson - I don't like his answers but he is at least asking all the right questions'. I then pushed on what author had the answers, to which the response was simply 'Augustine!' It's a long time since I read any Wilson, but you have prompted me to put R+R on my Kindle, to read on my retreat next week.

Wurmbrand said...

An anecdote that was worth recording and preserving, Sam, thanks. Augustine! Well said that man.

I enjoyed also John's account of the library ticket adventure.

John Fitzgerald said...

That's a lovely vignette about Rowan Williams, Sam. I know Bruce disagrees but I've always rated RW highly as a theologian and poet, so that story doesn't surprise me. I think R + R would be a smashing book to read on retreat. Bruce makes some perceptive comments about the structure of the book above, so that's worth bearing in mind, but other than that I can't honestly think of a better book to read.
I admit it's been a long time since I read any Augustine. Maybe I should go back to the library and take out his Confessions!