DREAMING TO SOME
Random House/Century 2004
GURU OF THE OUTER LIMITS
The Smooth Men have enjoyed trashing Colin Wilson and his autobiography. For bland Humphrey Carpenter in The Sunday Times, or patrician Adam Mars-Jones in The Observer, Wilson-baiting is a kind of field sport, so easy to draw blood - Wilson the home-grown intellectual from grotty Leicester who didn't go to the right schools; Wilson the one-hit wunderkind philosopher of fifties bohemian London who was famous for fifty minutes; bloody-minded Wilson who went on and on and on and on to roll out scores of books about Rippers and rape and poltergeists and UFOs and Atlantis; the implausibly jolly Wilson who believes knicker fetishism is a telepathic meme transmitted by morphic resonance, who believes anything, everything...
As far as the UK cultural establishment is concerned, after the initial success of The Outsider in 1956, Wilson became an outside man. But in the early sixties his exhilarating study of alienation and frustrated transcendence had more resonance for me than the arid games of logical positivism. For a Jesuit-educated youth raised on the structures of Thomist metaphysics and the rock of Mother Church, Wilson posed mean questions about meaning, the very foundations of being itself. Then there was the image of the man himself, in gawky polo-neck and oversize horn-rims, a uniform that fitted me pretty neatly. This was a philosopher who'd been Adrift in Soho, who'd slept out on Hampstead Heath and hung out with Angry Young Men. He was outside, way out.
GETTING INSIDE THE OUTSIDER
September 5 1973. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has tasked me with a paranormal mission . They've commissioned Toronto freelancer David H---- to produce a radio series on Divination for the Ideas FM slot. I'm assisting at the UK end to seek out gurus on precognition, astral projection, voices from the dead, the magic books of Mexico, that whole twilight zone of being that enchanted Jung and terrified Freud.
So we're on the train to rural Cornwall, to meet my teen beat Outsider hero. He's tried to make sense of the supernatural in a massive new volume - The Occult. We will interview Colin Wilson, in depth, definitively, totally. We have miles of tape, our Uher recorder, the correct microphones, we've been up all night reading the book.
To start our quest in style we've already taken on a lavish quantity of champagne and oysters, courtesy of the CBC. Now the train accelerates rapidly. So do our speech rhythms. Soon our decibel levels are rising and the neurons are blowing a fuse. H----- tries to get off with a dark lady, telling her we're major-league Canadian media icons. She gets off at Exeter but I'm starting to believe our own euphoric mythology. Perhaps this is what Wilson calls "Holiday Consciousness"?
The excitement builds as we take a cab to Wilson's remote bungalow at Gorran Haven. We're following a huge truck full of hay bales along the narrow lanes. The truck seems to be pumping out a thick haze of diesel fumes. Our driver is eager to pass. Then we realise that that the truckload is actually on fire. We're slip-streaming a precarious mountain of blazing hay. The driver keeps trying to over-take and each time he pulls out I can look up and see the burning bales teetering above me. Is this what Wilson means by focusing attention in a moment of existential crisis? Very slowly, the moment passes...
Wilson is frantically mowing the lawn as we pull up. He's sweating in his string vest, long hair plastered over his forehead, pushing the mower back and forth as if he were Death scything souls. He's very affable if somewhat over-wrought. "Clean up this lavatory!", he admonishes his children as we enter. But Joy his wife has a calming presence. Soon we're drinking tea, then red wine. Joy serves an excellent casserole. Then we get the recorder out and the glasses are re-filled. Time for some serious interviewing. We are determined to impress the great man with the quality of our research and the richness of our various interpretations. Perhaps we will develop Faculty X...
"THE BREAKING POINT CAME WHEN TWO YOUNG MEN CAME TO INTERVIEW ME..."
The evening evolves into a magnificent blur. Wilson's daughter Sally floats through the haze on her way to her job in a coffee shop, his son Damon watches a kung fu movie on TV as H----- and I launch into a drunken fugue of questions that disappear up their own answers, a high-powered counterpoint of manic assertion (H-----) and convoluted rambling (Green) that tries to pull together telepathy and precognition and sex and magic and existentialism and the elusive Faculty X - which is in there somewhere if only we weren't quite so Dionysian....
Our host sits there dazed. He makes intermittent mild protests as we try to explain his work to him, over and over again. We don't realise it but he's approaching burn-out, writing 20,000 words a week on sex criminals and psychopaths for a magazine series. He wearily signs my copy of the book. "For Paul, with sympathy for his problems as an interviewer..."
Near midnight he walks us down to a nearby boarding house and we're still in hyper-drive although there's a lurking worry that we might not have very much Wilson on the reels. So we cheerfully inform him that we're coming back for more. Next morning, after H------ has established a questionable liaison with the somewhat faded blonde landlady, we return. Now that we've worn ourselves out Wilson actually has a chance to summarise his key ideas about focussing consciousness to empower an enhanced awareness of the space-time continuum.
Finally he drives us back to the station. En route we talk about his fiction and the function of the novel. I express surprise that he's not interested in experimenting with language and structure in the avant-garde mode, as ways of exploring altered states of consciousness. "I'm more concerned with developing my central ideas and getting them across in a way people can understand, " he insists, "whether it's fiction or non-fiction." He drives away determined to finish a book about strange powers, write an article on Verdi and meet the daily deadline for those serialisations of serial-killer sagas.
That night he has a panic attack. He's overwhelmed with exhaustion and anxiety as if the Space Vampires themselves had drained the life-force from him and erased any sense of purpose or optimism. The attacks come in waves for weeks afterwards.
ANGRY YOUNG DREAMER
But as Dreaming to Some Purpose demonstrates, Wilson has a certain dogged resilience, an intuitive clenched-teeth sense of destiny that has enabled him to bounce back against the absurdities and futilities of everyday life. Raised in dreary wartime Britain, in the narrow confines of a working-class back street, the boy Wilson was expected to work in a boot factory or at best an office. He sought release through reading in public libraries. Initially fascinated by science, he tried writing a kind of grand theory of everything in school exercise books. Then, as adolescence kicked in, he discovered poetry, philosophy and Romanticism.
The conflict between these aspirations and the actuality of his post-school life as a lab assistant reached a crisis when he opened a bottle of hydrocyanic acid and contemplated swallowing the contents. Wilson believes what saved him was a sudden recognition that he possessed an "essential self", an identity deeper and stronger than his everyday persona, that enabled him to transcend such moments.
Epiphanies like this recur throughout the narrative - even the panic attacks are eventually overcome by "the St Neot Margin trick - recognising that things could be ten times as bad, " an insight about mental focus that hit Wilson on a disastrous hitch-hike through a small English country town. However the thrust of the book is more towards memoir than a detailed explication of his ideas.
So in the earlier sections we're taken on a picaresque voyage through the underside of forties and fifties Britain. Wilson's standard chapter-summary technique conveys some of the flavour: "Working as a navvy. Discovering Rabelais. A night at Stonehenge. Working on a fairground. Mary and losing my virginity. I become a tramp. Hop picking in Kent. Across the Channel. To Paris. Peak experience in the Avenue du Chatillon...." He escapes conscription in the RAF by pretending to be gay, to the bewilderment of the adjutant. " He seized two pencils in both hands and began writing with both at once... 'But Wilson, I don't understand. There's nothing like a woman...'"
Wilson is candid about the delights (and fiascoes) of his early sexual adventures in the fields of Leicestershire and evokes the sense of transgression that surrounded these encounters in pre-permissive England. He's also open about his doomed premature first marriage. Betty was older than him, with fairly conventional expectations of security. Then marriage was forced on them by her unexpected pregnancy. Moving to London in the hope of launching Wilson's writing career they endured a succession of dismal lodgings and vicious landladies. By 1952 Wilson was painting toys in a plastics factory, writing his first novel of ritual murder in the Reading Room of the British Museum and consulting the I Ching in Wimbledon Public Library ( where a decade later I first encountered his work) while Betty was trying balance the demands of live-in nursing jobs with the needs of an infant son. The constant upheavals and lack of money, coupled with Wilson's ambivalence about the marriage effectively ended it.
While Betty and her child returned to her parents, Wilson found work as a porter at the West London Fever Hospital -"it was the perfect atmosphere for incubating some future Jack the Ripper" - and started hanging out with anarchists and art students in Soho. He co-wrote a revue, spoke at Hyde Park Corner and got drunk on cheap wine - "I had never been able to afford it before..." He also met a young journalist, Bill Hopkins, who shared his frustration with the spiritual torpor of postwar Britain. Hopkins, who was to become one of the prototype "Angry Young Men" emerges as a dynamic figure, drawn towards a kind of crypto-Nietszchean glorification of "strong leaders" and violent purgative social convulsion , as expressed in his novel The Divine and the Decay, long out of print but still something of a cult on the fringes of UK right-wing libertarian politics.
This early alliance with Hopkins illustrates the ideological gap between Wilson and the other young 50s radicals like John Osborne or Arnold Wesker, who at that stage of their careers were still men of the Left. Throughout all the political upheavals of the era (Suez, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, CND) Wilson, essentially an a-political being, focussed on the development of the individual as an agent of social transformation, rather than the transformation of social structures. There is something quite monastic at this stage about Wilson's isolation in his frowsy bedsit, subsisting on tinned tomatoes and fried eggs. He almost becomes Dostoievski's Underground Man, a secular monk of alienation and introversion.
A reconciliation with Betty failed and he felt he was stagnating in the hospital. He struck out for Paris again, connected with ex-pat writers like Christopher Logue and tried knocking on doors to sell subscriptions to the Paris Review , an enterprise that quickly failed. Returning to Leicester as a department store sales clerk seemed like a capitulation to the pressures of bourgeois conformism but it brought him into contact with another figure fascinated by the Will to Power , the ex-soldier and sexual athlete Martin "Flax" Halliday, model for the protagonist in World of Violence and case study in The Origins of the Sexual Impulse.
Of greater long term significance was his encounter with Joy, a cultured young woman whose gentleness seemed an ideal foil for his intensity. However, the long pursuit of Joy - which Wilson describes with a touching sense of wonder - was complicated by hostile parents ("Get out of town, Wilson!") and Wilson's financial obligations to Betty, as well as his perennial problems finding congenial jobs and landladies, so. he returned to London. After working in a laundry, and being sacked from a wine store, a garage and yet another plastics factory, and after discovering his landlady's daughter was using his bed to receive paying customers, Wilson hit on the ruse of making himself both homeless and jobless. Dossing in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath, he wrote during the day under the great dome of the British Museum Library. Although this period only lasted until the autumnal rains came, it became the making of his media myth.
THE OUTSIDER AS ICON
1955/6 seems to have been Wilson's magic era. He finally affirmed his relationship with Joy ( after digressions with Carol and Dorothy), he found steady work in a coffee bar, and, putting his novel on one side, he consolidated his years of note-making in a philosophical study: "As I wrote The Outsider I had an enormous feeling of excitement... I saw myself mirrored in Van Gogh, Nietzsche, T.E Lawrence... the theme was the misfits in modern civilisation, the creative men who feel out of place in the rat race... (I felt) despair would be impossible if we could understand the hidden power of the mind...." In the context of this early work, Wilson regarded those "hidden powers of the mind" as the potential of the mind for a primal vision of a meaningful universe, a Shavian evolutionary drive, rather than a specifically paranormal ability. He also dwelt at some length on existentialist visions of meaninglessness like Sartre's novel La Nausee.
In retrospect he now criticises his book for its "mood of world rejection", its stress on angst and romantic nihilism, as emphasised in its original title The Pain Threshold. The publisher Victor Gollancz, perhaps responding to the strand of mysticism in the text was impressed by the range of Wilson's reading, and gave him a £25 advance plus a slap-up meal. "You may be a man of genius...."
The Sunday reviewers seemed to agree, swept along with the boldness of his assertions and the unfamiliarity of much of his material. Herman Hesse was virtually unknown in the UK, while Nietzsche was regarded as a proto-Nazi. Then in the same week of May 28 1956 John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court. Osborne's disaffected anti-hero Jimmy Porter trumpeted against the mediocrity of Little England. As far as the media were concerned, he was blowing the same horn as Wilson. The meme of the Angry Young Men emerged, almost overnight. Wilson with his picaresque history was an instant media icon.
Wilson doesn't apologise for having enjoyed some aspects of this. and after his struggles and privations one can't blame him. He was invited to book launches and first nights and drank champagne. He met Beckett, "an amiable and unaggressive person". He argued with Ionesco. He got a telegram from Groucho Marx. "Jack the Ripper was always a hero of mine. Unfortunately physical limitations have prevented me from following in his footsteps." He met Marilyn Monroe in her dressing room. He was briefly an A-list celeb for the gossip columnists.
But the press were soon creating moral panics out of mini-events. When Wilson and Christopher Logue had a minor scuffle in the bar of the Royal Court after Logue had heckled Stuart Holroyd's play The Tenth Chance, the episode made the front pages of several national papers. Wilson's willingness to grant interviews and expound his ideas, perhaps sometimes overstating his claims, left him open to misrepresentation or caricature. There are parallels with the treatment of the Beats (especially Kerouac) in the US media. Wilson's media supporters like Bill Hopkins also hyped up the Angry Young Men mythology (soon to include Kingsley Amis and John Wain) imposing the mantle of a movement on a very diverse clutch of writers, only united by their youth and their provincial antecedents.
The incident which ended Wilson's literary life in London was another example of a micro-farce that evolved into a grand tabloid scandal. Joy's father arrived at Wilson's Notting Hill flat waving a horsewhip, intent on giving the Outsider a sound thrashing. Joy's sister had discovered a notebook outlining material for Ritual in the Dark. "He's a homosexual with six mistresses!" Police were called to the disturbance and Wilson was once again a front-page item, as editors bid for the allegedly deviant diaries. With remarkable naivete he gave the Daily Express an exclusive interview, hoping this would diffuse the hysteria, but the newpaper pursued him to Dublin. Eventually he decided the only way he would get peace to write and avoid the temptations of literary groupies was to retreat with Joy to a cottage in a remote corner of Cornwall.
BEYOND THE OUTSIDER
At this point the linear arc of the saga spirals into a circle, a cycle of non-stop writing in his hermitage, decade after decade, propelled not only by the need to service his overdraft but by his determination to keep attacking the question of how consciousness can be widened. He was - is - undeterred by hostile or lukewarm receptions to subsequent books - Religion and the Rebel , The Strength to Dream, The Age of Defeat . Indeed he has broadened his range of genre to include biography (Riech, Gurdjieff, Crowley, Steiner, Shaw, Jung, Rasputin) as well as true crime, science fiction (e.g. The Space Vampires, The Philosopher's Stone), the Spider World fantasy series and the paranormal works - at least a hundred titles.
Thus much of the rest of the book is taken up describing dealings with publishers, arguments with editors and general literary gossip. Wilson meets Auden and finds they share an enthusiasm for Tolkien and hobbitry. He drinks with Henry Miller. He argues with Albert Camus, who suggests that his concept of existentialism excludes "the ordinary man " - which Wilson accepts. Kingsley Amis threatens to push him off a roof. The surrealist poet David Gascoyne thinks he's too optimistic. He speculates on whether Graham Greene was a pederast. He embarks on a chaotic tour of Russia with the boozy English novelist John Braine. There are lecture tours in Scandinavia and visiting lectureships at American colleges. His novel The Space Vampires is transformed by Hollywood into Lifeforce ,"the worst film ever made." He goes rock-climbing with Robert Graves in Majorca, and meets Aldous Huxley in California..
Interestingly, when, inspired by Huxley's Doors of Perception to experiment with mescaline in 1963, he found the trip disturbing. The oceanic feeling of unfocused universal harmony that swept over him doesn't seem to have been the 'peak experience' he has sought so persistently. Many of Wilson's life-affirming moments seem to have been triggered by simple commonplace events like driving for hours through a snow-drift, or losing - and then finding - his lost infant daughter in a crowded shopping centre. Most parents would recognise the feelings that accompany moments like this, in which the totality of one's feelings for one's child could be illuminated. Yet it seems a fragile thread on which to hang a whole philosophy.
However he has tried to extend the notion of the visionary existential moment. Firstly he's tried to re-interpret existentialism in the light of Abraham Maslow's humanistic psychology, which takes positive experience rather than psychosis as the benchmark for mapping the psyche. Secondly, inspired by his experience in researching The Occult and related works, he's tried to link precognition, telepathy, psychokinesis, sychronicity with current trends in brain research and quantum physics, all as a basis for a visionary theory of consciousness. His recent interest in radical revisions of pre-history is also slanted around notions of evolving consciousness.
For Wilson's ongoing project is as vast an undertaking as his childhood attempt to sum up the cosmos in a notebook. Not surprisingly, if we look across his output as a whole, the operation runs into problems. One crux is whether or not one accepts that the empirical tradition of the repeatable scientific experiment is the only reliable bench mark for establishing "truth". If laboratory proof is your grail, then the "evidence" is full of contradictions and paradoxes. If one is an existentialist - in a very specialised sense - then subjective experience of the unique unrepeatable paranormal event is a self-validating phenomenon. Of course there is a huge dark body of paranormal anecdote which has been rolled around for over a hundred years, most recently enlarged by the claims of The Scole Group, to choose just one example. If any one of the hundreds of paranormal happenings recounted in Wilson's books is "true", whether it's the dowsing of T.C Lethbridge or the Poltergeist of Pontefract then it has major implications for human evolution. The difficulty is that the process of amassing anecdotal evidence is all too prone to including noise in the signal - the inevitable distortions of narrative compression and mediation as well as the pressure of publishers' deadlines.
In the same way, Wilson, very much focussed on the big picture rather than the devils of detail ,sometimes tends to treat as fact concepts which are still widely debated. He has made much of the split-brain model of consciousness, emphasizing the intuitive powers of the right-brain, drawing on the fascinating but still speculative theories of the late Julian Jaynes, who suggested that modern Cartesian consciousness might only have existed in the species since Homeric times. Wilson has suggested that consciousness may have many different layers of awareness, involving a super-consciousness as well as sub-conscious. However, his ideas still seem to be predicated on the traditional notion , the essentialist model of a central "I". Several contemporary theorists - like Daniel Dennett - coming at the consciousness problem from a neurological and/or information theory starting point have posited a de-centralised "multiple drafts" model which is fragmented, a shifting overlap of different neural loops and sub-routines which creates a shaky illusion of identity and continuity. This would appear to elide with the post-modernist philosophers like Jacques Derrida, whom Wilson detests for his slippery language games that seem to undermine any aspiration to "the truth."
"Art lies in order to tell the truth" said Cocteau. "The more profound the truth you wish to teach, the more subtly you must seduce the senses," said Nietzsche. As a novelist, Wilson is - paradoxically - very much a realist "truth-teller", using a plain transparent style and working within the structural conventions of his chosen genres. He avoids the seduction of elaborate stylistic tropes. With his psycho novels like The Killer, set in sordid rooms in provincial fifties Britain, the bareness of the writing matches the meanness of the settings. In the science fiction and fantasy novels, the effect is sometimes pedestrian, especially when he allows his didactic urge to over-explicate the theme. All writers of talent have an obsessive riff, but it's important to modulate the key , bend the note or add a little rasp to the tone. There is a whole body of vatic work - e.g. the surrealist automatic texts, the visionary Beats (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Mc Clure) - which calls into question consensus notions of consciousness through verbal experiment, the dissolution of conventional form and radical approaches to the process of writing. Yet these are directions which Wilson has chosen - for whatever reason - to avoid. When I sent one of my tapes to him years ago, he replied - no doubt hoping to cheer us both up - "your work is as different from mine as Boulez from Brahms...."
Will Wilson be eventually recognised as the most significant author of his time, as he once claimed? In terms of creating a master text, an addition to the canon of great literary works (whatever those terms now mean in a multi-media worldscape) , almost certainly not. But he has continued to provoke, to raise awkward unfashionable questions, to stimulate the imagination. with his Fortean concatenation of wonders. You have to admit he's a life-force.
June 4 1992. I'm on a crowded train out of Paddington bound for the South West. My wife might be going into labour down in South Devon, and I have to be there instantly. It's stifling hot, I'm exhausted, broke, unwashed, there are no seats and it's barely possible to even stand in the packed corridor. Then just ahead of me between the elbows and heads I can glimpse Colin Wilson, smiling, moving steadily through the crush. I want to tell him I now understand about the St Neot Margin, but there's no chance to catch up and have a chat about synchronicity. Still, his appearance seems - absurdly -a good omen....
©Paul A. Green August 2004
Culture Court | Paul Green | 2004