You will embark on the intellectual ride of a lifetime in this rediscovery of the life and work of writer, rebel, and social experimenter Colin Wilson (1931-2013).
Author of the classic The Outsider, Wilson, across his 118 books, purveyed a philosophy of mind power and human potential that made him one of the least understood and most important voices of the twentieth century. Wilson helped usher in the cultural revolution of the 1960s with his landmark work, The Outsider, published in 1956. The Outsider was an intelligent, meticulous, and unprecedented study of nonconformity in all facets of life. Wilson, finally, became a prolific and unparalleled historian of the occult, providing a generation of readers with a responsible and scholarly entry point to a world of mysteries.
Now, acclaimed historian Gary Lachman, a friend of Wilson and a scholar of his work, provides an extraordinary and delightful biography that delves into the life, thought, and evolution of one of the greatest intellectual rebels and underrated visionaries of the twentieth century.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
THE ANGRY YOUNG MAN
On May 28, 1956, an unusual book appeared on the Londonliterary scene and quite literally took it by storm. World War II had endedmore than a decade earlier, but the Britain the book appeared in was stillrecovering from the Blitz, rationing, and its demotion from an empire to asmall and rather fragile island nation. Bomb sites and shattered buildings werestill part of the London terrain, and Britain’s fall in status was reflected inits cultural consciousness. In 1951 the Festival of Britain, dedicated totechnology and innovation, tried hard to kick-start a sense of recovery, butthe response was sluggish and the doldrums that had settled over the ScepteredIsle seeped into every aspect of its life, including its literary one.1 Theoutlook there was pretty bleak.2 The end of World War I had seen the rise of anew generation of writers. Figures such as T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf,Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence had emerged from theaftermath of the “war to end all wars,” and their grim determination to “tellthe truth” and depict “reality” made the previous generation of writers seemhopelessly outdated. Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, andothers from the Edwardian era were still writing, but the optimism andprogressive thinking that had characterized what I have called the “positivefin de siècle” now rang hollow and it was clear that the new crew wasrepresentative of an unmistakable change in sensibilities.3
Ten years afterVictory in Europe and Hiroshima, nothing similar had happened, at least not inBritain, and the epigone of the first wave of modernism seemed to have settledinto producing good but not particularly exciting work. Cyril Connolly, one ofthe most influential critics of the time, placed the blame on James Joyce’sforbidding monster Ulysses, which, Connolly argued, was a very tough act tofollow, something Joyce discovered for himself when he produced Finnegans Wake,which, for all its puns, mythology, and linguistic hijinks, was not what onecould call a novel. Joyce, it seemed, had taken the novel as far as it couldgo, and there appeared to be little left for those who came after him to do,even himself.
This sense ofanticlimax and reduced expectations most likely played a part in thevertiginous success of a book that, in one sense, should not have beensuccessful at all. Not that it wasn’t good or didn’t deserve the acclaim itreceived. But as its author soon found out, most of the hue and cry the bookprompted was for the wrong reasons.
The book was TheOutsider and its author, a twenty-four-year-old Leicester lad named ColinWilson, was an unlikely candidate for celebrity, more like what used to becalled a “high school dropout.” For the past several years Wilson had driftedfrom job to job, tramping across England and France, often doing cheap manuallabor, and at one point he was so insolvent that he had taken to sleeping roughon London’s bucolic Hampstead Heath, to escape paying rent, but also to avoidthe payments he was obliged to make to his estranged wife for the maintenanceof their son.4 He was, in his own words, “a bum and a drifter,” whooccasionally had encounters with the police; at least one policeman had toldhim that it was illegal to sleep in England without a roof over one’s head.5Wilson did not have the benefit of a university education, something most ofBritain’s literati had, and his tousled hair, turtleneck sweater, and generalunkempt appearance were not standard issue for upcoming British writers.
And if theauthor was not cut from the expected literary cloth, his book certainly wasn’teither. The Outsider, a work of literary and philosophical analysis, wasconcerned with the spiritual dilemmas of an eclectic and somewhat incongruouscollection of characters. This angst-ridden group included the philosopherFriedrich Nietzsche, whose misappropriation by the Nazis had given him a badreputation in English-speaking countries; the dancer and choreographer VaslavNijinsky, who had died insane in London just a few years earlier; the militaryhero T. E. Lawrence of Arabia; the painter and suicide Vincent van Gogh;the French philosopher, novelist, and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre, at the timeprobably the most famous writer in the world; and forgotten figures such as theplaywright Harley Granville-Barker. Others included were H. G. Wells, FyodorDostoyevsky, and Leo Tolstoy. There were also some unfamiliar names, such asthe German novelist Hermann Hesse, who was practically unknown in England atthe time; and the Greek-Armenian esoteric teacher G. I. Gurdjieff, who hada bad reputation for taking A. R. Orage away from his proper work as a literaryeditor and for somehow being responsible for the death of the New Zealandwriter Katherine Mansfield.6 What all these individuals and others had incommon is that they all exemplified a character type that Wilson identified as“the Outsider.”
Who or what isthe Outsider?
A more detailedanswer to this question will be found in the pages that follow. But for now wecan say that the Outsider is someone who sees “too deep and too much” and thatmost of what he sees is “chaos.”7 He or she lives in the world with a sense of“strangeness” and “unreality.” The safe, stable reality that most of usperceive is for the Outsider an illusion, a facade obscuring a more dangerousand threatening possibility: that of nothingness, nihilism, and the void, thecomplete inconsequentiality of human life and all its achievements. For theOutsider, the values and meanings that constitute life for most people—a goodjob, a big home, a nice bank account—are empty and makeshift; they are, atbest, “attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational somethingthat is savage, unorganized, irrational.”8 That is to say, for the Outsider,most people’s lives are inauthentic, based on untruths and the avoidance ofreality. But the Outsider “stands for Truth.”9 He stands for Reality. He seeksa meaning and purpose that the everyday world cannot provide and his salvationlies in understanding this and embracing it with total conviction.
Other namesappear in Wilson’s heterogeneous mix, but by now the reader should have an ideaof what reviewers, cracking open their copy of The Outsider, would have confronted.Although the sun never set on the English empire—at least not until after WorldWar II—its cultural, literary, and philosophical tastes were often parochialand insular. The English were also notoriously impervious to ideas—their forteis pragmatism—and if there was one thing The Outsider was full of, it wasideas.10 That a book that declared that “the Outsider cannot live in thecomfortable insulated world of the bourgeois” and that “it is as impossible toexercise freedom in an unreal world as it is to jump while you are falling”skyrocketed to the best-seller list has to be one of the great ironies ofmodern literature.11 Another is that the success this irony achieved woulddrive its author, if not into exile, certainly into a kind of literary no-man’sland which he would escape only through much hard work, determination, andsheer brute endurance. Such a fate might have crushed most beginners, but theauthor of The Outsider was, as you might expect, an Outsider himself, and theyears leading up to his paradoxical success were ones of effort, challenge, andthe difficult business of actualizing one’s freedom.
Colin HenryWilson—he never used his middle name in any literary work—was born into aworking-class Leicester family in England’s Midlands on June 26, 1931. TheDepression had hit Great Britain by then and needless to say times were tough.The effects of World War I were still felt throughout the United Kingdom, andthe worldwide economic slump only added to an already difficult situation.Wilson’s father worked long hard hours in a boot and shoe factory earninglittle more than three pounds a week, roughly twelve dollars at the time. Itwas a barely livable wage. Although Wilson says his family—there were laterbrothers and a sister—was never really deprived, there were times when themoney was short, and on at least one occasion the young Wilson had no food forhis school lunch break.12
Wilson candidlyadmits that he was the reason his parents married; neither really wanted to buthis mother’s pregnancy forced the issue.13 He also admits that he didn’t reallylike his father, but acknowledges that he was a “hard worker and goodbreadwinner.” Yet the fact that “working a forty-eight-hour week” must havestruck his father as “a poor substitute for living” must have had something todo with the eventual Outsider’s desire to escape the dreary treadmill ofeveryday life, its endless routines and repetitions.14 It was a fate thatpractically everyone around the young Outsider shared. “No one dreamed ofescape,” he later remarked about the people in his childhood, “because no onethought there was any escape. Instead they contented themselves with the pub,and the football match on Saturday afternoon, and dreamed of winning thefootball pools.”15 Most everyone around him was satisfied with this, but froman early age, Wilson had other dreams.
Wilson’s fatherwas bad-tempered and irritable—not surprising, given he had been forced intomarriage in his late teens—and he and Wilson’s mother often quarreled. Onoccasion this led to blows.16 Wilson’s father consoled himself, as many otherfathers did, by spending evenings at the pub drinking beer. Wilson admitseveryone at home was relieved when Dad left for the pub, but the drinking did cutinto the family finances. Wilson says that the first sentence he wrote was “Daddrinks beer,” an achievement about which his father was not happy.17
Wilson’s motherwas different; in fact the two hardly seemed suited to each other. His fatherwas sentimental and emotionally turbulent, his mother cool and detached, adifficult mix that in Wilson produced a dedicated family man who was given tosudden demonstrations of affection, yet who also needed solitude and who couldappear to those who didn’t know him as aloof and withdrawn. To compensate forher unhappy home life, Wilson’s mother read magazines such as True Romance, butalso novels by D. H. Lawrence and A. J. Cronin—famous in his day forThe Citadel—which she borrowed from the local library. She was an intelligentwoman who daydreamed of a better life, and would share her woes anddissatisfaction with Colin and his brother Barry as she got through her chores.Wilson would later write, “I have long suspected that imaginative working-classwomen are the evolutionary spearhead of society, since the narrowness of theirlives imparts an intensity to their daydreams that middle- and upper-classwomen, lacking the desperation, find harder to achieve.”18
Wilson’smother’s daydreams of a more rewarding existence communicated themselves to theyoung Colin and her response to unhappiness served as a counter to his father’sbitterness at an impoverished existence. The “narrowness” of her life impartingan “intensity” to her daydreams is an example of Wilson’s belief that adverseconditions may often be of more value to a creative person than more ostensiblynurturing environments. Two of Wilson’s heroes, Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells,had been born into impoverished families and had to overcome many obstacles anddifficulties in their early years before achieving any kind of success. Theirearly struggles ensured that they would not balk at later challenges, andinstilled in them an optimism and drive based on a vivid awareness of the valueof the things they fought for. They were inoculated against the kind ofpessimism and spoiled-ness that, Wilson believed, is often associated with aneasy life in which everything is handed to you. The novelist Marcel Proust andthe playwright Samuel Beckett, for example—two writers Wilson often refersto—both came from well-off families. Proust was a notorious hypochondriac andBeckett developed a numbingly pessimistic vision of life, depicted in painfullystatic plays such as Endgame. This belief in the power of early effort tominimize pessimism and despair plays a central role in Wilson’s philosophy.
Yet Wilson alsoadmits that “the most essential fact about my childhood is that I wasspoiled.”19 By this he means he was the darling of his extended family. Hismother was the first of many brothers and sisters to produce a grandchild andyoung Colin was doted on by his grandparents, aunts, and uncles. His maternalgrandparents regarded him as “altogether remarkable,” a conviction that he cameto share. He was told that he was “pretty” and “clever” and that great thingsmust be in store for him. This fuss and adulation instilled in the young Wilson“a certain basic conviction that life and fortune mean well by me,” an optimismand certainty of success that both buoyed him and led to later friction withhis critics, who found his frank assessment of his own powers and abilities tooforthright for their tastes, especially coming from an Englishman.20 For theEnglish, good upbringing should root out “any element of what might appear tobe self-assertion or egoism,” with the result that one develops an instinct to“suppress any stirring of impatience or originality. . . . Good manners,” inthis case, means “to be like everyone else,” a difficult assignment for an up-and-comingOutsider.21
The praiseWilson received led to him getting used to “being the strongest, and toexerting a certain authority over my brothers and cousins.”22 It also later ledto him “thinking of myself as a prodigy.”23 And although he soon realized thathe was “not half the prodigy I thought I was,” it was just as well he wasn’tdisillusioned, as it preserved him from the “fallacy of insignificance,” theprevailing idea that human beings are humble, unexceptional creatures whosepotentialities are severely limited, a belief Wilson would take exception to inThe Age of Defeat, his book about the “loss of the hero.”24 It also led to himbecoming something of a performer. He learned to recite poems and sing songsand was often put up on a table to entertain the family. Looking back, Wilsonis amazed at the kind of confidence he displayed then, compared to theexcruciating shyness and reserve that colored his teens. But the adulation feda self-confidence not yet undermined by the doubt and self-division he wouldlater struggle with. It was responsible for “occasions on which I wanted to dosomething, and have done it with an ease that has astonished me—an ease that issomehow foreign to the subjective and introspective part of me.”25 Self-division,the quarrel between two opposing visions of ourselves, became one of thecentral themes of Wilson’s later work. In his early years this took the form of“two opposing impulses: distrust of the world, and the sense of immunity,complete confidence.”26
Excerpted from "Beyond the Robot"
Copyright © 2016 Gary Lachman.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: A Pilgrimage to Tetherdown xi
Chapter 1 The Angry Young Man 1
Chapter 2 Before The Outsider 23
Chapter 3 Breakthrough and Backlash 47
Chapter 4 After the Outsider 69
Chapter 5 A New Existentialism 86
Chapter 6 Peak Experiences, Intentionality, and Evolution 112
Chapter 7 America and the Robot 133
Chapter 8 Mysteries of the Occult 158
Chapter 9 Our Other Self 184
Chapter 10 Inner Worlds and Criminal Histories 204
Chapter 11 Psychics, Spirits, and Upside-Downness 229
Chapter 12 Misfits and Atlanteans 257
Chapter 13 Aliens and Ancient Sites 285
Chapter 14 On the Way to Super Consciousness 313
Coda: Without the Outsider 341