Sunday, 15 December 2013

The death of Colin Wilson, encyclopaedic outsider and cultural portal

I was saddened to learn last week of the death at the age of 82 of one of my earliest intellectual heroes  - though some would sniff “pseudo-intellectual”. Colin Wilson was a man curiously both slightly behind and slightly ahead of his time. He was an autodidact with an almost nineteenth century concern for self-improvement, a man with highbrow tastes seemingly unimpressed with modern popular culture, and someone driven by an urge for knowledge and experience who battled with his own information explosion long before the internet made that phenomenon a commonplace for every active, thinking, culturally engaged person.
The basic facts of Colin’s life are well known, including the hype - the early instinct for adopting a mediagenic persona (polo neck sweaters, sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath, the horsewhip episode) – and the unwise declarations of genius which were soon to backfire on him with such long lasting and devastating effect, revenge from the stuffier, less imaginative parts of the English establishment with whom he had not been to school or university.

My first awareness of him, in my mid-teens, a decade after his first (and possibly best) book “The Outsider”, was when he co-authored a rather juicy encyclopaedia of murder which provided a factual background for furtive explorations of dubious locales that I made with a friend, seedy sites that included Hilldrop Crescent, Rillington Place and Hanbury Street. It was evident to me from the start that Colin was a tad pervy, exactly in what way subsequently  revealed with embarrassing detail in his later autobiography, “Dreaming to Some Purpose”. Too much information, Colin.
And that was always it: too much information. As the years passed he became a one man encyclopaedia not just of crime but of … everything, or so it seemed. Eventually almost a self-caricature.

Over the years I gradually caught up on his back catalogue and bought each new book that he brought out. I was never very keen on his novels, but I devoured his non-fiction avidly and was intrigued by his concepts of, for instance, Faculty X and the St Neot margin. His writings acted for me like a portal to the works of philosophers, psychologists and others who otherwise would have remained unknown to me, at least for a long time; his writings provided a gateway and a short cut into areas that I was unfamiliar with, having had primarily a scientific education. Probably the most important thinker he “turned me on to” was Abraham Maslow, with his now-famous hierarchy of needs culminating in self-actualisation and his accounts of peak experiences. I could relate to that kind of thing, and to many other descriptions of essentially subjective experiences that were rarely discussed elsewhere, even in textbooks of psychology. Especially in textbooks of psychology. Colin wrote about things, as it were, from the inside. But he was obviously not quite respectable, for he was too omnivorous, not discriminating enough, with too evidently a taste for intellectually dodgy characters, would-be supermen and deviants of all kinds; there were far too many references to sadism and to what he always spelled as “fetichism” (which made it sound even kinkier than it was) - yet that degree of self-revelation was part of his attraction. Emerging into public life in the same year as Elvis, he built up quite a fan base around the world.
Subjective experiences like involuntary memory, peak experiences and déjà vu – things which, though unusual and disturbing, I thought everyone had - were fascinating to me, and Colin Wilson’s output furthered my interest in what I would call “normal” subjectivity. When he published “The Occult” I was briefly enthralled, but within a few years I began to feel that he had been “taken in” by many aspects of parapsychology and mysticism, which is not to say that even now I necessarily dismiss all such claims. Indeed, Colin was right at the leading edge of the 1970s popular infatuation with all things that became dubbed New Age. I remember going to Claude Gill’s bookshop in Oxford Street sometime in the mid-seventies; Uri Geller was there bending keys, on (I believe) his first visit to Britain, and he kept talking about Colin Wilson, asking if anyone knew him, and he said he was meeting him the following day. I don’t know if Geller is genuine - no one does - but from where I was standing I was convinced – perhaps fooled. Even so, my interest in parapsychology soon declined, and my scepticism grew. I felt that Colin may have been gullible in some respects; I was happier with “normal” subjectivity than with the supposed “paranormal” variety.

For me, Colin was an inspiration not only for what I read, but an encouragement to try writing myself. In more recent years I’ve read anything by or about him that came my way, rather more critically than formerly, while becoming increasingly irritated by his predictable lazy repetition and recycling of earlier themes. But there are other interesting aspects of the “flavour” of the man that enhance his appeal – for instance his association with Soho in the Fifties and Notting Hill in the Sixties, moody periods and places in our recent cultural past – the Angry Young Men, “Absolute Beginners”. And there is the parable of the provincial lad growing up in a town of – as he described it “cow like people” – feeling the draw of the metropolis as a place where he might meet like minded souls and achieve the success he craved; this is such a frequent and popular trope in modern British cultural life.
Colin was someone I could relate to. As a young adult, unsuccessful, provincial, often lonely, working in uncongenial surroundings but interested in ideas, in creativity and psychological phenomena, it was easy for me to identify (pretentiously, perhaps) with the “outsider” condition that he described – but then, unfortunately, so do the Anders Breiviks and Mark Chapmans of this world. The five percent of the population who fall into this bracket, according to Colin, include some very unpleasant people indeed, as well as your average misfit, not to mention your average person who perhaps thinks a bit differently from others and has different interests and concerns from the majority (me on a good day), plus the occasional oddball genius (Bowie fits the mould perfectly and, indeed, once cited “Col” as an influence). Outsiders are motivated by, driven by or tormented by their awareness of mortality, of the limited time available to try and make sense of “it all”, the few years in which to try and leave something behind that will survive a short while and establish that “they were here”. They struggle with the basic existential conundrums long after many people abandon them as impossible, and seek to make the best use of the talents they have been given, and of their allotted time here. It may be, of course, that “the outsider personality” is an overblown concept, and that we all sit somewhere on a spectrum of relative outsiderness.

Where Colin’s work particularly strikes home to me is his urge to devour information. In “The World as Information” (published by Intellect in 1999, immediately before the internet became such a central aspect of our lives), I described in some detail his huge appetite to consume and digest knowledge. In various publications he has given figures for the number of books and recordings he possessed, which were gradually taking over his Cornish bungalow, along with outbuildings constructed specially to house them. For instance, in “Dreaming to Some Purpose”, published in 2004, he wrote: “In July 1961 I note that I had 5,000 books and 1,500 records in the house. By 1963, I had 10,000 books and 4,000 records. Today I have about 25,000 books and the same number of records. This probably goes a long way towards explaining why we never had any money”. In the era we are now entering, when increasingly we are encouraged not to collect but to freely download from the internet, one wonders how he would have reacted and coped.
Being an outsider offers plenty of scope for pathology, but charitably one may say that Colin’s collecting instincts were part and parcel of his larger than life personality, the central motivation that drove his career as an author, and a feature that made him – to the distant reader – so human, so likeable, so easy to identify with. The outsider, whether it’s an exaggeration or not, is a personality type that increasingly we will encounter and will need to understand, to accommodate and to enable to succeed. Whatever the potential dangers, it is so often outsiders who drive things forwards, rather than those who are at ease with themselves, psychologically comfortable - with or without the infamous pram in the hall.

Arguably, Colin’s best output was early on. He once said that he had to write in the same way that a dog with fleas has to scratch; surely, he wrote too much, but quite apart from the dog that had to be scratched there was also the wolf that had to be kept from the door. With his passing, a serious re-evaluation of the life and works of Colin Wilson, especially one in the context of relevance to present day concerns, would be timely.
Colin Wilson was born in Leicester on 26th June 1931 and died in Cornwall on 5th December 2013.

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