Reflections on meeting Colin Wilson 'The Outsider'
Herewith some reflections on meeting the great Mr Wilson. If you care to read the full interview, and boy, what a beast it is, then look here.
Driving through the gate at Craven Cottage, the sanctuary in Cornwall whence Colin Wilson, at the age of 25, fled from unrelenting hounding from the press in 1957, we were unaware that we had passed through an invisible upside-down pentagram which Wilson had cast as a spell to keep away unwanted intruders and hangers-on. Wilson, at 25 was already a self-educated published author-philosopher, and is a man who has had a life beset by paradox. When he focuses his mind to write another book - which is quite often as he has written over 120 books which makes him the most published living author on the face of the planet -the critics sharpen their pens like vultures, and yet when he last visited the local pub in a quiet, rural Cornwall village, he recounts to us that '?by the time we?d done the rounds of the pubs in the area we?d met so many people that we really didn?t want to know, who all said come and have drinks with us and we?ll come and have drinks with you and so on, that it took us nearly a year to get through it all (laughter), so we decided that it is better not to do this kind of thing'
Walking into the man?s house is like walking into a Parisian artisan-philosopher?s loft from the 1920?s: the rooms are choc-a-bloc from tip-to-top stuffed with books, records and other paraphernalia. I put down the glass of wine I am thrust almost immediately upon arrival to notice that the hard board topped coffee table rests upon a cubic volume of compressed books.
Later that evening, having been pressed by Wilson to stay the night, and having talked about everything from poltergeists to extra-terrestrials, from the Occult to witchcraft, I will become terrified as, in a drunken stupor, I take one of the books and forget from which shelf I have taken it from ? for earlier Wilson has been quick to warn me with a demonic glint in his eye that nothing infuriates him more than guests moving his books ? it seems that all the talk of upside down Pentagrams combined with the joint that had been passed to us in the local pub has made me queasy & my mind evokes fearful fantasies of being locked in Wilson?s house like the writer in the Stephen King novel ?Misery?.
Yet the first impression I have is that this man is not the dilettante muso-journalist that can by found scratching his chin in the Electric on the Portobello road. There is no show with Wilson, no pretence and absolutely no bullshit. His work has been his life and neither he nor it has surrendered or been at any stage remotely compromised by the savage attacks that have been made upon him. The sheer quantity of books is unlike anything I have seen in any house I have been to. The décor is created by the subject matter; books become tables, stereo speakers which play his 30,000 records are squeezed in on the shelves which house his 40,000 books ? 'soon there will be no room for us' ? his wife Joy tells us ruefully. I ask Colin if he feels that, at least originally, there was a class-ist aspect towards the presses dismissal of him ? he says that there was without a shadow of a doubt (this was originally back in the '50's after all).
And one can imagine why. Here we have your savvy Harley street journalist, educated, done all the courses, perhaps once dreamed of being a novelist or man of ideas, but now content to cut the career path, perhaps come back to the creative stuff with reputation made and dollars in the bank. There you have the young Wilson; left school at the age of 16, worked in over 30 jobs from industrial warehouses to being a scientist lab-boy, hitchhiked through Europe without a bean to his name same year as a fellow called Kerouac wrote ?On the Road? on the other side of the Atlantic, returned to London, couldn?t afford rent so slept on Hampstead Heath in waterproof sleeping bag and wrote his first book ?The Outsider? while writing in the British Library during the day.
You can imagine this young upstart who is self-educated, with a rugged Leister accent, published and hailed as literary phenomenon at the age of 24 just infuriating journalists in London at the dawn of the 1960?s. When Joy tells me that there are three self-constructed sheds with 10,000 books each in their garden the point is hammered home to me: the thing about Wilson is that he is the real-deal.
If you were an author then Colin Wilson is the perfect audience. If you are a composer he is the ideal listening sensibility. He does not exist, as journalists do, feeding off the realm of the current, commenting on the zeitgeist and then never returning to what he comments upon. He lives his commentary. It extends from the way he lives, and the way he has lived has been informed by what it created in inside him.
And these are the reasons that have attracted us - a twenty-something?s rock n?roll band - down to Cornwall to meet with him. Colin Wilson, whether you love him or hate, him has done it his own way. Rock n? Roll in its truest sense is not a form of music; it is a set of values. It is about cutting a path where others feel there is no path to be cut. It is about believing in something and doing it regardless of how ridiculous and socially abnormal it seems. It is about an individual using whatever talent he possesses and trying to use it to beyond his own limitations. Our attraction to Colin Wilson was that we felt he had lived the most rock n? roll of lives?. perhaps without even knowing it.
Colin Wilson is without question a very unusual man. After we talk to Wilson, who plies us with wine, and after a good two hours of conversation with him, we slip off to the local boozer. On the way back we find ourselves slipping confused through the forest-surrounded streets. Then John, our manager, disappears and Ed & I become convinced that he may have been consumed by Wilson, who under the bright light of the full moon has surely turned into a nightmarish creature of the night. We walk tentatively knowing that one cracked twig from the foliage beneath may prove deadly by giving our position away. When John finally springs out upon us from the deep he receives a communal battering as we release our tensions and with doing so recognize what a character this man Wilson is: that his enigmatic nature can inspire wild Transylvanian fantasies amongst the urban artisans who have found themselves way way out of their depths....
Rising the following morning (with one hell of a hangover) I wonder if it is this quality that has made journalists not just weary and critical, but it seems to me, threatened. Upon meeting him Wilson I immediately felt that I had met a man the likes of which I had not met before. Though he has the seriousness and stillness of the true philosopher, there is something slightly other about him. During the interview we settle down and have every intention on guiding the interview towards existentialism, creativity and the modern mind. As total amateurs we make a hash of it and quickly find ourselves being lectured about serial killers ? Colin has just finished a book written in an 8 week working frenzy. Though he had a stroke last year he still has that most unusual ability to focus his mind like a laser and enter a state where he becomes totally free of distractions. He wakes up at 5 in the morning and fires from that time onwards. We ask him how he does his research but, reassuringly, he tells us he has done so many books on serial killers that he can now just sit down and fire away.
So starting from serial killers, the conversation moves from criminology then onto the Occult. The range of Wilson?s writing is quite extraordinary, as is the intensity of research and range of knowledge. He?s monologueing on all range of subjects and I have to stop the wine spilling on my shirt when he causally drops in that 'as a matter of fact I am going to collaborate on a book with a dead man....' A friend of Wilson?s called Monty Keane died recently who was a member of the Society for Psychic Research. He tells us his wife started to get messages from him which were so completely down to earth and full of things that she knew about that it just had to be Monty? 'Subsequently we went on to get a very good physical medium, which means the medium can actually be used by spirits and they can talk or just use his energies to wander around the room?'
The question has to be asked is Wilson just a wild quack? However, sitting there with a man who has a scientific pedigree and has made an unceasing quest for truth through out his whole life, one quickly overcomes ones pedantic limitations and learns to sit with humility and enthusiasm at the opportunity to sit and listen to a wizened wizard speak with great conviction about his experiences with the after-life.
Few people know that when Blake wrote in one of his books that ? the ancient prophecy that the world will end after 3000 years is true?. as I have heard from hell - That he was actually speaking what he felt to be the literal truth, and it is the same with Wilson, the man?s investigations into the paranormal humble our London 2005 preconceptions. It is not just about conviction; it is about listening to a lifetime of experience, which has informed those convictions.
The conversation moves on talking about how a very wealthy businessmen gave up his job and dedicated his fortune to building a communication device which could communicate between this world and the next one: So they reached an amazing stage of communication, which seems to be what they are aiming at and there?s a whole group of them who are very interested in this, in sort of bridging this gap, which seems to either worthwhile or insane! He tells us how his study of the supernatural was inspired by his investigation of a house in Pontefract where an occurrence with Poltergeists led to a house being totally smashed up.
'When I got round to writing a book about life after death and studying all the facts, I could see that if these spirits existed that it was very probable that there was life after death and I just got involved more and more, but always from a rather skeptical point of view, looking from the scientific side of all of this until finally, after years and years I have more or less come around to this. When I wrote The Occult which was about 1970 I thought that all this stuff about life after death and what not was a lot of nonsense and wishful thinking but you know, as I?ve looked through it I?ve gradually come to accept it.'
The conversation moves onto Aleister Crowley and we mention that John, our manager is camping by Boleskine, the house Crowley owned and which Jimmy Page (of Zeppelin legend) subsequently owned. Wilson is deeply amused by this and tells us that even Crowley was worried about that place! John is not so amused and is later overheard speaking animatedly with his camping partner, pleading that staying in a B&B is a far superior idea. (John maintains that this is a lie!).
Despite all the talk of strange phenomena, Colin Wilson has a classical outlook as a philosopher and tells us that not only is he a firm believer in the objective world but also that agrees with Einstein that 'God doesn?t play dice'. Despite the hardship of his life ? when asked why he has written so many books, he tell us that it is because he has always been broke ? he has kept a very healthy and optimistic outlook, something which, it seems, is built about these firm philosophical foundations. It makes a portrait of him all the more fascinating, that though he has strong mystical tendencies and has experienced many instances of what Jung called synchronicity ( 'in fact that business of pre-cognition is one of the most common place, people are always getting glimpses, and the more I looked in to it that far from being nonsense it absolute solid down to earth fact') in his life, his philosophical outlook is firmly based in the Western rational tradition.
This brings us to the heart of his work, and indeed, to the heart of the matter. In his perennial classic 'The Outsider' Wilson 'rationalized the psychological dislocation so characteristic of Western creative thinking into a coherent theory of alienation and defined it as a type: the Outsider.' He writes about these characters as being the spiritual dynamo?s of society and very often being people placed between not being able to take on the normal jobs of society but also not necessarily having the belief in themselves or the particular gifts bestowed upon them to go off in artistic veins.
We are interested about how his views have evolved regarding this type of individual; a type in modern western civilization, that perhaps anyone can relate to in some way, whether it is through the alienation of the rat-race, or the alienation felt by the asylum seeker in a new country.
'In The Outsider I had talked about all these characters who had more or less exploded because they could not take any more but I ended the book by saying the Outsider has got to stop being a sort of escapist and running away and that it is his job to change the world, to take over, to stop being an outsider and become the leader - what Shaw called, a world betterer, and it seems to me that that?s the really important thing about it?'
Wilson refutes the classical notion of mental illness and rather describes a society in which an individual can experience too much intense pressure which can lead him to burst rather like a wire which has too much electricity passing through it. Yet Wilson?s is not sympathetic to too much talk of mental illness. His position is informed by a very British pragmatism ? that it is up to the individual to find his own path, to search for new ways of growth and redemption and cut a path out of this alienation... alienation that most of us feel.
'Doctor Johnson said that when a man knows he is to be executed in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully. The problem you see is that you?ve got to have concentration of mind, that?s the most important thing that you can possibly have, and I suddenly realized that I would never have done anything if it weren?t for the extreme difficulty of my younger days.'
There remains with Wilson the working class work ethic he was born with, and it informs his view on how the individual must face society and his life. If in The Outsider Wilson asks 'what should we do with our lives?', his life would give testament that an individual?s work ethic is intimately bound up with his mental health. It is reflective of eastern disciplines, which are based on the seminal notion that one must have extreme discipline if one is to gain an understanding of the meaning of things; something we may interpret in the west as healthiness of mind, or simply put, happiness.
However our discussion about mental health ends with Wilson revealing his own form of class snobbery:
'I?ve noticed that almost all the writers, who ever achieved anything, began from extremely bad beginnings. People like Dickens, and Bernard Shaw and H.G Wells and so on, they really had to struggle to get their cart out of the mud whereas people like Graham Green and Evelyn Waugh who went to public schools and didn?t have to struggle never made it to the first rank.'
As Wilson cracks open yet another bottle of wine, which his doctor has advised him not to drink, we take him to task on this, somewhat surprised that he doesn?t rate Graham Greene. Out of the blue he raves back: 'I THINK HE?S A FUCKING SHIT' (We roar with laughter) 'He irritates me. He?s so gloomy and pessimistic and tries to influence us that this is a rotten world full of sin.'
Wilson is unmovable and hates the fact that to him Greene seems to think that existence is some form of nightmare. As a man who has had to fight for every bean with intense discipline, Wilson is not to be convinced that some privately educated purveyor of doom has anything to say that is of any particular worth. He says that the only interesting thing about Graham Greene is that one day he: 'put a bullet into the chamber of a revolver, spun it, aimed it at his head and pulled the trigger. He said that (becomes elated) one he heard there was just a click, he had this wonderful feeling of sheer happiness and relief and said it was as if a light had been turned on and he felt as if everything in the world was marvellous? he went on and did this about six different times before even that bored him.'
Wilson goes on to tell us how the interesting thing about human beings is that we have a robot inside us that tends to take us over, the mechanism that allows us to learn a new skill is the very thing that can be our undoing so that just as we can learn to painstakingly ride a bicycle then seemingly do it automatically, so it is with the rest of our existence. One day we can be elated watching a sunset, the next it has become distant and foreign and we lose track of our ability to touch upon it as a primary experience: 'Now what Graham Green did when he pointed the gun at his head and pulled the trigger was the robot suddenly gave a scream of alarm and lept of his shoulders, and suddenly there was the real him looking out from behind his eyes. So, this robot is the real danger and he?s the answer to all you talk about mental illness, it?s the robot who?s causing the mental illness and what he is doing is taking over the real you and squeezing the real you into a little corner of your being. And because the real you feels all suffocated and upset we call that mental illness. In fact mental illness has always been this same business of getting more and more fed up and therefore more and more squeezed by the robot?'
And this, we feel leads us to the heart of the philosophy of Colin Wilson. It is the exploration of the ways we can use of problems we face in life to elevate us to higher states of consciousness: 'It's mainly the problem that all of us have these particular problems and Rudolph Steiner once said never complain about your lot in life because you chose it before you were born, and if you suddenly realized that all these problems can infact, if tackled properly, have this effect of producing important stuff, then you suddenly begin to recognize that the problems can be valuable and useful.'
As he wrote in his recent auto-biography 'Dreaming To Some Purpose', the grim hardship of living is something that happens to Kings and happens to people on the dole ? the thing that defines us as people is how we interpret and use the hardship we face. Wilson?s frustration with certain types of Outsider is that they are not using their potential, rather escaping and indulging in it. What the Outsider must do is use his experiences to, as Nietzche one wrote, 'turn the world to light and fire', to become, as Shaw dictated, 'a world betterer'.
So there we have it, Colin Wilson, lambasted, lampooned, outcast ? Renaissance man, philosopher, mystic, maestro. I didn?t mention yet that even though Colin had never met us, he insisted not only in speaking with us for over two hours, not only gave us tapas and supper, as well as 5 bottles vintage red wine, that he also insisted that we stay the night as his guests (having failed to have sorted out accommodation).
On the way back to London, having survived the night and wondering whether we had been premature in our initial conviction that he was a reptilian member of the secret Society of the Golden Dawn, I wondered if there was anyone else I knew on the face of the planet who had shown such unbelievable hospitality to three strangers who knocked on their door on a balmy summer evening ? conversing, feeding, and sheltering?. and at last I wondered if Colin Wilson wasn?t actually closer to the Good Samaritan than the Draconian Reptilian that journalists would have us believe?
The full rambling booze-fueled Creel interview with Coline Wilson can be found at this link.
Interview added 19-10-2005