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lundi, 19 novembre 2018

Colin Wilson’s The Outsider

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Colin Wilson’s The Outsider

The following review was published in The European, a journal owned and published by Sir Oswald Mosley and his wife, Diana, between 1953 and 1959, in its February 1957 issue. It was signed only “European,” although it is now known this was a pseudonym used by Sir Mosley himself. Published only a short time after The Outsider [2] was first released in May 1956, it remains one of the best analyses of Colin Wilson [3]‘s most famous book, and was reprinted in the anthology Colin Wilson, A Celebration: Essays and Recollections (London: Woolf, 1988), which was edited by Colin’s bibliographer, Colin Stanley. The footnotes are Mosley’s own. The somewhat antiquated spelling and punctuation have been retained as they were in the original text.

It is always reassuring when men and things run true to form. It was, therefore, satisfactory that the silliest thing said in the literary year — the most frivolous and superficial in judgment — should emerge with the usual slick facility from the particular background of experience and achievement which has made Mr. Koestler the middle-brow prophet. He wrote of Mr. Colin Wilson’s remarkable book in the Sunday Times: “Bubble of the year: The Outsider (Gollancz), in which an earnest young man imparts his discovery to the world that genius is prone to Weltschmerz.”

Otherwise Mr. Wilson’s book had a very great success, and well deserved it. In fact, it was received with such a chorus of universal praise that it became almost suspect to those who believe that a majority in the first instance is almost always wrong, particularly when at this stage of a crumbling but still static society the opinion of the majority is so effectively controlled by the instruments of a shaken but yet dominant establishment. Why has a book so exceptional, and so serious, been applauded rather than accorded the “preposterous” treatment which English literary criticism reserved for such as Spengler? The first answer is that Mr. Wilson’s mind is very attractive, and his lucid style makes easy reading; the suggestion that this book is so difficult that everyone buys it but no one reads it, would brand the reading public as moronic if it had any vestige of truth. The second answer is that Mr. Wilson has as yet said nothing, and consequently cannot be attacked for the great crime of trying to “get somewhere”; somewhere new in thought, or worse still, somewhere in deed and achievement. What he has so far published is a fine work of clarification. A strangely mature and subtle mind has produced a brilliant synopsis of the modern mind and spirit. He does not claim to advance any solution, though he points in various directions where solutions may be found; “it is not my aim to produce a complete and infallible solution of the Outsider’s problem, but only to point out that traditional solutions, or different solutions, do exist”. No one could possibly yet guess where he is going, or what he may ultimately mean. He probably does not know himself; and, at his age, it is not a bad thing to be a vivid illustration of the old saying: “no man goes very far, who knows exactly where he is going”. What makes this book important is that it is a symptom and a symbol; a symptom of the present division between those who think and those who do; a symbol of the search in a world of confusion and menace by both those who think and those who do for some fresh religious impulse which can give meaning and direction to life. To achieve this, those who only do need sensitivity to receive a vision of purpose without which they are finally lost, while those who only think and feel require, in order to face life, the robustness and resolution which in the end again can only be given by purpose.

cw2.jpgMr. Wilson begins his “inquiry into the nature of the sickness of mankind in the twentieth century” at the effective point of the writers who have most influence in the present intellectual world. They are mostly good writers; they are not among the writers catering for those intellectuals who have every qualification except an intellect. They are good, some are very good: but at the end of it all what emerges? One of the best of these writers predicted that at the end of it all comes “the Russian man” described by Mr. Wilson as “a creature of nightmare who is no longer the homo sapiens, but an existentialist monster who rejects all thought”, As Hesse, the prophet of this coming, put it: “he is primeval matter, monstrous soul stuff. He cannot live in this form; he can only pass on”. The words “he can only pass on” seem the essence of the matter; this thinking is a chaos between two orders. At some point, if we are ever to regain sanity, we must regard again the first order before we can hope to win the second. It was a long way from Hellas to “the Russian man”; it may not be so far from the turmoil of these birth pangs to fresh creation. It is indeed well worth taking a look at the intellectual situation; where Europeans were, and where we are.

But who’er can know, as the long days go
That to live is happy, hath found his heaven.

wrote Euripides in the Bacchae,[1] [4] which to some minds is the most sinister and immoral of all Greek tragedies. For others these dark mysteries which were once held to be impenetrable contain the simple message that men do themselves great hurt if they reject the beauty which nature offers, a hurt which can lead to the worst horrors of madness. “Il lui suffit d’eclairer et de developper le conflict entre les forces naturelles et l’âme qui pretend se soustraire à leur empire” — wrote Gide in his Journal — “Je rencontrai les Bacchantes, au temps ou je me debattais encore contre l’enserrement d’une morale puritaine“. To anyone familiar with such thinking it is not surprising to find the dreary manias of neo-existentialism succeeding the puritan tradition.

Man denies at his risk the simple affirmation: “Shall not loveliness be loved for ever?” The Greeks, as Goethe saw them, felt themselves at home within “the delightful boundaries of a lovely world. Here they had been set; this was their appropriate place; here they found room for their energy, material and nourishment for their essential life.” And again he wrote: “feeling and thought were not yet split in pieces, that scarce remediable cleavage in the healthy nature of man had not yet taken place”. Goethe was here concerned with the early stages of the disease to whose conclusion Mr. Wilson’s book is addressed.

cw3.jpgThis union of mind and will, of intellect and emotion in the classic Greek, this essential harmony of man and nature, this at-oneness of the human with the eternal spirit evoke the contrast of the living and the dying when set against the prevailing tendencies of modern literature. For, as Mr. Wilson puts it very acutely: when “misery will never end” is combined with “nothing is worth doing”, “the result is a kind of spiritual syphillis that can hardly stop short of death or insanity”. Yet such writers are not all “pre-occupied with sex, crime and disease”, treating of heroes who live in one room because, apparently, they dare not enter the world outside, and derive their little satisfaction of the universe from looking through a hole in the wall at a woman undressing in the next room. They are not all concerned like Dostoievsky’s “beetle man” with life “under the floor boards” (a study which should put none of us off reading him as far as the philosophy of the Grand Inquisitor and a certain very interesting conversation with the devil in the Brothers Karamazof, which Mr. Wilson rightly places very high in the world’s literature). Many of these writers of pessimism, of destruction and death have a considerable sense of beauty. Hesse’s remarkable Steppenwolf found his “life had become weariness” and he “wandered in a maze of unhappiness that led to the renunciation of nothingness”; but then “for months together my heart stood still between delight and stark sorrow to find how rich was the gallery of my life, and how thronged was the soul of wretched Steppenwolf with high eternal stars and constellations . . . this life of mine was noble. It came of high descent, and turned, not on trifles, but on the stars.” Mr. Wilson well comments that “stripped of its overblown language,” “this experience can be called the ultimately valid core of romanticism — a type of religious affirmation”. And in such writing we can still see a reflection of the romantic movement of the northern gothic world which Goethe strove to unite with the sunlit classic movement in the great synthesis of his Helena. But it ends generally in this literature with a retreat from life, a monastic detachment or suicide rather than advance into such a wider life fulfilment. The essence is that these people feel themselves inadequate to life; they feel even that to live at all is instantly to destroy whatever flickering light of beauty they hold within them. For instance De Lisle Adam’s hero Axel had a lady friend who shot at him “with two pistols at a distance of five yards, but missed him both times.” Yet even after this dramatic and perfect illustration of the modern sex relationship, they could not face life : “we have destroyed in our strange hearts the love of life . . . to live would only be a sacrilege against ourselves . . .” “They drink the goblet of poison together and die in ecstasy.” All of which is a pity for promising people, but, in any case, is preferable to the “beetle man”, “under the floor boards”, wall-peepers, et hoc genus omne, of burrowing fugitives; “Samson you cannot be too quick”, is a natural first reaction to them. Yet Mr. Wilson teaches us well not to laugh too easily, or too lightly to dismiss them; it is a serious matter. This is serious if it is the death of a civilisation; it is still more serious if it is not death but the pangs of a new birth. And, in any case, even the worst of them possess in some way the essential sensitivity which the philistine lacks. So we will not laugh at even the extremes of this system, or rather way of thinking; something may come out of it all, because at least they feel. But Mr. Wilson in turn should not smile too easily at the last “period of intense and healthy optimism that did not mind hard work and pedestrian logic.” He seems to regard the nineteenth century as a “childish world” which presaged “endless changes in human life” so that “man would go forward indefinitely on ‘stepping stones of his dead self’ to higher things.” He thinks that before we “condemn it for short-sightedness”, ” we survivors of two world wars and the atomic bomb” (at this point surely he outdoes the Victorians in easy optimism, for it is far from over yet) “would do well to remember that we are in the position of adults condemning children”. Why? — is optimism necessarily childish and pessimism necessarily adult? Sometimes this paralysed pessimism seems more like the condition of a shell-shocked child. Health can be the state of an adult and disease the condition of a child. Of course, if serious Victorians really believed in “the establishment of Utopia before the end of the century”, they were childish; reformist thinking of that degree is always childish in comparison with organic thinking. But there are explanations of the difference between the nineteenth and the twentieth century attitude, other than this distinction between childhood and manhood. Spengler said somewhere that the nineteenth century stood in relation to the twentieth century as the Athens of Pericles stood in relation to the Rome of Caesar. In his thesis this is not a distinction between youth and age — a young society does not reach senescence in so short a period — but the difference between an epoch which is dedicated to thought and an epoch which has temporarily discarded thought in favour of action, in the almost rhythmic alternation between the two states which his method of history observes. It may be that in this most decisive of all great periods of action the intellectual is really not thinking at all; he is just despairing. When he wakes up from his bad dream he may find a world created by action in which he can live, and can even think. Mr. Wilson will not quarrel with the able summary of his researches printed on the cover of his book : “it is the will that matters.” And he would therefore scarcely dispute the view just expressed; perhaps the paradox of Mr. Wilson in this period is that he is thinking. That thought might lead him through and far beyond the healthy “cowboy rodeo” of the Victorian philosophers in their sweating sunshine, on (not back) to the glittering light and shade of the Hellenic world — das Land der Griechen mit der Seele suchen — and even beyond it to the radiance of the zweite Hellas. Mr. Wilson does not seem yet to be fully seized of Hellenism, and seems still less aware of the more conscious way of European thinking that passes beyond Hellas to a clearer account of world purpose. He has evidently read a good deal of Goethe with whom such modern thinking effectively begins, and he is the first of the new generation to feel that admiration for Shaw which was bound to develop when thought returned. But he does not seem to be aware of any slowly emerging system of European thinking which has journeyed from Heraclitus to Goethe and on to Shaw, Ibsen and other modems, until with the aid of modern science and the new interpretation of history it begins to attain consciousness.

cwb4.jpgHe is acute at one point in observing the contrasts between the life joy of the Greeks and the moments when their art is “full of the consciousness of death and its inevitability”. But he still apparently regards them as “healthy, once born, optimists,” not far removed from the modern bourgeois who also realises that life is precarious. He apparently thinks they did not share with the Outsider the knowledge that an “exceptional sense of life’s precariousness” can be “a hopeful means to increase his toughness”. The Greeks, of course, had not the advantage of reading Mr. Toynbee’s Study of History, which does not appear on a reasonably careful reading to be mentioned in Mr. Wilson’s book.

However, as Trevelyan[2] [5] puts it, Goethe followed them when he “firmly seized and plucked the nettle of Greek inhumanity, and treated it as the Greeks themselves had done, making new life and beauty out of a tale of death and terror”. Yet, in the continual contrast from which the Greeks derive their fulness of life : “healthy and natural was their attitude to death. To them he was no dreadful skeleton but a beautiful boy, the brother of sleep”. It is an attitude very different to Dostoievsky’s shivering mouse on the ledge, which Mr. Wilson quotes: . . . “someone condemned to death says or thinks an hour before his death, that if he had to live on a high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only have room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, he yet remains standing in a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than die at once.” But is the attitude of the “once born Greek” so inferior to the possibly many times born ledge clinger? On the contrary, is not the former attitude a matter of common observation among brave men and the latter attitude a matter of equally common observation among frightened animals whose fear of death is not only pathetic but irrational in its exaggeration. Mr. Wilson’s view of the Greeks seems to rest in the Winckelmann Wieland stage of an enchanted pastoral symplicity. He has not yet reached Goethe’s point of horror when he realised the full complexities of the Greek nature and only emerged to a new serenity when, again in Trevelyan’s words, he realised: “they had felt the cruelty of life with souls sensitive by nature to pain no less than to joy. They had not tried to shut their eyes to suffering. They had used it, as all great artists must, as material for their art; but they had created out of it, not something that made the world more horrible to live in, but something that enriched man’s life and strengthened him to endure and to enjoy, by showing that new life, new beauty, new greatness, could grow even out of pain and death.

Jaeger[3] [6] quotes Pythagoras to express something of the same thought; “that which opposes, fits; different elements make the finest harmony ever”.

Were these “once born” people really much less adult than the Outsider in his understanding that “if you subject a man to extremes of heat and cold, he develops resistance to both”? Perhaps they even understood that if we subject ourselves to more interesting extremes we may learn to achieve Mr. Wilson’s desire (and how right he is in this) “to live more abundantly”. And Mr. Wilson certainly does not desire to rest in the Outsider’s dilemma; he is looking for solutions. In Hellas he may find something of a solution, and much more than that; the rediscovery of a direction which can lead far beyond even the Greeks.

As a sensitive and perceptive student of Nietzsche he is aware of Dionysus, but is not so fully conscious of the harmony achieved between the opposing tensions of Apollo and Dionysus. “Challenge and response” too, was more attractive in the Greek version; Artemis and Aphrodite had a charming habit of alternating as good and evil in a completely natural anticipation of Goethe’s Prologue in Heaven, which we shall later regard as the possible starting point of a new way of thinking, and of that modern writing of history which supports it with a wealth of detail. But we should first briefly consider Mr. Wilson’s view of Nietzsche and others who are rather strangely classified with him; it is a surprise at first to find him described as an existentialist, though in one sense it is quite comprehensible. For instance, Thierry Maulnier’s play Le Profanateur recently presented essentially Nietzschian thought in an existentialist form. But to confine Nietzsche to existentialism is to limit him unduly, even if we recognise, as the author points out, that definitions of existentialism have greatly varied in recent times, and also, as all can observe, that Nietzsche may be quoted in contradictory senses almost as effectively as the dominant faith of our time. The finer aspects of Nietzsche seem beyond this definition; for instance the passage in Zarathustra which culminates in the great phrase: seinen Willen will nun der Geist, seine Welt gewinnt sich der Weltverlorene, or again the harmony of mind and will in the lovely passage of Menschliches, Allzumenschliches which seems a direct antithesis of the currently accepted view of Existentialism: “The works of such poets — poets, that is, whose vision of man is exemplary — would be distinguished by the fact that they appear immune from the glow and blast of the passions. The fatal touch of the wrong note, the pleasure taken in smashing the whole instrument on which the music of humanity has been played, the scornful laughter and the gnashing of teeth, and all that is tragic and comic in the old conventional sense, would be felt in the vicinity of this new art as an awkward archaic crudeness and a distortion of the image of man. Strength, goodness, gentleness, purity, and that innate and spontaneous sense of measure and balance shown in persons and their actions . . . a clear sky reflected on faces and events, knowledge and art at one: the mind, without arrogance and jealousy dwelling together with the soul, drawing from the opposites of life the grace of seriousness, not the impatience of conflict: all this would make the background of gold against which to set up the real portrait of man, the.picture of his increasing nobleness.”[4] [7] But far more than a whole essay of this length would be needed to do justice to Mr. Wilson’s interpretation of Nietzsche and in particular, perhaps, to examine his possible over-simplification of the infinite complexities of the eternal recurrence. There is little enough space to cover the essential thinking of this remarkable book; and we must omit altogether a few of the more trivial little fellows who sometimes detain the author. Why, for instance, does he lose so much time with Lenin’s “dreadful little bourgeois”, who crowned the career of a super egotist with the damp surmise that the world could not long survive the pending departure of Mr. H. G. Wells? Here again Mr. Wilson is acute in linking Wells with greater figures like Kierkegaard in the opinion that “philosophic discussion was completely meaningless”. Kierkegaard was a “deeply religious soul” who found Hegel “unutterably shallow”.  So he founded modern Existentialism with the remark: “put me in a system and you negate me — I am not a mathematical symbol — I am.” Is such an assertion of the individual against the infinite ” unutterably shallow”, or is it relieved from this suggestion by the depths of its egotism? Such a statement can really only be answered by the unwonted flippancy of Lord Russell’s·reply to Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum“; “but how do you know it is you thinking”? Kierkegaard concluded that you cannot live a philosophy but you “can live religion”; but the attempt of this pious pastor to live his religion did not restrain him from “violently attacking the Christian Church on the grounds that it had solved the problem of living its religion by cutting off its arms and legs to make it fit life.” All these tendencies in Kierkegaard seem to indicate a certain confusion of Existentialism with Perfectionism — from which exhypothesi it should surely be very remote — but certainly qualify him as father of the inherent dissidence of modern Existentialism, and, perhaps, inspired M. Sartre to confer on the Communist Party the same benefits which the founder’s assistance had granted to the Church. All this derives surely from that initial impulse of sheer anarchy with which he assailed the Hegelian attempt at order. “There is discipline in heaven”, as one of Mr. Wilson’s favourites remarks (also more competence to exercise it, we may add) and we are left in the end with a choice between Kierkegaard’s great “I am” and Hegel’s majestic symbol in his Philosophy of History concerning the conflicting forces of the elements finally blending in a divine harmony of order. Yes, it is good that it is so plain where it all began; such pious and respectable origin. After the initial revolt against all sense of order it is not a long journey from “I am” to Sartre’s “l’homme est une passion inutile“, and to his hero, Roquentin, who finds that “it is the rational element that pushes into nihilism” and that his “only glimpse of salvation” comes from a negro woman singing “Some of these days”; yes, they certainly got rid of Hegel, but “these days” scarcely belong to Kierkegaard. Yet when they have reached “the rock bottom of self contempt ” they need again ”something rhythmic, purposive;” so man cannot live, after all, by “I am” alone. Sartre wanted freedom from all this and found that “freedom is terror”, during one of his all too brief experiences of action. Mr. Wilson comments with rare insight: ” freedom is not simply being allowed to do what you like”; ” it is intensity of will, and it appears under any circumstances that limit man and arouse man to more life.” If you do not “claim this freedom” you “slip to a lower form of life”; at this point the author seems to reach the opposite pole to the original premise of the existentialist theory. He states his position in this matter in a particularly fine passage: “Freedom posits free will; that is self-evident. But will can only operate when there is first a motive. No motive, no willing . But motive is a matter of belief; you would not want to do anything unless you believed it possible and meaningful. And belief must be belief in the existence of something; that is to say, it concerns what is real. So ultimately freedom depends on the real. The Outsider’s sense of unreality cuts off his freedom at the roots. It is as impossible to exercise freedom in an unreal world as it is to jump while you are falling.” How much nearer to clarity, sanity and effective purpose is this thinking than Sartre’s “philosophy of commitment”, which is only to say that, “since all roads lead nowhere, it is as well to choose any of them and throw all the energy into it . . .” It was at this point no doubt that the Communist Party became the fortunate receptacle of the great “I am” in its flight from the nightmare of the “useless passion”, and a few existential exercises in “freedom” from self were provided for Mr. Sartre until a change of weather rendered such exercises temporarily too uncomfortable. But again, yet again, we must seek freedom from our own besetting sin of laughing too easily and lightly at serious searchers after truth, when they on occasion fall into ridiculous situations; as Aristotle remarked to Alexander when the King caught him in an embarrassing position: “Sire, you will observe the straits to which the passions can reduce even the most eminent minds.” Despite all the nonsense, there is much to be said for Sartre. He is a great artist, one of the greatest masters of the theatre in all time. It is to be hoped that Mr. Wilson will one day extend his study of him to include Le Diable et le Bon Dieu. It is not merely a narrow professional interest which makes us regard this play as his greatest work — the incidental fact that in the first act he presents some of us as others see us, and in the last act as we see ourselves — but the manner in which he reviews nearly the whole gamut of human experiences in the body of the play. It is when he ceases to think and as a sensitive artist simply records his diverse impressions of this great age in an almost entirely unconscious fashion, that Sartre becomes great; so in the end, he is the true Existentialist.

cwb5.jpgBut Mr. Wilson moves far beyond Sartre in regarding the thinkers of an earlier period; notably Blake. At this point he recovers direction. The reader will find pages 225 to 250 among the most important of this book, but he must read the whole work for himself; this review is a commentary and an addendum, not a précis for the idle, nor a primer for those who find anything serious too difficult. The author advances a long way when he considers Blake’s “skeleton key” to a solution for those who “mistake their own stagnation for the world’s”. Here we reach realisation that the “crises of’living demand the active co-operation of intellect, emotions, body on equal terms”; contact is made here with Goethe’s Ganzheit, although it is not mentioned. “Energy is eternal delight” takes us a long way clear o the damp caverns of neo-existentialism and

When thought is closed in caves
Then love shall show its root in deepest hell

brings us nearer to the thought of Euripides with which this essay began. To Blake the greatest crime was to “nurse unfulfilled desire”; he was not only an enemy of the repressive puritanism and of all nature-denying creeds, but realised their disastrous effect upon the human psyche. He sought consciously the harmony of mind and nature, the blessed state the Greeks found somewhere between Apollo and Dionysus.

The law that abides and changes not, ages long
The eternal and nature born — these things be strong

declare the chorus in the Bacchae in warning to those who deny nature in the name of morality or reason.

A strait pitiless mind
Is death unto godliness.

Yet the great nature urge is not the enemy of the intellect but its equipoise and inspiration, declares the Bacchanal.

Knowledge, we are not foes
I seek thee diligently;
But the world with a great wind blows,
Shining, and not from thee;
Blowing to beautiful things . . . .

It is when intellect becomes separate from nature and combats nature that the madness, “the vastation” descends; the mind seeks flight from life in the womb-darkness whence it came; the end is under the floor boards, and worse, far worse. When intellect fails in a frenzy of self denial and self destruction, life must begin again at the base. Then the Euripidean chorus declares

The simple nameless herd of humanity
Has deeds and faith that are truth enough for me.

When mind fails, life is still there; and begins again, always begins again. Did these “once born” Greeks really see less than some of the wall-peepers, less even than the more advanced types considered in this fascinating book? Wretched “Steppenwolf”, you had only to look over your shoulder to see more constellations than you had ever dreamt. And it was no junketing cowboy in a hearty’s rodeo who wrote.

Not to be born is past all prizing
But when a man has seen the light
This is next best by far, that with all speed
He shall go thither, whence he came.

cwb7.jpgNo men ever had a deeper sense of the human tragedy than the Greeks; none ever faced it with such brilliant bravery or understood so well not only the art of grasping the fleeting, ecstatic moment, but of turning even despair to the enhancement of beauty. Living was yet great; they understood dennoch preisen; they did not “leave living to their servants”. Mr. Wilson in quoting Aristotle in the same sense as the above lines of Sophocles — “not to be born is the best thing, and death is better than life” — holds that “this view” lies at one extreme of religion, and that “the other extreme is vitalism”. He does not seem at this point fully to understand that the extremes in the Hellenic nature can be not contradictory but complementary, or interacting. The polarity of Greek thought was closely observed and finely interpreted by Nietzsche in diverse ways. But it was left to Goethe to express the more conscious thought beyond polarity in his Faust: the Prologue in Heaven:

The Lord speaks to Mephistopheles:

Des Menschen Thätigkeit kann allzuleicht erschlaffen
Er liebt sich bald die unbedingte Ruh;
Drum geb’ ich gern ihm den Gesellen zu,
Der reizt und wirkt, und muss, als Teufel, schaffen.

What is this but the definite statement that evil is the instrument of good? It is not only a better key to Faust than most of the tomes which have been written in analysis of this world masterpiece, but it is also the effective beginning of a new way of thinking. It was very obliging of Mr. Toynbee to collect so many facts in support of the thesis which becomes visible to any sentient mind in reading the first few pages of Faust, and his final intrusion of a personal opinion supported by belief rather than by fact detracts only slightly from his painstaking support for creative thought. “Challenge and Response” was born in Faust; and more, much more. Mr. Wilson moves towards this way of thinking on page 239 in the course of his study of Blake, and to us it is his most interesting moment. He writes “the whole was necessary” . . . “evolution towards God is impossible without a fall.” This passage follows the penetrating observation: “Yet it is the Outsider’s belief that life aims at more life, and higher forms of life” (our italics). At this point this interesting thinker and gifted writer reaches towards that decisive movement of European thought which began, perhaps, originally with Heraclitus and evolved through philosophers, prophets and poets, such as Goethe combined in his own genius, until it touched thinkers like Shaw and Ibsen in the modern age. This remarkable young man may end as the saint whom he suggests in his last line may be the Outsider’s goal, or worse, much worse, as just a success; yet the fact will remain that at this point he touched reality.

cwb8.jpgMay we end with a few questions based on that doctrine of higher forms which has found some expression in this Journal and in previous writings? Is it not now possible to observe with reason and as something approaching a clearly defined whole, what has hitherto only been revealed in fitful glimpses to the visionary? What are the means of observation available to those who are not blessed with the revelation of vision? Are they not the thoughts of great minds which have observed the working of the divine in nature and the researches of modern science which appear largely to confirm them?

Is it not possible by following such thinking and such observation of science to arrive at a new religious impulse? Can we not now see the wholeness, the harmony and the purpose of life by a process of normal thought, even more surely than the sensitive artist in the ecstasy of vision and at least as surely as the revealed faiths which have been accorded to some? Has modern man not reached the point where he requires neither prophets nor priests to show him truth ? Can he not now open his eyes and see sufficient truth to guide him, in the thought and discovery of the human intellect during nearly 3000 years of striving by the human will toward the light? Is it not at least clear that life began in a very low form and has reached a relative height by a process which it is easier to believe is inspired than the subject of an almost incredible series of chances? Is it not clear that a persistent and, in the end, consistent, movement from lower to higher forms is the process and purpose of life? It is at least what has so far happened, if we regard the process over an appreciable period of time. And if this be the purpose it solves the problem of the individual; he has no duty and should have no purpose but to place himself at the disposal and to the service of that higher purpose. It is true that the divine work in nature during the movement from lower to higher forms is apparently subject to restriction and almost to paradox. The reckless, brutal waste of nature in experiment with types which fail, the agony and useless extinction of a suffering child without trace of purpose and with still less trace of kindness or of goodness, etc., all indicate some failure of power, or lack of direction, which are not easily explained by any process of thought limited to the confines of this world. Even these phenomena of fitful horror are, of course, explicable if men be more than once born, and various degrees of solipsistic explanation could also exist. But in the light of this world and its observed events they are admittedly not easily explained in terms of coherent, and certainly not of beneficent purpose. Yet is it really necessary to be able to explain every method of the process in order to observe the result of the process as a whole? Aristotle helps us again to some extent: “the process of evolution is for the sake of the thing finally evolved and not for the sake of the process.” While, too, we cannot explain all the apparent freaks of nature — freaks of seemingly gratuitous horror — we can now in considerable degree explain the method of nature which to a large extent contains a purpose for suffering. Primitive types simply do not move except under the impulse of necessity. There can in the beginning be no movement from lower to higher forms except under the stress of pain. But there can and should come a point in evolution when man moves forward by motive power of the fire within and not by pressure of the agony without.

cwb9.jpgAt some point the spirit, the soul — call it what you will — is ignited by some spark of the divine and moves without necessity; yet, again it is a matter of common observation that this only occurs in very advanced types. In general it is only the “challenge” of adverse circumstance which evokes the “response” of movement to a higher state. Goethe expressed this thought very clearly in Faust by his concept of evil’s relationship to good; he also indicated the type where the conscious striving of the aspiring spirit replaces the urge of suffering in the final attainment of salvation: wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen.  In the early stages of the great striving all suffering, and later all beauty must be experienced and sensed; but to no moment of ecstasy can man say, verweile doch, du bist so schön until the final passing to an infinity of beauty at present beyond man’s ken. Complacency, at any point, is certainly excluded. So must it be always in a creed which begins effectively with Heraclitus and now pervades modern vitalism. The philosophy of the “ever living fire”, of the ewig werdende could never be associated with complacency. Still less can the more conscious doctrine of higher forms co-exist with the static, or with the illusory perfections of a facile reformism. Man began very small, and has become not so small; he must end very great, or cease to be. That is the essence of the matter. Is it true? This is a question which everyone must answer for himself after studying European literature which stretches from the Greeks to the vital thought of modern times and, also, the world thinking of many different climes and ages which in many ways and at most diverse points is strangely related. He should study, too, either directly or through the agency of those most competent to judge, the evolutionary processes revealed so relatively recently by modern biology and the apparently ever increasing concept of ordered complexity in modern physics. He must then answer two questions: the first is whether it is more likely than not that a purpose exists in life? — the second is whether despite all failures and obscurities the only discernable purpose is a movement from lower to higher forms? If he comes at length to a conclusion which answers both these questions with a considered affirmative, he has reached the point of the great affirmation. The new religious impulse which so many seek is really already here. We need neither prophets nor priests to find it for ourselves, although we are not the enemies but the friends of those who do. For ourselves we can find in the thought of the world the faith and the service of the conscious and sentient man.

 

Notes

[1] [8] Professor Gilbert Murray’s translation.

[2] [9] Goethe and the Greeks by Humphrey Trevelyan, Cambridge University Press.

[3] [10] Paideia, 3 vols, by Werner Jaeger.

[4] [11] Professor Heller’s translation in his book The Disinherited Mind (Bowes and Bowes).

 

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[3] Colin Wilson: https://www.counter-currents.com/2013/12/a-heroic-vision-for-our-time/

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[5] [2]: #_ftn2

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lundi, 03 novembre 2014

Little Gidding

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Little Gidding

 

By Christopher Pankhurst 

Ex: http://www.counter-currents.com

T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets can be considered amongst the greatest English poetry of the 20th century, and arguably amongst the greatest English poetry ever. The four poems meditate repetitively and brilliantly on man’s relationship to time and eternity, and posit a religious solution to the problem of man’s need for meaning in the face of death. 

Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British subject in 1927. With this double conversion Eliot seemed to find access to a deeper and more rooted sense of spiritual identity. This provides the key to understanding the lines from Little Gidding, the last poem in the sequence: “So, while the light fails/ On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel/ History is now and England.” The Four Quartets can be read as a sort of metaphysical statement or better still as a sacred text. The great achievement of these poems is to crystallize difficult metaphysical concepts, particularly the intersection of the eternal with the temporal, in memorable and lasting images. Thus, the poems are themselves an intersection of the eternal into language, and a validation of their own theme.

The first poem of the sequence, Burnt Norton, begins by articulating the doubt that vexes the religious mind: “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past./ If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable.” This is the conundrum: if we escape from the narrow prison of egoic consciousness and intuit a higher sense of interconnection that transcends linear temporality then we begin to worry that everything has, in some sense, already happened, that everything is predetermined, and that free will counts for nothing. We see ourselves as, “Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind/ That blows before and after time.” A larger perspective shrinks man and makes him seem like nothing more than a dead leaf blowing in the breeze. When man adopts this cosmic perspective he seems to lose all volition and meaning, the vastness of time reduces him to an unimportant and impotent detail, unworthy of note. This sense of diminishment undermines the religious imperative. Why worship God (eternity) when that very vastness itself makes us feel meaningless?

At a vulgar level religion provides simple answers and comfort for people. But Eliot is concerned here with a much higher level of understanding. It is an important issue because if religion cannot provide meaning at a serious intellectual level then it really is no more than a noble lie, fed to the masses to keep them supine. Eliot clearly senses that it is far more than this and he struggles with the question of how to read meaning into a perspective wherein “time is unredeemable.” By the final poem of the sequence, Little Gidding, he achieves a sense of resolution.

Nicholas_Ferrar.jpegLittle Gidding is a real place in Huntingdonshire and is closely associated with the English theologian Nicholas Farrar. Farrar was born in 1592 into a wealthy merchant family and he was intellectually precocious from an early age. After a short career in business and Parliament he left London and in 1625 moved to Little Gidding. At that time Little Gidding consisted of a run-down house and a chapel in a field. Farrar moved there with his mother, brother and sister, their children, and a few other people. About 30 people lived there and formed a close-knit religious community.

I was unaware of the association between Eliot’s Little Gidding and Nicholas Farrar until I read the chapter on Farrar in Colin Wilson’s Religion and the Rebel. Religion and the Rebel was Wilson’s successor to his debut book, The Outsider. Whereas the publication of The Outsider drew unbelievably glowing reviews, Religion and the Rebel was completely trashed and marked a decisive end to Wilson’s very brief moment in the critical sun. Reading the book now it is possible to understand why the critics hated it, although that is no excuse for their antipathy.

Wilson is influenced by both Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee in elaborating a cyclic view of history. In The Outsider he had demonstrated how certain literary and philosophical figures from the 19th and 20th centuries had seen deeper into the problem of human existence than most artists. The “outsider” was the man who intuited a limitless sea of potential within the human psyche but who felt thwarted by the pettiness and contingency of existence.

In Religion and the Rebel, Wilson extrapolated his thesis to encompass aeonic stretches of civilizational time. This allowed him to argue that certain visionary figures who lived at a time of high civilizational health could integrate their higher sensibility into a more vigorous theological structure. Only with the decline of the civilization, and the attendant decline in religious vigor, did such men become alienated from the mainstream of spiritual life and acquire their outsider status.

Such a thesis strikes me as being not just sensible but ultimately compelling. Presumably the critics caught a sniff of metaphysical obscurantism; or perhaps they couldn’t stomach a cyclic view of history wherein Marx’s materialistic prophecies had no place. In any case, Wilson was soon suspected of some sort of ill-defined fascism, and his subsequent obsession with serial killers and the occult did nothing to return him to critical favor.

Of course, the popular backlash against Wilson’s thesis is exactly the sort of response you would expect if his thesis was correct. If Wilson and Spengler were correct, and the mid-20th century marked a period of spiritual poverty (the decline of the west), then you would expect a book like Religion and the Rebel to be met with incomprehension. Marxists would have balked at the importance given to visions and the powers of the human mind (or spirit), whilst Christians could not have accepted the ready conflation of their faith with other systems of philosophical enquiry. Wilson was falling between the cracks of 20th-century English thought and ensuring his own exile to outsider status.

Wilson’s interest in Nicholas Ferrar stems from the type of devotional community that Ferrar set up at Little Gidding. The entire community would cross the field to the chapel for worship three times a day: matins at 6 a.m., litany at 10 a.m., and evensong at 4 p.m. In addition, Ferrar set up a system of Gospel readings taking place every hour, so that the four Gospels would be read in their entirety each month. On top of all this, on a couple of nights each week after a four hour Psalter recital finishing at 1 a.m., Ferrar would spend the rest of the night in meditation and prayer.

wilson-262x300.jpgWilson notes, “It is true that the monastic temper is not a familiar one in the modern world and that, although millions of people may detest the routine of modern life and wish they could escape from it, they would hardly be willing to exchange it for the life of a monk.” But nonetheless, Ferrar had found one particular answer to the outsider’s problem: “he had set his own little corner of the world in order, and lived in that corner as if the rest of the world did not exist.”[1]

For Eliot, Little Gidding represented more than this. At the end of The Dry Salvages, the third poem in the sequence, he presents the solution to the problem of being in time:

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement-
Driven by dæmonic, chthonic
Powers.

Through the Incarnation of Christ, “the impossible union of spheres,” time is redeemed. The eternal is no longer an incomprehensibly vast expanse of predetermined actions but a condition of freedom and redemption that can be actualized within time:

But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint–

So, for some few holy men it is possible to actualize the eternal in time. It is with this resolution that Eliot concludes The Dry Salvages and moves on to Little Gidding.

Little Gidding begins with a description of a bright winter’s day when the hedgerow is covered in snow. The image creates a paradoxical impression of flowering in winter:

This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow

It is a momentary glimpse of temporal paradox. It serves merely as a poetic foreword to the real intention of the poem. We then approach the chapel at Little Gidding itself:

If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone.

The tombstone is that of Nicholas Ferrar, blank, uninscribed, a sacred precursor to Abstract Expressionist painting. But this is not the sort of interpretation that Eliot would countenance. The value of Little Gidding the place derives from the holiness of the lives lived there and the disciplined, ordered urge to transcend the contingencies of time and place. Ferrar instituted a way of life at Little Gidding that was able to actualize the eruption of the eternal into time. And the only reason for pilgrimage to Little Gidding is to try to participate in some way in this practice of worship:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Here, Eliot is suggesting that this small and insignificant chapel is one place where the Holy Spirit descended. The language echoes Acts of the Apostles, “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” In Eliot’s poem the dead speak with Pentecostal fire and actualize the timeless moment. The holy fire is the symbol of the eternal and is opposed to the fire of hell which is the destructive fire of temporality, the distracted, egoic consciousness that cannot begin to intuit the notion that there might be something more to life than material manifestation. This destructive fire devours time because it is the manifestation of a mind that can only perceive a linear progression moving towards death, each second consuming reality in an endless cremation. The fire of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is the voice of the dead, the triumph over mundane time and the redemption of all time in the timeless moment.

And the possibility of this intrusion of the eternal into time is predicated on the Incarnation. So, for Eliot, escape from the temporal prison is only possible because the eternal (God) manifested in history and created the possibility for actualizing this “impossible union” between distinct “spheres of existence.” Nicholas Ferrar’s solution can only be achieved through the disciplined pursuit of holiness, and even then it must take the divine Incarnation as its precondition.

At the conclusion of his chapter on Nicholas Ferrar, Wilson is critical of Ferrar’s solution: “We may feel that there is much to find fault with in the Little Gidding way of life. The objection to it is the same as the objection to Mr. Eliot’s embracing of Anglicanism: that the Outsider must not surrender his reason to some ‘historical’ fact. For ultimately, history does not matter.”[2] This objection is one with which I both agree and disagree. To insist that the possibility of redemption from time is dependent upon the Incarnation of Christ seems to me to belong to the sphere of the noble lie. In other words, whilst I have no problem with the Incarnation being an article of faith for Christian believers it cannot be an absolute and universal requirement for the possibility of transcending mundane time.

However, in stating that, “history does not matter,” Wilson overstates his case. He evidently does so because he believes so strongly that the human individual has the potential to overcome his limitations regardless of the phase of the civilizational cycle he happens to be living in. But his error is to focus too closely on the individual at the expense of the culture as a whole. This is entirely typical of Wilson’s existentialism and his interest in the potential powers of human consciousness. He is interested in what the intellectual and artistic elite are capable of achieving at the highest level and his hope seems to be for a future state of global transformation of individuals into Nietzschean overmen. As he puts it elsewhere in Religion and the Rebel the problem is, “how to make our whole civilization think like the Outsider.”[3] But this is not the problem. Trying to make all members of society think like outsiders is an inorganic solution to an organic problem. It is also teleologically similar to Christian Messianism and Marxist utopianism and, in the hope for a future state of super-empowered men, Wilson has forgotten one of Spengler’s crucial lessons: we are tied to our own particular culture or civilization.

So, history does matter in a crucial sense. As the example of Little Gidding shows, particular acts of worship in a particular place can achieve intimations of immortality. But this sense of the eternal is not a sort of free floating universalist spirit. It emerges through the sanctification of place through particular acts of worship. History is important in this sense because the discipline of religious worship creates its own special accumulation of sanctity. It is what makes certain places holy. And one thing that all religious people agree on is that certain places are holy places. But the importance of history in this sense is very different from the insistence that Christ existed historically as an intersection of different dimensions.

There is, in fact, a certain paradox for many of us here. Those who do not accept the Incarnation of Christ as a point of historical singularity have to face the fact that it was a deep article of faith for most (almost all) of our ancestors for many centuries. If we then wish to venerate the past we have to admit that a great deal of it was predicated on this belief in the Incarnation. If we choose to simply overlook this fact we are slighting the sincere beliefs of the dead whom we profess to respect, and implementing a degree of discontinuity with the past. It is not a trivial problem.

Regardless, it is useful to bear in mind the example of Little Gidding when thinking about spiritual practice. Few of us would wish to go to the extremes that Nicholas Ferrar went to and some of us in any case would not want to emulate his Christianity. But for most of us we can still, with Eliot, meditate on those intimations of the eternal that sometimes fall upon us, those,

hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.

Notes

1. Colin Wilson, Religion and the Rebel (Salem: Salem House, 1984), 175.

2. Ibid., 177.

3. Ibid., 256.

 


 

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jeudi, 19 décembre 2013

The Life & Ideas of Colin Wilson

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A Heroic Vision for Our Time:
The Life & Ideas of Colin Wilson

By John Morgan

Ex: http://www.counter-currents.com

Colin Wilson, the English author of well over a hundred books on subjects as diverse as philosophy, literary criticism, criminology, and the occult, as well as many novels, essays and short stories, passed away last Thursday (December 5, 2013) at 11:45 PM local time, in the presence of his wife, Joy, and his daughter, Sally. He was 82.

It was unfortunate that Colin’s death came within hours of Nelson Mandela’s, as it ended what little chance it had of being reported in the television news media, as would have been fitting for an author who I believe to have been among the most important authors of the latter half of the twentieth century. A number of obituaries have appeared in the British press this week, most of them full of mockery and some venturing shamelessly into insult. This was not unexpected, for reasons that I will discuss further on.

Colin’s name is probably not familiar to many younger readers in the United States, unless they have unusual reading tastes. Even in his native England, Colin isn’t very well-known among the younger generations, apart from his popular true crime and occult-themed books, which is a pity, since Colin’s work encompassed much more than that. Indeed, his first book, The Outsider [2], which has been variously classified as a work of existentialism, sociology and literary criticism, was published in 1956, when Colin was only 24 years old, and became an instant bestseller throughout the English-speaking world, and was, briefly, the talk of the literary world. Few would have imagined at that time, I suspect, that he would end up passing into obscurity. It is certainly unjust that his exit from this world should have been upstaged by Mandela’s, since Colin was undoubtedly the more important of the two men.

I am probably biased in making this judgment, since Colin was a personal acquaintance of mine. I remember first coming across his book, Beyond the Outsider [3], on the remainder table outside of the downtown Ann Arbor Borders during a period when I had dropped out of my classes at the University of Michigan out of despair and frustration. Colin’s writing opened up a whole new intellectual vista for me. Unlike much of what went on in my university classes, Colin’s ideas really struck a chord with me. This was no dry intellectualism or critique of the guilt of the modern West, and still less a “deconstruction” – this was a philosophy of and call to unabashed and unapologetic heroism, based upon the best (and now discredited by the mainstream) aspects of the Western tradition. It was, in part, my enthusiasm for Colin’s work that led me to finally return to and finish school. I was also inspired to set up the first Website dedicated to Colin in 1996, which soon led to me getting in touch with the man himself. We corresponded for many years, and I was fortunate enough to meet him at a conference of the International Fortean Organization in November 2000, where he was a speaker. I can’t claim that Colin was a close friend of mine, but he was certainly an acquaintance, and served as a great inspiration to me during a crucial time of my life. Therefore, the news of Colin’s death came as a blow for me, although not an unexpected one, considering his age.

Life

wilson-262x300.jpgColin wrote two autobiographies: the first, Voyage to a Beginning [4], was published in 1969; and Dreaming to Some Purpose [5], in 2004. These are the best sources for learning about Colin’s life, but I will offer a few essentials.

Colin was born on June 26, 1931 in Leicester, England to a working-class family. He developed an early passion for reading and ideas, although his first love was science. He left school, as was normal for teenagers who were expected to go to work, at age 16, and got a job as an assistant in a chemistry lab. He has described how his early enthusiasm for science quickly waned, as he discovered that it alone failed to answer many of the essential questions, such as the meaning of life and his place in it. Gradually sinking into despair, he describes how he went to work one day with the intention of killing himself. Upon arriving, he took down a bottle of hydrochloric acid that he knew would kill him immediately. But once he opened it and was about to drink, he suddenly saw himself as two people. One was a depressed and confused teenager; the other was the person he realized he could become. He realized that it didn’t matter at all if the first killed himself, he said; but if the first Colin Wilson died, he would be taking the other one with him, and that would be a tragedy. So he put the bottle back and went about his work.

Colin discovered his new passion in literature, philosophy and writing, which he threw himself into with feverish enthusiasm. Supporting himself through a series of low-paying jobs for the next several years, he began gestating the ideas that would eventually become his first book, The Outsider [2].

It should be of interest to Counter-Currents readers that, at this time, Wilson befriended Sir Oswald Mosley, whom he met at a café. (Wilson later claimed that he knew nothing of Mosley’s political activities at the time.) Wilson and Mosley shared an interest in many of the same writers and philosophers, and apparently their friendship continued until Mosley’s death, over 20 years later. Mosley even penned a very laudatory review of The Outsider [2] under a pseudonym in his journal, The European, shortly after the former’s publication. Wilson, for his part, never disavowed his friendship with Mosley, although he did disavow fascism and wrote, in a review of two books about Mosley that he published in 1961, that he considered Mosley to be a great man in spite of his error, in Wilson’s view, of embracing fascism. Nonetheless, this relationship was one that was to dog Wilson for the remainder of his career, and more than one journalist attempted to brand him with the “fascist” label.

It was in 1955 that Colin, frustrated at the amount of time and energy that he was spending just to make ends meet instead of reading and writing, gave up his flat and took up residence in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath, a park in London. He would spend his days in the Reading Room at the British Museum, studying and working on The Outsider [2]. (He later confessed that, when it was particularly cold, he would spend the night at his then-girlfriend Joy’s place.) It just so happened that the supervisor of the Reading Room at that time was the novelist Angus Wilson, and he and Colin struck up a friendship. When Angus learned that Colin was working on a book, Angus asked to see it, and was so impressed by it that he decided to show it to his publisher, Gollancz, which soon agreed to publish it. And when the book was published in both the United Kingdom and the United States in 1956, it became an instant bestseller, earning widespread praise even from established literary figures like Cyril Connolly, Philip Toynbee and Edith Sitwell, all of whom assured their readers that Colin’s career was greatness in the making. For a 24-year-old author publishing his first book, it was unheard-of. It was every young writer’s fantasy brought to life, and might seem to have been almost too good to be true.

And it was.

Upon the publication of the second book in what came to be called Colin’s “Outsider cycle,” Religion and the Rebel [6], in 1957, the critics who had previously been so full of praise had now turned vicious. It was obvious, many of them claimed, that they had been fooled – Wilson was nothing but a pretentious, egotistical hack who was attempting to grapple with issues that were beyond his knowledge and maturity. This established a pattern in the British press that has continued up to the obituaries being published about him at present. Either Colin Wilson was to be ridiculed, or else ignored altogether.

There are many reasons for this. Jealousy was no doubt a factor. Another was that the press made Colin into a celebrity, and he, at age 24, was too naive to realize how he was being used by them, as he himself later conceded. People became sick of seeing Wilson’s name and picture in the newspapers and magazines (he even made the cover of Life magazine). Another factor was an incident in early 1957 in which Joy’s father came across some notes that Colin had been making for a novel he was working on (which later became Ritual in the Dark [7]), in which a character is a sexual deviant. Thinking that these notes were Colin’s own beliefs, Joy’s father immediately went over to his apartment, bursting in on them while they were having dinner and famously crying, “The game is up, Wilson!” As he refused to listen to Colin’s explanations, the police were called, and although the incident quickly came to an end, the reporters were already on their way, and soon the story about the young literary celebrity getting his comeuppance was in every newspaper in Britain. The fate of Colin’s reputation was sealed.

It just so happened that the publication of The Outsider [2] coincided with the premiere of 26-year-old John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger [8], which, although it failed to garner the critical acclaim of Colin’s book, became very popular with audiences, and was seen as a sign of the British Zeitgeist. As a result, the press decided to lump Wilson and Osborne together with several other writers, including Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe, Harold Pinter and others, and dubbed them the “angry young men.” Although their specific styles and ideas had little in common, these writers were young and discontented with British society of the 1950s, and came from lower-class backgrounds. So, Colin was now part of a literary movement. Another of the angry young men was Bill Hopkins, a lifelong friend of Colin’s, who in later years befriended Jonathan Bowden. Although Hopkins was soon to abandon his writing career in favor of becoming an art dealer, he did publish a single novel, The Divine and the Decay (later republished as The Leap!), which explores fascistic ideas. (See Jonathan Bowden’s excellent lecture [9] on Hopkins.)

The Outsider

So what is The Outsider? The book is still in print – and, as far as I know, has been continuously since 1956 – so readers still have ample opportunity to find out for themselves. But I will provide a brief overview. It is a survey of writers, artists, and mystics who Colin believed defined the outsider identity. This included H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Hermann Hesse, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, T. E. Lawrence, Vincent van Gogh, Nijinsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Blake, Ramakrishna, and G. I. Gurdjieff, among others.

Colin defined “outsiders” as those individuals who feel alienated from the society they live in, and who feel compelled to defy the conventions of their time and attempt to forge something new that transcends it, either in their work or in their own lives (sometimes both). He once said that outsiders are the warts that appear on the face of a civilization that has lost its health and sense of meaning. Colin believed that the existentialists, who were at the peak of their popularity in Continental Europe at the time he was writing, held the key to understanding this predicament. The existentialists recognized that life has no meaning apart from what we ourselves give it, which Colin agreed with. But he took the French existentialists to task for coming to what he saw as negative conclusions. Sartre and Camus, he held, saw it as a tragedy that man has no essential meaning and that he was “condemned” to be free. Such a view led Sartre to come to the rather ridiculous conclusion that, all meanings being equal, he should embrace Communism. For Colin, existentialism should not be about making false commitments, but rather of affirming the boundless potential freedom of the individual to realize himself.

The mystical experience was a vital proof of this. (“Any system of values must ultimately be mystical,” he wrote.) Rather than interpreting mysticism in a religious way (Colin was always uninterested in any form of institutionalized religion), he saw such experiences as a crucial factor in human evolution. An analogy he frequently used was the “Christmas morning” experience that a child has, when everything seems alive, fresh and infinitely complex, or the “absurd good news” referenced by G. K. Chesterton. In Colin’s view, psychologically healthy people have such experiences all the time. He believed that those who were among the elite of human society (which he estimated as being 5% of the whole) would actively seek such states through various means such as adventure, danger, sex, drugs, battle, art, and/or asceticism. For Colin, this was more than just a psychological phenomenon – it was a presaging of an entirely new form of consciousness that humans are only just beginning to explore, but which will eventually bring about an entirely new phase in our development. “The outsider stands for truth,” he wrote.

Career and Ideas

In spite of the savagery his second book sustained at the hands of the critics, the success of The Outsider had at least provided Colin with enough money to purchase a home in Cornwall, where he and Joy were to remain permanently, and they began raising a family – Colin eventually had three sons and one daughter. He also now had a reputation as a writer, and this enabled him to begin supporting himself entirely from his writing, although this proved to be a challenging task for a man with a family, and no doubt explains his prodigious output. His intensive need to make his living by his pen even led to a nervous breakdown in 1973, from the strain of overwork.

In typical Wilsonian fashion, Colin was inspired to take one of his ideas from the experience, which he termed “the ladder of selves,” by which he meant the various levels of consciousness that one can attain. Most, he felt, never venture beyond the lower rungs, which are accessible by anyone with merely biological impulses. But those with a drive to realize their will, he believed, could access the higher rungs, and discover previously unknown layers of their own personalities. Colin believed that multiple personality disorder was a corruption of this facet of human nature.

Nevertheless, Colin persevered, and always earned his living as a writer (with occasional teaching gigs, lecturing, and television appearances to go along with it). Wilson also had a reputation for being a voracious book and record (LPs, for the young) collector. He is reputed to have acquired many tens of thousands of volumes over the course of his life, and eventually had to construct a series of sheds on his property in Cornwall in order to house them.

colin-wilson-in-sleeping-bag-1956-2.jpg

Colin’s writing career had two distinct phases to it. The phase that commenced with The Outsider, and which comprises his work of the 1950s and ’60s, I would term his “New Existentialism” phase, and is undoubtedly the era of his most important books. This is when Colin laid down the premises for his work, primarily through philosophy and literature, although he also began to engage with psychology. He befriended Dr. Abraham Maslow, and adopted from him the term “peak experience” to describe the mystical states of intensity which outsiders experience. Maslow believed that peak experiences come and go, but that one couldn’t control them. Colin contested this idea, believing that they could be induced at will, and he actually worked at developing techniques by which they could be attained.

At the same time, he was also laying the foundations for a new school of existentialism that was free of the pessimism that defined the French incarnation of it. Colin was very adamant that pessimism was detrimental to human development, and believed that pessimism could even affect perception and thus alter one’s ability to accurately perceive and know the world. This was an overriding concern of his throughout his career. An illustration he frequently used to make this point was the existence in the course of Van Gogh’s lifetime both of the painting, “Starry Night,” and Van Gogh’s suicide note. When one looks at the painting, one is awestruck by the wonderment of the scene. It gives the impression of an overflowing of the senses, of gifted perception made permanent. And yet the man who was capable of seeing the world in this way was also capable of despising life to the extent that he could destroy himself, leaving a note that said, “Misery will never end.” “‘Starry Night’ was true, the suicide note was false,” Colin was fond of saying. I still believe that the basis for a new existentialism upon the premises that he outlined remains an as yet unexplored potential worthy of further consideration, and may even offer a worthy alternative to postmodernism.

In 1971, this interest in the mystical led to one of Colin’s most important works, The Occult [10]. This was the book that launched what came to define the second part of his career: the mystical and the supernatural, which Colin believed provided further evidence for the coming change in human consciousness. Colin’s interest in such matters wasn’t motivated by any interest in demonic powers or such things, but rather his view that such phenomena are manifestations of unsuspected powers of the human mind, which he thought we would eventually learn to control and exploit. The Occult became the first of many books that Colin would write on the subject. Beginning in the 1990s, he also wrote a series of books which I personally found fascinating on the evidence for an advanced, worldwide civilization on the Earth in prehistoric times (along the lines of Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods [11]). Even these books tie into his interest in consciousness, since he believed, along with Julian Jaynes, that the ancients possessed a different form of it than we have today.

The other genre that defines the second part of Colin’s career is true crime, which actually began in 1961 when he co-wrote Encyclopedia of Murder [12], although he began writing much more on the subject beginning in the 1970s. Murder is also something that occurs frequently in Colin’s novels. Colin was always fascinated by it, and by serial killers in particular. He viewed serial killers as a sort of flawed type of outsider – he believed they were artists whose creative powers had become misdirected into violence, and that the thrill they got from transgressing the moral order (which he thought induced a type of peak experience in the killers) became addictive. Colin thought that some criminals could be successfully rehabilitated by offering them an artistic outlet while they were in prison, and he helped to design experimental programs that were used in prisons in the United States.

Some people who had been admirers of his early books were disappointed by the turn that Colin’s work took from the 1970s onward. Apart from occasional essays, Colin largely abandoned philosophy and literary criticism – he wrote no major works on those subjects after the early 1970s. Part of this was no doubt because he discovered that it was easier to sell occult and true crime books than books on philosophy. However, I do believe that he said everything that he wanted to say about philosophy in those early books, and his later books – the best of them, at any rate – can be seen as a continuation of his earlier concerns in other mediums. Colin’s perpetual subject was always consciousness and its possibilities, and while some may disagree with the direction he took, there is no doubt in my mind that he genuinely believed that the study of the occult and of the criminal mentality could offer vital clues as to how consciousness is evolving, and thus help to resolve the “search for meaning” of the existential outsider.

There are also some books of his that defy easy categorization. There is A Book of Booze [13], his book on one of his greatest loves: wine (and I can report that we polished off several bottles at his insistence on the evening that I was fortunate enough to join him for dinner). There is Brandy of the Damned [14], his survey of one of his other greatest loves: classical music. There is L’Amour: The Ways of Love [15], a book he wrote on sex to accompany a series of erotic photographs. And there are also his many novels, including several written in the world of the Cthulhu Mythos of Lovecraft; but trying to do a survey of them goes beyond the scope of this essay.

Politics

As this is appearing at Counter-Currents, I feel I should also write something about Colin’s relationship to politics. Colin himself always eschewed politics, and rarely mentioned it in his work; he said at times that he didn’t think writers should engage with contemporary politics, and suggested on more than one occasion that writers who did so were wasting their time. He also claimed that he really didn’t understand politics himself. Nevertheless, there are a few interesting things to be said. I have already discussed Colin’s relationship with both Sir Oswald Mosley and Bill Hopkins. In his autobiography, he says that he considered himself to be an anarchist in his youth; in the 1950s and ’60s, he expressed sympathy for socialism in some of his public statements. In the 1970s, he aroused some controversy for writing a review of Richard Verrall’s Did Six Million Really Die?, a work of Holocaust revisionism. The controversy arose not because Colin defended Verrall’s thesis, since he remained noncommittal about it, but simply because he said that the evidence presented was compelling and was worthy of being taken seriously. Given the problems he had encountered earlier because of his connection to Mosley, this has also been presented by some as proof of his fascist sympathies.

I also recall reading an uncollected essay by Colin that was published in the 1970s on the subject of Hitler. The essay as a whole was rather unremarkable, but something Colin wrote at the end of it struck me and stuck in my memory. I don’t have a copy at hand, but I remember he pointed out that Hitler’s power derived from his ability to create a myth that inspired and motivated the German people to incredible feats. At the end, he wrote something to the effect of, “If the civilization which defeated Hitler is actually to demonstrate that it is better than his was, then it needs to create heroic myths of its own, rather than embrace nihilism.” I think this aptly sums up the primary difference between  the traditional worldview and that of liberalism.

By the 1980s, Colin had taken a more decisive turn toward Toryism. This was underscored by what I believe to be his sole venture into the world of contemporary politics: a volume he co-edited in 1987 entitled Marx Refuted: The Verdict of History [16]. It is an anthology of essays opposing Marxism which includes one by no less a person than Margaret Thatcher, as well as contributions from Arthur Koestler, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A. L. Rowse, and Milton Friedman, as well as from Colin himself. How this book came about or why Colin chose to do it, I don’t know, but it is an interesting footnote to his otherwise total disinterest in politics.

Something that is not very well-known about Colin, however, is that his books are extremely popular in the Middle East, and many of them have been translated into Arabic and Farsi (although he once mentioned to me that he profited little from this popularity, as most of the books were pirated editions). In 1973, he was invited to Beirut, where he was met at the airport by the mayor of the city on a red carpet. On the same trip he was invited by some Palestinian guerrillas to visit one of their camps. The experience made him very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and he wrote an essay in favor of them at the time. He also related to me that on this same trip, he went to Damascus, where he was met by the then War Minister, General Tlas, who regaled him with a story from when he and his comrades had been imprisoned by the previous regime. They had read Colin’s novel Ritual in the Dark by tearing the pages out of a copy and passing them from one to the other as they read.  As a token of thanks, he presented Colin and Joy with Arab robes and a bronze plaque. Colin was also invited to Iran at the behest of the government in the 1970s, but he said the plan fell through after the Shah was overthrown.

The most interesting connection, however, is between Colin and Colonel Gaddafi. Gaddafi made frequent complimentary references both to Colin and to The Outsider throughout his reign. (I remember seeing a transcript of a speech he had given in the 1990s in which he chided the Clinton White House for inviting Salman Rushdie there, but not Colin Wilson.) Colin told me that he had been asked by the Libyan embassy to make a visit to the country at the government’s behest, but that he had declined out of fear that such a visit would have made it seem as though he were endorsing Gaddafi’s politics.

I would not call Colin a Rightist or a traditionalist. To do such a thing would be to read something into his work that simply isn’t there. At the same time, however, Colin always remained an unabashed elitist, from start to finish. He often reiterated his view that it is only 5% of humanity that comprise a potential elite, and that the majority of men, as he once put it, ought not to have bothered to be born at all. As such, his work is entirely consistent with a hierarchical view of life and civilization.

Reflections

I no longer view Colin Wilson as the demigod that I saw him as when I was in my mid-’20s, when I took his word as gospel and believed that he had the answer to life, the universe, and everything. (Julius Evola and René Guénon, whom I discovered shortly thereafter, soon knocked him off of that pedestal.) His critics are at least partially correct when they say that Colin sometimes overstretched himself, and was perhaps guilty of too much generalization and unfounded speculation on occasion. And I certainly would not suggest to anyone that they attempt to read through his entire corpus – anyone who has read many of Colin’s books will attest that only a third of them, perhaps, are truly great. The rest of them contain a lot of repetition, and some of them were obviously only written for money (such as many of his occult and true crime books, entertaining as they can be). But that third is genuine gold, and I believe is worthy of being read by anyone who is looking for worthy alternatives to the prevailing way of thinking about the nature and destiny of humanity in modern times.

Colin Wilson occupies a unique place in late twentieth-century thought. In an era of extreme specialization, he dared to range across the entire gamut of human endeavor in pursuit of understanding humanity’s untapped potential. In an era when the culture and figures of the West are frequently derided, Colin based his work unapologetically on the best minds of our civilization, and never worried about political correctness. In an era when equality, conformity and consumerism is valued over genuine achievement and self-development, Colin offered a vision of heroism, which affirmed that not only can an individual rise above the monotonous, bourgeois reality of our times, but that, for the outsider, it is an absolute must.

His vision will remain a compelling one long after his death.

His Chief Works

For those interested in delving into Colin’s work, I can offer a few suggestions. Many of Colin’s older works are long out-of-print, but it’s usually not difficult to find used copies.

His most important works, few would argue, are those in his “Outsider cycle.” The sequence is comprised of The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel [6], The Age of Defeat [17] (an abridged edition was published in the United States as The Stature of Man), The Strength to Dream [18], Origins of the Sexual Impulse [19], and Beyond the Outsider [20]. A seventh volume, variously published as The New Existentialism [21] and An Introduction to the New Existentialism [22], presents the ideas from these books in brief, and can serve as a good summary for those uninterested in reading the entire series.

The Craft of the Novel [23] is probably Colin’s most important work of literary criticism. In it he discusses his conception of “Existential Criticism,” in which he held that a work of literature should be evaluated first and foremost on the basis of the ideas and worldview it presents.

In terms of his occult work, The Occult [10] and Mysteries [24] are his two primary works, of many he wrote on the subject. Beyond the Occult [25] seems to have been an attempt by Colin to reconcile his later interest in the occult with his earlier, existential ideas.

A Criminal History of Mankind [26] is undoubtedly Colin’s most important work in the area of criminology. New Pathways in Psychology: Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution [27] was the product of his interaction with Maslow, and it examines the idea of the “peak experience” at length.

And lastly, there are his novels. He wrote many, including “novels of ideas,” mysteries, and science fiction. My personal favorites would include Ritual in the Dark [7], which is about a struggling young writer named Gerard Sorme who is obsessed with the meaninglessness of life, until he begins to worry that a friend of his could be a serial killer who is on the loose in London. Another I enjoyed was The World of Violence [28], which is about a young mathematical prodigy, Hugh Greene, who becomes dissatisfied with the intellectual world and becomes attracted to violence, becoming embroiled in a criminal gang, guns and the hunt for a serial killer. And then there is The Philosopher’s Stone [29], which is set in the world of the Cthulhu Mythos. Colin was enticed into the Lovecraftian world by August Derleth, who had challenged Colin to write the earlier novel The Mind Parasites [30], also a Cthluhu Mythos story. Derleth praised Colin for his efforts. The Philosopher’s Stone [29] is about a scientist, Howard Lester, who is conducting experiments in an effort to extend the human lifespan, but accidentally discovers an operation on the brain which results in greatly enhanced mental powers. As he begins to explore the new powers of his mind, Lester comes to realize that there are ancient and powerful hidden forces which are seeking to prevent humanity from evolving beyond its current state. Bits of Colin’s philosophy always find their way into his novels.

There is also a good anthology of selections from several of Colin’s works intended to introduce his chief ideas entitled The Essential Colin Wilson [31]. Colin also regarded a survey of his work written by Howard F. Dossor, Colin Wilson: The Man and His Mind [32] to have been the best and most comprehensive to date.

 


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URL to article: http://www.counter-currents.com/2013/12/a-heroic-vision-for-our-time/

URLs in this post:

[1] Image: http://www.counter-currents.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/wilson.jpg

[2] The Outsider: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0874772060/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0874772060&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[3] Beyond the Outsider: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000CMF88/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0000CMF88&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[4] Voyage to a Beginning: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0006CZ5MU/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0006CZ5MU&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[5] Dreaming to Some Purpose: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0099471477/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0099471477&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[6] Religion and the Rebel: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0575012587/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0575012587&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[7] Ritual in the Dark: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0914171631/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0914171631&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[8] Look Back in Anger: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0140481753/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0140481753&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[9] lecture: http://www.counter-currents.com/2013/07/bill-hopkins-and-he-angry-young-men/

[10] The Occult: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0394465555/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0394465555&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[11] Fingerprints of the Gods: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0517887290/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0517887290&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[12] Encyclopedia of Murder: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0006AX7B8/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0006AX7B8&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[13] A Book of Booze: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0575018313/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0575018313&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[14] Brandy of the Damned: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000CMCCT/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0000CMCCT&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[15] L’Amour: The Ways of Love: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0006C2USC/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0006C2USC&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[16] Marx Refuted: The Verdict of History: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0906798728/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0906798728&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[17] The Age of Defeat: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000CKD1W/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0000CKD1W&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[18] The Strength to Dream: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0349137366/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0349137366&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[19] Origins of the Sexual Impulse: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000CLQME/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0000CLQME&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[20] Beyond the Outsider: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0881847046/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0881847046&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[21] The New Existentialism: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0704504154/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0704504154&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[22] An Introduction to the New Existentialism: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000NUOT0O/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B000NUOT0O&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[23] The Craft of the Novel: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0575019972/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0575019972&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[24] Mysteries: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1842931857/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1842931857&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[25] Beyond the Occult: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00FIMWELS/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00FIMWELS&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[26] A Criminal History of Mankind: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0881846465/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0881846465&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[27] New Pathways in Psychology: Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0575027967/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0575027967&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[28] The World of Violence: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1939140269/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1939140269&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[29] The Philosopher’s Stone: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0874775094/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0874775094&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[30] The Mind Parasites: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0974935999/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0974935999&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[31] The Essential Colin Wilson: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0890874727/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0890874727&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20

[32] Colin Wilson: The Man and His Mind: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1852301767/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1852301767&linkCode=as2&tag=countercurren-20