An influential popular writer was Colin Wilson (1931-2013). He produced over a hundred books, many of these devoted to crime and the occult. A number of his works were commercially stated to be bestsellers. Wilson gained many critics, whose views remain relevant. He is best known for his first book The Outsider (1956), composed in the Reading Room of the British Museum. However, this is not a scholarly work. Wilson gained the reputation of an existentialist.
Within a year, The Outsider had earned the author £20,000, equivalent to over a million today. However, he quickly dropped from literary fashion, and retired to Cornwall. Some of the reasons for discontent with this new writer were his tendencies to party-going, wine and whisky, name-dropping, and personal estimation. Britain’s answer to Camus was not committed to any strict self-discipline. A literary failing of The Outsider was eventually defined in terms of having “oversimplified and deformed some case studies to make them fit a thesis” (John Ezard, Colin Wilson obituary).
Wilson’s sequel book Religion and the Rebel (1957) did not achieve popularity. One critical assessment made the accusation of “half-baked Nietzsche.” Wilson was certainly influenced to some extent by Nietzsche. While some critics disown his preoccupation with outsider religion, others say that he opted for a confusing ideological route awkwardly converging with his subsequent tendency to the paranormal.
A drawback for some was Colin Wilson’s declaration of his own talent. He permanently regarded himself as a genius. He is on record as saying: “I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century” (Harry Ritchie, “Look back in Wonder,” The Guardian, 2006).
A journalist wrote in 2004: “This is the first time I have interviewed a self-declared genius, also the first time I have interviewed a self-declared panty fetishist” (Lynn Barber, “Now they will realise that I am a genius,” The Guardian). The insidious sexual themes in Wilson’s output were no doubt commercial, though still not rated by critics.
According to Professor Terry Eagleton, “The Outsider is second-rate, off-the-peg philosophy from start to finish.” Wilson became “the most controversial intellectual in Britain…. for about six weeks; he went on to publish a rather dismal series of potboilers on crime and the occult.” (The Guardian, 2013). Eagleton further states:
The Outsider is a ragbag of modish nihilism, ranging from Camus, Sartre, Hermann Hesse and TE Lawrence to Blake, Van Gogh, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky…. Most of the figures it deals with have absurdly little in common with one another…. The pure Romantic cliché of its main argument – that some artists feel alienated from mainstream society – is nebulous enough to apply to almost anyone who lifts a paintbrush or a pen.
The disposition of Colin Wilson for lurid novelism is commemorated by Ritual in the Dark (1960), profiling a sadistic sex murderer. Wilson’s obsession with diverse forms of sexuality is not appealing to more restrained tastes. His publisher Victor Gollancz described Ritual in the Dark as “a horribly nasty book” (Shepherd 1995:20). Gollancz also “credited the book in question with the power to create excitement of a very unpleasant kind” (ibid). In a more general context, Wilson “was regularly criticised for making sweeping generalisations and for his habit of quoting from memory without reference to his sources” (Daily Telegraph obituary).
His financial survival subsequently depended upon easy read books. “Many of those [Wilson books] dealt with murder or the occult as pathways to the insights that fascinated him. His readership grew to include murder buffs, UFO spotters and new age believers. Typical of this later output was Alien Dawn (1998), marketed with the line ‘the evidence is overwhelming – they [space aliens] are here.’ Serialised in the Daily Mail, it undoubtedly made more money than any of his philosophical books” (John Ezard, Colin Wilson obituary).
By the 1990s, Wilson was very much a new age hero, being seen by enthusiasts as the innovator of liberating ideas. A college of psychism was one branch of this trend. A leader at this college accused a Wilson critic of being unduly opposed to the benevolence of new age spirituality. The critic (a female relative of mine) was able to send the psychic institution a telling excerpt from Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind (1984). The passage, underlined in red, afforded an instance of Wilson’s provocative dalliance with themes of the Marquis De Sade, who was here cited in the threatening literary action of juxtaposing a pistol with the female sexual organ (cf. Shepherd 1995:177 note 37). The college of psychism afterwards became silent on the subject of Wilsonian liberation.
Marquis De Sade
The Marquis (Count) De Sade (1740-1814) was a bisexual libertine. He procured prostitutes who complained of his mistreatment. He wrote an extremist and obscene novel entitled The 120 Days of Sodom. He is known to have whipped a helpless and poor immigrant widow whom he lured to his bedroom and threatened with a knife. The French aristocracy of that era were not the best exemplars of civilisation. The writings of De Sade feature rape, violence, and torture, and are celebrated today by fashionably decadent sectors of modern society.
Howard Dossor wrote a book glamorising Wilson, to the extent of describing his sexual themes in terms of a “sexology” (Dossor 1990). This assessment has been resisted by critics as a form of comic strip. The female journalist (Lynn Barber), who encountered the existential hero in 2004, reports: “His conversation became increasingly odd – he periodically throws out the word ‘fucker’ with extraordinary venom, accompanied by a sly sideways glance to see if I am shocked.” The target of this venom was another journalist, who had formerly encountered and displeased the four letter word existentialist. The scientific dimensions of Wilsonian indulgence are totally elusive to old age standards. Concerning Wilson’s autobiography, Barber refers to “his account of how, as a panty fetishist and visiting lecturer at an American university, he contrived to look up his students’ skirts with the aid of a glass-bottomed mug.”
The autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose (2004) does include the sexual dimension of Colin Wilson. This may be acceptable to popular consumption, but does not make Wilson a great philosopher or mystic. Some reviews have been critical, e.g., Adam Mars-Jones, “I was a teenage nail biter,” The Guardian, 2004. My own approach is not that of dismissing Wilson as a self-taught intellectual, but criticism of a writer who suffered from disadvantageous stimuli and myopic assumptions.
The magnum opus of Wilson is generally considered to be what is known as the Occult Trilogy. That means The Occult (1971), Mysteries (1978), and Beyond the Occult (1988). The first book comes closest to being a history of occultism, while nonetheless exhibiting flaws. Mysteries is again strongly coloured by Wilsonian themes and preoccupations, being basically a discussion of theories. There are such chapter titles in Mysteries as “How Many Me’s are There?” Another heading in the same book is “In Search of Faculty X,” reflecting a major interest of the author. The third book consists of speculation about the paranormal.
Wilson described his outlook in terms of the “new existentialism.” An eccentric partisan of Nietzsche, Wilson was also an influential promoter of Aleister Crowley. In the wake of Regardie, Wilson achieved a more tempered revival of Crowley, nevertheless sufficient to make this entity a new age celebrity. “Crowley was a mountebank; in spite of this, he deserves serious consideration” (Wilson 1971:400).
Wilson’s The Occult has been very misleadingly described as an authoritative history of occultism. The sources were limited, and the narration is loose. His portrayal of entities like John Dee (“a kind of mystic”) is simplistic, lacking significant details (cf. Shepherd 2004:215-218). A critic commented:
One may dismiss Wilson’s claim that “the essence of magic and the essence of mysticism are one and the same.” Though some criticisms were expressed in this very popular work, the general tone has suggested to the gullible that almost any magical approach was valid in the project of evoking Faculty X, elevated as “the power to grasp reality.” Wilson did not hesitate to honour the psychedelic explosion in terms of a supposed evolution towards increased knowledge. The drug cult of the 1960s was here viewed as being related to the upsurge of interest in the occult, and stated to be “more positive in character” than earlier drug cults of the West because of “the desire to get somewhere, to ‘plug in’ to subconscious forces.” In this beguiling idiom, Wilson affirms that the same is true of the increased sexual permissiveness (then a recent phenomenon, which some of his books had served to further). He adds subversively: “It is not simply a matter of disintegrating morals, but the recognition that sexual excitement is a contact with the hidden powers of the unconscious.” The advocate of permissiveness then went on to treat the reader to D. H. Lawrence’s description of Lady Chatterley’s sensations after lovemaking. This degenerate exposition of evolution then justifies the output of Lawrence in terms of the need to concentrate upon the development of the hidden powers instead of continuing to develop the intellect. (Shepherd 2004:311-312 note 656, with full citations)
The champion of sexual excitement is not convincing as a guide to mysticism. The new age of casual sex goes hand in hand with commercial occultism and STD (sexually transmitted disease). Wilson subsequently wrote a longer version of Crowley, clearly straining to award a qualified legitimation to this practitioner of “sexual magick.” The author recognised drawbacks in the life of Crowley. The new existentialist nevertheless sanctioned Crowley’s self-centred maxim: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” (Shepherd 2004:19). This disputed vindication (Wilson 1987:164-165) was tragically influential.
Wilson concluded that Crowley was a failure as a human being. However, the existentialist chose to elevate the magician’s belief in his “religion of thelema, the philosophy of human free will that would enable man to evolve to a higher stage” (Wilson 1987:168). This optimism is contradicted by the self-will and degradation in biographical evidence.
Wilson acknowledges that Crowley attempted to drive a woman mad by a form of hypnotic suggestion (that tragedy probably occurred many times). Yet Wilson confused sexual magic with the supposedly benevolent ‘unconscious’ of the right hemisphere of the brain. That equation is unpardonable in criminology, and again amounts to sheer fantasy. Wilson’s adaptation of Jungian theory, like so many other presentations of Jung, is catastrophic for uninformed readers who credit such speculation as being accurate. Who but Colin Wilson could have glossed the psychological implications of an early book, written by Crowley, which attempted to rival the obscenities of the Marquis De Sade. That sadistic fantasy was a red light indicator of Crowley’s abortive mentality and his sinister ability to carry out feats of sadism. Yet Wilson was concerned to dilute the issue in terms of “merely another experiment in shocking the bourgeoisie.” (Shepherd 2005:136)
Over a period of many years, Crowley ingested large quantities of drugs, including heroin. His book entitled Confessions “was written under the influence of drugs” (Wilson 1987:136). Crowley desperately tried to break his drug habit, but “ended his days injecting massive amounts of heroin” (Lachman 2001:148-149). He gained the unenviable fate of daily consuming enough heroin “to kill a roomful of people,” to quote a well known report of his major British biographer John Symonds.
In Wilson’s version, the drug addict “seems to have possessed, to a high degree, the power that Jung called active imagination” (Wilson 1987:159). Crowley is said to have tortured his wife by occasionally hanging her upside down by her heels in a wardrobe, while he entertained his mistresses (Wilson 1971:416). The unfortunate wife became insane. “Crowley had a long series of mistresses, and many of them ended up in a state of alcoholism and worse” (Shepherd 2005:137). This bisexual was dangerous to women, whatever the glosses imposed by occultist commerce. Wilson prefers to claim that Crowley knew how “to sidestep the everyday personality and descend into the deeper levels of the mind” (Wilson 1987:159).
I am a longstanding critic of Wilson, commencing in the late 1970s. I was incredulous that The Outsider had gained such fame. Not being an admirer of Nietzsche, this book was the more difficult for me to accept as any form of viable philosophy. In my view, The Outsider was a major source of confusion and simplistic deduction.
Colin Wilson’s phenomenological existentialism [in The Outsider] glorified sensuality, and conflated such vastly different figures as Nietzsche and Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar, virtually in the same relativistic breath as describing Dostoevsky’s unpleasant version of rape. The existential outsider emerges as a figure who is preoccupied with sexuality, and a series of celebrities in modern Western literature achieve profile in relation to their sexual drives, including Nietzsche, who died of syphilis. (Shepherd 1995:19-20)
Some readers have asked why I chose to present my early books, in annotated format, with plain black and white covers offputting to general audiences. The format of those books moved away from “easy read.” This was because I followed a major distinction between serious works and the popular new age (and occult) market where lurid design is a prominent feature. Annotations were (and are) necessary to assist accuracy, contrary to the novelistic trends in fashion. Due resistance is necessary to the casual idioms of popular writers who trade in deception. My first book Psychology in Science included two references to Colin Wilson, who had recently appropriated brain hemisphere research for his occultist theory, creating further extensive confusions in the commercial book Frankenstein’s Castle. A Cambridge “outsider” (from establishment credentials) contested the extremism of a prolific author in Cornwall:
Any argument which justifies, however indirectly or unconsciously, the literary and other perversions of such as the Count De Sade by a resort to invoking the pressures of ‘left brain’ civilisation, is a gloss that can be duly exposed for what it is by anyone who cares to think straight and broadly enough. (Shepherd 1983:198)
This counter-argument included opposition to the superficial recourse of Wilson in describing Crowley as an advanced Yogi (ibid:197). Crowley would not even remotely qualify for the celibate discipline specified in antique Sanskrit texts. More basically, Wilson “tended to the argument excusing sick or perverse behaviour on the grounds that this is influenced by environmental pressures created by the rational establishment which alienates outsiders” (Shepherd 1991:84-85).
The vogue for brain hemisphere distinctions was substantially derived from Robert Ornstein’s well known book The Psychology of Consciousness (1972). The right cerebral hemisphere was popularly associated with intuition, a trend leading to a devaluation of rational abilities associated with the left hemisphere. Many brain scientists and psychologists disowned this complication. However, Colin Wilson extensively overworked his very simplistic theme. Disconcerting emphases could emerge. “Aggression, like alcohol, readjusts the balance between right and left” (Wilson 1984:149). A critic observed: “Wilson is really describing imbalance, not balance, in this reference to the brain hemispheres” (Shepherd 1995:179 note 65).
Colin Wilson’s “brain hemisphere” theory had serious consequences for persons who believed in this substitute for reality. A critical “outsider” wrote:
In a book described as having Colin Wilson’s full endorsement, Howard F. Dossor strongly implies Colin Wilson’s supporters in terms of an achievement of ‘right-brain dominance,’ meaning ‘insider’ intuition. The critics are implied as the ‘outsiders,’ representing logic and ‘left-brain dominance.’ Thus the new existentialist is intuitively justified as the real Insider by his supporters, while his critics are all far more limited in their circumferential range. Colin Wilson gains some infallibility in this argument by the strong implication that he is both an intuitive and rationalist. (Shepherd 1995:21-22)
Mysticism in the new age is a fantasy. Wilson’s exotic book The Misfits (1988) is strongly associated with the idea that sexual aberration is a form of “mystical” experience (or can lead to this new age muddle). The confusions for partisan consumption were legion. The author here extended his favoured subject by alighting on such pet figures as De Sade and D. H. Lawrence, while also focusing strongly on Charlotte Bach of transvestite fame. The existential invention of Faculty X was added to the dubious mix in this very commercial panorama of aberrations. “Wilson’s commercial obsession with sexuality should be clearly distinguished from mysticism, which he has subverted in pioneering a permissive society. Writers like him have assisted the trend to use obscene four letter words in so-called serious books, though such a literary accomplishment helps to define to observers what four letter word occultism really is” (Shepherd 1995:21).
Wilson has been elevated by his followers, who customarily excise much of the criticism, which they depreciate as irrelevant. Gary Lachman approvingly quotes from the early Wilson autobiography Voyage to a Beginning: “If this body and brain of mine could be driven on for another hundred years or so, I could probably solve all the problems of philosophy single-handed” (Lachman 2016:349).
The American publicity for Lachman’s biography (Beyond the Robot) asserted that Wilson “became a prolific and unparalleled historian of the occult, providing a generation of readers with a responsible and scholarly entry point to a world of mysteries.” This commercial convenience is assisted by suppression of critics. Wilson was not a scholar, but a prolific writer prone to flaws and errors. The current publicity is excusing the flaws and overlooking errors.
According to suggestions of partisan Howard Dossor, the critics of Wilson are effectively outsiders, whereas the followers of Wilson are intuitive mystics with insider knowledge. This angle demonstrates a view that may be described as “new age” dogma.
Dossor, Howard F., Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind (Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1990).
Lachman, Gary Valentine, Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 2001).
——–Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (New York: Tarcherperigree, 2016).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Psychology in Science (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1983).
——–Meaning in Anthropos: Anthropography as an interdisciplinary science of culture (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1991).
——–Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995).
——–Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2004).
——–Pointed Observations (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).
Wilson, Colin, The Outsider (London: Victor Gollancz, 1956).
——–Religion and the Rebel (London: Victor Gollancz, 1957).
——–Ritual in the Dark (London: Victor Gollancz, 1960).
——–Voyage to a Beginning: A Preliminary Autobiography (London: Cecil Woolf, 1969).
——–The Occult (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971).
——–Mysteries: An Investigation into the Occult, the Paranormal, and the Supernatural (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978).
——–Frankenstein’s Castle (1980; second printing, Bath; Ashgrove Press, 1982).
——–A Criminal History of Mankind (London: Granada, 1984).
——–Aleister Crowley: The Nature of the Beast (Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1987).
——–The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1988).
——–Beyond the Occult: Twenty Years’ Research into the Paranormal (London: Bantam Press, 1988).
——–Dreaming to Some Purpose (London: Century, 2004).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 75
Copyright © 2018 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.