Colin Wilson was a prolific author, philosopher and novelist, producing over 120 books on a dizzying range of subjects. This is remarkable in itself, since early in his career, his publisher advised him to quit. Thankfully he possessed an unshakable self-belief, writing on everything from serial killers and crime, to psychology, the paranormal, UFOs, and ancient civilisation. He died on 5th December at the age of 82 after suffering a stroke, and his unfailingly empirical approach to subjects usually classed as flaky will be sadly missed. His books have been enormously influential.
The Rise and Fall of Colin Wilson
Colin Wilson is probably best known for The Outsider, written when he was 24 and sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath. He wrote the book in the British Library during the day then hunkered down in his sleeping bag under a bush by night. Published in 1956, the book brought overnight fame and claims of genius. He was lumped in with other authors of the same post-war generation called The Angry Young Men, including the likes of Kingsley Amis and John Osborne. Wilson always hated this, pointing out he was a rationalist and an intellectual, whereas Osborne was an emotionalist. Osborne said he wanted people to feel more, but Wilson countered that people feel too much already and don’t in fact think enough.
The fame and the media furore stoked by critics desperate for something to write about, turned nasty and the backlash began. Perhaps it was because he was working class, left school at 16 and was largely self-taught. Perhaps it was plain old jealousy. Whatever it was, Wilson left London to escape the attacks, shrugging them off with his trademark self-assurance and kept writing.
“When my second book was hatchetted, I shrugged and went on working. The attacks didn’t worry me too much. I know enough of success to know that it is meaningless unless it is based on real understanding. I recognised that such understanding would probably take twenty years to grow.”
The Outsider explores the modern malaise of alienation through the lives and works of artists like Kafka, Camus, Lawrence, Van Gogh, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Wilson identified himself as an outsider too, struggling to fit in to a society that seems meaningless: working all hours just to pay the rent and keep running on the treadmill. For what?
“…the day-to-day struggle for intensity that disappears overnight, interrupted by human triviality and endless pettiness.”
The outsider, says Wilson, has a stronger evolutionary impulse. They’re not content to go along with the way things are and seem incapable of being ‘well-adjusted.’ They also seemed to have a very high suicide rate. Not good at coping with reality, they spent too much time brooding, got stuck in their heads, and ended up flaking out.
Wilson was convinced there was another way: we can overcome society’s pessimism by achieving a higher intensity of consciousness.
Absurd Good News
He came to this opinion after almost committing suicide when he was 16. After leaving school, he took a series of mind-numbing jobs which left him in a profoundly depressed state. Convinced life wasn’t worth living, he decided to kill himself. It was a totally rational choice, he says. His future at the time seemed unremittingly bleak.
While working as a lab assistant, he found the perfect solution: hydrocyanic acid. But when he took the stopper from the bottle, he was overcome by a peak experience which caused him to change his mind. In an instant he knew there were two of him: the real him, and the idiot who wanted to kill him. He was lifted into a gloriously optimistic state of mind where he stayed for days. Suddenly everything was fascinating. Life was sweet.
This experience was to influence his entire life’s work.
I had a similar experience when I was 20, recounted in First Contact.
Wilson realised that his (and our) problem was down to what he called close-upness. A peak experience takes you out of yourself and gives you a bird’s eye view of life, so to speak. It is a taste of your True Self.
Unfortunately, our day-to-day lives are often filled with trivial details and problems that get in the way of this view. We forget, or don’t realise, who we really are. We get distracted by things that don’t matter in the long run. This is close-upness, and the desire to be free of it is what drives Colin Wilson’s work.
Close-upness is caused by what he calls the robot. When we first learn a new skill, like driving a car or playing the piano, we have to think about it and pay attention to what we’re doing. It takes effort and practise, but eventually we get the hang of it. This is when the robot takes over.
The robot is the unconscious and it is essential. If we had to think about everything we did all the time, we would never be free to do more interesting things, like write novels or build rockets to take us to the moon. The trouble is, the robot tends to take over when we don’t need it or want it to. We end up doing things unconsciously, barely aware we’re even functioning. This leads to boredom.
The True Self gets buried by the robot. It filters our view of reality so we can’t see clearly who we are or what is really going on. Everything ends up coloured by the robot’s perspective. A peak experience can jolt us free of this view, giving us a greater sense of meaning and a larger perspective.
“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” – Samuel Johnson
Obviously we can’t go about threatening to kill ourselves all the time in order to relieve the boredom of modern life. But Wilson identified the need for the mental equivalent of constant crisis to keep us alert and stop the robot taking over.
Modern Life is Rubbish
There is something profoundly wrong with modern western philosophy, especially post-modernism. It states that everything is relative and every perspective is valid, effectively flattening all values into meaninglessness. There is no morality and nothing matters. This has given rise to a profoundly pessimistic society with a pernicious misanthropic self-hatred.
Wilson had considerable enmity for Samuel Beckett, the great proponent of this uber-pessimism. As he said, at least T.S. Eliot was genuinely depressed, making The Waste Land’s worldview understandable. But Beckett chose this view. He wanted to say human life was fundamentally meaningless, and achieved great fame and critical acclaim doing so.
“And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” – T.S. Eliot
Perhaps this negative view arises from complacency. We don’t need to fight for survival and life is comfortable for most in the West. Without some sort of crisis to wake us up, we get bored. We indulge in endless distractions and create false crises, polarising every argument to the point of absurdity. Our boredom with ourselves and life in general threatens to destroy us.
But there is a fallacy at the heart of post-modernism. Its proponents rarely turn its vivisecting lens upon post-modernism itself. If everything is meaningless, then that statement of meaninglessness is itself meaningless. If everything is relative, then in relation to what?
Post-modernism has demonstrated the logical fallacy at the heart of the rational worldview. Reality is not logical or rational, and to expect it to be so is illogical and irrational. But I digress…
How can we overcome society’s pessimism to achieve a higher intensity of consciousness? Wilson coined the term Faculty X to describe our ability to use our minds to become aware of a larger reality. It is an ability to induce peak experiences.
After reading the Bhagavad Gita, he began to meditate for half an hour every day and found it gave him a great sense of freedom. He saw this as an act of will and concentration, training his mind to stay focused and alert. He recounts a story about trying to drive in treacherous conditions that demonstrates how this works.
He had been staying with friends at a house in the country. Heavy snow made the roads impassable, but he needed to return home. Taking great care, he drove through the snow, concentrating hard so as to avoid ending up in a ditch. He kept this intense focus up for long enough that it transformed his consciousness. He managed to get onto a main road which was clear of snow, but by now his mind was on high alert. Everything around him became fascinating. He had induced a peak experience through concentration.
This is Faculty X. It is also Mindfulness.
With practise, simply paying attention to what is happening can trigger the mind to open and life becomes more meaningful. We can choose how we see reality. Wilson is adamant that we should not waste energy on depression or pessimism. Most of our problems are caused by our own thinking, as related by psychologist Sydney Banks: he complained to a friend that he was feeling depressed, and his friend said something that changed his life:
“You’re not depressed, you just think you are.”
Alongside the philosophy, Colin Wilson also wrote extensively on the occult – that is, areas covering the mysteries of life and death, the supernatural and paranormal, as well as UFOs. These are marginalised areas of interest and often regarded with aggressive cynicism by critics. Indeed, Wilson’s entire output is derided by some as “too daft to be taken seriously.”
Personally, I find that attitude itself too daft to take seriously. Those who call themselves sceptics have obviously never read any of the books or considered the evidence.
In fact, when Colin Wilson was asked to write The Occult, he was a sceptic himself. He didn’t want to write the book, but needed the money so took the job. Then he began to study the subject, and the more he looked into it, the more he realised there might be something to it. In time he became convinced of the reality of other types of consciousness that work within the human mind. The evidence for it is overwhelming.
Wilson states that he always remained a scientist at heart and the main thrust of his work was to show people that they possess powers and capacities of which they aren’t fully aware. His books are unfailingly empirical and rational, and he debunks nonsense where he finds it, no matter which side of the debate it appears.
Gurdjieff, a Russian spiritual guru, said that a human being was someone who had a whole house in which to live, but ended up spending most of their time in the toilet. In his explorations of the human mind and its capacities, Colin Wilson was looking for a way to occupy the whole house.
He says we have powers of mind that are waiting to be awakened, and that the next stage of our evolution will involve just that. It won’t come easily. Raising consciousness to a higher level requires great effort and discipline, but it is possible. In fact, we used to have easier access to a wider consciousness, one that so-called primitive tribes still possess. The occult isn’t really occult at all; it is just the other side of human consciousness – the neglected side.
Wilson’s work was neglected for too long by too many people. Perhaps as the tide turns on human consciousness and we begin to awaken, many more will discover his books and find a way to dream to some greater purpose.
“I am absolutely convinced that the human race is on the point of an evolutionary leap to a higher stage. That at the moment we have, in a sense, reached a nadir of gloom and pessimism, and we’re finding things terribly, intensely difficult. But it is possible for us to actually get out of this, provided enough people realise that Syd Banks is correct. That our problem tends to be a problem we create ourselves through thought. And as soon as we change the thought, then we’ve begun to overcome the problem.”
– Colin Wilson in conversation with Guy Leigh of Astraea Magazine