The Outsider Strikes Back!

Here is a letter I wrote in response to a review of Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson published in Fortean Times No. 353, for May 2017. While I am open to criticism, I believe the reviewer did little more than repeat much of the calumny Wilson received in his lifetime. I am very happy that David Sutton, editor of Fortean Times, was open to my letter and published it in Fortean Times No. 355, for July 2017.

Dear Fortean Times,
Many thanks for David Barrett’s review of my latest book, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, which appears in FT 353 for May 2017. I appreciate that you devote ample space to the book, but I would like to clarify some remarks that, I believe, may give readers a wrong impression about it.
The reviewer remarks that “aside from the early pages,” most of the book is about Wilson’s work, and hence is not really a biography, but more of a ‘philosophy textbook’. Would that such textbooks had such philosophy. He does acknowledge that because Wilson wrote about ideas, this makes the book more about their development than his. Perhaps, although I do believe I follow Wilson’s life fairly closely, linking the ideas he is grappling with to their expression in his life. I don’t believe it is true that aside from charting his early years as a struggling wannabe before The Outsider threw him into a celebrity spotlight he never really wanted, there is nothing about his life. There is plenty about it. But Wilson himself would say that what is really important about a writer is what he says. As the majority of material written about Wilson ignores practically everything he wrote aside from The Outsider, I believe, as he did, that the books that followed, and which made up what he called ‘the Outsider cycle’, warrant serious consideration,and I was determined to give them that. As I say in the Introduction, my aim was to present an ‘introductory overview’ of Wilson’s life and work and to ‘make clear some of the basic ideas and aims of Wilson’s philosophy’ so that it may ‘prompt readers unfamiliar with his work to seek out his books and read them for themselves.’
My reason for doing this is, as the reviewer remarks, because Wilson wrote an enormous amount about a wide range of different but related subjects. Yet all of his subjects are linked by a common theme, what Wilson calls ‘the paradoxical nature of freedom’. My aim was to show to readers how this common and, to my mind, absolutely important insight, informs all his work. The reviewer’s cursory assessment of this as ‘common sense’ and his brief remarks about it suggests that in his case I failed.
The reviewer also suggests that I did not sufficiently question Wilson’s assessment of himself as a ‘genius’. Yet he seems to have missed several places in which I do just that, or at least question a 24 year-old’s too frequent acknowledgement of it. So, on p. 54, I write: ‘It was that word “genius” that began to irritate the mostly modest reading public” and I suggest that the fact that “he himself breathed it somewhat injudiciously did not help.” I also suggest that “Wilson’s own inexperience and lack of guile also ensured that he would put his foot in it” (p. 56) in interviews.There are other examples of my questioning as well. But then, reviewers like Cyril Connolly, Philip Toynbee, Edith Sitwell and others were themselves announcing Wilson’s ‘genius’ to their readers from the moment The Outsider appeared. Who are we – or Wilson – to disagree? And do I consider him a ‘genius’? Well, Wilson himself points out the difference between having genius and being one, and I have no doubt that he had it, and on more occasions than only The Outsider. I let the reader know up front that I am a ‘fan’ and that Wilson was a ‘mentor’ to me – and to many others who found in his work important and essential ideas about human existence and consciousness. But then the ‘totally brainless’ English approach is very often to castigate anyone who believes in anything and to celebrate either mediocrity or the kind of cynical know-it-all pessimism that is forever fearful of any wool being pulled over its eyes. By the way, two other English thinkers I met and wrote about, Owen Barfield and Kathleen Raine, said exactly the same thing about the English, so perhaps this insight is not limited to Wilson.
The reviewer also points out that there is only one paragraph about Wilson’s politics, mentioning his support for Thatcher. Yet he fails to mention that Wilson also wrote an open letter calling for her resignation. He also says that Wilson had views ‘much further to the right’. That Wilson was labeled a ‘fascist’ by people like John Osborne, Kenneth Tynan and other fashionably left writers, solely because he was interested in existential concerns, not social ones,  is simply name-calling. Wilson was not in the least interested in politics – in fact, he started his public career as an anarchist at Speaker’s Corner –  although, as I do point out, some of his Angry Young friends, like the novelist Bill Hopkins, were. Wilson did edit a book called Marx Refuted, which included contributions by Karl Popper, Leszek Kolakowski, and Arthur Koestler, among others. Calling them ‘far-right’ is rather like called Tony Blair ‘far-left’. I also say, on p. 359, that Wilson ‘could show surprising political naivete’, apropos of a lunch he once had with Oswald Mosley. On the same page I have Wilson saying that he ‘always labelled myself a socialist’ but he later came to reject socialism while writing a book about Shaw. But he has ‘been against the Tories all my life’. With all this, I somehow can’t find the views that the reviewer says were ‘much further to the right.’
I can’t agree that most readers would see ‘arrogance or blindness or both’ about Wilson’s confidence in his work. My experience and that of the readers of my book has been quite the opposite: in this we see the kind of self-belief that anyone attempting to do something out of the normal run of things must have in order to survive the kind of disparagement and sheer disdain that most often comes from being – dare I say it? – an ‘Outsider’. And what are we to think of a reviewer for the Fortean Times who thinks that all of what Wilson had to say about synchronicity – a phenomenon whose reality I am as convinced of as I am of anything else – came from one experience? That is simply not the case, and the reviewer misrepresents the incident in question egregiously.
The other supposed flaws in the book are, sadly, duly acknowledged. I would have liked to have had more room to discuss Wilson’s fictions, although I do go into detail about his first novel Ritual in the Dark and do comment on The Mind Parasites, The Philosopher’s Stone, and, at greater length, The Black Room. This lack must be chalked up to sheer space and time; the book is over 200,000 words (twice the word count allotted) and I was already far behind schedule by the time I delivered it. (Readers interested in an excellent study of Wilson’s fictions should find Novels to Some Purpose: The Fiction of Colin Wilson by Nicolas Tredell.) And the index was the publisher’s work. I did want to include a bibliography, but space and time again precluded that.
I should point out though, that the reviewer’s dismay about not being able to look up ‘key Wilsonian concepts like “Factor X” is perhaps more home-grown than he may think. Wilson does not write about ‘Factor X’ but ‘Faculty X‘. Such an obvious mistake from a reviewer whose tone throughout suggests a prejudice against Wilson’s work, and whose review fails to do justice in any way to any of Wilson’s ideas- a fate Wilson had to endure endless times over during his life- suggests that he may have profited from grasping the key phenomenological insight – which Wilson spelled out in many ways in many books – about how our expectations can obscure what is right in front of us.
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8 thoughts on “The Outsider Strikes Back!

  1. I got the sense that this reviewer had a materialist bias that made it impossible for him to give Wilson or you a fair hearing.
    Btw I liked the book a lot, just wish I had discovered your work years ago.

  2. Hi Gary,

    I want to give my own brief plug for Beyond the Robot, because it was the book that introduced me to your work and to Colin Wilson, as well to many of the things he explored. A good book should be a doorway into another world, and hopefully a new and exciting one. I am grateful that I found your book in the biography section, because if it had been in “Lost and Ancient Knowledge” I probably wouldn’t have come across it. As I said before, I was really drawn to your title, and I believe it strikes an archetypal chord among us all at this particular moment in history. By opening the door and entering this new world, allowing myself to learn new and strange things, I can now identify this moment in time as Gebser’s “mental-rational structure.” Unfortunately, I think while many people may sense this, they are still too beholden to the limited worldview of material-rationalism, and cannot let go enough to be open to things that they don’t understand. While not having read the review you’ve responded to, I suspect that this is the case with this particular reviewer.

    I don’t know whether it’s an indictment of myself, my education or my culture that before your book I did not know who Colin Wilson was. Probably a combination of all three. On multiple occasions I went into my bookstore and sat with the opening pages of Beyond the Robot, and it wasn’t long before I knew I had to read it. I decided to read The Outsider first so that I could understand what all the fuss was about. Many of us can point to a few books in our lives that represent a profound shift in our thinking, a sort of before and after. I can safely say that both The Outsider and Beyond the Robot work together in that way for me, and I am grateful to your book for giving me the language to see what I am, that I am myself an “outsider.” Maybe that’s the irony here: only outsiders or potential outsiders can even see the doorway to begin with.

    Thanks again,
    Ben

  3. Dear Gary,
    I am a fan and I just finished reading Beyond the Robot. Thank you for this introduction to Wilson’s works. I got so excited that I had to stop to get my hands on some actual Wilson which I did then finished off BTR. Thank you for this great bio. I have also read Turn Off Your Mind and your Crowley bio. If you like please visit my website at http://www.marccavelloart.com to see my work. I am a terminal outsider. Ironically enough I’m in a show in Manhattan this Saturday July 15 2017 and my piece I titled SUPERCONSCIOUS before I ever heard of Wilson. Uncanny… Best, Marc

    1. Hi Marc. I’m glad you liked the book and even more that it inspired you to run out and get some Wilson. Thanks for the link to your site; I will check it out. And good luck with your Superconscious show. It sounds pretty Wilsonian… All the best, Gary

  4. Hi Gary. I just listened to your interview on Rune Soup about Colin Wilson and had an odd experience. You were talking about Husserl and said, “But his fundamental insight was that perception is intentional. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. It’s always directed at something.” I’m not sure why it resonated with me, I don’t even fully understand what it means, but immediately after you said it I thought to myself, “This is important” and turned my head to think about it what you meant. At that moment a flashlight that was about 6 feet away, on the side of a desk, came on and shone into my face. Was a bit startling, but I got the feeling it was meant as an exclamation mark, as if something was saying, “Yes, this IS important!” Loved your book on Steiner.

  5. A bit late coming to this one I don’t normally wade into other people’s arguments and disputes in my spare time ( I daily work with enough arguing parties in law as it is!) Nor do I encourage authors to generally bother responding to harsh and critical reviews, generally expecting writers to take it on the chin and move on (why draw attention to bad reviews!) However, I write to say that your reply to David Barrett’s Fortean Times review on your book on Colin Wilson was completely justified.
    We had Colin Wilson as a vice president and member of the Ghost Club for many years, although he never attended meetings. I am in full agreement with you that his work is of great value and he suffered from misunderstanding, labelling and ridicule. (Just one of many John Osborne his 1950s contemporary was as you doubtless know, scathingly dismissive about Wilson in his autobiography – and I doubt he ever read any of his later works at all ). I am afraid David Barrett may have shared some of these easy and ready prejudices and misunderstandings in his review of your book which I’m looking forward to reading myself.

    In my own obituary piece on Wilson which I wrote for the Ghost Club and later in my Fortean Times column I said of him:

    He took the view that there was in all human beings a latent power to ‘reach beyond the present’. This power he labelled ‘Faculty X’ and he looked on it as the key to all poetic and mystical experience. Initially he did not see this as an occult ability but described it as:’ the power to grasp reality… it unites the two halves of man’s mind, conscious and subconscious.’

    Notably Wilson hoped that the human race is on the point of an evolutionary leap which will produce a new type of person, one who would always be positive in outlook, and that little mental energy would be needed to keep out of the robotic state. In this way evolution’s purpose would be fulfilled in expanding consciousness itself.

    In Mysteries (1978) he argued
    “The mind of man possesses many levels. We are familiar enough with the notion of unconscious levels, and the fact that such functions as digestion and body temperature operate on these levels. It is no more difficult to grasp the proposition that ‘paranormal powers’ could also operate on other levels of consciousness.”

    Wilson was quite alert to coincidences from early, mentioning one in his book on Rasputin where talking of the correlation in time between 1914 the assassination at Sarajevo and the attempt on Rasputin’s life, he saw it as “a coincidence that makes one incline to doubt the “blindness of history”.

    And you are right, he had many examples of coincidences in his life (I dare say you will find them too with your endorsement of synchronicity). Indeed, Guy Playfair recently shared one coincidence he experienced in connection with a meeting with Wilson, so there’s more to be collected

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