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.