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Colin Wilson

Invitations from the Outsider – On the Passing of Colin Wilson

It’s always a strange feeling when delays keep an article from being written for years, more so when those years stretch past the material life of the subject of the article itself. When Colin Wilson’s book Supernatural was republished by Watkins Publishing in 2011 I received a review copy, and intended to use the book as a center point in writing a piece that focused on the possibilities of a wider vision for studying anomalous experiences. Now, the same article becomes something more like a memorandum, as Colin Wilson passed away on December 5th, 2013 after a long struggle with illness.

Wilson’s work has in some way, as you will see repeated in so many memorials for him, inspired nearly every popular writer on the subject of anomalous experience that has grown up since the 1960’s.  His books The Outsider (1956) and The Occult: A History are two works which, when encountered by the young and curious, provide an initial spark of recognition that those subtle intimations of something more aren’t just dreamy indulgence, but the seeds for a vast and expansive quest. More than anything, Wilson’s work has been a potent and approachable catalyst to spur seekers of the Mysteries into a deeper engagement with the wide unknown.

In my own life it was The Outsider that catalyzed years of being absorbed in historical esoterica and contemplative works into something contemporary and real. It broke down any naive, youthful barriers between the “mysticism” of the past and what was possible in the seemingly “material” present. Later, when I discovered his book The Occult: A History in a small used book store in Chicago, it had the effect of grounding me again, and showing me the human side of the mytho-poeticially inhuman Magi and Adepti that I’d grown so fond of.  At the time I was very interested in the work of Austin Osman Spare, and Wilson’s recounting of an anecdote regarding Spare’s attempt to conjure roses, only to be covered in sewage, was a teaching story I’ll never forget.

When I received Supernatural to review, I was once again given an impetus to reevaluate my understanding of certain assumptions I’d developed in my research. Immersed in the science of psychical research, especially in the contemporary milieu where researchers have had to be so deadly careful in what they say due to the frothing rhetoric of the curmudgeonly skeptical sub-culture, Colin Wilsonone can get the false sense that small statistical anomalies are the only evidence we have that there is more to existence than a crippling lattice work of rough materia.  For Wilson, there were no barriers between the realms of “the outsider,” “the occult,” and “the supernatural.” All of these areas touch on what has come to be called “phenomenological existentialism,” and represent areas of liminality where the seething, unseen forces of existence breach the mundane facade of the supposed materiality of the world, giving brief glimpses of the deeper Mystery.

Supernatural contains chapters on time travel, witchcraft, Spiritualism, ritual magic, vampires, werewolves, psychical research and innumerable other areas that usually remain cordoned off by the tightly guarded borders of sub-cultural specialties, or are dismissed outright without any further consideration. Yet, in Wilson’s hands subjects which seem so easy to dismiss become questions that are not easily answered, and with a storyteller’s firm grasp of anecdotal evidence we are invited to re-weave the threads of wonder which have been cut too quickly by the myopic vision of material progress.

With all of this, and with a bibliography of books that goes well beyond 40 individual works, one might think that it is his prolific output that makes him worthy of remembrance. However, I have found that more than anything he wrote, it was the ambient presence of the man himself that provides the true core of inspiration. For those who knew him, his generosity, curiosity and openness remains the subject that spurs the most reflection, and it is this quality of the man himself, reflected in his works, that truly catalyzes those who encounter them to go further in their own individual quests.

This is the invitation from the outsider, and this is what should be remembered and embraced by those of us still walking this waking world in his absence more than anything that he wrote. Research and writing are born to be put to the flames, and only the presence of a truly open heart remains when all is said and done, and an open heart is all that really matters in the end for any of us looking into the Mystery. This is something that the skeptical sub-culture so often misses when it stares at the chewing gum traces left on the bottom of the seats in this phenomenological theatre we call reality. They want to know what flavor is left in the soda soaked popcorn on the floor, rather than holding the hand of the Other, the Lover, and smiling at the fact that we are all invoking the Mystery of life together whatever the reality is behind anomalous experience.

Since this piece was originally posted on Reality Sandwich, I’ve been in contact with a number of people who were inspired by Wilson.  When one inspiration passes on, they are not replaced with another, but are rather reflected in a myriad of inspired individuals who carry their own unique vision forward into the future.

Gary Lachman, whose recent book Caretakers of the Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World captures the deeper sense of humane engagement found in the esoteric quest, was a good friend of  Wilson’s, and in sharing the memorial piece with him I was reminded that Lachman’s own work has also opened the doors of inspiration for so many others. In a post on Facebook remembering Wilson, Lachman points out that:

“He wanted us to see through what he called “the fallacy of insignificance,” the belief that we are pointless, unimportant accidents in a purposeless universe, as most of the intellectuals who dismissed his work humbly accepted. He knew better and so did everyone who read his books. He lamented the loss of the hero but he was a hero to us all. I know he certainly was one to me. If anything I’ve written has any value at all, it is because it is informed with the brilliant ideas that came from his encyclopedic mind. To get an education you needn’t go to Oxford, Cambridge or an Ivy League school. You only have to read The Outsider, or The Occult, or Mysteries, or any of the many remarkable books on philosophy, literature, psychology, criminology, the occult, parapsychology and the rest and follow his leads. If you do I assure you you will get an education you can’t obtain at any of those schools or elsewhere. I know, because I have.”

Martin ‘Youth’ Glover, the bassist for Killing Joke and an accomplished producer and artist, is another creative who has been inspired by Wilson’s writing, and in his own way carries his fearless sense of exploration through musical, mystical and artistic explorations of the outer reaches of human experience. Having interviewed and spent time with Glover, I know that he has followed Wilson’s philosophy of the ‘fallacy of insignificance’ and seeks to inspire the same sense of engagement with the full spectrum of human potential through his work and living example.

Ronnie Pontiac, a one time protege of Manly P. Hall and active participant in the Riot Grrrl scene, shared with me that he too was inspired by Wilson’s writing during his youth. Pontiac’s current work with Newtopia Magazine has been exploring the vast realm of American Metaphysical Religion, and again we see another luminary sparked by Wilson who is introducing others to areas of exploration that can inspire and open the deepest levels of human experience.

Frank DeMarco, founder of Hologram Books, has posted the final chapter of a work in progress from Colin Wilson’s son Damon. The chapter looks at the nearly unfathomable fact of life itself and ends with this remarkable, and rare, statement:

Whoever you are. Whatever you’ve done. Whatever you may become.

I, and my Dad, love you.

– Damon Wilson. November 2013

DeMarco has a long relationship with the Monroe Institute, whose founder Robert Monroe was integral in bringing public awareness to the out of body experience. It was also DeMarco, working as an editor for Hampton Roads Publishers, that helped Russel Targ present his Studies in Consciousness series, which collected some of the best psychical research, both past and present, into a cohesive collection.

I’m sorry that in writing this, Wilson will never have the opportunity to read and reflect on how many diverse individuals have been touched by the deeper resonance of his work, and how it continues to spread his sense of unwavering curiosity and insight through so many unique avenues. Yet I am hopeful that now, in writing this, someone out there might gain some access to this deeper resonance and honor him by accepting the invitation from the outsider, and begin growing within it to become another light guiding us towards our enlightened potential.  We live in darkness, and the more lights that are lit, the sooner we can return to that secret garden which awaits us at the end of the quest.

In Memorandum – Colin Wilson – 26 June 1931 – 5 December 2013

  1. Colin Wilson
    Very sad to hear.
    Working class lad leaves home, lives in a tent and creates a masterpiece – The Outsider.
    I was a big fan of Wilson’s after reading some of his fiction in my mid-teens, them moving on to The Occult, Mysteries and Outsider. I still remember the days when visiting the local Library in a Town not that far away from where Wilson was born – the first task was to see if any of his titles were available.I still had the 3 titled above and even my kid’s enjoyed reading them – a great author who will be sadly missed.

  2. Words of encouragement
    I’ll repost here what I said on Facebook:

    Somewhere around 1996 I was in the midst of a depressing time over various problems, when the receptionist where I worked said there was a long-distance call for me on line 3. I picked it up, and the voice on the other end said it was Colin Wilson calling from England, simply wanting to offer me some positive feedback on something I’d written. I’d been reading his work for years by that point, so his comments were exhilarating beyond words, and dissolved my doldrums in a flash. Rest in peace, Colin.

  3. 2 weeks ago i finished
    2 weeks ago i finished reading super consciousness, an exploration of 20th century literature and philosophy with allusions to the peak experience and how to encourage it’s development. sprinkled throughout were personal tales of drags and releases, visiting upon the author an appreciation for said momentary peaks.

    i liked it.

    he’s always been matter of fact, personable in his writings, entertaining and informative. i sorely wished Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals to be a tad juicier but nothing can possibly live up to that title!
    it did eventually lead me to stan gooch, though.

    i ramble

    colin wilson will be missed but man he left behind a serious stack of books to slog through

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