This is the opening to my new book, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson.
Sixty years ago Wilson woke up to overnight fame with the publication of his first book, The Outsider, a study in creativity, alienation, and extreme mental states. At twenty-four, he was being hailed as a genius and celebrated as Britain’s own “homegrown existentialist.” Yet success is fickle and soon after his debut, Wilson fell from grace, the boy wonder quickly becoming persona non grata with the critics. He, and the other Angry Young Men – Britain’s buttoned down Beat Generation – were summarily chastised or, in Wilson’s case, ignored. Yet Wilson went on to write well over a hundred books in a career lasting more than half a century, titles like The Occult, The Mind Parasites, A Criminal History of Mankind, and From Atlantis to the Sphinx, to name only a few. After a long illness he died in 2013 at the age of eighty-two. The book begins with an account of my journey to meet Wilson, what I call a “Pilgrimage to Tetherdown.”
A Pilgrimage to Tetherdown
In the summer of 1983 I found myself travelling to Cornwall, in the far west of England. For the past several years I had been reading the work of a writer whose ideas interested me deeply and I was on my way to meet him. His name was Colin Wilson.
Wilson had achieved overnight fame in 1956 at the age of twenty-four with his first book, The Outsider, a study in existentialism, alienation and “extreme mental states.” No one was more astonished than Wilson himself to discover that this work dealing with the angst and spiritual crises of figures like Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky, T.E. Lawrence, H. G. Wells and others had become an instant bestseller. But surprisingly it had. Reviews were glowing and critics tripped over each other to hail England’s own “home-grown existentialist.” After years of struggle, sacrifice and hard work, Wilson had made it. The Outsider was “in.”
The glory, alas, was short lived. Fame, especially in England, is fickle, and after the initial praise – “A MAJOR WRITER, AND HE’S ONLY TWENTY-FOUR” the headline of one review ran – the press and serious critics soon turned on what they were now calling a “messiah of the milk bars.” The tag came from Wilson’s association with a group of writers the press had christened the “Angry Young Men” – roughly equivalent to America’s “Beat Generation” – people like John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, John Braine, and others. Although Wilson had very little in common with them, he was guilty by association, and when the critical tide turned against these angry men, he was caught up in it. In practically no time at all, Wilson went from being a boy genius to persona non grata, a status among the literary establishment that he laboured against for the rest of his career and was never quite able to throw off.
It was after this critical thrashing that Wilson left London and moved to a remote village in Cornwall. Here he hunkered down and over the years developed what he called a “new existentialism,” an “evolutionary,” optimistic philosophy which would eventually include areas of “the occult” and mysticism. He hoped this would counter the bleak dead end in which he believed the existentialism of Sartre, Camus and Heidegger had found itself, and in which most of modern culture had also become mired.
Wilson’s idea of an optimistic, evolutionary existentialism excited me. I had spent the past several years tracking his books down, reading everything by him that I could find. That was why I found myself at the tail end of a two month sojourn in Europe – much of it spent visiting “sacred sites” – making the journey down to Cornwall to meet him.
I had first came across Wilson’s work some years earlier, in 1975, when I was nineteen and living on New York’s Bowery, playing in the band Blondie. I had recently developed an interest in the occult. Punk was on the rise but remnants of the previous hippie generation could still be found and among the books I read at the time was Wilson’sThe Occult, which had been published in 1971 and which briefly re-established his reputation after the critical bashing following The Outsider.
What was exciting about The Occult was that Wilson approached the mystical, magical and paranormal from the perspective of existential philosophy. It was not a book of spells or accounts of haunted houses but an attempt to understand occult phenomena in terms of a philosophy of consciousness that Wilson had been developing for more than a decade and which I later understood was based on the work of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, whose “phenomenology” became the basis for existentialism.
Explanations of phenomenology and its importance for Wilson and for human consciousness in general will be found in the pages that follow. Here I will say that the essence of Husserl’s philosophy, and the aspect of it that made the most impact on Wilson, was what he called “intentionality.” Simply put, this is the recognition that consciousness does not passively reflect the world as a mirror does, and which has been the standard idea of consciousness since the philosopher René Descartes established it in the seventeenth century. Instead it actively reaches out and grabs it – although we, for the most part, are unaware of this activity.
Consciousness, then, for Husserl, is not a mirror but a kind of hand. And while a mirror reflects what is in front of it whether it wants to or not – it has no choice in the matter – our hands, we know, can have a strong grasp or a weak one or, in fact, none at all.
It was something along these lines that Wilson tried to get across to me when I finally arrived at his home, called Tetherdown, near the small fishing village of Gorran Haven, on a scorching July day. I had called him from a phonebox in Penzance, where I was staying. He was friendly and immediately invited me to come and stay the night; he even offered to pick me up at the train station in St. Austell, the nearest one.
Two things stand out immediately from that first trip to Tetherdown. One was Wilson’s house, set back from the Cornish cliffs, where he had lived with his wife Joy since 1959. It was filled floor to ceiling with more books than I had seen before, outside of a public library or a well-stocked shop. Thousands of them crammed the bookshelves that lined practically every wall; the most recent estimate of the number of volumes in Wilson’s library was 30,000, not to mention the LPs, cassettes and later CDs and DVDS and other items that made up his research material.
My other strong memory is of a long, wine-fuelled evening during which Colin did his best to explain Husserl’s ideas about consciousness to me. The essence of it escaped me later but by the time I went to sleep that evening I was sure I had it in my grasp. We continued the conversation the next morning, before I headed back to London. I can remember Colin sitting with me, outside his kitchen, in the bright morning sun, telling me that if he made a certain mental effort, he could reproduce a mild version of the effects of mescaline, the drug that prompted Aldous Huxley’s influential book The Doors of Perception. I believed him and was determined, at some point, to be able to do this myself.
(Excerpted from Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson.)