On a morning in 1956, a young man named Colin Wilson awoke, and like Lord Byron 144 years before,found that he was famous. He was only 24 years old, but Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, had taken the fancy of the London intelligentsia and he was proclaimed a genius, part of the cadre of “angry young men” who were expected to lead the “New Existentialism.” There was nothing typical about Wilson; he was not a recent graduate of Oxford or Cambridge, but a lad from a working- class family in Leicester who had left school at 16. He had always known that he wished to be a writer and was unrelenting in his determination to educate himself. He spent the summer nights sleeping on Hampstead Heath to save money, and his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum. He initially worked on a crime novel but took another direction that resulted in the non-fiction study of the “Outsider” personality, those unusual individuals who have a different and unique way of seeing the world, and who might be said to inhabit a separate reality. Many Outsiders are artists, some are criminals, many are “failures,” and all struggle with the combination of great creative energy and the seeming impossibility of sharing their insights with the rest of humanity.
I looked into the book recently and found it as admirable as when I first read it at around the age of 20. It is no longer a fashionable work and I’ve seen nasty comments that only Outsiders can get anything out of the book. I don’t agree. Wilson discusses Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Hesse, Blake and many others with an understanding that is remarkable.
Wilson’s good fortune did not last very long; soon the same intellectuals who had paid him such rapturous homage decided that he was “over-rated” and discarded him from the ranks of promising young geniuses. Rather than give in to hurt feelings, Wilson moved with his wife to a small cottage in Cornwall where he continued to write until his death at the age of 82 in 2013. He wrote more than 100 books, primarily in the area of mysticism, the paranormal, the afterlife and immortality, and true crime, including many novels related to these interests. His first success, post Outsider, was the 1971 The Occult. This was a comprehensive study of the experience of the paranormal, written in a highly rational and engaging style. The range of Wilson’s knowledge is impressive and this began a life-long involvement with the subject. Two follow-up books were Mysteries and Beyond the Occult. For anyone interested in the paranormal, these must be the best introduction to the subject.
Wilson was not some credulous “believer” in the supernatural; he was a deeply philosophical man who was primarily concerned with the true nature of the human psyche. His greatest insight was that most of us live in a state that borders the robotic. We are surrounded by the grandeur of the spiritual and physical world but might as well be asleep for all that we perceive these things. This was not an original insight – it is as old as philosophy – but few have written about this human dilemma as well and entertainingly as Wilson. He was particularly intrigued by the concept of Left Brain versus Right Brain dominance. One of his books I read years ago was Frankenstein’s Castle in which he explores the “two-brain” phenomenon. In the first paragraph, he writes of the primary obsession of his life: a search for the “other mode” of consciousness. This search for higher awareness, the “value experience” is a thread that links many of the century’s thinkers. Gurdjieff comes to mind – more on him later. How do we defeat the robot, come awake and live in full consciousness?
If you feel an interest in Wilson, I would suggest that you start with two of his novels. He wrote many, but my favorites are The Philosopher’s Stone and The Mind Parasites. These are novels of ideas. In The Philosopher’s Stone, two scientists begin with an interest in defeating the aging process. They come to understand that the “peak experience” of higher consciousness has the power to transform, both physically and psychically. They discover a technique for inducing this developmental change and obtain tremendous mental powers that promise an evolutionary leap forward. Another theme in Wilson’s books is that humans are still evolving in this way. Of course, it turns out that there are sinister forces determined to prevent the protagonists from leading humanity to a new level of being. One attack takes place at the mysterious Silbury Hill in Wiltshire.
In The Mind Parasites, another brilliant pair, archaeologists excavating a lost subterranean city discover that humans are bedeviled by invisible, non-physical parasitic entities that keep people enslaved in a prison of negative thoughts and emotions. Breakthroughs in consciousness and creativity bring on attacks by these enemies of human progress. There is a lot of drama in the novel as the two protagonists fight off the effects of the parasites that seek to drive them – and everyone else - to despair and even suicide. A far-fetched plot but entertaining. I suspect that after an hour of watching the evening news, we all might all be tempted to take the idea of “mind parasites” rather more seriously.
Colin Wilson was a true intellectual and a brilliant and original writer. He has given me a great deal to think about, and you might wish to give him some space in your pile of books.