Printed in the Summer 2014 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Lachman, Gary. "Colin Wilson Reflections on an Outsider" Quest 102. 3 (Summer 2014): pg. 90-95.
I was in Holland when I heard the news that Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider, The Occult, Mysteries, and more than a hundred other books that I have read and reread obsessively, had died. It was the weekend of December 6–7, 2013, and I was in the Netherlands to give a lecture on Hermeticism. A text message came late at night informing me of his passing.
Colin had been ill for some time, enduring the aftermath of a debilitating stroke, and those of us who knew him also knew that it was probably only a matter of time before his body finally gave out. For two years he faced what is undoubtedly the greatest challenge an inveterate reader and workaholic writer like him could face: loss of the ability to read or to write. For more than half a century he had spent several hours every day—even Christmas, his wife, Joy, once told me—in his workroom in Cornwall, England, hammering away at his keyboard, totaling up in the process some 181 titles, on wide-ranging but related subjects (crime, philosophy, the paranormal, sex, consciousness), as his bibliographer, Colin Stanley, reports. But the writing machine had stopped and now the force behind it was gone. And although his death at eighty-two was not unexpected, the reality of it was still a shock. Someone whose ideas had changed my life and whose work forms the foundation for my own writing was no more. But it was more than this. Colin was a friend and a mentor, and when the reality of his death finally settled into my consciousness, I had a powerful and disturbing feeling that I was now on my own.
I first came across Colin Wilson’s work in 1975. I was nineteen and living on New York’s Bowery, maintaining a precarious existence by playing in a rock-and-roll band. I had borrowed a copy of The Occult from a friend, and suddenly everything was different. I had in fact seen a copy of The Occult a few years earlier, back in New Jersey, when a neighbor, knowing I was a fanatical reader of weird and horror fiction—H.P. Lovecraft especially—offered me her book club copy, thinking I might be interested in some real-life ghosts. But I wasn’t ready for it, and I have to admit that I owe being open to Colin’s work the second time around to the interest in magic and the occult I had developed after being introduced to the turbulent and tragic life of the dark magician, Aleister Crowley, the “Great Beast 666.” I soon outgrew the Beast, but Colin’s ideas stayed with me and informed practically everything I did from then on.
What was exciting about The Occult was that Wilson wrote about the paranormal, the mystical, and the magical from the point of view of existential philosophy, and he saw it in the context of literature and history. The book is full of references to and accounts of or by Goethe, Dostoyevsky, William Blake, H.G. Wells, Proust, Hesse, Bernard Shaw, as well as Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, and dozens of other important figures. As with practically all of his books, following up the leads Wilson offers in The Occult constitutes an education in itself. He took the occult seriously, not like a true believer, but like a philosopher, that is, someone who is open to discovering new insights into the mysteries of human existence. Wilson rejected the routine dismissal of the occult and paranormal common among the intelligentsia, but he was also rigorously critical of any wishful thinking or jettisoning of logic in favor of a fuzzy mysticism. He admitted that when he was first approached by an American publisher with the idea of the book, he was skeptical. He had always had a mild interest in the subject, but he thought most occultists were muddleheaded and credulous, and he accepted the commission because he needed the money. After he began researching the book, his attitude changed. He eventually concluded that there is as much evidence for the reality of telepathy, precognition, ESP, and other occult faculties as there is for particle physics. It was in fact his “scientific,” that is, critical, approach to the subject that makes The Occult such a thrilling and, in the best sense, mind-expanding book.
Wilson’s basic aim was to understand the occult in terms of phenomenology, the philosophical discipline developed by the philosopher Edmund Husserl in the early twentieth century, and which forms the basis for the better-known existentialism. Phenomenology is essentially the study of consciousness. I had read the existentialists by then, and up until that point the most powerful influence on my worldview was Nietzsche. I didn’t know it at the time, but Wilson’s early work was about existentialism, and the clarity and critical intelligence he brought to the lives and ideas of H.P. Blavatsky, Rasputin, Gurdjieff, Crowley, and others soon convinced me that there was much more to the occult than Tarot cards, candles, and spells. The fact that Wilson is unfailingly optimistic and that his highly readable style makes exploring ideas a challenging and exciting adventure didn’t hurt.
One of the key ideas Wilson develops in The Occult is what he calls “Faculty X,” our strange and little-recognized ability to grasp “the reality of other times and places.” There is nothing mysterious about this, and Wilson refers to it as “X” simply because we lack a name for it. It is essentially a development of what Husserl called “intentionality.” “Intentionality” for Husserl means that consciousness, rather than merely reflecting reality, as in the model developed by René Descartes—and which has remained the dominant model of consciousness for most of the modern period—instead actually reaches out and grabs it. That is, consciousness is not a passive mirror but an active grasp. It involves a kind of effort, which means we can make more of it, or less. It is something we do rather than something we have. The kinds of experiences Wilson describes and gives as evidence for Faculty X are an example of consciousness “intending” more. Two of Wilson’s key examples come from the novelist Marcel Proust and the historian Arnold Toynbee. Proust’s mammoth novel Remembrance of Things Past begins when the protagonist tastes a bit of cake—a madeleine—dipped in tea. Suddenly he is flooded with memories of his childhood holidays in Combray, a town in northern France. But these are not memories in our usual sense; it is as if Proust—the novel is largely autobiographical—has been transported back to Combray itself, as if the madeleine dipped in tea were a kind of time machine. The experience made Proust feel that he was no longer “mediocre, accidental, mortal,” no longer his usual self trapped in the present moment, but that he had somehow stepped out of time. In a section of his immense twelve-volume Study of History, Toynbee describes how once, while visiting the site of a famous massacre at the Greek fortress of Mistra, he suddenly felt as if, like Proust, he had been transported back in time, not to some earlier moment in his own life, but to some moment in history. It was as if the battle was actually going on around him. Toynbee also described an even more powerful experience that happened while walking past Victoria Station in London, in which it was as if he was suddenly aware of all of history as a passing parade. These and other examples of Faculty X—there are others described in Wilson’s sequel to The Occult, Mysteries—led Wilson to conclude that our ordinary ideas about time are inadequate. This should not be surprising; as I’ve suggested above, our ordinary ideas about consciousness are also wrong.
I should make clear that Faculty X is not simply a nostalgia for the past—Wilson was not a romantic in that sense—but a recognition that reality is not limited to whatever happens to be in front of us at any particular time, which is how we usually think of it. Reality is not the four walls of your room or the dull glow of your computer screen or the depressing amount of your bank balance but is a factor of how powerful your consciousness is, how firmly it “intends.” Wilson was the author of several very readable “phenomenological novels” in the sci-fi, mystery, even erotic genres, as readers of The Mind Parasites, The Philosopher’s Stone, and Ritual in the Dark know. He writes in his book The Craft of the Novel: “Reality is not what happens to be most real to us at the moment. It is what we perceive in our moments of greatest intensity.” In our moments of intensity we “intend” more and because of this we grasp reality more firmly; we get “more” from it, hence the characteristic feeling of some powerful objective meaning being revealed that accompanies these moments. Wilson believes that Faculty X is at the root of all occult or paranormal experiences, which is to say that at bottom these and other, similarly unusual experiences—such as mystical experiences—are a matter of consciousness. At the moment our “muscles of intention”—if I may speak in this way—flex involuntarily, usually under the stimulus of some threat or inconvenience, when we are forced to concentrate and focus our consciousness on the crisis. But Wilson was convinced it was possible to learn how to control them at will, and I believed him. I had by then experienced a few moments like those Wilson described, when my awareness of myself and the world seemed to rise up above its usual level and reached what he calls the “bird’s-eye view,” rather than our more common wormlike perspective. Life, Wilson tells us, is too close up for us to see its meaning. It’s only when consciousness can achieve some distance from it that its meaning can become clear. Once or twice I had felt that distance and had somehow taken a step back from things. If this was Faculty X, then I wanted more of it.
It was two years later, in 1977, when I had left the soon-to-be-very-successful band Blondie and had moved to Los Angeles that my real obsession with Colin’s work began. It started when I had spent a discouraging afternoon looking for work. I had yet to form my own group, The Know (the name came from my interest in Gnosticism), and royalties from my song “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” had yet to come in. It would become the only song about telepathy or with the word “theosophy” in its lyrics to make the Top Ten, when Blondie had a hit with it in 1978, but until then, like everyone else, I needed to find some way to make money. It was a depressing business, and after a few hours I decided to give up. I had a little money, and although this was supposed to go toward lunch and a bus ride home I decided instead to soothe my angst by buying a book. It meant hunger and a very long walk, but my soul needed it. The book was The Outsider.
As anyone familiar with his work knows, when The Outsider, Wilson’s first book, appeared in 1956, when he was twenty-four, it made him famous overnight. Wilson was caught up in the “Angry Young Man” craze—the British equivalent of the American Beats— and not long after singing his praises the British press, notoriously fickle, turned on him. For most of his subsequent career, Wilson was persona non grata among the British literary establishment, a situation that in recent years has begun to change, with the praise Wilson has received from literary heavy hitters like Philip Pullman. (My own favorable reviews of Wilson’s more recent work in some important British dailies has, I’d like to think, contributed to this effort.) The Outsider is a study in “extreme mental states,” and at the time of its publication, Wilson was applauded as Britain’s only homegrown existentialist. The Outsider charts the struggle of individuals who have a powerful hunger—a fundamental need—for a sense of purpose more meaningful than anything conventional society can offer. Their hunger is in essence religious; or, to put it more precisely, as Wilson argues, in earlier times religion could provide a powerful sense of purpose and an environment—monasteries—in which to pursue it. But in our materialistic, rationalistic civilization, geared solely to comfort and material gain, religion no longer suffices—we’ve outgrown it anyway—and the values and meanings of a purely secular, consumer society have nothing to offer. The Outsider takes life seriously; he feels there is something at risk, something at stake, that is ignored or actively denied by a society centered on comfort and security. The values informing our modern world are, for the most part, shallow, petty, and trivial. The Outsider wants something more, something deeper, more spiritual, more intense, something that, in essence, makes demands on him, rather than letting him “take it easy,” as most things in our world are geared toward doing. Through looking at such Outsiders as Vincent Van Gogh, Nietzsche, T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”), Sartre, Hesse, Gurdjieff, and many others, Wilson formulated a new archetype, that of the man or woman who “sees and feels too much and too deeply” and who can’t be satisfied with the explanations that science provides or the adjustment that psychoanalysis and other “cures” can offer. The Outsider does not fit in. That is why he is an Outsider.
Needless to say, I recognized myself as one of Wilson’s Outsiders. The effect of the book was the same as I had experienced some years earlier when I first read Nietzsche: the sense that Wilson was talking to me. And he was, just as he was talking to all the other misfits who felt that here was someone who understood them. You could say I found myself by reading his book. Or at least that it put me squarely on the road to that destination.
At that point I became a dedicated Colin Wilson reader. I spent the next few years rummaging through bookshops on the East and West coasts—my band was popular in L.A. and New York and we traveled coast-to-coast regularly—looking for his work and immersing myself in his ideas. I was never more excited than when I found a book of his I hadn’t read. Although soon after The Outsider Wilson’s cachet among the critics dropped abysmally, he hunkered down in Cornwall and carried on, filled with an enormous self-belief and resilience, and convinced—rightly—of the importance of his work. During the next ten years, along with writing several novels, he produced what he called “the Outsider cycle,” a series of books aimed at articulating and solving the Outsider’s problem of how to achieve a sense of meaning and purpose in a world informed by material values and by what Heidegger called “the triviality of everydayness.” Wilson’s aim was to create what he called a “new existentialism,” based on the work of Husserl and the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, a more optimistic approach , which rejected the stoical and pessimistic conclusions of Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus. Religion and the Rebel, The Age of Defeat, called The Stature of Man in the U.S., The Strength to Dream, Origins of the Sexual Impulse, Beyond the Outsider, and Introduction to the New Existentialism addressed the Outsider’s dilemma through focusing on religion, literature, sex, criminality, philosophy, science and sociology. Sadly, of the entire “Outsider cycle,” only The Outsider remains in print—it has, in fact, never gone out of print. I am happy that I secured copies of the other books in the “Outsider cycle” decades ago; it would be difficult and costly to do so now. Readers familiar with Wilson’s later work, his many books on the occult and criminology—Wilson was writing volumes of “true crime” from an existential point of view years before the genre’s current popularity—will have to scour their public libraries or pay high prices if they want to familiarize themselves with the ideas that form the foundation for Wilson’s later writings. This is a shame, as Wilson’s new existentialism is a bold, creative, and brilliant approach to solving the Outsiders’ problem. It deserves to be better known, and one of my projects for the immediate future is to write a book about it.
For the next few years, along with my other reading—mostly following up the leads Wilson provided—I read as much of Wilson as I could find, and in January 1981, I finally, if briefly, met him. It was at a talk he gave on his book Frankenstein’s Castle, about the left and right brain, at the Village Bookshop on Regent Street in London. I was on holiday and was about to return to the States when I saw that he would be speaking. I changed my ticket and stayed an extra week just to hear him. Like so many others, the bookshop no longer exists, but somewhere among my files is a cassette recording of Colin’s talk. A video recording of the talk also exists, and at the end of this, you can see me walk up to the speaker and, as any fan would, ask him to autograph some copies of his books. We only exchanged a few words; there were others who wanted to speak to him too. But two years later I made a more determined attempt to make contact with him.
In 1983 with a friend I went on a kind of mini–“search for the miraculous” that had us in France visiting Chartres Cathedral and the site of Gurdjieff’s Prieuré in Fontainebleau, as well as Glastonbury Abbey, Stonehenge, and Avebury in England, and other European sacred sites. At one point my friend and I separated to have our individual adventures. Mine took me to Cornwall. By that time I had left music entirely and was looking for a new path in life. I forget how I got Wilson’s telephone number, but at some point I had hitchhiked down to Penzance and from there called him. Even apart from Blondie, I had already met and worked with people like Iggy Pop, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and other rock stars, but none of them had made me nervous; calling Colin did. (As I write in New York Rocker, I was even once asked to leave David Bowie’s loft in New York because of a disagreement we had about Wilson’s work.)
Wilson was friendly and immediately invited me to visit. Two things stand out clearly from that meeting. One was Wilson’s house, set back from the Cornish cliffs, in which he had lived since the late 1950s. It was filled floor to ceiling with more books than I had ever seen before outside of a public library; the last total I heard was some 30,000 volumes, not to mention thousands of CDs, DVDs, and LPs. The other lasting memory is of a long, wine-fueled evening in which Colin did his best to explain Husserl’s ideas about consciousness to me. We continued the conversation the next morning, over hangovers and breakfast, before I headed back to London. There I spent the last week of my “search” in the old Reading Room at the British Museum, reading books of Colin’s I couldn’t find in the States. This, of course, was partially romanticism: he himself famously wrote his first novel by day in the Reading Room while sleeping outdoors on Hamstead Heath in order to save money. When I returned to L.A., I started a correspondence with Colin that lasted until his stroke, when he could no longer reply, and in years to come I would visit Tetherdown—the name of his house—several more times and get to know Colin, his wife, Joy, and their children very well.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Colin came to L.A. several times to give talks, and each time he came we met. On one occasion I was housesitting for a friend, and I invited Colin and Joy to stay with me. It was a very modern three-story house set in the Hollywood Hills, with a large terrace garden and hot tub. I called it the “Zen Castle” and it was the site of some entertaining evenings; one was so entertaining that I missed a chance to meet the writer Robert Anton Wilson, with whom Colin was having an early lunch the next day, because I had overdid it the night before—a lost opportunity I regret. On a trip to England in 1993 I made the journey down to Tetherdown, and when, two years later, I went through a painful personal crisis, Colin invited me to visit and he gave me advice that helped me through the worst of it.
I had by then begun to write and had published a few articles and book reviews. I decided that, if I was ever going to become a writer for real as I had wanted to since my teens, now was probably my last chance. I was forty and found myself free. With little more than a wing and a prayer and propelled by a midlife crisis, I decided to leave L.A. and relocate, at least for a time, to England. Again, my romanticism shows through: although I had been an Anglophile since my childhood, brought up on the Beatles, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond, surely reading Colin’s books had something to do with this? Whatever the reason, what began as a temporary change of scenery ended up as a permanent expatriation. I came to London at the beginning of 1996 and have been here ever since. The funny thing is that by now I have spent more time in the British Library or on Hampstead Heath than Colin ever did.
Over the years I visited Colin in Cornwall or met with him on his trips to London, and on more than one occasion I interviewed him. In recent years our meetings stopped, both because of the necessities of my own life and because of Colin’s health. We kept up our correspondence—I always sent him copies of my books—but when I heard of his stroke, something told me that I wouldn’t see him again. Our last meeting was at a conference in London in 2006 or so, where he introduced me to the author Graham Hancock. Afterward, with Joy, his son Damon and his wife and child—Colin enjoyed being a grandfather—he treated us to dinner at an Italian restaurant; Colin liked food and the wine was plentiful. There was a chance of seeing him in 2009 at the opening of the Colin Wilson Archive at Nottingham University, but his health prevented that. I continued to e-mail, not expecting an answer, but from time to time I would get an update on his condition. At the end of the obituary I wrote for the Fortean Times I quote Colin as saying that “I would like my life to be a lesson in how to stand alone and to thrive on it,” a typical Outsider statement. It’s a lesson many have learned, and those who have will miss him.
Gary Lachman is the author of several books about the meeting ground between consciousness, culture, and the Western inner tradition, most recently Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World and The Caretakers of the Cosmos. Revolutionaries of the Soul, a collection of his shorter writing, is forthcoming from Quest Books in October. He writes for several journals in the U.S. and U.K. and lectures on his work in the U.S., U.K., and Europe. His books have been translated into several languages. Born in New Jersey, since 1996 he has lived in London. Visit him at www.garylachman.co.uk.