Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson

Gary Lachman
New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2016. xvi + 399 pp., paper, $26.

I saw Colin Wilson just once, in the 1980s, as the invited guest speaker at an annual astrology gathering. I was puzzled by the choice: wasn’t this man a writer of lurid occult novels? But as I quickly learnt, he was also a serious investigator of the mysteries of consciousness and esoteric spiritual teachings. Yet I still left the meeting feeling that he was an enigma—not exactly a teacher, a scientist, or a mystic. So what was he?

Reading Gary Lachman’s biography, I am now more able to place Wilson and his contribution. He wrote over 100 books, including both nonfiction and fiction. His early success came with his first book, The Outsider, in 1956, a study of “a character . . . peculiar to our age, a person with a pressing hunger for meaning and spiritual purpose in a world seemingly bent on denying him these,” as Lachman puts it. This branded Wilson, rather unfairly in Lachman’s view, as one of Britain’s Angry Young Men of 1950s, and early celebrity came crashing down when Wilson fell victim to the wiles of the press, digging dirt wherever they could.

But Wilson went on to redeem his reputation, and to cover topics of philosophical and spiritual interest ranging through the nature of consciousness, the power of the brain, the use of willpower, and the ability of human beings to go “beyond the robot.” He saw the robot as the mechanical part of our natures that can tie up a shoelace and plan for tomorrow, but generally ignores the glory of the present moment.

I was keen to read this book partly because Wilson started off in London’s 1950s Soho coffee-bar scene, a time Lachman describes as the “duffle-coated years, laced with excitement and romanticism.” As I’ve discovered through my own researches, it was a melting pot that generated not only art, literature, and music, but esoteric movements. The Kabbalistic training groups that I became involved with in the 1970s arose directly from these Soho coffee shop meetings. The late Robin Amis was a member of one of these early groups. In his book Views from Mount Athos, he describes a generation whose education had been curtailed by the Second World War: “They began not by questioning a ruined society but by questioning themselves . . . They formed plans for their seedling lives, for which no seed beds had been prepared.” Amis describes them as “non-specialists,” who were willing to investigate, to look and learn wherever the moment took them. The mix included intellectuals, runaways, musicians, astrologers, and artists. Casual work and living from hand to mouth were the norm, and being poor and even homeless was where it was at. Wilson himself lived on Hampstead Heath for one summer, first in a tent, then just in a sleeping bag. He must have fitted well into this milieu, and reminiscences from some members of our own early group affirm that he did appear at some of our Kabbalistic meetings. His novel Adrift in Soho is a charming, whimsical, and wry look at the scene of the time.

Lachman has written a masterly account of the whole spectrum of Wilson’s output, integrating this with the unfolding of his life, beginning as a working-class boy from Leicester. Wilson was an autodidact, completing his education through voracious, obsessive reading. After the drifting of the early years, he ended up, rather touchingly, as a faithful family man based in Cornwall, when he wasn’t pursuing many invitations to lecture all around the world. Beyond the Robot is a remarkable achievement, and is surely the definitive study of Colin Wilson’s life and work.

However, by its very nature, the book makes for dense reading, and to read it cover to cover, one must not only be extremely interested in the whole gamut of Wilson’s writing from early days to final years (he died in 2013 at the age of eighty-two), but also in expositions of existentialism and other sometimes ephemeral philosophical, biological, and psychological theories. The task is ultimately to present Wilson’s own views on and contributions to this panoply of theories. Lachman has tackled this with admirable insight and clarity, but for the less dedicated reader, this may prove more valuable as a reference book.

Which brings me back to this question: was Colin Wilson a man of knowledge, or just a man who knew a lot? He had an encyclopedic mind, and seems to have been very sincere in his approach to esoteric traditions. But as far as I can tell, he did not engage fully with any lineage or tradition. As a meditation teacher once said: “If you go around digging here and there, you won’t have a well. You need to dig deep in once place to find water.” Lachman quotes Wilson himself: “His mind was too rational and purposive, he said, to relax enough to be able to contact the deeper levels associated with the paranormal. His temperament was ‘basically scientific’.” Wilson’s role, I have come to see through Lachman’s study, was that of a trigger for those searching for something beyond the conventional and the mundane. He was able to present ideas as signposts. But they would not provide the way itself.

Cherry Gilchrist

Cherry Gilchrist is a writer based in the U.K. Her latest book is Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration (Weiser, 2016).


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