THE WORLD OF VIOLENCE
The following analysis of Colin Wilson's third novel is intended less as a parallel to the chapter on Ritual in the Dark than as an intermediary between that chapter and the next. Whereas in my interpretation of Ritual in Dark my basic concern was to expound the book's theme in terms of characterisation, with as little reference as possible to other works, I shall aim more directly in this chapter at presenting some of the ideas that form the foundation of Wilson's 'new existentialism'. I shall also attempt to explain in what way these ideas differ from the existentialism of Sartre, whose influence is clearly revealed in this book. The World of Violence is more openly a 'novel of ideas' than Ritual in the Dark, and is therefore in a way less concerned with the revelation of character as such, although there is the notable exception of "the Proustian hermit of Cranthorpe", Jeremy Wolfe, who is surely one of Wilson's most vivid characters to this day, and deserves far more attention than time and space can afford him here.
One of the most important differences between Ritual in the Dark and The World of Violence is the fact that, whereas the former takes place within a period of eleven days, the latter provides an account of most of the hero's childhood and adolescence between the ages of four-and-a-half and sixteen, and even provides an epilogue. With regard to Sorme, who, when we meet him, is twenty-seven, we learn nothing about his childhood. There is no reference to his mother and father; the only glimpses we are afforded into his past are those concerning the five years that precede the opening of the story. Moreover, the reader is left somewhat bewildered at the end as to the course of his future life. In fact, the story presents only a fragment of his life, unconnected with either his past or his future. But here, evidently, is the point. This fragment represents only what may be termed as his social life - his 'surface' life so to speak, while the theme provides a fairly definite clue as regards the future direction of his 'inner' life, which, in his visionary moments, he experiences more or less asa unity with "all space and history". Thematically speaking, the future course of his social relations is the least important aspect of his development. Hence it follows that Wilson's novels, in dealing with the hero's spiritual evolution, are in a way unconcerned with whether the outward plot appears something of a jumble (which some critics, obviously in a hurry, have remarked), as long as the 'inner flow' of the main theme is carried forward consistently. At first glance the contents of the first three chapters of The World of Violence might indeed appear somewhat disorderly, comprising, as they do, two or three dozen episodes from the hero's early life. As a prelude to an explication of the book's theme, there fore, an outline of those chapters is required.
The World of Violence is divided into two parts, "The Outer Dark" and 'The Inner Dark. Part One covers a period of twelve years, and comprises a number of incidents from the hero's, Hugh Greene's, childhood. These, although they seemingly have little to do with what the book's title denotes the theme to be, nevertheless provide a key to the sequence of dramatic events in Part Two. This second section centres around an incident in the hero's sixteenth year which brings about a total change in his life and outlook. Part Two, which occupies nearly two-thirds of the book, covers none the less a period of only twelve days; that is, about the same length of time as the whole of Ritual in the Dark.
Although both novels are cast in the form of the 'Bildungsroman', it stands to reason that a book which ranges over most of the hero's childhood and adolescence must necessarily cover a far greater variety of experiences and ideas than one which embodies only a week or two in the hero's adult life. Sorme's development as itis presented in Ritual in the Dark concerns itself primarily with his reaction to the people he meets within that short space of time and the views and the problems they represent. The novel of Hugh's 'education' on the other hand, because it includes so much of his early life, is concerned not only with his response to people, but also to ideas, and especially such ideas as he receives through books - bookworm as he is (like his creator). Books often help to shape a child's imagination, and hence his creative abilities, to a greater extent than his actual living experience. They might even, as they do in the case of Hugh, influence materially his relationship to other people.
Chapter One centres around Hugh's relation to his uncles Nick and Sam, both of whom, from the point of view of his mother and father and the world in general, are utterly insane. However, each of these uncles holds, to a rather fanatical degree, a certain vision of life which he believes is the 'true' one, while other people and their values are regarded by them as correspondingly false and even insane. The young hero, from the age of four, is caught between these two contrasting views of life, that of Uncle Nick (and later Uncle Sam) on the one hand, and that of decent people, the 'bourgeoisie, on the other. The question soon arises in the hero's mind: who is right, Nick or Sam or the rest of the world? Now Hugh gradually finds himself more and more entangled in the problem when, step by step, he begins to realise that there are as many different views of 'truth' as there are individual human beings, that no one belief can be safely established as ultimately the right one, since each seems to be based on the idiosyncrasies of its owner. Hugh begins to ask, as any intelligent child might: where does the universe end? What is the meaning of life? He is surprised and frightened when no one seems capable of affording him a satisfactory answer. One evening, when he asks his father, he is infuriated when his father responds simply by sending him off to bed:
That night, as I lay awake, something happened to me, something as decisive as catching smallpox. I felt suddenly that I had to know what is true. It was a feeling of total revolt. (pp. 34-5)
The rest of the novel is
concerned with Hugh's search for that truth.
Even amid this terrifying chaos, however, Hugh possesses one certainty which he feels is the
foundation-stone of all truth, namely
mathematics. It was Uncle Nick who, despite his insanity, discovered that his four-year-old nephew's talents lay in the direction
of mathematics. Even after Nick's final collapse, when his intellect was
"wiped away as cleanly as chalk off a blackboard"
(p. 23), the mathematical truths he taught lived on in
the mind of his pupil, thus confirming to Hugh their superiority over all other values.
Because of its
immortality, mathematics represents for Hugh a refuge from the world of
insecurity and of violence, which he has always abhorred.
Chapter Two introduces the conflict between the world of violence and these pure realms of mind, a conflict whose repercussions are felt throughout the entire novel, and reveals in its own way the inadequacy of a belief that bifurcates existence into spirit and matter. This chapter, in which we meet Hugh between the ages of five and thirteen, shows how he manages to arrive at a kind of compromise between the two conflicting worlds. This is mainly illustrated through two experiences which he has at the age of twelve The first is his encounter with Kaspar the hypnotist; in front of a large audience, on a stage, he discovers that he possesses an 'inner' power strong enough to resist the hypnotist simply by concentrating on a stimulating idea (a mathematical problem) that he has been working on all day. This discovery raises him as it were above the chaos of humanity, and reveals a 'superhuman' quality in himself that seems to promise some higher level of existence. The second experience is his involvement with Teddy Kirk and his gang of Teddy-boys. Hugh, in working out a plan for a campaign by which the gang manage to beat their rivals, proves his intellectual superiority, and for a while this reduces his fear of violence.
Hugh's mathematical Utopia, however, is basically a cold, inhuman world, end to the reader it will hardly appear any more alluring than the frightening world from which the hero is trying to escape. Most of the descriptions in Chapter Two enhance this atmosphere of non-emotion. Hugh tells us, for instance, that he has never liked human beings, though he does modify his remark by adding that what he dislikes about them is their capacity for self-delusion" (p. 51). To this young hero, who feels that the only important questions in life are those that concern the limits of the universe and the meaning of life, the daily tediums and trivialities of people around him must undoubtedly assume insufferable proportions: "I have never been able to watch two people talking about the weather without a deep feeling of wonderment; I watch them closely, expecting to see their faces crumble suddenly into horrible grief" (p. 35). Hugh tells us also that he has never felt any love for nature; during his visit with his parents to Beachy Head he prefers to sit under a hedge secretly reading arithmetic rather than stroll along the cliffs to admire the scenery, or even play with children of his own age. And when he relates how he deliberately, once a week, thrusts his fingers down his throat in order to enhance the efficiency of his thinking ("sickness, by exhausting the body, endows the mind with a new perceptiveness") (p. 62), the reader's sympathy for the young hero will in all probability suffer a slight, though temporary, decline. In a way Hugh, with his emphasis on reason, is representative of modern civilised man in an age of rationalism and intellectual prestige. Wilson points out elsewhere that it is a fallacy to believe that intellect can solve the mysteries of life; it can only work in terms of fragments and cannot in itself grasp the beauty and purpose of existence. Hugh is incapable of feeling strongly enough what he thinks. This is Sorme's plight, too, in the opening chapters of Ritual in the Dark. And furthermore, the realms of pure thought seem to have little if anything in common with the world of physical violence, which both Sorme and Hugh know they cannot ignore.
Chapter Three centres around Hugh's friendship with the lonely poet Jeremy Wolfe, and brings in a way a breath of fresh air after the rather sterile atmosphere of Chapter Two. It is through Jeremy that Hugh gradually comes to realise that there is yet another sphere of life, and perhaps the most important one of all - a world of beauty and emotion. We learn how his response to beauty develops through his experience of music and poetry, and he manifests, too, a new love of nature. The appearance of the 'ghost' which he imagines he sees on two occasions at Jeremy's cottage might be interpreted as an increasing awareness within him of realms of being that are beyond the logic of reason. Each time he sees this 'presence is after an aesthetic experience of some kind. The apparition of the mysterious 'gardener' raking leaves into a fire bears a certain analogy to Hugh's visionary experience in the woods a year later, when the "glow of exaltation" inside him is set in sharp contrast to the lifeless scenery - the "black dead leaves" covering the ground (p. 293). The dead leaves that the gardener is raking together might thus be seen to represent the fragmentation of life that is the inevitable result of reason (this point will be clarified later); the ground, then, is being cleared for the emergence of new life - that is, in Hugh. "Something was happening inside me analogous to the breaking of the ice on a river in spring, and the first sensation was painful" (p. 88) - painful because it reveals the inadequacy of those 'certainties' that till now have constituted the foundation-stone of his beliefs. At the end of Chapter Three we are told that Hugh has "hardly looked at a book on mathematics for six months" (p. 99).
Before proceeding with a treatment of the events in Part Two, it is necessary to examine a little more closely the function of Uncle Nick within the thematic context. Hugh's sense of kinship with Uncle Nick contrasts greatly to his lack of contact with his parents. The reason is apparently that Nick's beliefs, weird as they are, nevertheless have their roots in genuine experience, while Hugh's mother and father base their experience on social values, which, in their case, are insincere because they originate from outside. They live in the eyes of other people; that is, on the basis of 'bad faith' (to use a Sartrean term, which will be examined in more detail later, in connection with Uncle Sam). The point is that Hugh, at an early age, sees through this world of false values, and prefers Nick's firm convictions, however insane they might appear; to the insincerity of 'normal' people. This gives rise to the possibility in Hugh's mind that it that it might in fact be the people who regard themselves as 'normal' who are insane, whereas Nick at least is sane in that he is true to his own 'identity'. This applies even more clearly to Uncle Sam, whom general opinion regards as insane, but whom the reader undoubtedly will feel is sensible enough. Furthermore, the crazy old man in Ritual in the Dark certainly possesses a genuine religious belief, however cranky it might appear to others; Sorme's disgust with him at the beginning evolves finally into a kind of acceptance, and this development runs parallel to Sorme's own spiritual awakening. Hugh, then, comes to recognise in the end that Uncle Nick "was neither more nor less mad than anyone in the world. It is only that the rest of the world has come to a general agreement to accept a certain kind of madness as sanity, as normality" (p. 216).
The 'madness' of sane people is revealed, in the eyes of Hugh, through a number of amusing episodes in the first two chapters. Hugh does not quite understand the world of grown-up people, not necessarily because he is too young to understand, but apparently because grown-ups tend to base their opinions on standards that are completely foreign to their inborn nature. In The Outsider Wilson mentions the hero of Kafka's The Trial, who is arrested and finally executed without knowing why" (Ou p. 31). Similarly Hugh, one morning at school, is called in to Miss Gulliver's study: "There, I was startled to find my father waiting. He and the headmistress looked so serious that I immediately assumed that I was going to be punished - although I had no idea why" (p. 26). Moreover, during their visit to the aunt and uncle at Beachy Head, Hugh's father one day tells him to "make a gesture" and apologise for something to his aunt and uncle:
I was not sure what I was supposed to apologize about; but I always took the line of least resistance, and agreed to say I was sorry. So I went into the living-room, where my aunt and uncle were already looking benevolent and prepared to forgive, and said I was sorry. They asked me what for. I said I was sorry hadn't enjoyed myself. This touched off a new argument, and I had to do a lot more apologizing, and they ended by being nice to me and giving me a long lecture on the importance of being 'normal' and making people like me. (pp. 20-1)
Hugh's helplessness in a world that is alien to his true nature is much similar to Sorme's sense of 'unreality' in the opening chapters of Ritual in the Dark. Hugh's moral evolution, like Sorme's, is one towards greater control over his own life - a development towards increasing self-awareness.
This contrast between sincerity and insincerity, or between meaning and absurdity, is central to the argument in the later chapters of The World of Violence, and is to all appearance symbolised in the image of the 'hollow earth', which Hugh reads about in one of Uncle Nick's books. The author of this book, a man called Garvin, tells his readers how he had been "selected to give the world a great message - the truth about 'infinite space'. The world, according to Garvin, is round in a concave way, and "all life inhabits this concave shell". If we take this 'inner' world to represent the 'countries of the mind', and the convex side of the globe as the world of 'objective truth', the idea that "all life inhabits this concave shell" might be seen to imply that the world of 'objective truth' is fundamentally a dead world. Life appears meaningless to the man who believes that he is living on this outer surface; all he can see when he looks outwards is an "infinity of nothingness". Moreover, man stuck on the outer shell can only see a small portion of his world at a time; he cannot see what lies beyond the horizon - in fact, his vision of life must necessarily be fragmentary as long as he bases his beliefs on such external concepts. Now if man inhabited the inner surface of the globe it goes without saying that he would be capable of seeing all existence as a unity from the very spot on which he is living - providing, of course, that the atmosphere (i.e. of his mind) is clear: "If the atmosphere were not so opaque we should be able to see right across it to the countries on the other side. And what is outside our earth? Nothing." (p. 32) Hugh says he is "shattered" by the "convincingness of Garvin's account of his vision", although he still does not realise what actually makes it seem so convincing. The account endows him with intimations of a deeper reality underlying the world of shallow and contradictory beliefs that he sees around him every day.
This 'inner' world is the world inhabited by Jeremy Wolfe. Nevertheless, despite the 'profounder' realms of being that these spheres represent, they are substantially useless to man if they do not in some way strike root in the world of man's everyday existence. The mysterious 'presence' that haunts Jeremy's isolated cottage is, , therefore, not only an affirmative symbol, but also represents features in Jeremy that are basically life-devaluating. When Hugh, after the second appearance of the 'presence', asks Jeremy how he would describe a ghost, Jeremy's answer (if we make room for a slight ironical twist) might well be said to characterise Jeremy himself. A ghost, he explains, is a kind of stagnant state of mind, a little floating island of unattached consciousness ...about as real as a smell" (pp. 87-8). Jeremy's situation might be compared to Garvin's account of how an angel took him on a voyage into space (i.e. inside the concave globe): "For a few seconds the atmosphere was made transparent -and it was just as the angel had said. There, right opposite him, was the outline of Europe, just as on a map (p. 32). It is interesting to compare this image to a statement that Kierkegaard once made, which has been quoted by Wilson elsewhere, that "To exist under the guidance of pure thought is like travelling in Denmark with the help of a small map of Europe, on which Denmark shows no larger than a pen-point" (BO p. 62). We may well imagine Jeremy floating out there in a kind of seventh heaven, catching brief glimpses through the mist of far-away countries - a helpless, drifting state of mind, a 'spirit' that believes it is free, but which, none the less, is a slave to the invincible forces of physical existence. Jeremy's moods tend to change with the weather, and thus, one rainy day, when Hugh arrives at the cottage, he finds Jeremy "drooping in an armchair, looking like a fungoid growth or some limp and glutinous object that had found its way through a hole in the roof (p. 83). This clearly implies that Jeremy feels more at home in celestial regions than in the hard substantiality of the body. Hence most of the time he finds himself "wrestling obscurely with a kind of grey octopus of feelings" (p. 83). This image, incidentally, is used by Plato, and mentioned by Wilson in his Introduction to Eagle and Earwig:
Plato and Plotinus, like so many later Christian thinkers, regarded death as a consummation...Plato saw matter as a kind of magnet that has trapped the spirit - or as a gigantic octopus; the task of the spirit is to kill the octopus and get free.
Wilson then adds:
William Blake was perhaps the first expression of a new spirit: the rejection of the dualism, the assertion that spirit and matter are somehow in this struggle together, and that to separate them is no solution...Blake saw the 'consummation' as the final enslavement of the octopus so that it becomes the instrument of spirit. He does not reject matter, but sees it transformed. (EE p. 19)
When Jeremy's cousin Monty, in protest against Jeremy's rejection of matter, quotes Whitman and Blake on the holiness of the sexual impulse, Jeremy's only retort is: "Blake ought to have been ashamed of himself" (p. 95). Thus the hero, through his infatuation with Patricia and his admiration for Monty's cult of physical expression, reacts against the one-sidedness of Jeremy's world, and develops an attitude that rejects Platonism and approaches what might be called the 'existentialism' of Blake. Hugh realises that his sense of helplessness in the world of violence cannot be overcome by ignoring matter, but only by seeking to transform it. All this is basic to an understanding of the sequence of events in Part Two.
The opening chapter of Part Two, Chapter Four, introduces Monty and Patricia, who both represent physical expression - one through violence and the other through sex, and concludes with the incident outside the Palais, whore Hugh witnesses the assault by a gang of juvenile delinquents on a harmless youth: "The episode...shocked me as completely as if I had been the one to be attacked" (p. 122). The scene marks a turning-point in Hugh's attitude to violence, and can be compared to Sorme's 'vastation' in Nunne's basement flat. Hugh's feeling of helplessness and insignificance gives way to a violent need to express his identity and to retaliate the act. Inspired by Monty's virtue of responding to challenges instead of pretending they do not exist, Hugh works out a plan to shoot down one of the youths if he gets the chance, and claim afterwards that it was done in self-defence. His will to assert his freedom - to prove to himself that he is not a slave to forces beyond his control, must be seen against the background of some of the events described in Chapter Two - his aid to Teddy Kirk's gang, and especially his experience at the hypnotist's performance, which requires a few words of explanation.
When, in front of the audience, Hugh becomes aware that he possesses the intellectual power to resist Kaspar's hypnosis, to which the other subjects respond quite easily, he feels all at once superior to the chaos and vulnerability of the 'all too human' world. His discovery is given deeper significance if we bear in mind that the condition of hypnosis might be seen to symbolise the human dilemma in general. "Modern manlives amid an immense, complex civilization that he did little to create", writes Wilson in Beyond the Outsider (p. 27); "it is not surprising if he feels passive, if he feels that he is acted upon rather than an actor". Hugh's cousin Robert responds almost immediately to Kaspar's suggestive powers, and, acting according to his 'orders', bounds across the stage believing he is a ferret in its cage. Later on we are told that the manager of the office at which Hugh is working has "teeth like a ferret" (p. 104), and we see the implication. As to office life, Hugh finds it depressing, because "it made me aware of myself as a machine; its dullness affected me as a kind of hypnosis" (p. 128). Similarly, Sorme remarks: "I'd been getting pretty sick of the office. It made me feel dead inside" (RD p. 374). A hypnotic subject has little Jr no identity of his own; he is at the mercy of a power beyond his own immediate control, and the task of freeing himself from the influence of this power requires an immense effort of will. We might suggest that Austin Nunne has been 'hypnotised' through the lulling effect of having everything given to him 'ready-made'. The state of mind of the hypnotised youth Jed, who murders a woman in order to release himself from the grip of Kasper - that is, in order to regain his sense of self-identity - might be seen to represent a compressed picture of Nunne's dilemma.
Ironically enough, the very act through which Hugh seeks to express his freedom leads him into a state of mind that is the direct opposite of what he has intended. The shooting incident, though in a way successful in itself, nevertheless becomes a moral fiasco, and Hugh finds himself caught, more than ever, in the meshes from which he yearns to escape. Why is this so? The answer must evidently be sought in the hero's moral attitude in the nine days that intervene between the assault and the shooting incident. The point is that Hugh most of the time does not really believe that he will summon enough courage to carry out the act. Although his passive fury after the assault was genuine enough - a fury so violent that it demanded an outlet through action, we find that it does not last longer than the night over. The next morning he treats it as "a kind of game, a day dream... "I was determined to go through with it, and yet I was not serious about it" (p. 126). And then we are told: "I had already formulated my plan...Basically, my plan was simple". It is this very simplicity, this fallacy of reducing human life to the insignificance of mathematical formula, that results in his undoing. His plan, which originated in a surge of genuine feeling, develops into nothing more than a cold-blooded intellectual calculation. At the same time Hugh tells us that he finds his intellectual enthusiasm returning: "I could think about mathematics with the old devotion, the certainty that it was man's road to the godlike" (p. 166). His purpose is no longer inspired, but merely calculated; it is no longer sincere, but insincere in that it is based on abstract symbols that have little to do with the genuinely human. Hence, because Hugh addicts himself to reason, he disregards what might be called his 'true identity', and becomes prey to conflicting forces of belief and doubt. It is worth noting the number of times the word 'fate' occurs in these chapters: "I saw that fate was making it difficult to back out" (p. 129); "I felt that...fate meant well by me" (p. 131); "it seemed that fate was working against my plan" (p. 184); "I walked off quickly, wondering what motive the fates had in flinging this new development at my head" (p. 226); "I was prepared to plunge into a bitter meditation on the irony and malice of fate" (p. 250), and so on. He is, in fact, hardly any better off than Jeremy, whose motional climate tends to change with the weather. Nor is he, basically, much superior to the office people who, we are told, accept the dullness of their lives as something which they themselves are unable to do anything about: "they waited patiently for destiny to present them with some state of happiness or excitement" (p. 134).
The cause of Hugh's moral collapse, then, is his emphasis on reason, his belief that human purpose can be calculated by way of logic; but thereby purpose is analysed into fragments that are meaningless in themselves. The day after he has carried out his plan Hugh finds that he has lost all sense of values. He is indifferent as to whether or not the police arrest him; even the ideal world of mathematics appears a mockery to his existence. All human relationships seem absurd; the world seems to explode into meaningless fragments, and - most horrible of all - "A feeling of evil pressed on me, an inescapable evil, with no alternative" (p. 216). This fragmentation of experience is described in several scenes, for instance when he is sitting in the workmen's cafe, partly reading in a book on mathematics and partly listening to bits of conversation from the people around him, while faint bursts of a Mozart symphony reach him from a portable radio nearby: "it seemed that the Mozart, the arithmetic, the conversation, were all fragmentary and meaningless, all futile" (p. 209). A comparison might be drawn to Sorme's remark that "None of these people live a whole life. It'slike...not hearing a symphony in one sitting, but hearing two or three notes at a time, spread over several months" (RD p. 17). Sorme apparently draws his image from personal experience; he realises the limitations of reason: "he felt a temptation to write in his journal, to try to record the insight that was growing inside him. Only the fear of destroying it by trying to intellectualise it restrained him" (RD p. 233). When Hugh in the evening visits Jeremy, they play a symphony, but the music, which on previous occasions has been capable of arousing in Hugh immense aesthetic pleasure, is now nothing but "an irritating noise", and "Bach, who was...dinning in my ears, was a stupid, fat old organist with a huge family and a naive faith in Christianity" (p. 216). Hugh, because he has lost his 'motive force', is able to perceive only the 'here-and-now'. Everything that goes on beyond the 'horizon' of the moment is hidden from his consciousness; he is stuck on his own little fragment of the 'convex' world, staring out into an 'infinity of nothingness'.
Hugh's depression has in a sense been foreshadowed by Uncle Sam's apocalyptic vision twenty years before. However, while Sam's vision of humanity remains negative throughout his life, we find that Hugh at the end breaks through the barrier of physical 'immediacy' and achieves a wholly affirmative vision. How is this sudden change to be explained? First of all we must turn to an observation which Uncle Sam makes to Hugh the evening before Hugh witnesses the assault outside the Palais. "The tragic thing about human beings", says Uncle Sam, "is that they need pain and hardship. Otherwise they'd die of boredom" (p. 119). As soon as life becomes too pleasant, too mechanical, man is bored and needs distractions in order to endure life at all. Therefore boredom or indifference, or fragmentary purpose, might be ascribed as the root of all evil. Hugh, when listening to Bach, is indifferent or irritated because he experiences in the music nothing beyond its mechanical components, , which, when added together, appear meaningless. This, then, becomes an image of his, and ultimately modern man's, fragmentary vision of the world in an age of intellectual prestige. To experience the meaning of the music, as of life, requires a unifying vision which is more than the mere adding together of the individual notes or units. It requires a vital surge of power and emotion which can only originate within the listener, within Hugh, himself. But how is this vital energy to be attained? Uncle Sam comments:
No man is a judge of what's good, but every man knows what's bad. Never believe a man who tells you he knows what he wants out of life. The only thing we know is what we don't want. The only time a man knows what he wants is when he's suffering. Then he knows he wants it to stop. (pp. 119-20)
This is to say that man can only experience true freedom when the limited freedom he already possesses is threatened with extinction, Wilson has pointed out that man, when threatened with death, "reawakens...to the horizons of possibility beyond the present" (INE p. 120). To existentialist thinkers like Heidegger and Sartreman can experience true freedom only in the face of death; for instance, Sartre has observed that "it was during the war, working in the Underground resistance, in constant danger of betrayal and death, that he felt most free and alive" (Ou p. 30), and Wilson comments that freedom is obviously not simply being allowed to do what you like; it is intensity of will, and it appears under any circumstances that limit man and arouse his will to more life" (Ou p. 30). Another case in point, among several others which Wilson has quoted from literature, is Graham Greene's whisky priest, who, when facing a firing squad, recognised that it would have been so easy to be a saint (INE p. 128). It follows, then, that if the threat is suddenly removed, the result will be an overwhelming joy and sense of renewed purpose - a vision of meaning. The potentiality of freedom will, in that moment, assume almost limitless dimensions.
This, basically, is what happens to Hugh when the pressure of circumstances that have threatened to extinguish his freedom are suddenly released. The good news he receives from the hospital on the third morning after the shooting arouses within him a "surge of relief" (p. 245), an immense flow of powerful emotion andaccentuated by its contrast to the outer scenery:
It was a damp December day, the sky low and smoky, the wind cutting; the trees were bare, black ghosts streaming with cold moisture. The grass of the park seemed to be mostly churned up mud. And yet, as I walked across it, a bubble of happiness surprised me; it seemed to come from deep inside me, as if energies in my interior were circling and growling actively, like an upset stomach, and the happiness was some gaseous release. It was still obscure, but it felt like the awakening of energies in spring. (p. 249)
A point worth noting is that Hugh's turn of mind from dejection to optimism occurs at least three times in the three days that follow the shooting. The first instance takes place the day afterwards, when he is told that he is wanted at the police-station: "I felt a positive elation about something happening at last. The waiting had oppressed me more than I had realized" (p. 206). This implies that basically Hugh's pessimism is an outcome of his sense of helplessness - his feeling of uncertainty. He knows nothing about whether the police suspect him of the shooting, or even whether he has killed the youth. As long as the true nature of his predicament remains unknown to him, he is helpless - a victim to forces beyond his control. But as soon as the threat is revealed in some tangible form - an obstruction which he can actively. combat, the vital forces of his being are aroused. Consequently, when he realises that he is wanted at the police-station for a quite different reason, the uncertainty and the pessimism returns: "I felt exhausted and depressed" (p. 208). Furthermore, the "surge of relief' he feels after the news from the hospital two days later receives a temporary setback when, a little later, he is called to the police-station once again; this, however, only intensifies the inner vitality when, in the end, he realises that all his fears have been groundless, Basic to the theme is this arousing of latent power and emotion in Hugh. It recalls Blake's phrase, "Energy is eternal delight" (Ou p. 226) and Nietzsche's "Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect" (Ou p. 126). These ideas will be considered in more detail in the next chapter.
The novel reaches its climax with Hugh's walk through a dark wood, where, once again, the black, dead impact of the scenery provides a striking contrast to the glow of exhilaration inside him. The contrast is further emphasised when he passes a churchyard where some workmen are digging a trench. They have accidentally hit upon some underground spring or water-main (a little earlier we were told that "Life is subsidized by a hidden power-house"), and water is seeping through a crack in the church wall. One of the workmen then inserts his pick into the crack, and a great section of the wall falls out:
They leapt back, and a sickening stench was blown towards me. It was unmistakably the smell of a decomposing body. I quickly moved away from the fire and to windward. The navvy with the pick - a youngish boy - turned towards the gutter and vomited. Nothing was visible in the dark cavity uncovered by the fragment of wall, but on the pavement among the scattered earth was a globular object that was obviously a skull, and an easily recognizable human forearm with a hand. One of the men lifted a lantern and shone it into the cavity; it caught the gleam of the eyes of a rat, which turned and disappeared into a hole. The vicar said mildly: "Oh dear, I'm afraid you've hit a grave." (p. 255)
In addition to the obvious symbolism, this passage illustrates the total change that has come over the hero's response to violence. A few days earlier the same event would have filled him with horror, with the conviction that life is a trap, an escape from torment into futility". We might recall how, at the age of five, Hugh was sick in a butcher's shop after he had suddenly formed the idea that the carcasses hanging from the ceiling were those of human beings with their heads and limbs hacked off (p. 47). This time, however, his sense of revulsion is "counterweighted by its opposite affirmation ... it seemed that my mind had become capable of grasping, in one single act of prehension, all kinds of distant and unrelated aspects of life, seeing their essences" (p. 255). And the 'essence' he is referring to might be characterised as the direct opposite of the cause of his horror, which, basically, was the same that made the music appear meaningless - namely his tendency to intellectualise experience till life was reduced to fragments that in themselves were dead. In the scene in the woods this difference between fragmentation and unity is reflected through the contrast between, on the one hand, the "series of muddy puddles" or the "green and evil" water at the bottom of a deserted quarry, and, on the other, by the "roaring force" of a stream (p. 254). Hugh now finds himself above and beyond the world of physical violence which he has always abhorred, and his new vision of pure Life and Will seems to embody a far higher degree of truth than his usual fluctuating moods and insights - something of a different order from his usual concepts of good and evil.
Hugh's vision in the woods represents in many ways the direct opposite of the 'apocalyptic vision' experienced by Uncle Sam. Whereas Sam's experience took place on a hot spring morning, we find that Hugh's revelation occurs on a cold autumn afternoon. Moreover, Hugh is alone in the countryside, whereas Uncle Sam was pressing his way through a crowd in the London tube. In Ritual in the Dark there were continual references to the cold autumn air as having a stimulating effect on Sorme's mind, while on the other hand the atmosphere inside his room was apt to become hot and stuffy, having a drowsying effect on his senses. Similarly Uncle Sam, that hot morning down in the tube, felt that he was being 'suffocated' by his human surroundings; his mind was sapped of all its vital energy, and the result was theopposite of Hugh's vision of power - a complete "collapse of vital force and motivation" (p. 40). The setting, of course, is in each case intended to reflect these contrasting states of mind - the one completely free and the other a result of being imprisoned by one's 'all-too-human' surroundings. Both express, however, a kind of awakening from a condition of 'inauthentic' existence into a vision of an underlying truth.
Thus Uncle Sam, at the time his vision occurred, was at the height of his business career, in a state of "pleasurable anticipation", convinced that "destiny was reserving for me some role of cardinal importance" (p. 37). Now this mention of 'destiny' strikes an ominous note after what we have observed previously. Sam's 'attack' is a consequence of his sudden realisation, during a moment of mental fatigue, that his life and all his notions of success are based on values that in fact have no secure foundation. We might, in this connection, bear in mind that his business success takes place only two or three years before the great business slump in 1929. Sam is convinced, while he finds himself drifting along with the crowd of pressing bodies, that the values of all these people are based on equally unsound foundations - that their only certainty, in fact, is their physical existence, what they can see and touch. Beyond that they know nothing, and the knowledge they do possess is subject to factors beyond their control."These people", says Sam, "were loathsome to me because they were slaves, and accepting them as fellows made me loathsome to myself" (p. 41). To use the imagery we noted earlier, these people are no better off than if they had been in a state of hypnosis, "grossly exploited by God" (p. 40), and God, in Sam's terminology, is identical with Fate.
Similarly Hugh's vision, although the direct opposite of Sam's, comes as a result of his living in a state of 'inauthentic' existence, and when this condition of inauthenticity is suddenly released, the result is an insight into 'truth'. Now as both Sam's and Hugh's experience comes as a result of inauthentic values Suddenly dissolving, the question immediately arises: Which of these 'truths' is the more ultimate one,, for surely they cannot both represent the same ultimate reality? The answer, it seems, is provided by Hugh's vision - that optimism represents the greater truth if we are only willing to regard life as more 'real' than death.
Apparently Uncle Sam's 'apocalypic vision' bears much similarity to the 'nausea' which Sartre describes in his novel of that title, and which Colin Wilson has discussed in The Outsider and some of his other nonfiction volumes. Sartre's hero Roquentin feels that he is "trapped in physical filth", and when, for instance, he stares at the roots of a tree, he sees in them nothing beyond their naked existence, devoid of meaning, a "knotty mass, entirely beastly" (Ou p. 24). He meets an acquaintance in the library: "there was his hand, like a fat maggot in my hand" (Nausea, p. 14). Even when he looks at his own face in a mirror, he sees only "an insipid flesh blossoming and palpitating with abandon... nothing human is left. Brown wrinkles on each side of the feverish swelling of the lips, crevices, mole-hills", and eyes looking like "fish-scales" (Nausea, p. 31).
Now compare this to Sam's 'vastation':
As I stood there, surrounded by pressing bodies, loathing and contempt rose in me until I felt as if I were drowning. I looked at their faces, and they seemed alien monsters, beings of clay and corruption...I felt as if I had been transported into a city of gigantic and hairy spiders, who perspired rottenness. (p. 38)
The analogy of Sam's experience to that of Sartre becomes even more apparent when seen in connection with Sartre's hallucinations under mescalin, described by Simone de Beauvoir, and quoted by Wilson (BO pp. 104-5): "the objects he looked at changed their appearance in the most horrifying manner...faces acquired monstrous characteristics, while behind him, just past the corner of his eye, swarmed crabs and polyps and grimacing Things..."
Uncle Sam's 'nausea' is essentially the same as Hugh's in his early years, or Sorme's in the first half of Ritual in the Dark, and these are similar again to that of Sartre and likewise Roquentin, who, according to Colin Wilson, feels insignificant before things. Without the meaning his Will would normally impose on it, his existence is absurd" (Ou p. 25). Uncle Sam mentions also that the thought of ever having embraced his wife "convulsed me with nausea" (p. 38).
It is possible therefore to interpret the contrast between Uncle Sam's 'vastation' and Hugh's affirmative vision as the essential contrast between the existentialism of Sartre and the 'evolutionary existentialism' (or 'new existentialism') propounded by Colin Wilson. According to Wilson, the philosophy of Sartre has reached a standstill with no possibility of further development because Sartre fails to recognise the existence of transcendental values. Reality to him is what he can 'see and touch', what his everyday consciousness can grasp. Recalling the symbolism in Ritual in the Dark, where the walls of Sorme's room represented the limits of his consciousness, we might conceive, too, a similar symbolic function in the case of Uncle Sam's solitary confinement to a dark room for the last twenty years of his life. But now the implications of this symbolism pass beyond the mere work of fiction itself and comprise Colin Wilson's whole attitude to Sartre and continental existentialism. Uncle Sam's room, with its naked furnishings and nasty-smelling air, can in fact be seen to represent much of the essence of the Sartrean world. By confining himself to this imprisonment, Sam is actually expressing a desire to prove his freedom - his independence of God, to whom all men are 'slaves'. In fact, he wishes to be God himself.
Man is free, says Sartre. But what is he to do with his freedom? He can do anything he likes, Sartre replies. But then, just as everybody's business is nobody's business, so freedom for anything is freedom for nothing. Man is free, but the world is empty and meaningless... (INE p. 33)
Uncle Sam tells Hugh: "I'm here because I want to live, and because I'm tired of the poor imitation of life that most people accept" (p. 218). This "poor imitation of life" is obviously identical with Heidegger's concept of 'inauthentic existence' or Sartre's 'bad faith' (mauvaise-foi) - the notion that people look outside themselves for meaning and purpose: "A man is very seldom aware of himself as a person", writes Colin Wilson in connection with Sartre; "what he is mainly aware of, when he thinks of himself, is what other people think of him" (AD p. 114). It is this 'delusion of identity' which Sam (like Sartre) wishes to free himself from. By locking himself into a dark room for the rest of his life he wishes to discover for himself whether he really does possess the 'identity of being' that is independent of worldly values. Uncle Sam's choice, then, is one of freedom: he can choose either to live a 'normal' life, but confined to the gaze of his 'fellow insects', or he can confine himself to solitude and be free.
Hugh's regard for Uncle Sam might well be said to reflect Colin Wilson's attitude to Sartre - an attitude of due respect and obligation, but nevertheless a conviction that freedom should be far more than mere freedom from inauthentic existence; it should contain, too, an ultimate purpose - a freedom for meaning. In Sartre's philosophy there is little place for beauty; and yet Roquentin also has experiences that are the opposite of 'nausea', for instance when he is listening to a record of a Negro woman singing "Some of these days"; he feels a sudden brightness, a glow of happiness: "There was meaning, causation, one note following inevitably on another" (Ou p. 25). In regard to these experiences Wilson comments: "If Sartre is inclined to 'dismiss these as illusion, then he is advancing a view that amounts to a new Watsonian materialism, with consciousness as a mere reflection of matter". Wilson then adds: "Sartre has never faced the implication of Roquentin's moments of reality, of anti-nausea...What Roquentin experienced was not merely freedom...but meaning" (BO p. 104). According to Wilson, Sartre sees the world from a lower energy level; his vital energies are only aroused in the face of death. Hence, to Sartre, "freedom is terror" (Ou p. 30).
And yet, says Wilson, this overwhelming sense of freedom and will-power is an expression of vital forces that are always latent in man. It is basically theselfsame vital surge that inspires the artist to create or gives music meaning. Moreover, it is the source of beauty and human evolution:
If I experience beauty, I am not projecting beauty on to my surroundings (as apparently Sartre would contend). I am simply experiencing my real inner freedom, which the complex nature of my response to existence usually conceals from me. (INE p. 178)
This complexity, or fragmentation of experience, is largely the result of modern man's emphasis on rationality at the expense of intuition and meaning. The cause of Roquentin's 'nausea', Wilson explains, is that he is "too acute and honest an observer" (Ou p. 22). This 'fallacy of insignificance', as Wilson calls it, is the primary cause of the cul-de-sac which Sartre's existentialism has reached - his disbelief in wider realms of consciousness and transcendental values, and reflects, too, the basic dilemma of our age.
Hence Colin Wilson seeks to base a 'new existentialism' on the recognition that purpose, energy, beauty and meaning are all closely bound together as expressions of man's free spirit. The experience of beauty is an important spur to the evolution of the human spirit on its road towards godhead. If you deprive man of his sense of purpose, which is what is happening in our modern complex civilisation, you deprive him also of his sense of beauty and meaning, with the result that life becomes absurd and his vital energies will stagnate or find an outlet through violence or other outerstimulants. Wilson's recognition of such an 'evolutionary force', however, is hardly an end in itself or an ultimate 'truth' as such, but basically a means by which he believes, through personal experience, that it might be possible to evolve towards greater self-awareness, towards some kind of 'deeper' truth. Above all, it is up to the individual reader himself, through his personal experience, to confirm or deny this means.
By way of rounding off this chapter, it might be relevant to consider the ending of The World of Violence in the light of these remarks. Despite Hugh's certainty in the ultimate truth of his visionary experience, the question soon arises to him as well as to the reader: to what degree is it possible for him to retain his insight and prevent the likelihood that he will drift back into his former state of helplessness? Even at the very height of his exaltation he realises that it cannot last more than a few hours. And what then? We noted how the "bubble of happiness" that was swelling inside him suddenly vanished as soon as he was told that the police wanted him. Unlike Uncle Sam, he still does not possess the inner freedom necessary to rise above the trifles and irrelevancies of the all-too-human world. This is made increasingly clear to him when, a few years later, he is marooned in an isolated country cottage on account of heavy snow, and has to spend Christmas alone: "I realized that six months of this would lead to total moral degeneration or to a mental breakdown...Now for the first time I recognized the basic bankruptcy of the human will. I had no artificial aids to make the time pass"(p. 263). Hence the novel ends with a challenge, which represents Colin Wilson's challenge to his own thinking: is it possible to combine Sam's (Sartre's) philosophy of freedom from inauthentic living with a new evolutionary freedom for some ultimate creative purpose, in which it is possible to be truly free and yet accept one's fellow human beings? "We are too narrow", writes the hero in his Epilogue; "we need a new breadth and depth of consciousness, a new wisdom, if we are to correlate everything we have learned and move to a higher stage" (p. 266). The novel provides no definite solution; only a starting-point. But this starting-point is all-important. Colin Wilson's purpose with his novels and his books in general, at least till now, has not so much been to point out to the reader that this-and-this is true, as to provoke the reader, to stimulate his imagination into seeking out an answer for himself. A passive reader would hardly be in accordance with his existential ideals. And when it comes to stimulating or provoking the reader, one would imagine that he is wholly successful. The snarls and the ecstasies that his critics tend to reveal only seem to confirm this. His aim is not to produce a resolution, but to point out a direction towards a resolution.(p. 263).
All this seems to justify what some critics tend to regard as a weak point in his fiction, that his novels have no real ending. In Ritual in the Dark, as I pointed out, the reader is left uncertain as to what course Sorme's future life will take; nor do we know whether Austin Nunne will ever be caught by the police. This, after all, is relatively unimportant. The main point is the spiritual evolution of the hero, and the hero, having in the course of eleven days reached a stage further in his education, is found standing at a new cross-roads when the book ends. This is perhaps made even more apparent in The World of Violence, which, at the end, simply withers away with some brief and rather straggling remarks on Patricia. Hugh tells us that he is "hurt and bewildered" when, after they have spent a year together in London, she leaves him and marries someone else. The feeble ending points out his bewilderment - the uncertainty about his future development.
In the preface to his next novel, Man Without a Shadow, Wilson compares his ideal of a novel to a Zen anecdote, in that it should lack the expected 'punch' at the end. By way of illustration, he provides the following examples:
Hsueh Feng once asked Chang-ch'ing, who came up to see the master in his room, 'What is that?' Said Chang: 'Fine weather, just the day for outdoor work.'
Another time, seeing a monk pass by, Hsueh Feng beckoned him to approach, and asked, 'Where are you going?' The monk answered: 'I am going to join the general work.' Said the master: 'Then go.'
(MWS p. 7)
Reading a number of such Zen
anecdotes, says Wilson, an interesting thing happens: "You expect
the anecdote to have a
'punch' in the last line; when it doesn't come, a peculiar sense of frustration
arises". And here is
the point: the 'frustration', the
lack of a satisfactory resolution at the end of a novel will, to
some extent, direct the
reader's attention back to the hero's development, which, basically, should
cast light on the reader's own mind. After all, asks Wilson, what is the point
of a novel?
That Pamela marries Mr B - , that Robinson Crusoe dies peacefully in his bed? We are willing to accept these as the point; this enables us to put the book down and forget it. But therein lies the unsatisfactoriness of the whole tradition of the novel. It is as pointless as a boiled sweet. (MWS p. 7)
This process of unceasing maturity forms, then, an integrated part of Colin Wilson's whole existentialist philosophy. In the previous chapter we observed how, for instance, social achievement becomes meaningless and destructive if it does not somehow transcend into a greater purpose - if, that is, it fails to unite man with his evolutionary will. The same might be said of a work of fiction: it should not be an entity complete in itself, regardless of the everlasting 'surge' towards truth, but should stimulate the reader's awareness of this continuous evolution in man, in himself. The protagonist, then, should be the reader himself; the purpose of the novel is to take him on a journey through his own mind.
End of Chapter Two
(Click on the Navigation Bar at the Top
to open the next Chapter)