I. The Critical Approach.
An inquiry into the theme of Colin Wilson's novels is hardly complete without some reference to his ideas as they appear in his non-fiction. Most important in this context is perhaps an understanding of Wilson's own special theories of criticism - his 'existential approach' to literature as to life, and this will be the main subject of the following chapter. First of all it might do well if we glance briefly at some of the reviews of Colin Wilson's first novel in 1960. It is interesting to note that Wilson himself thought that Ritual in the Dark would be "an earthquake in the literary world" (Campion, p. 187). Evidently the novel did not cause quite the same violent 'earthquake' as The Outsider and Religion and the Rebel, but none the less it received a great deal of publicity, and within a fortnight of publication the novel had, according to Campion, drawn over a hundred reviews. The reception was as mixed as that of Wilson's previous books. Anthony Quinton in the London Magazine characterised the book as "an odd and somewhat engaging work", adding nevertheless that Nunne is "entirely two-dimensional [with] no depths to be plumbed". The reviewer found also that the novel "contains no thought to speak of". On the other hand, Dame Edith Sitwell in the Sunday Times spoke of the novel's psychological penetration into the problems of murder, its "terrible and tragic insight", remarking of the characters that they are "so full of life you can almost hear [them) breathing" (cf. Campion, pp. 134-5). Punch found the work "baffling. It is very readable and has Mr. Wilson's hypnotic lucidity, sometimes, like Shaw's, a blinding, self-defeating lucidity". The Listener called it "a well thought out and original plot...Clumsy as the book is in many ways, I found it exhilarating reading". On the other side of the Atlantic, the Saturday Review described the novel as absorbing, somewhat puzzling...Despite its faults (they are chiefly matters of contrivance) the book is well worth reading for anyone who wants to see what can be done by cross-breeding suspense fiction with the novel of purpose".
Many critics, however, displayed a cynical indifference to Colin Wilson's ideas, one of the most hostile of these being the left-wing newspaper Tribune, who, according to Campion, had "pursued a policy" of attacking Wilson since the publication of The Outsider:
After Ritual in the Dark there remains not the slightest excuse for treating its author as a major literary figure - or even as a literary figure at all...We get a pointless sub-plot about an artist and his ten-year-old model (but didn't Lolita do rather well?) We get a Catholic priest's interminable dissertations on sin (Graham Greene's a best-seller, isn't he?). (cf. Campion, p. 135)
Sidney Campion's remark to this is that Wilson, "after his comment on Greene in The Age of Defeat...is hardly likely to use him as a model for a best-seller", and that the Christine sub-plot was introduced many years before Lolita was ever heard of". (Wilson began work on Ritual in the Dark in 1949, eleven years before the book was published, and six years before the publication of Lolita.) On the basis of our discussion in Chapter One, however, we might go an important step further, and point out the important function of Christine as a symbol of unification between mind, body and emotions.
Curiously enough the Times Literary Supplement made the same apparently careless reference to the Christine sub-plot as simply "a Lolita matter". Moreover, the reviewer seemed to find it unconvincing that Austin Nunne, being a sadistic mass-murderer of prostitutes in London's East End, should be "also rich, musical, kind, well-travelled, intermittently religious and homosexual'. But as should have emerged from our previous discussion, Nunne's sadism, his musicality and his yearning for religious salvation, as well as the fact that he is continually on the move, are all expressions of the same vital urge for freedom and intensity, and it is because he is so rich that he gets so easily bored and cannot find 'meaning' within his own narrow mind. Furthermore, this reviewer seems incapable of finding any connection between Gertrude's being a Jehovah's Witness and the fact that she also has an artistic set in Hampstead, is also connected with Nunne and Glasp and also has the affair with Sorme. But Wilson's point, as we have seen, is that Gertrude does not really believe in the doctrines of her sect; nor does she possess any real sense of identity, and this explains, of course, the fact that she is 'frivolous' enough (when Brother Robbins is not looking) to mix with artists or to have an affair with Sorme. The only one of Wilson's characters who, in this reviewer's mind, is "all of a piece" is Caroline, but even she is brushed aside as "quite extraneous to the main plot"; the reviewer adds, too, that the "scene of her devirgination...was brought in, presumably, for its own fragrant sake, though Mr. Wilson...may also have had some idea of giving the public what he assumes it to want". This, however, is hardly Wilson's intention, considering the vital importance that the sex theme has in throwing light on Sorme's spiritual development as well as his quest for freedom and 'intensity of being'. No wonder, then, that the reviewer sums up with these somewhat patronising remarks: "We may ourselves have discovered (if not, we shall have been told) that human beings are frequently complicated. These seem loosely tied together with pieces of string".
My point is: would it not have been more appropriate - more just, perhaps - if the reviewer had first considered the author's own purpose with his book, and then, if necessary, criticised its defects? For instance, the reviewer writes that "Mr. Wilson is no prose stylist", obviously implying that the book's style is flat and unoriginal. Campion points out, however, that Wilson wished to convey "violence and horror in an 'alien' language, free of the emotional overtones that have slipped into ordinary language through imprecise use", and that his aim was to produce a 'flat surface', broken only by the events, not by the author's intervention' (Campion, p. 185). This also explains, perhaps, why Wilson uses the third person narrator in this novel, while in most of his other novels, for instance The World of Violence, the story is told by the hero himself.
Finally, the Times Literary Supplement reviewer criticises Wilson
for treating the theme of murder on the
basis of an interest that is "subjective rather than documentary or objectively psychological",
and even seems to indicate that the observations in this book have little value in that they are based on the hero's wanting to know "what if feels like" to be a murderer. In so doing, however, the reviewer once again reveals a total disregard for Wilson's philosophical aim with the book, and does not take into consideration the existential premises that are so
vital to an understanding of his novels as well as his non-fiction
One of the foremost existential psychologists, R. D. Laing, whose book The Divided Self was published six months after Ritual in the Dark, formulates an idea that is central to an understanding of existentialism:
If it is held that to be unbiased one should be 'objective' in the sense of depersonalizing the person who is the 'object' of our study, any temptation to do this under the impression that one is thereby being scientific must be rigorously resisted...Although conducted in the name of science, such reification yields false knowledge ... It is unfortunate that personal and subjective are words so abused as to have no power to convey any genuine act of seeing the other as person...but imply immediately that one is merging one's own feelings and attitudes into one's study of the other in such a way as to distort our perception of him. In contrast to the reputable 'objective or 'scientific', we have the disreputable 'subjective', 'intuitive', or, worst of all, 'mystical'. (Laing, pp. 24-5)
Moreover, Dr. Laing states that the clinical psychiatrist may "know...just about everything that can be known about the psychopathology of schizophrenia or of schizophrenia as a disease without being able to understand one single schizophrenic. Such data are all ways of not understanding him'. (Laing, p. 33). Insanity, therefore, can only be fully grasped by the 'sane' person if he is willing to experience the psychotic mind from within - to see the world as he sees it. The detached scientist might regard the psychotic's behaviour as 'signs' of a 'disease'; but the existential psychologist is aware that an understanding of his patient is only to be achieved by experiencing his behaviour as expressive of a creative need, or "expressive of his existence' (Laing, p. 31).
Turning now to Ritual in the Dark, we see that this is the way in which Gerard Sorme is seeking to understand Nunne. Both these characters experience their lives as confined, as it were, to a 'room' in which they are incapable of seeing anything beyond the 'blank wall' that surrounds them. In this way Sorme manages to feel Nunne's vision of the world, not by substituting Nunne's view for his own, but by taking as his starting-point an existential situation (i.e. the sense of being spiritually 'imprisoned') that is common to both Nunne and himself. It is this kind of affinity of mind existing between Sorme and Nunne which is not fully understood by a character like Stein, who, being a psychopathologist, can only regard Nunne as a 'case' and his actions as signs of a 'disease'. In short, his view of his patients is impersonalised; it bears little relevance to his own personal life. (This non-emotional aspect of Stein's character is evidently implied through his name, meaning 'stone', something lifeless and 'cold'. In the same way the name of Nunne might be associated with the word 'none', implying his lack of 'identity'.)
One might well compare Stein's position of scientific detachment to that of standing outside the 'room' (from the interior of which his 'case is trying to break down the walls),and from there attempting to explain the cause of the ruptures appearing in the 'walls' by making these subject to an analytical study. Gerard Sorme, and the same applies to Colin Wilson himself, by wishing to know 'what it feels like' to be a murderer is hardly indulging himself in morbid fantasies, as more than one critic has implied, but, on the contrary, is throwing light on an existential situation that is basic to an understanding of the schizophrenic murderer.
Colin Wilson suggests further that it is Stein's attitude - that of the detached scientist - which is the dangerous one to pursue, not Sorme's, as any analytically-minded critic of Wilson might wish to proclaim. Stein's moral principles have their origins in his sense of duty to the organisation. In this way he was equally well capable, during the war, of condoning the extermination of the Jews (because of his sense of 'duty' towards Hitler) as he now is of taking sides with the police. After their visit to the morgue Sorme asks him why he wants to catch the Whitechapel killer, and Stein answers:
Because I have a responsibility to society. And as a doctor I have a responsibility to humanity. Remember this: Even Hitler thought he was serving humanity by exterminating the Jews. The Whitechapel murderer kills to gratify a personal lust. He knows he is serving nobody but himself.
Sorme said mildly:
He manages to do a great deal less damage than Hitler.
That is beside the point.
(RD pp. 399-400)
Stein, then, takes sides with the police on much the same basic principles as he once took sides with Hitler. The police-force represents public opinion, and public opinion generally demands that the murderer be condemned and executed. Such opinion, from the existentialist viewpoint, is based on a lack of understanding of the psychotic's state of mind, and hardly solves the problem of preventing the increasing crime-rate - far from it. This lack of comprehension, the alienation of one human being from another, may be ascribed as one of the fundamental causes of the increasing crime-rate. To conclude: this alienation is largely caused by the predominance of the reputable 'objective' attitude in our modern way of thinking, the tendency to classify people into labeled compartments. In his essay "The Study of Murder" Colin Wilson writes:
Belief in the abnormality of the murderer is part of the delusion of normality on which society is based. The murderer is different from other human beings in degree, not in kind. All our values are makeshift; the murderer simply goes further than most people in substituting his own convenience for absolute values. (EM
Principally, this view is similar to that of Dr. Laing, who suggests that "sanity or psychosip. 25)s is tested by the degree of conjunction or disjunction between two persons where the one is sane by common consent" (Laing, p. 36). And similar sentiments are expressed, as we have seen, by Hugh in The World of Violence, who, when he realises that man lives and thrives on values that are based on deception, begins to understand that he was mistaken in believing that Uncle Nick was mad:
He 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. It is like a colony of lepers deciding that a certain stage of the disease shall be accepted es total health. (WV p. 216)
It is interesting to compare the difference between 'objective' and 'existential' psychology to the contrast between 'academic' criticism and what Colin Wilson calls 'existential criticism'. "Existentialism", he writes, "is the attempt to philosophize with no reference to a priori intellectual concepts. It is, as it were, the philosophy of intuition" (EE p. 56). With this in mind, then, he draws a distinction between academic (or literary) criticism, and a criticism based on an existential approach to literature. The former is mostly based on preconceived standards of what a work of art should be like, for instance standards of technique. Moreover, an academic critic will often set out to determine an artist's attitude to society, or to religion, or to other artists, or to certain specified theories, etc. The artist's attitude to each of these, however, concerns only his relation to a limited sphere of life. The existential critic is concerned with in what way this limited sphere bears relevance to the whole of life - to what degree the artist's work is 'expressive of his existence'. In short, existential criticism bases its values on intuition rather than on technique. Wilson writes:
The existential critic possesses a standard that is bigger than any individual author he writes about, bigger than himself; if his criticism is good, it does not merely send the reader to the books in question but conveys some far greater standard to him, revealing the ideal aim of all art. He has therefore the effect of a creative stimulant as well as a sympathetic interpreter. (EE p. 80)
It is against this background that Colin Wilson's first book, The Outsider, must be understood. It is remarkable that the music critics seem to have grasped Wilson's purpose with his critical books more fully than the literary critics, who rather tend to accuse him for his non-academic approach. In 1964 Wilson published a volume of essays on music, Brandy of the Damned, of which the critic in John O'London's wrote: "Music for Colin Wilson is not an abstract phenomenon but a direct manifestation of life and personality; an existential force, not an academic exercise". This statement might be said to characterise Wilson's relation, not only to music, but also to literature, art, philosophy and religion. The reviewer in The Scotsman went to the heart of the matter:
When a non-musician writes a book on music he may make a variety of rudimentary blunders yet the result can be far more stimulating and provocative than many of the erudite, painstaking works of research that stack up monthly on the reviewer's desk...If_I say right away that I think [Colin Wilson's book] is compounded of sense and nonsense in a ratio of something like two to one, do not let this put you off. Even at its most erratic the book is worth reading because it makes you think and revaluate your own approach to whatever Wilson is writing about.
In Man Without a Shadow Wilson's hero writes of one of the characters, Mr. Kirsten: "he played me some of Brahms's Handel variations with tremendous power and expression, although he struck the wrong key every other note (MWS p. 106). If, in place of Mr. Kirsten, we imagine Colin Wilson himself, and if, instead of the musical notes, we place the artists, poets and philosophers discussed in The Outsider, we might conceive something fundamental about Wilson's original purpose with that book, and, indeed, his purpose with many of his other books.
II. The Intellectual 'Outsider'
An appreciation of The Outsider must necessarily start, then, from an understanding of its existential premises. In order to present these in their wider perspective, it might be relevant to turn, very briefly, to Kierkegaard, the 'father' of existentialism. In an essay on Kierkegaard, H. J. Blackham writes:
Existentialism begins as a voice raised in protest against the absurdity of Pure Thought, a logic which is not the logic of thinking but the immanent movements of Being. It recalls the spectator of all time and of all existence from the speculations of Pure Thought to the problems and the possibilities of his own conditioned thinking as an existing individual seeking to know how to live and to live the life he knows. (Blackham, p. 2)
Modern man, in his eagerness to explain the mechanism and the logic of the Universe, has forgotten how to experience life. In the opening chapter of The Outsider Wilson quotes Kierkegaard's statement: "Put me in a System and you negate me - I am not just a mathematical symbol - I am" (Ou p. 20). The basic argument is this: to start with an abstract system, and then to place the individual within that system, is to reduce him to a mere speck of insignificance, subject to laws and powers beyond his control. But, on the other hand, to start with the existence of the individual, and then to create thought on the basis of his everyday, living experience, will turn the individual into a giant - free to choose the nature of his existence. This, in short, forms the existentialist approach.
Now Sartre is undoubtedly the thinker who is most commonly associated with existentialism today. But as we observed in the previous chapter, Sartre and Colin Wilson have little in common beyond the foundations of their thinking. In Wilson's opinion, existentialist philosophers like Sartre and especially Heidegger are too limited by their tendency to intellectualise their experience:
When I wrote The Outsider in 1955, I wanted to make the point that existentialism seems to have drifted away from its true basis, the personal. Moreover, some of the most eminent of existentialist philosophers have dressed up certain of their personal prejudices and shortcomings in an impressive and abstract language, thus making the various issues all the more difficult to sort out. I felt that my resentment of the central problem, with its re-emphasis on the personal, was a modest but worthwhile contribution to existentialist thinking. (BO pp. 11-12)
Further on Wilson adds:
"I even underlined my rejection of Sartre's abstractionism
by making an encyclopedia of murder a vehicle for expounding my theory
of the 'intentionality
of values'" (B0 p. 13).
The heroes of both the novels
we have considered suffer from the 'fallacy' of intellectualising their experience,
of seeking 'truth' in abstract thought. Gerard Sorme, spending his
days reading Plato or listening passively to Prokoviev, has
forgotten how to live.
His philosophy has little or no relevance to his everyday experience, and hence, when he goes
out into the streets,
he feels 'like an insect'; he suffers from the 'fallacy of insignificance'. The same is
the case with Hugh in the three days that follow the shooting, when all his previous certainties
are swept aside. Both Sorme and Hugh are united, or re-united, with
their true selves by developing away from this
wholly abstract view of life
to a more existential approach - that is, by combining their intellectual
faculty with a new discipline of the body
and the emotions.
Such a development constitutes, too, the basic theme of The Outsider. In the book's final chapter Wilson states:
there is no point in the philosopher's trying to get to know the world if he doesn't know himself ...the ideal 'objective philosophy' will not be constructed by mere thinkers, but by men who combine the thinker, the poet and the man of action. The first question of philosophy is not 'What is the Universe all about?' but 'What should we do with our lives?'; i.e. its aim is not a System that should be intellectually consistent, but the salvation of the individual. (Ou p. 277)
In what way, then, might the heroes of these two novels be described as 'outsiders'? Wilson gives perhaps his clearest definition of the concept in his Introduction to the New Existentialism, despite, however, that the term 'outsider' is not used in this context:
Man has, so to speak, voluntarily cut himself off from the main power house of his energy...he has also cut himself off from a sense of purpose...But the more intelligent and self-critical he becomes, the more he is cut off from this instinctive sense of life-purpose. A time arrives...when he 'wakes up' to a sense of the total absurdity of his position in the restricted world of ordinary consciousness. (INE p. 116)
This is an awakening, then, into the world of the Outsider. All major poets and philosophers seem to have had this feeling as a starting-point for their creative work, says Wilson. Hence most of the figures he includes in The Outsider are either characters from works of fiction, or they are artists and thinkers - men such as Dostoevsky, Blake, Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Nijinsky and T.E. Lawrence. Some are great men of religion, like George Fox and Ramakrishna.
However, Wilson's essential concern is his belief that the Outsider personality is on the point of becoming a representative figure of the twentieth century. Modern man, having attained a level of material satisfaction nobody would have thought possible a century ago, suddenly sees himself "like a slave who has clamoured all his life for freedom, and then discovers that freedom leaves him motiveless and listless, the victim of his own boredom" (BO p. 19). And boredom, as we have seen, is an essential part of the theme in Ritual in the Dark, and is inherent, too, in The World of Violence. Sorme is bored, so is Nunne, and Christine says that she would rather get into trouble than be bored. Boredom in modern society leads inevitably to the cult of violence and sex - the need for a greater intensity of existence which is natural to man, but which he is unable to find either through material satisfaction, or, for that matter, through abstract thought alone. Colin Wilson, in all his books, is concerned with in what way man can rise beyond the mere animal stage of boredom, sex and violence, and evolve towards the truly human - or, to use a Nietzschean concept, the 'superhuman' - a vision of the total meaning of life.
We noted earlier that both these novels are cast in the form of the 'Bildungsroman', describing the spiritual evolution of the hero. In the third chapter of The Outsider, which centres around the novels of Herman Hesse, Wilson describes the 'Bildungsroman', among other points, as "fictional biography that is mainly concerned with its hero's reaction to ideas, or the development of his ideas about 'life' from his experience" (Ou p. 51). In a way The World of Violence might be classified as an intermediary between Ritual in the Dark and a 'book of ideas' like The Outsider in that it comprises the hero's reaction to new ideas to a far greater extent than Ritual in the Dark, which is mostly concerned with Sorme's experience of people. Proceeding a step further, we might well consider The Outsider, too, as a kind of 'Bildungsroman' in which the 'hero' is the author himself, and which is concerned with the author's reaction to ideas. Moreover, it might be called a 'Bildungsroman' in that it takes the reader on a 'guided tour' through those realms of literature and philosophy that so profoundly affected Colin Wilson in his teens and early twenties. This point is perhaps confirmed by a remark made by Wilson in his Autobiographical Introduction to Religion and the Rebel: "There was an element of disguised biography in The Outsider; obviously, since I spent most of the book calling on other men to bear witness to my own beliefs" RR p. 13). Moreover, like the novels, The Outsider might be called an 'Odyssey' through a world of 'false values'. According to Campion, Wilson once stated that his aim in his non-fiction volumes was "to examine and summarise every important cultural trend of the past two-hundred years, in an attempt to find out how twentieth-century thought arrived at its present cul-de-sac" (Campion, p. 236). One might well imagine that Colin Wilson would say of other thinkers as Sorme says of the people of London: "I saw other people's illusions, and my own illusions disappeared" (RD p. 326). Like the novels,, The Outsider describes the process of spiritual maturity. Wilson, in all his non-fiction so far, has set out to determine the nature of these 'illusions', using as his starting-point his own experience as an existing individual. The basis for an evaluation of The Outsider, then, should not be to consider it as an academic thesis (which most of the critics at first took it to be), but as a manifestation of the author's own life and development, to be evaluated primarily on the same grounds as any serious work of fiction. The 'truths' it seeks to express should not first of all be considered as verifiable 'facts' as such, but as 'truths' in the sense that a poem expresses a truth. The starting-point, then, should be existential; that is, it should be in line with Kierkegaard's statement that "truth is subjectivity".
The aim of this thesis is not to provide a detailed discussion of similarities between The Outsider and Ritual in the Dark or any of the other novels. The dramatis personae that figure in the first book amount to well over a hundred, and each of these bears, at least theoretically, some similarity to something in the novels. I have seen it as sufficient, therefore, to discuss only the similarity of theme between the fiction and The Outsider; a detailed comparison would evidently require a thesis of its own. However, a few references to The Outsider might be of use in clarifying the main topic under discussion, namely the contrast between reason and intuition, and likewise between the 'academic' and the 'existential' approach to art as to life itself. We have inferred, then, that The Outsider reflects Wilson's own existential dilemma in the years preceding the writing of the book. Some years previously he had written in his diary of "the tendency of the intellect to rob me of natural impulse. This made all social relations difficult...I had to look to other people to see how life should be lived" (Campion, p. 105). One might say that it was his 'awakening' into a realisation of the absurdity of this mental servitude that turned him into an Outsider - the same awakening that was experienced by Sartre, and portrayed in the figure of Roquentin. In the opening chapter of The Outsider we meet Sartre's Roquentin, who, like Sorme (and Hugh), is an intellectual Outsider, spending his days in a room writing a book which he never finishes, the result being the 'nausea' we discussed in the previous chapter. Like Sorme, "his room is almost the limit of his consciousness" (Ou p. 25) This image recurs in the case of Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, who, perhaps to an even greater extent than Roquentin, has served as a model for Wilson's delineation of Sorme. He writes of Steppenwolf: "here again we have the man-on-his-own, living in rooms with his books and his gramophone; there is not even the necessity to go out and work, for he has a small private income"; and further on we read that the moods of insight have stopped coming; there is only dissatisfaction, lukewarmness" (Ou p. 58).
The cause of Steppenwolf's disillusionment might be regarded as basically similar to that of Hugh when he is unable to experience the music as anything more than a 'noise'; he is incapable of absorbing anything beyond the mechanical components of the music, which in themselves are meaningless. Hugh, as we have seen, suffers from the 'intellectual fallacy' of interpreting life on the basis of reason alone. What endows the music with meaning is a unifying surge of energy and emotion - the same vital force of creation that the composer felt when he composed his symphony and which is aroused once more in the listener when he listens to it. This is the essence of the aesthetic experience, of beauty, of freedom and of meaning. How are the ideas expressed in The Outsider? One or two examples will have to suffice.
Wilson relates how the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna once, in a fit of depression, seized a sword and determined to kill himself, when suddenly the depression gave way to a vision of Kali, the 'Divine Mother'. Wilson comments: "long meditation had tired him until he had lost sight of his aim. The decision to kill himself was a sudden danger to his vital power that aroused all his sleeping life-energies' (Ou p. 254). Ramakrishna's vision was a manifestation of the life-force which, according to Wilson, is the essence of spirit and of beauty. A man who has stagnated in abstract thought can hardly have the inner power to experience beauty. We have already noted Blake's and Nietzsche's belief in the same basic ideas. "All impulse is good", writes Wilson; and Blake: 'Energy is eternal delight" (Ou p. 227); likewise Nietzsche: "Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect - how happy, how free" (Ou p. 126). The point is that this "blazing of all the senses" constitutes "the complete opposite of Roquentin's Nausea" (Ou pa 255). And we are reminded of Hugh's description of his insight, that it felt like a "blaze of certainty", representing, as we observed, the direct opposite of Uncle Sam's 'vastation'.
The contrast between 'nausea' and 'anti-nausea' is reflected in the contrast between passive and active response to life. The primary cause of Sorme's dejection is that he passively awaits the re-appearance of the vision - or, for that matter, the inspiration to write his book. Like the intellectual Outsider, he "discovers that he often gets to know himself better under the stimulation of new experiences; and new experiences are out of the question when he is in a room on his own" (Ou p. 256). This, then, , arouses his admiration for Nunne, whose definitive acts are attempts to combat his own sense of insignificance and evoke the 'vital forces' within himself. Wilson writes in the chapter on Ramakrishna:
When we read of Biblical prophets or saints seeing visions, we tend to think that the vision appeared to them, whereas it would be truer to say that the saint appeared to the vision. Modern scepticism is quite right to doubt the possibility of such visions, if they are simply a matter of something happening. But they are not. They are an example of the Will making something happen. The Western way of thinking tends to staticize the Will. (Ou p. 255)
And so twentieth century civilisation, with its mechanised way of life - the increasing passivity of the individual and emphasis on rationality, deadens the vital energies in man, thus causing an ever-deepening disillusion and sense of insignificance in the face of a world that is largely seen as a world of objects. In such a world Nunne's acts of defiance become what Wilson calls the 'meaninglessness of life become dynamic, a dramatisation of the hidden futility of life" (EM p. 21).
Nunne achieves freedom only by breaking through the 'walls' that he feels imprisons his mind, and by imposing himself on his surroundings. Sorme, however, achieves freedom by embracing all life within himself. Sorme, therefore, possesses the 'inner' vision to understand Nunne, whereas Nunne is incapable of understanding Sorme. Both Nunne and Sorme, in their quest for freedom, express the Nietzschean 'will to Power', but whereas one is directed outwards, the other points inwards. The outward 'will to Power' is destructive; the will that turns inwards is creative.
Sorme's insight into Nunne's mind might be compared to the way in which Colin Wilson seeks to understand the minds of the men whom he writes about in The Outsider; that is, through an approach to his 'subject-matter' that is existential rather than intellectual:
In order to understand Nietzsche, we must first of all understand the way he approached the Outsider's problems, try to place ourselves 'inside' him to see as he saw... what is required is a thorough knowledge of the Outsider as a type. Such a knowledge is the only real 'key' to Nietzsche. (Ou p. 136)
The required knowledge, then, is not attained simply by reading a volume like Also Sprach Zarathustra, any more than, from the existential psychologist's point of view, an understanding of the schizophrenic murderer is achieved by reading books on schizophrenia. The starting-point must be one's own individual experience of beauty and of Life. Only when the individual, through such an approach, has managed to grasp the man Nietzsche, can he claim to comprehend Nietzsche's work.
In order to arrive at this level of understanding, however, the individual must recognise that he is not free. He must become an Outsider; that is, he needs to free himself from the 'herd instinct' that leads him to believe that what the majority does must be right" (Ou p. 143). This is the level reached by Sartre - freedom from 'bad faith' (mauvaise-foi).
And yet, says Wilson, this should not be an end in itself, as it seems to have become to Sartre. It should only exist as an intermediary. It is necessary, but it consists of no more than freedom from the world of false values; if it is to have meaning it must transcend into something greater. Sorme, in the beginning of Ritual in the Dark, imagines he is free because he possesses the freedom to work and do as he likes and to think without any fear of interruption. The result, however, is a feeling of insignificance, a freedom without purpose. The following extract from Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra might in a way serve as an illustration of Colin Wilson's attitude to Sartre:
You call yourself free? I would hear of your master-thought, not of your escape from the yoke...
Many have cast off all their values when they cast off their servitude.
Free from what? How does that concern Zarathustra? Let your eye answer me frankly: Free for what?...
A day will come when you shall see your high things no more, and your low things all too near; you shall fear your exaltation as if it were a phantom. In that day you will cry: All is false. (Ou p. 142)
A point which must be underlined is that the Outsider who believes that he is of a different species from other men is, in effect, not free. Curiously enough, many critics seem to have overlooked this point. For example, J. B. Priestley, in an otherwise sympathetic article on Colin Wilson, is slightly uneasy about what he calls the "altogether too simple" dichotomy of Outsider and Bourgeois. He writes:
Like most clever young men, hurrying home with a pile of books and glowering at the passers-by, he magnifies the gulf between men of genius and ordinary stupid people, and is too certain all the latter are what they appear to be at a first impatient glance. He cannot believe that stockbrokers may have strange dreams, that butchers cutting off chops may be touched with intimations of immortality, that the grocer, even as he hesitates over the sugar, may yet see the world in a grain of sand. (New Statesman, July 7, 1956)
Now this might well be said to characterise for instance Sorme's attitude in the beginning of Ritual in the Dark. But as my discussion in Chapter One will have shown, he develops away from this sense of alienation and finally learns to accept his fellow men by 'embracing' all life into himself. The same development is described in The Outsider, as the following extract from the chapter on Nietzsche ought to indicate:
When the Outsider comes to look at other men closely and sympathetically, the hard and fast distinctions break down; he cannot say: I am a poet and they are not, for he soon comes to recognize that no one is entirely a business-man, just as no poet is entirely a poet. He can only say: the sense of purpose that makes me a poet is stronger than theirs. (Ou p. 143)
This, quite plainly, follows much the same line of argument as that applied in existential psychology, that the 'insane' person or the murderer is different from other human beings only in degree, not in kind. Similarly, then, it might be possible to interpret the man of genius, from Wilson's point of view, as a person who realises his own potentialities to a greater degree than most people. Thus all men possess the source of genius within themselves, in the same way as any man could develop insanity or become a murderer. This polarity is exemplified through, on the one hand, Sorme in his 'best' moments, and, on the other, Nunne in his 'worst'.
Gerard Sorme, in the opening chapter of Ritual in the Dark, might well be said to harbour sentiments such as these:
In most men, the instinct of brotherhood with other men is stronger - the herd instinct; in me, a sense of brotherhood with something other than man is strongest, and demands priority. (Ou p. 143)
Statements such as this in The Outsider have been much quoted out of context and used as arguments against Colin Wilson's ideas, and shallow or distorted interpretations of his concept of 'power' or his notion of the 'superman' have been used as grounds for attacking him as a fascist or nazist sympathiser. However, the above statement in The Outsider is followed immediately by the passage quoted on the previous page. It is remarkable, therefore, that critics have tended to quote only the first statement, with no reference to the rest of the passage. An example will illustrate this point.
About a year after the publication of The Outsider Mr. Knut Coucheron Jarl wrote an article on the book in the Norwegian magazine Samtiden. This article, which does contain more sound judgment than most of the English reviews I have come across, nevertheless quotes the above statement out of context, and furthermore, in the following rather amputated translation: "Hos folk flest er fellesskapsinstinktet sterkest, hos meg derimot er en brorskapsfølelse med noe annet enn mennesket sterkest og forlanger prioritet". The writer then comments on the dangers of such an attitude. Unfortunately, however, he bases much of his argument on a translation which leaves out the all-important qualification 'herd instinct'. It is first and foremost the 'herd instinct' against which Colin Wilson is protesting, and by 'herd instinct' he means the inclination that a man without self-belief might feel to search for a belief outside himself; that is, to base his values on the idea that "what the majority does must be right" (Ou p, 143). It stands to reason that this attitude represents a far greater danger to humanity than Wilson's philosophy of self-belief. Surely it is the 'herd instinct' that incubated such movements as nazism and fascism - the sense of power that a person without self-belief might achieve by merging himself into the 'herd' and propagating the supremacy of his race. Colin Wilson's whole philosophy points away from such an attitude and towards a recognition of the unity of all life. His ideas represent a denial of movements like fascism and racial fanaticism. His Nietzschcan concept of the "will to Power" is a will to self-realisation, to creation - an inner power:
The outward striving for social or political domination is its least important and stupidest manifestation... The man who turns it outward to personal domination is guilty of self-delusion and self-betrayal, since the misdirected energies now enter a circuit of frustration, and the evolutionary drive is completely waisted... Before Nietzsche's concept of power can be understood, this idea of 'outward power' - the domination of other people - must be dismissed. (OSI p. 135)
To conclude: the Outsider's experience of alienation is only an intermediary stage on the evolutionary ladder towards self-realisation. While it releases the individual from self-delusion, it reveals an existence which is completely naked if it does not somehow evolve towards a new meaning, a new freedom for some ultimate purpose. A book like The Outsider, therefore, is only to be fully appreciated if it is seen in connection with Wilson's later 'philosophical books'. In the following pages I intend to examine briefly some of the principal ideas that constitute his 'new existentialism'.
III. New Directions.
"Existentialism, like romanticism, is a philosophy of freedom", writes Colin Wilson in the first chapter of his Introduction to the New Existentialism. It has reached a standstill because no existential thinker can agree that there are any values outside man - that is, outside man's ordinary, everyday consciousness" (INE p. 33). And Wilson is by no means the only critic to have pointed out these shortcomings. Gabriel Marcel, in an essay on Sartre written in 1946, , has this to say:
...existentialism stands today at a parting of the ways: it is, in the last analysis, obliged either to deny or to transcend itself. It denies itself quite simply when it falls to the level of infra-dialectical materialism. It transcends itself, or it tends to transcend itself, when it opens itself out to the experience of the suprahuman...
verbally admits this materialism: "What will you", he says, "matter is the only
reality I am able to grasp". (Marcel, pp. 88-9)
But whereas Marcel seeks his transcendental values in a Christian version of existentialism, this is far from being the case with Colin Wilson. Marcel states that the experience of the 'suprahuman' is "an experience which can hardly be ours in a genuine and lasting way this side of death ... this absolute life can be apprehended by us only in flashes and by virtue of a hidden initiative which can be nothing other than grace". Now if we bear in mind the view held by Father Carruthers in Ritual in the Dark, that "Man knows himself as body, and what he knows of spirit comes through grace", and the destructive moral effect that this belief has on Austin Nunne, it is not hard to conceive that Marcel's Christian existentialism strikes an inferior note in Wilson's ear. Father Carruthers might in many ways be seen to represent Marcel's version of existentialism, in the same way as Uncle Sam in The World of Violence represents Sartre's existentialism. Both are obliged, in one way or another, to spend the rest of their lives within the confines of a stuffy room; that is, within the limits of their "ordinary, everyday consciousness".
Colin Wilson bases his 'new existentialism' on the belief that man himself possesses the power to summon at will this experience of 'absolute life - to grasp meaning and unity where one normally can perceive only a meaningless world of objects. How, then, is this to be achieved? In order to put these ideas in a wider perspective, it might be useful to start with an idea that constitutes much of the basic argument in Arthur Koestler's book The Act of Creation, in which we read:
Max Planck, the father of quantum theory, wrote...that the pioneer scientist must have 'a vivid intuitive imagination for new ideas not generated by deduction, but by artistically creative imagination'...Here, then, is the apparent paradox. A branch of knowledge which operates predominantly with abstract symbols, whose entire rationale and credo are objectivity, verifiability, logicality, turns out to be dependent on mental processes which are subjective, irrational, and verifiable only after the event. (Koestler, p. 147)
Here we have, then, much of the essence of existential psychology, that intuition and subjectivity should be given precedence over objectivity and logicality. Science, in these terms, is only secondary to living experience. Scientific discovery originates in the same visionary unity as the inspiration of the artist. The fact that Hugh in The World of Violence is a mathematical prodigy, then, does not mean that his brain is bigger than those of other people or that his analytical faculties are more developed. On the contrary, it means that he is capable of grasping meaningful wholes where most other people tend to see only meaningless fragments. When Uncle Nick asks Hugh to work out the length of a fish, Hugh tells us that "a picture of the fish came into my mind" (WV p. 13), and he sees the answer in a flash where others would be compelled to add the head, the tail and the body together. On the other hand, Hugh's father is described as "a very bad and academic composer" (WV p. 14). In The Outsider Wilson writes that there are "some mathematicians who can see the answer to a complex geometrical problem by merely glancing at a diagram...this is because their brains do all the work subconsciously, and can perceive relations where most of us would see only a confusion of lines and angles" (Ou pp. 232-3). In the same way he relates how T. E. Lawrence once showed a group of Arabs some portraits that had been painted of them. Most of the Arabs completely fai1ed to recognise in the pictures anything but a confusion of lines: "they stared at them, turned them upside-down and sideways, and finally hazarded a guess that one of them represented a camel, because the line of the jaw was shaped like a hump!" The ability to perceive the meaning of a picture, then, is a faculty that exists latent in all men, but which in some men has not yet been aroused. Moreover, this faculty of perceiving meanings not only applies to pictures or, in the same way, the ability to read, but concerns not least our way of interpreting life itself. Colin Wilson then asks:
If a European can see a sunset on a canvas where a practical-minded Arab can only see a blur of colours, it is not illogical to suppose that a development of the same faculty might lead the practical-minded European to see things where he saw nothing before. (Ou p. 233)
Once this visionary faculty has been aroused and developed, the act of perceiving meanings operates on its own accord; that is, intuitively, without the help of reason and analysis. The one mode of perception actively grasps and digests; the other only passively observes the bare 'facts' as such. Wilson labels them, each respectively, 'meaning perception' and 'immediacy perception'.
As was the case with, for instance, Nietzsche and Ramakrishna, the faculty of 'meaning perception' is aroused through the vital energies in man. The more these are restrained, the more passive man's perception becomes, and the more fragmentary and meaningless the world appears. This is the contingent world of Roquentin, the world perceived by a man whose tendency to intellectualise has become so dominant that he feels imprisoned in a world naked of meaning. On the other hand, the emergence of the vital forces creates meaning, beauty and purpose. Man thus transcends the limits of 'immediacy'. This, then, is the origin of the poet's inspiration or the source of scientific discovery.
And yet, if all man's achievements in science may be traced back to the visionary experience, how is it that science has advanced at such an enormous rate during the past century or two, whereas man's spiritual condition has remained fundamentally unchanged for at least two thousand years? Why has man's power over the earth prodigiously increased while his control over the mind has apparently stagnated? Wilson writes:
Science has developed so quickly because the scientific imagination has been aided by the discipline of the scientific method. The artist has had no comparable discipline or method...The scientists of the nineteenth century worked together; when one made a discovery, it contributed to the general pool of scientific knowledge. By comparison, the artists, poets and philosophers were all working alone, each in his ivory tower, and each one had to learn by his own mistakes. It is very rare for the vision of one major artist or philosopher to be carried over to another artist or philosopher, who in turn carries it further. (INE p. 164)
In his latest novel, The Mind Parasites, which investigates this problem in terms of science-fiction, Wilson says that "The body is a mere wall between two infinites. Space extends to infinity outwards; the mind stretches to infinity inwards" (MP p. 32). Stated briefly, and with some danger of over-simplifying, it might be said that Colin Wilson aims at inquiring into the possibility of a scientific method that would be capable, not only of opening up these vast 'countries of the mind', but also of 'mapping' them, thereby making the visionary experience, or the experience of beauty, accessible to scientific investigation. The ideal purpose of such an investigation would apparently be to make possible the transmission of the visionary experience from one individual to another, and even to develop it from generation to generation,thus accelerating man's evolution towards godhead. Needless to say, Wilson has not created his 'method' yet; the seven volumes of his 'Outsider Cycle' represent, to use his own term, mere 'foundation work'. Nor is it my intention to judge in any way the plausibility of such a development, However, I shall try to indicate his basic idea by means of a simple illustration. In his book Beyond the Outsider, in a section on Gestalt psychology, Wilson writes: "Most people will observe that if they strive to remember a half-forgotten tune, it at first presents itself as a shape before its details become clear" (BO p. 90). Now if we transfer this statement to a deeper level, in order to illustrate what happens when we experience beauty, we might draw the following analogy: the experience of beauty can be compared to a dim awareness of some shape, like the shape of a melody, which we are not fully able to grasp, but which we feel is hidden somehow in the innermost recesses of our being. If we proceed one step further, we might compare the visionary experience to the sudden leap that takes place when our mind suddenly grasps all the individual notes of the melody in a flash and we are able to sing the tune. Herein lies the essence of Hugh's insight in the woods - a sudden "blaze of certainty"; but as we observed, his insight begins to fade away after only a few hours. In the same way, the melody we have perceived in a 'vision' will also tend to fade away - first the individual notes, and then perhaps even the 'shape' of the tune. This might well be used to illustrate the dilemma of the Romantic poets, expressed, for instance, by Keats in his lines: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter", or through the image of the nightingale, whose "plaintive anthem" fades away over the hills and valleys, perhaps never to return. Wilson mentions the case of Shelley's Alastor, an allegory of the poet who spends his life searching for the vision he has once embraced in a dream - until he dies of despair" (INE p. 125). Wilson, however, will have nothing of this defeatist attitude (cf. Glasp). He poses the following question: is it possible to develop a 'method' through which the visionary experience can be 'controlled' and even transferred from one person to another in the same way as a tune can be retained simply by writing down its notes? The last chapter of his book Beyond the Outsider ends with the following statement, in italics: "The way forward lies through the development of language". So far the question remains unanswered.
Civilised man, with his emphasis on logic and 'immediacy', has over the past two or three hundred years developed his control over the earth to a point where there is acute danger of his losing this control and obliterating himself and all that he has achieved from the face of this planet. Man, with his back against the wall, so to speak, is forced to seek a new, more vital purpose within the vast, unexplored resources of his mind. A new sense of unity, of meaning, is required. And Colin Wilson himself is optimistic. He points out how, in recent decades, there has developed a new trend in scientific thought and in philosophy - a more positive belief in man's subjective states, in the uniqueness and freedom of the individual. In psychology, biology and many other fields of science there is a clear development away from the mechanistic or deterministic approach that characterised thinkers such as Darwin and Freud, and an increasing awareness of a free, evolutionary spirit in man, as represented by, for instance, Sir Julian Huxley and Abraham Maslow or the existential psychologists. Even Herbert Marcuse and the student revolutions of the sixties might, basically, be seen as signs of this development. It is not inconceivable, then, that Colin Wilson has reason for affirming, as he does in a postscript to a recent edition of The Outsider: "I feel that immensely exciting things are about to happen, that we are on the brink of some discovery that will make our century a turning-point in human history". Whether or not this prophecy will hold true is, for the time being, largely subject to conjecture.
Much of what has been said in the previous pages might help to throw light on the basic ideas of Wilson's existential criticism. In the same way as science has developed on account of the scientific method, it might be said that art has developed in the matter of technique. But whereas the benefits of method in science have prodigiously increased man's control over his physical environment, it is hardly possible to say that the changing techniques of art have in any way made man master of his spirit. The point is that academic criticism, being to a large extent concerned with matters of artistic technique, contributes in itself little or nothing to the 'science of living', or to man's knowledge of himself or of God. Moreover, standards of literary criticism are apt to change with the times, and works of art that half a century ago were hardly noticed at all, may today, in the light of new criteria, be regarded as masterpieces; and there is nothing to prevent that they might, in a hundred years' time, have sunk into oblivion. Hence the existential critic will ask: is there not some standard of judgment that is 'deeper' and more persistent than the mere whims and prejudices of the times, something that has its roots in the immortal spirit of man - or rather, in man's creative being? To illustrate the point, it might be said that Stein's judgment of Austin Nunne is the result of academic criticism in that he bases his values on standards outside his existing self, whereas Sorme's attitude is more truly existential.
There is a parable mentioned in The Outsider which perhaps illustrates Wilson's principle view of art; it is the story of the Duke of Ch'i and his wheelwright.
It tells how the wheelwright saw the Duke reading, and called to ask him what the book was about. "The words of sages", the Duke explained. "The lees and scum of bygone men", the wheelwright said; and when the irritated Duke asked him what the devil he meant by this, the wheelwright told him: "There is an art in wheel-making that I cannot explain even to my son. It cannot be put into words. That is why I cannot let him take over my work, and I am still making wheels myself at seventy. It must have been the same with the sages: all that was worth handing on died with them. The rest they put into their books. That is why I said you are reading the lees and scum of dead men." (Ou p. 204)
Hence existential criticism seeks to analyse, not the works of art as such, but life itself. "For me", writes Wilson, "no work of art can be clearly separated from the personality of the artist and his life...Consequently, when I write about Schoenberg, I am far less concerned with the implications of the twelve-tone system than with Schoenberg's mind and personality" (BD p. 20). What the composer expresses in his music or the poet in words is, in the last analysis, merely the crust of an organism that once existed. True enough, it is the power of all great art to evoke in the recipient a similar, though usually vaguer, vision to that experienced by the artist. But it is hardly through analysis of the words or the artist's techniques that the meaning is conveyed, but through the recipient's power to grasp the mind of the artist as a revelation of himself. The very fact that a work of art does have the power to convey a visionary experience presupposes, naturally enough, an existent state of consciousness that is common to both the poet and the reader, but which nevertheless lies beyond the limits of ordinary, everyday consciousness. By basing its standards on this wider range of consciousness, existential criticism passes beyond the mere individual work of art and seeks to cast light on the meaning of life itself.
On these grounds, there is reason to question the justifiability of evaluating Colin Wilson's achievement in accordance with fixed standards of artistic merit. True enough, a novel like The World of Violence abounds in crude metaphors and self-contradictions that would make the professional aesthete wrinkle his nose. For example, Hugh tells us in Chapter Two that he was ten years old when the war began in 1939 (p. 58), but when, in Chapter Four, we reach the year 1949, he is only sixteen! (p. 103) And yet, if we bear in mind what The Scotsman observed about Wilson's book on music, we might well consider the possibility of applying this remark to his novels also. (See the last paragraph in section II of this chapter). For clearly his merits are manifested more in what he has to say than in how he says it, and the very 'power and expression' of his ideas is surely more worthy of consideration than the fact that he once in a while tends to strike the wrong 'key'. Apparently his novels might be regarded as 'experiments' rather than as artistic units or ends in themselves, in the same way as Van Gogh's painting might, according to Wilson, be regarded as "laboratory refuse of a man who treated his own life as an experiment in living; it faithfully records moods and development of vision in the manner of a Bildungsroman" (Ou p. 92). The true stature of Van Gogh lies, then, not primarily in his artistic achievement, but in the man himself - in the visions he saw. And the meaning of the visions are not grasped by analysing and determining the form and content of his painting. What is required is an insight into the personality of the man himself - not his social personality, but his inner creative being. This difference between what might be termed as 'social' and 'existential' identity is to some degree reflected in the contrast between the principles of Freudian and existential psychology. The first seeks largely to determine the individual's failure to live up to preconceived social ideals, whereas the second is concerned with in what way a man's actions are 'expressive of his existence'. Existential psychology recognises that 'neurosis is not the result of man's maladjustment to society, but to the whole of existence' (BO p. 137); and furthermore, that man is by nature a purposive creature, who develops neuroses when purpose is denied him" (INE p. 170).
Surely it is Colin Wilson's achievement that he, probably more than any other contemporary English novelist, believes in this purposive or evolutionary spirit in man. Modern man, far from being a mere speck in a sterile universe, possesses the capacity to become "a direct and conscious agent of evolution". What makes man a passive observer is his sense of insignificance in a world dominated by intellectual notions of meaning - concepts that are meaningless because they are fragmentary. Wilson realises, too, that the neuroses and misfortunes of modern man are largely due to the common belief, typified by Samuel Beckett's tramps, that "there is nothing to be done, nothing worth doing" (BO p. 152). This is the attitude held by Christine's parents in Ritual in the Dark or Hugh's parents in The World of Violence: They don't want to do anything better" (RD p. 286). They lack the Will to more life simply because, out of sheer boredom and habit, they do not believe that such a Will exists. What is required is a total change in people's attitude to themselves, a change as complete as that of suddenly grasping the meaning of an apparent confusion of lines on a canvas; the meaning is not to be found in the lines or on the canvas (i.e. in the outer world), but within oneself. Wilson declares that "even when every inch of the universe 'out there' has been mapped and compressed into formulae, the key will still be missing, for the key is 'in here'; is an inner-purpose that imposes responses on the outside world" (OSI p. 249). The child Christine, inherently a symbol of unity, is caught in a vicious circle which it seems that she, as long as she is 'imprisoned' in her environment, can do little about. If man as a spiritual being is to evolve, if his life and energies are to have any meaning beyond what Eliot calls 'Birth, copulation and death', he must break out of that circle; he must have a purpose he can believe in:
Show man a problem that obstructs his progress, and he will blast it out of the way by sheer will power. But until he sees the problem clearly, he is helpless. It must be stated with such clarity that the full force of human will and intelligence can be brought to bear on it. (INE p. 130)