THE INTELLECTUAL HERO
An Inquiry into the Theme of Colin Wilson's Novels
Ritual in the Dark and The World of Violence
By Dag H. Christensen
A Thesis Presented to
the English Department
The University of Oslo
Spring Term 1969
Chapter 1: Ritual in the Dark
Chapter 2: The World of Violence
Chapter 3: Towards a New Existentialism
I. The Critical Approach
II. The Intellectual 'Outsider'
III. New Directions
Although this thesis aims at examining Colin Wilson's achievement as a novelist, his reputation is so closely bound up with his critical book The Outsider, and this book is so closely related to his novels, that a few introductory remarks on the reception of The Outsider would hardly be out of place.
Colin Wilson made his name with The Outsider in 1956, at the age of 24. The book achieved a success which, according to Wilson himself, made one critic write:
"Not since Lord Byron woke up one morning and found himself famous has an English writer met with such spontaneous and universal acclaim". The book sold 40,000 copies in its hard-cover edition in Britain alone (the same number as John Braine's best-selling novel Room at the Top) - a remarkable figure for a serious philosophical study of this kind.
Thirteen years have passed since then, and Colin Wilson has published twenty books, including seven novels, an autobiography of ideas, seven or eight volumes of philosophy, an encyclopaedia of murder,a collection of essays on music and a study of Rasputin. Also he has written four plays and seven dozen articles,essays and reviews. Even so, critics still find it hard to dissociate his name from that one highly controversial volume that appeared in 1956, although few could maintain that it is his best book. A good portion of English critics still tend to regard him as that 'angry young man' (Wilson has from the very start disclaimed this title) who startled even the foremost critics into believing that here at long last was the literary Messiah - a young man of genius who would redeem English literature from its dilapidating state of post-war boredom and despondency.
The unexpected and somewhat unreasonable success of the book proved to be the undoing of Wilson's chances of being taken seriously for a very long time to come. The serious papers, in their eagerness to glorify this golden discovery of new artistic talent, shot far beyond the mark and endowed the book with virtues which its author apparently had never dreamed of putting in. Colin Wilson became daily news, not least in the popular Press, over a period of weeks and months, and Wilson himself has put it this way: "The highbrow critics tend to turn very peevish if their enthusiasms are take out of their hands and accepted by the popular Press". The result was a tremendous backsliding when he published his second book, Religion and the Rebel", eighteen months later. This book, similar to the previous volume both in its form and content, was originally intended to be incorporated in The Outsider, but Wilson had been dissuaded from this plan by his publisher on account of the sheer size. Some of the very people who had hoisted Wilson up a year and a half before now had few qualms about tearing him down. For instance, Philip Toynbee in the Observer had hailed the first book as an exhaustive and luminously intelligent study...what makes the book truly astounding is that its alarmingly well-read author is only twenty-four years old ...this remarkable book...a real contribution to an understanding of our deepest predicament" etc. Now, with the sequel in his hands, and Wilson's declining reputation in his mind, he decided to retract a vital chunk of his praise of the first book, and called Religion and the Rebel "a deplorable piece of work" and even worse names, although, according to Allsop, he did insist that he was still spiritually on Wilson's side. The Times Literary Supplement, about the only publication which still considered Wilson with an air of academic seriousness, devoted a full page to a discussion of the two books, none the less concluding that "the saddest thing about this new book is that it so much resembles The Outsider". The somewhat churlish tone of many of the serious critics was followed up by a regular massacre in the popular Press, and the anti-Wilson craze spread quickly to America.
Twelve years later (1969), one finds that some critics, though notably fewer, still have a propensity to treating Wilson's latest book with a certain tone of ridicule, thus presumably camouflaging their uncertainty as to whether Wilson ought to be considered seriously or not As Marghanita Laski wrote in the Times Literary Supplement one week after the publication of Religion and the Rebel: "Some of the reviewers seem to be using Mr. Wilson as a scapegoat for their own shame at having been so profoundly impressed by his first book". She writes, too, that 'Surely literary history can show no other example of such a major effort to destroy a very bad book..." With regard to the latter remark, Miss Laski later admitted to Wilson that she had, at the time, not read Religion and the Rebel.
And now we might well ask: was the second book, indeed, such a folie de grandeur as these critics would contend? Kenneth Allsop writes:
it is nonsense to claim, as many reviewers did, that The Outsider was all right and Religion and the Rebel all wrong. As is, I think, quite obvious, Religion and the Rebel is a continuation of The Outsider - they are the halves of one book...To pretend that virtues belong to one half and vices to the other is dishonest: what faults and virtues are present are implicit within the entire framework of the two books.
(Allsop, p. 178)
Moreover, Sir Herbert Read, writing to the Times Literary Supplement, had this to say of the second book:
It has all the virtues the recanting reviewers found in The Outsider and fewer of the faults. It is far from being a perfect book (as Mr. Wilson ould be the first to admit); but those readers who were impressed by The Outsider should not be too ready to accept the opinions of those reviewers who feel they have to make public amend for the brash enthusiasm of seventeen months ago.
And T. S. Eliot, in a letter to Colin Wilson after the publication of The Outsider, seemed to have anticipated what was coming when he wrote:
It seems to me that the right way is first to become known to a small group of people who can recognise what is good when they see it next, to become known to a slightly larger group who will take the word of the others on what is good; and finally, to reach the wider public. To do it the other way round could be disastrous.
(cf.(Campion, p. 169)
So the task of evaluating Colin Wilson as a serious writer of fiction has so far been much hampered and discouraged in Britain by the wholly embarrassing hullabaloo around his first two books. As Sidney Campion points out: "The reviewing of Religion and the Rebel established a certain precedent in treating Colin Wilson's books with no attempt at understanding' (Campion, p. 168). The repercussions were still clearly felt in 1960, when his first novel, Ritual in the Dark, hit the literary headlines, and have continued well into the sixties, although, naturally enough, the violenceof the attacks has subsided.
The main purpose of this thesis will therefore be to clear the ground, so speak, for a more just evaluation of Colin Wilson as a novelist - rather than provide a final 'verdict' in itself. My aim, first of all, is to interpret two of his novels, Ritual in the Dark and The World of Violence, from a point of view which I think is far more representative of the author's own intentions than any of the critical treatments available till now. Secondly, I shall consider one or two of the more adverse reviews of Ritual in the Dark, thus revealing, I assume, a few of the basic fallacies of the reviewers' approach. And finally, I shall try to point out some of the fundamental similarities of theme between the novels and Wilson's theoretical works. By so doing I hope to indicate at least partly the original cause of the success of The Outsider; for obviously it was not so much the form or the 'artistic quality' of the book that electrified the critics as the book's content - its basic theme; and this theme is repeated and further evolved in all Wilson's subsequent books, not least in his novels.
Colin Wilson's philosophical development is embodied in the six volumes of his 'Outsider Cycle' (1956-1965). Apart from the two books already mentioned, these comprise the following titles: The Age of Defeat, which is a treatise on the 'insignificant hero' of twentieth century literature; The Strength to Dream, subtitled "Literature and the Imagination", in which the author propounds his theories of 'existential criticism' (which I intend to deal with in the final chapter); Origins of the Sexual Impulse, a study of sex and the creative imagination from the point of view of existential psychology; and finally, Beyond the Outsider, in which the same basic ideas as those of the previous books are carried forward to a new stage and discussed in the light of recent trends in biology and psychology. However, the clearest outline of Wilson's ideas are to be found in a single volume which appeared in 1966, Introduction to the New Existentialism, which is in fact largely a summary of the ideas in the preceding books. My discussion in the latter part of Chapter Three will to a large extent be based on the ideas as they are presented in this volume.
To my knowledge, no serious criticism of Colin Wilson's literary works has yet been published. Kenneth Allsop, in his book The Angry Decade (1958), is mostly concerned with Wilson's relation to the other so-called 'angry young men', and the social aspects of his fame and notoriety. Besides, the book was written before Wilson's first novel appeared. And Sidney Campion, in The World of Colin Wilson (1963), is primarily concerned with Wilson's personality and his biographical background, and has evidently not aimed at any interpretation of the novels beyond that which Wilson has openly imparted himself. As regards Wilson's own comments, he has, in his numerous critical works, said remarkably little about his novels, apparently leaving it to his readers to infer the meaning for themselves: a good book.', writes Wilson, "should somehow be a living organism, with many levels of significance, like a picture that can be looked at in a dozen different ways" MWS p. 14). My acknowledgements to other critics, therefore, are few and far between, and will, in the course of my exposition, emerge by way of parenthetical remarks.
RITUAL IN THE DARK
Ritual in the Dark tells the story of eleven days in the life of Gerard Some, a young writer who lives alone in a room in London, with a small private allowance which enables him to spend the greater part of his time reading, writing and listening to music on the gramophone. When we first meet him he has been living in this state of leisure for five years, ever since the afternoon when he made up his mind to walk out of the office for the last time, filled with a sense of "overwhelming hatred for cities and offices and people and everything that calls itself civilisation" (p. 374). Evidently it is the idea of the worthlessness of his life as an office clerk that has made him turn his back on society - a sudden reaction of contempt for the futility of "people who possessed no motive beyond the working day, no deep certainties to counterbalance the confusion" (p. 213). In his mind all the petty problems and short-lived desires of the thousands of people around him have their origin in the monotony and basic boredom of their lives. Even the greatness of London and the glory of our civilisation are hardly more than "footprints on a sandy beach" (p. 345) which time will wash away. Our cities and our lives are tied to the present, and man in his mortal confines, hustling every day through the streets with the millions of other men, cannot perceive the beauty and the timeless movement of the universe beyond his ephemeral self.
Sorme has had a vision:
It happened once when I was on Hampstead Heath, looking down on London. I was thinking about all the lives and all the problems --- and then suddenly I felt real. I saw other people's illusions, and my own illusions disappeared ...I stopped wondering whether the world's ultimately good or evil. I felt that the world didn't matter a damn. What mattered was me, whether I saw it as good or evil. I suddenly felt as if I'd turned into a giant. I felt absurdly happy ----. (p. 326)
"I saw other people's illusions, and my own illusions disappeared..." This, as we shall see, represents a kind of leit-motif in Ritual in the Dark. Campion characterises this novel as essentially a 'Bildungsroman': "What is emphasised...is the importance of the idea of maturity, of education in the process of living" (Campion, p. 186). The hero achieves a greater degree of spiritual maturity through his experience of new events and by examining, each in turn, the life values of the people he meets. Colin Wilson himself has referred to this novel as an 'Odyssey' through a world of false values.
As a point of departure we might turn to an incident which took place some two months before Sorme's meeting with Austin Nunne. One night, in bed with a girl he has picked up in a cafe, he feels a sudden and unaccountable lack of desire to make love to her. It is as if the whole question of sexual intercourse with this girl is absurd - based on some fundamental mistake. He realises that the sole reason for the girl's wish to go to bed with him is that she is utterly bored with life. She is completely spoilt, neurotic, and chain-smokes for the same reason that she desires sex. The hero suddenly becomes acutely aware of the fact that the lives and activities of millions of people in this same city are based on a similar need to escape from boredom or mediocrity. They all need distractions of some sort to endure life at all. The businessman may believe that the purpose of life is to get him a bigger car". The politician may endure life by "identifying his purpose with that of his party. The religious man...by accepting the guidance of the Church or his Bible" (p. 91). But to Sorme's mind all these purposes are little more than falsifying patterns, guiding-poles or rituals which people need to guide them through the dark. Without these patterns, life would appear meaningless to millions of people. And without her sex ritual and her cigarettes, the girl from the cafe would probably sink into a condition that might lead to suicide. Then, suddenly aware of the full impact of illusion on the girl's life, the hero has a sense of being freed from the bonds of his own illusion:
suddenly I felt a tremendous excitement. It was so strong that I felt I'd never want to sleep again...I thought: I am lying here in the middle of London, with a population of three million people asleep around me, and a past that extends back to the time when the Romans built the city on a fever swamp...It was a sense of participation in everything. I wanted to live a million times more than anybody has ever lived. (pp. 66-7)
Sorme's break with the office, then, is hardly negative. His longing for the freedom to work and do as he likes does not imply any kind of romantic desire to escape to a quiet place in the country, away from the hustle and bustle of civilisation. On the contrary, he wants to stay in the city, where he can observe life. His break represents nothing less than a need to cast off the chains of illusion and seek a new and more permanent foundation on which to build his future life.
Sorme spends five years in his room, reading Plato and Plotinus, and listening to the music of Mozart and Prokoviev, in his attempt to regain the insight. But the vision fails him - or, at least, it appears only half a dozen times in the course of the five years, and only as glimpses too ephemeral and fragile to provide the foundation on which he wants to build his life. He tries to write a novel based on his insights, but the inspiration fails him. He can find no solution to the problem of creating a bridge between the ideals of his mind and the monotonous ritual of physical existence. Sorme's life of freedom to read and write and "listen to those symphonies at ten in the morning" (p. 175) gradually and inevitably leads him into a state of boredom and self-contempt, into the very life of illusion from which he has been seeking to escape. After five years of this kind of 'freedom' he finds that he has reached no further than the stage of living like an animal - just eating, sleeping and roaming about the streets with no purpose:
I felt completely lost. I didn't like leaving my room because the street made me feel as if I didn't exist. London made me feel like an insect, and when I got back to my own room and tried to write I still felt like an insect. (p. 326)
Sorme, the observer of life, fails in the task he has set himself because he remains a passive observer. His identity, so to speak, gets lost in the general drift of time, as he does not possess the power to release his mind from the bonds of his body's contingency. Existence closes him in, people become oppressive and life appears meaningless because he is incapable of imposing his own meaning of life. The Gerard Sorme we meet in the opening chapters is a scruffy-looking young man who gets easily embarrassed or irritated. His main problem after his five years of 'freedom' is how to break away from this futile state of non-existence. This is his position when the story opens.
The event which finally launches the hero on a new direction of purpose is his meeting with the wealthy dilettante Austin Nunne at a Russian Ballet exhibition in London. Nunne is a well-known ballet critic and the son of one of the richest men in England, but also - as Sorme gradually comes to realise - a homosexual with sadistic tendencies, who is suspected by the police of being the killer who over the past months has murdered several prostitutes in London's East End. Through Nunne the hero becomes acquainted, directly or indirectly, with a number of people who in various ways begin to exert an influence on his spiritual development. Each of these characters possesses a set of life values differing from his own. Besides Nunne, the hero's new chain of acquaintances consists of the painter Oliver Glasp, Gertrude Quincey (a Jehovah's Witness) and her young niece Caroline (a drama school student), the Catholic priest Father Carruthers, Dr. Stein (a German pathologist) and the child Christine. Significant, too, is the unavoidable presence of the crazy old man in the room upstairs.
The opening paragraph, in which we meet the hero on his way to the Diaghilev Exhibition through the November drizzle, serves to foreshadow the sinister train of events in which he becomes involved as a result of his acquaintance with Austin Nunne. It also illustrates his state of mind at the time:
He came out of the Underground at Hyde Park Corner with his head lowered, ignoring the people who pressed around him and leaving it to them to steer out of his way. He disliked the crowds. They affronted him. If he allowed himself to notice them, he found himself thinking: Too many people in this bloody city; we need a massacre to thin their numbers. When he caught himself thinking this, he felt sick. He had no desire to kill anyone, but the hatred of the crowd was uncontrollable. (p. 7)
These sentiments have the further effect of preparing us for the sense of understanding which Sorme later on develops in regard to Nunne's sadistic tendencies. But in order to explain more fully the deep impact which the discovery of these impulses makes on Sorme's moral education, we must begin by examining those aspects of Nunne's personality which in the first place spark off Sorme's interest in him.
The first and most obvious reason for their friendship is their mutual interest in the great Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. We learn that Nunne has published two books on Nijinsky, whereas the book which Sorme has been labouring on for the past five years is a novel on this dancer's 'state of mind'. Nijinsky evidently symbolises for Sorme some state of spiritual being which he himself is seeking to achieve:
There was an image of a man walking along a tree-lined avenue at night, listening to sounds of music coming from a hotel lounge. In the man was an obsession with the superhuman, a desire to rise cleanly and naturally beyond human pettiness, maintaining the flight without uncertainty. (p. 299)
Nijinsky found release for his obsession through physical discipline - by becoming the world's greatest ballet dancer. Sorme sees in the god-like quality of his dancing the creation of a bridge between physical existence and the ideal existence of the spirit. But because Sorme does not possess the ability or, for that matter, the childhood training to express his creative urge through dancing, he does what he thinks is second best: he tries to analyse Nijinsky's obsession by writing a novel about him. But, as we have already noted, the task he has set himself does not bring him any closer to the state of creativity he desires. It is hardly surprising, then, that a certain curiosity is aroused in him when he meets a well-known critic who has produced two books on Nijinsky.
Nunne's and Sorme's interest in the same ballet dancer, however, is only one manifestation of an affinity of mind which goes far deeper. Driving through the traffic-jammed streets of London after their meeting at the exhibition, Nunne reveals his contempt for his fellow drivers and passing pedestrians by screaming oaths of indignation through the car window. This brings to mind Sorme's passive rebellion in the opening paragraph of the novel, and we find similar sentiments in Sorme expressed later on, such as for example: "'When cycling, he felt that the driver of every car was a personal enemy" (p. 139). Both men hate the city because of its rather frigid, formal social relations. Yet there is one notable difference in the way each of them responds:
You're so good-tempered, Gerard. You obviously don't hate people as much as I do.
Sorme said, smiling:
You obviously don't know me as well as I do. (p. 20)
Whereas Nunne has few inhibitions about flinging his hatred at the world, we perceive that Sorme is more in the habit of keeping his irritated outbursts to himself, such as saying things 'angrily to the door" (p. 33) or "swearing under his breath" (p. 98). Another instance of Sorme's passivity is the fact that it is Nunne who initiates their acquaintance, while Sorme himself at first feels somewhat embarrassed and prefers to be left alone. The fact that Sorme is passive, whereas Nunne expresses his feelings by way of action, forms the basis of the hero's most profound interest in the character of Austin Nunne.
Campion states that the basic theme of Ritual in the Dark is the idea that a man who is completely inactive can have no identity; his 'identity' can be discovered by himself only in action" (Campion, p. 178). We shall see, in the course of this study, in what way Nunne's more 'active' mode of life has the effect of germinating new creative vigour into Sorme's basically stagnant existence. It is, above all, the negative and in fact the most repulsive aspects of Nunne's character which eventually relieve the hero from his state of boredom and illusion. These negative factors in Nunne are given vent through his sadism and ultimately in the act of murder itself.
It might seem strange that a theme so fundamentally repellent should manage to arouse sympathy in a young man whose interests so far have been largely confined to the realms of music and philosophy. Hence, the day Sorme moves into his new room and starts reading a few pages in a book on murder which a former lodger has left behind, his immediate reaction is disgust. And when he receives his first hint, through Robin Maunsell, that Nunne is believed to have sadistic tendencies, the news leaves him feeling "suddenly exhausted and depressed"(p. 70). Even more apparent is his downright nausea after he has been talking with his friends in Fleet Street about the series of murders that are baffling Scotland Yard:
His stomach felt watery and rebellious. It was the talk of murder. It had settled on his senses like a film of soot from a smoking lamp, coating them with a greyness of depression. He noticed also that he cycled with less confidence. The depression brought a sense of his body's betrayal. (p. 58)
Yet the nausea is only a symptom of a disgust which fundamentally points at something in himself. His sense of alieness from the world has its roots in the fact that his illusions estrange him from the 'creative forces' of his being - from his own true identity. Hence we might perceive that his hatred for the crowds, as well as Nunne's contempt for the driver of every car, is simply a manifestation of their own spiritual emptiness - their tendency to see mostly the physical crust of things, with little or no fellow feeling for other people. It is the physical crust of themselves - their own spiritual deadness - which they in actual fact condemn.
A living symbol of this is the unavoidable presence of the crazy old man in the room upstairs. Sorme's first encounter with this Mr. Hamilton is involuntary; he is obliged to climb the fire escape and let himself into the old man's room in order to help the police, who have come to make some enquiries. The fact that this senile man, who at the time is drunk, fails to respond to anything Sorme tries to say to him, not only leaves Sorme feeling irritated, but he is also endowed with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. This, together with the sight of the naked, hideous heap of flesh squatting there on the floor, arouses in him a sudden and violent disgust. What surprises him is the sheer violence of his hatred, the inexplicable desire to "stand in the doorway and empty a revolver into the repulsive nakedness". Naturally, good-tempered as he is, Sorme does nothing of the sort, but simply turns round and walks out of the room, irritated and helpless. His inability to act in any way - on the one hand to make the man respond to his plea, on the other to express the violence of his disgust - makes him lose, for a moment, all sense of self-identity. In the old man's eyes he might as well not exist, and hence this scene becomes a caricature of the hero's sense of non-identity in the face of the world. He becomes "somehow the victim of a drunk old man"(p. 38)in the same way that he feels 'victimised' by physical reality. Moreover, in the very existence of the old man, with his pile of gramophone records and his seemingly aimless fragments of religious talk, Sorme apparently senses a terrifying, distorted reflection of his own spiritual emptiness - symbolised, it appears, by the old man's "blotchy nakedness" and his "perspiring bald head". The fact that the man lives on the floor above Sorme's own room serves maybe to emphasise the idea that it is the horror of death and decay which blocks the route between Sorme's everyday self and his vision of the heavenly spirit. This is illustrated by the 'vastation' which Sorme has in his room in the middle of the night, a few hours after his encounter with the old man. He wakes up with a sudden "orgasm of fear" - an oppressive feeling that his body consists of no more than dead flesh, lifeless matter. It is a sudden insight into the cause of his disgust, "the idea of his own non-existence", the feeling - so to speak - of his consciousness being imprisoned within the confines of a room with no exit:
Existence faced him like a blank wall. There was an instinctive desire to penetrate the wall, to assert his reality beyond it, and a terror that came with the recognition that he was trapped in existence; that no detachment from it was possible. (p. 41)
Sorme's room might be seen as a symbol of his personality, and the walls represent the limits of his consciousness. The comparison is stated explicitly when Sorme, in a mood of tiredness and low spirits, reflects on the similarity between the bareness of his sparsely furnished room and the spiritual emptiness of his mind: "Dirt. Fatigue. This room. Not anonymous, my room, a prison...it is my consciousness. Sick and exhausted, I choose it" (p. 72). In his attempt to furnish his mind, so to speak, he decorates the blank walls with Van Gogh prints, but his effort to recapture the mood of the artist fails completely. Similarly, we find him playing his favourite symphonies on his gramophone, but he falls asleep on more than one occasion before the record is half played. That Sorme's room should stand as a symbol of his imprisoned personality is interesting when we consider that he has another 'vastation' two days later, not in his own room this time, but while he is spending a morning alone in Austin Nunne's flat.
These remarkable basement rooms, with their black and velvet draperies, the wine-red carpet and divan, and the night-blue ceiling and black wa11s - all permeated by the smell of oriental perfume - afford Sorme an insight into Nunne's mind which reveals his friend as a romantic day-dreamer with a strong taste for the theatrical and the bizarre. This is further confirmed by the partly lyrical, partly obscene paintings on the walls, and the contents of the library, with its mixture of romantic poets and books on violence. Though Nunne is abroad at the time, on one of his leisure trips to the continent, the influence of his personality pervading the room becomes so strong that Sorme has a "curious sense of Nunne's presence, ..Once he looked up startled, expecting to see Nunne standing in the doorway, looking at him" (p. 107). This is his state of mind when he happens to find a book on criminology under the divan; picking it up, he suddenly finds himself looking at a photograph of a murdered woman: "He felt almost as though he had discovered a mutilated body in Nunne's cupboard" (p. 108). Sorme is physically sick, but after the actual nausea has subsided, he refuses to remain passive any longer, and instead of putting the book away, he forces himself to look through the entire volume, page after page, at photographs illustrating the most repulsive details of mutilated bodies, in an effort to probe into the cause of his disgust. Suddenly he is overwhelmed by a feeling of the absurdity of human life. The inescapable impact of death portrayed in the photographs throws into bold relief the discrepancy between the platonic idealism of his mind and the physical reality of death and decay. It is a realisation that all art and philosophy are basically absurd if they fail to take into account these cold, brutal aspects of existence. Sorme realises that only by seeking to base his philosophy on the most negative features of existence can he ever hope to grasp and control the full meaning and beauty of life. Hence, in the hero's mind, Nunne's sadism and the reality of murder take on a new, far-reaching importance.
Before attempting to pursue the theme of violence any further, it might do well if we turn to those circumstances in Nunne's social background which have turned him into the person he is. To begin with, there is that other aspect of Nunne's divided self - the Austin brought up by his mother and father, and the Austin whom his 'aunt' Gertrude knows, - his social facade, symbolically represented by his Albany Street flat.
It is worth noting that this luxury suite does not actually belong to Austin Nunne himself, but to his mother, who never uses it and leaves it entirely to her son's disposal. In all probability it is she who has furnished these rooms. The contrast with the basement flat is striking. Instead of the dark lamps emitting a "blue glow" and the ceiling painted with the darkness of night, we find that this suite is illuminated by "daylight lamps' and that the ceiling has the colour of the sky during the day. Moreover, there is no trace of any black walls or blood-coloured draperies; instead, the drawing-room is 'furnished completely with a contrast of light wood and a sky blue', with walls of pale amber (p. 131). The suite might well be said to symbolise a certain longing for purity; but that it becomes something else too - a social facade, an image of the materialistic ideals of the modern welfare state - is underlined by the description of the kitchen, which looks as if it had been installed as a showroom, or transferred immediately from the Ideal Homes Exhibition . With its 'rack of glass plates and dishes, the rows of saucepans', it gives the impression that it has never been used (pp. 165-6). In fact, it becomes the spotless emblem of goals which people may strive all their lives to reach, an accumulation of glittering symbols which cannot fill the emptiness of their yearning minds. This is the world that Austin Nunne has inherited from his parents, the sham satisfaction of material security which dulls the will to create. Here lies the irony of Nunne's situation. Seated beneath the immense reproduction of Michelangelo's God Creating Adam adorning the wall above the fireplace, Nunne talks to Sorme of his own worthlessness: "I was always a worthless bastard if ever there was one. Neurotic little bugger all the way through my childhood" (p. 133).
Nunne, it appears, is a product of the dichotomy between the irreconcilable worlds of spirit and matter. On the materialistic side there is his father, the magnate, who wanted his son to go into business, and who bullied him when he refused. On the other hand there is the influence of his mother, the devoted Catholic, who adored her son and protected him to the point of nearly suffocating all sense of creative identity in him: "my mother sat on me like a hen hatching eggs" (p. 134). Bullied and battered by outward reality throughout his childhood and adolescence, he has never had the chance to develop an inner force strong enough to counteract the pressure. Like Sorme, he feels imprisoned within the impenetrable walls of existence.
But the yearning to break through the barriers - to expand the consciousness and experience a sense of unity and meaning in life - becomes an obsession with both men. After his 'vastation' in the basement room, Sorme realises that it is man's imprisonment within the'immediacy' of physical environment - the narrowness of his vision - which is the cause of his alienation from the sources of beauty and meaning:
Limitedness. I don't want limits. It is limits that are alien to me. The universe, space, time, being. Nothing must be limited. I am god. I am yesterday and today. I am the god Tem, maker of heaven, creator of things which are. If I am not, life is meaningless. (p. 109)
This is the desire that drives a man to creation - to become something more than he is. And, as we see, both Nunne and Sorme have strong elements of the creative artist in them. In his teens Nunne used to stare at pictures by Van Gogh or Munch and pray that he, too, might become a great artist. And, indeed, he has written three "very good" books (this is Gertrude's appraisal), and also become known and respected as a journalist.
But Nunne can find no satisfaction in his achievements. Even when Sorme, in an effort to comfort him, tries to point out their positive value, Nunne snorts out his contempt: "By any standard of good writing my books are worthless, and I know it. So do you" (p. 133).No matter how much praise he might acquire for his works, the fact remains that in his mind they are no more than symbols of a social standing which teach him nothing more about the essential questions of his own life than any Rolls Royce or luxury suite might do. To his oversensitive mind, they are no more than distractions which he takes up to forget, for a while, the emptiness of his soul.
Unable to live within himself, Nunne seeks distractions from outside: "I'd have been bored stiff on my own", he admits to Sorme after their first evening together (p. 30). Indeed, his perpetual need to escape from his own boredom is the underlying cause of all his activities. Nunne is continually meeting people, but the experience of their company never lasts beyond the present: for him they represent only a momentary escape from loneliness. He needs stimulating events around him all the time in order to find life worth living at all. But, like a person addicted to drugs, he continually needs greater doses of stimulants. He flies a private plane, likes driving fast cars, travels to Vienna, Milan or Berlin to listen to concerts which hardly seem to afford him any greater satisfaction than those he might as well attend in London. We find him always moving around, never able to spend more than an hour or two in the same room. Disgusted at his own material wealth, Nunne enters a Catholic monastery in Alsace to seek meaning in the realms of spirit, but is out again within a month - restless as ever. Each instance of defeat leads him farther afield in his frantic search for satisfaction; and because he has no belief in himself, he even tries to persuade Sorme to travel with him to another country and seek a new life far away from cities:
We could go to India ----
It was South America the other day!
No, India. Let's make it India. You know, Gerard,
I'd like to go into a Buddhist monastery for a while ----You could work there!
I'd rather be in London.
But why? You admitted to me the other day that you're bored here.
I was. That's quite true.
Aren't you still?
Well, that's the odd thing, you see, Austin. Ever since I met you
I've been feeling better ---- I've been getting a sort of sense of purpose.
But you'll be bored again if I go to India!
You don't understand.
And Nunne, it seems, will never understand. He lives only in the present. Reality to him is like the footprint on the sandy beach which time must inevitably wash away. People and events satisfy him only as long as he can 'see and touch' them. Once they are out of his reach in a physical sense, they also cease to exist as meaningful experiences. It seems to be beyond the scope of his imagination to realise that to a man like Sorme, an experience of another person may have the effect of casting light on recesses of his own being which till now have been hidden in darkness. For the sake of contrast, it might be said that Nunne's circle of acquaintances represent no more than glittering lights which dazzle, for a moment, the essential darkness of his soul, whereas Some's true experiences of other people tend to assume the quality of lasting beams of enlightenment.
Returning to his own room after his evening in the luxury flat listening to Nunne's lamentations, Sorme feels this contrast between Nunne and himself. Viewed against the basic absurdity of Nunne's sense of life-devaluation, Sorme's own illusion of self-contempt no longer seems to matter:
Talking to Nunne had given him an intuition of change. He thought, with sudden complete certainty: I have wasted five years. Stuck in rooms. The world was alive. I have done nothing.
Poor Austin. Sadistic and listless, sensual, caring only about people and places. I am freer than he is; yet for five years I have behaved like a prisoner. Why?
Why indeed should Sorme, who has hardly enough money to keep him going from day to day, possess greater freedom than Nunne, who has the opportunity to go where he likes and do what he wants? Why should Sorme feel "a strange sense of advantage" over those people who never have to think about money? (p. 99) Considering what we observed earlier, that Sorme's and Nunne's rooms might be regarded as symbols of their respective personalities, we may attach a certain significance to the fact that in Nunne's basement flat the "space where the window had been was boarded over...it looked like a continuation of the wall" (p. 107). Nunne has the feeling of being imprisoned within his own restricted consciousness, and he finds that his only way of release - of gaining his natural freedom - is to break through the 'walls' and impose himself on his physical surroundings. His inborn need to create - to expand the limits of his consciousness - thus becomes a destructive force: It's an excitement. It's a kind of inverted creative impulse. I feel as if I'm serving something greater than myself. It's...like a need --- to build" (p. 371).
Sorme's one great benefit over Nunne is his ability to open up the 'windows' of his mind and hence expand the limits of his consciousness by absorbing into it his experience of the world around him:
He opened the kitchen window and leaned out. The night air smelt fresh. He felt buoyed up by an intuition of kindness and gratitude. It came again: the sense of life, of London's three millions, of smells in attics and markets. (p. 137)
Inside this room, within the confines of that same city which for years has made him feel non-existent, Sorme achieves a new sense of belief in himself and of confidence in his own powers that was always latent in him, yet which only rarely became conscious (p. 99). Sorme climbs up the fire escape, past the old man's room, on to the roof, and from there he looks out across the lights of the city, gaining an insight into the true nature of freedom - a knowledge of certainty that all that is beauty and meaning in life is only to be found within the resources of one's own mind. The world outside - the physical world - remains basically unchanged, dead. What matters is the way one looks at the world - the intensity and direction of one's imagination. Sorme realises that Nunne's great illusion in life is that he regards himself only as a fraction of a greater whole, dependent on other men. But man is not a mere grain of sand in a sterile universe; nor is God a power above and beyond oneself. Everything in the whole universe that means anything to man exists only within the immense freedom of his own individual mind; hence man becomes one with God and one with his fellow men. The 'room' may expand into "a cathedral, bigger than any known cathedral", or the sense of limitedness will dissolve, revealing only "a constant intensity of imagination that would require no cathedral symbol to sustain and remind...Until the consciousness stretches to embrace all space and history" (p. 138).
Now, it might be argued that such a philosophy has only relevance to the 'chosen few', and that the great majority of ordinary men and women are compelled to live in suffering and boredom, And we observe that even Sorme, descending from the roof, is afraid of the "numbness in his fingers, aware now of the drop to the concrete flags below (p. 139). However, we should bear in mind that the author does not necessarily regard this state of 'nirvana' as something which should become permanent at any cost, but that it points out a direction towards which man should seek to channel his creative energies, instead of directing them, as most people apparently do, towards worldly goods or material power. The self-confidence Sorme achieves through his vision is an emotional state which lives on even after the vision itself has faded away, Cycling though the streets of London the next morning, Sorme has a feeling of benevolence towards the man in the street, an intuitive sense of identification with him. And, what is more, "he felt no irritation towards the traffic" (p. 139).
It is this sense of oneness with other people that Nunne lacks, because he himself possesses no moral unity, no self-identity. Sorme's vision on the roof is a direct outcome of his acute sense of the contrast between himself and Nunne. But there still remains the question of how the most repulsive aspects of existence are to be incorporated in his philosophy. Sorme still cannot quite account for the fact that the negative sides of Nunne's character fascinate him most. His revelation of Nunne's true 'identity' comes through his dream in the brothel.
In his dream
Sorme sees Austin Nunne standing on the roof of an empty house, shouting at the
night sky, while the streets below are filled with
crowds watching him and urging him to jump down. The crowds are to some extent identical with the crowds
affronting Sorme in the opening chapter of the book; but here they are out of reach, and no longer exist as a
Up here Nunne feels that he is his
own master, and must resist the demands of the crowd. For the
protesting figure on the
roof to jump down into the street would be to commit suicide: "Insanity is when you
stop resisting" (p. 414). This statement is perhaps
better understood when we consider that the figure on
the roof turns into the image of a dancer. In fact, Sorme
sees Nunne's plight as identical with that of Nijinsky.
We have already noted that Sorme sees in the divine
quality of Nijinsky's dancing the creation of a bridge
between physical existence and the ideal existence of
the spirit. In The Outsider Colin Wilson wrote of Nijinsky's
"rhythmic, violent Dionysian upsurge of the
vital energies; while he could dance regularly, every day, and
restore contact with the vital, instinctive parts of his
own being, Nijinsky could not go insane. Sanity lay
in creation" (Ou p. 100). Nijinsky
becomes a living symbol of the self-divided man. In his everyday
affairs he was an insignificant person, bullied by his surroundings, a victim of "endless difficulties and
annoyances" (Ou p. 96) But through his creative dancing he held the
power to release the latent forces of his imprisoned soul. Then, after the dancing was over, came
the tragic return to earth - the pettiness and the
"atmosphere of physical suffocation" (Ou p. 100). This, too, is the
essence of Nunne's
dilemma. In the image of the faun is visualised the notion of half god, half animal; the "faun's
face" and Nunne's 'brown animal eyes" (p. 180)
symbolise at one and the same
time the split personality and the vital, instinctive parts of his being. Nunne can
only find release for his "vital energies" through physical discipline,
through complete control of the body.
But Nunne is no Vaslav Nijinsky. The fact that throughout his childhood he has never been offered the chance to train as a ballet dancer points out the bonds imposed on him by his environment. Given the chance, he might have become something more than he is. The material and spiritual 'security' of his childhood has deadened the creative challenge, eliminated his sense of 'identity', while the inborn need to assert an identity has persisted.
And then the leap, violent as the sun on ice, beyond the bed, floating without noise, on, through the open window. The excitement rose in him like a fire. The rose, bloodblack in the silver light, now reddening in the dawn that blows over Paddington's roof-tops. Ending. A rose thrown from an open window, curving high over London's waking roof-tops, then falling, its petals loosening, into the grey soiled waters of the Thames. (p. 180)
After the ecstatic leap, the intuition of oneness with life, there is the tragic return to earth. Denied self-identity, the soul (the rose) is divided into meaningless fragments. This is to say that denied the self-belief necessary to create, the need for freedom can only find release through destruction. To create is to violate the limits of one's consciousness; to destroy is to violate the limits of one's physical environment. Both kinds of action express man's natural yearning for freedom. This is the true revelation of Sorme's dream, that he cannot comprehend the nature of good if he chooses to ignore the nature of evil.
l). It is worth noting that Colin Wilson himself, when eighteen, developed the idea of choosing ballet dancing as a career, and even began practising pliés and basic ballet steps in his spare time. He regarded ballet exercises as a way of keeping the body fit. Campion mentions that Wilson wrote to Arnold Haskell and Sir Kenneth Clarke, two of the leading authorities, asking for advice. "Both replied sympathetically but discouragingly; eighteen was too old to begin training as a dancer" (Campion, pp. 36, 53, 69).
Nunne becomes, then, a living image of the Nijinsky whom Some has pictured in his mind - the symbol of the life-force yearning for release, the frustrated man "walking around the streets at night like a high-pressure boiler, almost bursting" (p. 16). Nunne lacks the inspiration to create, although he possesses the sensitivity of the creative artist. The doctrines of the Church, imposed on him more or less against his will throughout his adolescence, seem to afford him no greater sense of purpose than the worldly security of his father's money or the social standing he has acquired for himself through his own books.
The religious doctrines which have 'suffocated' Nunne are represented, in this novel, through the figure of the Catholic priest, Father Carruthers. Man knows himself as body", says the priest, "and what he knows of spirit comes through grace. The poet would call it inspiration" (p. 227). What shatters Nunne is the belief, expounded here through Carruthers, that "Man has no control over his inspiration. If a piece of music or a poem has moved him once, he can never be certain that it will happen again". Therefore, declares the priest, all that man can do is to wait: "The business of religion is to teach men patience. As soon as man loses patience, he loses all he has" (p. 228).
It is evident that to an over-sensitive mind like Nunne's, filled with dissatisfaction and disgust, such a belief can only lead to frustration and despair. Outward reality imprisons his mind, as do the teachings of the Church. His dilemma bears a certain similarity to that of the Romantic poet, who may experience a beautiful scene, and yet know that he can never hope to grasp its true meaning for more than a passing moment. But in the case of Nunne the plight is much greater, for even the beauty of the moment fails to induce any meaning to him. He sees a beautiful scene, and in a way realises its beauty, and yet he cannot experience it. The intimations of a higher life which such a scene may evoke, set off against the dreary lifelessness of everyday existence, have the effect of arousing in him a creative urge - an urge to expand his consciousness - which can only find its outlet through violation of his dreary, 'lifeless' surroundings. The frustrated force of unfulfilled desire leads only to destruction, to violation of himself and his fellow human beings. In view of the moral idealism of the Church, it becomes a point of grotesque irony in this novel that Nunne begins his life as a murderer only a short while after he has been having a talk with the Catholic priest:
thee first time it ever happened in London. I'd been to see Father Carruthers and I came away feeling sick of everything. He obviously didn't know what I was talking about. And I walked along Charterhouse Street, and there was an extraordinary sunset over the rooftops. And suddenly I detested it all... (p. 375)
Gerard Sorme's response to the question of violence and murder undergoes a marked development in the course of the novel. His antipathy to death and decay in the first chapters originates from his sense of being "trapped in existence". His change is not merely a matter of substituting one moral view for another, but reflects an increasing capability in himself of comprehending the workings of his own mind. His realisation that the artist, the social rerormer and the criminal are driven by the same fundamental life-urge expresses a wakening awareness of his own true 'identity', of the knowledge that if life is to have any meaning at all, he must possess the inner freedom of self-expression.
The victims of the Whitechapel killer are all prostitutes, women who in Nunne's mind are spiritually dead, symbols of civilisation at its most decadent level, an insult to the dignity of man. And this is why the hero feels that, morally speaking, he has a certain right to condone the crimes. Through his acts of violence Nunne is seeking to express his 'identity' in the face of the world. Hence it follows that most people will be more capable of sympathising with him than with the prostitutes, who possess little if any 'identity' at all. Such, at least, is Sorme's reasoning to Oliver Glasp: "After all, how can anyone really identify himself with an East End prostitute?" (p. 199)
However, in his eagerness to defend Nunne, the hero fails to take into account the self-destructive element inherent in the actions of the murderer. That the plight of the 'fallen woman' has another aspect - an element of innocence and feeling - which Nunne ignores and which Sorme does not fully realise at the time, will be revealed if we turn our attention to the child Christine, and Glasp.
It is on the day after his experience in the basement flat, and hence on the day following his vision on the roof of his house, that the hero decides to call on Oliver Glasp. Whereas in the relationship between Nunne and Sorme it was Nunne who took the initiative, while Sorme was more or less passive, it is worth noting that Sorme is the one who plays the active part in his friendship with Glasp, while Glasp remains basically receptive. The primary reason for Sorme's wish to meet this painter is a feeling that Glasp might be able to provide him with some more information about Nunne. As we remember, it is in Nunne's basement flat that Sorme first sees some of Glasp's paintings. He experiences in these paintings a certain 'fanatic' quality, a need to experiment, which he feels bears a certain similarity to the fanaticism he has observed in Nunne.
What strikes him about Glasp when they first meet is the painter's fundamental loneliness: he shuts himself off from the world by working on his own in his studio, and makes no effort to conceal his hostility when Sorme, a stranger, one morning intrudes upon his privacy. Glasp is a victim to changing moods and emotional strain, manifested through the jerky, emphatic way he paints, and the twitching forehead. Moreover, the strong smell of paraffin on the stairs mentioned each time Sorme passes in and out of Glasp's studio serves perhaps to indicate the latent fire and fury of Glasp's temperament. Sorme observes Glasp as "a man without vitality or direction", his face "bloodless and alien" (p. 263), but after a drink or two in the pub he changes into a different person, capable of regarding his fellow human beings with a relaxed air of humorous benevolence - that is, until people start meddling with his affairs, when his emotions are apt to flare up with a vehemence equalling that of Nunne in the traffic-jammed streets: The world's full of people who ought to be behind bars - in a zoo! They're no better than animals" (p. 320). At one moment he has the sense that life is good, and feels pity for his fellow men; at the next he is depressed by a feeling that the world is basically evil. In contrast to Sorme, there is no unity in his vision of life.
It soon becomes. apparent to Sorme that Oliver Glasp, too, takes an interest in the topic of murder. His great-aunt was the last victim of Jack the Ripper (so he says), and it seems that his relatives have always somehow attracted criminals: "You notice that, as soon as I settle in Whitechapel, a crime wave begins? That's in the family tradition" (p. 152). Sorme, although somehow feeling that Glasp is inventing these family chronicles, nevertheless senses an underlying seriousness in what he is saying. What becomes apparent is that the cause of Glasp's interest in crime is fundamentally different to that of Nunne, or even Sorme. Whereas Nunne plays the active part of the violator, Glasp's role remains that of the violated. "Crime runs in our family", he says, but our connection with it was always indirect". The fact that Glasp regards himself as descending from a family of victims serves to emphasise his essentially tragic nature - that he is the victim of circumstances and events over which he has no control. It appears that Glasp too is striving to achieve a kind of freedom, though his means are wholly different from those of either Nunne or Sorme. While Nunne finds self-expression through acts of sadism, Glasp's tendencies are more masochistic in character - manifested through outbursts of self-pity and even acts of self-torture. This is illustrated in the suicide motifs recurring in several of the paintings, for instance in the picture of the self-crucified man suspended from an open window over a market-place. Remembering what we observed earlier as regards the symbolic function of rooms and buildings in this novel, the imagery here becomes apparent: freedom (the open window) and hence god-like status (the crucifix) through self-torment. The scene Glasp has depicted thus becomes a symbol of his own spiritual plight.
Oliver Glasp suffers from a state of emotional torment that he is unable to define. His dilemma has a basic similarity to that of Nunne on seeing the "extraordinary sunset" which he knows that he can never fully grasp. But whereas Nunne refuses to remain a victim to his emotional torment, consequently transforming himself into the role of the violator, it becomes an expression of Glasp's defeatist attitude that he remains in the position of the violated. Glasp regards the human situation as basically tragic, but he feels that there is nothing much that man can do about it. True enough, Glasp, too, is active in a way, but the violence of his feelings expresses itself, as we have noted, essentially by way of self-torment - partly by inducing emotional crises into his life, like his quarrel with Christine's father - but also through a certain degree of physical pain, like wearing (as he once did) a shirt studded with tintacks "as a preparation for eternal torment" (p, 171). It is Nunne who first informs Some about this aspect of Glasp's character, and, as we would expect, Nunne the sadist has little respect for these masochistic leanings in Glasp. "We quarreled", says Nunne; "I couldn't stand his touchiness...he was trying to be an ascetic - sleeping on the bare wires of his bed and all that" (p. 138).
An expressive instance of Glasp's negative attitude to life is his and Sorme's reluctant encounter with Brother Robbins, the Jehovah's Witness, at Gertrude's house. Both Glasp and Sorme conceive an immediate dislike for this pot-bellied preacher with his winning smile and "elaborate courtesy", but especially Glasp, who limits his conversation mostly to scowling at the carpet or expressing a few contemptible grunts. On the other hand Sorme, good-tempered as he is, tries to show some interest in brother Robbins's dissertations on the end of the world; and, indeed, he seems to recognise an underlying 'truth' in what the preacher is saying, that one day the earth - this earth - will be "transfigured and made into a heaven" (p. 271). Glasp's and Sorme's differing attitudes to this belief mark clearly the contrast between Glasp's pessimistic outlook - his belief in 'eternal torment' - and Sorme's far more optimistic belief that if you want to change the world into a paradise, you've got to do it yourself (p. 272). We might call Sorme's attitude the more 'existential' of the two.
In the eyes of Oliver Glasp the figure of the talented child Christine becomes a living symbol of that ideal state of beauty and innocence which he feels is beyond the full grasp of his experience. The fact that he chooses a child as an object for his affection, instead of a mature woman, stresses the intangibility of his desires: "I don't want to sleep with her. I don't even want to touch her. I'm not a bloody pervert. Don't you see? I just want her. I want her more than I've ever wanted anything ----" (p . 289). It is conceivable that sexual fulfilment might have assuaged his emotional torment, at least as regards the opposite sex, and that an acceptance of his physical desires might have led to a more general acceptance of life. But the purely spiritual idealism he sustains in his relationship to Christine only serves to increase the dichotomy between these undefinable emotions and the physical reality surrounding him. The fact that he somewhat resents physically mature girls, illustrated by his sullenness when he meets Caroline (p. 200), serves to reflect his incapability of accepting an 'existential' solution to his plight. Glasp is unwilling to conceive that true beauty and meaning cannot be attained by suppressing physical reality, but can only be grasped if one accepts physical reality as the starting-point. The sexual act might, in this context, be considered as a kind of 'existential' groundwork with the power to assuage undefinable emotions. This idea is not, however, to be regarded as an end in itself (such a notion would be easily susceptible to parody), but rather as a symbol, or one aspect, of an existential solution involving all life and creation. In this sense Christine's function in the novel might be regarded as basically symbolic; but then, such would also be the case with characters like Gertrude and Caroline. The sexual impulse originates in the same basic life-urge that inspires the artist to create or which, on the other hand, provokes a man to kill. The sexual experience itself is just "raw energy, heat and light. What makes it important are the ideals it illuminates" (p. 238). What this implies within the thematic context of the novel will be seen after we have turned our attention to Gertrude and Caroline.
As a personality, Gertrude Quincey obviously bears little resemblance to any other character in the book. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to suppose that her actions, and even her strict morality, somehow originate in a fundamental need for self-identity analogous to that of Nunne, Glasp and Sorme. As a girl, Gertrude used to read about the lives of the female saints, and her greatest wish in life was to become "a woman with something to say'' (p. 78). However, Gertrude never managed to become the kind of woman she intended, and one fundamental reason for this is perhaps hinted through Nunne in the opening chapter, after he and Sorme have paid their brief late-night visit to Gertrude:
Sorme said: Was your aunt ever married?
She's not my aunt.
Was she ever married?
No. Gertrude is a most mysterious case. No one knows all the facts. She had a father.
A father. You know some people have got a mother who won't let them off the dog lead? Well, she had a father.
In saying this, Nunne undoubtedly has in mind his own mother, and his personal experiences of having been spiritually 'suffocated'. Hence it is possible to perceive a certain similarity between Nunne's situation and the fact that Gertrude evidently had to suffer under the moral domination of her father.
Since Gertrude does not possess the self-confidence necessary to turn her into something greater than she is, she needs to compensate her lack of eminence by concentrating her life and energies on those, kinds of people whom she feels are worse off than herself - both in a social and a religious sense. Because she lacks any true sense of identity, she has a need to distract her mind by assuring herself that unhappy people do exist, and hence she manages to maintain her own happiness. Furthermore, she imposes a sense of meaning on her life by feeling that she is taking an active part in helping these people. One instance of this is the fact that she once spent a fortnight living in an East End hostel, helping socially underprivileged women (p. 81). Another is the work she carries out as a Jehovah's Witness - her efforts to convert people into accepting the religious doctrines which she herself claims to believe. In her conversations with Sorme she manages to maintain an air of self-assurance as long as she is talking about other people and their problems (for instance, when she is discussing Nunne's difficulties, or Caroline's worldly-mindedness, or Glasp's silly attachment to Christine), but becomes easily embarrassed or bewildered if Sorme happens to touch upon aspects of her own life. We may go so far as to conclude that it is because Gertrude does not possess belief in herself (that is, in her own identity, in God, in ultimate knowledge) that she needs to base her judgments of other people on what the Bible says. Like Nunne, in a way, she becomes spiritually'lost' forasmuch as she looks for the meaning of life outside herself: she does not experience the Bible; she only learns its doctrines by heart. She differs from Nunne, among other points, in that she ensconces her uncertainty behind an impregnable barrier of moral codes and social 'correctness'.
In this respect Gertrude stands as the reverse image of her seventeen-year-old niece Caroline, in whose mind apparently moral codes do not exist. One of the most amusing scenes in the book is surely that of Sorme's first encounter with Caroline, his confrontation with the two women together one evening in Gertrude's sitting-room. Like Glasp's unasked-for encounter with Brother Robbins, the humour emerges as a natural outcome of the confrontation between two contradicting modes of conduct, in this case represented through the two women. Caroline takes an immediate liking to Sorme, especially when she learns that he is a writer, and has no scruples about making him aware of the fact, or about telling him openly so afterwards: "Shall I tell you something? I decided to make a beeline for you the first time I met you at Aunt Gertrude's. I shouldn't really tell you that, should I? (pp. 203-4) This first evening of their acquaintance, then, Caroline reveals an unrestrained delight in talking to Sorme about subjects that nearly shock the moral wits out of Miss Quincey, who in the end feels "as if the conversation had become too risqué for her to take any further responsibility (p. 88). The scene marks off very well the individuality of the two women. But what is important in the thematic context is not their traits of character as such, but rather the influence which the contrast of their moral views has on the spiritual 'education' of the hero.
Although Sorme is charmed by Caroline, and feels a certain "amused tenderness
for her, it is Gertrude who arouses in him the greatest physical
desire. His wish to
penetrate her "icy virginity" originates in his creative urge to "break down the barriers between
human beings (p. 276), and Sorme
regards all kinds of barriers between people as imposed from without, and
hence alien to their true
identity. His desire to experience the true identity behind Gertrude Quincey's mask represents no less than a yearning to penetrate
the "blank wall" of his own
existence and achieve an intenser state
of self-awareness: "it's not just
Gertrude --- it's me. I want to know where I differ
from her" (p. 169). Hence the
experience of true love becomes something more than the physical act of lovemaking itself, and even something more than the mere infatuation between
a man and a woman. It develops into
an expression of a person's inner
freedom when he experiences his own true identity in another person. In this way, love between one
person and another can only exist as
long as both possess the capacity for
The hero, after his night with Gertrude, is uncertain of the nature of his feelings for her. As yet he has not gained the true capacity of self-identity: "Am I in lovewith her? Is it possible after one night?...That's the trouble with being self-divided. You can never tell. I feel as if I'm in love with her now. What about tomorrow?" (p. 341) Moreover, Gertrude's ability to experience love (in the true sense) depends, too, upon her ability to cast off the chains of her own delusions - not only when she is alone with her lover, but in the face of the world. But Gertrude is too deeply rooted in her own self-doubt. Sorme becomes fully aware of this when she reveals her inability to understand him when he triesto explain to her the true motive underlying Nunne's crimes, the fact that the sadistic killer possesses a fundamental urge to express his own identity, an overpowering appetite to regain his freedom' (p. 352). From what we have observed earlier, we may be able to conclude that a person who is incapable of comprehending the state of mind of a murderer, can neither possess the freedom of mind to experience true love and beauty. Gertrude is still a mask. Towards Sorme she simply exchanges her Jehovah's Witness mask for that of the mistress or fiancée. Inside herself, she is still a void, lacking self-awareness, incapable of understanding either Nunne, Glasp or Sorme in the capacity of their true identity:
He looked at her with pity; she was listening, but without comprehension. When he stopped talking, she only stared past his head at the wallpaper. The insight overwhelmed him: she can never understand. She knows only categories and chapters from the Book of Kings. She can never know real good or evil; the knowledge would wreck her.
It was the answer to his interest in her; the insight brought disappointment and tenderness. A woman's world, a world of people. Without Kali, the insane mother, infinity of destructiveness and creativeness.
At the top of the stairs he turned and kissed her; there was no response in her mouth. He went on down the stairs, thinking: I wonder if a woman exists who doesn't have her roots in limits and self-doubt? Probably not. But the search is not finished yet. (p. 353)
visit to Leatherhead, when it is revealed that Nunne really is the Whitechapel killer,
and Sorme is in a state
of creative fervour, working away on his typewriter, Gertrude unexpectedly calls in
in his room (obviously to make sure that
Caroline is not with
him), and immediately sets about dusting the bookshelves and grimacing at the stains on
the tablecloth beneath his typewriter. It is not difficult to imagine the misgivings which Sorme, with his
will to limitless
freedom, must then harbour at the notion of being married to a woman like Gertrude, with
and chapters" and her countless little limits.
Similarly, it is the hero's refusal to be standardised or classified within the social concepts of 'personality' which is the main cause of his misgivings about Caroline. He is charmed by the girl's spontaneity and attracted by the atmosphere of unrestraint he feels in her presence, but he realises that ultimately her kind of freedom is only an illusion, a habit of living in the present. In the long run it can only lead to increasing constraint. After only a few days' acquaintance with Sorme, Caroline has already made up her mind about his 'personality', and wrapped it neatly up, so to speak, within the confines of a labeled 'box':
She rubbed her head against his shoulder.
I wouldn't mind being married to you.
What! On less that a week's acquaintance?
As he turned to face her, she put both her arms round his neck; she said softly, defensively:
I don't need to know you for a long time. I know what you're like already.
Do you? What am I like?
Well, you're good tempered --- and one day you'll make a huge success.
Sorme senses that a life based on living up to such ideals, shallow as they are, would imply nothing less than mental suicide, and hence he thinks to himself: "But I don't want to be a husband. Nice little hubby, good dog" (p. 242). These sentiments certainly bear much similarity to Nunne's remarks on the kinds of mothers and fathers who won't let their children "off the dog lead" before it is too late, before the identity gets lost for ever. In Sorme's mind (and, as we have seen, in Nunne's) the glories of social success, which Caroline is trying to achieve through her drama school training; are transient and hence false. The fact that she is a drama student serves to point out, symbolically, that her adult life will be a series of roles which she must play in order to get on in society. At seventeen, she still possesses the natural spontaneity of her childhood, but this mingles badly, in Sorme's ear, with the "controlled, sophisticated drawl" which she imposes on her speech when her social consciousness gets the upper hand,. He surmises that "in two years' time she would speak with a drawl all the time, and call everybody darling; in the meantime, her manner was a hybrid of schoolgirl and theatre"( p. 85).
A person who achieves success will, when the first exhilarating surge of achievement has subsided, be left groping in a void if his ambitions do not involve a purpose beyond the mere social feat. And the experience of sex will, once the exhilaration of having broken down a physical barrier has subsided, become a mere animal ritual - an escape from boredom - if it does not transcend into a greater purpose. It is this ultimate purpose which Caroline does not possess, neither socially nor sexually. Sorme conceives a more fundamental interest for Gertrude as a sexual partner than for Caroline, because Gertrude, with her air of feminine mystique, challenges his imagination to a greater degree, and hence arouses those vital forces of his being which expand his sense of freedom, his will to see into himself. Caroline, on the other hand,, is nothing more than her social self, and anything that passes through her mind comes out again through her mouth. Now Sorme feels that there is nothing wrong with her frankness as such; on the contrary, this is what in his mind constitutes her attractiveness. Wnat is wrong is that her frankness does not originate from her own true identity, but from the patterns she sees on the physical crust of things: "The unseen, the imaginative adventure, was just what she did not represent...it was an idealism she offended...Her animal vitality conducted the tension away, like an earthing wire" (p. 140). Caroline's narrow world has no room for the imagination or for the experience of God.
It is this 'ultimate freedom' that Glasp experiences in the child Christine, but at the same time he chooses to subdue physical reality (in contrast to Nunne or Caroline), and thus his sense of freedom is associated with something undefinable, a state of perpetual emotional torment. Certainly Glasp is aware that his affection for Christine is something that points beyond the girl herself; in this sense he possesses greater creative awareness than Nunne. But Glasp's limitedness lies in the fact that he associates this 'beyondness' with other people:
Christine's good for me because she makes me think about other people. Not just about her. She makes me realise that hundreds - thousands - are living in complete misery...They don't feel like giants or gods, and they don't feel like insects either. They're just ordinary men and women, and most of their lives is suffering or boredom. (p. 327)
In his best moments his emotions become one with his fellow men in their misery, but in their misery only. Hence, through his paintings, Glasp is capable of expressing himself fully only by portraying human suffering.
Nunne, on the other hand, has no sense of identity with his fellow men. Too much security has dulled
his imagination, his ability to see beyond the 'here and now', to penetrate the physical crust of things
and see into the mind of others as a
revelation of himself. When Nunne
experienced the "extraordinary sunset" it was not the physical elements of the scene that aroused
his sense of beauty, but something
inside himself. His tragedy is an
outcome of his blindness to this 'inner' truth: he travels round the world, seeking for something,
but returns empty-handed.
To the man who lacks imagination, life becomes boring, and the easiest way of stimulating the imagination, it seems, is through sex, which has the power to stimulate not only emotionally but also physically. Such stimulation is, however, largely dependent on the violating of taboos, on the sense of penetrating an 'alien' being, on merging oneself into the profoundest mysteries of life. Hence follows that once the sexual act stagnates into a ritual - a mere barren everyday affair - the intensity disappears, and the act becomes a distraction born of boredom. Thus we might perhaps begin to understand why Sorme felt impotent that night with the bored girl from the cafe. Her whole attitude to sex was a negation of the creative impulse. Beyond her bare physical needs, she possessed no identity, only a meaningless void.
2). It is, of course, beyond the scope of this study to discuss fully Colin Wilson's philosophy of sex, expounded in his book Origins of the Sexual impulse. As I have tried to show, however, his ideas on sex form an integrated part of his whole philosophy of the creative impulse. Wilson states that the main topic of his book is existential psychology, and that sex is only "the avenue through which it happens to have been approached". One of the main points of the book is to show that "man can respond sexually to almost anything". What man subconsciously is seeking to acquire through sex is greater intensity of imagination, an awakening of the creative faculties. The sexual impulse is not the basic human drive, as Freud maintains."It may be stronger, but that is an entirely different thing'.
Now we might try to imagine Austin Nunne's response to a situation like this. To him the frustration, the sense of impotency, would be ultimate in itself. It is because 'normal' sex leads him nowhere that he needs stronger stimulants to arouse his imagination. His acts of sadism are an attempt to violate a taboo. The whole point of sadism, he explains to Some, is that it wants to take what someone doesn't want to give (p. l29). If we consider this against a background of 'ultimate being' it might be natural to ask: what if this 'someone' is identical with God? Is it not possible to regard Nunne's crimes as acts of defiance against God - or rather, against a Power that he feels to be above and beyond rather than within himself - against Destiny?
Thus his crimes might be seen as manifestations of an effort to regain the creative power that he feels should be rightly his. But what this novel sets out to proclaim is that man himself is God - that he is one with his fellow men and hence responsible to himself and to others. In killing a fellow human being the murderer inevitably destroys the origins of life and beauty in himself. Hence Sorme concludes:
It's a complete negation of all our impulses. It means we've got no future. But we've got to believe in the future. And it's not just a question of my future - it's the future of the human race. If life can just be ended like that - snuffed out - then all the talk about the dignity of man's an illusion. It might be you or me. (p. 411)
But then arises the question: can a
person who is spiritually 'dead', for
instance an East End prostitute, qualify as a human being of dignity?
On the day of Nunne's 'arrest' Sorme is taken, by Dr. Stein, to the morgue at the London Hospital, where he is shown the body of a prostitute, the latest victim of the Whitechapel killer. The sight of the corpse leaves him wholly unmoved. He sees in it "no resemblance to living humanity, although the human shape was plain enough". His mind mechanically associates this dead body with the alien, meaningless kind of existence which has been the cause of his own spiritual decay. However, the sight of the second corpse, the young mother of three children who has been killed by her husband, arouses his imagination to life, and by imagination is implied his creative faculties. In a way he manages to identify himself with this woman; there is a "recognition of humanity":
The fascination was one of pity and kinship. It might have been Gertrude Quincey or Caroline. The flesh had once been caressed; the body had carried children. He felt the stirring of a consuming curiosity about her. Why was she dead? Who was she? There was an absurdity in her death. How could twenty-five years as a human being lead inevitably to a mortuary slab, the breasts and smooth belly carbonised out of relevance to life? The belly and thighs were well shaped. If she had been alive, sleeping, he would have felt the movement of desire: its failure symbolised the absurdity of her death. (p. 398)
Sorme's differing response to the two bodies reflects the contrast between Nunne's and Glasp's attitude to life. One sees only the body - the physical crust, whereas the other experiences only the emotions - the spirit. Nunne regards his victims as dead matter, beings who have no right to live. Glasp, however, sees in the figure of the child Christine a state of pure innocence and beauty, bearing no relevance to the physical world. What is significant in this connection is that Sorme, during his visit to the morgue, senses no relationship between the two dead bodies. The fate of the prostitute seems to have no affinity to that of the young mother. The incident which finally makes Sorme realise that the two 'modes of being' cannot be divided is his encounter, shortly afterwards, with the child Christine.
Sorme has been told through Glasp that Christine's one great ambition in life is to become an art student. She has both the will and the ability to do well as an artist, but her parents violently resist the idea. The one thought they have in mind is to make her work and earn money. "Her family have lived in slums for generations", says Glasp. 'They don't want to do anything better (p. 286). The very fact that Christine is "brilliant enough to get a scholarship" implies that she is capable of bettering her life. Her surroundings, in their ignorance, might be said to represent the conservative unwillingness in the majority of people to change the order of things. Rather than embark on a new and enlightening course which might improve the happiness and purpose of their lives considerably, they prefer to keep firmly to their everyday ritual of living. The fact that Christine's father is a drunken prison warder intimates, symbolically, the tragic results that might ensue from too much suppression of a person's need for creative self-expression. Christine's natural will to freedom is imprisoned and guarded closely by her narrow-minded parents and her social environment. She, too, is tied to the 'dog lead'.
It is somewhat ironical that the child's mother, in her ignorance, becomes the indirect cause of that very condition which she is warning her daughter against, for with her threatening attitude she unintentionally forces the child to seek refuge with Glasp when, one day, she falls into a pond while playing in a park; while her clothes are drying in front of Glasp's fire, she poses for him in the nude. Even more grotesquely ironical is the mother's assertion that 'art students are no better than prostitutes' (p. 286), for it is her refusal to let Christine become an art student - that is, to seek a better life - that inevitably leads the child on to a path that might ultimately end up in prostitution. The general passive acceptance of triviality is, in this context, the cause of the sense of boredom and futility that forces people to seek for satisfaction through distractions of an extreme kind. One such distraction is violence; another is sex. Both are manifestations of man's inborn need for the freedom of self-expression. This is the plight of the nymphomaniac, the girl from the cafe: 'She had sex for the same reason that she chain-smoked. Boredom". And this, too, is Nunne's dilemma: "I'd have been bored stiff on my own". Viewed against this background, Some must inevitably sense forebodings of tragedy when the child says to him: "I don't mind getting into trouble --- But I hate being bored" (p. 104).
Sorme's encounter with Christine makes him see with sudden clarity that the 'spiritual deadness' of the East End prostitute does not preclude, even from such a person, the potentiality of the divine being. Even the 'fallen woman' possesses, latent within her, the origins of beauty and innocence that are the source of meaning. It is the ignorance and the triviality of her environment that have ruined her. It is not Christine's fault that she is raped by her cousin. It is not her fault that her parents refuse to let her study art. Hence it is not basically the child's fault if she drifts into a state of indifference that leads her into prostitution. These are the aspects of the 'fallen woman' that the killer Austin Nunne does not see:
Pooh, a few prostitutes. Women who'd sold their lives, anyway. Do you know what that woman last night said to me? 'I suppose you might be Leather Apron'. She knew I might be...She just didn't care...These women aren't too poor to give it up. They could live better as shop assistants or hosiery workers. They just don't care. (pp. 370-1)
Christine might, on these grounds, be regarded as a synthesis between the dichotomised worlds of spirit and matter, the one represented through Glasp and the other through Nunne. Sorme, representing the world of intellect - of abstract thought - stands in a way apart from these, but is merged together with them when, immediately after he has seen the two corpses at the morgue, he experiences the true nature of the child Christine. The three men are meant to complement one another, and Christine becomes a symbol of their unification. In an early notebook on Ritual in the Dark Wilson states: "Nunne, Sorme and Glasp are the body, the heart and the intellect of the same man, like Blake's Tharmas, Urizen and Luvah. Their separation is a kind of legend of a fall" (Campion, p. 160). A similar division of man is repeated in the novel which will be the subject of the next chapter, The World of Violence, but here the emphasis lies more on the conflict between reason and intuition, between the destructive insight into chaos and absurdity, and the creative vision of unity and meaning.
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, therefore, 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 it is 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, and 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 man lives 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 or 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 wayof 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's like...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 Sartre man 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 and gratitude, a sudden "blaze of certainty" (p. 253). Whereas in the preceding chapters the scenery or the weather were described as a kind of reflection of the hero's varying moods, his new freedom is now accentuated 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 the opposite 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 non-fiction 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 the selfsame 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 outer stimulants. 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.
TOWARDS A NEW EXISTENTIALISM
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, forinstance 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 volumes.
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 isbasic 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 p. 25)
Principally, this view is similar to that of Dr. Laing, who suggests that "sanity or psychosis 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...
Sartre 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)
It seems rash to maintain, as many critics obviously do, that the rapturous reception of Colin Wilson's first book in 1956 represented no more than a whim of the English reviewers, a mere freak of the 'angry decade'. That this acclaim expressed something far more universal than these critics would contend is, it seems, only confirmed by the enthusiastic welcome that Wilson's books have received, not only in Western Europe and America, but also more recently in many different parts of the world - in Buddhist, Muslim and Communist countries alike. Thus, judging from an article by Professor Valentina Ivasheva in the Times Literary Supplement (September 12 1968), it appears that Colin Wilson, together with Iris Murdoch and William Golding, is the contemporary English novelist most widely discussed in seminars at Moscow University, besides the fact that he is a popular subject for students' theses. In another article in the same magazine a lecturer at Kobe University mentions the strong impact that Colin Wilson's The Outsider has made on Japanese students; moreover, Sidney Campion writes that all Wilson's books and articles have been translated into Japanese. Wilson's influence in Spain, France and even India has also developed markedly in recent years, and furthermore, most of his books have, in the past three or four years, been translated into Arabian. As Kenneth Allsop wrote eleven years ago: Wilson "has forced himself up out of the cosy insularity of English letters...and looked at the terrain of European thought" (Allsop, p. 179); if not, it may be added, at the vast domains of universal thought.
To Colin Wilson it is the writer's duty to create in man a new belief in his own potentialities as a spiritual being, to enhance the vital energies and sources of beauty and meaning that are inherent within him, and - most important of all - to make man see clearly the basic problem that is obstructing his spiritual progress. As Colin Wilson seems to be one of the very few writers in England who are acutely aware of these problems, and as these problems seem vital to an understanding of our times, it is not inconceivable that he will, in the not too far distant future, be regarded in English literary circles with greater respect than he is today. By traditional standards of literature he has, indeed, much to learn from many of his contemporaries; by existential standards, he may well turn out to be the greatest of them all.
I. BOOKS BY COLIN WILSON
Note: The editions mentioned are only those used in the text.
Abbreviations used in the text are given in brackets before each title.
(RD) Ritual in the Dark. London: Victor Gollancz, 1960.
Adrift in Soho. 1961.
(WV) The World of Violence. London: Arthur Barker, 1963.
(MWS) Man Without a Shadow. London: Arthur Barker, 1963.
Necessary Doubt. 1964.
The Glass Cage. 1966.
(MP) The Mind Parasites. London: Arthur Barker, 1967.
(Ou) The Outsider. 1956. London: Victor Gollancz, July 1957.
(RR) Religion and the Rebel. London: Victor Gollancz, 1957.
(AD) The Age of Defeat. London: Victor Gollancz, 1959.
(EM) Encyclopaedia of Murder. London: Arthur Barker, 1961.
(SD) The Strength to Dream. London: Victor Gollancz, 1962.
(OSI) Origins of the Sexual Impulse. 1963. Panther Books, 1966.
Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs. 1964.
(BD) Brandy of the Damned. 1964. Pan Books, 1967 (published as: Colin Wilson on Music)
(BO) Beyond the Outsider. London: Arthur Barker, 1965.
(EE) Eagle and Earwig. London: John Baker, 1965.
(INE) Introduction to the New Existentialism. London: Hutchinson, 1966.
Sex and the Intelligent Teenager. 1966.
II. OTHER BOOKS CITED.
Allsop, Kenneth: The Angry Decade. London: Peter Owen, 1958.
Blackham, H. J.: Six Existentialist Thinkers. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.
Campion, Sidney: The World of Colin Wilson. London: Frederick Muller, 1962.
Koestler, Arthur: The Act of Creation. London: Hutchinson, 1964.
Laing, R. D.: The Divided Self. 1960. Penguin Books, 1967.
Marcel, Gabriel: The Philosophy of Existentialism. New York:
The Citadel Press, 1966.
Sartre, Jean-Paul: Nausea (La Nausée, 1938).
Penguin Books, 1967.