Eagles and Earwigs: Essays on Books and Writers

Colin Wilson, Eyewear Publishing, 2018, 412 pages, £16.65

GOMERY KIMBER welcomes a resurgence of interest in one of the cleverest ‘Angry Young Men’

If the novelist, philosopher and critic, Colin Wilson is remembered at all it is as one of the ‘Angry Young Men’, and for his first book, The Outsider, (1956) – “the definitive study of alienation, creativity, and the modern mind”, as it is described on the front cover of the Victor Gollancz paperback that lies on my desk. And if The Outsider made Wilson’s reputation, it was the media circus surrounding the ‘Angries’ which destroyed it. When his second book, Religion and the Rebel, appeared the following year, highbrow critics who had lauded The Outsider were quick to recant and declare Wilson a fraud.

But there is much more to Wilson than half-remembered newspaper publicity from the 1950s, as this republished volume, Eagles and Earwigs, attests. The book originally appeared in 1965, and Todd Swift, PhD of Eyewear Publishing is to be commended for producing such a handsome volume (I thought I’d purchased a paperback copy, and so was delighted to receive this well-designed, well-printed hardback).  It is worth quoting a paragraph from Dr Swift’s Introduction, as it both gives an overview of Wilson the writer and mirrors my own attitude to him:

As I have written elsewhere, I believe Colin Wilson to be a visionary thinker and writer of at least near-genius, whose reputation, like that of a fellow outsider fascinated by extreme states of consciousness, science, and mystery – Poe – has equally been side-lined.  He is a competent stylist, capable of writing exceptionally readable books, a brilliant collector of both facts and anecdotal wonders, but also a master analyst, able to distil and refine what he has read and thought about.

Eagles and Earwigs, a collection of essays of existential criticism, is indeed a showcase of Colin Wilson’s admirable talents. The book is divided into three parts, the first being titled, ‘Literature and Philosophy’, and containing essays on the modern hero, phenomenology and literature, and the existential temper of the modern novel. What, then, is existential criticism?

Gary Lachman, author of a biography of Wilson, explains in the Preface:

It is concerned with how a writer sees the world, his actual perception of it, and with his or her qualifications for making general assessments about that mysterious thing, life. As Wilson writes, for him, it is “…necessary to scrutinize the writer’s qualifications for imposing his vision on his contemporaries”

Existential criticism is an examination of that vision, to decide how much of reality it incorporates. Or conversely,

…it examines how far a writer’s attitude toward the world is parochial, based on some temperamental defect of vision

Existential criticism therefore differs from traditional academic literary criticism which concerns itself primarily with technique, style, and with the influence of writers on each other. When compared to more recent critical approaches, such as those of Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, the difference is even greater. Postmodernism and deconstructionism see no merit in examining the life experiences of the novelist in order to throw light on the novel; the text is to be considered only in and of itself, as a self-contained entity.

Wilson’s brand of literary analysis is based on Edmund Husserl’s insight that perception is intentional, and since Husserl was the founder of the phenomenological school, Lachman suggests that existential criticism might more accurately be called “phenomenological criticism”. For Wilson, intentionality was of fundamental importance. Human beings not only have perceptions, but a “will to perceive”. Intentionality reveals reality. The stronger our intention, the more it reveals. It is the difference between the vision of a poet like William Blake and that of nihilists such as Samuel Beckett, who, like Oblomov, could see no reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The second part of the book is comprised of essays on writers who interested Wilson, and upon whom he employs his existential critical technique. Some, like Hemingway, Bernard Shaw, and Henry Williamson, are familiar names; others, such as L H Myers and David Lindsay, less so.

L H Myers, by William Rothstein

Myers was the author of The Near and the Far, the first novel of a tetralogy. For a while, Myers was regarded as a member of the Bloomsbury group, then became a communist and broke with most of his old friends. He committed suicide in 1944, which may have been due to a fear that he had cancer. According into his friend L P Hartley he was always something of a hypochondriac, a fact the traditional literary critic may disregard but which Wilson, the existential critic, does not:

The contemporary with whom he has most in common is Aldous Huxley, and even more than Huxley he is an intellectual essayist rather than a creative writer

 Wilson finds him a frustrating novelist.

In the early chapters of any of his books one has sense of being in the hands of a true novelist, but as the novels progress, they seem to lose direction, and the characters and their actions become more and more arbitrary; finally they peter out like a stream disappearing into the sand

Why then does Wilson hold Myers in such high esteem, regarding The Near and the Far as probably one of the half dozen great novels of the 20th century?  It is because Myers was tormented by the existential Lebensfrage, and his books are attempts to grapple with it. 

World-rejection is one of the fundamental constituents of [such a writer], even though he may eventually overcome it and become a life affirmer. Myers belongs to this . . . class, and all his work is a drama of world-rejection and the struggle to affirm.

The meaning of the novel’s title is explained on the first page of the novel. Prince Jali, Wilson writes,

…stands on the balcony of a palace and experiences the sense of delight and awe at the sight of the desert and distant mountains. The desert has always fascinated him; evidently it was a symbol for Myers as it was for T E Lawrence – a symbol of freedom from the sticky prison of one’s own humanity.

Jali reflects that

…there were two deserts: one that was a glory for the eye, another that it was weariness to trudge. Deep in his heart he cherished the belief that someday the near and afar would meet . . . one day he would be vigorous enough to capture the promise of the horizon. Then, instead of crawling like an insect on a little patch of brown sand, swift as the deer he would speed across the filmy leagues.

For Wilson, Myers had here

…found a symbol to state the most fundamental problem of human existence. Most human beings have had glimpses of ‘the promise of the horizon’; but when they investigate and discover that the reality is hard and dull, they usually assume that promise was an illusion.

Wilson believed the answer lay in a positive vitality.

If one were strong enough, healthy enough, it might not be necessary to trudge so painfully through the present. This is the answer that Nietzsche suggested in Thus Spoke Zarathustra – the idea of great health. If human beings could jar themselves out of the self-pity that is so fundamentally a part of the human condition, if they could cease to nurse a certain amount of weakness to furnish them with an excuse for opting out should life prove too difficult, there might be some chance of living in a present that is more like the poet’s vision of ‘the promise of the horizon’. The main problem so far has been that the poets have been weak and sensitive men, and have simply lacked the courage to start the work of self-discipline.

And here Wilson returns to Myers the hypochondriac: “one knows in advance that his quest will be a failure”. For all Myer’s independence in rejecting the Bloomsbury set,

…he was never able to rid himself of our modern tendency to identify strength with brutality and stupidity, and weakness with sensitivity and intelligence.

David Lindsay is another Wilson favourite. He believed that Lindsay’s “gnostic” fantasy novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, was nothing less than a masterpiece and its author a writer of genius. The traditional literary critic may well balk at this assessment since Lindsay’s prose is so amateurish. But to the existential critic this is of little concern. What matters is the sweep of the author’s vision. Wilson states,

Literature may be divided into two kinds: one accepts the values and limits of the ‘natural standpoint’; the other is always striving to get beyond them, to probe the question of existence itself.  For the existential critic, the first kind must always be regarded as of a lower order, even though most of the world literary masterpieces belong to it.

For Wilson, A Voyage to Arcturus is literature of the second kind, and David Lindsay is revealed as a master existentialist, seeing through the everyday world we take for granted to the reality beneath, a vital actuality that Lindsay presents to the reader with such skill that what we take for ‘reality’ is brought starkly into question.

Wilson’s initial reaction to Ayn Rand was dismissive, rating her as “a kind of modern Marie Corelli, much given to preaching and grandiose language”. But when he made a concerted effort to read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, he changed his mind:

I had to admit I had done Miss Rand a considerable injustice. Atlas Shrugged, having a great deal in common with A Brave New World, is a tirade against collectivism and government interference with individual freedom, but the heroes of Huxley . . . are little men, modest souls [e.g. Huxley’s Gumbril: “I glory in the name of earwig”]. Ayn Rand’s book has a romantic sweep, and undeniable grandeur.

When Wilson attempted to contact Rand, sending her some of his books, he discovered that the grandeur extended to her person. Try as he might, he could not bypass her gatekeeper, Nathaniel Branden.

This kind of self-importance was foreign to Wilson himself.  The third part of the book relates how, after sickening of the media circus around the ‘Angry Young Men’, he left London for Cornwall. He bought a house there and raised a family, and over the next 50 years produced more than 100 books, including the seven volume Outsider Cycle. In The Age of Defeat (1959; retitled The Stature of Man in the USA) and The Strength to Dream (1962), he further outlined his ideas about existential criticism. Wilson liked nothing more than to be left alone to think and to write; trips to London brought on bouts of “people-poisoning”. But unlike Ayn Rand, he was easy to contact and happy to correspond with his admirers. He was certainly encouraging of this particular tyro.

Colin Wilson died, aged 82, in 2013. Since then, there has been a resurgence of interest in the man and his work. His books are being published in new editions, both at home and in translation. His bibliographer, Colin Stanley, has organised Colin Wilson conferences at Nottingham University, where Wilson’s manuscripts and books have been collected. His novel, Adrift In Soho, has been turned into a feature film by Pablo Behrens, and a documentary film of his life has recently been crowdfunded.

Wilson’s prediction, that in the future there would be more Wilsonian writers, appears to be coming true as well. Gary Lachman, David Moore and myself have all been influenced by him. Lachman and Moore, however, write factual books in the Wilson tradition, whereas I am an author of fiction, deeply indebted to Colin’s attempts to produce existential and evolutionary fiction more worthy of eagles than earwigs.

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