The Outsider and The Enemy: Colin Wilson on Wyndham Lewis

The Good and Evil Angels, by William Blake
LUKE GILFEDDER examines the differences – and parallels – between two original thinkers

In 1956 Colin Wilson published The Outsider, an overnight literary sensation which saw the 24-year-old autodidact hailed as a prodigy and the first home-grown British existentialist. He sent a copy to T.S. Eliot, who, in a prompt and kind reply, said it was a pity to have missed Wyndham Lewis out of the book, for Lewis was surely an ‘archetypal outsider’ . Wilson would make up for this omission – albeit 33 years later – with the excellent but sadly neglected essay ‘Wyndham Lewis: A Refracted Talent?’. Published in a long out-of-print collection 1989 Existentially Speaking, it is to the good fortune of Wilson and Lewis scholars alike that the title still survives in the British Library archives.

Colin Wilson

Wyndham Lewis was born in circumstances quite distinct from Wilson’s Leicesterian upbringing, on his father’s yacht off Amherst, Nova Scotia, in 1882. Yet by the time he died, in 1957, Lewis was based just a few streets away from the then-rising star Wilson in a Notting Hill Gate flat. The young Wilson had made several attempts to appreciate Lewis, but each time to no avail. He likened late career works such as The Human Age to “mediaeval castles”, impossible to get into, or quite possibly “not worth the effort”. Yet Wilson soon found himself in Lewis’s position of critical neglect – once a boy genius, twice a “pretentious fraud” – the critics who launched The Outsider savaging 1957’s Religion And The Rebel. Both were to remain best regarded for their earliest works: Wilson, for The Outsider, andLewis as pioneer of the avant-garde art movement, Vorticism (England’s double-edged critique of the franticness of Marinetti’s Futurism and the passivity of Cubism).

Wilson soon left London for Cornwall, fulfilling Lewis’s reflection in Rude Assignment that “the writer does not ‘escape’ or flee from the world of men in general: he is more likely driven from it”. When Wilson next encountered Lewis’s work, via Tomlin’s 1969 anthology, he found he had acquired a fairly strong feeling of identification with Lewis. Here was, as Eliot had suggested, a true outsider, out of key with his time, equally unsympathetic to the assumptions which his contemporaries took for granted, turning out book after book in defence of his unpopular and idiosyncratic views. Lewis saw modern science, art and politics as conspiring to create an unreal state of mind in which the sentimental, illusory and mechanically Progressive flourished, and to this, he opposed a vison that fused radical modernism with an external, static and classical approach to art. Still curious as to whether Lewis was an important writer, Wilson decided to settle the matter by writing an essay purely for fun, delivering his opinions “en pantoufles”, as if “sitting over a glass of wine with friends”.

As a result, ‘Wyndham Lewis: A Refracted Talent?’ is a lively example of Existential Criticism, an original conception of Wilson’s which advocates that a writer’s work be judged by what he has to say rather than how he says it. William James wrote “a man’s vision is the great fact about him”, and Existential Criticism seeks to examine that vision, to see how much of reality it incorporates, or, conversely, to determine how far a writer’s attitude towards the world is parochial or based upon some temperamental defect of vision . Wilson begins by criticising Lewis’s first novel, 1918’s Tarr (a satire of the bourgeois-bohemia of post-war Montparnasse) as a “savage, humourless Shaw”. The book, he says, is obsessed with the trivial and personal, much in the manner of a D. H. Lawrence novel or Ulysses, yet without the redeeming flights into impersonality these works take. If Joyce is a “thin-skinned Irishman who disciplined himself into greatness” and Lawrence a “thin-skinned Englishman who occasionally forgot himself enough to be great” , then Wyndham Lewis, Wilson argues, never forgets himself for a moment. Not that Lewis, who held that “art is the expression of a colossal preference” – and posited “what is genius but an excess of individuality?” – would necessarily contend this. But Wilson differentiates between a strong self-image – an instrument writers use to convey higher truths about reality – and self-preoccupation, which is, by contrast, inward-looking and pessimistic. Wilson posits that artists find release from such solipsistic nihilism through their symbols of meaning, be it Religion for Eliot, Courage for Hemingway or the mystery of sex for D. H. Lawrence. But Lewis was said to find sex as boring and irritating as he found everything else. Wilson speculates that lacking the capacity for such abandonment of the self was Lewis’s main reason for his fateful turn to politics as his form of objectivity (Lewis’s reputation never recovered from his ill-judged and hastily recanted 1931 essay, Hitler).

Having foregrounded solipsism and artistic pessimism as potential defects in the Lewisian vision, Wilson attempts to trace throughout his essay how they might have developed and their effect upon Lewis’s value as a writer. He understands Lewis to be striving to achieve a post-impressionist revolution in prose, seeking to transmute into text the Cubist craving of beauty through abstraction. Wilson describes this as a romantic urge, a turning away from the real world to a misty ideal one, as is made clear in the 1927 story ‘Inferior Religions’:

Beauty is an icy douche of ease and happiness at something suggesting perfect conditions for an organism… Beauty is an immense predilection, a perfect conviction of the desirability of a certain thing…

Wilson says this formulation could have come from Yeats or even Walter Pater – a far cry from T. E. Hulme’s classicism with which Lewis was associated. But Wilson makes an interesting distinction here: the new Classicism never fully materialised, at least not as we like to think of it. All that happened was the emotional romanticism of the 18th century gave way to the intellectual romanticism of Proust, Ulysses, The Waste Land or Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Only the likes of H.G. Wells and Chesterton truly dispensed with romantic idealism by turning back to human reality, immersing themselves in socialism or Religion. Wilson says Lewis glimpsed another vision, namely that the ideal beauty of the Romantics could be achieved not by “flying up into the eternal gases” but instead through a cold, precise, intellectual art, gleaming like the snows of the Himalayas. This does not sound like much of an existential defect; in fact, it is rather close to the worldview of Bernard Shaw – a Wilsonian hero – who rejected romantic idealism in favour of a discriminating idealism. Discriminating idealism is just what Wilson perceives in Lewis’s paintings; their determined clarity, their quality of precision and “coolness” is said to remind one of Blake or indeed Shaw’s plays.

Wyndham Lewis

Wilson’s central contention is that Lewis’s effortless mastery as an artist failed to translate into his prose, where one needs the “patience of Job” to cut through the “blanket of fog” and figure out what it is all about He reasons that while painting can survive a lack of purpose – it deals in visual effects and can still be great if the worldview of its creator is ambiguous – writing deals in ideas and cannot survive the same ambiguity. Prose must have a positive impetus; satire alone is not enough. Lewis may paint like Blake, but he is said to write with the technique of a Daumier. Wilson judges this satirical bent as a negative trait, for Lewis is placing himself above his characters for the sake of lacerating them – only in The Revenge for Love does one sense any sympathy between writer and protagonist. So where War and Peace feels bigger than Tolstoy personally, in The Apes Of God (a satire of the Bloomsbury group), for example, we never forget for one second that it is Lewis holding the brush, pulling the strings of his puppets. And whereas Joyce’s precise technique of photographing his characters through words makes the reader blend with his descriptions, Lewis constantly interjects himself as though trying to dazzle the reader with verbal brilliance, never allowing the object to appear in its own right. This, Wilson says, creates a contradiction between Lewis’s impressive, even “monumental”, technique and his “rather vague, boring characters”. Resultantly, Lewis’s novels tend to “run down like an old hand-gramophone someone has forgotten to wind” .

Wilson proposes that such “miscalculations of effect” in Lewis’s prose stem from his solipsistic vision of art, as announced in Blast 2:

There is Yourself: and there is the Exterior World, that fat mass you browse on. / You knead it into an amorphous imitation of yourself inside yourself” 

Wilson insists that Tolstoy or Shakespeare’s greatness depended on them not kneading the world in their image, but instead trying to get rid of “themselves” from their work, becoming more like a mirror or a magnifying glass, able to capture that “odd whiff of reality, like a spring breeze blowing through an open window”. He speculates whether the character of Victor Stamp (the protagonist of The Revenge for Love) is a partial admission by Lewis of this “parochial” defect when, in desperation, Victor decides to forego his usual mannerisms and paint something which would “remind him least of Victor Stamp”. It still does not sell, because it is old-fashioned. But old or new-fashioned, Victor never attempts to say anything, he – like Lewis – fails to recognise art is not self-expression but a reaching out towards reality.This overpowering sense of self-expression in Lewis was also critiqued by Anthony Burgess, who described the wartime autobiography Blasting and Bombardiering as reading like a “gor-blimied police report” with the strange yoking of the “Allo-allo-allo-what’s-all-this-‘ere to the intellectual and the exquisite painter” making for such exasperating reading .

We must pause briefly to deal with the objection that has doubtless sprung to mind, at least to readers familiar with Lewis, namely that Lewis does know that the root of great art is the impersonal and the objective; moreover, he was a paragon of the ‘lone external viewpoint’ . It is not for nothing that Lewis’s critical writings develop from a defence of the self in 1927’s The Art Of Being Ruled – a treatise in how to remain a “sovereign of oneself” in a world where this is “nothing so difficult as not belonging to a party” – to a defence of objective reality itself against Sartrean existentialism in 1952’s The Writer and the Absolute. Lewis directly attacks solipsism in the former work, writing that “ideas of beauty, of a god, or of love, depend severally on separation and differentiation”, and compares the foolishness of “the savage who ate his god to procure divinity” to Freudian inwardness . Yet we may argue the clearest contradiction to Wilson’s interpretation is in The Letters Of Wyndham Lewis, where Lewis opposes the “crushing of the notion of the subject” and states a belief in a sense of objective value which sees “the answer is there all the time; we ‘discover’ it”.

Wilson is, however, too perceptive a critic not to have anticipated this response; he explains the above as merely demonstrating Lewis’s “Platonic sense of reality” . This interpretation is the string with which he binds together his varying conclusions as to Lewis’s merits and defects. On the one hand, Lewis’s belief in a world of timeless ideals makes him an excellent critic, especially of the philosophies of time in Spengler and Marx, and in his merciless dismantling of imperfect idealisms – Lawrence, Hemingway, Orwell, Sartre, Malraux – any kind of romanticism that is the opposite of the real. But, on the other hand, Lewis’s Platonic nature is said to lead him into an artistic pessimism, a sense that the real world is corrupt and disjointed, and the artist must remain true to his ideal world. As a painter, Lewis may have stumbled on Shaw’s trick of uniting the irreconcilable opposites of romanticism and anti-romanticism (this is especially evident in Lewis’s late-career paintings, such as 1942’s Homage to Etty, a Lewisian heaven of exterior forms). But as a writer, his Platonism led him into a “life-denying pessimism”, and he spent more energy denouncing the world than expressing with discriminating idealism that “perfect conviction of the desirability of a certain thing” . As if unfavourably comparing Lewis to Shaw wasn’t enough, Wilson concludes by noting how much he has in common with George Orwell. Both are said to be tough-minded and honest cultural critics, but who wrote “hysterical” and “bad” novels because of this same artistic pessimism, a pessimism out of which “no vital creation can spring” . Alas, Wilson’s final judgement is that Lewis was less the “enemy of the stars” than of himself.

Such an atypical interpretation of Lewis may appear highly contentious upon first reading, but even if one disagrees with the answers Wilson provides, his essay leaves the reader with better questions than they arrived with – surely the true mark of fine criticism. He intended for the piece to be “the kind of thing I would want to read if I was curious about Lewis” and on this count, he has succeeded. The only minor gripe is that there is scant discussion of the sympathy between Lewisian and Wilsonian themes. Lewis’s critique of existentialism as merely placing a token emphasis upon freedom – “Sartre’s novels are jokes about Freedom” is the perfect foil for Wilson’s ‘New Existentialism’, a corrective against Absurdism. Lewis’s writings also dovetail with Wilson’s criminology studies, each observing the “evil fog” of pessimism and nihilism present at the start of the 20th century plunged people into acts of violence as a means of escape . Both have an intuitive approach to literary criticism, finding similar flaws, for example, in Hemingway’s characters. Wilson says they know who they are, not what they want to become , just as Lewis writes “they are invariably the kind of people to whom things are done, who are the passive (and rather puzzled) guinea-pig type – as remote as it is possible to be, for instance, from Nietzsche’s ‘super’ type” . Lewis, however, believes this is not a shortcoming in a work of art, it “defines it merely”, meaning “the work in question is classifiable as lyrical” . Lewis allows a novel to be superior from a literary standpoint, even if it is existentially lacking. In the final analysis, Wilson does not afford Lewis the same generosity.

The new avenues of thought opened by this essay make it a double pity that Outsider and Enemy never met, especially given that they once lived just a few hundred yards from each other, in Notting Hill. One senses that they had more in common than this essay suggests, and they could have found common ground over their similar mistreatment by the establishment. When F. R. Leavis derided the Sitwells as belonging to the history of publicity, not the history of literature, we may conclude that no two writers embodied the reverse equation more than Colin Wilson and Wyndham Lewis.

NOTE This article first appeared in Lewisletter, the journal of the Wyndham Lewis Society, and is republished with permission

9/11: premonition of disaster

Credit: Shutterstock
GOMERY KIMBER believes there really can be second-sight

On the afternoon of September 11th 2001 I was making notes for a story I planned to write about the ghost of a slave ship captain. I’d already named the ghost Noah, but I couldn’t think of a suitable surname. I sat there, pen in hand, awaiting inspiration.

Eventually, a name popped into my head: Shanks, Noah Shanks.  That sounded just right. I wrote it down, made a sandwich as I’d had no lunch, and turned on the TV.  When I saw what was happening in the USA that afternoon – real horror, real terror – making notes for work of fiction seemed not a little pointless.

It was two days later, while reading newspaper reports of the attacks on America that something strange happened.  As everyone knows, there was a fourth aircraft that never reached its hijackers’ target. Flight 93, a United Airlines Boeing 757, was carrying 38 passengers and seven crew. It crashed 80 miles south-east of Pittsburgh. Or to be more precise, 8 miles east of Jennerstown, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I looked again. Shanksville? My first reaction was, now that’s unusual, that’s the same name as the character in my story. Then I noticed that Flight 93 had crashed at 2:00 PM Greenwich Mean Time – about the same time that the name Shanks had swum to my head.

Now for several months before September 11th I had been plagued by nightmares of explosions, nuclear warfare, and natural disasters; one particularly disturbing dream concerned a skyscraper in a city under air attack. In June 1996, the flat I shared with my girlfriend was blown up by the IRA bomb which badly damaged city centre Manchester. I had assumed the nightmares related to that traumatic event, but now I wasn’t so sure. I’d dreamed of a skyscraper (there were none in Manchester) in a city attacked from the air (the IRA used a lorry bomb); could it be possible that I had glimpsed the future, dreaming of a terrorist attack that had yet to happen? But how could I have been?

Everyone knows that time is linear, flowing from the past into the future. It is impossible to have prior knowledge of a future event. Or is it? I recalled reading about the journalist John Godley who dreamed more than once of future horse race winners; on the strength of his fame as a psychic punter he went on to be a racing correspondent . So perhaps time is stranger than we think, perhaps all of us have precognitive dreams but forget about them as soon as we wake up.

In 1927, in his famous book An Experiment With Time, J W Dunne suggested exactly that. Upon waking, Dunne would write down what he had been dreaming about, and quickly discovered that he did indeed dream of future events. While reading about a combination lock, he realised he had dreamt about it the night before. On another occasion he dreamed that his watch had stopped at four-thirty and that a crowd was shouting, “Look!  Look!”  Dunne woke up and discovered that his watch had indeed stopped at four-thirty. He wound it up, only to find the next morning that his watch was showing the right time: his dream had woken him at the moment it had stopped.

Not all Dunne’s dreams were so mundane. In 1902, as a soldier in South Africa, he dreamed he was on an island threatened by a volcanic eruption. In the dream he “was seized by a frantic desire to save the four thousand (I knew the number) unsuspecting inhabitants”. Days later he read an account of a volcanic eruption in Martinique. 40,000 people were said to have died, but Dunne misread the figure as 4,000. It was fifteen years before he realised his error. “My wonderful ‘clairvoyant’ vision had been wrong in its most insistent particular!” he noted, concluding that his dream was of reading about the eruption in the newspaper, not of the event itself.

Illustration from the 16th century Augsburg Book of Miracles

Dunne is not alone in having prior knowledge of disasters. In October 1966, a coal tip slid down a hillside and buried the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, killing 144 people, 128 of whom were children. Following a visit to Aberfan, Dr J C Barker made an appeal in the London Evening Standard for those who felt they had foreseen the disaster to contact him.  Of the 76 people who came forward, Barker was able to confirm that 26 had spoken to others about their premonition before the event. The precognitions had affected people all over the UK, from five weeks before the disaster to within two hours of it. So vivid were the precognitive dreams that in some cases people woke in great distress, reporting that they had heard children screaming. Some claimed to have had premonition of other disasters; Doctor Barker called such people “human seismographs”.

Indeed, it would seem that the greater the reading on the psychic Richter scale, the greater the number of people who receive glimpses of the future.  It should therefore be no surprise that a rash of premonitions preceded the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, which claimed 2207 lives. Ten days before he was due to sail on the ill-fated vessel, businessman J. Connon Middleton twice dreamed of a ship that turned keel upwards surrounded by frantic people in the water. Luckily for him, the conference he was due to attend in New York was cancelled and he stayed at home. Fortunate too was sailor Colin MacDonald. Three times he was asked to join the Titanic as second engineer, and three times he refused; he had a strong premonition that the ship’s maiden voyage would end in disaster. Newspaper editor W. T. Stead was not so prudent. Strangely, since he was interested in the occult, Stead ignored the advice of the fortune teller Cheiro (real name William John Walker) not to travel by water during April 1912, especially about the middle of the month (the Titanic sank on the 14th). Stead died in the disaster.

Perhaps the most uncanny of all the premonitions concerning the loss of the Titanic occurred in 1898. The American novelist Morgan Robertson was something of an oddity, in that he felt himself not a creative artist but a channel for the writings of someone else. Often Robertson was blocked and could only write when he felt himself possessed by his invisible partner. It was in this role as amanuensis that he wrote The Wreck of the Titan, the story of a ship designed to be unsinkable due to its watertight compartments. On its maiden voyage in April, the Titan, travelling at a speed of 25 knots, strikes an iceberg. The ship has only 24 lifeboats for its 3000 passengers and crew and sinks with huge loss of life. The parallels with the Titanic are remarkable. At the time it struck an iceberg on its April maiden voyage, the Titanic was travelling at 23 knots, and carried only 20 lifeboats. Like the 70,000-ton Titan, the 66,000-ton Titanic was sailing from Southampton to New York. 22,007 lives were lost, a death toll which would have been even greater at the ship not been two-thirds full . . .

But how is it possible to know about something that has not yet happened? Classical science, and common sense, revolts at such a notion. Newtonian physics tells us that all elements of the universe are isolated from each other, divisible, wholly self-contained and separate. We are Mind, sitting outside this mechanical universe, looking in. Strangely, this paradigm still obtains. I say strangely because discoveries in quantum physics should have caused its demise in the early part of the last century. In quantum physics, matter cannot be divided into discrete units, but is completely indivisible. The universe can only be understood as a web of interconnections. Things once in contact remain in contact throughout all space and time. Indeed, space and time appear to be nothing more than arbitrary constructs, and do not in fact exist.

Augsburg Book of Miracles

In The New Immortality, J. W. Dunne equates our lives to a strip of film which shows everything that happens to us from cradle to grave.  The ‘everyday you’, which Dunne calls Observer 1, travels along this film strip, totally engrossed in the mundane business of living.  But when the ‘everyday you’ relaxes, a strange thing happens: you become the ‘real you’, able to observe the strip of film from a distance and see into the future just as easily as you can see into the past. It was in such a relaxed state – trying to come up with the name for a character in a story – that the name Shanks drifted into my mind.

A similar state of mind, which we might call alert relaxation – is used by remote viewers, which is what the US military calls its clairvoyants. Astonishing as it may seem, during the Cold War, the Pentagon spent millions of dollars on the Stargate Programme, training military personnel as psychic spies, spies who were used to discover the secrets of the Soviet Union without ever leaving the USA. Stargate was disbanded in 1995, and since then former remote viewers have gone into business, predicting the future of the stock market for corporate clients and teaching civilians how to ‘’see at a distance’. One such RVer is Prudence Calabrese who claims to have had a vision of the attack on the World Trade Centre as long ago as 1997. Posted on her website are the ten pages of sketches and notes she claims to have made during a remote viewing session on 10 March 1997.

But is there any hard scientific evidence to support the theory that everything is connected, that time is not linear, that we can forecast the future? In fact, there is.

On September 11th, 2001, three hours before the first airliner struck the World Trade Centre, a machine at Princeton University in New Jersey predicted some major disaster. The machine is a Random Event Generator used to monitor completely unpredictable processes, such as the decay of a radioactive ingredient. The results it produces are down purely to chance and are recorded on a graph. Most of the time the graph shows a wavy line, with only a few minor variations, but occasionally the line peaks. That is what happened on the morning of September 11th. Between 9am to 10am Eastern Standard Time, as the attacks began and those infamous pictures were broadcast around the world, the graph peaked enormously.

In fact, the REG graph began to rise at 6am, three hours before the first strike on the WTC. Writer on the paranormal, Colin Wilson, believes that this was because many people around the world, Barker’s human seismographs, were experiencing premonitions of the coming disaster, and that this surge of fear and distress showed itself on the graph three hours before the attack began.

I was not alone in my premonition of disaster. Actress Nicole Kidman has described how she intended to fly to New York from Los Angeles on September 10th, but changed her mind because she had a premonition that things ‘would not go well there’. A British writer on the paranormal has related to me how she cancelled a trip with her mother to the USA after experiencing a vivid nightmare in which the plane on which they were travelling was deliberately crashed into the ground Mother and daughter had been recommended by a relative to visit the viewing deck of the World Trade Centre.  The only gap in their tight schedule for such a visit was on the morning of the 11th . . .

In America, countless individuals have contacted psychical investigators to report similar premonitions. Perhaps the most sinister of all concern followers of Osama Bin Laden. In a video tape found by US troops in Afghanistan, Bin Laden and his lieutenants make extensive reference to precognitive dreams about September 11th amongst their own followers.

In The Roots of Coincidence, Arthur Koestler quotes Oxford Professor of Logic, H. H. Price. Price believed that “telepathically received impressions have some difficultly in crossing the threshold and manifesting themselves in consciousness. There seems to be some barrier . . . which tends to shut them out of consciousness . . . and they make use of all sorts of devices for overcoming it. Sometimes they make use of the muscular mechanism of the body, and emerge in the form of automatic speech or writing [we are reminded of Morgan Robertson who believed himself merely the channel for another writer]. Sometimes they emerge in the form of dreams . . . And often they can only emerge in a distorted or symbolic form (as other unconscious mental contents do). It is a plausible guess that many of our everyday thoughts and emotions are telepathic or partly telepathic in origin, but are not recognised to be so because they are so much distorted and mixed with other mental contents in crossing the threshold of consciousness”

So, were my nightmares a premonition of disaster, garbled and distorted? I am inclined to think that they were. As for the name Shanks popping into my mind at the time Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, was that coincidence or clairvoyance? I can’t prove it, but I think it was the latter.

Colin Wilson redux

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.