Colin Wilson




book review



Colin Wilson

THE PROBLEM with Colin Wilson's books is that they're written by Colin Wilson. And Colin Wilson admits that he isn't a 'writer' but merely uses the written word to convey an idea. If his idea is a stone tossed into a pond, then the bulk of his books chart the ripples which lead to that stone.

Wilson is so ridiculously well read and his books stoked with references to the arts, sciences and philosophical thought of the centuries that it is often as easy to be bamboozled into intellectual submission as it is to be led in to empathy with his conclusions.

The occasional autobiographical passages are sometimes the most memorable sections because, in explaining how a thought or feeling came to him, Wilson describes something which can be shared by his readers in a way half the contents of the British Museum library cannot be.

The premise of The Craft Of The Novel is that nobody should write unless they've got something to say, and having something to say is more important than being 'able' to write. Thus "an incompetent writer can still produce great works".

Wilson cites "self-projection" and a "symbol of intensity" as being essential to greatness and gives voluminous examples to back his claim. He dismisses socialist writers such as Upton Sinclair and John Dos Pasos, saying "apart from some vague social justice hey have no idea of what they want".

Surely they simply want the social justice and use their novels as a means to this end. Of Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath, Wilson acknowledges it is 'brilliantly observed" but it "lacks something".

It is Wilson's questing after this "something" which leads him to create a model of what literature should be and effectively damn everything which doesn't fit into it. As ever, he's opinionated and forceful but also tosses in dubious comments (the "sexual realism" of James Bond?) which serve to devalue the whole concept.

Likewise, loaded phrases such as "artists and philosophers are he most rebellious of the species" will only be made sense of if the reader is familiar with Wilson's six-volume Outsider cycle.

Religion And The Rebel was the second part of this cycle and was first published in 1957. Wilson describes the "social discipline" existing under religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and in medieval Britain.

When these were at their most effective people who would otherwise be Outsiders (the artists, philosophers & co) are insiders. They're incorporated into the scheme of things. When the 'church' declines so the civilisation 'dies' from the head (the outsiders) downwards (everybody else). He then proceeds to espouse the need for a new 'religion' – existentialism.

The difficulty is that Wilson is writing about a materially prosperous Western society and in our times much of his prognosis seems anachronistic. He concedes in the recent preface that society has incorporated elements of wider consciousness (Eastern religions etc) but again negates much of his work with the observation that today's Outsider is well off because he can read Nietzsche while existing on "National Assistance".

National Assistance! Wilson can be an exciting and provocative thinker but when he reveals his ignorance of the mundane you feel like biting his head off.


mick sinclair

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