[Paleopsych] NYT: (Colin Wilson) Philosopher of Optimism Endures Negative Deluge
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Tue Aug 23 22:48:13 UTC 2005
Philosopher of Optimism Endures Negative Deluge
[Sarah had his Outsider. We never read it and got rid of it. Later, I bought a
used copy, intending this time to read it. Never did. Got rid of it again.
Bought it again a third time. Got rid of it, too. I have read a couple of books
by him, one on the occult, which did not convince me. Maybe I'll turn back to
him. Unlikely. Don't know why. I respect him more than I read him. Have read a
few essays also and enjoyed them. Don't remember what they said, though. Quite
a fascinating character, though, as this article will show.]
By BRAD SPURGEON
GORRAN HAVEN, Britain - Any intellectual who divides opinion as much
as Colin Wilson has for almost 50 years must be onto something, even
if it is only whether humans should be pessimistic or optimistic.
Mr. Wilson, who turned 74 in June and whose autobiography, "Dreaming
to Some Purpose," recently appeared in paperback from Arrow, describes
in the first chapter how he made his own choice. The son of
working-class parents from Leicester - his father was in the boot and
shoe trade - he was forced to quit school and go to work at 16, even
though his ambition was to become "Einstein's successor." After a
stint in a wool factory, he found a job as a laboratory assistant, but
he was still in despair and decided to kill himself.
On the verge of swallowing hydrocyanic acid, he had an insight: there
were two Colin Wilsons, one an idiotic, self-pitying teenager and the
other a thinking man, his real self.
The idiot, he realized, would kill them both.
"In that moment," he wrote, "I glimpsed the marvelous, immense
richness of reality, extending to distant horizons."
Achieving such moments of optimistic insight has been his goal and
subject matter ever since, through more than 100 books, from his first
success, "The Outsider," published in 1956, when he was declared a
major existentialist thinker at 24, to the autobiography.
In an interview last month at his home of nearly 50 years on the
Cornish coast, Mr. Wilson was as optimistic as ever, even though his
autobiography and his life's work have come under strong attack in
"What I wanted to do was to try to create a philosophy upon a
completely new foundation," he said, sitting in his living room along
with a parrot, two dogs and part of his collection of 30,000 books and
as many records. "Whereas in the past optimism had been regarded as
rather shallow - because 'oh well, it's just your temperament, you
happen to be just a cheerful sort of person' - what I wanted to do was
to establish that in fact it is the pessimists who are allowing all
kinds of errors to creep into their work."
He includes in that category writers like Hemingway and philosophers
like Sartre. In books on sex, crime, psychology and the occult, and in
more than a dozen novels, Mr. Wilson has explored how pessimism can
rob ordinary people of their powers.
"If you asked me what is the basis of all my work," he said, "it's the
feeling there's something basically wrong with human beings. Human
beings are like grandfather clocks driven by watch springs. Our powers
appear to be taken away from us by something."
The critics, particularly in Britain, have alternately called him a
genius and a fool. His autobiography, published in hardcover last
year, has received mixed reviews. Though lauded by some, the attacks
on it and Mr. Wilson have been as virulent as those he provoked in the
1950's after he became a popular culture name with the publication of
That book dealt with alienation in thinkers, artists and men of action
like T. E. Lawrence, van Gogh, Camus and Nietzsche, and caught the
mood of the age. Critics, including Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee,
hailed Mr. Wilson as a British version of the French existentialists.
His fans ranged from Muammar el-Qaddafi to Groucho Marx, who asked his
British publisher to send a copy of his own autobiography to three
people in Britain: Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham and Colin
"The Outsider" was translated into dozens of languages and sold
millions of copies. It has never been out of print.
The Times of London called Mr. Wilson and John Osborne - another young
working-class man, whose play "Look Back in Anger" opened about the
same time "The Outsider" was published - "angry young men." That name
was passed on to others of their generation, including Kingsley Amis,
Alan Sillitoe and even Doris Lessing.
But fame brought its own problems for Wilson. His sometimes tumultuous
early personal life became fodder for gossip columnists. He was still
married to his first wife while living with his future second wife,
Joy. His publisher, Victor Gollancz, urged him to leave the spotlight,
and he and Joy moved to Cornwall.
But the publicity had done its damage. His second book, "Religion and
the Rebel," was panned and his career looked dead.
Mr. Wilson said the episode had actually saved him as a writer,
however. "Too much success gets you resting on your laurels and
creates a kind of quicksand that you can't get out of," he said. "So I
was relieved to get out of London."
He said his books were probably heading for condemnation in Britain
anyway. "I'm basically a writer of ideas, and the English aren't
interested in ideas," he said. "The English, I'm afraid, are totally
brainless. If you're a writer of ideas like Sartre or Foucault or
Derrida, then the general French public know your name, whereas here
in England, their equivalent in the world of philosophy wouldn't be
He never lost belief in the importance of his work in trying to find
out how to harness human beings' full powers and wipe out gloom.
"Sartre's 'man is a useless passion,' and Camus's feeling that life is
absurd, and so on, basically meant that philosophy itself had turned
really pretty dark," he said. "I could see that there was a basic
fallacy in Sartre and Camus and all of these existentialists,
Heidegger and so on. The basic fallacy lay in their failure to
understand the actual foundation of the problem."
That foundation, he said, is that human perception is intentional; the
pessimists themselves paint their world black.
Mr. Wilson has spent much of his life researching how to achieve those
moments of well-being that bring insight, what the American
psychologist Abraham Maslow called "peak experiences."
Those moments can come only through effort, concentration or focus,
and refusing to lose one's vital energies through pessimism.
"What it means basically is that you're able to focus until you
suddenly experience that sense that everything is good," Mr. Wilson
said. "We go around leaking energy in the same way that someone who
has slashed their wrists would go around leaking blood.
"Once you can actually get over that and recognize that this is not
necessary, suddenly you begin to see the possibility of achieving a
state of mind, a kind of steady focus, which means that you see things
as extremely good." If harnessed by everyone, this could lead to the
next step in human evolution, a kind of Superman.
"The problem with human beings so far is that they are met with so
many setbacks that they are quite easily defeatable, particularly in
the modern age when they've got too separated from their roots," he
Over the last year, he has been forced to test his own powers in this
area. "When I was pretty sure that the autobiography was going to be a
great success, and when it, on the contrary, got viciously attacked,"
Mr. Wilson said, "well, I know I'm not wrong. Obviously the times are
out of joint."
Though "Dreaming to Some Purpose" was warmly received in The
Independent on Sunday and The Spectator and was praised by the
novelist Philip Pullman, the autobiography - and Mr. Wilson - received
a barrage of negative profiles and reviews in The Sunday Times and The
Observer. These made fun of the book's more eccentric parts, like his
avowed fetish for women's panties.
As a measure of the passions that Mr. Wilson provokes, Robert Meadley,
an essayist, wrote "The Odyssey of a Dogged Optimist" (Savoy, 2004), a
188-page book defending him.
"If you think a man's a fool and his books are a waste of time, how
long does it take to say so?" Mr. Meadley wrote, questioning the space
the newspapers gave to the attacks.
Part of Mr. Meadley's conclusion is that the British intellectual
establishment still felt threatened by Mr. Wilson, a self-educated
outsider from the working class.
"One of my main problems as far as the public is concerned is that
I've always been interested in too many things," Mr. Wilson said, "and
if they can't typecast you as a writer on this or that, then I'm
afraid you tend not to be understood at all."
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