Now in Audio Version!
Meeting to Some Purpose:
The Second International Colin Wilson Conference
As I have written about previously for Counter-Currents (as well as in a considerably revised and expanded version of this same essay that was included in North American New Right, vol. 2), the English philosopher, novelist, and compiler of eclectic knowledge of all kinds, Colin Wilson (1932-2013), is one of the most unjustly forgotten writers of our time. His search for a “new existentialism” during the first phase of his writing career, specifically a more positive version of the generally glum outlook of philosophers such as Sartre and Camus who nevertheless sought a new understanding of the relationship between the mind and Being, alone should have secured him a place in literary history, but he was denied this by hostile and jealous critics and academics. But undeterred, Colin went on to make significant contributions in the fields of psychology, criminology, literary criticism, the study of the occult, and fiction as well, all of which are worthy of being examined in their own right. But what makes Colin’s work unique is that all of his investigations into diverse fields of thought actually fit into a unified whole: Namely, his attempt to discover the as-yet unknown higher capacities of human consciousness by tracing the evidence throughout all the existing fields of knowledge, and trying to see what we can discern from all this about how consciousness is evolving into the future.
Moreover, for the sake of Counter-Currents readers, I should mention that while Colin himself always eschewed any sort of political activism – he once wrote that “I am only a writer, and I have always suspected that all writers are idiots where politics are concerned” – and certainly could not be considered a part of the “radical Right” (it is fair to say that, on the rare occasions he made political pronouncements, he was a mainstream British conservative during his later life, however – but no more), I do believe that his worldview could be considered conservative at its base, particularly in terms of his contention that the modern West has reached a crisis of meaning that can only be resolved through a fundamental change in thought. As such, Colin’s work offers much food for thought for those engaged in seeking alternatives to the postmodern world, even if his own views are in some ways at odds with those of the Traditionalists, the Conservative Revolutionaries, or others on the Right who have critiqued our age at its philosophical foundations. (Indeed, if there is anyone working on the contemporary Right who could claim to be operating in the same vein as Colin was, it would be Jason Reza Jorjani.) Again, I go into this more deeply in my previous essay on this topic.
Unfortunately, Colin’s ego (throughout his life, he was fond of declaring himself to be a “genius” – although defended himself from charges of delusions of grandeur by saying that no genius ever attained that status by remaining humble about his abilities), his penchant for making sweeping and grandiose statements and occasional overgeneralizing, as well as his willingness to engage with areas of thought where more “respectable” scholars feared to tread such as the occult, all caused the literary and academic worlds to turn against him and treat him as a pariah – a situation which has persisted to the present day. And really, I think this reaction was inevitable, given that Colin refused to kowtow to the evolving intellectual fashions over the course of his life, and never engaged in the sort of political correctness or subjectivism that might have curried some favor with the cultural powers-that-be. His thought was always doggedly and unapologetically based in the Western intellectual tradition, and he always asserted that those of higher will could heroically create a meaning for their lives that would have objective value in terms of pushing the boundaries of human potential – not something one hears in the halls of academe or the culture industry these days, where man is encouraged to keep his ambitions low lest he disturb someone else’s delicate sensibilities. But in spite of the deafening silence, interrupted only by occasional potshots in his direction, Colin never let this state of affairs bother him. As he noted on many occasions, when asked about it, many thinkers are not given a fair hearing until after death.
It is therefore heartening that, while Colin has received scant attention from the cultural establishment, it is nevertheless the case that a small yet dedicated cadre of friends and supporters sprang up over the course of his life who sought to lay the foundations for a field of Wilson studies, or perhaps even the furthering of his work by future scholars. Chief among these has been Wilson’s hardworking bibliographer, Colin Stanley, who has published four editions of his doorstop of a bibliography over the past thirty years – no small feat when dealing with a writer who published nearly two hundred books and over a thousand articles, book reviews, and introductions over the course of his life, some of which are still being located. In the 1980s, Stanley also founded and continues to operate Paupers’ Press, a small publishing house which specializes in Wilson studies and ephemera (as well as books on related thinkers), and has written and edited a number of books about Wilson for other publishers over the years. If Colin gets his wish and is rediscovered and reevaluated posthumously, Colin Stanley will deserve the lion’s share of the credit for it. And now he has added to his long list of achievements the organizing of two conferences dedicated to exploring Wilson’s ideas. The first was held in 2016; the second was held recently, on July 6-8, in Nottingham, England, and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend.
Friday, July 6 was the day of the conference proper. Before the formal proceedings began, however, the attendees were invited to view the archive of Colin Wilson’s manuscripts and papers that is housed at the University of Nottingham, where the conference was held. The archive is a treasure trove that will surely be fruitfully mined by Wilson scholars for many years to come. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the esteemed conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who has occasionally praised Colin’s work over the years, was instrumental in convincing the University to set up the archive.
Then came the lectures. First up was Nicolas Tredell, an English literary scholar who has published two studies of Colin Wilson’s fiction to date, the more recent one being Novels to Some Purpose: The Fiction of Colin Wilson, a massive tome which is an exhaustive critical exploration of Wilson’s many novels. Mr. Tredell spoke on “Voyager and Dreamer: Colin Wilson’s Autobiographical Writing,” focusing not only on the two autobiographies that Wilson published, Voyage to a Beginning and Dreaming to Some Purpose, but also the various places scattered across his other writings where he talked about himself. More than any other thinker I can think of, with the possible exception of Nietzsche, Wilson’s work was very much bound up with the story of his life, and he made frequent reference to his own experiences to illustrate points he made in his books. Mr. Tredell pointed out that Colin was quite atypical for a British writer of the 1950s and early ‘60s in that he wrote quite frankly about himself, when prudishness was still the norm, most especially in terms of his own sexual experiences, which formed part of the basis for his psychological theories regarding the power of the imagination and the dangers of falling “out of the moment” in our experiences by allowing activities, even sex, to become routine and thus carried on without full awareness, something Wilson referred to as “the robot.”
Next was David Moore, a young, upcoming independent scholar who is just about to publish his first book, Evolutionary Metaphors: UFOs, New Existentialism, and the Future Paradigm. Mr. Moore’s lecture, “The Evolutionary Metaphors of Colin Wilson,” was an attempt to summarize the thesis of his book, and expanded upon ideas that Colin Wilson wrote about in his 1998 book, Alien Dawn: An Investigation into the Contact Experience. In that book, Wilson attempted to relate the experience of those who claimed close encounters with UFOs to the evolution of consciousness, believing that the phenomenon, while having some sort of objective reality, had more to do with projections of the unconscious mind and the development of consciousness than with extraterrestrials. Taking Wilson’s theory further, Moore contended that attempting to understand the UFO phenomenon itself serves as a metaphor for grappling with a new way of understanding reality, given that so many attempts to investigate it have revealed gaps and contradictions in our existing understanding of the universe, consciousness, and epistemology that our current science seems unable to resolve. Mr. Moore’s ideas dovetail nicely with those presented in the corpus of the parapsychologist Jason Jorjani (most especially Prometheus and Atlas and Novel Folklore), in which he posits that UFOs are the latest incarnation of phenomena that made their first appearance in ancient mythology, and that cumulatively these are, in fact, visions of our own evolutionary future being projected backwards in time. In my opinion, Mr. Moore’s talk was the only one of the day which actually sought to expand upon Wilson’s existing ideas in a new and original way rather than merely analyzing Wilson’s own work. This is not at all intended as a criticism of the other fine speakers, who all offered fascinating insights, but I do believe that Mr. Moore’s efforts are helping to point the way for the future of Colin Wilson studies in a manner that few others have attempted thus far. Those who want to further his efforts of course need a solid grounding in what Wilson himself wrote, but for his legacy to remain vibrant, scholars must be unafraid to venture into new territory, or even question some of Wilson’s own conclusions, rather than treating them as inviolable sacred texts.
The third speaker of the day was Gary Lachman, the well-known American writer on esotericism and the power of imagination who published a comprehensive and definitive introduction to Colin Wilson and his work, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, in 2016, a book which serves as the ideal starting place for anyone seeking to get into Wilson’s work for the first time. Mr. Lachman spoke on “The Outsider and the Work: Colin Wilson, Gurdjieff, and Ouspensky,” discussing the ways in which Wilson drew on the two “Fourth Way” thinkers over the course of his writing career. In particular, Wilson and the two men shared a belief that consciousness as we usually use it is in fact a dormant, sleeping state, and that mystical experiences and states of intensity open us to higher possibilities of which we are usually only vaguely aware (Wilson, following Abraham Maslow, came to call these “peak experiences”), and they sought means by which such states could be induced at will. Lachman mentioned that, as he was in many of his interests, Wilson was ahead of his time in his interest in the Fourth Way, something he began to investigate in the 1950s but which didn’t reach the popular consciousness until the surge in interest in all things spiritual in the 1970s, after which Gurdjieff and Ouspensky became household names among the esoterically inclined.
Mr. Lachman was followed by George Poulos, an independent scholar from Australia who has previously written and spoken about Wilson’s work. His lecture was on “The Importance of The Outsider.” Mr. Poulos’ contention is that The Outsider is by far Colin Wilson’s single greatest achievement, and that all of his other work pales in comparison to it. He claimed that The Outsider’s direct appeal to the alienation felt by many in the modern world makes it a work with greater power than any other in Wilson’s corpus to draw in readers and cause them to see the world through Wilson’s eyes, evidence for which he sees in the fact that of all Wilson’s work, it is the only one which has never gone out-of-print since it was first published in 1956. Mr. Poulos made an interesting and passionate case, but I must admit to remaining unconvinced; while The Outsider would certainly be on my Top 10 list of Wilson’s books, I believe that The New Existentialism was his crowning achievement in the area of philosophy; and most probably Wilson’s novels have done more to draw in readers new to him than have any of the philosophical works.
The next speaker was one of the highlights of the day, the American psychologist Stanley Krippner, who, at 85 years of age, stepped in when one of the other speakers was forced to cancel at the last minute. Professor Krippner has long specialized in the paranormal and altered states of consciousness, and was personally acquainted with Colin Wilson. His talk was entitled “Writing for Some Purpose,” and he discussed the psychological dimensions of Wilson’s work, particularly in relation to his relationship with Maslow, as well as Wilson’s acquaintance with a plethora of psychiatric researchers in his heyday who were investigating aspects of the mind which are often considered taboo by today’s mainstream.
The New Zealand author Vaughan Rapatahana was up next, discussing “The Hunt for Colin Wilson’s Lulu.” Lulu was a novel on which Wilson worked, off and on, throughout his life, but never completed, which is unusual given that Wilson published literally dozens of novels over the course of his career in addition to his other work. Inspired by the character first developed by the German playwright Frank Wedekind, who was a female character Wedekind used to critique bourgeois attitudes towards sexuality, Wilson similarly sought to write a book featuring an unconventional woman as its central character. Mr. Rapatahana believes that Wilson was never able to complete the book for many reasons, among which is the fact that the book would have had to have been massive, and given his intensive work schedule he could not afford the investment of time that it would have required; although he also believes that Wilson was never really able to come to terms with the idea of a woman who was dominant rather than submissive, and who did not fit into the usual stereotypes about women’s natures – in Wilson’s published novels, women are typically relegated to purely secondary roles and do little other than act as helpmates to the male characters. Mr. Rapatahana, in agreement with a point made by Nicolas Tredell, believes that this points to a weakness in Wilson’s work, namely that he couldn’t create realistic female characters and invariably depicted things exclusively from a masculine point-of-view. (During the question period, Gary Lachman challenged him on this point, saying that there are places in Wilson’s work where he exhibited a more sympathetic understanding of women.) Last year through Paupers’ Press, Mr. Rapatahana published Colin Wilson’s ‘Lulu’: An Unfinished Novel, which featured excerpts from the unpublished manuscript as well as his own introduction discussing its history. He concluded his lecture by encouraging Wilsonians to read it if they are interested in catching a glimpse of Colin attempting to write in a way that was very different from his usual style.
The penultimate lecture was given by Irish novelist and scholar Brendan McNamee, who delivered a lecture on “Body, Mind, Heart: Three Aspects of Mysticism in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities,” which was drawn from a book he published last year with Paupers’ Press, Mysticism in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man Without Qualities’. This was the only talk of the day that was not directly related to Colin Wilson, although Wilson himself had praised Musil’s novel. Robert Musil was an Austrian novelist of the early twentieth century, and The Man Without Qualities, his magnum opus which remained as yet incomplete at the time of his death (some critics believe it was unfinishable), was a sprawling modernist epic akin to James Joyce which aspired to capture the zeitgeist of its time in prose – Ulrich, its main character, speaks of looking for a synthesis between “the scientific and the mystical,” the same goal that European civilization as a whole at that time was seeking. Thus, McNamee discussed the mystical elements of Musil’s novel and the way in which he depicted the often concealed unity between our consciousness within and the reality of the world outside.
The final speaker of the day was Jonathan Lewsey, a British opera singer, actor, director, and opera scholar who spoke on “Colin Wilson and Music.” Wilson was an avid fan of opera, classical music, and jazz, which he wrote about on occasion, and his home in Cornwall is infamous for having been stuffed with thousands of albums alongside his library of some thirty thousand volumes. Mr. Lewsey discussed Wilson’s personal interest in music and the influence it had on his work, but even more importantly he described how the experience of hearing a powerful piece of music can parallel and reflect the peak experience that Wilson frequently discussed, and which he held could even in fact induce such an experience if one was in the right frame of mind (Wilson himself recounted that in his youth he was fond of putting on music and dancing, Nijinsky-like, in states of ecstasy). Mr. Lewsey then applied Wilson’s concept of “existential criticism” – which Wilson himself only applied to literature – to music. Wilson’s existential criticism as he defined it sought to evaluate its subject in terms of a “hierarchy of values,” seeking to discover what the author or composer’s work says about his approach to life and its meaning rather than merely evaluating its technical merits. Hence why Wilson was fond of attacking Samuel Beckett, who has long been the darling of drama critics but who Wilson regarded as a cheat and a fraud for building a career on presenting a pessimistic view of life as being meaningless and absurd, as opposed to the youthful H. G. Wells or George Bernard Shaw, who Wilson praised for their optimistic visions. Mr. Lewsey averred that music, too, can be used to expand consciousness just as literature can (making reference to the conception of music held by Kashmiri Shavisim to support his point), and discussed places in Wilson’s writing where he described either himself or his fictional characters using music to achieve exactly that. Mr. Lewsey was not uncritical, however, and took Wilson to task for dismissing certain composers for their personal shortcomings rather than evaluating the worth of their music objectively, something Wilson was indeed wont to do in his writings on music. Mr. Lewsey ended his brilliant lecture by playing us a recording of Birgit Nilsson singing the famous “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a piece of music that Wilson himself stated had induced a peak experience in him once when he heard it on the radio while working as a hospital orderly in the early 1950s. Mr. Lewsey convincingly argued that this music is structured like an orgasm, and in that, it resembles the peak experience itself – thus effectively being a peak experience in the form of music. Along with Mr. Moore’s lecture, this was my personal favorite of the day.
The end of Friday’s formal program was followed by a wonderfully informal evening at Colin Stanley’s home in which all the guests were treated to a celebration Colin Wilson himself would have appreciated: quaffing bottle after bottle of wine, which had been one of Wilson’s great loves. But somehow, in spite of this we managed to rise early enough the next morning to attend Saturday’s event: a presentation of The Man with a Thousand Faces, the sole opera libretto that Wilson ever composed, as well as a lengthy video interview that was made with him in 2006.
The Man with a Thousand Faces was presented by Leon Berger, a British opera singer and director, who explained the background of the work. It was the result of a collaboration between Wilson and Donald Swann, a Welsh composer of comic songs who was quite well-known in Britain during the 1950s and ‘60s as half of a comic duo, Flanders and Swann, which toured the country and made occasional television and radio appearances. In the early 1960s, Swann met Wilson and felt that the ideas he was writing about would make a good subject for an opera, and Wilson wrote a one-act libretto which Swann then set to music. The opera’s rather bare-bones plot is about a fortune-teller at a fairground, Jeremy Mansell, who presents himself to female customers as a mystic who can cure their personal woes, which just so happen to invariably involve meeting him alone for romantic trysts, much to the chagrin of his wife, Paulette. The opera mainly deals with a succession of attempts by Mansell to seduce his clients, offering monologues which contain recognizable bits of Wilson’s philosophy, until the women finally tire of his antics and chase him offstage at the conclusion. Completed in 1964, it was performed on a few occasions in the 1960s, and again in 1990, when a very low-quality video of it was made using a stationary camera, and Mr. Berger presented excerpts from both the audio and video and filled in the gaps with his own exposition. The opera is rather unremarkable apart from the fact that Wilson and Swann wrote it, and Mr. Berger related that Wilson was rather embarrassed by his libretto in later years, but it was enjoyable and amusing to see, as well as being an interesting footnote to Wilson’s already large and varied corpus.
This was followed by a brief introduction to and showing of a never-before-screened long interview that had been conducted in 2006 by the Canadian writer, journalist, and musician Brad Spurgeon, who has published a very good book based on a different set of interviews that he had conducted with Wilson, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism (a short video excerpt from the interview we viewed is available there as well). I’ve seen and read many of Wilson’s interviews and lectures over the years, and this was most definitely one of the most interesting ones. Of necessity there was a certain amount of overlap with others, but as the interview went on they delved into areas that I had never heard Wilson discuss before. It would be impossible to summarize it all here, but one thing that struck me was when Wilson discussed that the phenomena of the Iranian Revolution as well as jihadist terrorism must be seen as attempts to address the same lack of meaning in the modern world that the Outsider faces, and which he had written about in the books of his Outsider Cycle – even though he was quick to add that of course he believes that such people are going in an entirely wrong direction. Hopefully the interview will be released publicly at some point in the near future.
The last event, held on Sunday, was a screening of a recently-completed film adaptation of Wilson’s 1961 novel, Adrift in Soho, that is due to be released in November. The book was based on Wilson’s own experiences of living as a down-and-out, penniless bohemian among a host of other struggling writers and artists in 1950s London prior to his publishing breakthrough with The Outsider. The film very accurately captures the atmosphere and feel of the book, which is similar to the American “Beatnik” literature of the time – although, wise already in his youth, Wilson soon recognized that such a lifestyle was a dead-end that ultimately led nowhere, and as such – spoilers ahead – the story ends with the main character, Wilson’s own alter ego, deciding to marry his girlfriend and move to the countryside after his closest friend kills himself while tripping on acid, paralleling how Wilson himself soon tired of the scene and left it behind.
While the 2016 conference was quite engaging, all the participants to whom I spoke agreed that this installment was even better, with even more wide-ranging and varied events that succeeded in capturing all the many aspects of Wilson’s vast universe of thought. Colin Stanley has said that the future of this series of conferences is in question – perhaps that will change with time, but even if Mr. Stanley decides he’s already done enough for the Wilsonian cause (and he certainly has done yeoman’s work), I’m quite certain others will step up and put on another such event before long. Wilson’s most dedicated followers – myself included – believe that his work is only growing in importance and relevance, not lessening, and as such we feel it is our duty to make sure that his legacy gets the reevaluation that he always hoped it would, and to see to it that others pick up where he left off and continue to try to take hold of the steering wheel of mankind’s mental development heading into the future. And really, in the end, whether we are political, spiritual, or cultural activists – or even just Outsiders – that is what ultimately lies at the basis of what we’re doing.
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