Interview with Colin Wilson
Lisa: Your books explore many different aspects of human nature - psychology, criminology, sexology,
fiction, metaphysics. The underlying common theme throughout is the nature of human consciousness.
What do you tap into during these explorations, and what conclusions have they brought you to?
Colin: One of my most basic insights arises from that spring morning feeling I've often spoken of,
that sense we get on spring mornings (particularly as a child) that the world is infinitely exciting.
This is not just a 'feeling' - we can actually see this, like looking at a solid object.
But it tends to evaporate when we settle down to the grind of what Heidegger calls the triviality
Again, I used to get it when I first learned to ride a bicycle (at the age of 12 or so), and began taking long
rides into the Leicestershire countryside - Warwick, Leamington, Matlock - and suddenly experiencing a
marvellous sense of freedom, of how big and fascinating the world is. As I cycled along in the morning
sunlight, I would be overwhelmed by a feeling of potentiality, of all the thousands of places I wanted to
see and the thousands of things I wanted to do. This is the essence of poetry - Rupert Brooke speaks of
The soul with longing for dim hills
And far horizons…'
Of course, science was my first love - chemistry and astronomy - and these also brought that sense of infinite mystery, and the possibility of endless discovery - at 13, my hero was Einstein, and I hoped to become his successor.
But to return to the basic insight; 99% of human beings are inclined to accept that the wild optimism is an illusion, a bit like falling in love, and then discovering that the beloved is, after all, a quite ordinary person. But geniuses can't settle for this. The Shelleys and Keatses and Rupert Brookes are possessed by a conviction that the spring morning feeling is a glimpse of the truth. Of course,
they may also plunge into pessimism, as Shelley did (this dim, vast vale of tears), or Shakespeare (out, brief candle).
In The Outsider I felt strongly that it ought to be possible to maintain the optimism, if it is based on reality, not on illusion. So although I could be counted as an existentialist thinker, I differed quite basically from Heidegger, Sartre and Camus. I did not agree with Camus that life is like everlastingly rolling a rock uphill and watching it roll down again, or like Sartre that man is a useless passion.
What I came to do was develop a new and optimistic type of existentialism.
The American psychologist Abraham Maslow provided me with an important key with his concept of the Peak Experience, the sudden experience of sudden, overwhelming happiness that comes to all healthy people. The Peak Experience is not a mystical experience; it springs out of health, and Maslow discovered that all healthy people have them with a fair degree of frequency. A typical example is his story of the young mother who was eating breakfast with her husband and children when she suddenly thought 'My God, aren't I lucky!', and went into the Peak Experience. Maslow also learned that as his students talked to each other about Peak Experiences, they began having Peak Experiences all the time, as if they had taught their minds how to do it. Briefly, it struck me that happiness, optimism, efficiency, are the natural and normal state of human consciousness, and that gloom and self doubt and pessimism are merely a sign that someone has failed to understand what reality is all about.
Lisa: How do the ideas come to you for a new book? What processes do you feel are actively engaged in the feeling that something needs to be said about a particular subject?
Colin: One of my fundamental distinctions is between what one might call the bird's eye view and the worm's eye view. Poems like Shelley's Ode To The West Wind or Ode To A Skylark are obviously written from a bird's eye view, as if the poet's mind is soaring above the world. Sartre and Schopenhauer are grounded, stuck in the worm's eye view. (Beckett is the worst of all). These two views of reality have been battling it out since the late 18th century, as I demonstrated in 'The Outsider'. The Romantics experienced marvellous, ecstatic states of happiness, in which they felt undefeatable. Yet when they woke up the next morning, it had all evaporated, and they felt that it was simply a pleasant delusion. So many of them died as suicides, or of alcoholism, or TB, or in accidents (like Shelley). This is what Carlyle meant when he spoke of Eternal Yes versus Eternal No.
I suppose I was fortunate in that the problems of my teenage years - a despairing feeling that I was likely to waste my life working in factories, like my father and brother - had toughened me. I have often noted that writers who had a hard struggle - like Dickens, Shaw, Wells - emerged as optimists, while the 'fortunate' middle-class writers, like Proust and Galsworthy and Greene and Waugh (and Beckett) carried a lifelong burden of gloom and self-doubt. This was the true basis of my optimism. I am an optimist by temperament, an enthusiast about ideas, and I often achieve this feeling of a bird's eye view. As a teenager, it came from science as well as poetry and music.
When I was 18, the concept of Outsiders came to me as I was reading my favourite writers, and I began slotting the writers - from Keats to Hemingway and Eliot and Dostoevsky - into these categories. That is the way my mind works. But while I was reading the people who went into The Outsider I was also absorbed in the mystics, like Meister Eckhart, Suso, St John of the Cross, the Cloud of Unknowing, and Hindu and Buddhist scriptures (the Bhagavad Gita was particularly influential).
The discovery of Toynbee's Study Of History suddenly showed me how I could weave these into a sequel to The Outsider (Religion And The Rebel, originally to be called simply The Rebel).
I should explain that I have a kind of cross-referencing mind. One evening in the autumn of 1954, I was walking along the Embankment with my friend Bill Hopkins, and explaining to him what my work-in-progress, the novel Ritual In The Dark, was about. I explained that it had 3 central characters, (1) the hero, an Intellectual Outsider, who has great control over his intellect, but not of his body or emotions, (2) an emotional Outsider, a painter, who has great control of his emotions, but not of his intellect or body, and (3) a physical Outsider (the murderer) who has control over his body (he is based on the dancer Nijinsky) but not of his emotions or intellect. I mentioned to him that Dostoevsky had adopted a similar scheme in The Brothers Karamazov with Ivan, Mitya and Alyosha. You might say that all three, combined together, would make a complete human being.
At that time I was spending my days working in the British Museum Reading Room, writing my first novel Ritual In The Dark, and my evenings as a washer -up in a Coffee House in the Haymarket. Throughout the spring and summer of 1954 I slept out on Hampstead Heath in a sleeping bag, to save money, until I was driven indoors by the onset of winter rains.
Not long after that conversation with Bill Hopkins, alone in my room in New Cross over Christmas 1954 (when Joy had gone home for Christmas), I sketched out The Outsider in terms of these 3 types of Outsider - intellectual, physical and emotional. Nietzsche and T.E. Lawrence are examples of the first, Van Gogh of the second, Nijinsky of the third. Its central chapter, 'The Attempt To Gain Control', is about Lawrence, Van Gogh and Nijinsky. On New Years Day, when the British Museum reopened, I cycled there (I cycled everywhere in London to save bus fares) and, on the way, recalled a novel I had once read about, in which a man finds a hole in the wall of his hotel room, and spends his days peering through at the people who come and go in the next room. He struck me as the perfect symbol of the Outsider, and as soon as I arrived at the museum I ordered the book (Barbusse's L'Enfer), read it through within hours, then copied down a sentence from it: 'In the air, on top of a tram, a girl is sitting…' - the opening of The Outsider.
As I wrote it I had an odd sense that it was good, and that, after so many years of struggle, things were changing, and my cross indexing mind made it an easy book to write.
Re. this cross indexing mind: once, when Joy and I were in Hamburg in 1957, a girl we were with left her coat in a night club where we had been the previous evening with her boyfriend, a publisher (who had left town for the weekend). I tried hard to recall the name of the night club, but all that came into my head was Dostoevsky. I began to go through his novels one by one until The Possessed seemed to ring a bell. I went through its characters one by one until I came to the name Peter Verkhovensky. Then I recalled that the night club was called Peter something. Still The Possessed stuck in my head, and I went through its minor characters until I came to the governor von Lembke. Then I recalled the name of the night club - Peter Lembke, and we merely had to jump in a taxi and say 'Peter Lembke' to the driver.
Lisa: You have a phenomenal body of work published - over 80 books. How have you managed to do this?
Colin: It doesn't take all that much time. Shaw and Trollope wrote 1,000 words a day, then stopped. That took about an hour. If you wrote that much every day, it would make a novel as long as War And Peace in less than a year. In my younger days I often wrote 5,000 words a day - too much for me now, though.
Lisa: What motivates and inspires you? What is your sense of your inner purpose, which is expressed through your work and your life?
Colin: When I was about 16, I had no doubt I was a genius - i.e. more mentally alive than most people. What I wanted, of course, was to get published, to get my foot on the bottom rung of the ladder of fame. (Although I would have settled for being just moderately known). I got very disappointed as my typescripts always came back. I had kept a journal since I was 16, often pouring out pages every day - afraid, like Keats, that I might 'cease to be/ Before my pen has reaped my teaming brain'. The journal taught me to write, to express myself clearly. So when I began The Outsider (at 23) I already had style, and plenty to say. Of course, to some extent fame was the spur (as Milton says) - but there was also an urgent need to understand why we are alive and what we are supposed to do now we are here.
Lisa: You have written 'All works of art are connected to the artist by the umbilical cord of passion', and 'When I open my eyes in the morning I am not confronted by a world but by a million possible worlds'. What do you feel we can access in order to feel motivated by passion and a sense of possibility?
Colin: I remain fascinated by dozens of questions. For example, at the moment I have returned to a question that has always interested me, the brains of idiot savants, who seem to prove one of my deepest convictions - that we all possess immense depths of untapped genius and greatness. I am always stumbling across writers I haven't read - at present, V.S. Pritchett - and a book called Frames Of Mind by Howard Gardner which makes me almost drunk with excitement. In writing this new book, The Atlantis Blueprint, I have accumulated dozens of volumes I haven't yet even had time to read.
One more central point. All my work has been dominated by one central insight: that most human beings spend their lives struggling with negative emotion and self-doubt, but that crisis immediately has the effect of freeing us from these feelings, as if a bubble has burst. When I was 16, I read Crime And Punishment, and, in the Introduction, about how Dostoevsky had stood in front of a firing squad, expecting to die within minutes, then was reprieved at the last moment. And I thought: 'It must have seemed to him in that moment that life was entirely good, and that when he looked back on things that had made him gloomy in the past, he must have felt: But how absurd!' And when I read the story of how Graham Greene had played Russian roulette in a state of teenage depression, and how, when the revolver clicked on an empty chamber, he experienced an overwhelming sense of sheer joy, I again saw that our fundamental problem is that we are oddly short-sighted. Worse, we are like blinkered horses, able to see only what lies in front of our eyes. If man is to evolve - and human evolution has been my lifelong preoccupation - he must concentrate on getting rid of the blinkers. That has been the basic subject of all my work.