Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson
by Gary Lachman. Tarcherperigree, 2016. PP. XVI + 399. $26 PAPER
Reviewed by Richard Smoley
Wilson reached fame early, with the publication of his first book, The Outsider, in 1956. It was one of the great successes in the British book world that year and received ardent praise from many in Britain’s literary establishment. One early reviewer wrote, “What makes it truly astonishing is that its alarmingly well-read author is only twenty-four.” The Outsider’s central theme is the alienated human of modern times, depicted in such works as Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The Outsider suited the stark mood of the postwar years: part of its appeal.
Literary acclaim proved fickle. Wilson became a target for the tabloids, and his second book, Religion and the Rebel, published in 1957, did not help. Wilson said that the Outsider is in rebellion against the “lack of spiritual tension in a materially prosperous civilization” (emphasis here and in other quotes is from the original). The British intelligentsia could go along with the alienation, but they did not want to hear about spirituality. Religion and the Rebel was savaged, and Wilson withdrew to Cornwall. Here he lived comfortably with his wife and children for the rest of his life, writing incessantly, sometimes up to two thousand words a day. He would produce over a hundred books on topics ranging from religion to murder to existentialism to lost civilizations, gaining a worldwide readership.
The best lens through which to see Wilson is that of existentialism, because it is the lens through which he wanted to be seen. Existentialism, at its high-water mark in the 1950s, arose out of a reaction to one of the axioms of medieval Scholastic philosophy. The Scholastics, and many after them, held that essence precedes existence. Essence, in this sense, is the way a being intrinsically is, as opposed to existence, which is how this being manifests in the world.
The existentialists turned this principle on its head, claiming that in fact existence precedes essence. In the case of man, this means that there is no way that he is fundamentally meant to be. He was not created by God (most existentialism is atheistic). Rather he was produced accidentally by an alien and indifferent universe. The bad news in this is that man is alone in a cosmos that does not care for him or even know about him. The good news is that this same fact makes man radically free. Because there is no way that he is supposed to be, he can be whatever he likes.
Wilson, almost alone among the existentialists, chose to stress the optimistic side of the picture. Early on he had peak experiences in which he felt emotional elevation and saw the world as objectively beautiful. At first these peak states usually came after the release of some tension, such as expected bad news that did not arrive. Later he realized that it was possible to attain them by will power alone. In one key episode, Lachman writes, “A determined act of intense concentration had brought the change on.” This insight led Wilson to try to develop a “new existentialism.” If man is free to make anything he wants of himself, why not make himself happy?
In 1971 Wilson enjoyed his next major success, with The Occult: A History. Its main theme was “Faculty X”—the capacity to generate and experience “an intenser and more powerful form of consciousness” than the one known in everyday life. In The Occult, Wilson surveyed this faculty as it manifested in primitive magic, in Western occultism, and in charismatic individuals such as H.P. Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, and Rasputin. He was not blind to these figures’ quirks and faults, but he did portray them as serious seekers rather than as frauds—a revolutionary step at that time.
This sketch gives a glimpse of the main train of Wilson’s thought: There is a certain dissatisfaction with ordinary life, at least in some individuals. What makes a person an Outsider is precisely this dissatisfaction. But there are also higher states of consciousness, which overcome this banality and transform the world into something powerful and beautiful and essential. The next step is simply to grasp how to bring them about deliberately and consciously, without waiting for circumstance. Mystical and occult practices are ways of accomplishing this (though not the only ways).
Wilson was never able to inject these ideas into the mainstream as much as he might have wished. Part of the problem may have been his insistence on clinging to the existentialist label. This was legitimate: Wilson had as much right to call himself an existentialist as anyone. But tactically it was a mistake. Even for the intelligentsia, existentialism has always been more of a mood than a system of thought. The ontological subtleties of existence versus essence have been overshadowed by images of gloomy intellectuals moping in cafés about the tragic indifference of the universe. Wilson’s cheery philosophy did not fit this picture, so it was pushed aside.
I myself believe that Wilson’s chief impact has been through his thought on the mystical and the paranormal. It was not so much a matter of his ideas about Faculty X, which resembled those set out previously by William James and Abraham Maslow. It was more that, particularly in The Occult and later works along the same lines, he was able to talk about marginalized figures and modes of thought in a way that made them palatable to intelligent, literate people. Consequently, he was the great forerunner of the serious inquiries into Western esotericism that have arisen over the past thirty years. A younger generation of writers—including Lachman himself—who are trying to cut through the impasse between blind belief and blind skepticism are his heirs.
Beyond the Robot could be improved in certain ways. I would have been grateful for a simple list of all of Wilson’s books with their years of publication. Moreover, the index covers personal names only, which greatly limits its value. Finally, it would have been nice to see some photos of Wilson and his family and some of the key figures in his life.
Nevertheless, Lachman’s biography does a great service not only in summing up the life of Colin Wilson, but in taking his ideas and setting them out in an accessible form. Wilson was a lucid and engaging writer, but his ideas are spread across so many books that only the most patient inquiry is going to unearth them. Lachman, in presenting them here, has made sure that they will continue to live. ♦
Richard Smoley is a consulting editor to Parabola. His latest book, How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible, was reviewed in Parabola, Summer 2016.