Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson
by Gary Lachman.
Paperback, 416 pages, $26.
On the heels of Colin Stanley’s anthology of Colin Wilson’s Collected Essays on Philosophers comes the first biography of Wilson since that writer’s death in 2013, Gary Lachman’s Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. There are at least two previous biographies of Wilson, Sidney Campion’s early World of Colin Wilson (1963) and Howard Dossor’s Colin Wilson: The Man and His Mind (1991), not to mention two or three autobiographies from the phases of Wilson’s career—Voyage to a Beginning (1966), The Books in My Life (1998), and Dreaming to Some Purpose (2005).
Campion’s study came too early. Lachman writes that it embarrassed Wilson. Dossor’s Man and His Mind, by contrast, is a fine work, written right at the beginning of what might be called Wilson’s final creative period, in which the biographer takes seriously his subject’s declared indebtedness to Alfred North Whitehead and Edmund Husserl, both of whom stressed the “intentionality”—that is, the active character—of consciousness. Wilson’s synthesis of Whitehead and Husserl provides a key for understanding why his vigorous “New Existentialism” has never gained traction in the literature and philosophy departments and why interest in him remains confined to a coterie of unaffiliated individualists. The academic mentality has defined itself since the 1980s in diametrical opposition to the intentional theory of consciousness. The major figure of postmodernism, Jacques Derrida, devoted his earliest books to the project of refuting Husserl. According to Derrida, the very notion of a “self” or autonomous person is an illusion; Derrida assigns consciousness to the intersection of various “structures,” on whose “deconstruction” the illusion of the ego will vanish.
People who have committed themselves to such notions will react adversely to the assertion of free will and responsibility, which cuts across the modern—or postmodern—insistence that experts must manage everything bureaucratically from above including the thought-processes of individuals. People, on the other hand, who find themselves in an unavoidable revolt against the managerial massification of the millions, will find nourishment in Wilson’s critique of what, in one book, he called “The Age of Defeat.” In Beyond the Robot Lachman not only tells the story of Wilson’s life in unprecedented detail, he also interprets Wilson’s major works and, in a number of cases, extends Wilson’s analyses of phenomena in new and original ways. Lachman’s long personal acquaintance with his subject lends vital and intimate qualities to his discussion. In this way, Lachman takes to heart Wilson’s principle that thought and the thinker cannot be separated, and also that every artist or philosopher is first and foremost an individual person in a particular historical and cultural situation. No one was more acutely aware of the cultural situation in the mid-1950s than Wilson. Wilson’s first two books, to each of which Lachman devotes a separate chapter, functioned by intention as urgent diagnoses of a potentially fatal malaise.
At the end of the chapter devoted to Wilson’s breakout book The Outsider (1956), its initial success and the subsequent critical backlash against it, Lachman writes, somewhat apologetically, that he has “looked at The Outsider at length … to show that the kind of publicity that Wilson received [on the book’s appearance] could not really have had much to do with [its] actual ideas”; and Lachman regards those ideas as serious and worthy of revisitation. Precisely because, as Lachman writes, The Outsider contains “in embryo … pretty much everything that Wilson would write about for the rest of his life,” revisiting it is not only justifiable, but necessary.
What has Lachman rediscovered in The Outsider? First, in a survey of the first flurry of journalistic assessment, he has rediscovered that whether or not critics like Philip Toynbee and Cyril Connolly grasped Wilson’s ideas, they nevertheless intuited that a keen mind had conceived and executed the book and that the book addressed the status quo of the West astutely and convincingly. In what then did Wilson’s insight consist? Wilson saw, as Lachman writes, not that the eccentric and alienated souls that abound in modernity are shackled by tradition, but rather that they are cases of particularly intense reaction to the abolition of tradition, including a meaningful religious tradition. The “Outsider” of Wilson’s title is, in Lachman’s words, “a person with a pressing hunger for meaning and spiritual purpose in a world seemingly bent on denying these.”
Lachman reminds his readers that Wilson in The Outsider worked hard to avoid a stereotype but, on the contrary, made a survey of “the types of Outsider, looking at the lives and experiences of individuals who, for him, [embodied] the characteristic challenges the Outsider faces.” That remark points to the impressive literary study that permitted Wilson, a science-college dropout, to write his study. Lachman mentions the more prominent names in Wilson’s nine-chapter discussion: Friedrich Nietzsche, Vaslav Nijinsky, Vincent van Gogh, T. E. Lawrence, H. G. Wells, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and the First World War memoirist Henri Barbusse—among numerous others. Often, as Lachman notes, Wilson candidly admits that this or that Outsider, while “he cannot accept the world and its triviality,” is yet “not strong enough to escape from it or to impose his own seriousness on it.” On the other hand, as Lachman puts it in summarizing Wilson, the Outsider, supposing he is sufficiently tough-minded and disciplined, may experience “moments of vision, when a sense of power and meaning comes to him and he sees that he is not a misfit.” More than that, even, the robust Outsider, in his vision, may come to know that “the hunger and dissatisfaction that drive him, and which drove the mystics and saints of the past, are more real than the newspapers, television, and mediocrity [that] he abhors.”
Lachman emphasizes how far ahead of his contemporaries Wilson stood as a man of literary sensibility. The Outsider enfolded in its horizon a host of writers concerning whom Anglophone academic criticism in 1956 had shown little or no interest, but who soon figured in the outpouring of European novelists in English translation in cheap paperback format, aimed at college students, of the 1960s. In The Outsider Wilson gives one of the earliest extended interpretations of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf; he also anticipates the revival of interest in and popularization of William Blake, another literary phenomenon of the 1960s. Hesse’s Harry Haller, an autobiographical extension of his author, would qualify as one of those maladjusted visionaries who withdraw from spiritual campaigning to lead a life of cultivated aestheticism, much like Hesse himself. Blake, however, illustrates Wilson’s robust type of Outsider, who, as Lachman writes, “Must become a visionary … That is his salvation.” Husserlian intentionality reenters the exposition when Lachman resumes Wilson’s argument: “Blake had the poet’s intuitive understanding that … perception is intentional, that it is not a matter of passively reflecting the world outside, but of the amount of will, of attention and energy we put into it.” No mention occurs of Husserl in The Outsider, but Lachman is right to see that in his first book, Wilson had begun to think in a way that would make Husserl congenial to him in what was then the near future.
Lachman devotes another chapter of the biography exclusively to Religion and the Rebel (1957), a sequel of sorts to The Outsider. As Wilson’s title indicates, the topic of religion takes the stage front and center in his second book, which, as Lachman points out, had the misfortune to see publication just as the reaction against The Outsider, which had at first been positive, reached its irate acme. Journalism being what it is whether the year is 1957 or 2016, the forensic discussion of The Outsider had become mixed up with gossipy stories about Wilson’s Bohemian existence. Lachman, who once played guitar in the rock band Blondie, understands the appetite of celebrity journalism for scandal—and, like Wilson, he grasps that all journalism is basically celebrity journalism, not least in the review section. Why discuss ideas when there was an undissolved first marriage with a child and a current unmarried mistress? If anything needed to be said about the new book, it would be easier to quote the belated nasty things that critics had recently said about the first book, which is more or less how Religion and the Rebel was received. Moreover, Religion and the Rebel went beyond The Outsider in implicating every part of the establishment in its claiming of the thorough decadence of the modern age.
“The Outsider,” Lachman writes, “is a symptom of our age, and for Wilson, this was [an age] in steep decline.” Lachman usefully observes that whereas The Outsider concerned itself mainly with the diagnosis of civilizational sickness, Religion and the Rebel concerned itself with a range of possible responses to the diagnosis, among which the religious response figures as foremost. Thus, “The main part of the book focuses on a religious approach to the Outsider’s dilemma and is informed by Wilson’s reading in Western mysticism.” In discussing Wilson’s theory of religion, Lachman takes up the question of Wilson’s relation to Existentialism. Continental Existentialism—in Sartre, for example, and Heidegger—owed much to Husserl although often in a snarky, underhanded way that built on Husserl’s achievement but petulantly refused to own up to its debt. (Wilson would many decades later write an essay called Anti-Sartre  more or less accusing Sartre of having tried to disestablish Husserl, through churlish denigration, so as to replace him as the most important philosopher of the twentieth century.) Twentieth-century continental existentialism inclined to defeatism, however, and even to nihilism, as Lachman writes. Wilson’s brand of existentialism inclined oppositely, while also disdaining the deliberate rejection of the past—the anti-traditionalism—so characteristic of the Continental Existentialists. In Religion and the Rebel, in Lachman’s reading, “Wilson was determined to show that the concerns that obsess his Outsiders are something more than the neuroses of oversensitive individuals.” Those “concerns” point to “the spiritual bankruptcy of the age.” Considered in that perspective, Wilson proved himself in hindsight once again in advance of his time. The list of books in the 1960s that took up the “spiritual-bankruptcy” theme from one kind of existential position or another is long, including titles by William Barrett, William Irwin Thomson, and the venerable Russell Kirk, as different as they all were from one another.
Lachman reminds his readers that once again, as in The Outsider, Wilson stands out as a genuinely avant-garde figure whose knowledge anticipated the later revival of interestin such writers as Rainer Maria Rilke, Arthur Rimbaud, Søren Kierkegaard, Arnold Toynbee, and Oswald Spengler, with all of whom Religion and the Rebel extensively treats. Lachman emphasizes the change of analytical approach that differentiates Religion and the Rebel from the earlier Outsider. A number of compelling chapters of Religion and the Rebel deal with historical thinkers and therefore necessarily with history. Commenting on Wilson’s chapter on “The Outsider and History,” Lachman comments that Toynbee and Spengler belonged even more in 1957 than today when, on the right, some renewed interest in them has manifested itself. Following Wilson’s assessment, Lachman writes how “their work proceeds through vivid insights and visions; each could be said to look at history ‘existentially,’ in Wilson’s use of the term.” Again, “Each has a sense of destiny, of a direction in history, unlike their more scientific colleagues, who are satisfied with more materialist explanations and think in terms of [exclusively materialistic] cause and effect.” Wilson felt a natural and powerful attraction to Toynbee and Spengler, Lachman argues, because they represented the exact opposite of the logical-positivistic mentality that dominates the era of managerialism.
The Outsider and Religion and the Rebel constituted the foundations of what Wilson began calling “The New Existentialism,” a coinage that endows itself as a title on another of Lachman’s chapters. Lachman might well have named this chapter, “Wells, Shaw, and Husserl,” who became the three pillars of Wilson’s work, both in fiction and non-fiction, in the first half of the 1960s. It is worth mentioning here that Lachman’s erudition is equal to Wilson’s. Whatever Wilson read, Lachman seems to have read also. The salient items of this period of Wilson’s creativity are his first novel, Ritual in the Dark (1960), the philosophical book The Age of Defeat (1959), the study of the phenomenology of the imagination The Strength to Dream (1962—published in the USA as The Stature of Man), Beyond the Outsider (1965), The Origins of the Sexual Impulse (1963), the science-fiction novel The Mind Parasites (1965), and Introduction to the New Existentialism (1967). Clearly, as Lachman documents, Wilson’s encounter with Husserl constituted an epochal moment in the development of his thought. The name Husserl first appears, almost in passing, in The Strength to Dream, but by the time of The Origins of the Sexual Impulse and The New Existentialism, Husserl has become central to Wilson’s discourse.
What about Wells and Shaw? Wells, whose declining reputation Wilson found tobe indicative of the low state of Anglophone critical acuity, and Shaw, to whose work he would devote an entire book, were both, in their eccentric ways, denouncers of conformism and blinkered mental processes. In the late 1950s and the 1960s Wilson was one of the few intellectuals still taking both men seriously and commenting on their work. Wilson saw in both that visionary capacity that he so admired and so wished to cultivate as widely as possible. People for whom the name of Wells still belongs to cultivated knowledge associate him with various technocratic projects. Wilson, who read Wells beyond TheShape of Things to Come, recognized in the Wellsian oeuvre a distinct, if eccentric, religiosity that linked him not only to Shaw but also to Henri Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin. Wilson saw in Shaw a scrappy pugilist fighting against every form of spiritual forfeiture. Lachman does well to mention Wilson’s reassessment of these two underappreciated writers.
Lachman provides his own précis of Husserlian phenomenology to complement his exegesis of Wilson’s précis. In his discussion of The Origins of the Sexual Impulse, Lachman writes about the concept of intentionality that “when our minds are tightly focused and concentrated … then the object of perception, with all its reality, is held firmly in our sights and we hit the bull’s-eye squarely.” The modern way of life—managerial and consumerist, forever seeking the external advisement of the experts—strongly discourages focus and concentration, however, and conduces towards passivity. In the state of passivity consciousness falls prey to devitalizing tendencies in which the subject tends to “devalue … experience, to familiarize it and bring it within [the] indifference threshold.”
Wilson’s first and in many ways most ambitious novel, Ritual in the Dark, dramatizes the deadliness of indifference. Its protagonist, the semi-autobiographical Gerard Sorme, lives a Bohemian existence in London’s Soho, lodging in cheap rooms and dining as inexpensively as possible so as to devote his small private income to book-buying. Sorme is intensely aware of the prevailing abaissement du niveau mental, but thinks of himself as immune to it. Events shock him out of his complacency until in the dénouement he seeks a new, more disciplined mode of living.
Awareness of the devitalizing effects of habit and routine led Wilson to his coinage of “the robot,” which in turn provides Lachman with his title, Beyond the Robot. Wilson’s “robot” appears under many metaphorical representations in his fiction, as Lachman points out. In The Mind Parasites, for example, robotism (as one might call it) turns out to be related to the presence on earth of immaterial entities that feed on the will and that, with no great intelligence, nevertheless keep human beings in their thrall by throttling any visionary awakening. The Mind Parasites probably enjoys a wider readership than any other novel by Wilson. In the chapter on “Peak Experiences, Intentionality, and Evolution,” Lachman remarks one aspect of that novel’s significance. The Mind Parasites, like the slightly earlier Man without a Shadow (1963) instantiates Wilson’s “tactic,” as Lachman calls it, “of appropriating genres and putting them to his philosophical uses.” From 1960 to 1970 Wilson published numerous novels drawing on the genres—the detective novel, the spy novel, and the science-fiction novel. Better than any other writer on Wilson’s work thus far, Lachman observes the close complementarity of Wilson’s fiction and non-fiction creativity.
Lachman’s book is a biography. Its author never neglects the actual biographical background to Wilson’s intellectual career, which he presents more richly than Wilson’s previous biographers including Wilson himself. Wilson lived by writing. Because he spent profligately on intellectual necessities (books, recordings, and fine wines), he often heard from his banker about the parlous state of his overdraft. Wilson therefore wrote inveterately, a fact that explains the uneven quality of his large output. He also undertook lecture-tours, which while they often turned a profit were physically and mentally taxing. In Lachman’s telling, as Wilson grew older, he suffered increasingly from the hardships of these excursions. A family man who preferred to remain at home where he could turn to his typewriter at will, he would return home exhausted and with his health sapped. Despite the hardship, Wilson sustained the reputation of a fine and committed speaker. He invariably spoke impromptu yet with astonishing coherence—and he could speak (as I once heard him do in Los Angeles in 1987) charismatically for two or three hours.
Lachman’s later chapters deal with the themes that dominated Wilson’s authorship from the 1970s until his death, particularly the supernatural and paranormal. Wilson wrote The Occult, one of his best-sellers, on commission in the late 1960s and the book saw print in 1970. As Lachman writes, Wilson began the project in a state of skepticism but gradually came around to the view that phenomena existed that exceeded the horizon of purely rational or exclusively materialistic explanation. In The Occult itself and in its sequel Mysteries (1978), Wilson examined the proliferating varieties of paranormal events from haunting to precognition to the UFO-rumor. Later he would devote whole books to these and related topics, a commitment partly economic that, in Lachman’s judgment, contributed to Wilson’s relegation by spokesmen for the establishment to the category of an eccentric—and amusing—person of intelligence who nevertheless could not really be taken seriously. Despite their ambiguous status, The Occult, Mysteries, and related titles always return to the nucleus of their author’s inspiration: Wilson’s conviction that modernity is a phase of diminished consciousness, which, for its own sake, needs to be prodded and provoked.
Lachman is the first of Wilson’s biographers to address Wilson’s political itinerary in detail. In fact, Wilson felt hostile to politics from the beginning of his career: The sloganeering and ideological stupidities of politics repelled him. He nevertheless at first identified himself as a socialist, almost solely because Shaw had called himself a socialist, and Shaw was his model. The so-called Angry Young Men tended to espouse left wing causes. Critics associated Wilson with the Angry Young Men, but it was no more than journalistic convenience because Wilson, despite being a contemporary, had almost nothing in common with John Osborne and the rest. Later, as Lachman reports, Wilson grudgingly sided with the Thatcherites, if only because of his conviction that the welfare state contributed to the general deflation of consciousness and discipline. In later years, Wilson leaned towards what would nowadays be called traditionalism, while remaining aloof from politics, as such.
This barely scratches the surface of Lachman’s biography. It is an astonishingly detailed study that will undoubtedly force a reevaluation of Wilson’s importance. Beyond the Robot should merit the notice of readers who place themselves in the conservative and traditionalist camps—as do Wilson’s own books. Perhaps Lachman’s biography will serve as an entry to Wilson’s oeuvre for a new generation of readers.
Thomas F. Bertonneau is a long-time visiting professor on SUNY Oswego’s English faculty. He writes about literature, music, religion, politics, and culture.