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Saturday, 7 December 2013

THE GREAT COLIN WILSON HAS DIED

Colin Wilson, the strange English writer, novelist, researcher and intellectual, whose early life was marked by a meteoric rise to fame, had to endure a very long and serious decline in reputation - basically 60 years of critical neglect, even mockery. In death, he was equally unlucky, from the viewpoint of posterity - his death was December 5, 2013 ironically - the same day that Nelson Mandela died. Ironic, because Wilson was fascinated by human greatness, and how it could be achieved by optimism and strong will - surely hallmarks of Mandela's life.

As such, almost no British media, TV, radio, or papers, reported his death in the period just after his death (it is now several days without even news online covering it).  It will be interesting to see if the nationals eventually run mocking obituaries, or if some sort of decency will prevail.  I wrote many years back at Nthposition THE CASE FOR COLIN WILSON, and I stand by it.  I corresponded with him by email, and sent him this link, which he appreciated, and he read my poetry with some enjoyment though he preferred older poets he told me.  I was thrilled to hear from him, though we never met.  His books meant a lot to me when I was a teenager.  I was not alone: Groucho Marx was a huge fan.


Wilson sleeping rough on Hamsptead Heath 60 years ago.

Wilson was a very good-looking young man from the Midlands of England who was entirely self-taught.  In his early 20s he wrote a book about "the Outsider" in literature.  This was the 1950s, and Existentialism was new in England.  No other public intellectual here was engaging with Huysmans and Sartre as this young man was.  Critics have since claimed the book is cobbled together with most of it being quotation, but even so, its enthusiasm for, and love of, literature as a driving force for personal growth, is inspiring.

The book became a best-seller, and Wilson was famous in his mid-20s.  He met Marilyn Monroe, TS Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Maslow, and did tours of Russia with John Braine, and America, where he lectured and where Jack Kerouac came as a fan to meet him.  Wilson was a self-confessed dirty old man, and when not thinking about Faculty X (yes, this was his coinage and the X Factor is a crude steal), he was leering at college girls.  This seedy side of his life he confessed to in his autobiography.  In it, he appears as a mostly humourless egomaniac, and no doubt his personality problems led to his being sidelined as he grew older.

However, despite his problems, he was a borderline genius.  An eccentric, awkward, and perhaps wrong-headed genius, but he was certainly one of the first to anticipate the interest in the supernatural that was coming as the 60s loomed, and his next huge book was The Occult.  As he had been at the centre of the beatnik 50s, so he was at the centre of the spiritualism boom of the 60s. Meanwhile, anticipating the X-Files (named after his idea) by decades, he began conjecturing about sci-fi, Atlantis, and sex serial killers.  In the 70s, he wrote dozens of books about sex crimes, mass murder, religion, witches, demons, UFOs, and his beloved authors, cultivating the culture of the paranormal and the weird that typified a lot of that decade.

Wilson wrote and published around 100 books - he was a jobbing, hack writer, true - and he repeated his main idea endlessly.  But it was a compelling idea, that extreme states of experience make us glimpse eternity, another better world.  He was that rare thing, an optimistic existential thinker.  It seems very strange that England's very own Poe - the critic as creative writer, obsessed with sex, murder, sci-fi, ideas, the uncanny, and religion, should not have been recognised as a nutty but essential figure on the landscape.

Instead, the London publishing and critical elite, who had originally celebrated him, dropped him, and turned him into a running joke.  It will take years to rescue his reputation, and it can only be done in a deconstructive way.  His admirers do him a disservice by reading him straight, as an actual prophet.  He is better read against his own grain, as a deeply conflicted, problematic, but fascinating producer of deranged texts, that very much established a number of discourses, not least popular books on existentialism, murder and demons.

As such, he was a figure of some influence, albeit often peripherally, and even though he is likely wrong - so was Yeats - his bizarre library of publications warrants some sort of respect.  He came from little, and made something of himself, and in a less snobby, class-based place, he would be a subversive, transgressive, troubled hero like Burroughs is, like Iggy Pop, like Baudelaire.
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