Outside, with time's whips and scorns: Peter Guttridge meets the unusual, prolific and provocative author
Saturday 05 June 1993
He will deride the French poststructuralist in Derrida Deconstructed and provide a sequel to his Seventies sci-fi success, The Space Vampires, with Metamorphosis Of A Vampire. He is part-way through the next part of his fresh and inventive Spiderworld science fantasy series and he is rushing out a book about the mind of the serial killer.
The range of these books is typical of his output since his first book, The Outsider, brought him instant celebrity in 1957, and it perhaps prevents him being taken as seriously by the critics as he takes himself. Because Wilson regards himself as a philosopher, yet writes popular works about the paranormal and serial killers, he has been scoffed at.
In particular, his interest in 'serial sex murders' has been seen as prurient - and worse, 'The police called on me during their investigations into the Yorkshire Ripper murders,' he says. 'I assumed they wanted my advice. In fact, I was a suspect.' Wilson's smile spreads from ear to ear - clearly the reviewer who noted 'Wilson has all the tabloid instincts save that of humour' had never met him. He has been putting up with snide remarks for almost 40 years, ever since the critics who had so fulsomely praised his first book, The Outsider, turned on his second, Religion and The Rebel.
'The Outsider was an instant success,' he says. 'On Saturday I was unknown, on Sunday I was famous.' Cyril Connolly called The Outsider 'one of the most remarkable books I have read for a long time', Philip Toynbee was equally effusive, noting 'what makes it truly astounding is that its alarmingly well-read-author is only 24.' As well as his youth (which allowed the press to bracket him with other Angry Young Men), Wilson had a colourful past for a serious thinker. Born in Leicester in 1931, son of a shoemaker, he had left school at 16 to bicycle from Leicester to London. His first ambition was to be a nuclear scientist - in his teenage years he had already begun to write a multi-volume history of science - but while working in various manual jobs he decided he should be a writer. For a period, he wrote in the British Museum library by day and slept rough in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath by night.
In the months following the publication of The Outsider, Wilson was on the celebrity circuit. He hobnobbed with the likes of Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Oswald Mosley, Robert Graves, Henry Miller, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and Charles Laughton. In a cafe on the Champs Elysees, he and Albert Camus discussed their fundamental differences about existentialism over cafe au lait.
It began to go wrong when the tabloids seized on a scandal in Wilson's private life. Wilson was living apart from his wife and child. During a private dinner in his bed-sit, the father of his girlfriend, Joy, (who became his second wife), burst in. Brandishing a horse-whip, he declared 'You're a homosexual with six mistresses'. He had stumbled on Wilson's journals, which contained his notes for a novel, Ritual In The Dark. While Wilson evaded the whip, his dinner guest telephoned the newspapers.
And after the tabloids had done their bit, the critics moved in to massacre Wilson's Religion and The Rebel. Wilson and Joy took refuge in Cornwall, where they have remained. Their house groans under the weight of books - there are two sheds about the size of a branch library out in the garden for the overspill - and 10,000 classical and jazz records.
His daughter's parrot has colonised the dining room, so the Wilsons have their customary tea of smoked salmon and wine from trays on their laps, whilst he explains the central concerns he has tried to elaborate in all his books. 'The basic obsession of all my work is the glimpse of a bigger reality we get sometimes which makes life worth living. How are we to prolong that?'
In The Outsider, Wilson took E M Forster's contention that 'the artist will tend to be an outsider', passed it through Nietzsche (by way of Wilson's hero, Shaw) and developed a thesis that the artist should not merely stand apart from society to concentrate upon his own function within it, but should raise himself above it and become a superior being.
In the Sixties he extended and refined his central ideas. A fruitful interchange with American phenomenological psychologist Abraham Maslow (best known to engineers and MBAs for identifying the 'hierarchy of needs') led to Wilson's adoption of Maslow's term 'peak experiences' to describe those moments, like Joyce's 'epiphanies', when everything falls into place and is given meaning. He also used the phenomenological philosopher Husserl's notion that 'perception is intentional' to suggest a way we can create such experiences by the way we focus our attention.
In publishing terms, the Sixties were his lost decade, when his books were either maligned or ignored. 'There was a Colin Wilson Society then but I think they thought I was dead,' he says. 'I gave a talk to them once. They disbanded soon after.'
The tide began to turn in the late Sixties when first his science fiction novel The Mind Parasites was well received, then British director Nicolas Roeg wanted to film his crime novel, The Killer. In 1971, Wilson's definitive work on the paranormal, The Occult, was both a popular and critical success. (Even Toynbee said kind things about it.) In subsequent years, in addition to encyclopaedias of crime and criminological books, he has written a great deal about the paranormal, including a book about Uri Geller.
You wonder if he continued to write about the paranormal because, as a writer who lives by his pen, it was profitable. He denies this. 'Although I write to earn a living, I have never written anything I didn't want to write.' Intellectual challenge is central to Wilson's life, but he is also an emotional man. 'To a large extent my life has been driven by what Shaw calls 'the intellectual passion',' he agrees. 'But I suspect the key to my nature is the need to give affection. I cracked one of Joy's ribs by hugging her too enthusiastically some weeks ago.' His belief in living life at a peak of experience has been central to his thinking and his writing for 40 years. But has he put his theories into practice for himself? 'My basic goal has been some kind of control of consciousness. In 1973 I experienced very frightening panic attacks because I took on too much. Coping with them made me realise human beings are far stronger then they realise. We can be hopelessly passive because we don't realise how far we can control negative states, how far a kind of mental effort can restore a sense of freedom. As I see it, the central task is to throw off all narrowness. The whole world is infinitely fascinating and we merely require a higher level of energy to see this.'
Readers in Japan and America respond to his ideas, but he is resigned to the fact that in Britain people pay him little attention, 'I prefer my relative anonymity,' he says. 'The attacks that followed The Outsider enabled me to do what an 'outsider' should do: get on with working and thinking without too many interruptions. I would like my life to be a lesson in how to stand alone and to thrive on it. If I could achieve that I would feel that I had done the job that I have always felt I was born to do.'
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