Dreaming to Some Purpose by Colin Wilson

Since his dazzling arrival on the literary scene in the 1950s, the author Colin Wilson has exhibited unshakeable self-belief and enviable vivacity. Gary Lachman enjoys an autobiography that's more candid and revealing than most
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The Independent Culture

At 16, Colin Wilson decided to commit suicide. After he dropped out of school, a series of meaningless jobs led him to a state of unrelieved gloom, and the unpromising insight that it was "simply not logical to go on living like this". Paradoxically, the thought of suicide made him feel "in charge of myself and my destiny". Entering his chemistry class during a brief return to school, he removed the stopper on a bottle of hydrocyanic acid - capable of killing him in seconds - and was about to take a swig when something happened. Suddenly, Wilson had become two people: the idiotic teenager about to throw away his life, and a somewhat wiser individual, irritated at his foolish other self. Wilson realised that what he craved was more life, not less. That insight into the "immense richness of reality" occasioned by a "peak experience" became the focus of his subsequent career. Now, at 73, the morbid 16-year-old has published his autobiography. Dreaming To Some Purpose is a readable, entertaining and candid

At 16, Colin Wilson decided to commit suicide. After he dropped out of school, a series of meaningless jobs led him to a state of unrelieved gloom, and the unpromising insight that it was "simply not logical to go on living like this". Paradoxically, the thought of suicide made him feel "in charge of myself and my destiny". Entering his chemistry class during a brief return to school, he removed the stopper on a bottle of hydrocyanic acid - capable of killing him in seconds - and was about to take a swig when something happened. Suddenly, Wilson had become two people: the idiotic teenager about to throw away his life, and a somewhat wiser individual, irritated at his foolish other self. Wilson realised that what he craved was more life, not less. That insight into the "immense richness of reality" occasioned by a "peak experience" became the focus of his subsequent career. Now, at 73, the morbid 16-year-old has published his autobiography. Dreaming To Some Purpose is a readable, entertaining and candid review of Wilson's life and work. It goes a long way to justifying his early decision to put the stopper back in the bottle.

Wilson is best known for the rags-to-riches story surrounding his first book. On 28 May 1956, the 24-year-old Wilson - recently living in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath - woke to find himself famous. The Outsider, a study in alienation and extreme mental states - written in the old Reading Room of the British Museum - had been published to universal acclaim, and Wilson was hailed as Britain's home-grown existentialist. John Osborne's Look Back in Anger had opened the same week, and the two, who had nothing in common, found themselves at the head of a publicity storm surrounding "the Angry Young Men". Before The Outsider, his career had been a dizzying attempt to avoid the mediocrity of modern life. Reading and writing, and years of keeping journals produced the self-assurance and erudition that impressed early reviewers like Philip Toynbee and Cyril Connolly. They also provided an outlet for Wilson's growing conviction that he was destined to be an important writer.

Reading of Wilson's early years, we get an idea of the beating that self-belief took. After a stint in the RAF, from which he escaped by pretending to be gay, Wilson moved from job to job and room to room in Leicester and London, with a few months wandering in France in between, where he worked briefly selling subscriptions to the Paris Review. The dreary work, the pokey rooms and hellish landladies ("Becoming a landlady," he remarks, "is the surest way to forfeit your immortal soul") and becoming an unexpected father and husband at 20 punched several holes in Wilson's romanticism. One means of restoring some balance was meditation, a practice he picked up after reading the Bhagavad Gita. Another was sex.

Wilson is more than candid about the importance of sex in his life. There's a clinical desire to be objective, which, if nothing else, provides a good excuse for some steamy stories. Although he's now convinced that sex is a pleasant but ultimately insubstantial "illusion", early works like the novel Ritual in the Dark and the "phenomenological study" Origins of the Sexual Impulse, as well as several others, link the erotic to both the mystical and criminal elements in the psyche. Like most teenage boys, Wilson was obsessed with sex, and at an early age he developed the underwear fetish he openly admits to - a taste most likely acquired as a small boy, when he would put on his mother's knickers. Wilson's account of his sexual experiences around Soho in the 1950s - a milieu he soon wearied of - suggests that his subsequent fame would have provided many more, were it not for the restraint he exhibited because of his second wife. Even still, his discipline didn't deter a neurotic, hysterical fan who threatened suicide if her advances were rejected. At one point enduring her attentions while driving, Wilson noted that being fellated in transit was "an oddly nondescript sensation".

Wilson is a charming raconteur, and the book's best moments are when he recounts his meetings with the famous. From being "a bum and a drifter... living outdoors to avoid paying my [first] wife maintenance", Wilson found himself among the cultural high rollers. T S Eliot, W H Auden, Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, Elias Canetti, Anthony Burgess, Albert Camus, Christopher Logue, Robert Graves, Iris Murdoch all have cameos, as well as some less literary figures like Charles Laughton, Lawrence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. Wilson exchanges opinions on Truman Capote with Norman Mailer, gets into a fist fight with Kenneth Tynan, wonders if Graham Greene is a paedophile, recounts some of Kenneth Rexroth's raunchy stories, and reminisces on the career of the novelist John Braine. During a tenure in California, Wilson spent an afternoon with Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley and Henry Miller. One meeting that didn't happen was with Jack Kerouac, who on two occasions got too drunk to show up.

By the late 1960s Wilson's career had been in eclipse for a decade, a product of the backlash against the early acclaim. By 1971 he found himself on the bestseller list again with a massive tome on the paranormal, The Occult. Since then, Wilson has been, in his own words, a kind of "writing machine", obsessively working from his home in Cornwall, producing book after book on disparate but related topics: crime, serial killers, the paranormal, psychology, sex, UFOs, ancient civilisations, biographies (of Wilhelm Reich, Aleister Crowley, Rudolf Steiner and G I Gurdjieff), as well as many novels. Much of the second half of the book is about the nuts and bolts of being a professional writer and workaholic. His industriousness took its toll, and for a time Wilson suffered unnerving panic attacks that left him unsure of his own reality, and which he only slowly learned to overcome.

Wilson isn't afraid of holding unfashionable views. Poltergeist phenomena are most likely caused by spirits. The earth was probably visited by extraterrestrials in the ancient past. Civilisation more than likely started much earlier than archaeologists believe. There's sufficient evidence for some form of life after death. Wilson remarks on these with a "take it or leave it" brevity, and we may not agree with him, but an open-minded reader recognises that he didn't arrive at these views easily, and that they are not essential to his basic insight into the "curious power of the mind that we hardly understand".

In person warm, cheerful, generous and upbeat, Wilson admits that "being alive is grimly hard work". Dreaming to Some Purpose is a good argument that the reward is worth the effort.

'Dreaming to Some Purpose' by Colin Wilson is published by Century (£20). To buy a copy for £18 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897. Gary Lachman is the author of 'A Dark Muse: The Dedalus Book of the Occult' (Dedalus £9.99)

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