Monday, September 19, 2016

Beyond the Robot: The Life & Work of Colin Wilson by Gary Lachman

Lachman on Wilson: a perfect fit
In my reflections about Colin Wilson written at the time I learned of his death in 2013, I remarked on the extent of Wilson’s publications and how I wished that someone would make a compendium of his work, sorting out what I referred to as “the junk” it included. (A description that I now regret.) When I reviewed Gary Lachman’s The Secret History of Consciousness, I described how both Lachman and I had encountered and appreciated the works of Colin Wilson, and I how believed the Lachman would inherit the mantle of leadership from his friend Colin Wilson in the field of exploration of human consciousness. Now, with the publication of Lachman’s biography of Wilson, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (2016), my conjectures and wishes are in large measure fulfilled. While Lachman has not edited a compendium of Wilson’s writings (other have done this), he’s used his formidable powers to survey Wilson’s life and work, thereby making Wilson’s life-long project accessible in one volume. It is a task that Lachman is supremely qualified to perform, and one that he succeeds in wonderfully.

For those unfamiliar with Colin Wilson, in 1956 this young Brit from a working class family burst onto the British literary scene with his book, The Outsiders. Without benefit of a college education (or as he might put it, with the benefit of no college education), Wilson wrote and published a work that discussed famous individuals, such as T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse, Nijinsky, and others, who did not fit into society. The book became a sensation and brought Wilson into association (involuntarily) with a collection of young British writers dubbed “The Angry Young Men.” But by having flown too high too soon—and perhaps also based on British class snobbery—Wilson fell just as quickly from favor. Ove the course of his career, Wilson would suffer a roller coaster ride of acclaim and derision (although outside of Britain, particularly in the Middle East and Japan, he gained wide, continued popularity). But while castigations in the public eye were discouraging, Wilson was a man on a mission, a mission that continued to keep him working until a stroke finally deprived him of his ability to write until a couple of years before his death at age 82.

What Wilson wrote about seemed to be “everything,” at least to the casual observer. But, as Lachman demonstrates, a thread of concerns and interests runs throughout Wilson’s writings. That interest centers around human consciousness and how we can make our consciousness work for our benefit and not to our detriment. As someone who has read 11 of his books (as best as I can recollect), I knew about this thread, but since he’d published over 100 books (yes, you read that correctly), I thought that the others went off on a different track. I was interested in philosophy and psychology, while Wilson also wrote literary criticism, biographies, about crime (especially murder), unusual sexual practices, the occult and paranormal, and lost civilizations. Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, and so on; I’m all in. But poltergeists, Atlantis, and grisly murders? No thanks.  But here is where Lachman’s work proved especially worthwhile for me. For while Wilson, who loved to spend his money on books, classical recordings, and wine (not a bad way to blow through money), was forced to write to keep ahead of this banker, he nevertheless always chose subjects that centered on important issues of human consciousness and intentions. His works would always find a way to explore further the mind involved in human conduct and thinking. Wilson was first and foremost a thinker, a man of ideas, and that was always the impetus behind his investigations.

I had a copy of The Occult, Wilson’s first foray into the paranormal, that remained unread on my bookshelf until it was dispatched in the great pruning before left to live abroad. On such topics, along with those concerning extraterrestrials and lost civilizations, I considered myself an open-minded skeptic. But perhaps the aptest description of my attitude was that of a prototypical American as described by William James: I just couldn’t see the cash value of such topics. Wilson, even with his extensive investigations into these topics—and his eventual acceptance of the reality of some of the phenomena—saw the limits of its usefulness. As Lachman explains:

[Wilson] was not entirely skeptical, but he felt that people get interested in the occult for the wrong reasons, a sadly true reflection. He had spoken with many spiritualists and while he believed in their sincerity, it was the triviality of their interest in life after death, as well as the kind of life that was supposed to be, that repelled him. Compared to the concerns of philosophy or science it was, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “all too human,” too personal and small. A look at most spiritualist literature can, I think, confirm this. Wilson knew that “our life can offer a reality and an intensity” in this world now, compared to which most religious or supernatural solutions to its mysteries seem irrelevant.23 It was this belief that had led to his new existentialism. Saying that the answer to the mystery of existence is that we in some way survive bodily death seemed to miss the point.

Gary Lachman, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, loc. 4145

And as Lachman writes of himself:

My own feeling is that, taken in isolation, some of the claims made about advanced prehistoric civilizations may not be convincing—some are outright unbelievable—but as with the paranormal, when added up they do seem persuasive and I see nothing wrong in accepting the strong possibility that something along these lines is the case.

Gary Lachman, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, loc. 8201

After reading these and other comments, I was encouraged that Lachman and Wilson both hold a healthy degree of skepticism about such topics, along with an appreciation of the limited usefulness of such knowledge. I hold a better opinion of Wilson’s efforts along these and many other diverse lines of inquiry. As Lachman notes, Wilson was much more like a journalist than a scientific investigator when writing about unusual phenomena. He was not a scholar or a scientist, but an original thinker who was very effective at researching via books and interviews, but not in culling results up to scholarly or legal standards. The mind and its workings are what interested Wilson.

Indeed, Wilson’s work as a philosophic and psychological thinker remains of the greatest value. Someone who’s lived a modicum of life and who has an inquiring mind fertilized—usually by reading—by other thoughtful minds and who can write (as Wilson did fluently) can think philosophically and psychologically. But sound scholarship and scientific investigations require more specialized and rigorous training that Wilson did not have. Thus, readers have to sort through a lot of information that may not be reliable—and topics such as the paranormal or ancient civilizations reveal only disconnected bits of evidence—therefore making speculations—mostly ungrounded—run rampant. Wilson seemed to have known this and appreciated the limitation, but accounts about these topics allowed him to speculate, which is what he did well.

Lachman has deftly melded Wilson’ life into his thought, which is fitting for a man so intoxicated with attempting to resolve life’s greatest challenges. Wilson’s most significant work was done on the page, so the events of his life, especially after he published his first book, become secondary to his thoughts. Also, Wilson provided accounts of his life in several of this books, so that the tale of his early years was a familiar one and comparatively easy for a biographer. Lachman also has the advantage of having morphed from an admirer to a friend to a fellow writer. Lachman obviously admired, liked, and learned from his subject, a trajectory that no doubt helped sustain him through the challenge of writing this book. Even Lachman, now an experienced and capable writer, obviously had to toil long and mightily to publish such a thorough study of such a prolific and wide-ranging author.

There are two compliments that I can make about this book provide some measure of its success in telling the story of Colin Wilson. First, if someone told me that they wanted to know about Colin Wilson and his thought, and asked: “What book should I read first?” I might suggest instead that she read Lachman’s biography first, and then she could jump into whichever of Wilson’s works that most seemed to capture her fancy. Lachman pretty much has it all covered.

My second compliment comes by way of a conundrum. What should I read next, a book by Colin Wilson or one by Gary Lachman? A delightful conundrum to contemplate!

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