Colin Wilson, who died last December, produced a phenomenal number books during his lifetime. He wrote on such diverse subjects as criminality, the occult, philosophy, religion, the supernatural, biography and psychology. He also produced an impressive array of fiction ranging from the “Metaphysical Murder Mystery” to works of science fiction. In total over 150 books over almost sixty years of writing.
Yet, throughout all of this prolific output, Wilson developed his own unifying system of beliefs where (as understood by the central character in The Glass Cage):
...everything that happens is connected with everything else, so you have to try to get to the root of things to understand them, not just concentrate on minute particulars…
Colin Wilson was born in Leicester, England, in 1931. He left school at sixteen, taking up a variety of jobs, before marrying his first wife, becoming a father, separating, and then traveling around Europe. On return he developed the tentative idea for his first book The Outsider:
It struck me that I was in the position of so many of my favourite characters in fiction: Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, the young writer in Hamsun’s Hunger: alone in my room, feeling totally cut off from the rest of society. It was not a position I relished… Yet an inner compulsion had forced me into this position of isolation. I began writing about it in my journal, trying to pin it down. And then, quite suddenly, I saw that I had the makings of a book. I turned to the back of my journal and wrote at the head of the page: ‘Notes for a book The Outsider in Literature’...
Wilson famously slept outside on Hampstead Heath while writing this book during the day at the British Library. When The Outsider was published in 1956, it launched the 24-year-old Wilson to international fame. However, his follow-up books were less well-recieved, and Wilson began to disseminate his ideas through a series of fictional crime novels starting with Ritual in the Dark in 1960.
In this mind-trip of interview with Jeffrey Mishlove for the program Thinking Allowed, Wilson explains how he has written on the same theme throughout his career. He cites an essay by Isaiah Berlin that explained how writers can be divided into two groups—foxes and hedgehogs:
The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows just one thing. So, Shakespeare is a typical fox; Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are typical hedgehogs. I am a typical hedgehog—I know just one thing, and I repeat it over and over again. I’ve tried to approach it from different angles to make it look different but it is the same thing.
The “same thing” Wilson alludes to here is his world view of our inter-connectedness, which he expounded in his favorite novel The Glass Cage, which told the story of a William Blake-quoting serial killer to explain “the abuse of human potential.” This is part of the theme Wilson develops in this interview, where he suggests humans are 51% robot, and 49% essence, and it is only in moments of extremity that the essence takes over, allowing individuals to experience their potential.
Wilson’s books offer a greater understanding of the positive human existence. He was averse to the “negative” view of life promoted by such writers as Samuel Beckett or Jean-Paul Sartre and believed in a philosophy that would actively promote a positive engagement with life.
Looking back over his life, it now seems odd that such a brilliant mind was overlooked by the literary mainstream. Yes, at times, his boyish enthusiasm for ideas led him into the occasional intellectual cul-de-sac, but in all fairness, Wilson was a very rare talent whose understanding of the human condition and its potential made him an exceptionally interesting thinker and writer.