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494. The gentle (XI)

Colin Wilson was a minor anomaly, a man who interests not so much due to what he said as what he represents. Wilson was born into a working-class family in the inter-war period; initially interested in science, he became entranced by George Bernard Shaw and his notion that what was required was, per Nietzsche, artist-scientists. Accordingly, Wilson read much poetry and became an autodidact; in his early twenties he lived on Hampstead Heath in a sleeping bag and spent his days in the British Museum Reading Room. It was here that he made a contact in the publishing industry and put together his first book, The Outsider (1956).

The book proved to be a huge success, and Wilson was declared “a genius”; however, as so often happens with the media, his instant success provoked an equal and opposite reaction against him. His second book was panned, and he was pilloried as a pseud and a fascist. Wilson retreated to Cornwall and became a hack writer; he churned out books about the paranormal and mass murderers—often low in quality—to pay the mortgage.

This was unfortunate because Wilson was an amiable man; insofar as to read any writer is to spend time with them as a person, Wilson is amiable to spend time with. He was a fascist—not that he belonged to any organisation, but rather in his general sensibility. He was a Shavian: an optimist who thought the best of the USSR and the USA should be combined (aka the third way), not a religious man but a man who thought science would give rise to some mystical union with the Godhead. He enthusiastically endorsed David Foster, a cybernetician who pioneered the idea that the cosmos is a programmable computer; a thesis that prefigured today’s “simulation argument”. Wilson also felt that will was crucial: it was possible to improve oneself and mankind—evolve, in the sense of becoming more complex—through an effort of mental concentration.

As a self-educated man from the working class who rejected Marxism, Wilson was alienated both from the upper-middle-class Marxisant intellectuals and his own class—the former boycotted him for his smelly individualism and parapsychological investigations. He was an outsider. Fascists are often drawn from the intellectual lower middle classes and working classes, because these people often have an outdated grasp of intellectual life—their education is on an autodidactic lag. When they meet actual intellectual life they are disappointed because it long-ago abandoned the ideas they associate with “the intellect”. Hence Wilson sounds like Shaw’s contemporary—although Wilson saw himself as an “existentialist”, he was more like an Edwardian vitalist. He was Shavian when Shaw was completely out of fashion. Shaw still is out of fashion and—unlike a great like Nietzsche, who feels timeless—Shaw remains a period piece.

Wilson’s followers—enthusiasts for Blake and Swedenborg, with an interest in serial killers (aka fascists)—formed a little cult around him, not unlike the contemporary cult around the similarly self-educated “philosopher” Stefan Molyneux. However, there were serious limits to Wilson; he was, as charged, arrogant. For example, he claimed to have discovered a psychological phenomenon he called “St. Neot’s margin”—except what he described was one of Schopenhauer’s fundamental observations about satiation. He dismissed Heidegger as “pessimistic” and wrong; yet, since Wilson did not read German and Being and Time was only translated into English in the 1970s, it is clear he never read Heidegger; and this shows in his other remarks—nor had he read Schopenhauer, though he speaks as if he had.

So the accusation that he was arrogant is true. There is a certain type of person who really likes the idea of being “a philosopher”, and another type who really likes to sit at the feet of “a philosopher”. Wilson proved to be this type; essentially, he was not so clever as he thought he was—nor was he very honest in his investigations. He was always amiable and never malicious, though never profound.

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