Reviewed by Karen Langley
If author Colin Wilson is remembered for anything nowadays, it’s most likely for his book The Outsider. Published in 1956, this ground-breaking work explores the lives and beliefs of such nonconformists as Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, T. S. Eliot, Hermann Hesse, T. E. Lawrence, William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoyevsky – to name but a few! However, as this new study of Wilson by Gary Lachman (a founder member of the pop group Blondie, as well as a long-term friend and apostle of Wilson) makes clear, there was much more to the author than just that one book.
Wilson was born into a working-class family in Leicester in 1931, and had a traditional upbringing. However, he always aspired to something more than the conventional, viewing his father’s life of labouring in a shoe factory as something to be avoided. Wilson was mainly self-educated, reading widely everything he could get his hands on; his absorption of a particular kind of culture led to the publication of The Outsider at a time when the literary world was being shaken by a group of writers that were labelled the Angry Young Men (this is a very male world we’re in back in these pre-feminist days). Although bracketed with these works dealing with working class life and left-wing concepts, Wilson’s book was really very different, examining the influence of a whole host of figures who were what he considered Outsiders. Of course, the concept of The Outsider already existed in wider culture, epitomised perhaps by Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, Wolf from the Steppes, of the Hesse book of the same title. However, Wilson’s achievement was in bringing them together in a way that gave access to a more general reader and in particular he can take credit in bringing Hesse to a whole new generation of English-speakers.
The media swooped on Wilson as a kind of working-class intellectual, and the book became a best-seller with a concomitant publicity circus. However, Wilson struggled with the media attention and the following backlash, particularly when it became clear that was not going to be tied to one kind of book; he never again gained this kind of coverage or approval. Refusing to stick to a particular mould, he went on to explore all manner of philosophies and write all kinds of book.
And Lachman’s exhaustive book takes in Wilson’s life and work in all its forms – occult, outsiders, real life crime, novels, paranormal, sex, philosophy, existentialism. You name it, Wilson had a go at it – in fact, if there’s an esoteric or arcane branch of knowledge, Wilson mostly like delved into it. Lachman explains Wilson’s views and philosophies in great depth, giving a thorough introduction into Wilson’s thoughts and beliefs, with an overview of all of his major works. Wilson had a long and full career, appearing on TV, lecturing all around the world, making musical recordings (he had a late-career association with Julian Cope at one point), searching for the unknown and unknowable – and always, always writing.
Wilson was undoubtedly a prolific and industrious author – indeed, someone who was driven to write – but his judgement was not always sound (for example, his blanket acceptance of Uri Geller, who has been routinely discredited). The title of this book is drawn from a belief Wilson had that we are all very much on autopilot throughout our lives, controlled by a kind of internal automaton so that we don’t really fully experience what is going on around us. His persistent search for heightened consciousness seems to me to be an extension of something like Virginia Woolf’s moments of being. He espouses escaping from the quotidian, but this in itself is a knotty issue – if everyone stepped out of the everyday and followed their star, what we call civilisation would grind to a halt and the structures by which we keep going (food, utilities and the like) would dry up.
The book is not without its faults; I tired a little of Lachman’s sweeping statements about ‘English’ culture and character, and his criticisms of those living an ordinary, everyday life are not exclusive to this island but would apply to all Western cultures where the mass of people never step outside the boundaries. Additionally, his condemnation of ‘English’ writing slightly contradicts a favourable mention two pages earlier of Woolf, Lawrence et al. The endless references to ‘skirt chasing’ do irritate, and although Lachman lights on Wilson’s personal life to a certain extent, he doesn’t really deal with it in any depth – the reader is left with a feeling of distance concerning certain events, and for example the facts of his first marriage are skated over. Similarly, an incident with a ‘crazed groupie’ are brushed aside as almost a minor occurrence, which is perhaps unfortunate as the woman in question went on to commit suicide. It may be that these delicacies are due to the connection Lachman has with the members of Wilson’s family, including his widow Joy, but they do weaken his portrait a little.
Much of the reader’s reaction to the book will depend upon their views about Wilson’s philosophies, and their willingness to accept Wilson’s (often self-proclaimed!) status as a genius. It’s a little frustrating that the book often lapses into hagiography, although perhaps inevitable as Lachman was such a friend and disciple of Wilson. I would have liked a little more objectivity and I will reserve judgement on Wilson’s genius until I’ve read those of his books I have knocking around the house. However, even if I occasionally disagree with Lachman’s interpretation, nonetheless the book is a very interesting read. And what can’t be denied is that Wilson led a fascinating life and produced some intriguing ideas, both of which are explored and expounded very thoroughly in Lachman’s book. I’m sure it will act as a springboard for many more people to go off and explore the life and work of that eternal Outsider, Colin Wilson!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is always on the lookout for those moments of being.
Gary Lachman, Beyond the Robot – (tarcherperigree/Penguin Random House, 2016). 978-0399173080, 399pp, paperback.
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