COLIN WILSON INTERVIEW
by Paul Newman
P.N: Colin Wilson, do you still see yourself as an outsider or has the establishment absorbed you?
C.W: No, I've always believed that a writer has got to remain an outsider. If I was offered anything like the Nobel Prize for Literature, I'd find it an extremely difficult conflict because I'd be basically disinclined to accept.
P.N: When you emerged in the fifties, your activities were reported widely by the press. They were always quoting you and hunting you down. Were they more interested in writers then?
C.W: No, it was just a lot of silly publicity. The need for the press to manufacture stories. In this country people are not interested in ideas and never have been. We are in a cultural desert; that's the basic problem.
P.N: In 'The Outsider' you gather a number of different types of thinker under one umbrella - examine and analyse their various types of alienation. But what is the central thesis?
C.W: What I was saying is that in modern civilisation there does not seem to be a place for those people I call outsiders. That is people too clever to fit into everyday society and accept the jobs that most people do, but not clever enough to be scientists and artists and create their own niche. Our society ignores these people and they need to be given a sense of solidarity - to feel they are not alone. That is why, when 'The Outsider' came out, I was snowed under with letters beginning, "Dear Mr Wilson, I am an outsider..."
P.N: In 'Religion and the Rebel', which followed 'The Outsider', you make some sweeping statements - for example 'Most Western thinkers are spiritual cripples.' Would you tend to modify this with hindsignt?
C.W: On the contrary, I believe that philosophers like Kant have exerted the worst possible influence on western philosophy, and I have little time for the Logical Positivists because they are basically materialists.
P.N: Pressmen used to run regular articles with titles like "Colin Wilson talks about his genius" or quote statements like "I am the most important writer alive today." Do you still retain those powerful early convictions?
C.W: You must remember that most of those statements were winkled out of me. It was not something I went around shouting because I am a man who basically works alone. On the other hand, many people like T.E. Lawrence and Van Gogh have been destroyed through lack of self-esteem. It is far more dangerous if you have talent not to believe in yourself than be wildly conceited.
NOVELS OF IDEAS
P.N: In certain early works like 'Adrift in Soho', it seems as if you were aiming to write 'A Portrait of the Artist' type of novel - one showing a more fastidious concern with the handling of language and emotion.
C.W: 'Adrift in Soho' was somebody else's novel, a friend called Charles Russell who'd written an autobiographical book and asked me to rewrite it. I said that the only thing I could do was to recast the whole project, using myself as narrator but including incidents from the book. He got a third of the royalties.
P.N: It does seem in your novels that you are less interested in charting the contours of character and emotion - like D.H. Lawrence say - and more in using language as a vehicle for your own ideas.
C.W: I think you create a false dichotomy between D.H. Lawrence and myself - between novels of ideas and novels of feelings. Lawrence wrote novels of ideas, but I object to him because he was an utterly muddled thinker who did a lot of harm. He started off with this idea that sex and the instincts were some kind of answer, and then, as you look at his later writings, they get more and more barren and negative. 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' is an extremely unpleasant attack on people he knew. Lawrence set himself up as a prophet and judge of other people - an extremely dangerous thing to do. I think that we should judge writers and thinkers existentially, "Don't look at the books, look at the man!" And when you look at Lawrence, you see an extremely nasty spoilt little bastard.
P.N: A refreshing point about your books is that create your own patterns of cross-referencing and association. You write an essay on John Cowper Powys comparing him with Ernest Hemingway (The Swamp and the Desert: Eagle and Earwig). Also you mention H.P. Lovecraft in the same breath as Peter Kuerten the Dusseldorf murderer. Do you think it is an advantage that you did not attend university.
C.W: Iris Murdoch always had this nutty idea that I ought to go to university - that was before 'The Outsider' came out. Charles Snow said the same thing and Geoffrey Faber said that his firm would never have accepted 'The Outsider' because it wasn't academic enough. But a professor at Cardiff university, who raised the same objection, said after he heard my lecture, "If only my students were as bright as you!"
P.N. Surveying your work, it becomes apparent that you have written a great number of introductions - thrown seals of approval around with generous abandon. Do you think a serious writer should commit himself to so many projects. I once read a book on gardening with an introduction by you describing your detestation of the subject.
C.W: You may well be right about that, I'm afraid. In the case of the gardening book, someone wrote to ask me, "Will you write an introduction?" I wrote back, "Why me? I hate gardening." And he said, "That's allright - tell us about how you hate it." So I did. I should have refused of course.
P.N: Do you like America?
C.W: Yes, in the sense I feel completely at home there. The Americans have always been more open to my ideas. In fact, I could earn a living in America just by lecturing. One of my brightest audiences, incidentally, were the prisoners in a Philadelphia gaol - brighter than my students at university.
P.N: What about the American murder? Is it grimmer than its English counterpart?
C.W: No, but because of American civilisation, the sheer size of the place, which means the individual feels less of an individual, you get a great many nasty, pointless, brutal crimes. The other day in California, a man gave a girl a lift, stopped the car, raped her and then poured acid over her head. In England, if that happened, everyone would say, "Oh God!" but in America it doesn't raise an eyebrow.
P.N: The Americans made a film of 'The Space Vampires' which they called 'Lifeforce'. What did you think of it?
C.W: Lousy. The worst film ever made.
P.N: What did your children think of it?
C.W: Oh, they enjoyed it.
P.N: Groucho Marx wrote to you on the subject of Jack the Ripper. He said that Jack had always been one of his heroes, yet he lacked the physical audacity to emulate him. Did you ever meet Groucho?
C.W: No, unfortunately. Gollancz sent me a copy of his autobiography. When I wrote back asking, "Why did you send me this?" he told me that Groucho had ordered him to send copies to three people in England only: Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham and Colin Wilson. Naturally I was flattered.
P.N: You have written extensively about the peak experience. Could you define it briefly?
C.W: Human beings do not realise the extent to which their own sense of defeat prevents them from doing things they could do perfectly well. The peak experience induces the recognition that your own powers are far greater than you imagined them.
P.N: Conrad wrote somewhere that existence was validated by "the life-sustaining illusion of action."
C.W: Conrad was a dreadful old pessimist, so he would talk about the "illusion of action". I prefer Fichte the German philosopher who noted how we feel completely different when we are launched into action. He wrote: "to be free is nothing; to become free is heavenly."
P.N: One might normally assume that peak experiences are based upon one's view of oneself in relation to other people, man being a social creature. Can factors like social rejection be overcome? Are you saying that man can grow a new personality inside himself like a plant?
C.W: Exactly that. And what's more social rejection often stimulates this personality to grow. A friend of mine once asked W.H. Auden what he thought was the basic aim of education and Auden replied - "To induce the greatest neurosis a person can take without cracking."
P.N: Your books deal at length with the development of the human potential. But what if external events outflank one's inner growth? A nuclear war, for instance, could permanently remove you and your work. Don't you get angry with politicians?
C.W: I get very angry with Labour politicians. I detest the bastards for the most part. Although I used to be a socialist until I wrote a book on Shaw with a chapter defending his socialism. When I re-read it, I realised it was total rubbish. You see, I had studied economic history and found that socialism was based upon a fallacy.
P.N: As a species, humans show an extraordinary range of behaviour. One man is a tiger; the other a dove. Have your researches into psychology found anything to account for the diversity that can embrace mass murderers who can kill without qualm as opposed to thinkers like Simone Weil who starved at the thought of members of her race suffering?
C.W: As human beings have the capacity for swinging from point of view to point of view like monkeys in a tree, they have more freedom to develop attitudes. This freedom makes them dangerous. Man is a kind of halfway house. And he is not a single animal - there are dozens of different types of men. We are a fast-changing species.
P.N: You frequently refer in your writings to the dominant five percent who tend to assume leadership in any given situation. But assuming leadership and being the right man in the right place are two different things.
C.W: When you talk of five percent of the population of Britain, say, you are referring to an awfully large number of people. Only about .OO5 of that five percent would be capable of becoming leaders in the true sense.
P.N: Are you an elitist?
C.W: Yes, in the sense that I think it is very few people who actually represent the spearhead of evolution. Most of the dominant five percent need other people to express their dominance. An actor needs his audience, a politician his electorate, but a mathematician or scientist doesn't - although he may hope to get published in various specialist journals. What interested Einstein was the concept of what it was like to travel as fast as a beam of light. You see, man is evolving towards a creature who will be complete and self-sufficient. He will be so deeply absorbed in his inner worlds - those regions of pure bliss which we glimpse through music and art - that he will be capable of carrying on further and developing. This seems to me to be the most interesting thing about human beings, those moments of white heat when something like the fusion process takes place in us, and suddenly, instead of being mere social beings who see ourselves as nonentities unless reflected in the faces of others, we take on this inner incandescence.
P.N: Man writ large is society. Do you have a vision of how you would like to see it develop?
C.W: What I would like to see is a creative society where people are given the maximum amount of freedom and stimulus to develop their individual talents to the full.
C.W: I'm not a Bach man, but then neither is Glen Gould who is a romantic Bach interpreter. Bach would have been shocked and horrified by the way Glen Gould plays him. It is - if you like - a Romantic interpretation of a Classical composer. A lot of people I know say that they can't stand Romantic composers like Bruckner and Mahler. What they really like is Bach and Mozart - but they were actually emotional people who used Bach as a lump of ice to press against themselves to keep cool. Whereas I am a lump of ice anyway and need composers like Bruckner and Mahler to warm me up.
C.W: I hated mescaline. It opened me up so much - gave me this wonderful feeling of oneness with the universe - but at the same time made me feel completely helpless. I'm at my best when I'm concentrating so hard that my mind narrows to a laser - that's when I get the real mystical experiences - while mescaline diffused me all over the place.
(The foregoing was conducted by Paul Newman and taken from Spiders and Outsiders obtainable from Abraxas Booklist and Paupers Press)
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