An Evolutionary Leap: Colin Wilson on Psychology, by Colin Stanley

The author, philosopher, and existential psychologist Colin Wilson (1931-2013)


Colin Wilson was born on June 26, 1931 in Leicester—the first child of Arthur and Annetta Wilson. At the age of eleven he attended Gateway Secondary Technical School, where his interest in science began to blossom. And, indeed, by the age of 14 he had compiled a multi-volume work of essays covering all aspects of science entitled A Manual of General Science.

But by the time he left school at sixteen, his interests were already switching to literature. His discovery of George Bernard Shaw, particularly Man and Superman, was an important landmark. He started to write stories, plays, and essays in earnest. After two unfulfilling jobs, he drifted into the Civil Service, but found little to occupy his time.

man-and-supermanIn the Autumn of 1949, he was drafted into the Royal Air Force, but soon found himself clashing with authority. Frustrated and bored, he finally invented a story that he was homosexual, in order to be discharged. This must have been convincing because he was discharged on those grounds and upon leaving he took up a succession of menial jobs, spent some time wandering around Europe, and finally returned to Leicester in 1951. There he married his first wife, Betty, and moved to London, where a son was born. But the marriage rapidly disintegrated as Wilson drifted in and out of several unrewarding jobs. During this traumatic period he was continually working and reworking the novel that was eventually published in 1960 as Ritual in the Dark. He also met three young writers who became close friends—Bill Hopkins, Laura Del Rivo, and Stuart Holroyd. Another trip to Europe followed, and he spent some time in Paris attempting to sell magazine subscriptions for George Plimpton’s Paris Review.

Returning to Leicester again, he met Joy Stewart—later to become his second wife and mother of their three children—who accompanied him to London. There he continued to work on Ritual in the Dark in the British Museum, receiving some advice from Angus Wilson (no relation)—then Deputy Superintendent of the British Museum’s Reading Room—and famously slept rough (in a sleeping bag) for a time on Hampstead Heath to save money. On Christmas Day, 1954, alone in his room, he sat down on his bed and began to write in his journal. He described his feelings as follows:

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.

header_Colin-Wilson-Colin Wilson in 1956

Colin Wilson in 1956


The Outsider

Thus was his first, and most famous, book The Outsider conceived—a book that has, to date, been translated into over thirty languages and never been out of print in England, the US and Japan. It was published on Monday, May 28, 1956, to tremendous critical acclaim:

“A major writer—and he’s 24.” (John Connell, The London Evening News)

The Outsider is the most remarkable book upon which the reviewer has ever had to pass judgement.” (Kenneth Walker, The Listener)

“Mr. Wilson’s book is a real contribution to our understanding of our deepest predicament.” (Philip Toynbee, The Observer)

“…one of the most remarkable books I have read for a long time.” (Cyril Connolly, The Sunday Times)

The_Outsider_(Colin_Wilson) (1)As a result of this he became a celebrity overnight, alongside John Wain, Kingsley Amis, John Osborne (whose Look Back In Anger had been premiered earlier that month), and others, all considered to be ‘Angry Young Men’: a movement created by the media to fill the literary vacuum that then existed, and which was destroyed soon afterwards by the same hands. But out of the ruins emerged a writer and thinker who, some sixty years and 180 books later, has produced a polymathic body of work unparalleled in post-war English literature.

The media attention back then, however, was intense. Wilson and his fellow ‘Angries’ became standard gossip-column fare—their attendance at literary soirees was compulsory, their opinions were sought on every conceivable subject. This reached a peak of absurdity when Joy Stewart’s father—having read and misunderstood Wilson’s journals (which contained notes about a sadistic sex murderer intended for inclusion in Ritual in the Dark)—threatened his future son-in-law with a horsewhip. This made front-page headlines in all the scandal-orientated newspapers the next day.

look-back-in-anger-programme1The moral majority—of course—was outraged and Wilson and his future wife were forced to escape from London to avoid the constant attention of the press. They moved to Cornwall, where they have remained ever since. Wilson wrote:

This was typical of the publicity that had swirled around the Angry Young Men … and would continue when John Osborne found himself besieged by journalists … after he had eloped with someone’s wife. This kind of thing had nothing to do with literature, and made the serious critics … cynical and hostile. My second book, Religion and the Rebel, received an unprecedented roasting … Osborne’s second play The Entertainer escaped the same fate largely because the lead was played by Sir Laurence Olivier, but the critics made up for it when reviewing his third play The World of Paul Slickey, a satire on gossip-column journalism, and Osborne was even chased down Charing Cross Road by infuriated members of the audience.

By October 1957, the media had grown tired of its own creation and was determined to return all the AYM from whence they came. One critic, Wolf Mankovitz, raged in the News Chronicle (October 23, 1957) “From now on the phrase ‘Angry Young Men’ will not be used on this page in any context whatsoever!”

This over-exposure was extremely damaging to Wilson’s reputation as a serious writer, so much so that, after Religion and the Rebel (essentially The Outsider, Part 2) was panned by some of the critics who had praised The Outsider, Part 1, even his publisher, Victor Gollancz, advised him to give up writing until the fuss died down.

Fortunately, and typically, Wilson ignored this advice and continued producing book after book, completing his important ‘Outsider Cycle’ in 1966 with An Introduction to the New Existentialism.

il_570xN.750520525_i2k2 (1)Works of non-fiction were generally accompanied by novels—each entertaining in its own right, but also blatantly making use of various genres in order to put his philosophical ideas into practice. These books, which appeared in a steady stream throughout the 1960s, were usually either given dismissive reviews by English critics, or, worse still, totally ignored. Ironically, this was Wilson’s most important sustained period of creative writing—a fact that is now appreciated by scholars of his work. This reception contrasted interestingly with the tone of the French reviews when his first novel Ritual In the Dark was published in French by Gallimard  in 1962; the  book was hailed as one of the most important novels by a young writer since the war; one critic spoke of Wilson as “the natural successor of Lawrence, Huxley and Orwell”.


Colin Wilson on the Occult

In 1971, however, the critical tide turned briefly in England when he published his first commissioned work—a substantial volume entitled The Occult. Wilson wrote:

The reviews had a serious and respectful tone that I hadn’t heard since The Outsider. As if conveying the blessing of England’s literary establishment, Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee produced lengthy and thoughtful reviews. Apparently all was forgiven.

Occult-coverSince then a number of important (and many secondary) works have appeared. Among the important ones I would list: New Pathways in Psychology (1972), a book about the celebrated American psychologist Abraham Maslow; The Craft of the Novel (1975) in which he propounds his theory of existential criticism (assessing writers for what they have to say—in particular what they have to say about human purpose—rather than how they write); the enormously impressive A Criminal History of Mankind which first appeared in 1984; The Essential Colin Wilson, (1985) which was a compendium of past work edited by Wilson himself; Beyond the Occult  which appeared in 1988 and completed the vast ‘Occult Trilogy’. And finally, three autobiographical works: Books in My Life (1998); Dreaming to Some Purpose (2004) and The Angry Years: the rise and fall of the Angry Young Men (2006). Books in My Life gives details of the books he devoured as a child and those that have helped to shape his ideas. Dreaming to Some Purpose is his autobiography which focuses on his ideas, as seen through the events of his life, rather than being a conventional listing of dates, places, personalities, and events whereas The Angry Years is a considered and intelligent assessment of his fellow writers from the 1950s, written as a response to a rather thin and ill-researched book on the ‘Angry Young Men’, attacking Wilson, by Humphrey Carpenter, in 2002.

Wilson’s output was staggeringly prolific. Whether writing psychology, true crime, unexplained phenomena, pre-history, the occult or novels, a positive philosophy of optimism pervades all his work, both popular and more academic:

The problem that lies at the heart of my work is the problem of the curiously unsatisfactory nature of human consciousness. Human beings know what they don’t want far more clearly than they know what they do want. The paradoxical result is that man is magnificent in crisis; yet as soon as life begins to flow smoothly, he becomes oddly bored. There is an absurdity in this situation—rather like buying a car that will do ninety miles an hour in reverse, and only ten miles an hour going forward.


Maslow’s concept of ‘peak experiences’ as part of a ‘hierarchy of needs’

Wilson believed that he found the answer to this crucial problem through his association with Abraham Maslow and his concept of ‘peak experiences’ (those sudden moments of joy and affirmation that all psychologically healthy people experience with a fair degree of frequency). He was convinced that if we can make the effort and learn to encourage these moments of affirmation, not only will we live more vital and appreciative lives but this will trigger a change in consciousness that will change everything: indeed, an evolutionary leap for mankind.

Indeed, when he died in December 2013, one perceptive obituary writer wrote that his legacy would inevitably lie in the field of Consciousness Studies.


The Evolutionary Leap

I founded my publishing company, Paupers’ Press, in 1983 having met Colin Wilson two years earlier. I had written to him suggesting I become his bibliographer. He had responded enthusiastically and invited me to his home in Cornwall. In 1986 he gave me an essay to publish, An Essay on the New Existentialism: still in print and my runaway best-selling title. In 1988 I inaugurated the ‘Colin Wilson Studies’ series with Colin Wilson, Two Essays by Wilson scholars Paul Newman and John Moorhouse; a series that has now reached volume 26 with contributions from scholars of his work worldwide.

41xw8UMFVCLMy collection of his printed work was acquired by the University of Nottingham in 2009 and forms ‘The Colin Wilson Collection’ now enhanced by many of his manuscripts, letters, papers and journals. On July 1, 2016, I hosted ‘The First International Colin Wilson Conference’ at the University of Nottingham with delegates and speakers from all over the globe.

My bibliography, The Work of Colin Wilson, was first  published by Borgo Press in 1989 and I have been producing updates at regular intervals ever since. When Howard F. Dossor’s overall assessment of his work, Colin Wilson: the Man and his Mind (Element Books), was published in 1990, Wilson had already produced over 100 titles and would go on to write another 80 before his death in December 2013. In this book Dossor had carefully split Wilson’s work into subjects, providing a chapter on each: ‘The Philosophy’, ‘The Psychology’, ‘The Sexology’, ‘The Criminology’, ‘The Occultism’, and ‘The Critical Theory’. I felt that there was a book to write on each of these chapters and, in the mid-2000s, wrote a series of essays on Wilson’s essential non-fiction. These I gathered together into a series of students’ guides to  Colin Wilson’s Outsider Cycle (Paupers’ Press, 2009), Colin Wilson’s Occult Trilogy (Axis Mundi, 2013), Colin Wilson’s Existential Criticism (Paupers’ Press, 2014) and An Evolutionary Leap: Colin Wilson on Psychology (Karnac Books, 2016).

Colin Stanley was born in Topsham, Devon, in 1952 and educated at Exmouth School. Beginning in 1970, he worked for Devon Library Services, before moving to Nottingham with his wife, Gail, where he worked for the University of Nottingham until July 2005. Managing Editor of Paupers’ Press, he edits Colin Wilson Studies, a series of books and essays written by Wilson scholars worldwide. He now spends his time at the cinema and theatre, listening to music, writing, editing, reading and watching cricket.

        His latest book, An Evolutionary Leap: Colin Wilson on Psychologyhas recently been published by Karnac.


Reviews and Endorsements

51g5PO5v3eL._UY250_‘Although most known as a writer on the occult and crime, Colin Wilson was at heart a philosopher and psychologist, and in this important book Colin Stanley brings together some of Wilson’s most insightful ideas about the human mind and its mysterious workings. Anyone interested in peak experiences, the “intentionality” of consciousness, the relationship between our two cerebral hemispheres, the creative potential of thought, and existential advantages of optimism will glean much value from this inspiring collection.’
— Gary Lachman, author of Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin WilsonThe Secret Teachers of the Western World, and Jung the Mystic

‘Colin Stanley does a wonderful job of stating Colin Wilson’s importance as a psychologist, isolating and highlighting the concepts and insights that were always at the core of his vast output. Essential reading not just for admirers of Wilson but for all psychologists too.’
—Steve Taylor, PhD, author of The FallWaking From Sleep and The Calm Center

‘Colin Wilson had one overpowering impulsion: his drive to explore how humankind should expand consciousness. It is to Colin Stanley’s great credit that he has here not only compiled and commented on many of Wilson’s most significant writings on psychology, but also done so in such a cogent fashion.’
— Dr Vaughan Rapatahana, author of Wilson as Mystic

‘A brilliant distillation and synthesis of Colin Wilson’s writings on psychology. Colin Stanley has captured lightning in a bottle by conveying the sheer vigour and sparkling intelligence of Wilson’s work. This is a book to engage both longterm readers of Wilson and those unfamiliar with one of the twentieth century’s most vital yet underrated thinkers.’
— Chris Nelson, writer and editor

‘Colin Stanley provides an absorbing, informed and lucid survey of Wilson’s key works on psychology from The Age of Defeat to Super Consciousness. Stanley expertly traces Wilson’s engagements with Freud, Reich and Jung and, most crucially, with the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, and charts Wilson’s development of an affirmative existentialist psychology that heralds the evolutionary advance of humankind.’
— Nicolas Tredell, retired lecturer, University of Sussex, and author of Novels to Some Purpose: The Fiction of Colin Wilson

‘Essential reading for anyone concerned with the cutting edge of psychological science as well as the future of humanity.’
—Stanley Krippner, PhD, co-author of Personal Mythology

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