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Colin Wilson

Updated: Oct 2, 2023


I really like Colin Wilson, but he has limitations. I like him, in part, because he’s from Leicester and half my family is from Leicester—he even looks like my grandfather. I also like him because he’s a convivial and jolly person—quite Hobbit-like with his burrow in Cornwall and his love for cheese and wine. You read as much to spend time with someone as anything else, and Wilson is a convivial person to spend time with.

However, the Wilson limitation is that he always maintains “the view from nowhere”, like an academic or a journalist—though they disdained him and he disdained them in turn. What I mean by “the view from nowhere” is not to be “an outsider”, per Wilson’s eponymous book, but rather the approach that is taught at universities—it’s common today because so many people are trained in a basic university outlook.

The approach runs so: “Xavier S. Cuthbert’s views show many relations to radical right thinkers, such as Julius Evola and Carl Schmitt, and he has been categorised, by the European Social Survey, as ‘Europe’s premier far-right thinker…’. In 2016, he addressed a meeting of the European Renaissance Forum in Stockholm and called for ‘a regeneration in European man’—his speech has also been characterised neo-traditionalist, traditional Catholic, and Volkisch in nature by the Swedish press…”.

You’ve probably read similar descriptions dozens of time on Wikipedia, in a news report, or in an academic textbook—and not just about politics, about astronomy or virology or a sea-side town. Often the person they’ve written about will retort, hopping mad, that this is nothing like what they are and the people who have written the post don’t know what they’re talking about.

The reason for this to be so is it’s “the view from nowhere”. It’s what you’re taught to do at university, at school, at journalism college. You don’t go along to a speech and say, “Well, he said this and that—and that is definitely true, I really agreed with that; but I’m not sure about this. Also I really liked the cape he wore.”

No, to do that is not “objective”; rather, to deal with any subject you’re meant to strike this third-person pose and then you replicate different views and “compare” and “evaluate” them (as a school history exam asks you to do). Along the way, you classify things “neo-traditionalist”—which is a “scientific” endeavour. What you don’t do is enter into imaginative sympathy with the subject (which is wisdom, in fact).

It’s connected to the way any basic English instruction course will start with the idea “consider your audience”. Who are you writing for? Who are you trying to convince? If you’re writing for Wikipedia, there are literal guidelines for this—there is a notional “Wikipedia reader” you write for; and, in fact, that reader is formed by reading the page—he existed in someone’s imagination and then people who happened to read the page were formed by it (cybernetic).

You see the tension in ideas like “the Great Replacement”—people will say, “Xavier S. Cuthbert advocates ‘the Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory.” Okay—but is it true? “Well, one would not want to say, one must be cautious with regard to conspiracy theories—we have to take an evaluative approach. Consider that the Centre for Social Extremism has categorised these views as ‘far-right extremism’…”

The problem is that the “evaluative view from nowhere” people are taught by the media and the universities effectively turns into a comparison and “weighing” of different sources in accord with status. If you say, “Are Europeans being replaced in their own countries?” They say, “It’s a conspiracy theory, according to experts.” Yes—but is it true, could the experts be wrong?

Well, it’s about status, really—this is how high-status people talk. It’s how they “think”, or give the appearance of thought, anyway. So they can’t call a spade a spade, they have to say, “Cuthbert takes a ‘spadist’ position, according to the European Social Research Foundation, whereas others take a ‘neo-tool’ position…”.

This apparently neutral “view from outside” is actually biased—it’s the bias of the scholar, who tugs his beard and covers his arse and never makes a definite statement one way or the other (this masquerades as wisdom, to the ignorant—since it doesn’t just brutally say, “It’s a spade”; it also, conveniently, evades responsibility, because “you” never say anything—just weigh different views, “compare and contrast”).

The usual paradoxic: it’s when you are at your most subjective that you are at your most objective. The genuine “outsider” view is to say, “He said at the speech Europeans are being replaced in their own countries; and when I walk down my own street I don’t seen any Europeans except myself.” That is real outsider objectivity.


The problem derives from “consider your audience”—because that puts an automatic constraint on what you are allowed to say and see. You’re engaged in seduction, effectively—in making people like you, whether a university tutor or the proverbial “great British public”. So people taught to “think” in this way, like advertisers, have been taught to make people like them, not speak truth.

This is also the problem with Colin Wilson. He wanted to be an outsider but he had to write for money—so he ended up churning out books to pay the bills, and what is written for money or social status will always sacrifice reality. You always have to think before you write, “Will this sell? Will people like this? Is this within the bounds of social acceptability?”

Now, I understand why Wilson did it; he was a pleasant intelligent man from a working-class, almost underclass, family—this gave him a somewhat independent view on life, because he was never “polished” (brain capped) by middle-class institutions and universities. On the other hand, he liked his cheeses and fine wine and endless books (a literal shed full) and classical records. So, in the end, he produced books to make the bills.

Compare Wilson’s attitude to a man like Nietzsche. He didn’t write for money, he didn’t write for social status. He just put down what he thought with almost no regard to his audience—he had minimal impact in his lifetime, but became huge later (almost the opposite to Wilson, who exploded with his bestseller The Outsider and then receded from public view).

When Wilson writes about figures like Nietzsche or Crowley he is liable to say things like, “Nietzsche’s ideas are all very well, but they seem awfully harsh. I think we can be a bit more optimistic than old Nietzsche.” And that’s it (not an argument, as a certain Canadian might say).

Because Wilson writes for a mass audience, he’s not interested in truthfulness—it wouldn’t sell if he said: “We require a cold elite that dominates the underman.” Similarly, with Crowley, he’ll say something like, “He was an odd character, but he may have been onto something with his magic, unlikely as it seems, but it is hard to know what exactly.”

This is because Wilson, though he posed as unconventional, was a deeply conventional man. He was basically steeped in Edwardian science, the science he picked up as a school lab technician, and the thought of George Bernard Shaw. And though he wasn’t formally “polished” he still worked for an audience—so he always constrained himself with, “Will this sell?”.

As with many autodidacts, he was about generation or two behind the cutting-edge intellectual elite—people like Wilson, people like Philip Larkin or Kingsley Amis, often come up to places like Oxford from the background of the small shopkeeper or town librarian and are just a generation behind the avant-garde, so they become fierce reactionaries by default; because they have this entirely different, much more elite view, of what the elite should be.

So when they arrive at “the hallowed halls” it’s nothing like what they expected (the posh people are all pretending to be “workers”, whereas the petit-bourgeois shopkeeper’s son has no desire to be “a worker”, sees nothing romantic in it).

Wilson was like that—he was alienated from mainstream British intellectual life because he was still talking about Bernard Shaw, whose star had long waned and who was seen as twee and irrelevant, while most people were talking about Beckett.

So Wilson would never go “all in” and say “Crowley was right, magic is real”—he would always hedge his bets, like a good Victorian researcher at the Society for Psychical Research, and suggest “more experiments” will show us “the truth behind the superstition”.

This is still “the view from nowhere”; but if you actually experiment with magic, actually had experience in it, you would see it’s real—but then you would be writing for a small circular with 20 subscribers and not to make a living with mass paperbacks with titles like The Occult (complete with a skull on the cover that conceals a nude woman in a witch’s hat and bears the subtitle: “The shocking truth behind the witchcraft craze—revealed”).


So Wilson, like many autodidacts, always sounds a bit like an overgrown schoolboy—he is filled with enthusiasm, with optimism, but he never disciplines himself or really enters into a subject. He reads broadly but shallowly; and you see it with his works on Sartre.

Wilson pitched himself as an existentialist, as writing some successor to Sartre’s philosophy; but it’s obvious from the way he writes about it that Wilson never got deep into Sartre, never entered into imaginative sympathy with him, because he tends to say things like “overall, Sartre’s approach is just too depressing and pessimistic”—but that’s not refutation, it’s just a statement about how Sartre made him feel.

Wilson remains solidly “outside” the subject in the sense “never grasped it”. He just reverts to his Edwardian scientific method interlarded with emotional responses to the subject—it’s clear he never really absorbed what Sartre said, nor understood the difference between science and philosophy; and, after all, there is no market for a genuine refutation or development of Sartre’s philosophy beyond probably 50 readers worldwide (at absolute most)—and Wilson in his “existential philosophy” books needed to reach at least 10,000 a go to make it a commercial proposition.

I can provide a concrete example of a case where Sartre entered into imaginative sympathy with a subject, where he demonstrated actual “thought” and not Wilson’s “commentary”: Sartre pointed out that Freud’s theory of ego/id supposes a censor, in effect the ego as censor, and yet, if the ego censors the id, it must “read” the id (like a post office censor) so it must know the repressed content to make it repressed—yet that is a contradiction, how can it “know” what it represses? It “read the letter” to censor it—so how is the letter’s content unknown to it?

There are many potential rebuttals to the point, perhaps centred on the fact that the ego/id idea is an analogy, not a one-to-one representation of how the brain works; nevertheless, this is a substantive objection to Freud from Sartre which shows that Sartre had fully absorbed Freud’s point, entered into imaginative sympathy with it, and then detected a contradiction within it.

Wilson, by contrast, never rises above comments like “Heidegger and Sartre are gloomy” or “Freud attributed too much of man’s activities to sex”—these may be true, but they are trivial points from “outside” the castle.

And this is why Wilson was often ridiculed by people who were “pro”, so to speak; he would write people like Sartre and Heidegger off as “gloomy” or “depressing” like, well, like an arrogant teenager, but there was no more substance to what he said than that. Sufficient for a mass market, but also the common way many people think today—“it’s depressing”, “it’s racist”. But, really, so what?

It’s ironic, because Wilson clearly wanted to be “a genius”—he writes about “the genius”, about “the dominant 5%”; and it’s clear that it’s his belief, like Marxism is a belief for some people—we need more genius in the world. Yet what he didn’t realise was that the genius acts and writes without regard to the social game, whether money or social status—they write what they think (like Nietzsche).

Wilson, by contrast, had this broadly cheerful worldview and he refused to let anything pierce it (obviously, it made people like him, like spending time with him when they read his books; it worked for him, in other words)—and he wrote for the railway station carousel, about the most conventional audience you could imagine. But he was very into the “idea of it”—of being twisted in pain, tortured by your situation as the outcast genius.

That was “the role” he played in English intellectual life from 1956 to about 1978—the “tortured outsider”, or, as some would say, “the tortured adolescent” (the Adrian Mole, if you want to be unkind about it)—“Sunday 1st October: read Sartre, think I might be an ontologist. squeezed spots (x2). looked at sky, very grey. mum said she can’t wash my football socks with so much mud in them—was this what Keats meant by ‘negative capability’? 6:00 pm—ate a Dairy Milk Bar and thought about Pandora Braithwaite’s breasts”.

Wilson remained at the level, just that bit higher, of Russell Brand today—which is when you flick through a book about Marx and make some remarks down the pub and then other people say, “Oh, Russell knows all about philosophy, he does….” It’s performative knowledge, in other words.


However, Wilson was shunned by the mainstream British intellectual establishment for three main reasons:

1. early in his career he made friendly contact with Oswald Mosley and produced an article for one of his publications—later he positively reviewed the pamphlet Did Six Million Really Die?;

2. Wilson had spiritual ideas, thought that spirit predominates over matter—hence his “Faculty X” notion;

3. he was an elitist—he thought a mystical techno-elite should run Britain, aided by Shaw-like willpower (Shaw was, of course, an “unconventional socialist”—a national socialist, in some respects).

All this made Wilson an anathema to British intellectual circles, all firmly materialist quasi-Marxists. But it made him popular with the man who owned a small corner shop or his own road haulage firm. “I always figured what’s decisive in life is the will.”

Wilson also fades into paganism, because what he’s really talking about with his “Faculty X” notion is gnosis. It’s the idea there are spiritual powers that flow through us—though Wilson was materialist enough that he always put his suppositions on a quasi-scientific basis, he’s like Conan Doyle in that respect.

He never got far enough into these areas, but he’s really talking about “awakening” the supra-natural powers within—which is “populist” religion, if you like, in that it’s religion without priestcraft (every man prepared to discipline himself may attain the powers of Christ or Buddha—just like if you have sufficient will in the mundane psychological sense you can run your own successful road haulage firm).

The Gnostic is in conflict with the priests, the populist is in conflict with their secular heirs—the intellectuals. Indeed, Wilson had a grandmother who attended a spiritualist church—he was in contact with that whole do-it-yourself table-rapping “gypsy-like” approach to religion, ectoplasm and all (actual manifestations, actual proof—genuine photos of Nessie to boot).

I can sum up Wilson’s basic idea, as repeated time and again (by his own admission, all his books have the same theme): “There is an unknown faculty ‘X’ that once activated grants us super-normal powers, some men throughout history have activated it or come close to its activation.”

He really refers to the siddhis in Hindu philosophy, but he either never got that far or thought it couldn’t be sold that way. What Wilson really means by “philosophy” is not Western philosophy but Indian philosophy.

For Westerners, Indian philosophy is all contradiction and illogic—but it’s not meant to establish a logical and coherent system, like Western philosophy. Rather, it’s a means to change consciousness, to awaken consciousness—often through wordplay and paradox.

That’s what Wilson was really after: the “absolute personality”, the “awakened one” as Evola might put it—the “superman”, not in Shaw and Nietzsche’s quasi-materialist sense, but as a man-god.

Nevertheless, Wilson remained a conventional man in most respects. If you said to him, “Magic is real,” I think he would have reverted to Edwardian lab technician and asked the empirical questions that are inimical to magic.

I think he intuited that there was something like the scientific method for consciousness—a “spiritual science”—but he never quite left Western scientific paradigm to work inwards not outwards, so he always defaulted to Edwardian science and never grasped what things like yoga were about.

He can become an irritation because he writes quite seedy books about figures like Rasputin, Jung, and Crowley where he dismisses them even though his achievements, in relation to them, are far more modest—and, indeed, these works always have a prurient edge for the bored salesman on a train circa 1971 who wants a bit of titillation about “the Crowley sex cult” or “the pervy Swiss occult doctor Jung”.

And that’s what Wilson serves up. His own prurience as regards sex reflects, I think, the fact he didn’t sleep around before he was married, was a loyal man by nature, and later came to regret his earlier continence—the result being that he lingers on the “frilly knickers (dirty)” of men who achieved much more than him, before curtly dismissing them like, well, like an arrogant adolescent.

Broadly, I like him though—and he’s much less doctrinaire than many contemporary writers. He is an amiable person to spend time with on a train journey, but, despite his apparent unconventional approach, he is more conventional than he appears—he is in love with the image of the genius, of the tortured outsider, although he himself was less “tortured outsider” and more “harried but amiable geography teacher, with a small brood to care for—and an affection for rich tea biscuits and tea”. A Hobbit, in other words. In that respect, he’s very English.

He was marginal from the mainstream but not truly outside it—he was always published with the mass presses, albeit never welcomed into the “official fold”, or into high-status Guardian land (new editions of Beckett with stark black-and-white photos on the front).

What Wilson demonstrates is that just being an autodidact or not being university-educated or not being mainstream is insufficient to break free from “non-thought” or “the view from nowhere”: the main problem is to be audience-centred, whether that audience exists for vanity (mainstream academics) or money (Wilson)—just being an aristocrat or an underclass outsider is insufficient, so long as you are slaved to an audience (Nietzsche, for example, was not—or was only so to a minimal degree).

In the end, Wilson squandered his talents, such as they were, because he produced everything for money—and so the quality went down and down as he had to churn product out. It’s not the quantity as such that was the problem, it was that it was always written to stave off the bill-collectors and never for its own sake—so, in Wilson world, realism was always sacrificed to another pound in the pocket.


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