Colin Wilson: The Persistence of Meaning

Some literary names – Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G. K. Chesterton, Oswald Spengler, T. S. Eliot, Raymond Aron, Eric Voegelin, William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, or Roger Scruton – have immediate resonance with conservative readers, as well they should. Some others the same readers might benefit from knowing although the occasion for familiarity, for a variety of reasons, has never offered itself. In every area of interest a small range of “core authors” tends to form the common reading and to serve for shared reference; it is as idiosyncratic readers that the like-minded are perhaps most useful to one another, as when they pass along bits of lore peculiar to their own cognizance, picked up by happenstance, that others, for entirely understandable reasons, have missed.


Especially for people under the age of thirty the name Colin Wilson (born 1931) and the label “The New Existentialism” might not ring a bell. A few older people will remember Wilson, but will have retained no suspicion what the label designates; or they might vaguely recall the Icarus-flight of a young author in the late 1950s who soared up and, as far as most of the reading public could tell, either crashed down or flew off into the depths of space, not to be heard from again. At a literary conference at SUNY New Paltz three years ago, among people who I thought would be positively disposed to Wilson, my mentioning of his name resulted in any number of arched eyebrows and suavely disparaging remarks. Now this might itself be, not an affirmation of justified oblivion, as one could easily assume, but rather a kind of indirect evidence for intrinsic merit. I stress the academic character of the event and the self-assured oiliness of the dismissal. In context, the reference seemed to carry a distinctly un-PC valence so that the reaction to it, as I picture it in retrospect, resembled that of a patrician vampire to garlic.

That Wilson started like a meteor no one can gainsay. His first book, The Outsider (1956), vaulted him to literary stardom with a cover story in Life Magazine about a self-educated boy-genius. Life’s hyperbole aside, the real story was grayer and grittier. A science-college dropout and vagabond who had spent the last few months sleeping outdoors on Hampstead Heath, Wilson wrote The Outsider in the reading room of the British Museum, consulting his chosen texts as he wrote, day by day. Most literary sensations require the confessional éclat of a coming-of-age novel or a road diary that fiercely denounces established authority in favor of gypsy insouciance. The Outsider, a mixture of literary criticism and philosophy, had something of youthful Bohemianism about it; but it was ultimately more serious. A book length non-fiction essay, The Outsider addressed the fallacies of existence that Wilson located not only in a stultified liberal-bourgeois establishment of postwar Europe but also and equally in the forms of cheap social rebellion and doctrinaire radicalism that marked the 1950s in the West. Wilson’s view converged somewhat with that of the continental Existentialists, about whom he wrote, but crucial differences separated him from them and grew stronger over the years. Wilson’s view was apolitical tending to the anti-political.

The eponymous “Outsider” – the image of whom Wilson culls from French fin-de-siècle novels, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his progeny, and from autobiographers such as H. G. Wells and T. E. Lawrence – is the intelligent man who finds that he fits nowhere in the settled dispensation, not even among those who make a profession of opposing the social arrangement, whom he judges to be as established as anyone else. The Outsider can easily succumb to despair, fully unto suicide, as in the novels of Mikhail Artsybashev, Leonid Andreyev, or Henri Barbusse. He can also, by his sheer stubborn refusal to integrate, throw himself open to a sudden flood of life-affirming insight, always transcendentally flavored, which constitutes, as Wilson argues, the modern secular variant of religious vision. “The Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality,” because what he perceives in the accepted order “is essentially chaos.” Writes Wilson: “The Outsider is a man who has awakened to chaos.”

The case of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard appeals to Wilson. In Kierkegaard’s critique, the Danish Church had developed a system, or doctrine, that it preferred to truth and that reconciled it with the establishment, whereas Kierkegaard preferred the truth, distrusted all establishments, and attacked the State Church precisely to stand up for a coherent moral position, without compromise.

While the system might seem stable, and its security attractive, according himself to it nevertheless requires of the individual a continuous chaotic shifting of accommodations that, in fact, obliterates him as an individual, just as it quashes truth. In rebelling against systems, then, the Outsider necessarily rebels against pervasive conformity and the pervasive concomitant fear of non-conformity. The essence of doctrine being its hostility to individual or dissentient thinking, and so at root to thinking per se, the Outsider in his positive aspect fights for the preservation of that continuum of dissentient insights that has made possible independent judgment guided by a sense of objectively given morality. The Outsider at his best resembles a prophet, or a visionary poet, and, like Kierkegaard, he recognizes how closely the idea of civilization is bound up with philosophical monotheism, Judaism, and Christianity. In Wilson’s judgment, modernity’s hostility to religion is suicidal because its actual object is the sanctity of conscience protected by moral tradition.

Modernity’s characteristic perversion of reason and morality culminates in the Marxist position that, “I have no use for religion because it’s not practical.” Wilson writes (and this is from 1956): “Our civilization has grown steadily closer to the Marxian attitude.” The Outsider springs into life as a metaphorical antibody to civilization’s self-inflicted malaise of nescience and nihilism; a defense mechanism, so to speak, he insists on testing the accepted theses. The Outsider thus “asks questions about things that all his fellow Westerners take for granted.” Wilson cites, in addition to Kierkegaard, William Blake, Henry Cardinal Newman, Franz Kafka, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Hermann Hesse. The discussion of Hesse is one of the earliest English-language treatments of that author, whose novels were only just beginning to make an impression beyond the German speaking nations.


The spiritual-moral implications of The Outsider gained clarity in Wilson’s second book, Religion and the Rebel (1957), the publication of which catalyzed a reaction against him that had built up, in the British literary establishment, on the basis of jealousy inspired by all the prior publicity. Wilson writes in his autobiography, Voyage to a Beginning (1966), how, “in The Sunday Times, Raymond Mortimer said mildly that my first book had not been his cup of tea, and that therefore he was hardly qualified to judge my second; having said which, he proceeded to damn it,” as did Philip Toynbee, with equal nastiness. Religion and the Rebel reiterates the thesis that, when honestly evaluated, the most substantial strain in modernity is the dissentient strain that rejects materialism and sees a genuine basis for orderly existence in a religious – or at least in a spiritual – orientation. “No serious person,” Wilson writes, “could possibly understand the achievement of the medieval church and still feel inclined to sneer.” Yet sneering at things like Scholasticism and the monastic tradition is a reflex, perhaps even an obligation, for most modern people, who have been indoctrinated to pride themselves on their humanism and rationality.

Religion and the Rebel returned to some of the authors whom he had already treated in The Outsider, but the new book widened the scope. It indicated Wilson’s broad knowledge of the novel, poetry, and philosophy. Religion and the Rebel discusses Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, Bernard Shaw, Alfred North Whitehead, Arnold Toynbee, Oswald Spengler, and William James, among others. Wilson claims “Outsider” status for all these men. The modern denial that civilization has religious wellsprings, Wilson says, has led, in fact, to the stultification of Western humanity and to the flavorlessness of a purely secular order of life governed by instrumentalist principles. Fifty years of additional experience have affirmed Wilson’s diagnosis, just as they have made dissent more rare and much more dangerous for the dissenter.

According to Wilson, “Outsiders are symptoms of a dying culture.” They argue for “discipline and purpose” in the desperate moment when the prevailing dogma announces that life consists merely of securing one’s welfare (or letting the state do it) and avoiding any bother about philosophical questions that the elites now declare to be meaningless. Official virtue now consists, not in conviction but in a bland tolerance, so-called, that demands suspension of taste and abandonment of inherited criteria about the limits of the permissible. “Without a sense of purpose,” however, “there can be no life.” Various sham purposes creep back in, but these are always already co-opted by conformist opinion and they tend to be politicized.

The Communism of the continental Existentialists offers a case in point. Sartre, Camus, and Merleau-Ponty, having rejected anything transcendental in preference for their implacable materialism, inevitably became assimilated to politics, which completely absorbed Sartre and Merleau-Ponty into a conformist Leftwing mentality and deeply compromised Camus’ intellectual independence.

Wilson could see with clairvoyance, as the 1950s came to a close, that “every civilisation reaches its moment of crisis, and that Western civilisation has now reached its moment.” Wilson reminds his readers that the alternative in the crisis is either to “smash or go on to higher things,” and that ominously, “no civilisation has ever met this challenge successfully,” the historical record consisting of “the bones of civilisations that failed.” But why has the West reached its dire impasse? Wilson answered that:

I have tried to show how religion, the backbone of civilisation, hardens into a Church that is unacceptable to Outsiders, and the Outsiders – the men who become visionaries – become the Rebels. In our case, the scientific progress that has brought us closer than ever before to conquering the problems of civilisation, has also robbed us of spiritual drive; and the Outsider is doubly a rebel: a rebel against the established Church, a rebel against the unestablished church of materialism. Yet for all this, he is the real spiritual heir of the prophets, of Jesus and St. Peter, of St. Augustine and Peter Waldo. The purest religion of any age lies in the hands of its spiritual rebels.

This statement comes close to Henryk Ibsen’s sweeping declaration in Enemy of the People that the majority is always wrong; but it also fits with the perennial wisdom that crowds and consensuses go together than that a healthy skepticism will resist assimilation to either. The idea of “the unestablished church” is particularly applicable to the Western predicament today, when the dogmas of which Wilson was preternaturally conscious have hardened into a total, mandatory worldview promulgated by governments and their willing servants in what nowadays amount, not to a free press, but a standing propaganda arm of establishment assumptions and directives. As birthrates decline and populations age in the Western nations, the image of “the bones of civilisations that failed” also acquires poignancy.

In one of the most provocative chapters of Religion and the Rebel, called “The Outsider and History,” Wilson considers the cases of Spengler, most unpopular at the time, and that of Toynbee. Wilson praises Spengler for having produced, in his Decline of the West, a work of “tremendous intellectual range” that is “not in any sense an ‘academic’ book.” Wilson calls Spengler “a poet who is fascinated by all kinds of subjects” and notes that “one’s first feeling about The Decline is sheer admiration for the range of this man who seems to know as much about art and music as about biology and mathematics.” In Spengler’s interest in what he insisted was the inevitable life cycle of civilizations, Wilson finds an argument that parallels his own although Wilson rejects Spengler’s determinism. Even so, says Wilson, Spengler grasped that “the mark of greatness” in a culture always lies with “intuition, not logic.” The hypertrophy of logic, or of reason, betokens cultural sclerosis, and the disease of purposelessness quickly follows.

Whereas “the medieval Church believed that all history moved toward the Last Judgment and the establishment of the Kingdom of God,” yet “with the eighteenth-century rationalism, the idea of the goal of history disappeared” and ‘the scientific attitude replaced the religious attitude.”

Whatever the epistemological gain, real loss accompanied the shift, for the new dispensation at first tacitly, and later overtly, claimed that, “Human life is a journey from nowhere to nowhere.” Spengler, despite his pessimism, admired purposefulness and a sense of what he called Destiny. Like Richard Wagner’s notion of Wahn, the illusion of purpose that serves to drive life and give people a sense of meaning, Spengler’s Destiny excites vitality, whether it is true or not; and through its effectiveness, it acquires its truth. “Spengler, then, stated the problem of the Outsider in historical terms.” Wilson summarizes Spengler’s attitude as, “a revolt against ‘abstract philosophy’ and materialism; an anti-liberal, anti-progress attitude,” taking the term progress in its rationalist, ideological usage. Wilson remarks on Spengler’s contempt for politics: “He would undoubtedly have been held in high regard if he had chosen to support the Nazis,” which he did not; but, healthily, “he had the same sort of prejudice as Yeats about ‘the rabble,’ and preferred to hold it in scorn,” as Wilson himself is wont to do now and again. Finally, writes Wilson, it is Spengler’s “living vision of history that constitutes his greatness.”  This, Spengler’s “living vision,” outweighs his pessimism in the last analysis.

Wilson writes that Toynbee’s Study of History, although much more academic than Spengler’s Decline, also shows something of this vatic or mystic quality of the most sensitive and independent thinking: “There is no evidence that Toynbee was influenced by Spengler (his references to Spengler are, in fact, rather unfair), yet the same hostility to pedantry is apparent from the beginning.” Wilson characterizes Toynbee’s theory of “Challenge and Response” as, hopefully, “a denial of Darwin’s Natural Selection,” essentially spiritual and moral, and its author as the articulator of “a major anti-materialistic statement.”


Wilson’s departure from the reigning Logical Positivism of British philosophy, as from the reigning formalism of British literary studies, could hardly have taken a more decisive turn. One must say the same for his excoriation of the Marxist anti-establishment, which was already well on its way, by its domination of the academy, to setting the tone for public discussion in the Western nations – in other words, for becoming the actual establishment. Wilson recounts, in a lecture available on the Internet, his meeting in 1959 at the offices of Gallimard in Paris with none other than Albert Camus. Wilson had taken a prescient interest in the Existentialists and had begun a correspondence with the author of L’etranger, which went on right up to the time of Camus’ death in a road accident in January 1960. Why, Wilson wanted to know, given that so many of his fictional characters experience moments of intense vision that seem to affirm the meaningfulness of life, did Camus insist, in his theoretical utterances, that life is, in fact, a Sisyphean vanity? Why did he not honor intellectual achievement or keen insight? Why did he celebrate non-entities and why did he disdain to validate meaning?

Camus pointed to a French “Teddy Boy” strolling on the sidewalk and told Wilson that everything, including the intellect, must be equal and that what the “Teddy Boy” could not understand, he Camus must therefore reject as inessential and inauthentic.

Camus’ dictum was a piece of Marx-inspired dogma. Wilson, although he still thought of himself at the time as a socialist, well knew the power of fixed notions and a politicized view of life over actual thinking. In Voyage to a Beginning, he tells the story how, hitchhiking through France after being discharged from the RAF in 1951, he met an old friend, Willi Schwiczka, in Strasbourg. They had last met when both were sixteen, after having been pen pals. “Since that time, [Willi] had become a member of the Communist Party and a convinced Marxist”; Willi believed that, “man was basically a noble soul, oppressed by cunning villains who had seized all the wealth.” Now “all that was necessary to make the world perfect was to seize all the villains, just as though they were bank robbers, and take their wealth off them.” After two months of bumming about and laboring at odd jobs, including one in a scrap-yard run by Willi’s father, Wilson found himself “not interested in reorganizing civilisation,” as Willi wanted by a revolution, but rather “in soaking myself in Henry James,” whose books he read in the English section of the Strasbourg public library. Wilson has consistently voted for art and literature over politics, as essentially civilized activities.

In Paris, a decade later, Wilson responded to Camus – and to Camus’ ideological rigidity – with a trenchant question: “What about Einstein? Should you reject the theory of relativity just because a Parisian Teddy Boy can’t understand it?” Camus’ position implied, in fact, a denial of the actually existing external reality that serves as a background to conscious life. It was deliberate nescience. Wilson’s disappointment with the Camus-Sartre brand of Existentialism would lead to a refocusing of his own critical project. Modernity had declared existence to lack any transcendental reference or any redemptive meaning, and the universe to be devoid of any vital or divine spark; but intense experiences attested in literature declared the opposite. Usually they declared it with passionate intensity, in the language of vision and poetry.

From the clarifying moment with Camus sprang a line of works from The Strength to Dream (1962), a study of imagination in literature, to The Stature of Man (1965), a study of “the fallacy of insignificance” as characteristic of prevailing official ideology, to Anti-Sartre (1981). The last refutes what Wilson had come to see not merely as politically biased obscurantism but rather as the nihilism, purely and simply, of rhetorical stances such as those of engagement and authenticité.

On the basis of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, Wilson began sketching out a parallel, non-nihilistic Existentialism, the details of which he gave in The New Existentialism (1967).

Like everything else in Wilson’s work, the interpretation of Husserl in The New Existentialism follows unorthodox lines. Wilson ignores the propositional aspect Husserl’s text and concentrates instead on two other features: the vital impulse in Husserl’s thinking and the theory of civilization offered, rather piecemeal, in the essays collected in Phenomenology and the Crisis of the Modern Sciences. For Wilson, phenomenology provides the instrument for recreating meaning in a world that two or three centuries of destructive skepticism and scientism have drained of meaning. Although the term had not yet come into usage Wilson is importantly engaged in a refutation of “social constructionism,” the view that individual consciousness hardly exists, that objective truths definitely do not exist, and that all supposed verities are simply “constructs,” convenient to the social order, that elites impose on people through institutions.

Wilson interprets Husserl to have asserted, with Plato, that meanings have an objective basis; that they are out there, and accessible or discoverable. Moreover, meaning is as necessary to existence as any physical requirement.

Wilson has always liked musical similes. He uses one to explain Husserl’s phenomenological method this way:

Now this world in which I live is very much like a piece of music. My day proceeds like a symphony, with dull passages and exciting passages, passages that arouse sadness, passages that arouse rage or determination, passages that almost lose my attention entirely. My “life world’ – the world of my lived experience – presents itself to me in a series of meanings or half-meanings. But just as I can turn my attention from the meaning of a symphony to its mechanics, so I can examine the structure of my experience, of my “life world.” The phenomenologist is the counterpart of the musical theorist who is interested to find out how the composer achieved his effects. But with this important difference: the phenomenologist is aware that he himself is the composer.

Wilson is not formulating a new type of solipsism. He is not saying, as the German Idealists said, that Ego creates the world. He is saying rather that, through the focusing of consciousness, the individual makes himself, by a series of encounters with the actual meanings that constitute the world, some of them artifacts, created and set in place by other individuals, the artistic geniuses, in past ages.

One can take a passive, lazy approach to existence, ceding one’s independence to others, or one can take an active, formative approach to existence, exploring reality, and so building up a distinctive personality, by discipline and deliberation. Great works of art, like Goethe’s Faust or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, exert a constitutive effect on those who approach and encounter them in a spirit of deliberation. As for Husserl’s theory of civilization: Husserl argued that science had become an ideology, and desperately needed to examine its own premises. Wilson agrees. His whole philosophical thrust resembles a sustained critique of scientism.

In his concluding chapter, Wilson summarizes his project. “Existentialism said: There are no transcendental values; therefore man should not look for values outside his everyday consciousness.” Sartre and Camus, the chief authors of this view (with Nietzsche at his petulant worst as their precursor), deny purpose. They and their legion of followers, especially the Marxists, have devilishly defined freedom in a way, as Wilson writes, that is “essentially negative,” as “an emptiness into which one is tempted to fling oneself.” This position amounts to the “stupidity of false values” and has contributed disastrously to the impasse of the contemporary situation. For Wilson, taking Husserl with a kind of bold literalness, which nevertheless seems intuitively right, intention is something inherent in the universe, so that to deny intention or purpose is to rail vainly at the very structure of existence. Hence the disparaging references to Darwin, another founder of fallacious materialism.

 “Our lives,” writes Wilson, “consist of a clash between two visions: our vision of… inner freedom, and our vision of contingency.” Man’s “best self,” however, “is geared entirely to purpose and evolution.” The other self is cautious to the point of cowardice. In an aphorism of considerable incisiveness, Wilson asserts that, “It is no doubt lucky for man that life is so doubtful and unstable, for it prevents this born coward from winning the day.”


One is sorely tempted to write, Alas! But let us not fall into the fallacy of hopelessness and declare the war lost. On the other hand, one must, in accordance with the reality principle, declare that many battles of have been lost and that the situation is perilous. The academic world, which Wilson by 1967 was goading with full awareness, had already turned its full ire on this upstart with no university degree who wrote best selling books on topics that trespassed the fare of university presses and took up contradictory theses. The establishment orthodoxy, in short, had identified the dissenter, declared his dissent as well as his success anathemas, and decided to quash him. Reviewers vituperated Wilson’s books, often without having read them. Even Victor Gollancz, who had published The Outsider, gave Wilson the cold shoulder. To feed a family (two marriages and children from both), Wilson made the commercial decision in the 1970s to address a burgeoning interest of the time in occult matters, a decision that has kept him solvent for four decades and which perhaps damaged his reputation in some circles as a serious thinker.

On the other hand, Wilson’s case for investigating the large literature of mysticism and magic is that these things represent, in the modern context, a vestige of faith, possibly misplaced but understandably so, in things transcendental. Better P. D. Ouspensky or Rudolph Steiner, so to speak, than Jacques Lacan or Jean-Michel Lyotard. Better flying saucers than “deconstruction.”

Wilson also wrote novels, thoughtful ones like Ritual in the Dark (1960), a kind of British Crime and Punishment set in Soho in the early 1950s, and twenty or so genre-entries in science fiction and detective story modes. Important intellectual and critical works continued to appear, often from small presses in North America. In the 1990s, for example, he issued a monograph arguing the perniciousness of Jacques Derrida’s “deconstructive” philosophy, another form of nihilism even worse than Sartre’s. Wilson has been living in Cornwall, in remote Gorran Haven, since the early 1960s, preferring rural isolation to the distraction of metropolitan life in the British capital. In the 1980s, Wilson could be encountered on stages of his continuous and exhausting lecture-tours.

At the old Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, I heard him speak in the spring of 1987, when he addressed an enthralled audience for three hours, summarizing his views and giving examples, based on a few sentences scribbled on a three-by-five card. A graduate student at the time in Comparative Literature at UCLA, I could not help but remark the enormous contrast with the usual academic lecture. The man radiated vitality; the typical literature professor’s jargon-laced rambling put a fellow to sleep.

Amazingly, in 2011, Colin Wilson will be eighty years old. I write “amazingly” because his prose, whether in fiction or nonfiction, has never lost the youthful enthusiasm that vitalizes the pages of his first book, The Outsider. A famous photograph taken of Wilson just after The Outsider hit the booksellers shows him in his signature wool turtleneck, looking even younger than he actually was when the photographer snapped the portrait. New books continue to come from Wilson’s authorship – some in the “occult” vein of Mysteries (1978) and From Atlantis to the Sphinx (2004), others in the vein of the literary and philosophical studies of the 1950s and 60s, most recently an account of Wilson’s tense relations with John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, and others of the “Angry Young Men,” with whom journalism at the time erroneously lumped him. Amis hated Wilson and once divulged to a confidant that he had contemplated knocking Wilson off a roof where they were both present at a publisher’s soirée.

I recently asked students in my science fiction course to read Wilson’s 1965 Lovecraftian novel The Mind Parasites, and for once had them hanging on after class to talk to me about its implications. Wilson had written about H. P. Lovecraft as early as 1962, in The Strength to Dream. Neither S. T. Joshi nor Michel Houellebecq has subsequently added to what Wilson noted at the time. Indeed, Wilson shows awareness of a non-dogmatic strand in Lovecraft’s fiction that Joshi and Houellebecq miss. The “Mind Parasites” are Wilson’s vampire-metaphor for the modern betrayal of consciousness, his version of Original Sin. The writer called Sekiguchi might find in The Mind Parasites a trope as serviceable in his discourse as “The Body Snatchers” of Don Siegel’s eponymous 1950s film, based on a Jack Finney novel.

I will live with my un-repayable debt to Wilson, whose bibliographies in his “Outsider” cycle formed the real basis of my higher education. Starting in high school, I simply followed them up.

Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego

Amazing. Thank you for

Amazing. Thank you for "digging up" someone who isn't even dead. I'm familiar with some obscure authors, especially in this field, but he got by me.

You've done us all a service.


I second Atlanticist's motion and look forward to beginning my higher education. Thank you, Prof. Bertonneau!