Sunday, 29 July 2007

Colin Wilson: Neofascist

UPDATE: as further evidence that some truly heinous people sometimes visit this blog, I came across a reference to this posting as "shite", featured on, predictably enough, a Colin Wilson fan page. Just to clarify; the piece does not, in the manner claimed by the silly blog post, use an article from the 1950s about Oswald Mosley and Wilson as the entire basis for what follows. No, it suggests the "elective affinities" between "the outsider" philosophy and the privileging of the rarefied experiences of surpassing individuals. Sadly, Wilson's philosophy requires that invidious distinctions are drawn between people, not least between "big clocks" and "little clocks". Wilson, with his work ethic, and spiritualist exercises, displays the hallmarks of someone with little faith in "the masses" [sic] developing any collective means of realising prospective ideals. He has used the exact same words as Margaret Thatcher by proclaiming absurdly "that society doesn't exist". Moreover, women become serial killers because they are "downright ugly", while analysis of Marx's theory of surplus value is caricatured in Wilson's example where he defends the position of a boss telling a tradesman "what to do with his spraygun" i.e. shove it up his behind (see A Criminal History of Mankind and the Encyclopedia of Murder for these references; there is no shortage of comparable claims in his other works either). So there is a wild inconsistency between the harshness of Wilson's own class background, with which one can easily sympathise, and his embrace in turn of an even more elitist ethos than the Establishment he claims has always persecuted him.
And how sinister can an interlocutor be who defends Wilson as a "nice" chap on a blog, without even mentioning his relativisation of The Holocaust? Is the murder of 6 million people something that can be quickly passed over, perhaps because that blogger shares Wilson's indifference to "the masses"? It is difficult to tell, because the blogger's trigger finger is so itchy it issues a scattershot response. This might explain why he gravitated to Wilson's thinking in the first place. In any case, a closer reading would have revealed any 1950s source to be a minor component: why not respond instead (or even do me the courtesy of bothering to read) [to] Williams's article, an original [negative] review of The Outsider, which doesn't need Mosley references to score critical points of WIlson? Anyhow, I'm not going to enter into a "disorganised swearing" contest with Colin Wilson fans who aren't even prepared to fulfil the minimal Hegelian imperative of entering into the strengths of an opponent's position before offering a critical reply. And so to the original post:

The other day I was reminiscing about conversations with Ron Abbey, the proprietor of Abbey's Bookshop. I'd asked him, just prior to his untimely passing, given that he was based in London way back in the 1950s when "The Outsider" became a bestseller, if there was any kind of consensus within the publishing/bookseller industry of its author. Without missing a beat, Ron informed me that Wilson used to visit his premises, wearing an assortment of really terrible disguises/makeup jobs, on the pretence of being a customer innocently inquiring into how well "Mr Colin Wilson's books were selling". Ron would simply respond by immediately addressing him as "Mr Wilson", before concluding that he was a self-obsessed crank. I guess what had initially stimulated these reflections was my recent experience of thumbing through a new biography of Oswald Mosley, where I came across further details of the meeting of minds between the notorious British fascist and the infamous existentialist pop philosopher. The book, the title of which unfortunately escapes me at present, (I'm sure though it was either Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism After 1945 or Black Shirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Fascism by Stephen Dorril), revealed that although Wilson was sympatico with many of Mosley's ideas, he did not approve of his "methods" (violence, presumably).

Despite this minor qualification, it strikes me how Wilson's work remains open to such appropriation. One could, along these lines, note the significance of some of the conjoined features I've encountered in Sydney's electronic music scene, where an interest in Wilson's writings sits alongside the collection of serial killer folklore, and a thinly veiled contempt for the popular culture produced and consumed by "the masses" [sic]. It can be noted here that a critique of this formulaic thinking should be linked to my earlier post on "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart".

In order to investigate the logic tying these interests together, I can look at how Raymond Williams examines Colin Wilson’s famous study of the (alleged) existentialist malaise of "modern man" [sic], The Outsider. Williams again frames his own experience as a way of opening up a critical space of interrogation as opposed to a narcissistic self affirmation. In arguing against the book’s fascination with "individualism and private escapes from what are social dilemmas", analysis of this review shows it to begin a critique of a certain kind of formulaic thinking by including the self, which Williams later extended to the "Conclusion" of Culture and Society and Keywords. Such critical foresight is impressive and interesting, not only in light of the fact that Wilson later went on to attempt to form a neo-fascist party with Oswald Mosley, as noted by McIlroy and Westwood (McIlroy and Westwood 1993: 28). For Wilson also happens to be one of the most prolific and well-known writers of popular true crime books about serial murder (Wilson 1992 is not an atypical example). This topic marks something of a critical threshhold for development of Wilson’s characteristic themes, as the social darwinian tone intermeshes with narratives of the criminal as a kind of creative, surpassing individual. In light of this it is not unexpected that the duality suggested by Williams’s conception of a democratic common culture is absent from Wilson’s work. Instead, it is entirely conventional that his solution to the pathologies of frustrated creativity amount to little more than a clarion call to unfetter the individual from the welfare state, in turn conjoined to the privatized practice of an authoritarian form of spiritualism (in particular, revival of the mystic Gurdjieff’s emphasis on the development of a strong work ethic). In this manner, the infusion of obscurantist and atavistic themes into the "outsider" ethos comes to assume a familiar banality.
It seems that some of the initial inspiration for this review of The Outsider sprang from a piece of student writing which Williams had to assess. What was most remarkable in this instance was how closely passages of the student’s essay mirrored sections of The Outsider, in particular the references to waiting for her husband at Brighton station, "a train came in and disgorged…like some giant whale with a distaste for fish that day- masses of men on the way to football…Not one of them looked "handsome, good and clever"…the overall colour of their dirty, dingy mass was depressing and dead." Unfortunately for the student though, her account was very detailed, recording both the location and time of arrival of this "dingy mass", and so Williams felt compelled to inform her that he was himself "disgorged" on the very occasion which she was referring to. What is most fascinating here is how the student’s mode of perception had arisen as a result of reading Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, and how its themes could be articulated to extreme and precarious forms of consciousness. For example, the significance of the book could be thought through in relation to serialist Theodore ("the Unabomber") Kaczynski, by no means the only person to have articulated its themes to concern about diminished chances of individuality, or indeed "the ability to kill men in mass" which Williams’s student described in some detail (McIlroy and Westwood 1993: 5). In this light, the articulation of Wilson's writings to the organised political form of Oswald Mosley, appears as a luridly logical extension of such a capacity to kill enmasse.

Shocking as this theoretical deduction may be, further details are forthcoming in the Guardian piece I've pasted below. After all these years, and the exposure of dubious associations, Wilson still hasn't changed his basic tune e.g. academics who scoff at his work are nothing more than "puffed up non-entities".

The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory

"Finally, in his most provocative musing thus far -- others would follow -- he wondered, if the Final Solution had indeed been a hoax, "would it not be better to be prepared to face the whole truth, no matter how unpleasant?" ( 69 ) Wilson left no doubt that Harwood had convinced him of the unpleasant truth: The Holocaust was a myth".

Recommended Further Reading:
Breeding Superman by Dan Stone
In this book Dan Stone challenges the traditional view held by many political historians that British fascism was nothing more than a pale imitation of its continental counterparts, and something of an irrelevance in British political history. Stone argues that during this period there was an indigenous tradition of ways of thinking which, while they cannot be called 'fascist' - not before 1918 at any rate - can certainly be seen as 'proto-fascist'. Breeding Superman, encourages the reader to reassess origins of proto-fascist ideas in Britain, suggesting that they may be found to quite a large degree in the Nietzsche and eugenics movements. These reactionary movements such as the Edwardian popular league's demands for conscription and defence of the empire, Anthony Ludovici's call for a 'masculine renaissance' and Lord Willoughby de Broke's 'National Toryism' represented the 'extremes of Englishness', channels of thinking that as separate entities hardly constituted fully fledged fascism, but as a combination, they come very close to satisfying the criteria regarded by scholars as constituting fascism. Fascinating and incredibly revealing, Breeding Superman raises questions that are more relevant now than at any time since the end of the Second World War.
Here is the damning indictment of Wilson from The Guardian (it's very revealing):
Look back in wonder

Fifty years ago, critics turned The Outsider into an overnight sensation and hailed its author a genius - then they changed their minds. Harry Ritchie charts the rise and fall of Colin Wilson

Saturday August 12, 2006

This year marks the golden anniversary of one of the most sensational debuts in English literary history. Not Osborne's Look Back in Anger, which was greeted on opening night with dutiful applause and ho-hummish reviews, but the work of an even younger writer, the 24-year-old Colin Wilson, whose first book, The Outsider, was an overnight sensation.
The Outsider hardly seemed to be the stuff of even modest success. It was a bizarre concoction of philosophy and literary criticism, purporting to be about existentialism, and packed full of quotes and references to Sartre, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Gurdjieff. Even garlanded with the dust-jacket praise of Edith Sitwell (whose 137-line blurb claimed that The Outsider was an "astonishing" book and that Colin Wilson would be "a truly great writer"), Gollancz's initial print run of 5,000 copies seemed wildly optimistic.

The first sign that something was up came two days before publication, when an excited article in the Evening News heralded Wilson as "A Major Writer". The next day he was acclaimed by the two most important critics in the country - Philip Toynbee in the Observer and Cyril Connolly in the Sunday Times. "Luminously intelligent," declared an overjoyed Toynbee of Wilson's book. Connolly pronounced it to be "extraordinary", "one of the most remarkable first books I have read for a long time". When it appeared in the bookshops on Monday, it sold out by the end of the afternoon.
Publication day also brought a follow-up feature in the Evening News, revealing that the startling prodigy had saved money by being homeless, writing in the British Museum by day and sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath. The Daily Mail and the Express took up the story - Wilson was a self-taught, working-class lad from Leicester who had left school at 16 and worked variously as a hospital porter, a lab assistant and a labourer in a plastics factory in Finchley before giving up his job to write full-time and sleep on the Heath - where he returned to pose obligingly, back in his sleeping bag, for Life magazine.
Fleet Street had found its very own intellectual genius, one who called himself an existentialist, with a turtle-neck and brainy specs to boot. Amazingly, the highbrow critics agreed. The Outsider was "really important", according to the New Statesman. "Masterly," said the Listener. "Brilliant," said Elizabeth Bowen. "Brilliant," echoed VS Pritchett on the BBC Home Service. Within a few months, The Outsider had sold 20,000 copies in hardback, translation rights had been sold to five territories and the American edition had been selected as a book of the month.
Inspired by Wilson's dramatic entrance into the literary world ("he walked into literature like a man walks into his own house" was the account in the New York Times Book Review), Daniel Farson, then a young freelance journalist and soon to be one of Britain's first TV stars, wrote a couple of articles for the Daily Mail, not only acclaiming the prodigy ("I have just met my first genius. His name is Colin Wilson") but also announcing that he was the leading light of a new postwar generation.
Farson's enthusiasm for Wilson had to carry his far less impressed opinion of the other writers he roped into membership of this supposed generation: Kingsley Amis; Michael Hastings, then 18, who was about to have his first play performed; and, in a desperate cast-around for any other at-all-visible talents at a lean time, John Osborne, whom Farson noted seemed to be "an angry young man". A fortnight later, the Daily Express replied with its own feature, taking the same four writers and turning the phrase into a plural - Wilson, Osborne, Amis and Hastings were, shouted the headline, "Today's Angry Young Men".
No matter that the label was nonsensical, that the writers had almost nothing in common and, indeed, that they thoroughly disliked each other's work and each other. Having discovered its own literary genius, Fleet Street now set out to promote its very own literary group. The catchphrase certainly helped the four to become rich as well as famous. Within a year The Outsider had earned Wilson £20,000, equivalent to £1m today, an especially noticeable sum in those straitened times when rationing was just coming to an end and Lady Docker's gold-plated Daimler was a subject of nationwide envy.
Then came the downfall. Wilson was the first to suffer, and the one who suffered most. The Sunday Times commissioned him to write a much-vaunted series of book reviews, but three strange pieces later, the series came to an abrupt end. Asked during an interview with Farson on ITV if he was a genius, Wilson agreed that he probably was. Writing in the Daily Express, Wilson mused that death could be avoided by those with sufficient intellectual oomph. "Why do people die? Out of laziness, lack of purpose, of direction." During a symposium at the Royal Court, he announced that Shakespeare was "absolutely second-rate", and wrote "the sort of things you find stuck on your calendars".
The tabloid backlash began with a story in the Sunday Pictorial in December 1956. Wilson had left his wife and five-year-old son. This touch of ignominy became full-blown farce when Wilson's girlfriend's father came across the author's journals. Horrified to read what he wrongly took to be pornographic fantasies (actually, explained Wilson, notes for the novel he was writing), the concerned parent resolved to rescue his daughter. He turned up with his wife at Wilson's Notting Hill flat, brandishing a horsewhip. Wilson's future mother-in-law set about the country's famous new philosopher with her handbag.
The incident was front-page news for several days. Pursued by the press, Wilson and his girlfriend fled to Devon, and there it would have ended had Wilson not done his best to keep the story alive. Having made a deal with the Mail for exclusive coverage of his imminent return to London, he then alerted the Express, reasoning that "I felt it only fair to let them know too". He also handed his journals over to the Daily Mail. Although they turned out not to be pornographic, Wilson's private thoughts made for juicy copy. "The day must come when I am hailed as a major prophet," was one quote. "I must live on, longer than anyone else has ever lived ... to be eventually Plato's ideal sage and king ..."
The literary establishment looked on in horror. Their wunderkind was a nincompoop. Philip Toynbee had already provided a throat-clearing apology in his books-of-the-year piece in December ("I doubt whether this interesting and extremely promising book quite deserved the furore which it seems to have caused ..."). If ever there was a book in for a critical hiding, it was the sequel to The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, published in September 1957.
It was panned. "Half-baked Nietzsche" was the scornful dismissal of Raymond Mortimer in the Sunday Times, where Cyril Connolly and his wild praise were both conspicuous by their absence. "A vulgarising rubbish bin," considered the mightily embarrassed Toynbee, who now remembered The Outsider as "clumsily written and still more clumsily composed". Nor, as one might think, was Religion and the Rebel the luckless victim of Wilson's terrible publicity. It thoroughly deserved its panning. It is every bit as bad as The Outsider. Both books are dreadful. Appalling.
The whole sorry episode certainly shows up the two reviewers who were primarily responsible - Connolly, who was hopeless at anything that required abstract thought and who was a complete sucker for grand names and grand gestures, both of which The Outsider had aplenty, and poor Toynbee, who was always susceptible to grand-sounding ideas. (Interesting to see Toynbee not learning from his mistake and, 20 years later, acclaiming Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - The Outsider of the 1970s - as "a work of great, perhaps urgent importance" reaching "the very heart of our present psychological and spiritual anguish".)
Others in the literary establishment had proved themselves just as fallible. Sitwell, Bowen, John Lehmann, Stephen Spender - they had all praised Wilson to the skies or wooed him for their periodicals, before suddenly clamming up and hoping nobody had noticed the initial faux pas.
Significantly, Wilson's most prominent enthusiasts were all "Mandarins" - bellettrists who were younger members or descendants of the Bloomsbury group, upper-middle-class and upper-middle-aged, high priests of high art who worshipped at the altar of modernism and all things sophisticated and French. Wilson dropped all the right names - foreign, highbrow, impressively daunting on both counts - and, with his vague proclamations about the spiritual crisis in modern society and the alienation of his genius Outsiders, pressed all the right buttons.
His supporters also managed not to pick up on Wilson's offensive witterings about what he termed "the common mob" - 95 per cent of the population, by his estimation, although the real Outsiders comprised 0.005 per cent of the elite 5 per cent - being worthless "apes", "caged animals", "hogs", "flies", "ants", "insects", "human lice". Actually, the Mandarins clearly found that general line rather congenial, because it fitted only too well into their cherished Romanticist/modernist myth of the artistic genius set apart from and above society, and justified in that alienation by utter contempt for the masses. With his horrendous simplicities, Wilson proclaimed that intellectual misanthropy loud and clear. He recommended, for example, that the mentally ill should be shot. He also demanded that his artist-visionary Outsiders should "achieve political power from the hogs".
Indeed, Wilson toyed with the idea of doing just that in 1958, when he helped found a new literary-political movement, the Spartacans, to replace iniquitous democracy with the dictatorship of the "expert minority" of the spiritual elite. The Spartacan movement soon fizzled out, but not before attracting the eager support of Oswald Mosley.
With his loose talk of Übermensch, Outsiders and geniuses, and his happy acceptance that he himself was probably a genius and "a major prophet", he also offered an unwittingly comic, Hancockian version of the Great Writer the Mandarins desperately wanted to appear - preferably one who could lead them all out of the cul-de-sac that their beloved modernists seemed to have led them into, and definitely one who could single-handedly rescue a second-rate era of unambitious writing.
Alas, as it turned out, Colin Wilson wasn't even a flash in the pan so much as an accident in the kitchen sink, and his preposterous rise and ludicrous fall served only to humiliate an already embattled literary establishment and further discredit their devotion to modernism and all things European.
As for Wilson himself, his eviction to the literary wilderness in 1957 proved to be irrevocable. Despite his exile to a place beyond respectability, he has plugged away at an amazingly prolific career, producing more than 100 more books in the half-century since his heyday, many of them about the occult and the paranormal, and about allegedly Outsider criminals like Jack the Ripper. His extensive oeuvre has two virtues - his clear, simple, fluent style, and his ideas being just far too daft to be taken seriously.
Wilson disagrees. "I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century," he says. "In 500 years time, they'll say, 'Wilson was a genius', because I'm a turning-point in intellectual history.'
Well, no they won't, but yes he was, sort of.
· The Outsider is published by Phoenix (£8.99). Harry Ritchie's latest novel, The Third Party, is published by Hodder & Stoughton

1 comment:

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