Monday 14 March 2016

Colin Wilson's existential criticism - its validity and limitations

I came across Colin Wilson's The Outsider (first published 1956) at the age of nineteen, and was astonished and delighted to find for the very first time someone grappling directly with what I found to be the main problem in life.

The Outsider set the pattern for most of Wilson's books in being constructed around multiple biographical summaries, woven about with essayistic passages of criticism, analysis and manifesto. I went on to read many others of Wilson's books of this type.

As I read, I would be in state of excitement, with a feeling of being just about to cross a threshold, achieve understanding, and transform my life for the better - but it never actually happened (indeed, overall, my life was getting worse - my character closing and coarsening).

What usually happens in these Existentialist books of Wilson's is that he will take a writer, artist, philosopher or some such person - and discuss his life and work from the perspective of their understanding of questions such as 'What is life really worth? What can be got out of life by a man with no material worries and no obligations to fulfil?' [Reference is to The Strength to Dream section on HG Wells.]

I still agree that this is among the most fundamental of questions. The revealed preference of mainstream modern people can be seen in what they actually do when in this situation of having no material worries and no obligations to fulfil: they create material worries (by their compulsion to spend so much money) and they create obligations (by keeping themselves 'busy' and boasting about it).

Material sufficiency for almost everyone has been available in The West for more than 60 years; but instead of leading to an increase in existential, spiritual, religious living - it has fuelled a shallowing and trivializing of life by entertainment, distraction and busyness - necessitating a continually increasing surplus beyond sufficiency and driving yet more material worries and obligations.

But having raised such an important question, and having decided to tackle it by a new, and more optimistic, existentialism; Wilson never really came much closer to solving it than in his second 'outsider' book - Religion and the Rebel (1957), where he considered and rejected Christianity.

Wilson had, indeed, created an insoluble puzzle for himself, as can be seen from a comment at the end of Strength To Dream when he calls-for an existential literary criticism. He describes TS Eliot's earlier attempt to create an existential criticism in After Strange Gods as a failure because Eliot refused to discuss the basis of his religious convictions and therefore made his criticisms from the basis of a 'deliberately mystifying dogmatism'.

What Wilson is therefore asking-for is an impossibility - an existential criticism which is also turned-upon-itself. Because all criticism must be from a standpoint or perspective, and if criticism cannot be allowed to proceed until that standpoint or perspective has itself been critiqued, then nothing will ever be accomplished - since no assumptions have been allowed, and any assumption must first be justified - which can only be done by calling on some other assumption/s - which is itself then open to challenge. It is an infinite regress.

This brings me to my understanding of why Wilson never got further with his existentialism than a brilliant diagnosis of the noble failure of other thinkers -- because he denied the reality of a perspective outside of human life. At the bottom line, all deep thinkers are a failure from the perspective of answering 'what is life really worth/' - because they all died.

Mortality - along with the other related problems such as suffering, limited ability, disease, decay - puts an end to all pretensions to have solved Life.

Wilson perceived this to a limited extent, in taking up GB Shaw's fascination with extended human life (eg 300 years) - but more-of-the-same does not solve anything, really - just puts it off. So long as we know we will die and our perspective acknowledges only this mortal life, then we are stuck.

The answer is, of course (as presumably TS Eliot perceived) that we should not be trying to answer the question of the meaning of life from a perspective restricted to mortal life - but from a larger perspective which encompasses mortal life.

In a nutshell, this perspective can only derive from divine revelation - or else we are back inside the infinite regress.

Mortal life can be understood, and its success evaluated, only in light of a perspective which is outside mortal life, which sees it as a whole, and judges it in terms of what lies outside of mortal life. An existential criticism which denies, as a metaphysical assumption, the reality of a wider frame for mortal life, has set itself a formally, necessarily, insoluble problem.

We may term another person's metaphysical assumptions a 'mystifying dogmatism' but that is facile; because it can always be said about any fundamental, bottom-line belief with which we disagree.

The reason that I was never able to get across the line from my excitement with Wilson's defining of the fundamental question, and exploring the possible answers, was that I too (for three decades) shared this 'anything-but-religion' assumption - and saw Christianity as an evasion, a cop-out, a false answer; rather than being the only and necessary answer.



John Fitzgerald said...

Yes, there's a tremendously Promethean quality about Wilson's oeuvre. His insistence that life must have a direction - a sense of meaning, pattern and purpose - marks him out as an exceptional thinker in the wasteland of twentieth century British intellectual life. His too-easy rejection of Divinity, however, highlights the extent to which he possibly got sucked in to the prejudices of his time.

You're right to flag up the addictive nature of his books. One always feels on the point of breaking through the screen of surface appearances to a deeper, wider reality that never quite comes. Ultimately I think CW's worldview belongs to that wave of mid-twentieth-century Modernist optimism, of which I caught the tail end as a child in the 70s - e.g. the 'Tomorrow's World' TV programme - that science will rebuild the post-war world, that technology will reduce the hours we work, leaving us free to pursue the things that matter. There's an almost childlike naivety there, but there's something admirable too in the sense that people were still bothered about the 'things that matter', i.e art, culture and the quest for the well-lived life. This is a theme in Iris Murdoch's novels as well, herself a contemporary of CW.

The first Colin Wilson Conference is taking place at the start of July for a couple of days at The University of Nottingham. A new biography of CW by Gary Lachmann (who used to play bass with Blondie) will also be published at the same time. Lachmann, in case you don't know him, is a good writer in my opinion. Very readable. Very sincere. He isn't (as far as I know) a Christian; he approaches his topics from a 'magical', occult viewpoint with all the plus and minus points that entails.

I'll be buying a copy anyway!

All the best, John.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - Agree with your summary!

I have read some of Lachmann's essays (e.g. we both used to publish in Abraxas) and his books on Steiner (good) and Swedenborg (OK but not so good - he, like me, lacks empathy with Swedenborg) - and will certainly be reading his CW biography.

I like the Wilsonians in general, as characters (I especially liked Paul Newman as a penfriend) - although I suspect their lifestyles are a bit 'alternative'/ wild for face to face interaction with someone as puritanical and generally feeble as myself, so I like to keep things at the level of correspondence; but on the whole I feel they have not got so far as CW himself, and CW didn't go quite far enough!

BTW, and off to one side, I have a firm arrangement to meet Jeremy Naydler for a decent conversation this summer - so I hope this actually happens.

One said...

I was very moved by Colin Wilson also. His work was a branch of human potential thought fueled by the themes of that era. I always feel he and the other thinkers and explorers in that field got so close. I suspect I'll always feel an emotional pull to complete what didn't quite finish from those years.

Thanks to John for that comment. I didn't know about the biography and will read it also.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I had just been reading a discussion of Eliot's After Strange Gods in a Frank Kermode book when I read this post and found a reference to the same book. Those synchronicity fairies are at it again!

Bruce Charlton said...

WmJas - Oh No Not Again!

I just read it today - Eliot is such an authoritative prose writer that I find myself agrreeing with everything he says while I am reading. Well... until he said Ezra Pound was one of the two great living poets (this was 1934).

John Fitzgerald said...

Just reflecting on this post and the preceding one on meditation. One of my favourite modern writers is William Golding, not so much for Lord of the Flies, for which he's best known, but for two mid-career novels, Free Fall (1959) and The Spire (1965). Free Fall in particular is an absolutely outstanding fictional meditation on the quest for meaning and value, a genuinely Bildungsroman, profoundly religious in its orientation and outlook.

Golding was a Christian; a Catholic I think (though I'm not 100% sure of this). I read an interesting story about his time as a teacher at Salisbury Cathedral School; how he'd go to the chapel before and after the school day and sit in silence for a long time. 'I was looking for something outside myself,' he later wrote, 'something independent from the human mind's hall of mirrors.'

That's the heart of it for me. That something - or Someone - outside oneself is what gives Christian prayer and meditation a qualitative difference over, on the one hand, the overly-passive 'mindfulness' style or, on the other hand, Colin Wilson's 'pencil trick' and such-like, where one perhaps runs the risk of 'taking the kingdom of heaven by force.'

It astonishes me sometimes why Christianity isn't more popular in the West. It's warm and personal, not dry and abstract. It offers a relationship, not a system. And there aren't any rules. Not really. All we need to bring is an open, listening and sensitive heart. We can sit in silence like Golding if we want or we can pray for ourselves or others. And that's another great thing - it's lack of 'me-centredness' - which should really come as a tremendous release for many struggling today under the demands and pressures of our obsessively self-orientated culture.

Pope Francis, in my view, understands this very well. He receives some criticism from within the Church, and that's understandable in many ways. He isn't really interested, when all's said and done, in institutional maintenance, no matter how noble the Church's past and how substantial her achievements. What matters to him is provoking a hunger in souls for this passionate, dramatic, intense relationship with Jesus Christ, which is always on offer to us, such is the mercy and generosity of God - His largesse, you might say - in the Sacraments and, most of all perhaps, in the secret chamber of our hearts.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I was about to write something about how I continue to be amazed at how Ezra Pound somehow managed to make so many of his contemporaries think he was great -- but then I realized that I've never actually read a word of Pound, but have uncritically accepted the present-day consensus that he was an awful poet and a fraud. I wonder how many of the voices in that consensus are likewise just parroting what "everybody knows."

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - When I did my Masters in English Lit in the late 80s, Pound still had a high reputation. There were indeed a group of self-styled Poundians in my part of England who linked to him via Basil Bunting (who was born and lived his later years in and near Newcastle).

I made a fair attempt to read Pound, and I think Hugh Selwyn Mauberly was perfectly fine - decent verse, although not to my taste (but then, neither are TS Eliot, nor WB Yeats) - but the Cantos struck me as worthless, made worse by being so pretentious.

btw Basil Bunting was *a lot* better than Pound, although still not to my taste.

Unknown said...

Why isn't Christianity more popular in the West? Well maybe it's because modern Christianity has cut the arms and legs off it's spirituality to fit into the modern mode of life. That and it's long history of human abuses should give you some idea.