Wednesday 22 January 2020

Review of Existential Criticism - selected book reviews by Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson. Existential criticism: selected book reviews. Edited by Colin Stanley. Paupers' Press, 2009.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of Colin Wilson's book reviews, extending over several decades and chosen as exemplars of what he termed 'existential criticism'. In other words, these are reviews that focus on the author's world-view; the philosophy of life that either they exemplify and/or propose.

I found them extremely enjoyable, and - as usual with this author - energising; cheering me, making me want to investigate the author, provoking further thoughts of my own.

However, while much better than the usual run of book reviews; the concept of existential criticism is ultimately futile - since existentialism is (or was) merely the last fruit of that Romanticism-minus-Christianity which developed in the generation following the first (and true) advent of Romantic Christianity.

Existentialism is, in essence, a continuation of the Romanticism of Byron, Shelley and (to an extent) Goethe; which was either anti-Christian or indifferent to it; and which embedded Romanticism in a master framework that was either personal (e.g. an ideology of self-expressive genius - such as Goethe or Wilson himself), sexual (Byron) and/or Leftist political (Shelley).

In sum, we now know that existentialism leads nowhere, just as un/anti-Christian Romanticism led nowhere.

[Wilson himself began as a Romantic Christian, but unfortunately abandoned this after perhaps his best book, Religion and the Rebel. In effect, he made the error of so many others of regarding Christianity as a fixed doctrine, defined by The Church (in his case, Roman Catholic) to be accepted or rejected in toto and without personal input; whereas, by contrast, he was prepared to spend decades of his best intellectual and emotional efforts working on making non-Christian (atheistic) ideologies 'work'. If he had expended just a quarter of this effort on investigating and understanding Christianity, Wilson might have been one of the greats of Romantic Christianity...]

The reason is, I think, that philosophical existentialism was a reaction-against the epistemological focus of mainstream philosophy; but shared with mainstream philosophy the rejection of metaphysics.  And, since the metaphysical assumptions were The Problem, then mainstream philosophy and existentialism alike led only to incoherence (and, before not-very-long; to the characteristic modern mood of demotivation, cowardice, short-termist hedonism, and despair).

Wilson himself - in practice, if not theory - pretty much abandoned existentialism from the later 1960s (from The Occult: a history, of 1971); and developed a kind of (mostly implicit) supernaturalist, abstract, consciousness-focused religion without gods... pretty much along the lines of Bernard Shaw's Creative Evolution - but including a definite belief in life after biological death. This was itself incomplete and incoherent, but a step in the right direction; and enough for Wilson to maintain his motivation and optimism.

(Perhaps Colin Wilson's mature spiritual vision is best displayed in his wonderful scifi novel series 'Spider World' - which I strongly recommend.) 

Wilson's vulnerability was, however, that his motivation and optimism depended a lot on his own work - on his books and their reception, and his faith that they would eventually be widely-recognised as significant in worldly terms. Wilson did not (I think) really have a yardstick of 'significance' that extended beyond this mortal world.

For example, I don't think CW would have acknowledged (at least, not explicitly) that a person's life may be substantially unknown and without influence both during their life and after their death; yet true and important in some eternal and divine sense. In other words, I don't think Wilson would have acknowledged an objectivity of value that extended beyond the subjectivity of alive people and their societies and cultures.  

But to return to the book under consideration: if you like Colin Wilson's better known work, you will enjoy Existential Criticism - and find it, as I did, not merely interesting but an activating and enthusing read.


Francis Berger said...

You've succeeded in piquing my interest!

That's a good observation about Wilson rejecting Christianity because he regarded it as a fixed doctrine. This is prevalent among Catholics. Catholics who come to the realization that they cannot follow the doctrines of the Church often abandon it. Some go to other denominations; some drop Christianity altogether. I almost did the same - the only thing that saved me from rejecting Christianity outright was the personal input you refer to in this post. I still find it amazing that Wilson never found his way back to the faith.

dearieme said...

Selected book reviews by my mother: of which authors/book did she say ...?

(i) "You must try her though I don't suppose you'll like her."

(ii) On handing over a paperback: "I'll bet you can't finish it!"

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - Wilson was never A Roman Catholic in practice, but seriously considered entering a monastery (Benedictine, I think) in the middle 1950s - at least as an ideal, and was somewhat near to converting at the time he wrote Religion and the Rebel. In other words, it was the Roman Catholic type of Christianity that most appealed to him.

Francis Berger said...

Thanks for the clarification. Much appreciated.