Strange Life


Ken MacLeod in Aeon:

Like Aldous Huxley and C S Lewis with John F Kennedy, the English writer Colin Wilson had the misfortune of dying on the same day as a vastly (and justly) more famous man: Nelson Mandela. When Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, came out in 1956 — coinciding with the arrival of a noisy cohort of anti-establishment writers labelled the ‘Angry Young Men’ — he became an overnight sensation: a self-taught, ‘staggeringly erudite’, working-class, provincial 24-year-old hailed by highbrow reviewers as Britain’s answer to Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Almost as quickly, he was dropped, and his subsequent prolific literary career, which moved from philosophy and religion through psychology and parapsychology to the wilder shores of Atlantis and science fiction, is usually taken to vindicate those second thoughts. A handful of obituaries have appeared in the quality press since 5 December. Most have a tincture of condescension, which is understandable. Wilson’s evaluation of his own importance as a writer and thinker was well out of kilter with that of most critics, and indeed with reality.

And yet, and yet… it’s a safe bet that some readers of Aeon will remember him fondly, and owe to him their first introduction to this magazine’s characteristic themes. I’ll cheerfully admit it myself. Reading Wilson’s The Outsider at the age of 16 or so opened my mind to writers, thinkers and ideas I’d never heard of before, and gave a new significance to some that I had. Sartre, Camus, Henri Barbusse, Ernest Hemingway, T E Lawrence, T S Eliot, Friedrich Nietzsche and many others, including William Blake and George Fox, founder of the Quakers, were all portrayed making heroic but usually ill‑fated attempts to storm a fortress of existential perplexity to which Wilson (as he strongly hinted) had found the key. The Outsider ticks all the boxes for a successful cult book: readable style, significant subject-matter, and reckless assertion. The effect was exhilarating.

More here.