Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Toward an Existential Realism: The Novels of Colin Wilson

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Toward an Existential Realism: The Novels of Colin Wilson

Article excerpt

We fight not for ourselves but for growth, growth that goes on forever. To-morrow, whether we live or die, growth will conquer through us. That is the law of the spirit for evermore.

--H. G. WELLS The Food of the Gods

There is no need to recount the literary career of Colin Wilson. It follows an all too familiar pattern and unfortunately has a great many counterparts: the encomiums of praise and delight upon the publication of a writer's first book and the quick critical turnabout when a second book is released. The exceptions are few today, and the damage is severe. A young writer has fame thrust upon him and snatched away before he has assimilated it and adjusted to it; too many writers never recover from the shock. And if a writer keeps working, his readers still suffer, for once he has been dismissed by the critical press, his later books are seldom even mentioned; he becomes an invisible man. Like Melville, he may be "'discovered" much later, but only after he has been lost to his contemporaries who simply have no way of knowing what he is doing and writing.

Colin Wilson's example is, of course, more exaggerated than most. His first book, The Outsider, published in 1956 when he was twenty-four, was an amazing critical and popular success. One critic wrote that "Not since Lord Byron woke up one morning and found himself famous has an English writer met with such spontaneous and universal acclaim." When his second book, Religion and the Rebel, appeared the following year, it was as universally condemned. The eighteen books which followed over the last ten years have received a small and varied response, but on the whole they have been more ignored than attacked or praised. To the great majority of the reading public, Colin Wilson has become, at thirty-five, a finished man, remembered only for his early success and not for his work which has continued beyond that success and despite its attendant critical reverse.

The publication in England of Wilson's seventh novel, The Mind Parasites, last spring roused, however, a revival of critical interest. Hilary Corke announced in The Listener that it was time the literary world stopped ignoring Colin Wilson, and Robert Nye, in The Guardian, called Wilson "one of the most earnest and interesting writers of his generation." In this country, The Mind Parasites was published in July by Arkham House, the small publishing house in Sauk City, Wisconsin, founded by August Derleth to print the works of H. P. Lovecraft and other books in the Lovecraft tradition. Since the tiny advertising budget of such a small firm and the force of critical inertia will probably preclude much serious mention of the novel in the American press, I should like here to greet its appearance and to discuss Wilson's novels and his development as a novelist of independence and real ability.

Of course, Colin Wilson thinks of himself primarily as a philosopher, and the bulk of his writing has been critical and philosophical, from The Outsider to his most recent Introduction to the New Existentialism. Although his "Outsider Cycle" (The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, 'The Age of Defeat, The Strength to Dream, The Origins of the Sexual Impulse, Beyond the Outsider) is a sustained attempt to define a new synthesis of evolutionary humanism and phenomenological existentialism, he is no systematic philosopher. He is rather a man thinking through his ideas in print, a philosopher who feels, to use Emerson's description of the wise writer, "that the ends of study and composition are best answered by announcing undiscovered regions of thought, and so communicating, through hope, new activity to the torpid spirit."

Like Emerson, he sees man as "a god in ruins" who must only be awakened in order to fulfill his godly potential, but because he is "Anglo-Saxon and empirical" by nature and heritage, his is a more specifically rational philosophy than Emerson's, depending more upon the analytical faculty than creative intuition. …

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