Monday, 16 February 2009

Litcrit models and more on Colin Wilson

Further reading from yesterday's post that mentioned psychoanalytic literary criticism: Critical Approaches, a handy guide to a number of the approaches to analysis/critique of a text. One not mentioned, however, is existential criticism, which is the style of the author and philosopher Colin Wilson's The Strength to Dream (much of it online at Google Books). It's a very clear overview of the works of many authors of the late 1800s to early 1900s, loosely groupable together as "imaginative" 1. They're seen through the filter of existential criticism (as Wilson puts it, "the attempt to judge works of art by the contribution they make to the science of living, to judge them by standards of meaning as well as impact") as opposed to literary criticism, which Wilson characterises as concerning itself "with the general artistic 'satisfactoriness' of the work".

It's a pleasantly robust stance: commonsense without being in the least anti-intellectual, and not afraid to tackle stylistically iconic experimental works for their failure to engage the reader...

No matter what their rewards may be, Ulysses and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu are about as readable as a telephone directory

... his point being "not in disparagement of two great works" but to highlight the fallacy of assuming reader bafflement to be down to significant radical developments in the novel form. Some experiments, he argues, are "fishes gasping on the strand" that in hindsight failed to move the novel form onward.

The Strength to Dream, I didn't know because of its nominally different subject matter, is one of Wilson's seven books at the core of his "New Existentialism" philosophy: The Outsider (1956), Religion and the Rebel (1957), The Age of Defeat (aka The Stature of Man) (1959), The Strength to Dream: literature and the imagination (1962), Origins of the Sexual Impulse (1963), Beyond the Outsider: the philosophy of the future (1965), and Introduction to the New Existentialism (aka The New Existentialism) (1966)

This comes from news Colin Stanley just sent us about the forthcoming release of his book Colin Wilson's Outsider Cycle: a guide for students (Pauper's Press, 2009, ISBN 9780946650965), which comprises essays, critical appraisal and bibliographies on these works (with an explanatory afterword by Colin Wilson himself). Stanley, as I've mentioned before - see Colin Wilson connections - is the bibliographer and probably the chief authority on Wilson's works, so this is likely to be an extremely astute analysis of works that need to be considered in relation to each other (Wilson has said that "These books are closely linked-so closely that it is impossible for any one of them to be understood without the others").

1. A diverse bunch including Lovecraft, Yeats, Wilde, Strindberg, Zola, Nathanael West, Faulkner, Waugh, Greene, Sartre, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Andreyev, Beckett, Wells, Zamyatin, Lovecraft, Hoffman, Gogol, Le Fanu, MR James, Tolkien, De Sade, Maupassant, Wedekind, Artsybashev, DH Lawrence, Huxley, Kazantzakis, and Dürrenmatt.

Addendum (point just promoted from comments): in The Strength to Dream, I particularly like Wilson's identification of trends in fiction, such as its highlighting the sameness of format of many novels written in the early 20th century, a trend previously satirised as "Little Percy" novels by Aldous Huxley in chapter 3 of Crome Yellow:

"Prose?" Mr. Scogan pounced alarmingly on the word. "You've been writing prose?"


"Not a novel?"


"My poor Denis!" exclaimed Mr. Scogan. "What about?"

Denis felt rather uncomfortable. "Oh, about the usual things, you know."

"Of course," Mr. Scogan groaned. "I'll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future."

Denis blushed scarlet. Mr. Scogan had described the plan of his novel with an accuracy that was appalling. He made an effort to laugh. "You're entirely wrong," he said. "My novel is not in the least like that." It was a heroic lie. Luckily, he reflected, only two chapters were written. He would tear them up that very evening when he unpacked.

- a syndrome presumably arising from the typical career of the middle-class arts-educated men of a temperament likely to write novels.

- Ray


  1. I've squirrelled the bedfordstmartins virtualit site away for use with students - thanks for that!

    Still reading The strength to dream - interesting.

  2. The strength to dream - interesting

    Yes. My copy's very chewed-up; I've been re-reading it regularly since 1970. At the time it made a very accessible intro to a lot of less obvious authors I'd have probably ignored, but the relation to Wilson's philosophy (and contrast to other styles of criticism) has soaked in a bit more since.

    And it has some sharp insights: I particularly like the attention it draws to the ubiquity in the early 20th century of the "Little Percy" novel format satirised in Crome Yellow.