Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Colin Wilson: favourite books

Colin Stanley, bibliographer for the philosopher and author Colin Wilson and editor of the journal Colin Wilson Studies, sent me news of the forthcoming book of which he's editor: Around the Outsider: Essays Presented to Colin Wilson on the Occasion of His 80th Birthday (p/b 345pp, O Books, 1 May 2011, ISBN-10: 1846946689). I don't have a contents list, but it looks of interest:

In May 1956, aged just 24, Colin Wilson achieved success and overnight fame with his philosophical study of alienation and transcendence in modern literature and thought, The Outsider. Fifty-four years on, and never out of print in English, the book is still widely read and discussed, having been translated into over thirty languages. In a remarkably prolific career, Wilson, a true polymath, has since written over 170 titles: novels, plays and non-fiction on a variety of subjects.This volume brings together twenty essays by scholars of Colin Wilson’s work worldwide and is published in his honour to mark the author’s 80th birthday. Each contributor has provided an essay on their favourite Wilson book (or the one they consider to be the most significant). The result is a varied and stimulating assessment of Wilson’s writings on philosophy, psychology, literature, criminology and the occult with critical appraisals of four of his most thought-provoking novels.Altogether a fitting tribute to a writer and thinker who, as one contributor, George C. Poulos, predicts: “Looking back..., will be acknowledged as the philosopher to have most influenced events in the 21st century.”

My own nomination for a favourite Colin Wilson work would be his SF novel The Mind Parasites. It's very hard to characterise - perhaps a philosophical SF thriller with strong roots in HP Lovecraft (the story was suggested by August Derleth) and more than a little AE Van Vogt.  I regularly re-read it.

The setting is more or less now (it was near-future in 1967, when the book was written) and the intellectual protagonist is an archaeologist, Dr Gilbert Austin. The book begins with Austin hearing the news that an old friend, Karel Weissmann, has committed suicide. Shocked, he finds he has been named executor for dealing with Weissmann's papers, which are delivered to his flat - but then is rapidly sidetracked when he hears of a major breakthrough in dating basalt figurines from Turkey.

A few weeks later, not having got to attend to the papers, he goes with his friend and colleague Wolfgang Reich to supervise an archaeological study of Hittite remains in Karatepe, Turkey. Initially depressed by the news from Weissman's secretary, who has glanced at the papers and concluded Weissman to be paranoid - suffering from a belief that "they" were out to get him - he gets on well with the project and decides to stay the year in Turkey. The dig begins to produce peculiar and groundbreaking finds: radiometric dating shows an artefact to be over a million years old, and a geophysical scan finds a large block - inscribed to "Abhoth the Dark" - two miles underground.

Things go silly when the newspapers get hold of the news. A succession of accidents at the site, plus the observation that "Abhoth the Unclean" appears in the works of HP Lovecraft, leads to media hysteria about the dig, tabloid stories nicknaming the site "Kadath" after the city of the "Great Old Ones" in Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Exhausted and unwell, Austin returns his flat in Diyarbakir for a rest, and begins reading Weissmann's papers, particularly a testimony called "Historical Reflections".

"Historical Reflections" explain Weissman's theory that the human race has been afflicted for several centuries by a kind of 'psychic vampire' that drags down the human mind into evil and negativity. Argued closely, with detailed historical references, it convinces Austin - who finds the theory fits all the sensations he has experienced of something trying to stop him reading the papers. He tells Reich, who briefly suspects a hoax, then is equally convinced that there is a threat to humanity. They make it their project to learn more, and begin studying phenomenology via the works of Husserl, as a means to access deeper levels of their own minds. Soon, they begin to experience expanded mental capacity and powers of psychokinesis. After that, it's not difficult to initiate a group of other intellectuals - artists and scientists.

Disaster strikes when the group is collectively attacked by the parasites. Austin wakes up and finds he is unable to move. After enduring hours of increasing psychic oppression, he finds he can draw on a powerful 'life force' to defeat the attack. By that time it is morning, and he receives the news that twenty of the initiates have committed suicide in the night. A handful have survived - those who had their own strategies for lasting until Austin released the 'energy blast' (which evidently worked at some level of the collective consciousness, and saved geographically separated individuals). After making contact telepathically, they decide to go public.  Using the inexplicable mass suicide as evidence of the danger, they reveal the parasites to the world via the fiction that dark forces have indeed been raised by the excavation of "Kadath". They reinforce this story by levitating and destroying the Abhoth Block by psychokinesis during a press visit to the excavation.

At this point the USA takes an interest.  Austin and his colleagues are offered high-security facilities to train replacement adepts; meanwhile, it becomes clear that the parasites are fermenting a Europe-Africa war between racist factions.  One of Austin's new recruits has the intuition that the Moon is involved and that getting off-planet will precipitate some change. The group are launched into space in a NASA craft and, and after momentary agony, find they are free of the parasites (which turn out be a "psychic cancer" - a split-off segment of personality in each person - initiated by radiation from the Moon).

They return, now with immense mental superpowers: enough to fly the ship without engines, to stop the war by projecting a telepathic image of alien monsters (and thus unite Earth), and to turn the Moon's malign face away from Earth. Finally they leave Earth, evidently to join a "cosmic police" with similar intelligence.

That is the bare bones of the book, omitting the erudite - or often faux-erudite, since they treat a deal of Forteana as fact - digressions and conversations on philosophy and history. Yet these are not precisely digressions: they're the meat of the novel, which dramatises an existential look at a central problem of the human condition, the inability of most humans to utilise the powers of our own minds. As Wilson wrote in the introduction to another of his SF novels, The Philosopher's Stone:

... a couple of years later, an analogy thrown out in my Introduction to the New Existentialism became the seed of a science fiction parable about ‘original sin’ - man’s strange inability to get the best out of his consciousness. I cast it in the Lovecraft tradition, and it became The Mind Parasites, which was published in due course by August Derleth. Its reception by English critics was unexpectedly good; I suspect this is because I didn’t sound as if I was serious.

And in Existentially speaking: essays on the philosophy of literature:

It was an attempt to state symbolically what I felt to be wrong with human beings: that through art and mysticism, we obtain glimpses of a tremendous freedom which seems, in effect, to be beyond our reach.

A number of sources mention that the Lovecraftian elements arose because Derleth (who gets a cameo appearance in the novel) was offended by Wilson's negative summary of Lovecraft in his litcrit selection The Strength to Dream, and dared Wilson to write something in the canon. The degree of reported offense varies. Howard Dossor's Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind says Derleth was "mildly offended", while The Necronomicon Files says he "voiced his outrage".

Whatever the novel's inspiration, Colin Stanley, in a conversation we had a while back, described it as one of the important books in Wilson's canon.  There's a good review by Bob Corbett - here - focusing on that side of the book; and Google Books has a preview of Arrows to the Farther Shore: The Mind Parasites and the Philosopher's Stone in Nicholas Tredell's 1982 The Novels of Colin Wilson.  The late William Burroughs liked the book too: see RealityStudio for a transcript of his review in the underground newspaper Rat.

Addendum: I just looked at the source code of the Colin Wilson World news page and found further details of Around the Outsider:

This landmark book of 345 pages, which collects 20 essays by academics, authors and other key commentators internationally, is edited by freelance writer Colin Stanley, Wilson's bibliographer and the managing editor of Paupers' Press who edits the series Colin Wilson Studies featuring extended essays on Wilson's work by scholars worldwide. Colin Stanley also provides the preface and two essays for Around the Outsider.

Contributors from the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand have written on their favourite Wilson book, or one which has special significance for them. The outcome is a diverse and indispensable assessment of Wilson’s writings on philosophy, psychology, literature, criminology, the occult and autobiography over more than 50 years, with critical appraisals of four of his most thought-provoking novels. Five of the contributors are musicians as well as writers.

The line-up includes three professors, Thomas Bertonneau (literature), Stephen Clark (philosophy) and Stanley Krippner (psychology), the author and critic Nicholas Tredell, the author and former editor of the literary magazine Abraxas, Paul Newman, the author Gary Lachman, a founding member of the rock group Blondie who was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, and the author Steve Taylor, a lecturer and researcher in transpersonal psychology.

Other contributing authors include Simon Brighton, Antoni Diller, Chris Nelson, David Power and journalist Geoff Ward, who established and runs the Colin Wilson World website.

The novelist Laura Del Rivo, a contemporary of Wilson, contributes an appendix, as does writer and poet Vaughan Robertson, and author Terry Welbourn with a personal appreciation of Wilson and T C Lethbridge, the archaeologist and psychic investigator. Murray Ewing, of the David Lindsay website at violetapple.org.uk, Philip Coulthard of colinwilsononline.com, and George Poulos complete the list.

I didn't see it initially as it appears invisible to browsers, probably due to the ghastly code produced by Microsoft Office Live.

- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment