Which would you prefer: low to middling success your entire writing career, or a sudden rise to global fame, followed by an equally steep descent, then the rest of your career an anticlimax? While most writers get the former, Colin Wilson experienced the latter.
Wilson was a working-class high-school dropout, who escaped from a succession of boring jobs in Leicester to become a sort of British beatnik, travelling around the country with a knapsack full of books – Nietzsche, Plato, the Bhagavad Gita – and a burning sense of his own genius.
He moved to London and, aged 24, wrote The Outsider, a book on the alienation and meaninglessness of modern society, celebrating the rare superior individual who searches for a solution. He gathered quotes and anecdotes from his favourite artists, novelists and thinkers: Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Hesse, Sartre, Gurdjieff, Ramakrishna.
The Outsider was a reaction to what Wilson felt was the absence of outlets for heroism in modern British society – his generation had missed the war, there was no longer an empire for adventures, or much of a church in which to become a saint. And Britain’s rigid class structure suffocated opportunities for bright people from outside the Oxbridge upper-middle classes. Wilson offered his readers an escape – a DIY course in intellectual spirituality that anyone could follow, as long as they had the intelligence and self-belief.
His book was picked up by the Left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz and published in 1956, and was immediately a huge success. Philip Toynbee called it ‘luminously intelligent’; Kenneth Walker said it was ‘the most remarkable book upon which the reviewer has ever had to pass judgment’. Daniel Farson in the Daily Mail wrote: ‘I have just met my first genius. His name is Colin Wilson,’ and the paper declared that The Outsider had enjoyed ‘the most rapturous reception of any book since the war’.
Why was The Outsider such a critical hit? In the late 1950s, Britain’s intelligentsia was worried about cultural decline and the lack of postwar movements to rival modernism, or homegrown ideas to rival French existentialism. Here was a 24-year-old working-class autodidact bringing news of the New Thing. And the New Thing turned out to be… recycled modernism. This was reassuring for modernist mandarins in charge of book reviews. His fame was helped by being grouped together with other provincial and working-class writers such as Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, who were dubbed the Angry Young Men. As with existentialism and punk, having a group of people doing more or less the same thing made it easier to write about. Wilson, though a one-off, was part of the zeitgeist.
In addition, Wilson was catnip for the popular press. He told one newspaper he’d written The Outsider while sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, and obligingly recreated the scene for their photographer. He helped to model the image of the young bohemian, in his polo neck and horn-rimmed glasses.
And then, just as suddenly, the London intelligentsia decided the provincial outsider should stay outside, that his fame was a bubble, that he was a ridiculous and even dangerous figure. His constant declarations of his own genius didn’t help – he was ‘the most important writer of the 20th century’, he said, a ‘turning point in culture’. Nor did his denigration of more established writers – he said Shakespeare was ‘a thoroughly second-rate mind’.
Human beings, he wrote, ‘are pretty trivial insects … No wonder most of them are so mediocre’
What really did it for Wilson was that he and two other Angry Young Men he was friends with – the writers Bill Hopkins and Stuart Holroyd – got a reputation for being quasi-fascist Teddy Boys. Kenneth Tynan called them ‘young fuhrers of the soul’; the Jewish writer Wolf Mankowitz called him ‘the midget Leicestershire Zarathustra’. Kenneth Allsop wrote of him and his crew:
A cult of fascism has grown among a generation who were babies when Europe’s gas-chambers were going full blast, a set of under-privileged romantics in the coffee bar network … who get their kicks in a low-pressure culture from wishful thinking about torture, pain and killing.
It’s true that Wilson was a big fan of Friedrich Nietzsche. He believed that humans could ascend the evolutionary ladder and become supermen through sheer will. In practice, only a tiny minority could do this – the ‘dominant 5 per cent’ – and of them, only 0.05 per cent actually would. Like Nietzsche, he had little time for everyone else. Human beings, he wrote in his journal, ‘are pretty trivial insects … No wonder most of them are so mediocre.’
Growing up surrounded by ‘morons’, Wilson felt different and better: ‘I would sit on a bus with the Bhagavad Gita on my lap, and look at the other people, and think: my life is totally different from yours … I know that man can become a superman or God if he makes a hard enough effort.’ He wrote a short story when he was 18, in which Jesus decides ‘these miserable idiots were really not worth dying for, and it had been a mistake to be taken in by pity when they needed a good kicking.’ Like Nietzsche, Wilson thought it would really be a mercy if some of these lesser humans didn’t exist. He wrote in his journal in 1961:
‘the little people’ have sunk so deep into pettiness that it would be an agony for them to cure themselves; like invalids crouching over a fire, the outside world makes them cringe. Without knowing it, they want to die.
This sort of Nietzschean supercilious elitism is typical of modernism, one can find similar passages in H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, W B Yeats or D H Lawrence. The difference is, Wilson was coming out with it after the Second World War, in 1950s Britain, when spirituality was out of fashion and the cult of the Nietzschean superman even more so.
Wilson’s friend Hopkins, with whom he lived in Notting Hill Gate in the late 1950s, confirmed critics’ fears that the Wilson clique embodied what Allsop called ‘a new mystical absolutism of the extreme Right wing’. Hopkins’s first novel, The Divine and the Decay (1957), was about a fascist leader who murders an opponent. It was clear that Hopkins admired his hero, and in 1958 he started his own far-Right political movement called the Spartacans. They had only one meeting, according to Holroyd, at which Wilson gave a speech insisting that ‘effective political power ought to be in the hands of the 5 per cent minority who were equipped to use it.’
To make matters worse, the British fascist and Nazi apologist Oswald Mosley, seeking to rehabilitate his reputation after the war, wooed the Wilson group, and wrote a glowing 15-page review of The Outsider in his magazine, The European. Flattered, Wilson called him ‘far and away the most intelligent politician I have ever met’ (he was the only politician he had ever met). When Mosley attended the opening night of Holroyd’s first play at the Royal Court, Left-wing critics stormed out, and Wilson was involved in a fracas with them in the pub next door.
And then, in the final coup de grâce, his girlfriend’s father turned up at his house with a horsewhip. The father had come across Wilson’s diary and was horrified – it was full of gory details of murder, for a novel Wilson was writing about a serial killer. To prove his innocence, Wilson handed over the diary to the Daily Mail. This was a bad idea. The newspaper gleefully published such youthful follies as: ‘Death to the half-livers. The evolutionary appetite in me demands a seriousness that is far from this stupid civilisation.’
Following Gollancz’s advice, Wilson left London, and never returned. He settled in Cornwall, where he and his wife Joy lived for the next 50 years. He remained chronically out of fashion with the literati. Journalists and critics would occasionally visit, stay and drink his wine, only to sneer at the self-professed genius when they were back in London. There was a sense among Wilson and his fans that he had been treated unfairly – his biographer Gary Lachman even challenged one journalist to a duel after Wilson’s death in 2013, for writing a disparaging obituary.
After The Outsider, he became a lonely British spokesperson for the Californian human potential movement. He declared (ad nauseam) that humans are usually running on autopilot, like robots, barely using our reserves of energy and consciousness. But we can take control of our minds, change our attitudes and find joy.
In the 1960s, he exchanged many letters with Abraham Maslow, at that time the most famous psychologist in the United States, and helped to develop Maslow’s theory of peak experiences. Wilson understood, as Maslow only belatedly did, that peak experiences are not always benign. They often come from crisis and suffering. The problem was, civilisation was too comfortable and safe. It gave no room for struggle and heroism, so the outsider had to take desperate measures, like Graham Greene playing Russian roulette just to feel alive.
The Outsider inspired many adolescents to dive into the history of ideas
Nietzsche would take this argument to its logical conclusion: we need violence and war to keep evolving as a species. Wilson agreed but suggested there are alternative routes – we can evolve through spiritual training. He thought he had himself evolved to a higher evolutionary level, and a few others would follow, turning into near-immortal superbeings. He thought he would himself live to 300, through sheer force of will.
He didn’t live the most obviously superhuman existence. He woke at 5am every day, read in bed, then wrote until 3pm, then went for a walk down the coast, before heading to the pub and having dinner. He drank at least a bottle of wine a day, and developed a paunch. But he did read and write a superhuman amount: he wrote three plays, 33 novels, and 101 works of nonfiction. He turned to ever more esoteric topics, writing on everything from Atlantis to dowsing.
As we enter the 10th anniversary of his death, does Wilson’s massive oeuvre deserve a critical re-evaluation? In his defence, one could say that The Outsider proved no flash-in-the-pan. It may not be a work of genius, but it’s enduringly popular with readers – its fans included John Lennon, David Bowie, Gerry Rafferty and Muammar Gaddafi.
The Outsider inspired many adolescents to dive into the history of ideas. I adored the book when I first read it at 16. Part of its appeal is that Wilson was writing at the birth of a new class – the ‘mass intelligentsia’ – when ideas usually confined to an Oxbridge elite became democratised and brought to the masses. Wilson gave many people their first sense of the ‘meaning crisis’ in Western culture, and the hope that there was a way out of it. He was a paperback prophet, as Jordan Peterson is a YouTube prophet today. I also share Wilson’s rejection of the dour secularism of British postwar culture, which lacked the spiritual adventurism of American beat and hippy culture.
Yet coming back to Wilson’s work 30 years later, I see a darker side to his worldview that I didn’t see as a teenager. He could show a Nietzschean intolerance for weakness and mediocrity, and often expressed the idea that ‘people die because they want to … Out of laziness, lack of purpose.’ Cancer kills people because they lack vitality, he suggested offensively.
Wilson’s sense of superiority and search for intense experiences sometimes led him to express sympathy for the serial killer who seeks ecstasy through murder. Wilson exchanged letters with Ian Brady, the Moors murderer, and thought that Brady ‘feels the same savage disgust with human society that I once expressed … human beings are so weak and stupid that this kind of thing is not really wicked … He and Myra Hindley are … to some extent, leading a god-like existence.’ He had an enduring and rather seedy attraction to the subject of serial killers.
He wasn’t a fascist, at least not in the sense of being a member of a party: he wasn’t much interested in politics. But he could be said to be fascist-adjacent, and he certainly had fascist friends, like Hopkins, or the far-Right novelist Henry Williamson, or the Mosleys, with whom he exchanged many letters from the 1950s until the 1980s. I read these letters at the fascinating Wilson archive at the University of Nottingham, and was struck by the intensity and duration of the relationship.
In 1957, for example, Mosley wrote to commiserate after Wilson was mocked onstage by Mankowitz. To cheer him up, Mosley sent a clipping from his far-Right magazine about his own brush with Mankowitz at a student union. It is headlined ‘Jewish Comedy’, and contained the line: ‘There you are, every time they get on top it goes to their heads … they are riding for a fall.’
In March 1958, Mosley wrote to Wilson to say:
About history; you are, of course, right in thinking that from a British point of view it was idiotic to side with Stalin against Hitler. If we had left the Germans alone, there would not have been much left of the Communist menace. And what Hitler wanted was not a world revolution, but living-room for Germans in the East of Europe.
But he urged his young protégé, ‘Do not in any way be committed to politics, before things get going in a big way.’ He sent Wilson the manuscript of a new book of his, containing questions and answers about his movement, including such gems as: ‘Fascism and National Socialism in origin contained nothing like so much violence or brutality as the French Revolution, and could not even be compared with the horrors of the Russian revolution,’ or ‘Most of those causing the trouble in Britain today are not really Europeans at all but members of the Levantine community.’ Mosley also suggests that fascism is about the search for a ‘higher form of man’, in the tradition of Goethe, Nietzsche, and ‘Colin Wilson’s remarkable new writing’.
Wilson called his publisher Victor Gollancz a ‘Jewish money lender’ in his journals
For his part, Wilson encouraged Mosley to return to politics and run as an MP for Kensington North in 1959. But Wilson was shocked by the campaign, writing:
As we turned into Chepstow Road, a loudspeaker van came past, blaring ‘Get the n****** out of England. Vote for Mosley. He will free England from n******.’ We were in a bus queue with several Jamaicans in it. They didn’t look angry or intimidated; only appallingly embarrassed, as if their privacy had suddenly been invaded. Abruptly, I felt intensely ashamed for my own countrymen.
He confronted Mosley about this, but was assured it was outside agitators. He chose not to see the ugliness of his friend’s movement, the fact that Mosley’s British Union of Fascists ran an antisemitic campaign in the 1930s, under which democracy would be suspended and Jews denied the vote; or that in the 1950s Mosley ran on a campaign of expelling British immigrants and establishing a pan-European fascist state with an African empire.
After Mosley’s death in 1980, Wilson kept in touch with his widow, Lady Diana Mosley. The two discussed how to rehabilitate ‘Tom’, as Mosley was known. Wilson wrote in 1988:
It certainly would be marvellous if we could finally get some of Tom’s work into print before the general public … I would certainly offer to do an introduction and anything else that would help to get the book published.
Was Wilson antisemitic or racist himself? Not often, but sometimes. After he fell out with Gollancz, he called his publisher a ‘Jewish money lender’ in his journals. Also in his journal, he recounts this incident from 1967:
We stopped in a motel. The proprietors were Jewish, of a certain type of Jew that has always produced an unpleasant impression on me because they seem so entirely preoccupied with the material and the trivial. [After the owners get annoyed with him for bumping his car on the motel walls.] All this reminded me very clearly of certain landladies of pre-OUTSIDER days, who gave me a constant feeling of being under observation, of really hating me and wishing I weren’t in their house … I’d feel a violence and angry contempt, that made me feel that such people should be exterminated like lice.
Such remarks are rare and confined to his private journals, except in one instance. Mosley sought to rehabilitate fascism after the war by denying the Holocaust outright, or suggesting that the Jews had brought it on themselves. Wilson continued in this line. In 1974, he wrote a review of Joachim Fest’s biography of Hitler for Books and Bookmen, in which Wilson veered off from the book to discuss a pamphlet he’d read called Did Six Million Really Die? (1974), by Richard Harwood. While Wilson said he found it ‘hard to believe that it is all invention’, he expressed his sympathy with Harwood’s conclusion, writing:
We know that he [Hitler] detested the Jews. We know that his treatment of the German Jews was appalling – brutal and inhuman in the extreme; there is plenty of evidence from post-war Germany to prove that. But still, it is worth asking the question: Did the Nazis really exterminate six million Jews?
In the 1980s, Wilson wrote for Lodestar, a far-Right journal published by Mosley’s sidekick Jeffrey Hamm. Wilson asked Hamm if he could review a book by David Irving, the Holocaust-denying far-Right historian, of whom Wilson was ‘a great admirer’. So Wilson played a small role in encouraging the modern Holocaust-denial movement.
Since his death in 2013, Wilson has become a guru to the alt-Right. He and Hopkins were celebrated by Jonathan Bowden, a British writer and far-Right politician who has become a cult figure in the American far-Right. Wilson is now frequently discussed by the authors of Counter-Currents, an alt-Right, white supremacist journal. They don’t pretend Wilson is a fellow fascist, but they do see him as a spiritual mentor to their mission.
Wilson’s critics were right, then, when they accused him of having fascist tendencies and sympathies. Mosley courted him because he understood that, if fascism would ever make a comeback, it should appeal to spiritual seekers and radicalise them into ‘young fuhrers of the soul’. The New Age is still a recruiting ground for the far-Right today – look at the popularity of QAnon conspiracy theories with spiritual influencers.
I still find Wilson’s work important, because it reveals a flaw in the tradition to which he belonged – the tradition of evolutionary spirituality, which suggests humans are evolving into superhumans. The problem with this worldview is that it often leads to the assumption that you and your friends are a highly evolved superhuman elite, who deserve to dominate the degenerate masses.
You find this flaw in Wilson’s heroes on the Right and on the Left: Shaw, Wells, Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Rudolf Steiner, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Teilhard de Chardin, even Maslow, all suggested that the avant-garde of humanity, including them, are evolving into superhumans and should rule over the less-evolved hordes. This antidemocratic cult of the superbeing is still popular in California, where it inspires people like the transhumanist billionaire Peter Thiel, who has said: ‘I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.’
This flaw in evolutionary spirituality, to my mind, goes back to Nietzsche, to his worship of the Übermensch and his rejection of the virtues of charity, humility and democracy. You can believe in the possibility that humans could one day evolve into something better (hopefully kinder), without setting yourself up on a pedestal and sneering at those you imagine are beneath you.