Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Autodidactica

It's a truism that today's philosopher practices his craft in full acceptance of a life of poverty. The total and endless encroachment of real life makes vain the idea of stepping out of university and onto the grassy mountaintop. A B.A and a burdensome student loan is enough to send most of us to the call centre, resume in hand. A little perspective on one's career choice, typically sought in Zen retreats or casual drug use, would go a long way in centering the mind of the mindful, given that the big philosophy companies aren't hiring.

For Colin Wilson, perspective arrived in the form of a flail across the buttocks from girlfriend Joy Stewart's family horsewhip. After Stewart's father found Wilson's racy notes for The Ritual and deemed him a traitorous homo, he stormed into a casual dinner and flogged Wilson into the street.

The flogging happened at a time when Wilson was unsure of his future as a writer. He wasn't educated (he left school at 16 with disdain for formal education), and he lived a mostly nomadic life, alien to academic intellectual circles. Wilson's first book, successful The Outsider, is hailed as a minor existentialist classic, at least among those who have heard of it (a cursory dig through the Amazons and Barneses and Indigoes of the world turn up only used copies). Its successor, Religion and the Rebel, was panned far and wide, and the screech of criticism drove Wilson into deep self-doubt.

He left London for coastal Cornwall, and started on a sequel to The Outsider. In the meantime, he went up to Oslo, Norway to give a lecture. Expecting more gouging criticism, Wilson was given a pleasant surprise: the Norwegians actually gave a horse's patoot about what he had to say, and paid no mind to the critical roar of Britain. Finally gaining some emotional reaffirmation of his ideas, Wilson, eyes saucerlike, went on a tear, finishing Ritual in the Dark in 1960 and writing twenty-five more books in the ensuing decade.

Colin Wilson insists that all his books exert a different permutation of the same thesis. He is interested in "peak experiences", which denote personal freedom, in the existential sense. More specifically, he wants to know why our peak experiences are born of external stimuli, and why our lives see less of them than they should. From the postscripts to The Outsider:

An example: a young mother was preparing breakfast for her husband and children when a beam of sunlight came in through the window. The thought “My God, aren't I lucky?” struck her, and she went into the peak experience. But she had been “lucky” (i.e. free) before the sunlight came in the window; now she suddenly became free.
...
[Herman] Hesse seemed to me so important because he had defined the basic “Outsider problem” so precisely in Steppenwolf, in the passage where, at the end of a long and unsatisfying day, the hero drinks a glass of wine, and suddenly “the golden bubble burst...and I was reminded of Mozart and the stars” - Maslow’s “peak experience”. That is the essence of the problem - how to re-create the peak experience at will. This problem Hesse never succeeded in solving.

A hopeful Sunday browse through my local used bookstore for some Wilson left me emptyhanded, except for a single worn copy of Sex Diary of a Metaphysician (aka Man Without a Shadow, Sex Diary of Gerard Sorme), poorly typeset with no appreciation for the bottom margin. I bought it anyway; most of his early work is out of print, and tough to find. Perhaps in the coming weeks, when Dick and I will be in Oslo, I'll wrangle the last few copies of The Outsider from some appreciative Norsemen.

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