Suddenly Awakened.

Author Colin Wilson interviewed by Gil Dekel.


Gil Dekel: How would you define your sense of artistry? Would you consider yourself a writer, philosopher, mystic, or perhaps a critic? [1]

Colin Wilson: Well, as an artist/philosopher, I would say. You see, when I was in my early teens I was deeply impressed by Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, which still strikes me as the most exhilarating play of the 20th century, and by Shaw’s theory of the artist/philosopher. Shaw says, ‘the real aim is to become both an artist and a philosopher’, and he seems to me to embody that aim. That is what I have tried to do ever since. This explains why I have always written novels and critical books in tandem. The Outsider, as you know, sprang out of a novel called Ritual in the Dark, which I started writing years before. I started that when I was in my teens and didn’t finish it until after The Outsider came out when I was twenty-four. And from then on, the so-called critical books came out frequently at the same time as the novels did, with whom the subject the critical books dealt. [2]

For example, there is a passage in The New Existentialism, which I wrote at the same time as The Mind Parasites, in which I speak about the theme of the mind parasites, and express it. Then I suddenly thought, ‘Aha, that would make a novel’… [3]

You published The Outsider in 1956, and more than fifty years later it still captivates our minds. Does this book still represent who you are today and the way you see the world today? [4]

Oh, sure. You see, my work has continued in a dead straight line from The Outsider onward… it has not veered at all to right or left… the kind of thing I am thinking about today is still a development of what I was thinking about in The Outsider. I suppose The Outsider is basically about the basic question of ‘how can human beings achieve more consciousnesses?’ [5]

You might say that Ritual in the Dark is about the possibility of achieving more consciousness by sexual means, something that the hero Gerard Sorme sees as a possibility. But then he sees the corpse of one of the victims, and he decides that it just not what he means. He is in fact horrified by it. [6]

Baudelaire said that everything in the world exudes crime. In fact, that is romantic nonsense. Of course, crime is all very nice as a Romantic ideal for morbid artists like Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe, but you know, it does not really work for sensible people… It can’t meet the test of reality. [7]

Is your writing motivated by your so-called inner world or by external events? [8]

Well, that’s a difficult question because we all are living between two worlds… and that’s the whole point of The Outsider. I was writing in that book about people who feel themselves to be in-betweeners. People who have a basic desire to not waste their life working at the same thing as other people do, as I did myself… Before The Outsider came out I worked in all kinds of jobs that I hated – office jobs, even navvying – but I was fortunate enough, so to speak, in being bright enough to impose my own terms, and to write The Outsider, which meant that from then on I could be a writer, rather than working in a factory. [9]

Most people live between two worlds in that sense, and what someone like myself was trying to do from the beginning was to live in this second world, so to speak, the world of the mind. And that is something you find in Yeats and in all kind of 1890 Romantics. They identify this other world as our inner being, for example, Kierkegaard’s argument that ‘truth is subjectivity’. Yeats says, ‘The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be’, meaning by ‘unshapely things’ the ordinary physical world around us. [10]

Yeats accepted the notion of the world of fairies as an alternative. At least, you know, Yeats made an effort to replace this ordinary boring everyday world with something that he could feel more real, whereas poor old Dowson did not really believe that there is another world, which explains the terrible sadness in his poems. That’s because he feels that ultimately there is no way of finding yourself, finding a way to this ‘other world’, which Yeats was pretty certain really existed. Somebody says in Yeats’ play The Shadowy Waters, ‘what the world’s million lips are thirsting for must be substantial somewhere’… [11]

What inspires you to create? I mean, does going into nature inspire you? Or perhaps you need silence in order to ‘hear’ the words? [12]

No… As a matter of fact I realised when I was in my teens in the Lake District that I was not getting the same thing from this nature that Wordsworth got… I was too much in a practical down-to-earth world to really be able to respond in the way that Wordsworth responded to the daffodils… [13]

Basically I am too much a practical person, too pragmatic, which is of course why I started training as a scientist. At that time all I wanted was to become a scientist… [14]

Is it correct to say that you acknowledge another level to life that needs focusing on, in addition to the everyday reality? Is this level deduced from everyday life, or does it enrich everyday life? [15]

That is precisely what I am talking about. This is the really important question. The Romantics themselves did their best to express it, but what makes Yeats so great is that he really did try to say ‘does this second level exist?’ whereas I’d say that most of the Romantics (and Dowson is an example) did not really feel that it existed, and therefore felt that this was really a rotten world that was devised as a death to poets. Thompson’s City of Dreadful Night is a reflection of the way that the Romantics feel when they see that this world is a death trap – a kind of turning away with disgust. [16]

Do you find it easy to communicate spiritual ideas to the wider public, or do you ‘reduce’ the information in order to make it more accessible and reach fuller understanding? [17]

I don’t reduce the information at all. I try to put it so clearly that it actually gets through to the conscious mind… P.D. Ouspensky noted that teaching a group actually taught him as much as it taught the others. [18]

How do image and word support each other in conveying messages in your own writing process, as well as more generally in daily life? [19]

Well, I have been reading the proof text of my latest book Power Consciousness, and in the last chapter I describe a method of achieving intensity consciousness. I talk there about Rubenstein’s experiments with flatworms called planaria, and that is my way of explaining something as clearly as I possibly can. [20]

‘In 1958, Irvin Rubenstein and Jay Boyd Best, two zoologists working at the Walter Reed Army Institute in Washington, were conducting experiments involving the learning capacity of a simple organism called the planarian worm. Planaria are incredibly simple creatures – no brain, no nervous system – so they make excellent subjects for experiments in the lab. The two zoologists were trying to study how they could learn without a brain. They put some planaria into a closed tube containing water – which planaria need to live. They then turned a tap which drained the water out of the tube. In a state of alarm, the planaria rushed along the tube looking for water. Soon they encountered a fork; one branch was lighted, and led to water; the other branch was unlighted, and didn’t. Soon, ninety per cent of the planaria had learned the trick of choosing, and when the water was drained off, they rushed along the tube and chose the lighted alleyway, whether it was the right or left fork. [21]

‘But now a strange thing happened. As Rubenstein and Best repeated the experiment over and over again (with the same worms), the planaria began choosing the wrong fork. That baffled them. [22]

‘One of them suggested that perhaps they were bored with doing the same thing, and the wrong choice was the expression of the kind of irrational activity – like vandalism – that springs from boredom. The other asked, how could they be bored when they had no brain or nervous system? But a few more experiments seemed to indicate that the boredom hypothesis was correct. As the experiments continued, the planaria would just lie there, refusing to move, as if saying: ‘Oh God, not again!’ They preferred to die rather than go looking for water. [23]

‘It seemed so absurd that Rubenstein and Best devised another experiment to test the boredom hypothesis. This time they took two tubes, and a new lot of planaria. In one tube, which had a rough inner surface, the water was down the lighted alleyway. In the other, which was smooth, it was down the dark alleyway. This was a far more complex experiment, and only a small percentage of the planaria learned which alleyway to choose. But that small percentage never regressed. They could do the experiment a thousand times and not get bored. Because they had been forced to put twice as much effort into the initial learning process, they achieved a higher level of imprinting – that is, of purpose – and maintained it forever.’ [24]

Let me add: the relevance of this experiment to Schopenhauer and Beckett should be obvious. If someone fails to put sufficient energy into the learning process, they become subject to boredom, and might even prefer to lie down and die rather than make an effort. I had in my teens stumbled on the observation that of how often major writers, artists and musicians have had difficult beginnings, while those who have perhaps as much talent but an easier start in life seem to find it harder to rise above the second rank. Dickens, Shaw, Wells, Beethoven, Brahms, are examples of the first, Beckett and Schopenhauer of the second. They would do it a million times without getting bored, so they were getting bored the first time. [25]

You also mentioned that the visionaries cannot express their experiences fully in words. Do you think that language is limited? Are there additional or better tools we could use? [26]

Pretty obvious. What is the difference between a taste of an orange and a taste of tangerine?… There are so many hundreds of things that you cannot express in words. [27]

Of course, the main thing we can’t express in words is the vision that Proust called ‘le moment bienheureuse’, these strange moments of absolute pure joy which Marcel experiences in Swann’s Way as he tastes the biscuit dipped in her tea, and is suddenly flooded in total affirmation. He actually says exactly this, that we think that we have taken everything into account, so to speak, in adding up what life is all about, and then in these moments suddenly you discover that there are millions of things that you have forgotten that are tremendously important. The trouble with human beings of course is that they actually become suicidal because they forget these things. Our real problem is what Heidegger calls forgetfulness of existence. We just forget… [28]

As a child, did you ever have a vision or a strong sense of what you later came to write about? [29]

Yes, my basic insight and the only really basic one, which is of course Proust’s ‘le moment bienheureuse’, came to me as a child in Christmas time. Then I’d always get that wonderful feeling, ‘my God isn’t the world lovely!’ How was it possible that I ever thought it wasn’t? How was it possible that I would get so bored and fed up in November when Christmas was so close? That is my vision. I would also call it holiday consciousness, because we get it when setting out on a holiday, a sudden feeling of ‘my God, isn’t it a wonderful complex world’. It is incredibly difficult to induce it again at will. [30]

What were your impressions of Abraham Maslow? Do you think he himself had peak-experiences? [31]

Yes, he had peak-experiences a great deal of the time, because he was a wide open person, not a narrow rigid intellectual. [32]

How would you associate the work of Maslow with that of Carl Jung? [33]

Well, they both shared an extremely important insight, which was really that Freud was wrong… In Civilization and its Discontent Freud tended to take the view that things are basically rotten, and we are forced to discipline ourselves by civilization, until we lose all our vitality. So Freud’s basic vision is negative, whereas Jung said, in that one terrifically important sentence, ‘the soul has a religious function.’ [34]

Maslow was saying the same thing in his recognition that peak-experiences are the basis of a completely different view of life. Of course, all amounting to what happened… Maslow discovered that when he was talking to students in class about peak-experiences, they began remembering peak-experiences which they had in the past, and which now they more or less forgotten. As soon as they began to talk about it, what happened to them is exactly what happened to Proust. The ‘moment bienheureuse’ suddenly awakened other moments, and they all began talking about peak-experience and having it all the time. [35]

You mentioned that artists are aware of the spiritual levels. What are the methods that artists use to become sensitive to the spiritual? What were William Blake’s methods? Can anyone become sensitive likewise? [36]

When you ask about artists and their basic visions, this is an extremely interesting question. An artist’s basic vision is really how he sees life, so to speak. And he wants to put on to the canvas the thing that had the greatest impact on him. [37]

Francis Bacon, who was a friend of mine at the time I first knew him, was painting these slightly blurry things, the dog shivering and the pope screaming… really it was a very negative kind of vision. But as far as he was concerned, just being able to put that on the canvas made it positive. It is almost as if some collector had said to him, ‘Well, tell me what you really believe,’ and Francis replied, ‘Come back to my studio and I will show you.’ Then, in the studio he points at a pictures and says, ‘There, that’s what I believe’. [38]

Blake in a sense went much further than that. I don’t know if you have seen the book Why Mrs. Blake Cried; if you haven’t you ought to read it because it’s terribly important. It is about a lady called Marsha Keith Schuchard, and she discovered that Blake’s parents were members of a church in Fetter Lane, and this was while Mrs. Blake was carrying Blake in her womb. The church, you could really say, was a sexual church. In a sense they were following up visions of Swedenborg, who discovered the terrific importance of sex in religion, and this is what they were trying to do: they were trying to induce such intensity of sex that you might almost say that their chief instrument of inducing it was mutual masturbation, but that is a crude oversimplification. The man and the woman had to get together in such a way that they induce intense sexual excitement in one another. [39]

I remember somebody telling me once that he had read somewhere that in certain Hindu religions, when people got married they had to go to bed for night after night, and not touch one another, and keep on doing that until finally they would reach such a point of intensity that they can gradually have an orgasm simply by lying in bed side by side… Now this is what Schuchard is talking about. And apparently these people in Fetter Lane could induce a kind of semi-orgasmic state which went on all night long, for hour after hour. [40]

I strongly suspect that this was what they had learned from a German mystic called Zinzendorf. His teachings, I suspect, reached Blake through his mother’s womb. In other words, this is an amazing case of inheritance of acquired characteristics. [41]

You might say that Blake understood that we all have the ability to raise ourselves to tremendous heights of visionary consciousness simply by using this power which God has given to the human race in separating it into two sexes. Usually little boys discover this once they discover how attractive little girls are. And I can clearly remember at the age of six or seven sitting in my class, and on the seat behind me a naughty kid called Harry Housby was sitting there with his cock out trying to persuade the little girl who sat next to him to touch it. And she was giggling and saying, ‘no no no, I wouldn’t.’ Obviously he discovered early on this extraordinary difference between the sexes… The real problem about that, and I was intending once to write a book about this, is that if you pursue it too far you might not turn into a William Blake but into a Fred West or a Ted Bundy. [42]

Let me take you back to art. What is inspiration in art? [43]

Well, it is simply getting down to this basic thing which you know and believe. It is a way of seeing, just as in Francis Bacon’s example. And once you have acquired this way of seeing of things, you can then see the way it leads Cézanne to see things in a strange geometrical way. You might say to Cézanne, ‘But you know things don’t really look like that’, and he would reply, ‘That’s the way they appear to me when I put my inspirational spectacles on, and that’s the nearest I can come in trying to paint and tell you the way I feel the world should be.’ [44]

You might say that Van Gogh was trying to do the same thing by making the world practically explode and shine through the paint. He was saying, ‘This is what reality is basically.’ [45]

Madame Blavatsky shared many insights about bettering life. Are these insights useful for today? [46]

We are in a way getting back to the same question earlier with Yeats. Once you have a belief that something is wrong in the world as shown to us by our ordinary senses, then you have what Blake called double vision. Blake actually said that he had a fourfold vision. If you read Ulysses you can see that Joyce has only ‘single vision’, which is what E.M. Forster meant when he said that the book was an attempt to cover the universe in mud, i.e. the world is such that it induces the feeling that Sartre called la nausée, nausea. [47]

Once, like Yeats, you firmly believe in the supernatural, in the fairy vision, then you say, ‘No no, I know a reality that contradicts your reality.’ Yeats learned it partly as a result of going along to Madame Blavatsky, because Madame Blavatsky made him see that these things are quite real. She saw that other reality, just as Blake and Yeats did. Interesting, isn’t it, that Yeats started off by doing an edition of Blake’s poems. [48]

Do you study or experiment with natural homeopathy or alike? [49]

No. [50]

» ‘Overlapping Morphic Fields’: Dr. Rupert Sheldrake on the extended mind…

9 Dec 2008.

Interview conducted via audio recording and email correspondence, Nov/Dec 2008.
Colin Wilson is based in Cornwall, UK. Gil Dekel is based in Southampton, UK.


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