It’s hard to believe that Colin Wilson has passed on. In his youth, he claimed that most people die because they lose the will to live, and fall prey to boredom and listlessness. He claimed that, with a strong sense of purpose and optimism, any human being should be able to extend their lifespan beyond normal parameters. And for most of his life, Wilson seemed to exemplify this. Even in his late 60s – when I first met him – he seemed amazingly full of vitality, young way beyond his years, with a full head of black hair, bright curious eyes and an athletic gait. But in June 2012, Colin Wilson suffered a serious stroke from which he never recovered, and eventually died on December 5th last year, at the age of 82.
Colin Wilson was a giant, in many ways. Over six foot tall, with a deep resonant voice and a strong sense of self-assurance, he seemed to naturally become the centre of attention wherever he was. He was an intellectual giant too. Wilson was sometimes criticised for proclaiming himself as a genius, or the most important writer of his generation. ‘Genius’ is a term which is very difficult to define. The best definition I can think of is ‘a person who shows incredible creativity and insight which goes way beyond their education or social environment, and seems to endlessly flow from an unknown source.’ And in these terms, Colin Wilson certainly was touched by genius.
The odds were stacked against him. Born into a poor working-class home in Leicester in 1931, he left school at the age of 16. Most people are the products of their environment, at least to a degree, but Wilson was one of those rare human beings who seemed to be born fully formed, destined to become what they innately are, no matter what circumstances they’re born into. His early life was a struggle against his environment to allow his authentic self – and the role he was meant to fulfill – to become manifest. He knew from an early age that he was going to be a writer, but for the first 8 years after leaving school, he drifted from one menial job to the next, struggling to find time to read, research and plan his books. Eventually he hit upon the solution of sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, so that he didn’t need to spend money on rent, and could just work part-time in the evenings while spending his days writing his first book, The Outsider, in the British Museum reading room.
Fortunately, The Outsider was a massive success, becoming an instant best-seller. Nearly 60 years after publication, it still seems an amazing book – so vast in its scope and so profound in its insights that it would have been impressive if it had been written after a whole life time of reading and contemplating, rather than by a 24 year old. Looking at it now, the book seems strangely modern, both in style and content – the sure sign of a book which was way ahead of its time, anticipating (and helping to generate) the human potential and new age movements which are so powerful at present. The Outsider is a study of individuals who don’t fit into ordinary life because of their powerful ‘dynamic’ impulse to grow, to open themselves up to new experiences and become more than they are presently are, wider and deeper with a more intense awareness of reality.
From that point on, Wilson followed his ‘destiny’ as a writer with amazing determination and dedication. He was probably the most productive author of the 20th century, eventually publishing 181 books, as well as countless articles and reviews. The range of his interests was amazing too. Possessed with an uncanny ability to absorb and retain information, and then to organise and systematise it, he became an expert in fields as diverse as philosophy, psychology, criminology, paranormal phenomena, ancient civilisations and literary criticism. He was also a prolific novelist, and an occasional playwright.
As Wilson was aware himself, this diversity worked against him, since it meant that he didn’t have a clear identity as an author, and that his ‘serious’ philosophical work wasn’t taken as seriously as it merited. It also meant that other more territorial academics and authors felt that he was trespassing into their domains, and reacted with hostility to his work.
Wilson as an Agent of Evolution
All through his life, Colin Wilson felt a strong sense of mission, a feeling that he was marked out for a special purpose. And I think he was right. I view him, and his work, in evolutionary terms.
Evolution is partly a process whereby living beings become increasingly complex and organised physically, but it’s also – perhaps even primarily – related to consciousness. Evolution is a process by which living beings become more conscious of the world around them, and more conscious of themselves – a process of the expansion and intensification of consciousness. That has held true since the development of the first single celled amoebi three and a half billion years ago, through to bacteria, plants, insects, reptiles. mammals, through to primate and modern human beings. And I believe seers and visionaries like Wilson are part of this process, as ‘agents‘ of evolution. In a sense, they are evolutionary ‘throw forwards’, who experience – slightly prematurely – an intensified awareness themselves, and try to encourage its development in other human beings too.
Of course, Wilson isn’t the only one. This probably applies to many spiritual authors and teachers (myself included) and many spiritual seekers. But in Wilson this ‘evolutionary’ aspect was very pronounced. At the heart of all of his books was a powerful intuition that normal human consciousness is limited and flawed, that there is something profoundly wrong with human beings as we are, and his sense that these flaws could be identified and transcended. Wilson was really a kind of evolutionary physician, diagnosing the deficiencies of human consciousness and pointing the way to a cure. He once told me, ‘There’s a net hanging over the whole of humanity – and I feel that if just a small number of people could shake it off and achieve their full potential, then the rest of the human race would become free. The net would disappear.’
My Own Encounters with Wilson
About 20 years ago, a friend and I produced our own, very amateurish magazine called Evolution Now!, writing all of the articles ourselves. We sent copies off to a good number of our favourite spiritual or esoteric authors, but quite understandably, there was a dearth of replies. The only author who did respond was Colin Wilson, who not only sent us a letter of encouragement, but also enclosed an article for us to use in the next issue of the magazine (which unfortunately never came into being).
That was typical of Colin Wilson’s generosity. He was probably the most openly and unconditionally generous person I’ve ever met. About 10 years after my failed magazine venture, I finished the original version of my book Waking From Sleep, and decided to send Wilson the manuscript. He sent me a postcard back almost straight away, saying how excited he was by the book, and suggesting that, if ever I was in Cornwall, I should come and visit. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I ‘happened’ to find myself in that part of the country, and found myself walking up the drive to Tetherdown, the large ramshackle bungalow Wilson shared with his wife Joy and a variety of pets.
I was in awe, sitting just a few feet away from an author whose books had such a massive impact on me. But Colin was so genial and serene, smiling benevolently and asking me about myself with real curiosity, that I felt completely at ease. I left the house with a pile of signed copies of his most recent books. As I left, he said, ‘If you find a publisher for your book, Steve, I’ll be happy to write a foreword.’
I remember driving home in a state close to euphoria. Who said that you should never meet your heroes? I’d met one of mine, and he was even more pleasant than I had expected. I didn’t find a publisher for that original version of Waking From Sleep, but a couple of years later, in 2002, I found a publisher for another book, Out of Time, and true to his word, Colin wrote a long and fascinating foreword. I’ve since learned that he had performed the same act of generosity to dozens of other authors. How did he make the time, while so busy with his own books?
Colin Wilson had no fear of death – after researching and writing his book Afterlife, he was convinced of the evidence for life after death. But here on this plane of existence, his work will continue: the effort to encourage the growth of a more intense and expansive consciousness in human beings, to move beyond the human race’s present phase of discord and alienation, into a new era of sanity and harmony. He spent his whole life working towards this goal, and we should not rest until it’s achieved.