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The Essential Colin Wilson
Read by the author
rec. Wyastone Leys, 5-6 March 1986
NIMBUS NI5124 [67.36]

I would not normally find myself reviewing a CD consisting entirely of the spoken word, but Colin Wilson throughout his lengthy career has written frequently on the subject of music. His writings range much further that his book of music criticism Brandy of the Damned, a title deriving from George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman. In fact that book, dated as it is, remains a thought-provoking read.

Wilson has similarly employed musical references in his novels as a means of delineating character; references which he clearly expects his readers to understand. His most closely argued novel, The Philosopher’s Stone, actually begins with a perceptive reference to Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony and later expands its horizons to take in Bruckner, Scriabin and Debussy’s Pelléas among others.

One of the principal characters in The Man Without a Shadow is actually a composer and much of the plot revolves around his creation of an opera.

At the same time one is left with the impression that Wilson’s understanding of music and its creative processes might be somewhat superficial. Brandy of the Damned seems to relate very largely to recordings of music available at the time of publication, with the result that some works are closely considered while others are neglected.

Wilson also appears to adopt rather a magpie approach to the wide range of intellectual ideas that he pursues. In The Philosopher’s Stone this extends from the conducting of Fürtwängler in Bruckner to the controversies about Shakespearean authorship, brain physiology, Mayan archaeology and many other topics. All this is before he concludes with a section derived largely from the mythology created by American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. In an earlier book of literary criticism — another example of Wilson’s wide range of interests — he had been pretty rude about Lovecraft’s style and material. Here he seems whole-heartedly to embrace the whole mythos, to the extent that there is also a short story deriving from one section of the novel and expanding it further. This is unfortunate, since it seems to have led to a closely argued piece of intellectually challenging fiction being relegated to the category of “horror and fantasy”.

The novel is, however, a further expansion of Wilson’s increasing fascination with the realm of the occult, concerning which he has written extensively since the 1970s. This seems a very wide divergence from his earlier descriptions of the ‘outsider’ which formed the basis of his earliest writing. Maybe it could be seen as a development of his interest in the unorthodox and unconventional which led him to write a fascinating biography of Rasputin.

While in his earlier works he was careful to maintain a degree of healthy scepticism towards the phenomena he describes — in the work on Rasputin he spends a considerable amount of time debunking the fictions that gathered around his subject — his later writings show an alarming suspension of the critical faculty which enables him to give credence to the most dubious events and theories. One had already observed this tendency in The Strength to Dream, his book of literary criticism, where errors of description – for example of the plot of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – demonstrate a superficial reading of the text he is discussing. In his later works he seems prepared to swallow the most unlikely of hypotheses by writers such as Velikovsky and von Däniken wholesale. Not only does he disregard their manifest nonsenses and contradictions but then erects further arguments on the basis of them. This is a shame, since other of his arguments regarding psychic phenomena are both instructive and illuminating.

In his booklet for this CD the author presents a hostage to fortune with the statement “Any artist or thinker who wants to achieve real individuality must learn to stand alone. The longing to be understood is no doubt natural, but in an age like ours it can be a fatal weakness.” The back of the CD then goes on to tell us that “in The Essential Colin Wilson, he presents what he considers to be the essence of his works and this compact disc is a further attempt at compression – to select the essence of the essence.” In other words, he really does want to be understood, and good for him.

This reading comprises an introduction as well as a series of notes on the ‘peak experience’ — also one of the subjects treated in The Philosopher’s Stone — and the ‘self-image concept’. These are said to form a comprehensive unit summarising his study of “men who feel themselves too intelligent or sensitive for the ‘rat race’ of modern civilisation.”

Wilson is a good reader, with an infectious and natural desire to communicate. It is a great relief that in this summary of his basic theories he avoids the more contentious areas of his interests, arguing largely from the basis of his own experiences. It is unfortunate perhaps that in order to illustrate his psychological thesis he has to resort so often to fictional analogies rather than factual experimental data. That said, it is part of the nature of the subject that such data is hard to come by, and harder still to quantify or evaluate. Indeed he comes close to the sphere of what Sir Karl Popper called “pseudo-science”, the theory that cannot be falsified by factual experience – a description which Popper used to embrace both astrology and Freudian psycho-analysis, and for much the same reasons. He manages to avoid falling into that realm, partly because his analysis chimes so closely with emotional states that everybody has experienced at some time or another, and partly because he explains in some practical detail how the sense of heightened meditation which he advocates can be achieved by a sheer effort of will. He regards the achievement of this freedom of the imagination as the next step in human evolution, and clearly views music — the ultimately emotional medium — as a major factor in the achievement of this. His conclusion – that the search for fantasy is in a very real sense the accomplishment of reality – is surprising but at the same time inspiring. Indeed it is not far from Tolkien’s far less cogently argued theories of the nature of what the latter called “sub-creation”.

I don’t imagine that many of his listeners will need to listen to his exposition more than once or twice but it is well worth the effort of making the discovery. He even makes an attempt to show why the enjoyment of a new musical experience is more valuable than a continual listening to the same pieces again and again. Those of us who love, and find fulfilment in, musical adventure will also find it gratifying to have our pleasure given a philosophical justification.

Paul Corfield Godfrey




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