BOOK REVIEW: Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson by Gary Lachman (TarcherPerigee: 2016)

(Available 30th August: http://www.penguin.com/book/beyond-the-robot-by-gary-lachman/9780399173080)

In Gary Lachman’s new biography Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (2016), we are treated to a sort of bildungsroman – the story of an individual’s spiritual and intellectual development – of the philosopher Colin Wilson.  An English, Leicester-born and working-class ‘home grown existentialist’, whose jolting rise to fame with his 1956 The Outsider suffered an unfortunate and undeserved backlash with his second book Religion and the Rebel (1957).  For the next 50 years, up until his death in 2013, Wilson produced a genre-spanning amount of work, but received the curious silence of the literary establishment.  Nevertheless his vision has remained for many a respected, pivotal and increasingly relevant turning point in Western thought.  Wilson’s incredible contribution to philosophy was a part of a larger philosophical ‘new existentialism’, which aimed to nothing less than to tackle the pessimistic biases in literature, philosophy, culture and science.

Indeed in his most famous work, The Outsider, he dealt with the sudden sense of affirmation felt by the Romantics, indeed a somewhat a precarious sense of affirmation which often collapsed back a feeling of despondency or ‘life failure’.  Nevertheless Wilson felt these men were at the critical point of an evolutionary leap, and if one could just discipline oneself in such a way, these visions of affirmation could indeed be made permanent, and thus become more firmly rooted in the objectivity from which they blossomed.  

Wilson also went on to produce an enormous amount of subsequent works which all began from the same premise: an attempt to go beyond the problem of common existential complaints (ennui, despair, thoughts of suicide) to establish a firm set of values from which the evolutionary man could strive and thrive.  

“The vision of absurdity is one of the poles of existence.  Its correlate is the pole of reason and the will to live.  So long as a man maintains his hold on these two poles he completes the circuit, so to speak, and the vital force of life flows through him.  If he releases his hold he becomes nothing, or – which is much the same thing – the hero of a best-seller”.

These words, said by fellow Angry Young Man and working-class writer Stuart Holroyd, encapsulates Colin Wilson’s developmental dynamo of “Eternal Yes versus Eternal No”.  A sort of alchemical friction between optimism and pessimism, affirmation and negation.  But he was, as Brad Spurgeon’s book on Wilson is titled, overall a “philosopher of optimism”.  

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Lachman charts the inspiring consistency and perseverance of Wilson’s life and works, showing just how self-discipline and an optimistic frame of mind can overcome the challenges of a dispirited modern culture.  

Indeed, Lachman succinctly describes the essential ‘wonder of life’ and ‘will to live’ in Wilson’s work, for when “our wonder is strong and our curiosity wide, our vitality increases, and we are able to grip our own existence more powerfully”.  And as Wilson produced over a hundred books on subjects ranging from philosophy to the occult, criminology, sexology and psychology, Atlantis and UFOs, even booze and a polemic against gardening, we can safely say that wonder was at large in Wilson’s life, with his enormous appetite for both knowledge but more importantly insight.  

Beyond the Robot details precisely this voracious appetite for meaning, of a curiosity that was positively driven towards “eating significance”, as Wilson put it.  Lachman, having taken on Colin Wilson’s enormous oeuvre has attempted to summarise and synthesise the essence of his work, to bring it into the context not only of his life and times, but into the wider reaches of philosophy, everyday existence to the further reaches of cosmology.  And in doing so he untangles the misunderstandings of Wilson’s work, and shoots straight through the inertia of academia and much of the literary establishment which rejects Wilson’s work with unthinking reflex.  Lachman instead not only celebrates his work, but brings to the surface Colin Wilson’s important contribution as a philosopher in his own right, and also as a human being in search of the farther shores of human nature.  Wilson’s intensely driven and incredibly honest intelligence is warmly reflected by Lachman, who was a close friend and who had a great insight into his work routines and an appreciation for his ideas.

For anybody who has been following Gary Lachman’s work will be aware that he is the right man for the job.  Both share the same sort of existential urgency, the insatiable curiosity into the nature and mystery of human consciousness.  His most ‘Wilsonian’ book – and like The Outsider an incredible synthesis and unique philosophical treatise in its own right – is The Caretakers of the Cosmos (2013).  Indeed the book was poignantly dedicated to Wilson, who Lachman credits as having “certainly repaired quite a bit of the universe”.  It is therefore no surprise that the degree of sensitivity to his subject is complimented with illuminating notes and an enormous amount of reading (a result of his nearly 40 years of reading Wilson’s works).  This results in what is no doubt the most comprehensive book on Wilson since Howard Dossor’s Colin Wilson: The Man & His Mind (1990).  

And if you are like me an obsessive Colin Wilson reader there is much to be gained by reading Beyond the Robot, for Lachman carefully balances the biographical elements alongside the ideas, and what occurs is a very organic sense of development of an individual.  Due to this very reason it is a veritable goldmine for anyone new or interested in Wilson’s work, for it is as much a journey through Wilson’s ideas as it is an evocative biography of a man concerned with mankind’s deepest and most important questions: What is the meaning of human existence?  How can we control our consciousness and reach our full potential?  Is meaning objective, and if so, what are the steps to know this fact all the time?

By reading Beyond the Robot one comes away enormously intellectually enriched, for all of Wilson’s many essential insights are bought together into a huge synthesis, whereby one revelation seamlessly relates to another and so on.  At the end we can step back and take Wilson’s whole work as an optimistic existential edifice.  Lachman succeeds wonderfully at this, and I believe this is precisely the book that was needed to bring Wilson’s work together; to give it a necessary overall context which doesn’t scare people off.  The careful development of Wilson’s ideas is detailed chronologically in each chapter, enabling us see that these ideas and insights were not sudden jumps or illogical leaps, but altogether an implicit part of existential obsession that ran through all of Wilson’s work.  

Certainly, Wilson’s life and ideas were not at all divorced, or thought up in some abstract or detached sort of way, but they emerged through an obsessive phenomenological analysis of his moods, his observations, and experiences in general living.  By identifying the evolutionary dynamo of highs and lows, Lachman accurately recounts Colin Wilson’s life as it was: a search for higher states of consciousness, ways out of habit and neurosis, an understanding of our ‘sexual illusions’ and even the mysteries of Atlantis and other possible dimensions; even UFOs and their role in the vast mysterious tapestry of space and time.  

Again Lachman makes sure that it isn’t merely a selection of exotic eccentricities and Fortean fragments, a common problem with any writer on the paranormal and esoteric.

Although it is a biography about Colin Wilson the man, it is also about an essential approach to living.  Lachman shows us, through Wilson’s own adventures and refreshing insights into the human condition, that the world as we know it is often blinkered, narrowed down to the ‘here and now’.  And within rare moments we suddenly expand, and our conception of ourselves and the universe we live in inflates too.  There are ‘horizons of distant fact’, as William James called it, and these ‘distant facts’ are collated by Wilson, and pieced together in an attempt to “stimulate the earth-bound imagination of man to grasp the immensity around him”.  There is more to life.  We know this, but how can we know this fact more deeply?  Beyond the Robot is about such a man driven by precisely this question his whole life.  

Indeed the questions Wilson posed to existence were often answered by the sheer joy of the search itself, stimulating as it did ever larger vistas of thought.  Freedom, he ceaselessly reminds us, can come to the individual who can think outside of ordinary constraints, who can suddenly breathe the air of larger realities beyond the personality and life’s trivialities.  

Wilson, in the end, was such a man we can all relate to on some level.  And most significantly we should aspire, like Wilson himself, to those higher levels to which he aimed to make available to us all.  For he left us with his last book Superconsciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience (2009), in which he bookended his own contribution to linear time.  But Gary Lachman’s book may reignite veteran Wilson readers to revisit his work, and introduce and inspire future readers to take up the life-affirming and enhancing philosophy he single-handedly helped to create: the ‘new existentialism’.

Certainly Lachman and the publisher TarcherPerigee have done the world of philosophy and esotericism (and fellow new existentialists) a tremendous service by producing this incredible resource in such a timeless edition. A source of inspiration to new readers and veteran Wilson-readers alike for years to come. It will be recognised as the definitive introduction and scholarly overview of Wilson’s impressive contribution to the cannon Western thought.

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