(You can buy a copy of ‘My Interest in Murder’ here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Interest-Murder-discarded-introduction-Assassins/dp/0995597812)
On a Sunday afternoon I settled down to read Paupers’ Press’ latest release – Colin Wilson’s ‘My Interest in Murder’ (2019). While reading it, I decided to begin noting down some reflections on Wilson’s work on murder, in an attempt to align some insights I had along the way together with his overall philosophy. It resulted in this essay.
‘My Interest in Murder’ was originally intended as an introduction to Wilson’s 1972 book Order of the Assassins, which explores the psychology of murder. This short book comprises of a 40-page autobiographical reflection on why and how Wilson became so interested in this dark subject.
Furthermore, he describes the creative process, and psychological and philosophical shifts, that occurred while writing his first novel, Ritual in the Dark (1960) – which took the nine years to write. And how his later novel The Glass Cage (1966) – “perhaps my own favourite among my novels” – became a crystallisation of this project to explore the mind of a murderer.
Wilson was determined to become a writer, and despite the banalities of his working-class existence, he declared that he would “make literature out of my revolt.” He comments that he had “tasted the pleasures of the imagination and intellect” and “wanted the pleasure to pursue them.” This of course led to Ritual in the Dark; or, in its earlier incarnation, Ritual of the Dead (originally titled after the Egyptian Book of the Dead). The novel is a pacey and fascinating reflection on frustration, alienation and moreover outsiderisim. It also has something of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment about it – with the main character being torn between intensities of both himself and the often shady people with whom he’s become embroiled.
Gerard Sorme, the protagonist and Wilson’s alter-ego, is what Wilson himself described as a ‘Simple Simon’, who wonders around London meeting eccentric and intensely-driven individuals, each with a backstory of semi-mystical visions which define them – for better or for worse – as outsiders.
Having recently read Wilson’s The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders (1988), I could clearly see how he had his own ‘Simple Simon’ moments. He fully admits that it dawned on him, perhaps too slowly, that a broad-shouldered, deep-voiced Charlotte Bach was, in fact, a robust Hungarian transvestite called Karoly Hajdu. Bach posited an evolutionary theory based on a dynamic and creative ‘tension’ and inter-play between the male and female counterparts in each individual (Wilson explored these themes in his book Mysteries (1978), and then later on in The Misfits). She was, in many ways, a character that could have been lifted straight out one of Wilson’s early novels.
Nevertheless, it was through meeting these liminal characters, and by exploring the psychology of the outsider or the ‘misfit’, that Wilson could begin to explore motives for such extremities – whether it be sexual fetishes or, indeed, murder.
After all, what fundamentally defines these outsiders is a search for intensity consciousness – control over one’s own emotions, environment and achieving a sense of ultimate reality. In ‘My Interest in Murder’ Wilson quotes Watson’s observation of Sherlock Holmes: “He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century”, to which Wilson responds: “And why not? – for such knowledge was a part of his working equipment.” Wilson adds that by working with such morbid and extreme material, he began to feel like a “pathologist, working with unpleasant material, but viewing it with detachment.”
What Wilson was saying is that the sexual impulse and/or the impulse for murder and sadism is driven by an intense stimulus; that is, in both acts, there is a release of enormous energy – an energy, moreover, that has the potential for great acts of creativity, but, in sadism or murder, has somehow turned against itself.
“[T]here are certain people who possess the potentiality of creation, of purposive action; if this is frustrated it turns rotten. The mind is like a forward flowing river; if it is dammed up, it will turn the land around it into a swamp.”
So, you can clearly see the trajectory of Wilson’s work from his first non-fiction book, The Outsider (1956), which explored existentialists, ballet dancers, poets, mystics and esoteric teachers like G.I. Gurdjieff. There was not so much the ‘Simple Simon’ in Wilson, but an immense openness that enabled him to actualise in his work what Alfred North Whitehead described as the most important undertaking that any existentialist should adopt: experience everything; drunk, sober, depressed, ecstatic, and so on. Not out of mere hedonism or naiveite, but as an attempt to understand the extent of the human instrument through its entire experiential spectrum.
Murder emerges out of an immense damming up of frustration, which then bursts out as a destructive and pointless act. However, it is these implicit creative potentialities that Wilson was so fascinated by. Ritual in the Dark originally developed as a literary expression of frustration, much in the same way books like Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Eugene Ionescu’s The Hermit and – the most famous novel of its type – Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, were attempts to describe this essential feeling of alienation and the slippery texture of reality. But Wilson was driven by something altogether more optimistic.
Wilson began writing out of an act of emotional revolt that creatively expressed itself; and then, once circumstances in his life began to lighten up – and his naturally cheerful temperament kicked back in – the tone and philosophy of Ritual in the Dark began to change correspondingly. This in turn provided the novel with the protagonist’s recognition that the murderer in the book, whom Sorme even shows some admiration for, is in fact insane and sick. And that these murders were, as Wilson says, a “gesture of revolt” against reality – a reality, moreover, that the murderer had completely lost touch with.
This is essentially the insight at the heart of Wilson’s work on criminology: that, in low moods, we have a weak grip on reality; and that if we let go, we fall into a ‘worms-eye view’ and our lives and the world around us – and even other people – begin to feel meaningless and uninspiring. Murderers and criminals have fallen down this hole further still, becoming stuck in a loop where reality becomes increasingly unreal, which in turn requires increasingly extreme experiences to reinvigorate what Pierre Janet called their ‘reality function’.
Now, one of the things that has always interested me is how we observe ourselves in certain moments, and how we can quickly take things for granted. I’ve worked in a number of industries, ranging from office work to apple picking and as a drayman for a brewery in the Midlands. When I first began reading Wilson’s books, I felt an immediate sense of kinship; I too had sat on lorries for long journeys and had worked in tedious offices full of neurotic petty-mindedness. Being a true existentialist, Wilson looked to his own life experiences for insights into the human condition.
Around February-March in 2018, I was working as a drayman during the ‘Beast from the East’, which was a cold wave which had blown over from Russia and North Asia, covering most of the Midlands in fine snowdrifts and freezing temperatures. I would have to get up very early, walk down a huge hill and into a warehouse full of steel casks. A forklift truck driver would come out and I’d have to jump on the back of the van and roll these heavy, ale-filled casks and secure them into place.
After the van was full, we’d seal up the curtain and drive off to about four pubs, where we would have to open the gate, crawl down into the cellar and then start lowering the barrels down with a rope as the snow whipped up, and our feet froze. The snow made it enormously difficult to push eighteen-gallon barrels, with the snow gaining up in front of it and causing a barrier which you would have to kick out of the way.
After a long day which inevitably led to exhaustion, I had to walk back up the huge hill. And on the way back, I walked past a salon full of beautiful women blow-drying hair and manicuring nails. The comparison between the two worlds was jarring – and it suddenly occurred to me the shocking ‘divide’ between these two realities. I could easily see how – if you had a severe job that involved intense labour – that the opposite sex would appear as immensely delicate and enchanting; beautifully intoxicating against your everyday reality. (I could suddenly clearly see why men working with tarmac or up scaffolding, for example, would whistle at pretty women as they walked by!)
This was a simple and fairly commonplace insight that contrasted very starkly against when I began to work in an office that same year. This work demanded far more attention to detail and concentration, and soon enough I found the atmosphere extremely constricting. Not only did the work fail to engage me – writing about Health & Safety for various councils and so on – the whole environment was such a vast contrast to working outdoors with burly, outspoken men, that I felt like I was trapped in some nightmare of pedanticism and bureaucracy.
I had had a similar experience while working at an academic bookshop in Nottingham in which the manager was immensely short-tempered and had an attention to detail that I would simply describe as ‘maniacal’. Again, here I found a curious neurosis that was lacking from working in labouring jobs, in which people could – and often would – talk loudly and honestly about their feelings – and, of course, their sexuality. There seemed to me to be a ‘pent-up-ness’ about the bookshop and office that I failed to adjust to.
This brief digression into my own experiences has been an attempt to point out how – and in what form – energies take, and how in our ordinary day-to-day lives they become frustrated, leading to tensions and forms of outburst. Of course, if you were a physical-type, you would prefer physical labour; and if you were an intellectual-type, you would perhaps prefer more intellectually-engaging pursuits and find the physical work a tedious bore.
But the crucial difference here is the level and type of frustration.
One day (in the bookshop) an electrician was fitting in some new strip lights. The atmosphere was particularly dull, with an overcast sky outside and some syrupy acoustic music playing as background music. You could describe the whole situation as the very essence of stale and static. We caught eye contact and a devilish light seemed to gleam in both our eyes, and he shouted: “Put some Cannibal Corpse on!” (Cannibal Corpse is a raucous and very heavy-heavy metal band.)
His comment, as out-of-place as it was, released the tension – the frustration we both had with the boredom of our jobs. Anybody who has children of their own will know that a child cannot bare long car journeys, and will often talk incessantly to re-direct his energies, or, kick his legs frantically. Or, there is the persistent question of ‘Are we there yet?’ – exaggerating his sense of time passing slowly.
The vitality of the child siphons off into what is called a form of displacement activity, which is defined as:
“A human activity that seems inappropriate, such as head-scratching when confused, considered to arise unconsciously when a conflict between antagonistic urges cannot be resolved.”
It seems that murder too is a form of displacement activity; an attempt to express, or channel, pent-up energy into a destructive act rather than something creative. The serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, once told police: “I was bitter at the world… Killing someone is just like walking outdoors.” For Lucas it was a matter of reconnecting with a ‘sense of reality’ which had been numbed by his own bitterness against the world.
And yet for many of us, simply walking outdoors in itself would be a release – but not for Lucas; his mind would have been unable to grasp its reality due to his mind being awash in negative emotions and frustration. Like any drunkard, the only way he could kick-start his emotional enjoyment of life would be to reach for extremity. The same, of course, relates to sex and such extreme fetishes that, for most of us, make little sense. All of these ‘extremities’ are attempts to re-experience a life that has been lost to the ‘worm’s-eye view’ of low-pressure consciousness.
Reading about murder, says Wilson, reminds us most forcibly that we could quite easily misdirect our energies. That is not to say, however, that most of us would become murderers – but simply that we can easily sink into states of passivity in which the world seems deprived of meaning. A violent act such as murder, of course, already suggests that the killer has a low estimation of the meaning of his own life – and as a result, those of others.
Wilson describes the purpose of his novel The Glass Cage as being “to confront the two extremes: the mystic and the criminal: the man whose sense of the goodness and worth-whileness of life is constant and fully conscious, and the man whose self-pity and lack of self-belief have driven him to expressing his vitality in the most negative way he can find.” Essentially the murder – in both Ritual and Cage – are failed mystics in the sense that their violent energies have turned into negation rather than affirmation.
He describes the murderer, Gaylord Sundheim, in Cage:
“[H]e is a man of immense and violent energies and appetites, whose conscious attitude to life is so negative and defeated that they cannot find ordinary expression. When he eats, he eats ravenously, with the sweat pouring down his face; when he drinks, he gulps it down until he is unconscious. And when he has sex, all the vast energies roar out like a volcanic explosion there is a desire to eat, to drink, to entirely consume his sexual partner. If he possessed the power to remould his personality to express these energies positively, he might be a Michaelangelo or a Beethoven.” [my italics]
This is, of course, no defence of the act of murder – or a celebration of the murderers’ innate potential for genius – but a recognition of intensely frustrated energies that could have been put to good use, had they found a more fulfilling, and evolutionary, outlet. The problem with a destructive act is that it is self-cancelling and is fraught by diminishing returns – no one evolves their consciousness through murder, in fact it devolves and, once the criminal is caught by the police, or when his energies are depleted, the killer often commits suicide.
I think that each of us, in his/her own life, can notice how in moments of frustration, or after an exhausted day’s work, we notice how our perceptions of things correspondingly change. Here I have used my own examples of hard-labouring work and then walking by a very alluring salon; being struck by the contrast of environment and finding in myself a strange yearning for this different world. Psychologically-speaking it is exactly the same as walking down a blustery, icy street and looking into a coal-fire-lit cottage window and wishing you were inside.
In fact, Wilson calls this experience ‘duo-consciousness’ – when you can stay in bed on a rainy day, knowing you’ve got to get up in 5-minutes, and savouring the comfort and warmth of those sheets as if your life depended on it. By contrast, however, this all changes when we know we don’t have to get up. Due to our inability to place our mind in two places at once, we cease to enjoy the moment – the actual and the symbolic fail to reflect each other and make us self-aware. Of course, we are perfectly self-aware when we await the dreaded alarm-clock. . .
Reading about murder, Wilson argues, is a phenomenological act that enables us to recreate a deeply existential version of duo-consciousness. We can read these accounts of horrific crimes and, by using it as a sort of mirror, we can contrast these stupid and destructive acts against our everyday reality, and effectively reminding ourselves that our lives could be a lot worse. Wilson says that the purpose of studying murder ought to be to “throw light upon its opposite: the passion for order, creativity, sainthood.”
‘My Interest in Murder’, in all its autobiographical digressions was written in the spirit of pleasure – much like his later book on wine and alcohol, The Book of Booze (1974). And by reading books of its kind, and understanding our essential creative drives, we too can use it as a sort of psychological mirror to ‘throw light upon its opposite’, achieving moments of duo-consciousness – and most importantly – to improve our own lives and those of others!