I have recently heard of the death of Colin Wilson, aged 82. He shot to fame whilst living in a sleeping bag in Hyde Park and writing ‘The Outsider’ in the British Museum in 1954 at the age of 24. I read it when I was seventeen and it introduced me to the world of Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse and Sartre, existential philosophy and the literature of ideas. Its title was of course taken from Albert Camus’ short novel ‘The Outsider’, and its philosophers and writers were, according to Wilson, outside the stultifying normality of contemporary culture and the pettiness and triviality of everyday life. While analytical and logical positivism was still fashionable in Anglo-American circles, it introduced many of my generation to the excitement and mystery of Continental philosophy.
Wilson moved afterwards to Gorran Haven in Cornwall with his second wife Joy and amassed a huge collection of records and library of books. His work about classical music called ‘The Brandy of the Damned'(1964), a title borrowed from his beloved George Bernard Shaw, also had a considerable impact on me. He went on to become a profuse and varied writer, producing over 150 books, but never quite obtained his initial fame.
I came across him again when he reviewed for the ‘Literary Review’ my book ‘The Philosopher’s Stone: A Quest of the Secrets of Alchemy’ (2001) with the words: ‘Certainly the best and most absorbing account of alchemy I have ever read.’ He knew what he was talking about: he had not only published a novel with the same title but had written a long and learned account called ‘The Occult: A History'(1971). Wilson then wrote a review for The ‘Independent on Sunday’ of my book ‘Europe’s Lost Civilization: Uncovering the Mysteries of the Megaliths’ (2004). He said ‘If you are fascinated by megaliths as I am, this beautifully written story of a 4000-mile journey …will be as refreshing as a long holiday’. He chose it as his ‘Book of the Year’.
On the strength of these reviews I invited him to an exhibition and a series of lectures on alchemy in 2006 at Plymouth University. He had to sit down because of his ill health but told us of his personal philosophy of peak experiences and visionary intensity which he had searched for all his life. He told me afterwards that he wrote every day in the morning and performed DIY jobs around the house in the afternoon.
Despite his fall from critical grace he certainly had a high estimate of his own value, claiming that he had become an unrecognized genius. That is pushing it way too far but he was certainly one of the most prolific and fascinating English writers of the 20th century.