Colin Wilson Interview
All human beings have far greater powers than they realize. The only real limits on us are created by our own “laziness, stupidity, cowardice.” Most of us are sleepwalkers, trapped in the subjective dreams of the self-pity circuits of our brains. This defeatist program will kill us—unless we wake up and realize how strong and absurdly happy we can be once our brains are operating properly.
This rather extreme view has been espoused by Colin Wilson for nearly thirty years and has made him one of the most influential and most unpopular writers of our time. His first book, The Outsider, deals with Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Blake, Van Gogh, and other thinkers and artists who “cannot live in the comfortable, isolated world of the bourgeoisie,” who believe “that truth must be told at all costs.” Published when Wilson was only twenty-five, The Outsider became an immediate international bestseller. On the other hand, a recent book of his, The Criminal history of Mankind, was given only one review by all the newspapers and magazines in the United Kingdom.
And so it goes: the Times Literary Supplement of London recently noted that Colin Wilson is one of the most discussed Western authors in Soviet literary circles (but still goes on ignoring him most of the time); New Scientist praised his works on parapsychology, but The Skeptical Inquirer (journal of the conservative Committer for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) sniffed that “Wilson’s logic is frequently faulty” and “his reasoning powers are frequently poor.” He has been a visiting professor at four American universities, and has had many successful lecture tours in both America and Europe; many of the ideas first promulgated by him have found their way into the mainstream of modern psychology. Yet the fear he arouses in some quarters is so strong that only a few years ago, Scotland Yard seriously investigated the charge (in crank letters to them) that he was the Yorkshire Ripper.
Part of the Colin Wilson “problem” is that he refuses to be categorized. At first he was considered one of England’s leftist, pessimistic Angry Young Men of the ’50s, but he soon made it clear that he was politically conservative and philosophically optimistic. He wrote several excellent books on sex and psychology and seemed a popularizer of avantgarde trends in those fields, but then he also wrote detective stories, literary criticism, philosophy, a major study of the occult, sex novels, science fiction (including The Space Vampires, soon to he a motion picture), and dozens of odd works on unexpected subjects: a history of the medieval Assassins, a volume of music criticism, an encyclopedia of murder. The curious thing about these books is that they all return to Wilson’s major themes: humanity’s capacity to evolve into superhumanity, and the cowardice and laziness that holds us back.
Typically, Wilson expresses his views without compromise and in extreme terms. Shakespeare, he says, had a “second-rate mind“; Freud and Sartre, however brilliant in places, are largely wrong-headed because of their pessimism. In person, however, he is affable, generous, funny, and generally does not deliver the shocking overstatements that pepper his books.
Of working-class origin, Wilson dropped out of school at sixteen and is largely self-educated. He lives now in the Atlantic end of Cornwall, at a remove from London intellectual life similar to Faulkner’s isolation from American intellectual fads in Oxford, Mississippi. When I visited him, he insisted on having me stay overnight and meet his whole family. When we all went out together to a few pubs, I was struck by the love and affection of the whole family for one another, and how they all took turns looking out for Colin’s aged mother, who also came along. Later, when he took me for a drive to see some of Cornwall’s great scenery, Wilson kept talking about how much his family means to him. He seemed centered and at peace in his own world.
Robert Anton Wilson: Why is it that a professed optimist like yourself has written so much about murderers and violent criminals?
Colin Wilson: Murderers represent especially vivid illustrations of what is wrong with mankind. In The Outsider I called it original sin, but I have decided that is too strong a term. But whether one calls it original sin or not, any optimistic philosophy has to look at this aspect of humanity very hard in order to be honest and avoid sentimentality.
At the other end of the spectrum, what has always fascinated me is that in certain moments human beings experience a curious feeling of inner warmth in which the world is self-evidently good. You experience this as a child at Christmastime, or when setting out on a holiday. Now it could he explained that the child is just looking forward to getting toys, and on holiday you’re looking forward to pleasure, but I have noticed that this feeling is always accompanied by a kind of wild optimism, as if I were receiving what G.K. Chesterton called “absurd good news.” I have always been obsessed with the question, in simple terms, can the world possibly be as good as it seems at Christmastime, or is that just a conditioned reaction caused by the smell of mince pies?
Robert Anton Wilson: In other words, is existence what it appears in our high moments, or what it appears in our low moments, or just what it appears in our average moments?
Colin Wilson: Precisely. To me that is the question of all philosophy. Most philosophers have not trusted their sigh moments, if they ever had any. Aside from the mystics, philosophers have been a gloomy lot; Aristotle concluded that the best fate was not to be born at all, and he was typical. Also, most literature has been basically pessimistic. Cervantes and Shakespeare always present the idealist as a fool who eventually gets crushed by harsh reality, and so on. I never could accept this, and the reason I wrote The Outsider was that I was fascinated by that handful of nineteenth- and twentieth-century people who all, like Shelley, had moods of wild optimism. Most of them were eventually destroyed and I wanted to know why. To stick to Shelley as an exemplar, why did he decline from his heroic vision to the lament at the end of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty“—“Why dost thou go away and leave our state/This dim vast vale of tears vacant and desolate?” Why, indeed? Why could Shelley not sustain the vision of intellectual beauty? Or why did Van Gogh, after the vision of The Starry Night, end up shooting himself and leaving a note that said “Misery will never end”? This is what obsessed me as a teenager, because all teenagers have both high and low moods, and in my highs I was absolutely certain that the lows were merely feeblemindedness and defeatism, while in the lows I simply could not remember why I was optimistic in the highs. By the time I finished The Outsider, I realized that the problem with my Outsiders was that they cooperated in their own defeat, because they had a tendency to self-pity.
Robert Anton Wilson: You have also written about the paradox that our highs can spring directly out of our lows, if we go through them to the end.
Colin Wilson: Yes. This happened to me as a teenager. I decided to kill myself and went off to evening class at college with that thought in mind. I took a bottle of hydrocyanic acid from the reagent shelf, took out the cork and raised the bottle to my lips; and, just then, I had a very clear image of myself a few seconds in the future with an appalling pain in my gut (hydrocyanic acid burns out the bottom of the stomach) and quite abruptly the whole thing became a complete absurdity. I felt I was standing beside a silly little self-pitying idiot called Colin Wilson who was about to drink hydrocyanic acid and I didn’t give a fuck whether he did or not, because he was such an idiot, but on the other hand if he killed himself that would kill me, too, and that was serious. I suddenly felt that complete affirmation again and went into the lecture; for the next three days I was in a state of remarkable light-heartedness because I had seen that I was two people, and that the person who was having all the troubles and miseries was not me.
Robert Anton Wilson: Is that how you became interested in split-brain research?
Colin Wilson: No, that came later. What I want to emphasize is that in all this thinking about affirmation, I was going directly against the grain of the twentieth-century writers who had influenced me most. T.S. Eliot, whose poetry meant a great deal to me, was totally pessimistic: “We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men” and so on. Thomas Mann always seemed to be saying that if you were imaginative and sensitive you were simply doomed: the world belonged to commercialists and criminals and swindlers. I found all this despair totally unacceptable, but I was swimming against the current. In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway said “a man can be destroyed but not defeated.” As I saw it, the problem was how work out a way of not being destroyed or defeated.
My first real clue came from Abraham Maslow, after I published The Age of Defeat. He read it and wrote me a letter agreeing with me that writers should learn to stop being defeated, and he called my attention to his own research. When I read his works I was fascinated, because he was a psychologist who had gotten sick of studying sick people who talked about nothing but their sickness, and had started studying the healthy—something that had never been done before. He discovered that healthy people had with a fair degree of frequency what he called peak experiences, feelings of sheer happiness. They were not necessarily “mystical” experiences. One was described by a young wife watching her husband and children eating breakfast. Suddenly a beam of sunlight came through the window, and she thought, “My God, aren’t I lucky!” and went into the peak experience. Another was a young jazz drummer working his way through college who discovered one night he couldn’t do a thing wrong and went into the peak experience as he drummed. A hostess after a highly successful party, looking around the room at the cigarette butts trodden into the rug and the spilt wine, nonetheless suddenly had a peak experience. Reading these sorts of cases, I began to surmise that when you’ve had an intense peak experience it gives you an optimistic view of the universe, which is the opposite of the view of the criminal, who generally thinks the universe is a bloody awful place and the only thing to do to show your objection is to react violently.
Robert Anton Wilson: This is how you developed your theory that ordinary consciousness is a liar?
Colin Wilson: It is not an opinion. The philosopher Husserl and the perception psychologists like Hadley Cantril have demonstrated in dozens of ways how we edit our experience of the world. Any neurology text will tell you we have little switches in the nervous system, called synapses, whose function is to cut off nervous impulses. It is estimated that we cut off ninety-one percent of all nervous input and select the remaining nine percent for attention. This is what Husserl called the intentionality of consciousness, and it explains why we see a different world in our highs than in our lows.
All of this recalls one of Maslow’s discoveries. When he lectured on peak experiences, most students could remember having them when they were younger but hadn’t thought about them in a long time. Yet once they did start talking about the subject, they started having peak experiences again. It is simply a matter of turning the mind in the right direction like a radar dish.
Robert Anton Wilson: And this is why you gave up the terminology of “original sin”?
Colin Wilson: Exactly: I decided there was something slightly wrong with humanity, not something enormously wrong. It’s rather like a clock with loose hands that will never show the correct time. There’s nothing essentially wrong with the clock: you just have to tighten the hands.
When we are driven by some force bigger than ourselves, or some emergency, we react magnificently and seem to have infinite reserves of power; but left to ourselves with no challenge, the watchspring doesn’t drive the mechanism. We filter our experience and edit it down and cut things out again and drift and get bored. For example, in England during the blitz, everybody was generous and lovely because we were fighting Hitler and we had a purpose. You would have expected us to be grim then and happy after the war, but in fact we only became depressed after we won. The same thing happened in France: Camus wrote a wonderful essay about how grand things would be after victory, but actually he was happier during the German occupation when he was in the Resistance and risking his life every day.
Robert Anton Wilson: Isn’t there a matter of tempo involved, too? Some say that’s why music can create peak experiences.
Colin Wilson: Yes. Scientists have discovered that the two halves of the brain work at different speeds—the left is much faster than the right—and what this means is that they’re like two people going for a country walk but one walks so much faster that they lose each other and there’s no real communication between them. They have to shout at each other, as it were. But when you relax deeply, the left brain slows down to the speed of the right, and they can talk to each other. Conversely, when you are challenged—or even if you excite yourself with voodoo drums or strobe lights—the right brain speeds up, and again the two sides are communicating. Whenever you have a peak experience of one of Chesterton’s moods of “absurd good news,” then you know there is another mind there supporting you. It’s like the game we played as children, which is now popular in some encounter groups: you have to fall back without looking and trust the person behind to catch you. This is extraordinarily hard at first for most of us, because we’re not sure we can trust that person. When you learn to trust the right brain, you find there is a person there, a person who is also you and who will help you and catch you when you fall. Then you can begin to trust the deep structure of the universe.
The opposite thing—being strangled in the left brain—is what alienates us. Sartre was stranded and alienated like that and called it nausea. We all know that experience of existential nausea, but we don’t generally know enough to realize that it’s just a lack of contact between two parts of our brain. Why did Maslow’s students begin having peak experiences when Maslow told them about peak experiences? Because they relaxed into it and let the two brains merge.
Next time you’re in a state of nervous tension, just sit down in your armchair and put on your favorite bit of Tristan and Isolde or whatever you like. Go all the way into it: it’s like hypnosis. You quite suddenly relax at the snap of the hypnotist’s fingers. As the music sweeps over you, down goes your blood pressure and quite quickly you are in the right brain. In other words, art is an attempt to relax into the right brain. We’ve never grasped the meaning of that. Julian Huxley once said to me, when we were discussing evolution, “Have you thought of the significance of art?” I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “I won’t explain. Just think about it.” I’m pretty sure this is what he was hinting at. Art is the one invention that goes beyond all our other inventions: it can make us relax completely into the right brain. Now that we know about these things, peak experiences and the two brain hemispheres and so on, we can teach ourselves how to get out of all left-brain tensions and recharge with a visit to the right brain. We can all have the kind of states that Aldous Huxley experienced with mescaline, the states in which we see the meaning that is shining out of all things, which the left brain usually edits out and ignores.
Robert Anton Wilson: There are people all over the shop these days teaching various techniques for getting here from there. What’s your favorite device?
Colin Wilson: Instead of trying to relax, which can sometimes be difficult, I try to make myself tense. It’s rather like one of those car hand brakes that you have to pull up before you can let them go. The point is that when you are deliberately inducing tension, you can always let go, and then the relaxation is automatic. This is actually a variation on the suicidal tension I described earlier.
Graham Greene reports a similar experience, during a period of tense depression. People would point out a beautiful scene, and he would see that it was beautiful, but still he felt nothing whatever; he was dead inside. One day he found a revolver that belonged to his brother and started playing Russian Roulette. He put one bullet in the chamber, spun the chamber, pointed the gun at his head, and pulled the trigger. When there was just a click, he looked down the barrel and saw that the bullet had now come into position to be fired. He said it was as if a light had come on, and he had a tremendous sense of happiness: life was suddenly wonderful again. Now obviously before that he was in a slack or floppy state, not relaxed; he only truly relaxed after pulling the trigger once. If you can do that—pull yourself together with total tension as if about to shoot a bullet into your head, and then relax and let go—well, you’ll really relax. A trick I recommend if this seems hard is to just look at everything as if you were seeing it for the last time, as if you were about to be led before a firing squad.
Robert Anton Wilson: This is akin to the Zen Buddhist koan, in which the student concentrates on a logical problem that can’t be solved, except that the master doesn’t tell him when to relax. He lets the student go on getting more and more tense until his nervous system spontaneously explodes into relaxation.
Colin Wilson: I prefer the method I just described. Focus and relax, focus and relax. After half a dozen times, it produces a tension in the forehead, and then on the next relaxation I really relax and go into a peak experience. I also do what I call the pen trick—concentrating on a pen against a blank wall and then let go, then concentrate, then let go. I was teaching this to some students in Finland, and I decided to show them some Reichian breathing: taking in a very deep breath and then breathing out from the lungs, from the solar plexus, from the genitals. Out. Down. Through. I said, “Let’s combine these two exercises.” I made them all lie down on the floor and visualize the pens against the ceiling, and I said, “Concentrate…relax…concentrate…relax…and then breathe out, down, through…” To my amazement we were all suddenly floating in ecstasy. I looked at my watch—we had gone a half hour into lunch break without noticing. It was as if we were all floating off the ground.
But all this boils down to one thing: we are far more in charge than we realize. A few years ago, for instance, I took on too much work—a book contract that I thought was off was suddenly on, and with a new deadline; I had to write the whole thing in a few months. It was the equivalent of writing seven 3,000-word articles a week, or one a day. Quite abruptly I started having panic attacks, the nasty ones in which you think you’re having a heart attack and might die. I learned how to control this and eventually cured it by using the exercise I just described: tense-relax-tense-relax, until you fully relax. Once you master that, you regulate your own energy level. Most of us go around leaking energy—almost as if we were cut and leaking blood—but we don’t notice it. When somebody says “Look, look!” the leak stops, and we put our energy on what they’re pointing at. But generally we don’t remember how to do that—most of us are completely the victims of our environment; we don’t remember how to push the button and fill ourselves with energy. We are like the cafe proprietor of whom Sartre wrote, “When his cafe is empty his head is empty too.” But we can learn to take charge and push our own buttons: that’s the point.
Robert Anton Wilson: Do you think the higher energy states and peak experiences can be taught to everybody, or do you think only the creative minority can learn them?
Colin Wilson: Everybody can learn them, but I think it will take a long time. It has taken me more than fifty years to learn what I know now, and I know the sheer difficulty of passing it on to even extremely intelligent people. The hope of passing it on to everybody lies in the distant future.
It’s not power over others but power over oneself that interests me. Einstein and Shakespeare did not want to dominate anyone; they wanted to dominate themselves, to force themselves to higher levels of creativity. Whenever I come across creative people who want to dominate others, it saddens me. They leak energy, because they can’t admit they are ever wrong, and they lose their creativity.
Robert Anton Wilson: You seem to think tragedy is pessimistic, but Nietzsche, for instance, thinks tragedy is an affirmation of life. In your own terms, King Lear raises energy because it arouses “Faculty X”: the sense of Reality suddenly hitting you.
Colin Wilson: Yes. I remember once reading de Sade and having a hell of a nightmare that night, in which de Sade was in the next room and had just done something horrible with a long knife. I realized when I woke that I had been thinking about him when I was reading, thinking about the quirks of his psychology, but the dream made me identify with his victims and brought in more reality. Just the other day I got a letter from somebody who said that, reading my Criminal History of Mankind, he suddenly realized that these things really happened, they are not just statistics on paper, they really happened to people. He wanted to know why it didn’t make him miserable to feel that. The reason is that when the brain suddenly apprehends more reality, you are raised a notch in energy. You are focusing.
Robert Anton Wilson: How does all this connect to your interest in parapsychology?
Colin Wilson: Only accidentally. When I was first asked to write a book on the occult, I thought, “Christ, what a bore.” I have since written half a dozen books on the subject, but only because it is connected with the things that really interest me—brain functions, peak experiences, and so on. I agree with the yogis that in learning to discipline the mind one often activates certain paranormal powers, but they are trivial and should not be a matter of obsessive interest. Their only importance is that they show again that ordinary consciousness is not the limit of what our minds can do.
Robert Anton Wilson: Let’s turn to your writings about sexual psychology. To ask a puerile question, why is sex important?
Colin Wilson: It is not a puerile question. Norman Mailer once used the very interesting expression “the meaning content of the sexual orgasm.” Think about that. The meaning is not the pleasure itself but the content, which is always Chesterton’s “absurd good news”—the vision that goes with the orgasm. It is like the peak experience, which also has no value in itself, but acquires meaning from our minds if we use it as a light to see more reality.
Robert Anton Wilson: Alan Watts said once, in this connection, that orgasm is the only time that most people ever see reality.
Colin Wilson: Yes, but the trouble is that Alan was a typical example of the person who only went halfway. He wasted most of his time seducing and fucking, and the result is that he became a drunk and was almost suicidal finally. He had the wrong notion that all you have to do is relax into the right brain and then you have all the answers. To Alan, the left brain was really wicked; that’s why he hated science and technology.
In this connection it is important realize that there is a front-back polarity in the brain, as well as a right side and left side. The back brain is the old brain that we share with the animals; the front brain, or cerebrum, contains the newest, most human circuits. A friend of mine named Dr. Howard Miller has concluded that hypnotism activates something in the cerebrum (which he thinks is the center of human consciousness), which has more control than we realize. For instance, you can not only stop pain with hypnotism, but you can also stop bleeding.
Robert Anton Wilson: Dr Timothy Leary says we think things are just happening to us, but we can learn to change the channel.
Colin Wilson: Yes. Dr. Miller says we are pessimistic because life seems like a very bad, very screwed-up film. If you ask “What the hell is wrong with the projector?” and go up to the control room, you find it’s empty. You are the projectionist, and you should have been up there all the time.
As early as The Outsider, I was fascinated by Hemingway’s story “Soldier’s Home,” about the veteran, Krebs, who finds life meaningless and empty because it’s not like the moments in the war when under crisis you did the one thing, the only thing, and it always came out right. Those moments when you do the only thing and it comes out right are when you remember you are the projectionist. Or imagine a train going up a hill that has tremendous difficulty because somebody placed the engine in the middle. In moments of emergency, it is as if somebody tells you, “Look, you idiot, the engine is supposed to be here at the front,” and then you put the engine where it should be and wham, you can do the one thing, the only thing, and it is always right. The trouble with Alan Watts and people like Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence is that they think everything is OK if you leave it all to the right brain. That is rubbish. You have to get all the parts of the brain in harmony, but the control has to come from the driver’s seat.
I realized this fully one day when I was walking on the cliffs after a hard day’s work. I kept thinking, “Christ, what a pity, this is so beautiful but I’m not appreciating it because I’m so bloody tired.” Then I deliberately made an effort to tense and felt like Graham Greene with the gun at his head, and I got into a knot of tension. When I let go, it was beautiful again. I was finally appreciating the cliffs and the sea. And I thought, “What did I do?” Because I did it—the ordinary, conscious me, the everyday Colin Wilson.
Robert Anton Wilson: In Zen they keep saying “Your ordinary mind is the Buddha,” but nobody believes it at first. We all think it has to be something more esoteric than that.
Colin Wilson: Absolutely. Husserl knew all about this and wrote of “the transcendental ego” that presides over consciousness. He insisted that attention is like an arrow fired at an object and there must be an archer there to fire it. We don’t passively receive impressions; we fire our attention at what we are looking for. David Hume said that when he looked inside himself all he saw was a hunch of ideas and impressions floating around like autumn leaves, but no Essential David Hume. And that’s true, be-cause you don’t see the essential you. The essential you is the one who is looking and seeing the ideas and impressions.
So sex is great, and relaxing into the right brain is great, and peak experiences are great, but meaning is only found when you are in the driver’s seat, when the transcendental ego is awake and aware.
The New Age Interview: Colin Wilson
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in the New Age Journal in April 1985.