High Times Greats: Colin Wilson

An iconoclastic writer can blow your mind in dozens of different ways.
High Times Greats: Colin Wilson
Computer illustration by Gregg Smith in collaboration with Kathy Neely

In February, 1986, High Times published “The Original Outsider” by Kyle Roderick, all about the work of writer Colin Wilson (1931-2013). To commemorate the anniversary of Wilson’s death on December 5, we’re republishing it below, followed by a select bibliography of Wilson’s works.

Origins of the sexual impulse… philosophical implications of crime and homicide… studies on split-brain research and the occult… consciousness-expansion through sex, drugs and self-sparked mysticism. How to reenter the imaginative realms which civilization and science have sealed off for centuries. Is the ultimate answer to life yes, or no?

The English author Colin Wilson has made a life’s work probing the above topics, answering “yes” to the ultimate question since 1956, when his first book, The Outsider, became a trans-Atlantic bestseller. Through 30 years of semi-obscurity, vicious critical attacks, non-stop writing and bank overdrafts, Wilson has produced over 50 books on a vivid array of subjects. While some of them are less compelling than others, several happen to be important and accessible works concerning human consciousness and our species’ unique role in this universe.

Wilson’s writing is hip to the positive and negative patterns of human perspective: the self-induced perceptual shifts which can help us—or prevent us—from realizing our freedom within 20th-century reality. If you’re intimidated by the sound of Wilson’s intellectual ambitiousness, relax, and forget about it. This cult writer is a high-school dropout who slept on London’s Hampstead Heath while writing The Outsider in the British Museum’s Reading Room by day. Furthermore, he lives a life of organized new-age chaos in a cottage by the sea in Cornwall, together with his wife, Joy, their two youngest children, a cat, two big dogs, and a greenhouse full of freshwater turtles.

To gain an understanding of how ahead of its time Wilson’s work is, realize that in 1956, The Outsider told us that our species’ prime imperative was to transcend the modern mind-set of religious and political trivialities, existential passivity and the cop-out belief that life is meaningless. Negative thinking, Wilson maintains, feeds upon itself and retards our species by keeping us on a blah treadmill of evolutionary inertia. On the other hand, the spiritual rebels among us, the “outsiders” who think and live on the margins of today’s dehumanized reality, can reject this pervading negativism, choosing instead to head out on a spiritual dragnet for life’s deeper sense of meaning and purpose.

“Each one of us must learn to stand alone and think for ourselves,” Wilson insists. “This is our unique freedom, to think one thought rather than another.” By focusing our egos on opening our minds to the universe’s infinite possibilities, Wilson believes, we can attain a bird’s-eye view of the cosmos, which amounts to an expanded consciousness. An anti-Darwinian, Wilson argues that evolution is less of a crapshoot than most scientists and citizens choose to believe. Only by perceiving the essentially positive nature of reality can we begin to develop into a higher form of life.

“The problem is that we impose our own ideas on reality without ever realizing that we’re doing it,” he ventures. “Buddha said that normal consciousness is a delusion, and he was exactly right. Each of us walks around in a self-programmed experience; we imagine things that aren’t there at all and screen out masses of information that are there.” According to Wilson, who has been researching and writing about the right and left hemispheres of the brain for the past decade, we can willfully correct this state of cerebral/psychic imbalance once we understand how our minds function.

“Actually, we have two minds. Ever since we started to think, we’ve become progressively more entrapped in the left half of our brains, habituated to a negative distortion of our own reality… The person you call ‘you’—your identity—lives in the left brain. This hemisphere orders your thoughts and opinions in a scientific manner. Whereas the right brain houses the intuitive, artistic, sensory ‘you’ who perceives patterns and perspectives.”

As Wilson’s explanation in his book about right-brain consciousness, Frankenstein’s Castle, has it, the bulk of our thoughts are processed through the left brain’s personality factory. Therefore, we rarely get into the right brain (orgasms and drug highs excepted) to experience the reality which lies outside ourselves and yet includes ourselves. This enhanced state of mind Wilson calls “affirmation consciousness.” In moments of tremendous affirmation, you get a feeling that there is another kind of truth, something beyond your religious point of view or your political point of view or your personal point of view. The writer G.K. Chesterton called this feeling “absurd good news,” and we’re all capable of this. The question is: how does one get back to this state again and again? Where is that bloody mountaintop from which we can finally see things clearly? How does one avoid getting sucked back into the gray boredom of triviality?

Wilson recognizes the value of drugs, meditation and sex as consciousness-expanding tools. Nevertheless, because people often end up using them as a means of escaping from thought, one must be systematic in one’s explorations.

“The real aim of drugs is, in a way, to decondition your mind; to make you suddenly aware of your own freedom… I don’t think pot does any harm, I think it should be legalized.” Wilson’s morality is the morality of the intellect: “These so-called moral issues of drug use and sexual promiscuity are totally irrelevant. The point is that if you get high intelligently, if you have sex intelligently, if your actions have the element of intentionality behind them, then your experience will have a purpose and a meaning. The thing to avoid is using drugs and sex simply for your own passive gratification.”

So, Wilson’s method for achieving affirmation consciousness is rooted in individual control of the ego. “Misery and alienation are not laid upon us by fate. They are due to the failure of the ego to accept its role as the controller of consciousness… I believe it is possible to intensify left-brain consciousness to the point where it carries us straight out of ourselves and into the larger mind of right-brain consciousness. This effort and new state of perception may eventually become a new power of thought,” he theorizes.

Wilson goes on to say that criminal behavior, for instance, is merely the individual condition of being trapped in left-brain identity. “It’s a matter of faith, really, to live up to your promise, your freedom. The killer, and almost any other habitual criminal, just doesn’t have this broader awareness. He or she thinks and lives in a vicious, trivial little world, never experiencing life outside of their own personality, so to speak. But then, this is also true of most of us…” Interpreting Wilson’s less-than-rosy assessment of the human condition as a series of cautionary views is to miss his point entirely. Be advised that in Mysteries, The Occult, The Outsider and Religion and the Rebel, he repeatedly stresses that his ideas are not necessarily “right,” or “the truth.” Moreover, the contemporary, anecdotal style of much of Wilson’s nonfiction (and novels too) encourages the reader to use his work as a skeleton key to his or her particular perceptions. It’s left up to the reader to get a window on the universal scheme of things, and this situation is especially clear in the visionary sci-fi trilogy of The Mind Parasites, The Space Vampires, and The Philosophers Stone.

In my mind, there is one tragic flaw on the face of Wilson’s fiction: the absence of female protagonists. Think about it: whom among the world’s “outsiders” could better illustrate the triumph of thinking independently and transcending a trivial reality than a woman? When I ask Wilson why he rarely creates female characters, he’s almost apologetic.

“I confess my inability to put myself behind a woman’s eyes and write women characters. It’s a limitation of mine, but at least I see women more completely as individuals than, let’s say, Hemingway did. Hemingway’s women are almost nonentities… I think perhaps that bisexual writers are in a better position to understand the woman’s point of view,” he concedes.

Regardless of Wilson’s limited take on female psychology, he’s still one of the notably rare writers offering an antidote to 20th-century, numbingly faceless alienation. On the brink of the millennium, the future of the global human family is up for grabs, but Wilson is unfazed. Our project is to realize the basic freedoms we have left to us: the power to think, to expand consciousness; to will our species upward into a new power of mind. Moreover, by thinking independently, we control our destiny in a way which politicians, class systems or educational institutions cannot. “Perception is intentional,” Wilson maintains; therefore, each of us is wholly responsible for what we think.

Who would know better than a high-school dropout?

Reading Colin Wilson: A Selective Bibliography

The Outsider: His first book; the seminal work on alienation and creativity in modem life. The first how-to book on transcending the cultural trance and expanding consciousness at all costs.

Religion and the Rebel: This successor to The Outsider argues that when there is a lack of spiritual tension, or vision, in a declining civilization, individuals will seek to broaden consciousness through spiritual rebellion.

The Occult: A superb study of the unseen realms in the human mind; magic, witchcraft, telepathy, sexual obsession, etc. The best book of its type available.

Mysteries: The follow-up to The Occult; an investigation into the paranormal and the supernatural, with lots of ancient cult history at the beginning.

Frankenstein’s Castle/The Right Brain Door to Wisdom: A methodical yet concise survey of the range of split-brain research done up until 1980. Familiarizes the reader with the nature of left- and right-brain consciousness, one of his most accessible books.

The Philosopher’s Stone: A Lovecraftian science-fiction novel about exploring powers of the m ind, perfecting a new power of thought and traveling through our collective unconscious.

The Mind Parasites: A sci-fi novel about an evolutionary leap in consciousness. The vividly imaginative writing bridges the gap between fiction, science fiction and nonfiction.

Lifeforce: Originally titled The Space Vampires. A story of thought transference, vampirism, astro-zombies and high-tech horror.

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