Thursday, February 13, 2014

Colin Wilson 1931-2013

Colin Wilson died on the same day as Nelson Mandela. I've read a couple of appreciations of Wilson. This obituary from The Guardian provides a fair assessment. But while I agree for the most part with these assessments, I want to add a few words of my own. 

I discovered Religion and the Outsider at a used bookshop in Berkley in 1997, when I was in the Bay Area for a deposition. I hadn't known of Wilson, but the title and a quick perusal convinced me to buy it. From that book (which I read not long thereafter), I went on to read The Outsider and some of the others in that cycle. I've also read his New Pathways in Psychology, which started as a biography of Abraham Maslow; however, it soon morphed into a history of modern philosophy and psychology as well as Maslow biography. I found some of this work quite intriguing. He seemed to have a sense of how existentialism works (or might work) other than by serving as a bleak outlook on life. Wilson developed his own theory of the brain and how it focuses on either the near-term or the long-term. He talked about how boredom can slip in when life has no challenge and no immediate goals. In some ways, he anticipates Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and McGilchrist's theory of the two brains. Wilson culled his insight from a journey that went from a mundane car ride to a will-we-or-won't-we-make-it battle against inclement weather. The focus was all. This experience provided him with what he dubbed “the St. Neot margin”. In the focus and intensity the battle against the storm, he identified an antidote to the despair that marked so much of Continental existentialism. He seems more at home with the European thinkers than the English heritage of Locke and Hume through to analytic philosophy.

But Wilson was an autodidact, and this was both his strength and his weakness. He could roam into whatever subject his inquisitive mind desired, but he lacked focus and standards of proof to limit his conclusions. He delved into true crime, the occult, rogue gurus, biographies of fringe figures like Gurdjieff (whom, while fringe, is worthwhile), Jung, and contemporary magicians. He also wrote about Shaw and penned literary criticism. He often repeated himself and seemed undiscerning about evidence. He often concluded in favor of suspect occurrences and practices. He explored subjects with an eye toward his fundamental insight about human consciousness, which didn’t seem to have grown or deepened much. My reading of later Wilson doesn't show much deepening of his initial insights. This became the frustration of reading Wilson. Reinforcement is no doubt worthwhile, but one suspects that he spread himself too thin in writing about the fringe or the macabre.

Besides his insights into human consciousness, I appreciated his deep love of books. Wilson was a school dropout. So when he read, he read because he loved to read. Not assigned to read Shaw, Sartre, Camus, or any other author, he read with genuine enthusiasm. He shared this enthusiasm in his autobiography as a record of reading, The Books in My Life. This book serves as a form of autobiography and as a reflection on important works, such as those of Shaw, whom he admired.

Perhaps someone should publish a “Fundamental Colin Wilson” volume that takes nuggets from his vast body of writing and lays them out so that others can explore them without having to search the junk in his work. Until that time, it's worthwhile to search this eclectic and amateur—but often intriguing—thinker.

News from Berlin by Otto de Kat

When I began News from Berlin I expected something along the lines of Alan Furst (whom I’ve enjoyed), but it turned out to be something slightly different and a bit richer, too. I read this book because de Kat participated in the Jaipur Literature Festival. I’m glad I did. 

Unlike Furst, who follows a central character through the perils of time immediately before and at the beginning of the Second World War, in this novel de Kat focuses on a family. The father is a Dutch diplomat in Switzerland, the wife volunteers at a hospital in London, and their adult daughter is married to a member of the German Foreign Ministry. The son-in-law is not a Nazi; in fact, he’s unsympathetic to the Nazi regime and certainly watched by the Gestapo. The novel begins in early June 1941. The war has begun. France fell quickly; Britain just barely survived. The U.S. remains officially on the sidelines while Hitler and Stalin have a non-aggression pact. For the family, life seems balanced if tenuous. But then the daughter passes on a secret to her father about a major German action coming soon. The knowledge becomes like an infectious disease passed (intentionally) from daughter to father to mother, endangering the thin tissue of each receiver’s existence and relationships without reducing (as hoped) the burden on the person passing  on the moral and practical demands that the secret requires of them.

De Kat’s focus, however, is more than espionage and the moral dilemmas of wartime. It also focuses on the members of the family, their relationships with each other and those closest to them. The delicate balance of relationships changes as each comes into contact with the other. New realities reveal themselves and confound the characters perhaps as much as their burdensome secret. History in the family, as in life, intrudes and shapes the present in ways that the characters can’t escape and can only vaguely comprehend. 

Writers like Graham Greene, Eric Amber (I’m now reading another Ambler), and Alan Furst have written a great deal set in this time period. While titanic military and political forces met in epic struggles, individuals and families—at least those lucky enough to live—continue to try to live and maintain a semblance of ordinary life when the time is not ordinary at all. To me, that's what makes this period so fruitful for novelists and historians (such as John Lukacs) and why I’m so drawn to it. Now I add Otto de Kat to the honor role of writers who explore this dark and frightening time not so long ago.