The Argotist Online
Colin Wilson Interview
Colin Wilson is a renowned author of both fiction and non-fiction. His work concentrates on the positive aspects of human psychology such as the concept of peak experiences, as intimated by Abraham Maslow, whom Wilson knew. Throughout his work Wilson contends that the existentialist stress on “meaninglessness” is an incomplete account of reality and, therefore, the reasons for accepting it are not obligatory.
His non-fiction book The Outsider became an international best seller in 1956. Among his other numerous non-fiction books are: Religion and the Rebel, The Age of Defeat (US: The Stature of Man), Encyclopaedia of Murder (with Patricia Pitman), The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination, Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs, Bernard Shaw: A Reassessment, Poetry and Mysticism, The Occult, New Pathways in Psychology: Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution, The Unexplained, Enigmas and Mysteries, and Mysteries.
Wilson has also written novels including: Ritual in the Dark, The Black Room, The Philosophers Stone, God of the Labyrinth, The Space Vampires (adapted as the 1985 film Lifeforce).
Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino lives in New York City where he edits the online journal,
eratio postmodern poetry. His poetry and prose have appeared in a variety of print and online publications including
Barrow Street, jubilat, The Germ, Xcp: Cross-Cultural
Poetics, 5_Trope, In Posse Review, Nthposition, Xcp:
Streetnotes, Cordite Poetry Review, Softblow, Rattapallax--Fusebox,
Aught, Malleable Jangle, Movement One: Creative Coalition and
can we have our ball back? He has a degree in philosophy from Fordham University.
You have a profound understanding of the condition/of the psychology
of the poet and of the poetic consciousness, this goes beyond “to be in
sympathy with,” beyond empathy or “identification,” indeed it is clear
that you are writing about yourself when you write about the poet and such as
“Faculty X” and the poetic imagination (and the freedom that is available to
consciousness). You are obviously a
poet. But I wonder, have you
written any poetry?
When in my teens—but it was much influenced by Rupert Brooke and
Yeats, and I would be embarrassed to see it in print.
Do you have any favorite poets, and is there any poetry that when
you read it makes you say, Wow, now that’s what I call poetry!
I’ve loved poetry since my teens, when I had to leave school at 16
and go to work. This made me so
miserable—I was working in a factory—that I relied on poetry as an alcoholic
does on booze. Eliot was specially
important, so was Yeats, and poems like Wilfred Owen’s Exposure moved me
powerfully. Otherwise, the earliest
influence was Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, much of which I knew by heart.
Matthew Arnold and Browning were favourites.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that were we to examine the
phenomenon of poetry as it appears throughout the ages—starting, say, with
Homer, and to Virgil, to Dante, and to the Metaphysicals and to Eliot—that in
doing so we were able to identify, in that various poetry, Faculty X as it has
made its impression in different ways and at different times and in varying
degrees: I wonder, first, what
exactly would it be that we recognize as Faculty X, as an instance of Faculty X
(is it, the emergence of symbols?),
and then, would we be likely to discern, in the various poetry, throughout the
ages, an increase in the appearance/occurrence of Faculty X, an indication of
what is to come, or would we discern a decrease, a lack, a lessening, and
periods of abject absence?
Faculty X does not make for symbols.
It is simply that feeling of wide-awakeness that you get on a spring
morning, and Rupert Brooke is full of it. It
is important to grasp that the mind can deliberately change
the way it sees things. Brooke
tells how he can wander about a village wild with exhilaration.
‘And it’s not only beauty and beautiful things.
In a flicker of sunlight on a blank wall, or a reach of muddy pavement,
or smoke from an engine at night, there’s a sudden significance and importance
and inspiration that makes the breath stop with a gulp of certainty and
happiness. It’s not that the wall
or the smoke seem important for anything or suddenly reveal any general
statement, or are suddenly seen to be good or beautiful in themselves—only
that for you they’re perfect and
unique. It’s like being in love
with a person. . . . I suppose my
occupation is being in love with the universe’.
can see that this has more to do with Gurdjieff’s
‘self-remembering’—that simultaneous awareness of looking at something and
being aware of yourself looking at it—than with Arnold Toynbee’s experience
It seems to me the appearance/occurrence of Faculty X is
intermittent, and then always only imperfectly realized (albeit, imperfectly
realized may be enough, or may be all that can be sustained/endured).
It seems to me that in today’s poetry Faculty X is almost entirely
absent—this is not only to say that today’s poetry is almost entirely
“uninspired,” but that it is almost entirely lacking in “consciousness,”
but as though it were written by a machine, a machine that while able to form
sentences according to the principles of grammar, could never intuit the
philosophy behind meanings and signification.
I wonder, is Faculty X for the most part behind us, and when seen to
occur is in some vestigial form, or if indeed it lies before us and is indeed a
matter of evolution. . . ?
Again, poetry should not be equated with Faculty X.
I often give as an example of Faculty X a women who was sitting on the
lavatory in the backyard of a Jack the Ripper murder site when the woman who was
waiting for her pointed to the steps and said:
‘That where Jack killed Annie Chapman’, and the woman screamed and
leapt to her feet. That is nothing
to do with poetry, but everything to do with a sense of reality, the ‘shock of
I have a bookshed full of poets from Auden to Yeats, I don’t read much
poetry—too busy writing.
You mention Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. In
2000 Palgrave issued a special facsimile edition of that. It’s a little hardcover book—if you put your hands
together like you’re praying, it fits right inside your hands. It’s a lovely, wonderful anthology—“Selected and
Arranged with Notes by Francis Turner Palgrave”—and I am so happy to have a
copy. I don’t think we have
anything like this for the United States, nothing that is “a true national
I keep the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry by my bed.
Still with Faculty X and the poet: is it not so that poetry, that
the poet can make of his poetry, the documentation of the experience of Faculty
X, or, rather, of the experience that Faculty X makes available to us, that
being the so-called “peak experience,” or, what you have termed
“promotion”? Is it not so that
poetry can be the result of it, or, that, no, not symbols, but insights, and
maybe it was the job of the poet to fashion symbols that stand for or that give
form to those insights?
It seems to me that you over-emphasise Faculty X, which is
essentially a trick of the brain.
What is far more significant is what Chesterton calls ‘absurd good
news’, and Proust ‘moments bienheureux’.
It is true that what Proust experienced as he tasted the Madeleine dipped
in tea was Faculty X, but what matters is his comment ‘I had ceased to feel
accidental, mediocre, mortal’. Question:
Is that true or an illusion? I would answer: True.
So what prevents us from grasping it?
Our own tendency to what William James calls ‘a certain blindness in
human beings’, what I have called ‘the bullfighter’s cape’ that confines
our perception to CLOSE-UPNESS. (The
matador defeats the bull by not allowing
it a clear view.) Close-upness
deprives us of meaning.
don’t need symbols. Yeats says it
with great clarity in Under Ben Bulben, in quite clear and straightforward
language. Shaw also said it quite
clearly, and he is not poet. In Back to Methuselah he defines the problem as ‘discouragement’.
Blake calls it ‘doubt’, and said ‘If the sun and moon should doubt/
They’d immediately go out’.
people who deserve blame are the pessimists, the poisoners of our cultural
wellsprings, like Samuel Beckett and William Golding.
parrot ‘Beckett is a great writer’. He
isn’t. With the exception of
Godot, which justifies itself by being funny, he is a dreary shit.
And in encouraging the notion that life is ‘a tale told by an idiot’,
and that our attitude towards it ought to be one of weary resignation, he is an
enemy of human evolution. Other
writers have taken the same attitude, including Shakespeare, but there is a
greatness in his language that contradicts his negativeness.
In Beckett’s later work there is no such counterbalance.
In your book, Poetry and Mysticism, in the chapter on Rupert Brooke, you say that
“to experience ‘promotion’ is the mark of a poet.” You say, “the poem is seen to be the honest expression of a
personal emotion, and the record of a certain kind of promotion experience.”
You write, “a poet is a certain type of person: one who is subject to
unpredictable states of ‘promotion,’ a sense of ‘enlargement’ that is
oddly impersonal.” I wonder if
over the years since this book appeared (I have the 1970 edition), have any
poets come to you and told you that what you were writing was true?
And, but surely, this record of experience (that is the poem) is not
(when at its best) just some narcissistic indulgence or biography, it conveys
knowledge, does it not? Now this is
not necessarily knowledge of the type that, say, a Virgil, a Dante or a Milton
recounts, but it is, isn’t it, knowledge of some sort, say a knowledge of the
possibilities of consciousness? In
the case of Rupert Brooke, is it just that we have an instance of an awakening,
an instance of Keats’ negative capability, of “the pure poetic experience,
the sudden forgetfulness of personality,” and that is that, that is the
lesson, there is no need to look any further. . . ?
The promotion experience is, like Proust’s ‘ceasing to feel
mediocre, accidental, mortal’, A GLIMPSE OF WHO YOU REALLY ARE.
Which is why Nietzsche can talk about ‘how one becomes what one is’.
Cyril Connolly once said that inside every fat man there is a thin man
struggling to get out. Well, inside every weak, modest man there is a Zarathustra
trying to get out. That Zarathustra
is the poet.
For the young intellectual, for the sensitive outsider (that was me,
and still is), to come upon the books of Colin Wilson, whether by happy accident
or by recommendation, is soon to come to see Colin Wilson as his hero.
Beckett and Golding and for that matter Sartre and Ayer and Heidegger and
Wittgenstein and Derrida are nobody’s heroes.
Alienation will never go away, in fact it’s getting worse, and the
young intellectual, if he has the brains, he can say a hundred reasons why the
world should go straight to hell. (The
death of God is as eternal as God is.) But
the philosophy in The Outsider is
affirmative, it is life-affirming, that is the trick, while at the same time
being this unprecedented analysis and commentary of Existentialist literature. .
. . My question is this: Are you
still optimistic? In the Postscript
to The Outsider (was this in 1967?)
you say you feel exciting things are about to happen, that we are on the brink
of some discovery that will make our century a turning point in human history. .
. . Given the state of philosophy,
and of literature, and of politics and of the religions (and of what some say is
today a war of religions!)—are you still optimistic?
Of course I am, because my optimism is a general basic verdict on
human existence, as the pessimism of Beckett or Celine or Andreyev is their own
assessment, and it seems to me to be full of their personal weakness and
subjectivity—their poor emotional health, if you like.
The Outsider my starting point was all
those 19th century writers and artists who came to a sad end, and who ended by
saying (in the words of a friend of mine) ‘The answer to life is no’.
reaction was like that of an accountant who is reacting to the statement ‘We
had better declare bankruptcy’. ‘No,
no, no. You’ve plenty of better
Your book Poetry and Mysticism (I have the Hutchinson of London edition, from
1970) is just loaded with ideas and insights and is of interest not only to the
poet but to the student of literature as well, and with all these ideas there is
what will be for many a fresh perspective, a fresh approach to the whole
subject. This book has definitely
been a hand up for me in my education in poetry, and, what’s more, in my
discovering for myself the possibilities available to me.
I say to any poet who has experienced inspiration—but I mean that
profound, uncanny inspiration that has left you with a re-organization of your
subjective life!—I say you must study this book. And there are probably copies of it in university libraries
all over the place. (And it
deserves to be reissued, indeed all your writings on poetry and on the
psychology of the poet ought never to go out of print.)
I think what is going on here (in this, Poetry
and Mysticism) is a conditioning, a preparation, a propaedeutic (and not
only for the poet but for the reader as well) for a new kind of experience of
poetry. You write (on page 50):
“Poetry makes us slow down.
It is as if I was in a hurry, panting and rushing, and someone said:
‘Stop it. Slow down.
Relax for a moment.’ The
basic difference between poetry and prose is not so much a matter of the form as
of the content. Prose is always in
a hurry to get somewhere; it is either telling a story or pursuing an argument. When you read a poem—even if it is in a vers libre that is indistinguishable from prose—you automatically
slow your mind down to a walk knowing that it can only produce its effect if the
mind is relaxed.” Now that
doesn’t seem all that extraordinary, but what I think you’re getting at is a
matter of deliberative reading, a
reading that is conscious (i.e., not
mechanical, not by rote, not by routine but that is “slowed down and focussed”)
and that is intentional. And this is in line with what you write in the Postscript to
your book The Outsider.
It is there that you say: “perception
is intentional.” That is so
important to consider! This concept
has become for me—and is, I think, for every poet—a key to many doors.
I said it most simply in telling that story of the Master Ikkyu, who was
asked by a workman to write something on his tablet, and wrote, ‘Attention’. Disappointed, the man said ‘Cant you say something more?’
And Ikkyu wrote, ‘Attention. Attention’.
‘But what does attention mean,’ asked the bewilderd workman.
‘Attention means attention,’ said Ikkyu.
I can say that The Outsider has had two effects on me: One, I knew that then my mission was to read every work of
literature, of philosophy, of psychology and of religion that you quote from or
make reference to. And two, my
whole idea of what reading was and of how to read had changed.
Up ’til then I don’t know what I was doing (something called
“reading,” I suppose), I would be reading Andrew Marvell and trying to
visualize in my head, trying to make a motion picture out of the poetry, and I
realized I was wasting all my energy, all my energy on this production, on what
I thought was the production of the meaning of the poetry.
My reading was intentional, but it was focused on the wrong thing.
In my own, personal necessity to make sense of this concept (perception is intentional), I realized that as I was reading I was
visualizing meaning, and at the expense of signification.
The difference is between visualizing
(which takes a great deal of conscious energy) and understanding,
between seeing—seeing, for instance, identity,
difference, contrariety—and just allowing my powers of intellection to
know them, to know them as they are and for what they are (—they are ideas,
they are concepts, and they are clothed in sound and orthography).
I say, given all your research, and all your scholarship and
explorations, can you say that you have found confirmation that the answer does
indeed lie with Faculty X, and the station where to be able to avail ourselves
of it at will? Can you say that you
have found confirmation that consciousness does indeed exist but such that there
can be a growth in consciousness? And if so, is this the human potential?
For years I pursued my investigation into the question of the peak
experience and how it comes about. And
then, towards the end of 1979, I had a major breakthrough.
This is how I describe it in a book called
The Devil's Party:
‘On New Year’s Day, 1979, I was trapped by snow in a remote Devon
farmhouse, where I had gone to lecture to extra-mural students.
After 24 hours we decided we had to make an effort to escape.
It so happened that my car was the only one that would climb the slope
out of the farmyard. After several
hours’ hard work with shovels, we finally reached the main road. The snow on the narrow country road had been churned up by
traffic, but was still treacherous. And
in places where the snow was still untouched, it was hard to see where the road
ended and the ditch began. So as I
began to make my way home, I was forced to drive with total, obsessive
attention. Finally back on the main
Exeter road, where I was able to relax, I noticed that everything I looked at
seemed curiously rea1 and interesting. The
hours of concentrated attention had somehow ‘fixed’ my consciousness in a
higher state of alertness. There
was also an immense feeling of optimism, a conviction that most of our problems
are due to vagueness, slackness, inattention, and that they are all perfectly
easy to overcome with determined effort. This
state lasted throughout the rest of the drive home.
Even now, merely thinking about the experience is enough to bring back
the insight and renew the certainty’.
experience of a ‘more powerful’ consciousness seemed a revelation, because
it was not some sudden mystical ‘flash’; I
had done it myself. So it ought
to be possible to do again.
found it far more difficult than I had anticipated.
I often tried it when driving, and achieved it briefly, but never for
long. I did, in fact, succeed again
on a long train journey. But when I
tried again the next day, on the return journey, I found it impossible.
Obviously, the effort had exhausted some inner energy.
I began to suspect that it was the sense of emergency that had brought
about my first success, and that this was difficult to create at will.
over the years I have gone on trying. And
finally, about two years ago, I found I was succeeding in learning the
‘trick’ that would achieve the kind of focused attention required to release
this sense of access to some kind of brain-energy.
This focused attention
brings with it an insight: that one of the main problems with the quest for
insight is our tendency to what might be called ‘negative feedback’.
In your book The Occult, in the chapter entitled, “The Poet as Occultist”
(and just this chapter, in itself, is an education), you begin by saying: “The
poet is a man in whom Faculty X is naturally more developed than in most
people.” And you ask: “Do
poets, in fact, possess a higher degree of ‘occult’ powers than most men?”
Now, granted you do caution us (on page 59): “It would be a mistake to
think of Faculty X as an ‘occult’ faculty.”
None the less right prior to that you say: “Faculty X is the key to all
poetic and mystical experience; when it awakens, life suddenly takes on a new,
poignant quality.” Now, I think there are indeed occult aspects to poetry, and
by “occult” I mean only that they are hidden, hidden in that they are
avilable to the adept only (but that anybody, given the talent or aptitude, may
become an adept and read for himself these hidden aspects). But more, given his truck with symbols—and you write (page
106): “a symbol can gain a hold on the imagination and cause a more powerful
response than the actuality that it represents”—I wonder, given his truck
with symbols, is not the poet indeed a sort of magician (able to work change at
a distance)? I wonder, given the
idea of “the poet as occultist,” have you, since, modified your views at
In that chapter I was asserting that poets and artists have a
naturally wider range of powers—second sight, telepathy, glimpses of the
future—than non-poets. In fact,
all mn have wider powers than they realise, and underestimate them because of
the human tendency to self-mistrust, the ‘fallacy of insignificance’, which
I have been fighting all my life. If
my ‘message’ was clearly understood, it would be ‘You are stronger than
copyright © Colin Wilson & Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino