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Spring 2016

Anything but Bland Conformity

book cover imageCollected Essays on Philosophers
by Colin Wilson,
edited by Colin Stanley.
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.
Hardcover, 253 pages, $82.

Thomas F. Bertonneau

The British writer, thinker, and varsity intellectual nonconformist Colin Wilson (1931–2013) began his prolific authorial career with the publication of his book The Outsider in 1956. A study of mid-twentieth century existentialism and its roots, The Outsider combined the genres of literary criticism with nondogmatic and unorthodox philosophical and religious speculation, an amalgam of interests and styles that characterized the sequels to Wilson’s study, beginning with Religion and the Rebel (1957) and culminating with Beyond the Outsider (1965). By the time Beyond the Outsider appeared, Wilson had added novel-writing to his achievements, but in these works of fiction too the passages of narrative tended to alternate with passages of prose speculation, sometimes in the form of extended soliloquies, either internal or external, by one or another character. By the time of Wilson’s death, he had published hundreds of titles and had become something of a beacon for dissenters from the prevailing—and, as Wilson himself saw it, the smug and bland—liberal orthodoxy of the West, with its ever-ramifying codes and stultifying conventions.

The Outsider, with its fresh topic and brash approach, made something of a belletristic sensation, with Wilson appearing on the cover of Life magazine, but by the time Religion and the Rebel followed, an establishment reaction had formed based on a mixture of alarm and resentment. Wilson, a Bohemian without a university degree, who had written The Outsider in the reading room of the British Museum while spending his nights in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath, had trespassed on credentialed territory. Who was this self-appointed authority, not yet thirty, who arrogated to himself the unendowed privilege to criticize orthodoxy, and who argued for irrelevant and embarrassing figures like Søren Kierkegaard and Oswald Spengler? Worse, in the later books of the “Outsider Cycle,” Wilson wrote with obvious knowledge and non-professorial enthusiasm about the phenomenology of the obscure German-Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl. An upstart who advocated for foreign metaphysicians against the British school of logical positivism, Wilson had made of himself a permanent persona non grata among respectable society. At the same time, however, Wilson had created an audience. Although the prejudice against him eventually caused mainstream publishing houses to shy from him, he went on writing; and his books, usually issued by small but enterprising houses, went on selling.

A good deal of Wilson’s work remains in print, but some items of interest to his readership have been hard to find, and when found on the second-hand market command demoralizing high prices. Wilson’s study of Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, called Anti-Sartre, originally saw print in The Literary Review for May-July 1980; next, coupled with a study of Albert Camus, in a Borgo Press chapbook (1981); and finally as part of a larger essay collection, also from Borgo, in 1998, which had only a limited run. Editor Colin Stanley has collected both Anti-Sartre and “Albert Camus” in the present volume along with sixteen other items from the mid-1960s to the early 2000s, making Collected Essays on Philosophers a valuable source. Stanley’s descriptive title ought to be remarked, for it is not, I believe, incidental or casual. The book is not Wilson’s collected essay on philosophy or his collected philosophical essays: The title reflects Wilson’s conviction that philosophies originate in the conscious activity of philosophers, each of whom is an individual person with his own character in a particular cultural and historical context. Wilson never reduces philosophy to personal idiosyncrasy, but he refuses to leave the person out of the analysis.

The philosophers treated in the essays, apart from Sartre and Camus, are A. J. Ayer, C. D. Broad, Ernst Cassirer, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Edmund Husserl, Herbert Marcuse, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Popper, Bertrand Russell, Benedict de Spinoza, P. F. Strawson, G. J. Warnock, Alfred North Whitehead, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The core of the book consists of the essays on Sartre, Camus, Marcuse, Derrida, Foucault, and Husserl. Concerning Husserl, Wilson largely pays tribute, although he acknowledges problems in the phenomenologist’s manner of writing that have obscured a meaning in the text that Wilson wishes were more clearly presented. In the cases of Marcuse and three of the Gallic thinkers, Wilson takes an aggressive approach—unapologetically deconstructing the deconstructors. For Camus, however, with whom he had personal relations, Wilson searches diligently for what is redeemable. The essays of the book, taken together, even the minor ones, strongly imply and perhaps constitute a critical history of philosophy since the late nineteenth century. That history would be one of diremption, obfuscation, and egotism; the same history would be consistent with Wilson’s general assessment of modernity as an intellectually and artistically impoverished era, in which the pressure of a bland conformity has become totalitarian.

It is in the essay on Husserl (1989) and to a lesser extent in the ones on Nietzsche (1972) and Whitehead (2007) that Wilson makes clear his own philosophical premises. It might well be that Wilson’s interpretation of Husserl corresponds to something of a deliberate misreading—or at least that Wilson emphasizes aspects of Husserlian phenomenology that Husserl himself left at the margins, but which Wilson wants to replace at the center of the theory. Wilson’s title for his essay, “Husserl and Evolution,” already gives a clue to the Vitalism of its author’s thinking: Wilson identifies the dimension of consciousness with the dimension of freedom, and he presumes that freedom can only exist in the context of a living objective reality to which consciousness has access and by which it orients itself. Consciousness has a history, in Wilson’s view, in which it has enjoyed phases of intensification and phases of attenuation in which the degree of communion with reality is larger or smaller. Modernity is a phase of the attenuated consciousness that has perversely foreclosed the opportunity of visionary insight by espousing a dogmatic materialism. In this framework, Wilson’s suspicion “that Husserl, like Hegel, began life as a poet and a mystic rather than as a philosopher” makes sense. As Wilson sees it, Husserl “reacted against the … ‘intellectualist’ position” that was implicit in late–nineteenth-century academic philosophy, especially its Germanic branches. Thus, “for Husserl, the universe was the [same] large and amazing and fascinating place that it was for Charles Dickens or G. K. Chesterton.”

In Wilson’s reading, the famous phenomenological epoché—or bracketing or reduction—by which Husserl believed he could disencumber consciousness of its encrusted prejudices and thereby restore a “primitive perception” of the external reality, is the visionary heart of the Husserlian project already in the Philosophical Investigations (1901). Wilson proposes analogies for Husserl. He writes, “Around 1900, Chesterton was declaring his conviction that the aesthetes and philosophers had devalued existence, and succeeded in making us lose sight of just how marvelous the world really is.” Chesterton, however, addressed a laical audience, not a professorial one, and was a supreme ironist and satirist. Husserl wrote in the unfortunate tradition of Teutonic exposition, in long sentences and immense paragraphs that meticulously and tediously try to anticipate and disarm all possible objections in advance. Wilson is right to call the Philosophical Investigations “ponderous,” a description that could be extended to Husserl’s entire oeuvre. Nevertheless, Husserl’s insistence that perception is intentional—that it connects with something that is not illusory but rather is actually out there—constituted a proper response to the propositional cul-de-sac of psychologism, which leads to relativism, which leads to nihilism. In Wilson’s view, although phenomenology studies the subject’s perceptions, its real interest is in the structure and meaning of the reality in which consciousness finds itself situated.

When Wilson compares Husserl’s epoché to John Keats’s “negative capability” his earlier comparisons with Dickens and Chesterton, which might at first seem odd, gain plausibility. The name of William Blake does not come up in “Husserl and Evolution,” but Blake’s trope of cleansing the “doors of perception” anticipates Husserl perhaps better than the Keatsian paradox. Husserl interests Wilson because Wilson early in life recognized what in the essay he calls the “devaluing mechanism” of the modern default consciousness and understood its relation to an ubiquitous démorale. “Everyday consciousness is characterized by a certain narrowness and heaviness,” Wilson writes. Husserl argued that the most propitious starting-point for a real philosophical investigation of reality was “the natural standpoint,” which emerges as the self-discipline of the phenomenological reduction peels away the encrustations of acquired perceptual selectivity. Again in the essay “Dual Value Response—A New Key to Nietzsche” (1972), Wilson interprets the Zarathustra-author as an inveterate researcher of “the infinite world of objective meanings that surrounds us.” According to Wilson, Nietzsche’s deepest insight was that “because [people] are so poor-spirited … their vision of the universe is also poor-spirited.” (Think of the subjective world of any race-class-gender professor.) Dionysus symbolized for Nietzsche the re-vitalization of a sapped consciousness.

In “Whitehead as Existentialist” (2007), Wilson connects that philosopher’s work after his collaboration with Bertrand Russell with the Romantic revolt against the relentless demystification of the world stemming from Newton, Descartes, and Locke, and finding its final form in nineteenth-century scientism. Commenting on Symbolism—Its Meaning and Effect (1927), Wilson calls attention to Whitehead’s phrase “presentational immediacy.” Like Husserl’s “primitive perception,” Whitehead’s “presentational immediacy” implies its author’s conviction of a realm of objective being—and meaning—of which the modern, attenuated consciousness has lost sight. Wilson compares Whitehead’s later “processual” philosophy to the poetic projects of Wordsworth and Shelley. Wilson finds in Whitehead a stubborn nonconformity, a refusal to remain stuck in modern superciliousness and mediocrity, which, at the same time, says yea to the life that it hopes to intensify. In the three cases—Husserl, Nietzsche, and Whitehead—Wilson values the achievement both for its criticism of the prevailing jejuneness and for its mystical quest after a life-giving vision of reality.

Anti-Sartre qualifies more as a small book than an article; it is the longest item in the collection, by far. Wilson follows up the polemical challenge in his title with what is, quite simply, a cudgel-swinging demonstration of what Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols declared as his own method: “philosophizing with a hammer.” The issue of character again assumes importance in the analysis. Sartre is the opposite type from Husserl. The latter, as Wilson writes, began as a poetic seer who turned to philosophy; the former never outgrew his adolescent resentment against the demands of reality. Sartre’s claim about the radical contingency and meaningless of existence, while taking on the appearance of philosophy, therefore remains a species of petulance. The massive Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), for example, only achieves its massiveness by the obsessive elaboration of its own false premises. What are those premises and in what consists their falsity? Wilson points out a glaring contradiction in Sartre’s linkage of “nausea” or alienation with the perception that reality is complex. As in his novel La nausée (1938), so in the Critique the complexity of reality is supposed to guarantee the meaninglessness of reality; but if reality were complex, how could it lack meaning? Complexity implies meaning. In La nausée, the protagonist finds authenticity in standing up to his own contingent nature, the discipline that Sartre can only be attributing to himself given that Roquentin is a self-projection. As Wilson sees things, both Roquentin and his author have mistaken a subjective mood, rooted in a childish attitude, for an objective characterization of the world.

Whether it is Roquentin or Sartre, in Wilson’s words, “he is perfectly aware that [things] are not meaningless,” but “he is appalled by the effort he is being asked to make to grasp their meaning.” Wilson writes that, “Sartre is allowing his inborn tendency to pessimism to sneak into his philosophy as if it were a kind of logical premise.” The error of mistaking a mood for an axiom leads directly to the philosophical anticlimax: “It seems incongruous to hear an ageing philosopher proclaim himself an atheist, and state his belief that true progress now lies in the attempt of the coloured races to liberate themselves through violence.” Wilson indeed suspects that the whole of Sartre’s project arises from Sartre’s rivalry with Husserl. Sartre borrows premises of phenomenology, but at every turn he makes the opposite judgment from Husserl. Because Husserl’s judgments grew from a fundamentally healthy attitude to life, Sartre’s, in being programmatically opposite, could only be unhealthy. If Husserl proposed a “transcendental ego,” that is to say, a human nature that limited human agency, then Sartre would be sure to reject it, not least because it smacked of deity, an idea that Sartre loathed. In a world empty of significance, as Wilson argues, Sartrean man’s only recourse is to lose himself in “projects” that are ultimately as devoid of significance as the world in which the subject pursues them. The Sartrean premises, falsely grounded in subjective relativism, lead to activist nihilism.

In his role as a publicity-seeking nihilist who liked to be seen in cafes and cinemas and be talked about in the press, Sartre established a model for the next generation of French philosophers, among whom the standout figures are Derrida and Foucault. Wilson’s essay on “Derrida and Deconstruction” (1992) nourishes itself on the full year that Wilson dedicated to reading and—insofar as it was possible—also understanding Derrida’s obscure prose. In Derrida’s pages, readers discover what happens to intellectual activity when intellectuals abolish the “transcendental ego.” As Wilson writes, “‘Deconstruction’ is a method of criticism that begins with the assumption that the author himself does not understand what he is trying to say, and is as likely to be wrong about it as any critic.” Wilson detects in Derrida the same desire to disestablish Husserl that he detected in Sartre. “There is a sense,” Wilson writes, “in which Derrida is Sartre redivivus.” Editor Stanley includes Wilson’s “Notes on Derrida for Rowan” (1992), Rowan being one of Wilson’s sons, who at the time was studying at Oxford. Wilson observes that Derrida has constructed a bad syllogism: Just because ambiguity is one characteristic of language, it never follows that language is nothing but ambiguity, or, in Derrida’s coinage, jeu or “play.” Literary critics swallowed the Kool-Aid of deconstruction because it freed them from the obligation to discern meaning in literary texts; instead, like happy-go-lucky kindergartners at the sandbox, they would now “play” with literary texts. As Wilson writes, “This view became understandably popular with critics, who enjoyed the thought that they were jazz improvisers rather than academic hacks trying to be faithful to the text.”

Based on the biographies of Foucault, Wilson feels justified in attributing to the author of The Order of Things (1966) a long-simmering desire of “toppling Sartre from his intellectual pedestal and taking his place.” Like Derrida, Foucault is for Wilson not an original thinker. Like Sartre, Foucault’s method was petulant reversal: If society once locked up the mad, then it must be because the mad were sane and vice versa; and ditto if society locked up prisoners—morality would necessarily lie with convicts and evil with the people who insist on judgment and incarceration. As Wilson points out, Foucault was recycling precursors like De Sade, Lautréamont, Jean Genet, Georges Bataille, and R. D. Laing. Even more than Derrida’s prose, Foucault’s prose exhibits “incredible obscurity”; and “he is the obscurest of modern French writers.” Ultimately Foucault appears as a sexual rebel whose “sado-masochistic sexuality is the key to his work” and whose “professorial urbanity fails to disguise [his] underlying self-pity.” Herbert Marcuse, while not homosexual, hated constituted authority as much as Foucault. He seized on the so-called sexual revolution as a useful instrument for fomenting the social transformation of the Marxist project. Marcuse’s thinking is once again derivative—of older Frankfurt School writers, and Freud, and Wilhelm Reich, about whom Wilson once wrote a book.

The essay on Camus reserves the white-light candor of the essays on Sartre and the others for a gentler approach. Wilson knew Camus as a friendly acquaintance in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Camus read Wilson appreciatively. Wilson emphasizes that Camus’s early death—in an automobile accident—prevented him from ever becoming a mature writer. There is something tentative, a promise unfulfilled, in Camus’s work, as Wilson reads it. For one thing, there is the struggle with the conformist nonconformism of the French Left, the irrational conviction that one must espouse this, that, or another Marxian tenet or topical slogan. Camus’s break with Sartre foreshadows the decades-later intensification of political correctness in the intellectual classes. That break also suggests that Camus saw the need for independence from conformist pressure. Wilson sees evidence in the big novel La peste (1947) and in certain late works of just such a burgeoning independence. On the other hand, Wilson also sees signs of creative stagnation: Instead of another novel or another book-length essay in the manner of L’Homme révolté (1951), Camus adapted a Dostoevsky novel as a play. At his death, the young upstarts of the cultural avant-garde already saw Camus as an irrelevancy.

Cambridge Scholars Publishing has handsomely produced the Collected Essays on Philosophers, placing an iconic photo-image of Wilson himself, from the 1960s, on the front dustcover. The volume is surprisingly coherent for an anthology drawing on occasional material from across four decades. The many references to Husserl contribute to this coherency. I, for one, hope that Stanley continues to make public unpublished or hard-to-find items by Wilson whose stance, at ninety degrees to everything, makes him ever a refreshing commentator on issues of importance. The introduction by John Shand rounds off an eminently readable volume.  

Thomas F. Bertonneau is a long-time visiting professor on SUNY Oswego's English faculty. He writes about literature, music, religion, politics, and culture.

Posted: June 12, 2016

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