I recently read in someone’s blog post that the author Colin Wilson has died, apparently at the same time as Nelson Mandela, which partially explains why it did not make the news.
I met the author at a book signing in Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and I recall it still as one of the best days of my life. Wilson wrote something like 100 books, all on varied topics — science fiction, existential philosophy, biography, the occult, criminality — but all with one theme: that human beings are capable of far more than we are aware, that we are sleepwalking through our lives when we should be purposefully expanding our consciousness.
For a large part of his career he wrote about the occult, mystics and psychic phenomena. This made many of even his most faithful fans uncomfortable. He always presented this research as just the facts as he and others had uncovered them. Still, he was willing to believe much that a skeptical mind would dismiss. It certainly hurt his reputation among the establishment of intellectuals and academics.
Yet, sometimes I wonder. Recently I came across a group at the University of Virginia that is trying to find scientific proof for many of the outrageous subjects that Wilson pursued — reincarnation, psychokinesis, near death and out of body experiences.
Called the Division of Perceptual Studies, their website is worth a visit for anyone with curiosity about psychic research. They do something similar and just as controversial as what Wilson did, for instance, gathering stories of thousands of children who remember the details of past lives of obscure people they would have no reason to know about.
What seems to me most intriguing is that the memories begin around the age of two or three, but fade away completely by age seven or eight. Some call it pseudoscience, but I don’t think anything having to do with the mind is settled. What we can explain is science, what remains is mystery.
At least until the past century or two, most people in most places have believed in some form of mystical phenomena.
Every Sunday I sit in a pew in a mainstream Protestant church and listen to stories of reincarnation, magical happenings, mystical visions. Most of the stories flow past me in a pleasant daydream, neither believed nor not believed, familiar and comforting.
It reminds me of those Sunday school lessons told with cut-out characters on the felt board from childhood, like the stories of George Washington or the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving, not factual but nonetheless meaningful.
We are storytellers and mythmakers, seeing patterns in clouds. Colin Wilson saw patterns in many places, including in the lives of those he called Outsiders.
In that brilliant and still readable book written almost 60 years ago, Wilson develops a vision of a new kind of man, an evolution in consciousness, but one unable to cope with the world as it is: the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who ended life in a madhouse; Lawrence of Arabia, who escaped his fame and enlisted in the Royal Air Force under an assumed name; the writers Arthur Rimbaud and Rainer Maria Rilke, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka, all of them hypersensitive, troubled visionaries.
Wilson was an outsider, a working class high school dropout who absorbed the contents of the public libraries and made connections no one else had seen.
From a working class family myself, and with a propensity toward the mystical, I identified with Wilson and am sad now that he is traveling on, but to where, that is still a mystery.
Walt Mills can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 174, Spring Mills, PA 16875