Saturday, December 7, 2013

Colin Wilson?

Arthur Hlavaty reports that Colin Wilson has died. Strangely, I find this difficult to confirm. None of the British newspapers I've checked have, as of the moment, reported his death, except possibly the Times, which hides its stuff behind a paywall. Wikipedia gives the date as this last Thursday with no source. The Wilson website linked to from there lists him as 1931-2013 in its header, but its news update page hasn't been updated since March. The only other sources I can find are a couple of bloggers, Mike Glyer among them.

Surely he hasn't fallen so far into obscurity as that? Wilson burst into fame in 1956 when he was still only 24, as "the sleeping-bag philosopher of Hampstead Heath," who had adopted that form of nighttime abode for a while to save money while writing his first book by day in the British Museum. The book, which caused all the fuss, was a survey of existentialist alienation in modern literature, called The Outsider. Apparently nothing like it had been done in litcrit before, because it was hailed by many critics as a masterpiece and its author as a young genius. A few months later everyone woke up and realized that The Outsider was nothing but a collection of quotations strung together with a tissue of connecting material that assumed that the quotes spoke for themselves. It seemed pretentious and overblown and composed of nothing much. Wilson quickly dropped off the critical map and never returned. Apparently even death has not released him.

But that didn't stop him. Wilson had been called a genius and was ever after sure that he was. He assumed that he was qualified to pronounce on any subject, and did. He wrote prolifically and still got published, fiction as well as nonfiction. His main focus was on the occult, both in literature and in purported reality. But he wrote on other things too.

I have two of his books, both on subjects I know pretty well. They are almost breathtakingly breezy in their sweep and assumed confident knowledge, and they're terribly name-droppy. (His essay on Tolkien begins, "A few years ago, I went to have lunch with W.H. Auden in his New York apartment. It was the first time I'd met him, and Norman Mailer had warned me ..." Well, did you evah?) A few unintentionally comic gaps in Wilson's knowledge show just how much of it must have come from hasty superficial skimming. Arthur cites Wilson's unfamiliarity with π, and the essay on Tolkien, in claiming that "Tolkien's style and erudition must make a refreshing change" for the college students who made up his fan base, says this is because other things like it they're likely to read are so bad, in particular science fiction: "It is almost impossible to name a science fiction novel written ... since Amazing Stories made the genre so popular that rises above the clichés of cheap pulp fiction."

Now the argument that Gernsback ruined SF, at least for a time, has been made by others, in particular Darrell Schweitzer (a writer remarkably like Wilson in his breezy sweep and casual readability). But this is 1973, and Wilson has just not been keeping up if he thinks SF is still all pulpy by any definition.

Mostly the Tolkien essay is better than that. It's a stout defense, though undermined by repeated grumbles at aspects of Tolkien that Wilson finds irritating, and it's most valuable for its breeziness, drawing comparisons to everyone from Chesterton and Yeats to Jeffrey Farnol and Bernard Shaw. He discusses most of Tolkien's available fiction on an equal basis, and claims Niggle as an Outsider. Reflecting his particular fondness for "Leaf by Niggle," Wilson titles his piece Tree by Tolkien, and as it was published as a chapbook it's gotten more attention than a magazine article of the same length would.

The other Wilson book I have is his equally breezy 1964 survey of classical music, Brandy of the Damned: Discoveries of a Musical Eclectic (US Chords and Discords, with an added chapter on US music which I've copied and stuck in the back). Wilson acknowledges being completely untrained; these are simply the musings of an enthusiastic listener to mostly 19th & 20th century music on records and the radio (he doesn't like concerts, because the repertoire tends to be too stuffy). I have to say, though: however superficial his self-education, Wilson knows most of his stuff. I disagree with many of his judgments - he finds Vaughan Williams irritating, and attributes to Britten the twee quality that most negative critics would assign to VW instead, though he's basing this on the children's operas and the Spring Symphony; OK, I can see it, though I still disagree - but he says a lot I feel to be right on that others wouldn't say. He says, "Mahler has little in common with Bruckner except the number and length of his symphonies." Right on! He says, "Sullivan's fertility and melodic gift were surely as great as Rossini's." Right on! In particular, he has the guts, or the innocence, to disregard a lot of 1964 critical orthodoxy. He praises Sibelius at the nadir of his reputation, though, oddly enough, he doesn't actually discuss Sibelius's music. In particular, he denies the strident critical orthodoxy of the time that serialism is the central tradition of modern music. If it were, he says, it wouldn't be necessary to argue the point. "Beethoven seemed a difficult composer to the general public of his day, and his late quartets are still as 'difficult' for the average listener as any Schoenberg; but the manifest importance of what he had to say carried the day. ... If any of these men [e.g. Schoenberg, Sessions, Copland in his 'difficult' phases] were obviously of the stature of Beethoven, there would be no argument; the works themselves would carry the day."

Right on.

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