Bicameral Critic, The
by Colin Wilson
Simply put: I love Colin Wilson’s writing. He’s one of my favorite authors and I could enjoy reading him on just about any topic, no matter how boring the title may sound. In this book, there’s a passage in his essay about George Bernard Shaw that struck me as sort of ironic, because it’s almost exactly how I feel about Wilson’s own writing:
. . . I found it impossible not to keep on reading with a kind of excited approval, like a spectator at a boxing match who has to shout his enthusiasm. . . Within a few lines, I was chuckling, then shouting with laughter — not so much because I found it funny as because it was so exhilarating. It made no difference whether I opened the Collected Plays at Widower’s Houses or Farfetched Fables; the effect was always the same: a sense of revitalization, of excitement, like setting out on a holiday.
This just about sums up Wilson for me. His prose is simple, conversational, yet supremely educated and well-read, and the subject matter — in general, but especially of this book — is downright inspirational.
Here, Wilson uses about half of the book’s essays to riff on his ideas from his masterpiece, The Outsider, one of my all-time favorites. If you haven’t read that (but really you should, like right now), Bicameral will be a very reasonable introduction to Wilson’s philosophy and writing.
Basically, he has spent a large part of his literary career analyzing the “outsider” figure in both literature and reality. This person/character is analagous to Nietzche’s “superman,” a misfit who feels detached from the world and vaguely dissatisfied with everyday reality, certain that there is more.
It is sort of a dichotomy that Wilson proposes, between ennui and “peak experience.” I can’t put it in words nearly as well as Wilson does and so I won’t try any further, but it is a fascinating treatment of the topic, even if it does get slightly repetitive by this book’s end. Abraham Maslow and his pyramid of needs (from basic at the bottom to “self-actualization” at the top) are fixtures in the conversation.
When he’s not writing about the Outsider, he’s reviewing, critiquing and/or biographizing various literary figures such as the aforementioned Shaw, Spinoza, Nietzche, Ronald Duncan, Robert Graves, Emily Bronte, Daniel Defoe, Christopher Isherwood and Valeri Briussov. He managed to fit some “outsider” subtext into a lot of these conversations, but even when he didn’t I still found myself enthralled, despite being unfamiliar with 2/3 of these people. Such is the magic of Wilson: he can make interesting and pertinent pretty much any discussion at all.
Part of the reason for this is his habit of playing armchair psychologist, in which he essentially psychoanalyzes these writers based on their literary output. It’s a pretty interesting approach (especially for myself, a psych major), but at some point it starts to feel a little inappropriate. . . more akin to projection than analysis.
I think in the essay on Valeri Briussov I first began to notice that, despite not knowing almost anything about his biographical information, Wilson still manages to say such things as, “. . . (When his biography is eventually written), we shall probably discover that Briussov’s life was a tangle of love affairs, and that he died of premature sexual exhaustion.” He bases this pretty much on Briussov’s sado-masochistic novels, short stories and plays. And while Wilson is usually quick to point out when he is supposing and when he has hard proof to back him up, he seems to underestimate the impact that published words can have, even if only supposition.
In other words, sometimes he seems to write too freely.
This is a relatively minor issue, as are the egregious spelling/grammar mistakes in the Salem House edition I have (several typos per essay). Another minor issue is the hint he gives (as in The Occult, my least favorite of his works so far) of gullibility, as in being all too ready to accept the most fantastical of explanations. I can’t remember a specific instance of this now, and like I said it was only a hint in this book, rather than the persistent theme that it was in Occult. But it’s detectable.
Overall, however, I loved this book and would wholeheartedly recommend it. The first two chapters are spectacular, and the next few are captivating as well. The Isherwood, Graves, Defoe and Bronte essays are interesting but less noteworthy (more in the vein of gossip columns), but then he picks it up again starting at the Shaw essay and to the end.
The bottom line: If you are a writer, you should make Colin Wilson your friend. Though not offering technical advice, his treatment of the “outsider” theme is almost as inspirational as Stephen King’s On Writing. But even if you’re not a writer or even an artist, I would suggest giving this a try, as long as you consider yourself intelligent. The ennui that Wilson’s describing applies to all intelligent people in this world, or to anyone who can look around and suspect, “Hey, are we really supposed to be living like this?” Another passage from the Briussov essay sort of sums it up:
The revolt of the spirit was complicated by the feeling that highly sensitive and talented people ought to be the center of the universe — or at least, of society. When Baudelaire contemplated the tragedy of Edgar Allen Poe, he felt that it was appalling that such a genius should burn itself out among people too coarse and stupid to appreciate it; and Baudelaire’s sympathy was based on the feeling that he himself was in the same position. Poets and artists were the “invisible aristocracy” of the earth. This is the feeling that runs through Briussov’s early poetry: the conviction that the Artist is the most important person in the world; far more important, in his way, than mere tsars or emperors.
And what is the situation of the artist in this society that has brought him into being? “His giant wings prevent him from walking,” says Baudelaire. He is an outsider and a misfit. Princes and emperors do not recognize his superiority; they do not even recognize the importance of his talents — as they used to in bygone ages. He is alone in a world that he finds boring and vulgar. He has nothing to say to the mob, and the mob ignores his existence. And, unfortunately, he will also lose his battle against time and death. . . The artist may be an “invisible aristocrat,” but he is also an absurd and tragic figure. . .
Later Wilson offers the “solution” that the Outsider must continue to cultivate inspiration and produce, not only in order to “self-actualize” and satisfy their inner drive, but also to attempt to raise up mankind, even one notch at a time.