by Colin Wilson
Wilson is one of my favorite writers (his The Outsider is one of my all-time favorite books), and both his best and worst qualities are on full display in this giant compendium. With his totally engaging writing style and encyclopedic knowledge (the man must have read literally thousands of books in his life), he leads the reader on a mostly interesting journey through the most notable events and people in the history of the occult. Though noticeably long, his treatment of the subject gives you the impression that the book has “earned” its length.
Wilson’s main thesis, if he can be said to have one, is that common man is going about his business in a state of veritable sleepwalking, and that we all have the potential to utilize our Faculty X to expand our consciousness and tap into almost unimaginable psychic powers. Certain individuals are born with a naturally enhanced capacity for this Faculty X, but we can all cultivate this ability through concentration, meditation, and other eastern-ish practices.
I personally agree with most of this thesis (with the possible exception of the actual scope of such powers, should they exist), and I enjoyed the fictionalization of these ideas in Wilson’s novel The Mind Parasites. But the problem I have with the book is Wilson’s self-admitted credulity, and the overtly biased way in which he presents his facts in an attempt to exploit his readers’ credulity. I’m not proposing that he did it on purpose; contrarily, I suspect that it was entirely unconscious on his part. But the result is nonetheless disappointing, considering how intelligent the author undoubtedly is.
There are many examples of this with his descriptions of all of his mages and mediums and whatnot, but unfortunately the book took me so long to read that I can’t remember most of the examples off the top of my head, and don’t want to waste the time to search them out.
The general gist is that he would describe the phenomena surrounding one of his occult figures in rather fantastic terms, and then I would research the figure online for about 5 minutes and find out that the actual circumstances of these events was altogether less remarkable. Now it could be argued that the sources I’m finding on the internet are just naturally more skeptical and biased against such happenings, but I don’t think that disproves that Wilson himself is quite biased toward them.
There are also times when Wilson takes such startling leaps in logic that a critical reader can’t help but be jarred right out of the proceedings. I remember one specific example since it occurred in the last chapter, which is still fresh in my mind. While discussing J.B. Priestley and J.W. Dunne’s ideas about three different Selves and three different Times, Wilson gives a brief explanation of the idea, using Priestley’s example of a person in an airplane crash. I will sheepishly admit that I was too tired to think that hard when I read it, but it was not a very intuitive analogy, or a very intuitive concept and it seemed pretty far-fetched to me. But Wilson wholly accepts the rather radical notion that there are actually three parallel Times and then spends several pages recounting events while referencing Time Three. Perhaps by the end of the book I was just tired of thinking so much and eager to get it over with. . .
In any case, as a fairly exhaustive and very engaging history of the major figures and events in the history of the occult, this book easily succeeds. As a convincing argument for the presence of these different phenomena, it leaves one wanting. But I’ve read enough by now to know that most of this stuff is a matter of faith anyway. The fact that there’s no clear evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that occult phenomena don’t exist, but it does mean that I can stop hoping to find hard proof for them, even from Colin Wilson.