Books: The Metropolitan Critic — The New Lost |
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The New Lost

If you encounter a web-footed bird, blind in both eyes, minus its wings and with two broken legs, there are no prizes awarded for calling it a sitting duck. Although Colin Wilson’s ‘preliminary’ volume of autobiography, Voyage to a Beginning, is only a history of his intellectual development, and contributes no new ideas to what might wildly be described as his position, enough argufying takes place in it for the attentive reader to confirm earlier estimates of his philosophical powers. Wilson can’t think straight and that’s that. It is scarcely relevant that most critics do not take Wilson seriously now: they are not very different from (in some cases they are the same men as) the critics who swallowed him hook, line and sinker back in the Outsider days. The key essays on that strange interlude are still Cyril Connolly’s original recension of the book, which set the tone of clownish approbation, and Dwight Macdonald’s essay which blew the whistle on the whole freaky scene. Aghast at the intellectual gullibility revealed by The Outsider’s reception, Macdonald made a preliminary description of an ailment which writers like Enright (on Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet), Conquest (on Ezra Pound’s ‘learning’ and ‘technique’) and pre-eminently Medawar (on Koestler and the Teilhard de Chardin phenomenon) were to worry about further: the absorptive credulity of a semi-intelligentsia educated ‘far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought’. (That’s Medawar, but Macdonald arrived at a formulation substantially similar: ‘a sizable reading public whose cultural aspirations exceed its knowledge and sensibility.’)

The problem posed by this semi-intelligentsia is by now acute. Things aren’t as bad in this country as they are in America, but they are bad enough. It is doubtful whether the general decline in the capacity to think straight for two consecutive minutes is caused, or even exacerbated, by egalitarian education, as the Black Paper would have us believe. More probably the rise of the semi-intelligentsia was made possible by the long retreat of British formal philosophy away from ‘plain language’: as philosophers like Quinton remind us, philosophy here and now has nothing much to do with wisdom. Wisdom, however, is something that the intelligentsia, from passive appreciators all the way up through the clerisy to the creators, likes to have handy. Unfortunately there has been no Great Man to agree with or fight. It has been a century of light heavies. Even when Moore typified the Bloomsbury-Oxbridge axis, his thought was by no means common currency among the whole intelligentsia. After Wittgenstein, plain language went the way of personal relationships. By the late thirties the field was left to the literary critics, the world-savers/commonsensers, and the shady purveyors of philosophy-fiction. An awkward situation then arose: the literary critics (type Leavis), who had most of the real ideas, disclaimed pretensions to philosophical rigour at the same time that the world-saving (type Russell) plain-language philosophers, who had most of the unreal ones, disclaimed pretensions to literary scrupulosity. As the first became incoherent the second became unreadable. The common-sensers (type Joad) dissipated themselves by expanding into the resulting vacuum. After the Nazis had presented him with certain facts, the post-war Briton with highly developed literary tastes — but with few clues on how the European philosophies of the previous century had circled back into history as virulent myths — could scarcely continue to slake his sublime thirst for coherent argument on the philosopher-fictionists (type Gurdjieff), who were probably head cases, or even on the French imports (type Camus-Sartre), who were working in a hard Left/soft Left dialectic of uncomfortably desperate practicality, all very foreign. Obviously anyone indigenous who could turn on the big sound, the biggest sound of all, the profound sound of seriousness (preferably not social), would hold the room. In walked Colin Wilson.

One adopts the language of whizz-bang farce because the situation was farcical and remains so. Before Wilson the profundity habit could be satisfied only on the sly: Ouspensky wrapped in a pullover and shoved in the sideboard like a half of spirits. After Wilson the habit could be brought out in the open: the right to a Weltanschauung was extended to all, never to be withdrawn. All it had taken was the emergence of a writer with no literary sensibility whatsoever (those who knew he couldn’t write called him a ‘genius’) for English to be discovered as rivalling French in its adaptability to monkey-talk. And you couldn’t explain the sales of The Outsider merely in terms of a younger generation being handed an easy way to feel special: it was a large proportion of the educated in all generations who had bought the book. The detritus of all the modern educated generations had revealed itself as having formed a semi-intelligentsia, in the same way that the detritus of all social classes forms the mob. A new semi-intellectual mass with its own mass semi-intellectual tastes: not just a frighteningly augmented transatlantic recrudescence of Mencken’s booboisie, but something on a higher mental plane, where the vendor-consumer relationship deals in spiritual instead of material goods. They were with us and their voices grew louder in the land: les enfants de parodie, the Sontag and bobtail of the intellect. The New Lost.

The young Colin Wilson was the prototype of the New Lost intellectual: not in what he had to say, but in not realizing that he had nothing to say. In mistaking excitement and stimulus for thought, in looking for connections without first establishing divisions, in getting out of Shaw and T. E. Lawrence what is common to both (or out of Sartre and Gurdjieff what is common to both) and imagining that what he had got out was anything more than a sort of abstract urgency, he translated names and local habitations back to airy nothing. As Voyage to a Beginning unintentionally reveals, while being omnivorous in his studies he had no conception of the objective nature of truth. He was a man of destiny, he suffered cruelly, he was persecuted by a succession of po-faced landladies, he slept in the open air, he suffered rebuffs, but he won through. (It must be admitted he showed an admirable fortitude during his early struggles.) It still hasn’t occurred to him that the same identification of heroic personal odyssey and triumph of the intellectual Will applies to the author of Mein Kampf. The mass of men are weak and stupid, Wilson confides — in the same shrilly superior tones as Ayn Rand (another atavistic embodiment of the Will’s triumph) and in the same duff prose. One asserts oneself or one goes to the wall: ‘recognition’ is a recognition of the vision powering one’s unshakable determination. There is no conception of the idea being separate from the man. There is no plane on which a Wilson idea can be tested without Wilson himself taking it as a personal attack, and he is right: every thought in his head is a self-expression and nothing more. It follows that all those critics who have shredded his books are suspect, thought to be in league.

But when the fashion turned against Wilson it turned in the terms which he had helped establish — that is, without attention to issues. He had been in and he had gone out and in neither case was it anything much to do with true or false. The word had filtered around (it does not nowadays filter down) and his reputation ebbed away to the peripheral bed-sits of the barely employable not-quite-bright, where it lined itself up along brick-and-pine bookshelves in a row of paperbacks from progressively less prestigious publishers. It has all been hellishly unfair, and should never have happened — not with this dreadful inevitability anyway. The David Frosts deserve their success but something less revolting should happen to young writers, whose first books, once out, can hardly be lured back in. Nobody has ever examined the culpability of Victor Gollancz in this sort of boon-doggle: he was the first ‘great’ modern vendor of written spiritual goods and for everyone of his famous finds it seems to me there were at least two helpless beginners he catapulted into oblivion by putting their first efforts irretrievably on public view.

On the evidence of Voyage to a Beginning Colin Wilson still has little idea of what has been happening to him. He has been looking for ways forward from the position taken in The Outsider but plainly the task has not been easy: after such knowledge, what forgiveness? He has written all kinds of things while somehow clinging to the notion that they are the one kind of thing, subsumed by genius. His style is prairie-flat, self-absorbed without at any time being self-aware. He is impervious to analysis in the same way that a jellyfish is bullet-proof, and scorns criticism in the same way that lemmings are not afraid of heights. He inaugurated an era.

(Listener, 1969)


This is as bad as I ever got, I hope. The flaws of style are too many to count, with the puns fighting it out for the unenviable position of being the worst thing on offer. On a higher plane of inadequacy, the snap summary of modern philosophy in the English language contrives to leave out half a dozen names who had already begun supplying the lack I was complaining of. With all that admitted, however, I still think the general drift was in the right direction. Citing Medawar as a back-up man was a good sign; scientists who write usually write better than literary critics, with a more scrupulous attention to the difference between sense and nonsense. I can't remember what David Frost had done to warrant his being dragged into this context: earned too much money, probably. Once again Susan Sontag receives a side swipe for no good reason. On the whole, this is a textbook example of how not to write an article. Colin Wilson's absurdities merited demolition by all means, but invective is a weak means; and broad sociological diagnosis should always be avoided. Far from being an aberration, an unintelligent intelligentsia is a permanent feature of human history.