Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Outsider

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Colin Wilson

When you achieve your greatest success at an early age, a long life can be a liability as well as a blessing. The headline for Peter O’Toole’s obituary was always going be “Star of Lawrence of Arabia,” despite the fifty years of performances that came afterward, and while there are far worse fates for an actor—it’s the most striking debut as a leading actor in the history of movies—it also reminds us of how shapeless a lengthy career can seem after its early peak. O’Toole belonged to an honorable tradition of great British or Irish actors, ranging from Olivier to Ben Kingsley, who were always happy to show up for a role and a paycheck, cheerfully willing to skate through a few weeks of filming on little more than a sonorous voice and superb bag of tricks. They’re great players, schooled in a theater tradition that emphasizes artifice and the cultivation of clever devices that can deployed at a moment’s notice. (Kevin Spacey may be the closest American equivalent, which goes a long way toward explaining why he seems most comfortable at the Old Vic.) And the results are a joy to watch, to the point where I sympathize with Olivier’s famous question to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man: “Why not try acting?”

Still, the result is often a strange, uneven career, marked by long periods of slumming, and it grows all the less comprehensible as you move away from those definitive early roles. The same fate often awaits authors of a certain eccentric mindset, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, ever since the death of the British writer Colin Wilson. His life coincided almost perfectly with O’Toole’s: he was born almost exactly a year before and died a few days earlier, and although his passing has gone almost unnoticed, their lives have some striking parallels. Both were born into working-class families, had their first big hit at an early age, and spent the rest of their careers trying to live up to that initial breakthrough. In Wilson’s case, it was The Outsider, which is the kind of book that so many ambitious authors in their early twenties have yearned to write: a study of Camus, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, and others, fueled by months in the reading room of the British Museum, with its central figure as, yes, T.E. Lawrence. I can’t say for sure that a copy ever crossed the desk of Lawrence screenwriter Robert Bolt—although both he and Wilson were close to the theatrical director Stephen Joseph—but its hard not to hear an echo here: “His most characteristic trait is his inability to stop thinking. Thought imprisons him; it is an unending misery, because he knows the meaning of freedom…”

Peter O'Toole

After The Outsider was published, Wilson was pigeonholed as one of Britain’s angry young men, alongside the likes of John Osborne and Kingsley Amis, but his work took him into weirder and more interesting directions. Wilson was fascinated with the occult and the psychology of murder, and his later career superficially resembles that of a pulp novelist and hack popularizer of the paranormal, although flavored with unexpected influences, like that of his mentor Robert Graves. He displayed an unfashionable tendency to follow his nose wherever it led him, resulting in works on Jack the Ripper, Aleister Crowley, and Wilhelm Reich, and such novels as The Space Vampires, later adapted into the movie Lifeforce, which Wilson famously hated. And although I can’t claim to be deeply familiar with Wilson’s work—I own copies of The Outsider and The Occult, his two most famous books, but I’ve done little more than browse through them—he’s still a figure I’ve long found intriguing, particularly in his prickly mixture of skepticism and credulity. (In many ways, he reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson, another literary genius who was most at home in disreputable subjects and genres.)

Wilson was also the author of one of my single favorite essays on the craft of writing, “Fantasy and Faculty X,” which I first encountered in the anthology How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. Wilson defined Faculty X as a union of the conscious and unconscious minds, or of the left and right sides of the brain, that allowed writers, mystics, and other creative types to move beyond the present into another world, and although his terminology may be dated, the underlying principle remains sound. Intuition, and the ability to draw on it at will, is the most powerful tool that any artist can possess, and Wilson did as credible a job as any writer I know of describing its essential workings. The trouble, of course, is that intuition can lead you into strange places; it doesn’t lend itself to neat, easily classifiable careers, and it can result in the writers of obituaries straining to find a connective thread. Wilson may not, as he openly hoped, go down as “probably the greatest writer of the twentieth century,” but like O’Toole, he was an odd bird of a kind that may never come again, and the world is a little poorer for his absence.

2 Responses

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  1. Sometimes you get stuck in a box early in life and you confuse your efforts at getting out of it with true creative intuition. Glad you mentioned Spacey; along with John Malkovich, he’s probably my favorite living actor.


    December 17, 2013 at 9:47 am

  2. He’s one of my favorites, too!


    December 17, 2013 at 12:00 pm

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