Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Colin Wilson: The Odyssey of a Dogged Optimist by Robert Meadley

Received an email this morning that absolutely made my day. (Thank you, L. Evans from the British Library.) It pointed me to a page for Savoy Books where you can download for FREE a pdf (2.3 mb) of Robert Meadley's defense of Colin Wilson, The Odyssey of a Dogged Optimist. Haven't had a chance to read it yet. But here is some description from the site:

Robert Meadley's second book for Savoy (after A Tea Dance at Savoy) is a funny, clever and erudite defence of Colin Wilson following a series of splenetic reviews of Wilson's biography, Dreaming To Some Purpose, in The Observer and elsewhere. Lynn Barber, Adam Mars-Jones and Humphrey Carpenter were among those using publication of Wilson's autobiography—and large quantities of broadsheet space—to attempt a wider demolition on his life and career. Meadley recognises that in these situations attack is the best form of defence and gives no quarter, assassinating each of the egregious hacks in turn, as he also examines the qualities that make Wilson's work so insightful and compelling.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Ernst Haeckel: Evolution's controversial artist

This just came out on Slate. An excellent slideshow/essay about the amazing Ernst Haeckel by Amanda Schaffer

Ernst Haeckel, Radiolarian Array Painting.

Ernst Haeckel, Radiolarian Color Painting.

Laurie Lipton: Drawings

Death and the Maiden - (2005)
Laurie Lipton
43 X 34 cm - pencil on paper

Family Reunion - (2005)
Laurie Lipton
66 X 96.5 cm - charcoal and pencil on paper

Be sure to scroll down through the stunning catalogue or you will miss gems such as this:

The Last Embrace - (2005)
Laurie Lipton
51 X 59 cm - pencil on paper

(via the WOW report)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Colin Wilson: Slight Return

One of the authors that I used to seriously collect was Colin Wilson. At one point in my life, his books - especially the Outsider Series - were like maps, guiding me through unknown territories. I eagerly hunted down everything in and out of print. And in those dark pre-Amazon days, it was a real triumph of discovery to find a copy of the long out-of-print Beyond the Outsider, signed by Wilson, on the dusty lower shelf in an old bookstore.

I am still a great fan of his work. I will admit that his prolific ventures through the fields of the occult and crime have left me somewhat cold. But I retain a great fondness for his earlier "philosophical" books and fiction. Consequently, I was a bit dismayed, slightly amused, to read the recent round of reviews for his latest book, the autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose. In particular, the non-review by Lynn Barber in The Guardian made me wince with its winking venom, reminding me of the initial backlash to The Outsider and the rest of the Angry Young Men.

So I was delighted to have it brought to my attention (by the inimitable Jeff G.) that there has arisen something of a defense of Wilson and his work - in the New York Times, no less.

The full article has been reproduced below. However, before that, I have included an autobiographical review I wrote on The Outsider several years ago for the now defunct Booklist.com site (which can be revisited via the Wayback Machine here: http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://booklist.com):

I first encountered Wilson during my dreadful freshman year at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. A friend of mine from high school, Bill, who had wisely opted not to attend college, was working nearby at Taylor's Bookstore on Northwest Highway. Often I would stop by between, and sometimes during, classes to chat about what he was reading and see if anything interesting had come in.

One day Bill approached me as soon as I walked in the door, handed me a book, and told me to buy it and read it as soon as I could. High recommendation from someone as usually reticent towards praise as Bill. The book was The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson, published in an unusual style by Wingbow Press. On the back there was an intriguing quote from Wilson stating the novel should attack reality like an axe cutting into a tree. That was good enough for me. I purchased the book and read it as an excuse to skip classes for the rest of the day. Late that night, when I closed the covers of the book, I realized that something as yet indefinable, but significant, had changed in my perspective on the world.

I returned to Taylor's the next day to discover what other books had been written by Wilson. There were several on the occult, a companion to The Mind Parasites called The Philosopher's Stone and a work called The Outsider. Of course I bought The Philosopher's Stone and also picked up The Outsider. Mid-way through The Philosopher's Stone, I became so stimulated by the ideas and the possibilities, the I opened up The Outsider to see if it explored the same issues.

I skipped past the Marilyn Ferguson foreword and the introduction by Wilson, to the first chapter, "The Country of the Blind". And from that first sentence, "At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem", and then, the quote from Barbusse ending with the line, "It is not a woman I want - it is all women, and I seek for them in those around me, one by one...", I was shot through with the hook, the line and the sinker for the "philosophy" of Colin Wilson. I finished The Philosopher's Stone and began a deep reading of The Outsider- neglecting most of my classes. When I did attend, it was as if I were participating in a surreal experiment of Outsiderism. What the professors were trying to teach me was utterly irrelevant to the life that was opening before me. And what my classmates wanted to discuss was even more banal and dead to me. I felt the "nausea" of Roquentin on an acute level, hours after having first read about it in The Outsider. And I came to the verge of recognizing that my college education was a complete sham when I got to chapter five, "The Pain Threshold" where Wilson cites the question by William James:

Does it not appear as if one who lived habitually on one side of the pain threshold might need a different sort of religion from one who habitually lived on the other?

For many years after, The Outsider and the "outsider series" were guiding and teaching texts to me. I took it upon myself to read as many of the primary works referenced as I could. I soon dropped out of college and began what was to be a life of working in book stores. During this time, I carried around a paper inscribed with these "conclusions" by Wilson:

  • The Outsider wants to cease to be an Outsider.
  • He wants to be 'balanced'.
  • He wants to achieve a vividness of sense-perception.
  • He would also like to understand the human soul and its workings.
  • He would like to escape triviality forever, and be 'possessed' by a Will to power, to more life.
  • Above all, he would like to know how to express himself, because that is the means by which he can get to know himself and his unknown possibilities.

Below this, were the two discoveries about the Outsider's 'way':

  • That his salvation 'lies in extremes'.
  • That the idea of a way out often comes in 'visions', moments of intensity, etc.

The Outsider (and the "Outsider Series") was one of the first books directly responsible, in an extreme and literal sense, for vast changes in the manner in which I lived my life. It was not just that my perspective was altered, but that important life decisions were generated and nurtured under its influence. That a book could have such power was simply amazing to one who had been educated such as I had been. Since then, thankfully, there have been many "life changing" books for me.

Ross MacDonald once remarked that there are certain writers that once were the heart and soul of your direction, that one day you come to be able to "see around" them. (Shakespeare, he added, was one that you could never "see around".) To a certain extent, I can now "see around" The Outsider - and not without a measure of sorrow. I still find myself returning to it often for "tuning". And I am still surprised when I dig into the roots of a current theme and discover what led me there initially, long ago, was a reference from The Outsider.

Although the book was written nearly fifty years ago, it still retains much of its relevance. I understand that there is a peculiar folly in "backward thinking", but in many ways the issues that were of concern to the "intellectuals" of the 1950s are even more prevalent today. Of course, the questions of value and meaning of human existence are bound up in the nature of what defines consciousness. However, the problems of alienation of self in a society that is morally, intellectually and theologically bankrupt have never been more critical. Perhaps this is why that of all of Wilson's books, The Outsider has been kept in print longer and more often than any other.

And, now, here is the NYT defense of Wilson that appeared August 17, 2005:

Philosopher of Optimism Endures Negative Deluge By Brad Spurgeon

Gorran Haven, Britain - Any intellectual who divides opinion as much as Colin Wilson has for almost 50 years must be onto something, even if it is only whether humans should be pessimistic or optimistic.

Mr. Wilson, who turned 74 in June and whose autobiography, "Dreaming to Some Purpose," recently appeared in paperback from Arrow, describes in the first chapter how he made his own choice. The son of working-class parents from Leicester - his father was in the boot and shoe trade - he was forced to quit school and go to work at 16, even though his ambition was to become "Einstein's successor." After a stint in a wool factory, he found a job as a laboratory assistant, but he was still in despair and decided to kill himself.

On the verge of swallowing hydrocyanic acid, he had an insight: there were two Colin Wilsons, one an idiotic, self-pitying teenager and the other a thinking man, his real self.

The idiot, he realized, would kill them both.

"In that moment," he wrote, "I glimpsed the marvelous, immense richness of reality, extending to distant horizons."

Achieving such moments of optimistic insight has been his goal and subject matter ever since, through more than 100 books, from his first success, "The Outsider," published in 1956, when he was declared a major existentialist thinker at 24, to the autobiography.

In an interview last month at his home of nearly 50 years on the Cornish coast, Mr. Wilson was as optimistic as ever, even though his autobiography and his life's work have come under strong attack in some quarters.

"What I wanted to do was to try to create a philosophy upon a completely new foundation," he said, sitting in his living room along with a parrot, two dogs and part of his collection of 30,000 books and as many records. "Whereas in the past optimism had been regarded as rather shallow - because 'oh well, it's just your temperament, you happen to be just a cheerful sort of person' - what I wanted to do was to establish that in fact it is the pessimists who are allowing all kinds of errors to creep into their work."

He includes in that category writers like Hemingway and philosophers like Sartre. In books on sex, crime, psychology and the occult, and in more than a dozen novels, Mr. Wilson has explored how pessimism can rob ordinary people of their powers.

"If you asked me what is the basis of all my work," he said, "it's the feeling there's something basically wrong with human beings. Human beings are like grandfather clocks driven by watch springs. Our powers appear to be taken away from us by something."

The critics, particularly in Britain, have alternately called him a genius and a fool. His autobiography, published in hardcover last year, has received mixed reviews. Though lauded by some, the attacks on it and Mr. Wilson have been as virulent as those he provoked in the 1950's after he became a popular culture name with the publication of "The Outsider."

That book dealt with alienation in thinkers, artists and men of action like T. E. Lawrence, van Gogh, Camus and Nietzsche, and caught the mood of the age. Critics, including Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee, hailed Mr. Wilson as a British version of the French existentialists.

His fans ranged from Muammar el-Qaddafi to Groucho Marx, who asked his British publisher to send a copy of his own autobiography to three people in Britain: Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham and Colin Wilson.

"The Outsider" was translated into dozens of languages and sold millions of copies. It has never been out of print.

The Times of London called Mr. Wilson and John Osborne - another young working-class man, whose play "Look Back in Anger" opened about the same time "The Outsider" was published - "angry young men." That name was passed on to others of their generation, including Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe and even Doris Lessing.

But fame brought its own problems for Wilson. His sometimes tumultuous early personal life became fodder for gossip columnists. He was still married to his first wife while living with his future second wife, Joy. His publisher, Victor Gollancz, urged him to leave the spotlight, and he and Joy moved to Cornwall.

But the publicity had done its damage. His second book, "Religion and the Rebel," was panned and his career looked dead.

Mr. Wilson said the episode had actually saved him as a writer, however. "Too much success gets you resting on your laurels and creates a kind of quicksand that you can't get out of," he said. "So I was relieved to get out of London."

He said his books were probably heading for condemnation in Britain anyway. "I'm basically a writer of ideas, and the English aren't interested in ideas," he said. "The English, I'm afraid, are totally brainless. If you're a writer of ideas like Sartre or Foucault or Derrida, then the general French public know your name, whereas here in England, their equivalent in the world of philosophy wouldn't be known."

He never lost belief in the importance of his work in trying to find out how to harness human beings' full powers and wipe out gloom.

"Sartre's 'man is a useless passion,' and Camus's feeling that life is absurd, and so on, basically meant that philosophy itself had turned really pretty dark," he said. "I could see that there was a basic fallacy in Sartre and Camus and all of these existentialists, Heidegger and so on. The basic fallacy lay in their failure to understand the actual foundation of the problem."

That foundation, he said, is that human perception is intentional; the pessimists themselves paint their world black.

Mr. Wilson has spent much of his life researching how to achieve those moments of well-being that bring insight, what the American psychologist Abraham Maslow called "peak experiences."

Those moments can come only through effort, concentration or focus, and refusing to lose one's vital energies through pessimism.

"What it means basically is that you're able to focus until you suddenly experience that sense that everything is good," Mr. Wilson said. "We go around leaking energy in the same way that someone who has slashed their wrists would go around leaking blood.

"Once you can actually get over that and recognize that this is not necessary, suddenly you begin to see the possibility of achieving a state of mind, a kind of steady focus, which means that you see things as extremely good." If harnessed by everyone, this could lead to the next step in human evolution, a kind of Superman.

"The problem with human beings so far is that they are met with so many setbacks that they are quite easily defeatable, particularly in the modern age when they've got too separated from their roots," he said.

Over the last year, he has been forced to test his own powers in this area. "When I was pretty sure that the autobiography was going to be a great success, and when it, on the contrary, got viciously attacked," Mr. Wilson said, "well, I know I'm not wrong. Obviously the times are out of joint."

Though "Dreaming to Some Purpose" was warmly received in The Independent on Sunday and The Spectator and was praised by the novelist Philip Pullman, the autobiography - and Mr. Wilson - received a barrage of negative profiles and reviews in The Sunday Times and The Observer. These made fun of the book's more eccentric parts, like his avowed fetish for women's panties.

As a measure of the passions that Mr. Wilson provokes, Robert Meadley, an essayist, wrote "The Odyssey of a Dogged Optimist" (Savoy, 2004), a 188-page book defending him.

"If you think a man's a fool and his books are a waste of time, how long does it take to say so?" Mr. Meadley wrote, questioning the space the newspapers gave to the attacks.

Part of Mr. Meadley's conclusion is that the British intellectual establishment still felt threatened by Mr. Wilson, a self-educated outsider from the working class.

"One of my main problems as far as the public is concerned is that I've always been interested in too many things," Mr. Wilson said, "and if they can't typecast you as a writer on this or that, then I'm afraid you tend not to be understood at all."

See also:
The Biography Project: Colin Wilson
The Colin Wilson Page
Lycaeum: Colin Wilson Interview
Colin Wilson: Psychological Ideas about Human Potential
The High and Low with Colin Wilson

Monday, August 15, 2005

Duke Digital Scriptorum: Ad* Access: J. Walter Thompson Company Competitive Advertisements Collection

He's Not Celebrating! 1945
Jones & Lamson Machine Co.
New Yorker Magazine

"An image database of over 7,000 advertisements printed in U.S. and Canadian newspapers and magazines between 1911 and 1955."

The Ad*Access Project, funded by the Duke Endowment "Library 2000" Fund, presents images and database information for over 7,000 advertisements printed in U.S. and Canadian newspapers and magazines between 1911 and 1955. Ad*Access concentrates on five main subject areas: Radio, Television, Transportation, Beauty and Hygiene, and World War II, providing a coherent view of a number of major campaigns and companies through images preserved in one particular advertising collection available at Duke University. The advertisements are from the J. Walter Thompson Company Competitive Advertisements Collection of the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History in Duke University's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.

"Your future is your own making" 1924
Palmolive Soap

Sunday, August 14, 2005

H. G. Wells: The World Brain

The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962)
Directed by Joseph Green

From O'Reilly Radar: H. G. Wells's "address to the world congress of librarians of 1937 and his proposal for a global encyclopedia, that was later published in his 1938 book, World Brain".

"We want... a universal organization and clarification of knowledge and ideas... what I have here called a World Brain, operating by an enhanced educational system through the whole body of mankind... a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself...

"The phrase "Permanent World Encyclopaedia" conveys the gist of these ideas. As the core of such an institution would be a world synthesis of bibliography and documentation with the indexed archives of the world. A great number of workers would be engaged perpetually in perfecting this index of human knowledge and keeping it up to date...

"Few people as yet, outside the world of expert librarians and museum curators and so forth, know how manageable well-ordered facts can be made, however multitudinous, and how swiftly and completely even the rarest visions and the most recondite matters can be recalled, once they have been put in place in a well-ordered scheme of reference and reproduction... There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge, ideas and achievements, to the creation, that is, of a complete planetary memory for all mankind....

"This... foreshadows a real intellectual unification of our race. The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual. And... this new all-human cerebrum need not be concentrated in any one single place. It need not be vulnerable as a human head or a human heart is vulnerable. It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa, or wherever else seems to afford an insurance against danger and interruption. It can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba..."

See also:
Wikipedia: World Brain
World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia - H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells’s Idea of a World Brain: A Critical Re-Assessment - Boyd Rayward

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Cornell Institute for Digital Collections: The Fantastic in Art and Fiction

Metal engraving
F.R. Schellenberg. Freund heins Erscheinungen.
Winterthur : Heinrich Steiner und Comp., 1785. Page 0.16.
An unusual depiction of suicide, with death catching the man as he fires a pistol at his temple.

Amongst the many images that I seem to compulsively collect off the Web, line art, drawings and woodcuts of the Danse Macabre are at the top of the list. So it was Christmas morning for me to discover (via gmtPlus9) The Fantastic in Art & Fiction site hosted by The Cornell Institute for Digital Collections. Many of the images were entirely new to me and absolutely beautiful. You can click up to over 2ooK for detailed resolution.

[seductive death]
E.-H. Langlois. Essai Historique,
Philosophique et Pittoresque sur les Danses des Morts.
The frontispiece of this pioneering study of the danse macabre theme
shows death attended by demons, leading a placid woman into grave.
The pose of both reminds one in fact of the chevalier at the ball,
with his waltzing partner.

Spectre décharné
J.A.S. Collin de Plancy. Dictionnaire Infernal. Paris : E. Plon, 1863. Page 20.
Ghost foretelling Alexander III’s death

The Fantastic in Art & Fiction is a digital curriculum unit developed by CIDC for John Anzalone, a Visiting Scholar at Cornell. It consists of an image-bank that is a visual resource for the study of the fantastic or of the supernatural in fiction and in art. While the site emerges from a comparative literature course on the topic at Skidmore College, it is also intended to open the door to consideration of some of the constant structures and patterns of fantastic literature, and the problems they raise. In this sense, the materials presented here may find a use among students in a variety of disciplines.
Dptare aliornm mortem
Sabastien Brant. Stultifera Navis. n.c. : n.p., 1497, Plate 105.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Original Child Bomb: Points for meditation to be scratched on the walls of a cave

At 8:15 a.m. on the 6th of August in the year 1945 an Original Child was born....

The mushroom cloud billowing up 20,000 feet over Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945 (Photo from U.S. National Archives, 77-AEC)

A nuclear weapon of the "Little Boy" type, the uranium gun-type detonated over Hiroshima. It is 28 inches in diameter and 120 inches long. "Little Boy" weighed about 9,000 pounds and had a yield approximating 15,000 tons of high explosives. (Copy from U.S. National Archives, 77-AEC)

Hiroshima, after the first atomic bomb explosion. This view was taken from the Red Cross Hospital Building about one mile from the bomb burst. (Photo from U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Subject Files, "Atomic Bomb")

The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II: A Collection of Primary Sources
. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 162. Edited by William Burr - 202/994-7000 Posted - August 5, 2005

"Inspired by the photographic work "Hiroshima" by Japanese artist Hiromi Tsuchida, The Hiroshima Archive was originally set up to join the on-line effort made by many people all over the world to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing. The archive is intended to serve as a research and educational guide to those who want to gain and expand their knowledge of the atomic bombing."
Two minutes after Hiroshima explosion.
Hiroshima, 6/8/45
149442 UN/DPI/M. Matsushige

Fragments from An Original Child Bomb, a poem by Thomas Merton. The complete text can be found at the end of a PDF from the documentary of the same name.

Hiroshima, 1945
Points for meditation to be scratched on the walls of a cave.

1 In the year 1945 an Original Child was born. The name Original Child was given to it by the Japanese people, who recognized that it was the first of its kind.

13 The time was coming for the new bomb to be tested, in the New Mexico desert. A name was chosen to designate this secret operation. It was called “Trinity.”

14 At 5:30 A.M. on July 16th, 1945, a plutonium bomb was successfully exploded in the desert at Almagordo, New Mexico. It was suspended from a hundred foot steel tower which evaporated. There was a fireball a mile wide. The great flash could be seen for a radius of 250 miles. A blind woman miles away said she perceived light. There was a cloud of smoke 40,000 feet high. It was shaped like a toadstool.

15 Many who saw the experiment expressed their satisfaction in religious terms. A semi-official report even quoted a religious book-The New Testament, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” There was an atmosphere of devotion. It was a great act of faith. They believed the explosion was exceptionally powerful.

22 On August 1st the bomb was assembled in an airconditioned hut on Tinian. Those who handled the bomb referred to it as “Little Boy.” Their care for the Original Child was devoted and tender.

25 On August 4th the bombing crew on Tinian watched a movie of “Trinity” (the Almagordo Test). August 5th was a Sunday but there was little time for formal worship. They said a quick prayer that the war might end “very soon.” On that day, Col. Tibbetts, who was in command of the B-29 that was to drop the bomb, felt that his bomber ought to have a name. He baptized it Enola Gay, after his mother in Iowa. Col. Tibbetts was a well balanced man, and not sentimental. He did not have a nervous breakdown after the bombing, like some of the other members of the crew.

26 On Sunday afternoon “Little Boy” was brought out in procession and devoutly tucked away in the womb of Enola Gay. That evening few were able to sleep. They were as excited as little boys on Christmas Eve.

31 At 3:09 they reached Hiroshima and started the bomb run. The city was full of sun. The fliers could see the green grass in the gardens. No fighters rose up to meet them. There was no flack. No one in the city bothered to take cover.

32 The bomb exploded within 100 feet of the aiming point. The fireball was 18,000 feet across. The temperature at the center of the fireball was 100,000,000 degrees. The people who were near the center became nothing. The whole city was blown to bits and the ruins all caught fire instantly everywhere, burning briskly. 70,000 people were killed right away or died within a few hours. Those who did not die at once suffered great pain. Few of them were soldiers.

35 It took a little while for the rest of Japan to find out what had happened to Hiroshima. Papers were forbidden to publish any news of the new bomb. A four line item said that Hiroshima had been hit by incendiary bombs and added: “It seems that some damage was caused to the city and its vicinity.”

36 Then the military governor of the Prefecture of Hiroshima issued a proclamation full of martial spirit. To all the people without hands, without feet, with their faces falling off, with their intestines hanging out, with their whole bodies full of radiation, he declared: “We must not rest a single day in our war effort ... We must bear in mind that the annihilation of the stubborn enemy is our road to revenge.” He was a professional soldier.

38 On August 9th another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, though Hiroshima was still burning. On August 11ththe Emperor overruled his high command and accepted the peace terms dictated at Potsdam. Yet for three days discussion continued, until on August 14ththe surrender was made public and final.

40 As to the Original Child that was now born, President Truman summed up the philosophy of the situation in a few words. “We found the bomb” he said “and we used it.”

41 Since that summer many other bombs have been “found.” What is going to happen? At the time of writing, after a season of brisk speculation, men seem to be fatigued by the whole question.

Original Child Bomb: The Film
[Interesting post/critique from Metafilter:
Sort of a digression, but this "oh-so-poetic/charming/mystical" Original Child Bomb name is a good example of the annoying tendancy some people have of making literal character-by-character translations of Chinese or Japanese words because they are supposed to be profound.
The name "original child bomb" was not "given to it by the Japanese people, who recognized that it was the first of its kind," as this page claims.
The word for "atom" is simply made of two kanji (Chinese characters), one meaning "original" or "basic" and one being a general diminutive that, yes, sometimes also means child. That is the way new Chinese words are formed, by putting together two or more characters in a way that makes sense, like "small basic thing" in the case of "atom." The translation is "atom bomb," OK? not "original child bomb," and there's no way that the people who coined the word meant it in any deeper sense. I'm sure this is an interesting movie, and I'd like to see it, but the Asian exoticism dripping off the title makes me want to gag.
posted by banishedimmortal]
P.S. I was also born on this day in 1945.