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31 May 2017

Thoughts while reading (about) Colin Wilson

Over the years I have read many of the books by Colin Wilson – one of those whom the newspapers in the 1950s designated as Angry Young Men - on existentialism, motiveless murder, Jack the Ripper, the occult, ancient civilizations etc, etc., although I never read either of his two autobiographies. There is a new biography out by Gary Lachman, previously Gary Valentine who played bass with Blondie and guitar with Iggy Pop, and then moved to London where he has published a whole slew of books on consciousness and the occult.

I have recently read his biography of Colin Wilson. Reading, as I do, lots of LGBT history it is useful and refreshing to read books in other areas. However trans history does seem to pop up everywhere these days. On page 7 we find:

“another example of what Wilson called his early ‘sexual perverseness’ was one he shared with other creative individuals, like the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. As a young boy Wilson loved to dress up in his mother’s clothes, including her underwear. Authorities such as the pre-Freudian sexologist Havelock Ellis suggest that such behaviour ‘indicates a tendency to homosexuality’, as did, for Ellis, Wilson’s attachment to his mother and dislike of his father. But Wilson never observed any trace of homosexuality in his makeup.”

This perhaps sounds rather old-fashioned. Most writers today would relate child transvestity to either Richard Green’s contentious Sissy Boy Syndrome, or, more productively, cross-dreaming. Lachman gives no indication of being aware of either of these approaches. He does, later, page 262-9 summarize Wilson’s interaction with the trans activist and theorist Charlotte Bach, but a check on his footnotes shows that it is simply a repetition of what Wilson says about her in his book, The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders. There are a couple of attempts to compare Wilson to Bach’s theoretical schema: p265 “According to Bach’s system, he was a ‘normal’ male, and should therefore not be creative”; p383n27 “Wilson disagreed that the male sexual drive was to become the female, as Charlotte Bach argued. It was rather to possess her, which ultimately is an expression of will”. 

Reading from a trans perspective, several other trans persons appear or almost appear.  Kenneth Tynan – also an Angry Young Man – pops up several times, but his fondness for dressing female, and especially as the silent film star Louise Brooks is never mentioned. In 1960, Wilson and his wife went on a cruise to Leningrad. There, they sought out the palace of Felix Yusupov (where Rasputin was put to death) but there is no mention of Yusupov as transvestite. Kenneth Walker, Gurdjieffian and Harley Street urologist gave a positive review of Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, 1956 and they became friends. This was the very same time that Walker was introducing Georgina Turtle to surgeons – she had correction surgery in 1957, and then became Georgina Somerset by marriage. Walker wrote the Foreword to her 1963 book, Over the Sex Border. None of this is mentioned. 

Let us turn to Wilson’s The Misfits. Lachman tells us: 

“Following Charlotte Bach’s story, Wilson runs through a gauntlet of practices that some readers may find surprising, if not disturbing. What may also be surprising is that the people engaging in these ‘perversions’ are not anonymous case studies from Krafft-Ebing or Magnus Hirschfeld, although material from these and other sexologists appears. Wilson’s case studies involve some of the most famous creative individuals of the past two centuries. Among his sexual Outsiders we find philosophers, novelists, composers and poets, and we are treated to analyses of the intimate lives of, among others, James Joyce, Bertrand Russell, Marcel Proust, Lord Byron, Algernon Swinburne, Yukio Mishima, Ludwig Wittgenstein, TE Lawrence, Paul Tillich, Percy Grainger, and aptly enough, the pre-Freud sexologist Havelock Ellis.”

Readers of this encyclopedia will quickly realise that all the persons on this list are men. On the other hand I would contend, even if it is based on anecdotal evidence, that 45-50% of persons indulging in heterosexuality are female. Wilson seems to have almost no interest in the female experience of sex, although there is no shortage of such persons writing about it. Off the top of my head, what about Anaïs Nin, Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, Colette, Erica Jong, Leah Schaefer, Anne Rice, the pre-transition Pat Califia, Kathy Acker (more). 

In 1971 Wilson wrote a book on Abraham Maslow, the US psychologist who developed ideas about hierarchies of need, and peak experiences. They agreed enough with each other that each referred to the other in several books. Here is Lachman’s summary of Maslow on women: [Maslow] “discovered that women could be divided into three dominance groups: high, medium and low. The level of dominance influenced their sexuality. High-dominance women enjoyed sex and were promiscuous and experimental, medium-dominance women were romantics looking for ‘Mr Right’, and low-dominance women were shy and afraid of sex.” Could a woman have written that sentence? We have a 21st century word ‘mansplaining’ – does this apply? I think so. I went googling to see if any woman writer had ever done anything with this typology. While almost all women writers did in fact fail to find any use in the typology, one writer does discuss it and use it: Betty Friedan in her foundational feminist text, The Feminine Mystique.

In reading Wilson’s The Misfits, one can see that Wilson’s readings in sexology are Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld. That is: nothing after the Second World War – no Benjamin, Green, Stoller, Money; no Butler, Halberstam, Faderman etc. And certainly no queer theory. He reports at second hand that Hirschfeld wrote a book on transvestites and found that most were not homosexual. However he did not read it. His book was 1988, and the English translation of Hirschfeld’s Transvestites did not come out until three years later. Wilson’s source was Charlotte Wolff’s biography of Hirschfeld and the volume Sexual Anomalies and Perversions, attributed to Hirschfeld but written/edited by Arthur Koestler and Norman Haire, which Wilson found for sale in what passed for a sex shop in the 1950s. He finds it an amazing source of sexual ‘perversions’ including ‘transvestism, sadism, masochism, necrophilia’. He continued to use the word ‘perversion’ even after John Money had persuaded most sexologists that ‘paraphilia’ was less offensive. 

Despite the reservations that I have expressed here, I am intrigued with Wilson’s suggestion that in the later 18th century and afterwards there was an ‘imaginative explosion’ that we can trace in sex novels and this was accompanied by a greater variety of sexual and gender activity. He is therefore arguing for a social construction approach – although he never uses the term, nor does he mention Foucault or Trumbach who have developed competing social construction models. (In a later book, Below the Iceberg, 1998, Wilson did engage with some of the ideas of Foucault, Barthes and Derrida – he denounced Foucault as an ‘intellectual con-man’ out to deceive his readers).

  • Colin Wilson. The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders. Grafton, 1989.
  • Gary Lachman. Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. Tarcher Perigee, 2016.


  1. I forgot to mention the total ignoring of Della Aleksander who with her wife visited Wilson in Cornwall. See the second comment by Stephen Whittle.

  2. A few other gripes about Lachman's book. Whenever he gives an amount in pounds, he gives a US$ equivalent. Never a good idea as exchange rates are constantly changing - also it implies that US readers, unlike French or Australian, cannot deal with pounds themselves. After discussing loads of obscure writers, Lachman comes to Prime Minister Thatcher, and feeling that US readers would never have heard of her, describes her as "the UK's Ronald Reagan". !!! Weird.

    Then there is the Index which contains only other writers. It does not contain Wilson, his many books or his concepts, and so is quite useless to look for a specific book or topic by Wilson.


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