The radical theory that could have changed the way we think about literature — and still ought

Existential criticism, formulated 60 years ago by the English philosopher and novelist Colin Wilson, remains valid today despite having been overlooked in the literary world at large

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Colin Wilson in the 1960s

A new edition has appeared of Colin Wilson’s key 1965 volume of literary criticism, Eagles & Earwigs: Essays on Books and Writers (Eyewear Publishing, UK £15.99, October 2018) which, even after more than half a century, remains important for the way Wilson deals boldly with the question literary academics and critics shy away from: the purpose and value of literature.

The essays — some dating from 1957 — are grouped in three sections: the first dealing with the role of literature, at a time when ‘a crisis has been reached in the history of human development’, the second with visionary writers whose work had engaged Wilson, and the third with ‘the problem of being a writer in the 20th century’.

The new 400-page edition — under Wilson’s preferred title as the original publisher, to Wilson’s annoyance, changed the title to Eagle & Earwig — comes with editorial notes by Wilson’s bibliographer Colin Stanley and an introduction by the writer and Wilson scholar Gary Lachman.

Works of literature, Wilson maintained, had to be judged by standards of meaning, as well as by the impact on the sensibilities; in other words, not just by aesthetics, or artist sufficiency, alone (the usual critical position).

Having just re-read the book — indeed, an incisive work of existential criticism — three things strike one immediately. The first is how valuable existential criticism would still be if applied today, directed primarily, as it would be, at ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ fiction and poetry. So what is it?

Briefly, Wilson (1931–2013), for whom the intentionality of consciousness is a concept of central importance, wants us to see the novel, for example, as an instrument of intentionality with the capacity, through heightened perception, to extend us in the direction of selfhood, the true purpose of the novelist being ‘to liberate the human imagination and to give man a glimpse of what he could become’.

Depths of human need

It could be said that Wilson’s theory supercharges humanistic formalism, taking it to a whole other level, that is to say, to evaluate literature by assessing it in terms of its capacity to satisfy the depths of human need, to clarify the image of ‘what we are yet to become’ on the evolutionary ladder.

Wilson wants to know what, ultimately, a writer is saying, what concepts of human purpose lie in the basic assumptions of the work, and how far the work succeeds in revealing existence as potentiality. Clearly, it’s an approach that sorts the literary wheat from the chaff, the eagles from the earwigs! Suffice to say that few writers aspire to, or attain, such a standard; certainly not those in the best-seller or awards lists.

Thus the question to be addressed to the writer is not merely ‘what do you see?’ but ‘how wide do you see?’ What relation does your work bear to the whole of life?

Existential literary criticism is one of the most important legacies left by Wilson as a writer and thinker. As an ideas-led critic, as opposed to a text-led one, he stands in the illustrious line of Sidney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, George Eliot and Henry James, all of whom tackled the big general issues affecting literature.

Existential literary criticism can be used to develop a standard of meaning and a moral perception to help ascertain, from ‘the words on the page’, what a literary text fundamentally has to say about human existence. Such an approach could surely find a new pathway to the creative development and revitalising of literature — which Wilson envisaged from the outset — in the 21st century. Better late than never!

Wilson realised that existential criticism constituted a revolt against prevailing values, or the lack of them, but that the existential critic possessed a standard bigger than himself, or any individual author, which was capable of revealing the ideal aim of all art.

Tsunami of literary theory

And this brings me to the second salient point. You’ll not find existential criticism in any textbook of literary theory or manual of literary criticism, doubtless because it did not originate in academia, although this in no way reduces its relevance.

As I have written elsewhere, it is ironic that Wilson, who was probably the first critic in the twentieth century candidly to spell out a literary theory, should have been eclipsed by the tsunami of literary theory from the 1960s which failed utterly to acknowledge his work.

The general turn to socio-political theory in academia was actually the revolution, and not the techniques of existential thinking which Wilson hoped would become commonplace in England and America when he wrote his landmark essay on existential criticism for the Chicago Review in 1959 (reprinted, with slight amendments, under the title ‘Existential Criticism’, in Eagle and Earwig in 1965).

However, the literary theories expounded since the 1960s, which I have always regarded at best as a form of mental tyre-kicking, have been incomprehensible to ordinary readers and, unfortunately, has served to alienate them from literary criticism. This is where existential criticism scores because it readily involves them in its ethic.

The third point which impresses — although its implications for today are harder to quantify — arises from the concluding essay in Eagle(s) & Earwig(s), ‘Personal: Influences on my writing’, dated 1958, where Wilson, in the final sentence, remarks upon ‘the tradition of an intellectual creation’ in literature.

He writes that this tradition, begun by T S Eliot (whom Wilson regarded as a failed existential critic), was being continued by the Swiss novelist and dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–1990) ‘with its roots in analysis, and its eventual aim to be a new form of self-consciousness’.

Makeshift standards

Wilson, in the early 1960s, saw Dürrenmatt as ‘the heir of the existentialist tradition’ stretching in literature from Goethe to Sartre, as he wrote in The Strength to Dream (1962), and how Dürrenmatt’s work was in ‘revolt against the makeshift standards of the modern world’. Dürrenmatt used ‘all the traditional analyses of existentialism, the concept of an inauthentic existence, human self-deception, etc‘, yet with an ‘instinctive, mystical optimism’ — he was a creator of positive values.

So if by ‘new form of self-consciousness’ Wilson meant awareness in literature of those attributes quoted in the preceding paragraph — an phlegmatic appraisal by writers of the capacity of the inner life to raise awareness of positive human potential — then one feels, regrettably, that he was being over-optimistic.

As Wilson says, any attempt to impose a scheme of values in literature at least would have the virtue of forcing its opponents (or indeed, writers and critics encountering existential criticism for the first time) to scrutinise their own values. Such scrutiny, as a step towards the existential position, is as much needed today as it was more than half a century ago, if not more so.

*** ‘Every time someone uses the word “ought”, I want to probe and find to what system of ultimate values he is relating it’ — Colin Wilson, The Strength to Dream (1962)

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Writer, poet, tutor and mentor in literature and creative writing (MA and BA Hons degrees in English literature), editor, journalist and musician.

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