Colin Wilson on Robert Clarke

Back in 2002, Hampton Roads published Robert Clarke’s first book, The Four Gold Keys, featuring a foreword by writer Colin Wilson, through whom Robert and I had  become acquainted. Hampton Roads subsequently published Robert’s second book, and Hologram Books is going to publish his subsequent works in the coming year. The Four Gold Keys being now out of print, and the copyright reverted to Robert (therefore, now, his estate) I am able to reprint Colin’s opinion of the importance of Robert’s work.


By Colin Wilson

Most writers receive a dozen or so letters a week from strangers, commenting on their work or offering advice. A few of these, inevitably, are from religious cranks who feel that the answer to all life’s problems can be found in the Bible. When I receive one of these, I usually throw it straight in the waste paper basket.

So it was fortunate that, when in April 1997, I received a long hand­written letter from a correspondent in the Midlands describing a kind of religious conversion, I went on reading to the end.

What he was explaining was how the discovery of the analytical psy­chology of Jung had brought about a profound change in his outlook, and made him aware of the true meaning of religion. And the sincerity of the letter, and the obvious intelligence of the writer, made such an impression on me that I immediately picked up the phone and rang him at his home in Stoke-on-Trent, the heart of the district known as “the Potteries.”

The man who answered had a Staffordshire accent–which, for the benefit of American readers, is not unlike Yorkshire–and we had a long conversation. I told him that I had been moved and excited by his account of his childhood, and his long, miserable period as a laborer and office worker, because it resembled in many ways my own experience. And I advised him to settle down and write a book.

Now, it is something of a responsibility for a writer to advise someone to write a book, for they assume that you will be able to find them a pub­lisher. And at that time, I had no idea of who might be interested. But I could see very clearly that this was what Robert Clarke needed to do–to express the ideas that were obviously boiling inside him, and get them out of his sys­tem. This was the obvious priority, and looking for a publisher could wait.

As far as Robert was concerned, there were major obstacles to be surmounted. At that time he could not even type. But in a short time he not only taught himself to type, but bought a computer and got himself on to e-mail. And in due course I received the early chapters of his book, with a delightful account of his happy childhood, when he set out in life with the expectation that, whatever the future held, it was going to be exciting and fulfilling. Then he left school, and “shades of the prison house” began to close, leading to the disheartening anticlimax of a suc­cession of jobs he detested. The feeling that life meant well by him faded away, and, in effect, he began a long prison sentence that lasted until his unconscious mind provided release in a nervous breakdown.

Now, this was a problem that had always preoccupied me, and that had led me to write my first book, The Outsider, in 1955. Like Robert, I had been born into a working class background in the Midlands, the son of a factory worker. Like Robert, I had been a good student at school, and no one had any doubt that I could get the necessary scholarships to go on to higher education. But in my case, an unexpected obstacle inter­vened. At the age of sixteen, I suddenly lost interest in science–of which I had intended to make a career–and decided I wanted to become a writer.

What had happened was that, after I left school in 1947 at the age of 16, I discovered that I lacked the credit in mathematics that I needed to take a science degree. That meant taking the maths exam again, and that could not be done for several months. In the meantime, I took a laboring job in a wool factory–the first job the employment exchange offered me–and began working a nine-hour day. I found the work bor­ing and exhausting, and used to cycle home at six o’clock in a state of exhaustion and depression.

But I had discovered an excellent antidote to gloom–poetry. I would go to my bedroom, climb into bed–it was a cold winter and this was the best way of keeping warm–and plunge into my favorite poets. These included Keats, Wordsworth, Milton, Poe, W. B. Yeats, and T. S. Eliot. And gradually, a mood of calm and relaxation would replace the depres­sion, and after a couple of hours I had been restored to my usual mood of cheerful optimism.

The problem was that these nightly infusions of poetry were like de Quincey’s opium eating, and made physics and mathematics seem more and more disagreeable. And although this made no difference during the remaining months I worked in the factory, it proved to be a major draw­back when 1 passed my maths exam and was offered a job as a labora­tory assistant at my old school.

A year earlier, this offer would have fulfilled all my dreams, for it would have meant that I could work in a congenial environment while I studied for a science degree, and took the major steps towards becom­ing a nuclear physicist or cosmologist (which is what really interested me). But Keats and Shelley had spoiled me for all that. Now 1 wanted to write plays like Bernard Shaw or novels like H. G. Wells (both were still alive at the time), and devote my life to literature and philosophy. (1 had been introduced to the latter by the writings of “Professor” C. E. M. Joad.)

So when 1 took my end-of-year exams, and it became apparent that I had done no work in physics or analytical chemistry, the headmaster sacked me from the lab-assistant position, and I had to look around for a new way of earning a weekly wage packet. Still detesting the idea of any regular occupation but writing, 1 ended as a civil servant, working at the Collector of Taxes, but–predictably–found that even more bor­ing and depressing than the school laboratory.

At this point, national service in the Royal Air Force intervened. I found the initial period of “square bashing” unexpectedly invigorating, but soon lost interest when 1 was given a clerking job. At this point I set about “working my ticket,” and succeeded so well in convincing a med­ical board that I was temperamentally unsuited to service life that I found myself discharged after a mere six months as an airman.

There would be no point in describing the various jobs I accepted­ and lost-during the next four years, for this introduction is supposed to be about Robert, not about me. Suffice it to say that I worked as a farm laborer, navvy (ditch digger), plastic molder, filing clerk, laundry hand, and washer-up in a coffee bar before I wrote The Outsider at the age of twenty-three, and found myself hurtled into a dubious notoriety as an “Angry Young Man” when I was still twenty-four. But, for a long time after I moved to a Cornish village to write books, I woke up having nightmares of being back in a factory.

So when Robert wrote to me outlining a career that sounds depress­ingly similar, I was naturally sympathetic. “Left school at 15-1957-to work in office of tile factory-hated it. I didn’t realize it, but education stopped just when I had come fully awake to knowledge. I was to further work at a small printers setting type, as trainee manager at pottery ware­house, assistant at car-spare warehouse, shop assistant selling electrical goods, driver’s mate, filling cylinders at color works, mixing coke dirt and tar (twelve-hour shifts), shoveling basalt rock into a furnace (twelve-hour shifts), preparation work in a fish-and-chip shop, stacking saggers (pottery vessels) in a bottle oven (one day, but it seemed like a year), and other laboring jobs in factories.”

It can be seen that, compared to Robert, I had a fairly easy time of it. Yet I had contemplated suicide during my period as a lab assistant, and actually went to the analytical chemistry class one evening with every intention of drinking cyanide.

If I had killed myself, of course, I would have been following in the footsteps of so many “Romantic Outsiders,” like Kleist, Beddoes, and Chatterton. But if I had been forced to spend another decade working at uncongenial jobs, I think it quite possible that I might have taken the fatal step–or at least, had a nervous breakdown, as Robert did at the age of twenty-eight.

Robert’s collapse was obviously a deep unconscious revolt against our society and the life it was forcing him to lead. Jung had experienced the same thing at the age of twelve, and he describes it in Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Like Robert, Jung had been fascinated by the romance of archaeology, and wanted to become an archaeologist. But for the son of an impoverished Protestant pastor, this was out of the ques­tion. lung’s father had remarked: “The boy is interested in everything. but heavens knows where he’ll end up.” And as Jung became increas­ingly depressed about his prospects, he became accident-prone, and one day, a boy pushed him so hard that he fell and banged his head on the pavement. He lost consciousness for a moment, and the thought flashed through his mind: “Now I shan’t have to go to school any more.” And from then on, he began having fainting fits.

One day, sitting behind a shrub in the garden, he heard his father speak­ing about him to a friend about his illness. “They think it might be epilepsy. It would be dreadful if he were incurable. I have lost what little I have, and what will become of the boy if he cannot earn his own living?”

Suddenly filled with guilt, Jung hurried off to his father’s study and took out his Latin grammar. After a short time, he had a fainting fit and fell off the chair, but desperation forced him to go on working. He had a second blackout, but still pressed on. An hour later, he fainted again, but made himself go back to work. Then suddenly he felt better than he had since the attacks began. And, in fact, they ceased.

That experience taught Jung a little about the terrible power of the unconscious mind, and how gloom and negativity can influence the body.

Something of the sort, I believe, happened to Robert when he was twenty-eight. He had become utterly depressed-not merely with him­self, but with the world around him. He spent every free moment read­ing, but could find nothing that seemed to offer a glimmer of a solution. The teachings of Freud had struck him as totally negative. Then he came across a best -selling book by a foreign professor, declaring that man is an accident that should never have happened, and that where evolution is concerned, humanity has no future. (Robert cannot remember the title of the book, but I wonder if it might have been Jacques Monod’s 1970 bestseller Chance and Necessity.) His own deepest instincts told him that all this was nonsense, but this certainty only increased his sense of standing alone.

An unhappy, unfulfilled love affair did nothing to improve things, and in 1970 he had the breakdown which effectively put an end to his career as a reluctant laborer.

It was about five years later that he saw a television program about Jung, which came as a revelation. Long before that, he had noted the vividness and strange symbolism of his dreams, and felt that they were trying to teach him something. Now, suddenly, through the works of Jung, he began to understand what that was.

The result was a mental revolution that dragged him back from the abyss. He began to keep a dream diary, and used the collected works of Jung to help him interpret them. And as he realized that his dreams were offering him insights into the collective unconscious, he knew he had found what he had been seeking since he left school.

His whole world changed. He tells me that he suddenly ceased to be the misfit of the family, and became the one who made decisions.

He had also, at some point, stumbled upon my own writings, and recognized immediately that I was also in revolt against the pessimism that has dominated our culture for more than two centuries. This is why, in 1997, he decided to write to me. He accepted my suggestion that he should begin the book with a long autobiographical section, and this is what, some time in 1999, he sent to me on disk. I was enthusiastic, but could see that his major problem was going to be how to move from his own personal story to a study of the development of the ideas of Freud and Jung, and to the quarrel between them that led to Jung’s own men­tal breakdown in 1914, and to the development of the idea of the collec­tive unconscious. Still less could I see how he could find room for his own “dream diary.”

Fortunately, I mentioned Robert’s project in an e-mail to my friend Frank DeMarco, one of the two founders of the publishing house of Hampton Roads. Frank asked to see the uncompleted book, and to my delight, decided that it was publishable, and that a good editor–in this case, Richard Leviton–could solve the problems that had left me baf­fled. He was right, and the result is the present volume.

And here, I realize, I should start winding up this introduction. Yet I have a deeply frustrating sense that there is something important that I have simply failed to say. Let me take a deep breath, beg the reader’s indulgence, and try again.

In the 1960s, I was sent a book called Evolution for Beginners by a writer called Michael Byrom. (I have put a portrait of Michael into an early novel of mine called The Violent World of Hugh Greene.) The book seemed to me basically Shavian in spirit, but written with a wit and inci­siveness that was entirely his own. I replied to Michael, and discovered that he lived alone in a cottage at Bovey Tracey, near the edge of Dartmoor. I drove over one day to see him.

I was expecting to meet someone as combative and pugnacious as Shaw, and was surprised to meet a pale, quietly spoken young man, who seemed rather shy. The cottage belonged to his mother, who allowed him to live there rent free, and he devoted his days to drawing and writ­ing. He was a brilliant cartoonist whose work owed something to Max Beerbohm, and he enjoyed presenting Punch and Judy shows for chil­dren. Concealed behind a stage and puppets, his shyness vanished.

But what amazed me most about Michael was that he was a natural puritan. (Shaw had said the same thing about himself, so perhaps this was not so surprising.) In spite of being an evolutionist, his philosophy made a sharp distinction between “this world” and the world of reality –the world of the spirit, and he felt strongly that the prophets of the evo­lution of mankind to a higher stage are all distinguished by a sense of revulsion that they feel for “this world.” He liked quoting a work called The Dwarf by Par Lagerkvist, in which the protagonist declares “I delight in nothing.” Michael would spit out this last word with an abyss of contempt.

His attitude to sex was also puritanical. He told me that he had recently seen an old man and woman standing at a bus stop, both slightly drunk, dancing a little jig together. This brought out his contempt. “They should have outgrown that kind of thing long ago! ” And when I said that 1 thought it sounded rather charming, he shook his head in bewilder­ment, as if to say, “I thought you and I had something in common.”

The point of this story is still to come. Michael had written a play set in Ruritania, about a prince who is next in line for the throne. But, the prince detests the idea of becoming king and ruling the country. His main interest is training fleas for his flea circus, which is the joy of his life. That is why he hates the idea of becoming king: He would have to give up his flea circus.

Michael explained that the flea circus was a deliberately trivial sym­bol of this “other world, ” the world of evolutionary purpose. He had rejected the idea of making the heir apparent a musician or painter or heroic figure. He wanted to emphasize that the evolutionary impulse is basically a dislike of all the things that “this world” offers us. He might have expressed it like Villiers de L’Isle Adam’s Axel: “As for living, our servants can do that for us.”

But with his symbol of the prince and his flea circus, Michael was adding another layer of meaning to Axel. The person who is driven by that obscure urge to evolve towards a higher type of man may not have the slightest idea what this evolution is all about. He is not at all sure what he does want. He only knows very clearly that he doesn’t want the kind of life that seems to content the vast majority of his fellow humans. He cannot grasp that his real problem is his deep sense of dissatisfaction with humanity as it exists.

Somerset Maugham wrote about the same problem in The Moon and Sixpence and The Razors Edge, but by making his hero an artist or a natural acetic, he is blurring the outline of the problem, which is that an immense majority of the “higher evolutionary types” have no idea why they find everyday life so dreary and repellent. They feel themselves to be outsiders or misfits, doomed to an unhappiness that seems to have something to do with being born into the wrong world.

The credit for creating the first of these outsider-misfits should prob­ably go to Shakespeare with Hamlet. Goethe with Young Werther came a century-and-a-half later, and launched the Romantic movement, with its “world rejection.” Those early “outsiders,” from Hoffmann and Byron to Yeats’ “tragic generation” of the 1890s, felt that the answer lay in accepting that life is a kind of tragic joke, like someone blundering on to a stage set while the play is in progress; the best thing the unhappy mis­fit can do is to make his apologies and back out as soon as possible.

Michael Byrom may have been a “world rejecter,” but he saw that the underlying problem is the “misfit’s” evolutionary urge. It is a desire for another type of consciousness, connected to the deeper meaning of the universe.

It is because Robert Clarke’s story encapsulates this whole tremen­dous issue so perfectly that I feel his work has something deeply signif­icant to say to the present time.

-Colin Wilson

5 thoughts on “Colin Wilson on Robert Clarke

  1. This was very interesting to me. Now I think I will have to add Wilson’s and Clarke’s books to my growing list of ones I must read. I’d like to thank you, Frank, for bringing Robert Clarke to us. I’ve read enough snipets on this blog to realize that he is important to us, as you are.

    I do have a question rumbling around in my head, though. In “So you think your life is wasted”, and again here in Colin Wilson’s letter, it seems to me that being seriously discontented with life downstairs, and perhaps even repulsed by our physical lives, is some kind of common thread that connects people who are looking for, or tuning in on, the other spiritual “upstairs” life. But is it a prerequisite? Do we have to come to hate our life, or hate this world, before we can be open to….something more?

    1. No, I am sure it isn’t a prerequiciste — at least, I hope it isn’t. But often enough it is a pervasive discontent with the things of this world that first turns people’s minds toward deeper questions of meaning. There is or used to be a saying, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity,” which I take to mean, “when things are going well, people aren’t as likely to move beyond their comfortable assumptions as when suddenly they need HELP!”

      Half a century ago, Colin Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, examined the question of why some people don’t fit into the world. What is it they hunger for? The book became a worldwide best seller (and remains in print today) because it focused on a question of prime importance.

  2. As much as I admire Colin Wilson, and have written about him in my blog, I find his review of Clarke’s book too long by half, full of self-promotion. I will look into Clarke’s book, but I cannot tell what it may be about, other than it is very much like what the reviewer, Wilson, wrote in his first published book. Perhaps I read the review too quickly, trying to avoid what I already knew about Wilson. I will always be interested in a serious look at Jung’s life and work.

  3. Yes, I see what you mean about Colin’s having written as much about himself as about Robert. This I think is because he was so taken by the similarity in their childhood backgrounds.

    Robert’s books, though, are not particularly similar to Colin’s. Robert’s are based firmly on his personal experiences as he went through what Jung called the individuation process. His importance is, in part, that he experienced what others only wrote about or read about; therefore he brings first-hand experience to the subject, and there’s nothing more important than that.

    Thanks for writing. Give us your blog URL so we can see what you’re up to.

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