The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Cult books

What are the requirements for writing a cult book? Readable style, significant subject-matter, and reckless assertion. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise. The Female Eunuch. Chariots of the Gods. The Phenomenon of Man. The Teachings of Don Juan. And, of course, The Outsider, by Colin Wilson.

Consider Wilson on Roquentin, the narrator of Sartre's novel La Nausée:

'Roquentin feels insignificant before things. Without the meaning his Will would normally impose on it, his existence is absurd. Causality - Hume's bugbear - has collapsed; consequently there are no adventures.'

It's the aside - 'Hume's bugbear' - that does the trick. Years later, you'll read Hume and marvel. Likewise the capitalization of 'Will'. This isn't any old will, you see, the kind that gets you and me out of bed in the morning - no, it's the Will of Schopenhauer's Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, to whose 'formidable dialectical apparatus' Wilson has given a nod and a passing wave a few pages earlier.

In his long, frank and often (sometimes intentionally) funny autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose (Arrow, 2004), Colin Wilson explains the genesis of his extraordinary first book, published when he was twenty-five years old and a complete unknown who had left school at sixteen. He really had read all the books he cites, and thought about them at length. He'd written about them, in his journals and notebooks, for over a decade, meanwhile endlessly drafting and redrafting his first novel. In the process, he accomplished in passing the key requirement for becoming a publishable writer: write a million words. ('Of crap', I sometimes add, by way of encouragement, because that's what mine were.) The Outsider was an overnight success, but the high-brow critics who'd praised it to the skies soon woke up with a hang-over. Wilson, it turned out, wasn't Britain's answer to Sartre and Camus. None of them, as far as I know, put their finger on what he actually was. Far from being a charlatan, Wilson was an intelligent and sincere young man who read more than enough to put most undergraduates to shame, but who'd never had what a university education could have given him: a training in critical thinking. Instead, he tried to make everything he read fit together and make a coherent story. I did the same myself at the time I read The Outsider, at the age of sixteen. Many of us do.

Wilson went on writing, about a hundred books, about everything: astronomy, crime, the occult, psychology, philosophy, sex, wine, music, UFOs ... always with the same theme as his first. He enjoyed a second success with The Occult, sometimes with the same critics, who this time should have been even more ashamed of themselves afterwards, but weren't.

I've always admired him; for his optimism, his enthusiasm, his energy, his self-belief. In one of his many books he says that it's better to think you're a genius when you're not than to think you're not when you are. There's no doubt on which side he falls. His autobiography is genuinely engaging and inspiring. If I could sincerely write a cult book a tenth as good in its way as The Outsider I'd do it in a heartbeat, if only for the money - another subject on which Wilson is eloquent, and unsparing of his own blushes.

Ideas, people, ideas! What's the world waiting to hear about from me?

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>>>>In one of his many books he says that it's better to think you're a genius when you're not than to think you're not when you are.

I wish I'd thought of that!

Though his reviewers, who presumably *did* go to university, also seem to have suffered from a lack of critical thinking.

"Ideas, people, ideas! What's the world waiting to hear about from me?"

Well, if you're looking for non-fiction books ideas:

Sarah Bakewell has recently had a lot of success with "How to Live, or A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer".

I had been vaguely meaning to read Montaigne after he was referenced in "The Black Swan" by Nassim Taleb, but never got around to it. Bakewell's book persuaded me to actually start on the essays.

Anyway. I'm in a similar position with Marx. I will get round to reading "Capital" eventually but - given my reading-speed and attention span - what I'd really like is a cheap, straightforward biography and survey of his ideas. (Preferably less than 300 000 words). A Marxism for the 21st century Kindle-toting commuter.

Aside from "The Enigma of Capital" by David Harvey (on the reading list, but I gather it's more about the crisis and Marxian economics than about Marx himself) I haven't been able to find such a book.

I'd like it to be straightforward and factual without being stuffy and technical. And it needs to be "popular" in the sense of "popular science" rather than academic.

Frankly, you seem to be in as good a position as anyone to write it. I dunno if that's the sort of thing you'd like to write or if you feel you are qualified to do so... YMMV.

Dunno how you'd go about making Marx "cult" though....

I guess you could go for a sort of left-libertarian tract. I like those.

In general: there are probably plenty of relatively obscure thinkers from the past that could do with the Bakewell/Montaigne treatment.

Only tangentially related, but my favorite cult book would have to be The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, read as a teenager after reading Stephenson's riffing on it. Still the most interestingly wrong thing I think I've ever read.

I'll have to check out Wilson; I've never heard of him before.

It was Von Daniken for me as well. There was a time when my thirteen year old self actually bought into the idea of human civ as a by-product alien intervention. I still remember, even after so many years, how spectacularly mind-blowing that was. Good times...

I think you could write a killer book about determinism and its implications for religious belief, science and politics*, if you could get to the point of seeing it from outside.

*Incoherent Saturday night thought... I get the impression you see some kind of philosophical determinism as a condition of possibility of both the first and second of these; not sure about the third.

Francis Wheen wrote a terse biography of Marx!

For me it was first Von Daniken, then Louis Pauwels & Jaques Bergier. Such amazing books. I read them for the beauty of the prose and innocence of ideas, also the fascinating look into the often super creative minds of people who want to believe and how they justify it with such absurd or beautiful/inventive stories. Such great memories!

I read "The Outsider" when I was too young to know much about the thinkers and ideas it describes, but I remember liking it. Years later I read "The Mind Parasites" and loved it. It's the most improbable mixture of notions in SF that I know of. The abstract, technical, philosophy of mind, Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, used to develop the psychic power to repel an invasion of purely mental beings. Using phenomenology this way was an audacious move. For Husserl developed it to study the mind, by thinking about its thinking. What this had to do with mental defence was not explained, yet it was so neat that I read it twice.

I saw through Von Danikan early on but fell for Bucky Fuller who generated genuinely interesting technology from crackpot ideology, and Paolo Soleri who generated genuinely interesting architectural proposals from a rather different crackpot ideology. It took me a long time to understand that Soleri's teology was as full of unproven assumptions Von Danikan ; that Fuller's anti-political variation on technocracy was actually an intensely political viewpoint; that further Fuller's preference for a good story over a factual basis was a poor basis for construction useful theories.

I still admire both and learned useful ways of looking at the world from them. Both IMO have made real contributions. Proof that genius or near-genius and crackpot are not incompatible.

TJ: thanks for the suggestions, which have set off some interesting lines of thought. Re Marx, there are plenty of good introductions already, and as Mirk has said, Francis Wheen's biography is short and readable - journalistic, not very deep, but for that reason entertaining too.

Phil: could you expand a little, please?

Everyone else: Von Daniken was one of my early embarrassments too.

"Ideas people, ideas! What do people want to hear from me?"

Actually Ken, one of the reasons I love your blog (and books) is the way you see Marxism, materialism, revolutionary history etc. and taking often surprising insights from them. The idea you recently mentioned that you put in "A Tulip for Lucretius" for example, that Epicurus brought the gospel of materialism promising full annihilation of the soul (thus no eternal torment). Or a comment on the website recently about the glass and steel office towers in our cities merely there to house the parasitic "apparat of capital" (banking, finance, insurance), that the "low sheds of useful industry" are more characteristic of socialism.
Or that essay on the website about how the Christian opposition against the Greco-Roman world was the first true revolution (and how liberalism was the only revolution that fulfilled it's own promise)

More of that kind of stuff, please!

Ken - thinking of your comment back here:

and in particular the story about Francis Mulhearn:

Some time about 1987 A.D. I discussed determinism with Francis Mulhearn in our Islington local, and we were both amused to discover that as a result of our respective religious educations, neither of us could get our heads around the other's take on the issue. To Francis, free will seemed just intuitively obvious and determinism unimaginable, whereas to me...

My own religious education was one of leftish ecumenical Sidney Carter-ish Anglicanism, heavily influenced by a mother who had been brought up in the Plymouth Brethren & never believed a word of it; consequently I grew up thinking that Calvinism was about as interesting & relevant as the Book of Mormon. Reading The World Turned Upside Down cured me of that misconception, but I still can't 'think' determinist - the idea that my (and everyone else's) choices are ultimately free, and that the future is wide open, seems fundamental to me. I suspect I'm not the only one.

Ugh, URL swallowed. Comments are related to this post.

Phil - I'm afraid that with that anecdote I more or less shot my bolt on the subject, but I'll go on thinking about it.

Jimmy - aha! That sounds a promising angle, in that it's something I already do, I enjoy doing, and all the reading is either already done in my mis-spent youth or is stuff I intend to read anyway.

"Ideas people, ideas! What do people want to hear from me?"

I'm actually curious about your loss of faith. I saw you at a talk in Edinburgh (with Banks and Stross iirc) where you mentioned that you came from a religous background. I'd be interested in reading something about the process of believing and wanting to believe and then seeing it all crumble.

But then I am a nosey parker.

In order to write a proper cult book, don't all your other books have to be failures?

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ejh - not at all. Castenada and von Daniken wrote several successful sequels to their first big-hit books.

Regarding Marx bios, Wheen's is good, but my favorite is Mary Gabriel's Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution.

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