By the time he arrived in Deià in September 1968* the writer Colin Wilson was no longer the Angry Young Man he’d been in the 1950s. But he was still very much a literary outsider. It was fitting that he would gravitate towards Robert Graves, another writer who had managed to upset the British literary establishment in his time.
Wilson went to Deià as Writer-in-Residence at The Mediterranean Institute of Dowling College which had been set up by Bob DeMaria. He had met DeMaria at the C.W. Post University on Long Island. As Wilson writes in his autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose, ‘The prospect of a long holiday in the Mediterranean sounded marvellous after writing six books in a year, and I lost no time in accepting. I had another motive. The college would be in a village called Deya, where Robert Graves lived.’
A meteoric rise
In 1956, when he was just 24, Wilson had published his book The Outsider. Written mostly in the reading room of the British Musuem in London, the book explored why some writers and thinkers were compelled to cut themselves off from society. For part of the time he was writing the book, Wilson had slept rough on Hampstead Heath. The money he saved on rent gave him more time to write.
As you can imagine, the press loved Wilson’s story and he became an emblematic Angry Young Man. The Angry Young Men were mainly working and middle class and generally disillusioned with the state of society in post-WWII Britain. They shared some characteristics with the American Beat Generation but were rather more polite.
Critics too loved the book, which was favourably reviewed by influential figures such as Edith Sitwell and Cyril Connolly. It was described as ‘exhaustive, luminously intelligent’ by Philip Toynbee of the Observer and Wilson was hailed as a major writer.
The Outsider was also a phenomenal popular success, selling over 20,000 copies in the first two months, and becoming hugely influential on what would become the counterculture. Many members of the hippy movement read about Gurdjieff and Herman Hesse for the first time thanks to Wilson.
Perhaps because he’d not shied away from the plaudits, the press and the establishment quickly turned on Wilson. A Time magazine review of his second book Religion and the Rebels, published in 1957, was headlined ‘Scrambled Egghead’.
When Wilson met Graves, he was pretty much a forgotten figure. So, why did he want to meet the older man?
The White Goddess again
Wilson was a great admirer of Graves’s The White Goddess. This had been republished in 1960, perfectly timed to help spark what has been called the ‘occult boom’ of the 1960s along with The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier.
The Morning of the Magicians was preposterous. Wilson describes it as ‘an outrageous hotchpotch of flying saucers, Atlantis, alchemy, Aleister Crowley, H.P. Lovecraft, and speculations about whether Hitler was a member of a secret occult brotherhood.’ But after its translation into English in 1963 it became an international bestseller.
Writing about the reasons for the unlikely success of The Morning of the Magicians in his excellent Turn Off Your Mind, Gary Lachman suggests that ‘According to the authors of this strange work, human beings could step out of the cramped limits of their “historical moment” and stretch out into space.’ The book may have been daft but the impulse to escape conformity, mindless consumerism and the dead end of existentialism wasn’t.
Turning back to The White Goddess, Wilson had been impressed by the way Graves ‘argued that the ancient “magical” cult of the moon had been displaced by the solar, intellectual cult that went on to create modern science’. He felt Graves was the perfect person to ask for advice about the occult book he’d been commissioned to write by publishers Random House.
Random House wanted to cash in on the occult boom and Wilson needed money. As he put it, ‘it didn’t matter that much to me if the book turned out to be a compendium of how many unbelievable things you could believe before breakfast’. He was by now a rather different writer from the angry young author of The Outsider.
The first meeting between Wilson and Graves started out somewhat awkwardly, with the two men behaving like ‘boxers sizing one another up’. Graves suggested a walk down to the cala. After they’d changed into swimming costumes, he asked Wilson if he’d like to try the ‘traverse’, a route over the rocks to a point at which it was possible to dive into the sea. Wilson did and acquitted himself sufficiently well for Graves to slap him on the shoulder and say ‘you’ll do’.
In 1968, Graves would have been 73 and Wilson half his age.
Wilson and Graves became friends. The older man’s views on the difference between rational daylight ‘solar knowledge’ and ‘lunar knowledge’ – intuitive, instinctive and ‘the basis of poetry and mysticism’ – would go on to shape Wilson’s The Occult, published in 1971.
But, when Wilson asked Graves’s advice on whether he should write the book, Graves simply said ‘Don’t’. Graves may well have sensed that Wilson was simply writing because he needed the money. His own belief in magic was deadly serious. He’d also been taken aback by the way The White Goddess had been adopted as one of the key texts of the counterculture. ‘I’m today’s hero of the love-and-flowers cult out in the Screwy State, so they tell me,’ he said, ‘where hippies stop policemen in the street and say, “I adore you, officer.”’
Maybe Graves saw that Wilson was determined to write The Occult and was warning him against prostituting his talent. Fortunately for Wilson, he ignored Graves and The Occult was his second huge literary success. When it appeared in October 1971, Philip Toynbee, who’d praised The Outsider then rubbished Religion and the Rebel, praised Wilson’s ‘staying power, his resilience, his indefatigable curiosity’. The Occult has been translated into many languages and still sells steadily.
Wilson never lost his admiration for Graves. In Dreaming to Some Purpose, published when he was 80, he remembers the poet’s ‘simple method of looking sideways at disorderly facts so as to make perfect sense of them’. I would say that Graves’s simple method adds up to the ideal way to look at Deià and its astonishing history.
Incidentally, Wilson wasn’t the only Angry Young Man to receive advice from Graves. The writer Alan Sillitoe lived in Soller between 1953 and ’58. Together with his wife, the American poet Ruth Fainlight, Sillitoe would cycle the ten kilometres to Deià and back regularly to visit the Graves’s. It was Graves who suggested Sillitoe write about what he knew. Unlike Wilson, Sillitoe took Graves’s advice and wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, his first book, while he was living in Soller. It established him as a writer.
*I think Wilson and his biographer Gary Lachman might have got the date wrong. Other accounts of the Institute give it as 1969 and letters from Deià written by Wilson are dated 1969.