A Killing Concept

Does the work of pop philosopher Colin Wilson provide clues to a serial killer's motives? Scott McLemee is banking on the idea.

December 1, 2005

Inspired less by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s impressive turn in Capote than by the condition of my checking account, I have been considering the idea of turning out a true-crime book -- a lurid potboiler, but one fortified with a little cultural history, albeit of an eccentric kind. The idea has been stewing for a couple of months now. My working title is BTK and the Beatnik. Here’s the pitch.

In late August,The New York Times ran a short profile of Colin Wilson, the last surviving member of the Angry Young Men -- a literary group that emerged in Britain during the mid-1950s at just about the time Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were interrupting the presumed consensus of Eisenhower-era America. Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and John Osborne as the Angries’ most prominent novelist, poet, and playwright, respectively. And Colin Wilson -- whose quasi-existentialist credo The Outsider appeared in May 1956, when he was 24 -- was taken up by the press as the Angry thinker.

"The Outsider," wrote Wilson, "is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeoisie, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. He sees too deep and too much, and what he sees is essentially chaos." He developed this theme through a series of commentaries on literary and philosophical texts, all handled with a certain vigorous confidence that impressed the reviewers very much.

As, indeed, did Wilson’s personal story, which was a publicist’s dream come true. Born to a working-class family, he had quit school at 16, taken odd jobs while reading his way through modern European literature, and camped out in a public park to save on rent as he wrote and studied at the library of the British Museum. Wilson was not shy about proclaiming his own genius. For several months, the media lent him a bullhorn to do it. He posed for photographs with his sleeping bag, and otherwise complied with his fans' desire that he be something like a cross between Albert Camus and James Dean.

The backlash was not long in coming. It started with his second book, Religion and the Rebel, which got savage notices when it appeared in 1957, despite being virtually indistinguishable from The Outsider in subject and method. “We are tired of the boy Colin,” as one literary journalist is supposed to have said at the time.

Roundly abused, though no wit abashed, he kept on writing, and has published dozens of novels and works of nonfiction over the intervening decades. The Outsider has never gone out of print in English; it developed a solid following in Arabic translation, and appeared a few years ago in Chinese.

The piece in The Times came in the wake of his recent autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose -- a book revealing that Wilson is still very confident of his own place as perhaps the greatest writer of our time. This is a minority opinion. The reviews his memoir got in the British press were savage. So far it has not received much attention in the United States. Wilson has a cult following here; and the few scholarly monographs on his work tend to have that cult-following feel.

Perhaps the most forceful claim for his importance was made by Joyce Carol Oates, who provided an introduction to the American edition of his science-fiction novel The Philosopher’s Stone (1969). Oates hailed Wilson for "consciously attempting to imagine a new image for man ... freed of ambiguity, irony, and the self-conscious narrowness of the imagination we have inherited from 19th century Romanticism."

Her praise seems to me a bit overstated. But I have a certain fondness for that novel, having discovered it during Christmas break while in high school. It set me off on a fascination with Wilson's work that seems, with hindsight, perfectly understandable. Adolescence is a good time to read The Outsider. For that matter, Wilson himself was barely out of it when he wrote the book. Although now a septuagenarian, the author now displays the keen egomania of someone a quarter that age.  

Now, just as The Times was running its profile of the last Angry Young Man, the sentencing hearing for Dennis Rader, the confessed BTK killer, was underway in Kansas. News accounts mentioned, usually in passing, his claims that the striking of sadistic murders he committed over the years were the result of something he called "Factor X." He did not elaborate on the nature of Factor X, though reporters often did often note that the killer saw himself as demonically possessed. (He also referred to having been dropped on his head as a child, which may have been one of Rader’s cold-blooded little jokes.)

But in a television interview, Rader indicated that Factor X, while mysterious, was also something in his control. "I used it," he said.

A jolting remark -- at least to anyone familiar with Colin Wilson's work. Over the years, Wilson has developed a whole battery of concepts (or at least of neologisms) to spell out his hunch that the Outsider has access to levels of consciousness not available to more conformist souls. Something he dubbed "Faculty X" has long been central to Wilson’s improvised psychological theories, as well as to his fiction. (The Philosopher’s Stone, which Oates liked so much, is all about Faculty X.)

As Wilson describes it, Faculty X is the opposite of the normal, dulled state of consciousness. It is our potential to grasp, with an incandescent brilliance and intensity of focus, the actuality of the world, including the reality of other times and places. "Our preconceptions, our fixed ideas about ourselves," as Wilson puts, "means that we remain unaware of this power." We trudge along, not engaging the full power of our mental abilities.

Most of us have had similar insights, often while recovering from a bad cold. But the contrast between mental states hit Wilson like a bolt of lightening. In his recent memoir, he writes, "The basic aim of human evolution, I decided, is to achieve Faculty X."

A few artists are able to summon Faculty X at will. But so, in rather less creative form, do psychopathic killers. For that is the stranger side of Colin Wilson’s work -- the part overlooked by The Times, for example, which repeated the standard Wilsonian claim that he was a philosopher of optimism.

Cheerful as that may sound, a very large part of his work over the years has consisted of books about serial murders. They, too, are Outsiders -- in revolt against "a decadent, frivolous society" that gives them no outlet for the development of Faculty X. Such an individual "feels no compunction in committing acts of violence," as Wilson explains, "because he feels only contempt for society and its values."

These quotations are from his book Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder (1972), but they might have been drawn from any of dozens of other titles. Beginning with the Jack the Ripper-sque character Austin Nunne in his first novel, Ritual in the Dark (1960),  Wilson has populated his fiction with an array of what can only be called existentialist serial killers.

In these novels, the narrator is usually an alienated intellectual who sounds ... well, quite a bit like Colin Wilson does in his nonfiction books. The narrator will spend a few hundred pages tracking down a panty-fetishist sex killer, or something of the kind -- often developing a strong sense of identification with, or at least respect for, the murderer. There may be a moment when he recoils from the senselessness of the crimes. But there is never (oddly enough) any really credible expression of sympathy for the victims.

The tendency to see the artist and the criminal as figures dwelling outside the norms of society is an old one, of course; and we are now about 180 years downstream from Thomas De Quincy’s essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." But there is something particularly cold and morbid about Wilson's treatment of the theme. It calls to mind the comment film critic Anthony Lane made about Quentin Tarantino: "He knows everything about violence and nothing about suffering." It comes as little surprise to learn that a girlfriend from Wilson's bohemian days recoiled from one of his earliest efforts at fiction: “She later admitted,” he writes, “that it made her wonder if I was on the verge of becoming a homicidal maniac.”

So did BTK have Wilson’s philosophical ruminations in mind when he was “using” Factor X to commit a string of sadistic murders? Did he see himself as an Outsider – a tormented genius, expressing his contempt for (in Wilson’s phrase) “the comfortable, insulated world” of modernity?

Circumstantial evidence indicates that it is a lead worth pursuing. We know that that Rader studied criminal justice administration at Wichita State University, receiving his B.A. in 1979. Wilson’s brand of pop-philosophizing on murder as a form of revolt (a manifestation of “man’s striving to become a god”) is certainly the kind of thing an adventurous professor might have used to stimulate class discussion.

And  it would be extremely surprising to find that Rader never read Wilson’s work. Given the relatively small market for books devoted entirely to existential musings, Wilson has produced an incredible volume of true-crime writing over the years – beginning with his Encyclopedia of Murder (1961) and continuing through dozens of compilations of serial-killer lore, many available in the United States as rather trashy paperbacks.

The earliest messages Rader sent to police in the mid-1970s reveal disappointment at not getting sufficient press coverage. He even coined the nickname BTK to speed things along. Clearly this was someone with a degree of status anxiety about his role in serial-killing history. One imagines him turning the pages of Wilson’s pulp trilogy Written in Blood (1989) or the two volumes of The Killers Among Us (1995) – all published by Bantam in the U.S. – with some disappointment at not having made the finals.

Well, it’s not too late. We know from his memoirs that Colin Wilson has engaged in extensive correspondence with serial-killing Outsiders who have ended up behind bars. It seems like a matter of time before he turns out a book on BTK.

Unless, of course, I beat him to it. The key is to overcome the gray fog of everyday, dull consciousness by activating my dormant reserves of Faculty X. Fortunately it has never been necessary for me to kill anyone to manage this. Two large cups of French Roast will usually do the trick.   


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