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07 December 2013 @ 05:46 am
Colin Wilson 1931-2013  
Colin Wilson is dead. Here's what I wrote about him years ago:

Colin Wilson has had a curious history. Thirty years ago, he had the misfortune to be an overnight success. He wrote a somewhat sophomoric book called The Outsider, whose combination of working-class roots, Existentialist name dropping, and religious affirmation made him an Instant Intellectual Superstar. It was obvious to many people that he was being wildly overpraised, and when his next book, Religion and the Rebel, appeared, there was the inevitable reaction. Critics, including some of those who'd gone furthest overboard for the first book, resolved to redress the balance by treating the second one as some sort of loathsome crawling vermin invading their intellectual environs.

Wilson languished in this somewhat self-made purgatory for a decade or so, turning out a mix of fiction and nonfiction on such subjects as multiple murderers, the sexual impulse, and the need for a more optimistic existentialism, then found his niche in the early seventies with a book called The Occult.

Whatever value this book had was destroyed for many readers, including me, by an alarming credulity on the author's part. In a field where charlatans abound to an extent unknown outside of government, Wilson came across as a sort of intellectual Little Mikey: "Let's tell it to Colin. He'll believe anything." (Not quite true; the egregious Erich Von Daniken appears to be so inept that even Wilson cannot swallow some of his conjectures.)

Regrettably, Wilson was reinforced for this sort of work by the marketplace. The Occult was a best seller, and Wilson, never a careful scholar (his presentations of other writers, such as the discussion of Jung in New Pathways in Psychology, are often laughably off the mark), has gone on doing sloppy, ill-researched books. Sometimes the results are merely inept, as in his simplistic discussions of the right brain-left brain model, which he unsurprisingly accepts in its crudest form. Sometimes, it's worse, as when he blundered across one of those tracts purporting to prove that the Nazis couldn't have killed millions of Jews, and swallowed it whole.

For all his flaws, Wilson has always asked interesting questions. Why do we tend to lose interest in the good things of this world, to treat them as givens and devote inordinate attention to minor annoyances? Why do we seem to have vast reservoirs of energy and inspiration that go untapped so much of the time? How do we attain self-discipline when the main thing we need in order to get it is self-discipline? Wilson's answers to these questions have tended to be far off the mark, but he should be given credit for asking them, and perhaps the questions will find their way to people who'll have better answers.

And a Horrible Example:
Pythagoras discovered the so-called irrational numbers. The ratio of the diameter of a clrcle to its circumference is 3 1/7. But if you try to turn this into decimals, it is impossible; the decimal for one-seventh begins .142857, and then repeats ltself an infinite number of times. So Pythagoras' belief that the universe is built out of neat whole numbers was exploded.
From Starseekers, his history of science
Xiphias Gladiusxiphias on December 7th, 2013 01:43 pm (UTC)
... that would have gotten an "F -- See Me" had I written it in fourth grade. How did it end up in print by an actual grown-up?
et in Arcadia egoboo: boobapostle_of_eris on December 7th, 2013 10:29 pm (UTC)
The Pythagorean example is totally fubar.
22/7 *is* a ratio. And the Classic Greeks are a thousand years before decimal notation. And repeating decimals don't prove a thing, especially since they change depending on the base.
Likely the author is thinking of the proof that the square root of 2 cannot be expressed as the ratio of two integers. The Pythagoreans were *very* upset at that.
El Coyote Gordo: interrobangsupergee on December 8th, 2013 12:33 am (UTC)
I saved it because I was awed by the sheer amount of wrong in a small space. Not quite Warren Harding's "seven errors in a simple declarative sentence," but impressive.
Eli: anemoneeub on December 9th, 2013 08:19 am (UTC)
It's spectacular. I'm not sure how one could even fit in any more errors, besides something trivial like getting the digits of the expansion wrong.

Hm, okay, how about this:

"the decimal for one-seventh begins .142857, and then repeats ltself an infinite number of times, without ever reaching one-seventh exactly."