Fighting against Sleep: Colin Wilson’s Necessary Doubt as Phenomenological Thriller

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I recalled the last phases of my former life, that darkling climax of pursuit and anger and universal darkness and the whirling green vapors of extinction. The comet had struck the earth and made an end to all things; of that too I was assured.
But afterward? . . .
And now?
The imaginations of my boyhood came back as speculative possibilities. In those days I had believed firmly in the necessary advent of a last day, a great coming out of the sky, trumpetings and fear, the Resurrection, and the Judgment. My roving fancy now suggested to me that this Judgment must have come and passed. That it had passed and in some manner missed me. I was left alone here, in a swept and garnished world (except, of course, for this label of Swindells’) to begin again perhaps…
The miracle of the awakening came to me in solitude, the laughter, and then the tears. Only after some time did I come upon another man. Until I heard his voice calling I did not seem to feel there were any other people in the world. All that seemed past, with all the stresses that were past. I had come out of the individual pit in which my shy egotism had lurked, I had overflowed to all humanity, I had seemed to be all humanity; I had laughed at Swindells as I could have laughed at myself, and this shout that came to me seemed like the coming of an unexpected thought in my own mind. But when it was repeated I answered.
H. G. Wells, In the Year of the Comet (1906)

That the comet’s “green vapors” amount to a Deus ex machina is no reason not to notice the real interest in the passage: The description, which goes on for pages, of the metamorphosis of consciousness that permits the narrator to see the world at last — as if the Blakean “Doors of Perception” had been flung wide.  The narrator has ascended to a new order of existence. He is now a kind of superman, at least where keen-sightedness and self-clarity are concerned.  The state of heightened consciousness is a recurrent motif in Wells’ oeuvre; so is the Nietzschean Übermensch.  In Kipps (1905), the priggish Walsingham, who “had been reading Appearing roughly five years after Ritual in the Dark (1959) and roughly five years before The Philosopher’s Stone (1969), Colin Wilson’s ambitious novel Necessary Doubt (1964) represents its author in the moment when, beginning to appropriate genre formulas (murder mystery, science fiction, espionage novel), he simultaneously began to foreground philosophical themes and to exploit a version of Platonic dialogue for the dramatic exposition of ideas.  Necessary Doubt echoes Ritual in a number of ways, particularly in granting to its point-of-view character the privilege of withholding testimony by which he would cooperate with official charges against an acquaintance other than perfectly innocent.  The protagonist in Necessary Doubt is Professor Karl Zweig, an existential theologian of Austrian origin whom Wilson models in part on Paul Tillich.  Zweig’s relation to the dubious and off-putting Gustav Neumann is somewhat analogous to Gerard Sorme’s relation to Austin Nunn in Ritual although Neumann differs from Nunn in his degree of social pathology (less acute than Nunn’s) and intelligence (higher than Nunn’s).  As for The Philosopher’s Stone, Necessary Doubt anticipates it in the notion that access to intensified consciousness might be mediated by psychotropic drugs or by neurosurgery.  The metallic substance that accomplishes this goal in The Philosopher’s Stone is called the Neumann Alloy, in a direct backwards link to the earlier work, as Nicolas Tredell has noted.[i]

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In addition to being a pivotal work in the development of Wilson’s novelistic oeuvre, Necessary Doubt also serves to remind readers that its author bears a resemblance (perhaps while owing a happy debt) to an earlier British novelist.  Wilson had called attention to H. G. Wells as early as The Outsider, his first book.  One would not wish to propose Wilson as Wells’ successor in some narrow sense; yet elements of Wells’ novelistic art have correspondences in Wilson’s.  One of those elements is the motif of a substance, natural or artificial, which alters consciousness and conduces towards the emergence of a new type of human being, something not unlike the Nietzschean Übermensch.  Thus, for example, Wells’ novel In the Days of the Comet (1906) has the earth’s atmosphere infiltrated by a cosmic aerosol that allays the aggressive impulse and throws reality into objective relief for the affected individual.  Another element common to Wells and Wilson is reliance on dialogue as the medium for intellectual narrative, the prototypes being Plato’s symposia.

I. Zweig as Unlikely Übermensch. Zweig, the sixty-five-year-old Teutonic-professorial main character of Necessary Doubt, differs markedly from the focal character of Ritual in the Dark and its immediate sequel The Man without a Shadow (also known as The Sex Diary of Gerard Sorme). A widower, an author-philosopher, a man of modest but established reputation (he is even a minor television personality), Zweig feels weighed down by the torpor of age: “Compressed by fatigue,”[ii] as he thinks, a victim of “exhausted attention,” “tired,” and “not awake yet.”[iii]  The falling snow that blankets Christmastime London in the novel’s opening sequence reinforces the hibernal melancholy that has – as readers may assume – been stealing on Zweig gradually without his being sufficiently conscious of it.  In his thirstiness for schnapps and whiskey, Zweig perhaps responds subconsciously to this creeping spiritual crisis; but then everyone in Necessary Doubt drinks too much.  Stimulating where alcohol is anesthetizing, and positively provocative of intensified awareness, abrupt impingements on consciousness from the outside world – moments of elevated meaning – occasionally and providentially call Zweig back to himself.  In the first of these incidents, Zweig experiences the sudden recognition of a long unseen but powerfully familiar face, caught in a swift glimpse as the percipient’s taxicab passes another parked curbside while admitting two passengers who have just emerged from a hotel.

The longtime unseen face belongs to Neumann, son of an old colleague, a former student, and the man whose presence in England will provide the occasion of Zweig’s spiritual renascence: In the flood of specific memories and evaluations triggered by the glimpse, Zweig will rescue himself from his slough of despond.  Zweig knows immediately on catching sight of Neumann that he must make a “decision” – must act with the opportunity that existence has offered – whether to accost the man.[iv]  He decides positively.  Various contingencies prevent Zweig from making immediate contact, but the “sudden interest” nevertheless heralds the revitalization of his spirit.[v]  While spending Christmas Eve in the flat of his old friends Sir Charles Grey and Lady Grey, Zweig gives evidence of mental quickening, of redeeming in and for himself the “debt” of which, as he says, “Western civilization is dying.”[vi]  Seated at table, Zweig responds to another – this time to a visionary – recollection, generic but powerful: “The dining room always made him think of a lake in autumn.  This may have been due to the brown, polished expanse of the table, in which reflections of the candle flames lay like yellow leaves.”[vii]  This luminously metaphoric state of mind compels Zweig to the consideration that, “Our whole concept of happiness needs revising” because, as the professor thinks, “a man could be happy while suffering pain – provided the pain strengthened his vitality.”[viii]  Zweig experiences another memory, of bombed-out Hamburg after the war, which, representing “brutality and decadence,” provides the polar contrast to his idyll of hushed Alpine waters.[ix]

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Later, during Zweig’s first, testy direct confrontation with Neumann, in response to Neumann’s unrelenting rudeness and provocation, the philosopher suppresses his rising anger by a studiously minimal expedient: “With an effort [Zweig] took a drink from his lager glass, stared at the surface of the beer as he drank, and allowed his mind simply to contemplate the pattern of foam on its surface.”[x]  Readers of Wilson will discern in both “the lake in autumn” and “the pattern of foam” in the pint of beer the phenomenological trope of intentionality.  The term intentionality in Edmund Husserl’s particular usage lies at the heart of Wilson’s philosophical project of the New Existentialism, as he has called it.  In the book of that name (1966), Wilson writes: “Husserl suggested… that as man loses all the false ideas about himself and the world through scientific analysis, and as he comes to recognise that he himself is responsible for so much that he assumed to be ‘objective,’ he will come to recognise his true self, presiding over perception and all other acts of living.”[xi]  Whether in imagining the calm surface of a lake or in concentrating his perception on an ordinary and otherwise banal object (the foam on the lager), Zweig flexes his intellect, so as to restore its tone.  By deliberate mental self-restoration Zweig thus wrests back control of the situation from Neumann’s attempted domination of it through the lifeless mechanics of insulting behavior.

Zweig’s personal history of spiritual progress resembles in outline a sustained combat with the forces of a reductively mechanical and inhumane order.  Wilson’s craftily placed pseudo-bibliographic allusions to Zweig’s authorship enable readers to grasp a philosophical maturation that puts the philosopher increasingly at odds with the modern anti-spiritual attitude.  In Heidelberg in the 1920s, Zweig participated in the post-Nietzschean, post-“War-to-End-War” skepticism of the time, taking its tone from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West and Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (1927).  Zweig lets on to Grey that he was writing his own Spenglerian-sounding End of an Epoch at the time that Heidegger’s book appeared.  Zweig’s Necessary Doubt seems to have followed End of an Epoch in 1931.  The title, with resonances of Søren Kierkegaard, indicates its author’s movement towards Christianity; or, more generally, towards something other than a purely immanent view of existence.  Zweig wrote an essay on “Vision” around the same time.  Citing the case of how Ramakrishna’s despair generated an epiphany, Zweig “argued that this vision is the aim of all philosophy, and that no amount of thinking can reveal it.”[xii] This emergent visionary thesis of Zweig’s coincided with his dawning sense of debilitating clumsiness in “academic philosophy,” as expounded in “long-winded books.”[xiii]

Zweig’s Protestant Theology belongs plausibly to his more recent work, locating it in the late 1940s or early 1950s.  As the events of Necessary Doubt unfold, Zweig is at work on his commentary on Sein und Zeit.  In that commentary we read that, “the state in which human beings have lived for thousands of years has been analogous to sickness.”[xiv]  In an exchange with his admirer Natasha Gardner, Zweig answers her mention of his Creative Nature of the Sexual Act with the observation that it was “one of my earliest works.”[xv]  The late discussion of Heidegger might thus be said to revisit an early insight about vitality and existence.  In describing his essay on “Vision,” Zweig nearly invokes Nietzsche’s superman-perspective: “A philosopher has to be like an eagle – to plunge down on truth from a great height, from sudden moments of vision, and to try to seize it…  Nietzsche had said the same kind of thing many times.”[xvi]

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Zweig became a convert to Christianity, either shortly before or shortly after leaving Germany.  Zweig’s conversion is possibly connected with the death of his wife in circumstances that Necessary Doubt never divulges, but it also communicates with the his intuition about the restricted character of reason, as modernity tends to use that term.  The topic of conversion emerges early in the novel, when Grey mentions that his wife is a Catholic convert and cautions Zweig to avoid theological discussion over dinner.  One notes that conversion is a special – an especially powerful – instance of intentionality: It is an experience of meaning so epochal as to transform the percipient in his entire world-orientation.  Conversion is, moreover, not logical, but epiphanic; it involves acknowledgment of something that argument from facts cannot demonstrate.  Conversion is linked in Wilson’s system of metaphors in Necessary Doubt with such notions as redemption and original sin, the latter of which Zweig uses in an idiosyncratic way.

II. Neumann as Botched Übermensch. Having been jolted into a tumult of memories by his catching sight of Neumann, and having experienced an access of élan vital through the encounter, Zweig tells the Greys over dinner Neumann’s story, explaining as he does why Neumann’s presence in London with an elderly male companion strikes him as worthy of investigation. A suspicion of criminality attends Neumann.  Zweig and Neumann are the novel’s two principle persons.  Wilson articulates his narrative around the dialectic of their relation, both intellectual and moral; and their two extended conversations form the heart of Necessary Doubt.  If Zweig, as I have just argued, were an “unlikely Übermensch,” then one might best describe Neumann as a botched Übermensch, the disparity between whose insight and practice makes him tragic in a qualified way.  Zweig never thinks of himself as a superman; while he is never falsely modest, neither is he boastful although he exhibits the forgivable susceptibility to being admired. Neumann, on the other hand, displays egomaniacal and narcissistic traits, characteristics that make plausible the hints of nefarious activity accompanying his known itinerary.  Zweig’s own duality whether the evidence convicts Neumann is the novel’s titular dubiety, which Zweig will eventually classify as occupying a higher order than Grey’s forensic certainty.  Zweig even dreams about his interrupted correspondence with the one-time student, seeing the two of them pitched tensely against each other in a gigantic chess match, surrounded by ominous fog.

Zweig first knew Neumann as the son of a colleague, Alois Neumann, at Heidelberg in the 1920s.  The elder Neumann was a physiologist who specialized in brain-research.  Gustav’s mother had died when he was ten, leaving him a quasi-orphan, likely indulged by the grief-stricken parent-survivor; he is by natural endowment an intellectual prodigy, who appears initially more interested in Zweig’s department, philosophy, than in his father’s department, neurophysiology.  After the first meeting with Neumann, Zweig says to Natasha Gardner, “You cannot understand the forces that turned Gustav into… a nihilist.”[xvii]  Among those forces was the utopian optimism of the ex-soldiers, now become professors: “It seemed to many of us that the world had entered a new era”; Zweig believed with his friend Ernst Cassirer “in the future age of reason and enlightenment.”[xviii]  When Hitler came, Zweig says, “it was as if all our faith had been the most childish kind of illusion”; the students – including Neumann – “felt… betrayed twice… and some of them became nihilists.”[xix]

At private school, the thirteen-year-old Neumann becomes a target of anti-Semitic hazing.  He wreaks vengeance on the ringleader by devising nearly to scald him to death in a gymnasium shower.  Confessing his deed to Zweig, he seems not even to understand the professor’s statement that someone other than the perpetrator might have entered the shower stall.  When Nazi thugs beat to death Neumann’s friend Georgi Braunschweig, Neumann reverses character and attempts suicide, after which “he was sullen” and “hardly ever spoke.”[xx]  He does, however, read voraciously, “the English philosophers, and Kant and Schopenhauer and Hegel,” until one late evening he knocks on Zweig’s door “in a state of tremendous excitement,” apparently having “stopped hating the world.”[xxi]  They talk through the night.  Yet on the subject of anti-Semitism, which implicates his friend’s beating-death, Neumann tells Zweig that both the Nazis and the Jews are at fault, “the Nazis for being idiots, the Jews for being weaklings.”[xxii]  Neumann publishes his “brilliant paper on Husserl… in the phenomenological Jahrbuch,” but abruptly loses interest in philosophy and takes up research into brain physiology.[xxiii]

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In 1931, Neumann’s behavior veers towards the bizarre.  He steals a car and drives it over a cliff; he all but strangles Zweig’s pet kitten.  He conceives the theory that, “the Gods had created the human race as a kind of joke.”[xxiv]  On a train, he sees the two bourgeois men sharing his compartment as “fat bankers with faces like pigs,” as “self-deceivers,” and as “insects trying to help other insects.”[xxv]  Likening himself to “Paul on the road to Damascus,” Neumann divulges to Zweig his ambition to become “a real criminal,” someone beyond good and evil, “who is not just an underprivileged victim.”[xxvi]  Breaking contact, Neumann goes to ground.  Bits of information coming Zweig’s way suggest that the former student and would-be master criminal has become a confidence man who specializes in persuading elderly men to designate him as heir, after which, in a disturbing pattern, they commit suicide.  Neumann strikes Zweig in confidence-man fashion as having pulled an elaborate swindle on himself, bypassing conscience for egoistic reasons; he has done so by buying into the same pseudo-Nietzschean doctrine that was exploited by the Nazis.  At their first meeting, Neumann advances his old grudge against Zweig, accusing him of having sold out his commitment to Nietzschean realism for the false comfort of a creed: “I would like to know why you call yourself a Christian?”[xxvii]  Thus, as Neumann sees it, Zweig traded the prospect of the superman for the middle-class ease of slave-morality.  Neumann wants to know how Zweig squares belief in the Gospel with triumphant brutality under Hitler.  Zweig answers: “Imagine human history without Christ.  There would be nothing but the Nazis.”[xxviii]  Zweig’s assertion brings readers to the crux of the matter.

In Braunschweig’s death, his own father’s suicide, and the rise of Nazism Neumann has had his Blick in Chaos, and he has concluded, like the protagonists of Sartre and Camus, that absurdity reigns over existence supremely.  Neumann reasons that people avert their awareness of this frightening fact in the myths of consolation, which proves their weakness.  Neumann proves his strength by facing up, as he sees it, to the nothingness.  He is certain of the nothingness.  Zweig, on the other hand, believes that “man’s capacity to doubt is his greatest dignity, and that even a saint would never discard his ability to doubt.”[xxix] Doubt conditions faith.  Doubt probes towards truth in the necessary acknowledgment that it has not yet seized truth or under the premise that truth provides the subject with the horizon of openness in respect to which he engages the creative project of the Self.  He who goes forth in doubt in quest of truth demonstrates courage.  He also demonstrates love, which is etymologically constitutive of the term philosophy. It was Christ finally, more than Socrates, who “had given a form and expression to the idea of love,” Zweig tells Neumann.[xxx]  Seen this way, Neumann’s posture of superiority appears as the imposture of an evasive and haphazard (a loveless) life dissimulating itself under the formulas of cynicism.  Zweig behaves from the beginning of the novel to its end as a consistent character; Neumann by contrast shifts from deliberate rudeness to a simulacrum of candor in a way troublingly suggestive both of a guilty motive and a knack for manipulation.  Near the end of Wilson’s novel, Zweig speaks of Neumann to Natasha, saying: “Oh, he is cunning.  And a consummate actor.”[xxxi]  Yet Zweig not only refuses to condemn Neumann; he actually abets Neumann’s escape from justice.

 III. The H. G. Wells Connection.  Tredell mentions that Wilson acknowledges Friedrich Dürrenmatt as an influence on Necessary Doubt.[xxxii]  I would stress what I call the H. G. Wells connection.  Writing in The Strength to Dream (1962) on the subject of Wells, Wilson, referring to a passage from Wells’ Experiment in Autobiography (1934), observes the following: “Self-enjoyment is synonymous with purposeful evolutionary activity of the intellect and the sense; and the notion of a living creature capable of absolute enjoyment is the notion of a man-god, no longer plagued by tiresome necessities over which he has no control.  When a man commits himself to this definition of meaning, the ‘value of life’ ceases to be a matter of material symbols… it becomes instead a function of the limitless realm of the intellect and imagination, of the creative will.”[xxxiii]  Also in The Strength to Dream, one finds rare appreciation of one of Wells’ least-read scientific romances, In the Days of the Comet.  Wilson summarizes Wells’ fantasy this way: “He imagines that a comet made of gas strikes the earth, and the gas has the effect of completely reforming human nature.”[xxxiv]  The moment of reformation is worth examining.  Wells’ first-person narrator has just attempted jealous murder, firing his pistol wildly, as the comet strikes.  He falls unconscious only to awaken in a state of heightened mentality.  The dreary sky, for example, has become “the sky of a magnificent sunrise” illuminating and intensifying a field of poppies into “an archipelago of gold-beached purple islands floating in a sea of golden green.”[xxxv]  The narrator says: “I held up my left hand before me, a grubby hand, a frayed cuff; but with a quality of painted unreality, transfigured as a beggar might have been by Botticelli.”[xxxvi]

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Nietzsche,” lectures the ingenuous title-character on “the non-moral Overman,” which Walsingham fancies himself to be.[xxxvii]  In Tono-Bungay (1909), the clownish Uncle Edward likewise sees himself reflected in the “Overman Idee.”[xxxviii]  In a non-comic context, the protagonist of The Research Magnificent (1915) experiments with opium but finds that he best evokes the mood of intensity by mental concentration applied to realizing ideal goals; the same is true of the male protagonists of Meanwhile (1927) and Babes in the Darkling Wood (1942).  A synthetic counterpart of the “green vapor,” the “gas of peace” from the film-scenario for Things to Come (1935), ushers in utopia by subduing neo-barbaric bellicosity; as the people of Everytown rise from their swoon, John Cabal’s voice is heard announcing the brave new world.

Commenting again on Experiment in Autobiography, Wilson writes these words in The Strength to Dream: “Wells suggests that a new type of man is appearing, who wants a third dimension of imaginative consciousness for its own sake, not for his survival.  This type of man, as Wells points out, demands imaginative consciousness – as distinguished from observational and reflective consciousness – as his sine qua non.[xxxix]  Wilson presumably wrote these speculative remarks coevally with his work on Necessary Doubt.  It will be readily seen, then, that what is an interesting notion in Wells becomes an explicit discussion in Wilson.  Ordinary life, the regime of habit endowed on the Homo sapiens by the evolutionary process, entails frustrating mental circumscription.  Impatience to transcend ordinary consciousness can press so severely on the attuned subject that bypassing the natural, neurological limitations by recourse to the pharmacy begins to seem justifiable.  Gustav Neumann – assessed by Zweig as being or at least as having once been a finer mind than himself – has glimpses into elevated awareness, but no reliable access to such exaltation on his own.  He therefore applies himself to clandestine pharmaceutical research to produce an elixir that will generate visionary intensity, as it were, on request.  His neurococaine and neuromysin are the result.  Neumann’s exploitation of elderly millionaires has provided him both with funds for developing the two drugs and, as Zweig remarks, with “guinea pigs” for evaluating them.[xl]  Neumann incidentally resembles Wells’ Walsingham in being a prig and Uncle Edward in being a charlatan.  One should not forget Ponderevo’s enterprise of selling useless tonic to gullible consumers.

Zweig, while cautious about pharmaceutical transcendence, grants to Neumann that he has pursued the avenue that Zweig eliminated by choosing philosophy: “Gustav has returned to the body.”[xli]  Wilson nevertheless gives a good many hints in Necessary Doubt that chemical prosthesis is the least attractive portal to expanded awareness; or, as Zweig likes to say, to the overcoming of “original sin.”[xlii]  During the action of the novel Zweig experiences a number of Maslovian peak experiences; he also recollects his past experience of some others.  Reflections of candlelight in a table precipitate a powerful dream-image of a lake in autumn when he goes dine with Greys on Christmas Eve.  Music moves him.  While chauffeuring Zweig, Grey, and Natasha to reconnoiter Neumann’s cottage in the North Country, Gardner switches on the radio: “The full orchestra gave out the Thunderstorm motif [from Wagner’s Rheingold].”[xliii]  Zweig remarks how “we had a society in Göttingen – a Nietzsche society – in 1910” whose members “used to meet and talk about the superman”; he adds, “we had piano scores of all Wagner’s operas… our favorite piece was that storm music.”[xliv]  The professor speaks these words “looking past” Natasha, as though in a state of abrupt detachment from the present.[xlv]  Here the act of recalling a moment of vision from the past becomes an actual moment of vision in the present.

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The word “detachment” occurs elsewhere in Necessary Doubt in connection with the quickening, the “freshness,” that the chance sighting of Neumann triggers in Zweig.[xlvi]  Zweig fights fatigue continuously.  Exhausted by his first meeting with Neumann and by Natasha’s solicitousness, he relishes the asylum of his hotel room.  Wilson writes: “He took out his heavily marked copy of Sein und Zeit and his own manuscript, held together by a bulldog clip…  A calm intense joy took possession of him.  His brain leaped forward like a horse that is released into a meadow after a long winter.”[xlvii]  By contrast, Zweig’s neuromysin experience asserts itself with noticeable artificiality.  Instead of a vital metaphor (the “horse”), Wilson provides a mechanical metaphor: In Zweig’s apperception, “his brain felt like an electric generator working a searchlight.”[xlviii]  The sensation does not strike Zweig unpleasantly, but the figural difference remains significant.  Overuse of neuromysin produces, moreover, a nasty side effect of severe fatigue that Zweig has observed up close in the case of Timothy Ferguson, Neumann’s latest client.  This is a limitation, not of consciousness, but of the philter.

IV. Dialogue, Imagination, and the Übermensch. In a review (1973) of Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie’s biography of Wells, Wilson writes: “I cannot accept the shallow, rather facile view… that Wells was a major writer until he wrote Tono-Bungay – say, around 1910 – and then that he became a windbag, endlessly repeating himself.”[xlix] Wilson takes the contrary view that Wells continued to create remarkable fiction, well into the 1930s at least.  Wilson cites The Undying Fire (1919), for example, as “one of the most powerful statements of Carlyle’s ‘eternal Yes versus eternal No’ in all literature” and mentions The World of William Clissold (1926) with approval.[l]  In Wilson’s assessment: “Where Wells scores is in the power of his intuition and intelligence,” which is “as intuitive as Lawrence’s,” so that “the perceptions are like a shower of sparks.”[li]  Wells “can face a problem as big as a mountain; and then, with a few leaps and somer­saults like an acrobat, he is standing on top of it.”[lii]  I happen to share Wilson’s judgment.  I would add that the interest in Wells’ later prose has a good deal to do with the novelist’s willingness to let the dialogue take over, as it does almost entirely in Meanwhile and Babes in the Darkling Wood.  Now Necessary Doubt which Wilson began writing as a prospective television drama, comes close to being a dialogue novel: The heart of the book consists in the two extended conversations between Zweig and Neumann.[liii]  Conversation dominates the story.

Failed conversation, like Zweig’s first parlay with Neumann, contributes to the abasement of mood, to pessimism, and to a sense of ineradicable limitation.  Successful conversation, such as Zweig’s second parlay with Neumann, is itself tonic, lifting the participating spirit while opening vistas of meaning and possibility.  A moment from The Mind Parasites (1965), more or less contemporary with Necessary Doubt, bears appositely on this part of the discussion.  Austin Gilbert and his colleagues – they have all undergone a type of ramped up phenomenological training – join minds to exert psychokinetic force on the moon.  Gilbert remarks, “There was immense exhilaration as our minds combined”; and a bit later, “our wills locked like a great searchlight beam.”[liv]  The metaphors that Necessary Doubt employs are less outré than those of The Mind Parasites, but they mean the same thing.  The “Thunderstorm” motif from Das Rheingold galvanizes Zweig not only because of its striking intrinsic beauty but also because it once formed the focus of shared attention of the likeminded talkative members of the Nietzsche Society. When Zweig revisits the topic of the Nietzsche Society in private exchange with Natasha, he links it to the trope of conversion.

A man named Haller (shades of Hermann Hesse) once read a paper before the society in which he asserted that, “we need not accept all Nietzsche’s ideas, because a lot of them are the screams of a sick man,” but even so, “Nietzsche is expressing something that is happening to man’s spirit in this century”; Haller, at the same time, “converted to Roman Catholicism.”[lv]  In a kind of Hegelian synthesis, conversion means seeing another point of view objectively and assimilating it, productively or creatively.  At their second parlay, Neumann, supposing that he is sincere, repents his earlier rebuff of Zweig.  He tells Zweig, “I was impressed by the opening sentence of your Heidegger book [that] man’s experience of the world is basically an experience of limitation.”[lvi]  Zweig replies that he remarked a similar idea in Neumann’s article in a criminology journal.  It is as if the two men were resuming a conversation that malign events interrupted decades before.  The reader is therefore in doubt whether the exaltation that Zweig feels comes mainly from the neuromysin or mainly from his joining minds in dialogue at last with the prodigal student Neumann.

Two subordinate plot-developments – Zweig’s relation with Joseph Gardner and his relation with the psychiatrist Stafford-Morton – support the “dialogue” answer to the just posed ambiguity.  At Zweig’s first meeting with Neumann, the former student rebuffs the former teacher.  While Zweig feels friendly toward Gardner, and while he accepts Gardner’s help in tracking down Neumann, he initially rejects the opportunity of dialogue.  Gardner writes books devoted to Atlantis, Hans Hörbiger’s World Ice Theory, extrasensory perception, and the like.  Zweig tells Natasha, “Your husband has a completely untrained mind,” but he admits that Gardner “is not an ungifted man”; Natasha has earlier characterized Gardner to Zweig as “enthusiastic” and prone to “get carried away by things.”[lvii]  By the end of the novel, partly because Gardner seems so sympathetic to the professor (more so than Grey), and partly because he has grown appreciative of the occultist’s enthusiasm, Zweig subtly but positively changes his attitude to his new acquaintance.  When Zweig first encounters Stafford-Morton, he rebuffs him as rudely as Neumann first rebuffs Zweig.  The psychiatrist strikes Zweig as too certain and too narrow in his view.  On a second encounter, he finds that Stafford-Morton is actually insightful; he apologizes for his earlier bad behavior.

Zweig’s assessment of Neumann also undergoes complex alteration.  On the basis of their second parlay, Neumann strikes Zweig as a quasi-criminal and immoralist who nevertheless possesses a mind capable of sporadic insights.  Neumann resembles in this way the actual eccentrics in whom Wilson had already begun taking a biographical interest in the mid-1960s: George Gurdjieff, Peter D. Ouspensky, H. P. Lovecraft, Wilhelm Reich, and the mystics and “New Age” types who were to come under discussion in The Occult.  Yet Zweig no longer regards Neumann’s mind as finer than his own.  He tells Natasha, “His brain is no better than mine – in many ways it is worse.”[lviii]  But, in Zweig’s new wager, Neumann’s selfishness, duplicity, and confidence man tricks are accidents and, as such, irrelevant to the discoveries that he has made despite his impulsiveness and narcissism.  For this reason Zweig schemes to shield Neumann from the law. 

The discoveries are what motivate Zweig, especially where it concerns Neumann’s declaration that man needs “a vision of purpose.”[lix]  The trick of intensified consciousness is to imagine a worthwhile goal and to hold it steady so that it becomes a transcendent purpose.  Zweig knew this abstractly but had ceased to feel it vitally until the coincidence of Neumann’s emergence from status incognito.  “The way we see the world,” Zweig tells Natasha, “is a lie”; he adds, “I suppose this is what I came to mean by original sin.”[lx]  The rencontre with Neumann after so many years has revived Zweig’s flagging conviction that, as he says, “it is the work of the philosopher to undo original sin.”[lxi]  Necessary Doubt is a novel of masterly composition and remarkable psychological subtlety that has perhaps not received the attention it deserves.  It is the kernel of much of what would subsequently come from Wilson’s audacious and always-vital mind.

[i] Nicholas Tredell, The Novels of Colin Wilson, Unwin, 1982, 88.

[ii] Colin Wilson, Necessary Doubt, Trident Press, 1964, 57.

[iii] 50, 57, & 63.

[iv] 3.

[v] 3.

[vi] 2.

[vii] 10.

[viii] 10.

[ix] 10.

[x] 139.

[xi] Colin Wilson, The New Existentialism, Salem House, 1980, 58.

[xii] Necessary Doubt, 26.

[xiii] 10 & 25.

[xiv] Two and three pages before Page 1, as part of the front matter.

[xv] 105.

[xvi] 25.

[xvii] 168.

[xviii] 168.

[xix] 168.

[xx] 21.

[xxi] 21.

[xxii] 22.

[xxiii] 22.

[xxiv] 27.

[xxv] 28.

[xxvi] 28.

[xxvii] 143.

[xxviii] 144.

[xxix] 23.

[xxx] 145.

[xxxi] 145 & 302.

[xxxii] The Novels of Colin Wilson, 80.

[xxxiii] Wilson, The Strength to Dream, Abacus, 1966, 105.

[xxxiv] 110.

[xxxv] H. G. Wells, Three Science Fiction Novels by H. G. Wells, Dover, 1963, 364.

[xxxvi] 365.

[xxxvii] H. G. Wells, Kipps, Penguin, 2005, 157-58.

[xxxviii] 264.

[xxxix] Wilson, The Strength to Dream, 179.

[xl] Necessary Doubt, 299.

[xli] 301.

[xlii] 300.

[xliii] 191.

[xliv] 192.

[xlv] 192.

[xlvi] 75.

[xlvii] 152.

[xlviii] 266.

[xlix] Books and Bookmen, vol. 18, July, 1973.  From electronic text provided by Colin Stanley.

[l] Same source as in previous citation.

[li] Same source as in previous citation.

[lii] Same source as in previous citation.

[liii] In the American hardcover edition these two conversations occur on pages 131 to 148 and pages 256 to 297.

[liv] The Mind Parasites, Oneiric Press, 1972, 202.

[lv] Necessary Doubt, 228.

[lvi] 265.

[lvii] 161 & 151.

[lviii] 301.

[lix] 281.

[lx] 300.

[lxi] 300.

Wiener Dog

One thought on “Fighting against Sleep: Colin Wilson’s Necessary Doubt as Phenomenological Thriller

  1. Pingback: Under the Iron Dome: Thomas Bertonneau on Transcendence – The Orthosphere


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