by Ralph White
One of the pleasures of programming at the Open Center in the Eighties was the opportunity to bring over celebrated figures from Britain who had not visited the United States in many years, sometimes decades. Among the most memorable of these was the writer and legendary author of The Outsider, Colin Wilson. One of the most prolific authors of our time in psychology, existentialism, the occult and just about any other subject he cared to address, he turned out to be a humble and accessible man. He rarely left his house on a cove in Cornwall in South West England so New York City was a powerful experience for him. With his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, his mop of somewhat tousled hair, he had an engaging and warm manner that put you immediately at ease. And he was grateful to be invited to the United States.
He gave the impression of someone from outside normal time and space. Initially proclaimed as a genius in the Fifties for The Outsider, which he wrote while sleeping rough in a park in London, his reputation had diminished in the UK where the intellectual and literary establishment did not take kindly to his pursuit of esoteric and spiritual topics which they deemed to be beneath the attention of any serious writer. He had gone on to write books on an enormous range of topics as varied as Abraham Maslow, the psychologist of peak experience and human needs, and the work of mystics like Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.
The English literary arbiters of what was and was not serious material, frowned at length on such frivolous behavior. So he was surprised and delighted to be invited by the Open Center to a more spiritually open America where he found an enthusiastic audience in the great hall at Cooper Union. With his boyish charm and unpretentious manner, this working class, self-educated pioneer of consciousness studies generated a warm response. In the Eighties, in the early days of the Open Center, the city was still a rough and tumble, often dirty and violent place, in which people were amazed to find a new center focused on spirituality and holistic practices down on Spring Street in Soho where little was lit up after dark and the streets were mostly deserted at night.
Colin Wilson’s response to the Open Center was unabashed delight and enthusiasm. For us as a fledgling center, it was deeply validating to experience his bespectacled, boyish enthusiasm as he realized that a large audience existed in New York with great appreciation for his work despite its rejection by the English establishment. And so we were able both to energize a pioneering writer who had become neglected on his home turf, and give New Yorkers an experience of a remarkable, courageous and brilliant man who followed his muse wherever it led him. Such were the joys of programming in the Eighties as we brought over speakers from Europe. Among the most memorable was the radical psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, but that’s another story for another segment of Open Center history.