Review: The Outsider. Colin Wilson. (1956) London; Phoenix. 2001.

In many ways Wilson’s non-fiction work The Outsider is a post-WWII timepiece – a landmark of the ways in which critical theory was processing the effects of the War and, concurrently, the impact of existentialist thought of writers such as Sartre and Camus on the Anglophone world. Wilson’s critical study of the lives and works of ‘Outsider types’ caused a sensation when it was published in 1956. Wilson was just twenty-five when it was taken up and rapturously reviewed by the ‘quality press’ of the time. He became an overnight literary celebrity. He researched and wrote it in the British Library while working a miscellany of low-skill jobs and, during the summer months, sleeping outside on the Hampstead Heath to save on rent. Wilson was from a working-class background and hence, was also big news because he broke from the usual Oxbridge pattern of British intellectual life and was something of an outsider himself in relation to the cultural establishment.

Second-hand copies of The Outsider were common on bookshelves of friends and acquaintances during my undergraduate years in the early 1990s. (Copies of the Camus novel that was translated with the same title were often found on the same shelves.) I was intrigued by a book whose organising principle was an idea, using case studies from biography as well as literature, painting and dance. However, I did not read it until recently, when the academic year was over and I finally had the time and headspace to read the reissued 2001 copy I had ordered for the school library. It is a strange and at times jarring read for someone who did not live through that time and whose own education in critical theory was influenced by post-structuralist, feminist, and postmodern thought. This is because the passing of time has also produced the passing of intellectual fashion, and the founding assumptions of Wilson’s view include ideas that have been critiqued in the decades since. However, some elements of the work continue to resonate and, in some respects, still pose questions about the effect of modernity on the creative mind.

Wilson’s thesis seems at first to be straightforward – that modernity has given rise to a new type of person. This person cannot believe in the dogmas and assumptions of everyone around them and cannot share with others the kind of lukewarm, pragmatic faith that is the mainstream. The mass growth of society has meant that the Outsider feels both relentlessly crowded by others and acutely alone, cut off from the enthusiasms and certitudes of the crowd. They are, in other words, alienated. This is all familiar territory, well-covered by the Romantics and the early Modernists. What distinguishes the ‘outsider type’, according to Wilson, is that they do not want to be outsiders, but yearn for some great synthesis of Being in which they can live fully, create, as it were, their own religion, in which they live in contact with the god inside them. But first they must go through nihilism, despair, a feeling that nothing is worth doing or committing to. They also tend to be misanthropic, feeling fascinated and appalled by the base ordinariness of most of human life and most people. Wilson argues that they must pass through these stages, as they must also pass through a period of withdrawal from society, and a life of extremes – extreme asceticism, extreme indulgence, extreme inertia, extreme derangement of the senses.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, as opposed the middle of the last one, these ideas do not seem fresh. Instead, they are the commonplaces of almost all post-Romantic intellectual and artistic movements – the old ways are dead, ‘make it new’. The artist must live differently to the mass-produced, standardised way of the mainstream. Wilson summarises his points thus:

The Outsider wants to cease to be an Outsider.

He wants to be ‘balanced’.

He would like to achieve a vividness of sense perception ([T.E] Lawrence, Van Gogh, Hemingway).

He would like to understand the human soul and its workings (Barbusse and Mitya Karamazov).

He would like to escape triviality forever, and be ‘possessed’ by a Will to power, to more life.

Above all, he would like to know how to express himself, because that is the means by which he can get to know himself and his unknown possibilities (202).

This is all intoxicating stuff, and to anyone with a sympathy for Romantic and some of the more optimistic Modernist ideals, almost self-evident. Wilson uses a wide and fascinating cast of figures to illustrate his thesis: William Blake, T.E. Lawrence; Van Gogh; Hemingway; William Blake; Dostoevsky; Nietzsche; Kierkegaard; Nijinsky; Hesse. He traces through the lives and work of each of these men a desire to be ‘awake’ and in full possession of their capacities, not just now and then, but all the time. There is in each of these men, Wilson argues, a rejection of dullness and routine and an embrace of authenticity, of being at one’s nerve-ends as a way of life. The problem is, of course, that the human body and mind is not composed to withstand this kind of intensity, which is why so many ‘bright stars’ burn out. As Nietzsche wrote, “I am one of those machines that sometimes explode.” Almost all of his cast of Outsiders go mad and/or lose their creativity.

 And this is where some problems arise. One is that the first part of Wilson’s thesis is coupled with a second – that this problem can be solved by an evolution to a higher consciousness. Wilson proposes a synthesis of body, emotions, and intellect, all resolved at some higher, more developed level of human life than we currently possess, but which Wilson seems to think is achievable – at least for a select minority. To this end, Wilson proposes a withdrawal from society and living through extreme practices of asceticism and Dionysian excess as necessary for the Outsider to achieve his aims. But Blake’s poetics of affirmation and connection with others would seem to question this. Wilson also misreads some elements of existentialist philosophy to support his thesis. Camus’ The Outsider can be read as an endorsement of Wilson’s model of aloof authenticity.  However, The Plague, a novel Camus published after The Outsider, has at its core an unflinching commitment to portray the venality of many people. But there is also a tremendous affirming force at the heart of this novel, which validates the attempt to live authentically while in the midst of strife and triviality. His hero does not withdraw from others and lives moderately in all respects – but he is an outsider. Camus seems to accept that the yearning that possesses the Outsider is impossible to quench, but that the human task is to attempt to quench it, knowing that each of those who take on the challenge will fail.

 What Wilson is proposing is not unlike some forms of Zen Buddhism and the credo of the Beat poets, who were writing at the same time as he. However, the pursuit of ecstasy and the creative dynamo in these writers was done through an ever-more intense engagement with the substance of life – even its ‘trivial’ parts. The point was to transform the ordinary into the sublime by efforts of attention.

 Wilson shares some of the ‘Beat’ tendencies; however, his argument is structured around the possibility for some complete, absolute solution to the Outsider’s problems, rather than, at best, moments of transcendent clarity. He believes in permanent escape from “the prison” and pities “the City-men on the train” for whom escape is not desired because “they think they are the prison” (155). Wilson’s distaste for ordinary, imperfect life seems at times to be a flight from reality, rather than fully entering it.

 A critique of the conformity and mechanisation of modernity and mass-society is common to Beat poetry, existential thought and literature, and the writings of Theodore Rozack and Herbert Marcuse. They also share with Wilson a focus on ecstatic experience. Wilson therefore, was writing in the same key when he says, “this way of life is not freedom”, by which he means bored, routinised, standardised existence.

 The oddest part of Wilson’s argument comes towards the end when he proposes a method for achieving liberation from alienation. He advocates a spiritual advancement which will allow us to become ‘pure mind’ and escape the earth-bound triviality that comprises much of life. He proposes a program based on a science-fiction story in which ‘super-intelligent’ babies are detected early and educated to live at the focussed, unconstrained level all the time. These people, called ‘men-plus’ will then lead us into an era of magnificent existential bliss. This theory is outlined in the notes to the 2001 edition (316). I wonder who is meant to clean up afterwards when this ‘superhumanized’ existence is achieved? I have more time for Jack Kornfield’s approach in his Buddhist writings.

 What’s more, Wilson’s focus on ‘great men’ is not accidental – even in its time the model of genius it defined must have seemed to many to have some blind spots. It excluded all women and anyone who had the necessities of running a household to attend to. A quote repeatedly cited in Wilson’s work is Villiers de Lisle Adam’s “As for living, our servants can do that for us.” Nice. There are also glaring oversights. In a discussion of visionary experience, Wilson analyses William Blake’s life and verse, arguing that “in ‘Europe’, he uses woman as a symbol of imprisonment, for the female temperament is literal, practical, down-to-earth” (235). To underline his point he adds in a footnote, “Most women writers I know of bear out Blake’s verdict. It has always seemed to me that one of the great omissions from world literature is a female Portrait of the Artist, a soul history of the sensitive woman.” Which would, indeed, be a great omission – except there was such a literature available by the time Wilson was writing. Virginia Woolf’s oeuvre, especially To the Lighthouse, and A Room of One’s Own grapples with precisely the problems faced by a creative woman. Woolf examined the alienation particular to women in a society that expects them to shoulder the load of the ‘practicalities’ of life at the expense of their individual development and freedom; the men in their life are liberated to achieve ‘greatness’ while they do the laundry. This absence is particularly striking since Wilson was clearly a reader of Woolf’s male modernist contemporaries. This blindness in Wilson’s writing also leads to ludicrous statements like “Blake … was lucky in having a wife to share his struggle, a completely docile girl who always regarded her husband as a great man. Such a wife might have saved Nietzsche’s sanity.” I doubt it. Existentialist thought is at the centre of Wilson’s argument, yet again, he quotes Sartre and Camus without even mentioning their female compatriot Simone de Beauvoir, who applied the existentialist ethic to women’s situation in The Second Sex.

 Again and again these ‘omissions’ are made and they are part of the fabric of Wilson’s argument. The 2001 postscript and footnotes do not address the huge gender bias in The Outsider and, as a whole, this marred the experience of reading this book for me. This is because that even taking into account the shift in critical culture since 1956, the structure of the argument as a whole claims to apply to the human condition, and yet is hopelessly exclusive in the ‘solutions’ offered to the Outsider’s condition. Clearly, anyone who cannot live by extremes, withdraw from society, reject having to attend to the ‘trivialities’ of life, and become an ascetic/artist/hermit, is doomed to the herd-like mindless existence modernity has in store for us. Wilson’s argument would have been strengthened if he made clear that, like the relationship of seminary Buddhism to lay Buddhism, the insights offered by Outsider art, literature and lives to individuals who are not ‘great men’ are still viable for those looking for ways to live more authentically in contact with their true priorities and powers. So, despite the interest of the topic and the case studies, the lasting aftertaste is a lingering exceptionalism combined with a weird genetic-mysticism.

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4 thoughts on “Review: The Outsider. Colin Wilson. (1956) London; Phoenix. 2001.

  1. You clearly have more fortitude than I do being able to read something so hopelessly dated and so presumptuous that the prevailing cultural climate is fixed and immutable, ie gender roles of the time, I would probably have thrown the book aside after the first few pages!

    1. There were some exasperated moments — believe me! The thing that gets me is that it is published by a serious publisher and labelled ‘philosophy’, which for the most part it is — but then it wanders into some territory that I consider pretty dubious. I mean, he was writing about the dream of creating a super-race just eleven years after the end of WWII! The 2001 updated footnotes show no awareness of the problems inherent in this, or any admission that his views of women need some renovating. Such a shame, because there are parts of the book that are pretty good overviews of the Romantic approach to experience. It also did a lot to break the ice for Existentialist thought in Anglophone countries. The book has a cult following. The stuff about creating a ‘man-plus’ super-race is resurfacing in Silicon Valley blogs by economists and tech-mandarins. It gives me the shudders.

  2. Colin Wilson seems a bit of a clownish character to me. He once admitted to having a “low emotional intelligence” by which I think he means a lack of the power to empathize. At the same time, and thankfully, he has a basic social awareness of how far he can go. Thus there is a story about a time, just after he had become a father, when he decided to spend an entire day meditating. The day he chose? Christmas day! His wife called on him to hold the baby just after he’d started with the Ohm stuff and he was annoyed but he could see he was being unreasonable and took the baby off her hands for a while.

    This story, for me, sums up the essence of CW: on the one hand there is his incredible self-absorption but then there is a kind of safety valve reaction where he backs down from the craziness (at least in real life – if not always in his writing).

    Also: I have a Wilson book about his views on music and they are very revealing – he has what you might call thoroughly middle brow views. He doesn’t mind a certain heaviness in a musical piece but not too much and he wants a happy ending. Thus Bartok upset him and he came up with a suggestion that was both quaint and naïve: that nonverbal artists – composers, painters etc. – should be required to sit down every five years or so and write an essay explaining their current emotional state so that simpler folks could relate to them! I’d say that, for all his air of profundity, there is something extremely shallow about CW. He basically thinks in simple black and white terms.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes — many of his statements seem too prescriptive … and loopy. I know lots of people are a fan of this book, but apart from some flashes of insight, it has not aged well.

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