The Outsider by Colin Wilson – 1956 – Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston
Opening line: ‘At first sight the Outsider is a social problem.’
This is an important book. It is not for everybody – it does not belong on the minimum bookshelf. Who then, should read it? Anyone who feels that they are in the ‘Slough of Despond’. Anyone who feels that life is not worth living, or anyone who wants to know what it feels like to be an Outsider. I was about 40 when I read this book.
L’Enfer by Henri Barbusse – 1932 – EP Dutton, NYC
P 1 – Barbusse’s L’Enfer (the Outsider or The Man Outside) says, ‘ I see too deep and too much.’ And like Ecclesiastes, it is the only channel he has.
L’Enfer is different because “the desires that stir in him separate him sharply from other people.”
This is the book that made such an impression on me when I read it, and I am sure that I read it when it first came out. As I re-read it now – 8/5/01 – It seems like an altogether different book.
I was, at that time, wallowing in self-pity, and in the throes of poor emotional health. How grateful I was to find an authoritative source that said, “It’s not you alone, there are others like you.” Suddenly, I am one of a special breed. It is not your emotional health – or some other fault that you have – it is just that I see life more clearly than the other person. This thought I jumped on immediately. No longer am I one of society’s misfits – suddenly I am an asset – a gifted person.
The Outsider’s problems are real problems, not neurotic delusions.
Wilson looks for the one discernable current that flows through all 20th century literature. Barbusse’s Outsider has all the characteristics of the type. Wilson seems to think that the Outsider’s problem is a philosophical problem.
But! “It is not a philosopher’s problem – intellect is not enough.”
“Is he an Outsider because he is frustrated and neurotic? Or is he neurotic because of some deeper instinct that pushes him into solitude?”
Basically, this book is pessimistic. It too, believes that there is no hope for the human race, but for a different reason.
The Outsider is “preoccupied with sex, crime, and dirt.” “The outsider is a man who has awakened to chaos.”
Wilson repeats HG Well’s question several times, “What should we do with our lives?”
He says that ‘self-realization’ is a major goal.
“[Van Gogh] felt without thinking, [TE Lawrence] thought without feeling.”
“Both men began by a purely physical type of discipline: physical hardship, starvation, etc. Their earliest efforts at discipline were attempts to gain control of the body.”
The Desert Theme – A Major Theme
“ . . . the Outsider’s greatest enemy – human triviality.”
Wm James, “The power of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to the power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour.”
Dry – unemotional
“ . . . three distinct types of Outsider, and three distinct types of discipline . . . discipline over [of] the intellect, discipline over [of] the feelings, [and] discipline over [of] the body.”
Wm James [on seeing an epileptic patient in the asylum}, That shape am I, I felt potentially. Nothing I possess can defend me from that fate if the hour should strike for me as it struck for him . . . After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of insecurity of life that I had never known before.”
It is interesting to note that Henry James Sr, the father of Wm and Henry Jr, had a similar experience. He referred to his experience as his ‘vastations’. I was always under the impression that this was Wm Blake’s term. In any case, it described my experience exactly. I often referred to my ‘vastations’ in my journal.
Wilson says that Nietzsche had two ‘vastations’. This may be a figure of speech. Mine were, I later decided, anxiety attacks, but at the time it felt like the world was attacking me.
“What about all the millions of men and women in our modern cities: are they really all that the Outsider claims they are? Futile, unreal, utterly lost without knowing it.”
Nietzsche said, “Asceticism is an instinct that the most noble, the strongest among men have felt; it must be taken into account if the value of life is to be appreciated.”
Zarathustra begins his ‘mission’ by leaving the crowds and retiring into solitude for ten years. He then comes down to denounce ‘idolatry’.
Nietzsche reiterates the idea that ‘man needs salvation”. Not exactly like the church teachings, but a similar idea.
As we were closing the Sr Hi Fellowship for the Summer and the Seniors were preparing to depart for college, one girl said to the group,
’I am going to give up the church (religion). It doesn’t do anything for me.”
I said, “That would be a mistake, because there isn’t anything out there.”
She wasn’t interested in pursuing the matter, and I didn’t press it.
The principal source of his convictions is fiction. He believes that fiction is the best tool with which to present the facts of life.
Tolstoy, “What is life? Why should I live? Why should I do anything? Is there any meaning in life that can overcome inevitable death?”
Tolstoy experienced attacks of ‘the nausea’ – Sartre’s term for ‘vastations’ – (La Nausee).
“The escape is achieved by seizing on the essence of Christianity as selflessness.”
Manicheaism – A movement initiated about 250 AD by Mani, a Persian, who could ‘feel’ that there was a vast difference between the physical world and the spiritual world, but who lost it all in trying to describe it logically.
“The Outsider theme is present in everything that Dostoevsky ever wrote.”
Not attributed, but probably by Dostoevsky, “Science will in time show that man does not possess any will or initiative of his own.”
“If you are interested in man in extreme states, or in man abnormally preoccupied by questions about the nature of life, then whatever answer the Outsider may propose should be worth your respectful attention.”
“No one would expect to pass through an intense emotional experience and not feel ‘a different person’ afterwards.”
The first question of philosophy is not, “What is the universe all about?” but “What should we do with our lives?”
Wilson frequently refers to Augustine as a major religious thinker.
TE Hulme, the last outsider to be considered, “A new anti-humanist ideology could not be a mere revival of medievalism. The humanist periods has developed a certain honesty in science, and a certain conception of freedom of thought and action that will remain . . .”
Wilson, “Humanism is only another name for spiritual laziness.”
Shaw, “In mathematics and physics, the faith is still kept pure, and you may take the law and leave the legends without a suspicion of heresy. . .” (Back to Methuselah)
Hulme, “I have none of the feeling of nostalgia . . . the reverence for tradition that seems to animate most modern defenders of religion.”
Wilson, “If Hulme’s ‘new religious age’ is to be born before our civilization destroys itself, it may require an intellectual effort of gestation that will involve the whole civilized world.”
With this thought Wilson closes this major book. So also, this thought ties in so well with my book, Where Do We Go from Here?, that I will put it into that book, and perhaps also into Commentary on the Christian Faith.
It thus helps produce a smooth transition from one book to the next. My mind always has jumped from one thought to another without an obvious connection, but even so, soon or late, it gets back to a main theme.
 John Bunyan.
The Pilgrim's Progress – Part Ii
 Wilson intends to show that ‘The Outsider’ is a common theme in 20th century literature.
 Strangely enough, all of Wilson’s Outsiders are men.
 ‘The Wasteland’ – Wilson usually referred to TS Elliot as Mr Elliot.
 Only lately, since the distortions of the idea by the Evangelicals, has the church begun to soft-pedal the teaching. One problem is that the common man doesn’t know that he needs salvation. Even the Outsider didn’t know it. Dominic Dunne knew it and based Mansions of Limbo on it.
 In some ways, Tolstoy’s condition sounds like bi-polar disease (manic-depression).