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A stimulating journey; time spent but certainly not wasted
on 20 January 2008
Should you buy this book?
Do you find existence unsatisfying because it is meaningless? Do you find life boring because you long for a more meaningful kind of existence? Then you are probably an Outsider, one not bothered by life's seeming trivialities but concerned with the big picture - and nothing comes bigger than the meaning of life. Are you one who shuns short-termism, but instead sees things in terms of the longue durée? Are you one who is exasperated by the apparent base material and animal instincts of much of the population, but instead sees glimpses of eternity that can verge on the divine? Are you unable to communicate clearly your experiences, because most people are incapable of empathising with them? In short, do you not feel at home in the world?
These questions sound as if I am trying to sell you a new religion, or a new cult. But do not worry, for, whilst Colin Wilson gives an analysis of the role of religion in human thinking, his is a staunchly secular enquiry. He writes, "[The Outsider] does not prefer not to believe; he doesn't like feeling that futility gets the last word in the universe; his human nature would like to find something it can answer to with complete assent. But his honesty prevents his accepting a solution that he cannot reason about."
First published in 1956, and a literary sensation of the time, this book is a critical study of a psychological phenomenon, of those who are alienated from their society and express alienation in terms of creativity. Colin Wilson does this by concentrating on literary creativity, although painters (Van Gogh) and composers (Beethoven) also appear. Unfortunately, the thinking classes are no longer as literate as it might have been in the 1950s, so unless you are clued up on literature, and in particular the literature that would have been de rigueur in the 1950s intellectual milieu, you will have to take much of Colin Wilson's evidence at face value.
Such authors through whose works he wades include Jean Paul Sartre, T E Lawrence, Herman Hesse, Henri Barbusse, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Blake, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann, and George Bernard Shaw. And those are the more prominent ones. Colin Wilson's critiques of these authors clearly demonstrates that he has read widely and insatiably, but his reliance on you having done the same often leads to assumptions and arguments in the text that do not clearly stand up to proof. He assumes that you know what he is talking about and therefore does not have to provide further evidence for his argument.
Note that there are no female authors, no Virginia Woolf or George Eliot, which hints at some misogyny. Another problem with Colin Wilson's book is that it sometimes betrays a naïve Manichean approach to morality; he talks of good and evil as if these are absolutes. Indeed, there is no sign that an Outsider might be an ignoble character; was not Hitler an Outsider too?
The original text, then, is quite dated now, especially with the advances of sociological, philosophical and medical knowledge that have been made since that time. (I have wondered whether Outsiderness would be classed today by smallminded and blinkered medics as a mild form of Asperger's Syndrome.) But in the Phoenix edition that I bought from Amazon, not only is there Colin Wilson's 1967 postscript and 1976 introduction, but the author has provided quite extensive postscripts to each chapter for the 2001 edition. These explain his further thinking and insights on this subject.
I came to this book via an even more recent essay by Colin Wilson in edition 56 of "Philosophy Now" (July/August 2006). There, he brought together Fichte's belief that philosophical study must be an active rather than a passive exercise with Husserl's belief that consciousness comprises making active intentional choices with our senses. Colin Wilson concluded in the article that, "Our most brilliant moments of insight happen when `immediacy perception' [what you experience through your senses] and `meaning perception' [what you understand by what you experience] converge." This convergence gives rise to a sense of heightened consciousness.
This struck a chord in me, as I had often experienced a sensation in certain circumstances of what I had called `eternal glimpsing'. Colin Wilson's description of Outsiderdom then started to fall into place with my own philosophical alienation, and I bought this book for further elucidation. It has more than succeeded in convincing me of the existence of the condition, but more than that, it has succeeded in instilling into me a sense of pride in being an Outsider too! But whilst I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to fellow Outsiders as a starting point, its concentration on literary creativity and on its 1950s milieu can become daunting. What we need is a similar book for the 21st century.
This book is only a starting point for further self-deliberation, and you may feel, come the end, that the author has taken you up the wrong alleyway. But the journey nevertheless will have been stimulating; time will have been spent, but certainly not wasted.