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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.
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on 28 April 2005
'The Outsider' is an electrifying account of what man is, what he should be and what he should do in the modern world. Wilson does not engage in abstract and theoretical debate (like Heidegger or Sartre), but supports every philosophical assertion with an example of a human being. He draws on a range of factual and fictional figures, from Hesse's Steppenwolf and Sartre's Roquentin to Vaclav Nijinksy (the ballet dancer) and Blake (the poet). What is brilliant about this book is its sharp focus on the central question - who is the Outsider, and what is his significance in the modern world? If you read and fully understand the ideas in this book your perception of life will never be the same again. Read is a 20th Century classic.
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You may know the tale of Wilson, fresh down from Leicester, chaining his bicycle outside the British Museum Reading Room, reading up for this book, his first. And this is, in both senses, a young adults' book - not to be read for rigour of argument, but as a primer to some of the more interesting and indeed exciting (if not always rigorous) Continental novelists and thinkers. It is a spur to read on and it certainly whetted my appetite when I read it many moons ago (1977).
I find it less attractive now as the holes in his case look bigger and fashion has moved on, but it is still a good read and fashion will once more return to Existentialism - indeed the other material, on Dostoevsky and Kierkergaard, looks timely as they are now far more popular, better known figures in the U.K. than even 20 years ago. Wilson is not an especially stylish writer, but he communicates enthusiasm; that is not nothing. And if that seems patronising, he has managed even with his first book to write one more than I ever have!
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on 2 October 2002
Even after almost four decades Colin Wilson's work still has a refreshing quality to it. In it he presents his readers with a novel approach to alienation and creativity. Beware though, this is not just another book on people who feel alienated or suffer pangs of Weltschmerz, it is about genuine 'outsiders', in Wilson's phrase someone who sees 'too much and too deep'. This distinction should be borne in mind.
The work presents several examples of classical outsiders, most of them failures according to the author, but there is also the occasional success story.
The book can be a bit long-winded at times, and Wilson does have a certain rhetoric tendency. Another fact that strikes me is that women are very thin on the ground in this study. This would perhaps have been less surprising had it been written, say, half a century earlier, but it should have been possible to find female outsiders too.
Nevertheless, this is a highly original and though-provoking work, which everyone with an interest in philsophy would do well to read.
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VINE VOICEon 8 March 2016
Colin Wilson was a phenomenon in the 50s of that there’s no doubt. He brought into the grey post-war climate of Britain these exciting ideas from the best writings of the continent, packaged under an iconic title, designed to grab the attention of a dull British culture not used to such vigour and sweep. Preaching to the unconverted? He wrote a best-seller, The Outsider, to such acclaim of the ‘new genius’ that there was a back-lash. As a 1st book it was a good one and you have to give him the benefit of thedoubt: he wrote with the enthusiasm of a continental writer in the post-war thaw of England, but it was hard to follow. This was because he never went to university and was working class, often living rough sleeping on Hampstead heath. An autodidact of great energy and charm.What he experienced in the writing of his book was genuine, and is what gives the book its energy and force, a young man in a hurry. He took the intentionality of consciousness from Husserl and Maslow’s idea of peak experiences and added the intentional study of consciousness itself, to deliberately focus on having peak experiences all the time, thus expanding consciousness. This was the New Existentialism, purged of the negativity of Sartre and Camus. But was it a genuine philosophy or the preachings of a self-help guru?

So, instead of clarifying already existent ideas, he colours them to the power of ten with his own beliefs. Here Wilson shows himself to be a grand mixer of the works of others, welding together what seems discordant data, heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together. To him the passive observer of Sartre is a fallacy. Too much negativity: for him it was preferable to have“ pure will, free of the perplexities of intellect”(Nietzsche). This consciousness is minus the freedom and negativity of consciousness, excluding the nothingness of Sartre’s model, it also loses its outward direction on the world. ? He was a religious kind of thinker (not organised), and everything, consciousness, peak experiences, comes back to the will(relational and intentional). He wanted to create a new existentialism purged of the negativity of the continental variety (avoid the cynicism of Camus and Sartre).He claimed to have gone back to Husserl’s phenomenology due to the wrong-turning taken by Heidegger, where Wilson proposed his own new variant, NewExistentialism but Husserl wanted a description of phenomena or personal experiences, without seeking to arrive at metaphysical explanations. With his penchant for potential and optimism, Wilson steered the philosophy into religious waters. This mystic impulse led him into more regrettable paranormal avenues. With his search for Faculty X, we are soon in X-Files territory. To Wilson, pessimism is an illusion and higher states of consciousness a reality.Wilson no longer wanted to correct his mistakes with reality.

He turns philosophy into a religion of yea-saying positivism, the door to mystic insight. As Huxley said, " can be a complete agnostic and a mystic at the same time ". He specifically chose people that experienced what they are talking about as apposed to philosophers that take educated guesses at Reality. He avoided the technical jargon of academia. He was a writer who wanted to inject the will into Existentialism and Maslow and defenestrate the atheism of philosophy with a mystic intensification of consciousness. His goal was to infuse Existentialism Mark 1 (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Jaspers, Camus, etc), with the Romanticism of the 19th century. Take alienation and wring its neck, he was an incorrigible optimist. He takes a wide open category like ‘outsider’ and pours in the aesthetic cream of cultural genius, stuff linguistic discriminations or specialities! Who cares if it differs from modern philosophy ? He despised the narrow linguistic pursuit of logical analysis of the Anglo-Saxons.

He treads a similar path as Huxley in that writer’s Perennial Philosophy, only we know that Huxley used mescaline to find Nirvana and Wilson pre-dated the drug-fuelled sixties. They both had their gurus. The trouble is if you wanted to know more about existentialism or understand what consciousness is you need to go back to the sources or look elsewhere. He had an almighty ego. He attempted to unite religion and
philosophy. Indeed his mystical impetus all-too-often overwhelms clarity of logic, expression, and sense: he is impelled to paint what he senses, in wide and colourful stokes, and damn the details. He saw himself as a prophet, with a place in the pantheon. Was he just a child of overwheening vanity and delusion? The Outsider was a critique of philosophical and existential ideas as expressed by certain great writers,artists, painters, musicians, and mystics.

But he did not stop writing, and the work he produced throughout the nineteen-sixties, before the needs of the marketplace and an innate susceptibility to the passions of mystics and crackpots diverted his attention towards the unscientific and bizarre, the result of his overexposure and shallow coverage at an early age, is worth a look. His need to put food on the table and survival took precedence over intellectual credibility in the long run. He’s an example of someone who didn’t come through the right channels and attempted to swim against the stream, leading him further astray, until he became unreviewed and overlooked. He wasn’t of the elite and he attempted to grab the ball of insight and run with it to the end. Ever contradictory, his desire was to intensify the self by overcoming the self.

No longer from outward forms could he hope to win
the passion and the life whose fountains are within. Rilke
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on 1 May 2003
This book stands as a monument to 20th century thought, and though it was written many years ago, is still just as relevant today. Everything which Wilson covers is presented with the utmost passion, and yet still is done so with a very discerning critical eye. When you read the pages of this book, you slowly realise that what is in front of you has been created by a person of formidable intelligence. I bought it on the recommendation of a friend, and it is something i will always be glad of. At present I am still reading some of the books which he covers in his broad sweep of modern literature and art, and I am likely to be influenced by it for years to come. Of this I am very glad. One of my favourite books, and as it turns out, one of my wisest purchases. Highly recommended.
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on 28 June 2014
This work is densely packed with insights and ideas and is a lot to take in. For me it is better to dip into it, rather than read it cover to cover. That way the ideas trickle into my consciousness.

The writing has clarity, yet is very well researched. That is more than can be said for some other 'theory' books, which either over simplify or are confusing and obscure.

The 'Outsider' is useful to anyone interested in how phenomenology, existentialism, 'the absurd', and consciousness have impacted on literature.

It is a useful addition to my bookshelf.
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on 17 November 2002
The first outsider we meet in this seminal study is the sunken hero of Henri Barbusse's L'Enfer - who wanders aimlessly, "vaguely following his impulses" but who none-the-less feels that he deserves "some recompense". By the end of the book we are assured that such an individual "who begins his life an outsider...may finish it as a saint". The space inbetween the aimless-glimpser-of-purpose and the prophet is a long one, to be traversed by will power, self knowledge and, above all, ACTION! The failure to achieve such self-realization - and we, like the Hindu "life-force" symbol Kali, see more half lives than full ones herein - is a "tragedy of unrealised freedom".
Wilson advances religous solutions to the Outsider's problems. The main problem of the early characters we encounter is that they "think too much" - and this excess tends to turn in on itself, like Satre's nausea. The way out of this impasse is to realise that there are moments when you feel "freer" and liberated from "thought riddle nature" - when facing death, when in "crisis", when acting courageously. Through living a religion that can normalise these "extreme" states, the outsider can be "saved" from their motiveless slop and begin to act with intensity and purpose.
On an interesting macro-level - the book asserts that the outsider is not "sick", rather he exists as he does because Western Civilisation runs on and promotes a multilated and limited conception of the personality. The outsider is the (potentially) healthy one. For Doestoevsky in Notes From the Underground "genuine human suffering" can only come after first aprehending "chaos and ruin". However, the integrity of this insight is denied by the dominant creed of rational humanism - which posits laws which "make life easier for people" but in so doing absolves the individual from his primary responsibility to come to terms with the genuine conditions of his life. The Outsider's "main business is to prove he is a man and not a cog wheel" - so his revolt is against Western Civilisation and its manifest institutions which attempt to absorb and rationalise him.
Wilson finishes the book with a pitch for philosphical respectability - by placing his thesis in the grand scheme of things. His contention is that humanism must be supplanted by a new anti-humanism that recognises the primacy of the individual's search for existential-religous salvation as opposed to his pliability in advancing a "sciene" alienated from his "being". He concurs with Hulme's notion that "evolution can be described as the gradual insertion of freedom into matter" - but it is this process that humanism frustrates. By doing away with the "dogma" of original scene and assering instead mans near-perfection already, the Renaissance removed that which man must kick against if he desires to rise higher.
Read it!
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on 9 January 2000
"The Outsider" by Colin Wilson is an insightful critique of a dozen or so of societies greatest artistic geniuses. Who, it is argued are inevitably lead by their very genius to live the life of an outsider. I warmly recommend this timeless study to anyone with an interest in any of the artists considered, which include the likes of Blake, Nietzsche, T.E Lawrence & Dostoevsky, or indeed with existential thought in general. - A quite brilliant book!
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on 28 July 2000
Wilson is not your average academic. When he writes about alienation and the experience of being an outsider you can believe that the guy has actually experienced these feelings in all their various hues. Like the artists he details, Wilson is someone who was pushed away from easy acceptance onto something more challenging and meaningful. The very story behind the writing of this book - camping out nights and going into the British Library every day to write and research is one that certainly inspired me when I read this a couple of years ago. It still remains one of the most powerful, intelligent, well-researched pieces of what has now become know as "existentialism." I would recommend Wilson over any contemporary introduction to the subject.
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