Religion and the Rebel, Part 2

Religion and the Rebel, Part 2

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

In the final two chapters of The Outsider, Wilson outlined several attempts at a positive solution to the Outsider’s problem. It is his plan in Religion and the Rebel to present a more complete answer. Just as a reminder, Wilson’s use of “religious” is not the typical dogmatic idea we have of the word. It is more akin to contacting the source of the sacred within oneself. The key to all religion, Wilson says, is “increased intensity of mind” (40). Religion and Rebel, like The Outsider, “will be a case book” (ibid.) , Wilson says. but “most of the emphasis will no longer be on the sense of misery and futility” (ibid.). But we must deal with misery for a bit longer.

To cease to be an Outsider, the Outsider must become “possessed,” or “fanatically obsessed by the need to escape” (ibid.). The existential angst the Outsider experiences originates with “his vision of the vast sea of mediocrity that makes up humankind, and his rebellion at the idea of belonging to it” (40-41). Wilson then comes one of the best descriptions of an Outsider I have ever read:

When the Outsider is in his earliest stages – when he does not know himself or understand why he is ‘out of harmony’ with the rest of humankind – his hatred for men and the world makes him an unbalanced misfit, a man full of spite and envy, neurotic’ cowardly, shrinking and wincing. His salvation depends upon the achievement of self-understanding, self-knowledge. It is only when he begins to find himself that he realizes that his hatred is perfectly justified: a healthy reaction to a world of sick half-men (41).

This is the sort of man describes in the first chapter of The Outsider, the “hole-in-corner man of Barbusse’s novel, Le’ Enfer, or Axël of De Lisle Adam’s play of the same name. Axël, of course, along with Sara, whom he has fallen in love with, commits suicide.

Wilson brings up a point he barely covered in the first book: the Outsider sees this life of suffering as being no different than the Christian Hell. He points to a passage from Bernard Shaw’s play, John Bull’s Other Island, which he feels “is supremely important in Shaw, because it so clearly defines the difference between the Insider’s and the Outsider’s positions” (44). In the play, Peter Keegan, who Wilson calls “the Outsider priest” (41), the “strange, mystical priest, who spends his evenings dreaming by the Round Tower” (43). He meets Tom Broadbent, who has come to Rosscullen in the western part of Ireland to manage a property deal. They meet and their personalities clash. Keegan, at least in my mind,  paints a very accurate picture of the world:

Keegan: This world, sir, is very clearly a place of torment and penance, a place where the fool flourishes and the good and wise are hated and persecuted, a place where men and women torture one another in the name of love; where children are scourged and enslaved in the name of parental duty and education; where the weak in body are poisoned and mutilated in the name of healing, and the weak in character are put to the horrible torture of imprisonment, not for hours but for years, in the name of justice. It is a place where the hardest toil is a welcome refuge from the horror and tedium of pleasure, and where charity and good works are done only for hire to ransom the souls of the spoiler and the sybarite. Now, sir, there is only one place of horror and torment known to my religion; and that place is hell. Therefore it is plain to me that this earth of ours must be hell, and that we are all here…(43-44)

Keegan is the epitome of the Outsider. This strange priest, who everyone thinks is insane, even believed to be possessed by devils. He is the sort of man we see time and time again in the annals of literature and philosophy. It’s as if we could call the Outsider an archetype of the collective unconscious. Perhaps that is what he is.

Opposite this mindset is his interlocutor, Broadbent, “the typical bourgeois Englishman” (41), who fully represents what Heidegger calls “das Man,” “the They,” the mass consciousness man. He replies:

Broadbent: Your idea is a very clever one, Mr. Keegan: really most brilliant. . . . But it seems to me . . . that you are overlooking the fact that of the evils you describe, some are absolutely necessary for the preservation of society, and others are encouraged only when the Tories are in office. . . . I find the world quite good enough for me: rather a jolly place, in fact.

Keegan: (Looking at him with quiet wonder): You are satisfied?

Broadbent: As a reasonable man, yes. I see no evils in the world – except, of course, natural evils – that cannot be remedied by freedom, self-government, and English institutions. I think so, not because I am an Englishman, but as a matter of common sense.

Keegan: You feel at home in the world, then?

Broadbent: Of course. Don’t you?

Keegan:  (from the very depths of his nature): No.

Broadbent: (breezily): try phosphorus pills. I always take them when my brain is overworked. . .(43-44)

Broadbent is like the ordinary man in the street, perhaps a businessman, who thinks everybody should think as he does, live for sports, the next “big game,” and don’t get wrapped up in any worthless pursuits like philosophy. Drink your Budweiser and enjoy the game! He is the walking epitome of inauthentic existence, who does well in the stock market, drives the latest Mercedes Benz, and relaxes in the evenings in his six bedroom mansion. Oh yes, and when he even begins to think about the evils of the world, just take an anti-depressant.

Broadbent’s vision is humanistic. He thinks in terms of education and liberalism – human progress through material prosperity’ Keegan’s is religious; he goes even further than the religious teachers who point out that it is a bad bargain to gain the world and lose your own soul; he claims that if you gained the world, you would only have gained hell (45). 

We now have a clear distinction between the Insider and the Outsider.

To be continued…

Work Cited

Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957



4 thoughts on “Religion and the Rebel, Part 2

  1. I like this longish quote from p 242 of The Outsider from Cardinal John Henry Newman, no less:

    “I look out into the world of men & see a sight that fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply, to give the lie to the great truth, of which my being is so full. I look into this busy, living world, & see no reflection of its creator. To consider… the defeat of good, the prevalence & intensity of sin, the dreary & hopeless irreligion… all of this a vision to dizzy & appall, & inflicts upon the mind the sense of profound mystery which is absolutely beyond human solution… And so I argue… ‘If there be a God… the human race is implicated in some terrible, aboriginal calamity.'”

    An outsider in the confines of institutional religion… we’re everywhere…

  2. There is so much material packed into The Outsider it would take a few books to write about it all.

    I like the quote from Cardinal Newman, whom I have never read prior to reading this in Wilson’s book.

    Yes, the Outsider is a ubiquitous phenomenon. There are so many of us because, of course, the state of our society. Everything is a scam, and everything is about money, much more so than it’s ever been in history. What will mankind do?


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