In 1956, Colin Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, was published. It was a worldwide bestseller and made Wilson famous. In my opinion, it is a very important work for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and for the movement of Existentialism.
Wilson looks closely at several cultural and literary luminaries who qualify as being alienated from so-called “normal” society. They don’t fit just “right” into bourgeois culture. He examines Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Hermann Hesse, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, William James, T. E. Lawrence, Vaslav Nijinsky, Vincent van Gogh, Friedrich Nietzsche, George Fox, William Blake, et al. Because the book was published so long ago, you would assume the situation had changed, that such people are not considered strange anymore, but Wilson’s analysis is still as timely as it was then. Outsiders still think according to the same patterns. They differ in their solution, or lack of one, to what Wilson calls the Outsider’s problem” (Wilson 19). There are always a few in the world that probably keep things from falling totally into the abyss.
What is the Outsider’s problem? “What can be said to characterize the Outsider is a sense of strangeness, of unreality” (Wilson 15). Then, there is the dedication to Truth at all cost. Wilson writes,
…the Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. ‘He sees too deep and too much’, and what he sees is essentially chaos. For the bourgeois, the world is fundamentally an orderly place, with a disturbing element of the irrational, the terrifying, which his preoccupation with the present usually permits him to ignore. For the Outsider, the world is not rational, not orderly. When he asserts his sense of anarchy in the face of the bourgeois’ complacent acceptance, it is not simply the need to cock a snook at respectability that provokes him; it is a distressing sense that truth must be told at all costs, otherwise there can be no hope for an ultimate restoration of order. Even if there seems no room for hope, truth must be told (ibid.).
I would venture to guess that in all periods of history there have been those who see the world as filled with chaos, the kind of chaos that only Truth, capital T, can remedy. The Outsider is a prophet, much like Jesus, the Buddha, or Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and prophets always suffer through various miseries. Wilson writes, “The Outsider’s miseries are the prophet’s teething pains. He retreats into his room, like a spider in a dark corner; he lives alone, wishes to avoid people” (Wilson 84). In this way, the Outsider can descend into himself, into the inner landscape, where sustenance can be found for the hungry soul. This is the only way it can be found, and then brought back to the world. Nietzsche would send his Zarathustra to the top of the mountain, and then, after ten years, descending to preach to the people. The fact that “Zarathustra went down the mountain alone and no one met him” (Nietzsche 40) did not matter. He still had to get his message to those who needed it.
The truth must be told if chaos is to be vanquished and order restored. It is proper that some of these thinkers be thought of as prophets. Several of them accurately foretold trends in culture and society that would eventually come to pass. Nietzsche, for one, is seen by some as being the forerunner of depth psychology. Freud was very heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s work, as was Jung. Hermann Hesse predicted what would soon occur regarding “the downfall of European morals…in Sartre and Camus” (Wilson 52).
Wilson’s book is fascinating. I will comment more on it in my next article.
To be continued…
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. Penguin: New York, 1961.
Wilson, Colin. The Outsider. Diversion Books. New York, 1956. Kindle Edition.
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