Thoughts on The Outsider, Part 2

Thoughts on The Outsider, Part 2

Hermann Hesse, 1946

…the Outsider’s problems…resolve themselves into terms of Ultimate Yes and Ultimate No (Wilson 106).

According to Wilson, there are three types of Outsider: the intellectual, the emotional, and the physical. The intellectual type is of the Existentialist character. Sartre and Camus are good examples. The question with these men is Being or Nothingness? Ultimate Yes or Ultimate No; no middle ground. This  is the way of the Outsider. No happy medium will do. Part of the resolution of the Outsider’s problem exists in the extremes. Wilson says the Outsider’s “preoccupation with Ultimate Yes and Ultimate No is really a preoccupation with absolute freedom or absolute bondage” (Wilson 113). For the emotional Outsider, of whom Vincent Van Gogh is illustrative, it is either eternal love or eternal indifference. And for the physical Outsider, a man of action, such as Russian ballet dancer, Vaslav Nijinksy, the ultimate question is life or death, “the body’s final defeat or triumph” (Wilson 106).

A few of the thinkers in Wilson’s study go further than the others in solving the Outsider’s problem. There is a way forward or a way backward. Freedom or bondage. “The Outsider and freedom are always associated together. The Outsider’s problem is the problem of freedom” (Wilson 113). In Van Gogh’s case, he committed suicide and took the backward way. When a person discovers they are not really free, they become an Outsider. Then, they set out to find freedom, or to discover whether it really exists at all. The aim of all Outsiders is to become a non-Outsider, not in the sense of joining in on bourgeois mediocrity, but to be really free. Some crack under the strain, or just give up and wallow in indifference and nihilism, or just kill themselves.

Wilson says, “The man who is interested to know how he should live instead of merely taking life as it comes, is automatically an Outsider” (Wilson 66). This is basically the theme of Herman Hesse’s most important novel, Steppenwolf. “It is one of the most penetrating and exhaustive studies of the Outsider ever written” (Wilson 57).

It is well known that Hesse was treated by a disciple of C.G. Jung, Dr. Josef B. Lang, and by Jung himself at a sanatorium near Lucerne, Switzerland in 1916-1917. This was after Hesse’s father died, and his wife, Mia, succumbed to schizophrenia. At this same time, Hesse’s son, Martin, was suffering through a serious illness. Through psychoanalysis, Hesse learned to rise above some of the problems that plagued him. Even though, he ultimately fails in solving the Outsider’s problem, Wilson admits he went part of the way.

In Steppenwolf, Hesse solves the Outsider’s problem to this extent: his wretchedness is the result of his incorrigible tendency to compromise, to prefer temperate, civilized, bourgeois regions. His salvation lies in extremes—of heat or cold, spirit or nature. 

…In Narziss und Goldmund the hero chooses nature, but does not come anywhere near to self-realization. In The Bead Game, the hero chooses spirit, and he dies with a consciousness of failure too. Perhaps Hesse’s failure lies in the fact that he is not sure of what he means by self-realization. Steppenwolf speaks of a sudden ecstasy, a ‘timeless moment’: Between two or three notes of the piano, the door opened suddenly to the other world. I sped through heaven and saw God at work…I affirmed all things and to all things I gave up my heart.’ [Italics mine.] But that is only for a quarter of an hour; Hesse nowhere speaks of the possibility of a discipline that should make all life a succession of such moments (Wilson 66-67).

Nevertheless, Hesse has learned a valuable lesson from his various attempts to reconcile the Outsider’s problem:

It is not enough to accept a concept of order and live by it; that is cowardice, and such cowardice cannot result in freedom. Chaos must be faced. Real order must be preceded by a descent into chaos (Wilson 55).

Toward the end of the book, Wilson begins to consider William Blake, who may have went further than anyone in solving the Outsider’s problem. My next article will deal with this.

To be continued…


Work Cited

Wilson, Colin. The Outsider. Diversion Books. New York, 1956. Kindle Edition.

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