This is a book from my TBR 2015 challenge pile. It has been sat on my bookshelf for years, so I was glad to finally get around to reading it.
Colin Wilson takes the theme of ‘the Outsider’ – one who feels separate and alienated from society – and tracks the use of this character through some of the greatest literature and the lives of artists, in the hope of learning more about the problems of the Outsider.
Reading this book, it was interesting to see how authors have characterised the outsider in different circumstances. Wilson considers the works of artists such as Kafka, Camus, Hemingway, Nijinsky, Hesse, Lawrence, Van Gogh and Dostoevsky, the teachings of the Buddha and George Gurdjieff. Curiously, the outsider in these works is almost always a male. Perhaps this is due to the entirely male authorship, though Wilson seemed to believe that outsiders are almost always male. I would not agree. My view is that women who might consider themselves outsiders, tend to make more effort to at least give the appearance of fitting in.
Wilson views the outsider as one who is less willing to put up with the futility of everyday life. They are often like trains ‘in danger of going off the rails’. They have questions for which they need to seek the answers to – and it is imperative that they do seek these answers if they are not to destroy themselves. Wilson speculates that it may be a question of perception. The outsider may perceive life differently, and that this is to their advantage if they can learn to perceive effectively:
“The Outsider’s problem amounts to a way of seeing the world that can be termed ‘pessimistic’… I have tried to argue that this pessimism is true and valid. It therefore discounts the humanistic ideals of ‘man rising on stepping stones of dead selves to higher things, etc.’, and criticizes philosophy by saying that there is no point in the philosopher’s trying to get to know the world if he doesn’t know himself. It says flatly that the ideal ‘objective philosophy’ will not be constructed by mere thinkers, but by men who combine the thinker, the poet and the man of action. The first question of philosophy is not ‘What is the Universe all about?’ but ‘What should we do with our lives?’; i.e. its aim is not a System that shall be intellectually consistent, but the salvation of the individual.”
This book was not a particularly easy read, though I did enjoy the challenge. I did get the feeling as I was reading that Wilson was cherry picking the examples which best suited his particular theory of the Outsider, and could perhaps have been argued in any number of ways. In spite of this it was still an interesting and worthwhile read.