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see also Wilson's essay on 'The Age of Defeat'




(draft: unrevised, incomplete...)

In 1955 Colin Wilson wrote a book called ‘The Outsider’ in which he examined the lives of some well-known historical figures. The people he chose were very different, both in character and in what they achieved. They included philosophers, artists, reformers and mystics; but most of them were writer-philosophers. In spite of their differences they had once thing in common: the characteristics of what Wilson called the ‘Outsider’. The book, in spite of its publisher’s doubts, turned out to cause something of a sensation, arousing a lot of media interest at the time, and Wilson himself became moderately famous. The book continues to sell after more than 50 years.

The subject Wilson was tackling was of the outsider in history, the problem of the outsider, and a search for a solution. It was, Wilson believed, the most pressing problem that mankind has ever had to face, and one which has always loomed in the background waiting to confront the ‘thinking man’ – and, I should add, the ‘thinking woman’.

The sources Wilson draws upon range from Socrates through Blake to Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Hesse, Kafka, Sartre, Camus and others, including philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Shaw and Hulme. He investigates the Outsider problem as experienced by Van Gogh, Nijinsky and T E Lawrence, and finally explains the partial solutions of George Fox (founder of the Society of Friends – the Quakers), Gurdjieff (via accounts of his ‘pupil’ Ouspensky) and of other ‘mystics’.

Of his nine chapters he dedicates more than one to Dostoyevsky, most predominantly to that culmination of his life's work ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ in which, although unfinished at his death, he portrays in the three brothers the three aspects of the Outsider's dilemma, pointing towards a solution for each and laying the foundation upon which others could build. The three aspects were body, mind and spirit – or, in my own terminology: body, intellect and intuition.

Even more space is given to Nietzsche who ‘lived’ the problem of the Outsider as much as he wrote about it. In contrast to Dostoyevsky, who very much involved himself in the detail of practical living with all its upheavals and trivialities, Nietzsche was an idealist, unable to separate his Outsider ideas from his everyday life to the extent of eventually going insane. Unlike Dostoyevsky or Blake, for example, Nietzsche was completely alone. He did not have followers or the support of the devout wife.

In essence, and according to my own interpretation, the problem of the Outsider amounts simply to this: that regardless of material benefits, he has somehow acquired the recognition, a recognition apparently that eludes ‘normal’ men and women, of the utter futility and meaningless of life. For him there is no escape. ‘belief’ or faith, as is the remedy for many non-outsiders (and some of Wilson’s), holds no sway; for an attempt to escape thus would amount to nothing more than cheating, sidestepping the issue - which leads the outsider precisely nowhere. The whole business of the outsider is to seek ‘truth’, not to delude himself - in fact he, unlike those others, is quite unable to knowingly succumb to delusion, however attractive, and finds himself with no choice but to look hard at the bewildering phenomenon of life, to face it squarely, head on, warts an' all. He has no interest in ‘supernatural matters’: such ideas belong to theology, belief and faith, and he vigorously rejects them. To the outsider the only important distinction is between existence and non-existence, life and death.

Mankind might be said to consist of several types. The most common perhaps are those who get on with their daily affairs without giving a moment's thought to why they exist, what is the meaning of their existence and how, even when taking into account the brevity and pettiness of their life, they should best use their allotted time. They prefer to avoid thinking along those lines, perhaps regarding that to do so is morbid and negative and leads nowhere anyway, except into depression. These include people who retain a certain naivety of youth - though not necessarily an open-mindedness - who live mainly for the material world around them and find fulfilment in acquiescing to social norms. Questions about existence are to them bizarre, and are as irrelevant to the substance of their everyday life as is the destiny of a discarded cigarette-end.

Then there are those who go about as if half in a dream, aware of some mysterious question but not sure what it is or even if there really is one; or if they are sure then how exactly to express it. This individual might sense that if he were to articulate his questions then the discovery that they were unresolved, unanswerable, even though they had been rigorously tackled by some of the greatest minds, would be too much to bear; and instead of risking such an outcome, he chooses to believe that there may be answers, but that they are hidden away in libraries or in the minds of intellectuals. This man is perplexed, not knowing where to look or how to make sense of his problem. He may not know how to represent it to himself in a way that is intelligible: what is the point of my existence? What is the point of anything? His self-expression may be impaired by the banality that such questions have come to acquire in recent years and which reduces them to a laughable absurdity. Laughable perhaps as a means of escaping them, of converting them by ridicule into an absurdity that makes the serious questioner appear absurd. And besides, aren't they the very questions asked by mere children?

From this state the individual might progress to one of 'letting go', partaking in extravagant entertainments or pastimes in which he is able to 'forget' the problem. He may become a workaholic, a prominent member of various groups or clubs, or he may even partake in dangerous sports.

Finally there remains beyond all the intermediary possibilities the path of the fully-fledged outsider, the path of impending gloom and isolation. This man is utterly disillusioned, destitute of all meaning and value in his life. For him life is a colossal confidence trick, a joke played accidentally by nature. Life is a phenomenon of the universe just as is the debris of space, and has no purpose whatever. He can either shrug, accept his lot and make the most of it, or he can cut his throat and be done with the entire charade.

But being tied as we are to our primitive needs, our inborn inclination to survive and to our attachments, few men ever reach this extreme outsider condition. Perhaps Van Gogh, T E Lawrence and Nietzsche are exceptions, but before they finally 'arrived' they engaged themselves in a lengthy period of investigation and introspection during which they lived, internally at least, as outsiders, not knowing which way to turn. These particular men, as we know, were perhaps unscrupulously honest and gave themselves no choice but to turn towards total negation. But before reaching that point is the stage of the man who ruminates, who circulates his thoughts in constant recurring reasoning, endlessly digging himself deeper and trapping himself in the increasing necessity and uncertain hope of finding a solution; and all to no avail.

When, sparing a moment from his thoughts, this man glances up to look at the world, 'all' he sees is everything just as it plainly is, and just as anyone can clearly see without any recourse to mysticism or metaphysical interpretation. The crucial word 'all' is what makes him different from the masses, who, he thinks, are in a constant state of delusion. Only he, and possibly a few others like him, has his eyes wide open; only he knows the real and despicable 'truth' behind existence. Indeed, even if he wanted to delude himself with all or any of the varieties and vagaries of 'wishful thinking', of the possibility of there being some kind of heaven or ulterior purpose, he would be immediately disabled, since the crux of his problem resides in the very fact that he must seek the genuine, objective 'truth', and nothing else will do. Nothing!

Any sort of attempt to placate the pessimism to which this leads, he finds at best pathetic, at worst abhorrent. He is as stuck with his bleak perception as he is stuck with the need to breathe, and he well knows how he can 'escape' both those obligations. But not yet, for there might, he thinks, assuming he retains an iota of hope, be a solution, or at least a partial solution. While any perception of the universe that involves 'belief' or faith is out of the question, there is only what is revealed by the senses, there is only 'This'! Or is there?

Now, the paradox that arises for the outsider is that he both accepts his condition and at the same time refuses to accept it. And it is clear from the examples referred to and quoted in Wilson's book that most of his Outsiders sort vehemently for a way out, a way that would not compromise the fundamental outlook and yet would give purpose and meaning to their lives. For all of them, except the mystics and those who 'cheated' by developing a faith of sorts, failed in their quest. And Wilson, while pointing the way to a method of 'escape', offers no 'truthful' solution - apart from asserting an extraordinary strength of will. His unvoiced conclusion might be wrapped up neatly in the first sentence of a quotation by Pirandello:

‘Whoever understands the game can no longer fool themselves, but if you cannot fool yourself, you can no longer derive any pleasure or enjoyment from life. So it goes. My art is full of bitter compassion for all those who fool themselves. But this compassion cannot help but be succeeded by a ferocious derision of a destiny that condemns Man to deception. This, succinctly, is the reason for the bitterness of my art, and also my life.’

This suggests, as Wilson’s conclusions seem to imply, that the only possible means of ‘escape’ so far envisaged is in fact to fool yourself. Yes, he might say, we’re condemned to self-deceit; but so what? What’s wrong with deception if it makes for contentment? This, clearly, is an old fable, and it breaks no ice with the authentic Outsider. In Wilson’s terms, and there is no indication in his work that he saw it as ‘deceit’, the path to a solution is found by first of all resorting to the power of Will (as intimated by Nietzsche, and endorsed by others): to Will yourself into a certain state of awareness. This state I shall discuss later, but for the moment it is enough to recognise that so far in history a search in the outside world, the universe, has revealed nothing in answer to the problem; and therefore, as with the power of Will, our search has been redirected to encompass the inner world, the world of the intellect, the emotions and, if indeed it exists as something different from those two, the spirit.

Before attempting to clarify these terms as promised, most especially ‘spirit’, it would be appropriate here to offset Pirandello’s apparent pessimism in the above quotation against his later statement that to some extent separates him from his art and creates a marginally less pessimistic, if vaguely ambiguous, insight into the problem of existence:

‘For a long time I have been considered a pessimist… but I have been misunderstood. My art is free of that pessimism, which causes a lack of faith in my life. And I am not even a nihilist since, in the spiritual activity which torments me and animates my work, there is an incessant desire to create.’

Although, like so many Outsiders, Pirandello sought meaning in life, as if his works were a route that might lead him to answers and to the relative contentment those answers might bring, a meaning continually eluded him. All he could find was absurdity:

‘The taste for life! – that is never satisfied, because life, even as we are in the very act of living it, is so ravenously hungering after itself that it never lets itself be fully tasted. The taste for life comes to us from our past. From the memories that hold us bound, but bound to what? To this folly of ours, to this mass of vexations, to so many stupid illusions, to so many insipid occupations.’

And this, avoiding for the moment the temptation to examine what he means by folly, vexations, illusions and occupations, takes us into the significance of memory: ‘the memories that hold us bound’ provides a key to what it is that prevents us all from becoming Outsiders, indeed, being born as Outsiders from the outset. But is he talking about instinct memory or about memory of learned attachments (whether essential artefacts of survival or the trinkets and baubles of ‘civilisation’)?

Perhaps he refers to all memories, whatever their source. For what are we but a collection of memories? What are we but a support mechanism and the instrument it supports in which all these memories are stored and which acts upon nothing but these memories (which might be a millisecond, or a million years old)? What else do we do but consult our memories at every step (either for amusement or to interpret and influence the present) and obey what they dictate for us to do?

Bearing in mind that compared to a bird, a snake, or a sea anemone, all Men, from a genetic point of view, are essentially identical, a question we might ask ourselves is whether our inherited memories are also essentially identical. And if they are then why do some men ‘see’ differently to others? Could it be that we all have the potential to ‘see’ as the Outsider ‘sees’, but that marginal differences (because we are in fact not quite identical) predispose some more than others to ‘see’ their existence in a different light; that is, if they bother in the first place to ‘look’ at it? 

It may be, however, that what disposes a man to ‘look’ or to ‘see’ (though to look is one thing, and to see is something else entirely) is not so much his primordial memories, which after all have been established over millions of years of natural selection, but rather the influences in his upbringing. Whichever of these constitute the greatest influence is not strictly relevant to this discussion; it is sufficient for the moment to note the distinction. What concerns us here is that if a man thinks at all then what in fact does he think and where does he expect his thinking to lead him?  

Alternatively, regardless of potential, perhaps we all do ‘see’ as the Outsider ‘sees’ if we care to ‘look’; the difference between us being that most of us prefer not to ‘look’, or if we do ‘look’ – by accident, as it were – then we only glance and what we ‘see’ is so inherently horrifying that we turn swiftly away before we are ‘hypnotised’ into ‘looking’ deeper. To ‘look’ deeper into the abyss would be, perhaps, to ‘see’ that it is indeed bottomless instead of simply ‘not there’, nothing real. And this nothing, abyss, or whatever it is, is in any case of no importance: ‘what do we care what it is, if indeed it exists, we’re too busy living in the ‘real’ world to concern ourselves with such abstractions. Abyss? There’s no such thing!’ Or, with solemnity: ‘It’s no business of ours, abyss or no abyss.’ – as if they somehow instinctively recognise it as ‘forbidden’ territory, to be observed at their peril – as some non-Outsiders probably suspect, at least subconsciously: that it is safer not to ‘look’, to stick with the dealt hand and make the most of it, for what it’s worth, for once seen, a thing cannot be unseen. And now we have come full circle: both the Outsider and non-Outsider…