Sunday 4 June 2017

Review of The Outsider by Colin Wilson (1956)

It was in the summer of 1978 that I first read Colin Wilson's The Outsider, borrowed from the Edinburgh City Library; and for only the second time I came across a book which addressed my condition directly and exactly (the first such book was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig, which I had read two years earlier).

I was, and am, one of those Outsiders which Wilson defined and (for a while) brought into popular parlance. His method is by following the argument through themed biographies, summaries and excerpts of those with what was then termed an existential relationship to the world.

(There are many such figures - e.g. TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Sartre, Camus, Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Lawrence of Arabia, Tolstoy, Dostoievski, Kierkegaard and many others.)

Since then I have read literally dozens of Colin Wilson's books, and browsed The Outsider frequently, but have not read it through. And indeed when I decided to re-read it a couple of weeks ago, I could not find my old Picador Paperback copy. Presumably I must have lent or given it... anyway I bought a new copy and set-to.

I was amazed at how good it was! Really superb! I would say that The Outsider is as good as anything CW ever wrote, and as good as any non-fiction I have ever read. It has a real strength and seriousness about it; a youthful vitality and incisive urgency. So much is there.

It is rather strange to realise that if I had been able or willing to give The Outsider serious consideration forty years ago, my life might have been different and better; because although it does not take the reader all the way to where I am now - it did take me to within shouting distance. Surely I could have filled in a few gaps and extrapolated where needed?

Well, I didn't - and the reason was mostly my impatience with those more religious sections of the book, which I think I skimmed over; certainly I did not given them genuine thought. Yet in The Outsider and its equally fine sequel Religion and the Rebel, Wilson was more genuinely religious than later in his life; and was especially attuned to the visionary mind, including William Blake.

As I approached the last few pages of The Outsider, I was feeling that it was a near-perfect literary-philosophical achievement; but for the last few pages and conclusion - specifically the section on the work of TE Hulme - the argument becomes convoluted and very difficult to follow; indeed Wilson does not make clear why Hulme is being included, since his expounded views seem to add nothing substantive, and instead thwart the books powerful momentum.

Perhaps it was the memory of this rather stumbling ending (after some 250 pages with hardly a mis-step) that had unjustly somewhat diminished the book in my memory?

Anyway, I would give Colin Wilson's first book the highest recommendation for anyone who feels himself to be an 'outsider'.



In Light In Mind said...

The Mind Parasites is awesome too. I'd love your thoughts on The Mind Parasites. Demon-lie entities draining people's life force at the level of a Mind that all participate it - like overlapping themes of your writing on Thinking and demons.

The Outsider captures a state and a potential perfectly. We ought hold Wilson's visionary thoughts clearly in our minds as a significant step forward.

I think the reason it didn't quite click you over is interference from that which you write about often. His work and insights, if there were a good technique, would give direct knowledge of spiritual realms in a clear-minded way. So this must be stopped where possible. See The Mind Parasites again.

Wilson's techniques, whether the 'pencil trick' or his belief in phenomenology as an evolutionary agent for consciousness, didn't quite push through.

His philosophy was great, but the solution is very difficult in this world.

Thanks for writing on this topic, Bruce. On the vast internet you seem to be the only one keeping the right flame burning. Bless you.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ILIM - Thanks for the comment.

I read and enjoyed the Mind Parasites a couple of years ago, and some of CW's other Lovecraftian novels. But for me, I think his best fiction, by far, is the Spiderworld series - which I regard as a lost masterpiece (out of print when last I looked).

"His philosophy was great, but the solution is very difficult in this world. " - You put your finger on one weakness of the Outsider analysis - which is that CW does not seem to perceive the difference that a 'context of eternal life makes to the evaluation of mortal life. There is a great difference between mortal life understood as everything, and mortal life understood in an eternal context.

In an eternal context the idea of trying to decide if a person's mortal life is either A Success or A Failure seems silly - because mortal life is only part (an extremely important part, indeed a vital part) of an infinitely-larger whole.

So The Outsider's problem is not something that is supposed to be 'solved' - it is more of an experience, a challenge, an opportunity for growth of spirit... And if mortal life is non-accidental - then it is exactly the kind of experience-challenge that we - personally - most need.

lgude said...

Thanks for the re-view of The Outsider which I read around 1960 shortly after starting university. I recognized myself as an outsider and even though my idea of myself has perforce changed radically over the years it still seemed top drawer when I reread it - oh perhaps 10 or so years ago. A lot has happened spiritually in the last years and I think I will read it again. I am particularly struck by the observation in your comment: "There is a great difference between mortal life understood as everything, and mortal life understood in an eternal context." That may indeed explain the slight disappointment I know I feel - the sense of something missing - when I read The Outsider. While I have never been the kind of person that believed in my bones that this life is everything, over the past decade the palpable experience of a larger context has made the approaching end of my mortal life remarkably less oppressive. If you have not read Pirsig's Lila I highly recommend it because he advances the philosophic inquiry he started in Zen and the Art. I have always thought it a lesser novel but a greater philosophy book.

Bruce Charlton said...


I read Lila pretty much the day it was published! But I have never warned to it, except the bits on Dusenberry, and the Indians.