Published to immense acclaim in the mid-1950s, The Outsider helped make popular the literary concept of existentialism. Authors like Sartre, Kafka, Hemingway, and Dostoyevsky, as well as artists like Van Gogh and Nijinsky, delved for a deeper understanding of the human condition in their work, and Colin Wilson’s landmark book encapsulated a character found time and time again: the outsider.
How does the outsider influence society? And how does society influence him? It’s a question as relevant to today’s iconic characters, from Don Draper to Voldemort, as it was when The Outsider was initially published. A fascinating study blending philosophy, psychology, and literature, Wilson’s seminal work is a must-have for those who are fascinated by the character of the outsider.
“Luminously intelligent . . . A real contribution to our understanding of our deepest predicament.” —Philip Toynbee
“Leaves the reader with a heightened insight into a crucial drama of the human spirit.” —Atlantic Monthly
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The Country of the Blind
At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem. He is the hole-in-corner man.
In the air, on top of a tram, a girl is sitting. Her dress, lifted a little, blows out. But a block in the traffic separates us. The tramcar glides away, fading like a nightmare.
Moving in both directions, the street is full of dresses which sway, offering themselves airily, the skirts lifting; dresses that lift and yet do not lift.
In the tall and narrow shop mirror I see myself approaching, rather pale and heavy-eyed. It is not a woman I want — it is all women, and I seek for them in those around me, one by one ...
This passage, from Henri Barbusse's novel L'Enfer, pinpoints certain aspects of the Outsider. His hero walks down a Paris street, and the desires that stir in him separate him sharply from other people. And the need he feels for a woman is not entirely animal either, for he goes on:
Defeated, I followed my impulse casually. I followed a woman who had been watching me from her corner. Then we walked side by side. We said a few words; she took me home with her ... Then I went through the banal scene. It passed like a sudden hurtling-down.
Again, I am on the pavement, and I am not at peace as I had hoped. An immense confusion bewilders me. It is as if I could not see things as they were. I see too deep and too much.
Throughout the book, this hero remains unnamed. He is the anonymous Man Outside.
He comes to Paris from the country; he finds a position in a bank; he takes a room in a 'family hotel'. Left alone in his room, he meditates: He has 'no genius, no mission to fulfil, no remarkable feelings to bestow. I have nothing and I deserve nothing. Yet in spite of it, I desire some sort of recompense.' Religion ... he doesn't care for it. 'As to philosophic discussions, they seem to me altogether meaningless. Nothing can be tested, nothing verified. Truth — what do they mean by it?' His thoughts range vaguely from a past love affair and its physical pleasures, to death: 'Death, that is the most important of all ideas.' Then back to his living problems: 'I must make money.' He notices a light high up on his wall; it is coming from the next room. He stands on the bed and looks through the spy-hole:
I look, I see ... The next room offers itself to me in its nakedness.
The action of the novel begins. Daily, he stands on the bed and stares at the life that comes and goes in the next room. For the space of a month he watches it, standing apart and, symbolically, above. His first vicarious adventure is to watch a woman who has taken the room for the night; he excites himself to hysteria watching her undress. These pages of the book have the kind of deliberate sensationalism that its descendants in post-war France were so consistently to be accused of (so that Guido Ruggiero could write: 'Existentialism treats life in the manner of a thriller').
But the point is to come. The next day he tries to recreate the scene in imagination, but it evades him, just as his attempt to recreate the sexual pleasures with his mistress had evaded him:
I let myself be drawn into inventing details to recapture the intensity of the experience. 'She put herself into the most inviting positions.'
No, no, that is not true.
These words are all dead. They leave untouched, powerless to affect it, the intensity of what was.
At the end of L'Enfer, its nameless hero is introduced to a novelist who is entertaining the company with an account of a novel he is writing. A coincidence ... it is about a man who pierces a hole in his wall and spies on all that happens in the next room. The writer recounts all of the book he has written; his listeners admire it: Bravo! Tremendous success! But the Outsider listens gloomily. 'I, who had penetrated into the very heart of mankind and returned, could see nothing human in this pantomimic caricature. It was so superficial that it was false.' The novelist expounds: 'Man stripped of his externals ... that is what I wish to show. Others stand for imagination ... I stand for truth.' The Outsider feels that what he has seen is truth.
Admittedly, for us, reading the novel half a century after it was written, there is not so much to choose between the novelist's truth and the hero's. The 'dramas' enacted in the next room remind us sometimes of Sardou, sometimes of Dostoevsky when he is more concerned to expound an idea than to give it body in people and events. Yet Barbusse is sincere, and this ideal, to 'stand for truth', is the one discernible current that flows through all twentieth-century literature.
Barbusse's Outsider has all of the characteristics of the type. Is he an Outsider because he's frustrated and neurotic? Or is he neurotic because of some deeper instinct that pushes him into solitude? He is preoccupied with sex, with crime, with disease. Early in the novel he recounts the after-dinner conversation of a barrister; he is speaking of the trial of a man who has raped and strangled a little girl. All other conversation stops, and the Outsider observes his neighbours closely as they listen to the revolting details:
A young mother, with her daughter at her side, has half got up to leave, but cannot drag herself away ...
And the men; one of them, simple, placid, I heard distinctly panting. Another, with the neutral appearance of a bourgeois, talks commonplaces with difficulty to his young neighbour. But he looks at her as if he would pierce deeply into her, and deeper yet. His piercing glance is stronger than himself, and he is ashamed of it ...
The Outsider's case against society is very clear. All men and women have these dangerous, unnamable impulses, yet they keep up a pretence, to themselves, to others; their respectability, their philosophy, their religion, are all attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational something that is savage, unorganized, irrational. He is an Outsider because he stands for Truth.
That is his case. But it is weakened by his obvious abnormality, his introversion. It looks, in fact, like an attempt at self-justification by a man who knows himself to be degenerate, diseased, self-divided. There is certainly self-division. The man who watches a woman undressing has the red eyes of an ape; yet the man who sees two young lovers, really alone for the first time, who brings out all the pathos, the tenderness and uncertainty when he tells about it, is no brute; he is very much human. And the ape and the man exist in one body; and when the ape's desires are about to be fulfilled, he disappears and is succeeded by the man, who is disgusted with the ape's appetites.
This is the problem of the Outsider. We shall encounter it under many different forms in the course of this book: on a metaphysical level, with Sartre and Camus (where it is called Existentialism), on a religious level, with Boehme and Kierkegaard; even on a criminal level, with Dostoevsky's Stavrogin (who also raped a small girl and was responsible for her death). The problem remains essentially the same; it is merely a question of discounting more or less as irrelevant.
Barbusse has suggested that it is the fact that his hero sees deeper that makes him an Outsider; at the same time, he states that he has 'no special genius, no message to bestow', etc., and from his history during the remainder of the book, we have no reason to doubt his word. Indubitably, the hero is mediocre; he can't write for toffee, and the whole book is full of clichs. It is necessary to emphasize this in order to rid ourselves of the temptation to identify the Outsider with the artist, and so to oversimplify the question: disease or insight? Many great artists have none of the characteristics of the Outsider. Shakespeare, Dante, Keats were all apparently normal and socially well-adjusted, lacking anything that could be pitched on as disease or nervous disability. Keats, who always makes a very clear and romantic distinction between the poet and the ordinary man, seems to have had no shades of inferiority complexes or sexual neuroses lurking in the background of his mind; no D. H. Lawrence-ish sense of social-level, no James Joycian need to assert his intellectual superiority; above all, no sympathy whatever with the attitude of Villiers De Lisle Adam's Axel (so much admired by Yeats): 'As for living, our servants can do that for us.' If any man intended to do his own living for himself, it was Keats. And he is undoubtedly the rule rather than the exception among great poets. The Outsider may be an artist, but the artist is not necessarily an Outsider.
What can be said to characterize the Outsider is a sense of strangeness, of unreality. Even Keats could write, in a letter to Browne just before he died: 'I feel as if I had died already and am now living a posthumous existence.' This is the sense of unreality, that can strike out of a perfectly clear sky. Good health and strong nerves can make it unlikely; but that may be only because the man in good health is thinking about other things and doesn't look in the direction where the uncertainty lies. And once a man has seen it, the world can never afterwards be quite the same straightforward place. Barbusse has shown us that 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. (The example we are turning to now is a curious instance of this.) The Outsider is a man who has awakened to chaos. He may have no reason to believe that chaos is positive, the germ of life (in the Kabbala, chaos — tohu bohu — is simply a state in which order is latent; the egg is the 'chaos' of the bird); in spite of this, truth must be told, chaos must be faced.
The last published work of H. G. Wells gives us an insight into such an awakening. Mind at the End of Its Tether seems to have been written to record some revelation:
The writer finds very considerable reason for believing that within a period to be estimated by weeks and months rather than by aeons, there has been a fundamental change in the conditions under which life — and not simply human life but all self-conscious existence — has been going on since its beginning. If his thinking has been sound ... the end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded. He is telling you the conclusions to which reality has driven his own mind, and he thinks you may be interested enough to consider them, but he is not attempting to impose them on you.
This last sentence is noteworthy for its curious logic. Wells's conviction that life is at an end is, as he says, a 'stupendous proposition'. If it is true, then it negates the whole pamphlet; obviously, since it negates all life and its phenomena. Vaguely aware of the contradiction, Wells explains that he is writing 'under the urgency of a scientific training that obliged him to clarify the world and his ideas to the limits of his capacity'.
His renascent intelligence finds itself confronted with strange, convincing realities so overwhelming that, were he indeed one of those logical, consistent people we incline to claim we are, he would think day and night in a passion of concentration, dismay and mental struggle upon the ultimate disaster that confronts our species. We are nothing of the sort. We live with reference to past experience, not to future events, however inevitable.
In commenting on an earlier book called The Conquest of Time, Wells comments: 'Such conquest as that book admits is done by time rather than man.'
Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away They fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.
This is the authentic Shakespearian pessimism, straight out of Macbeth or Timon. It is a surprising note from the man who had spent his life preaching the credo: If you don't like your life you can change it: the optimist of Men Like Godsand A Modern Utopia. Wells declares that, if the reader will follow him closely, he will give the reason for this change of outlook:
The reality glares coldly and harshly upon any of those who can wrench their minds free ... to face the unsparing question that has overwhelmed the writer. They discover that a frightful queerness has come into life ... The habitual interest of the writer is his critical anticipation. Of everything he asks: To what will this lead? And it was natural for him to assume that there was a limit set to change, that new things and events would appear, but that they would appear consistently, preserving the natural sequence of life. So that in the present vast confusion of our world, there was always the assumption of an ultimate restoration of rationality ... It was merely the fascinating question of what forms the new rational phase would assume, what over-man, Erewhon or what not would break through the transitory clouds and turmoil. To this the writer set his mind.
He did his utmost to pursue that upward spiral ... towards their convergence in a new phase in the story of life, and the more he weighed the realities before him, the less he was able to detect any convergence whatever. Changes had ceased to be systematic, and the further he estimated the course they seemed to be taking, the greater the divergence. Hitherto, events had been held together by a certain logical consistency, as the heavenly bodies have been held together by gravitation. Now it is as if that cord had vanished, and everything was driving anyhow to anywhere at a steadily increasing velocity ... The pattern of things to come faded away.
In the pages that follow, these ideas are enlarged on and repeated, without showing us how they were arrived at. 'A harsh queerness is coming into things', and a paragraph later: 'We pass into the harsh glare of hitherto incredible novelty ... The more strenuous the analysis, the more inescapable the sense of mental defeat.' 'The cinema sheet stares us in the face. That sheet is the actual fabric of our being. Our loves, our hates, our wars and battles, are no more than phantasmagoria dancing on that fabric, themselves as insubstantial as a dream.'
There are obviously immense differences between the attitudes of Wells and Barbusse's hero, but they have in common the Outsider's fundamental attitude: non-acceptance of life, of human life lived by human beings in a human society. Both would say: Such a life is a dream; it is not real. Wells goes further than Barbusse in the direction of complete negation. He ends his first chapter with the words: 'There is no way out or round or through.' There can be no doubt that as far as Wells is concerned, he certainly sees 'too deep and too much'. Such knowledge is an impasse, the dead end of Eliot's Gerontion: 'After such knowledge, what forgiveness?'
Wells had promised to give his reasons for arriving at such a stupendous proposition. In the remainder of the pamphlet (nineteen pages) he does nothing of the sort; he repeats his assertion. 'Our doomed formicary', 'harsh implacable hostility to our universe', 'no pattern of any kind'. He talks vaguely of Einstein's paradox of the speed of light, of the 'radium clock' (a method geologists use to date the earth). He even contradicts his original statement that all life is at an end; it is only the species Homo sapiens that is played out. 'The stars in their courses have turned against him and he has to give place to some other animal better adapted to face the fate that closes in on mankind.' In the final pages of the pamphlet, his trump of the last judgement has changed into the question: Can civilization be saved?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Outsider"
Copyright © 1956 Colin Wison.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: The Country of the Blind,
Chapter Two: World Without Values,
Chapter Three: The Romantic Outsider,
Chapter Four: The Attempt to Gain Control,
Chapter Five: The Pain Threshold,
Chapter Six: The Question of Identity,
Chapter Seven: The Great Synthesis,
Chapter Eight: The Outsider and the Visionary,
Chapter Nine: Breaking the Circuit,
Postscript to The Outsider,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved this book! What a wonderful suprise. Finally, proof that I'm NOT crazy and most importantly not alone. :) It's can be a difficult read at times, but worth it.
It is everything that I had hoped to come across in my self inflicted mental wondering and vagabond days. When I am perplexed within thought, I always come back to Mr. Wilson with the inspiration that he has casted upon me from the genius of within.
This book to me is a treasure,It is one that has completely changed my perspective about life,It made me feel as if i am not the only person who has felt the things that i have,It is a book that although at times is depressive and difficult to read will enlighten you and for that reason i highly recommend it,In my opinion this book will expand your mind if you are willing to invest the time into it.