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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

"The Outsider" by Colin Wilson

This thesis is remarkable in that it was written by a 24 year old who displays an astonishing range of reading (Herman Hesse, Sartre, Camus, GBS, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Proust, Gurdjieff; some of these he would have been forced to read in the original languages). The thesis is a fascinating blend of literary criticism, philosophy and psychology.

Wilson's thesis is that there are characters who are Outsiders. As well as the literary characters he cites among others Lawrence of Arabia, Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Nietzsche, William Blake, and George Fox (the founder of the Quakers). Some of these Outsiders are highly intellectual, some highly emotional, some highly physical; mist are rather unbalanced. They are set apart from the Insiders who form the common herd of humanity (there seems to be a feeling that they are thus superior to the common man). But Wilson can square this circle by using the example of Einstein and Newton. Newtonian physics is fine for low relative speeds; so common philosophies are fine for most everyday situations and everyday folk. But you need Einsteinian relativity when relative speeds approach the speed of light. In the same way the philosophies of everyday fail in the extremes to which Outsiders push them.

The Outsider is outside because he has recognised the futility of life; “The Outsider ... is the one man who knows he is sick in a civilization that doesn’t know it is sick.” This makes them feel that the world is somehow unreal and they long to be immersed in the world's vividness. 

The Outsider “does not prefer not to believe; he doesn't like feeling that futility gets the last word in the universe; his human nature would like to find something it can answer to with complete assent.But his honesty prevents his accepting a solution that he cannot reason about.” This leads to “terror on the edge of nothingness.

Thus, the Outsider's initial experience is that of rejecting the world leading to withdrawal from it; if this withdrawal leads to a mystical revelation they may then return to the world as a prophet: “The history of prophets of all time follow a pattern: born in a civilization, the reject its standards of material well-being and retreat into the desert. When they return, it is to preach world rejection: intensity of spirit versus physical security. The Outsider’s miseries are the prophet’s teething pains.” This is quite religious: The Outsider feels himself to have a purpose. This is an intense religious feeling. But the Outsider has rejected conventional religion. His problem is therefore to develop his religious mysticism outside conventional religion. As William Blake said: “I must create my own System or be enslaved by another man's.

This is a compelling thesis and it seems backed with a great deal of evidence although sometimes Wilson's comments on others seems opinionated: “Crime and Punishment is his [Dostoevsky’s] only complete artistic success; the other novels are as unshapely as pillow-cases stuffed with lumps of concrete.

I found the book initially very appealing and very easy to read. I was humbled by the breadth and depth of Wilson's knowledge. Some of the later ideas, when he talks for example of Nietzsche and later of Gurdjieff, I found more difficult to understand. I think this is because (perhaps as an Outsider myself) I find it difficult to believe when a philosopher no matter how respected makes ex cathedra pronouncements. I want to shout: where is the evidence? like a little boy asking where are the emperor's clothes. So when Wilson spoke of the visionaries such as these two (and later William Blake and George Fox) I found it a little less compelling. Nevertheless, this thesis is a tour de force.

Great quotes
  • “Some are perfectly satisfied with what they have; they eat, drink, impregnate their wives, and take life as it comes. Others can never forget that they are being cheated; that life tempts them to struggle by offering them the essence of sex, of beauty, of success;and that she always seems to pay in counterfeit money.”
  • “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.”
  • “Many great artists have none of the characteristics of the Outsider. Shakespeare, Dante, Keats were all apparently normal and socially well-adjusted.”
  • “Must thought negate life?”
  • “Is there no causality, no possible meaning? ... There is only being useless and knowing it and being useless and not knowing it.”
  • “The atmosphere of the Existentialist Outsider is unpleasant to breathe. There is something nauseating, anti-life, about it: these men without motive who stay in their rooms because there seems no reason for doing anything else. It is essentially an adult world, this world-without-values. The child’s world is altogether cleaner; the air tastes of expectation.”
  • “The rationalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not a sterile, boring state of mind; it was a period of intense and healthy optimism.”
  • “The romantic Outsider is a ‘dreamer of other worlds’ ... ‘the idle singer of an empty day’.”
  • “The Bildungsroman sets out to describe the evolution of the ‘hero’s soul’; it is fictional biography”
  • “The descent into the dark world is not necessarily evil; it may be the necessary expression of boldness and intelligence.”
  • “The Outsider is the mainstay of the bourgeois. Without him the bourgeois could not exist. ... Many Outsiders unify themselves, realize themselves as poets or saints. Others remain tragically divided and unproductive, but even they supply soul-energy to society; it is their strenuousness that purifies thought and prevents the bourgeois world from foundering under its own dead-weight.”
  • Quoting GBShaw in Buoyant Billions “I don’t want to be happy; I want to be alive and active.”
  • “The Outsider’s first business is self-knowledge.”
  • “The violence and cruelty of the desert, and its contempt for the flesh, weigh equally in opposite balance-pans.”
  • “His most characteristic trait is his inability to stop thinking. Thought imprisons him; it is an unending misery ... Lawrence was “a monk in his body’s cell.” There are times he could avoid thought, while riding camels or later while riding fast motorbikes.
  • “This particular contradiction is inherent in mysticism - the saint who sees all existence as holy, and the saint who is completely withdrawn from existence.”
  • “Man is not a unity; he is many. But for anything to be worth doing, he must become a unity.
  • “His last words ... are the words of a man who feels that defeat is inevitable, that life is a baited trap; who kills himself to escape the necessity of taking the bait again.”
  • Alcohol stimulates the “mystical faculties ... that flood-tide of inner warmth and vital energy that human beings regard as the most desirable state to live in. The sober hour carries continuous demands on the energy; sense-impressions, thoughts, uncertainties, suck away the vital powers minute by minute.”
  • William James in Varieties of Religious Experience suggests a “misery line”: “The sanguine and healthy minded habitually live on the sunny side of their misery line; the depressed and melancholy live beyond it, in darkness and apprehension ... Does it not appear as if one who lived habitually on one side of the pain threshold might need a different sort of religion from one who habitually lived on the other?”
  • “When Van Gogh's ‘misery will never end’ is combined with Evan Strowde’s ‘nothing is worth doing’, the result is a kind of spiritual syphilis that can hardly stop short of death or insanity. Conrad's story Heart of Darkness deals with a man who has brought himself to this point.”
  • “The neo-Platonist ... is just as likely to be knocked down by a bus at Marble Arch as the deepest-dyed pessimist.”
  • “What about what the millions of men and women in our modern cities; are they really all the Outsider claims they are: futile, unreal, unutterably lost without knowing it?”
  • “Real evil ... attacks the mind, not the body.”
  • “An Eastern fable of a man who cling a shrub on the side of a pit to escape an enraged beast at the top and a dragon at the bottom. Two mice gnaw at the roots of his shrub. Yet while hanging, waiting for death, he notices some drops of honey on the leaves of the shrub, and reaches out and licks them.” (In Tolstoy’s Memoirs of a Madmen)
  • Insiders: “have aims .... some of them very distant aims: a new car in three years, a house at Surbiton in five; but an aim is not an ideal. They are not play-actors. They change their shirts every day, but never their conception of themselves ... These men are in prison: that is the Outsider’s verdict. They are quite contented in prison - caged animals who have never known freedom; but it is prison all the same. And the Outsider? He is in prison to ... but he knows it.” Insiders think “they are the prison.”
  • “He thinks too much. Thinking has thinned his blood and made him incapable of spontaneous enjoyment. He envies simpler, stupider people because they are undivided.”
  • From The Brothers Karamazov: 
    • “It’s not God I don’t accept, Alyosha - only that I most respectfully return him the entrance ticket.”
    • “The Outsider’s problems are insoluble, and we, the elect, know this”
    • “If I am a delusion of your mind, you are also a delusion of mine.”
  • “The Outsider sees with such penetration through the usual self-deluding the way in which all men and women blind themselves with their emotions. The consequence is usually a Swiftian contempt for men and women.”
  • “What is the business of intellect? It is to synthesize unendingly.”
  • The Outsider sees most men as failures but this enables him to realise “ If I can say: that man was a failure, then I must have an idea of what success means.”
  • “Man is not merely intellect and emotions: he is body too. This is easiest off all to forget.”
  • “Wells was a political witch-doctor, full of quack remedies for the age; Dickens a sentimentalist who helped to poison our language, and Shaw ... became a complacent, self-satisfied old man.”
  • Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” 
  • Kierkegaard: “The Gods were bored, so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, so Eve was created ... Then the population of the world increased, and the people were born en masse. To divert themselves, they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens.”
  • “The universe is full of life is nothing but life, life engaged in an unending attempt to reinforce its grip on matter.”
  • “Kali is depicted as a fierce, black-visaged woman, holding a sword and a dripping human head in two of her four hands ... She stands on the prostrate body of her husband Shiva, for Shiva only symbolizes conscious life; she is the life-force.”
  • “The world has no meaning for us because we do all things mechanically. One day we are inspired by some poem or piece of music or picture, and the whole world is suddenly ten times as real, as meaningful, for us.” 
February 2019;281 pages

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