Originally published in ‘Around the Outsider: Essays on Colin Wilson’ (O Books, 2012)
My discovery of The Outsider was a life-changing event – so much so that I can remember it completely clearly. I can even remember the act of pulling the book down from the shelf, in the University of Warwick library, in May 1987, just a few days after my 20th birthday. I was a second year undergraduate, studying English and American literature – at least I was officially a student, but I had long since stopped going to lectures and only went to the occasional seminar. (I only went to three lectures in the second and third years of my course.) Rather than attending my course, I spent most of my time reading in libraries, or on my own at home, listening to or playing music, writing songs, poems and stories, and feeling depressed and alienated. I often couldn’t bring myself to get up in the mornings, and stayed in bed till the afternoons. I frequently fantasised about committing suicide, although I only came close to doing it once.
My alienation was partly due to social differences. Coming from a lower class northern English background, I found it difficult to relate to the more privileged and confident middle class southern students I was surrounded with at the university. But more than that, my alienation had a psychological source. I felt a constant sense of frustration, as if I wasn’t the person I was supposed to be, even though I had no idea who that was. I found it difficult to communicate with anybody – every sentence I spoke sounded inappropriate and inauthentic. I had a sense of being trapped inside my own head, alone inside my own mental space with thoughts and feelings that no one else would ever be able to experience. I felt this isolation painfully, and the thought that it would endure for the rest of my life seemed terrible.
Everybody else around me seemed to have one goal in life: to have a ‘good time,’ to go drinking and socialising, or to smoke cannabis and entertain each other with anecdotes and jokes. I thought I was supposed to be like that too – that I was how I’d been brought up – but because of my frustration and depression, I couldn’t operate at that level. As a result, I thought that there was something wrong with me, that I was a social failure.
On top of that, I had grown to loathe my course. I hated the cold intellectual way my professors read literary texts, the way they analysed and dissected them as if they were dead animals. It seemed absurd that they had made a career out of writing books about other people’s books, presuming to interpret them as if they had written them themselves. I agreed with Flaubert, who complained that literary criticism was the lowest form of literature, even lower than a limerick – since at least that required a degree of creativity.
As a consequence, The Outsider came as a revelation to me, at exactly the right time. It hooked me from the first few lines. I took it home and carried on reading until the early hours of the morning. I was captivated by the fluency of Wilson’s style – I’d never read a non-fiction book written with such clarity, pace and verve. But what impressed me most – and still impresses me now – is the power and simplicity with which Wilson expresses his ideas. So many philosophers are poor writers, and cloak the core meaning of their words with layers of subterfuge, as if they’re afraid that their ideas will appear to too simplistic in their naked form. But Wilson had the ability – and the courage – to communicate profound existential and spiritual ideas with great clarity and enthusiasm. I had already been groping towards some of these ideas myself, and to see them expressed so clearly was exhilarating – and also a relief, to discover that I wasn’t mad; or at least that if I was, dozens of other distinguished Outsiders were too.
As I read the book, I felt somehow that I was coming home, that a path was slowly forming in front of me. The next day, when I finished it, I felt like a different person. My image of myself had changed, and I knew that my life was going to change too, that that bleak period I’d been living through was drawing to a close.
Of course, I’m not alone in being so affected by The Outsider – apart from its impact on thousands of alienated young people such as myself, in its time it had a massive cultural impact too. Appearing in the mid-50s, it was at the spearhead of what Marilyn Ferguson (1980) called the ‘Aquarian Conspiracy,’ the wave of self-development and spirituality which became most visible during the 1960s, and has been a major part of Western culture ever since. It was part of the same cultural shift as the Beat poets, psychedelic drugs, Timothy Leary and Carlos Castenada, Zen and TM, and the hippie movement. In fact, to some degree The Outsider actually helped to create this movement, with its advocacy of mysticism and spiritual development, and the attention it gave to previously obscure figures like Hesse and Gurdjieff.
The Outsider as Literature
One of the reasons why The Outsider had such a powerful impact is that – as I became aware 24 years ago – it has an outstanding literary quality. Even now the book has an amazing freshness. The books of many of Wilson’s contemporaries seem sadly dated – Angus Wilson’s novels, for instance, or Lucky Jim, even Room at the Top. You only need to read a few lines to realise that these books belong to a different era. But The Outsider is somehow timeless; it could have been published 5 years ago, rather than 55. There are only a few authors whose prose has this fresh quality – for example, Schopenhauer, Henry Miller or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Authors like D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell belong to the ‘time-bound’ camp. And Wilson is indisputably a member of the former group.
The book’s structure also has a literary quality. Wilson originally thought of himself as a novelist, and one reason why The Outsider works so well is because of its novelistic structure, its strong narrative arc, and compulsive forward flow. The whole book proceeds in logical, linear fashion. First Wilson deals with the most neurotic and least developed Outsiders (such as the narrator of Barbusse’s L’Enfer and Sartre’s Roquentin); then he moves on to the romantic Outsiders (such as Steppenwolf and Nietzsche), whose isolation was relieved by occasional spiritual experiences; then the artistic Outsiders (such as Van Gogh and Nijinsky), whose art was a means of self-transcendence; and finally, the ‘visionary Outsiders’ who have truly solved the ‘Outsider problem’ and reached a permanent state of integration and transcendence.
This narrative arc is the developmental journey of the Outsider, from self-division and alienation, through temporary transcendence to permanent spiritual awakening, or enlightenment. Or in philosophical terms, this is the journey from existentialism, through to romanticism towards mysticism. Unfortunately though, as Wilson shows, many Outsiders don’t make the whole journey, but become stuck at the earlier stages, due to a lack of self-understanding or self-belief.
At the centre of the book is Wilson’s astonishing, magisterial command of a vast array of literature from a dizzying range of sources. One can scarcely imagine how obscure and esoteric some of the figures must have seemed in 1956, such as Berdyaev, Heidegger, Gurdjieff and Ramakrishna, together with esoteric philosophies such as the Kabbala and Vedanta. As many reviewers remarked at the time, it seems incredible that a young man of 24 (particularly one from a poor working class background) could have been so erudite, and possessed such a powerful, organising intelligence.
The Philosophy of the Outsider
But of course, the main impact of The Outsider lies in its ideas, and the evolutionary impetus behind them.
The Outsider prefigures all of Wilson’s philosophical work. It’s clear from the outset that he’s an existentialist – like Sartre and Camus, only with more clarity, he analyses the apparent meaninglessness of human life in an indifferent, empty universe. He describes the existential Outsider’s self-division, his ‘sense of strangeness, or unreality’ (Wilson 1978, p. 25). As he puts it eloquently, ‘The outsider’s sense of unreality cuts him off his freedom at the root. It is as impossible to exercise freedom in an unreal world as it is to jump while you are falling (ibid., p. 49)
At this stage, the Outsider’s defining characteristic is that he can’t accept the surface-level realities of the world, the seemingly rational and ordered world of the ‘bourgeois.’ He ‘sees too deep and too much’ (ibid., p. 25). The everyday world seems meaningless to him; all its values seem baseless, and its conventions absurd. He needs something more, but his drive is blind; he doesn’t have enough insight or self-knowledge to understand it.
If this were the end of it, The Outsider would still be a cogent existential analysis of the ‘world without values.’ But of course, Wilson moves beyond existentialism, and beyond Sartre and Camus. As far as ‘solutions’ to the ‘Outsider problem’ go, Sartre advocates authenticity and commitment, while Camus suggests a simple acceptance of absurdity of life, both of which are hardly satisfactory. The difference between them and Wilson is that their philosophies are based on the assumption that the vision of reality which normal human consciousness reveals to us is objective, that it tells us the truth about reality. However, Wilson senses that consciousness is a continuum rather than a static point (although he expresses this idea more clearly in the later books of the Outsider cycle). For him – as for William James – there are varieties of conscious states, some of which are more intense and expansive than others. Wilson doesn’t trust the existential vision of meaninglessness and indifference, because he is aware of the existence of higher states of consciousness in which this vision is transformed, where the ‘world without values’ becomes a radiant, meaningful and benevolent place. This is where the solution to the ‘Outsider problem’ lies: in gaining access to the world of meaning beyond the limited reality of normal consciousness.
For me, this is the most important insight of the book – and indeed, of all Wilson’s work: his core intuition that there is something wrong with normal human consciousness. What we think of as our ‘optimum’ state of being is in fact a near pathological state of discord, disconnection and alienation from reality. Our normal consciousness is so narrow and limited that we’re cut off from the essential wonder and meaning of the world, and from the well-springs of optimism and vitality within our own being. As a result, we’re trapped in a dangerous subjectivity, suffering from a sense of unreality and inner frustration. (In one of his later major works, A Criminal History of Mankind, Wilson describes how this pathological psyche gives rise to crime and violence, and is responsible for the constant conflict and discord which has filled the last few thousand years of human history.)
The imperative, then, is for us to ‘unpick’ this normal psyche, and transcend it, allowing a new, higher state of consciousness to manifest itself. The Outsider isn’t a self-help book, so Wilson doesn’t tell us how to do this in any great detail, but he does offer some useful guidelines. The Outsider overcomes his self-division and alienation through self-knowledge and self-discipline – most significantly, by learning to discipline his vital energies. The artistic Outsider disciplines his vital energies through his art, but often doesn’t manage to heal his divided psyche, because of his lack of self-understanding. Wilson offers Van Gogh and Nijinsky as examples of this – although they had regular peak experiences, they never overcame their self-division and alienation.
What is really needed is some form of spiritual discipline which provides what Wilson describes as ‘a deliberate policing of the vital energies’ (ibid, p. 113). The Outsider-mystic uses techniques like meditation and prayer to still his ‘energy-stealing emotions’, in order to ‘steadily increase his supply of surplus vital power’ (ibid.). (1) This is what ‘successful’ Outsiders such as George Fox, Blake and Ramakrishna did. At this point the Outsider becomes a visionary, a mystic, with a permanent sense of purpose and meaning. After struggling through confusion, self-loathing and isolation, he realises the spiritual potential latent within every Outsider, and ends ‘that long effort as an Outsider’ (ibid., p. 295) as a saint.
As Wilson himself became aware later on, what he has created here is a positive existentialism – or what might be more accurately described nowadays as a kind of ‘transpersonal existentialism.’ Whereas philosophers such as Sartre and Heidegger busy themselves with diagnosing the problem, he offers a cure.
This philosophical content seems remarkably prescient, and is another reason why The Outsider seems strangely modern for a book written more than half a century ago. In fact, its message seems even more relevant, now that the wave of self-development and consciousness expansion has intensified so much, despite the currents of post-modernist superficiality and scepticism which oppose it.
In recent years, the American philosopher Ken Wilber has been praised for his attempts to bring Western and Eastern psychology together, by integrating the developmental schemes of psychologists such as Piaget and Erickson with Eastern development paths such as Vedanta and Buddhism (see, for example, Wilber’s magnum opus Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, 1995). And it strikes me that, three decades before Wilber, Wilson was trying to do something similar: to integrate Western existentialist philosophy with the spirituality of Christian mysticism and Eastern philosophy, and in doing so, take existentialism out of its impasse, and find a solution to the Lebensfrage.
The Outsider and Evolution
Despite their highly positive tone, some initial reviewers complained that Wilson’s use of term ‘Outsider’ was so broad that it became virtually meaningless. As J.B. Priestley noted, for example, ‘[The Outsiders’] personalities are so widely various, they present so many different psychological types, that any discussion of them based on their common likeness does not takes us very far’ (1988, p.94). This is even truer of Wilson’s ‘sequel’, Religion and the Rebel, where figures such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Bernard Shaw sit uneasily next to Rimbaud and Wittgenstein. (In his introduction to the 1984 reprint of Religion and the Rebel, Wilson himself notes that ‘many people I discuss as Outsiders…could just as easily be labelled Insiders’ [Wilson, 1984, pp. viii-ix]).
Nevertheless, I believe that the term ‘Outsider’ is valid, and does identify a real phenomenon. In fact, this is one of the reasons why the book is so significant – because it was the first detailed examination of a new human type, or at least a new kind of consciousness.
Of course, Wilson wasn’t the first author to identify this new human type. Nietszche meant something very similar with his distinction between the ‘Ultimate Man’ and the Superman. The Ultimate Man is completely satisfied with himself as he is, and strives only to make his life as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. But in reality, says Nietzsche, the human being is not fixed and complete, like the Ultimate man, but a process, a bridge and not a goal: ‘a rope fastened between animal and Superman.’ (Nietzsche, 1985, p. 43) The potential Superman, like the Outsider, is the person who is not self-satisfied, who has the urge to ‘overcome himself.’ For him, life is an attempt at ‘going across’ the gulf between animal and superman.
In his novel Demian, Hermann Hesse makes a similar distinction, dividing human beings into a majority for whom life is just a question of keeping themselves comfortable and secure and maintaining the status quo, and a small minority who have an urge for self-transcendence. (Strangely enough, although Wilson he discusses Demian at some length, Wilson doesn’t mention Hesse’s use of this distinction.) As the novel’s narrator Emil Sinclair says:
We were ‘awake’ or ‘wakening’ and our striving was directed at an ever-increasing wakefulness, whereas their striving and quest for happiness was aimed at identifying their thoughts, ideals, duties, their lives and fortunes more and more closely with that of the herd…Whereas we, on our conception, represented the will of nature to renew itself, to individualise and march forward, the others lived in the desire for the perpetuation of things as they are. For them humanity…was something complete that must be maintained and protected. For us humanity was a distant goal towards which we were marching (Hesse, 1969, p. 137)
The main distinction here is that the potential Superman (or Outsider) feels somehow incomplete and unfinished. He has a dynamic urge to develop, whereas ‘ordinary’ people are ‘static’ in the sense that they don’t feel this need for growth.
Abraham Maslow’s concept of ‘self-actualisers’ is obviously closely linked to this too. Maslow was puzzled by the fact that only a small minority of people seemed to progress to the highest level of his ‘hierarchy of needs’, the level of ‘self-actualisation.’ Most people, he observed, stop striving once their material and emotional needs are satisfied. But self-actualisers keep growing. According to Maslow, whereas ‘the motivational need of ordinary people is a striving for the basic need gratifications that they lack’, for self-actualisers ‘motivation is character growth, character expression, maturation and development’ (Maslow, 1970, p. 165).
Self-actualisation is a process which leads to the goal of being ‘self-actualised.’ This is equivalent to the stage of the ‘successful’ Outsider – the point where the individual becomes completely integrated, and free of any psychological discord. According to Maslow, the ‘self-actualised’ person has a constant freshness of perception, is free of negative thoughts or feelings, and lives spontaneously and freely, without any prejudice towards others. He or she has a greater need for peace and solitude than other people, and a sense of duty or mission which transcends their personal ambitions or desires. (2)
But are these distinctions really accurate? Are there really two types of human beings – the poor, unfortunate, ordinary civil servants and factory hands who take the world for granted and are content to repeat the same experiences again and again, and the dynamic few who feel a powerful urge for self-development?
I don’t think anyone would seriously suggest that we’re dealing with two clear-cut human types. This is another issue which Wilson takes his younger self to task for, admitting the miscalculation that ‘I talk about “the Outsider” as if he is a precisely definable type of human being, like an Eskimo or a cannibal. The truth is, of course, that most people contain an element of ‘Outsiderism’…For me now, this constant use of the term Outsider gives the book [Religion and the Rebel] an element of oversimplification.’ (Wilson, 1984, viii-ix).
Rather than a distinct human type, we’re dealing a new kind of psyche – or a new kind of consciousness – which is beginning to develop in more human beings, and which manifests itself in different people to a greater or lesser to degree. This new kind of consciousness is more intense and expansive than ordinary consciousness in that it includes a heightened perception of the is-ness and beauty of the world, a heightened sense of connection to other people, nature and the cosmos as a whole, and a sense of the meaning, harmony and ultimate spiritual essence of the universe. The ‘Outsiders’ (or ‘self-actualisers’) are simply people in whom this new kind of psyche is strongly developed. The dynamic urge for self-development these people feel is the impulse to allow this new consciousness to manifest itself. In many people, it is latent rather than fully formed, in the same way that the state of a butterfly is latent in a caterpillar. The Outsider’s struggle is to bring this latent consciousness to full fruition, and emerge as a higher ‘butterfly’ self.
As Wilson pointed out later, this struggle is essentially an evolutionary urge. From the inner point of view – as opposed to the outer, physical level – evolution is a process of living beings becoming progressively more conscious: more aware of their surroundings, of their own selves and their predicament as living beings in the world, with more autonomy and freedom to control their own actions and their environment. And so by intensifying and expanding his own consciousness, the Outsider is contributing to this process. He is effectively an agent of evolution, attempting to carry the evolutionary process further forward. His urge for self-transcendence is an individual manifestation of the evolutionary impulse to move forward to more complex and conscious life forms. As Wilson wrote in 1967, ‘Evolution has been trying [through the Outsider] to create a human being capably of travelling faster than sound. Capable, that is, of a seriousness, a mental intensity that is completely foreign to the average human animal’ (Wilson, 1978, p. 303).
The evolutionary movement which the Outsider is a part of has, I believe, been clearly visible for around 250 years. In my book The Fall, I suggest that since roughly the mid-eighteenth century, major cultural changes have occurred which can be seen as the result of a general inner psychological shift. At this time, a new wave of empathy seemed to emerge, a new ability to sense the suffering of other human beings – and animals too – and a new emphasis on the rights of other individuals. This led to the women’s movement, the animal rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, more humane treatment of disabled people and homeless children, and the abolition of brutal forms of punishment. This empathy spread to nature too, resulting in the Romantic movement, based on the feelings of ecstasy and transcendence which nature induced.
More recently, this new sense of connection to nature has given rise to the environmental and ecological movements, a return to the empathic and respectful stance towards nature of many of the world’s indigenous peoples. The old duality between the ego and the body – and the sexual repression this gave rise to – has begun to fade away too, resulting in a more open attitude to sex and the human body. And of course, over the last few decades we have also had the ‘Aquarian Conspiracy’ – a massive upsurge in interest in eastern spiritual traditions, and self-development.
These changes show a movement beyond the separate ego – the separateness which has led to environmental abuse and sexual repression, and the narrowness of consciousness which has led to brutality, oppression and exploitation. In my opinion, they are too significant to be merely the result of social or cultural factors. I believe that they are the visible effects of an evolutionary change – a collective intensification of consciousness, and a progression towards a more integrated, less pathological state.
This is the evolutionary movement which has been – and still is, of course – creating Outsiders, and which they are contributing to.
The Reputation of the Outsider
Even in the 1950s, The Outsider’s impact was limited by the media backlash against Wilson. (Partly this was his own doing – he has never done himself any favours in his relations with the media, often appearing self-absorbed and arrogant). At the time, nothing did him as much harm at the time as his protestations of his own genius. However, on the evidence of The Outsider, it’s hard to dispute that something approximating to genius was at work. At any rate, the book shows massive intellectual precociousness, almost to the extent of a child prodigy or an autistic savant.
Wilson is probably one of the few authors whose first book – and in fact, first few books, if we take the Outsider sequence as a whole – was (were) his most fully realised and important. His later works have never quite reached the same level of power and insight, although some have come close (in my opinion, New Pathways in Psychology and A Criminal History of Mankind). In fact, I should admit that I’m not a great fan of Wilson’s books on crime and the supernatural, most of which lack the intellectual rigour of his early work, and sometimes show a lack of critical judgement, too much openness towards the irrational and unproven. The plethora of such books has also tended to weaken the long-term impact of The Outsider, and the other books of the ‘Outsider Cycle.’(Happily, however, his most recent book, Superconsciousness, rekindles some of his insight and power.)
My guess is that, while some of Wilson’s more popular work – the many books he has written for financial reasons – will be forgotten, future generations will view him as an important philosopher of human development; someone who saw very clearly – perhaps more clearly than anyone else before him apart from Nietszche – that human beings are incomplete and even subnormal as we presently are, and who helped to facilitate the shift to a healthier and higher state.
For me though, The Outsider’s real importance will always lie in its effect on my own evolution. In his 1978 introduction to a new edition, Wilson writes that the early success of the book gave him ‘a feeling like leaving harbour’, (1978, p. 19). And the book had a similar effect on me. It was like being given a code which allowed me to decipher my mental confusion and understand myself. It was a matter of self-esteem too – The Outsider told me that there wasn’t something wrong with me after all; on the contrary, it was a positive thing to be different. Together with the other books of the Outsider cycle which I devoured soon afterwards – particularly Beyond the Outsider and Introduction to the New Existentialism – it gave me a sense of identity and clarity, a notion of the path that I was meant to follow through life. I’m still following that path – and I will always be grateful for Wilson’s guidance.
1) In re-reading The Outsider for this essay, I’ve realised that I may be indebted to Wilson for one of the basic ideas of own recent book, Waking From Sleep. The central concept of the book is that higher states of consciousness – or awakening experiences, as I call them – have two basic causes. Firstly, they can occur when the normal homeostasis of our physiology is disrupted e.g. through fasting, sleep deprivation, self-inflicted pain or psychedelic drugs. Secondly, they can occur as a result of what I call an ‘intensification and stilling of life-energy.’ This happens when certain activities or situations have the effect of halting or reducing our normal ‘outflow’ of energy, so that our vitality becomes concentrated inside us. This can happen through meditation, contact with nature, listening to music, sex, general relaxation and so on. As far as I was aware, I developed this idea from Evelyn’s Underhill’s study Mysticism, and partly from my observations of how my own awakening experiences occur. But it’s possible that the germ of the idea was planted in my mind many years ago, by this passage:
The concentration of the energies is undoubtedly one of the most important conditions of the state the saints call Innigkeit, inwardness. The saint achieves inwardness by a deliberate policing of the vital energies. He comes to recognise the energy-stealing emotions, all the emotions that do not make for inwardness, and he sets out to exterminate them in himself. As he moves towards his objective, he increases steadily his supply of surplus vital power, and so increases his powers of foresight and hindsight, the sense of other times and other places; there is a breaking free of the body’s sense of imprisonment in time and a rising of warm life-energy that is spoken of in the Gospel as ‘to have life more abundantly (Wilson, 1978, p.113).
If I had been aware of it at the time, I would certainly have quoted this passage and credited Wilson. Hopefully I will be able to for a later edition.
2) Carl Rogers – Maslow’s fellow humanistic psychologist, and the founder of person-centred counselling – had a similar concept too, of ‘the person of tomorrow.’ Like Maslow, Rogers believed that this person was a member of a small but growing minority. He described them as striving for ‘a wholeness of life, with thought, feeling, physical energy, psychic energy, healing energy, all being integrated in experience… These persons have a trust in their own experience and a profound distrust of external authority. They make their own moral judgements, even openly disobeying laws that they consider unjust.’ (Rogers, 1980, pp. 350-51)
Ferguson, M. (1980). The Aquarian Conspiracy. New York: Tarcher.
Hesse, H. (1960/1989). Demian. (Trans, W. J. Strachan). London: Paladin.
Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and Personality (2nd Edition). New York: Harper & Row.
Nietszche, F. (1985). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. (Trans. R. J. Hollingdale). London: Penguin.
Priestley, J.B. (1988). In Colin Wilson: A Celebration (Ed. Colin Stanley). London: Cecil Woolf.
Rogers, C. (1980). A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Taylor, S. (2005). The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and the Dawning of a New Era. Ropley: O Books.
Taylor, S. (2010). Waking from Sleep: Why Awakening Experiences Occur and How to make them Permanent. London: Hay House.
Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, Ecology and Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala
Wilson. C, (1956/1978). The Outsider. London: Picador.
Wilson, C. (1984). Religion and the Rebel. (Reprint edition). Bath: Ashgrove Press.
Wilson, C. (1984). A Criminal History of Mankind. London: Grafton.
Wilson, C. (2009). Superconsciousness. London: Watkins.