Saturday, 20 September 2014


In 1956, a bookish young man wrote his debut in the British Museum. His day’s work done, the poor 24-year-old would sleep on London’s Hampstead Heath. Colin Wilson died almost two years ago, but his book, The Outsider, is still very much alive.

Wilson became driven by literature while at school, an archaic notion now. Leaving education at 16, he eschewed university and immersed himself fully in the written word. This is what gives The Outsider its authentic tone. It has none of the antiseptic tang of the university about it, but instead is redolent of the rich aromas which will always be a friend to the true autodidact.

The Outsider began life as a novel before Wilson saw he had the framework of a book on the figure of the alienated étranger in Western literature. As an artefact from the decade prior to that in which Western cultural decadence properly began, The Outsider can be read both with an awareness that it was a reaction against a society long gone, never to return, and with a complementary awareness that the reaction itself – a paean to literature, alienation, intellectual elitism and Sartrean bad faith – is no longer possible in our contemporary world, in which commodity has triumphed over the self.

Wilson keeps his efficient forays into philosophy to a working minimum; there are none of today’s whistle-stop tours of Wikipedia leavening the elegant prose. The book is largely exposition and comment, and no worse for this simple approach, reading like an introductory primer to the writers discussed. This is not a criticism but an endorsement. A teenager today, if he reads at all outside of the internet and magazine-based ephemera, is faced with an ocean of garishly-covered ‘novels’ when he actually needs, if only he knew it, to be acquainted with all the writers and artists discussed and dissected in The Outsider.

Coming at it again after thirty years, I read The Outsider as a notebook from a lost continent. Who, nowadays, reads Sartre and Dostoevsky, Eliot and William James, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Nijinsky or van Gogh? Literature, like other cultural areas, has been arranged for us now, and there is no need to delve into the intellectually challenging unknown. Far easier to stick with popular science from the pen of Brian Cox, Leftist history as automatic writing from the pianola roll of lifestyle journalists, ChickLit, TV spin-offs, Fifty Shades of Harry Potter. Personally, I am happy with this arrangement. Like the estate owner shaking his fist at passing ramblers and cursing the quad-bikes and pop festivals on his land, I would be unhappy if the amoebic pseudopods of what passes for modern culture invaded the Elysian fields of what I consider to be my territory. Fortunately, I need not worry. The saving grace of great literature is that much of it is difficult to understand, the combination of the lock is beyond a reader armed only with a Gender Studies degree, a copy of The Guardian, and Owen Jones’s new book. Wilson quotes Jakob Boehme to this effect;

“If you are not a spiritual self-surmounter, let my book alone. Don’t meddle with it, but stick to your usual nonsense.”

The Outsider is sub-titled An inquiry into the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth century… Mankind is past the sickness stage now, exhibiting all the symptoms of a Nietzschean malaise which believes itself to be in a state of rude health, and this most dangerous of conditions does not affect Outsiders, in literature or anywhere else, but is carried virally by insiders, by the new establishment, the new inquisitors of the socio-cultural wars. As the Arabic proverb puts it; Better a thousand enemies outside the house than one enemy inside…

Wilson is fresh and relevant again because there is so little modern culture offers. It is there, between the box sets and the bling, the lifestyle magazines and the edgy BBC dramas, but time needs to be put aside to find it, and time is being targeted by a cultural offensive sponsored by the elites and designed to relieve you of the burden of creative or inquiring thought. It is not difficult to imagine a time in which readers of serious literature will begin to be viewed as mentally suspect. As T S Eliot (a constant Virgil to Wilson’s Dante in The Outsider) wrote; Mankind cannot bear very much reality.

In our clearly insane age, it is useful than insanity stalks the book; we observe an Outsiders’ asylum containing Strindberg, Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Rimbaud, Nietzsche. This is the danger of courting the intellect. Love never really drove anyone clinically insane; it is left to the extremities of thought to achieve that. As Wilson writes,

“As far as the Outsider is concerned, it is more important to have a powerful intellect than a highly developed capacity to ‘feel’.”

If Wilson were writing now, although he would find plenty of putative Outsiders in the psychotic moral universe of televisual drama, there are scarcely any among writers or artists. I could only come up with a shortlist of Michel Houellebecq, Takuan Seiyo and Mark E Smith.

Wilson’s reading is a glorious patchwork, incomplete (he doesn’t mention Robert Musil’s Moosbrugger in The Man Without Qualities) and partisan, and this is why it has life, still. The Outsider is essential reading for any enquiring mind unacquainted with the literature of existentialism. If your children don’t read literary classics they risk forfeiting a full imaginative, engaged mental life. This is scarcely scientific, and the canon of ethnocentrism would now be wheeled out by the progressives and trained on Wilson as too white, too male, too elitist, too bookish. But a bookish turn can furnish and fashion a person. To breathe the air of the literature of estrangement, perhaps it might be wise, with regard to Wilson’s book, to act on the suggestion made by a child in a garden in the fifth century, overheard by St Augustine, and applied to his Bible; Take up the book and read…

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