Colin Wilson (1931-2013) was a prolific British writer of fiction and non-fiction, perhaps best known for his first major work The Outsider, published in 1956. Not widely read today, at least to my knowledge, Wilson rose to prominence rapidly in the 1950s, fell out of favor in the 1960s, and spent most of his life in relative obscurity. Which did not curtail his creative output in the least: per his entry in Wikipedia, he wrote more than a hundred books. The topics varied across philosophy, psychology, literary theory, art and aesthetics, even occult and science-fiction themes. The same article notes that Wilson often worked on two projects concurrently, exploring a similar idea in fiction and in non-fiction at the same time. Which can either mean that his novels are thoughtful and inspiring, or long-winded and didactic as all hell.
Wilson liked taking big and provocative stances in his writing, even on subject matter he wasn’t necessarily familiar with. From a young age, he relished his outsider status and took pleasure in breaking tradition, in infuriating the intellectual world even when his argument was shaky and when his insights were considerably off the mark. Legend has it that he wrote The Mind Parasites as a response to a challenge by August Derleth, who was unhappy with Wilson’s treatment of his idol H. P. Lovecraft in a prior work. Derleth was so impressed by the young writer that he published Wilson’s next book through his press, Arkham House.
The alienation Wilson felt, the sense of being “cut off from the rest of society” – and cutting society off in turn, of rebelling from the fringes, are the motifs in The Outsider. An article in Life magazine from 1956 claims that Wilson “wrote in the British Museum by day, sleeping outdoors at night, working in a mortuary and washing dishes in between” to support himself while writing the book. Unlike most literary big talkers, Colin Wilson lived an breathed his philosophy, and didn’t pay much attention to how he was perceived by the academic establishment of the era.
The Outsider, as posited by Wilson, echoes some of HPL’s views on the artist as an individual “aloof of modern civilization”. It is natural for the thinker to feel isolated in a society that doesn’t understand him, to feel a sort of existential terror faced with the meaninglessness of existence. From this frustration at being cut adrift, from the torturous glimpses of true reality revealed to the alienated thinker, great art and deep philosophical thought can arise. Among these Outsiders, Wilson counts literary greats such as Kafka, Faulkner, Camus, Hemingway, and G. B. Shaw (and, beyond a shred of a doubt, himself).
To his credit, Wilson did warn against rejecting the world and nihilistic resignation. To realize his/her full potential, the Outsider must engage the very same civilization he/she finds abnormal and diseased, must grapple with philosophical ideas heedless of the headwinds. The failure to do so was the crux of his criticism of Lovecraft that so incensed Derleth.
The notion of the artist as an outsider is a familiar and cherished one. Artists, intellectuals and philosophers are men and women of tremendous sensibility, the stereotype goes, therefore it’s natural for them to inhabit a plane of existence higher than that of the common herd. Aloofness and absent-mindedness are their norm, as is a general disdain of the lower functions of the day-to-day. Only by ascending above menial concerns can they gain the distance necessary to capture the human condition in their work. While this is nonsense of the highest order – artists and intellectuals, in my experience, are nice and down-to-earth in most ways that count, and the rare exception adopts the stereotype intentionally, usually to compensate for a lack of talent – there is something to be said about creating one’s own set of rules and not letting oneself “drift with the flow”. But do so without rejecting reality, as Wilson cautions us: embrace the experience, and allow it to lead to a transformation of Self.
On a more sinister note, it is that same inwardness, isolation, and alienation from society that can contribute to the shaping of a mass-murderer, or terrorist, as recent tragic events have shown. It also immediately brings to mind the silly arguments about “gatekeepers” that periodically pop up in certain genre circles. It’s much easier to blame one’s lack of achievement and/or recognition on a twisted world bereft of “true values” in which sinister forces conspire to keep us out of the limelight for [insert whiny argument here], than it is to focus on yourself, hone and polish your craft, and just start writing better damn books. Aloof, misunderstood genius, or poorly socialized, petulant loser? It takes a healthy dose of self-awareness to correctly perceive one’s position along that spectrum, and so many never even bother to try.
The Outsider isn’t a great book, in my opinion. But it’s a terrific book for one written by a 25-year-old, and the passion behind Wilson’s arguments is undeniable, even when they’re not very well thought out (or entirely spurious). Which goes to show that a piece written with heart will always possess an enchantment, regardless of how polished the delivery may be.
For those of you who want to check out the book:
If you have any Colin Wilson recommendations, let me know in the comments.
Colin Wilson: The Outsider and Beyond, Cliffor P. Bendau, Borgo Press (1979)
Fuss Over English Egghead, Life, 1 October 1956