Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 20, No. 7. 30th May, 1957
When it appeared in May of last year, Colin Wilson's book. The Outsider, created quite a stir. It was extravagantly praised by some reviewers. Wilson, the poor young man, successful although he had not gone to University, was featured in Time—he had made good. Kingley Amis, scenting a red rag in the dedication to Angus Wilson. damned the book quite comprehensibly. Parodies appeared in the New Statesman, Spectator ("The Backsider"), and the "Times" Literary Supplement.
Wilson, enjoying himself hugely, said that it had all been a joke. Elsewhere he lamented that he had been a poet where he should have been a philosopher. The dubious were confirmed, the admirers left even more open-mouthed. Colin Wilson appeared once more in Time. One loss, two gains. Inspite of Mr. Wilson's detractions, and his gross egotism, it is still worthwhile to consider his book seriously.
"The Outsider", it must be said from the beginning, is very readable and always interesting. Its purpose is ambitious—"An inquiry into the nature of the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth century."
The lack of a "binding force" or accepted code of ethical, moral or social ideas—like the church in the middle ages—Mr. Wilson's thesis runs, and the modern anti-mystical, empirical frame of mind have produced in our age, in revolt, the man who "sees too deeply and too much", He is the Outsider. There have been Outsiders before (e.g. Saint Augustine) but they are a particular feature of our modern age. (The dust jacket blurb calls them the "spokesmen", but this is going too far altogether.) The Outsider is the Existentialist man (whatever that may be) who is obsessed with the meaninglessness of modern life, who finds civilization a sham, senses everything round him is unreal and no free and meaningful choice lies open to him: He cannot fit into the insulated world of the "bourgeois" (the name Mr. Wilson somewhat arbitrarily gives to the non-Outsider) or accept what the bourgeios sees and touches as reality, He is imprisoned and he recognizes the fact, whereas the bourgeois are hypnotized in the belief that their prisondom is freedom. His problem is how to cease being an Outsider and get free. The solution is more often than not violent. The Outsider may commit suicide, be bored to death, or go in for a spot of murder or rape to assert his will. (Forgive me, I am parodying where I should be expounding.) Often he goes mad. To accept his prison—to go back—is unsatisfactory. He must go forward. The only desirable answer, Mr. Wilson concludes, is a religious one. In the end, if he is lucky, the Outsider may become a saint.
In evidence the writer quotes a large number of cases from fiction and life—H. G. Wells, the characters of Camus, Nietzsche, T. E. Lawrence, Dostoevsky's Karamazovs, Van Gogh. Nijinsky, Barbusse's hero, George Fox, Sri Ramakrishna, Blake, and Rilke—are among the queerer fish All through T. S. Eliot (a successful Outsider, by the way) and William James make their presence known, and G. B. Shaw arrives near the end as an uneasy "deus ex machina".
What are we to say of all this? The case breaks down very easily on close examination. The generalizations are too large and woolly. Words like "Existential", "absolute", "real" seem to be used in a completely subjective sense And what for example can this mean?
"Alyosha had realized the truth . . . that everything is good. Evil is ultimate bondage; this suggests the possibility of ultimate freedom."
Mr. Wilson hangs almost anything on the peg of his (often very aposite) quotations. Blake in particular becomes a mere puppet to his strings. That he misquotes some two hundred times is a minor matter beside this. His use of fictional characters as real ones to back up his conclusions may be questioned.
And the religious solution of the Outsider's problems seems to me very unsatisfactory indeed. Colin Wilson tells us only that this "religion" is not the orthodox religion of today. Otherwise it is never defined. And so the solution looks dangerously like a tautology—"The Answer for the Outsider is Religion, which is the Answer for the Outsider"—True, but hardly worth knowing. The Outsider who reads this book may ask Tolstoy's question "What then must we do?" It remains unanswered.
But disregarding the conclusions, I found the evidence fascinating. As a study of pessimism in modern literature the book has some real merits. The writer is fresh and abundantly confident. Of the many the genius of the ballet dancer Nijinsky emerges most clearly, but one is continually being delighted with information of an out-of-the-way kind from Wilson's wide (and, one must say, ostentatiously displayed) reading.
The fairest summing up is that of the judicious reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement: "A young man has made a desperate attempt to make sense of the conflicting views of life that have been thrown at him by an immense variety of books . . . with all the intensity, honesty and intelligence that he can command."