Commentary Magazine


The Outsider, by Colin Wilson

Sense & Salvation
by Sidney Hook
The Outsider. By Colin Wilson. Houghton Mifflin. 288 pp. $4.00.

There was a time when to convict a thinker of absurdity was to place him under an inteltellectual obligation to rise to the argument or change his position. At the very least, it put him in the shadow of impropriety. Today he can escape the obligation and get out from under the shadow by calmly making a philosophy of his predicament. Existentialism as a philosophy of the absurd is the 20th century’s gift to literary men and critics who are terribly excited by ideas but resent the discipline ncessary to analyze them. Mr. Colin Wilson is caught up in this excitement about existentialist profundity. One can plead for him the extenuations of youth and a desultory philosophical education. What is truly astonishing is that he has infected with his enthusiasm for the dramatic and the murky some English critics from whom one had expected more intellectual sophistication.

Who is the “outsider”? He is a composite character drawn from the plays, novels, essays, and letters of a varied assortment of literary men ranging from very minor talents like Henri Barbusse and Harley Granville-Barker to giants like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Between the extremes of this spectrum we find H. G. Wells, T. E. Lawrence, Hemingway, Sartre, Camus, Hermann Hesse, Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Kierkegaard, Nijinsky, James, and Blake. The features of the “outsider” are not clearly drawn: they vary somewhat with the moods of his creator. It is safe to say, however, that the “outsider” is the man who feels he does not belong, who refuses to accept human life and society on any basis which makes it possible for him to find fulfilment in love, work, and friendship. He is the man for whom life or existence or the cosmos “has no meaning,” or if it has, a trivial, absurd, or grotesque meaning. He is the man for whom nothing matters but death.

This description of the “outsider” is incomplete, for nowhere does Mr. Wilson describe his beliefs and attitudes systematically. He does not even contrast him carefully with the “insider.” He illustrates rather than explicates these beliefs and attitudes by snippets of quotation from the men mentioned. The “outsider” has a great hunger to know himself deeply and to express himself truly, and at the same time to escape from himself. Above all he seeks to save himself by some extreme action or, like Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger, by an extreme failure of action. In all his variations, according to Mr. Wilson, the “outsider” is the very model of the metaphysical man who has seen through the appearances of everyday life and who scorns the humanist and rationalist because of their desire to make the world, if not a kinder place, a less evil one in which to live. The “outsider” does not have to be conventionally religious, but in one fashion or another he has grasped with St. Augustine and T. E. Hulme the central truth and importance of “dogmas like that of Original Sin.”

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At no point in the book does Mr. Wilson ever clarify the problems over which his existentialist heroes agonize; nor does he ever face the challenge, which arises just as soon as we. try to come to grips with their assertions, that the problems are not really genuine. They can’t be answered not because they are difficult but because the terms in which they are put permit of no answer. Existence is not something of which we can significantly say, as we do of a human being, that it lacks or possesses meaning. If life is absurd because one can find no meaning in experience, what are the conditions, actual or imaginable, in which one could find meaning? What would life have to be like in order for us to declare that it is not absurd? If the world we lived in were still declared “absurd” or “meaningless” no matter what kind of world it was (or even if we didn’t live in one at all!) these terms would themselves be meaningless because they had no intelligible opposite. The whole problem would dissolve like early morning vapors in the sun.

Or consider the view that man is a stranger or alien in the world. On the conventional religious view one can understand roughly what is meant by this. Man’s soul, which is separable from his body, is either a fragmented part of the world-soul and must return to the One from which it descended, or, cast into the natural world, its supernatural end is reunion with God, its creator. But if an individual surrenders this view, and, like most of Mr. Wilson’s characters, repudiates the dogmas of immortality and resurrection, what home can he possibly conceive man to have other than the natural world of which he is a part, to be sure a distinctive part, but as dependent upon other existing things as the animals and stones in the field?

For purposes of philosophical analysis, it is sufficient to show that Mr. Wilson’s “outsiders” and he himself talk nonsense or make inconsistent or self-refuting assumptions. But to stop at that is not very satisfying. We should inquire what makes them talk that way, why they feel that their talk is important, what the actual problems are, if any, that beset them, what they are trying to say about them, and above all what they really want. Nonsense may be important as a diagnostic aid in discovering obscure needs and aspirations.

Unfortunately the last thing in the world Mr. Wilson’s “outsiders” can tell us is what they really want. They feel aggrieved at the very notion that they are expected to be able to tell us. They are very eloquent about what they detest and don’t want. Some of the things ” they detest—philistinism, mediocrity, hypocrisy, injustice—we, who do not consider ourselves “outsiders,” detest too. Normally we can get a fair idea of what a person wants by noting what he doesn’t want. Not so for our “outsider.” He doesn’t want an unjust world or one of ignorance or poverty. But a world of justice, relatively speaking, of enlightenment, welfare, and peace is just as much an abomination to him. It stinks of healthiness, or worse, of normalcy, adjustment, conformity—as if these words had any meaning independently of the kind of world we live in. They are especially meaningless when we use them in value judgments without specifying what sort of world we regard as desirable to live in—something which the “outsider” cannot tell us because he doesn’t know.

It is not that the “outsider” wants the merely impossible. That would be understandable. One can’t get the moon but if he cries for it long enough he may some day fly there. Strictly speaking, every ideal worthy of man is impossible of complete realization but it can still serve as a guide to choice and action. There is a difference between an ideal that cannot be attained and one that is senseless. An analogous situation holds for the logic of the emotions. One can be sad about the world but one cannot sensibly be indignant with it or shake one’s fist at it unless he believes nature is animate or that it is responsible for its own state. The “outsider” does not believe anyone is responsible for the nature of nature but he is nonetheless in revolt against it. He is a man who, having given up his belief in the existence of God, is still lacerating himself over the problem of evil, unaware that there is no problem of evil to a naturalist but only problems of evil, some remediable, some not; it is not usually possible to determine which is which until human beings pit their courage and intelligence against the obstacles in the struggle to solve them.

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What, then, ails the “outsider,” the synthetic ideal type, constructed from the writings and lives of 20th- and 19th-century literary men, who does not talk sense and cannot tell us what he wants? And here Mr. Wilson shows the only genuine insight I have found in his book—although he expresses it in a dim and halting fashion. He recognizes that the “outsider” is still looking for salvation in a world in which, in intellectual terms, God is dead. The “outsider” needs God; he has an emotional hunger for him although he does not believe in him. Lacking the courage of his intellectual negations and the knowledge of his emotional needs and dependence, he projects upon the universe a despair in many colors and idioms. Sometimes he feels that he is himself God; sometimes that he is a devil or the Antichrist; sometimes that all things are permissible; sometimes that nothing is. Whatever he thinks or feels, he rightly considers himself more the foe of the humanist and rationalist than of the supernaturalist, for his primary concern is not with truth but with salvation; in the words of one of Dostoevsky’s characters, “If the truth excludes Christ, I will choose Christ and not the truth.” For him the most fearful of all evils is death, although if he were consistent this is what he should really believe about birth. And since he is unable to accept the evidence that death is a natural event which like other events has its grandeur and misery and uses in life, he can see in death only a cosmic conspiracy against his ego. In the end he finds a haven either in a mystical religion or a political mystique which bleeds him of his frenzy at the price of his responsibility, or he goes to a lonely grave without understanding either the world or himself.

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