The Outsider - by Colin Wilson

The Outsider's 'way of salvation', then, is plainly implied [in Steppenwolf]. His moments of insight into his direction and purpose must be grasped tightly; in these moments he must formulate laws that will enable him to move towards his goal in spite of losing sight of it.

The Outsider's problem is not new; Lawrence points out that the history of prophets of all time follow a pattern: born in a civilization, they reject its standards of well-being and retreat into the desert. When they return, it is to preach world rejection: intensity of spirit versus physical security. The Outsider's miseries are the prophet's teething pains. He retreats into his room, like a spider in a dark corner; he lives alone, wishes to avoid people. He thinks, he analyzes, he 'descends into himself'; 'Not that probably they found God dwelling there, but that in solitude they heard more certainly the living word they brought with them.' Gradually the message emerges. It need not be a positive message; why should it, when the impulse that drives to it is negative--disgust? The prophet is a man of greater spiritual integrity than his neighbours; their laxness revolts him, and he feels impelled to tell them so. In his embryonic form, as the Outsider, he does not know himself well enough to understand the driving force behind his feelings. That is why his chief concern is with thinking, not with doing.

The Outsider's first business is to know himself. 'Who am I?' We have studied examples of Outsiders who awoke to the fact that they were not what they had always supposed themselves to be when they felt something that opened up new possibilites. And the recovery of that insight depends on finding a way back to the place where it was seen. And thought alone is no use, because it is thought that has been bound hand-and-foot by habit, laziness, ways of 'seeing oneself', etc. Action is necessary. A man can change his mental habits by changing his way of life; sometimes one act alone can completely change the whole mental outlook. The main thing is that a man should feel an act of Will to be unreversible.

If you are living a very ordinary life at low pressure, you can safely regard the Outsider as a crank who does not deserve serious consideration. But if you are interested in man in extreme states, or in man abnormally preoccupied by questions about the nature of life, then whatever answer the Outsider may propound should be worth your respectful attention. The Outsider is interested in high speeds and great pressures; he prefers to consider the man who sets out to be very good or very wicked rather than the good citizen who advocates moderation in all things.

Man is not merely intellect and emotions; he is body too. This is easiest of all to forget. The life of the Outsider pivots around his intellect and emotions, and as often as not, he retreats into a cork-lined room as did Proust and forgets he has a body. It was Hemingway's main achievement to restore the sense of the body into literature. In Hemingway, especially in the early volumes, there is a sense of physical freshness, a direct, intense experience of natural things that makes the 'troubles and perplexities of intellect' seem nonsense.

Let us summarize our conclusions briefly:

  • The Outsider wants to cease to be an Outsider.
  • He wants to be 'balanced'.
  • He would like to achieve a vividness of sense-perception (Lawrence, Van Gogh, Hemingway)
  • He would also like to understand the human soul and its workings (Barbusse and Mitya Karamazov).
  • He would like to escape triviality forever, and be 'possessed' by a Will to power, to more life.
  • Above all, he would like to know how to express himself, because that is the means by which he can get to know himself and his unknown possibilities. Every Outsider tragedy we have studied so far has been a tragedy of self-expression.

We have, to guide us, two discoveries about the Outsider's 'way':

  1. That his salvation 'lies in extremes'.

  2. That the idea of a way out often comes in 'visions', moments of intensity, etc.

Yeats made plans for a brotherhood of poets who would live in a 'Castle on the Rock' at Lough Key in Roscommon. This idea of Yeats' is persistently an Outsider-ideal, persistent even in unromantic Outsiders: solitude, retreat, the attempt to order a small corner of the 'devil-ridden chaos' to own's own satisfaction. A Marxist critic would snap: Escapism; and no doubt he would not be entirely wrong, but let us look closer. The real difference between the Marxian and the romantic Outsider is that one would like to bring heaven down to earth, the other dreams of raising earth up to heaven. To the Outsider, the Marxian seems hopelessly short-sighted in his requirements for a heaven on earth; his notions seem to be based on a total failure to understand human psychology. (Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is an expression of Outsider criticism of social idealism.)

In Blake's view, harmony is an ultimate aim, but not the primary aim, of life; the primary aim is to live more abundantly at any cost. Harmony can come later. Blake, then, agrees with Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Hesse; the way forward leads to more life, more consciousness.

We can summarize Blake's argument briefly: All men should possess a 'visionary faculty'. Men do not, because they live wrongly. They live too tensely, under too much strain, 'getting and spending'. But this loss of the visionary faculty is not entirely man's fault, it is partly the fault of the world he lives in, that demands that men should spend a certain amount of their time 'getting and spending' to stay alive. The visionary faculty comes naturally to all men. When they are relaxed enough, every leaf of every tree in the world, every speck of dust, is a separate world capable of producing infinite pleasure. If these fail to do so, it is man's own fault for wasting his time and energy on trivialities. The ideal is the contemplative poet, the 'sage', who cares about having only enough money and food to keep him alive, and never 'takes thought for the morrow'. This is a way of thought that comes more easily to the Eastern than to the Western mind.

What are the clues in the search for self-expression? There are the moments of insight, the glimpses of harmony. It is an important experience, this moment of Yea-saying, of reconciliation with the 'devil-ridden chaos', for it gives the Outsider an important glimpse into the state of mind that the visionary wants to achieve permanently. 'Visionary', in this context, does not mean literally 'a seer of visions', but only someone who sees the world as positive. Drunkenness or physical well-being, as in after a good dinner, might even be interpreted as 'mystical affirmation', but here we must tread carefully. The point about ordinary once-born affirmation, the attitude of the good-natured, eupeptic vulgarian who sees life through rose-tinted spectacles, is that it cannot be controlled. If it disappears, due to illness or some misfortune, then it has disappeared for good, unless it comes back of its own accord. The Outsider cannot regard such affirmation as meaningful or valid because it is beyond his control; he wants to say 'I accept', not because fate happens to be treating him rather well, but because it is his Will to accept. He believes that a 'Yea-saying' faculty can actually be built in to his vision, so that it is there permanently. But how? By knowing himself better. By establishing a discipline to overcome his weakness and self-divison. By making it his aim to become harmonious and undivided.

It is a sensible, straightforward decision [to become a wanderer]. A man only has need of the common sense to say: 'Civilization is largely a matter of superfluities; I have no desire for superfluities. On the other hand, I have a very strong desire for leisure and freedom.' I am not attempting to assert the validity of this solution for all Outsiders; in fact, the practical objection to it is that the wandering life does not make for leisure or contemplation, and it certainly fails to satisfy the Outsider's need for a direction, a definitive act. Nevertheless, the act of willing is important; the result, whether it proves a success or a disillusionment, is only secondary. Again, we turn to Yeats for an example. In the introduction to 'A Vision', a young man tells of how, one night in the theatre, he suddenly felt an urge to express his dislike of the insipid way in which the actors were speaking Romeo and Juliet:

Suddenly this thought came into my head: What would happen if I were to take off my boots and fling them at the actors? Could I give my future life such settled purpose that the act would take its place, not among whims, but among forms of intensity?

The italicized sentence is the precise definition of the definitive act: To give one's future life such settled purpose that the act would be a form of intensity.

The Will to more life is normally hidden, leaving the conscious mind to carry on with its own affairs. The conscious mind is left in exile in the world of matter, left to make-itself-at-home as best it can by setting up its own conception of identiity and permanence. In most men, the conscious and the unconscious being hardly ever make contact; consequently, the conscious aim is to make himself as comfortable as possible with as little effort as possible. But there are other men, whom we have called Outsiders, whose conscious and unconscious being keep in closer contact, and the conscious mind is forever aware of the urge to care about 'more abundant life', and care less about comfort and stability and the rest of the notions that are so dear to the bourgeois. I have tried to show in the course of this book, how the Outsider's one need is to discover how to lend a hand to the forces inside him, to help them in their struggle. And obviously, if he is only vaguely aware of these interior forces, the sensible thing is to become more aware of them and find out what they are aiming at. The Outsider usually begins by saying, 'I must have solitude to look inside myself'; hence the room on his own. Unfortunately, he also discovers that he often gets to know himself better under the stimulation of new experiences; and new experiences are out of the question when he is in a room on his own. A conflict is set up at the beginning of the 'new life', all of which is expressed so fully in Steppenwolf .

The Outsider would seem to be a basically religious man, or imaginative man, who refuses to develop those qualities of practical-mindedness and eye-to-business that seem to be the requisites for survival in our complex civilization. It must be emphasized that by 'religion' I am not trying to indicate any specific religious system. Religious categories, as I have tried to show, are such simple ideas as 'Original Sin', 'salvation', 'damnation', which come naturally to the Outsider's way of thinking. Moreover, both the Eastern and the Western ways of thinking tend to identify Original Sin with delusion. As to the way of escaping this delusion, there is no division of opinion: Go to extremes. That is the first necessity. The Buddha advocated a 'middle way', yet this was only after a preliminary course of extremes.

When Aristophanes threw mud at Socrates, it was with the dislike of the poet for the logician. Western civilization has been too hasty in condemning Aristophanes. The real issue is not whether two and two make four or whether two and two make five, but whether life advances by men who love words or by men who love living. The Socratic conception of history is that civilization advances in proportion as its thinkers are interested in abstractions, in knowledge for its own sake. Aristophanes deplored the heresy and exposed Socrates to ridicule at every opportunity. For him, as for Nietzsche, knowledge is merely an instrument of living; there is no such thing as abstract knowledge; there is only useful knowledge and unprofitable blatherskite. And it is likely that if Aristophanes had ever been pressed for a definition of useful knowledge, he would have answered: Whatever enables a man to live more. So much can be gathered from the spirit of the plays.

Abraham Maslow claimed that healthy people had 'peak experiences', sudden feelings of freedom, with a fair degree of frequency. Most of his subjects could recall various peak experiences, and when they began to describe and exchange these with other subjects, they began having peak experiences all the time. Why? Because discussing peak experiences placed them in a cheerful and optimistic frame of mind, and when we are optimistic, peak experiences come easily. We suddenly realize that we are free. The German philosopher Fichte said: 'To be free is nothing. To become free is heavenly.' The peak experience is the simplest method of ceasing merely to 'be' free, and of becoming free.

When human beings become bored, they lose all sense of reality, and somehow find themselves in the passenger seat. They lose the sense of being in control of their lives, and slip into an attitude of passivity. Yet any crisis can instantly de-hypnotize them and make them realize that being in control, far from being difficult, is quite normal. When we are 'awake', the 'real you' takes over, and life is transformed.

'A long time devoted to small details exalts us and increases our strength.'
— Hermann Hesse, Journey to the East