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The Outsider by Colin Wilson
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The Outsider (1956)

by Colin Wilson

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9041014,176 (3.86)1 / 108

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The definitive study of alienation & creativity
  stevholt | Nov 19, 2017 |
Books can be dangerous if they change the way you think about your life and this book would have been dangerous for me had I read it in the 1960's. It caused a bit of a sensation in the literary world when it was first published in 1956 and it's young author has spent the rest of his career suffering from something like a backlash. It is a critique on existentialist thought that slashed and burnt it's way across the art's world of the late 1950's. The existentialist outsider as hero was a message that some young people in the 50's and 60's desperately wanted to identify with and Wilson's study hit the sweet spot, because those people who felt that they were somehow 'out of step' at the start of the consumer boom would have found plenty of ammunition in this book to realise that other people were singing from the same hymn sheet.

Wilson starts with Henri Barbusse and moves on to H G Wells and Hemmingway as he searches for authors that asked the questions that set them aside from the majorities views, this leads him to Sartre, Camus and Kafka. A chapter on the Romantic Outsider is a walk through the works of Herman Hesse, before he gets to three men who he claims lived the lives of outsiders rather than merely writing about it; he portrays Van Gogh, T E Lawrence and Nijinsky as men who were driven to insanity and/or early deaths because of their vision that took them outside of the world of the bourgeoisie. They were men who could not control their restless spirits, who saw the world through different eyes and suffered for it. In 'The Pain Threshold the thoughts of Nietzsche are brought into the argument before Wilson launches into a brief critique of one of the ultimate outsiders Dostoevsky, with particular reference to Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Wilson summarises his thoughts at the end of each chapter which gives the book a feeling of a logical argument. Here is what he says at the end of his chapter on Dostoevsky:

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 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.


The following chapters take the argument into the realms of religious mysticism with studies of George Fox, William Blake and Gurdjieff and these I found less convincing, but this was perhaps because of my natural antipathy to religious thought.

The overriding message that this book brought home to me was that we should not lose sight of the thoughts and ideas of those people that dared to think outside the box, that asked the difficult questions and sought a meaning to life and their own existence. It is also a lesson to us all not to get caught up in the mechanical world of a continuous push to get more 'things' from life. The ability to stop and think is one that should be nurtured and we should be courageous enough to go wherever this takes us. Don't get caught up in the cow-like drifting of so many people in the Western World.

Wilson was considered to be one of the angry young men of the 1950's writing at a time when the majority of people were emerging from the vicissitudes of two world wars and facing the uncertainty of the atomic age. His book resonated then and can still be admired today for it's attempt to define the "Outsiders" and provide us with a critical study of the visionaries that did not shape the world, but more importantly raised questions that should make us all stop and think about how and why we live in that world. Books that make you think about your reasons for being can be dangerous and I wonder if anyone is writing any today. If not we will have to make do with such books as Wilson's [The Outsider]. A four star read. ( )
11 vote baswood | Oct 23, 2013 |
I really enjoyed this book. the Outsiders had a great message about sticking together and the value of friendship. The story had tragic events that the boys had to cope with and became hero's by risking their lives to save helpless children from a burning fire.
  RebecaGeorgiev | Oct 1, 2013 |
A fantastic review/history of existentialism up to the 1950s or so. ( )
1 vote blake.rosser | Jul 28, 2013 |
Eh. Most of these ideas are too familiar. I enjoyed "Introduction to the New Existentialism" a lot more. ( )
  Carl_Hayes | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Christmas Day, 1954, was an icy, grey day, and I had spent it in my room in Brockley, south London. - Introduction: The Outsider Twenty Years On
At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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An alienated young man attempts to find himself through an examination of modern philosophy.

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