The Outsider by Colin Wilson

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001There’s a small list of books I’ve immediately re-read after first reading them, and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider is on it. At the time (I must have been 21 or 22), I’d never read any philosophy, nor much literature outside of SF, fantasy & horror, and part of the impact the book had on me came from its introducing me to subjects I’d never looked into before, but which I soon realised I had a great hunger for. It’s humbling to realise Wilson himself was 24 when he wrote it. By that point he’d already read more books than I, at twice my then-age, have managed even now — and he’d not only read them, but thought about them.

It’s a hallmark of Wilson’s writing that he’s deeply and infectiously engaged in anything he’s writing about, something that’s even more true of this, his first book. What, then, is it about? A general study of the figure of ‘the Outsider’ in literature would be too diffuse; this is the study of a selection of figures that enable Wilson to ask the questions he most wants to ask. So what is a Wilsonian Outsider?

‘…the Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. “He sees too deep and too much,” and what he sees is essentially chaos. For the bourgeois, the world is fundamentally an orderly place, with a disturbing element of the irrational, the terrifying, which his preoccupation with the present usually permits him to ignore. For the Outsider, the world is not rational, not orderly. When he asserts his sense of anarchy in the face of the bourgeois’ complacent acceptance, it is not simply the need to cock a snook at respectability that provokes him; it is a distressing sense that truth must be told at all costs, otherwise there can be no hope for an ultimate restoration of order. Even if there seems no room for hope, truth must be told.’

What it comes down to is a basic question asked of life itself: ‘Ultimate Yes, or Ultimate No?’ The non-Outsider says, ‘Ultimate Yes, obviously,’ but this is the dismissive reaction of someone who’s never had to make the choice. The Outsider, who ‘sees too deep and too much’, has to ask the question every moment of every day, either recoiling in horror at the suffering in the world (‘Ultimate No’), or discovering, once again, in moments of intense affirmation, his own particular ‘Ultimate Yes’ — but always in spite of all that could lead to an ‘Ultimate No’:

‘The way lies forward, into more life… accept the ordeal… “ever further into guilt, ever deeper into human life”… Life itself is an exile. The way home is not the way back.’

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

(Those last two sentences can’t help reminding me of the journey towards our ‘true home’ in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a book I also first read, and immediately re-read, around the same time, without knowing Wilson had written about it. Re-reading The Outsider now, I’m struck by how similar the two books are, both in subject matter and basic form. Both begin by rejecting the idea of normal, ‘bourgeois’ reality: in Arcturus, this is the gathering described in the opening chapter, ‘The Séance’; in The Outsider, this is in Wilson’s opening sentence — ‘At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem’ — and his discussion of Henri Barbusse’s novel, L’Enfer, in particular the dinner table scene, which is, like Arcturus’s séance, a social gathering where something shocking — the story of a local murder — is presented for entertainment. Both books then go through a series of explorations and rejections of possible answers to the questions they’re asking, leading, ultimately, to a more visionary conclusion.)

In 2001, The Outsider, having been constantly in print since its first publication in 1956, was re-published with some additional after-thoughts by Wilson, in which he summarises the Outsider’s position:

‘…it still seems to me that the whole “Outsider problem” is epitomised in the contrast between Van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night and the words of his suicide note: “Misery will never end.”’

Manic_Street_Preachers-The_Holy_Bible_album_cover“La Tristesse Durera” — not coincidentally the title of one of my favourite songs by one of the most Outsider-ish (in the Wilsonian sense) bands, the Manic Street Preachers. (Their Holy Bible is a modern ‘Outsider document’ if ever there was one, highlighting all the ‘Ultimate No’s’ of the 20th century, from serial killers to eating disorders to concentration camps — issues not touched upon by Wilson in his first book, though serial killers were a speciality of his later work. The energy of the music itself acts as an ‘Ultimate Yes’. Of course, the fate of Richey Edwards, who disappeared after the album’s release, touches on the question that made Wilson start his book in the first place: why did so many young men of genius in the 19th and early 20th centuries end up killing themselves?)

The Outsider was published in 1956. There’s something about that era, the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, that had a much more serious intellectual air about it. Writers could expect their public to have a basic familiarity, and interest in, both new scientific ideas and experimental art. The era also had its dark side, as when ‘the Establishment’ grew defensive. Perhaps sensing this non-university-educated upstart was getting too confident, Wilson’s sequel, Religion and the Rebel (1957), was reviewed as scornfully as his first book was praised. He went on to write a total of six books in his ‘Outsider sequence’, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, with the success of his massive tome, The Occult, that he was once more taken seriously as a writer in his homeland (other countries were far more enthusiastic, and less duplicitous).

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

For me, The Outsider stands alongside other books such as the already-mentioned A Voyage to Arcturus, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, that are a form of ‘crisis literature’, in that they’re both about, and are often the result of, a crisis in the author and the culture. They seem to call for an intellectual response — the need to decode, categorise, ‘solve’ — but more and more I think these books are primarily emotional statements than steps towards some sort of rational answer. The Outsider describes a stage we can all come to — and hopefully pass through — each time we find ourselves seeing ‘too deep and too much’, beyond the comfortable myopia of our personal boundaries, or those of our times. The distress of alienation (from self, or old ideas, or from family, or society, or culture), and the need to move forward into a newer, stronger certainty, make these into books of ‘crisis’, and each solution must be new-found, new-made, by each individual. But at least some such individuals leave guidebooks for us; and Wilson’s could be the arch-guidebook, or certainly the vital first step, composed as it is of fragments of others’ — a guidebook of guidebooks.

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

The Western Canon by Harold BloomPublished in 1994, Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon is a celebration of great literature. It has achieved a certain notoriety for Bloom’s taking a stance against what he saw as the unwanted politicisation of literary criticism (‘the School of Resentment’ as he calls it, being deliberately provocative), when for him the key to all ‘deep reading’ is the experience of the individual, alone with a book. ‘Such a reader,’ he says, ‘does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence.’ But the real core of the book is Bloom’s attempt to, as he puts it, ‘confront greatness directly’. Doing this, he necessarily talks about ‘the canon’ — his particular Valhalla of great works from Western literature — but whether you agree with his choices or not is beside the point. It’s the conclusions he draws, or the aspects he celebrates, that are the reason to read The Western Canon. My own experience certainly chimes with his:

‘When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfilment of expectations.’

As well as the standard reasons you’d expect for a work to be considered great — ‘mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction’ — Bloom adds another, ‘strangeness’:

‘…a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.’

Bloom_ShakespeareWildest of Bloom’s many wild ideas is that the way we’ve come to see ourselves as human beings has been, at least in part, formed by the representations of human beings in our greatest literature. For him, Shakespeare is the greatest of the greats, and the most influential on human nature itself. His pronouncement that ‘The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare, the more one realises that the accurate stance towards them is one of awe’, may sound overblown, but frankly, it’s nice to be in the presence of someone who allows themselves a little bombast when talking about what they love. ‘Shakespearean drama,’ Bloom writes, ‘seems at once utterly familiar and yet too rich to absorb all at once.’ And whether you agree or you don’t — or whether such statements could ever be lived up to by any work by any writer — I certainly find them inspiring, both as a reader as a writer. And that’s one of the things I like about this book: it makes me want to read better, to read ‘deeper’ or ‘stronger’, as he puts it. Bloom’s model as a reader (and critic) is Dr Johnson, who is, he says, ‘everything a wise critic should be: he directly confronts greatness with a total response, to which he brings his complete self.’

Reading properly, then, makes you both human and whole.

Bloom’s canon is no mere dusty list. It is, rather, an eternal battlefield on which current works must fight it out with the greats of the past to win a place: ‘a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.’ Bloom’s judgements and summaries of writers and their works have a wonderful strangeness of their own, being utterly unverifiable but always illuminating, intriguing, and provocative, like the literary criticism version of Zen koans. ‘Shakespeare,’ he says, ‘is the inventor of psychoanalysis; Freud, its codifier.’ Or, to put it another way: ‘Hamlet did not have an Oedipus complex, but Freud certainly had a Hamlet complex and perhaps psychoanalysis is a Shakespeare complex.’ Later he says, ‘Freud, slyly following Shakespeare, gave us our map of the mind; Kafka intimated to us that we could not hope to use it to save ourselves, even from ourselves.’

Agon by Harold BloomThe thing that brought me to Bloom’s book was when someone told me he’d included David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus in his long list of canonical works (a list required of him by his publishers, apparently, rather than being something he set out to compile). In an earlier book, Agon (from 1982), Bloom devotes a chapter to sketching out a ‘theory of literary fantasy’, which he then applies, in some detail, to Lindsay’s novel (as well as offering an explanation of sorts for his one venture into fiction, his — dull, in my opinion — attempt at a Lindsay-esque novel, The Flight to Lucifer). This ‘theory of literary fantasy’ is short, but I’ve always found it to apply whenever I pause to test it on a work of fantasy I’m reading. Rather than an all-encompassing theory, it’s an attempt to understand a peculiar aspect of fantastic literature: why, when given the freedom to invent anything, and therefore to potentially indulge oneself in nothing but power-fantasies and pleasurable daydreams, great fantasy literature ends up confronting genuinely difficult and meaningful themes — in other words, what rescues truly good fantasy from the accusation of escapism:

‘What promises to be the least anxious of literary modes becomes much the most anxious… The cosmos of fantasy, of the pleasure/pain principle, is revealed in the shape of a nightmare, and not of hallucinatory wish-fulfilment.’

Fantasy, for Bloom, is the ‘compounding of Narcissism and Prometheanism’ (which sounds like a neat counterpart to Brian Aldiss’s definition of SF as ‘hubris clobbered by Nemesis’). It certainly applies to the best of the fantasy books I’ve reviewed on this site — think of, for instance, Ursula Le Guin’s Threshold, where two characters seek to escape from their daily lives in a fantasy world, only find themselves on a quest to face something even more dangerous and difficult; or a similar situation in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark, where an escape from a difficult home life is illuminated by a parallel quest to destroy a truly disgusting dragon.

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Bloom’s The Western Canon has persuaded me to read a few of his choice of great books (among them, appropriately, Jane Austen’s Persuasion), though by no means all of them. But always, dipping into it, I’m revitalised as a reader. My canon is not, and will never be, Bloom’s (I’d put Peake’s Gormenghast books in there for sure, as well as Le Guin’s first two Earthsea books), but I can’t help but agree with him about the core purpose of reading, and of writing about what one reads:

‘Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness.’

‘Our ultimate inwardness’ — the thing I, for one, certainly search for between the covers of a book.

“David Lindsay’s The Violet Apple” in Wormwood 21

Wormwood 21I have an essay in the latest issue of Wormwood, on David Lindsay’s posthumously-published novel, The Violet Apple. Of all Lindsay’s novels, it’s the one I most wanted to write about, perhaps because it’s one of his lesser-known and rarely-read works, but also because, although his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, is undoubtedly the most impressive in terms of sheer ambition, The Violet Apple is his most muted, and human — the novel of a writer with some experience and craft — as well as perhaps being his most artistically unified. I even named my website dedicated to David Lindsay after it. (I’ve always thought it the most filmable of his novels, too, and would love to see it as a sort of Merchant Ivory style period piece!)

I hope I managed to set down exactly what it is I like about the book, and why it should be approached on its own merits, not just as “another book by the author of A Voyage to Arcturus“. It’s a great pity there’s no affordable edition out at the moment; I always feel guilty recommending a book it’s expensive to buy.

Anyway, I’ve been reading Wormwood since its first issue, so it’s great to be a contributor, and I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of the issue.

(My essay has gained a glitch in the first paragraph — the last sentence uses “He is described as…” to refer to a tower; I just had it starting “Described as…” — but hopefully it still makes sense!)

A letter between writers

Whether it’s Clark Ashton Smith to George Sterling, or David Lindsay to E H Visiak, reading letters between writers, you often find things getting a little formulaic. So, if you ever get caught in a writerly correspondence (highly unlikely, nowadays), here are all your epistolary requirements met:

Dear [fellow writer]

First of all, apologies for not having replied to your previous letter sooner. You know how life is!

[Then, either this paragraph:]

Thanks for the copy of your latest book. A work of genius, though few of course will see it. Critics are, in the main, dullards. As for me, it has left my head so full of thoughts that I cannot set them down just yet. A second read, and a bit more leisure, will allow me to do so. Now, of course, you must immediately set about writing something new! The world awaits your next masterpiece!

[or this paragraph:]

Commiserations on your continued efforts to find a publisher. Publishers are, in the main, dullards. It will, I am sure, one day soon find a home.

[Finally:]

As for my own writing, I have been rather lax of late. All this business with moving house, and so on. You know how life is! I will endeavour to do more!

Yours,

[your name, in a slightly less formal version than in the last letter, till you hit on a pair of silly nicknames for one another]