The Outsider (Colin Wilson)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Outsider is a non-fiction book by Colin Wilson first published in 1956; dealing with the social alienation of the outsider in 19th and 20th centuries arts and literature. The book was very successful and was a serious contribution to the popularization of existentialism in Britain.

Through the works and lives of various artists – including H. G. Wells (Mind at the End of its Tether), Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Harley Granville-Barker (The Secret Life), Hermann Hesse, T. E. Lawrence, Vincent van Gogh, Vaslav Nijinsky, George Bernard Shaw, William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky and G. I. Gurdjieff – Wilson explores the psyche of the Outsider, his effect on society, and society's effect on him.

Wilson wrote “The Outsider” in the Reading Room of the British Museum, and during this period was living in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath. He was inspired to send the book to Victor Gollancz of publishers Victor Gollancz Ltd after he found a copy of the publisher's own book A Year of Grace in a second-hand bookshop, which led him to believe that he had found a sympathetic publisher. Gollancz reacted enthusiastically to Wilson and published the book.


The book is still published with enthusiastic comments from the likes of Edith Sitwell and Cyril Connolly adorning its cover (Connolly later admitted he hadn't read it. This reception – of his first book at the age of 24 – was a high critical watermark for Wilson, a reputation that sank as fast as it had rocketed. It is still, however, an insightful work of literary and philosophical criticism – a timeless preoccupation which perhaps garners more mainstream attention than his subsequent writings on the occult and crime. The book is structured in such a way as to mirror the outsider's experience: a sense of dislocation, or of being at odds with society. These are figures like Dostoevsky's "Underground-Man" who seem to be lost to despair and non-transcendence with no way out.

More successful – or at least hopeful – characters are then brought to the fore (including the title character from Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf). These are presented as examples of those who have insightful moments of lucidity in which they feel as though things are worthwhile/meaningful amidst their shared, usual, experience of nihilism and gloom. Sartre's Nausea is herein the key text – and the moment when the hero listens to a song in a cafe which momentarily lifts his spirits is the outlook on life to be normalized. Wilson then engages in some detailed case studies of artists who failed in this task and tries to understand their weakness – which is either intellectual, of the body or of the emotions. The final chapter is Wilson's attempt at a "great synthesis" in which he justifies his belief that western philosophy is afflicted with a needless "pessimistic fallacy" – a narrative he continues throughout his oeuvre under various names (St. Neot Margin for example) and illustrated in several metaphors ("every day is Christmas day").

Blurb from the inside cover of a late 1990s edition of The Outsider: "The Outsider is the seminal work on alienation, creativity and the modern mind-set. First published over thirty years ago, it made its youthful author England's most controversial intellectual. Many of Wilson's critics were angry that a 24-year-old non-academic had put out a piece of work that describes 'human alienation' in populist society so well, even offering up creating one's own religion or reinventing one's spirituality as a solution to one's own malaise. The book is still published in hardback and paperback, is still a staple in many bookstores' sociology section. The book is sometimes shelved in the psychology sections, religion sections as well."


  • The Country of the Blind
  • World Without Values
  • The Romantic Outsider
  • The Attempt To Gain Control
  • The Pain Threshold
  • The Question of Identity
  • The Great Synthesis . . .
  • The Outsider As Visionary
  • Breaking the Circuit

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Outsider (Colin Wilson)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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