22 November 2019

Colin Wilson’s The Outsider

Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider, published in 1956, has been described as ‘the classic study of alienation, creativity and the modern mind’. Although the book is not usually associated with existentialism, it provides an introduction to a central theme of existentialism:

the awareness that one is existing, that one has finite capacities and a finite lifetime, and that one has no knowledge of what, if anything, is important.

Such awareness may make one feel sceptical about social conventions.

As The Outsider shows, the consequences of experiencing existential awareness have been portrayed in literature as varying from apathy at one extreme, to madness and violence at the other. There is a common notion that giving up one’s belief in the meaningfulness of society can lead to one wanting to indulge in violent behaviour, even murder.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, an important figure in The Outsider, may have contributed to this notion. Some of the central characters of his novels commit cold-blooded murder, and their lack of inhibition seems to be linked to their scepticism about society.

Dostoyevsky, who could be regarded as an Outsider himself, may have felt conflicted about his uneasy relationship with society and hence portrayed Outsiders with ambivalence. He is sympathetic to the scepticism and passion of Outsiders. However, he also partially takes society’s side in condemning them.

This ambivalence on the part of novelists and philosophers towards those who are like them is a recurring theme of The Outsider.