Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 314
Written while its young author was spending his nights in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath and his days reading and writing in the British Museum, this book exploded onto the literary scene of the mid-1950’s, making Colin Wilson at the age of twenty-four one of the most widely read and discussed writers of his generation. Although his worldwide celebrity led to savage critical attacks on his second and following books, his reputation was established, and his first book remains one of the major books of the last half-century.
Wilson, who never attended college but was an omnivorous reader, found himself drawn to the experience of certain key figures of the modern world: Vincent Van Gogh, Vaslav Nijinsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and T. E. Lawrence. They are Outsiders, men whose lives of undisputed genius and often self-destructive violence set them apart from the ordinary. All stood for truth, but the sensitivity and awareness that enabled them to discover the truth also caused them great suffering. All had low “pain thresholds” (a term Wilson borrowed from William James) which prevented them from slipping into the spiritual sleepiness that pervaded their civilization.
Studying these men (and the lives and works of many others, such as Fyodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Hermann Hesse, G. I. Gurdjieff, H. G. Wells, and Jean-Paul Sartre), Wilson defined the Outsider as the one man who knows he is sick in a civilization that does not know it is sick. The suffering Outsider seeks an essentially religious answer to the crisis of value and the loss of individual worth in a secular society.
The book is both a study of the Outsider’s predicament and an impassioned call for the creation of a healthy new existentialism which will produce a satisfactorily objective religious understanding of the nature of life. The Outsider who begins that long effort may finish it a saint.