The Outsider (Colin Wilson)

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The Outsider
The Outsider (Colin Wilson).jpg
First US edition
Author Colin Wilson
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Philosophy
Genre Existentialism
Publisher Gollancz (UK)
Houghton Mifflin (US)
Publication date
Media type Print
Pages 302
Followed by Religion and the Rebel

The Outsider is a non-fiction book by Colin Wilson first published in 1956.[1]

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.

On Christmas Day, 1954, alone in his room, Wilson sat down on his bed and began to write in his journal. He described his feelings as follows:

"It struck me that I was in the position of so many of my favourite characters in fiction: Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge, the young writer in Hamsun's Hunger: alone in my room, feeling totally cut off from the rest of society. It was not a position I relished...Yet an inner compulsion had forced me into this position of isolation. I began writing about it in my journal, trying to pin it down. And then, quite suddenly, I saw that I had the makings of a book. I turned to the back of my journal and wrote at the head of the page: 'Notes for a book The Outsider in Literature'..." [2]

And so The Outsider was conceived - a book that has, to date, been translated into over thirty languages (including Russian and Chinese) and never been out of print since publication day: Monday, May 28, 1956. Wilson wrote much of it in the Reading Room of the British Museum, and during this period was, for a time, living in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath. He continued to work on it at a furious pace and:

"One day I typed out the introduction, and a few pages from the middle, and sent them to Victor Gollancz with a letter giving a synopsis of the book. He replied within 2 days, saying he would be interested to see the book when completed ..."

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.[3]


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.

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. This theme continues through his next six non-fiction titles, which have become known as 'The Outsider Cycle': 'Religion and the Rebel'(1957), 'The Age of Defeat' ('The Stature of Man' in the U.S., 1959), 'The Strength to Dream' (1962), 'Origins of the Sexual Impulse' (1963), 'Beyond the Outsider'(1965) and the important summary volume 'Introduction to the New Existentialism' (1966). Wilson was also an accomplished novelist and would often, at this time, write a fiction and a non-fiction book concurrently. Therefore anyone wishing to approach Wilson's philosophy would do well to read the absorbing string of novels he wrote during the 1960s (from 'Ritual in the Dark' (1960) to 'God of the Labyrinth' ('The Hedonists' in the U.S.,1970).These were effectively designed to put his philosophical ideas into action.


The book is still published with enthusiastic comments from the likes of Edith Sitwell and Cyril Connolly adorning its cover. 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,[4] although it took an upturn in 1971 when he wrote 'The Occult' which has become a classic in the field of the Occult Sciences.

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, paperback and e-book format, is still a staple in many bookstores' philosophy or sociology (and sometimes psychology or religion) sections.


  • 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

External links[edit]


  1. ^ "The Outsider". J.P. Tarcher. Retrieved 22 March 2009. 
  2. ^ Introduction: The Outsider, twenty years on. Picador, 1978, p.9 ISBN 0-330-25391-3
  3. ^ The angry years: the rise and fall of the angry young men by Colin Wilson, pps. 15–16 Robson, 2007, ISBN 1-86105-972-8
  4. ^ Wilson, Colin (2005). "Backlash". Dreaming to Some Purpose. Arrow Books. ISBN 0-09-947147-7.