It’s been a while since I’ve read a decent book and so I’ve been going back to the tried and true in my bookcase. I read Age of Innocence, and otherwise I’ve been dipping into favourite books, generally collections of short stories from the likes of Bunin, Stegner and Roth. Over the weekend I took another book from those shelves, The Outsider, by Colin Wilson.
I remember when I first read this, boy did it have an impact. I was at that age when you you’re still actively searching for answers to the questions you find surrounding you. I read Camus and Sartre, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and random others before I happened across The Outsider in a local bookstore. At that time I thought it cool to consider myself an existentialist.
It helped I think that I had just had my heart broken for the very first time. I lived in a great apartment in a South Yarra street that I had taken on with the expectation of sharing it with the woman I was with. I was about 24 and pretty well at the peak of my manhood, fit, strong and – for a time – very good looking. None of that really mattered to me with my heart broken, and in fact it was something I only ever realised in retrospect. I had my moments, but did not take advantage of my temporary beauty.
I had read all those other authors years before, when I was 19 and 20, and so when I opened The Outsider I was familiar with many of the authors and personalities described within. I don’t know what made me buy it, probably curiosity. I’ve always had an intellectual curiosity, but at that age it’s on the upswing. You’re ripe for it.
Once I began reading I couldn’t stop. It seemed to speak directly to me. It was a fascinating subject, but at the same time I found myself in the pages of the book: I was an outsider.
I remember I became so roused by what I read that I began a long letter I was going to send to The Age explaining the plight of the outsider. It felt very personal. I felt proud to be one of such number, but at the same time disadvantaged to think it might be so. Even then I didn’t want to be like everyone else, and given the choice would elect to be an outsider. I saw how problematic it was though also.
I was gripped by it for months, and in the following years probably read it another couple of times, but the last time was probably 20 years ago. In the time since I have come to accept myself for who I am. Am I an outsider? By the terms of the book I probably am, but a high functioning outsider. It’s interesting to read my fiction where it comes out more plainly, but entirely unconsciously. I don’t set out to write about the experience of the outsider, yet many of my characters are that, and the circumstances they find themselves in describe it too. I find I make frequent reference to other worlds, or different paths, as if there might have been other possibilities.
I’m drawn to stories of outsiders too, and particularly characters. I find myself admiring them often – I think of Pechorin, for example. In some way or another they are alienated from the society they are part of, often because they see too clearly to be part of it. They tend to an absurdist view of the world, which is a natural reaction. The world is absurd really when you think hard enough on it, but the choice then is whether to rise above it or succumb to it. Often it seems they do both, and in many of these characters there is the germ of
So anyway I began reading the book again over the weekend and it was immediately familiar. It’s a very learned book, though Wilson himself seems a stuffy character. Reading now I don’t immediately agree with him as I did before, but I can appreciate the thrust of his arguments. Myself, as I am today, I identify in parts. I would be what one calls the intellectual outsider. I see it, but I’m hardly infected by it. I have accepted the gap between myself and most of society, and have come to appreciate it. I’ve never felt the need to belong, just the opposite really – and what redeems me is that I’m not the pessimist that so many outsiders are, and because – and perhaps this is the existentialist strain – I believe in acting directly.
Reading it now it feels a little dated, not because of the content perhaps, but because what was new and revolutionary then has since become a mode of study. By comparison with more recent efforts it reads more like erudite pop psychology, but that’s why it worked when it did. For me, when I read it first, I found it just at the right time. I was ready for it and for a while it expanded my concept of self and gave me some comfort finding there were others who thought as I did.
I’m far beyond that these days. I was finding myself then. Today I realise that’s not a destination, but a pathway. I’m a long way further down that path and have a fair idea of who I am. I’ve lived and experienced both joy and tragedy and been seasoned by the trip. What were once ideas to live by are now just an interesting and vaguely nostalgic perspective. I may or may not finish the book this time around, but I recognise the part it played in becoming the man I am today.