Editors Note: Eugene makes his debut on Evolutionary Landscapes an existential shout. Not familiar with Colin Wilson myself, I’m pleased to have an inspirational introduction to the meaning of an Outsider – that wrestling between our finite existence and the possibility of a spiritual infinite. Eugene is the co-founder of AltStates.Net and blogger at Dreams of Translucence. Be sure to also follow him on Twitter.
I am an Outsider. I spent most of my time alone, in solitude of a dusty room, around books that I despise for their intellectual emptiness yet at moments read with a fierce passion of hoping to stumble upon a life-changing existential answer, the Answer. As Nietzsche appropriately put it, it is not closeness between human beings that I escaped from; it is distance, eternal distance between man and man that drove me into loneliness. Despite being blessed by transpersonal transfigurations I am still an embodiment of an Outsider, for I wasn’t able to do just one thing: escape my existentiality, turn away from my being-in-the-world as a finite sparkle of lonesome existence. This is a transcend-but-include matter, it seems. Shimmering on the edge between the personal and the transpersonal doesn’t relieve from the wasteland, for we are to give what’s Caesar’s to Caesar and what’s God’s to God. The infinitely transpersonal consciousness takes care of itself while the finite existential quest stubbornly persists in the process of self-discovery: self-annihilation.
Do I fear death? In the multitude of my existence there is that which fears death-dissolution, but it fears what already de facto happened, stubbornly, out of developmental inertia, karma, and existential neurosis. I am full of the opposites, of discrete elements, of continuous perturbations, of many men and women inside me, my bodily matter, of many images inhabiting the space of being and neural signatures haunting the labyrinths of the brain. I am aware of my prison. (Let’s leave the question of who is I am to a different context. Here we are to be deadly serious in our finitude.)
Colin Wilson admitted that during his prolific career as a philosopher and author he wrote and re-wrote just one book. All the one hundred and five dozen or so books are iterations of the same book, the Book that he first wrote in his twenties and titled The Outsider (1956). It is this Book with a thousand faces I want to review, for I want to speak of existential leadership. We are so eager to step out of our personal shoes into the transpersonal—in our fear of facing the abyss, the terror of insignificance—that by pursuing ego inflations and deflations of various sorts we forget of the truly unsung heroes and leaders of humanity who danced the existential rope at the cutting edge. (I usually mention Vasily Nalimov as one of such unsung heroes.)
Today, the one who leads at the cutting edge has to be an existential leader, has to demonstrate first and foremost his or her existential maturity. Such a maturity exceeds dry intellectual efforts, linear rationalizations of “how it should be” which to an existentialist may appear as absurd in their detachment from the messy world’s pragmatics. Existential leadership is on the intersection between the outward and the inward. As Ken Wilber noted, the real frontier is in the interiors. Wilber, incidentally, is a man who proved his profound familiarity with existentiality (the rawness of being—not conceptual philosophy) through his autobiographical works such as Grace and Grit and “Odyssey: A Personal Inquiry into Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology.” This is one of the reasons why he influences probably more people in all areas of human society than most his critics have dreamt of in their philosophy.
The entire history of his self-seclusion and self-exile (and then returning to the marketplace) proves to me that genealogically Wilber is, first and foremost, an Outsider; and he might be one of those rare Outsiders who actually found an answer to the existential question in his lifebody, lived experience, written into his works with blood. (Nietzsche, again: “Of all writings I love only that which is written with blood. Write with blood: and you will discover that blood is spirit.”) Is it other Outsiders whom he influences the most? I don’t know, but it was the existential sincerity, coherence, alignment with depth of Wilber’s works that persuaded me personally, not hype, promises and marketing of social movements that one often encounters around. There may be nothing particularly wrong with the latter; the point is it just completely misses what matters most for an Outsider.
What is The Outsider?
The Outsider is a non-fiction book by Colin Wilson first published in 1956.
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.
Pop culture, populist views and trends, mass marketing in western societies appeals to the “herd instinct,” the Status Quo, the bourgeois and those who feel they need to fit in with the latest trend, fashion and widget of societal norm. Those who do not “fit in” tend to be viewed as “outsiders” and are prone to being labeled as outcast or untouchables.
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” – Jiddu Krishnamurti. (from Wikipedia entry The Outsider (Colin Wilson))
As Marilyn Ferguson points out in her 1981 foreword to the book:
The trajectory of Outsider consciousness led naturally to the rising interest in Eastern philosophy, the human potential movement, and the proliferation of techniques designed to help individuals transcend a sense of alienation from self and society.
Wilson summarizes the problems of that alienation:
The Outsider wants to cease to be an Outsider.
He wants to be integrated as a human being, achieving a fusion between mind and heart.
He seeks vivid sense perception.
He wants to understand the soul and its workings.
He wants to get beyond the trivial.
He wants to express himself so he can better understand himself. He sees a way out via intensity, extremes of experience. . . .
To an observer the way of the Outsider may appear excessive, difficult, even reckless. Wilson shows us, by example after example, why the Outsider cannot accept society as it is, why he “sees too much and too deep.”
Outsiders seek to heal divisions: between conscious and unconscious, intellect and intuition, mind and body, self and society, spirit and sensuality. “The Outsider’s chief desire is to be unified. He is selfish as a man with a lifelong raging toothache would be selfish.”
Refusing to resolve life’s difficulties by withdrawal or denial, Outsiders seek transcendence through headlong involvement. They believe with Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf that “the way to innocence leads . . . ever deeper into human life. Instead of narrowing your world and simplifying your soul, you will have at the last to take the whole world into your soul, cost what it may.”
The Outsider’s intensity is expressed in Goethe’s poem, “The Holy Longing,” with its image of the butterfly drawn to, and transformed by, the flame:
And so long as you haven’t experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.
How can I not mention the beginning of Parmeneides’ mystical poem in connection to this longing?
The mares that carry me as far as longing can reach
rode on, once they had come and fetched me
onto the legendary road of the divinity
that carries the man who knows
through the vast and dark unknown…
(quoted from Peter and Maria Kingsley’s “As Far As Longing Can Reach”)
Marilyn Ferguson concludes her foreword:
For a hundred years or more, Wilson said, Outsiders have been slowly creating new values by implication. “The real issue is not whether two and two make four or whether two and two make five, but whether life advances by men who love words or by men who love living.”
A thoughtful reading of The Outsider gives us a profound sense of our collective modern struggle: how to restore the timeless and visionary in a culture that has prided itself on divorcing reason from feeling. Understanding the historic roots of this struggle gives us a deeper understanding of the Outsider in ourselves.
Those who think that existential angst and longing belong strictly to the ending of the personal realm are too confident to draw a boundary. It is not a human personality that awakens to its own existence, it is Being, non-personal Consciousness that over and over again wakes up to its initial horror and longing to be: here is the universe in the void, what am I, as sentience, to make of it, alone? It is sentience’s sensing, as Edward Munch formulated, an infinite scream passing through nature. So let’s feel reverence towards the continuous agony of matter and join its primordial scream with all our lungs, all our spirit, all our Being:
This is supposed to be the end of the essay. But any time I meet existential accounts the lack of consummation and “Hollywood positivity” drives me nuts. I don’t want to be asked as a Fellini’s character: “What are you cooking up for us? Another film on hopelessness?”
Oh no, this is not the end of the story, this is a part of it. In the beginning of this work I mentioned being aware of my prison. Yes, the prison—when Sri Aurobindo was physically imprisoned in India for his revolutionary activities and struggle for India’s independence, he experienced an opening of that which is beyond any confinements:
I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high walls that I was imprisoned; no, it was Vasudeva who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of my cell but it was not the tree, I knew it was Vasudeva, it was Sri Krishna whom I saw standing there and holding over me His shade. I looked at the bars of my cell, the very grating that did duty for a door and again I saw Vasudeva. It was Narayana who was guarding and standing sentry over me. Or I lay on the coarse blankets that were given me for a couch and felt the arms of Sri Krishna around me, the arms of my Friend and Lover.