In The Outsider Wilson made his first attempt at analysing a character he felt was peculiar to our age, a person with a pressing hunger for meaning and spiritual purpose in a world seemingly bent on denying him these. In the past, during the Middle Ages, such an individual could have found a home in the church, which was then the heart of life, and which provided a place, monasteries, where he could work toward his salvation – work, that is, to awaken the spiritual life within him, to grasping his purpose with an unwavering seriousness. That purpose was to become something greater than himself, to work against the laziness and complacency that keeps him second-rate and allows him to be satisfied with being “only human.”
But today, in our modern society, geared toward comfort and security and motivated by purely material aims, there is no place for such a person, and his spiritual seriousness is a liability. His or her desire to be something more than a happy, well-fed animal, puts him at odds with the world around him. This type is driven by needs that the people he knows do not understand. For him the world that they complacently accept is false. He sees “too deep and too much” and his awareness of the illusions that satisfy others brings him to despair. He is not at home in the world, his permanent sense of self-dissatisfaction does not allow him to be. This dissatisfaction cannot be met by any changes to the social or economic system, as Marxists like the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, one of the Angry Young men, believed. “The question of freedom,” Wilson writes, “is not a social problem.” Only by the long, difficult, personal struggle to self-realization can the Outsider realize his goal. That realization, or actualization, as the psychologist Abraham Maslow, one of Wilson’s earliest readers, called it, requires an “intensity of will” and is fostered by anything that arouses one’s “will to more life.”
This path is difficult. The Outsider at first feels himself a kind of misfit, a “lone nutter,” and his dissonance from the Insiders, those content with the world of the second-rate, leads to neurosis. There must be something wrong with him, he believes, and he may try to “fit in.” Usually he fails, and winds up occupying an uncomfortable middle realm. He cannot accept the world and its triviality, but he is not strong enough to escape from it completely or to impose his own seriousness upon it. This may lead to nothing more than a life of quiet desperation, or the Outsider may smoulder with resentment at the insects around him, and lash out indiscriminately – as Wilson’s explorations of the “criminal” Outsider will show, this can have deadly results. But if he is lucky, there are moments of vision, when a sense of power and meaning comes to him and he sees that he is not a misfit, and that the hunger and dissatisfaction that drives him, and which drove the mystics and saints of the past, are more real than the newspapers, television, and mediocrity he abhors.
It is a vision of “a higher form of reality than he has so far known,” a glimpse of what Wilson calls “the secret life,” that sense of total affirmation that he had experienced more than once by now. But then the vision fades. The Outsider is back on earth and is left wondering what the vision was about and why he must return to the dreary treadmill. The Outsider examines the possibility of restoring the vision, of so strengthening one’s grasp on one’s sense of purpose that it is not weakened or confused by the banality of “life.”
Wilson’s notebooks were full of observations of such figures, of Outsiders who were not able to survive their clashes with the world and who succumbed to illness, suicide or madness, who were not quite strong enough to impose their vision on their contemporaries. What went wrong? Why did giants like Nietzsche, Nijinsky, Van Gogh, T. E. Lawrence, and others fail? To say they failed is not, of course, to diminish their greatness. But Nietzsche and Nijinsky went insane, Van Gogh shot himself, and Lawrence went into a kind of spiritual suicide, burying himself as a private in the RAF at the height of his fame. Why did so many poets and writers of the nineteenth century end in a kind of self-destruction? Shelley, Keats, Poe, Hölderlin, Schubert, Hoffman, Schiller, Kleist, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Lautreamont – this list of nineteenth century geniuses who either died young, went mad, killed themselves or succumbed to alcohol or drug addiction could go on.
Why did it happen? Could it have been prevented? All were infused with the Romantic vision that burst upon western consciousness in the late eighteenth century, the insight that informed the music of Beethoven and the poetry of Blake. This was the sense, lost in the modern age, that human beings are really gods, or at least are meant to be, if only they could overcome their laziness and timidity. The Outsider is an exploration of the psychological and spiritual stresses that these and other men of genius faced in the search for their true selves. “The Outsider,” Wilson tells us, “ is not sure who he is. He has found an ‘I’, but it is not his true ‘I’. His main business is to find his way back to himself.”