Colin Wilson

The Outsider

“The Outsider is not sure who he is. His main business is to find his way back to himself.”

There is a sublime line in Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother where he refers to himself as a home with a great, warm fire which passersby neither see nor need. It captures the loneliness, isolation and a deep longing inherent in this man.

"The Outsider" by Colin Wilson, featured in The Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It also establishes van Gogh as an unnoticed being, ignored (or at the worst shunned/avoided) by his fellow man.

In his 1956 – I struggle for the proper word – sensation, the exceedingly intelligent and young Colin Wilson (June 26, 1931 – December 5, 2013) named this man (and Van Gogh specifically) The Outsider.

“The Outsider 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. This is not so easy.

Vincent van Gogh's self-portrait, 1889. Featured in Colin Wilson's "The Outsider" in the Examined Life Library.
“Self-Portrait.” Vincent van Gogh. This self-portrait is widely thought to be his last, painted in 1889. Musée D’Orsay Collection.

As Wilson tries to make sense of the nature of the Outsider and his purpose of existence, he supposes that such a human must spend his days not only in self-understanding but in self-expression.

“Writing is a natural medium for self-analysis,” Wilson observes as he connects the character of the Outsider throughout literature and to the authors and artists themselves.

Van Gogh’s painting has the Outsider’s characteristic: it is laboratory refuse of a man who treated his own life as an experiment in living; it faithfully records moods and development of vision in the manner of a BildungsromanTo experts on art, this way of treating Van Gogh must seem completely without bearing on his importance as a painter.

Vincent van Gogh's "Landscape Near Auvers" featured in Colin Wilson's "The Outsider" in the Examined Life Library.
“The emotion is important” Wilson wrote of van Gogh’s “A Farmhouse Near Auvers” one of two canvases van Gogh left unfinished, “It is not just a sentimental gushing about nature, but an emotion that could only correspond to some recognized awareness of the nature of life itself.” Tate Collection.

The nature of an artist as someone apart, in that they take an aspect of their fragile creative self and set it apart in order to create, is nothing new. Novelist Margaret Atwood wrote beautifully about the fierce duality of the writing life while Annie Dillard argued for the isolated consciousness of the writer.

And yet, Wilson’s Outsider is a more complete being. Someone who lives, thinks, exists apart. An altogether savage-bordering existence.

The Outsider’s case against society is very clear. All men and women have these dangerous, unnamable impulses, yet they keep up a pretense, to themselves, to others; their respectability, their philosophy, their religion, are all attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational something that is savage, unorganized, irrational. He is an Outsider because he stands for Truth.
That is his case. But it is weakened by his obvious abnormality, his introversion. It looks, in fact, like an attempt at self-justification by a man who knows himself to be degenerate, diseased, self-divided. There is certainly self-division.

This self-division reaches an apotheosis in the case of Vaslav Nijinsky, a Russian ballet dancer and choreographer who in 1919, at the age of 29, had a psychotic breakdown. Nijinsky was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia, as it was then understood, and placed in a mental institution. He never again lived on his own.

Nijinsky died in 1950, unable to care for himself or even speak.

Nijinsky dancing in Giselle. Featured in Colin Wilson's "The Outsider" in the Examined Life Library.
“Nijinsky understood himself well enough to know he needed to keep sane.” Wilson wrote, “But he did not know how much suffering and frustration his mind could stand; the pain frightened him.”

Wilson, however, uses other terms to describe what happened to Nijinksy, returning to this issue of a “self-divided”;

In December, 1917, the family moved to St. Moritz; and the last stage began. Nijinsky worked on the choreography of a new ballet, and read a great deal; he and his wife went for long walks or went for sleigh rides, or ski-ing. But the inactivity began to tell on Nijinsky; he needed something to do. He began to write a Diary, a sort of rambling exposition of his ideas on things in general, and perfected a technique of drawing with curves and arcs.

Nijinsky’s diaries were originally published by his wife, Romola, who blocked passages that suggested the dancer’s mental and physical collapse. This might account for Wilson’s shallow read.

The now available unexpurgated version, however, show not a man “perfecting arcs and circles” but a man slipping into psychosis.

Nijinsky's drawing, 1919. Featured in "The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky" in the Examined Life Library.
Crayon drawing by Vaslav Nijinsky, c. 1919. Nijinsky drew dozens of images with eyes; when his wife asked him what they were he answered “Soldiers’ faces, it is the war.” Courtesy of Tamara Nijinsky.

And yet, as Wilson argues, Nijinsky does exhibit an overwhelming need to self-express as a means to liven the soul, awaken the deadened tissue and perhaps, reclaim the communion with something larger than self as denied by society (back to Van Gogh’s fire metaphor).

I wanted to speak, but my voice was so strong I could not speak, and I shouted. ‘I love everyone, and I want happiness!’ ‘I love everyone!’ ‘I want everyone.’ I cannot speak French, but I will learn it if I walk by myself. I want to speak loudly so that people will feel me. I want to love everyone, and therefore I want to speak all languages.
From The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky

What I applaud in The Outsider is its rejection of a thing we’ve become accustomed to of late: clean, smart label-making mindset. Complexity must exist, opposition even. We are all multitudes, to borrow from Walt Whitman who was ostensible an Outsider in his own day, publishing free verse in the midst of conformity. Had Emerson, a revered social leader in the New England Transcendental movement, never reached out with recognition, would Whitman have remained an Outsider?

Wilson’s The Outsider was an overnight sensation, probably because it explained human complexity in understandable terms. Twenty years after its publication, Wilson revisited the effects of his book and suggested it contributed to his own outsiderness:

T. S. Eliot told me I had achieved recognition in the wrong way, it was fatal to become known to too many people at once. The right way was to gradually achieve an audience of regular readers, and slowly expand from there, if at all.

Photo of Colin Wilson for "The Outsider" in the Examined Life Library.
Colin Wilson. Photograph by Marc Hill.

Ultimately, Wilson’s work is a review of the Outsider as a creative in the canon of Western/Russian literature. How could Wilson’s understanding be different, improved, had he considered outsiders of race, gender, health, sexual preference (Robert Mapplethorpe, Una Marson, James Baldwin and Stephen Fry to name a very few)?

I urge you to read The Outsider if not as anything definitive on life or mental health1 but rather a means for this complex human, Colin Wilson, to make sense and reconcile his own being, a beautiful thing at that. Accompany The Outsider with Oliver Sack’s life-long pursuit to understand and give personhood to individuals lacking what others might consider human elements, as well as the lives of Francis Bacon and John Keats, artists who existed very much in the bosom of social belonging. Bacon was deeply influenced by van Gogh and even copied some of van Gogh’s canvases. Warming himself at the fire.