“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’…”
The book is structured in order to mirror the Outsider’s experience: a sense of dislocation, or of being at odds with society. These are figures like Dostoyevsky’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 novelSteppenwolf). 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.
The book has never been out of print since publication day in May 1956 and has been translated into at least 30 languages. Wilson helped to keep the work fresh by adding to it over the years: the 1967 paperback edition included a fifteen-page postscript; a ten-page essay ‘The Outsider, twenty years on’ was added to the 1978 edition; and in 2001 an index appeared for the first time alongside fifteen pages of postscripts originally written for a Chinese translation. It is still published with enthusiastic comments from the likes of Edith Sitwell and Cyril Connolly adorning its cover.
Wilson followed The Outsider with six philosophical 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 summary volume Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966). These were accompanied by a string of novels aimed at putting his philosophical ideas into action.”