Colin Wilson, English Author of ‘The Outsider’ and Other Books, Dies at 82
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: December 12, 2013
Copyright 2013 by The New York Times
Colin Wilson, a self-educated English writer who in 1956 shot to international acclaim with his first book, “The Outsider,” an erudite meditation on existentialism, alienation and creativity, but who incurred critical disdain for a string of later books about murder, sexual deviance and the occult, died on Dec. 5 in Cornwall, England. He was 82.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, his son Damon said.
The author of well over 100 volumes of fiction and nonfiction, Mr. Wilson became a sensation at 24, when “The Outsider” was published and instantly touched a deep nerve in postwar Britain.
Ranging over the voracious reading in literature, science, philosophy, religion, biography and the arts that he had done since he was a boy, “The Outsider” had an aim no less ambitious than its scope: to delineate the meaning of human existence.
The book’s central thesis was that men of vision — among them Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Nietzsche, H. G. Wells, T. E. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, Hemingway, van Gogh, William Blake, Nijinsky and the 19th-century mystic Ramakrishna — stood apart from society, repudiating it as banal and disaffecting.
“The Outsider is not a freak, but is only more sensitive than the average type of man,” Mr. Wilson wrote. He added: “The Outsider is primarily a critic, and if a critic feels deeply enough about what he is criticizing, he becomes a prophet.”
In years to come, actual critics would argue over whether Mr. Wilson was a brilliant synthesist or merely an accomplished aphorist whose work lacked methodological rigor. But on the book’s publication, most reviewers, including the distinguished English men of letters Philip Toynbee and Cyril Connolly, were lavish in their praise.
Though “The Outsider” was often described as a philosophical work, Mr. Wilson saw it as fundamentally religious. Unlike existentialists whose worldview, he felt, inclined toward a dour nihilism, he purveyed what he called optimistic existentialism.
“Sartre’s feeling was that life is meaningless, that everything is pure chance, that life is a useless passion,” Mr. Wilson told The Toronto Star in 1998. “My basic feeling has always been the opposite, that mankind is on the verge of an evolutionary leap to a higher stage.”
Mr. Wilson argued that it was possible for mankind to achieve this exalted state through the kind of transcendent experience that comes, for instance, in the presence of great works of art. Such transcendence, he maintained, had been rendered largely inaccessible by the grind of daily life.
Despite his hopeful outlook, Mr. Wilson was labeled one of the original Angry Young Men. That appellation, popularized by the British press, described a cohort of emerging writers, including John Osborne and Kingsley Amis.
He deplored the designation, and in fact had little in common with those writers. As the author of a work of nonfiction, Mr. Wilson was neither a dramatist like Mr. Osborne nor a novelist like Mr. Amis. He did not like them personally or artistically, nor they him. (Mr. Amis once tried to push Mr. Wilson off a roof.)
The label derived largely from an accident of timing. “The Outsider” appeared in May 1956, the same month that “Look Back in Anger,” Mr. Osborne’s acclaimed drama of working-class disaffection, opened in London. Like Mr. Osborne, Mr. Wilson came from a modest background in which intellectual pursuits were anathema.
But if Mr. Wilson was no Angry Young Man, with his lush Romantic hair and roll-neck sweaters he more than looked the part. The papers delighted in the fact that to save on rent while writing “The Outsider,” he had spent his nights on Hampstead Heath, the vast London park. They took to photographing him there, posed with his sleeping bag.
Mr. Wilson’s disdain for the contemporary human condition, coupled with his almost preternatural confidence in his own abilities, also played well with the British news media — at least until the almost inevitable literary backlash set in.
Colin Henry Wilson was born in Leicester, England, on June 26, 1931; his father, Arthur, worked in a shoe factory. As a boy, Mr. Wilson later said, he was aware that he differed greatly from the “vegetable mediocrity” surrounding him.