The Outsider

October 29, 2011 § 46 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“I see too deep and too much.” Henri Barbusse 

“The visionary is inevitably an outsider.” Colin Wilson 

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Jiddu Krishnamurti 

“I get a kick out of being an outsider constantly. It allows me to be creative.” Bill Hicks

The outsider, by definition, is isolated in some way from the dominant thrust of society. They do not, like the majority, expect to find satisfaction in striving for material success and status, seeing these limited focuses as necessarily generating a mediocre and myopic existence.

What others accept easily, the outsider has trouble accepting.  They tend towards pressing the issue — “But why does it have to be this way?” And so within the restlessness of the outsider rests the seed of the visionary.

But no great visionary is comfortable in their time, or they wouldn’t be a forward-thinker in the first place. We are the misfits for whom the world feels strange. Common to this personality type is often a prevailing sense of dislocation, a feeling perhaps that home is somewhere but not here.

“What can be said to characterize the Outsider is a sense of strangeness, or unreality,” details Colin Wilson in his fascinating and influential book, The Outsider.  “This is the sense of unreality, that can strike out of a perfectly clear sky.”

“Good health and strong nerves,” Wilson continues, “can make [this sense of unreality] unlikely; but that may be only because the man in good health is thinking about other things and doesn’t look in the direction where the uncertainty lies. And once a man has seen it, the world can never afterwards be quite the same straightforward place.”

Literature is rife with stories of outsiders experiencing this moment in which the world is turned on its head, assumptions fall to pieces, and the truth of society’s blindness revealed — from Holden Caulfield to Siddhartha. Philosophy, and its accompanying questions of being and meaning, go hand in hand with the great literary tradition of the lonely hero who undergoes this disorienting transformation of consciousness.

Classic existential novels such as Sarte’s Nausea and Camus’ The Fall explore this relationship between the outsider and the crisis that awakens him from the sleep of the average citizen. A more modern example would be Haruki Murakami’s Toru Okada in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.

Common to the outsider and the existentialist is the feeling, as Colin Wilson mentions, of unreality. Described below in an excerpt from T. S. Elliot’s classic poem, The Waste Land:

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,


I had not thought death had undone so many.


Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,


And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.


Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,


To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours


With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

Here we see the poet as outsider watching the daily trudge to work of the average citizen and feeling the life of the city somehow “unreal.” He notes how “each man fixed his eyes before his feet,” and that the sound of the clock striking nine o’clock, signaling the start of the work day, has a “dead sound.” Elliot is not — and does not wish to be — one of them.

Colin Wilson expands, “the Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. ‘He sees too deep and too much,’ and what he sees is essentially chaos.

“[…] When he asserts his sense of anarchy in the face of the bourgeois’ complacent acceptance, it is not simply the need to cock a snook at respectability that provokes him; it is a distressing sense that the truth must be told at all costs, otherwise there can be no hope for an ultimate restoration of order. Even if there seems no room for hope, truth must be told.

“[…] The Outsider is a man who has awakened to chaos. He may have no reason to believe that chaos is positive, the germ of life (in the Kabbala, chaos—tohu bohu—is simply a state in which order is latent; the egg is the “chaos” of the bird); in spite of this, truth must be told, chaos must be faced.”

The person who finds themselves alienated from the dominant thrust of society tends to have a more responsive emotional life, a more vivid imagination, a hungrier mind than their peers. Because of this sensitivity, they are more affected by the world around them than others — more easily hurt, but also more discerning, more astute.

Most outsiders don’t decide to be outsiders, but are born with an inner sense of difference, a sense of seeing or feeling, observing, more than others, often with a driving sense of purpose (however vague) and a lack of interest and/or ability to conform with the expectations of the status quo. Others are made into outsiders because of a particular experience which separates them from the average person’s experience of the world — perhaps an early encounter with loss, a difference in appearance or desire.

Whether the cause for their difference is  a priori or posteriori, the outsider is invaluable to society. As Wilson asserts: “The vitality of the ordinary members of society is dependent on its Outsiders. […] It is their strenuousness that purifies thought and prevents the bourgeois world from foundering under its own dead-weight; they are society’s spiritual dynamos.”

As Arthur O’Shaughnessy wrote in his lovely Ode:

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

The qualities for which the outsider is ridiculed may prove to be his greatest asset – his difference from others, obsessions, introversion, unconventional perspectives, all fuel the landscape of creation. In his article, “Creative Thinking,” Michael Michalko muses, “Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken.”

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