For thousands of fans, he made philosophy thrillingly relevant. Yet there is a deep unsavoury undercurrent to his worldview/
Colin Wilson on Hampstead Heath in 1956. Photo by Mark Kauffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
Which would you prefer: low to middling success your entire writing career, or a sudden rise to global fame, followed by an equally steep descent, then the rest of your career an anticlimax? While most writers get the former, Colin Wilson experienced the latter.
Wilson was a working-class high-school dropout, who escaped from a succession of boring jobs in Leicester to become a sort of British beatnik, travelling around the country with a knapsack full of books – Nietzsche, Plato, the Bhagavad Gita – and a burning sense of his own genius.
He moved to London and, aged 24, wrote The Outsider, a book on the alienation and meaninglessness of modern society, celebrating the rare superior individual who searches for a solution. He gathered quotes and anecdotes from his favourite artists, novelists and thinkers: Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Hesse, Sartre, Gurdjieff, Ramakrishna.
The Outsider was a reaction to what Wilson felt was the absence of outlets for heroism in modern British society – his generation had missed the war, there was no longer an empire for adventures, or much of a church in which to become a saint. And Britain’s rigid class structure suffocated opportunities for bright people from outside the Oxbridge upper-middle classes. Wilson offered his readers an escape – a DIY course in intellectual spirituality that anyone could follow, as long as they had the intelligence and self-belief.