Real Fiction

Exploring the nexus of reading and writing

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The Outsider

Starting one’s journey toward self-realization

This is one of those rare books by a contemporary author, or author of any era, which helps one understand the works of celebrated writers, philosophers, and a few artists, in this case, by putting them into perspective with each other and within a conceptual framework that gives the reader an overall comprehension of their respective contributions to man’s understanding of himself.

Another book which I found to be similarly helpful, although different in tone and approach, is one by philosopher and academic Philip H. Rhinelander.

I have long admired the written work of Colin Wilson and have also listened to him on taped radio interviews which, unfortunately, I have lost through being so peripatetic.

I believe the first book of Wilson’s I read is The Mind Parasites, around thirty-five years ago. Since then I have read many more of his books, having lent some out indefinitely, it seems. The ones I have managed to retain, in addition to The Mind Parasites, are:

The Outsider, first published in 1956 when Wilson was 24, rocketed him to fame, yet I hadn’t read his most widely known book until recently. Here is a synopsis:

…an insightful work of literary and philosophical criticism—a timeless preoccupation which perhaps garners more mainstream attention than his subsequent writings on the occult and crime. The book is structured in such a way as to mirror the outsider’s experience: a sense of dislocation, or of being at odds with society. These are figures like Dostoevsky’s “Insect-Man” who seem to be lost to despair and non-transcendence with no way out.

More successful—or at least hopeful—characters are then brought to the fore. These include Steppenwolf and even the hero of Hesse’s book of the same name—and 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”—a narrative he continues throughout his oeuvre under various names… [Source].

Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013)

The Outsider has been and will continue to be, especially valuable to me because in it Wilson discusses many of the authors and their works I have read, some mentioned in the pages of this journal, including:

In no way have I given you the essence of The Outsider in this brief discussion. It is a very important book to start one on one’s journey to self-realization or to help the older of us to make course corrections toward realizing our fullest possible potential.

I can say that engaging in armchair philosophy might be helpful, but insufficient. One must act.

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When Does Boyhood End?

Over the years, I have read and re-read these books:

Robert Pirsig (b. 1928) and his son Chris (1956 - 1979)

Robert Pirsig (1928-2017) and his son Chris (1956 – 1979)

There may be a common thread among all these, and there certainly is in the last two. In each of these two, an old Greek teaches a much younger Englishman how to grow up, according to each mentor’s way. In The Magus, the pupil never quite gets there.

I recently was perusing the editor’s introduction to the revised 1978 edition of The Magus where I read that Fowles was influenced in his life, generally, and for the writing of this book, by his childhood love of three books:

This lead me to look for these books on the Internet and this search brought me to an obituary of Fowles, he having died in November 2005. I hadn’t heard of his death and it briefly saddened me. I was fascinated by this obit and a book review of his biography by Eileen Warburton. Then I came upon this 1996 article by John Fowles, himself, on the influences underlying The Magus. What riches the Internet brings us!

John Fowles

John Fowles

I read the three favorite books of Fowles’s youth, the first two being much quicker reads than Great Expectations. As I began this last of the three, I was surprised to see that I had not previously read the book, despite (or perhaps because) my father carried richly-bound Dickens books with us whenever we moved, which was often. How many times have we read in general literature reference to “Miss Havisham”?

I was prepared to hurry through ‘Expectations’ as I had the other two but found myself bound to slow down to closely read the rich dialog and unsurpassed characterizations. And what characters with such names: Mr. Pumblechook, Mr. Wopsle, the heartless Miss Estella, Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt whose name we are never shown, “Old” Orlick who is not much older than Pip the young principal of this story, the hapless Pocket family, the lawyer Mr. Jaggers, and many more.

Through the reading of these books, articles, and obits I am now able to appreciate The Magus even more fully. As a sometimes writer, I find it enlightening to learn how an author’s life experiences affect his writing.

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Darkness, and Light

Exploring the Limits of the Human Soul, in Two Books

The books are: “Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad; and, “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” by Willa Cather. Among other parallel attributes, the two novels show us the geopolitical forces of the times and places of their narration. 

“Heart…” is well known, but “Death…” is not as much, and should be, if for no other reason than as an antidote to the visions Joseph Conrad conveys to us. There are, however, other reasons, discussed further below.

A book important to one’s understanding of Conrad’s experiences and his development of “Heart of Darkness” is “The Dawn Watch,” by Maya Jasanoff, who “brilliantly places Conrad as a pioneer of understanding the forces that shape the modern world… Captain Korzeniowski [Conrad’s original Polish name] meant to stay three years in the Congo, but after just five months of navigating the great waterways between Kinshasha and Kisangani, he resigned, chronically ill and an emotional wreck. He retired to Switzerland “in a state of psychological and moral despair” convinced of “the universal potential for savagery, and the hollowness of civilisation…” But he brought back more from the expedition than dysentery and depression. The notes and jottings the captain had made on his journey infiltrated their way first into the manuscript of a novel named “Almayer’s Folly” that he worked on upriver to keep himself from boredom and madness; then into a short story called An “Outpost of Progress”; and finally, in 1899, into what would become his most famous novel, Heart of Darkness. (Source)

The Europeans who had invaded and enslaved the peoples along the Congo River were not constrained by ordinary social structures—only by the commercial considerations imposed by the Belgian company who bought and marketed the ivory they took, stole, from the country; they were otherwise free to act as they will, becoming beasts, in the worst sense of the word.

The fictional man at the heart of Conrad’s darkness is “Kurtz,” made even darker and more memorable by a film derived from the novel, “Apocalypse Now,” in which Kurtz is played by Marlon Brando.

Marlowe, the narrator of “Heart of Darkness,” as he proceeds hundreds of miles up the river toward Kurtz, describes the jungle in vivid details, and the horror that its alien nature directly imparts to him.

Kurtz has lived for years as the only European (with one unimportant exception), further up the Congo River in a jungle distant from anything that could possibly be called civilization. He has seen into the depths of his own soul and has therefore seen the truth of the soul in all humans, and he has acted upon what he finds there. He has become as a god to the people he lives with. The ‘truths’ are what Kurtz imparts before his death to Marlowe. Kurtz’s final words are “The horror, the horror.”

In contrast, the book “Death…” provides loving and colorful detail of the mountains, hills, and desert of southwestern USA, especially New Mexico of the mid-19th Century, even though similarly alien to the protagonists of the story, two French Catholic missionary priests.

The two books are much alike in at least one respect: poetic use of the language. The opening pages of “Heart…” are like a tone poem in its description of the London harbor at dusk, and in other passages. Likewise, in “Death…” the author, Cather, flows her words over the page in loving paeans to the land, especially, and to the human interactions of the two priests. I want to read aloud portions of both books to a receptive audience.

The human interactions of the priests include those with the church hierarchy in Italy, the native peoples of the land, the Mexican settlers with their mixed Spanish heritage, and “American” military, settlers and outlaws.

The priests, especially the archbishop, are exemplars of humility, kindness and wisdom. They are not superior humans but, have a characteristic not found in the Europeans in the Congo: they are respectful of life—all life—and of the earth.

The priests and their love of the people and the land, as depicted by Willa Cather, become objects of the reader’s love. Whereas, poor Marlowe is pitied, yet the reader is hopeful that he will recover and will have gained a degree of enlightenment which will comfort and sustain him.

The real meaning of enlightenment is to gaze with undimmed eyes on all darknessNikos Kazantzakis.