for Denise Sollenne
Readers of these Chronicles will know that Tom Bertonneau, one of the four founders of Anthropoetics (and the creator of its name) passed away in 2021 at the age of 68. His sister, Denise Sollenne, desirous of putting together a collection of Tom’s many online scholarly publications, has been preparing a volume now approaching its final stages. I was among the group of scholars who assisted her in making the selections after reading through his extensive bibliography.
In a recent communication, Denise pointed out to me that The Outsider by Colin Wilson, the subject of one of Tom’s essays, had played a major role in Tom’s adolescence. In 1956, Wilson had become an instant celebrity at 25 with that book, after which he wrote many others. Given its existential rather than literary-critical focus, I had not encountered Wilson’s writing in the course of my graduate study. Having now read The Outsider, which discusses a great number of creative spirits from the Middle Ages to modern times, all of whom can roughly be called “(proto)existentialist,” I was both impressed by the young author’s obvious intellectual maturity, critical judgment, and broad erudition—of particular note given his apparent lack of a university education—and on the other, amazed that a philosophical-literary work, which today would presumably interest only academics, had been a popular best-seller, bringing its author fame and fortune as (supposedly) one of the British “angry young men” of the fifties.
The title and thrust of Wilson’s book make what we cannot help seeing as a romantic appeal to the sense of what Heidegger called “thrownness” (Geworfenheit), particularly strong among adolescents of the bourgeois era forced to leave the Gemeinschaft of the family for the Gesellschaft of the outside world. Like Camus’ Etranger, Wilson’s title takes the point of view of the adolescent rather than that of the world that receives him. And his admirative reflections on a broad spectrum of outsiders from novelists like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Camus, and Hemingway to religio-philosophical thinkers like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to artists like Van Gogh and Nijinsky, an adventurer like T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), British public intellectuals H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, poets Eliot and Yeats and religious leaders such as George Fox (founder of the Friends/Quakers) and the 19th century Vedantist Ramakrishna, provides the reader with a full gallery of figures from whom to learn the techniques of survival in the margins of modern society. If we put ourselves in the place of an young English reader in 1956 witnessing the Existentialist vogue across the Channel, we can better imagine the attraction of this richly researched and clearly written manual of “outsiderism.” Wilson’s book is not autobiographical, but it suggests nonetheless the story of a quest, among all these outsiders, for the model the author and his reader would do best to follow.
Tom was deeply touched on encountering this book in his youth and maintained a lifelong devotion to the author. His two-part 2009 essay in the online Brussels Journal entitled “Colin Wilson: The Persistence of Meaning” discusses Wilson’s career from The Outsider through his late science fiction novels, ending with this paragraph:
I will live with my un-repayable debt to Wilson, whose bibliographies in his “Outsider” cycle formed the real basis of my higher education. Starting in high school, I simply followed them up.
Tom was an Outsider by choice, or perhaps by destiny. A UCLA Comp Lit PhD with an excellent dissertation, and as Denise’s bibliography shows, the author of dozens of scholarly articles in all the arts and in both high and popular culture, many of which could have become the basis of books, as well as a teacher highly appreciated by his students, he yet never held a regular university position—and in one case I know of, reluctant to demean himself in the role of a job-seeker, he seems to have quasi-deliberately sabotaged an interview for a tenure-track position. Tom’s “constitutional incapacity” (Girard’s term) for trying to make a good impression was surely far greater than mine. Yet had he received his doctorate in the 1960s instead of the 1980s, he would very likely have found, as I did, a solid professorial position.
If we would honor Tom’s expression of fealty to Wilson’s quest in the context of generative anthropology, we must ask ourselves how GA might become an important part of the intellectual life of one who pledged this fealty, and how Wilson’s quest as presented here can be understood as—let us not say satisfied by GA, but in any case nourished by it.
Wilson’s final chapters are not accidentally focused on religious figures as those who most fully grasped the essence of the problem, which is ultimately to find salvation by avoiding the pitfalls of self-destruction and sociopathy that threaten the Outsider-adolescent on his pathway to genuine maturity.
The last figure he turns to is the Imagist poet and essayist T. E. Hulme, whose career was tragically cut short by WWI at the age of 34. On the penultimate page of the book, Wilson sums up the essence of the Outsider’s quest by citing this paragraph from Hulme:
I have none of the feeling of nostalgia, the reverence for tradition, the desire to recapture the sentiment of Angelico, which seems to animate most modern defenders of religion. All this seems to me to be bosh. What is important is what nobody seems to realize—the dogmas like that of Original Sin. . . . That man is in no sense perfect, but a wretched creature who can yet apprehend perfections. It is not, then, that I put up with the dogma for the sake of the sentiment, but that I may possibly swallow the sentiment for the sake of the dogma. (Speculations, p. 57; emphasis mine)
The understanding of the attitude behind this paragraph is, I believe, one of the most important needs of our time.
The Outsider (Penguin Putnam, 1967, p. 279)
Let us do our best, then, to understand Hulme’s, and Wilson’s, point.
If there is one religious dogma that has a clear anthropological significance it is surely that of Original Sin. I discussed this recently in Chronicle 762, to which I will add here a point of clarification. If in the Genesis story God seems surprised and disappointed at Eve’s and Adam’s sin as spoiling what might have remained humanity’s “Edenic” future, we should note the parallel with the originary hypothesis. We must assume that the originary event/scene had a “happy ending,” and thus we might imagine that the proto-humans would now think that all their problems with mimetic rivalry had been solved. But a community’s members do not remain always together, and outside the presence of the united group, these individuals have to rely on their own “conscience” of the interdiction—whence the possibility, and the eventual certainty, of one or more disobeying it.
The disappointment in realizing that the community could not rely on its new sacred-inspired self-consciousness to automatically maintain humanity’s originary harmony is a key element of all religious doctrines, whether it lead to a legal system as in Judaism, one of confession and repentance as in Christianity, or a pedagogy of emptying out the scene of representation and desire as in Buddhism.
Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths equate life with suffering, the cause of which is desire. The need to resist the sin provoked by desire is the fundamental religious dogma because it is precisely what religion, and humanity as such, evolved or was created to combat. Thus by an intrinsic irony, the problem of mimetic desire, apparently “solved” in the originary event, unavoidably became the apocalyptic threat that the human community, once saved from immediate self-destruction, would be fated to spend the rest of its history in trying to defer for as long as possible.
That Wilson sees the Outsider’s most essential role, as Hulme does his own in the above paragraph, as reminding humanity of this conundrum suggests to us how Tom too may have understood his purpose in life; appreciating the “sentiment” of joy in life but only insofar as it helps us to bear the weight of our responsibility to defer our sinful desires—rather than simply putting them away from us, as Buddhism teaches its adherents.
Christianity and Buddhism, West and East, offer different advice to their believers, while agreeing on the anthropological foundation of the problem. But today we can say that if the Western approach takes more seriously our role in the world, and if the West’s long domination is the product of this seriousness, the crisis of our time reflects the—hopefully not definitive—failure of Western world-seriousness to maintain its moral seriousness by making desire serve not selfish pleasures but communal needs. This is after all the West’s main historical accomplishment: sharing the benefits of world-knowledge with the community, in contrast with the Eastern formula of putting away individual desires in submission to worldly authority.
I don’t recall Tom ever talking to me about original sin, but his life seems to me to have reflected his concern with it, in his intellectual interest in the phenomenon of desire, as analyzed by Girard and GA, and in his personal way of dealing with it. Tom never had much to say about Buddhism either, but I detect in his career something of an Eastern attitude toward desire and its objects; in particular, a reluctance to seek the rewards of academic success or to accept any authority in our institutions of higher learning other than that of a teacher with his students. A teacher assigns and grades papers and lets his students speak only after he calls on them, but this authority is rooted, in the first case, on the teacher’s pedagogical duties, and in the second, in the need for the class to function efficiently as a community. Such forms of authority should never in themselves generate in the students a sense of injustice.
To the extent that Hulme’s paragraph describes the path the Outsider should take in his worldly activity, I think we can say that Tom’s career embodied it perfectly in the sphere of action he chose for himself. The kind of affection he earned from his students was not that which a graduate student has for his dissertation director. There was no element of emulation; the student and the professor were not part of the same “field.” Tom’s students’ experience was of the generosity of an over-qualified teacher of non-elite undergraduates, treating them with every respect for their humanity and seeking to convey to them the ability to appreciate the treasures of our culture.
I am aware of many testimonies that Tom’s teaching was for his students a very special experience. As a teacher who never held a permanent (tenured) position, Tom was not so different from the itinerant religious sages discussed by Wilson. No doubt he had no dogma to teach; but particularly in an era that has been drifting ever farther from the ideals of Western, and indeed of any civilization, I know that Tom increasingly saw his teaching mission as a way of counteracting the smug dogmas—of a very different kind than those Hulme referred to—that have come to pervade the academic world. Dogmas that teaching in Mount Pleasant or Oswego rather than at Harvard or Stanford (if you have a strong stomach, take a look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orzuClSpGCc) made no doubt much easier to avoid.
And in counterpoint to the dogma of original sin, there is a kerygma of classical learning and respect for its masterpieces that few preached with the same intellectual joy as Tom. His students will remember his classes throughout their lives as having revealed to them our culture’s depth and wisdom, in contrast to the contemporary trend of denouncing its “inequities.”
One final point; although an Outsider in spirit, Tom in no way despised the “bourgeois” life. He was happily married to Susan, a fellow UCLA PhD (from the French Department) and remained close to his parents and sister. And his son Joseph has every reason to be proud of him and to cherish his example.