I’m currently re-reading all of Alan Watts’ books, so it was especially interesting to discover that Bruce Lee was also a devotee of him. The only biography of Lee that I’ve read is Bruce Thomas’ Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit, and a glance through the index reveals no mentions of Watts throughout the book. I suppose I’ll have to get a copy of John Little’s book as well.
Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Slavery, universal and unquestioning religious faith, aristocratic government, disregard for the suffering of others: these are the very miserable grounds on which some of the major achievements of civilization in the past were built. Hence the thought: we cannot have those desirable things now, because we have got democracy, freedom of conscience, various kinds of equality (nearly), kindness and hygiene instead. If these really are the only options, then we do not have much choice.
The organic conception of civilization reinforces this view. It stresses the interconnectedness of everything that occurs in a particular society in a particular epoch. Therefore the achievements of a time and place are thought of as inescapably bound up with, and often produced by, the defects of the era. If the passage of time sees the removal of those defects it must also remove the possibility of parallel achievements.
According to this view the great public monuments of post-war Britain had to look like Milton Keynes and the Millennium Dome — because of democracy and a National Health Service and universal education and freedom of opinion. The seventeenth century could have as its greatest public monuments St Paul’s Cathedral and the other churches of Sir Christopher Wren because it has oligarchic aristocratic government, poor sanitation, short life expectancy, little freedom of opinion and little public education.
He doesn’t mention him by name, but this is obviously one of Nietzsche’s central themes. In fact, it’s one of the themes that most effectively resist appropriation by those who would turn him into some kind of bombastic life coach. Given his conscious defiance of “systematic” thinking, it’s always risky to identify what he “really” meant, but if you ask me — and even if you don’t, I’ll tell you anyway — I would say that Nietzsche was most concerned with culture, not individuals. Western liberal individualism was just more decadence as far as he was concerned. All his famous exhortations about the Übermensch were centered on the assumption that strong, healthy cultures would occasionally produce heroic individuals like a Beethoven or Goethe, whose artistic genius would redeem life for the rest of us, who are just here taking up space and doing the grunt work. This tendency didn’t go in reverse — heroic individuals did not regenerate weak, sickly cultures. Needless to say, he would have looked at our culture, seen a crass obsession with commerce, unhealthy individualism taken to the extremes of narcissism and solipsism, and a weak, neurotic concern with avoiding pain and injustice at all cost, and dismissed any further thoughts of cultural greatness with a disgusted wave of his hand. And yet, he might have said, for all your pride in your civilized harmlessness, you still have slave labor constructing your sports stadiums, and something very much like it building the technological gadgets which give your petty lives a semblance of meaning. You have no problem consigning countless millions of other sentient creatures to miserable lives and assembly-line deaths for the sake of your convenience. You can simply afford the luxury of removing cruelty from your immediate vicinity. Rationalist sleight-of-hand takes care of any uncomfortable remainders. Blood, you’re soaking in it. Always have been, always will be. The only question is whether you’re going to use it to produce transcendent greatness or self-loathing mediocrity.
However, we could employ the idea of civilization in a more hopeful way. We could see civilization as seeking to equal the best achievements of the past while disentangling them from the misfortunes upon which they once depended. The idea is that we could aim for the same level of civility, grandeur, grace and beauty, but without building on those obviously intolerable foundations.
Hopeful, indeed. Alan Watts used an odd-but-striking example that relates to this idea:
Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head’s effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together: they are all one cat.
The cat wasn’t born as a head which, sometime later, caused a tail; it was born all of a piece, a head-tailed cat. Our observer’s trouble was that he was watching it through a narrow slit, and couldn’t see the whole cat at once.
This, in turn, was one of Watts’s central themes — the idea that “good” and “bad”, “desirable” and “undesirable” are like the head and tail of the cat: inseparable. We simply aren’t able to stand up and look over the fence to see the entire cat at once, so to speak. We can’t attain the god’s-eye perspective from which we could see that no matter how hard we try to eliminate bad, unpleasant things from the world and preserve only the good things, it can never happen. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding, like trying to figure out how the cat’s head “causes” the tail. To strain the metaphor further, our attempts to scrub the world clean of undesirable things would be like trying to separate the head and tail of a cat, only to have each head generate a new tail, and each tail develop a new head.
Somehow it appears that the cat mutated into a hydra. Well, no matter. The point is, the idea of “desirable” and “undesirable” as integers which can be increased or subtracted is one of the foundational myths of post-Enlightenment Western culture. You may say, “Well, I greatly prefer the ‘problems’ of a middle-class Westerner to those of a medieval peasant.” I wouldn’t disagree. But that’s still a value statement, not an objective fact. Likewise, it’s a value statement to say, “Well, I’m perfectly content with the way things are right now. They’re good enough. No need to risk unintended consequences by messing around with further attempts at optimization.” The point isn’t that we can’t ever agree on a way to live and coexist. The point is that any such consensus will likely have to leave our cherished rationality and objectivity behind.
Or maybe it is: in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age. This is “panpsychism”, the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations. Koch concedes that this sounds ridiculous: when he mentions panpsychism, he has written, “I often encounter blank stares of incomprehension.” But when it comes to grappling with the Hard Problem, crazy-sounding theories are an occupational hazard. Besides, panpsychism might help unravel an enigma that has attached to the study of consciousness from the start: if humans have it, and apes have it, and dogs and pigs probably have it, and maybe birds, too – well, where does it stop?
…The argument unfolds as follows: physicists have no problem accepting that certain fundamental aspects of reality – such as space, mass, or electrical charge – just do exist. They can’t be explained as being the result of anything else. Explanations have to stop somewhere. The panpsychist hunch is that consciousness could be like that, too – and that if it is, there is no particular reason to assume that it only occurs in certain kinds of matter.
This seems like a perfect place to link to this Existential Comic about Chalmers and panpsychism, while strongly recommending that you peruse the entire archives and read a new comic there every Monday.
Now, then, you’ve heard me several times before express provisional agreement with Spinoza’s brand of panpsychism, so this time, I’ll change it up a little and cite Alan Watts saying pretty much the same thing, that while we commonly think of human intelligence as some sort of alien phenomenon in the universe, stranded in cold isolation as if it were “dropped” here with no hope of rescue, it may be both more comforting and accurate to think of it growing out of the world in the same way that apples grow out of an apple tree. From this viewpoint, conscious thought is a latent characteristic of “dumb, brute” nature, not an absurd aberration. Pile up enough rocks and dirt in the right conditions for long enough, and they’ll start “peopling”. If that sounds uncomfortably teleological and religious for your taste, well, just keep in mind that if Spinoza had lived anywhere else in Europe besides the Netherlands, he would have probably been executed for the threat his ideas posed to institutional religion, rather than merely being excommunicated and shunned. Entertaining the notion that consciousness could be a fundamental aspect of existence itself doesn’t necessarily lead to a belief in gods, souls and holy scripture.
In the literary milieu where he is ignored more than despised, John Brockman is about as well known as the first three digits of the number Pi.
“This crowd sees everything through the lenses of culture and politics,” he says. “But an understanding of life, of the world, can only come through biology, through science.”
Ebola, stem cells, brain research—Who needs the new David Foster Wallace, the new Philip Roth?
“The great questions of the world concern scientific news,” says Brockman. “We are at the beginning of a revolution. And what we hear from the mainstream is: “Please make it go away.”
…As man slowly seems to turn into an algorithm, this is then a consequence of the cybernetic thinking that has influenced and sustained Brockman in the world.
I shared this article with Arthur as part of an ongoing conversation we’re having about scientism, reductionism, and the popular modern delusion that life is essentially a problem to be solved by means of the hard sciences. All of this is itself part of our intelligence-gathering operations as he and I formulate plans for a possible Winter Offensive against Less Wrong-style rationalism and its Saint-Simonian underpinnings. (By “he and I”, of course, I mean that “I” plan to cheer him on as “he” sallies forth to wage intellectual warfare for which I am sorely lacking in weaponry.) From there, you’ll never believe how the conversation turned to mythology, Alan Watts, and surprising confessions of faith in trickster deities!
(Am I doing this clickbait thing right?)
When I read Marx, I thought that his key mistake was a negative view of utopia. That is, utopia is what happens automatically once you overthrow all of the people and structures who are preventing there from being utopia. Just get rid of the capitalists, and the World-Spirit will take care of the rest. The thought that ordinary, fallible, non-World-Spirit humans will have to build the post-revolution world brick by brick, and there’s no guarantee they will do any better than the pre-revolutionary humans who did the same, never seems to have occurred to him.
Kerouac was a staunch anti-Communist, but his beat philosophy seems to share the same wellspring. Once you get rid of all the shackles of society in your personal life – once you stop caring about all those squares who want you to have families and homes and careers and non-terrible friends – once you become a holy criminal who isn’t bound by the law or other people’s needs – then you’ll end up with some ecstatic visionary true self. Kerouac claimed he was Catholic, that he was in search of the Catholic God, and that he found Him – but all of his descriptions of such tend to be a couple of minutes of rapture upon seeing some especially pretty woman in a nightclub or some especially dingy San Francisco alley, followed by continuing to be a jerk who feels driven to travel across the country approximately seven zillion times for no reason.
Like the early Communists, who were always playing up every new factory that opened as the herald of the new age of plenty, in the beginning it’s easy to tell yourself your revolution is succeeding, that you are right on the brink of the new age. But at last come the Andropovs and Brezhnevs of the soul, the stagnation and despair and the going through the motions.
If you have any affection for Beatnik scripture in your heart, you might be offended by the brutally biased and uncharitable review Alexander gives On the Road here, but I thought this part made for an intriguing rest stop. That tends to be my opinion of Beat-style “liberation” as well — it comes off as compulsive, not joyful. As Camus said about the Marquis de Sade’s celebration of all things subversive and corrupting, it strikes one as “the fury of a man in chains”. It appeals to “the weak characters without power over themselves that hate the constraint of style”, as Nietzsche put it. Boundaries must be demolished for daring to exist, until the boundaries of one’s own selfhood are added to the ruins. Alan Watts was specifically critical of this unenlightened rebelliousness in Kerouac in his essay Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen:
Beat Zen is a complex phenomenon. It ranges from a use of Zen for justifying sheer caprice in art, literature, and life to a very forceful social criticism and “digging of the universe” such as one may find in the poetry of Ginsberg and Snyder, and, rather unevenly, in Kerouac, who is always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.
When Kerouac gives his philosophical final statement, “I don’t know. I don’t care. And it doesn’t make any difference” — the cat is out of the bag, for there is a hostility in these words which clangs with self-defense. But just because Zen truly surpasses convention and its values, it has no need to say “To hell with it,” nor to underline with violence the fact that anything goes.
…In the Dharma Bums, however, we are seeing Snyder through Kerouac’s eyes, and some distortions arise, because Kerouac’s own Buddhism is a true “Beat” Zen which confuses “anything goes” at the existential level with “anything goes” on the artistic and social levels.
Still, if you’d like to find a more sympathetic perspective on On the Road, here’s one at…The American Conservative.
What would happen if we proceeded from the reverse perspective and agreed to treat play not as some peculiar anomaly, but as our starting point, a principle already present not just in lobsters and indeed all living creatures, but also on every level where we find what physicists, chemists, and biologists refer to as “self-organizing systems”?
This is not nearly as crazy as it might sound.
If work is what must be done in order to go on living, the proper activity of That-which-Is will obviously be play. Reality is what exists without effort, Blake’s energy which is eternal delight. I have suggested that hide-and-seek, or lost-and-found, is the fundamental form of play because, at root, being is vibration. It is a state of yes/no, solid/space, here/ there, positive/negative, come/go, inside/outside, symbolized in the fundamental up/down motion of the wave. Rhythm lies at the heart of play, and thus various rhythmic actions are the primordial forms of delight-birdsong, the chirping of crickets, the beating of hearts, the pulsation of laughter, the ecstatic loss of self in drumming and dancing, the sonorous vibrations of voices and strings and bells. Absorption in rhythm can go on and on until energy fails, for when we survey the various cultures of mankind it appears there is nothing men would rather do than be lost all night in rhythm.
It fell to famously casual Jose Mujica, the Uruguayan president, to tackle a subtler evil plaguing humankind: the business suit.
“We have to dress like English gentlemen!” exclaimed Mujica, clad in a rumpled white shirt. “That’s the suit that industrialization imposed on the world!”
“Even the Japanese had to abandon their kimonos to have prestige in the world,” he continued, gesturing forcefully and rapping a pen on the table to punctuate his words. “We all had to dress up like monkeys with ties.”
Preach it, my brutha. This reminded me of one English gentleman who went in the opposite direction. Alan Watts used to dress “properly” throughout much of his career as a writer and speaker, but eventually came to favor, along with many others in the counterculture, looser styles of clothing like the Japanese kimono. Monica Furlong related one anecdote:
On another evening he met them for dinner at Simpson’s in the Strand. He was wearing a turtle-necked shirt and sandals, and the doorman politely declined to let him in.
“You don’t like my wear?” asked Watts in amusement. He went back to the Charing Cross Hotel to change, and reappeared, still wearing his sandals, but in a necktie and jacket.
“Are you happy now I look like all the other undertakers?” he asked.
It’s a good thing I lack professional ambition, because I loathe formal wear. Life’s too short to spend so much of it in voluntary discomfort.
I don’t have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.
I’m also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not.
I have a very vivid memory of a similar, well, conversion, if you want to call it that. Memorial Day, 1996. I had recently finished reading a book about World War 2; I’m mostly but not absolutely sure it was Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. Whatever the case, the sheer immensity of the horror and suffering across Europe as described in the book had deeply impressed itself on me, enough so that I entered into a period of, if not genuine depression, certainly existential malaise. I had never been a religious believer, but I had grown up surrounded by enough of the typical spiritual-not-religious worldview to have unthinkingly accepted some sort of vague “purpose” to it all, some “higher truth”, some way in which it all came out in the wash eventually. Soundgarden’s Down On The Upside had just been released days earlier, and I recall listening to the song “Applebite” on repeat for hours that morning, morbidly transfixed by the line “Grow and decay, grow and decay/it’s only forever.” The photo on the cover of the New York Times that morning was a black-and-white shot of two young blond girls in front of their home waving an American flag, which, along with the song, served as some sort of meditative anchor for all my brooding, nihilistic thoughts about the impossibility of any sort of cosmic meaning or justice in a universe that could passively observe the worst of what humans were capable of.
There was no epiphany that brought an end to it; over the next few years, I just eventually regained my psychological equilibrium, grew into the truth of that realization and wore it comfortably. My ability to believe in any sort of benevolent big scheme of things had been traumatized. I would eventually get to a point where I could relinquish it willingly, rather than feeling like it had been brutally stripped from me. I had to clearly see the utter lack of need for spiritual or religious beliefs, rather than have them argued or beaten out of me. For me, that came about through reading Alan Watts, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
The trend to mindfulness would seem to signal mass recognition of the need to slow down and pay attention in a turbo-driven, reactive society. Yet its migration from ashram to boardroom is not without tensions. High-profile Buddhists are taking off the gloves, albeit thoughtfully; they say mindfulness is part of a continuum—one of the seven factors of enlightenment—not a self-help technique or “a path which can lead to bigger profits,” as the Financial Times put it. And long-time practioners worry that mindfulness repackaged as a quick fix or a commercial platform could in fact lead to mindlessness, and reinforce the very problems it’s trying to heal.
…Donald Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, calls “secular Buddhism” an oxymoron: “Buddhism has always been a religion,” he says. “To see it as a way of life is a modern conceit that disparages the lives and religious practices of Buddhists over thousands of years.” The author of The Scientific Buddha, published in 2012, says belief that “mindfulness” is an ancient Buddhist practice is a fallacy: “There’s a cachet that comes from saying some ancient sage a millennium ago in India invented these things,” he says.
There’s an omnipresent tension between those who use religious teachings as a means of reinforcing an egocentric worldview and those who use them as challenges to it. Same as it ever was. I will note, though, that Alan Watts claimed Buddhism itself was a reinvention of existing traditions for the sake of particular needs:
Hinduism is not a religion, it is a culture. In this respect, it’s more like Judaism than Christianity, because a person is still recognizable as a Jew even though they don’t go to synagogue. Jewish people, coming from a long line of Jewish parents and ancestors who have been practicing Jews, still continue certain cultural ways of doing things, certain mannerisms and attitudes, so they are cultural Jews instead of religious Jews. Hinduism is the same sort of thing; it is a religious culture. Being a Hindu really involves living in India. Because of the difference of climate, of arts, crafts and technology, you cannot be a Hindu in the full sense in Japan or the United States.
Buddhism is Hinduism stripped for export. The Buddha was a reformer in the highest sense; someone who wants to go to the original form, or to re-form it for the needs of a certain time.
In panta rheism, such sectarian distinctions are irrelevant, of course. The headwaters are unimportant as meaning and truth can be found at any point along the river, wherever water flows.
A few weeks ago, as I was turning on the dishwasher before we left my place, she said something like, “Dishwashers are what’s wrong with the world.” Something about that sounded right. I asked her to explain.
“Life is composed of primarily mundane moments,” she says. “If we don’t learn to love these moments, we live a life of frustration and avoidance, always seeking ways to escape the mundane. Washing the dishes with patience and attention is a perfect opportunity to develop a love affair with simply existing. You might say it is the perfect mindfulness practice. To me, the dishwasher is the embodiment of our insatiable need, as a culture, to keep on running, running, running, trying to find something that was inside of us all along.”
We used to have to spend a lot more time and attention maintaining our basic possessions. Dishes had to be washed by hand, stoves had to be stoked, clothes had to be mended, and meals had to be prepared from scratch.
Little was automated or outsourced. All of these routine labors demanded our time, and also our presence and attention. It was normal to have to zoom in and slow down for much of our waking day. We had no choice but to respect that certain daily tasks could not be done without a willing, real-time investment of attention.
There’s some truth in that. Much of life is insignificant mundanity. I certainly prefer a life of relaxed, calm focus to one of frantic busy-ness. But still, I say — and not just because last month’s experience is still fresh in my mind — this strikes me as someone trying too hard. If you were inclined to be uncharitable, you could say it sounds a bit like spiritual one-upsmanship: “I appreciate housework on a deeper level than you do.” It sounds like what Alan Watts described, a hyper-conscious attempt to scrutinize every moment so as not to miss…some vague transcendant something-or-other.
In fact, I say that because I used to be the exact same way. I never had a dishwasher until I moved into this house several years ago. Back in my days of renting a house in the country, I stood at the sink thousands of times with my hands soaking in soap suds and my brain soaking in ideas from books about Buddhism and voluntary simplicity, taking quiet pride in how “mindful” I was being. Watching over my own shoulder, essentially, as if something profound would be revealed in how I scrubbed hardened pasta off a plate.
Like any activity performed deliberately and attentively, it could have a grounding, calming effect, sure. But that could apply to eating a bag of potato chips or picking your nose, too; there’s nothing sacred about chores, unless you’re still harboring the cobwebs of a Protestant work ethic in the corners of your psyche. And it could be argued that the most profound effect washing the dishes had on me was to fulfill my slightly control-freakish need to assert myself as master of my domain and put things in clean, efficient order, thus contributing to further alienation from the natural, messy, chaotic flow of life.
Humans seek out meta-levels of reality. It’s what we do. Perhaps it’s the definition of what it means to be human, to treat every action, every object, as a symbol of something else, as a link in an endless chain of contingent meaning. Seeking “deeper” meaning is an expression of that. Imagining a ceaseless state of love and acceptance which can be attained by concentrating one’s focus and will like a laser to burn through the veil of maya and perceive the pure truth behind is another expression of that. But there’s nothing more true or authentic about washing mass-produced utensils and plates in a sink with store-bought detergent and running water, as opposed to loading them up in the dishwasher, or lugging them down to the creek in a hand-built cart to scrub them with pine needles.
It may have particular benefits. It may contribute to you being a kinder, more thoughtful person. It may help you calm down after a stressful day. But if it doesn’t, you’re not necessarily doing it wrong, either. I don’t doubt that there are many people who feel most alive and perform at their optimal level in a frenetic environment and feel irritation and frustration when forced to move ponderously. I don’t relate to them, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be one of them, but I wouldn’t imply that they’re lacking some integral part of human nature, either. The contemplative sage is just one of many possible human permutations, by no means the ne plus ultra.
And daydreaming is just as integral a part of what it means to be human as anything else.