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Oral Philosophers Part II:
Alan Watts


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
July 24, 2006

While Ted Turner and the Internet have kept Jean Shepherd going strong, Alan Watts, who history will likely judge as vastly more influential, has almost completely vanished from view. Some of the larger chain bookstores may carry one of two of his titles in the Eastern Religion/Philosophy section, but these books seem to be selected at random. The radio stations that run repeats of his "lectures" have almost all dropped him from their schedules. (KGNU still carries a half-hour sliver of his material, much of it originally recorded for hour slots, on Tuesday mornings.) MP3s of his work are pretty much exclusively available from the folks managing his estate. For the last month or so, YouTube has hosted a collection of short TV clips from his final, dissolute days, and these may well vanish if word of their existence leaks too far. You can search for them yourself rather than have me provide you with a link and possibly violate the DMCA in the process.

While Jean Shepherd was a tangential figure in what has come to be known as the counterculture, an anti-Establishment movement that began in the 1950s and which by the end of the 1970s had become largely absorbed into mainstream culture through the process of commercialization, Alan Watts played a central role in all the hubbub.

Alan Watts, a British priest who came to the U.S. to find a new life as an intellectual, can be held responsible for the "go with the flow" side to the counterculture. He was an early student of Eastern philosophy who successful repackaged it a way that appealed to middle and upper-middle class Americans who had acquired enough leisure to become dissatisfied with their hollow lives. Watts was massively prolific, writing dozens of books and producing large quantities of radio and TV material that originally aired on public broadcasting outlets in California during the time before the academic establishment, Teletubbies, and "supporters" who are really advertisers co-opted those media. Alan Watts played at being a professor much more effectively than Jean Shepherd did and even got Harvard to take him in for a while. (In Shep's defense, he was a star attraction at Princeton for an annual show that became an annual ritual there.) Unfortunately, the pap that the Watts estate currently allows onto the air lacks the depth and variety of the material that could once be heard. Only recently, it dawned on me that I had never once heard Alan Watts speak over the radio while he was alive. He died in 1973 and I began listening to him the following year, but he seemed very much alive to me.

I do not recall how I discovered Alan Watts on KPFK, the Pacifica station in Los Angeles, but somehow I ran across him in the later years of my life as a Caltech undergraduate. I do remember the topic of the first radio lecture that I heard—it was about Chuang Tzu, whose name can be spelled and pronounced in any number of ways. Chuang Tzu, was a hardcore Taoist was the ultimate "go with the flow" guy responsible for wondering after dreaming he was a butterfly whether he might just be a butterfly who was dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu.

Alan Watts, in his Americanized version of Eastern philosophy, has boiled it all down to pretty much a single message—something a bit more complex than "go with the flow;" however, that phrase can be viewed as a corollary to the message. The message is that that everything in the universe is "one thing" and that one thing is identical to the religious concept of "God." Watts would sometimes put it something like "you are God pretending not to be God so that he does not get bored."

There is one problem with this verbal characterization, something that Watts was very upfront about, and that is that the nature of the universe is something that is "beyond words." You can read my bastardization of Watts's bastardization of Eastern philosophy in the previous paragraph and it will not do you much good. Watts was a big proponent of the Zen notion that actively striving to be enlightened was a profoundly counterproductive enterprise.

Alan Watts would be just another pretentious mystic were it not for two things. First, he had a way with words. He spoke with a sublime British accent and his voice was often suffused with joy. Although some of his more academic writing plods away, his best work approaches that of a later exponent of Eastern thought who was no doubt directly or indirectly influenced by Watts, J.D. Salinger. Indeed, Joseph M. Williams's superb book on writing, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, uses a long quote from Watts as one of many examples of elegant writing.

The other thing that Alan Watts has going for him is that unlike his intellectual contemporaries, such as Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsburg, he was an across-the-board libertarian. His distrusted government because he saw government as asserting their divinity while denying the divinity of the governed. He never said nice things about the free-market system (given the hands that fed him that would have been sheer stupidity), but I never heard him say anything bad about them either. In an MP3 that I recorded from a WFMU webcast a few years when they were still broadcasting reruns of him, he talks about the crises facing New York City and how it was counterproductive for politicians to try to "do something" about it. He believed that "left alone" New York could manage just fine. Interestingly enough, once the city was left for dead in the late 1970s, it would soon spring back to life.

Watts also had an appreciation for things digital long before the "importance of being digital" was widely recognized. Moreover, like various California visionaries (Dick Feynman, Philip K. Dick, etc.) he saw that as an extension of the Yin/Yang principle that the underlying "reality" of the universe could well be digital. (Since both Watts and Feynman hung out at placed such as Esalen that promoted female nudity, it is likely that their paths crossed more than once.) While Watts did not seem outwardly quantitatively gifted, he did seemed to have an appreciation for modern physics that seemed more accurate and down-to-earth than the various charlatans who linked Taoism to physics in the years following the death of Watts.

Alan Watts was also an internally consistent individual. He lived on a houseboat in Sausalito and seemed content to indulge in alcohol and any women that his fame swept ashore. He did not start his own religion or hawk tapes and seminars during pledge breaks. He was a rascal and freely admitted it. He never promised happiness or anything concrete and repeatedly denied being any kind of guru. He offered a way of viewing the world and his audience was free to take it or leave it. He seemed at peace with the inherent futility of his actions, attempting to commit to words what was essentially wordless.

Alan Watts was an environmentalist before it became popular. His environmentalism appears to have been spurred by his seeing Marin County transformed from a spectacular wilderness into a suburban bedroom community. It would be interesting if Watts were still around to get his take on "global warming." I suspect that Al Gore might not be too happy with him.

Next time, I will move on to an oral philosopher who was very much not at peace with the world, a performance artist better suited to the structure of stage and screen than the free flow of radio. Ultimately a tragic figure, Spalding Gray made the fatal mistake of obliterating the boundary between his life and his art and in doing so lost both.

Copyright 2006 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to