Oral Philosophers Part II:
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
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
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
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