Thursday, March 22, 2012

Alan Watts - From Chislehurst to the Light of the World

The town of Chislehurst in Kent is mostly associated with a nearby cave system used as an air raid shelter during World War Two and a music venue during the Sixties which saw performances by Jimi Hendrix, The Who and The Rolling Stones. Reputedly haunted, they were once a site of Druid worship and human sacrifice.

Famous past residents of Chislehurst include world land and water speed record holder Malcolm Campbell, author Richmal Compton, French Emperor Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, punk singer Siouxsie Sioux and the great Zen philosopher Alan Watts who was born there in 1915.

I first became aware of the latter due to the Van Morrison song Alan Watts Blues on the 1987 album Poetic Champions Compose and whose lyrics incorporate a reference to Watts' classic Cloud Hidden Whereabouts Unknown book published in 1973:

Well I've got to get out of the rat race now/I'm tired of the ways of mice and men/And the empires all turning into rust again/Out of everything, nothing remains the same.

Watts was born into a middle class family in 1915, was schooled at Canterbury and as a teenager became a member of the London Buddhist Lodge associated with Christmas Humphreys. He then moved to America with his first wife shortly before the Second World War. Having engaged in Zen training in New York and received a master's degree in theology he became an Episcopal priest before moving to California in 1951.

Interpreting and popularising Eastern philosophy for Western audiences, Watts became a hugely influential lecturer and author. His most famous works alongside Cloud Hidden are The Way of Zen (1957), This Is It (1960) and The Book - Against The Taboo of Knowing Who You Are (1966) while his broadcasts for Pacifica Radio station KPFA in Berkley ran for two decades.

Watts had experimented with mescaline and LSD and once famously commented on the perils of psychedelic drug use "When you get the message, hang up the phone".

At the end of his life he split his time because a houseboat in Sausalito near San Francisco and a cabin on Marin County's Mount Tamalpais. He was a friend of Aldous Huxley and associated with the famous Druid Heights community in California - founded by Elsa Gidlow who was born in Hull and published the first ever volume of openly lesbian poetry. He died in 1973 at the age of 58 following a European lecture tour.

Watts' lectures are now widely accessible on the internet with background animations for some brief sections having been created by South Park animators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and others. These animations and other video footage accompany commentaries such as "Music and Life", "I", "You are God in the Dance of Life" and "The Earth is People-ing".

His written works may not constitute a necessarily easy read today though some collections of shorter excerpts provide excellent introductions to his thinking with interweaving discourses ranging from personal alienation to aesthetics and from individuality to our relationship with the environment.

My personal favorites are Watt's analysis of time itself - against the notion of how a ship cannot be driven by its wake - and a particularly wonderful discourse on Eastern religion and acceptance of death:

I find thinking about death is one of the most creative things one can do. To go to sleep and never wake up. Fancy that. It won't be like going into the dark forever. It won't be like being buried alive forever. It will be as if you had never existed at all. And not only you, but everything else as well. It never was there. No further problems. But wait a minute. I seem to remember something like that. That was just the way it was before I was born. And yet, here I am. I exist, and once, I didn't. Nor did anything else, so far as I'm concerned. And I always figure in life that a thing that happened once can always happen again. So I came out of nothing. But we say "You couldn't have done that because there's nothing in nothing to produce something". But it's not true. It's a fault in our logic. If you had Chinese logic, you would see it differently. You would see that you have to have nothing in order to have something, because the two go together.

Watts' written and oral legacy seems so totally relevant today to a world dissembling fast from everything we once held secure or worthy of deference - where the centre cannot hold and the future is literally unfathomable in a morass of greed, nepotism and the battle for resources. And that none moreso than in the land of his birth.

In these darkest of times such words remain engrained with sensitivity and accessibility alike and as transfused with warmth, wit and so much truth - Watts as one of most extraordinary Englishmen in modern history and a giant of intellectual thought and humanity.

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