I proper love Alan Watts.
Falling in love with a rapscallion, English philosopher-mystic who, moreover, died in 1973, may not count as the most sensible decision of my adult life. But, on the other hand, ‘sensible’ is not the first word that leaps to mind when surveying the wreckage that passes for said adult life, especially around the ventricles.
Then, a couple of years back, his name cropped up in one of the most bizarre cinematic curveballs ever thrown, in Spike Jonze’s Her, a film in which a man falls in love with a computer operating system (yes, it’s a ROM-com). At one crucial juncture, ‘Samantha’, the sexy albeit disembodied OS, introduces her hapless human boyfriend (a pitch-perfect performance by Joaquin Phoenix) to another artificial intelligence called ‘Alan Watts’. He doesn’t say much — but clearly he and Samantha have a lot in common. “Theodore,” says Samantha considerately, “do you mind if I communicate with Alan post-verbally?”
I mean, what can you say to that? Go ahead, knock yourself out.
Alan and I have a special relationship too. It is not post-verbal, but it is posthumous. I crawl into bed with him every night. He doesn’t take up much room — what B-format paperback does? He doesn’t snore either and he’s totally not a blanket-hog. So, so wonderful.
I’m loving his life. In My Own Way is a delightful book. It’s an autobiography of someone who doesn’t believe in the ‘self’ or in the linear progression of events. So it’s a book to dip into and out of, as the narrative dances around chronologically, peppered with curious asides and delightful details (“I loved boiled eggs, and when my eyes were no higher than the edge of the table the appearance of eggs would set me to trotting around it saying, ‘Egg-egg-egg-egg-egg-egg…’” This image amuses me no end.)
His life often reads like a carnival parade of colourful characters. He describes J Krishnamurti as “a spiritual window cleaner”, and DT Suzuki as “a naïve intellectual — wisely foolish, gently disciplined, and simply profound,” but my favourite is his sketch of former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple: “He was immensely stout, and reputed to be a formidable trencherman. He had a belly laugh which could be heard for miles. It rang out like church bells bewitched by elves. It undulated the air so as to make weak leaves fall from the trees.”
Trickster, mystic, philosopher, guru, scholar, smoker, joker, gourmand, lover of women, reader of books, thinker of thoughts, writer of more than 20 books, twirler of silver-topped canes, pricker of egos, teacher, failed priest, father of seven, husband to three, friend, wise-ass, wanderer, poet, maker-up of terrible limericks, alcoholic, dropper of LSD, explorer of consciousness, delver into the mysteries of the universe, iconoclast, gazer-at of flowers, hugger of trees, sage, shade, dead person, alive presence, a loose agglomeration of oxygen, carbon and hydrogen molecules… Would the real ‘Alan Watts’ stand up?
This flibbertigibbet, this will o’ the wisp, started out as a precocious child and a voracious scholar. He quickly realised that his vocation in life was “to wonder about the nature of the universe.” In his search for the divine, he was even ordained into the Christian church in 1945 and spent several years trying to fit the role. But Watts was always too much of a shaman to be a good priest: “Priests follow traditions but shamans originate them… the shaman follows his own weird… he is ‘out of this world’ and credited with magical powers.”
He also had just too much panache for the Christian church — or any church, for that matter. Confronted by a US immigration officer who asked, “Whaddya carry a cane for? You sick?,” he replied, “Not at all… It’s just for swank.”
Rather like Theodore with his OS snuggled down in his ear, I curl up with my laptop and listen to Watts on YouTube. There’s reams, and reams, and reams of his stuff, largely an audio archive curated by his son, Mark. Watts Senior is a marvellous speaker. He talks right into you: intimate, informal with that sandpaper rasp of a devout smoker, laughter bubbling just below the surface. “I have always been aware of my own voice as a pianist is aware of his fingers,” he says, “I am unashamedly in ‘show-biz’. But then, so is everyone.”
“I do not… bother with the vicious circle of discovering my ‘real personality’ or make any special attempt to act naturally. I just put on whatever personal style seems appropriate to the circumstances, or entertaining to myself or others. Others may see a consistent personality underlying all these ‘acts’, but this must be their projection on my Rorschach blot, and this autobiography is my projection on the same. All interesting descriptions of human character are poetic, imaginative, dramatic, and fantastic, whereas all attempts at valid description are myopic, interminable, and dull.”
I know which one I’d choose. Which one I’d rather live by. Which one I’d rather have in my bed. “I find it difficult to relate to people who cannot admit to an element of the rascal in themselves… I distrust people who show no sign of naughtiness or self-indulgence.” Me too, Alan, me too.
If you can’t get hold of Watts’ autobiography, do not lose heart. Read The Wisdom of Insecurity, or The Way of Zen or any of his other books. And if you can’t be bothered to read, plug your headphones into your laptop, get a cup of cocoa and listen to this mesmerising, delicious, insightful, playful voice not for what he might teach you or what conclusion he reaches, but for the same reason as you listen to music.
I promise I won’t be jealous.