Keeping Mr. Watts In the Basement

As I write about Alan Watts, or anyone I admire, I want one thing to be perfectly clear: he is still just a man. What's important is that he, in distinction among his peers, was able to write about the deep mysteries humans perennially face in such an entertaining, engaging way. His 'abstract' or transcendental teaching is what should be lauded and focused on. If you care to, interest yourself in the man himself, get to know the face behind this voice of wisdom, but don't elevate the face to a state of pedestalization. When you do that, people opposed to whomever's view would be justified in using any normal, material and human hang-ups to somehow discredit their extraordinary way of teaching that goes beyond the physical body in writing and waves of influence. Such it is with art. I'm hesitant in using the word teaching here because he frequently turned away from his guru label; he had nothing to teach and much more to share. He simply expressed a point of view that he enjoys. "Preachers err, [Joseph Campbell] told me, by trying 'to talk people into belief; better they reveal the radiance of their own discovery.' How he did reveal a joy for learning and living!" Bill Moyers said that in The Power of Myth on Joseph Campbell, and I see it ring very true indeed for Alan Watts.

Listening to Watts' lectures, there are less than a handful I'm familiar with where he doesn't make the crowd laugh. Humor, he explained most effectively by example, is pivotal to a world-view, including religion. Usually when people talk about the fundamentals of life, or who God is, what He does and why, they assume a serious attitude towards it as if they're taking a major oral exam. Watts took a different approach. He performed. 'Spiritual entertainer', he called himself. He was able to do this because he was speaking from honest experience and love for life. He wasn't trying to convert people to this or that way of thinking, he was just having fun being able to express himself in such a creative way, and always filled with laughter. He never expected his popularity to last forever, he just enjoyed it to the utmost while he still had time to; and it turns out, forty-four years after his death, his popularity and influence is still in effect due to his 'leading by following' in life. When you come across someone demanding respect or recognition, they are more than likely least deserving of it. A king who has to constantly shout, "I am the King!", is no true king (see: Joffrey in Game of Thrones). A leader who has to constantly keep his subjects in line behind him is usually the least equipped to lead. Alan Watts on the other hand did well to propel his contemporaries forward by not assuming leadership, but leading nonetheless. You almost can't pin this sort of ideal leadership down, and it's usually (ideally) unknown to the person 'leading'. His "leading nonetheless" is soft leadership, and not meant to mean Watts was leader and everyone else followers. He just had a way about him, an unassuming and kind wisdom and coolheadedness. He wasn't commanding with, "Thou shalt.." or "You ought to..", there was no one even to command!, but simply, "I'm having a lot of fun here." People were attracted to that attitude of themselves, drawn away in his day from the societal disease of justifying existence by participating solely in the economy, which was felt increasingly as unreal. Although, even felt as unreal, it commanded an entire society — generations, into joining the rat race.

Alan Watts' type of following is always the most constructive. To begin with, the person followed must be honest in their expression. Check. From that come the genuine followers, who are interested not in any gimmick or secret information to attain, but for the sincere enjoyment of the art, of whatever the followed is playing at. It should be noted as well that only genuine art can be separated from the artist. I'll go further.

Watts had a knack for "writing beautifully the unwriteable," and was at the forefront of exposing the West to the culture and philosophy of the Far East. He himself was a Westerner, born in England, but had a rare ability to jive with a completely different culture with just as much ease as his own. He was able to not only write of the Far East but also relate it to people of the West in a digestible way. He oft-spoke of key principles in those far away philosophies and religions in terms of our own. Doing this he made his writing at surface, familiar and undaunting, which in turn made it more easily accepted or even considered by our impatient and young society, at present unable to comprehend or entertain the same concepts in different terms than their own.  

There are several popular points used to discredit Alan Watts the man, and with that, his work. Now, if Watts himself were someone other, anyone else you could imagine, the writing that came forth would be just as meaningful, impactful, and important as it is with our goofy Englishman behind it. On another hand though, it was only that exact Englishman with those exact experiences and that exact upbringing who could write what he did. Really, only in imagination could the author be replaced with another, but relevant to the point of his work transcending his particular body. Beside the point of defending, defusing, or debunking those claims, it simply does not matter in relation to his message. It could indeed be discussed, but used as an end for discrediting, misplaced. To mention one for this point, though, he had a reputation in his later years of being a heavy drinker. Some people will use this to say, "His message couldn't possibly be genuine. How could an alcoholic possibly feel the way his writing portrays?" To choose just one way of answering that, and to use something I discovered through Watts in the Greek philosopher Herakleitos; panta rhei, or "everything flows." That is to say here, any glimmer of so-called enlightenment that one happens to realize is not permanent, but is only recognizable in relation to "un-enlightenment." His insight was as real as his drinking, although at surface contradicting, they do not cancel one another out, but instead amplify and highlight. The front end and the back end of a pencil are contradicting and opposite, but inseparable and necessarily unified. To examine the pencil closer, say to cut it in half and dissect the details, you would find you now have two fronts and two backs of a pencil. I hope you see what I'm getting at here.

Now back to actual separation of artist from art. His drinking was temporal, ending with his body; his insight expressed in writing though, is timeless and changing lives right now. It is easy to get swept up in the adoration of a person you admire, but what rises must fall. If you raise a person up to such an unsustainable level, "kicking them upstairs", you invite the necessary backlash that brings them back down to the ground floor. By doing so, in the eyes of the accuser, this effectively renders the work compromised. We humans are imperfect, so to shadow over his art an unrealistic image of a perfect man is to miss the point and to endanger the credibility and acceptability of his writing. This looking past his faults is not to ignore them, but to understand that fundamental of his personal philosophy — panta rhei. There is no need to pick a particular moment to judge someone, life flows; by judging and damning one another you're trying to catch a river with a sieve. To say differently, attempting to catch a flow of water is to kill the very thing that was valuable to you in the first place. You'll just have a plain old cup of water with all the power and beauty stripped from it. If you judge someone based on one moment in their life you are not seeing the picture clearly.

Only a genuine type of art could justifiably be separated from the artist and their transgressions, because they aren't suckering you into consuming their material. What you see is a doorway into the heart and soul of the artist. A genuine artist goes for broke, materially, emotionally or otherwise, desperately trying to help his fellow man understand life in new ways, to relate to people in a way that exponentially inspires more and more people — by accident of their expression. They teach without teaching, they laugh when the mood is light, they cry when the mood is heavy, they are with it and bringing you along for the ride. This type of honesty creates an inseparable unity between the artist and their product-from-the-soul, however at the very same time, their art transcends entirely the materiality and follies of man. It should be looked at in a wider view, appreciated for what it is at core, and not scrutinized through to each infinitesimal flaw ad infinitum. The core is expressed throughout a genuine artist's work, if only you resist distraction by ultimately petty moral conundrums flowing away from memory at a moment's notice, you will see it clear as day. A phony artist who is only in it for the commodity and status that goes with it create a representation of the greed and insecurity that is in the back of their head, guiding their purpose. This art reflects a desperate grasping at straws. Forever trying to oneup oneself to sell more, to be seen more, to whatever more. They are working towards a finite goal, and so their work is ultimately confined to this finite body, this finite life; never the Eternal Now.

You are probably familiar with the type of phony and the type of genuine I'm talking about here. "How he did reveal a joy for learning and living!" Alan Watts is the most genuine, impactful and skillful artist with words I have yet encountered. His transgressions are real, there may be many, however he sought not perfectibility and much less claimed it. The attempt to discredit him for simply being a human, subject to emotions and and the whole shebang, calls for a reminder from John 8:7 when Jesus said, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." For it is certainly true that whoever should cast judgement is more so encouraged to look within himself. One defense people use when confronted with this is, "Well, they did worse than me." That is moral pride and a deflection, to ease their conscience into being able to say further, "At least I'm not as bad as them." When in fact both are equally sinners, to use that Christian theme, and the measuring of moral compromises depends on the individual. Thus saying, "Yours are worse than mine," is purely opinion and not empirical fact.

Jesus himself was a follower who "led nonetheless." Mr. Watts has a famous lecture, titled rather explosively: On Being God (which you can watch here: To say generally, he spoke of Jesus' followers as taking the Incarnation — God made flesh — and expelling that flesh-made-divine in Jesus, back to the heavens as a sort of "Boss's son." These followers went further to explain away the attitude Jesus had as 'special privilege' from his real father, meaning altogether not the same as everyone else's Father. You see? And Jesus' special kind of enlightenment "stops right there." So after a long while building this up, Watts explains our mistake in "kicking him upstairs..", missing the message for the man, the forest for the trees, and you hear a woman in the audience exclaim, "Wooow!" Everyone else seemed to agree, because it was immediately followed by clapping and a cloud of laughter characteristic of someone being 'realized' out of a mental rut. This kicking upstairs of people we admire is misplaced and damaging, however well intentioned, which is why I've titled this post, Keeping Mr. Watt's in the Basement; and why I consistently try to turn attention to his core subject material, with the man as a joyful, laughing byproduct — to be appreciated but not adored, heeded but not pedestalized.


There are many artists out there in varying mediums; enjoy this one for a while.