Re-Kindling Alan Watts, Part One | Counter-Currents Publishing

Posted: January 5, 2018 at 10:46 am

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Alan W. WattsBehold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical ReligionNew York: Pantheon, 1947; reissued with a new Preface, 1971Kindle, 2016

For God is not niggardly in his self-revelation; he exposes himself right before our eyes. Alan Watts

What was needed was not some new religious cult but some simple way of accessing religious or mystical experience, of the sort that must have been known to the monks and cathedral-builders of the Middle Ages. Colin Wilson[1]

Praise be to Amazon! Thanks to their Kindle technology, Ive been able to relocate here to Central Europe (a certain city beginning with Buda and ending with Pest) and bring most of my library with me!

Contrary to the fears of the Luddites, new technologies do not at least, not always destroy or occlude the products of a previous technological stage; in fact, as McLuhan pointed out, the content of a new medium is the old medium.

Thus printing did not replace manuscripts but made them accessible (thereby eliminating the need for universities, as McLuhan also pointed out). Greedy record companies, desperate for content, issued collections of 78s on LPs (and later, LPs on CD); thus did Harry Smiths Anthology of American Folk Music, 3 double LP sets, rescue dozens of pre-War artists from obscurity, and sparked the folk music revival.

Speaking only for myself, I can say that the development of the epub technology, specifically Amazons Kindle, has not only made whole libraries available for free or minimal cost (including mountains of un-PC Old Right, New Right, etc. materials hitherto moldering in barns, warehouses and filing cabinets), but has also made even books much easier to read, and thus more read.[2]

Case in point: Alan Watts, and the book under review.

After discovering the works of Alan Watts in the early 70s, in the form of Sunday morning radio broadcasts,[3] I proceeded to compulsively acquire and read his books, from the earliest The Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East (1936, at the age of 21) to his most recent, the posthumous collection Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal (1973) and Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975), a collaboration with calligrapher Chungliang Al Huang who also finished the text after Watts death in 1973. Eventually, I even acquired some obscure incunabula, such as his hand-written The Art of Contemplation: A Facsimile Manuscript with Doodle (1972), and even a reprint of his translation of the 1944 Theologia Mystica: Being the Treatise of Saint Dionysius, Pseudo-Areopagite, on Mystical Theology, Together with the First and Fifth Epistles.[4]

Among those works was, of course, Behold the Spirit (1947), which had also been recently reprinted with a new, rather diffident, Preface from Watts. Like the similar preface to his later, Traditionalist work, The Supreme Identity: An Essay on Oriental Metaphysic and the Christian Religion (1950), it gave Watts current views, while almost seeming to discourage anyone from reading the main text.[5]

That was fine with me; I was happy enough to read his latest thoughts, and keep the book proudly displayed with the others.[6] And so it remained, until the kindle went on sale for $1.99, and I decided to free up some space and maybe finally take a look-see.

That rascal guru! That wily old shaman! He hid the best stuff in plain view!

Incredibly, I wager that most all of what would become his most characteristic themes, memes and crochets can be found here:

Union with Reality/God/Brahman etc. is and must be a present reality because it is timeless;

Therefore, any attempt to get or become it must fail, as such an attempt is based on the false assumption of its present lack; all such traditional methods (meditation, prayer, sacraments, etc.) must be understood rather as expressions of joy and gratitude for what is;

In fact, the frenzied pursuit of anything especially life itself is the surest way to lose it.

Nature/Reality/the Universe cannot be analyzed from some position of supposed separation and superiority; the attempt to do so results in a model of reality as a meaningless machine or collection of disconnected bits, a distortion and even outright illusion, no matter how much scientists and others perversely insist on it being the way things really are.

To avoid spiritual and perhaps historical catastrophe, Western Man must abandon the false alternatives of rugged materialism and prissy spiritualism and develop a thoroughgoing spiritual materialism.[7]

And so on; but expressed in the language of Christian theology specifically, the central principle of the Christian mythos, the mystery of the Incarnation, of the Word made flesh[8] and in the manner of 1940s-era Christian lay observers and popular theologians, a bit like C. S. Lewis or Fulton Sheen, but with a considerable amount of the formidable intellect and range of reference of an Etienne Gilson or Jacques Maritain.

Watts writes as a Thomist,[9] but one whos read at least Coomaraswamy, if not Guenon (but certainly not Evola[10]), although the book makes no references to Traditionalism and Traditionalists as such (unlike his next book, The Supreme Identity), and the text is the stronger, more compelling, and less dated, for that reason.

According to Wikipedia, where the book has its own mini-article,

This book is the most extensive example of his early effort to find a non-dualistic interpretation of Anglican theology in terms of The Perennial Philosophy as expounded in Aldous Huxleys contemporary work of that name and later made popular in the talks of Joseph Campbell. Its importance lies partly in its exposition of Watts earliest attempt to reconcile traditional Anglican theology with a mystical, Buddhist based approach, but also as a personal expression of the mystical experience.

Incredibly, this was apparently written as a masters thesis (M. Div., Seabury Theological); which becomes even more amazing when you remember that this is the only earned degree Watts every acquired, even beforehand.[11] Thats right, Watts never acquired a B.A., and pretty much never attended a college or university;[12] his ability to simply enter a theological seminary and master its contents within a few months might, with some modesty, be a tribute to the value of a British public school education as well as native ability.[13]

Impressive enough as a demonstration of academic pseudomorphism, and providing a bit of nostalgia for those of us who lived through similar environments, it does show the corresponding vices. In particular, one notes the tendency academic, but itself a function of the Scholasticism that formed the modern academy to spell everything out, hunt down every last detail and implication, and delight in restating positions in one new way after another. One is certainly glad that the post-academic Watts pruned back this sort of thing considerably.[14]

The New Right reader who lacks such a background may nevertheless be able to get a grip or find a foothold here, and may even be at an advantage, as Watts starts off rather boldly by dabbling in the idea of world ages a la Spengler or Joachim of Flores (the origin of the Third Whatever meme) or the (unknown and unmentioned) Yockey; a fairly brave choice, at a time when all things German were identified with Prussian martinets if not outright Nazis, and indicative of Watts surprising (to some) Rightist sympathies[15] (of which more anon).

In his 1971 Preface Watts downplays his talk of world ages in the opening chapter, saying he no longer believes in historical timetables and New Ages, but the New Right reader may well find his discussion of Spengler of some interest today. Just as Yockey tried to re-tool Spenglers Caesarism into a revival of Imperium rather than a dead end, so Watts modifies Spenglers idea of the Second Religiosity.[16]

Due to what Watts calls an exceedingly superficial philosophy and a certain emotional immaturity, Spengler

Sees that the Second Religiousness employs the Springtime or infancy forms of religion, but does not seem to realize that they are understood in a new, interior and spiritually creative sense.

Where Spengler can only see regression to decadent or infantilized forms of a cultures original spirituality, a period of mush-minded mysticism, Watts observes that it is in such decadent periods that the profoundest spirituality of the human race appears (such Plotinus or Augustine).[17] Thus, for Watts, the Third Age is one of maturity and wisdom, not sclerosis and senility; and he points out that Christianity itself is a product of the Second Religiousness of Judaism, giving a mystical and interior interpretation to the primitive religion of the law and the sacrificial worship of the Temple.[18]

In the stage of infancy, the churchs moral teaching is of necessity authoritarian and legalistic.[19] In adolescence, intensely earnest and self-consciously heroic, following after extremely lofty ideals. In maturity, we return somewhat to earth, and find the source of morality neither in external authority, nor in remote ideals, but in the consciousness of God himself in the heart.[20]

Before unpacking the Third Age, and that new, interior and spiritually creative sense, lets try to understand what Watts is doing here. First, it is necessary to grasp what he is not doing. He isnt trying to prune away from Catholic Christianity[21] some supposedly man-made or pagan accretions, in order to arrive at a primitive gospel message, presumably all about Jesus, and thus both intensely personal and unique among world religions (No man comes to the Father). Nor is he trying to interest secular adults, or the kids, in a revamped Christianity more in tune with science or hip musical genres.

Watts has no problems with pagan elements (see next book, Easter Its Story and Meaning[22]) Christianity has always welcomed wisdom wherever it may be found, and these are its strongest, most vital periods nor any interest in proving the uniqueness of Christianity (what is the interest in a reanimated corpse? he asks).

The best approach might be to look at his subtitle and ask why, or how, is mysticism necessary? I would suggest it is necessary in two senses: it is a logically or psychologically necessary next step; and it is what is needed for religion to survive today.

Everyone knows (in 1947) the Church is dead or dying. There are plenty of remedies promoted, but they are all inadequate, because they are ad hoc, purely human solutions that take for granted that the Church is just another man-made institution that needs ongoing maintenance, like a bridge or subway. But if the Church is understood as part of a God-controlled design of history it must be understood to be undergoing a necessary, organic development along with and promoting the development of human consciousness.

In other words, as consciousness develops, so does religion.

Watts developmental model Father, Son, Holy Spirit is basically mapped onto Western[23] Church history: Roman Catholic, Protestant and what? To see the needed, necessary next step lets first unpack the first two stages.

Roman Catholicism is the religion of mans childhood,[24] where the soul is satisfied with mere symbols, the assurance given by authorities that something happened somewhere that will make everything alright, if one just believes hard enough.

Protestantism[25] is the religion of adolescence: rebellious, rejecting authority, requiring that things be written down (sola scriptura) and exhaustively explained (daily four hour sermons), like other honest business transactions (a religion of shopkeepers); and above all demanding the inner meaning of doctrine and dogma, not mere passive acceptance.

Protestantism goes along with modern science, and while both have provided us with much of values (hospitals, clean water, etc.),[26] the downside has been considerable.[27]The method of scientific analysis (as the word would indeed seem to imply) leaves us with a world made up of random bits, producing nihilism once you dissect the frog, its not a frog anymore while the obsessive examination of conscience produces an infinite regress or vicious circle of guilt and pride, leading to existential despair. [28]

Here we see what will be two of Watts favorite memes, the gyrating stupidity (as he calls it in Beyond Theology) of modern materialism, and the double bind dilemma of trying to be good, trying to achieve enlightenment, trying to answer the Zen koan, etc., which can only be solved if dissolved by being pursued to exhaustion like Sambos tigers and the subsequent giving up the futile struggle and just letting things be.[29]

But before exhausting ourselves as well, lets take a break, with a little something I call Excursus on Cradle Catholics.

Excursus: Cradle Catholics

And stay away from Anglo-Catholics; they are all Sodomites with atrocious accents.

- Brideshead Revisited

Despite Watts repeated warnings that designating states of consciousness as pertaining to childhood or adolescence carries no intent to denigrate them[30] children are not failed adults some, particularly Catholics themselves, may find it insulting or perhaps just inaccurate to locate Roman Catholicism in the childhood category.

It is interesting to note that some confirmation of this picture from a source contemporaneous with Watts and his book, and from the same Catholic (again, in Watts sense of Roman Catholic Anglican) milieu: Evelyn Waughs Brideshead Revisited.[31] In particular, the main characters seem to embody Watts notion of the Catholic state of mind.[32]

Take young Sebastian, here being interrogated by his new friend, Charles, exemplifying the mutual incomprehension of the Catholic child and Protestant adolescent:

But my dear Sebastian, you cant seriously believe it all.

Cant I?

I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.

Oh yes, I believe that. Its a lovely idea.

But you cant believe things because theyre a lovely idea.

But I do. Thats how I believe.

Well, I said, if you can believe all that and you dont want to be good, wheres the difficulty about your religion?

If you cant see, you cant

Well, where?

Oh, dont be a bore, Charles. I want to read about a woman in Hull whos been using an instrument. [85]

Sebastian clearly has imbibed his religious ideas (if one can call them that) from his mother, Lady Marchmain:

I [Charles again] said something about a camel and the eye of a needle and she rose happily to the point.

But of course, she said, its very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. Its not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. Its all part of the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side, of religion. [123]

No surprise she entertains the family with evening readings of Chesterton.[33]

By contrast, the eldest son, Bridey (the Earl of Brideshead; no Christian name ever provided), manifests childhood in the nerd register unworldly, self-absorbed, impolite and impolitic, yet so obsessed with dogma and ritual that the family feared he might become a priest. As Anthony Blanche tells us:

Theres Brideshead whos something archaic, out of a cave thats been sealed for centuries. He has the face as though an Aztec sculptor had attempted a portrait of Sebastian; hes a learned bigot, a ceremonious barbarian, a snow-bound lama. . . . Well, anything you like.

This combination of the primitive and the learned perfectly instantiates what Watts describes as the Catholic attempt to emulate Protestant moral seriousness, resulting in the dreary Puritanism of the Irish or French Catholics. Indeed, it is Bridey who carelessly (in both senses) triggers off the moral climax of the novel when he smugly points out his new wife cant possibly share a roof with his adulterous sister Julia:

You must understand that Beryl is a woman of strict Catholic principle fortified by the prejudices of the middle class. I couldnt possibly bring her here. It is a matter of indifference whether you choose to live in sin with Rex or Charles or both I have always avoided inquiry into the details of your menage but in no case would Beryl consent to be your guest. [272]

Brideys having always avoided inquiry into the details is a remnant of the moral laxity (from the Protestant viewpoint) of the traditional Catholic; his fathers mistress, Cara, is an Italian who voices the more relaxed attitudes of the South:

I know of these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans. They are not Latin. I think they are very good if they do not go on too long.

It is a kind of love that comes to children before they know its meaning. In England it comes when you are almost men; I think I like that. It is better to have that kind of love for another boy than for a girl. Alex [Lord Brideshead] you see had it for a girl, for his wife. [100]

And this brings us back to a celebrated passage at the start of the novel, as Charles describes his first summer with Sebastian, sounding both notes of childhood and moral laxity:

Descent or ascent? It seems to me that I grew younger daily with each adult habit that I acquired. I had lived a lonely childhood and a boyhood straitened by war and overshadowed by bereavement; to the hard bachelordom of English adolescence, the premature dignity and authority of the school system, I had added a sad and grim strain of my own. Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence. [46]

Implicit here and in Caras comments is the idea of an indulgence toward childhood romances that are expected to transition into a respectable adulthood, as illustrated by Charles passage from Sebastian to his sister Julia.[34] Even this might be seen as analogous to Watts model of consciousness maturing through several levels, each worthy in itself; what must be avoided is becoming stuck or even attempting to regress:

Sebastian is in love with his own childhood. That will make him very unhappy. His teddy-bear, his nanny and he is nineteen years old. [100]

The Catholic with his rosary, the Protestant with his rigid moral code; these are expired and unacceptable models for a truly modern mind. Rather than regressing to former modes, religion must rediscover the Spirit again, now at a higher level, thanks to the long pilgrimage through adolescence. Perhaps Waugh is making that point too, as Charles revisits Brideshead (the house, not the Earl) years later, having put aside both Sebastian and Julia:

There was one part of the house I had not yet visited, and I went there now. The chapel showed no ill-effects of its long neglect; the art-nouveau paint was as fresh and bright as ever; the art-nouveau lamp burned once more before the altar. I said a prayer, an ancient, newly-learned form of words, and left, turning towards the camp; and as I walked back, and the cook-house bugle sounded ahead of me, I thought:

The builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend; they made a new house with the stones of the old castle; year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended it; year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness; until, in sudden frost, came the age of Hooper [i.e., secular materialism]; the place was desolate and the work all brought to nothing; Quomodo sedet sola civitas. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

And yet, I thought, that is not the last word; it is not even an apt word; it is a dead word from ten years back.

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.


As a result of his more developed consciousness, modern man demands the meaning of the doctrine, not more or more sophisticated doctrine; and certainly not a return to tradition. Modern man needs not dogma but what dogma means; the thing itself. This is the maturing of mans spiritual consciousness, a development to be encouraged as being the whole point of the enterprise, not a deviation to be fought against and turned aside.[36]

The task of Protestantism was to break the shell, though because the Protestants did not fully realize this and did not know about the fruit inside, the job has been inexpertly and irreverently done.

They have hammered away with gusto; they have cracked the entire surface; they have taken whole chunks of the shell right off, and, having thrown some of them away, have taken the rest into a corner and there tried to piece them together in a different form. But the fruit has not interested them. Protestantism has simply broken up the system of symbolism, reduced it and re-formed it, and, in these later times, has practically discarded the whole thing. The time has come for us to attend to the long-neglected fruit. (p. 41)

For Protestantism, misdirected though it has been, was nevertheless a necessary movement, needed in order that the shell of dogma, passively accepted by the Roman Catholic, be cracked, and the kernel obtained and brought to fruition within ourselves. [37]

Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

Hence, the periodic, now (as then) on the upswing interest in various mystical teachings, foreign and domestic; a legitimate but misconceived quest; Watts agrees with Spengler in discounting what today we would call New Age spirituality as immature, unhistorical, and often implicitly if not explicitly Gnostic and hence retrograde.

Would that these seekers knew that the Catholic Christianity has its own, vastly more sophisticated spiritual techniques; but how can they find out, when even the Church itself, in the person of its ministers, doesnt know anymore?

To remedy this, Watts turns to the late stages of other cultures including our own late Classical period, whose mature wisdom gave birth to early Christianity to try to suggest the inner meaning of the Christian mythos, the actual experience of the Holy Spirit.

In the great ages of Christian thought theology has always been able to embrace and absorb alien systems much to its own enrichment. In fact, every great advance in Christian theology has involved the absorption of an alien philosophy. It is not too much to predict that the next great step in Christian theology will be due, in part, to the absorption of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and, perhaps, Mohammedan Sufiism, all of which are profoundly mystical religions. (p.53)

For purposes of this review essay, Ive tried to distill the logical outline of the book, but I have to say that apart from a superficial structure of chapters and topics, and local arguments on particular points, it doesnt really have an overall vector that marches the reader from Point A to Point B until the reader is forced to accept some predetermined conclusions; but rather drift from moment to moment, in which various themes, points of view and images are introduced and revisited as seems necessary; which, as well see, is appropriate to a number of those themes, such as the importance of living in the moment, and the freedom of man to accept Gods offer of union or not.[38]

In any event, as Ive said, the real fascination here is how early, and how well, Watts was able to formulate most of what would become his signature tropes or memes in the language of traditional Catholic Christianity.

But I certainly dont mean to suggest there is anything boring or repetitive here. Even at this early point in his career, Watts seems to be incapable of writing a dull page, or even paragraph.[39] As already suggested, the interest here is in how easily Watts expresses, in purely Christian language, most of the memes he would propagate during his career as a New Age or even hippie lecturer.

His use of the nondualist school of the Hindu Vedanta to explain how the Christian God is a superior conception to any pantheistic deity, by being able to create real, other beings while still remaining indivisible, makes most of those smug claims about what we can learn from the Hindus look rather jejune; this is the best kind of Traditionalism, using the deepest insights of one culture (to return to Spenglers language) to illuminate the equal depths of another.

Throughout, Watts moves with ease from the Christian dogma of the Incarnation union with God which is freely and already given to the futility of methods union with God something which we not only cannot fail to achieve but cannot even try to achieve, and, indeed, we cannot even refuse it if we wanted to (Hell being the sufferings of those who obstinately chose to refuse) to his more general and more familiar point that life can only be lived as what Coomaraswamy called the perpetual uncalculated life in the present rather than something we plan to get, someday, if we follow the right recipe.[40]

At times Watts manages to both clarify the traditional language of Christian mysticism and express his own views more clearly than he would again:

The consciousness of union with God thus realized is mystical, that is, veiled, rather than beatific; it is not an absolutely direct and full consciousness, but resembles to some extent the consciousness which we have of our own selves. For while we cannot perceive out own egos directly, we know that we exist and this knowledge is present as an undertone in all other knowledge. Similarly, the mystical knowledge of God is a knowledge of God in the act of this presence and union with us, but is not immediate vision and apprehension of the divine essence. Presumably this is only possible when actual death has removed the ego from standing in its own light. (p.100 and footnote 12)[41]

Indeed, even death cant escape Watts expanding vision of the ever-present union:

Abandoning all concepts and conventional feelings about Reality, letting go of all devices and methods for realizing union with god, we approach the Now just as it is.

Looked at from an intellectual and emotional point of view, the Eternal Now certainly seems dry and empty. From this standpoint, entering into it seems a kind of death, and the surrender of cherished intellectual and emotional consolations is indeed a sharing in the death of the cross, from which the whole power of the Resurrection flows.

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Re-Kindling Alan Watts, Part One | Counter-Currents Publishing

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January 5th, 2018 at 10:46 am

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