Read an Excerpt
The Joyous Cosmology
Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness
By Alan W. Watts
New World LibraryCopyright © 2013 Joan Watts and Anne Watts
All rights reserved.
THE JOYOUS COSMOLOGY
To begin with, this world has a different kind of time. It is the time of biological rhythm, not of the clock and all that goes with the clock. There is no hurry. Our sense of time is notoriously subjective and thus dependent upon the quality of our attention, whether of interest or boredom, and upon the alignment of our behavior in terms of routines, goals, and deadlines. Here the present is self-sufficient, but it is not a static present. It is a dancing present — the unfolding of a pattern which has no specific destination in the future but is simply its own point. It leaves and arrives simultaneously, and the seed is as much the goal as the flower. There is therefore time to perceive every detail of the movement with infinitely greater richness of articulation. Normally we do not so much look at things as overlook them. The eye sees types and classes — flower, leaf, rock, bird, fire — mental pictures of things rather than things, rough outlines filled with flat color, always a little dusty and dim.
But here the depth of light and structure in a bursting bud go on forever. There is time to see them, time for the whole intricacy of veins and capillaries to develop in consciousness, time to see down and down into the shape of greenness, which is not green at all, but a whole spectrum generalizing itself as green — purple, gold, the sunlit turquoise of the ocean, the intense luminescence of the emerald. I cannot decide where shape ends and color begins. The bud has opened and the fresh leaves fan out and curve back with a gesture which is unmistakably communicative but does not say anything except, "Thus!" And somehow that is quite satisfactory, even startlingly clear. The meaning is transparent in the same way that the color and texture are transparent, with light which does not seem to fall upon surfaces from above but to be right inside the structure and color. Which is of course where it is, for light is an inseparable trinity of sun, object, and eye, and the chemistry of the leaf is its color, its light.
But at the same time color and light are the gift of the eye to the leaf and the sun. Transparency is the property of the eyeball, projected outward as luminous space, interpreting quanta of energy in terms of the gelatinous fibers in the head. I begin to feel that the world is at once inside my head and outside it, and the two, inside and outside, begin to include or "cap" one another like an infinite series of concentric spheres. I am unusually aware that everything I am sensing is also my body — that light, color, shape, sound, and texture are terms and properties of the brain conferred upon the outside world. I am not looking at the world, not confronting it; I am knowing it by a continuous process of transforming it into myself, so that everything around me, the whole globe of space, no longer feels away from me but in the middle.
This is at first confusing. I am not quite sure of the direction from which sound comes. The visual space seems to reverberate with them as if it were a drum. The surrounding hills rumble with the sound of a truck, and the rumble and the color-shape of the hills become one and the same gesture. I use that word deliberately and shall use it again. The hills are moving into their stillness. They mean something because they are being transformed into my brain, and my brain is an organ of meaning. The forests of redwood trees upon them look like green fire, and the copper-gold of the sun-dried grass heaves immensely into the sky. Time is so slow as to be a kind of eternity, and the flavor of eternity transfers itself to the hills — burnished mountains which I seem to remember from an immeasurably distant past, at once so unfamiliar as to be exotic and yet as familiar as my own hand. Thus transformed into consciousness, into the electric, interior luminosity of the nerves, the world seems vaguely insubstantial — developed upon a color film, resounding upon the skin of a drum, pressing, not with weight, but with vibrations interpreted as weight. Solidity is a neurological invention, and, I wonder, can the nerves be solid to themselves? Where do we begin? Does the order of the brain create the order of the world, or the order of the world the brain? The two seem like egg and hen, or like back and front.
The physical world is vibration, quanta, but vibrations of what? To the eye, form and color; to the ear, sound; to the nose, scent; to the fingers, touch. But these are all different languages for the same thing, different qualities of sensitivity, different dimensions of consciousness. The question, "Of what are they differing forms?" seems to have no meaning. What is light to the eye is sound to the ear. I have the image of the senses being terms, forms, or dimensions not of one thing common to all, but of each other, locked in a circle of mutuality. Closely examined, shape becomes color, which becomes vibration, which becomes sound, which becomes smell, which becomes taste, and then touch, and then again shape. (One can see, for example, that the shape of a leaf is its color. There is no outline around the leaf; the outline is the limit where one colored surface becomes another.) I see all these sensory dimensions as a round dance, gesticulations of one pattern being transformed into gesticulations of another. And these gesticulations are flowing through a space that has still other dimensions, which I want to describe as tones of emotional color, of light or sound being joyous or fearful, gold elated or lead depressed. These, too, form a circle of reciprocity, a round spectrum so polarized that we can only describe each in terms of the others.
Sometimes the image of the physical world is not so much a dance of gestures as a woven texture. Light, sound, touch, taste, and smell become a continuous warp, with the feeling that the whole dimension of sensation is a single continuum or field. Crossing the warp is a woof representing the dimension of meaning — moral and aesthetic values, personal or individual uniqueness, logical significance, and expressive form — and the two dimensions interpenetrate so as to make distinguishable shapes seem like ripples in the water of sensation. The warp and the woof stream together, for the weaving is neither flat nor static but a many-directioned cross-flow of impulses filling the whole volume of space. I feel that the world is on something in somewhat the same way that a color photograph is on a film, underlying and connecting the patches of color, though the film here is a dense rain of energy. I see that what it is on is my brain — "that enchanted loom," as Sherrington called it. Brain and world, warp of sense and woof of meaning, seem to interpenetrate inseparably. They hold their boundaries or limits in common in such a way as to define one another and to be impossible without each other.
I am listening to the music of an organ. As leaves seemed to gesture, the organ seems quite literally to speak. There is no use of the vox humana stop, but every sound seems to issue from a vast human throat, moist with saliva. As, with the base pedals, the player moves slowly down the scale, the sounds seem to blow forth in immense, gooey spludges. As I listen more carefully, the spludges acquire texture — expanding circles of vibration finely and evenly toothed like combs, no longer moist and liquidinous like the living throat, but mechanically discontinuous. The sound disintegrates into the innumerable individual drrrits of vibration. Listening on, the gaps close, or perhaps each individual drrrit becomes in its turn a spludge. The liquid and the hard, the continuous and the discontinuous, the gooey and the prickly, seem to be transformations of each other, or to be different levels of magnification upon the same thing.
This theme recurs in a hundred different ways — the inseparable polarity of opposites, or the mutuality and reciprocity of all the possible contents of consciousness. It is easy to see theoretically that all perception is of contrasts — figure and ground, light and shadow, clear and vague, firm and weak. But normal attention seems to have difficulty in taking in both at once. Both sensuously and conceptually we seem to move serially from one to the other; we do not seem to be able to attend to the figure without relative unconsciousness of the ground. But in this new world the mutuality of things is quite clear at every level. The human face, for example, becomes clear in all its aspects — the total form together with each single hair and wrinkle. Faces become all ages at once, for characteristics that suggest age also suggest youth by implication; the bony structure suggesting the skull evokes instantly the newborn infant. The associative couplings of the brain seem to fire simultaneously instead of one at a time, projecting a view of life which may be terrifying in its ambiguity or joyous in its integrity.
Decision can be completely paralyzed by the sudden realization that there is no way of having good without evil, or that it is impossible to act upon reliable authority without choosing, from your own inexperience, to do so. If sanity implies madness and faith doubt, am I basically a psychotic pretending to be sane, a blithering terrified idiot who manages, temporarily, to put on an act of being self-possessed? I begin to see my whole life as a masterpiece of duplicity — the confused, helpless, hungry, and hideously sensitive little embryo at the root of me having learned, step by step, to comply, placate, bully, wheedle, flatter, bluff, and cheat my way into being taken for a person of competence and reliability. For when it really comes down to it, what do any of us know?
I am listening to a priest chanting the Mass and a choir of nuns responding. His mature, cultivated voice rings with the serene authority of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and the nuns respond, naïvely it seems, with childlike, utterly innocent devotion. But, listening again, I can hear the priest "putting on" his voice, hear the inflated, pompous balloon, the studiedly unctuous tones of a master deceptionist who has the poor little nuns, kneeling in their stalls, completely cowed. Listen deeper. The nuns are not cowed at all. They are playing possum. With just a little stiffening, the limp gesture of bowing turns into the gesture of theclosing claw. With too few men to go around, the nuns know what is good for them: how to bend and survive.
But this profoundly cynical view of things is only an intermediate stage. I begin to congratulate the priest on his gamesmanship, on the sheer courage of being able to put up such a performance of authority when he knows precisely nothing. Perhaps there is no other knowing than the mere competence of the act. If, at the heart of one's being, there is no real self to which one ought to be true, sincerity is simply nerve; it lies in the unabashed vigor of the pretense.
But pretense is only pretense when it is assumed that the act is not true to the agent. Find the agent. In the priest's voice I hear down at the root the primordial howl of the beast in the jungle, but it has been inflected, complicated, refined, and textured with centuries of culture. Every new twist, every additional subtlety, was a fresh gambit in the game of making the original howl more effective. At first, crude and unconcealed, the cry for food or mate, or just noise for the fun of it, making the rocks echo. Then rhythm to enchant, then changes of tone to plead or threaten. Then words to specify the need, to promise and bargain. And then, much later, the gambits of indirection. The feminine stratagem of stooping to conquer, the claim to superior worth in renouncing the world for the spirit, the cunning of weakness proving stronger than the might of muscle — and the meek inheriting the earth.
As I listen, then, I can hear in that one voice the simultaneous presence of all the levels of man's history, as of all the stages of life before man. Every step in the game becomes as clear as the rings in a severed tree. But this is an ascending hierarchy of maneuvers, of stratagems capping stratagems, all symbolized in the overlays of refinement beneath which the original howl is still sounding. Sometimes the howl shifts from the mating call of the adult animal to the helpless crying of the baby, and I feel all man's music — its pomp and circumstance, its gaiety, its awe, its confident solemnity — as just so much complication and concealment of baby wailing for mother. And as I want to cry with pity, I know I am sorry for myself. I, as an adult, am also back there alone in the dark, just as the primordial howl is still present beneath the sublime modulations of the chant.
You poor baby! And yet — you selfish little bastard! As I try to find the agent behind the act, the motivating force at the bottom of the whole thing, I seem to see only an endless ambivalence. Behind the mask of love I find my innate selfishness. What a predicament I am in if someone asks, "Do you really love me?" I can't say yes without saying no, for the only answer that will really satisfy is, "Yes, I love you so much I could eat you! My love for you is identical with my love for myself. I love you with the purest selfishness." No one wants to be loved out of a sense of duty.
So I will be very frank. "Yes, I am pure, selfish desire and I love because you make me feel wonderful — at any rate for the time being." But then I begin to wonder whether there isn't something a bit cunning in this frankness. It is big of me to be so sincere, to make a play for her by not pretending to be more than I am — unlike the other guys who say they love her for herself. I see that there is always something insincere about trying to be sincere, as if I were to say openly, "The statement that I am now making is a lie." There seems to be something phony about every attempt to define myself, to be totally honest. The trouble is that I can't see the back, much less the inside, of my head. I can't be honest because I don't fully know what I am. Consciousness peers out from a center which it cannot see — and that is the root of the matter.
Life seems to resolve itself down to a tiny germ or nipple of sensitivity. I call it the Eenie-Weenie — a squiggling little nucleus that is trying to make love to itself and can never quite get there. The whole fabulous complexity of vegetable and animal life, as of human civilization, is just a colossal elaboration of the Eenie-Weenie trying to make the Eenie-Weenie. I am in love with myself, but cannot seek myself without hiding myself. As I pursue my own tail, it runs away from me. Does the amoeba split itself in two in an attempt to solve this problem?
I try to go deeper, sinking thought and feeling down and down to their ultimate beginnings. What do I mean by loving myself? In what form do I know myself? Always, it seems, in the form ofsomething other, something strange. The landscape I am watching is also a state of myself, of the neurons in my head. I feel the rock in my hand in terms of my own fingers. And nothing is stranger than my own body — the sensation of the pulse, the eye seen through a magnifying glass in the mirror, the shock of realizing that oneself is something in the external world. At root, there is simply no way of separating self from other, self-love from other-love. All knowledge of self is knowledge of other, and all knowledge of other knowledge of self. I begin to see that self and other, the familiar and the strange, the internal and the external, the predictable and the unpredictable imply each other. One is seek and the other is hide, and the more I become aware of their implying each other, the more I feel them to be one with each other. I become curiously affectionate and intimate with all that seemed alien. In the features of everything foreign, threatening, terrifying, incomprehensible, and remote I begin to recognize myself. Yet this is a "myself" which I seem to be remembering from long, long ago — not at all my empirical ego of yesterday, not my specious personality.
The "myself" which I am beginning to recognize, which I had forgotten but actually know better than anything else, goes far back beyond my childhood, beyond the time when adults confused me and tried to tell me that I was someone else; when, because they were bigger and stronger, they could terrify me with their imaginary fears and bewilder and outface me in the complicated game that I had not yet learned. (The sadism of the teacher explaining the game and yet having to prove his superiority in it.) Long before all that, long before I was an embryo in my mother's womb, there looms the ever-so-familiar stranger, the everything not me, which I recognize, with a joy immeasurably more intense than a meeting of lovers separated by centuries, to be my original self. The good old sonofabitch who got me involved in this whole game.
At the same time everyone and everything around me takes on the feeling of having been there always, and then forgotten, and then remembered again. We are sitting in a garden surrounded in every direction by uncultivated hills, a garden of fuchsias and hummingbirds in a valley that leads down to the westernmost ocean, and where the gulls take refuge in storms. At some time in the middle of the twentieth century, upon an afternoon in the summer, we are sitting around a table on the terrace, eating dark homemade bread and drinking white wine. And yet we seem to have been there forever, for the people with me are no longer the humdrum and harassed little personalities with names, addresses, and social security numbers, the specifically dated mortals we are all pretending to be. They appear rather as immortal archetypes of themselves without, however, losing their humanity. It is just that their differing characters seem, like the priest's voice, to contain all history; they are at once unique and eternal, men and women but also gods and goddesses. For now that we have time to look at each other we become timeless. The human form becomes immeasurably precious and, as if to symbolize this, the eyes become intelligent jewels, the hair spun gold, and the flesh translucent ivory. Between those who enter this world together there is also a love which is distinctly eucharistic, an acceptance of each other's natures from the heights to the depths.
Excerpted from The Joyous Cosmology by Alan W. Watts. Copyright © 2013 Joan Watts and Anne Watts. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.