Book Review: ‘The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness” by Alan Watts

Alan Watts has long been one of my foundational philosophical influences. I think his writing style, famed for its almost preternatural lucidity and grace, has also influenced me by giving me a model to emulate. “Nobody could write like Watts, nobody,” Ken Wilber once observed in an interview for ReVision: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation.

This is one among many reasons why I was very pleased when the opportunity arose for me to review the new edition of Watts’s long out-of-print book The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness for New York Journal of Books. And I was doubly pleased because this new edition comes with a new introduction by Daniel Pinchbeck (to add to the book’s original foreword by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert). Pinchbeck’s presence places the book right where it belongs: in the middle of the currently surging renaissance and exploding conversation about psychedelics and the apocalyptic transformation of consciousness and culture that occupies an expanding segment of our collective global civilization.

Here’s my review, in a slightly longer form than what appeared at New York Journal of  Books a couple of weeks ago. Note that Pinchbeck’s introduction, which I quote from, can be read in its entirety at Reality Sandwich, along with the full text of Watts’s prologue.

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The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness, by Alan Watts. New World Library, 2013. 119 pages.

Reviewed by Matt Cardin

The decision by New World Library to publish a new edition of The Joyous Cosmology could not be timelier. The book was brilliant and piercingly relevant when it first appeared in 1962, and far from diminishing these qualities, the intervening half-century has only served to amplify them.

Some historical background is indispensable here. When The Joyous Cosmology was first published, it arrived at a fleeting but singularly important cultural moment for psychedelics, a moment when scientific research into these substances, while controversial, was not only legal but respectable. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were right in the middle of conducting their now-notorious LSD experiments at Harvard. Aldous Huxley and other respected authors and intellectuals were speaking publicly about the value and meaning of their experiences with mescaline and more. Many serious thinkers viewed psychedelics as a field that had the potential to revolutionize psychiatric and psychological treatment, artistic exploration, spiritual development, and more. The Joyous Cosmology tapped directly into this milieu, not least because it came with a foreword by Leary and Alpert themselves in which they described the book as “a great human document” consisting of “a brilliant arrangement of words describing experiences for which our language has no vocabulary.”

Then the whole thing blew up almost overnight, and the early age of psychedelic promise morphed rapidly into the chaotic sociocultural monster that we now remember as “the 1960s.” Leary and Alpert, after a period of mounting controversy, were fired from Harvard amid a flurry of scandal. Leary dove gleefully into his new role as a psychedelic figurehead for the emerging counterculture, while Alpert left for India and returned some time later as the bearded and robed Hindu guru Ram Dass. Psychedelics became firmly associated in mainstream Western opinion with hippies, burnouts, and a scary nexus of hedonistic and anarchistic behavior with its center of gravity located in America, on the West Coast, in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Many governments around the world began banning LSD and other psychedelics even for purposes of scientific and medical research. After 1970 the whole scene went underground and off the grid, and it stayed there for decades. Amid all the chaos and clamor, The Joyous Cosmology effectively got buried and forgotten, and was eventually eclipsed in popular memory by some of Watts’s other books, including, most notably, The Wisdom of Insecurity, The Way of Zen, and The Book: On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are.

Today, however, the situation is reversing as rapidly and explosively as it first came about. Since the 1990s a new renaissance of above-board medical research into psychedelics has been underway, and since the turn of the millennium it has begun to accelerate. Serious research into the therapeutic medical and psychological uses of psilocybin, MDMA (“ecstasy”), and other substances is being pursued by prominent mainstream individuals and organizations, with journalistic coverage appearing in the likes USA Today, Time, The Guardian, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. There is also a new and vigorous psychedelic subculture centered around the Burning Man festival and related phenomena. Against all odds, history has now rolled back around to a point where The Joyous Cosmology can be rediscovered, and read, and considered as if for the first time.

And it’s a good thing, too, because the book is cogent, engrossing, and important. Organizationally, it’s divided into three sections plus an appendix. There’s a prologue in which Watts lays out his primary philosophical and spiritual concern — which is the human, and especially the Western, delusion or hallucination of ego alienation — and makes a case for the legitimacy and usefulness of psychedelics in exploring it. There’s an epilogue in which he elaborates a bit more on the same themes. The appendix, titled “Psychedelics and Religious Experience,” constitutes a substantial essay in its own right.

Then there’s the book’s middle section, and it’s here that the heart of the whole thing is to be found. In 1962 Watts was at the very peak of his power as a popular writer about religion, philosophy, spirituality, and psychology, and in the main section of The Joyous Cosmology he applies his considerable communicative skills to the challenge of describing a single day (actually “a composite of several occasions,” as he explains in the book’s prologue) spent in a psychedelic state at “a country estate on the West Coast with garden, orchard, barns, and surrounding mountains.” Importantly, his purpose is not only to describe the philosophical and spiritual illuminations that can be facilitated by psychedelics but to convey a sense of what the world actually looks, feels, and seems like from the alternate viewpoint of psychedelic consciousness. In this endeavor he is spectacularly successful; his descriptions are so lucid that they almost disprove Leary and Alpert’s line about “experiences for which our language has no vocabulary.” With his beautiful prose, Watts works a kind of magic act that vividly transmits the feeling of these ineffable mental/spiritual states.

“In a world where so many of us feel fundamentally disconnected from both our natural environment and each other, and where we have now attained a stupendous technological power that literally enables us to destroy the planet, Watts suggests, in a muted echo of Shakespeare’s Cassius, that we might be wise look for the source of these problems not in the objective world around us but in ourselves, and that psychedelics may provide a particularly precise and effective way to do this.”

In the epilogue he offers one possible interpretation of what is seen and known in psychedelic consciousness, which he equates with the classical and cross-cultural religious/spiritual experience of mystical consciousness: “The mystical experience, whether induced by chemicals or other means, enables the individual to be so peculiarly open and sensitive to organic reality that the ego begins to be seen for the transparent abstraction that it is.” Psychedelics, he argues, have the ability to communicate the psychologically and cultural leavening insights of Taoism and Zen Buddhism — which, he says, seem more compatible with modern science than the ego-based Western viewpoint does — minus the prohibitive Eastern cultural trappings, so that Westerners can actually feel what it’s like to know the world in truly ecological terms: as a harmonious dance and interplay of organism and environment, subject and object, self and other.

What’s more, in the appendix he says this authentically ecological consciousness is not just a matter of private spirituality but one that extends to the question of human civilization at large and its precarious chances for survival:

Inability to accept the mystic experience is more than an intellectual handicap. Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination. For in a civilization equipped with immense technological power, the sense of alienation between man and nature leads to the use of technology in a hostile spirit — to the “conquest” of nature instead of intelligent co-operation with nature. The result is that we are eroding and destroying our environment, spreading Los Angelization instead of civilization. This is the major threat overhanging Western, technological culture, and no amount of reasoning or doom-preaching seems to help.

The fact that this is instantly recognizable as a typical trope from 1960s counterculture philosophy does not date the book in a negative sense, because the same message is still the heart of environmental ecology, and the ongoing trajectory of global civilization toward some sort of hybrid cultural-ecological Armageddon shows that the message is still timely, since it has been almost completely ignored by the consumer-imperialist “powers that be” and their mirror image in the mass of common humanity, which tends to think no differently, especially here in America. (Regarding this last point, see Morris Berman, e.g., his recent acceptance speech for the Neil Postman Award.)

With such an apocalyptic undertone, it’s appropriate that this new edition comes with a new introduction by Daniel Pinchbeck, who likewise mingles apocalyptic and psychedelic concerns in his books Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, which have helped to establish him as one of the figureheads of the new psychedelic subculture. Like so many other people in this field, Pinchbeck has been profoundly influenced by Watts himself, and in his introduction he unsurprisingly nails the deep significance of the book’s reappearance at the present cultural moment:

The Joyous Cosmology inevitably sends me into a state of poetic euphoria and anarchistic delight. . . . Over the past forty or so years, we have suffered from the cultural delusion — put forth by a corporate media and government working overtime to keep consciousness locked up, as our industries suck the lifeblood from our planet — that the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s was a failure. Revisiting Watts’s Joyous Cosmology reminds me that the psychedelic revolution has barely begun. The journey inward is the great adventure that remains for humanity to take together.

To sum up: Watts’s purpose in this book is to recommend the intelligent, serious use of psychedelics as psychic tools or sacraments, and to do this by conveying a sense of the actual subjective experience and outlook they tend to produce. Contrary to their popular reputation, these substances are not ways of escaping reality, he says, but of knowing, experiencing, and embracing reality more authentically and deeply. In a world where so many of us feel fundamentally disconnected from both our natural environment and each other, and where we have now attained a stupendous technological power that literally enables us to destroy the planet, Watts suggests, in a muted echo of Shakespeare’s Cassius, that we might be wise look for the source of these problems not in the objective world around us but in ourselves, and that psychedelics may provide a particularly precise and effective way to do this.

Pinchbeck elicits the basic the point with arresting directness: “As Watts’s scintillating prose makes clear — and all appearances to the contrary — the future will be psychedelic, or it will not be.” Today, thanks to a shifting tide of history, we’re finally able to hear Watts speaking this message again. We will be well advised to listen to him.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on July 29, 2013, in Psychology & Consciousness and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks for this. I’m reminded that Watt’s book, “The Book: the taboo against knowing who you are” was responsible in part for me spending most of my life exploring that existential question. I’d love to time-travel back to the mid sixties when I gathered my friends into my dark basement where I lit a candle and posed that very question. My best buddy freaked out. More of us should be freaking out, I reckon.

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