Autumn Longing: Alan Watts

Alan Watts, sometime in the 1970s

Yesterday, I came across a passage in a book by Alan Watts that reignited an old passion for what I have referred to in the past as “the autumn longing.” In a kind of “deep cut” vein for this blog, longtime readers — by which I mean really longtime readers, those who have been with me for the entire thirteen-year span of The Teeming Brain’s existence — may recall the series of posts I wrote on this topic beginning in 2006, just a few months after the blog’s founding. In the first of these posts, I explained the term “autumn longing” this way:

The autumn season has always carried a special emotional potency for me. When the weather turns crisp and the colors of nature change first to vibrant reds, oranges, and golds, and then progress onward toward deep russet browns, tending toward the death-sleep of winter, I’m struck with feelings of poignancy and melancholy that burn more brightly, or perhaps more darkly, than at any other time of the year. I’m also more exquisitely sensitive to the aesthetic influence of art, whether literary, musical, visual, or otherwise.

It was many years ago that I first realized and articulated to myself that this autumnal mood is inextricably bound up with a certain, strange longing. When the mood of autumn comes over me, it is always characterized by a kind of nostalgia for something I have never really known, as if I possess some vestigial memory of a lost knowledge or emotion that flits maddeningly and elusively on the edge of my ability to recall directly. It’s truly a numinous experience, that is, an experience that makes me feel as I’ve come into brief contact with some sort of transcendent spiritual truth. It tends to generate the impression of an absolute, unmediated experience of supernal beauty hovering just beyond the edge of my inner grasp. All the flickering hints of this beauty that I sometimes encounter in literature, film, music, and scenic natural vistas and skyscapes seem to reach their apotheosis in this ungraspable ultimacy, as if they are merely finite carriers that filter and refract partial glimpses of an infinite reality, like the Platonic Form of the Beautiful itself.

The remainder of that post was devoted to laying out the exquisite articulations of this experience that populate the works, both fiction and nonfiction, of C. S. Lewis, who made this longing the centerpiece of his literary aesthetic and his Christian apologetical writings. He employed the German term sehnsucht to refer to it, and he was in fact largely responsible for bringing this word and its rich set of uses and connotations to the attention of a popular English-reading audience.

Other posts in the series focused on the appearance and invocation of this longing in the writings of Lovecraft, Poe, and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. I revisited the idea a few years later with posts about Huston Smith (as compared to Lovecraft) and, again, Lovecraft and Lewis. Beyond the boundaries of The Teeming Brain, I incorporated the Lovecraftian aspects of the autumn longing into my paper “The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets,” in which I explored the parallels and departures between the respective literary and philosophical visions of Lovecraft and Ligotti. I also published a two-part essay titled “Lovecraft’s Longing” in the late North Shore arts magazine Art Throb, and I wrote a blog post titled “Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing” for SF Signal. In the latter, I discussed the subject in relation not only to Lewis and Lovecraft but to Stephen King and Colin Wilson.

So this is all to say that the matter was, and still is, of great importance to me, both philosophically and emotionally. This autumn longing, this sehnsucht, this tantalizing, maddening glimpse of some ultimate beauty and fulfillment and joy that lies perpetually beyond the horizon, this distinct scent or flavor of some infinite bliss that seems to reside half in memory and half in imagination, remaining always distinctly real and yet always just beyond my ability fully to grasp or realize — this is, apparently, a permanent part of my, and our, constitution as human beings, a kind of existential haunting that we as homo sapiens are blessed and doomed to know.

Although another span of years has now elapsed since I last wrote about it, the matter is never a non-issue in my life. I felt it more keenly when I was younger, but it’s still a living reality, not just as a matter of personal experience but in my life as a reader of books and literature. I’m still thrilled whenever I stumble across a new, or at least new to me, expression or description of this longing in someone else’s writings, especially since such descriptions often serve to evoke the longing itself.

And so it was that I came to a halt yesterday morning as I was reading Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship (1964) by Alan Watts. As I’ve said many times, most recently in my 2017 interview for the This Is Horror podcast, Watts was one of my foundational philosophical influences. I read his classic The Book: On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are as a late adolescent in college — in other words, at just the right age for such a book to hit me with the approximate force of a spiritual hydrogen bomb — and from there I went on to devour most of the rest of his work. I still revisit his books not infrequently. I also listen his recorded talks and lectures. He ranks among the half-dozen most important influences on my philosophical maturation and overall outlook, with his The Wisdom of Insecurity and Psychotherapy East and West being particularly impactful. By the by, this is why I’ve been so interested to witness the widespread resurgence of interest in him that has occurred over the past ten years, with many of his highly quotable comments being memefied, hundreds of his recorded talks being uploaded to YouTube and shared around everywhere, and new articles and essays about him appearing in prominent publications as his general reputation suddenly ascends to that of a rediscovered modern sage who speaks piercingly relevant wisdom to our current cultural moment.

Despite all this, I’ve never read Beyond Theology all the way through, even though I’ve owned it for something like twenty years. I’ve only browsed its pages (several times), never pausing to plunge in for a complete reading. Until yesterday, that is, when I set about to remedy this omission. The book, as I’ve long known, examines the theology articulated by Christian mythic symbolism in light of Eastern spiritual outlooks, especially that of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, in order to illuminate the unique contribution of Christianity to certain all-encompassing problems in the modern world. “Only such a uniquely ‘impossible’ religion,” writes Watts in the preface, “could be the catalyst for the remarkable developments in human consciousness and self-knowledge which distinguish Western culture since 1500. These developments are now swelling into a crisis on every level of human life — a crisis that cannot be handled unless we know, among other things, the role that Christianity has played in bringing it about.” In describing Christianity as “a uniquely ‘impossible’ religion,” he was referring to its central identity as the only major world religion for whom a contentious exclusivity has been the primary theological and spiritual position. Despite some limited movements in the direction of inclusivity, says Watts, Christianity, both historical and contemporary, has been founded and promulgated on the basis of “an all-or-nothing commitment to Jesus as the one and only incarnation of the Son of God.” Because of this, the Christian religion in its overwhelmingly dominant form is fundamentally “uncompromising, ornery, militant, rigorous, imperious, and invincibly self-righteous.”

Linking this to the conventional, mainstream Christian anthropology that frames humans as fully independent selves who are intrinsically distinct from their creator (a view that is called into question by the Christian mystics, who have always remained a tiny minority), Watts reinterprets and recontextualizes Christianity in light of Vedanta — much as Christianity reinterpreted and recontextualized Judaism — and finds it to be the perfect, in fact the quintessential, expression of the seeming lostness and separation that the individual self experiences as a component of maya, the dream or illusion of space-time and separate identity, which arises out of lila, the playful dance or drama of Brahman, the universal, central self Whose divine dreaming gives rise to all finite selves and the cosmos in which they exist. These selves and their lives are real, but they are real as dreams or illusions, as projections of Brahman. In the words of the great eighth-century Hindu philosopher Sankara, “Brahman is real, the world is false, the individual self is only Brahman, nothing else.”

Watts finds in this ontological-anthropological scheme a warrant for appreciating the cosmic-aesthetic significance of the traditional Christian viewpoint: “If . . . the Christian imagery is set within the context of the Hindu, the razor-edge path between salvation and damnation, with all the magnificent and appalling consequences this illusion has had for mankind, becomes one of the greatest dramatic situations of all time,” because it illustrates and represents just how deeply Brahman can allow Itself to become lost in Its dream, even to the point of forgetting that It is dreaming and that It therefore possesses the power to awaken. The experience of individuated selfhood thus becomes a “dream that I am not dreaming at all, that I will never wake up, that I have completely lost myself somewhere down the tangled corridors of the mind, and, finally, that I am in such excruciating agony that when I wake up, it will be better than all possible dreams.” In other words, it becomes the dream of the wholly alienated Christian creature-self, lost in a vale of tears and anxiously longing for the inconceivable bliss of Paradise to be known in the hereafter by those who have been saved through Christ.

“This autumn longing, this sehnsucht, this tantalizing, maddening glimpse of some ultimate beauty and fulfillment and joy that lies perpetually beyond the horizon, is apparently a permanent part of our constitution as human beings, a kind of existential haunting that we as homo sapiens are blessed and doomed to know.”

The mention of longing brings the topic back around to the main issue at hand. For yesterday morning as I was reading Beyond Theology’s second chapter, which is all about the things I’ve just been describing, I was surprised and delighted to come across a pointedly direct expression of the autumn longing. Although such things have rippled lightly across Watts’s prose in my past interactions with him, especially in his 1972 autobiography In My Own Way, this is the first time I’ve encountered a full-fledged expression of the matter. And it’s a lovely expression indeed. It is embedded in his presentation of a model of human individuality that imagines it as “two spheres with a common center. The outer sphere is the finite consciousness, the ego, the superficial individual, which believes itself to be the willing agent and knower, or the passive sufferer, of deeds and experiences. But the inner sphere is the real self, unknown to the conscious ego. For the latter is the temporary disguise or dream of the former, and the real Self would not only be unafraid of entering into dreams of intense suffering; it would all the time be experiencing the process as delight and bliss, as an eternal game of hide-and-seek.” Clearly, this is part of the overall schema that he has tasked himself with erecting. Having set it up, he then notes a certain, special side result or epiphenomenon of this dual-sphere model of selfhood that sometimes arises in connection with it. And his words link him to Lewis and Lovecraft and all the rest who have talked about the autumn longing:

This fantasy religion would then require the final condition that at some time the two spheres would merge, that my inmost Self would awaken from its dream to transform my superficial ego with a shock of recognition. Perhaps this is why we sometimes have a strangely pleasant sensation of having forgotten something extremely important from long, long ago. Occasionally, this shadow of a memory comes with hints of a forgotten paradise, some luminous landscape of hills and waters which is utterly familiar and yet completely unidentifiable. Every now and then the “real” world reminds us of it, and we think, “This is what I have always been looking for. This place feels like home.” At other times, the memory has a much deeper dimension — a sensation of being immeasurably ancient and knowing, as somehow prior to time and space. But there is nothing at all specific about it, for though the sensation is vivid, it is tantalizingly ephemeral. These are, then, intimations of something to be remembered which is, as it were, a vast dimension of one’s being which has been kept hidden — perhaps from the moment of birth. For consciousness, or conscious attention, is the trick of noticing the figure and ignoring the background, and in the same way I seem to notice my ego and forget my background, the larger Self which underlies my ego.

What’s initially notable to me about this is just the sheer fact that Watts recognized, identified, and offered such an effective description of the autumn longing, the infinite yearning, the ethereal craving associated with the maddening glimpse of infinity and eternity. But just as notable is the fact that it arises out of a highly specific ontological and theological framework that differs significantly from that of Lovecraft, Lewis, and all the rest. At the same time, given that Beyond Theology was first published in 1964, the year after Lewis died at the very peak of his fame, I also can’t help but wonder if, or rather suspect that, Watts was familiar with the other man’s writings on sehnsucht and his famous apologetic “argument from desire.” Watts would certainly have known of Lewis and his writings, since he kept in touch with all the major religious and philosophical currents of his day.

Beyond this, there’s also the fact that certain aspects of Watts’s description of the longing resonate specifically with Lewis’s. Moreover, Watts made the matter of human wishes and desires a focal point in the thought experiment that is Beyond Theology, and this runs in direct parallel to Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis famously wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” He elaborated on this in a multitude of ways in his other writings, advancing the idea that the very fact that humans are endowed with a longing for a infinite, transcendental joy and beauty indicates that such fulfillment really does exist. Watts, for his part, praises the act of “wishful thinking, for this is just what all inventive and creative people do. They are dreamers, and they find ways of realizing their dreams because they wish and dream effectively.” Applying this to the realm of religion, he avers that “the trouble with many religions, accused of wishful thinking, is that they are not wishful enough. They show a deplorable lack of imagination and of adventure in trying to find out what it is that one really wants. I cannot conceive any better way of trying to understand myself, or human nature in general, than a thorough exploration of my desires, making them as specific as possible, and then asking myself whether that is actually what I want.” He then announces the intent behind the entire project that plays out in Beyond Theology’s re-visioning of the meaning and implications of Christianity: “What, then, if I were to construct a religion as a pure work of art, creating a picture of the universe as wishful as it could be? . . . Why not ask . . . what might be the most esthetically satisfying explanation for one’s own existence in our particular universe? It must be an explanation that will completely satisfy me for the most appalling agonies that can be suffered in this world. Upon what terms would I be actually willing to endure them?” This explains his reference to a “fantasy religion” in the quote above. Clearly, what he is getting at is not strictly identical to Lewis’s view. There are major differences. But both the general nature of his championing of wishful thinking and the tenor of his description of what I have called the autumn longing, which occurs two pages after the lines just quoted, show that there is definitely a kinship.

There’s a thread running through all this. That’s the upshot, at least for me. There’s a thread that connects all these writers, thinkers, and visionaries. It traces a trail of transcendental vision, ardent philosophical/spiritual speculation, and infinite yearning. It deals in intimations of blessedness, delight, and ultimate joy, even as it also deals in intimations of damnation, horror, and ultimate despair. Neither side is reducible. Both are central and necessary to the whole picture of human experience and, perhaps (although this is always objectively unverifiable), reality itself. As Watts himself observed, this thread is a razor’s edge that we all walk for the entirety of our lives. These complementary intimations of something beyond, something that may be wonderful or awful or both, are always with us. Intrusions of these intimations define our lives. They form the dots that collectively build up to the connected picture of our total experience. That’s what fascinates and electrifies me in this examination of the autumn longing and the luminaries who have spoken and written of it. It is also, not incidentally, the central passion that drives all my own thinking and writing.

Photo of Alan Watts courtesy of the Alan Watts Foundation [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

About Matt Cardin


Posted on September 1, 2019, in Psychology & Consciousness, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. All this reminded me a little bit of “saudade”:

  2. Portuguese “fado” is a wonderful example of musical “saudade”:

  3. ‘…a process which is based on the rhythmic alteration in man of dying echoes of the old consciousness and premonitory experiences of the new…’

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