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.Read the rest of this entry
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. Read the rest of this entry
“It’s absolutely necessary that we let go of ourselves, and it can’t be done, not by anything that we call ‘doing it’ — acting, willing, or even just accepting things. . . . When you look out of your eyes at nature happening ‘out there,’ you’re looking at you. That’s the real you, the you that goes on of itself. . . . You’re breathing. The wind is blowing. The trees are waving. Your nerves are tingling.” — Alan Watts
(For all you who are wondering: Yes, this fairly sublime little music-and-video setting of some wonderful words by dear old Alan comes to us courtesy of John Boswell, the same man behind the Symphony of Science project.)
What do you desire? What makes you itch? What sort of a situation would you like? … [When counseling graduating students who ask for career advice,] I always ask the question, “What would you do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?” … If you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You will be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living — that is, to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way … See, what we’re doing is we’re bringing up children and educating them to live the same sort of lives we’re living, in order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children, to bring up their children, to do the same thing … And so, therefore, it’s so important to consider this question: What do I desire?
Hat tip to Brain Pickings
The present cultural prominence and popularity of dystopian fiction and film, including the newly minted subgenre of young adult dystopian novels (c.f. The Hunger Games), underscores the fact that we’re living in what can reasonably be characterized as dystopian times. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, we’re living in a real-world manifestation of an anti-utopia, a situation in which a society deems itself a utopia when in fact it’s a nightmare. Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World are only two of the most familiar examples of this theme in English-language literature.
They’re also two of the works quoted in “The Fruits of Dystopia,” a short film by Cyrus Sutton, Creative Director at California-based Korduroy.TV,”a website spreading digital Aloha. Through video how-to’s, short films, rants and interviews we are creating a new platform for independent surf culture — a place where ideas can be shared that respect self-sufficiency, craftsmanship, and a surfing experience of our own design.”
So what, you ask, is the link between this expressed aim and the theme of dystopia? The film’s short description draws the connection in pithy fashion:
“The Fruits of Dystopia” is a short film about having fun in a less than perfect world. Cyrus Sutton explores an escape from modern trappings through excerpts from classic dystopian novels “1984,” “A Brave New World” [sic] and “Fahrenheit 451.”
In other words, the point — apparently — is to share several darkly dystopian takes on the state of human life and society, and, while basically agreeing with them, to show where and how pleasure and joy can still be found in the midst of such a situation. What’s even more interesting than this inherently interesting premise is that in Sutton’s hands it actually works. The film is rather hypnotic. Watch it and see for yourself.
Also be advised that in addition to Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury, there’s another writer whose words show up: Alan Watts. “The Fruits of Dystopia” contains abridged portions of an early 1970s radio talk by Watts in which he acknowledged and explored his very deep debt to Jung. Here’s a passage from the talk’s complete transcript, encompassing some of what you’ll hear in the film. It makes for a fine epigraph:
[Jung was] trying to heal this insanity from which our culture in particular has suffered, of thinking that a human being becomes hale, healthy, and holy by being divided against himself in inner conflict, paralleling the conception of a cosmic conflict between an absolute good and an absolute evil which cannot be reduced to any prior and underlying unity. In other words, our rage, and our very proper rage, against evil things which occur in this world must not overstep itself, for if we require as a justification for our rage a fundamental and metaphysical division between good and evil, we have an insane and, in a certain sense, schizophrenic universe, of which no sense whatsoever can be made.
Have you or anybody you care about ever suffered from depression? How about bipolar disorder? Autism? Schizophrenia? Attention-deficit disorder? Obviously, given the prevalence of these mental and neurological illnesses, the answer is almost certainly affirmative.
Or then again, maybe not. Here’s the dirty little trick that’s been pulled on all of us: each of those illnesses is a wholesale semantic/cultural invention, concocted out of thin air, that deserves to be put in scare quotes. And this, of course, imparts a whole new tone to them. Think about it: there’s an entirely different feeling when you say somebody suffers from “depression” or “ADD.” For full effect, imagine translating the scare quotes into the now-trendy “air quotes.” In fact, why not try it out. Say the words out loud and make the quotation marks with your fingers: “depression,” “autism,” “bipolar disorder,” “attention-deficit disorder,” “schizophrenia.” Feel the irony now coating these familiar psychiatric terms. Note how they no longer seem so familiar and meaningful, how they no longer seem to signify something literally real.
If you’ve successfully achieved this disorienting act of linguistic dislocation and decontextualizing, then you’ve begun to deprogram yourself and wake up from the spell of cultural hypnosis that’s been cast on us all by the American Psychiatric Association and Big Pharma. And that’s not just me talking; it’s actual members of the APA, including, most significantly, the lead editor of the DSM-IV, the fourth edition of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (see the linked and excerpted articles below).
Yesterday I received an email from one of my former high school students. He asked me a few questions that indicated he has really entered into a reflective state of mind: Am I familiar with C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity? What do people mean when they refer to other people, situations, or anything else as “perfect”? Is there a one-size-fits-all definition of perfection? Why do most people never question the near universal assumption that life is a good and valuable thing?
I began typing my response and, as sometimes happens, saw it blossom into more than the brief note I had intended. After clicking “send,” I thought I might as well go ahead and share the letter with my Teeming Brain readers since I know they’re a reflective and philosophical lot themselves.
Note that names — or actually, just one name — have been omitted to protect the innocent.
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Good to hear from you. Sounds like you’re in a really thoughtful state of mind lately.
Yes, I’ve read Mere Christianity three times in its entirety and then gone back to reread selected passages many more times. For a few years Lewis was one of my favorite writers. I still have great affection for him even though I’ve don’t hold his actual ideas in as high a regard as I once did. As he aged his writings grew more and more entrenched in a kind of puritanical Protestant morality. That’s why I like his early work better than his later work, since the early stuff is more filled with a general sense of exhilaration about ideas, philosophy, spirituality, and religion in general. Mere Christianity stands at about the halfway point in this evolution of his work. The three sections of it were originally published as three separate pamphlets before being stitched together to form of a single book. I personally find the final section, “Beyond Personality,” to be far and away the most brilliant, valuable, and exciting one. It also happens to be the most purely philosophical. Lewis’s superstar status among contemporary American Protestant Christians seems to be based largely on a love of the first half of that book, since it’s material from that part of Mere Christianity that you almost always hear quoted in churches or on the radio when somebody brings up the man’s name.
As for questions about the nature and meaning of perfection, the value or nonvalue of life, etc., it sounds like you’ve awakened to the basic philosophical cast of mind. As you may know, the word “philosophy” means “the love of wisdom.” The subject itself, which nowadays the majority of people study only for a single semester in college so they can earn a required credit to graduate, is the king or crown of all the intellectual disciplines. It’s not “about” anything in the way that history, science, mathematics, literature, economics, and other classes are “about” something. All of those other fields deal with specific subjects and content, e.g., what happened in the past and how it affects us today (history), the way the physical world works (science), and so on. But philosophy is about all of them. It asks, “What does all of this mean?” Philosophy raises the question “Why?” and applies it to everything. It tries to figure out, or at least it calls into question, most of the things that almost everybody takes for granted every day, in just the same way that you’re now asking some pretty radical questions that you felt it necessary to soften with a p.s. assuring me that you’re not contemplating suicide.
So this is all to say that I encourage you to continue your questioning. You’ll find over time that you’re experiencing a shift in your perception of absolutely everything. It begins to feel a lot like waking up from the Matrix. You start having a “Holy crap!” reaction as you realize that all of the ideas and points of view that you’ve always taken for granted are entirely up for grabs. Your whole outlook, the mental and emotional basis for the way you’ve lived your entire life and made important choices and wanted some things while rejecting others, is revealed as arbitrary. You come to recognize that you’ve believed things and held values not because you know they’re true but because you were programmed to do so by the environment in which you grew up.
This awakening is a very good thing.
You asked for advice about books. I suggest that you find a good introductory book on philosophy. One that comes to mind because it’s very accessible, and also amusing, is Does the Center Hold?: An Introduction to Philosophy. You can buy a fairly cheap used copy through Amazon. I’ve never read the whole thing myself but I’ve browsed it in college bookstores and found it highly engaging and informative.
I can’t think of any books at the moment to suggest for your specific questions about the meaning of “perfection” and the question of life’s value, but I can suggest some books that were valuable to me vry early on in my own awakening to a general philosophical cast of mind:
– The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts
– Walden by Henry David Thoreau
– Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy
– Irrational Man by William Barrett
The Watts book is particularly accessible and readable. The Percy book may be a bit more difficult, especially in the middle section about the philosophy of language, but early sections are especially valuable as Percy paints all sorts of hypothetical life circumstances and situations and then considers different points of view from which they can be interpreted and understood.
Since you asked me specifically about Lewis, I can recommend another of his books for you: The Abolition of Man. You might find it difficult reading. But then again, maybe not. It’s a bit different (that’s an understatement) from Mere Christianity. In it, Lewis sets out to disprove the modern idea that human ideas of morality, value, etc., are just that: human ideas. He tries to prove that there really are objective moral truths. Following him in his exploration of the issues is a very educational and mind-expanding experience, regardless of whether you agree with his arguments and conclusions. You can find used copies of the book online and in bookstores at bargain-basement prices.
Finally, I strongly urge you to read a little bit about Socrates, the ancient Athenian Greek who, for us members of Western civilization, pretty much started the whole philosophy thing. There are some good, brief online biographies. The one at History for Kids makes for extremely easy reading. Some others are more lengthy and dense.
Oh — and really finally, since I mentioned The Matrix I may as well direct you to the Sparknotes page about some of the movie’s philosophical influences. It may give you some ideas for further reading.
Good luck! I hope I haven’t blown your mind (or bored you to tears) with my reply-on-steroids to your short questions.