Alan Watts: Rascal guru or inspirational poster boy?

As readers of this blog will know I am a big fan of the late English philosopher Alan Watts. He has been one of, if not the, most formative influences on my way of thinking. As such, I am keen for more people to read him; I think he has a lot to offer humanity, especially at this present time.

Since his hay-day in the 1960s, Watts has had some what of a resurgence thanks mainly to the web. A sub culture has grown around taking speeches and lectures and making multimedia video presentations out of them. This is an activity which is encouraged by his estate, which is managed by his son Mark. Probably the most famous of these is still the seminal series done by the creators of South Park, of which ‘Life and Music’ is still best known. For many this is the first they hear of Watts and is a great example of how his work has been remixed for the modern age; his words enhanced by the visuals.

Since this there has been a cottage industry formed around taking Watts lectures and setting them to music and video. Many of these are done quite well. One of my favourites sets a discussion on death to the sounds of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

It’s not just Watts either, there is a whole culture of taking ‘inspiring’ lectures and treating them such. There was KickStarter recently to help fund some guy to make more of them, many of them Watts based.

I do fear, however, that this is becoming its own clichéd genre. Take a short section of Watts, lay it over some overly emotive music, and then make a montage of various ‘random life’ footage clips. The problem is that this becomes a production-line thoughtless process. The reason the good Watts videos work is that there is a link between his words, the music and the visuals. If this becomes an unthinking process I am concerned that it will transform the meaning and context of Watts work.

Alan Watts’ primary drive in life was to introduce you to a viewpoint that he enjoyed and held. This viewpoint, to paraphrase extremely briefly, was chiefly the viewpoint of Asian religions, namely Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism and seeks to make you see how inseparable you are from your environment, you and the universe are one process, and that not seeing this interdependence was the cause of human suffering. He was not a ‘self-help’ guru, nor did he seek to inspire hope as it were; he sought to help you see as he saw, and from that suffering would be alleviated.

My worry is that Watts becomes relegated to the status of pithy comment source, for the multi-font on a picture of a sunset inspirational quote crowd who seem to fuel Facebook timelines. This fate has befell the Dalai Lama and the Buddha for instance, often with words they never actually said. This would be a misinterpretation of what Alan was about. That said, I am in favour of bite-sized Watts, as he has such a great way with words that I think he can drop tiny ‘aha’ moments into your day. Some Twitter accounts are great at picking out such parts. But the real power and joy of Watts work are where he can expand on his ideas over time. Certainly some of the 3 to 5 minute videos can get some key ideas in, but I think he works best over his hour long lectures, or his essays and his books where he can unveil and build these powerful concepts. My other fear, is that some of these videos are using an aesthetic which is unsuitable. Watts was serious about helping people change their outlook, but he was a playful, mischievous man, never sombre. Some of the music choices, for instance, in these videos set a tone at odds with his actual spirit.

But, if these videos lead people to discovering his work, then I’m all for them. Just as long as they don’t reinvent him as a Facebook wall update quote source.

(I’ve written loads on Alan Watts, all archived here)