Happiness vs. The Book

By -

As most of you know, I “discovered” the philosopher, lecturer, and author Alan Watts a few weeks ago, and I’ve been pretty much obsessed with him ever since. He wrote many books, and I just finished reading a couple of them: The Meaning of Happiness and The Book.

The first one, Happiness, was published in 1940. Alan Wilson Watts was born in 1915, so he wrote this book when he was around 24 years old. I find that to be remarkable, because the book absolutely crackled with wisdom, knowledge, and intelligence. For a young man to construct a book such as this absolutely knocks my socks off. I highlighted it thoroughly, and I found myself thinking and feeling differently even after just one read.

Indeed, I had a very personal experience to prove this, as I recently drove by a car with a bumper stick of a company whose trademarked name is:

I’ve seen this phrase, in one form or another, many times in recent years. I’m sorry to admit it, but my reaction every single time upon seeing it was, either silently or audibly, some version of, “Aww, f*ck you!” since I considered the very idea that life was good to be a treacly-sweet sentiment.

This time, however, my instant reaction was more along the lines of, “well, yeah, maybe so.” This may seem to be a pointless anecdote, but I got stopped at my tracks by not bristling at the suggestion that “Life is good“. Honestly, the fact I didn’t spit out some disgusted rejoinder upon seeing this phrase was, for me, a first, and I can only credit my recent absorption of the book with this transformation.

I want to emphasize that Happiness isn’t packed with sing-song little bromides and bon mots. It is a serious book written by a serious man. It is not a training course on how to be Pollyanna. Yet it had a positive effect on me.

I deliberately read Happiness since it represented some of Watts’ earliest writing, and I figured I might as well begin at the beginning. In contrast, the next one I read, The Book, was published in 1966, and I figured that if the creation of a youthful Mr. Watts was so remarkable, I’d better brace myself for whatever was in store after a quarter-century of maturation and increased wisdom from the man.

Errr, not so much. I’ve got to say, I didn’t enjoy Book even half as much as Happiness. I highlighted passages here and there, but on the whole I found it to be one of those kinds of books in which its essence can be stated in a paragraph, and the author went on to say that thing in many different ways over the course of 160 pages. What happened to the genius? Was it the drinking? Drugs? The loss of youthful clarity?

I do have a third book of his that I’m going to tackle next, and we’ll see how that turns out. Given the relative mediocrity of The Book, I am that much more astonished at the achievement that Happiness represents. Actually, the book is a compilation of transcripts from his lectures, so it should be quite different than the rest in that regard. He did these lectures on his houseboat in Sausalito, of all places.

I will say, however, there was a portion near the end of The Book that I highlighted which, I believe, captures well the political divide going on in the country these days (and, on occasion, this very website, although mercifully less so lately). Here it is, and I have refrained from emphasizing any portions, since I believe the entire passage is important:

In the foreseeable future there are going to be thousands and thousands of people who detest and abominate Negroes, Communists, Russians, Chinese, Jews, Catholics, beatniks, homosexuals, and dope fiends. These hatreds are not going to be healed, but only inflamed, by insulting those who feel them, and the abuse of labels with which we plaster them – – squares, fascists, rightists, know nothings – many will become the proud badges and symbols around which they will rally and consolidate themselves. Nor will it do to confront the opposition in public with polite and nonviolent sit-ins and demonstrations, while boosting our collective ego by insulting them in private. If we want justice for minorities and cooled wars with our natural enemies, whether human or non-human, we must first come to terms with the minority and the enemy in ourselves and that our own hearts, for the rascal is there as much as anywhere in the external world, especially when you realize that the world outside your skin is as much yourself as the world inside. For want of this awareness, no one can be more belligerent than a pacifist on the rampage, or more militantly nationalistic than an anti-imperialist.

Finally, I leave you with this: