Book review: The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You AreThe Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan W. Watts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alan Watts died in 1974, but he seems to be much more popular today than ever he was while alive. This book, The Book, was written on a Sausalito houseboat, and has been on my to-read list since I heard about it on a discussion forum years ago. I feel it might have been of more import to me had I read it when I was younger – it’s certainly a counterpoint to the “you’re all special!” mindset imparted by school – but I still found it quietly reassuring today.

A lot of what is included in this text has appeared in one form or another in varying lectures Watts gave throughout his life. He was a doctor of divinity and theology, and an experimenter – drugs of varying types were of interest, and it’s widely thought alcohol eventually killed him – and this work reflects this desire to push boundaries. This book is an attempt to go against modern life’s interpretation of the individual, to suggest that we are never encouraged to examine what “I” means. It could be considered theoretical, almost, but there’s a strong sense of exhortation in the text, that the author is pushing you to give these ideas some consideration, if not a go.

(Here’s an example of Watts’ lecturing style. This also expresses one of the key ideas of The Book.)

Essentially, it’s a distillation of Eastern ideas – from Vedanta, mostly – in comparison to the process of scientific enquiry. Watts suggests that the attempt to dissect things – using the net of the grid – is to take one’s eye off ultimate reality: that by focusing on parts, we forget the whole. This is, he posits, one of the reasons our society is headed towards destruction – a lack of unity, or at least a lack of recognition of unity as an overriding principle of our life and environment.

The prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East — in particular the central and germinal Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. This hallucination underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man’s natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction.
We are therefore in urgent need of a sense of our own existence which is in accord with the physical facts and which overcomes our feeling of alienation from the universe

Viewed in light of this quote, The Book is a call to arms. It’s tempting to read it as so much hippie polemic, but a lot of what Watts writes makes sense, even in my more jaded older age. A much younger me would’ve completely swallowed his arguments, but even now, my experiences with meditation and mindfulness have led me down too many of the same streets to dismiss it as wankery.

There is, for all the broadminded ideas in here, still an element of conservatism to Watts’ work. He’s dismissive of modern art, and occasionally derisive of people who drink or drug, though this latter could be seen as derision of his own actions. There’s a sense in which his criticism of education is reflected as a loss of primacy of the father-figure rather than a critique of a rigorous structure. These certainly seem at odds with his general argument, which I guess indicates that there’s a lot of work to be done to attain the unity described in The Book, even for the person who wrote it.

There’s currently a game in release called Everything that is doing for this book what The Matrix did for Descartes. In the game, the driving force of The Book – “all in all is all we are”, to borrow a phrase from someone also acquainted with Nirvana – is the key mechanic. You can play as anything in the game world, the only restriction being that you can only jump into an object that is close in size. My first game saw me begin as a zebra, before jumping into a goat, then a rodent, then smaller and smaller until I became a molecule, then larger and larger until I became a sun. The connection between everything in the world, invisible when you start, soon becomes obvious, and you spend your playtime experiencing this, rather than pursuing a narrative.

It’s a great version of the ideas on show throughout this work.

(Parts of Watts’ lectures are in the game, too – little audio amuse-bouches that provide moments of enlightenment in the middle of the the visual trip. The game has a certain element that’ll appeal to those pursuing altered states of mind, so I like to imagine someone being hit with some of this insight after a massive bong-hit.)

I’m glad I read this. I had tried for a long time to get a copy and had failed, and decades passed, so my interest and expectations had waned. I think this was preferable, because when I flicked through it on Kindle, it was without preconception, which I think is the best way to experience it. I don’t know that I can use it in my daily life, but it certainly provides some longterm food for thought.

If you’re interested in The Book, there’s a PDF version available here. See if it rings true, then purchase it: after all, it’s part of you (just as I am) whether you admit it or not.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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