Edited by Joan Watts and Anne Watts
Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2017. xv + 599 pp., hardcover, $32.50.
Collections of literary letters still emerge, but tragically there are ever fewer, because email has all but destroyed the art of letter writing. Yet when we find a collection of a great man’s or woman’s letters, doors open for us. We see into their minds and emotions, the weft and weave of their lives becomes an almost tactile texture. Smetimes we’re startled.
Author and lecturer Alan Watts (1915–73) is best known for introducing Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies to the generation that came of age in the 1950s and ’60s. Watts’s importance as a both a commentator on spirituality—indeed a bona fide revelator—and an agent of interfaith communication is never in doubt. He did more to sow the seeds of Zen in the West than any other single writer. His insights into the human and cosmic condition are on par with those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Swami Vivekananda, J. Krishnamurti, and Aldous Huxley.
This collection of his letters, edited by his two eldest daughters, Joan and Anne, occasionally renders up intimacy; certainly there’s insight, and plenty of intellectual shine. Of startlement there is little in the letters themselves. But the narrative presented in this collection of letters is agreeably goosed by intervals of commentary from Watts’s daughters. They tell us baldly what his letters only hint at: that he could be a womanizer and a kind of romance addict, often marrying and divorcing in search of a new fix. He struggled with alcoholism, and despite his good intentions he could be an aloof father.
The Collected Letters follows the arc of his life. They start with a number of precocious—and a little too precious—boyhood letters written from English boarding schools. This is followed by a good many somewhat stodgy college letters. Thereafter Watts moved to New York, became a citizen of the U.S. and, confronted with practicality, studied for the Episcopal priesthood. The constraints of this profession soon chafed, and he resigned after about six years, in 1950. Thereupon his letters—always well-written—become by turns academically austere, playful, and occasionally giddy during the balance of his life. This period was marked by an increasingly bohemian lifestyle, experimentation with psychedelics, deeper forays into meditation, and philosophical exchanges (only glimpsed in this collection) with the likes of Huxley, Henry Miller, Joseph Campbell, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The Collected Letters offers a selection of photos that illustrate the same arc, showing us a self-serious teen wearing a school tie, then an uncomfortable, mustachioed adult in suits, followed by the glowering priest in collar; on to long hair, trim beard, casual dress, Japanese kimonos, and loops of wooden beads.
Watts’s boyhood precocity and flair for independent thinking flowered in the 1930s, when he was captivated by a book on Buddhism. He officially became a Buddhist at the first opportunity. He wrote articles for a Buddhist magazine so well that he was asked to lecture, as his daughters tell us here, and when he arrived, the group was astonished to discover that he was a teenager. When he was merely twenty-one, he wrote to Carl Jung, taking him to task: “I was rather surprised to hear you say in your lecture . . . that you had never found any mandalas with six divisions.” He then gives Jung a longish epistolary lecture on the parts of mandalas.
Watts was even younger, in his early teens, when he wrote An Outline of Zen Buddhism, a thirty-two page pamphlet. Just four years later, in 1935, E.P. Dutton published The Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East.
Even as a priest Watts engaged in a quiet but persistent return to esotericism, Eastern and Western. In a letter to a friend in 1944, he said “Prayer in its essence is, of course, the contemplation of God as the living void or . . . the ‘luminous darkness.’ That is to say the aim is to reach the point where you abandon all images and concept of God whatever, as well as all specific technique of prayer.” This kind of casual, heretical discourse would have shocked his superiors in the church. In a letter of 1947 he suggests that the vitality of any religion issues from its esoteric nucleus and without it “there is a general decline of the entire religious and social order.”
In a letter of 1948 to a Yale scholar it becomes evident that Watts has already crystallized one of his key ideas—that the central consciousness of the universe experiences itself through us; that our job is to be God’s means of experiencing itself. “The concept of the infinite giving itself to the finite . . . is the central meaning of most Zen anecdotes.”
As trippy as that idea is, he hadn’t yet taken LSD. That came in the late 1950s. Certainly psychedelic experiences informed his later lectures, his speculation, his aesthetics, and quite possibly his erotic life. There are a few letters here to women self-effacingly, yet cunningly professing love. In his 1959 letter to a woman who was later to become his third wife, he says he has “an awful blast from my former girlfriend in LA . . . pointing out the dreadful defects in my character and intimating I will exploit you just as I exploited her. Oh Jano, aren’t you simply scared to death of getting so involved with me? . . . Perhaps I can console myself with the fact that only for you have I dropped the desire for all other relations.”
Watts never did completely find his way out of a morass of vodka and romance, but he accomplished much, he opened eyes, and he grew spiritually. The Collected Letters is a bit ponderous, at around 600 pages of fairly small print. His true devotees will want to read every word of it; others may choose to dip in. If that’s what you do, don’t neglect the parts written by Joan Watts and Anne Watts: they are nicely composed and entertaining. And the book is a worthy contribution to the literature of letters.
John Shirley is the author of Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas (Tarcher/Penguin), and such novels as The Other End (Open Road), Demons (Del Rey), and a novel of Arthur Conan Doyle in the afterlife, Doyle after Death (HarperCollins).