Joyous Cosmology: Chemistry of Consciousness

I spent the day re-reading a classic Alan Watts book, The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (Vintage Books, 1965).  Basically, the book is a retrospective summary account of his experiences with psychedelic drugs (e.g., LSD, mescaline, psilocybin).  It could be described as his version of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.  Indeed, Watts justifies writing his book by referring to Huxley: “since Huxley and others had already let the secret out […]” (20). 

LSD is currently only 73 years old.  Psychedelic chemicals are still a newcomer on the world’s stage (or at least the “Western” world’s stage, as many of those chemicals come from plants or fungi that were already known and used by ancient and indigenous societies).  Huxley and Watts were among the first to respond to the new discovery/invention of psychedelic chemicals, and they did so by bringing honest and thoughtful attention to the matter from two perspectives, that of a literary artist (Huxley) and a scholar of theology and religion (Watts).

What is cosmological about Watts’ joyous cosmology?  He aligns his vision with a “new image” of the human, what I would call an anthropocosmic image, where the human is viewed “not as a spirit imprisoned in incompatible flesh, but as an organism inseparable from his [sic] social and natural environment” (100).  The complex unity of human and cosmos is not only an interesting or astounding fact, it is also an existentially fulfilling realization, such that this cosmology is “not only unfied but also joyous” (ibid).  That’s not unlike Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s description of “the most astounding fact.” 

What is an experiment with psychedelics like?  Well…for Watts, it is “a sort of cycle in which one’s personality is taken apart and then put back together again, in what one hopes is a more intelligent fashion” (89).  Here are a few more quotes that reflect Watts’ thoughts on his experiments with psychedelics: 

It is even now being recognized in the United States that the real danger of psychedelics is not so much neurological as political—that “turned on” people are not interested in serving the power games of the present rulers. (25)

I wish to repeat that drugs of this kind are in no sense bottled and predigested wisdom. (89)

The sure foundation upon which I had sought to stand has turned out to be the center from which I seek.  The elusive substance beneath all the forms of the universe is discovered as the immediate gesture of my hand. […]  Everything gestures.  Tables are tabling, pots are potting, walls are walling, fixtures are fixturing—a world of events instead of things. (75) [Note: later on in the text, Watts rejects the thing-event dualism and contasts it to his vision of a “unified cosmology” (100)] 

This unoccupied gulf between spiritual or brotherly love and sexual love corresponds to the cleft between spirit and matter, mind and body, so divided that our affections or our activities are assigned either to one or to the other.  […] Thus the subtle and wonderful gradations that lie between the two are almost entirely lost.  In other words, the greater part of love is a relationship that we hardly allow, for love experienced only in its extreme forms is like buying a loaf of bread and being given only the two heels. (99)

[E]ach one of you is quite perfect as you are, even if you don’t know it.  Life is basically a gesture, but no on, no thing, is making it.  There is no necessity for it  to happen, and none for it to go on happening. […] There is simply no problem of life; it is completely purposeless play—exuberance which is its own end.  Basically there is the gesture.  Time, space, and multiplicity are complications of it. (77-78) 

It is by no means impossible to set up […] sensible contexts in which nonsense may have its ways. […]  The function of such intervals of nonsense is not merely to be an outlet for pent-up emotion or unused psychic energy, but to set in motion a mode of spontaneous action which, thought at first appearing as nonsense, can eventually express itself in intelligible forms. (94)

One can but hope that in the years to come our defenses will crack spontaneously, like eggshells when the birds are ready to hatch.  (99)


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