If you watched Spike Jonze’s new movie Her, you probably also spent a few subsequent hours listening to Alan Watts (1915–1973) interpreting Eastern thought. Late in that futuristic tale of the intersection between handheld computing, artificial intelligence, and pure romance, a philosophical “club” of self-aware operating systems band together to resurrect none other than the English Zen educator himself. Or rather, they put together a digital simulation of him, but one with a very convincing voice indeed.
While the characters in Her could actually converse with their Watts 2.0, we’ll have to settle for listening to whatever words of wisdom on thought (or the freedom of it), meditation, consciousness, and the self (or the unreality of it) the original Watts, born 99 years ago this past Monday, left behind. Fortunately, having come to prominence at the same time as did both America’s interest in Zen and its alternative broadcast media, he left a great deal of them behind, recorded by such receptive outfits as Berkeley’s KPFA-FM and San Francisco public television station KQED.
A noted live lecturer as well, Watts gave a great many talks since preserved and now made accessible in such places as the Youtube channel AlanWattsLectures, which contains a trove of exactly those. Here, we’ve embedded his series The Tao of Philosophy: “Myth of Myself” at the top, “Man in Nature” in the middle, and “Coincidence of Opposites” below. All three of them showcase his signature clarity, and he gets even more concrete in his 80-minute introduction to meditation and his 90-minute breakdown of the practice. But why put him in an ultramodern story like Her about a lonely man who falls in love with his brand new, seductively advanced operating system? The reason, as Jonze explains it to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “is that one of the themes [Watts] writes a lot about is change, and where pain comes from, in terms of resisting change — whether it’s in a relationship, or in life, or in society.” Would he have enjoyed the film? While you wait for its future to arrive, at which point you can consult a regenerated Watts directly, feel free to listen closely to his teachings to prepare yourself — to the extent, of course, that the self exists — for whatever other changes may lie ahead.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.