Search This Blog

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Watt's up?

I look out now across a wide space of nothing but water and birds ending in a line of green slopes with clumps of trees. Right over the edge of the boat the water contains seemingly just under the surface a ceaselessly moving network of reflected sunlight through which a school of very tiny fish passes delightfully uncaught. Yet only a few yards from where we are moored, tackle shops sell the salmon and crabs with which this particular area abounds.

This is the paradox of the ocean. Sand, flying spray, pebbles and shells, driftwood, sparkling water, space incredibly luminous with cloud banks along horizons underlying skies into which one's imagination can reach without end. But under the surface of both sky and water there is the grim business of preying. Men and birds against fish, fish against fish. The tortuous process of life continuing by the painful transformation of one form or body into another. To creatures who do not anticipate and reflect imaginatively on this holocaust of eating and being eaten, this is perhaps not so terrible. But poor man! Skillful beyond all other animals, by being able to think in time, and abstractly knowing the future, he dies before he is dead. He shrinks from the shark's teeth before they bite him, and he dreads the alien germ long, long before its banquet begins.
At this moment I see a gull that has picked a crab from a tidepool. Sprawled now upon the sand, the crab shrinks from the walls of its shell which is resounding to the tap, tap, tap of the gull's beak. Who's that knocking at my door?

I suppose the shell of a crab, a clam, or a mussel is the boundary of its universe. To put ourselves into their position, we would have to imagine a knocking sound louder and louder, a sound which doesn't come from anywhere in particular, from some door, the walls, the ceiling, the floor. No, instead think of a knocking which comes from everywhere, beating against all the boundaries of space and consciousness, intruding like some utterly unknown dimension into our known and familiar world.

"Let me in! Let me in! I love you so much I could eat you. I love you to the very core, especially the soft, juicy parts, the vitals most tender and alive. Surrender to this agony, and you will be transformed into Me. Dying to yourself you will become alive as Me. We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, on the morning when the last trumpet sounds. For behold! I am He who stands at the door and knocks."

There is simply no way of getting around all this. The gull can't really be said to be rapacious or greedy. It's just that his being alive at all is the same thing as eating crabs. Sea birds are transformations of fish; men are transformations of wheat, steers, and chickens. A love for the food is the very agony of the food. To object to this inseparability of pleasure and pain, life and death, is to object to existence. But, of course, we cannot help objecting when our time comes. Objecting to pain is pain. So far as we know, the gull and the fish don't philosophize. They appear instead to enjoy life when they are eating, and hate it when being eaten. But they don't reflect upon the process as a whole and say, "How rough to have to work so hard for a living," or, "It's just hell having to watch out all the time for those damn gulls." I'm sure that in their world this is all something that just goes along with life like having eyes or feet or wings.

But man, with his astonishing ability to stand aside from himself and think about himself-in short, to comment on life, man has done something which confuses his own existence down to its roots. For the more sensitive he is, the more he finds the very act of living in conflict with his moral conscience. Upon reflection a universe so arranged that there is no way of living except by destroying other lives seems to be a hideous mistake, not a divine but a devilish creation. Of course, there is the myth that once upon a time things were quite otherwise, that there was no death, that the lion Jay down with the Jamb. But that since then there has been a fall, a vast error which has corrupted the whole of nature. But all that must have been eons ago, perhaps in some other galaxy where the conditions of life were quite different. Or perhaps the ghastly mistake was just that step in man's evolution which made it possible for him to reflect, to comment upon life as a whole. For in being able to stand aside from life and think about it, he also put himself outside it and found it alien. Perhaps thinking about the world and objecting to its whole principle are simply two aspects of but one activity. The very words suggest, do they not, that we must object to everything that becomes an object? But aren't there also times when we speak of something that we know as a subject—the subject of this book, the subject I am now studying. I wonder, then, would it be possible to subject to life instead of objecting to it? Is this merely playing with words, or does it possibly mean something?

Now, if the gulls and the fish do not philosophize, they have no consciousness of life being good as a whole or bad as a whole. So when we philosophize and pity the poor fish, that really turns out to be just our own problem. From its own standpoint, the world of plants and animals and insects and birds does not find itself problematic at all. There isn't the slightest evidence to suggest such dis-ease. On the contrary, I incline to feel that all these creatures really "swing" or "groove." They go on living right up to the very moment when the game is no longer worth the candle. I'm quite sure that they don't lecture each other about their duties or worry about where they are going after they die.

Isn't it, then, an enormous relief for us men to see that the plant and animal world is not a problem to itself, and that we are wasting intellectual energy in making moral judgments about it? But, of course, we can't return to the unreflective consciousness of the animal world without becoming monstrous in a way that animals are not. To be human is precisely to have that extra circuit of consciousness which enables us to know that we know, and thus to take an attitude towards all that we experience. The mistake which we have made—and this, if anything, is the fall of man—is to suppose that that extra circuit, that ability to take an attitude toward the rest of life as a whole, is the same as actually standing aside and being separate from what we see. We seem to feel that the thing which knows that it knows is one's essential self, that-in other words-our personal identity is entirely on the side of the commentator. We forget, because we learn to ignore so subtly, the larger organismic fact that self-consciousness is simply a subordinate part and an instrument of our whole being, a sort of mental counterpart of the finger-thumb opposition in the human hand. Now which is really you, the finger or the thumb?

Observe the stages of this differentiation, the levels of abstraction: First, the organism from its environment, and with this knowledge of the environment. Second, the distinction of knowing knowledge from knowledge itself. But in concrete fact all this, like the finger-thumb opposition, is a difference which does not divide. The thumb is not floating in the air alongside the rest of the hand. At their roots both fingers and thumb are joined. And at our roots we are joined to the whole subject of nature. Of course, you might say that nature or the whole universe is nothing but a big abstraction. But tell me, is an orange nothing but an abstraction from its component molecules, skins, segments, fibers and fluids?

I think that our difficulty is we have learned to feel our consciousness much too superficially, as if all our sensation were in the tips of the fingers and none in the palm. Our comments on life are insufficiently balanced by the clear sensation that what we are talking about is ourselves, and ourselves in a sense far more basic and real than that extra circuit which knows knowing. Are we misled by the fact that we move freely on the earth and are not rooted to it in the same way as trees to the ground or fingers to the hand? Were we as spatially distant from the earth as one atom of an orange from another, I suppose we might be somewhere out by the moon or Mars. Now we know that the atom, the molecule, the cell, or subordinate organ of any particular organism is what it is by virtue of its place and its membership in the pattern of the whole. But blood in a test tube rapidly ceases to be the same thing as blood in veins. In the same way, man must be beware (be + aware) lest in cutting himself off psychically from the world which he sees, and so isolating the subject from the object, lest in doing this he rapidly ceases to be man.

So I think this is why I love the ocean. It is the most difficult part of nature to mess up with emblems and symptoms of man's dissociated consciousness, though by no means impossible to nationalistic, industrial man. But the ocean is an environment in which the awareness of our roots can awaken, in which space so real because of the light and color can be seen as joining things instead of separating them…
[Alan Watts, "The Water," April 1970, Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown.]

Posted in reflection of this fine book.