The Book: A book review by Bob Morris

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are 
Alan Watts
Vintage Books/Random House (1989)

Of all the books I have reviewed for various Amazon websites thus far, none has attracted more reader comments than has this “little” book in which Alan Watts (1915-1973) addresses issues that are more relevant now than they were when the book was first published more than 20 years ago.

I read when it was first published in 1966, re-read it after an unexpected opportunity to meet Alan Watts just before he died (in 1973), and then re-read it again recently after having recommended it highly to a close personal friend. Long ago, I became convinced that the nature and extent of any book’s impact are almost entirely dependent on (a) the nature and extent of our life experiences when reading a book and (b) the nature and extent of our ability to absorb and digest whatever that book may offer. Watts’s The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are offers an excellent case in point. Frankly, Watts’s personal impact on me now is greater than were the first and second readings of his book. At the beginning of our brief encounter, I immediately sensed his stunning intellect and compelling decency. More impressive by far was a sense of his spirituality. It was most evident in his eyes and tone of voice. More then twenty years later, I re-read The Book. What follows [in a review published in 2004] is an admittedly clumsy attempt to share my thoughts and feelings about it.

First, with regard to the title and subtitle, Watts explains that “The Book I am thinking about [and later wrote] would not be religious in the usual sense, but it would have to discuss many things with which religions have been concerned — the universe and man’s place in it, the mysterious center of experience which we call ‘I myself.’ the problems of life and love, pain and death, and the whole question of whether existence has meaning has meaning in [in italics] any sense of the word.”

With regard to the subtitle, Watts explains that there is no need for a new religion or a new bible. “We need a new experience — a new feeling of what it is to be ‘I.’ The lowdown (which is, of course, the secret and profound view) on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.”

So, that was the book Watts was thinking about writing, and, the taboo to which he devotes most of his attention (directly or indirectly) throughout the book he eventually wrote.

What do I now think of this book? First, it retains its ecumenical spirit but in ways and to an extent I did not fully appreciate years ago. Watts is very respectful of all of the major religions, at least in terms of the common values they affirm; however, he also suggests (and I agree) that those values have been concealed by layer-after-layer of doctrine, policy, and procedure. Watts’s point: “The standard-brand religions, whether Jewish, Christian, Mohammedan, or Buddhist, are — as now practiced — like exhausted mines very hard to dig.” Also, I am again struck by the fact that Watts suggests a mindset which is inclusive, tolerant (and when appropriate, forgiving…especially of self), and at all times determined to continue a process of self-discovery. It seems that he wrote this book because he had become concerned about man’s alienation from himself (herself) as well as from other human beings and from the physical world within which all of us struggle to achieve (in Abraham Maslow’s terms) survival, then security, and eventually self-fulfillment.

This is not a book for dilettantes. Watts is quite serious when posing questions so easily phrased but so difficult to answer, at least responsibly. In his view, “for thousands of years human history has been a magnificently futile conflict, a wonderfully staged panorama of triumph and tragedies based on the resolute taboo against admitting that black goes with white [i.e. that diametrically opposed forces can co-exist, indeed nourish each other]. Nothing, perhaps, ever got nowhere with so much fascinating ado.” Having recently re-read this book, I was reminded of what Whitman observed in Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”

I am also reminded of the key concept in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. He acknowledges that all of us die eventually. Only the suicide decides the circumstances in which physical death occurs. However, Becker suggests that there is another death that CAN be denied: That which occurs when when we become totally preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us.

For me, that is among the essential points in The Book. Watts concludes with a quotation of James Broughton’s observations:

This is It
and I am It
and You are It
and so is That
and He is It
And She is It
and It is It
and That is That.

“To come on like IT — to play at being God — is to play the Self as a role, which is just what it isn’t. When IT plays, it plays at being everything else.”

“Who am I?” Alan Watts offers this book which can help to answer that question. However, the inevitably perilous journey of self-discovery can only be completed by each of us. And that journey may require many years of frustration and confusion…without any guarantee that any of us will reach the destination we seek. Our choice. It always was, is…and always will be.

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