‘The Joyous Cosmology – Adventures in Chemical Consciousness’, by British born philosopher Alan Watts, was originally published in 1962. Watts takes a variety of his psychedelic drug experiences and creates a single stream of consciousness that works together as if a single trip. The style is engaging, thoughtful and well constructed and retains much of his Zen influence.
In part, the book is a homage to Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception (1954). However, the intervening years had proved fruitful for scientific research in psychedelics and Watts was keen to extend the philosophical elements that Huxley had started exploring in light of these advances.
“While I cannot hope to surpass Aldous Huxley as a master of English prose, I feel that the time is ripe for an account of some of the deeper, or higher, levels of insight that can be reached through these consciousness-changing ‘drugs’.” Though there is a strong sense of ‘each to their own expertise’, Watts certainly attempts, in his own very personal style, to emulate and possibly surpass Huxley’s mescaline account.
The book, which runs to about 100 pages, is split into three distinct sections. A prologue, the account of the subjective experience and an epilogue. The prologue opens with a broad philosophical discussion that frames the later subjective accounts, wherein he argues against Cartesian mind/body dualism and attempts to recast ‘mind’ as the formation of awareness/perception, not a ‘ghost in the machine’ as it were.
“Except where I am describing visions before closed eyes, and this is always specified, none of these experiences are hallucinations. They are simply changed ways of seeing, interpreting , and reacting to actual persons and events in the world of ‘public reality.’” Essentially, Alan Watts is demonstrating a subjective change, (the awareness has shifted through a change of perception,) the object (“public reality”) remains unchanged in itself and no illusion is obscuring its nature; only opening it.
Unlike Aldous Huxley, who placed a lot of emphasis on the idea of space within his text, Watts’ preference is initially an examination with time; especially in his descriptions of the ‘onset of a drug’. The move from ‘clock time’ to ‘biological time’ is a shift in modality that resonates with Timothy Leary’s writings on consciousness from the same period. It might be best described as the move from an external account of time to an interior one; an idea heavily influenced by Zen.
Watts retains a good deal of Huxley’s model narrative but the language he employs is certainly indicative of his own influences: “In the type of experience I am describing, it seems that the superconscious method of thinking becomes conscious. We see the world as the whole body sees it, and for this very reason there is the greatest difficulty in attempting to translate this mode of vision into a form of language that is based in contrast and contradiction.”
Interestingly, whilst “mind-at-large” has become the “superconscious”, but the form is essentially the same idea/construct as Huxley used when he wrote about “the antipodes”; and the filtering of the senses.
There’s a constant recourse to the psychedelic experience being an activity one is thrown into; thrust from an ‘ordinary reality’; the over-objectified and narrow awareness of the everyday: “The manners and mores of Western civilisation force this perpetual sanity upon us to an extreme degree, for there is no accepted corner in our lives for the art of pure nonsense.”
Like Leary’s model of the psychedelic experience, this throwness becomes at first an anxiety that one most overcome, an idea that is vital for spiritual constructs in 1960s texts because of its association with the ‘mystical experience’. The society of ‘normal awareness’ is repeatedly cited as the ultimate source for this anxiety – as a state of alienation and restriction, the delimitation of “Being”.
The Joyous Cosmology – Adventures in Chemical Consciousness is both a wonderfully written subjective account of the ‘psychedelic experience’, by a very articulate individual and also a very interesting vehicle for Watt’s philosophical, spiritual and religious understandings. Well worth a read from a number of standpoints and certainly a very fine example of psychedelic literature.