QUESTION. WHAT do Van Morrison, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park), the psychologist Dorothy Rowe and the beat writer Jack Kerouac all have in common?
The rather surprising answer is the half-forgotten Californian guru Alan Watts. Van Morrison wrote songs about him, Kerouac portrayed him in The Dharma Bums, Dorothy Rowe cites him as a major influence, and Parker and Stone have recently contributed an animation to the website of his 'electronic university'.
Alan Watts is one of the last philosophical thinkers truly to qualify for the title 'cult figure'. Although at the height of his fame in the Seventies he had his own TV programme in the States, and people would pay hundreds of dollars to hear him lecture, he is barely known at all over here in the country in which he was born.
Personally, I consider him a genius, and rarely a day passes when I don't dip into one of his books. He is rarely taken seriously in academic circles " I suspect for several reasons. Firstly, because of the company he kept: Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Campbell and many other figures identified with, and tainted by, the hippy culture of the time.
But Ginsberg, Kerouac et al are at least remembered, and to some extent honoured, whereas Watts remains a marginal figure. This is partly because he was a suburban English public schoolboy (and thus very hard to take seriously as the font of all wisdom), partly because he looked like a complete twerp (beard, long hair, beads, kaftans, the works) and partly because he was called, well, Alan Watts. A middle manager in a carpet warehouse, perhaps " but a guru, never.
It is impossible in the space of a few hundred words to sum up what Watts has to say. You will have to buy the books " most notably The Book (On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are). But suffice to say that he addresses modern Western life in a way that, for someone who is an expert and advocate of Eastern philosophy " specifically Taoism and Zen Buddhism " is remarkably relevant, down to earth, and up to date.
He is interested in the central questions of modern life: How do we live with uncertainty? Why do people believe what they believe? What is the nature of happiness, and can we hope to achieve it? His answers are both complex and extraordinarily simple. They are rooted in common sense (Watts writes with beautiful simplicity and wit, which is another reason why I suspect he was never adopted …