The More It Changes

Essential Lectures, Program 9


Alan Watts speaks on our fascination with reproduction through media, and on the far out notion that human beings may just be one star’s way of becoming another star!



Tonight I want to tell you three fantasies, all of which have something in common. The first fantasy is about reproduction. We use the word reproduction in two principal ways: when we talk about the biological reproduction of the species and when we talk about making a good reproduction of something in terms of a painting, a photograph, or a recording, or a video tape. Now, what is all this about reproduction in that direction?


Hundreds of years ago, kings of Europe who wanted to form feudal alliances by marrying the princesses of far-off states would have painters send portraits of the lady in question to see if his majesty approved of her before he got her. And there’s a famous story in which Henry VIII of England was badly cheated in this respect by a too-flattering portrait of Anne of Cleves. And therefore, there grew up a kind of morale among artists in the European tradition to make faithful reproductions of people.


And they perfected their technique, beginning with the marvelous work of the Renaissance painters and the Flemish painters, and going on, finally, to what was called art officiel in the nineteenth century, we got what we now call photographic realism.


But then they said, “Isn’t there some more scientific way of doing this?” And so they discovered the camera. And, first of all, there were—remember—there was brownish daguerreotypes and people said, “Well, that is pretty—it really looks like grandpa, doesn’t it?” And then they said, “But something’s—several things are missing. It isn’t colored.” So first of all, they tinted them. And then they said, “Ah, that’s real lifelike.” But then they went on to say, “But, you know, there are some people whose whole style of life, whose personality is in the way they move. And if you just take a static shot like that the personality isn’t there. It’s the way they go. So we’ve got to have some way of making people move.” So they invented the movies. And I remember when the first movies came out: they were all going da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da; everybody was going, you know, in a jerky way. Then they smoothed it out and they said, “Ah, that’s real lifelike!”


But they said, then, “There’s another thing about reproducing people, which is that they talk, and a whole lot of their personality is in the voice. So can’t we have them talking at the same time that they move?” So they invented the talkies. And then, to get it more lifelike still, they colored them. They said, “Wow! Now we’re really getting somewhere!”


Then, to make it even more real, they put it in 3D and you had to wear, sort of, spectacles over your face to see it that way. But then they went on to say, “Why is it that every time we want to see one of these things we have to go down to the center of town? Can’t we have it all at home?” And so television came on. And in television they first of all started out with black and white, and it was kind of like Robert Benchley once described: the cuts in French newspapers were all looking as if they’d been made on bread. Well, that was television at a certain period. And then they improved it, and then they colored it. And that’s where we are now.


Not quite. Because somebody has come out with a thing that we shall all be seeing soon, which is the hologram. A television image produced by laser beams where you see a three-dimensional figure out in the air in front of you. They’ll say, “Isn’t that marvelous! Whew!” And then—but of course, when you go up to it and you put your hand on it, your hand goes right through it. You can’t touch it. And, you see, that was always the trouble with television. Because you look at whatever you’re seeing behind the screen. It’s intangible, it doesn’t smell, and it won’t relate to you. So these are further problems to be solved in the techniques of electronic reproduction. And they’ll do it! They’ll, first of all, manage a way in which the electronic emission sources can solidify and make the air vibrate, so that you go up and you’ll touch the figure, and you won’t be able to push your hand through it. Because the air will be going faster than your hand. Imagine that! You can actually—if there’s a beautiful dancer on the television—you’ll be able to go up and embrace her, but she won’t know you’re there and she won’t respond to you. And you’ll say, “Well, that’s not very lifelike!” Just as they once said, “If the photograph doesn’t move it’s not very lifelike, if it doesn’t talk it’s not very lifelike.” They’ll next say, “If the reproduction in three-dimension-solid doesn’t respond, it’s not very lifelike.” So they’ll have to figure out a technique for doing that.


What will they do? Well, I’ll tell you. Sitting in your home, where you’re watching the scene on a kind of stage now—not on a screen—there’ll be a TV camera observing you. And that TV camera will report back everything you do into a computer, and the computer will so manage each bit of information—that’s to say, each tiny little granule, unit, of information going into the image that you’re looking at—that it will immediately decide what is the appropriate response to the approach that you are making to the image. Won’t that be crazy? You know, she may slap you in the face, she may kiss you. You don’t know. But then they say, “Now, this is still not really the kind of reproduction we wanted.” What we wanted when we looked at this scene is to be able to identify with one of the characters. We wanted to not just watch the drama that’s being performed on the stage in front of us, but actually get into it. And so we want to be wired in with electrodes on the brain so that we will actually feel the emotions of the people acting on the stage.


And so, eventually, we will get absolutely perfect reproduction and we will be able to see that image so vividly that we shall become it. And so the question arises: could that be where we are already? Are we a reproduction which, over the centuries of evolution, has worked out to be a replica of something else that was going on and we are where we always were?



Now, the next fantasy concerns the idea that every living being thinks it’s human. And that means a plant, a worm, a virus, a bacterium, a fruit fly, a hippopotamus, a giraffe, a rabbit. That all these beings—wherever they feel out from, as we feel out from our bodies—feel that they’re in the middle. That is to say, wherever you look, you turn your head around and you feel you’re in the middle of the world, you feel you’re the center. And a rabbit—or a fruit fly—feels that it is a center, and it has around it a company of associates who look like it. And therefore, this creature knows that these are the right people, just as we know—when we look at human beings—they’re the right people, they’re one of us. Only, of course, we have to make distinctions because you never really know that you are you and you are really in the right place, unless you can contrast yourself with some other people who are, after all, not quite in the right place and some other people who are very much in the wrong place. And through having this succession of comparisons you know that you’re okay. Well, the inset has exactly the same arrangement.


Well, you say, “Well, insects and things like fishes… uh, they don’t have any culture. What do you mean, fishes being civilized and being entitled to consider themselves as humans?” Well, let me put the argument from the fishes’ point of view. Fishes say, “Human beings are a mess! Look what they do. They can’t exist without cluttering themselves and carrying around all kinds of things outside their bodies. They have to have houses, and automobiles, and books—books!—and records, and television, and hi-fi equipment, and stuff—endless stuff! And they litter the earth with rubbish.” Think of a dolphin—he isn’t really a fish because a dolphin’s a mammal—but a dolphin’s point of view towards the human race. Dolphins spend most of their time playing. They don’t work. Because the grocery is right there, in the ocean; whatever they need. And so, a dolphin will catch up with a sea-going liner, and it’ll get on the wake of the liner and put its tail at an exact angle of 26 degrees. And, in so doing, the liner will carry the dolphin along. The dolphin will make circles around the liner just for fun, playing all its life in the water. And we know that a dolphin’s brain is as big, if not bigger, than ours, that it’s incredibly intelligent, that it has a language which we can’t decipher. And the person who knows most about dolphins in the United States—Dr. John Lilly, he’s a friend of mine—and he said he came to the conclusion that dolphins were too smart to tell us their language. So he abandoned this project. He said he would no longer keep such a highly civilized being in the concentration camp of a zoo, and that it should go back to the ocean.


So the point is, though, that every—not only dolphins—but every organism that has any sensitivity whatsoever considers itself to be the center of the universe. Now, it has its problems. There’s a Zen poem which says,

The morning glory which blooms for an hour

Differs not at heart from a giant pine

That lives for a thousand years.


In other words, an hour is a long life to a morning glory. A thousand years is a long life to a pine. And our four-score years in ten—or, as the insurance company’s actuarial tables put it: somewhere between 65 and 70 years is an average human life—seems about the right length of life. I mean, there are people who want to go on and on and are in quest of immortality, and have their bodies frozen in case there should develop in the future some technique by which they could be revived. But I really don’t go for that idea because nature has mercifully arranged the principle of forgettery as well as the principle of memory. If you always, and always, and always remembered everything, you see, you would be like a piece of paper which had been painted over, and painted over, and painted over, until there was no space left and you wouldn’t be able to distinguish between one thing and another. It’s like when a whole bunch of people start to scream and make noises, and outscream each other, and soon you can hear nobody. So, in that way, one’s memories become screams, and nature mercifully arranges that the whole thing be erased and you begin again. Do you see? It doesn’t matter in what form you begin. Whether you begin again as a human being, or as a fruit fly, butterfly, or a beetle, or a bird. It feels the same way that you feel now. So we’re really all in the same place, and we all have, above us, things much higher than ourselves. And we all have, below us, things that we feel are much lower than ourselves, just as there are things out there on the left and things out there on the right, and things in front and things behind. Because you’re the middle. You’re the middle everywhere, always.



Now, my third fantasy. Nobody has, it seems to me, really seriously asked the question, “How do stars begin?” Why? How, out of space, do these enormous radioactive centers arise? Well, I’m going to solve this problem on the principle of the egg and the hen, because it is said a chicken is one egg’s way of becoming other eggs. And if you’ve understood my second fantasy you will see how that could be true. Now, let’s suppose, then, that a planet is one star’s way of becoming another star. You know, stars—when they explode—they send a lot of goo out into space, and some of this goo solidifies into balls which get in orbit and spin around the star. And in one chance in a thousand, maybe, one of those balls will become like the planet Earth, and slowly upon it will arise what some people might call a disease called the bacteria of intelligent life. And they have a notion, these things that we call alive, that they ought to go on. You know, they have a fixed idea in their heads that they should keep on doing whatever it is they’re doing. And they should always be doing it better.


So they divide themselves into different species, and these species compete with each other in order to, as it were, flex their muscles and get better and better at whatever it is they are. And they go on doing this until one species really establishes itself as top species in the particular area on the particular planet as we human beings, homo sapiens, have established ourselves as top species on Earth. Whatever ‘top’ means.


Well then, when we have a little leisure and don’t have to spend all our time finding food to put into our mouths, we start asking questions. And we look around at each other and everything and say, “What is this?” I mean, what’s going on here? Well, some people say that’s a stupid question to ask. Why don’t you just go on doing your work? Go hunting, go farming, go… doing your business. They say, “No, there are higher things!” And so they create a special class of people who are, in India, called Brahmins; among us, philosophers, scientists, theologians, thinkers. And they go into this question, and they’re allowed to stop farming, to stop hunting, to stop mining, to stop scrubbing floors, and to go to very special places called universities where they can sit around and think about what is going on.


Well, they think about this. First of all, they do what they call philosophy. Which is, they try to say what it means—what does the word ‘be,’ what does the word ‘exist’ mean? What do we mean when we say we’re here? Well, they find they can’t discuss that very far because the word stops meaning anything. It sort of becomes a noise. They say, “Now, we’re not really getting to the point. What we’ve got to do is, instead of thinking all the time and just theorizing, and talking words about what’s going on, we’ve got to investigate it experimentally.” You’ve somehow got to look into this stuff that we call reality, the material world, and find out what it is.


So they start chopping it up, see? They go into flowers and they chop up the seeds, and they look into the middle of the seeds. They find something there and then they have to get a magnifying glass and look in on that. Get smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and they reason they must eventually come to some particle called an atom. In Greek, ἄτομος means ‘non-cuttable,’ what you can’t split any further. So they come down to the ἄτομος, that than which there is no whicher—they thought. But then they found they could split that atom. They could find the electron, the positron, the meson, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, forever.


And so they said, “Well, this is… I mean, this is real science,” because we’ve now found out that every ἄτομος of matter contains immense energy, and that we could come to the point where we could release the energy in the atom. And the trouble with intellectual people is that anything that can be done must be done. And so, eventually, in the necessary course of the development of nature, they found out how to blow the Earth to pieces and turn it into a star.


So that may be, you see, how stars originate. They have planets like chickens have eggs, and the eggs burst and turn into chickens. And planets burst through the agency of intelligent life, and turn into stars which throw out other mud balls, some of which stand a reasonable chance—about as reasonable a chance as, say, any male spermatozoa stands when it enters the female womb of becoming a baby—one in a million. And those spermatozoa are in exactly the same position as the planets in the stars.


Now, I tell you: this is a fantasy. But you may ask me: isn’t it a rather unpleasant fantasy? Aren’t things going the wrong way, the wrong direction? In other words, if the whole point of life—I mean, this tender, biological substance with all its tubes and filaments and nerves, which is so very sensitive—if all this is to end up in fire, into an absolute blaze of light, don’t we say, “Oh, what a shame.” Is that the way it ends? But so many people say that they want to see the light. They want to be enlightened. They want to dissolve into the light of God. And then, when they’ve done that all over again the process goes on and it blows out those mud balls, and here are planets, and here once again you’re a baby, you’re a child, the flowers are brilliantly colored, the stars are gorgeous, the smell of the earth, the sound of the rain, everything is marvelous once again. And once again you see the other—the man, the woman—that you love as if it had never happened before. It all starts over.


And as it goes on it gets more and more intense, all the problems get more and more problematic, and you find you’re wrestling with something you can’t control. You’ve got to control it but you absolutely can’t control it, like all the problems of the world at the present time. The whole scene is completely out of hand. And we feel we’re going to our doom because we are going, once again, towards the birth of a star, which is the more creative thing there is.


Now, if you think about this for a while—you see, I’ve put forward three fantasies, all of which have a cyclic quality. We reproduce not only biologically, but we reproduce artistically, technically. Just for a moment, I want to put in an aside about biological reproduction. See, when I think back to my grandfather—whom I knew fairly well—he was, when I was a little boy, something extraordinarily impressive. He looked like King Edward VII. He was a very, very elegant man with a little goatee beard. He didn’t have sideburns like this, and he had shorter hair, but he was a very elegant fellow, dressed beautifully. And I though, you know, he was the very image of God. And now here I am, the same age he was when I first knew him, and I have five grandchildren, and I’m sort of no longer impressed by grandfathers. You know? Here I am! I’m one of them, too. And this is the same idea, you see, of the round. That we are almost perpetually in the same place. As the French proverb says, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.


Well, that means, then—you see—that existence, the feeling of being, is a sort of spectrum. Just as light is at one end red and at the other end violet, and you have to have these extremes in order to have color at all, in order to know light. So, you see, likewise, we have to have the experience that there is somebody else, something else going on altogether out of our control in order to have the experience of being me. And so, in order to feel good, to feel that life is worthwhile, that existence is worth going on with—in order to bring out that feeling, just as the red brings out the violet, there has to be in the back of our minds—maybe very far away—the comprehension that there is something that could happen that absolutely mustn’t happen, that is the horrors, that is the screaming meemies at the end of the line. We have to know that’s there. And every so often that has to happen. Because if there isn’t the experience that we go through called the screaming meemies at the end of the line, where everything has gone wrong. Like, just before he died, the British novelist Arnold Bennett said, “I feel somehow that everything’s absolutely wrong!” You know? So the possibility, even the imagination, that there could be such an experience in the back of our heads is the background which gives intensity to the sense that we call feeling good, feeling that it’s alright. It’s alright, ma, I’m only bleeding.


So if you understand that, you see that—really and truly—you’re always in the same place. Just as every creature thinks it’s a human being. And as just every being turns out to be a reproduction by some interesting technology—whether it’s electronic or biological makes very little difference. And just as it may be—I don’t know—planets are stars’ ways of becoming other stars, and so on, and so on, and so on. But the moral is: you’re always in the same place. And what is that place?


You can ask yourself very, very—I won’t say ‘seriously’ because this isn’t really serious, it’s sincere—ask yourself very sincerely: if that is so, if—in other words—the place in which you are now is the place where everything and everybody else really is. Only, there’s an arrangement to pretend that you ought to be somewhere else. So the place where you are is the place where you’re always pretending you ought to be somewhere else. And this is the nature of life. This is the pulse. I ought to be somewhere else! So it’s kind of a “ga-zinn,” like that, see? Well, if you discover that that’s the trick that you’re playing on yourself you become serene, and you don’t entirely give up the game because you’ve seen through it. But you say, “Hmm, it really might be fun to go on playing!”

The More It Changes

Alan Watts

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