Landscape, Soundscape in Painting, Music, and Mystical Vision

December 13, 1972

During a seminar at the New College of Sausalito, Alan asks: what is an aesthetically satisfying composition—not just in the visual and auditory arts, but also in the arrangement of the universe?

Mentioned:

00:00

Watts

Portrait

This was announced as Landscape, Soundscape in Painting, Music, and Mystical Vision. That was what it was to be about.

Audience

Portrait

Start with the latter first.

00:15

Watts

Portrait

Now, you’ll realize that, for perhaps thousands of years, the art of painting and the art of sculpture were iconographic—that is to say, they served mainly religious purposes. There was no such thing as what we now call fine art. All art was sort of functional, and made objects to serve supports for contemplation or for ritual or magical purposes. And so if you go to a museum of any kind of ancient art, almost everything that you will see will be something of religious or magical function. And these consist principally of effigies of human or divine animal figures.

01:21

In painting, of course, you cannot see a figure without a background. And, as a matter of fact, that’s also true of sculpture. But we consider the background in sculpture irrelevant, because it is not something which the artist himself has created. It’s the temple or museum or place in which it is shown. But when you paint—and especially when you paint on a rectangular surface instead of a surface that is shaped along with the figure, so that the outline of the figure is also the frame—when you paint, you have to put in some kind of a background. Now, if you’ve seen Greek or Russian icons, the background is solid gold, often emblazoned with jewels. But as time went on, painters began to put landscape in the background, because that’s the way you see people: they must be against something.

02:28

And, in due course, Western painters began to be fascinated with the background, and they said to the figure: move over. And then there were landscapes. But of course the people who looked at them and weren’t used to this kind of thing said, “Well, that’s not what I call a painting!” But in time they got used to it—so used to it that, in fact, in every national park you will find a place called “Inspiration Point” where there’s a great view. Everybody wants a room with a view. And when all the tourists from Kansas and Iowa get there, they say, “Oh, it’s just like a picture!” There’s a very mysterious thing that’s happening here. What was it that intrigued painters about mountains, trees, clouds, and rivers? Why did they feel they were beautiful? Why, suddenly, did they get this vision that these were things that were worth copying?

03:41

Now, painters were falling in love with the non-symmetrical. The human form, although wiggly, is more or less symmetrical. We look as if we’d been folded down the middle, because we have an eye on either side, two ears, some of us part our hair in the middle, and two arms, two legs—although we’re not symmetrical inside—two testicles, two breasts, or whatever you may be equipped with. But you do look pretty symmetrical. But clouds don’t. Then there’s another thing: we worry about our behavior a great deal, and we talk about good behavior and bad behavior, sane behavior and crazy behavior, and artificial behavior and natural behavior. And we are into a big thing about this. But the painter doesn’t worry about the behavior of clouds or spraying water or rocks. It would be unimaginable to accuse a wave of making an aesthetic mistake. Nobody has ever, I think, in history, drawn an objection to a badly-formed cloud. And only once in history was there a complaint about the stars. And this was a Frenchman in the 18th century who criticized the good Lord for not arranging the stars in fine geometrical patterns that would be edifying to the intellect, but had instead scattered them at random across the sky. That was the period when people were making formal gardens, were making tulips form fours, and were clipping trees and hedges in very formal topiary work, so that trees looked like birds and sundials and all sorts of things. And the garden was laid out in squares.

05:45

And this is a very curious thing, because we still tend to do that to some extent. When you fly across the United States from San Francisco to New York, you encounter first a long stretch of mountain country where human beings must perforce accord with nature, except in some parts of Nevada and Utah. But by and large all our roads are curly because they have to go along mountain valleys. There are curly rivers, and wonderful washes which, interestingly enough, are in the form of trees. The river and the tree are the same shape. So they’re really fascinating. And they go different directions: the tree goes up and the river goes down. But actually, a tree flows up, because there’s a flow of sap. And the flow of liquid is the flow of life. If you study water flow, you get what is really basic to nature.

06:53

There’s a marvelous book about this by Theodor Schwenk, and it’s called Sensitive Chaos, and is published by the Rudolf Steiner House in London. And it is a series of photographs with commentary of the way in which water flows under all sorts of conditions. And then it goes on that to patterns of fire, which are essentially the same but flowing up. And then to patterns of the grain in wood, which are, as it were, a sculpture memorializing the flow of water. And then to patterns of bones, of muscle, and finally to human painting—abstract painting in particular: the painting of the arabesque and Celtic illumination, where everything is based on the patterns of the flow of water.

Visual examples of the path of least resistance in nature
Processes in nature tend to follow the path of least resistance.
Left: river delta. Center: human blood vessels. Right: tree branches.

Audience

Portrait

Excuse me, how about the flow of blood?

07:51

Watts

Portrait

Blood is basically water. Little thicker. I mean, after all, you are ninety percent water,[1] and that is really miraculous.

Audience

Portrait

When you’re speaking of the life of the thing.

08:06

Watts

Portrait

Yes. But it’s the gravitational flow of water that is the life in us all. Energy is gravity, and that is the real meaning of E=mc².[2]

So Lao Tzu, writing a little before 400 BC, pointed out that the course of nature, the Tao, is like water, in that (although being extremely soft) it overcomes all hard things, and in being weak is extremely strong, and that it always seeks the lowest level which men abhor. And especially in our culture, to go with nature—to take the line of least resistance—is considered unmanly, weak-kneed, spineless, and altogether wrong. And we’re all brought up to be energetic—that is to say, to use force. And anyone who isn’t using force (say, in school) is reported on by the teachers as lacking aggression and not being upstanding.

09:25

This is really very weird. And I adjure you in thinking about human affairs: always call common sense in question. It is the most creative path in philosophy. Take ideas which are commonly accepted and which seem to be incontrovertible, and question them. Turn them backwards and see what would happen if they were thought about the other way. I give you an example: everybody automatically assumes that the present is the result of the past. Turn it ’round and consider whether the past may not be the result of the present. Whether the past may not be streaming back from now, like the contrail of a plane. And then, if you look at it that way, it all makes sense. Only, you see that just as the tail doesn’t wag the dog, the past doesn’t cause the present unless you insist that it does. And then—well, that’s your trip!

10:36

But actually, the whole universe emerges from the present right now. It’s all beginning now. We are present at this moment at the beginning of creation, and the past is echoes going back; echoes in the corridors of your mind. And the past is, in fact, present. That is to say: in terms of monuments that survive now, in terms of memories that survive now, and so on—books, other records. Because, you see, the universe is a vibration. Although it seems to us to be still and something like a rock—like Mount Tamalpais has been around for a long time—but we are not normally aware of the fact that Tamalpais is an extremely fast vibration; so fast that we can’t see the intervals between the vibrations. Because the retina retains impressions in such a way that when you see a light going at sixty cycles, you can’t see the intervals between the cycles; the on/off. But you can with an arc light. And when you listen to an extremely deep sound you can hear the rattle in it. When you get down to Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, you can hear the rattle. You can hear it on and off, on and off, on and off. But if it goes very fast, you get up and go Oooooooooooooh. You can’t hear it. But actually, everything is going on and off. It’s going nyooing-nyooing-nyooing because it’s an electronic performance.

12:34

And so the world is coming at you like a movie. And it’s all coming out of space. See, the stars vibrate out of space. If there weren’t any space, there couldn’t be any stars. Couldn’t be any galaxy. And so something is now coming out of nothing because nothing is perfectly obviously the root of something. You can’t have something without nothing just as you can’t have a baby without a womb. So there is a hollow. And the hollow, as Lao Tzu points out, is the origin of the solid. Or, in a way, you might say they come into being together. Lao Tzu says: “To be and not to be arise mutually.” And that’s the basis of the I Ching; the “Book of Changes.” The yang principle and the yin principle create each other, because they are likened to the south and north sides of a mountain: the south side in the sun, the north in the shade. And—perfectly obviously—you can’t have a mountain with one side only. Although human beings who do not perceive this principle are always trying to have the yang without the yin. They want the light without the dark, the good without the bad, the pleasurable without the painful, the something without the nothing, the life without the death. And this is of course profoundly illogical.

14:20

So then, all this yang-yinning has, however, in it pattern. And this pattern is revealed, basically, in the flow of water and how it behaves. And this is, I think, why artists copied it. Because in water it is shown that the Tao, or the course of nature, never makes an aesthetic mistake. The fellow, of course, who complained to God that the stars were badly arranged didn’t have a correct view of the galaxy. We are in the galaxy, and close by it does indeed look as if the stars were just randomly scattered. But if you go away to a tremendous distance, you will see that this galaxy is beautifully formed as a double helix. And we can see that with many other distant galaxies, although they have varying shapes.

Stars seen from Earth and a picture of a spiral galaxy
Apparent stellar disorder turns out to have structure when seen from a comprehensive view. Left: stars as seen from Earth. Right: the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300.

15:32

Lots of them are these magnificent double helixes—this pattern—as when you clasp your hands together. And you see that that is the same basic pattern as that of sexual intercourse. In other words, the one node is chasing the other, and they’re going blyee blweeh blweah, you know, in a spiral, chasing after each other. And the one node doesn’t know itself except in terms of the other one. And you would not be aware of the sensation of self unless at the same time you were aware of the sensation of something other.

16:18

Now, that’s very interesting. If you can’t have self without other, or yang without yin, or front without back, or the knowledge of voluntary action without the experience of what involuntarily happens, then it indicates that there’s a conspiracy going on. In other words, these two are different, but esoterically and secretly the same. Only, when you know that, you have a problem. This is why one could say that being enlightened—in the Buddhist sense of the word—is a sort of calamity, because you found out the ruse which you were playing on yourself: you found out that the universe is a system which creeps up on itself and says BOO! and then laughs at itself for jumping. In other words, it is a self-surprising arrangement so as to avoid the monotony and boredom of knowing everything in advance. So you and I have all conspired with ourselves to pretend that we’re not really God—but of course we are! That’s perfectly obvious! We’re all apertures through which the universe is looking at itself.

18:08

Only, it is so arranged that we don’t know that in exactly the same way as we don’t look directly at our own eyes, and we don’t hear our hearing, and so on. There’s always a blind spot. Take your head, for example: it’s marvelously invisible. You can’t even see it in the form of a black blob in the middle of everything. It isn’t black. It isn’t even fuzzy. It’s just plain not there from the standpoint of sight. And yet, out of that emptiness you see just as the stars shine out of the emptiness of space.

18:52

Alright now, I want to go back to the watercourse character of the formations that emerge in space. They all wiggle, just as the roads wiggle until you get to Denver. But after Denver, where the country is flat (and the people likewise, to some extent), everything goes straight. Everything is rectangles. Everything is Euclidean. Everything is straightened out, squared away. And so we have a kind of a passion, a compulsion, to straighten things out, and say, “Let’s get this straightened out.”

19:48

Why? I would say: wouldn’t it be more fun not to have it straightened out, but rather to be made curvaceous? But it says on the road “dangerous curves.” And somehow that’s dangerous. Women have dangerous curves and are, for that reason, attractive. I mean, they did, for a time, try to straighten women out. If you look at photographs of fashions in the 1920s, well, they flattened their breasts and wore dresses that went clunk, and hats that went pflwomm, you know? And they became straight women. And it was a terrible era! And people we call “straights” or “squares,” you see, are of this mentality. They don’t wiggle—or let’s say they don’t swing.

20:47

For example, the fundamental movement of dancing is where the hips can move independently of the shoulders. Say, the shoulders remain still and the hips wiggle. Well, a lot of people think that’s obscene and won’t do it. A man in England wouldn’t dream of making a motion like that! Because it would be improper. I mean, “Little boy, you’ve got to keep a stiff upper lip and do the jolly old thing, but don’t behave like a hula dancer!” But when you watch Hindu dancing, you see, their arms, too, are going in that rhythm, and they look as if they were in water; like water plants moving in a current. And lots of us think that that is extremely beautiful: really wiggly human behavior. It still gets us back to water. It still gets us back to what it is that fascinates artists about landscape.

21:55

Well now, then there was an evolution beyond this point in the history of art. The artists got together and said: why do we have to copy what clouds and trees and water are doing? Why can’t we do it ourselves? Why don’t we create works of nature? And so they did. They experimented with people like Jackson Pollock in dripping paint on canvas, and actually letting this watercourse thing happen without copying anything. Gordon Onslow Ford, who’s a local painter, has been doing that for years—only with slightly different technique, but essentially the same thing. All kinds of painters, say, Mark Tobey: he looked at Chinese writing in the cursive style, where Chinese writing is a flow of the brush, and when you do it fast (in longhand as distinct from print; what they call in Japan gyōsho), you get these amazing rivers dancing on paper. And Mark Tobey saw that, and introduced white writing, and did the most marvelous paintings.

23:18

But he discovered that you had to be in a certain state in order to achieve this. Because there was something fundamentally different between fine abstract painting and mere mess. A lot of people thought, “Oh, any child could do that!” And so they set out to make abstract paintings which nobody was interested in. They were just terrible. And some people took typewriters and hit them several times with a sledgehammer, and then mounted them on a cubic block of walnut and said: “Opus 14,” you know? And this is completely phony. But other people, for no explainable reason—nobody could possibly figure it out—but it was obvious that Mark Tobey was not a phony.

24:20

But it’s impossible to explain why just in the same way as it is impossible to explain why the patterns in water and clouds and mountains are beautiful. Now, you get courses in aesthetics where somebody takes a landscape and draws a lot of triangles all over it and says, “You see, the reason why this is a good landscape is that it holds your eye in a certain pattern. And you go from here to here to here to here, and that’s satisfactory. This is gust geometry.” This is absolute foolishness. Nobody knows and cannot possibly say why a mountain is beautiful. In art school, where they try to teach one to do beautiful things, they all eventually find it’s perfectly unteachable—and if it were teachable, it would be terrible. Because if thousands of Rembrandts and Leonardos and Picassos would be emerging from art school, and everybody would say, “Oh, this is old hat. Let’s have something new.”

25:34

Or, same way in music school: you can’t teach music. What you can teach is how to play an instrument, how to read notations, and technical things like that. But you cannot really teach what to do with the instrument, what notes to write. You can copy the old masters, but you’re still just copying. When Bach wrote music, he really invented the laws of harmony. And everybody studies Bach to find out what the laws of harmony are. It’s like: language comes long before grammar. Eventually, grammarians—I mean, a child doesn’t learn grammar before it learns English. The child picks up the language by ear, and then afterwards goes to school and is amazed and horrified to discover that this language has grammar. And lots of languages in the world, lots of peoples, didn’t know they had grammar until anthropologists told them, and discovered the rules of their so-called primitive languages.

26:55

So the artist doesn’t really know what constitutes beauty, and he doesn’t know this for exactly the same reason that you and I cannot see our own heads, and do not know how our brains work. Even the greatest neurologists don’t know how the brain works, and they’re the first people to admit it. They don’t know how they manage to be conscious, they don’t know how they make decisions—it just happens in the same way as you can move your fingers without knowing any physiology. You just do it. So, in the same way, the artist manages to create the beautiful. So therefore, one may suppose that when spontaneous painting has become really understood by the great masses, that people will walk down city streets, and there will be a filthy old brick wall somewhere covered in straps of torn-off posters and bird droppings and scratches, and they’ll stop and look and say, “Oh, it’s just like a picture!” Because the artist, you see, has the function of teaching one to see.

28:19

Now then, let’s look at it in music. Western music—we’ll discuss first; we’re not really going into the Orient yet—was very formal. I mean, look at a Western concert: what a ritual it is! You know, all these ladies and gentlemen wearing black clothes, sitting in a great semicircle. And then the conductor arrives, and there’s a tremendous hullabaloo. And bows, and motions to the orchestra. Then, suddenly, they’re ready to go, see? And then this thing starts up. Well, first of all, it’s on a regular beat. Say it’s four-four time, six-eight time, or whatever it may be. But it’s all basically on a regular beat. And so to Oriental ears it sounds like a military march, even if it be sentimental in melodic form. But everything is:


One-two, one-two,

Three-and-four.

Over to the window

And back to the door.

29:37

See? It’s all that. And very serious. You don’t see orchestra members laughing at each other as you do, say, in a Hindu orchestra. Very serious. They’re up there, and they are doing the thing; that’s what you’re supposed to listen to, see? That’s the object going on. And so, likewise, they want to suppress (in as far as possible) all other sounds. The audience must be silent. They don’t want coughing, blowing noses, shuffling of feet, anything like that. Because there is a thing to listen to!

30:22

And so, in the same way, in radio studios and television studios. What lengths they go to to pretend that they’re not on the radio, not in a television studio, is fantastic! You are covered with soundproof walls, and somebody looks at a clock, and it’s like a countdown for a rocket going off, and says: “Standby!” Everybody has to be silent. And then he points at the main speaker: “Go!” You know? And it will be a terrible faux pas for another television camera to be seen on the camera that is transmitting the signal. But I have wrestled with television stations and told them that this is an abomination. That we’ve got going television in the round, where there are cameras all ’round, so that we can have a group of discussion people sitting in a ring and doing all sorts of things, or we could have dances in which you would see the other cameras—but so what? Who cares?

31:28

So, likewise, when you are listening to the radio: although it’s done in a perfectly silent studio, suddenly a truck goes by or a jet plane goes over, or somebody burps, or you’ve got a crackling fire. So what’s all this about eliminating exterior noise? Incidentally, if you’ve got any old records that have scratches on them and they make funny noises, just put them on and imagine that you’re sitting in front of a fireplace. And the sound comes through quite clearly. It’s no problem!

32:09

So then, there was an extraordinary eccentric called John Cage, who was a good friend of mine, and he was a very competent musician. Oh, I mean, Juilliard and all that—he knew it all. And so he first of all experimented with opening up the piano and attaching paperclips, nails, and washers to the strings so that they made very unusual noises. Then he played regular set pieces of various kinds, but with what he called a prepared piano. Then he got weirder. He decided that he would set up in a row twelve radios, and each one would have an operator. And according to a series of intervals derived from playing with the I Ching, they would turn the radios on and off, all arranged on different stations. And so you got this extraordinary babble. Then he got eight Ampex tape recorders and recorded all kinds of funny sounds—the streets sounds, people washing, airport sounds, any kind of funny stuff. And then he played them all at once. Well, then he got another idea, which was to get an enormous amount of miscellaneous noise and to play it in an art gallery where people were milling around, and record the happening itself, the noise made by the audience in reaction to all the noise he had prepared originally. Then he played that back to them, and re-recorded their reaction to it, and then played that back!

34:10

Then he hit a real one. He gave a formal concert in New York. Ah, it was one of the important halls—Carnegie Hall or something—and he appeared beautifully dressed in white tie and tails, and with an assistant to turn the pages of the score, grand piano, everything formally set up. But the score consisted entirely of rests. And it had a key signature, and repeat places where you turn the page back. And he sat down at the piano and waited through the proper time of the thing—while the man turned the page, you know?—and the audience began to titter and shuffle and cough and sneeze. The point of the performance was, however, for the audience to listen to itself. He didn’t explain this, but the word got around that that was the idea.

35:26

Now you see what he was doing? He was drawing attention to soundscape. Just as landscape is the natural background of people and buildings and so on, so the background of music is soundscape—which is what I would call the susurrus of sound going on all over the place.

35:55

Well, now, there’s a certain importance to all this, and to understand it we have to go to Chinese philosophy. The Chinese developed landscape long before we did. Oh, as early as 700 AD at the very least, there were landscape painters in China. And as and when human figures appeared in landscape, they’re very tiny. Because they always saw man in the context of nature. They did not see man as the ruler of nature, or as something independent of nature. They didn’t see the organism except in relation to its environment. They had also a different concept of perspective. See, our convention of perspective is that things become smaller as they are far away from you—that is to say: less important. And there’s a famous story about this—well, several stories, for that matter. A lot of people, when we show them a perspective drawing, who don’t belong to our culture, they just don’t comprehend it at all. But they say the tree, there in the distance, is not that small in relation to something in the foreground. They just don’t see it. And once, when a G. I. was visiting Picasso during the liberation of France, he said he could not understand his paintings. “Why did you paint a person looking from the side and from the front at the same time?” And Picasso said, “Do you have a girlfriend?” He said, “Yes.” “Have you got a picture with you?” He said, “Yes.” He pulled out his wallet and showed a photograph of his girlfriend. And Picasso looked at it in astonishment and said, “Is she so small?”

38:13

So you realize, therefore, that what we think is art depends to an enormous extent on convention. Now, in Chinese painting there are at least two vanishing points, as a rule. We’ll take a full landscape painting where the entire silk or paper is filled. And things that are distant tend to be not diminished towards a vanishing point in the center, but to be higher on the paper, and things close at the bottom. And so you get this convention of painting on a scroll.

39:12

Also, the Chinese make full use of the paper. We tend not to, especially in our more conventional style. I don’t think we have a conventional painting here—but the thing is that, when you go into a motel, you will very often find that over your bed is a flower painting. And it will be a bunch of flowers smack in the middle of a white sheet. Now, this is very curious, because that renders the background null. It turns it into mere background. But a Chinese painter would never do that. If he drew a spray of bamboos on a rectangular surface, he would put them right over to one side. And then he would vitalize the empty space, because it would appear to you to be water or mist, not paper. He might bring that out with a few hints—just a single thin line indicating a wavelet, a ripple. Then, at once, that whole blank area is alive. He balances against what is drawn, so it becomes yin to the yang.

40:48

There was another Chinese painter who was a Zen monk, and the way he liked to paint was to drink lots of sake wine, and when he was sufficiently drunk he would dangle his hair in ink, and then slosh it right down the strip of paper. Then he’d wash it out—his hair, I mean. Then (in the morning, when he’d recovered from being drunk), he would take a long look at this squishle, and he’d do a Rorschach on it, and would at last see a landscape. And then he’d take his brush and just fill in a few necessary details, and immediately there was this magnificent landscape. Leonardo da Vinci did the same thing. He’d look at dirty old walls and watch them until his eidetic vision brought out an extremely vivid picture. And then all he’d have to do was to fill in the details. Like you do when you wake up in the morning sometimes: you have eidetic vision, and you’re sleeping in a room where the walls are made of knotty pine, and you suddenly begin to see faces, or beautiful nudes, or something or other in the pattern of the wooden grain. And you bring it out.

42:23

So remember, then—we go back to the principle that nobody knows just exactly how this happens. We do not know how to make something beautiful. As soon as we know, it becomes a cliché. For example, we’ve got techniques now for copying sculpture and jewelry and paintings that are incredible. And you can go to Brentano’s or certain department stores, and you can buy the most astonishing reproductions of the greatest statuary in the world. But there’s something wrong with it. You begin to see it everywhere. You remember, years ago, somebody thought it a great game to use wrought iron to make fishes; very formally outlined fish of wrought iron, see? And at first they were interesting. But then they began to sell them in the dime store.

43:39

Only, the ones in the dime store were somehow sleazy. You know what I mean? It’s like the glaze on mugs that they sell at the supermarket. You know, the difference between a mug made by a fine potter and those with the lead glaze on that they sell you in the supermarket? Something absolutely horrible about them, even though they’ve allowed the glaze to run and so on, and done what is supposed to be good aesthetic tricks. They just don’t come off. And a lot of people are like that. You know—what we call plastic people. And what makes a plastic person? The answer is that anything that that person says or does is going to be very highly predictable. No surprise. So it is the element of surprise somewhere, somehow—of not knowing how it’s done—that is essential to beauty.

44:44

Alright, then. If that is the case, we have to be very careful how we handle nature and ourselves. Because, you see, we are in a passionate state of wishing to predict it all—to make it, as they say, foolproof. But it should be obvious that if there are no fools, there is no fun. That is why fools used to be in great demand. A king would have a fool present at court. The jester was actually a very wise person. Because fools often are extremely wise, and they see things that other people don’t see just the same way as children do. Somebody completely naïve, totally honest, but not caring for the morrow, and generally speaking screwy, will say things that are exceedingly funny. And everybody absolutely breaks up.

45:54

We used to play a game as kids. You had a little book with a story in it, but every so often a word was left out and there was just a blank. Then we had an assortment of cards that were shuffled and passed around, and people in turns would take the first card that came and read it in while the person was reading the story, he’d stop for a blank, and then he’d read a word. I mean, it’s utterly disconnected! But everybody just broke up because of the incongruity of the fill-in. And so kids today: they’ll turn on the television with no volume, see? And then they’ll play a record, maybe people talking or singing or something or other, and compare it with what’s on the TV. It’s the same principle.

46:50

I recently had to visit someone who was insane and couldn’t talk English anymore. They were just talking nonsense. And I spent an hour with her having an extremely sociable, pleasant conversation in which I simply talked nonsense back to her. And she was quite happy. But, you see, people don’t ordinarily like to do that. They’re trying to correct the person in the state of insanity and see if they can’t push them back into talking proper English. There’s no need to do this! What does music mean? I mean, we get together and make music, but it had no meaning except itself. Music is beautiful—like a flower, like a fern, like a cloud. And we like to look at it just in the same way as we like to look at a landscape.

47:55

And so, if you can listen to music, you can listen to soundscape, you can listen to just anything, and dig it. Now, this is enormous fun, but it’s not generally recognized. If you just close your eyes and listen to all the sound that’s going on, and you stop naming it—see, you don’t call it anything, you don’t identify it, but you just listen to this buzz. Fantastic! And you also make certain discoveries. To the eyes, the world appears rather static. To the ears it’s never static, it’s always on the move. Now, using ears only to study what is going on, to study reality, is a very, very fascinating enterprise. There’s a book about it which is called Sound and Symbol, and the author rejoices in the name of Victor Zuckerkandl, published by Princeton University, where he uses music as a method of inquiry into the nature of the physical world. And it is an extremely interesting book. But he doesn’t bring up the point which I’m going to make, which is that if you listen to the world, you will discover that there is no past and no future. They are absolutely inaudible. The past pop of a champagne cork is suddenly not audible, nor is the future sound of the San Francisco earthquake. And also, you can’t hear anybody listening.

50:15

So if we are to believe our ears, there is no past and there is no future, and there is no difference between yourself and the sound you’re hearing. It’s all one. So there is a process going on, but nobody is being processed. There is just a process. That’s you. See, when you listen, everything you hear is you. Or else, there is no “you” at all. In that state of pure listening without naming, you cannot tell the difference between the universe and your action upon it. That’s kinda scary. Because when we experience the world simply as a happening, we’re apt to say, “Well, hell, who’s in charge around here?” Because we always think somebody has to be in charge. I mean, doesn’t somebody have to be in charge to make things go the right way, or to make anything happen at all? I mean, don’t you need a bit of a shove? Mustn’t there be some primordial source of energy to goose the whole thing into being? No, there doesn’t. All that is a military image of nature where somebody’s in command, based on the idea of a king, a general, commander-in-chief, who gives the orders and makes the original shove. Like, say, when you have a row of dominoes all standing up on end: somebody flips the first domino and they go catta-catta-catta-catta-catta-catta all the way down, and then you have cause and effect, see? That’s not the way nature works.

52:20

But it’s an image, it’s a model, in terms of which we have been accustomed to think about nature. So that God, as conceived in the West, is the big boss who is in charge, who orders all things. And then they got rid of God, you know, around the 18th century, and people stopped believing in God—although they continue to think they ought to believe in God. They don’t really. So they got rid of the commander-in-chief and were left with the mechanical consequence of the commander-in-chief’s operations. And so the universe was looked upon as a mechanism, and we talked of the mechanisms of nature and the mechanisms of the mind. And so now we all tend to regard ourselves and each other as machinery, and we want to make that machinery as predictable as possible. Because if you were a perfect psychologist, you see, you would always know what a person is going to do next. You would always know what was wrong with them when they were neurotic or psychotic. And you would be a mechanic, and you would just go in there with your wrenches and screwdrivers and straighten it out. And there would be no surprises left. So there would be no fools. There’d be no crazy people.

54:01

And, you see, in this industrial society, we’re terrified of crazy people. You can’t have crazy people driving automobiles! And, you know, it’s gone so far that, whether you are or are not in a fit condition to drive an automobile is just about the definition of sanity. Well, now, most people are not really fit to drive an automobile, especially people who are angry or depressed, whose mind is not on the job because they’re furious at their wives, or in terror of their bosses, and just aren’t thinking about anything except that, and they are going down the road. They’re worse than drunks! You can’t drive an automobile while profoundly in love with the girl sitting next to you. You are thinking about her. Her vibes are coming right across you. You know? You can’t read poetry and drive an automobile at the same time. And what is this tyranny that’s over us all, that we all have to be in a fit condition to go roaring down freeways in a death-dealing instrument? “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”

55:23

So this industrial civilization is terribly tidy, because it’s so dangerous. If you’re going to work on a production line—you know, this thing is going whizzing along—well, you can’t be foolish. Another thing about the freeway is that you must be going somewhere. You can’t be purposeless on a freeway. You can’t wander. You can’t even wander in the suburbs. Because if you go out on foot and start wandering, a police car will come and say, “Where are you going?” And if you’re not going anywhere, well, you’re obviously suspicious. So you have to be walking a dog, or jogging, or doing something important. Otherwise you’re a deeply suspicious character!

56:20

So the passion to control everything, to predict everything, to square everything off, is destructive of life. When we get to the foolproof world, you see, and have no fools, there’s no joke left. No jester, no joker. Because the joker in the deck of cards is your representative: it’s the wild man who can play any other card. So the more predictable you are, the less you are of a joker. When everybody knows what you’re going to do, you’re an ace, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, or a knave, maybe a queen or a king. But not the joker. The joker corresponds to the man whom, in Hindu society, would be called the jivanmukta: the one liberated, the sannyasa, a holy man. He’s a joker.

57:33

And when you meet real holy men, you cannot figure them out. They might do anything. And they’re often shocking people, because they do things that holy men are not supposed to do. I mean, characters like Gurdjieff, and even Sri Ramana Maharshi, and so on, are very, very unpredictable. They’re weird. But always surprising. Zen masters—I know many—you never know what they’re going to do next.

58:18

Now, be careful, though. One warning: you cannot be artificially weird. There is no program for becoming spontaneous. A lot of people think there is, but what they do is this: they become only extremely conventional in an obverse way. That is to say, they do all those things which are not allowed by convention. And that is following convention, you see? It’s just its mirror image. So when we discuss spontaneity—or, say, in an encounter group of some kind where everybody is going to be spontaneous. Well, all they do is: they become hostile. Because hostile is bad form according to convention. And so we call it being genuine.

59:16

Now I, being an Englishman by origin, I have been brought up to preserve fairly good manners, be civil to people, not lose my temper and so on. And I feel perfectly comfortable with it. I don’t have to flout those standards in order to feel real. But a lot of people tell me I’m not really there. “We want to see the real you.” “Are you in touch with your real feelings?” they’ll say. And well, of course I’m in touch with my real feelings. And I know that sometimes I’m furious, but I don’t have to blow up at people. It’s not necessary. Because one gets one’s results much better by not blowing up, by being subtle. But beware of the phony spontaneity of merely going against what is conventional. Because that is not the watercourse way, that is not the line of least resistance. And you have to be very sensitive to discover what that line is to be able to flow.

[]

Footnotes

  1. Curator’s note: the true amount is ≈70%.

  2. Curator’s note: energy and mass can be converted into each other. The portion of the equation represents the conversion ratio between them: a small amount of mass transforms into huge quantities of energy.



Landscape, Soundscape in Painting, Music, and Mystical Vision

Alan Watts

https://www.organism.earth/library/docs/alan-watts/headshot-square.webp

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