Brain Pickings

Orgasm Without Release: Alan Watts Presages Our Modern Media Gluttony in 1951

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A prescient admonition from the pioneer of Eastern philosophy in the West.

“If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss,” Saul Bellow wrote in his poignant 1990 essay “The Distracted Public.” Nearly a century earlier, in his funny and wise reflection on feeding the mind, Lewis Carroll admonished that “mental gluttony, or over-reading, is a dangerous propensity, tending to weakness of digestive power, and in some cases to loss of appetite.” And yet, cut off from both our bodies and our brains, we constantly oscillate between distraction and mental gluttony, seething in a cauldron of our own making, unwilling or unable to still our minds long enough for the truly meaningful to settle and coalesce.

This, of course, is far from a modern concern. In his altogether superb 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library), which gave us his invaluable meditation on happiness and how to live with presence, pioneering British Zen philosopher Alan Watts considers how our perilous compulsion for planning the future, coupled with our voracious appetite for distraction and escapism from the present, stifles our capacity to truly live.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Watts writes:

The root of [our] frustration is that we live for the future, and the future is an abstraction… The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., “everyone will die”) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.

But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

In language reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s admonition about the moving image, Watts — who, ironically, had a cameo in Spike Jonze’s Siri-centric movie Her — presages the modern mesmerism of screens, devices, and feeds, which, when used mindlessly, take us away from the present moment and become a “moronic inferno.” More than half a century before the technologies that most entice and entrance us today — especially the tyranny of perpetually flashing videos and animated GIFs — Watts observes the same worrisome effect in their then-modern predecessors:

The “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse –providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. The perfect “subject” for the aims of this economy is the person who continuously itches his ears with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places. His eyes flit without rest from television screen, to newspaper, to magazine, keeping him in a sort of orgasm-without-release through a series of teasing glimpses of shiny automobiles, shiny female bodies, and other sensuous surfaces, interspersed with such restorers of sensitivity — shock treatments — as “human interest” shots of criminals, mangled bodies, wrecked airplanes, prize fights, and burning buildings. The literature or discourse that goes along with this is similarly manufactured to tease without satisfaction, to replace every partial gratification with a new desire.

And as if to seal the deal on his remarkable prescience, he adds a remark that applies with striking precision to our age of screens, data, and the quantified self:

The brainy modern loves not matter but measures, no solids but surfaces.

Watts, of course, was the opposite of a techno-dystopian — he was a champion of the human spirit and its capacity for freedom. His lament, all the timelier today, was thus not a curmudgeonly complaint but an expression of honest concern about the choices we’re making daily, and a gentle reminder that, as Annie Dillard put it, “how we spend our days … is how we spend our lives.” The rest of The Wisdom of Insecurity, which remains a must-read, explores how we can transcend our futile strategies for controlling life and surrender to its living essence. Sample some of it here, then see Watts on the ego and the universe.

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