The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness

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Release Date: 
May 14, 2013
New World Library
Reviewed by: 

“. . . spectacularly successful. With . . . beautiful prose . . .”

The decision by New World Library to publish a new edition of The Joyous Cosmology could not be timelier.

The book was brilliant and piercingly relevant when it first appeared in 1962, and far from diminishing these qualities, the intervening half-century has only served to amplify them.

Some historical background is indispensable here. When The Joyous Cosmology was first published, it arrived at a fleeting but singularly important cultural moment for psychedelics, a moment when scientific research into these substances was not only legal but respectable.

Then the whole thing blew up almost overnight, and the early age of psychedelic promise morphed rapidly into the chaotic sociocultural monster that we now remember as the 1960s.

Psychedelics got associated in mainstream opinion with hippies, burnouts, and a scary nexus of hedonistic and anarchistic behavior. Many governments around the world began banning LSD and other psychedelics even for purposes of scientific and medical research.

After 1970 the whole scene went underground and off the grid, and it stayed there for decades. Amid all the chaos and clamor The Joyous Cosmology effectively got buried and forgotten and was eventually eclipsed in popular memory by some of Mr. Watts's other books, including, most notably, The Wisdom of Insecurity, The Way of Zen, and The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.

Today the situation is reversing as rapidly and explosively as it first came about. Since the 1990s a new renaissance of above-board medical research into psychedelics has been underway, and since the turn of the millennium it has begun to accelerate with journalistic coverage appearing in the likes USA Today, Time, The Guardian, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Against all odds, history has now rolled back around to a point where The Joyous Cosmology can be rediscovered, and read, and considered as if for the first time.

And it's a good thing, too, because the book is cogent, engrossing, and important.

Organizationally, it is divided into three sections plus an appendix. There's a prologue in which Mr. Watts lays out his primary philosophical and spiritual concern—specifically, the human, and especially the Western, delusion or hallucination of ego alienation—and makes a case for the legitimacy and usefulness of psychedelics in exploring it. There's an epilogue in which he elaborates a bit more on the same themes. The appendix, titled "Psychedelics and Religious Experience," constitutes a substantial essay in its own right.

Then there's the book's middle section, and it's here that the heart of the whole thing is to be found. In 1962 Mr. Watts was at the very peak of his power as a popular writer about religion, philosophy, spirituality, and psychology. In the main section of The Joyous Cosmology he applies his considerable communicative skills to the challenge of describing a single day (actually "a composite of several occasions," as he explains in the book's prologue) spent in a psychedelic state at "a country estate on the West Coast with garden, orchard, barns, and surrounding mountains."

Importantly, his purpose is not only to describe the philosophical and spiritual illuminations that can be facilitated by psychedelics but to convey a sense of what the world actually looks, feels, and seems like from the alternate viewpoint of psychedelic consciousness.

In this endeavor he is spectacularly successful. With his beautiful prose, Mr. Watts works a kind of magic act that vividly transmits the feeling of these ineffable mental/spiritual states.

In the prologue he offers one possible interpretation of what is seen and known in such states: "The mystical experience, whether induced by chemicals or other means, enables the individual to be so peculiarly open and sensitive to organic reality that the ego begins to be seen for the transparent abstraction that it is."

Psychedelics, he argues, have the ability to communicate the psychologically and cultural leavening insights of Taoism and Zen Buddhism—which seem more compatible with modern science than the ego-based Western viewpoint does—minus the prohibitive Eastern cultural trappings, so that Westerners can actually feel what it's like to know the world in truly ecological terms: as a harmonious dance and interplay of organism and environment, subject and object, self and other.

What's more, in the appendix he says this authentically ecological consciousness is not just a matter of private spirituality but one that extends to the question of human civilization at large and its precarious chances for survival:

"Inability to accept the mystic experience is more than an intellectual handicap. Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination. For in a civilization equipped with immense technological power, the sense of alienation between man and nature leads to the use of technology in a hostile spirit—to the 'conquest' of nature instead of intelligent cooperation with nature. The result is that we are eroding and destroying our environment, spreading Los Angelization instead of civilization. This is the major threat overhanging Western, technological culture, and no amount of reasoning or doom-preaching seems to help."

The fact that this is recognizable as a typical trope from 1960s counterculture philosophy does not date the book in a negative sense, because the same message is still the heart of environmental ecology, and the ongoing trajectory of global civilization shows that the message is still timely since it has been almost entirely ignored.

With such an apocalyptic undertone, it's appropriate that this new edition comes with a new introduction by Daniel Pinchbeck, who likewise mingles apocalyptic and psychedelic concerns in his books Breaking Open the Head and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, which have helped to establish him as one of the figureheads of the new psychedelic subculture.

Like so many other people in this field, Mr. Pinchbeck has been profoundly influenced by Mr. Watts himself, and in his introduction he unsurprisingly nails the deep significance of the book's reappearance at the present cultural moment:

The Joyous Cosmology inevitably sends me into a state of poetic euphoria and anarchistic delight. . . . Over the past forty or so years, we have suffered from the cultural delusion—put forth by a corporate media and government working overtime to keep consciousness locked up, as our industries suck the lifeblood from our planet—that the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s was a failure. Revisiting Watts's The Joyous Cosmology reminds me that the psychedelic revolution has barely begun. The journey inward is the great adventure that remains for humanity to take together."

Contrary to their popular reputation, psychedelic substances are not ways of escaping reality, writes the author, but of knowing, experiencing, and embracing reality more authentically and deeply.

In a world where so many of us feel fundamentally disconnected from our natural environment, and where we have now attained a stupendous technological power that literally enables us to destroy the world, Mr. Watts suggests that we might look for the source of these problems not in the world but in ourselves.

Psychedelics may provide a particularly precise and effective way to do this. Mr. Pinchbeck draws the point with arresting directness: "As Watts's scintillating prose makes clear—and all appearances to the contrary—the future will be psychedelic, or it will not be."

Today, thanks to a shifting tide of history, we're finally able to hear Alan Watts speaking this message again. We will be well advised to listen to him.