Neo-American Church

Chapter 4


Sir Dinadan was so proud of his exploit that he could not keep from telling over and over again, to weariness, how the immortal idea happened to occur to him; and as is the way with humorists of his breed, he was still laughing at it after everybody else had got through.

When, in the spring of 1964, I had a long weekend free, I made a call, and got an enthusiastic invitation to visit from Lisa Bieberman, and took off for the IFIF office in Cambridge. I had written Lisa, who was the day-to-day manager of IFIF at the time, about my plans for a Psychedelian retreat on an Adirondack lake. I thought I might spend summers at the lodge and find gainful employment elsewhere, maybe at or near Millbrook, in the winter. Lisa thought it was a “great idea.”

I found Lisa at the modest IFIF office with two postdoctoral residents of the house in Newton which Dick and Tim had occupied while doing research in a local prison on the effects of acid on the recidivism rate. All three were working at routine office tasks, without pay, getting out the Psychedelic Review and a variety of bulletins. Alan Watts was expected momentarily, to contribute something for the forthcoming issue, which was to be a Festschrift for Aldous Huxley, who had recently departed this vale of tears in a most noble and exemplary Psychedelian fashion.

I established myself in the tiny kitchen of the small house on Boylston Street with a quart of Wilson’s, a blend I favored at the time. Watts arrived and greeted everyone like long lost buddies. While waiting for the acid head who was to take his dictation to return from an errand, he enthusiastically joined me in attacking the bottle.

Both Watts and I were fascinated by a trashy men’s magazine we found on the table, the kind which might depict Japanese nurses attempting to seduce American marines on its cover, with ads for crossbows and mementos of the Third Reich in its back pages. When, somewhat abruptly, but apropos the contents of the magazine we were chortling, cackling and sputtering over, I asked him how he explained the existence of suffering in the world, Watts seemed genuinely shocked.

“You’re asking me that question?” he asked.

I guess he thought the answer was in his books. If so, it’s in a corner I haven’t penetrated. When the IFIFian typist arrived, Alan put down his drink, stood up, walked up and down, and reeled off his panegyric to Huxley as if it were tape-recorded in his head. He paused only once, in search of another example of the kind of thing academic intellectuals and literary sophisticates scorned but which Huxley was willing to discuss, tolerate or even support, and I supplied it: “The myth of the desert island paradise.”

It was an amazing performance.

Unfortunately, although my appreciation for Watts as a critic of conventional religion is undimmed, my admiration for his philosophic efforts did not survive my Enlightenment, and even at the time of which I speak, I could not work up much enthusiasm for his point of view. He was, I think, essentially a pacifier, a sort of intellectual male nurse, a calmer of the troubled waters. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

Watts rarely mentioned his Western intellectual ancestors, but he was clearly a Transcendentalist and, in my book, a “Slobovenoid Blobovenoidalist.” With an Emersonian disdain for logic and consistency, he assumed the plurality and independence of minds but ignored or evaded the conflict between this and the supposed existence of a benign “Oversoul” (the “Giant Brain”). Although some Giant Brainers are first-rate poets and essayists, they are always lousy philosophers, but Watts was not so low on my personal moral totem pole as those intellectuals who refuse to try the Higher Sacrament. The latter I see as simply frauds in the same class as the mental midgets of Galileo’s day who refused to look through his telescope. At least Watts tried.

And Watts, his Slobovenoid Blobovenoidalism aside, was a great conversationalist, a great gossip, a great drinking companion, and a gentleman of the old school. As soon he established that I was literate he warned me he would “steal” anything I said worth “stealing.”

I told him to help himself, and we had a happy, bleary, gossipy evening which ended in my meeting the Newton contingent. Good heads to the man, but pale, I thought, in comparison to the Mighty of Millbrook, whom I was beginning to think of as virtual demi-gods occupying a world apart, around some trick corner in a magic mirror of my mind.

Although Alan and I got along well, he didn’t approve of my act. He probably saw, better than I did, the philosophic direction in which I was headed and knew what kinds of conflicts would inevitably follow with people of his ilk and Tim’s. When I asked him to grace the rosters of the Neo-American Church with his illustrious name, he replied: “I don’t like your boo hoo title. It sounds like a crybaby to me.”

The stiff upper lip complex at work? I don’t know. However frivolous in private, Watts, in the ancient C of E tradition, favored solemn fraudulence in public. It was what the market demanded, after all. He laughed when I suggested that his books were so popular that he could live, if only modestly, on the income from them. His royalties didn’t pay for his gin. What did pay off were his cruise ship deals and other more standard forms of lecturing. I would find out for myself in due time. (I have, but I don’t think it is absolutely necessary for a person with criminal tendencies to sink so low.)

I appreciate the literary and scholarly virtues of Watts and Aldous Huxley and Joseph Campbell (a very nice and very learned guy who informed me that he had adopted my Boo Hoo Bible footnote, “If you think you are getting anywhere, you’re on the wrong track” as his “personal motto”), but I do not belong to the doctrinal congregation for which they were outstanding twentieth-century proselytizers, and I think Watts saw this right away.

Although heterodox in minor ways, people of this ilk are essentially Vedantists, Cosmic-Minders, Giant-Brainers or Transcendentalists and thus dualists, although Allan and Aldous and Joe would probably reject and resent the label if they were still hanging around and could read this. Huxley, who dismissed the Zen masters as “unsatisfying,” and Campbell were virtually humorless, and, when sober, so was Watts.

When I read the philosophico-religious ruminations of these guys, I see (so to speak) the somber and shuddery shades of such as Swedenborg, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus hovering in the background. Back in the mists a few steps and you are in the jolly company of such as Dante and St. Augustine and the early so-called “fathers of the Church” all the way back to St. Paul, every single one of whom was mad. Only an idiot can have any fun, so the only way anyone who is not an idiot can have any fun is to behave like an idiot. The more one thinks, the less fun one has. “Life Sucks” is the technically correct bumper sticker.

I prefer, and recommend to one and all, the “Playboy Philosophy” of Mr. H. Hefner over this kind of shit any day.

At the beginning of the decade, all kinds of major events seemed to combine to cause a major shift in the general mood of western civilization. In what might be called “meta-historical” terms, LSD and MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) seemed to balance or complement one another, and the assassination of JFK contributed also, as a demonstration on the American stage (other stages had other demonstrations) of the ephemeral and usually fraudulent nature of most political “progress,” and the need to change human nature directly rather than to rest one’s hopes in moving the furniture around, changing the cast, and tinkering with the plot.

It seemed to me it was the style and content of everyday life that needed radical revision in the direction of more variety, freedom, truth, spontaneity and wit.

That was what I found so stunning about Millbrook: The names, rules and counters of the ordinary games being played there every day had somehow been changed in a fundamental way. Assumptions which always applied outside meant little or nothing within, and vice versa. Life as it was lived was livelier, more meaningful, funnier, happier. It was an adventure just to hang out, and so it remained, with ups and downs, until the end.

I resolved that anything I produced would be along the same lines. Watts was a smooth talker, but Timothy Leary, I thought, was a magician who seemed to know how to change life as it was lived, and he didn’t do it exclusively by flapping his gums. He did it by employing a magic elixir I knew from experience could do things that could not be done by all the King’s horses and all the King’s men flapping their gums in unison.

Whether or not the magic elixir could put Humpty Dumpty together again remained to be seen.

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