Alan Watts & David Foster Wallace on the Borders of Language

Alan Watts and David Foster Wallace, perhaps an unlikely duo, each provide fascinating encounters with the borders of language and the ineffability of subjective experience.

Remarking upon some disappointed attendees of his seminars, philosopher and shaman Alan Watts writes:

I have for years been trying to show people that it is extremely important to chant spontaneously, or at least to hum, and also to dance. I have offended people who, on attending seminars to hear an internationally famous philosopher, were simply encouraged to breathe effortlessly and allow their voices to hum along a line of least resistance, like water.”

– Alan Watts, In My Own Way (1972)

But these mind-less activities are much more ‘to the point’ than any intellectual exercise or regurgitation – “the point” referencing the unconditioned, basic experience of reality – argues Watts:

Chanting, flute or drum playing, and dancing in demilitarized patterns are ideally natural forms of yoga-meditation, because they silence the hypnotic chattering of thought and give one a direct feeling of shabda – the basic energy or vibration of the universe. This is why Gregorian chant, for example, gives the sense of eternity so absent from metered rhythms.”

– Alan Watts, In My Own Way (1972)

In a similar vein, David Foster Wallace, in his sublime short story, Good Old Neon, echoes:

What exactly do you think you are? The millions and trillions of thoughts, memories, juxtapositions — even crazy ones like this, you’re thinking — that flash through your head and disappear? Some sum or remainder of these? Your history… The truth is…That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universes inside you, all the endless in-bent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul…But at the same time it’s why it feels so good to break down and cry in front of others, or to laugh, or speak in tongues, or chant in Bengali — it’s not English anymore, it’s not getting squeezed through any hole.”

English, language itself, cannot adequately convey our experience of the inner landscape. While Watts aims towards the truth beyond our subjective centers – our illusory focal points of ‘self’ – Wallace writes that even within this mental experience of self, however illusory it may be, the currents are ineffable. That the resultant anxiety of being unable to convey the totality of our subjective experience – which is none other than our entire experience of life – is best assuaged from ‘looser’ angles than formal discourse. Words are just “holes” we’re attempting to squeeze experience through, and often, crummy ones.

Wittgenstein champions this line of thought (an influence shared by both Watts and Foster Wallace), culminating with:

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)”

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 

It seems, no matter how you slice it, that there is no intellectual, linguistic, final response to the problem of life. Only an experiential one. Thus when Watts attracted people from all over the world to hear him speak, and he simply, disappointingly, guided them in free-form humming, he may have been doing all he could imagine to break the growing American complex bent on objective understanding.

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