I first discovered Alan Watts’ work in the same way every Millennial has—on YouTube. His voice has become the driving force behind motivational and philosophical videos almost since the site’s inception, with users uploading stirring string music against the backdrop of lush, open landscapes or the star-swept nebulae we’ve captured out in space, all framed by Watt’s musings on life, death, love, work, religion, and all else in between. He spoke, in these recordings, with what I can confidently call an accent of what is now Very Old England. A toff, is what he sounds like. But the more defining aspect of him was that he was a new-age hippie; one who sought beyond what the West had to offer at a time when Eastern philosophy was still remote, misinterpreted and misunderstood.
By the time of his death in the early 70s, he was most well-known for popularising Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu philosophy, primarily through his writing. By my count, the man wrote 26 books, which means that by the latter half of his career, he was often publishing a new book every year—a level of proficiency that most of us who consider ourselves creatives would wrestle to fathom.
When it comes to visual media of his work, there is in fact, very little to speak of. What we have in abundance are his words—both his writing and what has come to embody the true stamp of his persona on the internet: his speeches, lectures and meditations. He certainly wrote more than we have record now that he ever spoke, but it’s not his writing by which Generation Internet has revived a facsimile of him. Come the end of his life, 50 years ago, he likely never would have guessed that what would be most immortalised of him would be his voice. And yet, that’s not at all surprising now. The Very Old England accent has its appeal as an intonation from a time passed, and is clear in the minds of those for whom English is not a first language. It is almost stereotypically the accent that comes to mind when listening to someone who would be taken as serious or profound. But Watts wasn’t always serious; in fact, his work, with emphasis on the philosophy of Zen Buddhism in particular, taught one that to be serious was, if anything, a mistake. He is quoted in one lecture as having said, “There is a difference between being serious and being sincere. In frivolity there is a lightness which can rise, but in seriousness is a gravity that falls like a stone.” Gravity, of course, doesn’t fall, but we take his point.