An excerpt from The Collected Letters of Alan Watts, edited by Joan Watts & Anne Watts
Under the cover of lusty and curvaceous chicks (of whom I approve), and of silly bunnies (of whom I disapprove), you have turned Playboy into the most important philosophical periodical in this country. I am a little nervous about admitting this, but, by comparison, The Journal of the American Philosophical Society is pedantic, boring, and irrelevant. Your recent interviews with Marshall McLuhan and Allen Ginsberg, your articles by Romain Gary, Arthur Clarke, Justice William O. Douglas, Alan Harrington, and many others — all these are intellectual stimulation of the highest order. How on earth do you get away with it?
However, in an entirely friendly spirit, I would like to take issue with Alan Harrington’s fascinating article “The Immortalist” (May 1969), on the desirability of abolishing death, and the possibility of doing so through medical techniques.
The immortalization of any biological individual runs into the same logistic problems as building indefinitely high skyscrapers: the lower floors are increasingly taken up with channels for elevators. It’s called “the law of diminishing returns.” A brain that continues intact for 100, 500, or 1,000 years is increasingly clogged with memories, and becomes like a sheet of paper so covered with writing that no space is left for any visible or intelligible form. Thus, a human being 500 years old would be as inert as a turtle of the same age.
Consider the following points:
• Death is not a sickness or disease; it is an event as natural and as healthy as childbirth or as the falling of leaves in the autumn.
• As the “natural childbirth” obstetricians are training women to experience the pains of labor as erotic tensions, there is no reason why the “pangs of death” should not be reinterpreted as the ecstasies of liberation from anxiety and overloads of memory and responsibility.
• Suppose that medical science achieves a method of getting rid of the overload of memories and anxieties: Isn’t this what death accomplishes already?
• The funk about death is the illusion that you are going to experience everlasting darkness and nothingness as if being buried alive.
• The “nothingness” after death is the same as the “nothingness” before you were born, and because anything that has happened once can happen again, you will happen again as you did before, mercifully freed from the boredom of an overloaded memory.
Along with most of us, Alan Harrington doesn’t see that this “nothingness” before birth and after death is simply the temporal equivalent of, say, the space between stars. Where would stars be without spatial intervals between them? The problem is simply that civilized and brainwashed human beings lack the perception that we are all one Self, marvelously varied and indefinitely extended through time and space with restful intervals. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “It is the silent pause which gives sweetness to the chant.”
Instead of trying to turn us into living mummies, the medical profession would be better advised to reform the present morbid rituals of dying in hospitals and turn them into celebrations in which the patient is encouraged to let go of himself by cooperating with death. You only die once, and why not make the best of it?