TabooThis afternoon I at last finished Alan Watts’s 1966 The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are,  which has been by my bedside for several months. A British-born, later American, philosopher, Watts played a central role in introducing Eastern philosophical and religious thought to Western readers, having become a Buddhist as a teenager. This is a small book but a delightfully rich read. Watts wore his learning lightly, but his analyses were based on a wide reading of Western as well as Eastern texts together with an eclectic knowledge of different cultural, linguistic, philosophical and theological traditions, frequently leading to fascinating digressions. At one point, for example, he rails against the use of nouns and adjectives in science, pointing to the Amerindian Nootka language, which consists only of verbs and adverbs. “Thus, in the Nootka language a church is ‘housing religiously,’ a shop is ‘housing tradingly’… Everything labelled with a noun is demonstrably a process or action, but language is full of spooks, like the ‘it’ in ‘It is raining,’ which are the supposed causes of action. ” Addressing the decline in the ‘paternalistic state’, Watts tellingly points out that “the home in an industrial society is chiefly a dormitory, and the father does not work there, with the result that wife and children have no part in his vocation. He is just a character who brings in money, and after working hours he is supposed to forget about his job and have fun.” I could go on but there are, of course, websites devoted to Watts quotations, observations and aphorisms. The central purpose of the book is to examine the illusion that the self is a separate entity confronting a universe of physical objects rather than being an integral part of such a universe. Watts thus offers a different understanding of personal identity and an alternative to the feelings of alienation (also, but not only, in the Marxist sense) that have become prevalent in Western society. This is also an early ecological tract, since Watts argues that the separation of the self from the physical world leads inexorably to the misuse of technology and attempts to subjugate the natural environment. (It’s another digression but I think, through this book, that I have also found the probable origin of the first line in John Lennon’s (The Beatles’s) I am the Walrus: ‘I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.’ In his text, Watts cites James Broughton’s 1965 rendering of a Chinese Zen master: ‘This is It/and I am It/and you are It/and so is That/and He is It/and She is It/and It is It/and That is That.’) Written almost half a century ago, the analyses in this book remain entirely pertinent.