Meeting One’s Madness


Our Correspondents

Our newest correspondent is Megan Mayhew Bergman, who will be writing about naturalism. For her first piece she considers the writer Alan Watts and the “age of environmental anxiety.”

Eric Ravilious, Wet Afternoon, 1928, watercolor.

Eric Ravilious, Wet Afternoon, 1928, watercolor.

For the others, like me, there is only the flash
Of negative knowledge, the night when, drunk, one
Staggers to the bathroom and stares in the glass
To meet one’s madness

W. H. Auden, “The Age of Anxiety”

Living in rural Vermont, I enjoy proximity to wilderness, though I observe its sickness at close range. In spring, my family marks the return of swallows and red-winged blackbirds on the barn door. But the migrations are off, and the frosts are late, the harvests erratic, and the thaws early. Though the landscape looks bucolic, and the foliage bright, industrial perfluorooctanioic acid poisons our wells and the herons in town fish from polluted ponds. This year, the maple season started three weeks earlier than ever recorded, and some ski resorts saw only a few days of snow.

In the last decade, as I’ve followed the harrowing environmental data, I’ve experienced sharp pangs of human guilt and fear of the future. Fortunately, I’m able to turn to books like medicine in times of crisis. Recently, on an eighty-five degree October day, my crimson dahlias unusually fat and healthy outside, I felt my anxiety bloom and looked to Alan Watts’s The Wisdom of Insecurity, A Message for an Age of Anxiety

The title is a nod to W.H. Auden’s long, psycho-historical poem “The Age of Anxiety,” written in 1947, and considered by many to be the christening of a new era. Watts believed that the key to man’s psychological security was to cease obsession with the future and material wealth. In prose befitting both a stylist and a serious thinker, he discussed sex, cheap food, ancient Chinese art and Buddhist narratives. He urged readers to accept the wisdom of the body and inhabit the richness of the present.

One hopes philosophical texts endure, that emotional truth is timeless. But it occurs to me my literary medicine may be out of date. Watts wrote Age of Anxiety in 1951, when Truman and Churchill were still in power, and rock ‘n’ roll and Salinger were fresh. In it, he cautioned against filling one’s ears with the continuous information stream from “lavish radios”—a media diet resulting in “orgasms without release”—warning even then about “insatiability” and “constant titillation.”

Eric Ravilious, Windmill, 1934, graphite & watercolor.

Eric Ravilious, Windmill, 1934, graphite & watercolor.

The call for a return to simplicity is seductive, and Watts was not above romanticizing the primitive. He lamented the modern woman’s move to the “complicated hospital” and lauded women who could “deliver themselves of a child while working out in the fields, and, after doing the few things necessary to see that the baby is safe, warm, and comfortable, resume their work as before.” Though the capitalistic turn on reproductive health is certainly problematic, any woman who delivered a child while working in a field would surely invite Watts to experience the same and revise his rumination on the “disease of civilized man.”

While a modern-day return to the “primitive”—an idealized, media-free existence in which we trust the instinctual knowledge of our bodies—is nearly fantasy, Watts was prescient about our hunger for a “stream of stimulants” and its resulting nervous strain. He figured humans were “increasingly incapable of real pleasure” and were moving away from the material in exchange for “by-products, flavors, and atmospheres.” He likened the human desire for nice homes, cheap food divorced from labor, and civilized sex to a gaseous and “impressive front.”

Watts feared, in 1951, that we had already left the body behind and entered into a more impotent existence centered in the mind. The human fascination with the past and future, and our “cerebral fantasies,” was the sign of a maladaptive organ: the human brain. He believed that hyper-rationalizing our desires creates a vicious and taxing cycle, a habitual state of tension and abstraction that is actually a mental disorder. The “writhing and whirling” of the human mind, to Watts, is unnecessary and actually threatens man’s happiness and survival by removing him from a physical existence, one more at home and peace in the natural world. The contemporary human mind is therefore not unlike the burdensome antlers of the Irish elk, the flightlessness of the dodo, or the self-immolation of moths. It is a negative byproduct of a hominid’s biological evolution—a more complex brain whose prodigious ability to model the future divides us from the world and time where we belong. The split between the brain and the body, Watts believed, is not unlike the split between man and nature. Both result in insecurity and anxiety. 

Eric Ravilious, The Wilmington Giant, 1939, watercolor.

Eric Ravilious, The Wilmington Giant, 1939, watercolor.

Fear is a timeless state of mind, as old as our struggle for survival as a species, and Watts allowed that it is human nature to crave escape from the reality of the anxiety-inducing present. He felt we spend too much time obsessing over the future, which is not real. Yet, ironically, it is this inability to acknowledge the future that led us across the tipping point in 2012, sixty years after The Wisdom of Insecurity, when carbon dioxide levels rose above “the point of no return.” Scientists are nearly certain that we’ve eliminated our ability to reverse course; we can only slow or hasten the degradation of our habitat. That sheer inevitability bewilders me. Now, with our future president’s fundamental denial of climate change, citizens are left to cope with a legitimate fear of the future. We can no longer afford the luxury of looking away.

Just this spring, I sat in my living room and watched a plump robin hurl itself over and over into a window pane, fighting its own visage reflected in the clear glass. This has always seemed an apt metaphor of anxiety to me, fighting a demon of your own creation you can’t touch or name, exhausting yourself with nothing to show for your labor. Watts would note that more worry creates a vicious and useless cycle, and uses an image of Ouroboros, the ancient snake eating its own tail, to illustrate that point. In his conclusion, Watts recounts a story from a Chinese sage that echoes the exit of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. “How shall we escape the heat?” the sage is asked. His answer is unsettling: “Go right into the middle of the fire.” 

Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of Almost Famous Women and one of the Daily’s correspondents.