The Path to True Life
Maude, from the movie Harold and Maude, is the quintessential embodiment of the ideals of Alan Watts, as presented in his book The B¥ k. She knows how to enjoy life, how to get out of the "rat race" of everyday existence and to accept the world for what it really is. Harold, though in many ways a living example of the taboos of that time, goes directly against all that Watts considers good; he has fallen prey to the self-contradictory influences of those around him and is intimately involved in the conflict of Life versus Death. To draw analogy to The B¥ k, Maude does what Watts almost seems to wish his book could do; she saves Harold from self-mutilation and destruction, and puts him on the path to true life.
Maude is the ideal Wattsian person. She is not restricted by taboo; if she wants to do something, she does it. She evades entirely the "social double-bind" (Watts 73) that seems to control the rest of society:
The first rule of this game is that it is not a game.
Everyone must play.
You must love us.
You must go on living.
Be yourself, but play a consistent and acceptable role.
Control yourself and be natural.
Try to be sincere.
Maude takes life exactly as a game; she likes to "try something new each day" (Harold and Maude), just for the fun of it. She is herself, but she plays a clearly inconsistent and unacceptable role, at least to the world at large. "Everyone", in her opinion, "has the right to make an ass out of themselves" (Harold and Maude); she lives by this view, doing whatever she wants regardless of what the world at large thinks of her actions. By this same token, she does not control herself, or at least, she does not show much self-control; she does anything that occurs to her, regardless of any taboos against it. If nothing else, she throws off the shackles of taboo simply by running around, active and energetic, having fun. A nearly-80-year-old person is supposed to be, well, old; we expect old people to sit around doing nothing, not to prance around, disregarding entirely the norms and even laws of society. At the end of the movie, she flouts even Watts's double-bind against death; she does this, quite simply, by killing herself.
In the movie Harold and Maude, Maude is not really one's standard character. She is, instead, a kind of fairy-godmother-like presence, existing for the apparent sole purpose of influencing a person's life. Her significance in this book is her role in influencing the life of Harold, trying to bring him out of a self-destructive spiral and onto the path of life. She seems to appear out of nowhere, showing up at "the funeral of a perfect stranger" (Harold and Maude, cover notes) wearing a white coat and a yellow umbrella, surrounded by people in mourning black; from then on, she enthusiastically encourages Harold to "L, I, V, E, Live!" (Harold and Maude), to do anything that he wants, to make the most of life regardless of how socially wrong his actions may feel. As soon as Harold is on the track to life, Maude disappears, just as one would expect of a fairy godmother. In this movie, the character 'Maude' is used as a literary device, a tool through which to mold Harold into a different, hopefully better form, one aligned with the ideals of Alan Watts in his book The B¥ k.
So far, I have been just assuming that Watts's ideals correspond with those of freedom of action, of freedom from any kind of taboo. This may well be the case, but it would be unwise, in my opinion, to simply assume it, so I'll explain why I hold this belief. For any understanding of any significance of The B¥ k must be at least in part belief. Watts acknowledges that, with regard to what he is trying to describe, "conceptual thinking cannot grasp it [w]e are forced, therefore, to speak of it through myth" (Watts 13). And myth is a fickle thing, prone to differing interperetations and misunderstandings.
Watts advocates balance. Take, for example, his ideas about the Game of Black and White. Using it, he shows that "[t]here is no on without off, no up without down" (Watts 25), that nothing can exist without its own opposite. But we, as humans, seem to believe differently. We instead "play the game of White-versus-Black" (Watts 35). "[W]e are afraid that Black may win the game" (Watts 35), so we devote all of our energy to defeat the Black, not realizing that it is a battle that we cannot win. Thus, we are "haunted by a sense of chronic frustration" (Watts 35); the harder we work, the harder Black seems to resist our efforts. So we futilely put even more effort towards fighting Black, "divid[ing]" for efficiency "[our day] into work-time and play-time" (Watts 81). We "work for money -- and money is supposed to get us what we really want in our hours of leisure and play" (Watts 81). One can't really buy happiness, however, and the art of the enjoyment of life, he claims, is an art known by few. But "if, at every stage, you play[ed] it [life] as a game", Watts suggests, life would be much improved; we would, at least to a degree, be freed of the slowly descending spiral of unhappiness that envelops the world at present. Doing what one wants to do, as opposed to working for money only, is one way through which one can treat life as a game; therefore, not surprisingly, Watts strongly supports it.
Back to the 'slowly descending spiral of unhappiness' referred to earlier: Harold is stuck in it. For him, nothing is fun; he is clearly, among other things, in a deep state of depression at the beginning of the movie. When asked by a psychologist what one activity he really likes to do, he sits there for a long time, unable to come up with an answer. Eventually, he says, "I like to go to funerals" (Harold and Maude). It's not so much true that he simply likes to go to funerals; it would be more accurate to say that funerals are yet another way that he can feed his hungry depression. In reality, there is nothing that gives him pleasure. For Harold, the very process of living was work; there was no play at all in life, and even seeing people playing felt somehow wrong, somehow taboo. This is why he stares at Maude when he first sees her; she is enjoying life; playing, as it were, in the middle of a graveyard during a funeral.
Harold is, therefore, a victim of our taboo against enjoying life. We seem to believe, as noted by Watts, that work is separate from play. I would take this a step farther, and say that we feel guilty for time that we spend playing. This feeling originated as a guilt response; we as a culture collectively decided that work should be more important than play, and that we should spend all possible time working for the betterment of society. But no one likes to rationalize that long-winded thing on a regular basis; now, it's just a taboo. This taboo is one of the core obstructions to Harold's life; he is, consciously or otherwise, guilty that he has all of the materialistic makings of a perfect life and uses them for play rather than work. Maude's purpose in this story is to show Harold that this taboo is false, that it is OK to play.
As I explained earlier, Maude tries to show Harold how to live a life of play. She does this mainly by example; there is not a thing in this story that she does seriously, without at least a hint of joyfulness or comedy. Take the first time that Harold really gets the chance to interact with Maude; he's about to head home from a funeral when Maude pulls up, driving his car; a hearse, not surprisingly. After he gets in, she asks him, "Ever drive a hearse, Harry?" I think, although there is room for argument here, that she knew that she was driving Harry's car; she made this statement just to introduce him to one aspect of comedic irony. Maude works hard to coax a smile, and eventually a laugh, out of Harold; even his rock-solid shield against self-enjoyment couldn't hold out long against her barrage of jokes, oddities, and funny anecdotes. So he gives in, and learns quickly, through Maude's example, how to enjoy life. Deep questions also form a primary portion of Maude's arsenal; she makes Harold think about his way of rationalizing life. She asks him, for example,
Which flower do you want to be?
I dunno. Maybe one of these? [a plain, white flower, in a large field of the same]
Why would you choose one of these?
... Because they're all alike.
Oh, but they're not.
(Harold and Maude)
Maude makes Harold think about all of his previous concepts, his need for self-destruction and self-exclusion from society. Watts is doing the same thing, albeit from a different tack: they are both trying to induce thought about the purpose of life, and why certain beliefs seem to be maintained in our mind regardless of their validity. Through example and examination, Maude leads Harold out of his self-destructive mindset and into true life; Watts's purpose in writing his book is to lead us, as the dominant culture of this world, to the same goal. Maude was clearly more successful in the movies than was Watts in the real world, but both of them did make steps towards their mutual goal of helping the people of the world to find the path to 'true life', to learn how to play.