getting of wisdom
Interview by Antonella Gambotto-Burke
There is a sweetness to the man. The response to Sex,
Death, Enlightenment, the book which has established him as
an archetype of the late twentieth century, has touched him; he joyously
smiles - American teeth, eloquent leaf-coloured eyes - when discussing
its impact around the world. A woman in Alaska, he says, wrote to thank
him for writing the first account of a spiritual journey that did not
make her physically sick. Those who have flocked to his readings are
effusive in their praise of his self-deprecating honesty. The gay communities
of the United States, Britain and America have embraced him. His publicist
can't get enough of him. Even the expressionlessly courteous waiter
in this, a private room (tapestried banquettes, discreet lighting) on
the ground floor of Sydney's Sebel Townhouse, is charmed by his emphatic
gestures and unforced compassion.
The 40-year-old Mark Matousek photographs like a Moroccan bruiser moonlighting
as an existentialist, but in the flesh is handsome and his nimble movements
impart the illusion of slightness. Dressed in cream and white that seems
whiter against the butterscotch of his skin, he orders coffee and waves
his hands as he exasperatedly recounts trying experiences with journalists.
"They ask me how I can believe that pain is a good thing!" he exclaims,
rolling his eyes like a Dostoievskian hero. "I think that pain is a
good insofar that it offers opportunities for change. If you accept
it, pain is grace - a savage grace, but grace nonetheless."
Matousek was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1989. In his case, terminal
illness was more than a metaphor; it allowed him to feel human for the
first time in his life. A senior editor at Andy Warhol's Interview,
he had transcended the relative poverty of a dysfunctional single-parent
home in California for bacchanalian promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse,
70-hour working weeks, and daily interaction with the international
leaders of every field - financial, social, artistic, athletic, and
"Bumping into Grace Jones coming out of the can," he writes in the first
chapter, "did give me a feeling that I was becoming famous too." Glittering
high-level nihilism was the religion of the Eighties and Matousek was
an avid acolyte. "Warhol," he remarks, glancing at the waiter as he
places the silver tray on the table, "is a perfect example of the way
in which we have come to mock the sublime. I think Andy articulated
and consolidated what was already there - he saw the lowest common denominator
and cashed in on it. People want their moment in the sun, and Andy was
a kind of revolving spotlight; if you stood close to him long enough,
the spotlight would come to you." His grin is almost apologetic. "He
was in the middle of that whole explosion of drugs and partying. Also,
Andy was compulsively attracted to beautiful people, young people, rich
people lost people and they became his groupies."
Warhol embodied the spiritual vacuity of our civilisation to Matousek,
who recalls the artist as emotionally frigid and exploitative, materialistic
and pathologically detached. Their association began with a handshake
("[His hand was] strangely mushy - like boiled chicken,") and ignominiously
ended when Warhol ordered an assistant to escort Matousek from the premises
to ensure that he didn't "steal" anything.
"Andy was the grand vizier of meaninglessness," he explains, "and the
appeal of meaninglessness to lost people is only a sense of confirmation
of what they have always suspected, which is this
kind of nihilistic vision of the world - and not only does it confirm
it, but it celebrates it." Here he leans forward, his eyes torched.
"I mean, fame is the greatest illusion of all! It doesn't exist! A friend
of mine says that fame is what other people think of your life."
Matousek documents his paradigm shift with humorous severity: the celebrity
which he had imagined to be his goal was, in fact, no more than the
starting point of his quest for wisdom. Exposure to "stars" such as
Jean-Michel Basquiat ("At heart, just a street kid [who] was always
around the office smoking pot"), Shirley Maclaine ("I wrote something
she didn't like and she got on the phone and screamed"), Annie Lennox
("An alien creature"), and John Travolta ("A wonderful human being Richard
Gere has a career because of the movies John turned down,") contributed
to his understanding of the limitations of material success.
"I've seen people ruin themselves when they get too famous," he says,
raising his brows. "Fame acts as a magnifying glass to human flaws.
Insecure people get pathologically insecure. Mickey Rourke was a great
example. I mean, my first lover picked Mickey up when he was a bouncer
at a New York Club and saw his potential. Mickey has real talent as
an actor but he has this very violent side, added to which were well-documented
drug and drink problems. And as he became more famous, he started to
take advantage of people and just got crazier."
It was when he realised that American success had all the symptoms of
a nervous breakdown that he began to take stock of his capacities, beliefs,
and dreams. Matousek did not crave an escape from the twentieth century,
but a redefinition of his place in it. The panic
attacks and depression had been a feature of his life for too many
are starving for transcendence!" he cries. "People
are starving for a sense of unity! And if there's a pill you can pop,
well - it's a lot easier than sitting around on a meditation cushion."
His own experiences of excess brought him to the conclusion that neurotic
behaviour was only a manifestation of spiritual deprivation.
"I mean," he says, "the number one drug here is Ecstasy. Think about
it. It's not accidental that they call MDMA - which is just
a kind of amphetamine - Ecstasy. And similarly, for people who have
no spiritual inclinations, sex is the door - it is the peak experience,
their one means of transcendence. The one thing we haven't been able
to solve is that magical thing that happens between two bodies. That
is the essence of the metaphysical. Sex is beyond
rationality, which is why some people become addicted to it; it
is the only place they can go where they are out of themselves, where
they can experience that kind of true ecstasy."
In this respect, Matousek was representative of his generation: sexual
ecstasy was the only ecstasy he had ever known. His Jewish Bronx-raised
mother, "Ida the Tits", who welcomed the lung cancer which killed her
in 1994, perceived herself in terms of sexual function and nothing more.
This philosophy - transhistorically that of the sexually
abused - was, in turn, passed on to her son. It is in writing of
his later pilgrimage to India and of his mother that Matousek displays
his prose skills at their finest: "Six mornings a week, I opened my
eyes half-expecting Ida to be dead. I'd wake up in hot, piss-soaked
sheets and look over to her bed in the dark, where she lay smoking a
cigarette. I'd fix my eyes on the ash, and when it changed colour as
she inhaled, glowing orange to yellow-white, I knew that she was still
Conceived in "that hour of fabulous lust" when his compulsively promiscuous
mother seduced the plumber who would later marry and then leave her,
Matousek was raised in an atmosphere of despair,
violence, rage, lasciviousness, and neglect. He never again heard from
his father after he left. At the age of 15, his older sister, Joyce,
was delivered of a baby who soon died. His eldest sister, Marcia, was
committed to a mental hospital after an unsuccessful marriage and, after
she had been released on their mother's insistence, suicided.
For his part, the 12-year-old Matousek was unwittingly introduced by
Joyce to "Harold", a notorious paedophile. He pauses to deeply inhale.
"Harold had a ring of boy-prostitutes,
and he used to film amateur video-porno stuff," he eventually says.
"I never did anything on film and never actually hustled there, but
I was a pretty boy and he wanted pretty boys around." An absence of
bitterness characterises his recollections. "As far as I'm concerned,
Harold should be in jail. I mean, I couldn't stand him then - but there
were drugs, there were other little boys. I was looking for my peers.
You have to understand, this was just recreation to me. I wasn't trying
to get ahead in the world - it was, like: what do I do this afternoon?
Part of my motivation was getting away from Ida. So anything that got
me out of the house was, you know, okay."
The dehumanisation, he reasoned, was "better than nothing".
However obscene the attention, it was still a form of attention over
which he exercised some measure of control. One of his most chilling
memories is the evening he was picked up on the Santa Monica Boulevard
by a crowd of "tennis-playing rich kids" and driven to a party which
featured - as its entertainment - a double-jointed cocaine-addicted
septuagenarian. For the first time during the interview, he shifts awkwardly
in his chair and the rhythm of his breathing changes.
"We were all doing liquid LSD," he says, quickly sipping his coffee,
"and then Daisy appeared - naked, with her ankles around her neck, and
with this guy holding her up. I mean, this guy -" he sharply laughs,
shocked, "this guy was walking around the room with her! Naked! Spread-eagled!
I mean, she was an old lady! It was bizarre! Here were these well-to-do
Palm Springs rich kids and this old, bony, naked woman with her vagina
visible, and this guy would come and stick her vagina in everyone's
face! It was just -" covering his eyes, he shudders, "it was just like
Satyricon. And she was laughing, stoned out of her mind. People are
twisted - I mean, you gotta know this."
He believes that as a culture, we have lost our sense of sacredness,
and that the "strong transcendent tradition of the founding fathers"
has been dismissed in favour of what is speciously known as "originality".
And so in 1986, when the English poet, Alexander Maxwell, asked him
to accompany him on a trip to India, Matousek accepted. Essentially,
he wanted to discover or recover his sense of wonder. "People in the
West are absolutely terrified of spirituality," he says. "We are taught
that human intelligence is the be-all and end-all of experience and
the suggestion that there may be something greater is terrifying. It
makes us feel out of control. But you can only get so far with the intellectual
faculty. To get beyond it, you have to stop thinking and start feeling."
On their arrival in Paris, Maxwell informed him that they would be stopping
in Germany en route to India to visit a woman he would not name. The
woman was Mother Meera, the psychic spiritual leader to whom Sex, Death,
Enlightenment is dedicated. At this point, Matousek was unaware of his
HIV status; he knew only that his spirit needed healing, and Mother
Meera was his first experience of human serenity. On the afternoon of
his departure for India, Matousek lay his head on the pillow upon which
Mother Meera rested her feet and implored the empty room: "Please, if
you have any power at all, help me change." India (which he lyrically
describes as smelling of "barbecued bones and flowers") permanently
altered his perception.
Matousek was never again able to return to his regime of self-destruction.
In the book he documents his first disastrous attempt to engage in loveless
sex following eight months of celibacy. After "fervid squirming and
apologies", he listened as the boy beside him said: "You know, you're
different you used to be hotter. But I like you more now." Matousek
likens the softening of his heart to a callus dissolving, and writes
of the new experience of walking through the streets of New York City
without "wanting to fuck" the beautiful men and women who surrounded
him. The predatory instinct which had enabled his survival was no longer
necessary. It was at this time that he felt able to deal with the results
of the blood test he had been avoiding.
"The terror," he writes, "brought on by the knowledge of the virus circulating
in my bloodstream came in waves." His attempts to "purify his system"
are faithfully reported. During Sunday meditation sessions at a Zen
monastery, he sat "miserably staring at a wall while a bald nun walked
around whacking people on the shoulder blades". He enrolled in a nine-day
silent vissipana, about which he writes: "Sitting perfectly still on
a hard cushion in a cold room for 14 hours a day might be the path to
one's true nature but after several days I wasn't sure I wanted to find
He attended the Radiant Light Ministry in San Francisco, ate cabbage
soup under a photograph of a master yogi clutching his own intestines
at a yoga retreat, paid to partake in a kundalini initiation, isolated
himself for two summers in a cabin in the woods ("I would be forced
to settle down and see in the Zen way what I saw, in actuality, was
that I was going berserk") and attended meetings of Love and Sex Addicts
Anonymous. The only real answers he found were through volunteer work
at a hospital, where he was confronted by the prosaic nature of death.
"When you really address how little time we have and how precious it
is," he tenderly says, "everything changes. Most people live with this
illusion of immortality, which creates toughness instead of the vulnerability
that comes of realising how fragile everything is. If I look at you
as a dying person, I see you through very, very different eyes. Mortality
can, I think, increase love and feeling for other people and for yourself."
Awareness of his own mortality forced Matousek to face a
fear of truly feeling. "there are very few times in your life when
you're looking at the truth, naked. Death is one of those times. When
you become aware that you are going to die, you are really saying -
this is me; this is me dying. It shakes you up and also, in a strange
way, brings you to life. There is something exhilarating about death.
It forces you to rise."
Finishing his cup of coffee, he looks up. "I feel sorry for the boy
I used to be," he murmurs. "Were he in front of me, I would tell him
that it's going to change. I never thought it would, you see." His pause
is textured. "Like all children, I was a magical kid. My mother always
told me that I was a bastard like my father and as a consequence, I
lost belief in myself as a loving person. I am a loving person. I was
innocent and never knew it, because I always thought I was a freak."
His voice thickens. "And," he quietly continues through tears he wipes
from his eyes with nervous hands, "more importantly, I would tell that
boy that it wasn't his fault."
Whatever it takes to break a human heart and rouse the spirit is, Mark
Matousek believes, real grace.