The Drag Humans and The Man Who Fell
1. The Voyeur: Sleepless in Los Angeles
Confession: I’ve seen Sleepless in Seattle three times. In the theater. I was eleven-years-old and a woman named Jacquie, an Australian, took me each time. These pilgrimages were under the pretense of shopping for provisions for the spiritual commune my parents ran. We’d take the bus to the grocery, the hardware shop, and then tote the vegetable and wholegrain laden canvas bags into the theater. I was thrilled just to see a movie. Any movie. I was not the only one taken on these excursions. This fiery ginger-haired Aussie dragged one of my younger brothers along twice, I believe. We did not go together (my brother and I). I think Jacquie knew that she could not inflict this ‘rom-dramedy’ too many times on any particular victim; the torture was a communal burden. Jacquie later claimed to have seen the film a total of 12 times in the theater. I proudly hold the record for having been Jacquie’s number one companion, partly, I can’t help but think, because I sympathized with the obsessive quality of her devotion. I could relate to the ritualistic compulsion certain forms of media and art can induce.
Jacquie was in love with a man in Seattle. A pointillist working in pen and ink. A greeting card maker, who focused on birds. He had a son. Was divorced. He looked nothing like Tom Hanks. And this quite plain maker of greeting cards had chosen not to love Jacquie, or least not have a relationship with her. This was slightly perplexing, if only because the ginger-haired Aussie was cute, attractive by any standard. The pointillist could certainly do worse. He made it a point (please excuse the unintentional pun) to send her one of his greeting cards each Christmas. It said nothing other than “Happy Holidays, from the blah blah blahs.” The impersonal, perfunctory nature of the inscription stung worse than any possible invective this dreary man could hope to compose. Six months after her relationship with the single father came to an end Sleepless was released.
I had yet to awaken to my sexuality, was still a boy by all accounts. And yet I experienced a kind of mild identification with Jacquie’s unrequited longing. It was almost premonitory. A dry run for future angst. As Jacquie used Sleepless for ritual and reverie to re-experience something she lost, I used books and film to experience vicariously what I had opted out of by becoming a monk. I was drawn to the messy and the strange in art, in celluloid, in print as a substitute for real life. Sleepless didn’t do it for me; witnessing (in a kind of fucked up voyeurism) Jacquie’s pain was a type of raw live theater I was hungry for. In essence, I was longing for things I might not ever have. Part of me also reveled in the secret knowledge of the absurdity of her desire (as a good little monk). I didn’t even pity her; I found her ridiculous, while also envying her passion.
2. The Secret Lives of the Mavens
Growing up in the commune I didn’t realize how radically odd and contradictory my family really was. We were profoundly religious, but also radically independent. We were desperately poor, but overwhelmingly cultured. I remember an evening when my father had some of his friends over for dinner (during a time when the commune/ashram was on a kind of hiatus). The guests were made up of movie stars (acting cronies of my parents), playwrights, out of work players, theater directors, and horn-rimmed intellectuals. I remember one guest, a well-known film actor, nervously tugging at the white stuffing peeking out of a rupture in the arm of our ancient and abused sofa. He was uncomfortable not only because of our abject poverty, but also due to the hyper-intelligent, sharply articulated, critiques of Marxist political theory my mother was launching while seated cross-legged on the floor breast feeding one of my siblings (this kind of intimidating didactic discourse was a specialty of hers). I, of course, was a preteen unaware that I was exercising a special privilege, via the unique parenting model my mom and dad operated under, by engaging unreservedly in the adult world. I made myself into a spectacle by calling Stanislavski an amateur, a rookie player, masquerading as a genius (I was merely parroting both my father and David Mamet). I then plunged into the fundamental illusion of self, again mimicking my father, and how through realizing this essential truth one could then really act, fully conscious of the masks we all wear—that personhood and identity were all merely mayic tricks that one could play with (lila). The world was stage after all, according to both the bard and Vedanta. Years later, once I lost something of value, I finally learned to take things a bit more seriously.
One dry autumn evening, when I was thirteen, I went to the local college for a screening of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Cassavetes, in the peculiar dishonesty of a precocious teenager, was my “favorite auteur.” Everyone, including my parents, was away at a meditation retreat. I had a cold, so I was left behind with a supply of ginger, echinacea and astragalus. As a boy I loved being sick as it altered my consciousness, made me slightly depressed, and, at the time, I thought it was the perfect state for the contemplation of philosophy and aesthetics—it broke the trance, the illusion of being at home in the world. This cold, in my mind, would induce the perfect melancholy for experiencing a piece of profound cinema. I’d seen, via my parents’ encyclopedic knowledge of film arcana, nearly all of Cassavetes’ oeuvre, except for this one.
The film department of the college screened every third Sunday of the month some ‘important’ film, mostly canonical standards but occasionally they’d feature an obscure piece that appealed only to the most ardent fetishist or over-eager grad student, hence The Killing, a minor work of the ‘master.’ Like all of Cassavetes’ films The Killing was messy, made no attempt to mask the trembling craftwork of its all too human makers. Every frame was pregnant with the limitations and frailty of Cassavetes, his cast, the production budget, his crew. Ben Gazzara (playing Cosmo Vitelli) was drawn into fractured relief as a fragmented and terrified man.
My monasticism sought a vision of personhood cleansed of the mire and frailty Gazzara so effortlessly embodied (Cosmo Vitelli ran a strip joint and was in debt to the mob). I was overwhelmed with an art that did not seek to erase the traces of its creators’ humanity. The Killing did not seek to transcend the world through perfect orchestration of story, drama, and execution of lighting and camera work. It sought to be a part of the human mess. I should say here that The Killing is not a good movie. It has none of the psychological depth of A Woman Under the Influence or the odd forcefulness of Gloria, or the naturalism and free-associative power of Faces. But it does have this frantic chase scene at the end that takes place on the city buses of Los Angeles. It might be the most tense and paranoid chase in the history of cinema. Sean Penn cribbed this sequence for the climax of his film The Crossing Guard. In The Crossing, Jack Nicholson plays the father of a young girl killed in a drunk driving accident. In the final scenes, Nicholson chases David Morse (the drunk driver) across Los Angeles on the city buses, eventually leading to the grave site of the dead girl, where both men allow themselves to grieve, to confront the sadness at the core of their anger and regret.
4. The Man Who Fell
I’ve been sleepless for nearly two decades now. Reading came late. My dad taught me, ran me through the alphabet, when I was ten. By eleven I’d already made it to Dostoevsky. My multiple viewings of Sleepless in Seattle coincided with my descent into a lifelong struggle with insomnia. Books kept me wakeful. There wasn’t enough time. I had to become enlightened but I also had a drive to live another life, a messier more tragically human one. My sleeplessness was initially about longing and alienation. I was entranced by Camus but also with Philip K. Dick. The alienated and paranoid vision of PKD coincided with another odd fixture of my youthful obsession with disjointed, messy, forms of art: The Man Who Fell to Earth, a science fiction work of surrealism directed by Nicolas Roeg. In this film, David Bowie plays an alien tortured by earth scientists performing medical tests on him. Due to his own powerful sense of alienation (he’s an extraterrestrial after all) he becomes an addict and, utilizing his off-planet magnetism and arcane knowledge, soon rises to corporate mogul and decadent rock star. My own sense of displacement and isolation led me in the opposite direction. If Newton (Bowie’s alien persona) was Goldmund then I was Narcissus (through the lens of Hermann Hesse). If I was the overly intellectual ascetic then Jacquie, the lover of Tom Hanks’ real life counter-part, was the sensualist. Of course, this all sounds absurd, the connections fall apart the moment I try to attach these fragments into a coherent story.
What’s important here is: The Man Who Fell confirmed my own misguided belief in ultimate alienation, irreconcilable strangeness. When Bowie finally reveals himself to his lover, his true form, he is inhuman, goat-like, with a smooth Barbie-like bump in place of genitals. In this regard he is nothing like Goldmund, he’s a Bodhisattva in human-drag. I was trying to pretend that I was cock-less, ball-less, in essence non-human—an atma not a person. And yet Cassavetes complicates all of this. His films, as well as PKD’s novels, were profoundly human and fucked up. People had vaginas and penises and debilitating diseases and breakable hearts. People lived lives that were both desperate and poignantly rich with an earthbound mirth. People had lives so laden with emotion that no novel could ever capture its fullness. Cassavetes, in his own gutter besmeared way, cut small chinks into my armor of otherworldly idealism. People lived lives like my parents—brilliant messes—and I was just a kid wanting to skip all the human drama as fast I could in order to be ‘above it all’ as an enlightened sage, and yet, because I was flesh, I longed for this ‘real’ life more than anything else. People lived like things mattered; the way Jacquie loved a man in Seattle with a hopeless vulnerability. People watched stupid, critically un-self-aware, garbage like Sleepless and actually felt something.
It would be a lie to claim I was conscious of all of this back then. These are the insights of a self-biographer looking 20 years in the past, trying to understand an odd little boy and how he became the man he is today.
5. The Drag Humans
I’m going to contradict some of my former assertions by saying this (these narratives are difficult to unpack let alone parse into digestible portions of meaning-bites): Returning to Narcissus and Goldmund, Hesse’s atma-brahman infused philosophy viewed all of us as divinity in human drag. In this regard, Bowie’s alienated addict is very much like Goldmund, who achieves transcendence through immersion into the senses and thereby sees into the fundamental illusion of desire. Except, Bowie doesn’t receive illumination; he remains a slave to affliction and existential isolation. He’s forever inhuman but he also never gets to be (realize) brahman, he never gets to be whole. The Man Who Fell is a commentary on the pain of subjectivity, of human loneliness and the terrors of alienation. It speaks to that part of us that is ultimately tragic, desperate to be known and yet forever occluded. That’s why Bowie is so resonant, and it’s this sameness that makes us human.
But The Man Who Fell, while charged with aesthetic epiphany, is soft on philosophy. When Bowie disrobes his facade, his persona, we are presented with the non-terrestrial—the message is corrupt, making us forever alien, never human. Rather than a human who feels alien, he’s an alien who feels alien.
6. Interpolation: Samantha, Samadhi, Antha or Adhi
I’m a writer of many unfinished books. One of these screeds ending in unintentional ellipsis was about my sister. I didn’t know this for years, it remained unconscious. It was a novel with a boy narrator who loses one of his only true friends, his foster sister. Her name was Samantha (one syllable away from being Samadhi, my real life sister). Her disappearance is a mystery. She is taken away one night. Years later the boy sees his foster sister on the street. When he tries to talk to her she looks at him as if he were a stranger. The boy’s heart is broken, his past forever unrecoverable.
It was veiled biography. I knew this much, as the events leading up to Samantha’s disappearance were set in the neighborhood of my youth. The novel also featured two other foster brothers, whom the boy narrator loves. He loses them too.
I secretly wrote this book (I kept its existence hidden from my guru) in the wake of my father’s death. I wrote it as my sister was taken from us by my parents’ guru who claimed she needed spiritual training at a monastery in Southeast Asia, that somehow banishment was a cure for trauma and grief. I lost my sister. When she returned from her internment I was a stranger to her. Her senior nuns had told her that to be alone in a room with any male (including her own brother) was to risk rape.
From the moment my sister left until well after her return my nights were sleepless with worry and rage.
Soon after Sam’s (elide antha or adhi) return I abandoned the novel (as well as another book). I left being a monk. I became a secularist, a humanist–’I fell from grace‘–and began the long process of fighting for the freedom of my youngest brother and sister (the two minors left in our family). Both of them made it out of our native community and, one by one, came to California to live near me. It wasn’t easy. There was nearly endless bargaining. Threats on my life were made. But, slowly, over the years my former gurus (and community) began to let us go.
7. Because I was Flesh
The Man Who Fell confirmed feelings of fraudulence (that we don’t really belong) rather than illuminating that those very feelings were simply a byproduct of subjectivity, and that there are parts of ourselves so private that it takes years of inner work to learn how to communicate them. It confirmed, for me as a kid, my own version of Vedantic idealism. This idealism led me to a kind of unconscious solipsism, where I was forever isolated in my own kingdom inside my head. My early insomnia was merely a symptom of my loneliness. The world was stage, everything was persona (a mask), and authenticity was an illusion. Only brahman was real. I was spirit in drag.
Looking back at this self-involved teenager part of me wants to slap him. If only because: I am flesh. What we do in this world matters, because it is our only world, and therefore what happens to us is significant and meaningful. Under my skin you will not find a spirit or a sexless alien, you will find blood and bone, shit and piss, a breakable human being.
I am still sleepless. It’s no longer due to loneliness; it’s about loss and violence. I have a recurring nightmare: I’m riding the bus clutching my two younger siblings to my side as we try to escape the bad men. My nights are filled with an endless reliving of past trauma (I have Cassavetes to thank for the dreamscape and bus ride). The fight has not ended. Even though the real-life death threats are years in the past, they are very real in the middle of the night.
It’s for this reason that I visit each day the graveyard where my losses are buried, to mourn—hoping that my night rides will find resolution and, like The Crossing, the violence will end.
8. The Final Reveal
An editor’s note, an addendum, a postscript that breaks the trance of first-person narration. The author of the work you are reading has kept something from the reader. A secret that is nearly unbearable to utter: his nights are sleepless for another reason as well. He has two brothers (he comes from a big family) who will not speak to him. This is due to the actions the narrator took in trying to liberate his two youngest siblings. There is very little likelihood that the narrator of this essay will ever find a way to heal this fracture in his family.
His nights are sleepless with grief. He is still alienated. When he left his native community, after burning so bright as a monk, they called him “the man who fell…”