the getting of wisdom

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 intellectual.

"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 years. "People are starving for transcendence!" he cries as he thumps back into his chair. "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 breathing."

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 mine."

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.

Learn more about Antonella Gambotto
Read Antonella Gambotto's interview with Deepak Chopra
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Find your own North Star

Buy Sex, Death & Enlightenment
Buy Dialogues with a Modern Mystic