Sex, Death & Enlightenment: A True Story
Mark Matousek
Riverhead Books: New York, 1996.
288 pp., $22.95 (cloth). 

When I first saw the title Sex, Death and Enlightenment, I thought the author had to be kidding. The hottest topics of the ’90s together in one book? But Mark Matousek isn’t kidding, even if he employs a witty, hip awareness to tell the story of his spiritual search, a search that started on a sunny Jamaican beach when he noticed a Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion on his ex-lover’s foot.

Though it was on John’s foot and not mine, I knew without question that the virus was in me. There was almost nothing I hadn’t done. I’m one of the lucky people who remembers what sex was like in 1975, perhaps the last time in history of human intercourse when semen was a prize, not a poison, a secret, salty swap of the very thing that made you a man.

Matousek describes his beginnings in an out-of-control family in L.A., his promiscuous adolescence, his life in Manhattan as an Andy Warhol minion and a part of the beautiful people scene. For Matousek, the catalyst for change was not simply the fear of suffering and death, but the urge to find a meaning in his life and death. As the PWA (Person With Aids) Zen Buddhist Dean Reynolds tells him, “This is the fast track to enlightenment, honey.”

Mark Matousek.
Mark Matousek.

Matousek is unusual in his willingness to shed the cynical, protected nature of the fast-track glitterati and make himself available to the teachings wherever he finds them, be it in the offices of Interview magazine (where he worked as an editor), darshan in a tiny German village, a warm beach in South India, remembering the shabby Los Angeles of his childhood, a cold room in Ladakh, hospital rooms, hospices, and Elaine’s. The mark of a promising spiritual journey is precisely this openness, this ability to learn from others. He is guided by the intellectually brilliant mentor/would-be lover “Alexander”; by Mother Meera, the Indian holy woman of Thalheim; by his middle-aged, middle-class friend Carol; by Pushpa, a woman who was his guide in Bangalore; and by the people he interviews for his magazine work: Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, and, most impressively, Stephen Levine.

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