where the writers are
The Haunting

This is the phase of every book that I call the Haunting. Actually, I've never called it that, I just all of a sudden thought of it. But it fits. It's when everywhere I go, everything I see, reminds me of the book. Even when I'm not writing it, even when I'm strenuously avoiding it, I find myself trying to connect every experience to it. I would say that's a good omen for actually getting it written except I'm afraid of jinxing it.

What the book's haunting now is Ojai. My son and his mom flew to San Diego to meet me for half of the comic book convention and we spent a few days driving back to SF together. My first visit to Ojai, which Jennie's been wanting me to see for years. It's my kind of place, all right: hill-nestled oak valley, hot dry summer, white stucco, Spanish revival buildings, Arts and Crafts furniture, a main street colonnade, working fountains, outdoor dining, orange groves, ancient pepper trees, old Hollywood connections. My personal heaven, right this moment, would be Ojai with a gift certificate at Hacienda Antiques. But what put me in mind of the book was the role Ojai played in the history of 20th Century spirituality.

The Theosophical Society was a Victorian "spiritualist" group, one of those séance-and-medium deals, a lot of clairvoyants with huge beards and black-garbed ladies with scary gleams in their eyes, but one that opened up to an interest in Buddhism and Hinduism before such things were fashionable in America and England. They were a weird bunch, mixing valuable scholarship and social work with a cultish belief in the imminent coming of the World Teacher, the new incarnation of the Christ. Then, in 1909, one of their leaders discovered a beautiful, dreamy, gazelle-eyed, 13-year-old Indian boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti and declared that this was Him for whom they waited. The Theosophists persuaded the boy's father to allow them to adopt both him and his younger brother, and for the next thirteen years Jiddu was raised to become the new Christ.

Part of the job of the World Teacher turned out to be lecture tours. In 1922, needing rest after an exhausting world circuit, concluding with a long voyage from Sydney to Los Angeles in the close company of his Theosophical handlers, Jiddu was allowed a little R&R in a cottage in a secluded California valley—Ojai—owned by one of his followers. His handlers mostly left him alone, and in the company of his brother and some Ojai neighbors and a few lower-level Theosophists more inclined to honor than indoctrinate him, he began to see things in a new way. He experienced the first of a series of spiritual crises that would eventually lead him to break from the Society and deny that he was any sort of Christ. He was no more, he realized, than a man with the opportunity, the knowledge, and the temperament to bring the philosophical insights of Hinduism and Buddhism to Western awareness in a way that was relevant to the modern world. He rejected organized religion as a whole, even the Hindu guru tradition, and gave his life to teaching an ethical and personalized spirituality that he hoped might lead to individual freedom and universal peace. "Truth is a pathless land," he said. The marriage of Eastern philosophy and Western individualism that underlies so much of modern spirituality and psychology was shaped more by him than any other teacher.

Krishnamurti lived in Ojai until he died in 1986 at the age of 90, and around him the town grew into an artistic and spiritual center. It's still full of spas, art galleries, lecture facilities, and philosophical foundations, not to mention a lot of shops selling those big pink crystals and the rest of what I think of as the goofier accesories of individualized cosmology. Looking at all this in my current haunted state, I started lining up Krishnamurti's story next to the story of The Undressing of America. While the Theosophists were preparing the world for The Coming, a wave of natural-health gurus were seizing the American imagination, and just as young Jiddu was being drafted for his holy role, Bernarr Macfadden reached the first peak of his fame. Krishnamurti began to rethink his destiny during the same years Macfadden rode True Story and its tabloid children to a new kind of power and influence. And as Macfadden began to behave more weirdly, finally throwing away his own empire, Krishnamurti was coming into his own as a teacher.

Suddenly some patterns started to emerge, and I had another one of those thrilling "So that's what this story's about!" moments. You have the messianic zeal of the early 20th Century, with all these charismatic eccentrics saying, "I have the Truth! Follow me and be saved!" Then the frightened pause of the War, and afterward a huge turn toward individualized, relativistic, experiential journeys, illuminated but not led by teachers who encouraged people to examine their own stories.

Macfadden had always told his readers that listening to their own bodies and their own experiences was the best way to health, but in his earlier days he always drowned that out with his louder, "But of course what you will discover are the Laws of Nature, which I have already mastered." But with the publication of True Story, and its subsequent overshadowing of his health crusade, he became an intermediary for people to tell their own stories and learn by reading their peers'. Soon enough the true-story industry, the confessional culture, could roll along just fine without him, in the same way that Krishnamurti's message spread far beyond him until even his death was just a historical footnote.

Then I started seeing the same wide cultural turn all over the place around the same time. Like how Bill Wilson and his fellow drunks seeking a spiritual solution to alcoholism made their slow, nervous break from specifically Christian organizations in the early '30s to create the Twelve Step Program, the "higher power," "God as you understand God," a program that just keeps splitting and spreading and rambling along anarchically in the hands of a bunch of addicts with no leaders. Each story reveals the mechanisms, the rewards, and the costs of the same profound shift in our relationship with self and truth.

I have a lot of those "So that's what this story's about!" moments, to the point that I could probably list twenty things the book is "about." But what starts to happen in this haunted phase is that those abouts all start to hook up and overlap, turning into one big—still probably too big, but at least comprehensible—story. Which reminds me that there may be a real reason to delay and procrastinate on writing the thing. It may still need something I haven't found yet. Like a trip to Ojai.

1 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip


fertile stuff you are researching.  Chinese fermented bean curd comes to mind.  Rich with yeast :)