August 15, 2014
For America's favorite irreverent writer, Robin Williams's The Fisher King is an unbidden, instantaneous round-trip ticket to satori.
Although there are legions of us stray cats for whom libraries, bookshops, and movie theaters have served as temples, cathedrals, or sacred groves, it's still embarrassing to have to admit that, excluding certain LSD epiphanies, the primary, most affecting "metaphysical" (for want of a less suspect term) experiences in my life have each one been connected in some way to movies. First there was the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan who supplanted Jesus in my pantheon of heroes; next came the floodtide of love and empathy raised by the young Natalie Wood; then there was the powerful creative breakthrough precipitated by Shoot the Piano Player, followed by the snowy golf ball satori that occurred as I drove and was driven to see a film. And finally—the butter on the box of transcendental popcorn—my second and only other satori actually transpired inside a movie house.
The year was 1991, the venue was the Neptune Theater in Seattle's University District. The film was The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams. Based loosely on the Percival story from the Arthurian legends, Williams plays Parry, a man broken financially, physically, and mentally. Homeless, Parry has been given shelter in the basement of a New York tenement building; and in that dusty, low-ceilinged space, zigzagged with furnace ducts, electrical wiring, and water pipes, he has set up an altar, a small shrine.
Neatly arranged in the shrine are such religious paraphernalia as incense and incense burners, prayer beads, votive candles, and representations of Asian deities, including the Buddha. It's all quite tidy and earnestly, if naively, reverential; but if alert, one notices among the holy relics two little plastic packets of soy sauce, the sort typically included in your take-out order from a Chinese restaurant. Nothing is made of this in the movie, it's just a fleeting image; maybe a throwaway sight gag, maybe an offhanded clue to Parry's mental state. For me, however, it was an unbidden, instantaneous round-trip ticket to satori.
It probably can't be explained to either the reader's satisfaction or my own, but let me suggest that the juxtaposition of the nobly devotional and the petty functional, of the high-minded and the banal, served to attract the flash of ultimate cognition the way a metal rod set atop a barn can attract lightning. Of course, for a strike to occur, conditions in both cases must be favorable.
The glue that holds the natural world together appears to be a harmonious balance of opposites: day and night, light and dark, winter and summer, liquid and solid, acidic and alkaline, male and female, wave and trough, proton and electron, etc. There prevails in our reality an explicit duality that represents an implicit unity, and the line of separation between those things just named is as thin as it is necessary: yang rubs up against yin, yin against yang, distinct but mutually supportive.
The line separating tragedy from comedy is broader, deeper, more jagged, although neither as fixed nor as problematic as the one between life and death; and it's those more glaring oppositions, including desire versus rejection, success versus failure, and especially, "good" versus "evil" that generally engage practitioners of the narrative arts. From my perspective, however, the most fascinating and perhaps most significant of all interfaces is the one that separates yet connects the ridiculous and the sublime. The surprisingly narrow borderline between things holy and things profane, between prayer and laughter, between a Leonardo chalice and Warhol soup can, between the Clear Light and the joke, provides a zone of meaning as exhilarating as it is heretical: a whisper of psychic release so acutely yet weirdly portentous it just might offer a clue to the mystery of being. Or at least help one understand what ol' Nietzsche was getting at in Jenseits von Gut und Bose.
I hasten to emphasize that no thoughts of that sort occurred to me at the time. Not one. I simply glimpsed the stupid little packs of inferior soy sauce sitting at the divine feet of the Buddha and suddenly felt giddy, felt in instant total harmony with that Indian swami who defined life as "the beautiful joke that is always happening." The roof had been blown off of the cellblock of consensual reality and I was escaping, climbing toward the stars, trailing tatters of abandoned orthodoxy, surfing a tide of higher wisdom that is forever off-limits to the sober and the prudent. Figuratively speaking, obviously; I hadn't spilled a drop of my Pepsi.
Tom Robbins is the author of eight novels. He lives in La Conner, Washington.
From Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins. Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Robbins. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Image: The Fisher King (1991)