A piece I wrote intended to start a column on Existential detection for a local-based website. They rejected it, so it’s my Christmas offering instead.
“An unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates
Recently I took a bus from my hometown to Vancouver. I was on my way to Mexico to give a keynote presentation at a three-day convention about creativity. This was the first time I’d been invited to such a major event, and the trip was fraught with meaning for me. At 46 years old, I have spent thirty years writing and creating, hoping for opportunities of this kind to arise. Now one finally had.
When I arrived with my wife at the bus stop, there was a bus ahead and she went to check if it was the right one. She came back and said the bus was going to “Xanadu.” I didn’t ask where Xanadu was (there are plenty of odd place names in British Columbia), I only knew it wasn’t where I was headed! By good fortune, I decided to wait in the ticket area and not the bar next door, and as a result I ran into the bus driver and discovered that the Xanadu-bound bus was in fact mine. When we got to Vancouver I asked him about it. “A little joke,” he said.
When it came time to write this column (later that same day), I needed an example of existential detective work. Existential detective work means studying the contents of waking life as a psychologist would study a dream. The same process occurs in waking as it does in sleep: the contents of our unconscious spill over into the world and shape and color our experience of it. Like dreams, however, these sorts of synchronicities are hard to remember once they’ve done their job. The best approach with existential detective work is always to look in the present, at “what’s on the end of your fork”—or the front of your bus.
The term Xanadu was familiar to me for two reasons: there was a 1980 musical with Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton-John which I’d never had much interest in—though 1980 was the year my love of movies officially began. Then there was Citizen Kane, in which Charles Foster Kane (based on the media mogul William Randolph Hearst, played by Orson Welles) builds a palatial home Xanadu, where he dies broken and alone.
After a quick Wiki search, I found out that Xanadu was the capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty in China in the 13th century, and later his summer capital. The name was made famous by Samuel Coleridge’s famous 1797 poem Kubla Khan, inspired by an opium-induced vision, after which Xanadu became a metaphor for splendor and opulence.
The incident with the bus, while seemingly trivial, carried a whole zip file of implied meanings. The most obvious was: don’t trust to the signs, always double check. There is a “mythic” overlay to our reality that may literally cause us to “miss the bus.” Yet the mythic overlay is not only to obscure or trick us, but also to reveal a mythic underlay to what’s happening. The signs don’t only mislead, they also give clues.
A culture junky myself, I was going to Mexico to talk about culture and its effects. I hadn’t prepared a speech, but I planned to play a clip from Gladiator in which Russell Crowe jokes with his army about waking up in Elysium, already dead, and then issues the memorable battle cry, “What we do in life, echoes in eternity!”
For an Aspergerian writer with limited social graces, going to Mexico to speak alongside Douglas Rushkoff and other countercultural luminaries was a bit like going into battle. I had chased after recognition for most of my life and now I wasn’t sure how I’d deal with it. Xanadu symbolized power (Kubla Khan), but also isolation (Charles Foster Kane). Like success, it was an evocation of Paradise that could all too easily become a prison.
The film Xanadu was a remake of Down to Earth (1947) with Rita Hayworth as “Muse.” Hayworth was married to Orson Welles at the time (i.e., his Muse; Welles directed her in The Lady from Shanghai in the same year). In Down to Earth, Hayworth picks up a snow globe from a table and throws it at a mirror. The famous finale of Shanghai involves a shootout in a hall of mirrors in which Hayworth’s character is mortally wounded. According to IMDB, the snow globe from Down to Earth is the same one that Charles Foster Kane drops in Citizen Kane, when he dies at his palatial prison home, Xanadu.
In online thesauruses, Elysium and Xanadu are now listed as synonyms.
When performing existential detective work, it’s essential not to embellish, add “color,” or impose meaning onto what’s being reported. What count are the details. In the example I gave of the Xanadu bus sign, I didn’t have a strong emotional reaction to so seemingly “trivial” an event. In giving the backstory—my traveling to Mexico to give a presentation, and the ambition and creative drive that led me to that point—I gave just enough internal data to contextualize the event. As a general rule, it’s best to begin existential detection with events that aren’t too “charged” with emotional meanings, since it’s easier for us to regard them dispassionately and from a distance.
When I reached Mexico, I was put up in the Hilton for two nights (I had to fight for another night, although my keynote presentation was on the third night). My room was on the twentieth floor, with a spectacular view of the city. At first I was excited to be receiving the “royal treatment,” but pretty soon I started to find the “opulence” slightly oppressive. It was an unreal world and I didn’t belong there.
While I was meeting various “players” (including minor celebrities like Douglas Rushkoff and Daniel Pinchbeck), I was declining to shake hands because I’m sensitive to outside energies. Shortly before my keynote presentation, someone asked me if I was afraid of germs. “No, no,” I said. “I’m not Howard Hughes!”
A day after my presentation, I tweeted about how it could have gone better and described a couple of things I’d done “wrong.” A friend tweeted a clip from the movie The Aviator, showing Howard Hughes at a screening of Hell’s Angels, his face twisted up in pain as he watches his movie. My friend was pointing out how Hughes’ perfectionism prevented him from appreciating his accomplishments. I took his point.
Hughes is best known not for his phenomenal success, but for dying in a hermetically sealed bubble (snow globe?) of personal obsession, completely cut off from human contact. There was that “Xanadu” theme again.
Like Charles Foster Kane of Citizen Kane, Howard Hughes was a hugely powerful entrepreneur and media tycoon who died alone, surrounded by opulence and—in Hughes’ case—jars of his own urine. While researching this article, I discovered that Hughes spent the last four years of his life on his private island in the Bahamas, locked inside his Penthouse at the Xanadu Princess Resort!
Like Orson Welles, Hughes had an affair with Rita Hayworth (who is portrayed in The Aviator); unlike Welles, he refused to marry her. So she aborted his child and went on to marry Prince Aly Khan, thereby becoming Princess Khan!
Echoes in eternity.
After I left the Hilton, I moved to a smaller hotel called The Excalibur. I’m English, so I felt quite at home with the mythical décor. You could say that leaving the Hilton for the humbler digs of the Excalibur was a movement “down to earth.” Maximus’ speech in Gladiator is about men dying in battle and getting into Elysium. Xanadu is about angels coming down to Earth and becoming Muses (or Hell’s Angels?). It was the dissociation/death of “celebrity” (glory) versus the living embodiment of creative service.
Behind every decision we make—like the cultural history of the word “Xanadu” or “Khan”—is the vast, accumulated “momentum” of what came before. We act unconsciously while a tiny fraction of us takes the credit and blame. The function of the flimsy surface called “identity” is to maintain the illusion of being in control. Taken to its extreme, the need to maintain that illusion will build a fortress of solitude—a Xanadu—around us. The solution, the only one, is to come down to earth, to be embodied.
When we sleep, like Coleridge and his opium-soaked vision of Kubla Khan, we dream a world. We forget we’re the dreamer and that the world is our interior state, rendered symbolic through dreaming. When we wake, we identify ourselves as the doer, the actor in an imaginary life. We forget that the world is the result of endlessly repeating patterns following an unconscious blueprint, hardwired into our bodies during the first few years of our lives, a waking dream. But amnesia doesn’t make the past go away. It’s still there, informing everything in the so-called present. Behind everything we say and do and everything that just “happens” is a mystery called the unconscious, driving the bus, deciding when we get off.
So if you wake up with sun on your face, surrounded by green fields, don’t believe it: you’re already dead. Take a moment to remember Howard Hughes’ nine-inch fingernails and jars of urine, Rita Hayworth’s wounding in the hall of mirrors, and Charlie Kane’s lost “Rosebud,” his pathetic, dying escape into the fantasy world of a snow globe.