Dodie Bellamy’s The TV Sutras is “inspired text born from a crisis of urban bombardment.” In the tradition of Joseph Smith, Moses, and the oracle at Delphi, Bellamy’s introduction describes a process wherein after a 30-minute yoga DVD and a 20-minute meditation facing the (turned-off) TV, she turns the TV on and begins to receive a transmission. After a break, she describes the scene, then gives her commentary without “irony, cleverness or perfection—or art.”
The sutras that comprise the first half of the book are crisp, only a line or two. Bellamy’s commentary has the all the terseness of Patanjali, declaring in her first commentary, “now the teachings begin. Showing up is the first step.” In gathering these proclamations, there is no ranking of stimuli. Every transmission can be a source of meaning, whether it’s a tampon commercial or what seems to be the movie version of Little Women starring Winona Ryder.
Individual sutras form an arc, and consecutive sutras cluster around ideas to give text cohesion, but also circle back to certain ideas that perhaps led to the book’s construction: the importance of continually returning to beginner’s mind; the assault of received values, particularly materialism; and the mind’s attempts to move between these two spaces. The 78 sutras start to feel repetitive, and I wonder if I’m missing something. But then again, that’s how meditation feels sometimes. Perhaps they’re meant to represent the simplicity and generality of spiritual truths that need to be repeated until we understand them experientially rather than cognitively. I assume I need to read this part again.
In the second half of the book, “Cultured,” Bellamy seems to anticipate this response and, in fact, seems to have desired it. When describing a piece of “dinner jazz” her Master had written, Bellamy wonders “How could an enlightened being produce music this bad and not even realize it? So I listened to it every day, waiting and praying for its brilliance to strike me.” I start to feel significantly less guilty.
While the sutras are general, absent of identifying detail, and easy to project onto, the narrative challenges anyone who’ll listen to “Bring on crucified Jesus oozing blood and horror. Bring on those horny gurus who fuck their students into enlightenment.” The first scene features Bellamy as meditator dutifully ignoring a full cat-box and her cat rewarding her transcendence by shitting on the floor.
These details, the bits about sex and the specific descriptions of Chicago make me feel a bit like I’m reading an XOJane confessional, and I feel an overwhelming desire to name her group, which she calls, without exception “the cult” or “my cult.” After all, no one thinks their cult is actually a cult. She gives a few clues as to what it is not (kundalini yoga, fundamentalist Christianity, Hare Krishnas, new narrative writing) based on who else she encounters or ideas she later explores. Like the sutras, this cult applies to everyone, allows the reader to see his or her own experience with ecstasy, with small boundaries crossed in order to belong, of shifting tastes to be worthy in the eyes of the teacher.
Similarly, attempts to place this narrative into a genre category fail. Bellamy writes of her time in the cult, “I didn’t want anyone to know how deeply a fool I was. . . for ten years this was my life, for ten years I was gone.” I check the back cover of the book. Essays, it says. Is this some part of Bellamy’s biography that’s she’s kept hidden for years? But later, when describing what happened to a fellow cult member, she gives the reader what actually happened, which she decides is more interesting than anything her own imagination might come up with before stating “This is a novel, so you’d think I could improvise an ending.”
Like the charismatic leaders who character-Bellamy fucks, Bellamy points to familiar signs and the reader nods along, supporting her world-building no matter how many times Bellamy says the word cock or undermines her writer character’s credibility. As Bellamy says of her former lover’s alien ex-wife: “I have no doubt she’s a fraud, a con artist, yet I love her.” Bellamy’s narrator admits that every attempt at authentic experience is colored by demands and desires of a charismatic other. “I am generating the logic of absorbed systems. Not observation, absorption.”
It is this instability of reality that is The TV Sutras great triumph. “The sutra process is the opposite of the stasis of accepting things as they are, highlighting instead the instability of knowing.” As Bellamy removes the markers of real and not real, the reader learns to cling to Bellamy’s writing and ride it as a wave.