The Searcher That Segued: The TV Sutras by Dodie Bellamy

There’s that old folk statement of sincerity, “It’s turtles all the way down.” And maybe it is true — but, by turtles, what’s meant are cults.

Stories about cults are still of the moment, which may have something to do with the smartphone-orbited consumption of daily life, a cultic dynamic all its own: everyone attuned to a handheld obelisk created by the slim ones in black clothes. On the figurative playing field of recent cult-inflected narratives, Dodie Bellamy has dealt a wicked curve with The TV Sutras.

Written with the sort of artlessness that qualifies as artful when it comes to the pursuit of the authentic, the TV Sutras flips any expectations you might tote to it as a reader. “I do not attempt irony, cleverness or perfection,” relays the author in her introduction. “The TV Sutras are totally in-the-moment sincere, even if that sincerity makes me cringe afterwards.”

Curiously labeled an “essay” by ace indie publisher Ugly Duckling Presse, the book begins with 80 or so pages of unembellished sutra. That is, on each of these initial pages, you will find a single mandala (#1–78), beneath which Bellamy has created a textual excerpt using whatever she happened to find on her television one day in 2009.

Beneath the TV excerpt rests Bellamy’s sutra, an interpretive, mantra-like statement, or lesson, derived from her random media encounters. This practice began as performance art of a sort during meditation sessions over six months’ time, with the emphasis of her project on spontaneity and free-writing, the intense and the undiluted.

Much of that inclination has to do with Bellamy’s own experience, which involves, so she reports, having joined a cult as a young adult — a searcher who segued smoothly from pop culture enthrallment to abiding by the teachings of a charismatic master. Ultimately, this man’s contradictory exercise of authority and endless erotic bullying drove her away. Yet it was not an interval in her life that she could easily forget.

Like a character out of Beckett, Bellamy’s self-conception is stricken with the bodily machinery of belief. She is continuously fascinated as her own narrative coherence grinds and crumbles on the cusp of really finally getting somewhere: “The sutra process is the opposite of the stasis of accepting things as they are, highlighting instead the instability of knowing.”

Here and there, her interpretive sutras neatly parrot an excerpted source: “It’s never too late to begin,” reads sutra #61, whose commercial source is the voiceover of a man playing golf: “Twenty-two of those forty wins since turning forty.” Elsewhere a recognizable popular movie registers with unnerving humor: “Man loads rifle in gun store. Clerk says, ‘You can’t do that.’ Man blasts clerk with rifle.” “Be focused, tune into your true intentions, and proceed,” runs Bellamy’s commentary. Yes, here, she has identified with Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator.

The second section of the TV Sutras is where Bellamy’s project generates true force as she openly defies easy bookselling categories. Here is the section that figures as the intended subject of the label “Essay.” (As opposed to the earlier, fleeting sutras, which might have been labeled “Self-Help.”) Unfolding as memoir, the latter half of the TV Sutras doubles as Bellamy’s self-declared novel, a labeling choice on her part that invites the question of her veracity. Novels, after all, arise from invention; invention whose ultimate goal is to probe truths hidden beneath the surface of the actual.

Bellamy’s personal commentary brought to mind David Foster Wallace’s walloping treatise on TV irony, “E Unibus Pluram.” And David Shields’s torch-mob provocations obsessed with smoking the novel from its castle. I thought of the auntie character in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, whose mind is swallowed whole by her TV set. I thought of Chris Kraus.

Taken at face value, Bellamy’s sutra-fied advice rates as solid, possibly even welcome, if frequently obvious: “Cultural labels and rules aren’t your true self.” “Be humble, but not passive.” “You’ll never get rid of distractions. The point is to return.” Yet interest here primarily stems from the gap between source and pronouncement, like that between a comedian’s premise and punch-line. She guides her reader through a cultic experience with the sutras — and then invites the reader to spend some time behind the curtain glimpsing fragments of her life experience. Bellamy goes so far as to draw overt parallels between the role of cult leader and that of her current occupation, writer of books and MFA workshop instructor.

Her prefacing remarks denying irony’s hold: Is that on behalf of the TV Sutras in its entirety? As if to say, No irony can be found in the TV Sutras, no, none at all…

Or does it figure as Bellamy’s very own cultic homily intended to relieve the reader of a sense of irony and contradiction? Is Bellamy, the author, like a cult leader, denying irony because the readiness to glean it in her dictates requires a reader to think for herself?

“Truth,” as the book’s epigraph goes, “is a pathless land.”

And however deep you go, expect turtles.

The TV Sutras

by Dodie Bellamy

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