But here’s the surprising and pleasingly paradoxical part, which more than anything else makes Madonna seem less of a comet in the sky, makes her – what can I say? -v ery likable: Underneath her meticulous planning, her air of remove, and her quintessential “been hiere, done that” image, she is abidingly curious. You feel how unjaded she is about where she gets her stimuli and how constantly, keenly available she is to new input. (She is a survivor not least, I think, because she is so receptive to what you might bring to the table.) When I muse about whether her openness to new Influences is a sign of pathology or of enviable plasticity of character, for instance, she listens carefully, then asks me the meaning of a word I’ve used–fungible.
We go on to talk about the poetry of Anne Sexton and how leading fuels the soul. “Other peoples words keep me alive,” she says. “I don’r get how people get through life without reading. I can’t really take that in.” We discuss her compelling need to keep in shape: “I wish I were comfortable enough to look zahig,” she blurts out unexpectedly. “But I choose men who like cai”ved-our women, the can-you-run-for-thc-bus kind of guy.” And we touch on die psychological origins of her choice of a “very masculine man” in Guy Ritchie-a bloke who, on the evidence of the recent MTV documentary about Madonna’s last lour, I’m doing to Tell You a Secret, prefers hanging out in the pub wirh his mates to looking deeply into his wife’s limpid eyes. “I’m naturally inclined toward men like thai,” she explains with what seems to be a degree of therapized self-awareness, although she i.s dismissive ol I’Veud (“He didn’t dig women-if you have a problem with God or women, that leaves a lot out”) and she doesn’t seem like the naturally introspective sort. “My father doesn’t get too excited about anything,” she adds. “A good pan of my life was spent trying ro wow him, to get his approval.”
Talking with her, I have the sense that all of it-people, ideas, het recent interest in the esoteric Jewish text known as the Zohar-is just more grist for her mill. There is one noticeable exception, which is all die more striking coming from a woman who has relied on a savvy media-genic appeal to propel herself forward: “My information doesn’t come from television,” Madonna declares. “I’m informed by art, books, old films, photography.”
Inevitably, given my Orthodox Jewish back-ground and Madonnas current absorption in a mystical branch of Judaism that appears to satisfy her intensified wish for a transcendent vision of the world even as she negotiates that world at its most seductively secular and brutally of-the-moment-her wish, as she puts it, to “reconcile science and spirituality, Adam and Eve and superstring theory”-we eventually get around to the subject of religion. She asks me if 1 believe in death, and I say that, sadly, I do. She admits she has trouble with the concept-“The thought of eternal lire appeals to me,” she says with an endearing lack of bravado. She has found refuge in the notion of re incarnation as espoused by the Kabbalah Centre. “1 don’t think peoples energy j list disappears,” she says. It’s not clear whether she is entirely persuaded or is still in the process of convincing herself that a divinely ordained script actually exists. “I hope by the time it’s my moment to leave this world physically,” she adds, “I’ll have gotten my head around the idea that life is an endless cycle.” When she suffered a serious fall from a horse on her English estate lasr year and was rendered helpless, immobilized by numerous broken bones, she says, she realized she isn’r Super-woman-and saw how vulnerable we really are. “Sooner or later, you’ve got to learn your lessons,” she says when I inquire further about the appeal of reincarnation. “And you might as well learn them now as later.” I wonder aloud why she hasn’t sruck with Catholicism, which at least seriously entertains the idea of an afterlife. “There’s nothing consoling about being Catholic,” she almost snaps in reply. “They’re all just laws and prohibitions.”
It feels strange-in a good way-to be discussing Last Things with the Material Girl, who would seem to be the very incarnation of everything vital and physical and heterodox. It occurs to me that there is a foicc field around her that is difficult to attribute to any one thing, an intensity of purpose that is hard to resist and that suggests a hunger for something greater than record sales, greater even than the adtdarion of billions of fans. I don’t know whether I totally believe her when she scoffs at her own fame, insisting that “in the big picture, it means very little. At the end of my life, God doesn’t give a shit,” but I know that only Madonna could put references to the sacred and the profane together in the same sentence and make it sound like the most defiant son of mantra. Perhaps this woman who fears attachments also fears endings-and the final disconnection-even more than the rest of us. And well she should, given how hard she has worked to leave her mark.
© Elle Magazine