November 2011

O Shell


The Journals of Spalding Gray edited by Nell Casey

Spalding Gray may come to be seen as one of the most modern writers or performers of our time. He is a more accessible David Foster Wallace, who understood the neurotic's obsession with truth, as in his story "The Depressed Person," where the depressed woman repeatedly asks her friend to assure her that she is her friend, that it is okay that she is bothering her about this, to accept her apology for apologizing, then apologizing on top of that. And you can see how exponential these apologies and observations become, like the footnotes for footnotes in Infinite Jest. The tragedy of these layered confessions is that they are meaningless and cover something unknown, an unlocated truth, as in the beginning lines of the story: "The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror." Confession is thus a tool to compensate for an emptiness which cannot be talked about, cannot be described. 

Gray's journals reveal his inability to express the root of his problem. Everywhere he is describing his problem and then scrapping each crisis as not the right one. This is a different experience from his public persona. In his monologues his neuroticisms came across as merely quirky, the funny fretting of a goyish Woody Allen, whose character did not worry about worrying. In Swimming to Cambodia, Gray frets that his fretting over getting the role of the film will put him in an insane asylum and prevent him from being able to perform, and maybe "If you can will this magic thinking to stop this act of will will be the supremo supremo thing that will get you the role in the film." His journals however reveal a person debilitated not distracted by an impending doom. 

Three issues come through in his journals: nonfiction's tendency to complicate the matter, the problem of layers of truth, and psychoanalysis as being useless in making personal decisions. What was eating Spalding Gray? He worried about having AIDS his entire life and apparently never was tested. He worried that he drank too much, which is interesting because he portrayed his drinking so lightheartedly, as well as his father's drinking, his father who suffered from DTs at the end of his life. He worried that he would commit suicide like his mother had, even worrying that he would unconsciously commit suicide by driving recklessly or contract AIDS knowingly or unknowingly. (Now imagine worrying you would die in an accident that was not really an accident.) He worried he would never become famous. He worried he would become famous and would never have privacy. He worried he was not really living but only talking about living. He worried he tried to create crises for the sake of his monologues. He worried that his worrying would drive him insane. Finally, he worried that the most nightmarish of Freudian symbolisms dictated his relationships with others. For example, Renee, his girlfriend, represented his former self and his mother. He represented his father, his public self, his own mother, himself as a child. And so on.  

Jaques Lacan in his lectures on The Psychoses has a rare, clear, un-Finnegan's-Wake-an moment where he compares psychosis to a highway that leads from one city to another. One can travel the quickest simplest route by means of a highway or by means of a series of local roads requiring a number of turns and through obeying a number of signs. Sanity is the most direct route with the fewest signs. Psychosis is the indirect, complicated route. Both lead to the same destination. This analogy is apt for our time, as everywhere we see the most indirect routes that lead to the same destination as arrived generations ago. The iPad, for example, mimics the same experience as reading a book or newspaper. Young people visit a museum and take a picture of the art and view it on their phones instead. We meander toward our destination, overly concerned that there is something that we missed. That somehow to reduce the equation to its simplest terms is dishonest. In this way, Gray is a very modern performer and (unwittingly perhaps) holds a mirror to us. 

Karl Krauss said that psychoanalysis merely replaces one neuroticism with a new one. Perhaps no one demonstrates this truism more than Spalding Gray because he lived and told it. He often lamented his inability to make anything up. He repeats this lament in his monologue Monster in a Box, about his attempt at writing a novel that essentially became a veiled memoir. And reading his journals you can see that autobiography is a process of complicating one's life, while fiction is a process of simplifying it. His first draft of his novel Impossible Vacation was over 2,000 pages. While I do not want to suggest that autobiography killed Gray, it is clear that his approach to his own life made things much more difficult and that he may have been better off never having read Freud or visited a psychoanalyst. Because modern philosophy mimics technology in its over-meticulous approach to truth. Again, the work of both fields is useful sociologically but is useless in approaching everyday decisions. Psychology can function as a safe haven from responsibility, as Tolstoy noted in "The Kreutzer Sonata": 

Nowadays it would be a solecism to say: "You, friend, are leading a bad, irregular life; live better." No one would ever think of addressing such words to himself or others. If you are leading a bad life, the cause is to be sought in the nervous centers, in one of which something must have gone wrong; and you can not do better than put yourself in the hands of a physician who will prescribe a shilling's worth of medicine for you, which you will duly take as ordered. You will then grow worse, on which you must have more doctors and more medicines. A precious system! 

Here is Gray's take on a conversation he had with a young boy from the same performance group (The Wooster Group) as he in his journals: "To some extent it was like having that fantasy triangle in which a boy (me?) watched the man-me make love to Renee." Or on his relationship: "Renee thinks I am both the boy and the mother." Another: "I am attracted to the 10 year old in her." And: "Renee says... I want to corrupt the child (in me, outside of me, in Liz [his ex girlfriend], in her)." Psychoanalysis provides a useful understanding of general problems in civilization, that many of our problems stem from the uneasy process of becoming civilized, and that ignoring sexual urges can be damaging. Fine. But to apply its theories to specific problems in life is maddening and debilitating. What do I do if I realize that my girlfriend represents my mother? What do I do if I realize that my ex-girlfriend represents my younger self? These are insurmountable problems, and the only solution is to recoil from them. And to abdicate all responsibility. Not only this, but as seen in Journals, one needs more hysterical symbolism to compensate for the growth of disorders that result in ignoring the root cause, as in the case of Tolstoy's growing number of physicians. 

So why did Gray leave his wife, Renee, for a woman twenty years younger than himself? In It's a Slippery Slope he explains: "Renee and I were very complicated. Two of us could be in a room and there'd be ten people there. There'd be the two adults, then the two kids looking out of the adults' bodies. Then the two kind of virtual persona images I created in my monologues of 'Renee and Spalding.' Then the ghost of the two parents drooling over our shoulder, Mom and Dad, and then the disembodied therapist voices flapping like advisatory butterflies in the air. It was very dramatic, very complicated." Gray of course needs this complication, needs these local roads to find his destination, a reason for leaving his wife for another woman. The more direct route would have been to say that he was in a long relationship with an overbearing person named Renee. And as he became more successful as a performer, he gained enough confidence to not need such an overbearing personality. He met someone much younger. A fan. And he saw a way out of a life that was making him unhappy.  

These two complications -- the contemporary problem of layering our truths until there are only debilitating fabrications and the similar problem of psychoanalysis replacing one neuroticism for another -- are useful in understanding Gray's life up until his breakup with Renee, up to his monologue Morning, Noon and Night. It does seem that after his move with another woman and the birth of his two sons, the manic layering of nonfictions seems to slow down. The brightest moment in his life is his realization that caring for children distracts him from his self-obsessions. Indeed, the tone of Morning, Noon and Night is so different from his other monologues that one is tempted to think Gray is making all this up. Like he wanted to come across as a decent family man after the ignominy of It's a Slippery Slope, but the Journals support this brief change before the big accident. He does seem to be happy during this period, though he frets a little that he is drinking too much and taking cocaine.  

On June 22, 2001, Gray was in a head-on collision with a truck while on vacation in Ireland. He fractured his skull, leaving hundreds of pieces of bone lodged in his brain. This effected brain damage and apparently was the cause of his major depression of this period, manifested in, among other things, his obsession over moving from their house in Sag Harbor to a larger more isolated house away from town. And indeed, his entries during this period are mainly an outlet for this obsession. He even wrote a letter to his sons, included in the Journals, warning them not to make a similar move late in their life. What is even sadder is that his family and friends did not know that his depression and new obsessions were the result of the crash. They thought he was just back to his old pain-in-the-ass self again. There were several trips and outings to try to pull Gray out of it that were unsuccessful. He writes about one such trip to go kayaking. Gray won't shut up about the new house and Kathy calls him a loser. "She's right," he says.  

During this time, he often spoke of suicide with his family, left goodbye notes on the kitchen counter, would disappear, would ride the Staten Island Ferry back and forth contemplating jumping into the freezing waters, and was in and out of sanitariums. Before reading this sad, sad journal, particularly the entries after 2001, I had wondered whether his suicide could have been the result of his preoccupation with truth or his distortion of psychoanalysis, or the guilt and regret he might have felt (no real evidence of this exists in the journals) over leaving Renee for another woman. But these last entries reflect a mutation of his previous obsessive personality, one that was totally irreconcilable. 

It seems that no definitive biography on Gray is needed now, as these journals tell his story as well as though they were his last and definitive monologue. As with the documented lives of John Cheever and F. Scott Fitzgerald, this book, in the only form he was able to present it, a companion piece to all his performances, will serve as a work of great pathos, cause men to cry over the tragedy of this selfish and sensitive artist. It should also, as with the lives of Cheever and Fitzgerald, serve as a bit of a warning to others who find kinship in a personality like his.  

The Journals of Spalding Gray edited by Nell Casey
ISBN: 978-0307273451
368 pages