Hoping for Spalding Gray

“Tell me a horror story, Daddy”.

“. . . Look around you, son.  . . . What do you see?”

There is the abyss, the secret that life is ultimately empty and meaningless, that none of us really matter.  It is that existential horror of being.  We could dwell on it, but that would make it very hard for us to live.  Life is tragic, it is full of loss, it ends in death, it can be unspeakably cruel. Yet most of us seem to rather easily avoid thinking about it.  Somehow, we keep up optimism, and have a trust that horrible things won’t happen to us.

Some people simply can’t ignore this horror of being, and when they are also exceptionally perceptive and insightful, they can live with a deep and puzzling loneliness of being different, a gnawing sense of being unable to have validation.  They often try, sometimes in charming and creative ways, to reach ‘normal’ people, but they fail and have despair.

Spalding Gray comes to mind.  He invented the creative monologue.  He gave us lively, theatrical expositions of mental journeys, musings, perplexity.  Over and over he portrays deep experience, combined with a sense of missing attachment.  He has some kind of inability to feel comfortable the way everyone else seems to feel comfortable, some kind of disconnection with himself.  He recounts life episodes of failing to act in his own best interests, like when he can’t bring himself to be on the Johnny Carson show.  He is not sure why he is who he is.  “Why don’t I have children?   Was it a decision I made or did it just happen?” He feels lost, and is puzzled that others don’t feel lost also.

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, presents a retrospective of his work, Spalding Gray: Stories to Tell. Actors read poignantly and theatrically from his journal notes. Spalding is delightfully animated with wonder, doubt, and chagrin.  We learn that he was annoyed, indeed obsessed, by his step daughter’s repetitive playing of the bouncy song “I get knocked down, but I get up again da da da da da da da da da”. Spalding mocks this. He derides it.  It is funny, but he is emphatic. He wants us to know about this.  He wants us to know that his song really, really gets to him.

Having children is an element of reprieve for him, but ultimately he can’t go on.

The program ends with a large screen photo of Spalding.  In full view he is there – his puzzled, glint-eyed, emphatic, dramatic, funny, bemused expression.  He makes sense.  There is a sense of relief for him, gratitude, and even joy.  He can be known after all, he is seen.  It is all the more precious as we know he was never sure.

About Bob

I fought with my twin, that enemy within, ’til both of us fell by the way

Human minds herd, mentally, the way animals herd in movement.   A few will start off in a certain direction, and then, at an accelerating pace, the rest follow.  There is wisdom in the crowd.  There is madness in the crowd.  We do GroupThink.  We seem made to believe something when others do too.

Rare individuals, it seems, are immune to this.  What everyone else does automatically, they won’t do at all.  They need to be different.  They don’t follow the crowd, they don’t follow fads. In fact, they often start fads. They set themselves apart.  Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, calls them Innovators, and describes  how fashion marketers search for these types to foresee future trends.

All personality is strategy for social success.  Being stubbornly different can be a way to avoid comparison.  Combine this with a special talent or intelligence, and you can have a cultural creator, a ground breaking artist. Bob Dylan may be one of them.

Forty years on, he is still with us, still producing unpredictable, original, compelling music.  A star in his 20’s, he’s a star in his 60’s. Relentlessly unique, his first act was to create his own name.  He felt “born to the wrong parents”.  And in all these years he has resisted explaining himself, resisted defining himself, resisted being categorized.  He won’t let us have him.

To many, this has seemed contrived, a publicity stunt.  It doesn’t help that he often performs badly.  It seems purposeful.  He almost seems compelled to now and then produce a lousy album.   He accepts honorary degrees without saying anything.  Those who have recorded with him will say that he is a highly practiced and skilled craftsman of the song writing, phrasing, guitar playing, and, yes, singing art.

Of all our cultural stars today, he will be the one, from our time, to enter the pantheon of singular american creative artists – artists like Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Steinbeck, Frank Lloyd Wright, Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keefe.  Someday we will be quick to say to our grandchildren or great grandchildren: “when I was young I saw Bob Dylan”.

From the very beginning, he seems to have been precociously aware of the essential artistic imperative to stay fresh, stay true, unaffected, uncontrived.  All of his evasions, and dodgings have served to prevent the self consciousness that can kill the art engine, steal the muse, stop the flow, make the work mechanical or predictable.  Art isn’t art, after all, if it comes from the brain rather than the soul, from the head rather than the heart, from theory rather than experience.

How did he know this so young?

“They say every man needs protection, They say every man must fall, Yet I swear I see my reflection, Some place so high above this wall”


New York Review of Books,  March 25, 2010, “The passions of Vincent Van Gogh“, Richard Dorment.

Vincent Van Gogh is the archetype of the troubled artist, the insane person whose insanity empowers creativity in his art.  Craziness is part of being creative, so it goes.  Yet, does it?  In Vincent’s case, his art was a compensation, it helped make him sane, and when it was assaulted, his sanity and art were broken.

Vincent Van Gogh was eccentric, and socially very difficult.  His social failures haunted his life.  Life is a search by the self for effectiveness, a niche, ‘something that works’.   People are driven to find a sense of mastery, a feeling that they can accomplish what they need.  Vincent was no different.  But he failed at teaching, at preaching, at romance, and at friendship.  His only enduring connection, his brother, encouraged him to do art.

Once he focused on art, he became an ardent learner and self teacher, and he spent hours drawing, painting, and studying other artists, in circumstances of destitution and despair. And then by chance, he went to Arles.  There, with his skills developed, his gifts of concentrated perception could match the rich, visual beauty of sunny southern France.  He found artistic flow, and produced great works of intensity and power.

In the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, Russia, in a small side room, with a silent babushka attendant in the corner, one comes upon Landscape with Carriage and Train in the Background, painted the year of his death, 1890.  One is drawn to faint brush lines, along side the wagon wheel of the carriage, crude strokes of dark color on the whitish road.  One slowly realizes they are shadows. . . on water, and the road is . . .wet! . . . And then, with a jolt, one sees that the green fields are wet, it has just rained and there is the smell of wet grass.

It is no mystery that during his time in Arles, he did many self portraits and portraits of others.  He was literally building a personal self.  His growing confidence led him to seek artistic and personal connection from other artists.

Unfortunately, it was Gauguin who came to visit.  A misanthrope and narcissist, Gauguin had little inclination to feel sympathy or regard for others.  He left his wife and family without support, to do what he pleased.  Far from engaging Vincent, he relentlessly criticized him, and questioned his methods and his work.  He tried to change Vincent’s expressionism, his manner of painting what he saw – the very essence of his art.  Gauguin wanted egotistical symbolism, nihilistic sentiment.

After nine weeks with Gauguin, Vincent drew a knife towards him, but then retreated in panic and later cut himself. He cut off his own ear. Gauguin left Arles. Vincent eventually committed suicide.

Did the vain Gauguin need to undermine a superior talent?

In Vincent’s last painting, Wheat Field with Crows, menacing black crows descend on the yellows, reds, and blues of southern France.