“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.