Bowing Down to Mystery: An Interview with Spalding Gray (1994)

Portland, Oregon; Issue #3

Interview conducted by Philip Krohn and Tom Webb
Note: This interview is reprinted from The Bear Deluxe Magazine #3 (1994). Magazine co-founders Krohn and Webb met with Gray before his evening performance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon. Gray arrived over two hours late for the interview but eventually shared lunch on Tom McCall Waterfront Park, talking on tape for another two hours. For background on Spalding Gray, visit

Spalding Gray is the internationally acclaimed performing artist and writer responsible for such gems as “Swimming to Cambodia” and “Monster in a Box.” A story collector and wayfarer, he is propelled by an insatiable curiosity and pursued by the bizarre. In addition to being brutally honest and side-splittingly funny, he may also be one of America’s most complicated thinkers. Orlo is grateful to have had the opportunity to spend some time with Spalding Gray during his recent stay in Portland, OR.

Orlo  A couple of years ago you interviewed the Dalai Lama. What is the extent of your interest in Buddhism?
Spalding Gray  I’m not so interested in being a Buddhist, I’m interested in being an individual. I’m a New Englandian, I’m a Thoreauzian. You know, I’m for bowing down to the mystery.
Orlo  You started your interview with the Dalai Lama talking about being on the road all the time, both of you. And trying to get comfortable. It made me think of someone else who is interested in Buddhism, Gary Snyder. And he’s very interested in the discussion of homelessness in a broad sense and trying to find a sense of place, because to him that hasn’t happened in America.
Spalding Gray  Gary’s different than I in the sense that Gary has found a place. I like Gary Snyder, but I think that he’s coming from a preachy place. I can’t quote him, but his attitude is this: “Look at me, I was able to integrate myself with the environment. I now go and argue with Congress about the spotted owl. I’m an environmentalist, I’m Gary Snyder, I found a place. The rest of you are wandering idiots.” We did a Buddhist Conference some years back, and Gary said, “I can’t tolerate it any more, that these people on the road don’t know how to roll their rucksacks.” And I go, “Oh my God.” That’s why he couldn’t hang out with Jack Kerouac after a while. He was a little anal retentive for me. 

Orlo  In some ways you could be called a “professional doubter.” There’s a certain skepticism, a certain fascination and curiosity that keeps you in motion. It’s almost impossible to maintain a really good balance between confidence and doubt, but you try to do that.
Spalding Gray  It’s a big balance. I wanna say that I like to combine the concept of doubt with the worship of mystery, and, what I find happening most of the time is that people cannot deal with not knowing. And so they start organizing these damn systems of reincarnation or trying to understand the universe.
Orlo  You worked with Elizabeth LeCompte at the Wooster Group, and it seemed that she was concerned with doubt and never aligning the Wooster Group with any specific political dogma or commitment. Is that something you don’t do in general? Have you ever attached yourself to a specific political…
Spalding Gray  No. Because I feel, when people ask if I’m political, it’s like asking if I’m sexual. Because of course I’m…
Orlo  That’s why I say specific.
Spalding Gray  When I do benefits, I usually do benefits for two things, because they’re the two things I’m most afraid of: torture and AIDS. Those are the two things that I personally fear. Amnesty International being for torture and for AIDS, Art Against AIDS. I interviewed people with AIDS on stage, to raise money. And I see that as political, you see.
Orlo  You have talked about developing a new narrative. I’m always interested in communication, and myth-making, and the media. In America, there’s such a tie between the political myth-makers and the Hollywood myth-makers. Every four years, not only are they raising money in Hollywood, but they’re recruiting celebrities to get involved in campaigns. Where is the reality, where’s the truth? Is perception reality?
Spalding Gray  Well, the problem is, simply, America’s too big. There’s too many people. I was in Australia, and I was opening up to the audience. Just an open forum. And I said, “I’ll take questions,” from the house, and the first question was, “what do you think of Ronald Reagan?” I said, “Who the hell is he? You tell me what you think, you know as much about Ronald Reagan as I do, you see him just as much as I do if you watch Australian television, or CNN, or whatever. Ask me something personal.” So some guy raises his hand, says, “I was in the men’s room the other day, we’re all taking a whiz, and, at the trough there, and you come in to pee, and you go to the booth, toilet-booth, why wouldn’t you pee with us?” I said, “Now there is a good question, you know how you walk into a men’s room sometimes and you just look at the guys at the trough and you just know you want to piss alone?” And from then on out, we were rocking. We were just going, and it built up from the personal to the political, and then you can move a little bit into it. But the problem is that we are all in a state of this virtual reality thing now, that we are perceiving, and it’s the only way we can, because if I get to meet the Dalia Lama, or if I get to meet Clinton, then I’m special. It’s no longer democratic, but we’re always receiving it through image, and I don’t know how it was different back with Eisenhower and the radio.
Orlo  In parts of “Swimming to Cambodia,” you talked about the film extras. It kind of made me think about your everyday voter who’s kind of a political extra. You know, he or she is there. And they vote. But they’re just on the sideline, unappreciated, underpaid. What’s the role of the political extra?
Spalding Gray  Well, you see, your questioning makes me make things up. I haven’t really thought about what you’re asking, and, I mean, they’re good questions, so they’re making me think about it, but I wonder how many Americans – you see, it’s very hard for me to speak in generalities about people without using direct anecdote, unless I have a direct story to respond to it’s hard for me – but I wonder how many Americans that vote feel like they’re participating, or that they have power. And I think that in this last election, that was an example where people were excited about changing. They didn’t care what the change was. It’s not all that great, but that they could initiate a change. And there was this real rise of democratic optimism around the Clinton thing that hadn’t existed since, a spirit that hadn’t existed since… I think the spirit went out of politics when Bobby was shot. That was the big one for me because he was the ultimate potential of sensitive, intelligent, handsome – just way beyond his brother.
Orlo  People are overwhelmed by the amount of information that bombards them all the time. There are so many different faces on things that we really don’t have any idea where the real content is. Are we going crazy? How do we process everything?
Spalding Gray  Well, I process through stories, you see, it keeps me sane. What I can’t tell a story about, I usually let go. So I keep a journal and I make these little beginnings, middles, and ends that give me completion. So, I haven’t been exposing myself to what I call “Virtual Realities,” so much, as reality. Even in Virtual Reality sound, which is the thing that has most come along, most been accomplished, you sit under something like a hair-dryer, and you feel like you’re in Carnegie Hall, but when you open your eyes, you’re looking at people under hair-dryers. You know, and I would miss Carnegie Hall. Virtual Reality has always existed. Disneyland, or whatever. The point is that just because it’s been named now, it gives us a chance to examine it and see that we have simply been living in it from the day we’re born. As soon as TV came into our home, I was eleven, and I felt radio gave me my imagination, and my monologues grew out of being radioized, because I was allowed a film in my head. I’d be hearing, and making up how all the houses looked like. So I had built Ozzie and Harriet’s house in my mind. I’d see the door open and everything. Then when it came on television, they stole it, they literalized it. Film and TV literalize through image. And they stole my imagination. Now one of the few places in the world where TV has not been introduced is Bali, and Bali still has real magic happening, because they still have this interconnected mind. They’re now about to introduce television to the island, and that would be the end to the magic. That will be the end.
Orlo  There are a lot of people in the “environmental movement,” particularly among New Age Deep Ecologists, that are extremely bio-centric and try not to give technology power. They think that if we don’t acknowledge technology that somehow it will magically go away. I think that it’s almost impossible to ignore technology, and there are some that think it will ultimately save us.
Spalding Gray  Well, I’m a romantic. I write longhand. I’m dyslexic and I can’t work well with machinery. I wrote my entire novel longhand, because it’s from my body. It’s like painting. It comes out of my breath and my body. And I’m working very hard to stay in touch with my body on this earth. And recognize the difference between being on grass and pavement and near water. They’re very simple for me now, it’s very important to me in my later years to be closer to the earth, because I feel I’m about to lose it, forever. Through death. So the more I get involved with any kind of technology or machinery, the closer to death I get, or the further away from the mother I get. That’s a choice, a personal choice of mine, that’s come with age. And, I am not intolerant of technology, but as soon as someone tries to talk with me about it I fuzz out. I simply can’t hear it.
Orlo  But you’re interested in chaos.
Spalding Gray  Yeah I’m pursued by chaos. I’m trying to get away from it, by organizing my monologues, because everything is chaos.
Orlo  Doubt is chaos.
Spalding Gray  Doubt is chaos because, in fact, all things are chance. I’m still in the arrogant place of entertaining Sartre’s idea that the ultimate absurdity is death. And the only meaning that’s in death is the meaning that is given to it by the living.
Orlo  When you asked the Dalai Lama questions about sexual innuendo, chaos, and the like, I wanted him to play along a little and talk about doubt, to embrace the concept of doubt.
Spalding Gray  I felt that he was just trying to get rid of me, in a polite way. The way the Vietnamese fought, in a guerrilla tactic of just pulling back. I’d heard he’d been on “Firing Line.” Bill Buckley backed him into a corner and said, “Perhaps there is no more room for Tibet in this world. Perhaps it’s a good thing that’s happened.” And the Dalai Lama goes, “Perhaps you’re right.”
Orlo  But he’s amazing that way.
Spalding Gray  Yeah. And I thought that when I said to him, “You must doubt reincarnation. There must be doubt, because it could be the imagination, you see, of a child, the imagedness of afterlife.” I just wanted the Dalai Lama to look at that little place, and he said “Well maybe there is a little doubt.” That’s when I knew he was being coy with me, because a little doubt is like being half-pregnant. There’s no such thing as a little doubt.
Orlo  When you were talking to the Dalai Lama you talked about circling your meditation pillow. I’m interested in how you relax and your relationship with a non-urban setting.
Spalding Gray  Oh! I usually accompany that with some sort of drug that helps me fit in, because I’m not exactly relaxed in nature. I am in water. And snow recently, with skiing. But if I’m in the woods, or the redwoods, or out on a walk, and want to relax or feel integrated with it, I’ll often rush it by taking mushrooms, or occasionally, Ecstasy, or recently, LSD, a mild dose of it. I mean I’m very pro drugs as a controlled and recreational thing. It’s another big reaction that happened lately, this “Just Say No.” Thinking about drugs is immediately called drug abuse. There’s no concept anymore of drug maintenance, about having a drug as a friend, as an ally. It barely exists. It’s just terror.
Orlo  One of my concerns is a deep lack of connectedness between people and the actual dirt they inhabit. Maybe because it’s not really dirt anymore.
Spalding Gray  Right.
Orlo  Do we just become more and more divorced all the time?
Spalding Gray  You see, it’s very hard for me to talk in terms of “we.” I don’t, unless I interview with you, and I get to know who you are, and I can begin from there. I can only begin to talk about what’s going on in my own life. And the most recent experience I had was that I was torn between leaving Malaysia early to go to the Santa Cruz mountains and be with friends and be in an environment that I knew I could walk around in, The Redwoods, and that I loved, or trying to see more of Malaysia, and I was on one of those horrible “should things.” I’m in Malaysia, I’ll never be here again, I should go to an island resort. Alone. And everyone was pushing me to go to this island resort. Paradise Island. “One island, one resort,” that’s what it’s called. And two years ago, they had built this resort on this jungle island with old growth. 3000-year-old jungle. So, I get to this island, and I am completely freaked out by its plannedness, its absolute sterility – the resort, in the middle of this wild jungle, except for the fact that some of the houses on stilts out in the middle of the water, so at least you can hear the sound of the water. But it was almost like an urban planning, because the walkways between different rooms and buildings were up in the jungle, were poured concrete. And there was an elevator, that you had to go up in to get to the higher level, to be amongst the jungle. This was a ludicrous concept to me, that you would get in an elevator. I finally find steps to walk up. Then there is this jungle trek, they call it, to go to this beautiful emerald beach. Or you could take the shuttle. Now I don’t think anyone has taken the jungle trek, because I never ran into anyone there, plus I was the only single person on the island. It was all couples. It was really weird. So, the first day I’m out on this jungle trek, and I’m coming back, and actually the first thing I did was go into the jungle to masturbate. It was a terrific turn-on, I hadn’t masturbated in a long time. I really moved away from masturbation, for whatever reason. But this jungle was very wild, and primitive, and it really brought out the ape in me. I got bit up pretty badly by mosquitoes though while I was doing it. And then I started down the train, and I’m going down this jungle trek, and headed back for my room, and hear this “Ra-ra-gg-hh,” a savage sound. And I jumped, because I was completely unprepared for anything savage on that island. And I looked up and there was this huge gray monkey, in the tree, staring me down. Right into my eyes. And I was not going on any further. It stopped me in my tracks. And I was shaking all over. His eyes were so, I’d only seen eyes like that when I stared down a Spanish cop, on the dock, in Algeciras, Spain, and got knocked in the face for doing it. Three big cops. So I turned around to go look for a stick. The damn jungle trek trail had been cleaned up so well there were no odd sticks. And I said, “Oh my God, I can’t even find a piece of bamboo, how am I going to defend myself against this monkey.” I must have walked back all the way to the beach, before I found this really primitive walking stick, like a club. And I went back. By then the monkey was gone and it turns out that this monkey has a tribe of eight wives, a lot of children, and then there are a couple of passive males, that he allows to just dick the wives quickly and bats them away before they can come. And he’s a real scum-ball. And he had my number down, and he began to hang-out outside my room. I had to move down to one of the water rooms, because he would growl up there in the morning when I’d come out and he’d always be watching. Now, I couldn’t have stayed on the island without this monkey. He gave me a sense of wildness, he gave me an edge. I began walking around like this mountain man, and people were staring at me. Suddenly, this one transitional object, this club, this monkey stick, was the wildest thing in the resort. And I’d bring it to breakfast with me, and prop it against my chair. The waiters thought I was mad.
Orlo  You were saying that it’s hard for you to talk in terms of “we.”
Spalding Gray   Yeah. I’m a hedonist. It’s hard for me to get a concept for “we,” because of the fact that I’m traveling so much. And each city I come into I befriend a few people, and have a very intense time with them, and then they’re in my memories. And sometimes I get letters or books from them, but the community is so busted up and has so little to do with – it’s much more urban, and less environmentally concerned. The place that I had the most insight into environment and environmental concern and heard the language most was at Hartwood Institute outside Garberville, in Northern California. I would spend a lot of time there, because I had a girlfriend working there, and I began to hear a lot of talk about “gray water,” and “organic gardening,” and about how they were dealing with being a subsistent community, environmentally. There were also stores downtown selling everything you needed to grow marijuana. It was very odd; it was wide open. You know, a hardware store for marijuana growers. So it was an interesting time. But it’s because I was in the midst of isolated country that I began to see it. It was still myself in relation to it. How did my psyche change with that? Not how could I change that or protect it?
Orlo  So maybe I’m just pretending when I think I have fears that are for the world.
Spalding Gray  Ah, ha. “Weltschmerz,” world soul. Yes, we don’t have a word for it. It’s German. Feeling for world pain. Yeah, if you’ve come to that point, you’ve evolved, you’re an evolved creature.
Orlo  Either that or I’m not taking care of myself.
Spalding Gray  Well you’re probably doing a little of both. I mean if you can get a balance. But if you have a concept about how you can work for the world, that’s a huge one. I mean, the most radical book I thought was the “50 Ways To Change Your Environment,” very personal little things you can do to better your environment.
Orlo  That’s the whole “Think Globally, Act Locally,” bumper sticker mentality. I think backwards on that. I think “Think Locally, Act Globally.” You can respect the homespun solutions, but when you see what’s happening on a national or global sale, it’s hard to say that everyone doing their “50 things” is going to make much of a dent in it.
Spalding Gray  Right, I’m very realistic in that sense, although I think that we’ve overpopulated the world, and that we have destroyed the planet, and that we may in fact be a virus from outer space, and all the rest of it. So in my deepest, I’m pessimistic. At the same time, the pessimism gets transcended in the sense that – and I actually had a vision of this while floating in the Infinity Pool in that resort on the last day I was there, watching sea eagles fly over. They had an Infinity Pool, and I was thinking about infinity, and I was thinking, “this is very beautiful, and I’ll never be back to it again, but it will pass, just as I will pass, and the whole planet will pass.” And at that point I had a vision of this earth, this burnt out teeny-tiny micro-chip of charcoal floating in dark, endless space, and I knew, we all know, that will be a reality one day. And I think that this impulse towards suicide, you know my mother committed suicide, and I think that people that are perfectionists kill themselves often. The impulse is to say “Well, if it’s all going to end – by that I mean all. There may be other planets, and God forbid, we may have to go migrate to them or what have you. But if it’s all going to end, and Earth will be a cold piece of burnt out ice, then why wait, let’s get to it now.” And I think that that’s the self-destructive force in humans. It’s that they want everything. And if they can’t have it, they say, like a child – a terrific child thing – “Well, let’s shit on it now” while we’re alive. And we’re living very selfishly as a collective and I think that is an impulse that is so deep in people because, again, fear of death is so large they can’t be generous to their children, and try to make the place better, for their children. They’re selfish parents. All of us are selfish parents, with the earth. And we’re just pigs, on that level. And that’s the brutal truth of it. And I think a lot of it comes out of the knowledge that this isn’t permanent, so there’s no respect for permanence. There’s a terrific need to get it over with. I saw it in my mother. I think that she just had to get to Christ. He wasn’t here. So let me kill myself and see if there’s a heaven.
Orlo  It’s strange. Orlo is incorporated and licensed by the government to pursue a mission. We’re engaged in an act of trying to frame an aesthetic for the world.
Spalding Gray  You know, just listening to you talk, I feel that I am extremely self-obsessed, and, you know, very solipsistic. Or I’m older, I don’t know. I don’t think in terms of the world until I’m out in it. And in Malaysia, I was really bugged by their lack of concept of any recycling, and environmental… whenever someone threw a plastic bottle, a dump would develop. I was in a car with a very politically correct lady from San Francisco, a friend, and a guy just opened the window and threw the bottle out and she started yelling at him, and he smiled that big Malaysian smile and he had no idea what. And then the film began putting out flyers, saying, you know, “we want to clean up our stuff, and pack it out afterwards.” They didn’t comprehend it. So then I began looking at that and thinking, “This is really heavy,” and that’s as far as I went. I didn’t. Every time they threw a plastic bottle in the river, I didn’t lecture to them. I just wrote it off right away by saying “It’s their country this is their choice.” And I tend to be very passive and observant. And then I tell the story, but I don’t – whether or not that initiates change in the world – I don’t know. I think that being a father is going to make me much more aware of a larger issue, because I will begin to see my son encountering, I will have that distance, I will see him going through it at a younger age, because there was no Coppertone Suntan Lotion in 1952 that I was aware of. Because there was no need to protect yourself from the sun in the same way. Everything is changed. (pause) And it didn’t rain today.


Special thanks to assistant editor Mimi Price for preparing this Web reprint.