How Odysseus Created Himself and Storyteller Spalding Gray
Epic tradition, in its self-assumed magnitude, demands not only a grandiose tale, but also a storyteller of equally epic proportions—sometimes, however, it’s really just the storyteller, of common breed, demanding an epic significance of his world. In The Odyssey, Homer introduces Odysseus not only as the fundamental epic hero, but also as the autobiographical storyteller, spreading the word of his grandeur to form his legendary reputation throughout the Greek world. In a sense, Odysseus, who, in the more communal and objective poem, The Iliad, was just another face in the fight, creates himself throughout The Odyssey, tossed from place to place by the gods, only to later tell about it. Often greeted with the words, “Tell us your story,” Odysseus, more like a traveling bard than an epic hero, talks himself home, much to the delight of his hosts, who oftentimes beg him to continue into the night. Shaped by Homer, modern citizens still savor the exchange of stories, not only in casual conversation, but in entertainment as well. The self-obsessed bard-hero Odysseus finds his perfect epic echo in the founder of the genre of autobiographical monologue, Spalding Gray. Rooted in an oral tradition, as the ancients, Gray, a nobody from Barrington, Rhode Island, tells his stories to captivated audiences across the country with the same near-fatal adventures, strange encounters, sexual exploits, portentous signs, and self-glorification laid out 30,000 years before him. Like Odysseus, Gray is literally a self-made hero, who establishes that heroism while seated behind his stage desk, revealing his experiences to anxious listeners. Comparing Gray and Odysseus, in all their eccentric similarities, a reader sees two storytellers, picked from the crowd to lead epic lives, traveling across space and time to creating the genre of epic monologue. Given the position of spotlight, each man, standing in for thousands like him, lives to tell and tells to know, bridging fact and fiction by assuming the alter ego of storyteller.
In worlds collapsing around them, the epic heroes must constantly retell all they’ve accomplished, imposing a form on the past in order to reassure themselves of the future. Spalding Gray, borrowing from Wallace Stevens, calls it his “rage for order” in a life plagued by thoughts of suicide, deteriorating health, and the perpetual plaguing stream of memories and anxieties eventually expelled through monologues. Odysseus finds himself in an equally uncertain position in his attempt to return to a changed homeland, aware of the trouble that awaits him and unable to reach the end of his story. The gods mock Odysseus’ hope for a direct voyage from Troy to Ithaca, and, in delaying his journey, leave him with only the ideal of home, and stories of triumphant episodes along the way. However, in the oration of these isolated victories, Odysseus expects, through synechdoche, a successful journey home. The epic form allows the storyteller adrift to organize the scattered, prosaic events of his past into a more meaningful meter with which to approach the uncertain future.
The form itself, referred to by James Leverett as the “epic monologue,” remains strikingly similar across time and culture. With titles like Swimming to Cambodia and Impossible Vacation, Gray’s stories follow closely in Homer’s wayfaring footsteps, creating a hero driven across countries by a self-seeking wanderlust. Like Odysseus’ circular journey home, Spalding Gray’s global travels lead only to into himself. In search of what he calls “the Perfect Moment,” Gray finds himself in Thailand, Ireland, Amsterdam, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and, oftentimes, in his own memories. Gray’s Perfect Moment is the ideal that drives him forward, or rather back—as potent as Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. As circuitously circular as The Odyssey, Gray’s novel Impossible Vacation begins and ends with the same imagery of riding in a ‘38 Ford beach wagon driving out to the sea, though the second time it appears, Gray has returned home after they journey; he has had a Perfect Moment. He describes finding it while swimming in the Indian Ocean: “Suddenly, there was no time and there was no fear… There were no longer any outlines. It was just one big ocean. My body had blended with the ocean.” The collapse of ego boundaries between Spalding (the self) and the vast sea around him (the other) is central to epic tradition, as in The Iliad, which explores the whole community from which the singular Odysseus springs, one man standing for many. Odysseus, too, identifies himself as part of the whole while in disguise: “Nobody—that’s my name. Nobody” (223). They are, however, accompanied by a complimentary sense of self-importance bordering on hubris. Both men consider themselves as formidable as their stories, acting out the myth of their cursed lives, personally disfavored by the gods. Both Odysseus and Gray were born into disfavored lives: the Son of Pain and the son of Margaret Gray, who committed suicide at 52, they are left to fulfill their heritage, to come into their names. Though Gray kills no Cyclopes, he treats himself as an epic hero nonetheless, grappling with an eye surgery with equally wild abandon.
Though these epic autobiographical monologues are told in first person, revealing pains and hope to listeners, the exact relationship between the storyteller and his true identity remains nuanced, even dual, as the storyteller-personality, in lies and exaggerations, obliquely reveals the man behind the teller. In his monologue It’s a Slippery Slope, Gray pinpoints this confusion of identity: “They’ve seen my show last night, they’ve seen Gray’s Anatomy, I know it, I can tell by the way they’re smiling, like they think they know me.” As the listening audience can never distinguish man from teller, they must assume the man is his story. However, the dual persona of the storyteller cannot be discovered in just one sitting. Odysseus, for example, tells multiple “autobiographical” tales, most of which are complete fiction (as some of Gray’s work tends to be as well). However, it is oftentimes only in these fictional accounts that the tellers reveal themselves most. In Odysseus’ narration to Eumaeus the swineherd, his fictional character admits aspects of his personality that Odysseus would claim. In disguise, he states, “I had no love for working the land, the chores of households either, the labor that raises crops of shining children. No, it was always oarswept ships that thrilled my heart, and wars…” (308). In character, Odysseus is free to express his doubts at being home again to raise the child he’s never known and return to domestic life, void of the adventure he so easily (and somewhat enjoyably) bore his many years from home. He refers to this need for adventure later in the story: “No more than a month I stayed at home, taking joy in my children, loyal wife and lovely plunder. But a spirit in me urged, ‘Set sail for Egypt—’” (309). Odysseus foresees his own disenchantment with the selfsame Ithaca that was so often conjured up as ideal in his seafaring dreams. At sea his mind goes to Ithaca, at Ithaca his dreams, once again, set sail. Later, Odysseus points to his own skills of deceit, as he recounts how he saved himself by “[running] right into the path of the king’s chariot, and [hugging] and [kissing] his knees,” (310) a dramatic gesture requiring the best acting skills to have been taken pity on. Though disguised in the alter ego of storyteller, the man is revealed to the utmost degree.
Once the teller becomes aware of the powers of manipulation and creation associated with the storyteller, he begins to revel in the position, living solely to tell his story. “When I’m doing my monologue, I’m in my element,” Spalding Gray says in an interview. “I tell my edited life story with…more energy than the way I live my life.” Likewise, some of the most exciting scenes, identifiably Odyssean are found in his monologue to the Phaecians, one of which includes the tale of Circe’s spell. When considering the episode, one would think his first priority upon entering her halls would be to rescue his men turned swine, however, with little persuasion he first “[mounts] Circe’s gorgeous bed” as if only to tell about it. Spalding Gray asks the question early in his career, “I never wonder whether, if a tree falls in the forest, will anyone hear it. Rather, who will tell about it?” Extending Gray’s metaphor, one may come to the startling conclusion that if no one tells the story, the events may as well have not even occurred. Had Odysseus not told of Circe, his exploit would have been meaningless, lost in an untold history. In choosing what to tell and doing what he wants to be told, the storyteller truly creates his own path through history, giving a more literal meaning to the bards’ creating “paths of song” (207).
Despite all the failings of truth in both story and teller, storytelling never loses its potency, extending beyond the heroes to everyone they encounter, creating a constant exchange of stories across space and time. Both Gray and Odysseus are traveling storytellers, planting the seeds of their tales wherever they go, while simultaneously gathering stories from others and promoting the form of the autobiographical monologue. This monologue, however, stands not for one, but for the masses. Relevance to their time and identification with their culture distinguish the orators of the nobodies. Called “the one indispensable witness to our times,” Gray equates himself with the chroniclers of ancient Rome, using his story to comment on society and connect with those like him. Similarly, Odysseus stands for not only the homeward bound war hero, but also acts as a vessel for numerous other men’s stories, brought back with him from the underworld. This personal exchange of stories takes precedence in the poem, acting as both warnings and guides. Adamemnon warns Odysseus, “Never reveal the whole truth, whatever you may know; just tell…a part of it, be sure to hide the rest” (263), encouraging Odysseus to exercise his rights as a storyteller. One can admire this exchange in perhaps the most tender scene of The Odyssey, when Penelope and Odysseus finally lie down to “[revel] in each other’s stories,” (465) as the narrator stands between the reader and the telling, allowing him to marvel at the beautiful the act of storytelling from a distance, undisturbed by quotations. Just as the souls of the dead are given power to speak upon approaching Odysseus and the sacrificial blood, the same metonymic transfer of narrative occurs with a closeness to Gray, who runs autobiographical storytelling workshops across the country, tapping each soul that approaches, giving voice to the nobodies.
Though told in a prescribed form, either in dactylic hexameter or from behind a desk and microphone, Odysseus’ and Gray’s narratives are just dramatizations of everyday life: the telling of stories, oftentimes embellished, to place oneself in psychological space and cultural time, becoming part of a self-created reality verified by an audience of friends. But in the case of our own epic monologues, one must question to what extent magical realism can leave its realm of fiction to rear its head in fact. One may think dismiss all signs of mythic value, as Eurymachus, believing that, though “[f]locks of birds go fluttering under the sun’s rays, not all are fraught with meaning” (99). For Gray, however, like Odysseus, portents and prophecies rule one’s life, and an event is never just a coincidence, but a sign. Though it may seem unfit to compare Gray with Odysseus, as they belong to separate worlds of fact and fiction, but through monologue, Gray bridged the two, consciously placing himself into the same realm as the epic hero. “Life made a theme of itself and finally transformed itself into a work of fiction,” he writes. Having led a life of epic standards, Gray was not just another depressive to disappear into the icy New York Harbor, but a man drawn back to the water, a symbol from his youth, in an attempt to make sense of a profoundly dense world. Gray’s personal myth, with the power of Poseidon, had become inseparable from his biography, fact and fiction merged, and he stepped into the world of his predecessors, men of fiction, whose lives were determined not by the gods, but by the storytellers themselves.