Swimming Against The Narrative

Spalding Grey
The sun, the sea, the food, the daily massages. The long lazy days of reading on the beach. And, it was cheap. Very cheap. In those days, the Aussie dollar stretched a long, long way in Bali. I am as guilty as anyone. In 2001, when I returned to Bali for the first time in 15 years, two days after 9/11, at least once a day, I heard myself saying: “You should have seen this place in 1986; it was paradise.”
My first trip to South East Asia. Bali. I was there with my ex-wife, an actress in a popular TV soapy, and Dave, a friend who had recently become the world’s highest-winning television quiz show champ. We didn’t venture far. It was enough to lie on the beach at Legian, having our every whim catered for – and read. With absolutely nothing to do, my urban-wracked brain calmed, allowing a delightfully refreshed ability to concentrate. I was reading books at an astonishing rate – one or two a day. I can’t recall any of them now, except for one: Swimming to Cambodia by Spalding Gray.
Swimming to Cambodia is not a work of fiction. Rather it is an edited transcript of a theatre piece performed by Spalding Gray, an actor, playwright, screenwriter, and monologist. And, it’s as a monologist that he is best known, sitting at a table in front of the audience with nothing but a glass of water, a notebook, and a mic. Minimalist theatre. Gray’s monologue Swimming to Cambodia relates the story of his involvement as an actor in the film, The Killing Fields, director Roland Joffe’s film about the Khmer Rouge and the experiences of three journalists: Cambodian Dith Pran, New York Times correspondent, Sydney Schanberg, and British journalist Jon Swain. Gray plays a small role in the film as the assistant to the American ambassador to Cambodia.
During his Swimming to Cambodia monologue, Gray gives a potted history of the United States’ ‘secret’ war against Cambodia and subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge. It goes something like this: Cambodia allows the Ho Chi Minh trail to enter eastern Cambodia along it border with Vietnam; the US begins a secret (done without the approval of the American congress) five year “carpet” bombing campaign against Cambodia; it is estimated that 25% of the enemy is killed (interestingly, the US military’s own psychological warfare unit during that war determined that killing only 10% of an enemies forces can result in “profound psychological damage”); the Khmer Rouge, hiding out in the jungles of northern Cambodia, links up with and is trained by the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao; eventually the US loses the war and leaves Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge comes under the leadership of Pol Pot, who while receiving a education in France read Marx and became equally enamored with back-to-the-land Rousseau-ism and peasant-as-proletariat Maoism; and on 17 April 1975, the bombed-to-madness child-soldiers that made up the Khmer Rouge (the vast majority of the Khmer Rouge soldiers were boys and girls under 18 years old) enters Phnom Penh and begins a hellish reign of terror which lasts 4 years and kills – according to the most commonly accepted estimates – 1.5 million people out of a population of 7.1 million, or one in five Cambodians.
None of this left much of an impression on me as I lay on that beach in Bali in 1986. I like to think that it is because the numbers were too staggering, the human-toll too horrible to contemplate. But, the truth is that I was far more interested in Spalding Gray the actor and artist, the notion of the monologue as a form of theatre, and if I, as actor recently out of drama school and getting absolutely zero work, might be able to conjure up something similar. I wasn’t alone. By the end of the 80s, with Spalding Gray’s continuing output, his zeitgeist popularity, and the film of Swimming to Cambodia (directed by Jonathan Demme) hitting the art-houses, plenty of other out-of-work actors had the same idea. By 1989, Sydney theatre seemed to be awash with confessional Spalding-Gray-types with Aussie accents. I was driving a taxi.
I have now visited the “Killing Fields” (known in Cambodian as Choeung Ek ) over 15 times. I seen the 5,000 plus human skulls that lie behind glass in the memorial Buddhist stupa – many, many times. I have wandered the “fields” – many, many times; where one may very easily dislodge some half-buried tattered and faded cloth, a human tooth, or a bone fragment with a misplaced foot. Just as many times, I have been to S-21 (known in Cambodian as Tuol Sleng), the former high-school in downtown Phnom Penh which served during the period of the Khmer Rouge as a prison and place of torture. Nearly 17,000 people are known to have entered Tuol Sleng; of these only twelve are known to have survived.
The reason that I have visited both places so often is that between 2005 – 2009, I led study tours down the Mekong River from Chiang Kong to Luang Prabang, flying to Siam Reap (Angkor Wat), then to Phnom Penh – followed by a speedboat into the Mekong Delta and finally a bus to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). After dinner each night the group would listen to a lecture from a leading South East Asian expert or academic. One of the lecturers who had the deepest effect on me was Dr. Leakthina Chan-Pech Ollier, a Cambodian academic who left her country of birth at the age of ten, just before the arrival of the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh. Dr. Thina had lived in the United States from that age, eventually receiving a PhD in French literature from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She had returned to Cambodia and was now living in Phnom Penh. I had the good fortune to hear her talk many times.
Dr. Thina was extraordinarily good speaker (full of fascinating digressions as many of the best lecturers are); her lectures, however, were often met with a degree of disapproval from the group. The reason for this was that Dr. Thina had been rigorously researching the commonly accepted numbers of deaths during the Khmer Rouge period and had concluded that the number from direct killing (e.g. torture and murder) was far less than was the commonly accepted number, and that the number of indirect deaths from, what might be called “mis-adventure” (e.g. starvation and disease), was much higher. What I found most interesting about this was how strongly the group (and, as I would later find out, many other academics and writers on Cambodia) reacted. It was obvious that there was much invested in this particular narrative, whether or not it might be correct. It was my understand also that Dr. Thina’s focus was not so much on the preciseness of those terrible numbers, but rather on the power of the narrative itself. Cambodia was (and still is) caught between two dominant narratives: that of its ancient greatness during the period of the Angkor empire, and that of the modern-day horror of the Khmer Rouge. Without a loosening of these dominant narratives, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for Cambodia to construct fresh narratives and new national identities. Dr. Thina’s approach was Foucault-ian, an attempt to find a way in which to locate the ruptures in these narratives, and thus hopefully exceed their constraints. The point to be made was not quantitative, but emancipatory.
Sometime in 2009, returning from a tour, I got a phone call from the head office in the US: Could I ask Dr. Thina to “tone it down a bit”? No. I couldn’t. Thus my career in educational tourism came to a close. Five years earlier, I was shocked to hear of Spalding Gray’s suicide. He had thrown himself from the Staten Island Ferry after a long bout of depression brought on from the injuries that he has sustained in a car accident in Ireland in 2001. Haing S. Ngor, who, after surviving the horrors of the Khmer Rouge had won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Dith Pran in The Killing Fields, was murdered in 1996 by a Los Angeles street-gang when he refused to surrender the gold locket which held a picture of his wife – a picture that he had torn from her identity card after she was taken away never to be seen again, and which he kept hidden – at great personal risk – during the years of his forced labour in a Khmer Rouge work camp.
Very worthwhile is director Steven Soderbergh’s (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Che, Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen) documentary on the life and work of Spalding Gray; And Everything Is Going Fine.


Heidegger: "The Nothing Nothings"

For some people Martin Heidegger is the greatest philosopher of the twentieth-century. For many others he nothing but a double-talking mystifier who philosophizes in a meaningless language of his own making. Once in a philosophy tutorial I heard a frustrated student brush off Heidegger by quoting an oft-quoted phrase of Heidegger’s from the set reading: “the nothing nothings.” This seemingly nonsensical phrase was enough for the student to decide that she didn’t need to bother herself with any further reading of Herr Heidegger.
One can understand the student’s frustration, and why many other thinkers have ‘brushed off’ Heidegger in a similar manner. What I would like to do in this post is to briefly examine some of Heidegger’s ideas, especially his central inquiry into the nature of being, and, perhaps, bring to light just what he might have meant by the phrase that so frustrated that student, “the nothing nothings.”
As a teenager Heidegger had read Franz Brentano’s On the Several Senses of Being in Aristotle (didn’t we all?). This formulated within him a burning question which was to be central to his entire intellectual life. The question that obsessed Heidegger, and which led him in 1927 to publish his masterwork, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) was: the question of being.
The question of being – in other words, what exists, how do we know that it exists, and what do we mean when we say something exists – is the central question of that branch of philosophy called ontology. This fundamental question was first posed in Western philosophy by the ancient Greeks. Heidegger, however, felt that since Plato the inquiry into being had taken a major theoretical wrong-turn by thinking of being as a property or essence that was continually present in things.
In many of the thinkers that Heidegger would later influence, particularly Jacques Derrida, there is much theorizing about the metaphysics of presence – which simply means to posit being as a substance – and how to philosophically overcome it. In Derrida’s case, he goes about trying to overcome the metaphysics of presence by deconstructing metaphysics. He does this by pointing out the conceptualizing of being as a stable substance that provides the (faulty) logical coherence of any metaphysical system. Derrida’s deconstruction is a latter development of Heidegger’s theory that to even ask the question of being we needed to understand being, not as substance, but as “the space in which things appear and become meaningful to us.” In other words, being is an absence rather than a presence.
Now, we should be able to take a stab at what the phrase, the nothing nothings, means. If being, as understood by Heidegger, is no-thing – in fact, the no-thing-ness absolutely necessary for things to appear – then it is the very capability of nothing (noun) to nothing (verb) that is the primal allowing by which any thing at all can appear. In other words, space/absence (Being) is absolutely necessary for the appearance of things (beings).
You might look at it this way: if one was to describe the room that they are sitting in they would usually begin by describing all the things that occupy the room, and they might feel that was the best way to get a fairly accurate description of the room. We would not, in most cases, describe, or even mention the space between each thing, nor the space within the room. And yet, most of the room is space. Similarly, how often are we aware of the silence out of which all sound arises and falls? Or, of silence as pure potentiality out of which it possible for any sound to arise, anything from a Mozart symphony to the sound of a car crash. If we can imagine silence as a kind of internal space, then it is possible also to understand more subtle objects, such as feelings, sensations, and thoughts, as also arising and falling within space, our own subjective space of silent being-ness; and that internal space is just as necessary for the appearance of internal objects as external space is necessary for the appearance of external objects.
Many thinkers have drawn comparisons between Heidegger’s thought and various Eastern philosophical systems, particularly Buddhism and Taoism. Some of the similarities can be striking – and also helpful. Thus, I would like to draw such a comparison here. In the ancient Tibetan Buddhist philosophy of Dzogchen, one’s attention is also directed to these two apparent spaces, while at the same time inquiring: In what way are these two spaces different?, Are they different?; Where does the internal space stop and the external space begin?; and, Could the two spaces really be the same space (or absence) with the difference merely being a creation of thought? A brief contemplation of these questions can often lead us to, at least, an intuition of no-thing as the fundamental ground of all things. But, perhaps, more importantly, it can lead us to an inquiry into the nature of our own being, our selves, and thus to intuit the ground of our own subjectivity, not as substance (e.g. soul, essence, the real me, etc) but as an absence within which all phenomena arises, sustains for awhile, and ultimately disappears. Thus, Heidegger coins the term Dasein, to point to our own human subjectivity as not substantive, but rather as “the clearing for beings.”
So, yes indeed, the nothing nothings – otherwise, Heidegger might say, how else could the world of things appear. But, even more profoundly, the later Heidegger will point to the absence which allows the world as our very selves, our dasein. In other words, we are not in the world, the world is in us.