Saturday, April 2, 2011


Wallace Shawn (2009, Haymarket Books)

Wallace Shawn describes himself as divided; the table of contents of his volume of essays seems to confirm it. Under “Part One: Reality,” we find such titles as “After the Destruction of the World Trade Center,” “The Invasion of Iraq is Moments Away,” and “Up to Our Necks in War, ” a not-quite-unrelievedly grim portrait of the blindness of American exceptionalism. “Part Two, Dream World” takes up Shawn’s career as a playwright, and his experiences of theater and poetry.

On the face of it, the political essays from the Reality side have more bite, but they turn out to be deeply and usefully informed by Shawn’s theatrical experience. His awareness of how many other people he could be, given the right lines to say, and how many characters and characteristics his subconscious can disgorge, has led him, he says, “to a certain skepticism, a certain detachment, when people in my vicinity are reviling the evil and alien Other, because I feel that very easily I could become that Other, and so could the reviler.”

So you rather have to pity Shawn his awareness, in 2003, of the inexorable preparations for making war on Iraq, on both the military and propaganda fronts. He knows well that “the boys are going to be fighting this war with money from my taxes, and they’re going to bring me back the prize--my own life. Yes, I’m involved, to put it mildly.” When he calls out “the obvious truth that Bush and his colleagues are exhilarated and thrilled by the thought of war,” he’s not saying that those men are uniquely blood-thirsty by nature: any of us is capable of violence and cruelty, if conditions are right. But he can’t help seeing that those who brought that war about were possessed by an alarming sense of purpose and righteousness, which made it seem downright impolite to talk about all the lives that would be wrecked by war.

Shawn is compelled to talk about the people in the world whose lives are made harder by our lives being made easier, though as he says, he went through the first forty years of his comfortable, liberal life without that awareness. “When one hasn’t noticed that it’s one’s own boot that’s standing on the suffering person’s neck, one can be calmly sympathetic to the suffering person and hope that over time things will work out well for them.”

The path he hews for himself out of this ambivalent position is the hope that, through art, some forces besides power and aggression are at work in the world. “Beauty really is more enjoyable than power. A poem really is more enjoyable than an empire, because a poem doesn’t hate you. The defense of privilege, the center of our lives for such a long time, is grim, exhausting. We’re exhausted from holding on to things, exhausted from trying not to see those unobtrusive people we’re kicking away, whose suffering is actually unbearable to us.”

Shawn presents, as essays, interviews with the poet Mark Strand and the political philosopher Noam Chomsky. In a way, this marks the extreme of his divided nature, but it may also be the way that nature comes together. “Somehow poetry and the search for a more just order on earth are not contradictory, and rational thought and dreams are not contradictory, and there may be something necessary, as well as ridiculous, in the odd activity of racing back and forth on the bridge between reality and the world of dreams.”

Serious thinking, good writing. Recommended.

April 2011 email edition

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