on Essays by Wallace Shawn (Haymarket Books)

Inconceivable! Wallace Shawn has collected five pieces he wrote for The Nation, interviews with Noam Chomsky and Mark Strand, a speech, and other miscellanea into a book called Essays. His prose may often rest on a banality (“… we like to feel superior to others. But our problem is that we’re not superior”) but his inner turmoil over such bland ideas, expressed with a post-adolescent intensity, is disarming. Everything shocks him. He writes in the introduction:

ShawnColor.jpg“My congenital inability to take the concept of the inviolable ‘self’ seriously – my lack of certainty about who I am, where I am, and what my ‘characteristics’ are – has led me to a certain skepticism, a certain detachment, when people in my vicinity are reviling the evil and the alien Other, because I feel that very easily I could become that Other, and so could be the reviler.”

Shawn alternates between the roles of reviler and reviled. In “Myself and How I Got Into the Theater” he speaks bitterly about his own pedigree. “The unspoken (in the case of my parents, certainly) un-thought belief of the liberal privileged group was that one was supposed to be ready to rob and murder in order to secure one’s appropriate portion, but as one rode off from the conquest one was always to remember to toss back to the victims a small offering, a small scrap torn off from what one had just taken.”

ShawnCover.jpgThus, in "The Invasion of Iraq Is Moments Away" (2003), he suspects “the love of killing is inside each one of us, and we can never be sure that it won’t come out.” Unequal to the task of untangling the moral fibers of his own noose, he conflates the aims of Osama bin Laden, the Sandinista movement, and the African National Congress, and then writes in “Up To Our Necks in War” (2004), “And to denounce all of those whose battle for change has not excluded violent methods may be to condemn most people on earth to inevitable suffocation … I can’t bring myself to condemn Nelson Mandela and everyone else whose principled struggle for justice fell short of the nonviolent ideal.”

Shawn’s standard issue agonies of conscience echo those of his “privileged group” – and evoke Robert Frost’s definition of a liberal as “someone who can’t take his own side in a quarrel.” But while thinking about Hitler in “Morality” (1985), he asks a more resonant question: “How could a person break his attachment to morality without noticing it, without feeling it, without remembering it?” And further, “Morality, if it survived, could protect us from horror, but very little protects morality.”
Essays is divided into two sections, “Reality” and “Dream-World” or the life of the artist. In the latter, Shawn’s temperament is contrasted with that of his father, William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker from 1952 to 1987, described as a “gentle despot” in his New York Times obituary. While the father was known for his “high standards,” the son “never really comprehended the whole concept of measuring in the first place … I couldn’t simply dismiss the sorts of judgments my father passed. On the other hand, I honestly couldn’t face being subjected to them.” So the theatre became his destination, since “no one had decided what the plays were for”:

“And that felt rather agreeable to me, because it meant that no one in theatre would be held to account; if a person wrote a play, as opposed to a poem, for example, there was not going to be any way to prove, or even plausibly to argue, that what he wrote was not good, that what he wrote was in fact a ‘mistake.’ It was a field in which one could be left alone, and I leapt into it.”

Ever conflicted, Shawn even rejected art for a time due to its “comfortable, cozy, and privileged life.” He says, “Its immorality became intolerable to me, and I turned against it, though I failed to find, as I looked around me, anything else that I wanted to do.” To read Essays is to experience a certain pleasure in watching a person writhe. Oh no! I’m behaving like Hitler! Or like William Shawn.

In his Paris Review interview with Mark Strand (1998), Shawn finds a fellow traveler in the dream-world – and perhaps an adjustment to his impression that poems, unlike plays, are subject to strict standards of quality. The piece is filled with quotable Strand. Puzzled by audiences that look for “meaning” in his plays, Shawn now plays the straight man to the poet:

I like to be mystified. Because it’s really that place which is unreachable, or mysterious, at which the poem becomes ours, finally, becomes the possession of the reader … so that something beyond his understanding, or beyond his experience, or something that doesn’t quite match up with his experience, becomes more and more his. He comes into possession of a mystery, you know – which is something that we don’t allow ourselves in our lives.

We don’t?”

ShawnColor2.jpgBack to “reality”: In the 1994 Chomsky interview, Shawn prods his subject to rail against a range of topics. Recently, the Alan Greenspan-ish belief in unregulated markets has taken some hits. But Chomsky asserts that economic growth exists solely “because we have a dynamic state sector … Just about everything in the new economy comes out of state initiatives.” Just about everything? And then there’s this loony statement: “Czeslaw Milosz was a courageous, good person. And when he died there were huge stories. But he and his associates faced nothing in Eastern Europe like what intellectuals faced in our domains.” Shawn laps it up, swelling with a victim’s pride.

Shawn experiences his oscillating skepticism about art as a “pattern unpredictable and indecipherable to me.” His confusion about all things human, played out in familiar, aggravating contradictions, makes this book work as proof of the exceptional torments of unexceptional people, namely us.

[Published September 1, 2009. 164 pages, $18.95 hardcover]

Shawn's Essays

Ron, I saw this book at Labyrinth, took a quick scan, and decided no, not right now. But I'll pick up a copy tomorrow. Hard not to appreciate Shawn's take on things. I did read a few pages of the Strand interview and you're right, it's essential Strand. Wish Shawn would do more of that sort of thing. Thanks for the review. TF