Wallace Shawn – you know, Wallace Shawn, man of wit and letters, agreeable suppers with theatre directors, and potentially poisoned cups of mead, has some things to say about life. Haymarket Books have gathered his elegant essays in a book (remarkably enough it’s titled ‘Essays‘) which turns out to be one of the wisest and most pleasurable I’ve read in a while. He riffs on topics as varied and inextricably connected as the relationship between artists and the corporations who fund so many of us, the dependability of sex and our inability to talk about it, and what he considers the detachment from morality that occurs when you stop noticing the connection between imperialism and you. You can hear his inimitable voice as you read, and, for myself at least, might rather wish you were discussing this with him in a cafe, just like he does with Michael Moore in ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’.
The most striking thing about Shawn’s writing is how seriously he takes the artist’s vocation to re-humanise the world. He knows that he is complicit in oppression, simply because the global structure deems it so; and he knows that by art and kindness he can up-end the scales of history. It’s a rich and challenging experience to read him, because he goes beyond the typical blame-everybody else-my-view-of-the-world-is-just-fine-thank-you-very-much rhetoric that tends to dominate these days. He wants to write about life in a way that allows for the possibility of change on his own part, not just those he’s angry with. I’m still reading this super little book, but for now, here’s some wisdom from Wallace, that I’d like to let speak for itself:
From the Introduction: ‘My congenital inability to take the concept of 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 alien Other, because I feel that very easily I could become that Other, and so could the reviler.’
On Patriotism:’For people who are already in love with themselves, who worship themselves, who consider themselves more important than others, more self-esteem is not needed. Self-knowledge would be considerably more helpful.’
On Morality: ‘Everyone knows that … goodness exists, that it can grow, or it can die, and there’s something particularly disingenuous about extricating oneself from the human struggle with the whispered excuse that it’s already over.’
More from Mr Shawn here:
*Image above from Cinema Strikes Back