Essays [NOOK Book]

Overview

"Full of what you might call conversation starters: tricky propositions about morality... politics, privilege, runaway nationalist fantasies, collective guilt, and art as a force for change (or not)...It's a treat to hear him speak his curious mind."-O Magazine


In these beautiful essays, Wallace Shawn takes us on a revelatory journey in which the personal and political ...

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Essays

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Overview

"Full of what you might call conversation starters: tricky propositions about morality... politics, privilege, runaway nationalist fantasies, collective guilt, and art as a force for change (or not)...It's a treat to hear him speak his curious mind."-O Magazine


In these beautiful essays, Wallace Shawn takes us on a revelatory journey in which the personal and political become one.


Whether writing about the genesis of his plays, such as Aunt Dan and Lemon; discussing how the privileged world of arts and letters takes for granted the work of the "unobtrusives," the people who serve our food and deliver our mail; or describing his upbringing in the sheltered world of Manhattan's cultural elite, Shawn reveals a unique ability to step back from the appearance of things to explore their deeper social meanings. He grasps contradictions, even when unpleasant, and challenges us to look, as he does, at our own behavior in a more honest light. He also finds the pathos in the political and personal challenges of everyday life.


With a sharp wit, remarkable attention to detail, and the same acumen as a writer of prose as he is a playwright, Shawn invites us to look at the world with new eyes, the better to understand-and change it.


Praise for Wallace Shawn and Essays:


"Lovely, hilarious and seriously thought provoking, I enjoyed it tremendously."-Toni Morrison


"Wallace Shawn writes in a style that is deceptively simple, profoundly thoughtful, fiercely honest. His vocabulary is pungent, his wit delightful, his ideas provocative."-Howard Zinn, author, A People's History of the United States



"Wally Shawn's essays are both powerful and riveting. How rare to encounter someone willing to question the assumptions of class and the disparity of wealth that grows wider every year in this country. To have such a gentle and incisive soul willing to say what others may be afraid to is considerably refreshing."-Michael Moore, film-maker


Shawn's language, his unmistakable, original voice, felicitous, is unadorned, elegant, immediate, true. He's also a brilliant interviewer, as everyone who's seen My Dinner With Andre (which is just about everyone) knows. And, of course, he's very funny."-Tony Kushner, playwright, Angels in America


"Wallace Shawn is a bracing antidote to the op-ed dreariness of political and artistic journalism in the West. He takes you back to the days when intellectuals had the wit and concentration to formulate great questions - and to make the reader want to answer them."-David Hare, playwright


Wallace Shawn
Wallace Shawn is an Obie Award-winning playwright and a noted stage and screen actor (Star Trek, Gossip Girl, The Princess Bride, Toy Story). His plays The Designated Mourner and Marie and Bruce have recently been produced as films. He is co-author of the movie My Dinner with Andre and author of the plays The Fever, The Designated Mourner, Aunt Dan and Lemon, and Grasses of a Thousand Colours.

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Editorial Reviews

Sarah Halzack
Essays is refreshingly self-aware and self-deprecating, with Shawn depicting himself as an undeserving everyman with unusually good luck. Often the result is very funny…his observations about class and culture are searing—a reminder of the our complacency about the gaps between rich and poor, free and oppressed.
—The Washington Post
Kirkus Reviews
Personal and political essays from actor and playwright Shawn (Grasses of a Thousand Colors, 2009, etc.). The author delivers a curious collection of fraught essays addressing, in the main, the implications of living a privileged, comfortable life in a world largely populated by the desperate, hopeless and exploited. A self-described child of privilege-his father was a venerable editor of the New Yorker-Shawn ponders his culpability in a system designed to keep the elite fat and happy while millions starve, concluding that the enjoyment of those privileges can only be seen as monstrous. Readers hoping for a solution to this inequity should look elsewhere. Shawn is content to lament the dire state of the world from the vantage of his cozy existence in the world of arts and letters, scolding himself, and his audience, for his participation in such a wicked enterprise as contemporary society. Written in a faux-naive style aiming for a disarming, childish simplicity, Shawn's short essays become repetitive and ultimately numbing. There are, however, interesting and well-observed bits on such far-flung topics as the offensiveness of patriotism, pornography addiction and the plight of waiters in fancy restaurants. Shawn also includes pieces on his life and work in the ivory tower of the artist, including an erudite interview with poet Mark Strand and a look at the creative process behind his celebrated plays, such as Aunt Dan and Lemon, which, with its disquisitions on the relative morality of figures like Adolph Hitler and "ordinary" people, touches on the themes of his politically inclined writings. Shawn is an urbane, lucid prose stylist, but this slim volume fails to satisfy. Perhaps thedynamic volubility and self-absorption of erstwhile dinner companion Andre Gregory would have provided a bracing contrast to the politely despairing nuggets offered here. Well-intentioned and limpidly written, but thin and repetitive-a morsel, not a meal.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608460038
  • Publisher: Haymarket Books
  • Publication date: 9/1/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 186
  • Sales rank: 733,869
  • File size: 161 KB

Meet the Author

Wallace Shawn
Wallace Shawn is an Obie Award-winning playwright and a noted stage and screen actor. His plays The Designated Mourner and The Fever have recently been produced as films, and his translation of Threepenny Opera was recently performed on Broadway. He is co-author of My Dinner with Andre, and the author of The Fever, Aunt Dan and Lemon, among other works.
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Read an Excerpt

ESSAYS


By WALLACE SHAWN

Haymarket Books

Copyright © 2009 Wallace Shawn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60846-002-1


Chapter One

THE QUEST FOR SUPERIORITY 2008

When I was five years old, I had a small room of my own, with a record-player and records and shelves full of books. I listened to music, I thought up different kinds of stories, and I played with paper and crayons and paint.

Now I've grown up, and thank God things have mostly gone on as before-the paper, the stories-it's pretty much the same. I've been allowed to become a professional maker of art, I've become a writer, and I dwell in the mansion of arts and letters.

When I was a child, I didn't know that the pieces of paper I used had been made by anybody. I certainly didn't know that almost everything I touched had been made by people who were poor, people who worked in factories or on farms or places like that. In fact I'd never met anyone who worked in a factory or on a farm. I'd frequently met people who owned factories and farms, because they lived all around us in the huge houses I could see from my window, although I wasn't aware then that the houses were huge because the people who lived in them paid very low salaries to their employees, while paying themselves enormous sums. Our wealthy neighbors were really like the giants in a fantastic tale, giants whowere superior to others because they could spin gold out of human suffering.

Well, it turns out that I still live in the same neighborhood, because that's where the mansion of arts and letters is located. So I still can see giants when I look out my window, and the funny thing is that pretty much all of us in the mansion of arts and letters actually live off the money we get from these giants. Isn't that funny? You know, they buy the tickets to our shows, they buy our books and paintings, they support the universities where we teach, there are gifts and grants-it all comes out of the gold they've spun. And we live with them, we share the streets with them, and we're all protected by the same cops.

But you see, some of the people who don't live in the neighborhood-the ones our neighbors don't pay well, or treat well?-some of those people are out of control, they're so miserable, so desperate, they're out of their minds, they're very threatening, so it turns out we need more than cops. We actually have a large army as well, and a navy and an air force, plus the F.B.I., Coast Guard, Central Intelligence Agency, and marines-oy. It turned out that simply in order to be secure and protect our neighborhood, we needed an empire.

Some of us who live in the mansion of arts and letters are a bit touchy about our relationship to our wealthy neighbors. Bob, for example-he's a painter who lives down the hall from me-he refuses to bow to them when they pass him in the street, but, you know-they buy his paintings just the same. For me, though, it's my relationship with the poor people outside the neighborhood that I sometimes brood about in the middle of the night. It's the fact that so many of them are in agony that's in a way thought-provoking.

One evening last week, a friend and I went to a somewhat inexpensive restaurant, and the waiter who served us was in such a state of agitation or anxiety about God knows what that he didn't even look at us. And so I was thinking about the fact that in more expensive restaurants, the staff is usually trained to focus their attention on the pleasure of the diners, not on their own problems. In fact, the waiters in more expensive restaurants are invited to be friendly, amusing, to make funny remarks about their lives, to let us diners get to know them a little. But in the most expensive restaurants, the really fancy ones, we don't get to know the waiters at all. The waiters in those restaurants don't make funny remarks. They do their work with such discretion that they're barely noticed. And people compliment them by saying that they're unobtrusive.

Actually that's quite a good word for all those people whom we don't know and don't think about much but who serve us and make the things we need and whose lives we actually dominate: "the unobtrusives." And the interesting thing I've noticed is that in those very expensive restaurants, we don't talk with the waiters, but we enjoy their presence enormously. We certainly wouldn't want them to be replaced by robots or by conveyer belts that would carry our food to us while we sat in the dining room completely alone. No, we want them there, these silent waiters, these-"unobtrusives."

It's obviously a characteristic of human beings that we like to feel superior to others. But our problem is that we're not superior. We like the sensation of being served by others and feeling superior to them, but if we're forced to get to know the people who serve us, we quickly see that they're in fact just like us. And then we become uncomfortable-uncomfortable and scared, because if we can see that we're just the same, well, they might too, and if they did, they might become terribly, terribly angry, because why should they be serving us? So that's why we prefer not to talk to waiters.

A king feels the very same way, I'd have to imagine. He doesn't really want to get to know his subjects, but he nonetheless enjoys the fact that he has them. He finds it enjoyable to be told, "Your Majesty, you have ten thousand subjects." And in fact he finds it even more enjoyable to be told, "Your Majesty, you have a million subjects," even though he may never see them. The subjects are in the background of his life. They're in the background of his life, and yet they provide the meaning of his life. Without his subjects, he wouldn't be king.

Some people like to feel superior because once they were made to feel inferior. Others, including myself, were told constantly in their early days that they were superior and now find themselves to be hopelessly addicted. So, if I get into a conversation, for example, with a person who knows nothing about me, I immediately start to experience a sort of horrible tension, as if my head were being squashed, because the person I'm talking to is unaware of my superiority. Well, I have at my disposal an arsenal of indicators of superiority that I can potentially deploy-I can casually allude to certain schools I attended, to my artistic work, to the elegant street on which I grew up-but if, by analogy to some of those Tantric exercises one reads about, I attempt to follow the counterintuitive path of not revealing any of these clues-well, it's simply interesting to observe that I can rarely manage to hold out for as long as ten minutes before forcing my interlocutor to learn the truth about me.

Weirdly, it turns out to be possible for a person to feel superior because someone somehow connected to them has been raised up above others-a friend, an acquaintance, a parent, a child-and the connection can be even vaguer than that. I have to admit, I take a certain pride in Gustav Mahler's symphonies-after all, he was Jewish, and so am I. And Emily Dickinson was born in the United States, just like me. Incidentally, one unmistakable way to know you're superior to someone is to beat them up. And just as I feel rather distinguished if a writer from the United States wins the Nobel Prize, I also feel stronger and more important because my country's army happens to dominate the world. The king doesn't need to meet his subjects in order to enjoy his dominion over them, and I don't need to go to Iraq to know that there are people all over the world, a great number of quiet "unobtrusives," who experience a feeling of stomach-turning terror when they see soldiers wearing the uniform of my country approaching their door in the middle of the night. Now, let's admit that some of the rougher people who seem to thrive in our country, people like George Bush or Dick Cheney, for example, may perhaps take actual pleasure from the thought of our country's soldiers smashing in the door of some modest house in some god forsaken region of the planet, forcing a family to huddle on the floor, administering kicks in the face to anyone they like. Perhaps there may even be a modest clerk in a bank in Kansas or a quiet housewife on a farm in Idaho who feels a bit of enjoyment at a thought like that. But what bothers me more is that although I have nothing but contempt for imperial adventures, I've marched in the streets to demonstrate for peace, and I don't make it a practice to wink or joke about the brutal actions of brutal men, I can't deny that in spite of myself I derive some sense of superiority from being a citizen of a country that can act brutally with impunity and can't be stopped. I feel quite different from the way I know I would feel if I were a citizen of Grenada, Mauritius, or the Tongan Islands.

My feeling of superiority, and the sense of well-being that comes from that, increases with the number of poor people on the planet whose lives are dominated by me or my proxies and whom I nonetheless can completely ignore. I like to be reminded of these poor people, the unobtrusives, and then I like to be reminded of my lack of interest in them. For example, while I eat my breakfast each morning, I absolutely love to read my morning newspaper, because in the first few pages the newspaper tells me how my country treated all the unobtrusives on the day before-deaths, beatings, torture, what have you-and then, as I keep turning the pages, the newspaper reminds me how unimportant the unobtrusives are to me, and it tries to tempt me in its articles on shirts to consider different shirts that I might want to wear, and then it goes on, as I turn the pages, to try to coax me into sampling different forms of cooking, and then to experience different plays or films, different types of vacations ...

It's become second nature to me to use the quiet crushing of the unobtrusives as a sort of almost inaudible background music to my daily life. Like those people who grow bizarrely nervous if they don't have a recording of something or other quietly playing on their sound system at dinnertime, we've become dependent over the course of decades on hearing the faint murmur of cries and groans as we eat, shop, and live.

How will the world change? Believe me, those who are now un obtrusive have their own ideas about how the situation might improve. But in the middle of the night I wonder: Can we in the mansion of arts and letters play a part? Could we reduce the destructiveness of the people we know? Could we possibly use the dreams we create to lure our friends in another direction? Because it's valuable to remember that the feeling of superiority is not the only source of human satisfaction. Imperial dreams are not the only dreams. I've known people, for example, who've derived satisfaction from collecting seashells. And sometimes I think of a woman I knew a long time ago who seemed to be terribly happy, although her life consisted of not much more than getting up each day, playing with the cat, reading a mystery, eating an agreeable sandwich for lunch, then taking a walk in the afternoon. No wealthy giant eating dishes costing hundreds of dollars could ever have enjoyed a meal more than this woman seemed to enjoy her simple sandwiches-so what was her secret? And what about Edgar, who gets such pleasure out of working as a nurse, or Tom, who finds such nourishment teaching children in school? Jane's need for superiority seems fully satisfied if a friend admires one of her drawings. And Edna's overjoyed if she wins at cards. People can make a life, it seems, out of love-out of gardening, out of sex, friendship, the company of animals, the search for enlightenment, the enjoyment of beauty. Wait-isn't that our particular province?

Beauty can be important in a person's life. And people beguiled by the beautiful are less dangerous to others than those obsessed by the thought of supremacy. If an afternoon of reading poetry has given me a feeling of profound well-being, I don't then need to go out into the street and seek satisfaction by strangling prostitutes. Art can be central in a person's life. If the art we create is beautiful enough, will people be so drawn to looking at it that they'll leave behind their quest for power? 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.

In the mansion of arts and letters, we live like children, running and playing up and down the hallways all day and all night. We fill room after room with the things we make. After our deaths, we'll leave behind our poems, drawings, and songs, made for our own pleasure, and we won't know if they'll be allowed to help in the making of a better world.

Chapter Two

AFTER THE DESTRUCTION OF THE WORLD TRADE CENTER NOVEMBER 2001

To: The Foreign Policy Therapist From: The United States of America November 12, 2001

Dear Foreign Policy Therapist,

I don't know what to do. I want to be safe. I want safety. But I have a terrible problem: It all began several weeks ago when I lost several thousand loved ones to a horrible terrorist crime. I feel an overwhelming need to apprehend and punish those who committed this unbearably cruel act, but they designed their crime in such a diabolical fashion that I cannot do so, because they arranged to be killed themselves while committing the crime, and they are now all dead. I feel in my heart that none of these men, however, could possibly have planned this crime themselves and that another man, who is living in a cave in Afghanistan, must surely have done so. At any rate I know that some people he knows knew some of the people who committed the crime and possibly gave them some money. I feel an overwhelming need to kill this man in the cave, but the location of the cave is unknown to me, and so it's impossible to find him. He's been allowed to stay in the cave, however, by the fanatical rulers of the country where the cave is, Afghanistan, so I feel an overwhelming need to kill those rulers. As they've moved from place to place, though, I haven't found them, but I've succeeded in finding and killing many young soldiers who guarded them and shepherds who lived near them. Nonetheless, I do not feel any of the expected "closure," and in fact I'm becoming increasingly depressed and am obsessed with nameless fears. Can you help me?

To: The United States of America From: The Foreign Policy Therapist Dear United States,

In psychological circles, we call your problem "denial." You cannot face your real problem, so you deny that it exists and create instead a different problem that you try to solve. Meanwhile, the real problem, denied and ignored, becomes more and more serious. In your case, your real problem is simply the way that millions and millions of people around the world feel about you.

Who are these people? They share the world with you-one single world, which works as a unified mechanism. These people are the ones for whom the mechanism's current way of working-call it the status quo-offers a life of anguish and servitude. They're well aware that this status quo, which for them is a prison, is for you (or for the privileged among you), on the contrary, so close to a paradise that you will never allow their lives to change. These millions of people are in many cases uneducated-to you they seem unsophisticated-and yet they still somehow know that you have played an enormous role in keeping this status quo in place. And so they know you as the enemy. They feel they have to fight you. Some of them hate you. And some will gladly die in order to hurt you-in order to stop you.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from ESSAYS by WALLACE SHAWN Copyright © 2009 by Wallace Shawn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Introduction....................9
ONE The Quest for Superiority....................19
TWO After the Destruction of the World Trade Center....................29
THREE "Morality"....................33
FOUR An "American" Publishes a Magazine....................49
FIVE Patriotism....................53
SIX Interview with Noam Chomsky....................55
SEVEN Bush Proposes Preemptive War....................69
EIGHT The Invasion of Iraq Is Moments Away....................73
NINE Up to Our Necks in War....................83
TEN Israel Attacks Gaza....................93
ELEVEN Myself and How I Got in to the Theatre....................99
TWELVE Reading Plays....................115
THIRTEEN Aesthetic Preferences....................119
FOURTEEN Interview with Mark Strand....................127
FIFTEEN Writing about Sex....................153
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 18 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 16 of 18 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2013

    Burnout

    She watches a hawk circle above. &#8765Burnout. She watches the hawk as well. &DeltaSandy. A hawk: styled orange bird with blue wing 'shoulders' and a white seperation was circling above the camp. &delta???

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2013

    FuryStripe

    You ok? *FuryStripe asked FruitDawn gently*

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2013

    Twilight to pheonix

    The most beautiful shecat pheonix has ever seen pad in. She has orange fur and bron yes with golden flecks in them. She pads over to pheonix and lays down near him.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2013

    Sky

    Hissed at twilight and scrached her my mate she scrache her again narrowing her eye warning one get lost!((wont be on for a week))

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2013

    Shinehawk

    Im back

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2013

    Seashadow

    "Remember l will always love you, Evanescencewing." He pads away.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2013

    Starpaw

    (Ok. What the name of moonpaw and cougar book?) Unsheathes claws and stands perfectly.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2013

    Rarekit to all

    Next result!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2013

    Shimmerkit

    Pads in.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2013

    Yeah.

    Yeah? What?

    Blackbird

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2013

    Pheonix and griffin

    Kk.) "Your always my mate sky. I was just greeting twilight...thas all."*griffin looks around an leaves. Pheonix licks sky

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2013

    Blackshine

    Here?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2013

    Flashpaw

    *bit into one wing, piricing it. Then spat out a feather and hopped back.* Bleaugh. Do you eagles ever wash?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2013

    Hawkpaw

    She crouches down and swiftly creeps through the forest.<p>
    [Hawkpaw]

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  • Posted March 22, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    My Dinner With Wallace Shawn

    Anyone who like the film "My Dinner With Andre" will enjoy this book. Wallace Shawn co-starred and co-wrote "My Dinner With Andre" and his hyper-rational yet quirky style comes across well in "Essays".

    The book is divided into two sections: one dealing with politics and society and one dealing with art.

    As a Quaker I found "Essays" especially thought provoking in its messages dealing with simplicity, peace and social justice. By the way, the book is often very funny too.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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