Probing essays and observations by acclaimed actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, in his first nonfiction collection.
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About the Author
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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By WALLACE SHAWN
Haymarket BooksCopyright © 2009 Wallace Shawn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE 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 TwoAFTER 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.
Excerpted from ESSAYS by WALLACE SHAWN Copyright © 2009 by Wallace Shawn. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ONE The Quest for Superiority....................19
TWO After the Destruction of the World Trade Center....................29
FOUR An "American" Publishes a Magazine....................49
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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoyed reading these essays, although i certainly did not agree with all he said. i also did not believe all the personal information he shared, but i do wonder if he sees himself exactly as presented. His descriptions of Bush and his colleagues were probably accurate, but i find his description of their similarity to all of humanity inaccurate.
They read very simply, sometimes seeming too simple, as though written for children; still I was amazed at how well he articulated many things I have pondered with less clarity.
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.
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))
Her ghost watches
"Remember l will always love you, Evanescencewing." He pads away.
Me thinks im locked out ere to.
Kk.) "Your always my mate sky. I was just greeting twilight...thas all."*griffin looks around an leaves. Pheonix licks sky
*bit into one wing, piricing it. Then spat out a feather and hopped back.* Bleaugh. Do you eagles ever wash?
She crouches down and swiftly creeps through the forest.<p> [Hawkpaw]
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.