Artists are in the business of simultaneously de-familiarizing and re-familiarizing us with the world around us. "Habit is a great deadener," Samuel Beckett explained, and art lends us a new pair of spectacles with which to view reality anew.
Reading writer and actor Wallace Shawn's "Essays," a hodgepodge of short pieces on war, theater, sex, art and privileged guilt, with interviews of Noam Chomsky and poet Mark Strand thrown into the mix, I was reminded of this essential function of creative dreamers, be they playwrights, composers or painters. All, ultimately, are anthropologists of alien lands, which just so happen to be the ones we daily inhabit. Yes, imaginations have ZIP Codes, even as they transcend them.
Shawn's signature tone, familiar to those who know his one-of-a-kind dramatic works, such as "Aunt Dan and Lemon," "The Fever" and "The Designated Mourner," or his movie colloquy with Andre Gregory, "My Dinner With Andre," is a kind of canny naivete, in which complicated questions are approached with a simplicity that strips the conventional barnacles from the search for truth. There's something bracing about this when it works. But when it doesn't -- which is about one-third of the time in this collection (granted, a batting average Major League Baseball players would kill for) -- it can seem as though reductive cliches are being replaced with tendentious caricatures.
The first part of the book is centered on politics and war, and Shawn's prose meditations on the murderous misguidedness of the Iraq war and the Bush administration's stoking of 9/11 paranoia, aided by a supine media, are fearlessly blunt. "Why are we being so ridiculously polite," he asks in "The Invasion of Iraq Is Moments Away." "It's as if there were some sort of gentlemen's agreement that prevents people from stating the obvious truth that Bush and his colleagues are exhilarated and thrilled by the thought of war . . . by the scale, the massiveness of the bombing they're planning, the violence, the killing, the blood, the deaths, the horror." Shawn's argument employs stick figures, but this is a useful corrective when details commonly serve as camouflage.
Dismayed by the coverage of the war's lead-up, Shawn doesn't understand why his local paper, the New York Times, is so damn calm. "The people who write in its pages seem to have a need to believe that their government, while sometimes somewhat wrong, of course, can't be entirely wrong, and must at least be trusted to raise the right questions. These writers just can't bear the thought of being completely alienated from the center of their society, their own government."
Shawn subjects himself to this same rough scrutiny, noting that he's firing off his polemics from the cushiness of his New York apartment. The scion of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, he makes no bones about his enviable birthright. What distinguishes him from others equally well-born is the degree of guilt he experiences in the contradictions between the radical positions he holds and the divan he occupies on the social hierarchy.
As fingernail-paring as the act can get, the neurotic, self-incriminating Shawn is preferable to the Pollyannaish one, who soothingly tells us that "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." Yes, especially when they have enough money to stop worrying about the rent and medical bills. For all his flamboyant self-flagellation, Shawn isn't as brutally straightforward when it comes to personal economics -- he evades the brass tacks of budgets even as he sermonizes on higher principles.
He's actually quite a bit better on sex, observing in the deliciously candid and existentially resonant "Writing About Sex" that this is where "reality and dream" as well as the "meaningful and meaningless" meet. The pursuit of eros for Shawn is preferable to the pursuit of power, insofar as lust for bodies is a whole lot less conformist than a lust for institutional control. In his estimation, the world would be a much better place "if people saw themselves as a part of nature, connected to the environment in which they live."
On theater, Shawn is perhaps too idiosyncratic to make much sense. He says that he was attracted to the stage in part because it was an area beyond his father's editorial purview. But then he makes it seem that plays occupy a realm devoid of shared traditions or aesthetic values. "And that all felt rather agreeable to me," he writes, "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.' "
An odd statement from someone who acknowledges having received his share of bad reviews. The only way to derive anything worthwhile from this is to bear in mind that "mistake" was a word his father used to describe New Yorker assignments that didn't pan out.
In other words, the best approach to Shawn's "Essays" is to think of them as roving monologues whose deepest insights are gleaned from the author's provocative wrestling with his singular self. The erratic misfires, pesky as they can be, are a small price to pay for his brand of tonic truth-telling.