Wallace Shawn
(Haymarket Books)
Wallace Shawn is a handwringer. In Essays he frets about patriotism, the Bush administration, the Invasion of Iraq, war and general worldwide poverty. He also stews about the fact that people don't always know how smart he is.

    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.

Shawn is facile with words, very facile. But he has a few problems, too. For one, he's been too damn successful.

Part may be talent. He is not a bad as wordsmith. But another part is animal luck: he was born son to the thirty-five-year mandarin editor of the New Yorker, William Shawn.

Shawn (the younger ... unlike the old man) has a rare ability to enflame people. Once he was able to get a few senile members of the British Parliament into a snit because of a production of his play, A Thought in Three Parts. The author's instructions for Part II called for "nineteen orgasms." The Parliamentarians thought, perhaps, Nineteen! Isn't that overdoing it? But, as Shawn makes very clear here, the play wasn't about sex; it was really about dreams. Wet ones, we would presume.

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The fifteen essays are divided arbitrarily into two parts: "Reality" and "Dream-World." His words about war and nationalism ("The system is awful!") do wander on, but some insights about plays, especially reading plays, can be compelling:

    There are wonderful things that can happen in the mind of a reader that cannot happen to anyone watching actors in a play.

When you read Hamlet, for example, you will be seeing the staging in your mind's eye, even hearing it in your own words ... which may be better than spending an evening at the Globe.

One essay, on Hitler, struck this reader as somewhere out in left field. Shawn doesn't seem to get the truth of power. Hitler was a bilious crackpot who had two great strengths: he had an astonishing ability to communicate his fear and loathing to other people; and he had the even more astonishing ability to convince people that he wasn't a bilious crackpot. Thus he got away with murder.

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Overall, Shawn hangs out with too many worry-warts and hand-wringers. One essay here is given over to an interview with Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is a lovable old hothead, given to all-encumbering statements like,

    The drug companies are just totalitarian institutions which are subsidized: most of the basic research is funded by the public, there are huge profits, and of course from a business point of view it not only makes sense, but it's legally required for them to produce lifestyle drugs for rich Westerners to get rid of wrinkles, instead of malaria treatments for dying children in Africa. It's required.

Thus we are all guilty. After a great night with Viagra, you learn that your chemical pleasure means that 50,000 kids in Kenya are going to die next week with malaria. Or maybe not. Some of us suspect that there might be other factors involved.

And Chomsky has no use for politicians, whatsoever. According to him, Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to Mussolini as "that admirable Italian gentleman." The professor doesn't know or seem to care that FDR was a practicing member of the plutocracy, one who followed the primary rules of the upper-class: (1) Talk through your nose, and (2) Don't ever talk bad about anyone else. Just sneer.

Chomsky, unlike his interviewer, is obviously not a card-carrying member of the gentry. Which, I guess, is why he takes everything so dratted seriously. Shawn should have known better. When you are interviewing someone like that, you have to be a pit-bull, not a lap-dog.

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The final few pages of Essays includes another interview, this one with the poet, Mark Strand. Another yawn. You don't talk about poetry with poets. Philosophy, hang-gliding, ichthyology, sure ... but spare us the literary dissections.

All American poets groan too much about our national lack of interest in the poetaster's art, but they are only half-right. The stuff that got published in Shawn senior's magazine wasn't poetry at all ... it was more stuff and nonsense, paid for by all those Guggenheims abroad.

Strand (and Shawn) might consider opening their eyes to the real poetry going on around them, even as we speak. It's called "rock," "punk," "rap." Like graffiti, it's all over the place, and it grabs you where it hurts, down there: in the ass (or in the soul) ... as all good poetry should.

--- Jon Eckstein, M. A.
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