Saturday, September 5, 2009

Essays by Wallace Shawn

from the article,

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 naïveté, 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 clichés 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.


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