Of all the insane things I could ever wish for, I suppose one of the strangest is to be the intellectual equal of Wallace Shawn. The man has the ability to say the most rational things in the most agreeable terms (not that I’m always irrational and disagreeable). He can point out our own accountability for future history and current social situations without pointing a finger of blame. If we listen to what he says, really listen, we experience “aha” moments from what may seem the most commonplace observations. He brilliantly accepts and details his responsibility, making us realize ours.
Wallace Shawn is not a writer I can recommend to staunch conservatives, although he transcends liberalism and speaks from a humanistic base. Ironically, I’ve always thought of Shawn as a funny, appealing guy. Yeah, intellectual, but not in the lofty sense of academia and furrowed brows.
In the recently released audio book, Essays by Wallace Shawn, the listener is afforded the opportunity to experience samples of Shawn’s literary output spanning several decades. Some of the selections are short — one is only six and half minutes — some exceed a half hour. In all, there are 17 essays on four disks.
Shawn’s topics include two ex-taboos, politics and religion (their prohibition in polite conversation kept dinner and cocktail parties civil for the most part, until about 40 years ago), as well as art, education, privilege, loyalty, love, nationalism, and insanity. What’s most interesting is the moral emphasis that imbues his opinions. While not embracing the role of activist, Shawn confronts the issue of human rights in many of his essays.
He discusses genocide, but he also explores the not always subtle class differences in our society. He may have always been comfortable (and he appreciates that fact) but he has a respect for those who haven’t and who may never be.
Wallace Shawn delights in the creature comforts; “fine” dining seems to be a favorite (especially with witty companions), but he admires a woman who thoroughly enjoys the sandwich she packs for lunch every day. He fully recognizes that someone may get the same enjoyment from playing with their cat as he does from an artistic endeavor.
In surveying moral issues, Shawn looks at it from both an individual and a collective standpoint and observes how, as people, we may each find something terrible that, as a nation or society, we find acceptable. Much of what he says will make some people uncomfortable.
Shawn speaks to us as his equals, and — if we are inclined to agree with his views — we feel as though he expresses himself so much more eloquently than we ever could. Remarkably, it’s the simplicity of his language, and his low-key delivery that makes us feel that way. Despite what may seem “heavy” subjects, Shawn’s essays (and his reading of same) are very entertaining — sometimes amusing, always thought-provoking.
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time with Wallace Shawn, via Essays, both listening and later considering. The great value of this collection is that it does make us think, to evaluate our own attitudes, and to better understand our relationship — and responsibilities — to our neighbors, wherever on this planet they may be.
Bottom Line: Would I buy Essays by Wallace Shawn? Emphatically, yes.