Sunday, February 14, 2010

Book Review- Essays by Wallace Shawn

First of all, Wallace Shawn is one of my favorite playwrights, very likely my favorite living one. I've appreciated everything I've ever read or watched by him, not always exactly enjoying it, but enjoying is not always the chief end of art. Certainly I've always come away from a work of his engaged with ideas. I think he's written a few scripts that will survive for a very long time and continue to challenge people (The Fever, The Designated Mourner, certainly My Dinner with Andre.) He is a very serious and challenging writer. I looked forward to this book with great anticipation. I was not disappointed. As usual, Shawn writes very intelligently but conversationally and his work questions many aspects of our daily consensus reality that many may have never questioned (including several that I take for granted as well.) His work never lets the reader/watcher off the hook. His work is always challenging in a way I like very much.

The book is split into two sections: Reality and Dream-World. The former deals with current events, things like American Foreign Policy, the wars, patriotism, Israel, the desire in one to be a responsible, compassionate global citizen and the inability to properly do so on account of the actions of the people who represent us to the rest of the world, all with Shawn's challenging eye. I appreciate in Shawn how we meet with worldviews in common and then he causes me to re-evaluate everything I think. This section includes an interview with Noam Chomsky.

I should probably mention that I come pre-equipped with what is largely an inclination in the direction of Shawn's political and economic worldview. Which is to say, yes, it's me reading something I agree with and Shawn to a large extent preaching to the choir in my case. Unfortunately I do think there is a danger of that being the case with this book, that the progressive pedigree being used to sell the book (endorsements by Howard Zinn and Michael Moore, being printed by a socialist leaning publisher, and even Shawn's own reputation) might keep it from being read by people who might most need to read it. But really the leftist political view isn't specifically why I think people would do well to read this book (and clocking in at 150 pages, one could probably do it in an afternoon or two) but rather that the book challenges our worldviews which I think is always a good thing (although I would add that Shawn seems, at least in the first section, to largely be speaking to Americans, I think that people elsewhere might find a good deal of what he's saying encouraging.) I think we should constantly be striving to understand and defend why we believe what we believe and, more importantly, if we find a good reason why we can no longer do so, we need to be able to mutate.

Part Two deals with art, the theater mainly, writing and poetry. It would be far too reductionist to say that there is a suggestion that Part Two contains a few solutions to Part One, but certainly there are nudges in that direction. Part Two also includes an interview with poet Mark Strand.

This second part I thought would be more problematic for me... and I guess in a way it was. The only major ideological difference I retained with Shawn after finishing his book was the part where, unless I completely misunderstood, he argues that there is not good and bad art, merely art that appeals to some and not to others. I could not disagree more. There are bad plays, poems, films, paintings, novels and any other form you can come up with. Thus spake Paul and so mote it be. No, but seriously, it's not just a matter of taste. Even if Shawn is talking about "in art of a fine skill," which is a distinction he doesn't make, certainly there is art that is not helpful or even destructive.

But that's just one idea in a sea of very valuable concepts. This is one of those books where, if I were a rich man I would buy a case of it and pass it out to everyone I know. But then, there are very good reasons why I am never going to be a rich man. This book talks a little about that as well.

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