A few months back, a friend of mine recommended I check out Wallace Shawn‘s book, minimalistically (totally fine with that not being a word) called Essays. Of course, 105% of the good people in the world know him for the very clip I just linked to. (Apologies to Mr. Shawn for beating a dead horse.) A few more people might know him for playing Blair Waldorf’s sometime father figure-ish person on Gossip Girl, though I can’t speak to where his character stands after Season 2 because I haven’t had a chance to catch up. Or was it Season 3? I’ve lost track. Anyway, Shawn is infinitely more than this caricature, as is made abundantly clear in his tiny book. It’s not a memoir at all, just a short collection of essays he’s written over the years, but it actually paints a much clearer picture of him than a memoir probably could. Here’s why.
Shawn seems to be a very contradictory man. He’s at once completely unsettled, constantly complaining about The State Of The World, about how it’s all fundamentally screwed up, and yet simultaneously perfectly content living what maybe, possibly could be a very boring life. That part I was unable to ascertain. I admire the fact that he took the time to write about all of his thoughts and publish them in a cohesive manner, but I just couldn’t help but thinking that these musings, while very clearly well-researched and inquisitive and bourne of a genuine worldly curiosity, are the musings of an eventual curmudgeon. On p. 69, for example, he grumbles, “Yes, we’re allowed to vote for our leaders, but we’re not allowed to know what they’re like, because we’re not allowed to know what they do.” I’ve heard this kind of complaining before, and while I appreciate the opinion and the sentiment, I can’t stand hearing about it. Especially from someone who’s done quite nicely for himself. I’m all for open communication and, you know, not Big Brother or anything, but sometimes I think we’re better off ignoring certain aspects of politics instead of nitpicking them to the point of over-sharing. Then again, he could always attempt to run for office. That would be cool.
He’s not always like this, though. In the book he includes two separate interviews he conducted, one with linguist Noam Chomsky and the other with Mark Strand, both of which are utterly fascinating. He’s a good interviewer because he’s a good listener — and I’ll say that after I finished reading Essays, I checked out one of the many screenplays he’s written, My Dinner with Andre. Co-written with his real friend Andre Gregory, and starring the both of them, this thing is more than just the movie off of which that one Community episode was based. It’s this brilliant dialogue between two extremely self-indulgent men, and while it makes you sort of hate them for taking themselves so seriously, it also makes you think. I’m glad I read the script. (It was the first full-length script I’ve ever read!) I’ll see the movie now, eventually.
Wallace Shawn might be a nihilist, or a libertarian, or a socialist, or something. It’s hard to tell. He’s generally dissatisfied with everything, but pretty satisfied with his life, even if he’s still dissatisfied with his person. That doesn’t make sense what I just said, but neither do many of the things he says, either. It’s fine, though. It was fun to be inside his head for 100 pages and change.
And now, the poignant, enjoyable quotes:
p. 28 // “And every time that a friend decides to abandon mortality and set himself free, I find that I inwardly exult and rejoice, because it means there will be one less perosn to disapprove of me if I choose to do the same.”
p. 51 // “If our vestigial rationality detects a conflict between our actions and our prnciples–well, we don’t want to change our actions, and it’s embarrassing to change our principles, so we wield the blowtorch against our rationality, being it till it’s willing to say that our principles and actions are well-aligned. We’re prisoners of self-love.”
p. 122 // “The dialogue of a play is part of an elaborate network of personal events in the lives of the actors, just as our own dialogue is in our own daily lives.”
p. 128 // “I wonder if the daytime dreams induced by artistic objects may not be really rather necessary for people, as nighttime dreams unquestionably are. If they weren’t necessary, then why would every culture on earth invent music, songs, poetry, what have you?”