Books discussed in this essay:
• Grasses of a Thousand Colors Wallace Shawn. Theatre Communications Group. 112pp., $13.95.
• Essays Wallace Shawn. Haymarket Books. 186 pp., $18.95.
“You see, I’d planned to be real, but everything about me turned out to be fake. No, no, that can’t be true.”
—Wallace Shawn, from Grasses of a Thousand Colors
We’re a nation comfortable with absolutes. Good and evil. Black and white. Rich and poor. Real and fake. That these binary distinctions are at best imprecise and at worst destructive is difficult to articulate in a sound bite. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” right? Us and them. As one privileged to be among the “good” guys—that is, as a white, heterosexual, middle class, over-educated male—I have little incentive to challenge the status quo. That’s because I am the status quo. But even I get tired of looking at me, of hearing me drone on from every TV show and political pulpit. These many voices—my many voices—all seem to say the same thing. They continually remind me that even with a black president in the White House we live in what is very literally a white supremacist culture. I don’t mean to suggest that every white male is at heart a white supremacist, but I do believe that it’s extremely difficult for anyone to resist buying into the often subtle, sexist and racist messages surrounding us at every minute.
If the Ku Klux Klan is less in our face than it was thirty years ago that’s only because they’ve exchanged their white robes for the black ones of the Supreme Court. Like Ishmael Reed wrote in his Village Voice review of Anthony Grooms’s Bombingham:
Nowadays the Klan’s rhetoric has been co-opted by talk show hosts. Why on earth does the Klan need its Web site NiggerWatch (which gets a lot of its material from the mainstream media) when it has the Don Imus show? Shelby Foote, the country’s leading celebrity historian, has even compared the Klan to the French Resistance. Its message is being used by well-funded think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute.
Given the obvious white supremacy I see around me, especially down here in Louisiana, it’s clear that innumerable privileges go with being white in this country; some are insidiously vague and others grotesquely obvious. I’m likely blind to most of them, but among my most apparent privileges is the simple fact that if I so choose I don’t even have to think about race. Ever. After all, I am the norm, the default. The status quo. I have a big problem with the status quo. And that brings me to everybody’s favorite B-actor, Wallace Shawn.
Shawn is a wealthy, white American playwright and actor you’ve seen in countless roles, large and small. He’s best known, I imagine, for his part in The Princess Bride and as the Grand Negus on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” but has also appeared in classics like My Dinner with Andre, Prick Up Your Ears, and Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Like Bill Murray or John Cleese, he is one of the most innately and naturally funny people working today; watching him sit in a chair and do nothing is bowel-jigglingly hilarious. But the goofiness of his acting career and voice work contrasts the eviscerating profundity of his written work. His recent plays include The Designated Mourner, The Fever, and Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which premiered in May 2009 at London’s Royal Court Theatre. The son of longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn, he was born in 1943, earned a degree in history at Harvard, then studied at Oxford. Clearly his has been a life of immense privilege. To his credit, he’s aware of that fact—how could he not be?—and has the rare decency to use his social standing as a platform for his radical politics.
Shawn’s new collection of essays, titled Essays, collects some writing he’s done over the years for various publications, including The Nation, The Paris Review, and a one-issue magazine he edited called Final Edition. You’ll find interviews with Mark Strand and Noam Chomsky, political diatribes, personal reflections, the transcription of a speech at the 2008 Ceremonial of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a pleasant little ditty titled “Writing about Sex”—which was something he did quite a bit of in his most recent play.
In a production of that play at the Royal Court Theatre last year, which I did not see, Shawn played the wealthy former scientist whose enormous ego derives in large part from getting to rid the world of famine by genetically engineering food, a plot that raises a number of do-the-ends-justify-the-means questions. The scientist-cum-memorist is in love with his own penis, and that love affair takes a strange turn when the plot turns into a kind of fairy tale involving a sexually promiscuous cat named Blanche. I could attempt to explain more, but you’re better off reading it yourself. Let it suffice to say that Shawn is a writer who gets it, one who appreciates that his life of immense privilege lends his voice a particular authority. In the introduction to Essays, he writes:
Born by most definitions into the ruling class, I was destined to live a comfortable life. And to spend one’s life as a so-called “creative artist” is probably the most comfortable, cozy, and privileged life that a human being can live on this earth—the most “bourgeois” life, if one uses that phrase to describe a life so comfortable that no one living it would want to give it up. To lie in bed and watch words bump together until they become sentences is a form of hedonism, whether the words and sentences glorify society and the status quo or denounce them.
Like all great artists, Shawn devotes his energies to denouncing the status quo—the very status quo in which his own life and career so heavily invested. I mean, who do you suppose buys the expensive tickets for absurdist, avant-garde drama? That he does so in prose that is frequently dazzling makes him all the more impressive and inspiring.
Shawn’s favorite targets in these essays appear to be policies and practices of George W. Bush’s administration, and he doesn’t shy away from telling it like it is: “In school we were taught various terms to characterize political systems—’oligarchy,’ ‘autocracy,’ ‘democracy.’ What is our system? No term for it exists. To call it a democracy seems so wrong.” The closest I can come up with is “corporatocracy”—government by the corporations for the corporations. In “Up to Our Necks in War,” he writes, “George Bush wakes up in the morning, looks at himself in the mirror, and says, ‘I’ll kill people today.’” I can’t think of many contemporary artists so willing to speak truth like this. Chuck D comes to mind. Michel Houellebeq. Maybe William T. Vollmann.
In “The Invasion of Iraq Is Moments Away,” Shawn gets more specific:
[W]e can’t deny that Bush and his men, for whatever reason, are under the sway of the less peaceful side of their natures. From the first day after the World Trade Center fell, you could see in their faces that, however scary it might be to be holding the jobs they held, however heavy the responsibility might be for steering the ship of state in such troubled times, they in fact were loving it. Those faces glowed. You could see that special look that people always have when they’ve just been seized by the most purposeless of all things, a sense of purpose. This, combined with a lust for blood, makes for particularly dangerous leaders, so totally driven by their desire for the violence to start that they’re incapable of hearing any voices around them who plead for compromise or peace.”
Shawn is clearly asking all the right questions.
Reading these Essays a couple times reminded me of the pressing need for white, male, middle- and upper-class authors like Shawn to think and write about race and class and all the issues our rich parents were too fucking polite to talk about in public. I can’t think of another American author more worthy of the Nobel Prize. He’s that good and that incendiary. In short, with this collection he has caused me to think, yet again, about the responsibilities of the privileged artist—that is, about my responsibilities.
As a writer myself, these privileges put me in a position of some dubious, discomforting authority, and it’s up to me to use that platform to expose the injustices from which I derive every possible benefit. I’m fortunate enough to have recently had my book accepted for publication by a small, non-profit press whose work I greatly admire. I mention it not, I hope, as merely an obvious plug, but because I wish to explain how, like Wallace Shawn and many of the artists I admire the most, I’ve attempted to reconcile my personal responsibility as a writer (i.e. my desire to critique the status quo) with my desire to have someone publish what I want to say (i.e. my strange desire to participate in the very public discourse I wish to undermine). My own fiction exists in opposition to the world I see around me. I do not want to merely reflect or describe our current time, place, and conditions; that doesn’t interest me. I want instead to envision alternatives to them.
I should note, though, that Shawn appears to contract this approach when in “Myself and How I Got Into the Theatre” he writes:
But doesn’t the essence of theatre really lie not in its aesthetic possibilities but instead in its special ability to reflect the real world, its special ability to serve as a mirror? Is theatre not a way of putting a frame around a picture of society, so that we may observe the operation of special forces and of the individual psychology that lies beneath them? Should theatre not be principally an attempt to search for truth?
Uh . . . no. There’s more to it than that. A lot more.
I would suggest that the primary role of art—and Grasses of a Thousand Colors accomplishes this brilliantly—is to dismantle our reality and propose a different one. That doesn’t mean that I want to write utopistic “Ebony and Ivory” visions of American society. On the contrary. But I need to at least attempt to write from a discursive space that is outside our current, depraved conditions. Art by definition resists the status quo. Something has to change. Everything has to change. As a white male of immense privilege, I may just be in a position to get others to start at least thinking about change. So it’s my job to write about my many privileges, all of which I’d gladly part with. Sexism, racism, homophobia—personal or institutional—demean, in different ways, people on both sides of that binary split, yet we remain attached to these Us v. Them absolutes.
Robert Jensen is a white professor of ethics and media law at the University of Texas at Austin. His book The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005) recognizes that it’s time for white Americans like Wallace Shawn—and like me—to understand that in accepting our privileges without considering the ramifications, we are perpetuating the problem:
The primary force that keeps white supremacy firmly in place is the material and psychological gains that come to white people, which are bolstered by an ideological support system. Over the past two centuries there have been countless attempts—in religion and philosophy, in the various sciences and pseudosciences—to justify white supremacy through rational argument. But the more critical support for white supremacy is emotional, not rational.
I personally experience these privileges every day from what I’ll call—for lack of a better term—a “positive” perspective, meaning from the standpoint of one who benefits from these privileges, rather than from the “negative,” from one whose day-to-day life is made incalculably more difficult (again, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly) because she is not white/male/rich.
No authority has ever willfully relinquished its power, yet that is exactly what I want to see our white supremacist culture and government do. I know: dream on. But if the corporatocracy isn’t willing to act, and it clearly isn’t, the responsibility for social change falls on the shoulders of people like me, the unwitting beneficiaries of all these privileges. It pains me to put it this way, but as I see it white America doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what non-white people say or do, unless of course we can further exploit women and “minorities” of every stripe for even more financial gain. I worry that black authors and gay authors and even women authors simply aren’t being heard in this society, that their voices aren’t appreciated the way they should be.
The only people whose voices seem to matter look an awful lot like me, which means that if things are going to get better around here more people who look like me need to take responsibility. I am the power structure in this country, so I have to say something, and I’m by no means alone in feeling this way, as evidenced not only by Shawn’s Essays, but by some brilliant recent novels by Richard Powers (The Time of Our Singing) and Stewart O’Nan (Everyday People) and Madison Smartt Bell (his Haitian trilogy) and Dave Eggers (What Is the What?) and even Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan; these are books that expose, from different white perspectives, where this society’s racial fault lines lie. For a white male author to ignore race in his fiction is to willingly accept the most insidious privilege we have: the ability to ignore race.
The first rule of writing, repeated ad absurdum to high school kids and MFA-ers alike, is, Write what you know. That’s just asinine. For me to write “what I know” would be to endorse the white supremacist society in which I unwillingly participate. That’s what I know because that’s what I see around me all the time. Instead, people like me who benefit from these privileges need to write about what we don’t know. I want to write about my ignorance and about my attempts, however lame or shortsighted, to plug the vast holes in my understanding of the world. However much I attempted to write my first book from a distant discursive space, I have to acknowledge the extent to which I am surrounded by and complicit with this white supremacist culture. I’m not happy about that, obviously, but I can’t ignore it either.
Of course, I will never get anywhere near being able to understand what it means to be black in this country. I’ll never even be able to recognize all the benefits I get from being white and male and straight. That said, it has been confirmed that I have some distant Lenape heritage—does that make me not-white in our world of absolutes? And the truth is that I don’t consider myself straight or not-straight, gay or not-gay. What I appreciate most about Wallace Shawn’s Essays is its fervent reminder that it is entirely up to “us”—not “them”—to disrupt these binary absolutes.
Andrew Ervin’s first book, Extraordinary Renditions, will be published on Sept. 1 by Coffee House Press.
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