Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: "Essays," by Wallace Shawn

This short work is divided into two parts linked by a common pursuit of the Moral Self in a chaotic world of war, poverty, inequality, but also beauty, love, and wonder.

The first part, "Reality," is more explicitly centered around the 'political' side of Wallace Shawn. Never losing his uniquely poetic voice, Shawn describes the evolution and development of his worldview as a child of privilege who comes to feel restlessly uncomfortable with the accepted absurdities and inequalities of his world.

Self-consciously torn between feeling a duty to exalt the hierarchy that has blessed him so, yet abhorring the war, misery, and national aggression that it necessarily produces, Shawn reveals to the reader a man genuinely struggling to "live morally" in a world wrought with obstacles, traps, and incongruities.

From the Vietnam war to Israel's attack on Gaza in 2008, this section is somewhat free-wheeling and informal, but nonetheless poignant.

The second section, "Dream-World," focuses more on Shawn's 'aesthetic' side. He talks about how it was that he came to be drawn towards the theater--and writing plays in particular; what he sees as the role of art in 'softening the human soul;' and his views on the special niche that poetry fills in the world of letters.

The most interesting piece in this section I found to be the one addressing Shawn's obsession with writing about sex. Clearly sex is a topic of contradictory standing in our society: on the one hand, it's used to sell hamburgers, but on the other hand, it's deemed as something really not appropriate for 'polite conversation.'

Wondering how it is that something so pleasurable could be so alternatively shunned and fetishized, Shawn puts forth a number of theories that the reader may or may not agree with, but will definitely find entertaining.

All in all, this is one of those books that gives true meaning to the notion of an artist "bearing their soul to the world."

(If you're interested in this book, you might also like:
Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers
Notes from the Middle World
Hopes and Prospects
The Pen and the Sword: Conversations with Edward Said
The Portable John Reed)

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