Sunday, January 23, 2011

I'm a tiny bit in love with Wallace Shawn

whom I saw and heard read last night at Royce Hall at UCLA. I indulge myself every year with a subscription to the Writers' Word series and because it's a single ticket, my "seats" are very fancy: in the third row, center. When I saw John Updike a few years ago, several months before he died, I could have literally jumped into his lap -- which I actually literally wanted to do. And tonight, I peered up and practically over the top of Wallace Shawn's perfectly round bald head. He was charming and clever and a bit self-deprecating and a bit stern and overall, a bit amorally moral. I think of myself, sometimes, as a bit amorally moral so I related to his views on what he describes as real world, fake world and dream world. Shawn describes the real world as a scary place -- mainly talking about America and the direction we're headed or have been headed (and he was particularly contemptuous of those in our country who advocate for and protect the extremely wealthy). He describes the fake world as the world we think we live in (a democracy) and the dream world as the world of art. When he talks, he doesn't sound judgmental as much as matter of fact and bemused, all at once. I wonder if it's called moral relativism -- a term I hear thrown around by the conservative right as something to be scorned. In any case, I absolutely agreed and felt a sort of release when I listened to him voice thoughts that those of us without a platform, who aren't filling giant concert halls to capacity are perhaps reticent to reveal. (Lately, the constant coverage of the Arizona shootings has made me feel uncomfortable and I think about all the killing of innocents and soldiers in the two wars we continue to fight and I wonder why we aren't in the streets pulling our hair out over this? lining the streets and weeping? )

Here's a passage from the first essay in his book titled The Quest for Superiority:

Beauty can be important in a person's life. And people beguiled by the beautiful are less dangerous to others than those obsessed by the thought of supremacy. If an afternoon of reading poetry has given me a feeling of profound well-being, I don't then need to go out into the street and seek satisfaction by strangling prostitutes. Art can be central in a person's life. If the art we create is beautiful enough, will people be so drawn to looking at it that they'll leave behind their quest for power? Beauty really is more enjoyable than power. A poem really is more enjoyable than an empire, because a poem doesn't hate you. The defense of privilege, the center of our lives for such a long time, is grim and exhausting. We're exhausted from holding on to things, exhausted from trying not to see those unobtrusive people we're kicking away, whose suffering is actually unbearable to us.

I bought a copy of Essays and read the one from which I took the quote above while waiting in a line that led to a table where Shawn sat smiling like a Cheshire Cat. I told him it was weird to stand in line for a signature but it must be weirder to actually sit and sign your name over and over. He looked up at me and smiled.  I'm a sucker for a signed book.


  1. I had no idea he was a writer too. And a fine one at that! I learn so much from you, Elizabeth. Thank-you.

  2. I've always loved him mostly because he's such a terrific writer and also because his voice makes him sound like a cartoon.

    "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'


  3. I'm glad you got to meet him. :) I agree with your thoughts on the Arizona shooting in the media ... there is so much report on the senator and although I agree it's horrible and tragic, we are missing so much. So many soldiers come back much more devestated and neurologically impaired by their wounds. They are not in the news day in and day out. It's an interesting world we live in.

  4. I will NEVER forget his performance in "The Princess Bride." He is wonderfully talented, and what you have quoted is insightful. I didn't know he was a writer - but I think his father was? Thank you for sharing your joy in this event.

  5. Wallace Shawn is an Obie Award-winning playwright. I saw one of them here in Seattle Aunt Dan and Lemon. I know a couple of them were made into films in particular My Dinner with Andre.

  6. I frequently have his voice in my head saying, "inconceivable!"

    I am comforted by his words about art and beauty. I am often feeling useless (insofar as providing any income or success). But I still cannot give it up (for some 401k providing job). My dreamworld.

  7. the strangling prostitutes vs poetry is the greatest. I agree.....regarding the shootings that is. I see babies shaken over an over and their parents getting probation, no publicity, or one year in jail while the babes are left to languish in a vegetative-blind state. However, when a politician or police officer is shot you hear about it for months on end and the punishments are very severe for the perp. Just thought I'd share one of my many crazy makers along the same wavelength.

  8. I'm a bit in love with him as well. Yet another book for my list...

    SO cool that you were able to meet him.

  9. Oooh I will have to take a look at this. I love the quote you have posted. And I just adore this man in The Princess Bride.

  10. you are such a generous thoughtful giver.
    i marvel at your articulate beautiful mind, and the endless provocative places it takes you...and by your grace,
    all of us.

  11. Great passage, the one you quoted. I like his comparison between an empire and poetry. And it makes sense, if you know what I mean. :-)

    Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  12. I could give you an answer as to why we aren't in the streets, but instead I'll say this sounds like a great way to spend some time. I did not know he is a writer either. I would go just to listen to him.



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