More than a decade ago, in the aftermath of the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs, the playwright and actor Wallace Shawn wrote:
A few months ago, the American public, who in political theory and to some extent even in reality are “sovereign” in the United States, were given a group of pictures showing American soldiers tormenting desperate, naked, extremely thin people in chains — degrading them, mocking them, and physically torturing them. And so the question arose, How would the American public react to that? And the answer was that in their capacity as individuals, certain people definitely suffered or were shocked when they saw those pictures. But in their capacity as the sovereign public, they did not react. A cry of lamentation and outrage did not rise up across the land. The president and his highest officials were not compelled to abase themselves publicly, apologize, and resign, nor did they find themselves thrown out of office, nor did the political candidates from the party out of power grow hoarse with denouncing the astounding crimes which were witnessed by practically everyone throughout the entire world. As far as one could tell, over a period of weeks, the atrocities shown in the pictures had been assimilated into the list of things which the American public was willing to consider normal and which they could accept. And so now one has to ask, well, what does that portend?
Thirteen years later, we have a quite good idea of what such a thing portends. Thirteen years later we know much more than Shawn, or anyone, could have known at the time about just how much could be “assimilated into the list of things which the American public was willing to consider normal and which they could accept.” We know so much about this now that it is rather a wonder any of us can sleep at night. And in fact, some people tell me that they aren’t sleeping, that they have not been sleeping well for a while. Not since November. That’s what I keep hearing. Of course, there are those who lost the ability to enjoy an untroubled night’s sleep long before that.
* * *
Although Shawn is surely one of our country’s most significant contemporary playwrights— it seems to me that his work matters in a way no other playwright’s work quite manages to do — he has not enjoyed significant popular success, particularly within these borders. His plays are rarely performed; few people have seen or read them. He makes his living not as a playwright but as a character actor in films and television. As a result, there are a great many people who, if they saw him in the street, would think he looked familiar. Maybe they could even name a particular role or two. But because they would not know his plays, or that he writes plays, they would not know who he is.
It is not surprising that his plays are not well liked in America. They are, to put it bluntly, nightmares. They aim to engage, to disturb, to affront, but not to amuse or entertain. The early ones, the plays from the 1970s — works including The Hospital Play, The Hotel Play, A Thought in Three Parts, and Marie and Bruce — portray human beings as beasts whose behavior is governed by bizarre sexual fetishes, sadistic impulses, and other animalistic urges. His first produced play, Our Late Night, is mostly devoted to a surreal cocktail party in which the guests react inappropriately, or fail to react at all, to mind-bogglingly outrageous proposals and descriptions of various deviant sexual behaviors. Andre Gregory, who would go on to become Shawn’s frequent collaborator, directed the play at the Public Theater in New York in 1975; it won an Obie, and it perplexed, disturbed, and enraged many of those who showed up to see it. As Joseph Papp, the founder of the Public Theater, recalls, “Some [people in the audience] were shouting, and one man got up and walked around in a menacing way. They didn’t even know they were doing it. Wally was looking around the theater, very perplexed — he didn’t realize he had gotten rid of his own sexual mania and given it to everybody else.”
In Shawn’s later works the focus on the body’s irrational imperatives, sexual and otherwise, is at times somewhat relaxed, though far from abandoned. His conception of human nature is broadened to incorporate the recognition that in at least some human beings the bestial core may be accompanied by an intellectual apparatus which, while poorly designed, frequently self-serving, and as liable to be placed in the service of evil as of good purposes, nonetheless makes certain forms of reflection and self-control possible. The later plays reveal themselves as political fables, depicting how individual struggles with desire, with insecurity, and with the body’s physical vulnerabilities and incapacities — not to mention our frequent inability to think, to imagine what it might be like to be someone other than ourselves, or to pierce the suffocating layers of delusive fantasy by which most of us are enveloped — lend covert support to faulty political structures and enable suffering on a massive scale.
It is not surprising that Wallace Shawn’s plays are not well liked in America. They are, to put it bluntly, nightmares. They aim to engage, to disturb, to affront, but not to amuse or entertain.
In the past decade, while continuing his work as a playwright, Shawn has also begun publishing nonfiction: a collection of essays in 2009, and now a small, new book, an essay titled Night Thoughts. There is a sense of urgency about this turn to prose, as if Shawn had begun to sense, despairingly, that it is no longer enough to put words in the mouths of fictional characters, that he can no longer wait around for us to figure out what it is he is trying to tell us. And a lot of what he has to tell us has to do with the desperation of those the world has not treated well, and who may, in return, want to harm us. “When desperate people cry out and risk their lives to say that their condition is awful,” he tells us in Night Thoughts, “they’re basically never wrong. They may be wrong about what caused their condition, they may be wrong about what will cure their condition, but people who do terrible things because they’re in a state of desperation about the circumstances they live in are not deluded.”
Now that we are in a position to know, and so no longer need to ask, just what was portended by the American public’s failure to respond to the Abu Ghraib photos, we might instead turn our gaze in the other direction and ask, what led us to that point? How had this particular group of people been prepared for this moment, prepared to gaze directly on clear photographic evidence of moral criminality and then shrug and turn away? And, too, what happened between that point and this one, to lead us to the moment we currently occupy, led by a president who has said and done things which, in prior eras, surely, would have utterly destroyed the political aspirations of anyone who had said or done such things? What has enabled so many people to shrug and turn away from these things — or, perhaps worse, to hold them up as shining examples of a new style in politics, a refreshing, admirable new boldness, an invigorating audacity? Or to laugh happily at them, as if it were not something that were actually happening in our politics, but merely something that they were watching on TV?
Against a different historical background, following different events, Abu Ghraib would have been regarded as a scandal, if not as a turning point in how we think about our country. And something had prevented this from happening. Had the shock of 9/11, the rude discovery that there were people in the world who wanted to kill us, completely extinguished Americans’ capacity for empathy? Or was there something subtler, more insidious, a series of wrongs, each one nearly indistinguishable from the next, but functioning as a whole to smother the moral impulse, the extirpate the ability of ordinary human beings to notice when terrible, unjustifiable things were being done on their behalf, and in their name, to other human beings?
I thought of Shawn’s passage about the Abu Ghraib photos many times during the 2016 campaign. Time and time again the Republican frontrunner, who was of course on his way to becoming the Republican candidate (a day of celebration for some of my friends, who sincerely believed the Republican party had just committed a spectacular public suicide), would do or say something that filled me with relief, something so outrageous, so dishonest, or so vile that I would think to myself This is it for him, then, surprising that he’s made it this far but no one could survive that. Only to see him survive it, only to see millions of Americans tolerate or embrace what I would have thought, before then, could not possibly be tolerated or embraced. Outrage after outrage that should have stuck in the American throat like a fishbone instead slid down as easily as if it were made of jelly. And at some point it became clear that it had been decided, in millions of minds, that is was no longer a question, that they were going to support this man, quite literally, no matter what he said or did. Something had broken in the American mind. Some faculty for saying This really does go too far, some ability to say I know what I stand for and I thought this man represented it, but I now see that I was mistaken, had vanished, had simply, it seemed, withered away.
Of course, if your dominant metaphors for thinking about politics are sports metaphors, as seems to have become the case in this country, it will be much more difficult for you to draw such lines than it would be if you thought of politics as, say, a realm of debate and ideas; or, if that is too idealistic, then as a kind of blunt but occasionally effective tool for making the world a less unlivable place. If you’re a Giants fan you don’t frequently ask yourself, do the Giants really deserve my support? Are the arguments for why I should support the Giants and not the Dodgers cogent and based in reality? You don’t really care much what the Giants are like as people, or what they think; you just stick by them because they’re your team. This is what our politics has been for some time, not a matter of ideas but a matter of identity. If you’re on the Red side you’ll forgive the Reds for things that, were they said or done by a Blue, would render you apoplectic with rage. You make your decisions and reach your evaluations not by looking to see what was done but by looking to see who did them. If I told you that a certain politician had revealed information to the Russians, or mocked a disabled person, or stored e-mails on a private server, and I asked you how you felt about that, you would not be able to answer my question without first asking, Well, who was it that did that? Was it one of our people? Or was it somebody on the other side?
In shifting his lens from our private nightmares to the grim common nightmare that so many people had been enduring since the late 1960s — or, more frequently, in setting his more recent plays in the bleak and hypnagogic hinterland that lies between the two — Shawn, beginning in the early 1980s, created a daring body of work that was harshly and often brilliantly critical of modern Western civilization in general and American society in particular. (He does allow, toward the end of Night Thoughts, that civilization might, in the end, turn out to have been a good thing on the whole. But he also writes, earlier in the book, that the “story of civilization” is “the endlessly repeating story of a strong person holding some squirming weak person’s head under the water.”)
Considered as a body, the American public has come to seem, in recent years, terrifyingly unempathetic.
Himself a product of a genteel and privileged New York background — his father, William Shawn, edited The New Yorker for decades — Shawn’s most potent and poisonous theatrical barbs tended to be aimed at effete, refined liberals. Given that few people who are not effete, refined liberals go to the theater in contemporary America, this was an alienating strategy. As an audience member at one of these performances, you risked developing an attachment to, perhaps even a certain affection for, an initially sympathetic character who would with no warning express a commitment to an unimaginably odious system of thought. Toward the end of 1985’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, for instance, the sickly and waifish Lemon, who narrates the play, confronts the audience with the following:
Our human nature is derived from the nature of different animals, and of course there’s a part of animal nature that likes to kill. If killing were totally repugnant to animals, they couldn’t survive. So an enjoyment of killing is somewhere inside us, somewhere in our nature. … I remember my mother screaming all the time, “Compassion! Compassion! You have to have compassion for other people! You have to have compassion for other human beings!” And I must admit, there’s something I find refreshing about the Nazis, which is partly why I enjoy reading about them every night, because they sort of had the nerve to say, “Well, what is this compassion? Because I don’t really know what it is. So I want to know, really, what is it?” … And I find it sort of relaxing to read about those people, because I have to admit that I don’t know either. I mean, I think I’ve felt it reading a novel, and I think I’ve felt it watching a film — “Oh how sad, that child is sick! That mother is crying!” — but I can’t ever remember feeling it in life.
And then there is Jack, the protagonist of Shawn’s 1996 work, The Designated Mourner. Jack is, at first, a likeable enough fellow, albeit with some obvious flaws. As it turns out, those apparent flaws are surface diversions, serving as a screen for far more profound shortcomings. As a man who has lived through a murderous political disruption in which the entire intellectual class was slaughtered, Jack has managed not only to survive but to prosper. After all, while he was a friend to the intellectuals, he was never really one himself; he was only pretending all along so that they would approve of him — and now that they are dead, he no longer needs to seek that approval:
My hand reached out toward the book on the table, but then I thought, Wait — do I really want to go back to reading that book? Might I not actually in fact prefer to read the magazine that I’d bought in the lobby, the one with all the stories about healthy, well-exercised, rather young actresses? So I read for a while in that very engaging magazine, but I still couldn’t sleep, and so once again I started to reach for the book, but as I reached for the book my attention was drawn to the end of my bed, where a blank face looked expectantly into mine, a familiar framed screen which held inside it colors, songs, characters, drunkenness, love — beauty — And the faces that waited inside that blank face pulled me toward them, pulled my hand toward the knob to turn on the screen, and then toward my lamp to turn out the light. And as I sat in the darkness and watched the screen for hour after hour I thought to myself, Well, at some point we have to draw some distinctions — don’t we? I mean, pardon me, but shouldn’t there be some distinction drawn between the things we say, the lies, the “I like poetry,” “I like Rembrandt,” on the one hand — and I mean, of course it’s important to say these things, because after all if you don’t say them then you really become simply a zoo animal, you become an empty thing, you’re nothing more then really than a large balloon with a mouth, genitals, paws and an asshole, a nice great big one — but still they’re lies, they are lies — and then on the other hand things that are true, like “I’m watching this very nice screen right now, I’m watching it, and I’m enjoying it”?
The other cognitive function Jack has managed to turn off is, of course, empathy:
And I thought of all those years of getting up every day and reading in the newspaper all those terrible stories, always written in that special tone, so hurt, so shocked, about the people who committed unspeakable acts. The murder. The stabbing. “How could anyone commit such an unspeakable act? It was all falling away, falling away very fast. How much longer could I keep on pretending to be hurt and shocked by unspeakable acts?
Perhaps Lemon never had the capacity for empathy; perhaps the little thing in each of us, whatever it is, exactly, that grows into that capacity if one develops normally, was stifled, was killed by the terrible moral education that she got — in particular, from her parents’ friend Aunt Dan, whom she so admires — before it got the chance to begin to grow. Whereas Jack, one guesses, was able to unlearn this ability as the world changed around him. The American public had, in the past, I think, a capacity for empathy. It certainly seemed that way. And there is no doubt that a significant number of individuals who make up that public still do. But considered as a body, the American public has come to seem, in recent years, terrifyingly unempathetic. And it’s hard not to worry that even those of us who still do have a capacity for empathy only count as having it by standards relative to the general lack of empathy that has become the norm; that is, that even caring a little about other people is, in this country, enough to mark you as one of the people who cares. Whereas in a different society, or in the America of certain periods in the past, this low degree of caring would actually have put those individuals somewhere below the average empathy level.
The Designated Mourner and Aunt Dan and Lemon were written before Geroge W. Bush, before Abu Ghraib, before any talk of a Muslim registry. Before a candidate who went on to win the presidency said that he supported killing not just terrorists but the families of terrorists, promised to bring back not only waterboarding but tortures much worse than waterboarding, and expressed his puzzlement at our commitment to not using the nuclear arsenal that renders us so powerful. Before Americans turned out by the millions to vote for a candidate who gave absolutely no sign of enjoying the arts, or reading books, or of thinking that supporting the arts or encouraging people to read books or giving the nation’s students the ability to engage with the rich cultural heritage that should be theirs might be something worth doing. A candidate who seemed, in fact, positively antipathetic to such things, and whose antipathy seemed, if anything, to be a key to his popularity.
So one way we might understand what has happened in our country is to say that a lot of people who used to feel the need to at least pretend to care, at least a little, about art or literature, or to be shocked by unspeakable acts, no longer feel that need. They have been freed from the necessity to pretend to be something other than they are. They have discovered that one can appeal to post-60s American anxiety and employ the language of austerity and so-called economic ‘realism’ in order to align oneself with the most mercenary and short-sighted of utilitarian outlooks, and in doing so justify, or seem to justify, a complete lack of interest in anything cultural or intellectual — what are the arts, after all, what are intellectual things, if not frivolous and wasteful luxuries, distractions at best and sources of danger at worst? — not to mention an utter refusal to recognize ethical limits on the effort to defend the American homeland from perils both real and imagined.
And for those who have been freed from such necessities, the result, as Shawn would have predicted — as he did, in essence, predict, some years ago — has been feelings of liberation, of ecstasy, of joy. His afterword to Aunt Dan and Lemon includes the following passage:
As I write these words, in New York City in 1985, more and more people who grew up around me are making this decision; they are throwing away their moral chains and learning to enjoy their true situation: Yes, they are admitting loudly and bravely, we live in beautiful homes, we’re surrounded by beautiful gardens, our children are playing with wonderful toys, and our kitchen shelves are filled with wonderful food. And if there are people out there who don’t seem to like us and would like to break into our homes and take what we have, well then, part of our good fortune is that we can afford to pay guards to man our gates and keep these people away. And if those who protect us need to hit people in the face with the butts of their rifles, or if they need perhaps even to turn around and shoot, they have our permission, and we only hope they’ll do what they do with diligence and skill.
He goes on to write, “The amazing thing I’ve noticed about those friends of mine who’ve made that choice is that as soon as they’ve made it, they begin to blossom, to flower, because they are no longer hiding, from themselves or anyone else, the true facts about their own lives.”
The idea of “the unspeakable,” of “unspeakable behavior,” is a recurring touchstone in Shawn’s body of work. Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” Shawn’s career might well be viewed as a sustained attempt to pierce this silence, to manage to say something in the realm of what cannot be said, to speak the unspeakable. That Night Thoughts has no intention of abandoning this sustained attempt is apparent in its first words:
Night. A hotel. A dark room on a high floor. Outside the hotel, miles of empty city streets, silent, gray, like gray fields in winter. Inside, I’m alone in a very cold room with a buzzing minibar. Through the window, far below in the street, I can see a couple of thin, solitary, wandering men, one with a hat cocked at a debonair angle. Then I turn on a dim lamp and stare at the newspaper, and my eye goes as always to the stories about crime, the murders. A crime of passion — jealousy, frenzy — a body falling in the shower. Strange deaths in a quiet suburb — an odd weapon — a serial killer? My senses quicken, my lethargy falls away. They’re writing about me. Well, no, not me, not yet. But I know, as I read, that I’m not reading as the victim, I’m reading as the murderer.
Here it is again, the unspeakable: strange deaths, frenzied acts of violence that quicken the senses. It is shocking, but also exciting, to read about violence, about the unspeakable; and, as Shawn noted in the afterword to Aunt Dan and Lemon, each time we hear a violent story we feel a little less shocked, a little more excited. As always, Shawn’s engagement with violence is personal, not abstract. He knows he is potentially a victim; also — a less common insight — he knows he might have been, and still might well turn out to be, a murderer. His view of human nature is sufficiently pessimistic, sufficiently realistic, to preclude the belief in an absolute innocence that would guarantee that there are some of us who could not possibly slip into brutality or barbarism. “It’s our desperate task,” he writes, “to figure out what, exactly, activates this capacity for unspeakable behavior that we all possess.” But can we? The murderer he is reading about is entirely unable to explain why, given that he killed his victim with his first blow, he went on to stab the body thirty-seven more times. “We can’t ignore the things we’ve learned,” he writes. “The most important thing we’ve learned is that we don’t understand ourselves.”
And from this he draws the following highly plausible conclusion: “the means of violence should not be entrusted to members of the human race.”
While Night Thoughts is all about this absurd and alarming predicament we find ourselves in at the present moment, there is very little mention of our current president. Not explicitly, at any rate. He appears in the first few pages as a kind of apparition, first on television, then in Shawn’s dreams. One assumes that Night Thoughts was mostly written during 2016’s election campaign and before the election itself, not to speak of the inauguration and what has come since. And it’s useless, anyway, for people whose medium is the printed page to try to comment on our current historical moment, now that we have reached the point where ‘our current historical moment’ has become such an ephemeral thing, unlikely to endure until next weekend, a thing whose likely fate is to be canceled, voided, and relegated to the past by tomorrow’s alarming or revelatory headline, if not the next hour’s.
Shawn’s career might well be viewed as a sustained attempt to pierce this silence, to manage to say something in the realm of what cannot be said, to speak the unspeakable.
I am writing these words in mid-May, a few days after the firing of FBI Director James Comey. By the time this issue appears the memory of that shocking act will have been obscured by an indeterminate number of other shocking acts and developments. It seems entirely possible, at this particular moment, that by the time these words appear in print, or not too long after that, someone else may have been installed as president. So let’s not talk about the future or even the present. Let’s talk about the past. Because even after this particular series of events has passed — a series of events that still feels to many of us, despite the fact that it constitutes verifiable reality, more like a succession of hallucinated episodes than a historical sequence — the fact will remain that a huge number of citizens of this country looked at a man who was eminently unsuitable to occupy any major political office and somehow decided that he stood for what they believed in, that he was one of them, that he was the person they wanted to lead this country. And a significant number of those people — this is still true, at any rate, as I write this — have not lost their faith in him. Indeed, the more he shows himself to be precisely the man many of us feared he was, the more he does to confirm those fears, the better, in some quarters, he is liked.
* * *
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” John Stuart Mill wrote in Utilitarianism, “better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.”
But The Designated Mourner’s Jack knows both sides of the question — doesn’t he? He has read poetry; he has gotten to know the people who read and write it, and who write and talk about it. But no — he has read poetry, but he has never really gotten it. Poetry has always been a foreign language to him. And foreign languages are threatening. The language of the intellectuals is threatening; intellectuals, after all, are essentially foreigners in our own country. They, the intellectuals, are always puncturing our preconceptions, implying that we don’t really understand, throwing cold water on the reassuring wisdom of common sense. Telling us, even, that the very planet could be irreparably damaged, perhaps even destroyed, if we don’t change the way we live. Making us feel bad for enjoying the simple pleasures. Intellectuals have never been popular in America. After all, as we all know, a vast proportion of this country’s population, like Jack, would at any given moment rather watch television than read a book, or go to an art museum, or visit the theater. In Night Thoughts, Shawn writes:
Traveling in precisely the opposite of the direction that would help the world to dig itself out of its crisis, many lucky people have come to believe that our spiritual and mental lives should have only two elements: first, everyone should learn whatever technical skills are necessary in order for them to be able to work and make money (skills learned by the unlucky would bring them a small amount of money, skills learned by the lucky would bring them a large amount of money), and second, for relaxation, people should consume very simple pleasures such as very simple stories, very simple music, very simple eroticism, and various sadistic forms of amusement such as television programs that show people insulting or tormenting each other or killing each other. (70-71)
“And regrettably,” he concludes, “the human beings whose mental life would conform to the plan these individuals consider desirable would be ill-equipped intellectually to defend themselves against manipulation and control by cunning supporters of the status quo and all the glittering species of egomaniacs with whom we’re all too familiar.”
* * *
And yet there is, of course, a sense in which music, theater, the arts, all of culture — these elite activities — are supported by, made possible by, our country’s place in the world. If we have the leisure to occupy ourselves with such things, isn’t that leisure bought with blood and oil, by the actions of our military, by the decisions of the people —no matter how distasteful we might find them — in power? And doesn’t this mean that we, too, are implicated, despite the goodness of our intentions?
Around the time he was writing, or at least beginning to think about, Aunt Dan and Lemon, Shawn teamed up with Andre Gregory and film director Louis Malle. Together the three made My Dinner With Andre (1982), in which Shawn and Gregory, who co-wrote the film, play modified versions of themselves who, over the course of a long dinner, conduct a wide-ranging conversation about the theater, art, culture, and, well, the meaning of life.
Two key moments in this inexhaustibly fascinating film seem to speak directly to the change in Shawn’s plays that occurred just around this time. At one point, Andre, describing his quest to find a type of theater that might play a meaningful role in the spiritually anesthetized 1980s, poses his friend an implicit challenge:
How does it affect an audience to put on one of these plays in which you show that people are totally isolated now, and they can’t reach each other, and their lives are desperate? Or how does it affect them to see a play that shows that our world is full of nothing but shocking sexual events, and terror, and violence? Does that help to wake up a sleeping audience? See, I don’t think so, cause I think it’s very likely that the picture of the world that you’re showing them in a play like that is exactly the picture of the world they have already. … So the play tells them that their impression of the world is correct and that there’s absolutely no way out. There’s nothing they can do. And they end up feeling passive and impotent.
This occurs very shortly after Shawn — or ‘Wally,’ which is how the mildly fictionalized version of Shawn is referred to in the film — has expressed concern about his relations with the world at large, a concern that has a great deal to say about the complex relationship between the pleasant, polite, and even charming appearance American projects and the actual reality of what lies underneath:
I mean, I think of myself as just a very decent, good person, you know, just because I think I’m reasonably friendly, to most of the people I happen to meet every day. I mean, I really think of myself quite smugly, I just think I’m a perfectly nice guy, uh, you know, so long as I think of the world as consisting of, uh, you know, just the small circle of the people that I know as friends. … [But] let’s face it, I mean, there’s a whole enormous world out there that I just don’t ever think about. I…I certainly don’t take responsibility for how I’ve lived in that world. I mean, you know, if I were actually to sort of, uh, confront the fact that I’m sort of sharing this stage with…with…with this starving person in Africa somewhere, well, I wouldn’t feel so great about myself. So, naturally, I just…I just blot all those people right out of my perception. So, of course…of course…I’m ignoring, uh, a whole section of the real world. But, frankly, you know, when I write a play, in a way, one of the things I guess I think I’m trying to do is I’m trying to bring myself up against some little bits of reality and I’m trying to share that, uh, with an audience.
This little speech — a small moment in a complex film — set a good deal of the agenda for Shawn’s ensuing work, both as a playwright and as an essayist and cultural commentator. Deciphering our actual relationship with the larger world, and using that knowledge to formulate a more rational, more sane relationship, is what we Americans urgently need to do. It isn’t something we are exceptionally good at. What we have a natural facility for is precisely the opposite: blotting out reality, ignoring large sections of the real world, erasing the facts. It’s important, perhaps, not to be too hard on ourselves here, to remind ourselves that such tendencies are only human. But it is at least as important to remember that our history, our culture, our wealth, and our power not only make our particular acts of erasure potentially more dangerous than those committed by many others, but also make it possible for us to engage in kinds of erasure that are particular to us and that are not available to others at all.
Human beings can get used to pretty much anything. In particular, if we happen to be lucky, we can very easily get used to being lucky. If we have jobs, if we have nice homes, if we have the time and the leisure to read books or to go to movies or the theater — if we and our children have enough to eat — if we don’t live in a war zone, if people aren’t dropping bombs on our heads on a regular basis — it can come to seem that this is simply what life is, that this is the natural way of things. It should, after all, be what life is, it should be the natural way of things. And we are not, after all, undeserving. Everyone should be able to live safe, comfortable live; all things considered, it’s better if some people get to live such lives than if no one does; so — why not us?
And it is a short step from ‘not undeserving’ to ‘deserving.’ A short step, that is, to the thought that we have somehow earned our way here, that our good fortune is not really fortune at all, but something that corresponds to our formidable abilities, or our relentless efforts, or some other deep fact about us that reflects well on us. Even though we know, of course, that that just isn’t so. It isn’t about us at all, it’s about our contingent historical position, about our happening to have been born in the right place at the right time to the right parents. It is, at the end of the day, just luck; our privileged position is based on arbitrary happenstance, not on some form of merit or desert. We are, as Shawn writes in Night Thoughts, “the lucky ones on the banks of the Nile,” the ones whose ancestors happened to live where the soil was rich and life was good. And we all know, or ought to know, the history of what happened next:
And so the lucky people with the surplus passed it all on to their children, their friends, the children of their friends. Once all of that had happened, well, actually exploiting the people who lived farther from the river was almost an afterthought. Let’s put them to work. Why shouldn’t we? Get them to till the fields, and if they also produce a surplus, we’ll take that too…. Do you have five times more than that other guy? Why not ten times more? Why not a hundred times more? For the lucky people, civilization just got more and more fun.
And what of the unlucky? Human beings can get used to almost anything, and one of the many things we have gotten used to is the existence of a great many people who have not been nearly as lucky as we have; people who are, in fact, in many cases, doing very poorly indeed. There are surprisingly many such people, given how much stuff there is to go around, given the extraordinary technological advances we have made in the past century or so, and given that our basic ethical and political systems claim to be grounded in ideas about human equality, about the inherent dignity of all persons, and about the value of empathy and compassion.
Luck has distributed strength in an arbitrary way: this lion is stronger, this elk is stronger, this group of people lives closer to the river, this group lives farther away. Luck has given the person with the penis, the people with the guns, a bit more strength, and so they’ve trampled over everyone else. Morality says we shouldn’t accept that. For the bigger kid to take the smaller kid’s candy bar is not right; it’s wrong. And if the bigger kid gives that candy bar to me, the process by which I received it was wrong, and it’s wrong for me to have it, and it’s wrong for me to eat it.
Human beings can get used to almost anything, and one of the many things we have gotten used to is the existence of a great many people who have not been nearly as lucky as we have.
But knowing this requires a capacity for moral thought; and knowing that the American military is, in the eyes of a great many people in this world, “the bigger kid” in the candy bar story, requires a knowledge of history, geography, politics. In the afterword to Aunt Dan and Lemon Shawn describes how thinking about morality made it clear to him that “my daily obligation … .was, first and foremost, to learn how to make a correct and careful study of the world … [I]f I didn’t know what the world was like, how could I know what action to take?”
But how many people do know what the world is like, or take finding out to be a daily obligation? This is the era of reality TV, and the last thing reality TV is about is reality. Nothing is less like what actually happens in the world than what we see in these shows, which are so heavily edited, formulized and manipulated that they amount to a maddening and deadening form of shtick. Week after week its watchers view the same clichéd situations, the same reactions, human behavior reduced to its ugliest, most simplistic level, which millions of people somehow manage to find entertaining. And of course when you display a certain form of behavior to millions of people, again and again, those viewers will inevitably start to see such behavior as reasonable and appropriate, they will start to think This is just how humans behave.
What happens, then, when the most powerful political office in the country is occupied by a reality TV star? Not, that is to say, a former reality TV star, but a person who still inhabits that unreal universe, a person who is never not performing for the camera and whose primary project seems to be to make the country and its politics into the world’s most watched, and most encompassing, reality TV show? A person who evaluates his acts and utterances not by the criteria of truth or evidence but in terms of audience size and media penetration? How many people heard what I just said? Are people talking about it? Did it make a stir? And this show is broadcast daily, on every channel, in every medium, and because its star is, in fact, the president of the country it is, in a sense that would not have made sense before, reality TV. Because when you are the president everything you say, no matter how much unreality it expresses or contains, immediately becomes reality, becomes, with no delay, a part of the new and constantly shifting unreal reality the citizens of the country you preside over will now be forced to deal with.
If we don’t know history — and if, like Jack, we don’t read books, if, like so many people today, we think being ‘educated’ simply means that you possess a college degree and so are qualified to work in an Amazon warehouse, but does not necessarily imply that you have actually studied the humanities or know anything about culture or world events at all — then we will not be as likely to notice the deep discrepancies between what is publicly endorsed or asserted and what is really the case. In particular, we will be more likely to see the current situation, with its globally inequitable distribution of the world’s resources, as having nothing to do with luck, and therefore to see it as just. “The chain of historical causes and effects from which any collectivity is forged stretches far back into the past, and the individuals who conform to its pressures do not stop to consider what has marked them with this or that stamp,” Czeslaw Milosz wrote in his memoir, Native Realm. “After all, a system does not grow out of a void.” But a great many Americans live in a void. You hear things all the time that tell you this is so. Whenever you hear someone say, ‘America stands for freedom, we fight for freedom all over the world,’ or who wonder why hostility toward American even exists, you know you are hearing someone who lives in a void. More generally, whenever you hear someone say, ‘This is just how things are done, there is no other way,’ or ‘This is the way it has always been, there’s no point in trying to change it,’ you know that you are hearing someone who lives in a void.
This is not the way things have always been. It isn’t true there is no point trying to change it. It isn’t even true that human nature is permanent or unchangeable, that we have always been, for instance, materialistic and voraciously acquisitive. Our attitudes toward money have changed vastly over the centuries; attempting to achieve happiness by accumulating material things is, in fact, a very recent strategy (and not, to judge by the available evidence, a particularly successful one). The early Christians, to name one particular group, looked down on the accumulation of wealth; they thought it was corrupt, an obstacle to holiness, and up until the time of the Protestant Reformation this was the dominant view among Christians. Similarly, the idea that everything is to be evaluated in terms of what is numerically measurable, and in particular in terms of what is financially efficient or lucrative—that such things as hospitals, prisons, and schools, which until recently were commonly understood to be public institutions, ought to be assessed as if they were for-profit corporations, so that the way to determine whether a given hospital, prison, or school is functioning properly is to look to see whether it is making money for some person or other—is an extremely recent idea, one that has only taken hold in the past few decades, despite the fact that vast numbers of people in this country seem to have accepted this as an obvious truth as, yet again, something that we have always known, to the point where the suggestion that there might be some other way of measuring the value of certain things is more often than not, in current society, met with a bewildered and mildly suspicious blank stare.
Our attitudes toward money have changed vastly over the centuries; attempting to achieve happiness by accumulating material things is, in fact, a very recent strategy.
Night Thoughts bears certain resemblances to an earlier work by Shawn, his 1991 monologue, The Fever. The Fever, as it happens, was the first of Shawn’s writings that I read. I came across a copy, purely by chance, in a used bookstore in 1995; I knew nothing of the author but something about the object, its design, its compact feeling in the hand, appealed to me. At the time I had no way of knowing that I had was about to acquire an intellectual incendiary device that was to have a radical effect on how I saw and thought about the world.
Like Night Thoughts, The Fever begins in a hotel and ostensibly takes place over the course of a single night — a dark night of the soul in which the main character, a privileged Westerner who is traveling in a poverty-stricken foreign country and who shares many characteristics with Wallace Shawn, is torn out of his comfortable existence and forced to confront the reality of his life.
The final words of The Fever are “I’m still falling,” and I first read the monologue as a bleak story, the story of a man’s destruction. Going back to the work a few years later I realized that there was room for a more optimistic reading, that the speaker mentions forgiveness just before the final fall, that there was, undeniably, a liberating aspect to the idea of realizing the truth about oneself and one’s relation to others in the world, even if it meant having to question or abandon the comforting things one thought before. “Dear God,” the protagonist moans at one point, “every muscle of my body aches with the constant effort of my lying.” Wouldn’t it be nice, Shawn is asking — not only in The Fever but throughout all of his work, in a myriad of voices — not to have to lie anymore?
“Night is a wonderful blessing,” he writes toward the end of Night Thoughts. “It’s amazing, and I’m so grateful for it. In the darkness, lying in bed, we can stop. To be able to stop — that’s amazing. We can stop. We can think.” And we need to stop and think, because the task before us is pressing and our situation is urgent: “We need to find a path to a better world. … We need a better world right away, this week.”
“Of course,” he goes on, “it’s frightening, too.” Night is frightening; falling is frightening. Giving up the reassuring things we used to think we knew is frightening. To watch one’s country descend into what looks like insanity, to watch people who only a few years before this would have had difficulty gaining the political support of anyone but the most radical of fringe elements ascend to the nation’s highest political offices and begin enforcing on everyone an extraordinarily narrow and dimensionless vision of how human beings are and how the world should be, is frightening. We can try to hold out hope, reminding ourselves that any radical change, no matter how disruptive, has the potential to result in something good. But if night is the time when we can stop and think, it is also the time when we might feel most alone and afraid. “If things go well,” he writes in Night Thoughts, “the life of the unlucky might improve. No matter what happens, the life of the lucky is going to change.”
The opening stage directions for Our Late Night indicate that the play takes place in an apartment that is “high, very high, above a giant city” — it might almost be the hotel room of the first pages of Night Thoughts — and that there is “A sense that the room might tip over; things might fall — or slip.” I have no idea how, as a director or set designer, one would go about visually conveying that sense. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; the sense that things might fall or slip, that the very room might tip over, is inherent in the play’s bizarre dialogue, its mad vision. At any rate, and though this play was written several decades ago, this sense — that the world we live in might at any moment tip over, that things, even the things that up to this point have felt reliable and stable, might at any moment fall, or slip — perfectly captures how things feel now, and have felt for some months. Perhaps this is simply how things are going to feel from now on.
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This essay first published appeared in the Winter issue of Zyzzyva. Our thanks to Troy Jollimore and the Zyzzyva staff for allowing us to reprint it here.