Wallace Shawn’s Pugnacious Wisdom


Wallace Shawn has been a figure of admiration for me ever since I saw My Dinner with Andre, a movie that exemplifies Robert Benchley’s claim that the world is divided into two groups—those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t. My experience is that anyone who knows the film either loves it or hates it. I am passionately in the former camp.

Oddly enough, my admiration for Shawn has not driven me to familiarize myself with his other writings. Every once in a while I find a snippet from him that delights, and I remember the soft spot I have for him.

Case in point: Finding an essay by him in the Guardian talking about why he writes about sex. He begins with this: “I am now what people call ’64 years old’, and I have to admit that I started writing about sex almost as soon as I realised that it was possible to do so – say, at the age of 14 – and I still do it, even though I was in a way the wrong age then, and in a different way I guess I’m the wrong age now.”

And it just gets better. The essay is worth a full read, but here is a section worth highlighting. Shawn suggests a variation on a creativity model that I have often expounded—the theory that each of us has certain paintings, poems, music, novels that we are called to bring into existence. If you’re lucky, they are popular. And if you are not, you labor in obscurity. But labor you must. It’s your offering, and yours alone.

Here’s Shawn’s take:

I suppose it goes without saying that James Joyce, DH Lawrence and others were expanding the scope of literature and redrawing humanity’s picture of itself when they approached this subject in the earlier part of the 20th century. But by the time I came along, many of my friends were embarrassed on my behalf precisely because the topic I was writing about seemed so closely associated with an earlier era.

So why have I stuck with it? I suppose it has to do with the point I’ve heard boringly expressed by writers in one way or another all of my life – the thing they always say, while in a way always hoping that no one will believe them, though what they’re saying is true – some variation of “I don’t do my own writing”. I personally sometimes express the point, when pressed, by saying that I see my writing as a sort of collaboration between my rational self (“me”) and the voice that comes from outside the window, the voice that comes in through the window, whose words I write down in a state of weirded-out puzzlement, thinking, “Jesus Christ, what is he saying?”

The collaboration is really quite an unequal partnership, I’d have to admit. The voice contributes everything, and I contribute nothing, frankly, except some modest organising abilities and (if I may say so) a certain skill in finding, among the voice’s many utterances, those that are most interesting.

Obviously, society has asked writers, as a group, to take time out from normal labour to do this special listening and transcribing, and each writer has been assigned a certain part of the spectrum. No writer can know whether the section that’s been assigned to him contains the valuable code that will ultimately benefit the human species or whether his section consists merely of the more common noise or chatter. But obviously, the system can only work if everyone dutifully struggles to do his best with the material that’s been given to him, rather than trying to do what has already been assigned to somebody else.

The voice outside my own particular window has repeatedly come back to the subject of sex. And sure, I regret it in a way, or it sometimes upsets me. But if I were to conclude that the voice is fundamentally not to be trusted, where would I be then? The enterprise of writing would have to come to an end for me. So at a certain point – and with a certain sadness, because of how I knew I would be seen by other people – I decided I was going to trust the voice I was hearing.

And in this closing passage, sex can also be a stand in for whatever passion consumes us completely:

Sex really is a nation of its own. Those whose allegiance is given to sex at a certain moment withdraw their loyalty temporarily from other powers. It’s a symbol of the possibility that we might all defect for one reason or another from the obedient columns in which we march.

%d bloggers like this: