An Evening With Wallace Shawn
From time to time, pundits will opine on the lack of intellectuals and geniuses in our society, with many questioning over the past several years, “Where have all the philosophers gone?” Clearly, they haven’t looked diligently enough, because the geniuses, intellectuals, and philosophers remain firmly in our midst. In fact, one of the USA’s most prolific and interesting thinkers recently released his new book, generating fascinating discussions and musings on a wide variety of topics and further cementing him as one of our country’s great philosophers.
Wallace Shawn spoke at Manhattan’s storied Strand Book Store on Thursday for a discussion of his new book of essays, Night Thoughts. The renowned actor, playwright, and essayist brought his signature wit and charisma to the shop’s cozy third floor, where he talked about his personal philosophies and the writing process for the book, ending the evening with a spirited audience Q&A session.
A Peek Into The Process
The conversation, moderated by comedian Hari Kondabolu, began with Shawn ruminating on his writing process. “The idea behind it was that it would read like one night’s thoughts,” he noted. “The book was written over the span of a few months, and my hope is that it reads with the freedom that one does sometimes have at night, that freedom to make somewhat irrational leaps from one point to the next. However, my hope is that by the time the reader has finished, it all fits together rather logically.”
One of the most notable excerpts from the book echoes the thoughts that many people have but are afraid to voice: the part of our conscience that tells us whether to trust others. When asked about this struggle, Shawn explained it by noting that most of us have done things in our lives that cause us to ask ourselves afterward, “My god, why did I do that?” And if we don’t know ourselves well enough to predict what we’ll say, how can we predict such behavior in others? “If you take it on board that the whole species does not understand itself, and is not even close, then you start to see some of the problems that came up in the 20th century, where people with very good motives ended up doing things that were very regrettable,” he told guests at the event.
The Lucky and the Unlucky
An interesting theme in Night Thoughts is Shawn’s belief that society is split into two distinct types of people: the “lucky” and the “unlucky.” As many are aware, Shawn’s father was the esteemed William Shawn, longtime editor of The New Yorker, a fact that appears to have deposited the younger Shawn into the “lucky” category from birth. Shawn does not shy away from this reality and, in fact, seems to drive many of his deeper ruminations. He believes the “lucky” have a responsibility to abandon their complacency and adopt a stronger awareness of how the other half lives.
“Nobody always knows what category they’re in; however, I think most people are always aware that there are the people who give the orders, and those who receive them,” Shawn said during his talk. “Using that phrase, ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky,’ just means that some people are stronger than others, and there’s no reason that they should be other than lucky. They’re not better, or nicer, just lucky enough to be born stronger than the weak. After years of thinking about this, I believe that morality means that those people who have been given more strength by luck actually don’t have the right to lord it over everybody else.”
An Optimistic Philosopher
One might think that a progressive thinker like Shawn would have nothing but contempt for the country’s current state, but ultimately, his talk leaned more toward optimism for the future. After ruminating on everything from global politics to his own educational background, Shawn ended the discussion on a hopeful note, saying that he feels that the current period is a great moment for progressive movements in the United States. Compared to ten or fifteen years ago, Shawn opined, it’s almost mind-boggling how progressive we’ve become as a country.
Shawn managed the Q&A portion of the talk with the wit and enthusiasm that one might expect from someone with as long a career in entertainment as he has enjoyed. The high point arrived when an audience member asked about what his favorite books of the year have been. Shawn thought for a moment before responding. “I’m very secretive about what books I read. I don’t consider it any of anybody’s business, but because I don’t want to be a poor sport, I’ll keep thinking on that one, and try to let you know afterwards.”
Whereas one might bristle from such a non-answer if it came from a less-informed writer, the response was perfect in that it allowed Shawn to retain an air of mystery, which is essential when examining the philosopher’s mind. As Albert Einstein wrote in his essay The World As I See It, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” Shawn provided just the right amount of mystery to leave his fans wanting more, and hopefully he will deliver with more books of his musings to follow his excellent Night Thoughts.