Critique of the rich flawed by inconsistencies of logic
Night Thoughts by Wallace Shawn review: long essay gestures toward universalism but is too often lacking in detail
“Night Thoughts” moves between diverse topics such as Beethoven, terrorism and education, as Wallace Shawn addresses the sins of the well-to-do.
Many people who see plays and read books that engage with contemporary moral and political issues, like those by Wallace Shawn, often feel good – even proud – for having consumed them. They create an echo chamber of self-congratulation as they tell their peers how concerned they are about various injustices and are gratified when their friends respond in kind.
Shawn, the son of a storied editor-in-chief of the New Yorker magazine, frequently admits he has never known anything but a privileged life and might be mistaken for one of this set, but he has never been popular among them. A self-described socialist, his career as a writer is defined by not pandering to this crowd and instead pointing out to them, in provocative plays like The Fever and numerous essays, that truly dealing with these concerns begins by admitting that they are part of the problem.
In his new book-length, roving essay Night Thoughts which moves associatively between diverse topics such as Beethoven, terrorism and education, Shawn again addresses the sins of the well-to-do. Though he is no less concerned about the horrors of capitalism and state violence than during the George W Bush years, his first Trump-era publication marks a slight shift in tone.
This moment, he implies throughout, calls for more than trenchant criticism: it requires a plea to the very audience that often refuses to listen to him. Considering how influential a well-composed jeremiad about our approaching apocalypse then could be, Shawn deserves reproach for succumbing to hypocrisy and shallow thinking himself.
Written in unadorned, almost fable-like prose, this slim volume gestures toward universalism through its frequent omission of detail and invocation of the collective. “If we simply keep going the way we’re going now,” he writes, “a horrible death, for the rich as well as for the poor, surely can’t be escaped.” These are clever rhetorical tricks, at times entrancing and lacking any bombast or vitriol for his opponents to react against, but the style too often fails when used to address certain complex issues.
For example, Shawn implores that those born into fortunate conditions must begin questioning their identity and position in society, which he hopes will have them considering others with greater empathy.
His own continual struggle to reconcile his enjoyment of bourgeois pleasures with his concern for the marginalised and dispossessed leads him to see the world and its discontents through a simplistic “lucky”/“unlucky” prism. (He gives chance sole credit for his good fortune, asserting “I don’t really believe I have a right to what I have.”) Although the binary produces some beguiling passages that sound like they come from a Laurie Anderson album (“The lucky people either have more – or they have much more – or they have much, much more – because a person can be lucky, or very lucky, or very, very lucky . . . Lucky people give orders. Unlucky people obey orders”), its reductiveness is glaring.
While “the lucky” should not be limited to “the 1 per cent,” Shawn’s expanded definition – which lumps together anyone who enjoys “two or three fairly healthy meals a day,” who lives in a place that “has not been bombed” and who has “loved ones [who] have not been raped, tortured, or killed” – ignores diversity of experience within even small communities.
As rapacious as the United States is with its foreign policy, its violence is not limited to outside its borders; many black, Muslim, and Native Americans would disagree that everyone in the country should consider themselves on the better side of chance.
Belief in luck
Even less rational or excusable is the theory of justice inspired by this belief in luck. Adhering to a rather radical determinist view of human behaviour, which taken to its logical conclusion means we have no free will, Shawn argues we should not “condemn, revile, punish or kill the lucky, privileged or the greedy” for their actions. How he equates condemnation and killing remains unclear.
He goes on to ask, about Bernie Madoff and Radovan Karadži?, “If I’d been in their circumstances, would I have done the things they did?” – and, without hesitation, answers yes about leading a Ponzi scheme or committing genocide, respectively. While this logic is less abrasive, even convincing, regarding moments of crisis (claiming we would act ethically under pressure “is simply foolish,” he asserts), here it homogenises reprehensible behaviour and immediately forgives it with an extreme application of letting whomever is without sin cast the first stone.
But calculated and premeditated heinous acts must not be equated so uncritically with, say, certain types of complicity – such as paying taxes to a government that buys bombs that it drops on other nations out of greed or bigotry – regardless of how damnable they are.
No one may be intrinsically “bad” and the true motivations for our actions may be hidden from us, as Shawn believes, but vileness has a spectrum. Not addressing it out of a vague sense that we are all capable of committing violence does little to advance a progressive ethics.
Plight of oppressed
This reluctance to judge, however, yields more productive results when considering violence committed by the oppressed, particularly Muslims. Though Shawn has previously expressed sympathy for extreme pacifism and is likely a vocal proponent of free-speech rights, he does not simply dismiss as madness the impassioned reactions, including violence, that many Muslims have toward the proliferation of spiteful cartoons and other acts like Koran burning that denigrate Islam. “For people . . . for whom the Koran is the fountain that provides the world’s only goodness,” he writes, “an insult to the book can feel more painful than blows that are inflicted on their own bodies.”
As sensitive as this particular observation and few others in the book may be, they do not resolve the fundamental inconsistency of Shawn’s argument. He asks that in the stillness of the midnight hours we “consider the possibility that we can start again” as a species rather than continue acting like “some horribly disturbed demented children” as we destroy the planet, constantly seek power, and commit violence to sustain the current world order. But if circumstance alone controls our lives, pleading for change is futile.