Wallace Shawn, Are You Smarter Than Thomas Jefferson?

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A message from the road: I’m traveling this week, having the odd adventure along the way.  While I’m gone, I thought I might offer you a little adventure as well by leaving you in the capably unsettling hands of Wally Shawn.  If you’re my age, you know him from the movie My Dinner with Andre; if you’re younger, you grew up with him in The Princess Bride.  If you’re any age, maybe you caught him in Clueless or heard him as “Rex” in Toy Story.  If you’re lucky, you’ve been unnerved by one of his provocative plays or caught off-guard and moved by one of his notoriously quirky essays.  In fact, I couldn’t recommend more highly his latest book, generically entitled Essays, but — believe me — the least generic book around.  You can get a reasonable taste of just how one-of-a-kind he is by checking out the essay below, his first to appear at TomDispatch, from the expanded paperback edition of his book. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast video interview in which Shawn discusses the political role of the writer, among other things, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) 

There will be no Sunday post this week, but TD will pick up again as usual next week with analysis of the latest Middle Eastern developments.  Tom

Why I Call Myself a Socialist

In most reasonably large towns in the United States and Europe, you can find, on some important public square or street, a professional theater. And so, in various quiet neighborhoods in these towns, you can usually also find some rather quiet individuals, the actors who work regularly in that theater, individuals whose daily lives center around lawns and cars and cooking and shopping and occasionally the athletic events of children, but who surprisingly at night put on the robes of kings and wizards, witches and queens, and for their particular community temporarily embody the darkest needs and loftiest hopes of the human species.

The actor’s role in the community is quite unlike anyone else’s. Businessmen, for example, don’t take their clothes off or cry in front of strangers in the course of their work. Actors do.

Contrary to the popular misconception, the actor is not necessarily a specialist in imitating or portraying what he knows about other people. On the contrary, the actor may simply be a person who’s more willing than others to reveal some truths about himself. Interestingly, the actress who, in her own persona, may be gentle, shy, and socially awkward, someone whose hand trembles when pouring a cup of tea for a visiting friend, can convincingly portray an elegant, cruel aristocrat tossing off malicious epigrams in an eighteenth-century chocolate house.

On stage, her hand doesn’t shake when she pours the cup of chocolate, nor does she hesitate when passing along the vilest gossip about her closest friends. The actress’s next-door neighbors, who may not have had the chance to see her perform, might say that the person they know could never have been, under any circumstances, either elegant or cruel. But she knows the truth that in fact she could have been either or both, and when she plays her part, she’s simply showing the audience what she might have been, if she’d in fact been an aristocrat in a chocolate house in the eighteenth century.

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.

Actors are treated as uncanny beings by non-actors because of the strange voyage into themselves that actors habitually make, traveling outside the small territory of traits that are seen by their daily acquaintances as “them.” Actors, in contrast, look at non-actors with a certain bewilderment, and secretly think: What an odd life those people lead! Doesn’t it get a bit—claustrophobic?

The Haircut Speaks

It’s commonly noted that we all come into the world naked. And at the beginning of each day, most of us find ourselves naked once again, in that strange suspended moment before we put on our clothes.

In various religions, priests put on their clothes quite solemnly, according to a ritual. Policemen, soldiers, janitors, and hotel maids get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work, go to their locker rooms, remove their clothes, and get dressed again in their respective uniforms. The actor goes to the theater, goes to his dressing room, and puts on his costume. And as he does so, he remembers the character he’s going to play — how the character feels, how the character speaks. The actor, in costume, looks in the mirror, and it all comes back to him.

When the actor steps onto the stage to begin the play, he wants to convince the audience that what they’re seeing is not a play, but reality itself. The costume that the actor wears, and the voice, the diction, the accent, the way of speaking that begin to return to the actor when he puts on the costume, are devices designed to set in motion a capacity possessed by every member of the audience, a special human capacity whose existence as part of our genetic makeup is what makes theater possible — that is, our capacity to believe what we want and need to believe about any person who is not ourself.

Because let’s be frank — other people are not me, and people who are not me will always in a way be alien to me, they will always in a way be strangers to me, and I will never know with any certainty what they’re like. So yes, it’s possible to believe a fantasy about them.

Now, I’ve never met my own genes or looked at them under a microscope, but nonetheless I feel I can make some guesses about what they’re like. One thing I feel I know is that I’m amazingly responsive to visual cues about other people, and I’m prepared to guess that this is characteristic of our entire species. And this is why people who can afford it spend enormous sums of money on haircuts and clothes. And this is why films, which deal in close-ups, put an enormous amount of attention on makeup and hair. And this is why actors in plays take their costumes very, very seriously.

It’s all because people really do believe what visual cues say. A haircut dramatically changes how we see a person. A haircut can say, “I’m intelligent, disciplined, precise, and dynamic.” A different haircut can say, “I’m not very bright, I’m sort of a slob, I don’t care what happens to me, I don’t care what you think of me.” There are haircuts that can say, “I find sex an interesting subject, I’m interested in how I look, I’m rather fun, and I think life is great,” and there are haircuts that say, “I’m not interested in sex, and I think life is awful.”

Clothes work in a different way. While the shape of one’s head, as completed by one’s hair, describes personality, clothes tell us about a person’s role in society. But there’s an extraordinary similarity in the speed with which we respond to the cues from haircuts and from clothes and in the strength of our belief that what they’re telling us is true. So when the actor comes on stage in the costume of a king, I’m prepared to believe that he is a king.

The actor on stage is living in reality. He knows that there is indeed a king inside him. But he also knows very well that Fate has made him an actor and not actually a king. The audience member looking at the actor on stage steps out of reality and lives in illusion until the curtain comes down.

Are You Smarter Than Thomas Jefferson?

Our capacity to fantasize about other people and to believe our own fantasies makes it possible for us to enjoy this valuable art form, theater. But unfortunately it’s a capacity which has brought incalculable harm and suffering to human beings.

It’s well known what grief and even danger can result when we make use of this capacity in our romantic lives and eagerly ascribe to a potential partner benevolent characteristics which are based on our hopes and not on truth.

And one can hardly begin to describe the anguish caused by our habit of using our fantasizing capacity in the opposite direction, that is, using it to ascribe negative characteristics to people who, for one reason or another, we’d like to think less of. Sometimes we do this in regard to large groups of people, none of whom we’ve met. But we can even apply our remarkable capacity in relation to individuals or groups whom we know rather well, sometimes simply to make ourselves feel better about things that we happen to have done to them or are planning to do.

You couldn’t exactly say, for example, that Thomas Jefferson had no familiarity with dark-skinned people. His problem was that he couldn’t figure out how to live the life he in fact was living unless he owned these people as slaves. And as it would have been unbearable to him to see himself as so heartless, unjust, and cruel as to keep in bondage people who were just like himself, he ignored the evidence that was in front of his eyes and clung to the fantasy that people from Africa were not his equals.

Well, one could write an entire political history of the human race by simply recounting the exhausting cycle of fantasies which different groups have believed at different times about different other groups. Of course these fantasies were absurd in every case.

After a while one does grasp the pattern. Africans, Jews, Mexicans, same-sex lovers, women. Hmm, after a certain period of time somebody says: well, actually, they’re not that different from anybody else, they have the same capacities, I don’t like all of them, some of them are geniuses, etc. etc. The revelations are always in the same direction. We learn about one group or another the thing that actors quickly learn in relation to themselves when they become actors: people are more than they seem to be.

We’re all rather good at seeing through last year’s fantasies and moving on — and rather proud of it too. “Oh yes, after voting for Barack Obama, we took a marvelous vacation in Vietnam,” “We went to a reading of the poetry of Octavio Paz with our friends the Goldsteins, and we saw Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi there — they looked fantastic”… whatever.

It’s this year’s fantasies that present a difficulty.

Are we more brilliant than Thomas Jefferson? Hmm — probably not. So there’s our situation: it’s delightfully easy to see through illusions held by people far away or by members of one’s own group a century ago or a decade ago or a year ago. But this doesn’t seem to help us to see through the illusions which, at any given moment, happen to be shared by the people who surround us, our friends, our family, the people we trust.

Sorting Babies on the Global Market

Around 400,000 babies are born on earth each day. Some are born irreparably damaged, casualties of the conditions in which their mothers lived — malnutrition, polluted water, mysterious chemicals that sneak into the body and warp the genes. But the much more tragic and more horrible truth is that most of these babies are born healthy. There’s nothing wrong with them. Every one of them is ready to develop into a person whose intelligence, insight, aesthetic taste, and love of other people could help to make the world a better place. Every one of them is ready to become a person who wakes up happily in the morning because they know they’re going to spend the day doing work they find fascinating, work that they love. They’re born with all the genetic gifts they could possibly need. Wiggling beside their mothers, they have no idea what’s going to be done to them.

In the old days of the Soviet Five-Year Plans, the planners tried to determine what ought to happen to the babies born under their jurisdiction. They would calculate how many managers the economy needed, how many researchers, how many factory workers. And the Soviet leaders would organize society in an attempt to channel the right number of people into each category. In most of the world today, the invisible hand of the global market performs this function.

I’ve sometimes noted that many people in my generation, born during World War II, are obsessed, as I am, by the image of the trains arriving at the railroad station at Auschwitz and the way that the S.S. officers who greeted the trains would perform on the spot what was called a “selection,” choosing a few of those getting off of each train to be slave laborers, who would get to live for as long as they were needed, while everyone else would be sent to the gas chambers almost immediately. And just as inexorable as were these “selections” are the determinations made by the global market when babies are born. The global market selects out a tiny group of privileged babies who are born in certain parts of certain towns in certain countries, and these babies are allowed to lead privileged lives. Some will be scientists, some will be bankers. Some will command, rule, and grow fantastically rich, and others will become more modestly paid intellectuals or teachers or artists. But all the members of this tiny group will have the chance to develop their minds and realize their talents.

As for all the other babies, the market sorts them and stamps labels onto them and hurls them violently into various pits, where an appropriate upbringing and preparation are waiting for them. If the market thinks that workers will be needed in electronics factories, a hundred thousand babies will be stamped with the label “factory worker” and thrown down into a certain particular pit. And when the moment comes when one of the babies is fully prepared and old enough to work, she’ll crawl out of the pit, and she’ll find herself standing at the gate of a factory in India or in China or in Mexico, and she’ll stand at her workstation for 16 hours a day, she’ll sleep in the factory’s dormitory, she won’t be allowed to speak to her fellow workers, she’ll have to ask for permission to go the bathroom, she’ll be subjected to the sexual whims of her boss, and she’ll be breathing fumes day and night that will make her ill and lead to her death at an early age. And when she has died, one will be able to say about her that she worked, like a nurse, not to benefit herself, but to benefit others. Except that a nurse works to benefit the sick, while the factory worker will have worked to benefit the owners of her factory. She will have devoted her hours, her consideration, her energy and strength to increasing their wealth. She will have lived and died for that. And it’s not that anyone sadly concluded when she was born that she lacked the talent to become, let’s say, a violinist, a conductor, or perhaps another Beethoven. The reason she was sent to the factory and not to the concert hall was not that she lacked ability but that the market wanted workers, and so she was assigned to be one.

And during the period when all the babies who are born have been sorted into their different categories and labeled, during the period when you could say that they’re being nourished in their pens until they’re ready to go to work, they’re all assigned appropriate costumes. And once they know what costume they’ll wear, each individual is given an accent, a way of speaking, some characteristic personality traits, and a matching body type, and each person’s face starts slowly to specialize in certain expressions which coordinate well with their personality, body type, and costume. And so each person comes to understand what role he will play, and so each can consistently select and reproduce, through all the decades and changes of fashion, the appropriate style and wardrobe, for the rest of his life.

The Peace of Death

Even those of us who were selected out from the general group have our role and our costume. I happen to play a semi-prosperous fortunate bohemian, not doing too badly, nor too magnificently. And as I walk out onto the street on a sunny day, dressed in my fortunate bohemian costume, I pass, for example, the burly cop on the beat, I pass the weedy professor in his rumpled jacket, distractedly ruminating as he shambles along, I see couples in elegant suits briskly rushing to their meetings, I see the art student and the law student, and in the background, sometimes looming up as they come a bit closer, those not particularly selected out — the drug-store cashier in her oddly matched pink shirt and green slacks, the wacky street hustler with his crazy dialect and his crazy gestures, the wisecracking truck drivers with their round bellies and leering grins, the grim-faced domestic worker who’s slipped out from her employer’s house and now races into a shop to do an errand, and I see nothing, I think nothing, I have no reaction to what I’m seeing, because I believe it all.

I simply believe it. I believe the costumes. I believe the characters. And then for one instant, as the woman runs into the shop, I suddenly see what’s happening, the way a drowning man might have one last vivid glimpse of the glittering shore, and I feel like screaming out, “Stop! Stop! This isn’t real! It’s all a fantasy! It’s all a play! The people in these costumes are not what you think! The accents are fake, the expressions are fake — Don’t you see? It’s all –”

One instant — and then it’s gone. My mind goes blank for a moment, and then I’m back to where I was. The domestic worker runs out of the shop and hurries back toward her job, and once again I see her only as the character she plays. I see a person who works as a servant. And surely that person could never have lived, for example, the life I’ve lived, or been like me — she’s not intelligent enough. She had to be a servant. She was born that way. The hustler surely had to be a hustler, it’s all he could do, the cashier could never have worn beautiful clothes, she could never have been someone who sought out what was beautiful, she could only ever have worn that pink shirt and those green slacks.

So, just as Thomas Jefferson lived in illusion, because he couldn’t face the truth about the slaves that he owned, I, too, put to use every second of my life, like my beating heart, this capacity to fantasize which we’ve all been granted as our dubious birthright. My belief in the performance unfolding before me allows me not to remember those dreadful moments when all of those babies were permanently maimed, and I was spared. The world hurled the infant who became the domestic worker to the bottom of a pit and crippled her for life, and I saw it happen, but I can’t remember it now. And so it seems quite wonderful to me that the world today treats the domestic worker and me with scrupulous equality.

It seems wonderfully right. If I steal a car, I go to jail, and if she steals a car, she goes to jail. If I drive on the highway, I pay a toll, and if she drives on the highway, she pays a toll. We compete on an equal basis for the things we want. If I apply for a job, I take the test, and if she applies for the job, she takes the test. And I go through my life thinking it’s all quite fair.

If we look at reality for more than an instant, if we look at the human beings passing us on the street, it’s not bearable. It’s not bearable to watch while the talents and the abilities of infants and children are crushed and destroyed. These happen to be things that I just can’t think about. And most of the time, the factory workers and domestic workers and cashiers and truck drivers can’t think about them either. Their performances as these characters are consistent and convincing, because they actually believe about themselves just what I believe about them — that what they are now is all that they could ever have been, they could never have been anything other than what they are. Of course, that’s what we all have to believe, so that we can bear our lives and live in peace together. But it’s the peace of death.

Actors understand the infinite vastness hiding inside each human being, the characters not played, the characteristics not revealed. Schoolteachers can see every day that, given the chance, the sullen pupil in the back row can sing, dance, juggle, do mathematics, paint, and think. If the play we’re watching is an illusion, if the baby who now wears the costume of the hustler in fact had the capacity to become a biologist or a doctor, a circus performer or a poet or a scholar of ancient Greek, then the division of labor, as now practiced, is inherently immoral, and we must somehow learn a different way to share out all the work that needs to be done. The costumes are wrong. They have to be discarded. We have to start out naked again and go from there.

Wallace Shawn is an Obie Award-winning playwright and a noted stage and screen actor. He is co-author of the movie My Dinner with Andre and author of the plays Marie and Bruce, The Fever, Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Designated Mourner, and Grasses of a Thousand Colors. His nonfiction collection Essays (Haymarket Books) is out now in an expanded paperback edition featuring “Why I Call Myself a Socialist,” as well as in an audio edition. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast video interview in which Shawn discusses the political role of the writer, among other things, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Wallace Shawn

Wallace Shawn is an Obie Award-winning playwright and a noted stage and screen actor. His plays The Designated Mourner and Marie and Bruce have recently been produced as films. He is co-author of the movie My Dinner with Andre and also author of the plays The Fever, Aunt Dan and Lemon, and Grasses of a Thousand Colors. His nonfiction collection Essays (Haymarket Books) is out now in an expanded paperback edition featuring “Why I Call Myself a Socialist,” as well as in an audio edition.