Dinner with Myself: Wallace Shawn, Isolation, Politics, and the mythical Andre (originally published 2011)

I was eating a dinner of kimchi, pork, sigeumchi namul, and acorn jelly in the cafeteria of the university where I work. I almost choked on a renegade piece of kimchi as I listened to a podcast that that Flickers on the Cave did on Dinner with Andre. You see, I flashed back to a moment when I was arguing with my ex-wife over mid-summer over a writing project and then listened to NPR on my computer. Particularly a episode of the The Leonard Lopate Show on Wallace Shawn’s book Essays. I remember looking it up and seeing that Wallace Shawn, the dinosaur from Toy Story, released a book from a press noted for publishing essays on socialism, anarchism, and left-wing history.

You know, this guy:

In the crisp autumn Korean air as I eat my lunch and listened to a movie podcast, the absurdity of that just washed over me for a while. Yet there is something about Wallace Shawn that I identify with. I remember reading this when I bought that book of essays by Shawn:

Born by most definitions into the ruling class, I was destined to live a comfortable life. And to spend one’s life as a so-called “creative artist” is probably the most comfortable, cozy, and privileged life that a human being can live on this earth—the most “bourgeois” life, if one uses that phrase to describe a life so comfortable that no one living it would want to give it up. To lie in bed and watch words bump together until they become sentences is a form of hedonism, whether the words and sentences glorify society and the status quo or denounce them.

I would say that as a poet and a writer, this hits home. Now what I do is not lying in bed watching words bump together, but it is definitely work that, while difficult, is privileged and akin to hedonism. I don’t know that I have Wallace Shawn’s seemingly puritanical self-reproachment, but that naked and vulnerable honesty speaks to me.

I remember reading this in an essay that Shawn published at Tom Dispatch:

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.

I thought of all the political rants and self-righteous I have had in other periods of my life. I too call myself a socialist. Probably to the left of Mr. Wallace. So listening to Wallace Shawn on Tom’s podcast was interesting, was interesting because Shawn Wallace sounded like every man’s Adorno.

(For example Wallace is saying something like this: In general they are intoxicated by the fame of mass culture, a fame which the latter knows how to manipulate; they could just as well get together in clubs for worshipping film stars or for collecting autographs. What is important to them is the sense of belonging as such, identification, without paying particular attention to its content. As girls, they have trained themselves to faint upon hearing the voice of a ‘crooner’. Their applause, cued in by a light-signal, is transmitted directly on the popular radio programmes they are permitted to attend. They call themselves ‘jitter-bugs’, bugs which carry out reflex movements, performers of their own ecstasy. Merely to be carried away by anything at all, to have something of their own, compensates for their impoverished and barren existence. The gesture of adolescence, which raves for this or that on one day with the ever-present possibility of damning it as idiocy on the next, is now socialized.- Adorno)

In this I remember the first time I watched dinner with Andre, everything Andre said about peak experiences and the danger of being asleep amazed me. I still see some truth in the posturing of the mythical Andre, but it’s Wallie’s self-honesty that moved me.

For a second, I thought of the years I toiled as a teacher. For second, I thought about how seeing my then wife sleep in the morning made me day better. For a second, I remembered that is part of the absurdity of life. A grown man who has the time to professionally write poetry between teaching and rebuilding his life. For a second, I thought of that dinosaur who calls himself a socialist. Then I caught my breathe, chewed my kimchi, went to drink my glass of water from a steel cup as a put away my waste as is the custom here in Korea.

When I went outside, the air seemed colder than it did when I went it. I too call myself a socialist. While I wasn’t born into the upper class, in fact far from it, but in a way my position really is inconceivable.


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