wallace shawn

Night Thoughts is the subversive musings that Wallace Shawn cannot admit during the day; witty and involving, the book should be spread widely, finds Dominic Alexander


Wallace Shawn, Night Thoughts (Haymarket Books 2017), 70pp.

Wallace Shawn, Hollywood character actor, confesses that he was brought up in a well-to-do household where he was taught to appreciate the fine creations of civilisation, but his subversive Night Thoughts tell of the dark side to these cultural goods. Civilisation is in fact created by violence, which is one of the strands of thought Shawn weaves through this equally elegant and arresting conversational essay.

He begins with a startlingly observation on the day’s newspaper stories, confessing that he realises ‘that I’m not reading as the victim, I’m reading as the murderer’ (p.5). This did not strike me as a promising beginning, but the artful stream of consciousness which follows revealed the point, that the ‘“story of civilisation” – [is] the endlessly repeating story of a strong person holding some squirming weak person’s head under the water’ (p.32). Shawn explores the psychological dimensions to this insight, as where he imagines a maid suddenly and violently rejecting her subordinated role to a wealthy patrician of his acquaintance:

‘Of course the housekeeper knows that only bad consequences would follow if she should murder her employer. And of course most of the time she actually believes that he’s a superior being, and so there isn’t anything objectionable about the simple fact that he has s superior position in the world, and there’s no particular reason to think about murdering him. After all … if he weren’t superior, why would she be working for him six days a week, doing all the things he asks her to do? If he weren’t superior, why wouldn’t he occasionally be working for her, doing all the things she might like him to do?’ (p.23).

The personal violence of class breathes through this and other passages of reminiscence, political reflection and commentary, that, woven together, lead the reader down the path to some ineluctable conclusions about the society in which we live. The everyday moment of internalised oppression proceeds from the beginning of class society, which Shawn pictures for us as being on the Nile river, where lucky people have the best, most fertile land:

‘And so the lucky people with the surplus passed it on to their children, their friends, the children of their friends. Once all of that happened, well, actually exploiting the people who lived farther from the river was almost an afterthought. Let’s put them to work. Why shouldn’t we? Get them to till the fields, and if they produce a surplus, we’ll take that too. And then, we’ll get them to carry on their backs the massive fragments of stone, carry them and push them all the way up, up, to the top of the pyramid – cities, gates, statues, temples, palaces’ (p.17).

This brief work manages a kind of epitome of world history with just a few observations of this kind, and then resets the focus to make us understand the bewildering violence of our present. He is really only asking us to make the necessary connections, but there is a powerful logic based simply on empathy here, which is used to relate the psychological injuries at the individual scale with the large-scale damage caused by imperialism at the global political level. Shawn, as result, does not bother to preface himself with any disclaimers about abhorring terrorism, but moves us directly to the point that is rarely allowed in public discourse, and more rarely still put so well:

‘But, of course, we’re puzzled or sometimes almost incredulous when followers of Islam are rioting in the streets or even occasionally killing people because of what we might see as one or another not terribly egregious insult to their religion … But when people have no control of their own lives, and no feeling of safety, and they don’t know how to find the few basic things they need in order to survive, it’s not surprising that they hold tight onto their religion – it may be the only thing they have left … an insult to the book can feel more painful than blows that are inflicted on their own bodies’ (pp.29-30).

Those who do not wish to hear will find objections to passages like this, and counter with examples stripped of the connections of history, but Shawn insists on the real context for Muslim people in the West: ‘Now grandparents, parents and children were all trying to make a life in the lands of former colonizers, and it wasn’t easy’ (p.32). We cannot escape from the facts of the history of colonisation and the present reality of Western interventions, including torture and drone assassination, if we are to understand our own times.

Shawn is withering about the treatment of Muslim people in Western countries. He brilliantly lampoons the sinister absurdity of the Prevent programme in Britain, observing that when he was young a ‘puritanical’ teacher was worried that her teenage students were too interested in sex, and not enough in serious current affairs:

‘But in David Cameron’s classrooms, the teachers became concerned if the students started thinking too little about sex. The teachers were on notice that if students started to dress more conservatively or behave more decorously, if they lost interest in gossiping and started to pray more frequently, if they stopped going to parties and began to read magazines about international affairs, then the higher officials at their schools had to be quietly notified. More importantly, if the children started to believe that Britain and the United States had invaded Iraq in 2003, or that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had died as a result, then they became potential candidates for thought retraining programs in which they could relearn how to forget that these things had happened’ (p.35).

French Islamophobia also gets a deserved roasting for its callous insensitivity, particularly the headscarf ban, which insists that Muslim girls can only obtain an education if they ‘violate what some of them consider an important tenet of their faith’ (p.36). The self-righteous defence of ‘free speech’ in relation to insulting cartoons is given due contempt: ‘it might seem to be clear that what the world needs at the moment is more sensitivity, rather than less, and what French Muslims need is less humiliation, rather than more’ (p.38).

Finally, Shawn points out that none of these strategies, neither Prevent, nor the suppression and ridiculing of Islam, is going to work to stamp out the ‘bin Ladenists’. In fact, the approach of ‘bombing them in large numbers’ or ‘firing specialized missiles at them in small groups or one by one’, has resulted in increasing the numbers of such people throughout the world. Shawn insists this is the inevitable result if ‘the world’s most insanely rich and luckiest people start to send missiles into the villages, homes, schools, hospitals, funerals, and wedding parties of people who already are and always have been horribly unlucky’ (pp.39-40).

Shawn reflects that the present campaign against the ‘bin Ladenists’ is an attempt to repeat the previously more successful ‘technique of killing Marxists’. Moreover: ‘You could even say that because of the killing of Marxists by the Western powers, there are places in the world in which the thoughtful, compassionate ideas of Marx were directly replaced by the cruel, reductive ideas of Osama bin Laden’. Yet if all these people from both groups were successfully wiped off the map, and their ideas thus done away with, ‘so long as the subjugation of unlucky people continued, new words would be found’ (p.41).

This is the source of hope: there will always be resistance against exploitation and oppression, some of it inspiring, some of it not; ‘The bin Ladenists are not inspiring’ (p.42). The possibility, however, always remains of change because ‘the unlucky’ have always had ‘the power to withhold their labor and stop the machine’. Today, Shawn argues, ‘a serious upheaval’, which would completely alter the balance between the lucky and the unlucky, ‘is more possible than it has been before’.

The difference between lucky and unlucky includes criteria such as ‘if your city has not been bombed’, so many citizens of the West are therefore included in the former, so long as you are not being ‘regularly shouted at or threatened or punished by your boss or his managers at work’ (p.44). Even in developed countries, this doesn’t include that many people these days. Nonetheless, the address is at least partly to the more privileged in America who are enjoined to recognise that part of their wealth, at least, is due to the fact that the US:

‘has been engaged since 1945 in an extraordinarily audacious attempt to use its diplomatic abilities, its skill at trickery and deceit, and most of all its military power, to place the government of basically every country on earth under its direct or indirect control’ (pp.44-5).

In the end, Shawn concludes that despite the dark origins of civilisation, its very products ‘electricity, cities, books, poetry, mathematics, physics, painting and quartets will be the sorts of things we have at our disposal to work with if a better world is ever to be made’ (p.63).

With wit and wisdom to spare, Night Thoughts is a subversive gem of an essay, which ought to appeal beyond those who already convinced that radical change is needed. Even for those people, a well judged and cleverly argued piece such as this can be restorative and inspiring. Either way, it would surely be beneficial to us all if it received the very wide audience that it deserves.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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