October 16, 2023

Night Thoughts by Wallace Shawn

Earlier this week, someone was telling me about a lovely celebrity run-in she had: she was walking on the High Line in the early morning, and was enjoying the way the morning light was lighting the walkers' faces. As she stared at people, one person in particular responded with a wave and a delightful smile. It was Wallace Shawn: 

Which reminded me of a fantastic essay I read of his a couple years ago: Night Thoughts. I remembered the essay as being both damning and motivating; as something of a screed, yet also calming in its wisdom and perception. It seemed a good week to revisit: 

The essay was written after a sleepless night as Shawn considered the troubled world we live in. He starts with distilling the idea of privilege and social power merely to the concept of luck. He defines "lucky" and "unlucky" people", which can seem recklessly simplistic, but ends up being a useful simplification. In a world where a word like "privilege" has become co-opted and distorted beyond its meaning, saying what you mean in the simplest terms, i.e. luck, is much more effective. The brilliance of his argument is in the fact that his conceptions, though simple, somehow aren't reductionist: 

In the context of the lucky and unlucky, our world has a seeming never-ending hunger for violence and vengeance, which he goes on to inspect through a lens of radical empathy. This is the passage that has resonated and sat with me the most in the years since I first read the essay. Which isn't to say I immediately agree; I'd like to agree, I'd like to be this high-minded, but, in all my rage, I'm not quite there yet. It's a useful idea though, even if I'm still aspiring to it: 

This essay is often described as dark; and it might be, but I never found it dispiriting. In fact, I feel stirred to action by what feels like Shawn's continuing hope in our world despite all he knows about it. Though he conveys a grim diagnosis, he never seems demoralized in his mission for a better world:

Go ahead and find this essay in its entirety at Haymarket Books. While you're there, you can also download the free ebooks the publisher is currently offering about settler-colonialism and apartheid—a useful antidote to our moment's jingoism.