Wallace Shawn considers himself lucky. He grew up in a wealthy, intellectual home (“full of ashtrays and bourbon”) presided over by his father, legendary New Yorker magazine editor William Shawn. “People were paid to take care of me,” he remembers.
He went on to a good education, a career as a prize-winning playwright and an actor in films, both cult (My Dinner With Andre) and mainstream (The Princess Bride).
Shawn is not blind to the role luck has played in his success in life.
“There’s no reason to doubt,” he says, “that every healthy human infant is born with the potential to play music beautifully, to read with sensitivity, to do scientific research, to put on plays, to draw and paint, and certainly to think. To hink, to understand, to reason, to analyze arguments. And naturally also, to develop, to grow. But almost all of those who are born unlucky have been brutally prevented from developing more than a fraction of their own abilities, and this is perhaps the most shocking fact about our human world.”
Night Thoughts, his autopsy of our civilizational decay, is framed as a night Shawn spends in a once grand hotel in a “dead, ruined neighborhood — all shards and scraps floating in the wind” in an unnamed American city, reading the newspapers and watching television news with increasing despondency.
Recently, in one of the ballrooms of the same hotel a group of young people from a neighbouring housing project had held a celebration, decked out in tuxedos and ballgowns. “As the party wore on, one boy thought another boy had flirted with his date. A fight broke out. Mayhem in the ballroom. Then shots were fired, and the party ended in bondage and death—one boy gone forever, another boy handcuffed and carried away.”
Later in Night Thoughts Shawn returns to the story of the shooting:
“The boy at the party in the hotel ballroom thought his problem was that there was another boy who was flirting with his date. That wasn’t his problem. His problem was bad schools, bad health, bad prenatal care, bad childhood nutrition, danger, terror, daily harassment, condescension expressed by authorities who underestimated his intelligence, the fact that in the building he lived in, the garbage was collected on an irregular schedule, the elevator was broken, the light bulbs in the hallways and the stairwells were broken.”
Shawn despairs that the lucky in our society consider themselves superior by merit and blame those with poor luck for their inferiority. He sees this attitude in nations, states and individual groups as well:
“The people of Great Britain and Europe are still benefiting today from the exploitation of colonized peoples in the nineteenth century, and the people who live in the United States today are still benefiting from the exploitation of nineteenth-century enslaved people in the South whose unpaid labor made possible the creation in the North of the American industrial cornucopia—and also from the deaths of the many millions of Native Americans who once walked and slept and cooked and thought on the very spots where US citizens now go to buy espresso machines, or reenact battles, or ski.”
Shawn skillfully weaves personal stories about his life and the lives of people he knows with larger civilizational themes. Night Thoughts is a slim book, more of an extended essay at less than 100 pages, but it is carefully crafted, well argued and genuinely open-hearted.
Shawn even invites us to look at tyrants, dictators and corporate swindlers with the empathy they almost never feel for the unlucky ones they exploit.
They too, Shawn tells us are simply playing their part in the lucky/unlucky winners/losers dialectic. “I can’t help feeling that the whole apparatus of blame, judging, hatred toward those who’ve done terrible things is fundamentally wrong and ought to be discarded,” he says, “and that punishment and revenge are based on assumptions that are fundamentally false.”
In the end, despite his anger and disgust, Shawn is that rare thing, a compassionate curmudgeon.