Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Believing Our Fantasies

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.

Wallace Shawn, the actor and playwright, best known to millions for his role in The Princess Bride ("Never get involved in a land war in Asia!"), has come out with a book of essays, one of which is a beautiful piece of writing about actors, society, and mankind's capacity for believing fantasies about other people.

He begins by pointing out one common misperception about what actors do. It is commonly assumed that the actor's art is mainly one of deception, of imitating other people and assuming false identities. It is this conception that moved Plato to bar actors from his ideal republic. To the contrary, Shawn explains that what actors do is journey deeply into themselves and present what they find there. To play a king, one transcends one's normal persona and finds the king that is within their own person. If I play a king, you are seeing what might have happened if I had been born in such a place and had things happen to me that led to me becoming a king. When you look at this way, I am putting a costume on, yes, but I am also taking my own costume -- the costume that makes me the person you think you know -- off.

There is an element of pretend, of course -- that's the point. It is all pretend. Our personas are pretend. The personas are useful but they are pretend. To the extent we believe our personas are real and immutable, that our lot in life is thus and this is the story's end, we suffer. For actors, this is obvious; but it is rarely apparent to everyone else.

The broader social implication, Wallace explores when he speaks of 400,000 babies being born each day. Most of these are born healthy and Shawn writes, "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." From there, something awful happens, as Shawn explains.

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.

Such a poignant and vivid critique of the nature of globalized capitalism, the neoliberal system that makes slaves out of whole nations.

The Buddha's insight is that our own persona, our particular "self," as defined within a most confined and unexamined space, is a delusion. At best, it is a useful delusion -- it helps us cross the street without being killed, for instance. Still, it is a fiction, and to the extent we make decisions based on that fiction being reality, we limit our ability to realize ourselves and love others. What goes along with this, of course, is that we perpetuate the suffering by believing the same about "other" beings. We believe our fictions about other individuals in our lives, and we also believe fictions about masses of people.

It is possible to wake up. Shawn describes a fleeting moment of awakening.

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 --”

Followed by slipping back into the normal mode of believing appearances.

But implicit in his essay is this: once the mask really drops, it is hard to forget. And it is possible to love yourself and other people for all the multitudes that we are. What Shawn does not get to in this essay is that we are not billions of separate human beings. Separate bodies, perhaps, but our being is interconnected.

When the mask drops and we don't believe the fantasy anymore, we still have to make a living. So we wear the cop outfit, the professor outfit, the bohemian outfit, the maid outfit, but put up with the roles imposed on us by the market and human ignorance, unless we are in a position to help change the roles. When the mask drops and we don't believe the fantasy anymore, the bodhisattva can appear in any human form whatsoever, distributing light and forgiveness wherever they walk.

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