Home     About     Contact     

Wallace Shawn and Our Planetary Fever

Material and Mystery on a Bathroom Floor – 

Ignoring their embedded-ness, complex systems
relate to the environment with greed and aggression.

If world religions are based on any one experience, it’s the kind of night Wallace Shawn documents in his play The Fever. We’ve all had them. The harsh inner judge shows up with his clipboard and his tilted scales demanding full access to the heart. In flashes of self-recognition we glimpse the demonic patterns that have covertly governed the course of our lives. Cherished self-images collapse in on themselves as the mind swirls around in a soup composed of everything it feels disconnected from. Delivered as a single long monologue, The Fever manages to link an experience of this kind to material facts, uniting the personal and the political in a way that only high art can do well.

The son of wealthy New York elites, Shawn finds himself alone and ill on the tile floor of a hotel bathroom in a Latin American country where a Marxist uprising is in progress. Shawn uses the experience to locate his own life within a larger critique of how the “haves” conceal from themselves the brutality that supports their comfort and leisure. He remembers birthday parties, Mozart recitals and performances of Chekhov, all of which he once cherished but now finds bitter to the taste. The play is a plea for grace and deliverance, an effort to locate a new and elusive clarity about first causes. “Help me,” Shawn writes at the close, “I’m still falling.”

For years in New York, Shawn performed The Fever in the living rooms and salons of his well-heeled friends, many of whom wore their progressive self-images on their sleeves. Back in the late 1990s it was possible for the idealistically inclined to imagine social justice to be perhaps our chief problem. The momentum of institutionalized greed and aggression seemed like the major limiting factors to our collective well being. Today, in an era defined by grave environmental threats — global warming and the scarcity of fresh water — such concerns begin to seem simplistic, almost quaint. The world has shifted since Shawn wrote The Fever, and yet for me today the play suggests ways to draw the long menu of our concerns into a single, coherent framework. The key, and this will not surprise readers familiar with this column, is the new science of complex systems.

One of the things scientists say about complex systems is that they are emergent. You have a bunch of relatively simple operations going on among relatively simple elements…and at a certain scale of interconnectivity a new system “emerges” that exhibits entirely new and much more complex behaviors. The emergent properties of this new system cannot be reduced to the properties of the component parts. These qualities are entirely self-catalyzed and unique.Think of the coordinated behavior of a colony of army ants mowing through a jungle, or of a storm rising out of many small currents of warm air. Or think of how a sequence of minute neurological inputs and impulses unite to light up a child’s face as she smiles.

This emergent quality shows up at all levels of our world. The twisting, double-helix strands of our DNA are emergent forms that rise out of the protein molecules that compose them. Our bodies are a weave of much simpler biological systems – the pulsing circulatory system that moves our blood, the elaborate, branching nervous system that allows us to process information from our environment, and then to form predictive thoughts and conceptual models about that environment. We are embedded in cultural systems that support and inform our lives as social beings, and that connect us to the past. Upwards and downwards in scale, we are embedded within, and composed out of, other complex systems.

Another thing scientists say about complex emergent systems is that they are adaptive – they inherently seek to maintain and preserve themselves. This, to me, is a remarkable and intriguing thing. It’s remarkable because it suggests a basic continuity between non-living and living systems. It suggests, further, that many of the issues which trouble us as a species – the destructive externalities of corporate production, the ravenous greed of the consumer economy, the institutionalized aggression of the military-industrial complex  – may actually be rooted in the dynamics of complex systems per se. Clarity about root causes might enable us to gain better traction against these threatening and intractable patterns of dysfunction.

Let’s look at the inherent tension here: every complex system is embedded in an environment from which it is also separate. Its adaptive aspect will tend to amplify this separation as the system draws energy and resources from its environment, and uses it as a waste dump as well. Think again of a hurricane dissipating as it travels inland, an ant colony dispersing as it runs out of food, or the smile as it fades on a child’s face – emergence followed by environmental depletion is what complex systems do. And when the environment gets sufficiently depleted, the system collapses. The emergent form is then re-acquainted with its connection to — it’s non-separation from — the underlying environment. In several religious traditions, such crises are called moments of grace.

Let’s take a complex system in the process of collapse: Wallace Shawn clutching his hotel room’s toilet bowl in The Fever. This WallaceShawn-system emerged out of the specifics of the Upper East Side in New York in the late 1950, and out of the background and biology of his family. In its adaptive capacity, this WallaceShawn-system has learned to “ignore” its intimate relatedness to the rest of humanity, as well as to the world of non-human things. And this capacity for not-seeing is what the fever unwinds as it takes hold of Shawn’s neurology on the floor of the bathroom. Shawn comes to see then how he has indiscriminately drawn energy and resources from the environment, helping in a multitude of ways to exploit and degrade that environment. And the WallaceShawn-system sees how it has lent its weight to attempts to eliminate any obstacle or potential threat to its continued comfort. And, although we would all use different language, we in the audience understand too: we are all similar to Shawn in our complexity as emergent, adaptive “systems.” We inherently tend to maintain and enhance our separation from the systems in which we are embedded. We draw the energy and resources we need to do this from our environment, impoverishing that environment.

©Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse

I find it intriguing to recognize here, in the basic functioning of a complex system, what the Buddhists call the three poisons: ignorance (forgetting its embedded nature), greed (drawing energy and resources from the environment) and aversion (struggling against conditions that threaten its continued flourishing). I find it intriguing also how the root causes of our suffering may turn out to be hard-wired into the laws that govern the ways complex systems of all kinds operate. I’m using “suffering” as a blanket term to cover everything from individual neurosis, to intractable patterns of social injustice, to environmental degradation and war — the whole tangled hairball of human dysfunction. Perhaps our environment-degrading tendencies are simply an expression of this natural dynamic, as will be our transcendence of those tendencies.

The bare fact that there actually is a capacity for emergence, and that emergent systems then display an adaptive capacity, is, to me, an arena of great mystery. I find it interesting to view the great religious traditions as ways to explain this adaptive force, and also the mystery of why emergence is possible on any level. Even more mysterious is the question of what is left when the system collapses; what is the underlying capacity that allows for being per se? Perhaps that is where divinity lies.

Viewed this way, the opposition of the human from the “natural” begins to dissolve in a final way. A vivid clarity sometimes comes with fevers, so possibly the planetary fever we are currently running will deliver a substantial dose of the same thing. As we move forward into a era in which our resilience is tested, greater clarity about what we are would be an important asset. I believe it will be easier to address the fundamental imbalances when we strip away all self-delusions. To be aware of these dynamics is already to transcend them into a greater mystery…which is also fully “natural.” And a final promise here is how the scientific and the religious modes of thinking, matter and mystery, are beginning to converge. Let’s remember, the last juncture of these two arenas of thought launched the modern era.


  1. Guy Zimmerman says:

    For those interested to hear from Shawn himself, here’s a strong and very insightful piece:


  2. Sissy Boyd says:

    Guy, as always I’m so very struck by the profundity, (so many words fit here,but I don’t think I’ve ever used this one,) of your writing! I remember your beautiful presentation of THE FEVER. love, Sissy

  3. Anna Marie Piersimoni says:

    I too am astounded by the profundity and inspired despite myself with hopefulness of divine grace emerging from the muck. There is no other choice than to believe, especially when so rationally presented!

  4. Thank you for a lyrically logical and cogent discussion…and yes, what else is Divinity to do but to keep on leading us to grace?

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.