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Then Again

Kevin Power

Intimations: Six Essays, by Zadie Smith, Penguin Books, 82 pp, £5.99, ISBN: 978-0241492383

How has your pandemic been so far? Have you been writing about it? If so, has it helped? “Writing is control,” Zadie Smith observes in the first piece in Intimations, her slender collection of lockdown essays. “The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department.” Out there, in “the field”, there is “Experience”: a “largely shapeless bewilderment” with “no chapter headings or paragraph breaks or ellipses in which to catch your breath”. Experience “just keeps coming at you”, perhaps especially in “this strange and overwhelming season of death”. But at the desk, on the page, “space and time itself [sic] bend to my will”. Writers, therefore, are in the business of exerting control over experiential flux – over the blooming, buzzing confusion of the real. In a time of crisis, writing helps. Or so the theory goes.

And yet, and yet. Isn’t the shapeliness and order offered by literary prose a kind of cheat? “[T]o write,” Smith observes, “is to swim in an ocean of hypocrisies, moment by moment” – to offer attitudes and insights as if they were final, or true, and then to discover, “out in the field”, that they “cannot be relied upon”. Everything we encounter is in fact more complex, offers more subtle valences to the interpretative mind, than even the most capaciously well-intentioned prose can encompass. “Is it possible to be as flexible on the page – as shamelessly self-forgiving and ever-changing – as we are in life?”

Who better to write about lockdown than Zadie Smith? Which living essayist is less likely to bombard us with the heavy ordnance of epigram or to enlist us peremptorily in a political argument, for or against? Smith’s great achievement as a writer of nonfiction prose is to have made a virtue of uncertainty. Which is not to say that she lacks ideas, or to suggest that she arrives at no firm conclusions. Rather, it is to say that she distrusts the traditional essayist’s will to mastery. For Smith, mastery of this sort – in which each essay, and perhaps even each sentence, offers implicitly the essayist’s final word on her subject – is a shirking of ethical responsibility, even a kind of lie. Hence Intimations, and not Assertions or Persuasions. From her brief foreword:

There will be many books written about the year 2020: historical, analytical, political as well as comprehensive accounts. This is not any of those – the year isn’t half-way done. What I’ve tried to do is organise some of the feelings and thoughts that events, so far, have provoked in me, in those scraps of time the year itself has allowed. These are above all personal essays: small by definition, short by necessity.

Notice is served: we are entering the country of the provisional, the personal, the pointedly unassuming. It is typical of Smith that she follows this statement of studiously modest aims – a promise “to organise some of the feelings and thoughts that events, so far, have provoked in me” – with an essay devoted to the proposition that writing cannot really organise anything – that the essayist is necessarily a hypocrite, someone who builds a house in which they do not intend to live. 

To acknowledge one’s own hypocrisy, of course, is to attempt to outwit it. This is Smith’s signature move as an essayist. She repudiates herself. Later essays repudiate earlier ones. Individual essays, especially the more recent pieces, tend to become self-repudiating. Did I once think that? Now I think this; and I may yet think something else, if you catch me in another essay, written on another day. (Her novels too have tended to repudiate their predecessors. NW [2012] rejects the cartoonish realism of the first three novels; Swing Time [2016] cancels the modernist experimentation of NW.)

Smith’s first collection of essays was called Changing My Mind; her second Feel Free. The titles are cannily chosen. She is large; she contains multitudes. She is neither a polemicist nor a theorist. She has no vested interests, no axes to grind. She almost never speaks or writes ex cathedra – and if she does, it is usually for reasons of expedience. In the foreword to Feel Free (2018), she writes:

Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two.

Precarity. Uncertainty. Improvisation. This is the essay as humanist inheritance, the tradition of Montaigne: Que sais-je? What do I really know? Note that careful parenthesis: “Writing exists (for me)…” Always, Smith resists the lure of epigram. Some essayists are great foreclosers (Emerson, Sontag, Didion). Smith is a great opener-out, a refuser of final thoughts. This is what I think. Feel free to argue.

Smith herself has suggested that this emphasis on the provisional has to some degree been forced on her by success. But it is a mark of her intellectual integrity that she has chosen this path. In the Foreword to Feel Free, she records a quip made by an old friend: “But of course your writing so far has been a fifteen-year psychodrama.” The obtuseness of this (rather cruel) remark lies partly in its failure to acknowledge that every literary career, and indeed every life, is a “psychodrama” (how could it be otherwise?), and partly in its blindness to the honesty that animates Smith’s work. In the foreword to Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (2009), Smith writes: “When you are first published at a young age, your writing grows with you – and in public.” She was not obliged to own up to this aspect of her fate; and she was certainly not obliged to derive an ethic from its lessons. That she has done both of these things is proof of the quality of her mind.

It is a mind superlatively well-suited to our present moment, precisely because it eschews settled positions and embraces flux. If you could generalise successfully about the Age of Covid (and Smith would probably say that you couldn’t, or shouldn’t), you might say something like this: the advent of the disease has been a lesson in contingency, and our collective response to it has been a lesson in the fear of contingency. Not for us Keats’s negative capability, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Give us facts. And if you can’t give us facts, give us polemic: opinion stated as fact. Confronted by a future filled with radical doubt (How long will it take to find a vaccine? Is a vaccine even possible?), we have been navigating by the fixed stars of ideology, faute de mieux.

The effect has been to harden discourse, to purge it of nuance. Online culture wars have turned internecine. Electoral politics in the West has become a pageant of scandals. High moral dudgeon is the preferred rhetorical mode. In flight from uncertainty, we have abjured the ethical obligation to be uncertain – to pause and say maybe, rather than simply to scream yes or no.

Enter Zadie Smith, the essayist of maybe – the essayist, that is, of contingency. The third of Intimations’s six short essays is called “Something to Do”, and it is about contingency. More precisely, it is about the ways in which Covid-19 has disclosed to us all the essential emptiness of pretty much everything we do. “Why did you bake that banana bread? It was something to do. Why did you make a fort in your living room? Well, it’s something to do. Why dress the dog as a cat? It’s something to do, isn’t it? Fills the time.”

You might, perhaps, have expected writers, those professional solitaries, to turn their lockdown sentences to account – to find meaning in the newly empty hours. “Instead, in the first week I found out how much of my old life was about hiding from life. Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure, I had almost no idea of what to do with it.” Under lockdown, not simply trivial activity (baking, building a fort) but activity as such stands revealed as contingent. From this perspective, “There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do.”

Smith is less interested in redeeming this perception of futility – in torqueing it, as another writer might, until it gives up some specious meaning (“How Writing My Novel Got Me Through Lockdown”) – than she is in simply formulating it, or inhabiting it – living with it, in order to see how it feels. She permits herself, and her readers, to dwell in shared doubt. “I do feel comforted,” she writes, “to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.”

And that’s it – that’s the closing line of the essay. If the doubt is shared, the comfort is too (and reading Smith is often a comforting experience, even when she is at her most pessimistic). Not just doubt, and not just comfort, but both at once, and each arrived at honestly. This is Smith’s basic affect, as an essayist. Entertaining extreme views, she is the opposite of an intellectual extremist.

In fact she occupies the space once described by Renata Adler as “the radical middle”. This is where humanism lives of course, if it lives at all; and in calling Smith an heir to the humanist tradition, I certainly don’t mean to dismiss her as either a fusty traditionalist or a wishful liberal. Genuine humanist thought is radical almost by definition (nihil humanum mihi alienum remains a highly subversive notion, after all), and in an age of proliferating anti-humanist radicalisms, Smith’s work is salutary.

Like all humanists (and, I’m tempted to say, like almost all good novelists), Smith writes as if the individual were the basic unit of meaning. The fifth piece in Intimations consists of pen-portraits of strangers (or near-strangers): people Smith encountered in the weeks and days before the lockdown. A local bum, wheelchair-bound, shouting into his cellphone about Covid: “I ain’t running from no cold. I survived worse. I survived WAY worse shit than this.” An apparently hard-edged New York matron, who tells Smith, as the lockdown begins, “Thing is, we’re a community, and we’ve got each other’s back.”

Smith evokes each individual in a few superb paragraphs, and moves seamlessly from these evocations to larger questions about inequality, community, style, family, violence, madness, history. A sketch of Ben, the masseur at her local nail parlour, prompts a brief rumination on economic injustice. At their weekly sessions, they talk about school closures, snow days – each a minor inconvenience for Smith but a financial disaster for Ben, who will lose work in order to take care of his son. The closing lines of this sketch are worth quoting at length, because they show us Smith’s method in action: begin and end with the individual, because it is the individual who will tell us what all the socio-economic structures and strictures really mean:

How high are the rents on 6th Avenue below 14th Street? High enough that the closed Barnes & Noble has stayed shuttered now for a decade, for as long as I’ve lived here. High enough that it’s difficult to imagine how such an operation as this nail place could survive for even a week without the daily turnover. High enough that even when the nail place was two thirds full sometimes I would walk past (always being careful to cross the road to the opposite side beforehand) and see Ben standing anxiously by a hand-dryer, looking out on the street, his optimistic face transformed from the cartoon I thought I knew into a stern portrait of calculation and concern, at once mercantile and intensely humane, backlit like a del Piombo, and evidently weighed down by far more than, solely, his boy. Responsible, rather, for the fifteen white-trousered livelihoods behind him – and God knows how many more. There he stood, scanning for customers, hoping for walk-ins – or wondering where I was, maybe.

We are already, as Smith says, deluged with sociopolitical analyses of the consequences of Covid – the unemployment statistics, the lists of small businesses going under, the editorials on economic policy. But Smith’s humane eye, deployed here in a few hundred words about a particular individual, reveals more about our historical moment than all of them put together. She does not begin with policies or structures. She defaults to the individual – which is another way of saying that she defaults to empathy.

The most overtly sociopolitical piece in Intimations is a short postscript to her pen-portraits called “Contempt as a Virus”. Here Smith responds to the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests. Her central conceit here is characteristic. What others call racism Smith calls contempt – a quietly brilliant move. “Racism” as we have come to use the word, is abstract; it is, as we so often hear, “structural”. But “contempt” is personal. “Contempt” particularises.

In the piece’s first sentences, Smith condenses the logic of her pen-portraits: “You start to think of contempt as a virus. Infecting individuals first, but spreading rapidly through families, communities, peoples, power structures, nations.” Individuals first; structures later. This is not to deny the importance of structural thinking – and Smith’s precis of what it means to be black in America is both capacious and morally unerring. But she wants us to understand that there are no structures without individuals, and that to start our analysis with structures is to get everything backwards – to miss the particular in the flood of the general.

To understand the individual as the basic unit of meaning, as Smith does, is to understand even racism as originating in a single heart, at a given moment. Again, she is worth quoting at length:

Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave-ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck, and reverse-engineered an emotion – contempt – from a situation, he, the patient himself, had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains. So unlike other people. Frighteningly unlike! Later, in his cotton fields, he had them whipped and then made them go back to work, and thought: They can’t possibly feel as we do. You can whip them and they go back to work. And having thus placed them in a category similar to the one in which we place animals, he experienced the same fear and contempt we have for animals.

We might note, here, the use of novelistic techniques – the free indirect style (“So unlike other people”), the clinching details (“the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass”) – that is intrinsic to Smith’s particularising method as an essayist. And we might also note the quiet radicalism of this passage, in which Smith, the child of a Jamaican mother and an English father, imagines herself into the mind of a slaver in order to articulate a fresh vision of what racism is: not a structural abstraction but a human choice, and hence evil in a way that no merely theoretical analysis can ever grasp. This is an enormously powerful piece of writing. The pessimism of the essay’s conclusion (“I used to think that there would one day be a vaccine […] I don’t think that any more”) feels earned, even if Smith herself, the exemplary mind-changer of contemporary letters, has taught us to view all such conclusions as provisional, temporary, open to debate.

“Early on in the crisis,” Smith writes in her foreword, “I picked up Marcus Aurelius and for the first time in my life read his Meditations not as an academic exercise, nor in pursuit of pleasure, but with the same attitude I bring to the instructions for a flat-pack table – I was in need of practical assistance.” The final essay in Intimations homages the opening sections of Marcus Aurelius, in which the emperor lists the significant people in his life and speculates about what he has learned from each (“Of my grandfather Verus I have learned to be gentle and meek” and so on). Smith’s significant people include her parents; Zora Neale Hurston; Muhammad Ali (“‘No Vietcong ever called me nigger.’ Therefore: solidarity.”); Virginia Woolf (“To replace that missing layer of skin with language. For as long as that works.”); and many others. The final entry in this list is headed “CONTINGENCY”. From which, Smith says, she learned that she is “a case of relative historical luck” – meaning that she “grew up in a moment of social, religious and national transition” and that “my physical and moral cowardice have never really been tested, until now”.

If it is our bad luck to find ourselves living in the age of Covid-19 (and we are still half-crazed with mourning, are we not, for the world that we’ve lost?), it is unquestionably our good luck to find ourselves alive at the same time as Zadie Smith, and able to console ourselves with these essays – the work of a writer whose bravery, on the page at least, is beyond question.


Kevin Power teaches in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. His new novel, White City, will be published by Scribner UK in March 2021.