Reviewed: Zadie Smith, Intimations, Penguin
Zadie Smith: ‘My preoccupation when I was young was death. It remains death.’
Interviewer: ‘God, why?’
Zadie Smith: ‘People always say that as if it’s not the only thing that’s going to happen to you.’
—The Touré Show, February 2018
I called the bookshop to pre-order Intimations in May 2020 as one lockdown followed another, and the global death toll continued to rise. In the United States, another murder of another Black man dominated the headlines, leading to a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests around the world. In the book’s foreword, Smith writes of turning to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations not as a matter of intellectual enquiry but as a form of practical instruction, and so it was how I read Intimations when it arrived in my letterbox three months later. Meanwhile, I read other essays that half-jokingly begrudged Smith’s productivity during a pandemic. Said essays often included a confessional from the authors about their inability to read a book, let alone write a single word. I don’t think they should be so surprised; Zadie Smith has been prepared for this moment for years. There is something reassuring about the enduring nature of her old preoccupations—death, and time.
Written in the first few months of 2020, the six essays in Intimations see Smith’s old preoccupations become accelerated from a distant, irrepressible fact to a matter of immediate crisis. In ‘Man versus Corpse’ (from Feel Free , and first published in the New York Review of Books in 2013), she writes: ‘Yet a world in which no one, from policymakers to adolescents, can imagine themselves as abject corpses … will surely prove a demented and difficult place in which to live. A world of illusion.’ In Intimations, this hypothetical becomes reality. The second essay in the collection, ‘The American Exception’, looks at the failings of the American healthcare system, the failings of the former president (whom Smith refuses to name), and the failings of America’s value for life, given how patently contingent it is upon money.
Smith is a writer who leaves no thought unexamined, and when she finds herself momentarily agreeing with the president when he wishes for the ‘old life back’, she discovers she is living in the world of illusion she had envisioned seven years earlier. Smith recounts how the president proclaimed that until the pandemic arrived, America didn’t have death. But, she extrapolates, what America didn’t have was ‘death absolute’, the democratic death that comes for all irrespective of one’s neighbourhood, race or insurance policy. The old life failed its people, and while Smith is too much of a realist to wish any utopian ideals upon the new one, she makes an intimation: the democratic nature of this new kind of death should be met with an equally democratic healthcare system. A modest dream, but she has never been a polemicist. Her preferred mode is one of analytical introspection. In the opening essay, ‘Peonies’, she writes: ‘If only it were possible to simply state these feelings without insisting on them, without making an argument or a dogma out of them!’
No reader of Smith’s will be surprised by the reassurance she seeks from the Stoics, their creed being that death is as important to humanity as life is. Aurelius writes that meaningful life is a result of living in accordance with one’s own nature—of submitting to life and death, and resisting that which does not align with your spirit. From Meditations: ‘Observe what your physical nature requires, as one subject to the condition of mere life. Then do it and welcome it, as long as your nature as an animate being will not be impaired.’ This anxiety surrounding submission and resistance becomes quotidian in Intimations; each day of the ongoing ‘new normal’ brings a new loss of control over the things we once took for granted. Smith’s two meticulously planned minutes for a macchiato, the uninterrupted workday while the children are at school, the freedom to leave our homes for any reason not deemed ‘essential’. One wakes up each morning and must decide: submit or resist?
In ‘Peonies’, submission is gendered. The essay is built around images of cages. There are the bars around the Jefferson Market Garden where Smith ogles the tulips (which she wishes were peonies), and Nabokov’s idiomatic origin story about Lolita, which he wrote after supposedly reading an article about an ape that drew the bars of his own cage. Then, explicitly: ‘the cage of my circumstance, in my mind, was my gender’. For Smith, writing becomes her ultimate and only form of control. She admits that if writing is resistance and living is submission, then she lives in a state of enforced delusion that allows her to experience two contradictory realities at once.
Her trademark ambivalence means a part of her is able to wander in and out of any cage, freely. Although Smith briefly cites de Beauvoir’s argument that ‘one is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman’, she is quick to recuse herself from the debate by professing that, as a novelist, she has no stake in the discussion—and further than that, she doesn’t care. As a writer, she is able to slip out from between those bars with relative ease. However, as a woman—and one who has written more than once about how her awareness of time is borne of the expectations imposed on her gender—her resistance to the argument is void, for she is already implicated in its case.
In ‘Suffering like Mel Gibson’, she writes of the shared nature of privilege and suffering, and how both function as forms of social isolation, each warping one’s sense of reality. Like death, suffering is absolute, but unlike privilege cannot be mitigated by perspective, reason or even shame. The sufferer does not suffer any less for the knowledge that each member of their Zoom call (and household) is confined by their own rectangles of daily grief. The suffering of the artist isolated with husband and children is as total as the suffering of the nurse working a double shift without adequate PPE. Objectively, one sufferer may be more privileged than the other, but within the realm of suffering terms such as ‘privilege’ and ‘perspective’ have little practical weight. Smith articulates the shameful/offensive/freeing truth: that privilege, even monumental privilege, does not negate pain. (If only it were possible to state these feelings without insisting on them!)
While there is little to be said for the effectiveness of ‘acknowledging’ one’s own privilege, Smith makes a compelling case for comparing one’s relative privilege with that of another’s. The act of comparison can modify your world view and sense of perspective, but is only effective if the will is there to comprehend those lives unlike your own. And if the will is not there, she suggests, it produces a different kind of virus—contempt. This is different to the virus of hatred, where the existence of the hated person is intolerable to the core. Instead, as the object of contempt, one is stripped of the power even to be considered intolerable in the first place, because ‘[b]efore contempt, you are simply not considered as others are, you are something less than a whole person, not quite a complete citizen. Say … three fifths of the whole.’ It is a form of apathy, taken to its destructive extreme.
This particular strain of virus is so lethal that it allows the carrier to press their knee against another man’s neck while surrounded by a crowd of people and, even as the man on the ground tells the infected man he can’t breathe, the infected man does not think of George Floyd as capable of suffering, so the infected man keeps his knee on George Floyd’s neck until George Floyd dies. In the short story ‘Downtown’ from Grand Union (2019), Smith writes:
And the minister took us all in his embrace, in a human chain, and he did say: Now we shall come together in prayer for this young child who was shot because she was black. And God help me but I broke the chain. I said, See what you’ve done there is you’ve transformed an act of the perpetrator into a characteristic of the target. You’ve turned one person’s action into another person’s being. I said, You don’t say to a witch: the reason they’re dunking you is because you’re a witch. You say, the reason they’re dunking you is these motherfuckers believe in witchcraft!
Smith references James Baldwin’s interpretation of this virus, who notes how its symptoms are often mistaken for the cause.1 Both story and essay remind the reader that the real epidemic is not the death of the targeted people—it is the existence of the infected ones. She imagines a ‘patient zero’ who, 400 years ago, ‘looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains’. One of the most common symptoms of the virus of contempt is the speed with which the feelings of the infected become dogma—a man chains up a group of people who do not look like him, and suddenly the chained group becomes an entire category of people born to be chained.
When we—infected and uninfected alike—accept this dogma by referring to its expression as a ‘hate crime’, we are agreeing with the killer that when he walked into that church he did so ‘to express his “ideology” … to commit his “act”, girded by what he flatters himself is a comprehensive philosophy’. By elevating the abject crime of murder into its own category, one formed by a set of ideas one group invented about another, we only reinforce the notion that his actions arise from some external ideological system greater than his own base contempt, thus implicitly accepting the beliefs of those motherfuckers who believe in witchcraft.
In a series of portraits towards the end of Intimations, ‘Screengrabs (After Berger, before the virus)’, Smith writes about the personal style of ‘Cy the IT Guy’, who works at her university library. Each semester Smith teaches her students the same Sontag line: ‘A style is a means of insisting upon something.’ When Smith notes Cy’s particular style and finds it redolent of her own, she immediately notes a point of difference: the assumed rights of her own British youth (free education and health care, decent public housing) have regressed into the inconceivable dreams of Cy’s. There is an entire generation who have only known the failure of their structural systems, and of them, Smith observes, ‘their style is all they have. They are insisting on their existence in a vacuum.’ She stops before wholly making the assertion, but I wonder if it may serve as one explanation for the cultural obsession with identity—the self recast not just as the most important thing, but as the only thing. Smith would deride the younger generation’s solipsism (and has before), but she is also sympathetic to its impulse, which at base is survival.
If nothing is guaranteed but our personal styles—not even the future of life on this planet—and we find ourselves staring into an abyss where even meaning begins to lose its currency, then I would suggest doing as Smith does, and as Aurelius did before her—observe what your physical nature requires, then do it and welcome it. To make an intimation about the style of Zadie Smith: she stares the inevitable square in the face, neither resisting nor submitting to it, but acknowledging it, sizing it up and writing it down. For with the acceptance of life’s unknowns comes the acceptance that we (in the greatest collective sense) are each wedded to the singular certainty of life’s end. In a way, that knowledge can come as a kind of freedom. At least I think it’s what Smith would say. In the interim, more of the hypotheticals she deals in may someday come to life. But she wouldn’t insist on it. •
Mindy Gill is the recipient of the Australian Poetry/NAHR Eco-Poetry Fellowship in Val Taleggio, Italy. Her work has appeared in Australian Book Review, Sydney Review of Books and Award Winning Australian Writing.
- Baldwin writes of catching a different virus in Notes of a Native Son (1955): ‘some dread, chronic disease’, after which, ‘once contracted, one can never be really carefree again’. The virus Baldwin speaks of—rage—is a symbiont of Smith’s virus of contempt. He continues: ‘There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood—one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it.’