We are currently living in tumultuous times, and this summer provided most people with an abundance of free time. Many whittled away the hours making banana bread, others practiced a new craft or language, and a few took the time to write a book. Into the latter category falls Zadie Smith, whose new collection of essays, Intimations, reflects on this terrible year defined by fear of violence and disease.
At less than one hundred pages, I cracked opened this book with apprehension. I generally dislike seasonal paperbacks published to cater to an immediate, and the distrust is rendered more acute with authors I have never read before. It was momentarily pacified with the foreword’s citation of my favorite philosopher, Marcus Aurelius. It did not change her worldview, but it did instruct her that sometimes self-reflections are meant to be shared. The first essay, “Peonies,” opens just as the country is beginning to shut down and Ms. Smith quite literally takes a moment to stop and smell the flowers. The bars blocking her from the tulips that she wishes were peonies leads to the most candid of the essays. In her early life, with all the naïve defiance of youth, the author resisted every attempt by society of nature to define who she was as a person. As Kierkegaard noted, however, we build intellectual castles of how we imagine we will behave, but then life (and accompanying experience) reveals we live in the humble dog kennel next door. It is an awkward analogy, but her point is there is sometimes value in submitting to the life’s experiences and learning from them.
The next essay, “The American Exception,” is the weakest of the eleven, but the one following it, “Something I Do,” is a moving analysis of why the author writes. From a purely utilitarian perspective, art is not, to use the current jargon, “essential.” It may provide entertainment, but artists receive scant attention from broad swaths of the population with the more pressing need for survival. There is an old Greek fable that Zeus, after dispensing every worldly good to the various trades, could promise nothing to the poet but a seat by his throne. Ms. Smith hopes her writing is that moment of transcendence that expresses the essential emotion – Platonic love, but she closes by acknowledging the more mundane truth, “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.”
Three of the essays, “Screengrabs,” “A Character in a Wheelchair in the Vestibule,” and “An Elder at the 98 Bus Stop,” cover the aspects of a shutdown drowned out in the daily discussions of vaccines and elections. The first recounts a masseur Ms. Smith visited every two or three days. He is the type of plucky immigrant who builds a successful business, but whose face, even in times of prosperity, knots with worry when the parlor’s traffic slows. As a lawyer, I talked with at least a half-dozen anxious business owners, scanning to see whether they were permitted to operate under gubernatorial orders, because if they closed down for more than a month or two, they (and those employees who relied on them) would be out of a job, and a twelve hundred dollar stimulus alone would not save them. The second focuses on a character featured in one of Ms. Smith’s previous essay collections. He scoffs at the potential threat of coronavirus; as a homeless, legless New Yorker, he has an exceptionally hardened perspective about relative threats in the world. The final essay is one anyone with experience in social work or law enforcement could see coming. The author has a casual encounter with a childhood neighbor whose daughter is roughly Ms. Smith’s age. The essay closes with the reveal that weeks later the daughter is killed by her boyfriend during the lockdown. In the years to come, there will be academic studies tallying the number killed by the virus against those who died from falling off the wagon, relapsing, committing suicide, or being murdered while trapped with bitter lovers.
The next-to-last essay (and the one I enjoyed most) is “A Provocation in the Park.” It opens with Ms. Smith walking through Washington Square Park. It’s common for sign-holders to display some unusual phrase to spark a conversation with passerby. The author’s consideration of a racially themed one leads into a reflection on mental illness, hate crimes, and the violence that seems to be engulfing America. Although she does not mention it by name, she alludes to the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and this is where our thoughts overlap. I was in the city before the country shut down and decided to visit the church grounds. Although the killing of nine human beings is in itself horrific, the thing the disturbed me most was not revealed by the press until a few days later. Before the shooter killed those parishioners, he sat with them for over an hour at a Bible study. He later remarked to police that they were so kind to him that he almost didn’t go through with the massacre.
People are instinctively tribal; it is easy to fear the alien and imagine doing violence against those you have never met. To kill an individual who has broken bread with you or who welcomed you as a brother in Christ is, to me, more profoundly evil. Although I am not as dismissive as Ms. Smith of the role ideology plays in violence, I suspect our worst instincts are rooted in an atavistic bloodlust that has taken centuries of prosperity and civilized debate to temper. Empathy is an emotion easy to lose and hard to preserve.
There is some hope, though. Ms. Smith closes with an imitation of the opening of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. She thanks those relatives, friends, and teachers who invested time and love to make her a better person. There are still acts of mutual kindness and sympathy in our society, and we shouldn’t forget this in our uglier moments of hate toward one other. By reaching out, especially in a time when we are both spiritually and physically distant from one another, we might touch the common chord of affection that makes our species unique.
Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at [email protected]