From reading Marcus Aurelius' meditations, Smith writes that she "did come out with two invaluable intimations. Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard". And one gets the sense throughout these essays that you are inside Smith's mind as she explores her thoughts and ideas, asks questions of herself, observes with great acuity and humor, the people and conditions around her. We catch her in New York City, where she lives and teaches, as she is just about to leave with her family to go stay temporarily upstate before she will fly back to the city she's from, London.
In "Peonies", Smith discusses writing and its relation to the messiness of life: "Writing is routinely described as 'creative' -- this has never struck me as the correct word. Planting tulips is creative. To plant a bulb (I imagine, I've never done it) is to participate in some small way in the cyclic miracle of creation. Writing is control. The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department."
"Something to Do" gets into something so many have pondered and adapted to during the pandemic -- how to fill the time. She brings up the age-old and overly asked question "Why Write" and says, at bottom and notwithstanding the "convoluted" and "self-regarding" reasons writers often give in answer to this question, it is because "it's something to do". How utilitarian is art in a world in need of so much social and political change? "The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art." The stark difference in how writing relates to time and how work relates to time (and, in particular, work done by essential workers during the pandemic) gets a going over here.
"Suffering Like Mel Gibson" is a fascinating essay, in which Smith looks at the peculiar way people relate to suffering in a time of mass suffering. In this time when so much conversation is about "privilege", Smith points out the similarities between privilege and suffering. "They both manifest as bubbles, containing a person and distorting their vision." In a time when people of "privilege" often preface comments about their own discomforts and suffering by reminding others that their suffering is tiny compared to those lacking privilege and suffering greatly, Smith brings up the example of "a young woman of only seventeen who had killed herself three weeks into lockdown because she 'couldn't go out and see her friends'." To belittle in any way this act by the young woman may be missing the point of what suffering is and actually does. When it comes, as it does on certain days for all of us, it is as if "precisely designed to destroy you and only you". Remembering this may be a way of being more tolerant when hearing what others consider pain.
I could go on with the quotes -- and there's a temptation to do so because they are so good -- but I won't. Why give everything away? I will say that I loved the "Screengrabs" section, in which Smith presents brief vignettes of people she interacted with in New York just before and during the lockdown -- the Asian guy she goes to for quick massages, the "rent-controlled' old woman from her neighborhood who surprises Smith with something she says, the young IT guy from her university who she encounters floating on his hoverboard. And then there's "Postscript: Contempt As a Virus", which alludes to the George Floyd incident and asks whether in our discourse we should finally drop the word "hate" and replace it with something that may be more accurate: "contempt". This is the darkest essay of the bunch, the one most anguished and pessimistic.
Zadie Smith always presents more questions than she does certitudes, one thing I love most about her writing. She is level-headed where countless others rant. She doesn't present a thesis or an ideology. Dare I use what almost seems an outdated word and say she approaches things as a "humanist", drawing from a variety of sources and disciplines. Actually, I'm pretty sure I may that word since in her book of essays, Feel Free, she describes herself as a "sentimental humanist". With her brilliance comes open-mindedness and self-criticism and self-doubt, which all somehow seem like rarer and rarer qualities these days.
Smith herself says there will be much written in years to come about the pandemic period, and we all know there will be much written about it, but in the meantime, above and beyond all the journalistic pieces one can read about our current predicament, Intimations is absolutely worth picking up. And you can read it in an hour or two.