By April Howard
“That my physical and moral cowardice have never really been tested, until now” is the closing statement of Zadie Smith’s most recent book Intimations, a collection of six essays written in the beginning part of lockdown. Each essay explores an important aspect of life in the era of COVID-19, in a deeply personal and thoughtful way. Smith paints flawless portraits of individual characters, trapped in their situations just as all of us are trapped in the restrictions of lockdown. The masseuse who waits at his window for customers, the painfully pre-menopausal elder at the bus stop, and a “self-hating” Asian in Washington Park are all part of the colourful picture Zadie Smith presents of life as we know it today.
Lockdown has presented a new challenge for us all. Learning how to spend time on our own, learning to deal with uncertainty, learning to deal with a “hellscape”. Zadie Smith intelligently and incisively explores the many different layers of these challenges: of self- preservation, of familial connection, of privilege, of place, of stability. Lockdown has been both a great equaliser and a great divider. It is true that the virus does not discriminate, but, of course, society does. Smith confronts her own privilege and those of the people around her. She explores American exceptionalism, general loneliness and suffering and, perhaps most profoundly of all, contempt. Smith uses the concept of contempt to explore and explain institutional and personal racism in the light of the murder of George Floyd. She frames contempt – class contempt, racial contempt, personal contempt – as the virus and excellently makes her point: that even knowledge of the existence of the virus of contempt is not enough to quell the pandemic. One must change, be willing to completely rewrite the system, not just educate oneself by reading black authors and blackout their Instagram. The structures of contempt are economic and must be eliminated in their entirety. This final part of the fifth essay is an incisive, clear and moving exposition of the issues thrust into the spotlight by the Black Lives Matter movement and how virtue signalling and surface- level change is not enough.
Zadie Smith glides expertly between the personal and the global, the private and the general. She starts with the image of peonies in New York to a run-through of everyone from whom she has learnt lessons and to whom she is indebted. This book is charming, profound and meditative. In a time of increasing uncertainty, confusion and isolation, Zadie Smith’s essay collection fills a gap we all feel in some way or another, for something to bridge the gap between us, to explore all the issues of the time in an honest and insightful way, to celebrate humanity as well as to criticise it. In the portraits of ordinary people whom Smith encounters in life, she celebrates humanity’s quirks, resilience and heart, but she also uses them to criticise an overarching system, a cruel, uncaring system of capital. The people she mentions may be in need, but they have little to no capital, and so the overarching system does not care. Smith points out that just as the virus is uncaring, so is the economy.
Zadie Smith, once again, shines a light through the dark tunnel of isolation. We can all follow her, out into the light, and work to change society, change the system, in order to end the pandemic of contempt, or stay in the dark. Zadie Smith’s musings on “apocalypse” are witty, beautifully written and moving, I cannot recommend them enough.
Image: David Shankbone via Flickr