By Zadie Smith. Penguin Books, 2020. 112 pages. $10.95/paperback; $6.99/eBook.
In her foreword to Intimations, written on May 31, 2020, novelist Zadie Smith writes that as a result of reading Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, she discovered “two invaluable intimations. Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.” That she needed to transform her private thoughts into public discourse about life in New York City during the first peak of the COVID-19 pandemic suggests an unconscious fear that she too might sicken and die. In other words, Intimations is a kind of legacy.
I live with bipolar disorder, and as a peer counselor for a mental health crisis line, I have talked to hundreds of people during the crisis who were overwhelmed because they had only themselves to talk to, and needed to be (over)heard and thus validated. Through “reflective listening” and “motivational interviewing,” I support their self-care.
Intimations are “subtle suggestions, indications, or hints,” according to the Free Dictionary. Yet this volume’s half dozen essays are hardly tentative, even though they were written in the first couple months of the pandemic; many are prescient. They range from sensing the outbreak’s arrival, like the onset of menopause, to how the pandemic’s deaths challenge U.S. exceptionalism, to the inadequacies of being a writer while quarantining, to how everyone experiences their own suffering as absolute.
The concluding essay, “Intimations: Debts and Lessons,” is a series of affirmations about family members; friends; colleagues; and mentors, including one in which Smith identifies herself as a bridge between generations and thus sensitive to the epidemic’s unfolding, as “the tail end of one thing and the beginning of another were both visible and equally interesting to me.” Like an exercise in cognitive behavioral therapy, this “positive thinking” is meant to compensate for the virus’s impacts, including its effect upon racial and economic inequities.
No doubt this ability to weigh opposites has something to do with Smith’s Black Jamaican and White English heritage, and marriage to a White man from Northern Ireland. Raised in London’s public housing, Smith graduated from Cambridge, published her first (acclaimed) novel, White Teeth, at age 24, and now, in her mid-40s, teaches creative writing at New York University.
The guts of Intimations are “Screengrabs”: portraits of a masseur, a wheelchair user, a dog walker, an “IT Guy” at the university library, a park goer from Smith’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, and a bus rider in London, all encountered before and/or during the pandemic. Additionally, there is “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus,” which references “A man called George” and the countless ways White people in the United States dehumanize Black people.
By reading another book by Smith, On Beauty, I learned she is a master at developing characters through their (often argumentative) relationships with each other. (Next to individual mental health challenges, the most frequent concerns I hear on the hotline are about interpersonal conflicts.) In On Beauty, she struggles between empathy and defensiveness, engagement and isolation, hallmarks of the scourge’s social distancing.
Regarding one man in Washington Square Park brandishing a sign that read “I am a self-hating Asian. Let’s talk!” and who emailed the NYU faculty about his “ethno-racial dysphoria,” Smith writes: “What is it like to have a mind-on-fire at such a moment? Do you feel ever more distant from the world? Or has the world, in its new extremity, finally come to you?”
Although Smith is not religious, she is skilled at what Quakers call “discernment.” Her search for the truth combines psychological, social, and spiritual insight with a keen eye for how the lenses of privilege and marginalization distort our views. It’s like being “trauma-informed” while assessing the severity of a crisis on the hotline.
In Intimations, a book about the true grit of ordinary people, Smith, the academic, over-intellectualizes at times. Yet, she doesn’t shy away from naming her advantages, such as returning to London at COVID’s peak in New York and being a writer adapted to working at home, with the comforts of middle age and class, which are in contrast to the vulnerabilities of today’s youth.
I love her irreverent humor:
Even Christ, twenty feet in the air and bleeding all over himself, no doubt looked about him and wondered whether his agonies, when all was said and done, were relatively speaking in fact better than those of the thieves and beggars to his left and right whose sufferings long predated their present crucifixions and who had no hope (unlike Christ) of an improved post-cross situation.
And I love her quotation of the novelist Ottessa Moshfegh, who during the pandemic wrote, “Without [love], life is just ‘doing time.’” Many of the crisis line’s callers understand this sentiment too well.
Carl Blumenthal is a member of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Meeting and a retired arts reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.