August 27, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
I picked up Intimations by Zadie Smith with no intention to write about it. I simply wanted to read another person’s experience of COVID and isolation. Though I have worked fairly hard to steel my mind against the static, restrictive nature of the pandemic, preferring stoicism, I now wanted to read of someone else’s experience. I read a Brainpickings article that mentioned Smith’s book. Maria Popova (of Brainpickings) noted that during the pandemic, Smith sat down with Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Indeed, in the Foreword to Intimations, Smith writes, “Early on in the crisis, I picked up Marcus Aurelius and for the first time in my life read his Meditations not as an academic exercise, nor in pursuit of pleasure, but with the same attitude I bring to the instructions for a flat-pack table – I was in need of practical assistance.” She notes that, though Aurelius did not change her level of Stoicism, she did gain two important pieces of practical advice: “Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.” In other words, when we write, we are, in essence, listening to ourselves. This is powerful. Yet, I also view this as a reaching out, a way to find community in precarious times, and I suppose that’s why I wanted to read Intimations. What has life been like during restrictions for others? I am curious.
I was startled to find, after reading her book, that it pairs nicely with Aurelius’s, though it is not really similar in style or tone. Yet, like Aurelius, I discovered something in her tone which I can only describe as an opening. Just before “the great humbling began,” she finds herself staring at tulips and wishing they were peonies. In this section, she describes how we all participate with culture, wittingly or not. And while reflecting upon her desire to make the flowers into what she wants, she writes, “I’m a novelist. Who can admit, late in the day, during this strange and overwhelming season of death that collides, outside my window, with the emergence of dandelions, that spring sometimes rises in me, too, and the moon may occasionally tug at my moods, and if I hear a strange baby cry some part of me still leaps to attention – to submission. And once in a while a vulgar strain of spring flower will circumvent a long-trained and self-consciously strict downtown aesthetic. Just before an unprecedented April arrives and makes a nonsense of every line.” After the pandemic (the great humbling) starts in New York, she reflects on those tulips and her desire to alter them. It begins as a growing awareness of big questions in her life: those of love, art, and identity. Therefore, Smith uses this space between isolation and community in order to better understand herself.
In Intimations, Smith also discusses creativity. She calls it “something to do,” an arena in which the artist controls time, reality and details. Yet during the pandemic, she chose to write Intimations because, in truth, we have much less control than the artist. This is a way to capture various narratives during a turbulent time and try to make sense of them. The book wanders through ideas of politics, art, identity, and gratitude. I call it an “opening,” though, because of how the book ends. The final chapter, called “Debts and Lessons,” is comprised of short notes about great influences (and influencers) in Smith’s life. For many of us who have not seen friends and family in a long time, I liked that this section brought people to Smith. Not only did she imaginatively connect with people that she may not be able to see, but she counteracted loneliness and negativity with love and positive energy. Number 12 in her list, for example, reads,
“When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right.”
Or number 15, which reads:
“All that you have is your soul.” Therefore: liberty.
Or note 13:
Jenny, Drama Teacher
A task is in front of you. It is not as glorious as you had imagined or hoped. (In this case, it is not the West End, it is not Broadway, it is a small black box stapled to an ugly comprehensive school.) But it is the task in front of you. Delight in it. The more absurd and tiny it is, the more care and dedication it deserves. Large, sensible projects require far less belief. People who dedicate themselves to unimportant things will sometimes be blind to the formal borders that are placed around the important world. They might see teenagers as people. They will make themselves absurd to the important world. Mistakes will be made. Appropriate measures will be pursued. The border between the important and the unimportant will be painfully reestablished. But the magic to be found in the black box will never be forgotten by any who entered it.
This is isn’t a book of stoicism or directions for success during a pandemic. Yet, there are clues for an honest, productive and healthy life. She embraces gratitude, empathy, love, and kindness. And that is how Zadie Smith’s Intimations fits well with Marcus Aurelius, who wrote :
“If thou workest at that which is before thee, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract thee, but keeping thy divine part pure, as if thou shouldst be bound to give it back immediately; if thou holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which thou utterest, thou wilt live happy. And there is no man who is able to prevent this.” – Marcus Aurelius, Book III of Meditations.
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