Zadie Smith makes me wish my brain was bigger. Only then, might I stand a chance of keeping with her. Yet in Intimations, there is a marked vulnerability noted in this great writer/thinker, as she pieces together a revised philosophy on life. A revision made necessary by a global pandemic.
Covid-19 has changed (and continues to change) the world in immeasurable ways. And although we can now see a clearer path forward, things will never again return to how they once were. In the midst of the pandemic, throughout the United States and around the globe, a reckoning has taken place, ignited by the horrific murder of George Floyd. Calls for criminal justice reform and police accountability finally have found some traction, drawing attention and support from many, across racial lines. But tension remains, ever-present. Every step forward is met with resistance. Fear generated by conspiracy theories and changing demographics, makes our current times one of the most turbulent in human history. So how do we manage in a world, seething in social unrest; locked-down by a public health crisis? The answers vary, of course. If you’re Zadie Smith, you continue to do what you’ve always done (and done brilliantly, btw). You observe and you write.
In Intimations, which consists of six short essays written during the earlier stages of the pandemic, we witness Smith’s gift of deep introspection paired with a worldly consciousness. She explores the immediate questions we were all faced with and struggled to resolve. What is this new reality? In what ways would our time be best occupied when the options are limited? How do we manage a redesigned work life which increasingly bleeds into our personal space and time? How and when did public health become such a divisive and politicized issue? How can a country proudly proclaim its exceptionalism, yet at the same time, turn a blind-eye to the glaring disparities among its citizenry? What does it mean to truly suffer? And most importantly, with the realization of our dire circumstances, and a death toll steadily rising, how do we then begin to evaluate the impact of other people on our lives? People whose contributions and efforts often go unnoticed. Intimations is a powerful testament to the uncertainty and helplessness we have all felt during these unique times. There are no clear solutions here. No tips on how one should conduct themselves during universal turmoil. Smith simply delivers a gentle call for contemplation and compassion. Doing so can only yield positive results. And we could all use a bit more positivity.
Smith ends this slim volume of essays with a section entitled “Intimations: Debts and Lessons.” It’s a refreshing take on the standard acknowledgments often found at the end of most books. In this case, the acknowledgements are written in the style of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Smith lists one by one the people who have influenced her life and her writing. I found myself deeply moved by this particular section. The attention in giving credit where credit is due, and a clear awareness of the role others have played in informing her life, are on full display here.
As enviously big as Zadie Smith’s brain may be, it’s even more inspiring to realize that her sensitivity and empathy are just as enormous. Intimations is a must-read!