Timeliness and Timelessness in Zadie Smith's Intimations
Written by Esther Reichek, Yale 23'
Edited by Emma Gray, Yale 21'
When I first opened Zadie Smith’s Intimati ons: Six Essays (Penguin, 112 pp., $10.95, July 2020), I felt disappointed. Not by the length – barely 100 pages of text – but by the dimensions. Each page is only 5x7 inches, a size I associate more with self-help books than collections from such a sharp and subtle mind as Smith’s. My trepidation grew as I read the philosophical epigraphs, one of which Smith takes from Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and the foreword, where she wards off associations with “historical, analytical, political, as well as comprehensive accounts.” So what is Intimations? (The Wordsworthian title announces Smith’s high seriousness; the book’s format seems to belie it.) And what is the value of reading it at this moment?
Intimations is eminently topical. Smith presents clear analysis, if not original insights, in the essay “American Exception” (first published in The New Yorker) about the economic and racial disparities that correlate to COVID-19 deaths and the American dream of buying an escape from mortality. In the final part of “Screengrabs,” “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus,” Smith responds directly to the murder of George Floyd. Racism is the virus that Smith identifies, but white people act as if the virus is Blackness itself. Rhetorically, Smith may be strongest here, when she asks: “Why else would the carriers of this [racist] virus work so hard – even now, even in the bluest states in America – to ensure their children do not go to school with the children of these people whose lives supposedly matter?” Smith calls for widespread solidarity among the “plague class” as the only antidote to the virus, rather than empty displays of essentialist understanding and social media “activism.”
In fact, Intimations feels so on-the-nose that I almost wish Smith had waited and published it at the end of summer, when perhaps she would have accumulated other pieces about more recent events: the Black Lives Matter protests, calls to defund the police, etc. I also wonder what she would have said about the “Open Letter” published in Harper’s in early July. The “Letter” (signed by many illustrious intellectuals, not including Smith) called for freedom of thought and speech, as well as for the end of censorship on all sides of the political spectrum; it drew ire for a short week because of controversies surrounding some of its signatories and its vague assertions, and then all went quiet...