COVID-19 Reviews

‘Intimations: Six Essays’ review: Work from home and other anxieties

If Zadie Smith’s previous essay collections Changing my Mind (2009) and Feel Free (2018) showcased the depth and range of her intellectual curiosity — from Martin Buber and Jay-Z to Justin Bieber and Sarah Sze — Intimations, a slim volume of essays written in the early months of the lockdown, cements her growing reputation as an essayist, ready to take on the mantle of the next Susan Sontag or Joan Didion.

The pieces in Intimations are short but arresting in the acuity of their observations. Something as innocuous as a visit to a nail salon or a walk in the park can set off an intriguing web of observations and epiphanies that, in turn, trigger a fresh chain of ‘intimations’ in the mind of the reader.

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Discourse on privilege

For instance, in ‘A Provocation in the Park’, Smith’s attention is hijacked by a man holding a sign that says, ‘I AM A SELF-HATING ASIAN. LET’S TALK.’ The essay assumes unexpected poignancy in the aftermath of the recent Atlanta spa shootings in which a white gunman killed six Asians. While it is common to label such incidents of targeted violence as a ‘hate crime’, Smith wonders, “When it comes to murder, what other kind of crime is there?” By describing a murder as a ‘hate crime’, are we not lending it “an undeserved aura of power”? Why should we care if a lynch mob was trying to express an ideology through the medium of violence — given that “the hatred of a group qua group is, after all, the most debased and irrational of hatreds, the weakest, the most banal. It shouldn’t radiate a special aura.” And yet, this seemingly commonsensical perspective is mostly lacking in the media coverage of murders driven by xenophobic or majoritarian hate.

Suffering is absolute

In ‘Suffering like Mel Gibson’, Smith wades into the discourse about privilege. It is essential to teach oneself the various forms of privilege. But can it be applied blindly “to the category of suffering”? For Smith, privilege and suffering are both “bubbles, containing a person and distorting their vision.” But though it is possible to “penetrate the bubble of privilege”, suffering is “impermeable”. Unlike privilege, which is always relative, suffering is absolute. “Your sufferings, puny as they may be in the wider scheme of things, direct themselves absolutely and only to you,” Smith writes. Why else would a wealthy, young, attractive, film star — the epitome of privilege by any yardstick — seek to end his life?

 

The lockdown left many with time on their hands. In ‘Something To Do’, my favourite from this collection, Smith starts by looking at how work from home has queered one’s relationship with time, which leads her to cogitate on how time flows around work, the difference between an artist’s labour and the labour of someone who is “on the clock”, which causes her to reflect on her own labour (writing) and why she does it (because “it’s something to do”).

Before you know it, an essay on time has become a meditation on life, love, art, and loneliness: while time constitutes the raw material of life, without love, is life anything more than “doing time”? Eclectic in their themes, these essays are like chatting with an old friend who rarely calls but when she does, regales you with her unique takes on stuff that everyone thinks about but not often or deeply.

Intimations: Six Essays; Zadie Smith, Penguin, ₹299.

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in


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