Written during the early months of lockdown, Intimations explores ideas, feelings and questions prompted by an unprecedented situation. What does it mean it submit to a new reality – or to resist it? How do we compare relative sufferings? What is the relationship between time and work? In our isolation, what do other people mean to us? How do we think about them? What is the ratio of contempt to compassion in a crisis? When an unfamiliar world arrives, what does it reveal about the world that came before it?
Suffused with a profound intimacy and tenderness in response to these extraordinary times, Intimations is a slim, suggestive volume with a wide scope, in which Zadie Smith clears a generous space for thought, open enough for each reader to reflect on what has happened – and what might come next.
The isolation of the pandemic has created a space for the mind that we’ve never experienced before. Or maybe I shouldn’t say created, maybe it was always there, but in the long-term suspension of anything resembling the sort of life we had always taken for granted has finally become un-ignorable. I think whether this is a good thing or a hellish thing probably depends on the day, and what sort of person you are – in terms of both privilege and disposition. In Intimations, Zadie Smith’s utterly absorbing series of essays about pandemic life, she describes us as being “Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure”, and Zadie, like us, has “almost no idea what to do with it”. So we sit and we think, or we try not to think, and in the grey space between those two goals we reach for books like this, which are like a fresh hot water bottle in a cold lap – they burn a little, but they comfort too.
Rightly or not, I tend to read essay collections with the hope they will ‘explain life’ to me, to unlock some previously unidentified truth that will make me ‘solved’ for having read them. The first thing I often do find, but I’m less sure about the second – I think perhaps that will continue to mostly evade me until I pluck up the courage to start writing it for myself. While I definitely went into Intimations with my usual attitude of teach me how to be, Zadie, the profound experience I had with this book – and continue to have when I pick it up from time to time to reread an essay as I have done since I first read it – shook me.
The past year has been a destabilising lurch into the unknown. Before now most of us – the lucky ones, I guess – never understood how living in a real-life disaster movie could be so boring. We’ve clung to routine, or no routine, great habits and maladaptive ones, obsessive scrolling and Netflix – our coping mechanisms in the absence of any roadmap instructing us How to Deal. This whole time, we should have just been reading Intimations instead.
I’m not saying you’ll finish these six essays knowing suddenly how to mark time in some way other than with whatever you’re going to eat next (just me?) – like I said, essays don’t tend to ‘solve’ you, much as you might wish them to – but Zadie’s words go some way towards lifting the emotional burden. I’m writing this the day after Alexandria Orcasio Cortez’s Instagram Live where she revealed the details of what happened to her during the storming of the capital, and before that, how her response to that trauma was informed by a previous sexual assault. During that video she talked a lot about trauma, and how doubt over the legitimacy of our own experience – stoked by the gas lighting of a society that hasn’t figured out how to face its own darkness – stops us from talking about it. And this is so counter intuitive, she explained, because research has actually shown that one of the ways that we process trauma is to talk about it, by telling people: This Is What Happened To Me.
That’s what Zadie Smith is doing in Intimations.
It’s been really hard to figure out how to talk about suffering during the pandemic, when so many of us are in such fortunate positions of privilege. When the entire world is going through the exact same thing, how can you talk about your individual suffering? I don’t know about anyone else, but there have been times in the midst of all this when I am having an especially bad day I have found myself berating myself along the lines of – so today you’re making a literally global pandemic all about you?
Yep. I guess.
As Zadie writes: “…it is possible to penetrate the bubble of privilege and even pop it – whereas the suffering bubble is impermeable. Language, logic, argument, rationale and relative perspective itself are no match for it.” It’s an essay that suggests rather than berating ourselves for this sense of our own suffering we might be better served by accepting it, feeling empathy for it – so that ultimately, we might give other people the same kindness.
Intimations is a collection filled with these small truths – the writing brings with it a sort of clarity that you want to sit in conversation with. It is a work that keeps informing your day to day long after you have turned the final page. It’s a conversation about quarantine, and time, and the murder of George Floyd – an essay that points towards the other pandemic, the one that has been slowly killing us without half of the headlines: contempt.
She writes: “Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave-ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck, and reverse-engineered an emotion – contempt – from a situation he, the patient himself, had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains. So unlike other people. Frighteningly unlike!”
It is a time of trauma – not equally distributed – and none of us know what to do. We don’t know “what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it”, and it feels like our identities have been swallowed by that reality. Intimations doesn’t have the solution – though for a short while at least does answer the question of what to do with all that time. The solution probably, let’s face it, doesn’t really exist – or isn’t so much one achievable thing as a multitude of shifting and evolving goal posts. But it says something important, all the same.
This is what happened to me.
This is what happened to me.
This is what happened to me.