When the COVID pandemic first started, something happened. All at once, as if by some great predestined design, billions of hands began rushing. 

In the first months of the outbreak, many of us had the most productive and fruitful weeks of our lives. Files got stamped, old projects got completed and new projects got going, essays got written, art got made. Though we didn’t know it at the time, all this vigor and verve was predictable and expected. We had fallen into the well documented formulaic wheel of crisis time, consisting of three steps: emergency, regression, and recovery.

I was no different. Like a human being I behaved as one. I wrote pages upon pages, I scheduled phone/face-time dates and was diligent in keeping in contact with loved ones and friends. I taught myself origami, took some free online courses, went for long meandering walks everyday. Then, like a music box wound and played too many times, I began to wind down, my melodious tune stringing out into off-key notes and whining whispers. I clicked and clicked and sprang springs. Right on the ball, along with many others, I hit dreaded stage two: regression. Some of us got out of the funk and made it to recovery, shaking the cobwebs free and moving on, maintaining course, sticking to the path. Others of us—for reasons both internal and external—didn’t, and found ourselves out of steam and slumped in beds, sometimes lost and wandering off road. Then, there are those certainly like me, who continue to oscillate between these last two steps, regressing and recovering multiple times in a sort of strange, dark dance, a turning and turning about in a labyrinthine waltz of route and wilderness.     

But those first two or so months were a ride, weren’t they? The sheer amount of writing I produced in those first several weeks alone can just about make up for the bumbling year I’ve had. It was a glorious time, the river expedient, the way made clear. Those of us who write wrote and wrote and wrote.

And one of those individuals, of course, was novelist and essayist Zadie Smith. And from her fingers was produced her 2020 collection Intimations. A slim volume, not even a hundred pages long, with all Smith’s royalties going to charity, the non-fiction novelette is a moment of history seldom captured: not a moment such as an event or bodily action occurred and recorded in corporeal time and space, but a moment of thought, more of mind than brain, a spontaneous mental state that rippled around the globe that had no actual physical form but nonetheless existed. Within Intimations, put straightforwardly, are Zadie Smith’s emergency writings. The temple of the world fell down, and everyone instinctively, collectively, stood up and started rebuilding. Where were our minds? What, exactly, were we building? 

Intimations is a glimpse of the stream of consciousness that with a vengeance spilled forth from all our hands and hearts.

“What strikes me at once is how conflicted we feel about this new liberty and/or captivity. On the one hand, like pugs who have been lifted out of a body of water, our little limbs keep pumping on, as they did when we were hurrying off to our workplaces. Do we know how to stop? Those of us from puritan cultures feel “work must be done,” and so we make the cake, or start the gardening project, or begin negotiation with the other writer in the house for those kid-free hours each day in which to work on “something.” We make banana bread, we sew dresses, we go for a run, we complete all levels of Minecraft, we do something, then photograph that something, and not infrequently put it online. Reactions are mixed, even in our own hearts. Even as we do something, we simultaneously accuse ourselves: you use this extremity as only another occasion for self-improvement, another pointless act of self-realization. But isn’t it the case that everybody finds their capabilities returning to them, even if it’s only the capacity to mourn what we have lost? We had delegated so much.”

Zadie Smith, from Intimations: Six Essays

One of Smith’s initial actions during quarantine lock-down was picking up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations for the first time. This was not some deep attempt at psychoanalysis or a beginners journey of higher wisdom pursuit; in her own words, Smith was seeking “practical advice.” Upon reading this I quickly went to the shelf and fished out my own copy of Meditations—a lovely Franklin Library collection, coupled with Lucretius’ On The Nature Of Things and Epictetus’ Discourses. Realization of the inspiration of Aurelius’ Meditations on Smith’s Intimations was immediate, particularly for Smith’s exiting piece Intimations: Debts and Lessons, where she follows Aurelius’ numbered point system by the letter, listing through her thoughts in a tumbling of prose that follows a more poetic intimacy than philosophical trail. 

First page of the 1792 English translation by Richard Graves via Wikipedia – Thank You.

Zadie Smith, more than anything, as a pen is unsparing. Both tough and generous, her straight-to-the-point style is what makes her writing a tandem spin of bracing and alluring. Intimations—though short and musing—is no different. What is different, it seems, is the haste; Smith’s mind bolts out, with abandon, without destination, and right out the gate it is clear Smith is not pulling from her forehead a story or attempt at reasoning, but rather a slip of streaming responsiveness, and all the uncertainty and rambling it entails. Her words dart: tulips growing in a city garden, ponderings of both doubt and completeness, world leaders, her mother, idiosyncratic New Yorkers, friendships, contempt and knowledge. Smith’s mind travels to where most of our minds travel when left alone with nothing but our thoughts: to the connections we share or once had, and to the void that creeps in when those connections are severed. Who are we, without others?  

When things unravel, it is a common problem of human beings to try to grab every thread. Zadie Smith’s writing presents this phenomenon; the instinctive knee jerk reaction to catch the whole breaking ball of yarn before it hits the ground. What is lost in this moment is the understanding that you only need one end; all is connected, and as long as you maintain grip on a single piece you can follow and roll back up the string. The oddity is that when a crisis hits this bit of common wisdom is walloped out of us, as if the compasses of our minds were suddenly pummeled with sledgehammers, all sense of direction lost. This is what makes Smith’s Intimations so intriguing; something ruptures, and the hands whirl into action, picking up every fragment in a berry-picking-like ritual, adeptly moving both hands and collecting multiple pieces into the palms before depositing handfuls into the bucket, nothing sorted but nonetheless gathered. Smith’s Intimations captures this so well, and though the slim collection of essays in and of itself beholds nothing particularly sensational or enlightening, there is a feeling of affirmation that sweeps through.

Time waits for no one, and the world continues in her turns, so our fingers turn, loop, press, and grip, trying to keep up.

After all, though people may walk on their feet, humanity marches upon our hands.  

Great portrait of bestselling author Zadie Smith via Getty Images – Thank You.

3 ½ stars for Zadie Smith’s Intimations. 

One thought on “Intimations: The Emergency Writings of Zadie Smith

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