Source of book: Borrowed from the library.
I read one of Zadie Smith’s novels, Swing Time (a fictionalized story involving a Madonna-like pop-star) about four years ago, and have a couple of Smith’s other novels on my list. However, I ran across this collection of essays while looking for something else, and decided to grab it.
Changing My Mind is a rather assorted collection of mostly unrelated essays and articles written through 2009, and cover a rather wide range of topics. They are roughly grouped into five sections of related essays: one on books, one on movies, one about her father, one with a long essay about David Foster Wallace, and one that is a trio of ones that she calls “Being,” but which seem mostly connected by being in some way about herself.
For background, Zadie Smith is a British author, the product of a marriage between her older white father and her much younger Jamaican-immigrant mother. She grew up kind of between worlds, and this plays into both her fiction and into these essays. I also discovered that she was the first to get a college degree, and thus found herself in a different social class than her parents. (Her essay, “Speaking in Tongues” was particularly illuminating on this score - the way her speech literally changed over time, even though she could switch back and forth.) That issue resonated with me a good bit, actually. My own family has gone from rural farmers to city folk to - in my generation - college educated, and I feel a definite generation gap that is not the same as (but related to) the political one, just by virtue of a broader range of reading and base knowledge. I think it is fair to say that the current gap (and estrangement) between me and my parents falls pretty much right on the line between “low education whites who support Trump” and “college educated whites who vote Democratic.” It isn’t that simple on every issue, and my parents got college degrees later in life. But the class difference feels very real right now, and the central question is how we obtain and evaluate information. (Man, that could be a whole post in itself.)
But I digress.
Probably the best way to jump in, is just to go in chronological order. Smith starts out with noting that the title was chosen because she herself can see that she has changed her mind on some issues since writing these essays. I have my speculation as to which ones, but she never entirely says. All of us - at least if we choose to grow and mature as we grow older, rather than ossify - find we are not the same people we were earlier in our lives.
The first section is on books, and I really enjoyed reading these. There are six total essays in this, the largest of the sections. Since Smith was an English major, many of the usual things come up for discussion: Derida and literary theory, of course, and the direction of modern fiction. But the choice of authors in these essays also fascinated me.
First up, Smith discusses Their Eyes Were Watching God. I can’t believe it has already been a decade since I read that book, but it is still fairly fresh in my mind. It was that good. Smith brings out a wealth of rich analysis in her essay, which I strongly recommend reading - but after you read the book.
Smith takes aim at the white “norms” of literary fiction, the assumption that white novelists are just…novelists, while non-white novelists, particularly if their characters are likewise non-white, are somehow a subcategory, and not the norm. Smith recalls reading the book for the first time at age 14 - her mother wanted her to read it, but she resisted before finally reading it very skeptically. She found a level of identification that she wasn’t expecting.
At fourteen I couldn’t find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech. These forms of identification are so natural to white readers - (of course Rabbit Angstrom is like me! Of course Madame Bovary is like me!) - that they believe themselves above personal identification, or at least believe that they are identifying only at the highest, existential levels (His soul is like my soul. He is human; I am human). White readers often believe they are colorblind.
Thus, the idea of a book being, as she puts it, soulful, is that sort of identification that is so easy as to be invisible to us white readers (and white moviegoers, and television watchers, and so on.)
The next essay is on E. M. Forster, another author I haven’t read in far too long. (Although I loved Howard’s End.) Forster is an author that is…well, maybe I should just let Smith describe him.
In the taxonomy of English writing, E. M. Forster is not an exotic creature. We file him under Notable English Novelist, common or garden variety. Yet there is a sense in which Forster was something of a rare bird. He was largely free of vices commonly found in novelists of his generation - what’s unusual about Forster is what he didn’t do. He didn’t lean rightward with the years, or allow nostalgia to morph into misanthropy; he never knelt for the pope or queen, nor did he flirt (ideologically speaking) with Hitler, Stalin or Mao; he never believed the novel was dead or the hills alive, continued to read contemporary fiction after the age of fifty, harbored no special hatred for the generation below or above him, did not come to feel that England had gone to hell in a handbasket, that its language was doomed, that lunatics were running the asylum or foreigners swamping the cities.
He was, as Smith notes, pretty middle of the road, although progressive in “matters of pacifism, class, education, and race” despite his conservative temperament. He was, well, mild. She entitles the essay “E. M. Forster, Middle Manager” which kind of fits.
The main focus of the essay isn’t his novels, however, but The BBC Talks of E. M. Forster, which sounds more fascinating in Smith’s description than the title implies. I had no idea these existed, but I am curious to read them now. He sounds like the exact sort of mild character he was - I guess he pretty much played himself in a self-deprecating manner. He seemed to think that the audience for his books wasn’t entirely friendly - and indeed resembled some of his more condescending characters.
Forster’s novels are full of people who’d think twice before borrowing a Forster novel from the library. Well - they’d want to know - is it worth the bother or not? Neither intellectuals nor philistines, they are the kind to “know what they like” and have the “courage of their convictions,” though their convictions are not entirely their own and their courage mostly fear.
Oof. I think we all know people who talk a lot about the “courage of their convictions” - “convictions” they got straight from whatever religious or political charlatan they presently adore, and whose “courage” is all about the fear stoked in them directed at those different from them.
Related is a quote from a book that Forster recommends during one of the talks, As We Are, a memoir by E. F. Benson. (I’d never heard of him, but now that I check his Wikipedia page, maybe I read a short story or two once?) In any case, Forster quotes a great paragraph by Benson:
Unfortunately there comes to the majority of those of middle age an inelasticity not of physical muscle and sinew alone but of mental fibre. Experience has its dangers; it may bring wisdom, but it may also bring stiffness and cause hardened deposits in the mind, and its resulting inelasticity is crippling.
Wow. That is a perfect description of a generation. At least most of a certain generation. I feel my parents lost their mental and moral elasticity sometime in their late 30s, which is why Bill Gothard appealed so much. He offered inflexible certainty, and the promise that one never had to think or wrestle or learn again - he had the formulae, and that was enough.
The next essay is all about Middlemarch. I am a fairly new reader of that marvelous book, although I have loved George Eliot generally since high school. Apparently, I missed out on the whole sexist dismissal of the book in certain academic circles - for me, it was more notable to find someone who had actually read the book than anything, and most of those who had read it thought it was good. I guess I probably hang out with the sorts of readers who read Victorian novels for fun, not for academic reasons.
But there was a lot in this essay that was fascinating. I did not realize (although maybe I should have guessed?) that Spinoza was a big influence on Eliot’s thought. (Also, I think Smith is correct that the usually perceptive Henry James blew it completely in thinking Fred Vincy is an unimportant character in Middlemarch. The opposite is true.) In any case, lovers of the book will find this essay fascinating.
I enjoyed reading the next essay, but will admit that, unlike the previous three, I couldn’t directly relate to it. Smith contrasts Roland Barthes with Vladimir Nabokov, in discussing the question of the author. And whether the author matters. I’ll mention here that a lot of what I know about literary theory and authorship versus the text versus the reader originated in David Foster Wallace’s wonderful essay on the subject. He explains it really well, just as Smith in this essay illuminates both sides of the debate lucidly. I won’t even attempt to summarize this, as I would bungle it. I do want to quote a footnote, however.
Another way of thinking about the distinction might be: there is a style that believes writing should mimic the quick pace, the ease, and the fluidity of reading (or even of speech). And then there is a style that believes reading should mimic the obstruction and slow struggle of writing. Raymond Carver would be on that first axis. Nabokov is way out on the second. Joyce is even further.
This was all very fascinating. Except that I have yet to read Nabokov or Barthes. I have only read an excerpt of Joyce (I need to remedy that), and maybe a short story of Carver. So much to read…
The next essay is on Kafka, which, again, is someone I haven’t really read. It is interesting to know some of the history of Kafka’s work, much of which wasn’t published during his lifetime. His friend, Max Brod, preserved Kafka’s writings against his wishes - he literally defied the will, which ordered that all his works be burned. For what it is worth, Brod claimed that Kafka picked him knowing he wouldn’t actually destroy anything. Which, well, sounds like an actual Kafka story or something, doesn’t it?
I had to smile at a line from one of Kafka’s letters, which asked a correspondent, “Don’t you get pleasure out of exaggerating painful things as much as possible?” It is hard to know how firmly the tongue was in the cheek on that one.
The most painful part of the essay, though, is on the problems faced by Kafka and all Jews in early 20th Century Europe. Smith points out that there were really two parallel “Jewish Questions,” both of which are still being asked about all minority groups today. The first is the external one - Gentiles asking “what is to be done with the Jews.” And, as we know, the answers are the horrifying “persecute and/or exterminate them” and the still unacceptable, if less bloody “toleration.” Note that “fully embrace” is not one of the options usually offered.
The second question, though, and one that Kafka, a German-speaking, very “Western” Jew asked is, “Am I really a Jew, and do I have much in common with other Jews?” This is the existential question of identity. And I see it asked by non-white immigrants to the United States, Europe, and other - often colonized - white-ruled states. Is one truly [fill in the blank ethnicity] if we have been assimilated for generations? In the meantime, the dominant ethnicity/color refuses to fully accept and embrace. Kafka concluded that “The choice of belonging to a people, of partaking in a shared nature, was no longer available to him.”
For related but different reasons, I have felt the same way over the last decade. My belonging to a particular “people” - in my case, white evangelicals - has been destroyed. My place in my birth family, and my place in my extended family, no longer really exists, because political affiliation turns out to be far stronger than blood.
The final essay about books is “Two Directions for the Novel.” In it, Smith contrasts Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, and Remainder by Tom McCarthy. I have not read either, or anything by either author. So, for me, the interest in the essay was in Smith’s contrast in the directions the two point. For Smith, Netherland is in the modern “lyrical realism” style, which she argues can tend to reuse the neural pathways we expect, and become some sort of comforting bedtime story. Not that she hates the story, or lyrical realism generally - she notes she has written in that style. She just thinks it tends to get too comfortable, too self-focused. Remainder is much more experimental, and honestly sounds really intriguing to read.
The best line in the essay, though, is regarding the fact that both authors come from the same elitist class.
For though these novels seem far apart, their authors are curiously similar. Similar age; similar class; one went to Oxford, the other, Cambridge; both are by now a part of the publishing mainstream, share a fondness for cricket and are subject to a typically British class/race anxiety that has left its residue. A flashback-inclined Freudian might conjure up the image of two brilliant young men, straight out of college, both eager to write the Novel of the Future, who discover, to their great dismay, that the authenticity baton (which is, of course, entirely phony) has been passed on. Passed to women, to those of color, to people of different sexualities, to people from far off, war-torn places…The frustrated sense of having come to the authenticity party exactly a century late!
That’s pretty funny, of course. And there is that question of how much we need (or even want) more novels by white guys - maybe it is someone else’s turn. But Smith is right as well that good literature is good literature regardless, and I don’t think there is any serious risk of some great work by a white guy being overlooked in the long run. At least any more than there ever was.
The next section in the book is the one with the most variety. The first essay is a revised lecture given to Columbia University’s writing program in 2008. I found her description of the “macro planner” versus the “micro manager” writing styles to be amusing. She is a micro manager, in case you hadn’t guessed.
I am a micro manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.
Also amusing is her description of the way all writers go from imitation of others to finding their voice. She recounts a young novelist who was horrified that she planned to read his first novel.
“Oh please don’t! Back then, all I read was Faulkner. I had no sense of humor. My God, I was a different person!”
Even as an amateur blogger, there are times I feel that way about my earlier posts. (Although I have kept them the way they are, rather than update, as I think they are a good record of my own changes over time.) I haven’t read enough Faulkner to be sure, but I do think humor is perhaps not his strong suit. In any case, this essay was a fun look at the process of writing from the point of view of one author.
Next up is a far less light-hearted essay, “One Week In Liberia.” The tragedy of much of post-colonial Africa is well known. The withdrawal of the colonial governments, only to see the nascent movements toward true democracy crushed by autocrats funded and armed by the same colonialist powers, this time seeking to plunder the resources to enrich Western corporations.
Liberia is one of the most tragic, as it was founded with some good intentions - to provide a place for the formerly enslaved to return. Yes, it was for some a way to Make America White Again and erase the evidence of our national sin. But for many African-Americans, Liberia meant hope, and the fact that it was not realized makes me sad indeed. The whole essay is pretty depressing, but there are some perceptive lines.
I found the description of the many problems Liberian women face to be pretty emblematic. From genital mutilation to child marriage, to the general ownership of women by their husbands, the whole laundry list of patriarchy is there. The one that was the weirdest, though, was the way that in some tribes, husbands would essentially pimp out their wives - they got to charge the other man an “infidelity tax,” payable to the husband, of course. So, essentially unpaid sex work. We tend to forget that “adultery” has, historically, meant a wife seeking sexual pleasure on her own terms, and that no concept of “faithfulness” prevented a man from lending out his woman, with or without consent.
There is plenty of horrifying information about corporate exploitation as well. These large companies would wait for civil unrest, then sign a contract with whichever current dictator needed the money to finance his army - a contract that would last for dozens of years. As the group Global Witness puts it:
[M]ultinational corporations seek to maximize profit by using an international regulatory void to gain concessions and contracts which strongly favour the corporation over the host nation.
Gee, you think? This is why I get irritated when people claim that the third world is poor because the people or the culture or something is just inferior to that of the first world. While ignoring the flagrant exploitation and fomenting of unrest.
I did have to laugh at Smith’s description of one NGO worker who showed her around.
Patrick Alix is thirty years old. He is distinctly aristocratic looking, half French, and so unrelievedly serious the urge is to say stupid things in his presence.
A lot less funny is the fact that in many of the schools, the teachers have to deal with the fact that most of the children are ex-combatants from the civil wars. As in literally children, some of whom killed their own families as part of the war. That’s trauma that is nearly impossible to fix, and a further example of why rebuilding the colonized third world isn’t a short term or easy job. And it certainly isn’t a matter of exporting Western Christianity.
I’ll mention “Speaking in Tongues” for its wonderful exploration of language and identity. Along the way, Smith moves from her own code switching to the way that two notable figures did the same. Barack Obama, coming from both black and white, and from a complex class background, did a remarkable job of speaking to all sides. (Although this also earned him the passionate enmity of the MAGA crowd. I know. I spent the Obama years in Evangelicalism.)
The other, though, is Shakespeare. As Smith points out, he too was caught between two warring cultures - in this case, the Protestant/Catholic transition in England under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. His father hid a signed profession of Catholic faith, at the same time he was overseeing the redecorating of churches to purge them of all vestiges of Catholicism. As Smith puts it:
John Shakespeare was a kind of equivocator: it’s what you do when you’re in a corner, when you can’t be a Catholic and a loyal Englishman at the same time. When you can’t be both black and white. Sometimes, in a country ripped apart by dogma, those who wish to keep their heads - in both senses - must learn to split themselves in two. And this we still kow, here, at a four-hundred-year distance. No one can hope to be president of these United States without professing a committed and straightforward belief in two things: the existence of God and the principle of American exceptionalism. But how many of them equivocated, and who, in their shoes, would not equivocate, too?
This is a good point, and one that makes a lot of sense. We tend to glorify those who die for their beliefs, but should we? On the one hand, I find it noble to stand up for other people, to preserve those that the (theo)fascists would sacrifice to their dogma. Definitely protect the Jews from the Nazis, and gays from the fundamentalists. But while I do not believe in penal substitutionary atonement, I wouldn’t be inclined to die for that position.
The next section in the book is a group of four on movies. The first one is about Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. I will say straight up that Kate Hepburn is one of my favorite actors of all time, and I crush hard on her feminist style. (My wife resembles Kate in more ways than one.) So I really loved this half of the essay. I was less familiar with Garbo - the silent era isn’t one I have seen much of, honestly. But that too was fascinating.
I particularly have to mention the anecdote Smith shares about Adam’s Rib. For those not familiar with it, it takes an ethical impossibility - two lawyers both married to each other and representing opposite sides in a case (ethics rules forbid this sort of thing, so it would never happen in real life) and turns it into a marital drama and exploration of gender roles and feminism. Zadie Smith writes that she has watched it with two different lovers and in both cases, ended up sleeping in separate bedrooms afterward. And yes, it is painful at times - Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (real life lovers) have an obvious chemistry and frisson, and one has to wonder if they too had spats about the gender wars.
My own story? My wife and I watched the movie together, I believe while we were dating. And while, for a variety of reasons, we did indeed spend the night in separate bedrooms (separate houses too), we actually found we bonded over that movie. It was one way we knew we had a shot at a weird sort of marriage, one of equals, one where I never presumed on her, and she never felt the need to coddle my fragile masculinity. But I can very much see why other couples would find it a tough one.
The Garbo section was fascinating for many reasons, but the most completely unexpected was the revelation that Garbo was, off screen, very masculine. As in, masculine enough that she might identify as transgender now. I know that the arts have always been a place that sexual and gender minorities have gravitated - a kind of acting that didn’t carry the dire consequences of trying to “pass” among other things. But Garbo was not the one I would automatically have thought of. Proof that transgender and androgynous people have always existed, despite what the Fundies claim.
The essay on Bellissima was probably the least interesting, just because it dealt with the details of a movie I have never seen. So I’ll skip over that one, and move on to the collection of movie reviews. For 2006, Smith reviewed movies for a magazine, and got to snark at length - or at least a short length - about some of the dreck that came out. I don’t think I saw any of those movies. That year, we had children aged two, one, and zero, and got very little sleep. The chances of getting away to a movie were only slightly more than the chance we would have been up to it. The reviews are pretty funny and perceptive though.
There is also the one bit that I wonder if she regrets now. In a review of Transamerica, she makes some statements that, 16 years later, seem a bit off. She isn’t transphobic, and not toxic in the J. K. Rowling vein - certainly no “transwomen are predators” crap. Rather, she asks questions about the nature of being transgender or transsexual that fall more into the ignorant or insensitive category - essentially questions that should probably be left alone by cisgender people. But, as I said, not in the category of transphobic. And where she lands is mostly that we have a societal problem where masculine and feminine are rigid categories, which I very much agree with.
The last essay is an account of her coverage of the Oscars. It’s quite funny, and captures the disconnects in the LA scene that those of us natives know. First, real movie stars don’t look like you think they do up close. The fact that I am taller than Tom Cruise is just one truth. But there are a lot more “imperfections” than you would expect, and, as Smith points out, real actors have natural boobs. So, the “Hollywood LA” tanned and plastic surgery-ed to death bottle blonds that get attention are not actual stars, and natives know that. More likely, they are trophy wives for professional sorts. Likewise, real Hollywood parties are as much of yawners as any office party. Seriously. Anyway, this is a great opening paragraph:
Hollywood is vulgar. Every Englishman knows that. He knows it as he knows there is no comedy in Germany, as he knows that the Italians “get it right,” if “it” includes food, marriage, weather, and landscape but excludes governance, work, driving, and God. David Hockney’s aquamarine L. A. swimming pools strike the correct English attitude to Los Angeles: affectionate contempt for sparkling surfaces. La La Land! Red carpets; semisacred actors in an exclusive Valhalla; parties beyond imagination; jewels beyond price. Over Oscar weekend, an automatic journalism rehashes these eternal ideas, the accounts in newspapers precisely matching the tall tales of the cab driver who brings you in from the airport.
I’m an LA native, so I love this description of the fable, the myth, the media creation. You want to see LA? Don’t think Hollywood, but instead go find the legendary diversity, the mixing of cultures and languages. Check out the food scene, the arts scene, the swap meets and the street vendors. It’s a complex place, like any big city, a huge messy aggregation of humanity. I don’t miss the traffic or the insane housing prices. But I do love to visit.
In one of the scenes she portrays, the media and some Oscar nominees go hang out at Canter’s, the legendary Jewish deli in La Brea. Open 24 hours a day, it is not just atmosphere, but an experience. Smith mentions the matzo ball soup - which is excellent - and the corned beef and pastrami made in house. We have gone there when we visit museums in the area (the La Brea tar pits, or LACMA, for example) and it is definitely on the “must visit” list for foodies.
Anyway, a fun essay.
The three essays about Smith’s father are really poignant and lovely. I didn’t write down any quotes, because it is all about context. The family Christmas gatherings, already awkward because of her parents’ failing marriage. His account of his experience on D Day - he made sure she wrote that he wasn’t a hero. And his last illness and death, combined with her brother’s career as a comedian - and yes, these absolutely fit together. These are beautiful portraits of a man that she loved, and that loved her, even though they grew apart in certain ways with time. I’ll just say that I loved these essays, and can’t recommend them enough.
The final work in the book is a long review of David Foster Wallace’s short story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
Smith is a fan of DFW, so the review is definitely positive. My reading of DFW is pretty limited, although I must say that his nonfiction collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again was excellent. (I noted the essay on literary theory above.) So, I suppose I too am a bit of a fan, although I haven’t read that much. The quotes from him in this essay alone are superb, and the short stories themselves sound fascinating. In fact, I ended up putting the collection on my wish list, because our library system doesn’t carry it. Boo!!! Did we really need those 35 copies of Eat, Pray, Love and couldn’t afford this one?
Anyway, a DFW quote to start this off. (Side note: my dad was an air traffic controller, so “DFW” means “Dallas-Fort-Worth airport” to me. But typing out “David Foster Wallace” is a pain in the ass, so I am recycling the acronym.)
I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empath’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple. But now realize that TV and popular film and most kinds of “low” art - which just means art whose primary aim is to make money - is lucrative precisely because it recognizes that audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain. Whereas “serious” art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. So it’s hard for an art audience, especially a young one that’s been raised to expect art to be 100 percent pleasurable and to make that pleasure effortless, to read and appreciate serious fiction. That’s not good. The problem isn’t that today’s readership is “dumb,” I don’t think. Just that TV and the commercial-art culture’s trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today’s readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.
I agree with about 90 percent of that. But I think DFW accidentally spelled “Baby Boomers” to read “young audiences.” He was my generation - Gen X - and saw some of this is our generation. He wasn’t wrong, per se - superficiality exists in Gen X. But the true “raised on television and effortless gratification” generation is the Baby Boomers. Which is why they are the core demographic for Fox News. My experience of Millennials (which read a lot more than Boomers, by the way) is that they do understand the pain of life, and are willing to think more deeply. (Which is why the Boomers hate them so much.) And then there is Gen Z, my own kids’ generation. They have thought so much that the older generations (my generation and my parents’) seem determined to censor books, muzzle teachers, and scream into the void about how horrible it is that the young people are browner, gayer, and don’t agree with them! Where the hell do you think the “don’t say gay” laws are coming from? Or the “teach only wytewashed history” crap? It isn’t Gen Z, I can tell you that. Likewise, who is calling for gun law reform, who is standing up to anti-LGBTQ bigotry, who is pushing for a reckoning for past and present systemic racism? Oh, that would be those damn Millennials and Gen Z.. So yes, I agree with DFW that many people have been trained to expect easy gratification. (And I think this was a problem before TV, too.) But it isn’t the young folk primarily.
Oh, and here is another fantastic DFW quote, I believe from the story “The Depressed Person.”
There’s always been a strong and distinctive American distaste for frustration and suffering…It seems distinctly Western-industrial, anyway. In most other cultures, if you hurt, if you have a symptom that’s causing you to suffer, they view this as basically healthy and natural, a sign that your nervous system knows something’s wrong. For these cultures, getting rid of the pain without addressing the deeper cause would be like shutting off the fire alarm while the fire’s still going. But if you just look at the number of ways that we try like hell to alleviate mere symptoms in this country - from fast-fast-fast-relief antacids to the popularity of lighthearted musicals during the Depression - you can see an almost compulsive tendency to regard pain itself as the problem.
Man, that is so spot on. And I can see it in my own family, unfortunately. Because I was the scapegoat, the difficult child, the black sheep, my pain and unhappiness was always put down to a flaw in me, never in circumstances. I was rebellious. Or I just “say mean things.” We have never been able to get past the symptoms to causes. Just like in society, we continue to treat the symptoms of inequality and oppression by more and more policing.
One final thought from this essay: Smith draws a line from Kant to Simone Weil to John Rawls with an argument against the unholy marriage of individualism with profit-obsessed capitalism and in favor of a more humanistic ethic. Smith discusses this in a great footnote.
All three [Kant, Weil, and Rawls] having in common the idea that the business of ethics properly concerts good relations between people rather than the individual’s relation toward some ultimate goal or end. For Kant, all people are ends in themselves; for Weil they are sacred in themselves. For Rawls they are communal individuals whose differences are to be respected and yet not counted as relevant when it comes to justice, which must concern itself with fairness. In Rawls’ view, if we were to choose the principles of a just society, we would have to be placed under a “veil of ignorance” in which we knew nothing of one another’s (or our own) personal qualities, that is, race, talents, religion, wealth, class, gender - an awesome idea that reminds me of Wallace at his most parabolic. Let’s say it’s your job to choose the “role of women” in this society, a society in which you’re going to live. But as you make the decision you don’t know if you yourself are to be a woman or not. So decide!
This is a thought experiment I have often considered as the crux of the issue with ALL social hierarchies. I suspect we all would make different decisions about how to order society if we had no way of knowing if we would be man or woman, white or black, rich or poor. I have long believed that the only reason so many Fundies idolize the Victorian Era is that they imagine themselves as the aristocracy, never as a child laborer dying in a coal mine at age 9. And the doucebag theo-bros who insist that vagina people can’t do theology are mostly terrified that if they did, they would not only strip nasty men of their power, but they would be really, really good at theology. I think this is also why the American White Right - the MAGA crowd - is terrified of immigration. They realize (probably correctly) that their lazy and often stupid white asses will be exposed by meaningful competition. I myself am well aware that I am a Mediocre White Man™, and I am okay with it. Which is why I realize that a society that benefits everyone will ultimately benefit me. I need not fear women, minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people - ultimately, it is only those who seek to use power to oppress others who are the threat to the wellbeing of all of us - and society.
Lots of great stuff in this book. I love Zadie Smith. She is a thoughtful writer, and wears her heart on her sleeve in a way that I find to indicate a kindred spirit, despite our differences in background, nationality, and more. This essay collection is a gem, and worth seeking out.
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