The first thing you should know about Zadie Smith’s slim collection of essays, Intimations, is that it concerns the first months of the pandemic, from the moments just before the threat of COVID-19 got serious up to the killing of George Floyd. Of course, we’ve all read about these topics to the point of surfeit, but there’s something refreshing about reading good, old-fashioned, published prose on these subjects, to sit with a book in hand rather than tablet. It creates more distance for us to consider the turmoil we’ve all felt. It grants us the perspective to recognize what’s happened to us while simultaneously bringing us closer to a time that already feels as though it belongs to a distant past.
The second thing you should know is that in no way does Smith try to provide some kind of comprehensible account to help us make sense of everything. This is not one more pundit’s take. Rather, as she writes, “These are above all personal essays, small by definition, short by necessity.” And therein lies the strength of this slender volume; it is in the personal that her concern for others shines through. In the essay “Screengrabs,” for instance, she recalls a series of everyday encounters in order to prefigure the havoc that the coming pandemic will wreak, whether it be upon an IT nerd’s “youthful exuberance” and “giddy joy” or a neighbor’s faith in community. In each, Smith is able to imagine the worries and logic of others while never flinching at her own failings in the face of hardship. In these moments, her best characteristics, both as a writer and a human being, are on full display—empathy, concern, graciousness, wisdom—qualities that have been present since her first novel, White Teeth, but never quite so unmistakably.
This essay works particularly well as it follows a moving piece on privilege and suffering, providing insight for so many of us who feel the disconnection between the crumbling world around us and our own comfort. Smith writes, “But when the bad day in your week finally arrives … that particular moment when your sufferings, as puny as they may be in the wider scheme of things, direct themselves absolutely and only to you … at that point it might be worth allowing yourself the admission of the reality of suffering.” Her point here is that while misfortune might be relative, it is never only relative; it always inflicts an absolute quality upon its target. Recognizing our own losses, then, no matter how small, need not be selfish but can push us toward empathy.
This insight takes on even more meaning when she later examines how racial contempt acts like a virus. The closest she comes to a broader cultural analysis is when she diagnoses the disease of racism starkly: “Patient Zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship 400 years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse-engineered an emotion—contempt—from a situation that he, the patient himself, had created.” This is contempt as the antithesis of empathy, and part of the antidote to contempt lies in the careful critique and self-examination Smith takes on
Many have written about the ways the pandemic could lead to necessary change,and I for one, welcome that. Perhaps just as necessary, though, is our need for transformed hearts, ones that have “reverse-engineered” all the outrage we seem so ready to embrace today. (Penguin Books)