I recently applied for a job at a literary magazine, which asked that I submit three readings on ‘Freedom’. Needless to say, the magazine was American. Much eye-rolling followed from my friends in Melbourne – can’t those Americans cool it with the patriotic slogans? – but it seems a shame, really, to have such a default cynical reaction to a concept so politically and philosophically immense. The word has been somewhat deadened by political speak and advertising – where freedom is a car, a smartphone, an airline – but what intrigues most about freedom is its epic ambiguity.
Feel Free – the multiple readings are right there in the title of Zadie Smith’s new essay collection: both a sunny invitation, and an insistent demand. It hints at a lightness undercut with anxious inquiry that pervades these essays. In the essay ‘Find Your Beach’ a similar call-to-action appears in a beer ad, looming at Smith from a billboard in SoHo: “Find your beach. The construction is odd. A faintly threatening mixture of imperative and possessive forms, the transformation of a noun into a state of mind.” These words and phrases that have been co-opted by sales pitches require fresh scrutiny: “Freedoms calcify and have to be rejected and/or adapted by the young.”
Zadie Smith is a writer both definitive and illusive, saying precisely what she means yet meaning multitudes. Smith’s freedom is the freedom to interrogate any artifact – in this collection she takes subjects as varied as Brexit, Jay Z, the Italian Masters, Justin Bieber, Facebook – even if her thoughts wander widely and end without revelation, as she does with Dana Schutz’s contentious painting Open Casket: “The truth is that this painting and I are simply not in profound communication. This is always a risk in art.”
Yet the collection opens with a caveat: “These essays you have in your hands were written in England and America during the eight years of the Obama presidency and so are the product of a bygone world.” It’s a qualification that reveals a particularly present anxiety: Are the open-ended questions and personal anecdotes of the essayist fit enough to survive the new political world?
Looking at Smith’s pieces from both before and after 2016, there is a subtle shift. The latter possess that now-familiar uneasiness, the tone of someone trying to reestablish their footing after having been unexpectedly knocked off-kilter. In a New Yorker essay by Jia Tolentino titled ‘The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over’, Tolentino writes that as a result of the current madhouse politics, “[i]ndividual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject.” What appears to be at stake for Smith, and the essayist at large, is the very foundation of the personal essay: the self.
Smith’s whole enterprise is in mapping how complex this self can be. If the novelist knows anything, she writes, “it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioural possibilities.” But she, along with the rest of us, must now contend with a world hostile to such pluralities. Her concession that her “somewhat ambivalent view of human selves is wholly out of fashion” is true, but this actually strengthens her position as someone calling for less definitive selves.
Her insistence on multiplicity doesn’t avoid identity politics, rather it looks finely at those politics and demands more from them. In a piece on Brexit, she writes, “I kept reading pieces by proud Londoners speaking proudly of their multicultural, outward-looking city, so different from these narrow xenophobic places up north. It sounded right, and I wanted it to be true, but the evidence of my own eyes offered a counter-narrative.” It’s in these counter-narratives that Smith locates complexity of motivation along the often-binary distinctions of race, class, and political leaning. To lose our capacity for multiplicity, Smith suggests, only because the world suddenly seems more divided, only further divides and flattens.
Smith’s writing is so pleasurable because she rarely leaves any part of her thinking off of the page; “thinking aloud” as she writes (she also quotes a friend who describes her entire writing career as “a fifteen-year psychodrama”). It’s precisely this analytic intensity, this psychodrama, that gives each essay a glut of insight and cross-examination. It is also this intensity that keeps the writing, in one way, restrained, unfree. Whenever Smith indulges in virtuosic prose, her want to consider every side of an argument reigns her back towards reasoning. The closest Smith comes to a literary abandon in Feel Free is her essay ‘Crazy They Call Me’, originally an introduction to Jerry Dantzic’s book of photographs of Billy Holiday. Written in the second-person, Smith speaks directly to Holiday while simultaneously embodying her; a “form of ventriloquy” Smith writes – just imagine recounting your own life story to yourself in a mirror:
You got skinny a while back and some guys don’t like it, one even told you that you got a face like an Egyptian death mask now. Well, good! You wear it, it’s yours. Big red lips and now this new high ponytail bouncing around – the gardenias are done, the gardenias belonged to Billie – and if somebody asks you where exactly this new long twist of hair comes from you’ll cut your eyes at whoever’s doing the asking and say: ‘Well I wear it so I guess it’s mine.’ It’s my hair on my goddamn head. It’s arranged just so on my beautiful mask – take a good look! Because you know they’re all looking right at it as you sing, you place it deliberately in the spotlight, your death mask, because you know they can’t help but seek your soul in the face, it’s their instinct to look for it there. You paint the face as protection.
Unsurprising that Smith should find the greatest freedom in inhabiting another character. It’s her sense as a novelist, “this personal sense of immateriality that becomes, perversely, more solid when [you] pretend to be someone else.”
When she’s not inhabiting a character, Smith frets about finding herself fixed on the page. A rigid ‘I’ mocks her claims to changeable personae. For Smith, the ‘I’ brings both an anxiety about pretention – “a kind of indulgence, a narcissistic weakness, which the French and Americans go in for, perhaps, but not the British” – but also a fear of losing the “full range of behavioural possibilities”. She decries diary writing: “this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself – I found that idea so depressing.” (I am very grateful for this admission, as someone who always felt falsely performative when trying to keep a diary, and subsequently felt like an imposter writer for not keeping one.) That said, her talent for observing others finds its most intimate incarnation in the dual portraits of her parents.
If keen observation offers a relief from one’s own internal monologue, criticism of art can do same, and one of the surprising pleasures of Feel Free is a collection of Smith’s straightforward book reviews taken from her brief stint reviewing for Harper’s. Here, Smith allows herself some rare unguarded scorn (on a biography of Susan Sontag: “a sprung trap laid by a needy author”) and as a result she’s at her funniest (on Edward St. Aubyn’s novel At Last: “Parental death, heroin, childhood rape, emotional frigidity, suicide, alcoholism – stop me when it sounds summery”).
When considering other forms outside literature, she is quick to announce herself as a dilettante. Perhaps she is smartly avoiding the hostility directed at experts, but she also offers a means of looking at art – and the world – where a lack of knowledge gives way to different kinds of knowledge. In one anecdote, she attempts to understand the precise moment when, standing in the skeleton of an old cathedral, she went from hating Joni Mitchell to loving her without obvious cause: “Maybe a certain kind of ignorance was the condition. Into the pure nothingness of my non-knowledge something sublime (an event?) beyond (beneath?) consciousness was able to occur.”
This particular kind of considered and articulate “ignorance” affords her unexpected hope, which seems so hard to come by honestly nowadays. Smith is never content with a platitudinous route. On climate change: “the apocalyptic scenarios did not help – the terrible truth is that we had a profound, historical attraction to the apocalypse.” It’s because of this rejection of the hackneyed that her observations resist conclusion, often arriving as questions: “How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably?” “What if I weren’t me?” “Is it possible that what men consider enigmatic in women is actually agency?” “But what is ‘truth’?”
Perhaps one of the greatest shifts we will see as writers contend with the current corruption of language and politics is a new and necessary optimism. Not a hokey, everything’s-gonna-be-alright type; a troubled and striving type. “Politically,” Smith writes, “all a social liberal has left is the ability to remind herself that fatalism is only another kind of trap, and there is more than one way to be naïve.”
Uncertain and fraught politics will not be the end of the personal essay. That isn’t to say that the singular ‘I’ need not be earned. It is not confession, as Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story, “it is self-implication that is required.” In that sense, for all her nail-biting, Smith earns every ‘I’, never confessional (that depressing diary-entry form) but always self-implicating. Then amongst all the questions of how one ought to live, there springs the simplest moments of relief: “Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.”
Rennie McDougall is a writer and dancer based in New York. His criticism and reporting has appeared in the Village Voice, Slate, LA Review of Books, Hyperallergic, Bookforum, Culturebot and Real Time magazine, among others. He recently received runner-up for the Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism for his piece on Björk’s Utopia.