The Augur Lit: Zadie Smith’s Thinking About COVID Can Helps Us Sort Out Ours

Digital illustration by Nava Mach.

Like many GDS students, I spend a lot of my time thinking about the pandemic, but its full impacts on both our community and the world at large often feel too great to understand. A few weeks ago, I picked up the essay collection Intimations, written by the acclaimed author Zadie Smith largely in response to COVID. I wanted to make sense of the pandemic’s complexity: our community’s collective response of shock and confusion, and how many GDS students’ relative privilege affects our understandings of it.

As I started reading the book, I was slightly disappointed to discover that Smith by her own admission would not present the kind of moral surety I was looking for in its pages. She actually spends significant portions of Intimations diminishing her own relevance against the larger context of the pandemic—she says that writing is “pretty hopeless” in real life—and admits that, inevitably, each time she makes judgments and writes them down, “an unprecedented April arrives and makes nonsense of every line.” Smith positions herself not on a higher moral ground than us readers, but as someone who feels just as uncomfortable as I and maybe other GDS students do thinking and writing about our experiences in a pandemic that feels so unwieldy.

Smith embraces uncertainty in each of her essays. In “The American Exception,” an essay early in the book, Smith proposes that much of our country’s collective shock and demoralization in the face of the pandemic has to do with American illusions of control. A catastrophe as big and horrifying as the pandemic, Smith suggests, dismantled an idea many Americans comfort themselves with—that plagues either are something we left behind in the medieval past, or else belong only to undeveloped countries who bring it upon themselves by being poorly organized and dirty. But, as Smith points out, being American doesn’t exactly make the pandemic go away.

The great genius of Smith’s point about American exceptionalism is that she chooses to show herself, in the text, buying into it—listening to former President Donald Trump say, “I wish we had our old life back. We had the greatest economy we’ve ever had, and we didn’t have death.” She describes herself being taken in by the idea of “having our old life back” before she “dropped that apple, and, lo, it was putrid and full of worms”—because in actuality, of course, we did have death and suffering before the pandemic. But by holding the apple at all, for any period of time, Smith is consciously revealing her own fallibility, and in doing so opening up readers to the possibility of interrogating their own. Perhaps, we then reason, it is actually unhelpful to wish everything were back as it was before.

In another essay, “Suffering Like Mel Gibson,” Smith takes on the question of relative suffering during the pandemic. The title comes from a viral meme depicting a calm Mel Gibson talking to a Jesus Christ covered in blood and wearing his crown of thorns. The original caption reads, “Explaining to my friends with kids under six what it’s been like isolating alone.” Smith admits to laughing out loud when she first saw that meme, but, in the moments after, she chooses to examine that initial instinct.

Sticking with the analogy of the meme: Mel Gibson more privileged than Jesus, but is he suffering any less? No, Smith concludes, he is not. Because conditions of suffering, in her words, “direct themselves absolutely and only at you, as if precisely designed to destroy you and only you.” Suffering is specific to the individual and independent of, if not completely unrelated to, privilege, so to diminish our own individual suffering, especially in a time of such intense stress and trauma like the pandemic, denies our emotional needs. The bulk of GDS students are wealthy and have been insulated from the pandemic’s most devastating health and economic effects. Should we even consider our own suffering? Smith’s answer is, decidedly, yes. She encourages us to attend to our specific troubles, because, no matter how insignificant they seem, they will always be significant to us.

And yet Smith’s point about relative suffering, like every other one in the book, does not stand without deeper self-examination. Because, as she acknowledges, we cannot avoid confronting the innumerable, inconceivable sufferings of those around us (along with those of the faceless people whom we may never know; they too suffer unimaginably and deserve equal compassion, and they were likely on Smith’s mind, too—all royalties for the book go to charity). As GDS starts the school year for the third time during the pandemic, many people here may want to move forward with their increasingly normal lives, but we also cannot sidestep reflecting on such an unavoidably important force. Throughout Intimations, Smith offers nuanced and empathetic lessons for contending with the pandemic’s effects on ourselves, just as much as we expand our compassion.

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