I’ve been thinking lately about the essay, why it seems both so essential and so fraught right now. This is not an academic question but a matter of how we survive, or don’t, on the page. “Writing exists (for me),” Zadie Smith admits in the Foreword to her capacious new collection, Feel Free, “at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self.” The key words there are precarious, uncertain; every essayist (or essay reader) understands what she means. “I realize,” Smith acknowledges further, “my somewhat ambivalent view of human selves is wholly out of fashion . . . It is of course hardly possible to retain any feelings of ambivalence — on either side of the Atlantic — in the face of what we now confront.” And yet, somehow, we do. Here, we see what the essay offers, perhaps especially in an era that is so resolutely unambiguous: a reminder that fashion is fleeting, that there is more to us than what gets reported, that the key conundrum of our humanity — What are we doing here? — remains.
What Are We Doing Here? is the title of another recent book of essays, Marilynne Robinson’s series of inquiries into faith, theology, and politics, and if it seems a stretch to connect to Smith’s more internalized investigations, it’s a stretch I want to make. The point, or one of them, is that the essay is both interior and exterior, the expression of a soul, of an intelligence, looking out. We have been conditioned by a variety of factors — including and perhaps especially Internet culture — to think of the essay as entirely personal, a mechanism for testimony or amends. That’s part of it, although what Smith and Robinson have to tell us is that the personal can also be political or public, that what we think, and what we think about, can be as revelatory as what we have or haven’t done. I’m interested in the essay because I am an essayist, and I am curious to see what other essayists are doing with the form. But I am also interested in the essay because I am a human being. “It reminds me,” Smith writes in a piece on Facebook, first published in The New York Review of Books in 2010, “that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”
Smith caught flak when that essay originally appeared, derided as retrograde and out-of-touch. But one of the pleasures of both her collection and Robinson’s is how they reveal the emptiness of such critiques. It’s an intention embodied by the structure of Feel Free, which Smith divides into five parts, beginning with “The World.” The idea is to open wide, as they say, and then move inward, in increasing spirals, toward the self. The strategy suggests a certain necessary tension — framing identity, even freedom, on both individual and collective terms.
“What would I have been and what would I have done — or more to the point, what would have been done to me — in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960?” Smith asks in “On Optimism and Despair,” a talk she delivered two days after the 2016 presidential election. “I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West Indian ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.” This is an almost perfect encapsulation of the pattern of her thinking, from the societal to the particular and back again. “The three of us,” she writes in “North-west London Blues,” referring to herself, her mother, and a bookseller about to lose her shop in Willesden, where Smith grew up, “lamented this change and the cultural vandalism we felt it represented. Or, if you take the opposite view, we stood around pointlessly, like the Luddite, fiscally ignorant liberals we are, complaining about the inevitable.”
Smith is critiquing everything we don’t want to talk about: complicity and naïveté, what we take for granted and how we are positioned, our good feelings about ourselves. It’s a territory to which she returns throughout Feel Free. In “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” she describes a North London dinner party (whisper of her novel NW) where guests lament “the strange tendency of the younger lefty generation to censor or silence speech or opinions they consider in some way wrong,” until a lone dissenter speaks: “Well, they got that habit from us.” Later, Smith recalls a playdate never set up for her daughter and a friend, due to a divide between herself and the other mother, “not because I was black . . . but because I was middle class.” The implication is striking not because we don’t recognize the dynamics but because we do. “To see what is in front of one’s nose,” George Orwell wrote, “needs a constant struggle.” For Smith, too, such a struggle is the driver of the essay.
What makes Feel Free so resonant is this refusal to let anyone, herself included, off the hook. At the same time, she is compassionate and understanding of our failings — although understanding alone, Smith knows, is not enough. More to the point, her purpose is inquiry, the essayist’s natural state of asking as opposed to answering: precarious uncertainty again. If, on the one hand, she is writing out of a certain expertise — she is sharply pointed on books and art and film and popular culture — her real subject is the provisionality of everything.
Even her children stir a litany of questions. “Their beloved father is white, I am biracial, so by the old racial logic of America, they are ‘quadroons,’ ” she writes in “Getting In and Out,” which considers both the film Get Out and Dana Shutz’s painting Open Casket, accused of cultural appropriation at last year’s Whitney Biennial for its portrayal (by a white artist) of Emmett Till. “Could they take racial suffering as a subject of their art, should they ever make any?” The openness is stunning, down to what her kids may or may not become. That, however, is only the beginning, as Smith fires off a series of interrogatives, so fast we cannot address one before the next arrives. Her children, she tells us, “look white. Are they? If they are, shouldn’t white people like my children concern themselves with the suffering of Emmett Till? Is making art a form of concern? Does it matter what form the concern takes?” The list goes on for nearly half a page. Her concerns move inexorably from the cultural to the existential — or maybe the two are increasingly the same.
“I had a Person 1.0 panic attack,” she writes in the Facebook essay. “Soon I would be forty, then fifty, then soon after dead; I broke out in a Zuckerberg sweat . . . Can you have that feeling on Facebook?” For Smith, this is a key distinction, not the generational divide but the conundrum of authenticity in a world defined by its façades. When even our online profiles supersede us, what does it say about identity? What does it mean for our selves? These are questions, I would tell you, with no answers, which makes them the most important questions we can ask.
What Are We Doing Here? undertakes a related sequence of investigations, albeit through a different lens. Like Smith, Robinson means to reflect on “what we now confront” (how could she not?), yet she is also intent on a longer view. Her concern, in other words, is not social media or contemporary art or public life, or even how we navigate the nebulous landscape of the present — not exactly. Rather, it is our relationship to history. “I am fascinated by history,” she informs us, “and I don’t know what it is . . . I am especially fascinated by erasures and omissions, which seem to me to be strongly present in their apparent absence, like black holes, pulling the fabric of collective narrative out of shape.” These black holes (and isn’t this the perfect analogy, gravitational fields so encompassing that nothing can escape them?) have everything to do with dogma, political or otherwise.
“The willingness,” Robinson insists in her preface, “to indulge in ideological thinking — that is, in thinking that by definition is not one’s own, which is blind to experience and to the contradictions that arise when broader fields of knowledge are consulted — is a capitulation no one should ever make.” Whatever else she is doing, she is articulating the essayist’s creed. Among the points of essay writing — of all writing, really — is to take nothing at face value, to shake not just the reader but also the writer out of his or her complacency. “I write,” Flannery O’Connor once suggested, “because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
For Robinson, this is a matter equally of faith and politics; she is deeply committed to theology and to religion, although this is not to say that her work is doctrinaire. “The question of the existence of God and all the rest,” she writes, in one of my favorite sentences here, “is not affected in any way by the ineptitude of the case made against it.” Something similar, she notes, might be said about our public life. Again, from the Preface: “I know it is conventional to say we Americans are radically divided, polarized. But this is not more true than its opposite — in essential ways we share false assumptions and flawed conclusions that are never effectively examined because they are indeed shared.”
What Robinson is getting at is this: We are united, perhaps most of all, by the tendency to fall prey to our preconceptions. The insight echoes Smith’s ruminations on Brexit, and on race. (“It sounded right,” the latter observes of multicultural London’s self-image as diverse and inclusive, “but the evidence of my own eyes offered a counter-narrative.”) “Indeed,” Robinson avers, “unread words may govern the world, not well, since they so often are taken to justify our worst impulses and prejudices. The Holy Bible is a case in point.”
The essay, then, offers a mechanism to look more closely, to set aside what we think we know in favor of what we need. For Robinson, this means, among other strategies, re-imagining the legacy of the New England Puritans, who sought to create what she characterizes as “a radical community, an experiment, created by covenant among members whose bonds were hoped to be mutual charity — that is, compassion and love.” Robinson is not naïve; she understands what has been done in the name of such a covenant, and her purpose is neither to whitewash nor exonerate. Instead, she is exploring context, connecting the American experiment to its English antecedents, including the revolutionary figure of Oliver Cromwell, and then turning her gaze outward again, to the nation in which we now reside. “Why does it matter?” she asks, not quite rhetorically. “Everything always matters.” That, too, represents the posture of the essayist. “At this time,” Robinson continues, “the country needs to regain equilibrium and direction. It needs to recover the memory of the best it has done, and then try to do it all better.”
There’s more than a bit of wishful thinking in such a statement, a faith in “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln said. I share that faith, although it is fraying. So maybe it’s more accurate to say: I share that narrative. “Essays about one person’s affective experience,” Smith writes, “have, by their very nature not a leg to stand on. All they have is their freedom. And the reader is likewise unusually free because I have absolutely nothing over her, no authority.” This is why they work when they are working, narrative as conversation, since both the essay writer and the essay reader have no choice but to communicate as who they are.
Like Smith, like Robinson, I am that outmoded creature, the sentimental humanist. So, too, I want to say, are all of us. “[W]e need a metaphysics,” Robinson argues, “an unconfirmable parallel reality able to support essential concepts such as mind, conscience, and soul, if we are to sustain the civilization culture and history created for us . . . Nothing about these statements is self-evident.” She’s referring, one more time, to the back-and-forth position of the essayist: personal yet also public, introspective and committed all at once. “It’s this self,” Smith explains, “whose boundaries are uncertain, whose language is never pure, whose world is in no way ‘self-evident’ ” — yes, that word again — “that I write from and to.” That is what we share; it is why the essay is as necessary as ever. That is what we are doing here.