Thought and Feeling
In a review in the last issue, Scott Moringiello described his primary criterion for judging a critic: “If a critic makes me want to read a novel or see an opera or painting, I judge the criticism useful.” I thought of this rule as I was reading Changing My Mind, a 2009 collection of essays by the British novelist Zadie Smith. And surely it is a sign of Smith’s critical power—and flexibility—that after finishing Changing My Mind I wanted to, among other things, sit down and watch Adam’s Rib, Syriana, Romance & Cigarettes, and the entire seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I wanted to read Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and President Obama’s Dreams from My Father and reread George Eliot’s Middlemarch , David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature. Finally, I wanted to go back and give two of Smith’s own novels—White Teeth and On Beauty—another shot. (I read White Teeth while spending the night in a Dublin airport; I don’t remember much except for its frenetic energy. As for On Beauty, which is a re-writing of E. M. Forster’s Howards End, I remember admiring the chutzpah it took to make such an attempt but also being unconvinced by the execution.)
Changing My Mind gathers together essays that Smith wrote over the last several years, mainly for the New York Review of Books. As my list of things to watch/read above indicates, Smith’s interests are varied. She writes on highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow topics; on television, film, literature, politics, and family history. Her writing is supple and often surprising. She is unafraid to pair seemingly incongruous subjects and see where this pairing will lead her. In one essay, for instance, she connects President Obama’s philosophical outlook to John Keats’s notion of negative capability, an imaginative responsiveness that enables the poet (or politician) to project himself into other persons and positions. (This essay was written in 2008. President Obama’s empathetic imagination seems less endearing after we’ve witnessed the consequences of his on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand manner of dealing with Republican intransigence.)
Smith’s essays are filled with moments of real critical insight. In an essay on Middlemarch, she grapples with Eliot’s strange decision to devote so much narrative attention to the novel’s less sympathetic characters (Fred Vincy, Bulstrode, etc.), and offers a short summary of the novel’s epistemology: “In Middlemarch love enables knowledge. Love is a kind of knowledge.” Smith also displays the comedian’s touch. Poking fun at how frequently music biopics contain a primal scene in which parents try to prevent the now-famous musician from playing music as a child, Smith writes, “Parents ambitious of turning a daughter into a future Jacqueline du Pré would do well to smash up a cello in front of her.” Reviewing Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Smith addresses 50 Cent personally: “I love that you keep getting your fellow gangsters to admit that they love you. Really loudly. In the middle of robberies.”
Some of Smith’s pieces are deeply personal: “Dead Man Laughing,” a remembrance of Smith’s father and his lifelong interest in comedy, is one of the most moving essays I’ve read in a long time. Others are more philosophical, like her essay on Kafka and Jewishness. Most, however, move effortlessly between these poles: they use the personal to explore the philosophical, and the philosophical to better understand the personal.
In her essay on Middlemarch, Smith marvels at George Eliot’s integrated sensibility: “she thought with her heart and felt with her head.” This is a good description of the artist’s gift. (It also echoes T. S. Eliot’s claim about John Donne: “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.”) And it is also a perfect description of what we look for in our best critics. For Smith, as for Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, or Denis Donoghue, affective and critical responses are not oppositional but dialectical: the feeling evoked by reading a great poem leads to an analysis of this feeling, which leads to a further, deeper, more personal engagement with the work, which leads to more analysis, ad infinitum. This is the standard by which I judge a critic: is she able to test thought against feeling, feeling against thought? Smith’s writing, which shows us the delicate dance between appreciation and analysis, easily passes the test.