Zadie Smith introduces her 2018 essay collection, Feel Free, with this remarkable note:
I realize my somewhat ambivalent view of human selves is wholly out of fashion. These essays you have in your hands were written...during the eight years of the Obama presidency and so are the product of a bygone world. 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. Millions of more or less amorphous selves will now necessarily find themselves solidifying into protesters, activists, marchers, voters, firebrands, impeachers, lobbyists, soldiers, champions, defenders, historians, experts, critics. You can’t fight fire with air. But equally you can’t fight for a freedom you’ve forgotten how to identify.
For Smith, a self can never be fully summed up or pinned down. In the best of times, it shouldn’t need to “solidify” into anything. No collective tag, no personal description, not even an authorized biography, can totally cordon off what someone is from what she is not. To discover yourself is to become aware that you are a being “whose boundaries are uncertain, whose language is never pure, whose world is in no way ‘self-evident.’” Every human being finds her origin in others—other people, other tongues, other eras. To be free is to recognize this state of affairs and respond creatively. The artist is therefore something close to the paradigm of the free self.
If this view of being human seems hopelessly abstract, Feel Free helpfully provides many examples of it. Smith often writes about artists who are bold, scandalous, and meet resistance from critics and the public. A free self (Jay-Z) plays with language, stretching it to the limit (“The House That Hova Built”). A free self may rebel against his roots (Philip Roth in “The I Who Is Not Me”), rebel against what others think of him (“Meet Justin Bieber!”), or enjoy being just plain weird (“Crash by J. G. Ballard”). Smith also talks about herself in these terms. She laments the divides of class and culture that still plague Britain, exploited by politicians and making diverse friendships difficult (“Fences: A Brexit Diary”). In a 2019 essay titled “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” the acclaimed author of novels like White Teeth (2000) and On Beauty (2005) describes herself as someone who has “never believed myself to have a voice entirely separate from the many voices I hear, read, and internalize every day.”
But what happens when the walls start closing in? If, as Smith concedes, Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump threw us into a situation that made her philosophy of selfhood seem like an outdated luxury, what about the pandemic? It too imposes new demands upon the free self. The moment we are currently living through reveals “the complex and ambivalent nature of ‘submission,’” Smith says in Intimations, a new collection of essays written during the months of lockdown.
Like most of us, Smith has often felt trapped during this time. But the ambivalent nature of submission means one may discover inner liberation even while being subject to a stay-at-home order. It follows that being free is not the same thing as being unencumbered. Smith began learning these lessons shortly before the lockdown began, while admiring tulips through the bars of the wrought-iron fence of a Manhattan public garden. During a brief respite from her busy schedule, she sees “not a very sophisticated flower—a child could draw it—and these were garish: pink with orange highlights.” Smith becomes transfixed, “my fingers curled around those iron bars.” The “vulgar” flowers somehow command stillness on her part. They intrude upon her day. Soon enough, the lockdown would also command stillness and intrude upon her days for months. But Smith did not submit to the tulips: “Even as I was peering in at them, I wished they were peonies.” Does rebelling in this way enhance one’s freedom? If the world offers us a simple beauty, even a mediocre one, do we gain anything from rejecting the gift? Is true freedom more like the easy contemplation of a flower, or the radical creativity of the artist?