Saturday, February 14, 2009

Essay by Zadie Smith

Essay here:


Gerry, thanks for this essay.

And I appreciate that you consider me as one who speaks in tongues. It's a heartening compliment that means something to me.

Still I had some trouble with Zadie's essay. It of course is well written and thoughful in its way. But the more I read it, I found it ponderous and meandering and at times verging on high sounding fatuity. In this, there is an interesting tension between her clear and commanding prose and what I often found to be her insubstantial thinking.

She ought to have acknowledged her debt to Lionel Trilling who covered the waterfront on the themes of variousness and liberalism and the liberal imagination.

I could not summon up her and Obama's antipathy for poor multi-racial "Joyce" who wants to reject being (type) cast as Black. Two immediate thoughts about this:

1. do I detect a contradiction in Zadie's argument between the plight of left in the nowhere middle Eliza Doolittle, with her, finally, text like voice and the rejection of, and contumely for, Joyce on the one hand and her rejection of essentialist notions of blackness and breaking past them to the idea of individuals' narratives of many selves on the other (see a great essay on this here: and

2. How does she, Zadie, in her self description of now being *univocal* and in rejecting essentialist thinking both: 1. separate herself in principle from Joyce; and find consistently argued grounds on which to criticise Joyce?

Finally as a microcosm for the worst swathes of her thinking, consider this:


"For reasons that are obscure to me, those qualities we cherish in our artists we condemn in our politicians."

She quotes Keats on Shakespeare:

"...I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason..."

and then, herself: again:

"..Through the glass of 2009, "negative capability" looks like the perfect antidote to "ideological heroism..."

Artists operate with different constraints than do politicians and vice versa. We want our politicians to acknowledge their limitations, but surely not in their governing ever to stop "reaching after fact and reason."

So I find her on these subjects, articulate and ostensibly clear, but confused, unrigorous and occasionally fatuous.

But, hey, that's just me..."


"...a quick and perhaps fatuous comment before I try to find where the hell I put my Trilling. I both like and growled at the article -- in much the same way as you do. What I liked about the article is the recognition of what I call the "babble" that makes the man called Obama. Because he is not a unitary "it"... a human who in his DNA and pigmentation...he can speak in the tongues that course through him and his stage, mimic, absorb and add to the surround in which he exists the the flavours, tastes and uniquess of the complex "it" which he is.He is in fact a "cholent" bring it down to a shabbes level. He is the mixture of the uncertainties that disparate ingredients put into a pot and left to simmer finally produce something that is tasty or tasteless. Which is produced finally comes from the final dominance of one or another ingredient. While I love the recipe, on paper, I'm still in doubt as to the final taste. Salt and Pepper, the facts and reason are still being added to the pot..."


"...I think you put it better, more tellingly and more succinctly than she does, quite frankly, and you show up her portentous intellectualizing.

Obama's "mutness" is endlessly interesting and embodies an American story that is increasing in the frequency of its telling: America, to my delight, as a publicly polyglot nation, in which racial and ethnic and cultural differences, real and often invidious, seem less and less to inform criteria for public office--though there is surely a long way to go on so many fronts.

That for me is the meaning of post racial.

Zadie has not put forth a coherent line of reasoning on that theme and has not worked it out for herself in any way I noticed...."

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