“I realize my somewhat ambivalent view of human selves is wholly out of fashion,” Zadie Smith writes apologetically in the introduction to her new essay collection, Feel Free.
Smith isn’t lying. Her way of thinking about the self — in a collection of essays that cover everything from Smith’s childhood to literary criticism to Justin Bieber — does feel oddly abstract and academic for 2018. But it’s also valuable.
Over the course of the book, Smith repeatedly describes the self as a malleable and porous construct with boundaries subject to change, in the post-modernist literary tradition — but now, she warns, that may no longer be a valid construct.
These essays were written during the Obama era, Smith explains, when the apparent triumph of cosmopolitanism made it possible to think of the self in that way. Post-Trump, post-Brexit, she writes, the idea of an unstable self appears to be an unimaginable luxury, as “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.”
Smith offers up Feel Free as a reminder of a freedom she believes is now lost and must be fought for once again — namely, the freedom to not imagine yourself to be a wholly knowable and known being (I think therefore I am, I experience the world in a certain way and that experience is measurable and empirically true). She longs for the days when anyone could experience themselves as an unstable, subjective creature who has created a lot of very nice fictions about a fundamentally unknowable world in order to cope with it, and who may very well change those fictions at any given moment.
It’s that freedom that allows Smith to experience herself, variously, as a Moor in Venice (“A historically unprecedented Moor. A late-capitalism Moor. A tourist Moor.”), as a corpse (“We may be forever corpses — but once we were alive!”), and, most ecstatically, as the authors of the words she reads:
Not to take yourself as a natural, unquestionable entity can lead you in turn to become aware of the radical contingency of life in general, its supremely accidental nature. I am Philip, I am Colson, I am Jonathan, I am Rivka, I am Virginia, I am Sylvia, I am Zora, I am Chinua, I am Saul, I am Toni, I am Nathan, I am Vladimir, I am Leo, I am Albert, I am Chimamanda — but how easily I might have been somebody else, with their feelings and preoccupations, with their obsessions and flaws and virtues. This to me is the primary novelistic impulse: this leap into the possibility of another life.
That last passage comes from the most ambitious essay in Feel Free, titled “The I Who Is Not Me.” It’s this anthology’s answer to “Two Paths for the Novel,” the most celebrated essay in Smith’s previous collection Changing My Mind, and it examines the role of the autobiographical in fiction, particularly in first-person fiction.
Smith herself avoided the first-person perspective for most of her career, until she wrote her most recent novel, Swing Time. But Swing Time is explicitly ambivalent about its first-person-ness: The book’s unnamed, shadowy narrator deliberately avoids letting herself be intimately known to the reader, and she is given to trying to think about herself in the third-person, which she considers to be “a very elegant attitude.”
In Feel Free’s “The I Who Is Not Me,” Smith herself admits to a kind of “moral queasiness” around the first person, which she attributes her British upbringing. “The first-person voice,” she writes, tongue-in-cheek, “presents itself as a kind of indulgence, a narcissistic weakness, which the French and the Americans go in for, perhaps, but not the British, or not very often.”
She eventually chose to embrace the first-person anyway, she writes, because of its enormous immediacy, its ability to seamlessly create a fictional reality. “What a freedom I felt,” she writes, “constructing this entirely false autobiography which still, at every turn, sounded real, because I had allowed myself to write ‘I’ and in this way falsely insist on its truth. Quite a lot of the time as I wrote this book [Swing Time] I felt a little scandalous.”
By creating a first-person narrator, Smith argues, she has created another self, one who she experiences as an “I-who-is-not-me,” but who her readers might interpret as “I-whom-I-presume-is-you”; that is, as an avatar of Smith herself. And for Smith, the novel is the space in which those two I’s can reconcile themselves with one another, because “literature,” she writes, “is precisely the ambivalent space in which impossible identities are made possible, both for authors and their characters.”
In 2018, it can be tempting to react to Smith’s claims about the power of the novel to free us from ourselves with a cynically raised eyebrow: It’s all very well and good to mess around with make-believe people, we might say, but in the meantime, the world is ending, haven’t you heard? And Smith herself seems mildly embarrassed by the vaguely decadent idea of worrying about art and the boundaries of self when there is so much going wrong in the world.
But witnessing the freedom of Smith’s brilliant, erudite mind at work and at play makes its own argument. There is an immense aesthetic pleasure to be had in tagging along as she worries her way through a train of thought, whether that train of thought concerns Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne or the beer billboard across the street from her apartment or the way Justin Bieber illustrates philosopher Martin Buber’s I/thou relationship (those boundaries of self again!).
In contrast, the political essays she includes in Feel Free (they comprise four of the total 31 essays) can seem banal. They are more or less centrist liberal orthodoxy without new insight: public libraries and public schools are both good things, she argues, and fences — both metaphorical and liberal — are not. This is certainly a worthy idea, but it is not as exciting or original as Smith’s looping, contradictory ruminations on the role of the first-person voice in fiction.
If Smith had to turn away from her ideas about the self and the aesthetic and how literature works in order to write sad, flat essays about why Britain should not have Brexited, it would be an enormous loss. Nowhere is that truth more evident than in Feel Free’s celebration of the freedom to care about things that are not politics — art, philosophy, aesthetics — and its simultaneous argument in favor of that freedom.