“Watching this manic desire to make or grow or do ‘something,’ that now seems to be consuming everybody, I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it” (28).
I think many of us can identify with Zadie Smith’s words regarding the sudden abundance of free time in our lives and the intense desire to find something productive to fill it. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today we’ll cover the essays “Something to Do” and “Suffering Like Mel Gibson” in Intimations by Zadie Smith.
Last week, we talked about the first two essays in the collection, “Peonies” and “The American Exception.” “Peonies” takes place shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic started, and, in it, Smith contemplates the meaning of the tulips she sees through the bars that surround a garden in New York City. The flowers and the bars are used to talk about the idea of cages, whether built by oneself, such as the schedules we rigidly adhere to, or built by society, such as rules surrounding gender, or built by a global crisis, such as the virus that will soon keep everyone locked inside their homes. “The American Exception” talks about the false idea that America did not have death before the pandemic. Smith reveals the truth of the matter, which is that death has largely been blamed on the individual, and that the ability to delay death has always been tightly linked to the amount of money one has. Finally, we talked about Smith’s inspiration for the book, which is that she felt there wasn’t anything else she could do during this time when so many other people were fighting the coronavirus. Today’s essays will continue with Smith’s musings on this unusual time in history.
SOMETHING TO DO
This essay deals with a question that many of us asked ourselves once our usual schedules of work, school, meetings, daycare, and other activities were taken from us: What do we do with our time? Smith starts by saying that, if you’re an artist, you’ll inevitably be asked why you create art. The same is true of writers, and there’s no lack of essays from them explaining why they write. She says that the most basic answer to this question is, “It’s something to do.” This response, which would have seemed silly if she had given it during a speech or in one of her classes, now seems honest and appropriate. After all, that’s why anyone is doing anything these days, whether baking banana bread or making a sourdough starter or dressing up their pets or building forts in their living rooms. It’s all a way to pass the time when our schedules no longer apply.
We’ve all created arbitrary schedules in some way, including creating a time during which we make art. Smith says that the difference between what was done before and what’s done now is that there’s a “moral anxiety” to it. What artists have done for years is now something everyone else is doing. However, instead of all this free time feeling liberating, it feels like it has to be filled by doing something worthwhile. Time is what separates the labor of art from all other labors, which are measured and paid by the hours that a person spends doing them. Smith says that defenders of art usually point to the potential it has to create change in the political sphere to justify the time spent doing it, but even if that’s true, the art isn’t often “timely,” meaning that it doesn’t appear when the political issue in question is occurring: while people demand change, they rarely demand art. Art is limited in its ability to effect this change in the moment when it’s needed. Even when it’s completed, It’s still not a necessity; it’s something to do.
We are split into two groups: there are those whose work is considered essential, who continue their jobs and don’t experience this crisis of free time, and there’s everyone else. However, this new abundance of “free” time should also make us examine those jobs that exist only in the moment, that cannot be done from home because, without social interaction, there’s no job. These include restaurant workers, office cleaners, movie theater employees, and all other jobs that were completely eliminated when the world was forced into quarantine. How are these people’s rights protected? How might we reassess those who don’t get paid if they don’t work, who don’t even get the basic benefit of sick leave? That’s something that society will, hopefully, reassess as the pandemic shrinks into history.
Many people felt both liberated and imprisoned by the amount of free time they had. Those of us who live in a society defined by work had no idea what to do when that work was taken from us. The result for many was that they created their own sense of work. Gardens were started, baking projects were embarked upon, and new skills were learned. Many people proclaimed that it was the time to finally write the novel you’d always had in mind or learn the instrument you’d always dreamed of playing. Failure to do so would mean a failure to make the most of the free time you had. The truth is that this was just another way of creating “work” because we felt so empty without it.
Smith says that writers should have been better equipped to deal with this new free time, having already been so used to creating their own schedules. Instead, she realized how much of her life was about hiding. Without some sort of artificial structure, she had no idea what to do with her time, just like the rest of us. What many people found is that their lives were empty without the external things they used to fill it. Smith refers to an essay by Ottessa Moshfegh that puts forth the idea that without love, life is just passing time. Smith says she believes this to be love in the Platonic sense, which is love that is defined as “ascending from passion for the individual to contemplation of the universal and ideal.”1 It’s not a romantic love for another person, but a connection to the universe and existence as a whole. Without this, Smith argues, there really only is time and no amount of being busy will fill it. Even if you’re working every moment available, your time will still feel “empty and endless.” Baking banana bread, writing…they’re both just ways to fill free time, and they’re not substitutes for this sort of love, for love isn’t, as she says, “something to do, but something to be experienced.” Smith says this idea of experiencing love frightens many of us, and that’s why we interact with it in indirect ways. We bake things with love; we write with love. This isn’t a terrible thing, as this is what gives culture meaning. In fact, she finds that the most powerful art is often created by the people who feel themselves to be the most alone.
Smith admits that while she can’t sit around contemplating the universe, she also doesn’t want to “just do time” the way she did in her pre-pandemic life. Still, she finds the habit of filling time a difficult one to get rid of, and she continues to feel the need to make sure time isn’t wasted. She’s not the only one, and she feels comforted by this fact, as we all figure out what to do with all of this time when we can’t simply fill it.
SUFFERING LIKE MEL GIBSON
This essay is in reference to an image of Mel Gibson, the director of the movie The Passion of the Christ, talking to actor JIm Caviezel. Caviezel is dressed as Jesus Christ, a crown of thorns upon his head and his face, upper body, and hands covered in blood. You can find a link to it in the description.2 The image has become a meme that people have used to express the tendency of those with “smaller” problems to complain to those with “larger” problems. It is, essentially, putting suffering on a scale for comparison, with the clean Mel Gibson seemingly complaining about a trivial issue to Christ, who is about to be crucified.
The essay is about that comparison of suffering and how suffering always feels real and extreme to every individual. Many of us realized this to be true while we were stuck inside during the quarantine. Those who lived alone, even if by choice, experienced an acute sense of isolation, while those who lived with others, also by choice, longed for just a few minutes alone. Smith writes that all artists with children found out what it was to live without privacy or time to oneself, and so their art took a back seat to the new focus of their lives. Artists without children may have felt thrilled to suddenly have so much free time, until the feelings of guilt for not productively filling that time appeared. Suddenly, there was no true end to the work day, no ability to ease anxieties with a social gathering. The division between days and nights and weeks were blurred. Those living with partners were confronted by the reality of seeing the same face, day after day. The children of divorced parents were driven back and forth between one place of isolation to another. People wondered if love was truly enough. Yet, all of this pales in comparison when we think of real suffering.
To expand on this idea of “real suffering,” Smith remarks on the cultural conversations surrounding privilege that have become common in recent years. We are teaching ourselves to be more aware of how class, gender, race, and other demographics make life easier for some and harder for others. Smith includes an anecdote about realizing her own privilege, as she stood behind two women of color talking derisively about a White woman who they saw had given her infant an iPad. While Smith at first identifies with them—she’s stated in interviews that she’s not a person who uses these sorts of technological devices—she then realizes that what they have an issue with is the amount of money the iPad costs. When they laugh, “These people got rent money to burn!” she feels ashamed. The anecdote serves to explain that while social class is a bubble that can be understood and even balanced, if one is willing to make the effort to understand others’ circumstances, the same isn’t true of suffering. Suffering is real for each person who experiences it, and there’s no logic that can remove the impact of suffering. It is absolute. If it weren’t so, we wouldn’t hear of people at the tops of their careers, successful actors or singers or businesspeople, who ultimately choose to end their own lives. She tells of a news story she read at the beginning of the pandemic about a 17-year-old girl who killed herself three weeks into the quarantine because she couldn’t see her friends. Although she wasn’t one of the many healthcare professionals struggling daily to fight the virus, her suffering was as real to her as anyone else’s suffering was to them.
Around the time that Smith read this news story, she received the photo of Mel Gibson with a caption that read, “Explaining to my friends with kids under six what it’s been like isolating alone.” She thinks about the fact that, nowadays, when asked how we are, the socially appropriate answer is to acknowledge one’s privilege and say you are fine, struggling perhaps, but not suffering like so many others. The truth is that a point comes in which all one’s sufferings, however small they may appear, pile upon each other and seem intent on destruction. Perhaps then, it will be worth admitting to your own suffering, at least so you don’t, as she puts it, “roll your eyes or laugh or puke while listening to what some other person seems to think is pain.”
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
Smith, who is married and has two children, talked about the purpose of her writing during the pandemic in an interview with the Boston radio station WBUR.3 She says, “It was my way of doing something. Almost instantly, I was aware of my uselessness. I mean, I guess novelists always feel to some degree useless, but I think it’s compounded, particularly in revolutionary times, by having a family, having small children. It kind of struck me that the family is the most bourgeois institution in the world…you can’t get out and march. So I was stuck with the only thing I can do, which is write. And I suddenly thought of it as a way of participating, of raising money, of being active.” As noted in the last episode, Smith decided to donate the proceeds of this book to two different charities. She goes on to say that she was in awe of everyone who was volunteering and engaging in activism while she was at home with her children. She says that she’s not an activist; she’s a writer: “My only role as I saw it, it’s not a very large one, was how can I perhaps create structures of thought that will help the kind of people who act, that will help them do what they have to do?” She was asking how she could give meaning to all this free time she suddenly had.
In her interview with the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, Smith explains how the Mel Gibson meme inspired her to write her essay on suffering.4 “It was just astonishing what it expressed,” she says, “this kind of fundamental difference in suffering and the inability in your suffering to really cope with or deal with some other variety. I wanted to write about that, exactly that, the structure of it and how we deal with it.” She goes on to discuss how everyone experiences loneliness, regardless of their circumstances, and she, too, is “trying to have a bit of compassion and stay open-minded for just hearing other people’s expression of their misery, even if I don’t agree with it.”
The sudden need to fill empty time during the pandemic was staggering. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate increased by .9% to 4.4% in March of 2020.5 This was the largest one-month increase since 1975. The number of unemployed people rose by 1.4 million to reach 7.1 million. While unemployment was at 4% for both adult men and women, it reached 14.3% for teenagers. The unemployment rate was also unequally split among races, with White and Asian Americans experiencing rates that were about proportional to the national rates, while Black and Hispanic people experienced rates at 6.7% and 6%, respectively. At the same time, the number of part-time employees increased by 1.4 million. This is largely attributed to the fact that full-time employment had been reduced or wasn’t available, and people had no choice but to work part-time jobs.
On the subject of suffering, The International Journal of Health Planning and Management published an article in June 2020 titled “The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’s impact on mental health.”6 The article examines all the ways that the virus could not only affect physical health but also potentially put a strain on mental health. It stresses that “a pandemic is not just a medical phenomenon; it affects individuals and society and causes disruption, anxiety, stress, stigma, and xenophobia.” The rapid isolation, social distancing, and closing of schools, workplaces, and entertainment venues were expected to have an effect on the social and mental health of all individuals. Accordingly, they offered advice about the causes and signs of mental distress for different groups, including children and teens, elders and people with disabilities, and health workers, as well as how to combat these negative effects. An article published in September 2020 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the rate of depression symptoms was three times higher than in pre-pandemic times.7 Those with lower social resources, lower economic resources, and greater stressors, such as job loss, reported higher symptoms of depression.
That’s all for today’s discussion of Intimations. Join me next week when we’ll discuss the first five sections of the single essay “Screengrabs.” Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, subscribe and leave a rating and review in your favorite podcast app. I would really appreciate it, and it helps other book-loving English learners find the podcast. What are your thoughts about filling time and the concept of suffering as an absolute? How did these essays make you reflect on your time during the pandemic? Leave a comment at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles. Until then, keep reading.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “Platonic Love,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/platonic%20love.
- “Mel Gibson Talking to Bloody Jesus,” Know Your Meme, accessed June 5, 2021, https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/mel-gibson-talking-to-bloody-jesus.
- Zadie Smith, “Writer Zadie Smith Reflects on Pandemic, Black Lives Matter Movement in ‘Intimations,’” interview by Robin Young, WBUR, July 27, 2020, https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/07/27/zadie-smith-essay-collection-blm.
- Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, “Zadie Smith,” August 7, 2020, in Call Your Girlfriend, podcast, 48:48, https://www.callyourgirlfriend.com/episodes/2020/08/zadie-smith-intimations-interview.
- “Employment Situation News Release,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 3, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/empsit_04032020.htm.
- Bilal Javed, Abdullah Sarwer, Erik B. Soto, and Zia-ur-Rehman Mashwani, “The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’s impact on mental health,” The International Journal of Health Planning and Management, June 22, 2020, https://dx.doi.org/10.1002%2Fhpm.3008.
- Catherine K. Ettman, Salma M. Abdalla, and Gregory H. Cohen, “Prevalence of Depression Symptoms in US Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” JAMA Netw Open, September 2, 2020, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2770146.