Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  There’s been time this whole time. You can’t kill time with your heart. Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still.

  Yet this is not experienced as a negative revelation. Indeed, the greatness of Wallace’s story lies in its indeterminacy, for the boy never quite resolves which part of his experience is the real one, the hardware of the world or the software of his consciousness:So which is the lie? Hard or soft? Silence or time? The lie is that it’s one or the other. A still, floating bee is moving faster than it can think. From overhead the sweetness drives it crazy.

  What is he jumping into, in the end? Is the tank death, experience, manhood, a baptism, the beginning, the end? Whatever it is, the boy is able to approach it without dread. He pauses to examine the “two vague black ovals” at the end of the board, over which his literary creator has taken such wonderful care:From all the people who’ve gone before you. Your feet as you stand here are tender and dented, hurt by the rough wet surface, and you see that the two dark spots are from people’s skin. They are skin abraded from feet by the violence of the disappearance of people with real weight. More people than you can count without losing track. The weight and abrasion of their disappearance leaves little bits of soft tender feet behind, bits and shard and curls of skin that dirty and darken and tan as they lie tiny and smeared in the sun at the end of the board.

  But this examination does not result in paralysis. He still dives. Where Larkin was transfixed by the accumulation of human futility, Wallace was as interested in communication as he was in finitude (the last word of the story, as the boy dives, is Hello). He was, in the broadest sense, a moralist: what mattered to him most was not the end but the quality of our communal human experience before the end, while we’re still here. What passes between us in that queue before we dive.

  In 2005, Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College that begins this way:There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

  And ends like this:The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water. This is water.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.

  This short piece appeared in many newspapers when he died and has recently been repackaged as a Chicken Soup for the Soul-style toilet book (sentences artificially separated from one another and left, like Zen koans, alone on the page) to be sold next to the cash register. If you believe the publicity flack, it is here that Wallace attempted to collect “all he believed about life, human nature, and lasting fulfillment into a brief talk.” Hard to think of a less appropriate portrait of this writer than as the dispenser of convenient pearls of wisdom, placed in your palm, so that you needn’t go through any struggle yourself. Wallace was the opposite of an aphorist. And the real worth of that speech (which he never published, which existed only as a transcript on the Internet) is as a diving board into his fiction, his fiction being his truest response to the difficulty of staying conscious and alive, day in and day out.

  The ends of great fiction do not change, much. But the means do. A hundred years earlier, another great American writer, Henry James, wanted his readers “finely aware so as to become richly responsible.”74 His syntactically tortuous sentences, like Wallace’s, are intended to make you aware, to break the rhythm that excludes thinking. Wallace was from that same tradition—but, a hundred years on, the ante had been raised. In 1999, it felt harder to be alive and conscious than ever. Brief Interviews pitched itself as a counterweight to the narcotic qualities of contemporary life, and then went a step further. It questioned the Jamesian notion that fine awareness leads a priori to responsibility. It suggested that too much awareness—particularly self-awareness—has allowed us to be less responsible than ever. It was meant for readers of my generation, born under the star of four interlocking revolutions, undreamed of in James’s philosophy: the ubiquity of television, the voraciousness of late capitalism, the triumph of therapeutic discourse, and philosophy’s demotion into a branch of linguistics. How to be finely aware when you are trained in passivity? How to detect real value when everything has its price? How to be responsible when you are, by definition, always the child-victim? How to be in the world when the world has collapsed into language?


  If Wallace insists on awareness, his particular creed is—to use a Wallac erian word—extrorse; awareness must move always in an outward direction, away from the self. Self-awareness and self-investigation are to be treated with suspicion, even horror. In part, this was Wallace’s way of critiquing the previous literary generation’s emphasis on self-reflexive narrative personae. In interview, he recognized his debt to the great metafictionists, but he also took care to express his own separation from them, and from their pale descendants:75 Metafiction . . . helps reveal fiction as a mediated experience. Plus it reminds us that there’s always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language’s self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. But we ended up seeing why recursion’s dangerous, and maybe why everybody wanted to keep linguistic self-consciousness out of the show. It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals in on itself. By the mid-seventies, I think, everything useful about the mode had been exhausted. . . . By the eighties it’d become a god-awful trap.

  Solipsism here means more than hipster vanity: Wallace has both its Latin roots (solus, “alone”; ipse, “self”) and philosophical history in mind (the theory that only the self really exists or can be known). The “linguistic turn” of twentieth-century philosophy concerned and fascinated him—that wholesale swallowing of the transcendental by the analytical that left us as “selves alone” in language, with no necessary link to the world of phenomena beyond. In Wallace’s view, too many practitioners of metafiction enthusiastically embraced the big Derridean idea—“There is nothing outside the text”—without truly undergoing the melancholy consequences. For inspiration he looked instead to Wittgenstein, both as “the real architect of the postmodern trap” and the writer who best understood its tragic implications for the self:There’s a kind of tragic fall Wittgenstein’s obsessed with all the way from the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” in 1922 to the “Philosophical Investigations” in his last years. I mean a real Book-of-Genesis type tragic fall. The loss of the whole external world.

  The “Tractatus”’s picture theory of meaning presumes that the only possible relation between language and the world is denotative, referential. In order for language both to be meaningful and to have some connection to reality, words like “tree” and “house” have to be like little pictures, representations of little trees and houses. Mimesis. But nothing more. Which means we can know and speak of nothing more than little mimetic pictures. Which divides us, metaphysically and forever, from the external world. If you buy such a metaphysical schism, you’re left with only two options. One is that the individual person with her language is trapped in here, with the world out there, and never the twain shall meet. Which, even if you think language’s pictures really are mimetic, is an awful lonely proposition. And there’s no iron guarantee the pictures truly “are” mimetic, which means you’re looking at solipsism. One of the things that makes Wittgenstein a real artist to me is that he realized that no conclusion could be more horrible than solipsism.

  This, the first option,76 is where Wallace’s hideous men live. Trapped alone in language. The questions in tho
se interviews (represented by the letter Q) are not only formally “missing” from the conversations, their respondents have internalized them. These men anticipate all questions and also their own expected answers and also the responses they have already concluded these answers will receive. In fact, all exterior referents have been swallowed up by language and loop back into the self. In this spiral, other people simply can’t exist. “You” has become just another word, encased in quote marks, and the results are hideous indeed.

  Take the control freak in B.I. #48, whose only possible relationship between self and other is a verbal contract, in which you never hear from the second party. This is a man who likes to say to a woman, after a third date, and “without any discernable context or lead-in that you could point to as such”—How would you feel about my tying you up? But the casual tone is a deception, the question not even really a question:It is important to understand that, for there even to be a third date, there must exist some sort of palpable affinity between us, something by which I can sense that they will go along. Perhaps go along {flexion of upraised fingers to signify tone quotes} is not a fortuitous phrase for it. I mean, perhaps, {flexion of upraised fingers to signify tone quotes} play. Meaning to join me in the contract and subsequent activity.

  From the prim specificity of the vocabulary and syntax to this habit of encasing in “quote marks” any ambiguous moment—he’s unbearably controlling. And whatever he claims, there’s never any real sense of “play,” because there is never any way to look past the referents to the other players. Despite all his verbal prowess, we learn nothing of the women; they remain faceless, nameless, featureless, their sole distinction whether they are “hens” or “cocks”—that is, whether they will submit or not. This strange terminology (he calls it “the aptest analogy”) is borrowed from the “Australian profession known as {flexion of upraised fingers} chicken-sexing,” by which the gender of a bird is ascertained merely by looking at it and naming it: hen, hen, cock, cock, hen. Naturally, he has a gift for it: he can identify a “hen” or “cock” before they are aware of what they are themselves. But then, he has the words for everything. He understands that he is compelled to “propose and negotiate contracted rituals where power is freely given and taken and submission ritualized and control ceded and then returned of my own free will.” He controls both the meaning of the act itself (“I know what the contract is about, and it is not about seduction, conquest, intercourse, or algolgagnia”) and its psychological root cause. (“My own mother was . . . erratic in her dealings with, of her two twin children, most specifically me. This has bequeathed me certain psychological complexes having to do with power and, perhaps, trust.”) Not only this: he is sufficiently self-aware to know his language (another legacy of his mother, a psychiatric case worker, natch) is “annoying, pedantic jargon.” He can “read” both the women’s words and their silences (“You are, of course, aware that social silences have varied textures, and these textures communicate a great deal.”) He can even tell real shock from false:Hence the fascinating irony that body language intended to convey shock does indeed convey shock but a very different sort of shock indeed. Namely the abreactive shock of repressed wishes bursting their strictures and penetrating consciousness, but from an external source. . . .

  This interval of shocked silence is one during which entire psychological maps are being redrawn and during this interval any gesture or affect on the subject’s part will reveal a great deal more about her than any amount of banal conversation or even clinical experimentation ever would. Reveal.


  I meant woman or young woman, not {f.f} subject per se.

  The little slip is telling, and the word abreactive, too.77 Here therapy has become the monster it once wished to tame, the talking cure mere talk. And the talk turns outward; we feel we are the ones being interrogated, and that the questions are disturbing. When we relive repressed emotions as therapeutic, are we healing ourselves or tunneling deeper into the self? How do abreaction and solipsism interrelate? Does one feed the other? Is one the function of the other?

  It’s tempting to read the interviews as an attack on therapy per se, but “therapy is a false religion” is rather a dull drum to beat,78 and if it were only this, why not hear from the therapists themselves, instead of the patients? It’s not therapy’s fundamental principles that find themselves interrogated here (after all, the self-diagnosis of Hideous Man #48 is not incorrect: it’s right to say he ties up women because his mother’s idea of punishment was physical restraint). More significant is this idea of a looped discourse, of a language meant to heal the self that ends up referring only to the self. In Brief Interviews, the language of therapy is not alone in doing this: in Wallace’s world there exists a whole bunch of ways to get lost in the self. In the bleak joke of B.I. #2, we listen in as a serial monogamist wields the intimate language of “relationships” against his own girlfriend, precisely to protect himself against a “relationship”:Can you believe that I’m honestly trying to respect you by warning you about me, in a way? That I’m trying to be honest instead of dishonest? That I’ve decided the best way to head off this pattern where you get hurt and feel abandoned and I feel like shit is to try and be honest for once? Even if I should have done it sooner? Even when I admit it’s maybe possible that you might even interpret what I’m saying now as dishonest, as trying somehow to maybe freak you out enough so that you’ll move back in and I can get out of this? Which I don’t think I’m doing, but to be totally honest I can’t be a hundred percent sure? To risk that with you? Do you understand? That I’m trying as hard as I can to love you? That I’m terrified I can’t love? That I’m afraid maybe I’m just constitutionally incapable of doing anything other than pursuing and seducing and then running, plunging in and reversing, never being honest with anybody? That I’ll never be a closer? That I might be a psychopath? Can you imagine what it takes to tell you this?

  Again interrogation turns outward, toward the reader. What have we become when we “understand” ourselves so well all our questions are rhetorical? What is confession worth if what we want from it is not absolution but admiration for having confessed?

  Wallace took a big risk with these free-floating “interviews”: by refusing to anchor them in a third-person narrative, he placed their hideousness front and center, and left the reader to navigate her way through alone, without authorial guidance. It’s not surprising that many readers conflated the hostility of these men with authorial sadism. But this is where it becomes vital to acknowledge the unity of the book Brief Interviews—this is not a random collection of short stories. The “interviews” themselves, dotted throughout the whole, work like words in a longer sentence, all segments of which need to be articulated if the sentence is to make any sense. The story “Think” is a fine example of this kind of counterpoint. Here a potentially hideous man, about to be seduced by “the younger sister of his wife’s college roommate” suddenly experiences “a type of revelation.” As she comes toward him, half naked, with “a slight smile, slight and smoky, media-taught,” he feels the sudden urge to kneel. He looks at her: “Her expression is from page 18 of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.” He puts his hands together. She crosses her arms and utters “a three word question”—which we will assume is What the fuck? “It’s not what you think I’m afraid of,” he replies. But we are not told what he thinks, or what she thinks he thinks, or what he thinks she thinks he thinks. The narrator only comments thus: “She could try, for just a moment to imagine what is happening in his head. . . . Even for an instant to try putting herself in his place.” This task, though, is left to us. So here goes: the girl thinks he’s afraid of the sin, of the marital betrayal, because that’s the kind of thing it usually is on TV. He thinks she thinks this—and he’s right. But the man himself is afraid of something else; of this “media-taught” situation, of the falsity, of living a cliché, and he has a sudden urge to feel like a human being, which is to say, humbled, and really co
nnected, both to the person standing naked before him and to the world. (“And what if she joined him on the floor,” read the final lines, “just like this, clasped in supplication: just this way.”) Solipsism is here countered with humility; the “self alone” prays for a relation.

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