Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  To Wallace, a gift truly was an accident; a chance, a fortuitous circumstance. Born intelligent, born with perfect pitch, with mathematical ability, with a talent for tennis—in what sense are we ever the proprietors of these blessings? What rights accrue to us because of them? How could we ever claim to truly own them?

  It’s very interesting to me that this attitude toward gifts should have within it a current that is strongly anti-American, being both contra “rights” and contra “ownership.” I’ve always had the sense, philosophically speaking, that Wallace’s ethical ideas were profoundly un-American: he had more in common with the philosophical current that runs from Kant’s “realm of ends” through Simone Weils “sacred humans” and on to John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,”89 than the Hobbes/Smith/Locke waters from which the idea of America was drawn. Wallace’s work rejects “goal-directed” philosophies of human happiness, both because they isolate the self (the pursuit of happiness is a pursuit we undertake alone) and because this Western obsession with happiness as a goal makes people childishly “pain-averse,” allergic to the one quality that is, in Wallace’s view, the true constant of human life: “Look at utilitarianism . . . and you see a whole teleology predicated on the idea that the best human life is one that maximizes the pleasure-to-pain ratio. God, I know this sounds priggish of me. All I’m saying is that it’s shortsighted to blame TV. It’s simply another symptom. TV didn’t invent our aesthetic childishness here any more than the Manhattan Project invented aggression . . . ” His stories repel the idea that a just society can come from the contract made between self-interested or egoistic individuals, or that it is one’s “personhood” that guarantees one a bigger slice of the pie. (The fat poet’s talents or personal merits can’t make him more worthy than anyone else.)

  And in a few extreme cases, Wallace’s stories go further, lining up behind a quasi-mystic such as Weil, who, like the Buddhists, abandons “Personhood” entirely: “What is sacred in a human being is the impersonal in him. . . . Our personality is the part of us which belongs to error and sin. The whole effort of the mystic has always been to become such that there is no part left in his soul to say ‘I’.”90 Consequently, the statement You have no right to hurt me is to Weil meaningless, for rights are a concept that attaches to “personhood” and one person can always feel their “rights” to be more rightful that another’s. What you are doing to me is not just—this, for Weil, is the correct and sacred phrase. “The spirit of justice and truth is nothing else,” she writes, “but a certain kind of attention, which is pure love.”

  Isn’t it exactly this “certain kind of attention” that Wallace explores in B.I. #20 (sometimes known as The Granola Cruncher)? It is the darkest story in the collection,91 and it has an extreme setup, even by Wallace’s standards: a hippie girl, viciously raped by a psychopath, decides to create, in the middle of the act, a “soul connection” with her rapist because she “believes that sufficient love and focus can penetrate even psychosis and evil.” In the process she is able to forget herself, and focus on his misery—even to feel pity for him. But this all happened some time ago: when the story opens we are being retold it as an anecdote by a man who has himself heard it as anecdote:B.I. #20 12-96


  “And yet I did not fall in love with her until she had related the story of the unbelievably horrifying incident in which she was brutally accosted and held captive and very nearly killed.”

  New Haven? A recently graduated Yalie, perhaps. Definitely overeducated, supercilious, and full, initially, of bombastic opinions about the girl, whom he picked up at a festival as a “strictly one night objective,” because she had a sexy body (“Her face was a bit strange”) and because he thought it would be easy. She’s an open book to him—he feels he can read her easily:What one might call a quote Granola Cruncher, or post-Hippie, New Ager, what have you . . . comprising the prototypical sandals, unrefined fibers, daffy arcane, emotional incontinence, flamboyantly long hair, extreme liberality on social issues . . . and using the, well the quote L-word itself several times without irony or even any evident awareness that the word has through tactical over-deployment become trite and requires invisible quotes around it now at the very least.

  She is an object on which to exert his superiority. A body from which his own body will take its pleasure. In the event, though, her strange postcoital anecdote unnerves and destabilizes him: she tells her story of extraordinary focus with extraordinary focus and he (like one of Henry James’s ideal readers) finds his own fine awareness stimulated by hers:I found myself hearing expressions like fear gripping her soul, unquote, less as televisual clichés or melodrama but as sincere if not particularly artful attempts to describe what it must have felt like, the feelings of shock and unreality alternating with waves of pure terror.

  But there is something chilling in both his modes of processing her experience. First it is “televisual cliché”; then something so unexpectedly real he becomes desirous of her precisely because of it, seeing, perhaps, in her realness, a way of becoming real himself. But when did the real become unexpected? When did we become so inured to the real that it gathered around it this strange aura? In the age of mechanical reproduction, prophesized Walter Benjamin, a painting such as the Mona Lisa will lose its aura: the more cheap postcards we make of her, the more she will disappear. But he was wrong—it turned out the erotic logic of capital worked the other way around. Her authentic aura increased. So what happens to the authentic aura of, say, “fear” when you’ve seen a thousand women scream on TV? Wallace’s answer is frightening: we’re so deadened by the flat televisual repetition of all our human emotions, we have begun to fetishize “real” feelings, especially real pain. It’s as if we’ve stopped believing in reality—only extremity can make us feel again. And here is extremity, and the man suddenly feels. He is there with her, in her moment of “soul-connection.” So are we. “Have you ever heard of the couvade?” he asks his therapist, and in the usual nonresponse we become aware of this story’s triplicate act of empathy: ours for the girl via the man’s anecdote, his for the girl via her anecdote, the girl’s for the rapist via the experience itself. In the couvade, a man feels his wife’s pregnancy: a porous border. In this story, several borders feel porous at once. The man is able to feel the “fathomless sadness” of the rapist; we, as readers, aggressively challenged by the very setup (a woman pities her rapist?), begin by sharing the skepticism of the Yalie, but as we move toward him, he moves away from us to a place where he is capable of believing her. The anecdote has created a force field of fine awareness around it. Through the man’s attempts to appropriate it, and our own need to judge it, Wallace manages to create a sense of its sacred otherness. Evidence of one woman’s capacity for the L word, perhaps, but not something we can turn to our own devices, not a story we can own.

  The Granola Cruncher is one of the few people in Brief Interviews not using another person as an example or as an object or as a piece of “moral gymnastic equipment.” She exists in a quite different moral realm from the manipulator who uses his deformed arm, his “flipper,” as bait to “catch” sympathetic women who then sleep with him, or the guy who twists Viktor Frankl’s holocaust memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, into a perverse apologia for destroying another human being. (Frankl’s therapeutic school, logotherapy, explores the idea that selves in an extreme state of personal degradation or loss are often better able to comprehend what is really meaningful. But this, of course, does not mean you create a second holocaust in order to generate meaning.) Most of Wallace’s people refuse, even for a moment, to give up the self. They have been taught “that a self is something you just have,” like you have a car, or a house, or a bank account. But selves are not consumer items, and the journey to becoming “a fucking human being” is one that lasts as long as our lives: “The horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. . . . Our endless and impossible jo
urney toward home is in fact our home.” Those quotes are from a talk Wallace gave on Franz Kafka, another writer for whom he felt a deep affinity. Their connection is not obvious at the level of sentence but their deep currents run parallel: the attachment to parables, the horror of the self in its fullness (think of the cipher Georg dashing from his charismatic father in “The Judgment,” vaulting over that bridge), the dream of self-less-ness. And despite their attempts to root themselves in “relationships between persons” they both expressed a longing for the infinite, which is nothing and is nowhere and is endless. Throughout this essay, which I began writing when Wallace was alive, I have defined that longing as purely philosophical—events have shown this to be wishful thinking on my part. The story “Suicide as a Sort of Present” now inevitably resonates beyond itself, but it is also the same story it always was: a reminder that there exist desperate souls who feel that their nonexistence, in the literal sense, would be a gift to those around them. We must assume that David was one of them.

  In the end, the truly sublime and frightening moments in Brief Interviews do not involve families joshing each other in Italian restaurants. When he offers his readers generous, healthy interpersonal relations as a route out of “the postmodern trap,” well, that’s the responsible moral philosopher in him. But the real mystery and magic lies in those quasi-mystical moments, portraits of extreme focus and total relinquishment. We might feel more comfortable calling this “meditation,” but I believe the right word is in fact prayer. What else is the man in “Think” doing when he falls on his knees and puts his hands together? What is the Granola Cruncher doing as the psychopath moves on top of her? What is the boy in “Forever Overhead” doing just before he dives? It’s true that this is prayer unmoored, without its usual object, God, but it is still focused, self-forgetful, and moving in an outward direction toward the unfathomable (which the mystic will argue is God). It is the L word, at work in the world. Wallace understood better than most that for the secular among us, art has become our best last hope of undergoing this experience.

  “Church Not Made with Hands” is a gift of this kind. It is about extreme focus and it requires extreme focus. In its climactic scene, a priest kneels praying in front of a picture of himself praying, which feels like the ultimate DFW image, as DeLillo’s most-photographed barn holds within it something of the essential DeLillo. “Church Not Made with Hands” is my favorite gift in a book laden with them. I think that must be why I’m loathe to take it apart as I have the others. More than any other story in Brief Interviews it seals its doors tightly and the joy for each reader will come in finding the keys that fit the locks—and who’s to say your keys you will be the same as mine? Still, here are a few of mine, in case you feel like picking them up.

  Giorgio de Chirico painted what he called “metaphysical town squares.” They are full of exquisite renderings of shadow.

  The intense colors of a Soutine. In fact, colors generally. Count them.

  In volume five of A la recherché du temps perdu, the novelist Bergotte dies while standing in a gallery, looking at Vermeer’s View of Delft. These are his last words: “That’s how I ought to have written, my last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of color, made my language precious in itself.”

  Just before a partial eclipse, the wind rises. And another thing happens, too: shadow bands (also known as flying shadows) appear, making the ground look like the bottom of a swimming pool.

  Solar eclipse. The Nazca Lines in Peru. “Eye in the sky.”

  “The screen breaths mint”? A confessional box. A priest chewing gum.

  From the OED:


  a. ORIGIN. French prône, the grating or railing separating the chancel of a church from the nave, where notices were given and addresses delivered.

  b. Ecclesiastical history. An exhortation or homily delivered in church. Also, prayers, exhortations, etc., attached to a sermon.

  c. Adjective & adverb. Directed or sloping downward. Also loosely, descending steeply or vertically, headlong.

  d. Facing downward; bending forward and downward; lying face downward or on the belly; spec. (of the hand or forelimb) with the palm downwards or backwards and the radius and ulna crossed. Later also loosely, lying flat.

  From the OED:

  Apse, Apsis

  Astronomy: Either of the two points in the elliptical orbit of a planet or other body at which it is respectively nearest to and furthest from the primary about which it revolves. Architecture. A large semicircular or polygonal structure, often roofed with a semi-dome, situated esp. at the end of the choir, nave, or an aisle of a church.

  A song by The Waterboys

  C. S. Lewis. Shadowlands

  A Grief Observed. Death

  Acts 17:24: God dwelleth not in temples made with hands.

  Acts 7:48: Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands?



  Zora Neale Hurston: What Does Soulful Mean?” was originally conceived as an introduction for the Virago edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God and appeared subsequently in a revised version in The Guardian. “Middlemarch and Everybody” and “Hepburn and Garbo” were first published in The Guardian. “E. M. Forster: Middle Manager,” “F. Kafka, Everyman” and “Two Directions for the Novel” were published in The New York Review of Books. “Speaking in Tongues” was given as the 2008 Robert B. Silvers Lecture at the New York Public Library and published in a revised version by The New York Review of Books. “That Crafty Feeling” was given as a lecture at Columbia University, commissioned by Ben Marcus, and later published in The Believer. A revised version appears here. “One Week in Liberia” was the fruit of a trip organized and funded by Oxfam. It was published by The Observer. “At the Multiplex, 2006” and “Notes on Oscar Weekend” were published by The Sunday Telegraph. “Accidental Hero” appeared in a short version in The Sunday Telegraph and appears in full here. “Smith Family Christmas” was commissioned by The New York Times and “Dead Man Laughing” was published by The New Yorker. “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov” began life as a lecture, given at Harvard University, although it has been revised so extensively almost nothing of the original remains.

  I am grateful to my editors, Simon Prosser and Ann Godoff, and to my agent, Georgia Garrett, for all their efforts on my behalf over the past ten years. For the help and advice I received on individual essays I thank Devorah Baum, Tom Bissell, Mark Costello, Hadley Freeman, Bret Gladstone, Mary Karr, Lee Klein, Cressida Leyshon, Lee Rourke, Lorin Stein, Martina Testa, Adam Thirlwell and Sunil Yapa. Particular thanks to Bob Silvers for sending interesting books and projects my way, and for so many ingenious edits. Special thanks to Lysbeth Holdaway for her guidance in Liberia.

  My greatest debt, as ever, is to Nick Laird, my best reader and fiercest editor. Your work on this book—and support of its author—were essential.


  Aczel, Edward

  Adams, J. Donald

  Adam’s Rib (film)

  Adomitis, Dan

  “Adult World” (Wallace)

  Alix, Patrick

  Allen, Woody

  American Colonization Society

  Americo-Liberians (Congos)

  Amis, Kingsley

  Amis, Martin

  Anna Karenina (film)

  Another Country (Baldwin)

  Antonioni, Michelangelo

  Apicella, Tina


  Arnold, Matthew

  Ash Wednesday (Eliot)

  Astaire, Fred

  Atrocity Exhibition, The (Ballard)

  Auden, W. H.

  Austen, Jane



  death of

  lack of control of

  as modern figure

  privilege of

  Autograph Man, The (Smith)

  Bacall, Lauren

  Baez, Joan<
br />
  Baldwin, James

  Ballard, J. G.

  Balzac, Honoré de

  Bana, Eric

  Barth, John

  Barthelme, Donald

  Barthes, Roland

  as left wing

  on modernity of concept of author

  see also Author, death of

  Bauer, Felice

  BBC Talks of E. M. Forster, The

  Beckett, Samuel

  Begley, Louis

  Bellissima (film)

  Bellow, Saul

  Benjamin, Walter

  Bennet, Elizabeth (char.)

  Bhagavad Gita

  Billy Budd (Melville)

  Blasetti, Alessandro

  Bleak House (Dickens)

  “Blood Donor, The,”

  Blood on the Tracks (album)

  Bluest Eye, The (Morrison)

  Bogart, Humphrey

  Borges, Jorge Luis

  Bovary, Emma (char.)

  Boyd, Valerie

  Brief Encounter (film)

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