Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  Simply put, if Fred didn’t love Mary, he’d be half the man he is (and Fred is also the occasion to soften some of Mary’s hard dogmatic edges, for it surprises her, too, that she could love someone like Fred). And the rigors of love combine with other duties and redouble themselves. Because Fred loves Mary, when he recklessly borrows money from her family and is unable to pay it back, he finds the weight of his misdeed surprisingly heavy upon him. This is not biblical morality but practical morality: Fred has done something wrong in the world, and his true punishment lies not in the next world but in this one. It’s in the pain he has caused:Curiously enough, his pain in the affair beforehand had consisted almost entirely in the sense that he must have been dishonourable, and sink in the opinion of the Garths: he had not occupied himself with the inconvenience and possible injury that his breach might occasion them, for this exercise of the imagination on other people’s needs is not common with hopeful young gentlemen. Indeed we are most of us brought up in the notion that the highest motive for not doing a wrong is something irrespective of the beings who would suffer the wrong. But at this moment he suddenly saw himself as a pitiful rascal who was robbing two women of their savings.

  In Middlemarch love enables knowledge. Love is a kind of knowledge. If Fred didn’t love Mary, he would have no reason to exercise his imagination on her family. It’s love that makes him realize that two women without their savings are a real thing in the world and not merely incidental to his own sense of dishonor. It’s love that enables him to feel another’s pain as if it were his own. For Eliot, in the absence of God, all our moral tests must take place on this earth and have their rewards and punishments here. We are one another’s lesson, one another’s duty. This turns out to be a doctrine peculiarly suited to a certain kind of novel writing. Middlemarch is a dazzling dramatization of earthly human striving, of conatus in combination. Eliot’s complex structure allows for so many examples—each reader will have his or her favorite—but there is one in particular, dropped deep into the middle of the novel like a pebble in a great pond, that seems to me the most beautiful, for its ripples fan outward and outward and reveal the unity in Eliot’s diffusion. When the vicar Farebrother decides, for the sake of his good friend Fred, to give up the hope of ever marrying Mary Garth (for he loves her, too), a sage little aperçu occurs to him: “To think of the part one little woman can play in the life of a man, so that to renounce her may be a very good imitation of heroism, and to win her may be a discipline!” Farebrother’s satisfaction here, like all the satisfactions Middlemarch offers, is not transcendental, but of the earth. Eliot has replaced metaphysics with human relationships. In doing this she took from Spinoza—whose metaphysics are, in fact, extensive—what she wanted and left what she couldn’t use. To make it work, she utilized a cast of saints and princes but also fools and criminals, and every shade of human in between. She needed Fred quite as much as Dorothea.


  These must be the most famous lines in Middlemarch: If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

  Why do we like them so much? Because they seem so humane. We are moved that it should pain Eliot so to draw a border around her attention, that she is so alive to the mass of existence lying unnarrated on the other side of silence. She seems to care for people, indiscriminately and in their entirety, as it was once said God did. She finds it a sin to write always of Dorothea! As literary atonement, Eliot fills her novel with more objects of attention than a novel can comfortably hold. Because we must give Henry his due: Middlemarch is messy, decentered, unnerving. It seems to hint at those doubts of the efficacy of narrative that were to follow in the next century. Why always Dorothea, why heroes, why the centrality of a certain character in a narrative, why narrative at all? Eliot, being a Victorian, did not go all the way down that road. For Eliot, in 1870, people are still all that people really have; our knowledge of, and feelings for, one another. A hopeful creed that has bonded readers to Eliot for over a century. Doesn’t she seem to solve the head/heart schism of our literature? Neither as sentimental as our popular novelists, nor as dryly cerebral as our experimentalists. Under the influence of Spinoza, via an understanding of Fred, she thought with her heart and felt with her head. It’s a fictional procedure perfectly described by one of her creations, Will Ladislaw:To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion—a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.

  Any writer of the classic nineteenth-century English novel had to be able to access this organic relation between what one felt one knew of human behavior and what one knew one felt. That nineteenth-century English novels continue to be written today with troubling frequency is a tribute to the strength of Eliot’s example and to the nostalgia we feel for that noble form. Eliot would be proud. But should we be? For where is our fiction, our twenty-first-century fiction? We glimpse it here and there. Certainly not as often as you might expect, given the times we live in. As writers and readers and critics, we English remain terribly proud of our conservative tastes. Every year the polls tell us Middlemarch is the country’s favorite novel, followed by Pride and Prejudice, followed by Jane Eyre (sometimes this order is reversed). Oh, the universality of the themes. Oh, the timelessness of the prose. But there is a misunderstanding, in England, about the words universality and timelessness as they relate to our canon. What is universal and timeless in literature is need—we continue to need novelists who seem to know and feel, and who move between these two modes of operation with wondrous fluidity. What is not universal or timeless, though, is form. Forms, styles, structures—whatever word you prefer—should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion, of one form; we say, “This form here, this is what reality is like,” and it pleases us to say that (especially if we’re English) because it means we don’t have to read anymore, or think, or feel. Eventually we become like Mr. Brooke, and Literature something we “went into a great deal, at one time. . . .” George Eliot: now, there was a writer. Why don’t they write ’em like that anymore? Except the George Eliot of today—so alive to every shade of human feeling, so serious about our dependence on one another—she won’t be like the George Eliot of yesterday. Her form will be quite different. She won’t be writing the classic nineteenth-century novel. She might not even be English. She might be like Mary Gaitskill, say, or Laura Hird, or A. L. Kennedy. George Eliot may look cozy and conservative from a century’s distance, but she was on the border of the New—so will her descendants be. In her essay “Silly Novels By Lady Novelists,” Eliot laid out her radical program for great fiction, radical because it was no program at all: “Like crystalline masses, it may take any form, and yet be beautiful.”

  What twenty-first-century novelists inherit from Eliot is the radical freedom to push the novel’s form to its limits, wherever they may be. It’s a mistake to hate Middlemarch because the Ichabods love it. That would be to denude oneself of one of those good things of the world that Spinoza advised we cling to. Feeling into knowledge, knowledge into feeling . . . When we say Eliot was the greatest of Victorian novelists, we mean this process worked more fluidly in her than anyone else.



  The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

  —ROLAND BARTHES, “The Death of the Author”

  Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.

  —VLADIMIR NABOKOV, Strong Opinions

  The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera. It’s a fortunate rereader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime. I know one, Pnin, having read it half a dozen times. When you enter a beloved novel many times, you can come to feel that you possess it, that nobody else has ever lived there. You try not to notice the party of impatient tourists trooping through the kitchen (Pnin a minor scenic attraction en route to the canyon Lolita), or that shuffling academic army, moving in perfect phalanx, as they stalk a squirrel around the backyard (or a series of squirrels, depending on their methodology). Even the architect’s claim on his creation seems secondary to your wonderful way of living in it.

  To a rereader of this type, Roland Barthes’s authorial death sentence will not seem especially polemical. Long before Barthes told them they could, rereaders had been squatting in the houses of beloved novels, each with their own ideas of the floor plan. “A text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” Well, yes! And, apart from anything else, we’re already living here! On first reading Barthes, in college, the essay struck me as the confirmation of an old desire, to possess a novel entirely. Now when I teach the essay to writing students, the room splits evenly between those who take it in their stride as a perfectly obvious experiential truth and those who take it as an affront. For the first type, the kind of reader I have tried to describe above, Barthes’s apparently radical transaction of power is an exchange they have always already assumed. They have always walked into books boldly, without knocking or bothering too much about the owner. But to those students who have the tendency to feel humbled before the act of writing, “The Death of the Author” is a perverse assault on the privileges of authorship, on the possibility of fixed meaning, even upon “Truth” itself. For a polemic a mere seven pages long, it has a great power to disturb, seeming to take from a delicate student her sense of the text as an intelligible thing, as well as her sense of herself as a significant individual capable of receiving meaning:Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.

  Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, those bold readers remain unruffled and unsurprised to find themselves described as “destinations”—on the contrary, the impersonality suits them. They were never likely to say, in a college class, “I guess, for me, as a lapsed Catholic feminist from Iowa this book didn’t really work.” All texts are grist to their mill: personal sensibilities have never come into it. They are excited to add to the text’s sudden indeterminacy, their own indeterminacy as well. To observe these two natural, unschooled reactions is fascinating: they reveal within the famous ideological debate a more intimate and important question of character, into which a teacher should not necessarily intrude. Why not allow each student to find out for himself what kind of rereader he is? No bad blood need be spilled over it (as it was when I was in college). After all, you can storm the house of a novel like Barthes, rearranging the furniture as you choose, or you can enter on your knees, like the pilgrim Nabokov thought you were, and try to figure out the cunning design of the place—the house will stand either way.

  In my own reading life, I’ve been pulled first in one direction, then in the other. Reading has always been my passion, my pleasure, and I am constitutionally drawn to any thesis that gives power to readers, increasing their freedom of movement. But when I became a writer, writing became my discipline, my practice, and I felt the need to believe in it as an intentional, directional act, an expression of an individual consciousness. And the tension between these two modes grows particularly acute when I try to read the author Nabokov as the critic Barthes recommends. On the one hand there is Barthes’s radical invocation of reader’s rights (“The removal of the Author . . . is not merely an historical fact or an act of writing; it utterly transforms the modern text or—which is the same thing—the text is henceforth made and read in such a way that at all levels its Author is absent.”) On the other, Nabokov’s bold assertion of authorial privilege (“My characters are galley slaves”). You can hardly get going at all. This despite the fact that the great critic and the great author have a theme in common: both equally concerned with jouissance, with literary bliss (though they define it differently), and the creative act of reading. Barthes spoke of the pleasure of the text, Nabokov of asking his students to read “with your brain and spine . . . the tingle in the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished you to feel.” Barthes, though, had no interest in what the author felt or wished you to feel, which is where my trouble starts.

  It’s easy to read “The Death of the Author” as a series of revolutionary demands, but it’s worth remembering that it was also simply a licked forefinger held up to test a wind already blowing. For along with authorial assassination, Barthes lays out his vision for a new kind of “text,” and it is one that the reader of 1968 would have recognized:Multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. [It is] a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. . . . In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, “run” (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced.

  This was the thrilling space of the nouveau roman, of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute and Claude Simon—the new writing was already with us. To read these new texts properly, though, it was necessary that the Author step aside, and here survey gave way to manifesto. The Author was dead, and in his place came the “scriptor,” born simultaneously with the text (so that “every text is eternally written here and now”), and with no real existence before or after it:Succeeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt: life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred.

  Long live the scriptor! Like a lot of rereaders of my college generation, I fell for this “new” French criticism hard (although much of it was already, by the time we got to Kristeva, Foucault, Derrida and the rest, thirty years old.) For myself, I read it enthusiastically and badly, taking a wide variety of complex philosophical ideas as a kind of personal poetic license. Barthes was my favorite, both for his relative accessibility and the unlimited power he appeared to be placing at my feet. If the text was eternally written here and now, well then this surely meant I didn’t have to worry about its historical specificity, and so could turn to A Sentimental Education in perfect ignorance of the 1848 Revolution, or The Cherry Orchard without reading a blessed word about the emancipation of the serfs. His theory of the text, too, appealed to me strongly: antic, decentered, many-voiced, perverse. I sought out the “new” fiction that would justify and exemplify it. Nabokov, with his unreliable narrators, with his reversal of the traditional life/art hierarchies (“I am no more guilty of imitating ‘real life’ than ‘real life’ is responsible for plagiarizing me,” he once claimed), with that referential style that even the noble-winged seraphs envied—Nabokov should have been exhibit number one. But there was, there is, a problem. Superficially the ideal Barthesian text suits Nabokov quite well. But what about the man who writes it? Scriptor? Stripped of his inalienable passions, humors, feelings, and impressions? It’s difficult to imagine Nabokov in this club or any club.23 It’s a brave critic who dares tell Vladimir Vladimirovich that he is “diminishing like a figurine at the far end of the literary stage,” no longer “the past of his own book” but only incidental to it. Hard, too, to imagine an all-powerful Reader more able than Nabokov to “disentangl
e” his own cat’s cradles. “Genius,” he wrote, “still means to me—in my Russian fastidiousness and pride of phrase—a unique dazzling gift.” To Nabokov, an author was more than a bricolage artiste, more than a recombiner of older materials. His sensibility, his sensations, his memories, and his mode for expressing it all—these had to be unique. So proud of his own genius, so particular about his interpretations, Nabokov refused to lie down and die.


  Part of the difficulty to be had linking Nabokov with the French criticism is that criticism’s tendentious politics. Barthes’s argument flirts heavily with a leftist aesthetic and this is hard to fit to a man who liked to torture his left-leaning friends with paeans to capitalism generally and the Vietnam War specifically. Where Nabokov saw the Author as the very principle of individualized Western freedom, Barthes saw precisely the same thing, but didn’t like it:The Author is a modern figure, a product of our society in so far as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person.” It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the “person” of the Author.

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