Freedom of thought

The genre of the essay is perhaps the purest manifestation of thought. Defined in terms of reflection, meditation and self-expression, the essay moves happily, effortlessly, from one thought to the other. In the monologue that it appears to be, it goes around making wild connections across domains of thought, territories of knowledge, and even emotions.

Instinct and argument speak more fluently through the medium of the essay. Writing a book of essays poses a unique challenge: how does one write coherently about something that wants to stay free-floating?

Zadie Smith’s Feel Free is a ride into an unconstrained process of thinking. The essays in the book touch upon everything – from love to mourning to Justin Bieber to thoughts on writing. It is a collection of her reviews and essays that have appeared in different places over a period of years. Even in places they refer to something topical, something time- or situation-specific, they read fresh because the subject of thought unleashes something far bigger – a point of view that changes the frame of talking about everything.

At least three examples stand out. These three because they are the most obvious connections one can make with a well-known author like Zadie Smith (her thoughts on an element of style) and the most commonplace themes anyone might write about in the 21st century (the Facebook piece), and what anyone, including school children, has written and thought about (some variation of the word and concept of ‘happiness’).

The piece ‘The I Who Is Not Me’ was delivered as a lecture in 2016. But what one reads as an essay in 2018, and after, is an engagement with the question of the point of view in writing – the frequent question of first and third person points of view. She refers to her experience of writing a pretend autobiography in her novel Swing Time, in which she departed from third person narration to the use of ‘I’.

In the essay/lecture, Smith writes about several authors including Philip Roth, Elena Ferrante, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and even Shakespeare! Just as the examples pile up, one learns of a way to see culture and nationality in a different light: “The first-person voice, in this elevated context, 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. In Britain, we are always doing this: mistaking an aesthetic choice for an ethical one.”

The film, The Social Network, and Facebook, are the subjects of an analysis titled ‘Generation Why?’ Smith goes into the why and how of Facebook, the people connecting with other people through the medium and the film itself. She says, “The Social Network is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called ‘Mark Zuckerberg’. It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”

Facebook mediates our relationships with others: it’s pathetic because we are living our lives reducible to the likes and limitations of one personality. Consider the prophetic words written much before Cambridge Analytica: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced... In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears” but “our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”

The difference between pleasure and joy bubbles out of the essay ‘Joy’. It is not a distinction one makes so easily because both are conflated with some version of happiness. Yet, Smith finds it possible and desirable to navigate the two differently. Her binary is very clear: “Until quite recently I had known joy only five times in my life, perhaps six, and each time tried to forget it soon after it happened, out of the fear that the memory of it would dement and destroy everything else.”

Pleasure, for Smith, on the other hand, comes from small things like food or other people’s faces. She does not see joy as pleasure at its most intense moment, or as pleasure leading to joy. Instead, there is this: “Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.”

Feel Free has a lot more going on: books in general or specific ones like Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, films like Crash, art, the books that Smith reviewed for Harper ’s and more. Each piece arrests you with what it says about a thing or an idea, and in how it intersects with other pieces. An absolutely freeing read.

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