Zadie Smith reads her short story from the July 23, 2018, issue of the magazine. Smith is the author of five novels, including “NW” and “Swing Time.” Her essay collection “Feel Free” was published in February. You can access the podcast here.
Now More Than Ever
There is an urge to be good. To be seen to be good. To be seen. Also to be. Badness, invisibility, things as they are in reality as opposed to things as they seem, death itself—these are out of fashion. This is basically what I told Mary. I said, Mary, all these things I just mentioned are not really done anymore, and also, while we’re on the subject, that name of yours is not going to fly, nobody’s called Mary these days, it’s painful for me even to say your name—actually, could you get the hell out of here?
Mary left. Scout came by—a great improvement. Scout is so involved and active. She is on all platforms, and rarely becomes aware of anything much later than, say, the three-hundredth person. By way of comparison, the earliest I’ve ever been aware of anything was that time I was the ten-million-two-hundred-and-sixth person to see that thing. There’s evidently a considerable gulf between Scout and me. But that’s why I am always so appreciative of her coming by and giving me news. Now, according to Scout, the news was (is?) that the past is now also the present. I invited her to pull up a stool at my mid-century-modern breakfast bar and unpack that a little for me. The light that afternoon was beautiful—from my place on the eleventh floor I could see all the way to the Hudson—and it filled me with optimism and an eagerness to be schooled. But Scout was cautious. Believing me incapable of either transhistorical thought or platform mastery, she placed a New York Sports Club tote bag on the counter and pulled out two puppets—homemade, insultingly basic. The first was a recognizably female human, although she had long arms, terribly long, at least three times the length of her body, and no nose. The other was a kind of triangular spindle with a smudgy face painted on both sides, trailing thread from its corners, which I could have sworn I’d seen someplace before. Scout’s demonstration was quite detailed—I don’t want to get into it all here—but the essence of it was: consistency. You’ve got to reach far, far back, she explained, into the past (hence the arms), and you’ve got to make sure that when you reach back thusly you still understand everything back there in the exact manner in which you understand things presently. For if it should turn out that you don’t—that is, if, after some digging, someone finds evidence that present-you is fatally out of step with past-you—well, then, you’ll simply have to find some way to remake the connection, and you’ve got to make it seamless. Not double-faced or double-sided (like this triangle-spindle guy) but seamless, because otherwise you are (and were) in all kinds of trouble. Seamless. Seamless. At which point we both got hungry and paused to order a couple of poké bowls.
“Here’s a question for you re: consistency,” I said, putting my elbows on the counter. “I know this woman who’s a big fancy C.E.O., her name is Natalia Lefkowitz. She’s totally squared the past with the present, is admired by all, and is not only seen to be good but actually does good in the world for many people, providing clean water and equitable job creation and maternity leave and plenty of other inarguable benefits for women here, there, and everywhere. But yesterday she got this message.”
I showed Scout the message, which I had received on my phone from someone called Ben Trainor, apparently an ex-boyfriend of Natalia, whose son—I mean, Natalia’s son—was in my Kafka-and-Kierkegaard class a few years ago. According to this Ben Trainor, Natalia had liked to do things, in the very recent past, that were not consistent with her existence in the present. Stuff like sodomizing Ben Trainor while pretending to be his mother. Also calling him Daddy while he pretended to be holding her as a sex slave in a crawl space underneath her own East Hampton kitchen. At the time, they had both agreed to these oppositional kinks, but when they broke up it occurred to Ben that, although there was no contradiction between his own life and his intimate life (Ben worked as the general manager of a leather bar down on Rivington), there was surely a big old gap between how Natalia morally lorded it around in her professional existence and the weird shit she was into behind closed doors. In Ben’s opinion, these dark desires “went way beyond kink into problematic,” which was the reason he was texting everybody in Natalia’s address book to let them know.
“Scout,” I asked. “Do you think she should be afraid?”
“Do I think she should be afraid? That’s your question?”
“That’s my question.”
Scout packed up her puppets and left, accusing me of flippancy and misjudging the current climate. We never even got to the poké. Sometimes I think I don’t ask the right questions.
In my apartment building, as in many throughout the city, we have this new routine. We stand at our windows, all of us, from the second floor to the seventeenth, and hold aloft large signs with black arrows on them. The arrows point to other apartments. In our case, to the apartments of our colleagues at the university. The only abstainers are the few remaining Marxists (mainly in the history department, though we have a few in English and sociology, too) who like to argue that the whole process is fundamentally Stalinist. Which is like calling a child Mary. Who even uses that kind of language these days? Bendelstein, Eastman, and Waite are pointing at me. (A purely defensive move; I have done nothing wrong and am no one, and they are only trying to distract attention from themselves.) I am pointing at Eastman, in his dank little studio with the paisley carpet. Yes, since my illuminating discussion with Scout I have decided to join the majority of my colleagues in the philosophy department and point at Eastman, because who doesn’t know about Eastman? How Eastman still has a job we really don’t know. Not only does he not believe the past is the present, but he has gone further and argued that the present, in the future, will be just as crazy-looking to us, in the present, as the past is, presently, to us, right now! For Eastman, surely, it’s only a matter of time.
I made a date with young Scout to go to the Forum. I felt we’d taken a wrong turn and I wanted to get our friendship back on track. I don’t like this friction between the generations. We went to see “A Place in the Sun,” starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. And Shelley Winters. I don’t do that just to be cute: I genuinely feel bad for Shelley Winters. And if you’ve ever seen that movie, with its carnival of physical beauty—into which poor, plain Shelley Winters has been placed as counterbalance—you’ll know that eight-point type is a fair and accurate representation of the situation. The antihero of this picture, by strange coincidence, is called Eastman. George Eastman. He’s played by Clift, who always makes me want to type the word “febrile.” It’s as if he’s so beautiful it’s making him ill. (When I mentioned this to Scout, she asked me why I thought physically objectifying men was any different from objectifying women. I had no answer. I returned to my popcorn.) George Eastman is the poor East Coast relation of a rich California family that runs a big, successful bikini business. Young Eastman grew up in his super-religious mother’s Christian mission, proselytizing on the streets, probably shaking a can for coins, but now he’s come out West to ask his old Uncle Eastman for a job. To cut a long story short, he falls in love with two girls.
One is sweet, ordinary, sincere, lower-class: Shelley Winters. Shelley works with him on the factory floor, stuffing bikinis into boxes, and happens not to be able to swim. (This will become important later.) The other is hot-as-hell Elizabeth Taylor: rich, upper-class, an Eastman family friend. Seeing as he has no chance with Taylor, George gets things going with Shelley, although relationships are banned in the factory, and if they’re discovered they’ll both lose their jobs. Unfortunately, Shelley falls pregnant. All of this is sometimes hard to follow because the movie was made in 1951, and everything’s buried under the Hays Code. No one says “pregnant” or “I want an abortion.” But, despite the polite cutaways and the euphemistic language, you get the picture. Two unmarried people, with no money, who hardly know each other, are about to have a baby that neither of them wants. What to do? Shelley thinks the only solution is to get married. George doesn’t want to. In the middle of this crisis, George bumps into Taylor again. This time she notices that he looks like Montgomery Clift and falls madly in love with him. So now Shelley is a problem. Gotta get rid of Shelley. But how?
To distract himself from the urgency of this question, George accepts an invitation to Taylor’s parents’ beach house and spends a weekend looking tanned and expensive, beautiful and happy, and not at all like a poor boy from Chicago who once walked the streets pleading with the lost and the sinful to join him in the bosom of Christ. Throughout this section of the movie, Scout kept leaning over to ask me, “Did Montgomery Clift make this before or after his car accident I.R.L.?” I really couldn’t say. Whenever I thought it was after, I found myself noticing strange marks on his face: a cut on his cheek, or the scar from a huge laceration on his neck. But then when I thought it was before his face looked perfect to me, as if God had taken Brando and Dean and found a way to combine them in a delicious man sandwich.
At a certain point, while George is trying to forget his troubles at the beach, Shelley Winters calls from the bus station and says that if he doesn’t marry her right away she’s going to come over to that beach house, publicly expose him, and fuck up his whole life. He makes his excuses to Taylor and her family and goes to meet Shelley. They head to the registry office, to get married, but it’s closed. To calm her, George suggests a picnic, out in the woods, by the lake, and maybe that’s when he remembers the time she told him she couldn’t swim. He hires a rowboat—under a false name—and takes her out on the water, apparently with the full intention of killing her. And she does die that very day—in murky circumstances. The two of them argue in the little rowboat; it tips; they fall in. And the next thing we see is George dragging himself up the bank. Did he try to save her? Did he swim away? Did he force her head down, down, down into the water? Was it murder in the first degree? Or in some other degree? Was it even murder? We can’t know. We’ll never know. George heads back to his weekend paradise. Taylor’s parents’ black maid happens to be making lunch. You see her only three or four times, and she barely speaks, but let’s just say that she had my full attention. I admired the way she acted as if she were fully invested in this drama unfolding at Taylor’s parents’ beach house even though, in my mental version, this fictional maid’s fictional brother was one of the several thousand people who were lynched I.R.L. in the first half of the twentieth century. Each time she appeared, I gave her a little improvised dialogue, whispering it into Scout’s ear: “Yes, Miss, I’ll bring the dessert out now. I mean, my brother was lynched not long ago, down in Arkansas, but I can see you’ve got bigger fish to fry—I’ll get right on it.”
I let out a sort of ugly laugh as I said it, but I knew that nothing I could do in the present could ameliorate or change this fictional fact; no, all I could do was remember it, and tell myself I was remembering it—so that it wasn’t forgotten, although with the mental proviso that suffering has no purpose in reality. To the suffering person suffering is solely suffering. It is only for others, as a symbol, that suffering takes on any meaning or purpose. No one ever got lynched and thought, Well, at least this will lead inexorably to the civil-rights movement. They just shook, suffered, screamed, and died. Pain is the least symbolic thing there is.
There’s a key scene, after my stoic maid has tidied lunch away, when Taylor and George and a load of other happy, young, rich people jump into a flashy speedboat that is leaving from the dock. Off they fly, whooping and smiling with their perfect American teeth. Meanwhile we, the anxious folk at the Forum, stay on the dock, in the foreground, where a lone radio sits, and we listen to this radio as the happy young people frolic in the distance. We hear that Shelley Winters has died in a lake, that the police think it’s murder, and they’re closing in on the perpetrator. Which means that everyone on that boat, including Elizabeth Taylor, will soon know that George Eastman, a.k.a. Montgomery Clift, is guilty as sin, or is guilty to some, perhaps ultimately unknowable, degree. I found myself clutching Scout’s hand, quietly weeping.
Later, on the way out of the cinema, Scout asked me if I instinctively sympathized with the rich and the happy. I said I didn’t understand the question. She said, I’ll put it another way: You instinctively sympathize with perpetrators instead of victims. Since that was less a question than a statement, all I could do was add a statement to her statement. I said, In our philosophy department at the university, we feel that, just as there are degrees of sin or error, there are degrees of sympathy. It’s not a zero-sum game, or it used not to be, in the past. Well, there’s your problem, Scout said. You’re two-faced, you’re looking the wrong way, and if you don’t watch out you’re going to find yourself beyond the pale.
She went off to catch the 1 train while I trudged back to my tower alone, making note of the fact that I’d be seeing no more films at the Forum for a spell, because it was closing for the summer so that a fourth screen could be built. That’s what I need, I thought as I walked. A fourth screen. If I had a fourth screen, no reality could get through the cracks at all, I would be able to live only in symbol, and then surely everything would be easier. I was at LaGuardia Place before I noticed that almost everyone on the sixth floor was angling their arrows upward, directly at my apartment, though I wasn’t even there. Montgomery Clift isn’t rich or happy. He’s guilty. I instinctively sympathize with the guilty. That’s my guilty secret.
In the current climate, a high-school student wrote to me:
I am a high-school English student in South Bend, Indiana. I am quite intrigued by your use of metaphor in your recent piece in Philosophy Today. But why did you choose to make the metaphor so obvious? And why would you not really take a stand (for or against) by specifically saying his name? And why would you choose to omit his name if you are taking a stand?
A High-School Student
I wrote back:
Dear High-School Student,
Have you seen that video? It’s a little like that. Some things are so obvious that subtle metaphor is impossible. In that video, for example, there was no point in being subtle about the state-funded violence inflicted on black people in this country: the only way was to show it explicitly. And when we saw all those people dancing in the foreground that was again the most obvious metaphor possible—i.e., while you’re watching these black people dance and entertain you, other black people are dying.
As to your other question, I guess it seems to me that some things are so low or evil or contemptible that they barely deserve a name. Giving them a name would be to honor them more than they deserve. See also “he who shall not be named.”
This did not particularly satisfy the high-school student, and I can see why. Apart from anything else, I was the ten-million-two-hundred-and-sixth person to watch that video, so my opinions on it were easily discounted. And even the Lord himself called the Devil a variety of euphemistic names. Besides, teen-agers can sniff out the truth. (The truth is, I didn’t want to be deported.) The next week, making no reference whatsoever to our previous exchange, the high-school student struck again:
Hey, Professor, it’s me, back to bother ya. My English teacher is having us write a prompt comparing certain eras of literature and what their authors would say in response to Hamlet’s Quintessence of Dust monologue. 99.9% of the authors are dead but you are very much alive. I have pasted the monologue below just in case you are not familiar with it. Thank you so much for your time!
I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
A High Schooler
Dear High Schooler,
I’d say he’s having a quarter-life crisis.
P.S. I know it’s not much, but, on the other hand, as you say, almost everybody else is dead and I am very much alive.
I bumped into someone on Bleecker who was beyond the pale. I felt like talking to him so I did. As we talked I kept thinking, But you’re beyond the pale, yet instead of that stopping us from talking we started to talk more and more frantically, babbling like a couple of maniacs about a whole load of things: shame, ruin, public humiliation, the destruction of reputation—that immortal part of oneself—the contempt of one’s wife, one’s children, one’s colleagues, personal pathology, exposure, suicidal ideation, and all that jazz. I thought, Maybe if I am one day totally and finally placed beyond the pale, I, too, might feel curiously free. Of expectation. Of the opinions of others. Of a lot of things. “It’s like prison,” he said, not uncheerfully. “You don’t see anybody and you get a lot of writing done.”
If you’re wondering where he would be placed on a badness scale of one to ten, as I understand it he is, by general admission, hovering between a two and a three. He did not have “victims” so much as “annoyed parties.” What if he hadhad victims? Would I have talked to him then? But surely in that case, in an ideal world—after a trial in court—he would have been sent to a prison, or, if you have more enlightened ideas about both crime and punishment, to a therapeutic facility that helps people not to make victims of their fellow-humans. Would I have visited him in prison? Probably not. I can’t drive, and besides I have never volunteered for one of those programs in which sentimental people, under the influence of the Gospels, consider all humans to be essentially victims of one another and of themselves and so go to visit even the worst offenders, bringing them copies of the Gospels and also sweaters they’ve knitted. But that wasn’t the case here. He was beyond the pale, I wasn’t. We said our goodbyes and I returned to my tower, keeping away from the window for the afternoon, not being in the mood for either signs or arrows. I didn’t know where I was on the scale back then (last week). I was soon to find out. Boy, was I soon to find out. But right now, in the present I’m telling you about, I saw through a glass, darkly. Like you, probably. Like a lot of people.
Then I made a mistake. This was yesterday. If you’re anything like Scout, you probably heard about it already. (Scout e-mailed me fifteen minutes after it happened to commiserate and also to alert me to the fact that she would not be e-mailing me anymore.) How it happened was: one of our poets said something beyond the pale. He is one of the newer poets—the musical kind—and so his words tend to go everywhere, floating between our towers, rising above the city. People were appalled, furious. All arrows pointed to him. And I said, Look, politically you’re absolutely within your rights to be angry, but existentially you’re wrong—existentially this particular poet just wants us all to be free. As a matter of fact, he’s not even a poet at all, he’s a philosopher. Yes, I said it: He’s one of us. But then the poet himself said that philosophy makes nothing happen and also that he happened to quite like the Devil—whom we sometimes call “the adversary” and sometimes nothing at all—and then he said that he was glad that he-who-shall-not-be-named had come to power, because he admired his energy, his inability to distinguish between past, present, and future, and soon after that the poet got cancelled and, soon after that, me, too.