What is it like to have your mind on fire at a time like this?

There was a time when everyone was baking cakes or research new recipes. Or to touch the kitchen for the first time. He also took care of the plants. He sewed and arranged old clothes. Everything was photographed and uploaded to the networks, sent by WhatsApp or counted by zoom. Everything was “to do something” during the harsh confinement. The writer Zadie Smith (London, 1975), like many others in her guild – the one who could, who was allowed to – dedicated herself to writing precisely about all those ways of spending time, first in New York where she lives, and when she was able to travel , in London. Maybe a form of control in the face of lack of control. Perhaps a form of resistance also against that feeling of submission that we all could feel – or still feel – at some point. As she typed herself: “What is it like to have your mind on fire at a time like this?”


The result is six small trials, just a few pills, collected under the name of ‘Contemplaciones’ (Salamandra) -the English ‘Intimations’ sounds more precise- that reveal sensations, feelings, thoughts, emotions and various complaints against certain viruses that are not always those microscopic bugs that are so scary. Proceeds from the sale of this book will go to the New York Emergency Fund for COVID-19. Smith has clear, incisive prose, that does not get lost in meanders, something that anyone who has read novels like ‘White Teeth’ knows, with which he reached the literary Olympus when he was not even 25 years old, or essays like ‘Change your mind’. And his style is not lost in metaphors that only the person who writes understands. Smith gets to the point with a certain fury.

For public health

And the heart, after a brief text on peonies – a trial without plants during confinement is not a trial or nothing – was public health when it all started at the end of March (there everything came a little later than in Spain). Universal healthcare in a country that hardly knows what that is. So says Smith. In ‘The American Exception’ the novelist is surprised that the president will adopt a warlike language against death for the first time when “for millions of Americans (premature death) has always been a war.” And remember the criticism from the US there was towards “shitty countries for their high mortality rates” -some would think of Spain- when the inequality in contagion among Americans was abysmal affecting mainly blacks and Latinos. When she wrote it, the elections had not yet been held and there were a few months left, but the British woman’s argument is obvious: “The war that the United States is waging cannot depend on the hollow figure of its president. You have to overcome it, get around it, leave it behind ”.

Do nothing

There are other more intimate texts that address, for example, how to write when your job is to write and now you have all the time in the world to be at home and write. “Perhaps you would expect writers, so familiar with dead times and loneliness, to handle this better than most,” he says. And she discovers that it is not like that for her. And that, in the end, “there is no difference between novels and biscuits. They are only something to do, they cannot substitute for love ”. You have to do, work, grasp something with your hands that is not ethereal, spiritual and inane. It is said by someone who also recognizes himself as a debtor to Calvinist (British) culture and who consoles himself by seeing how everyone has fallen into that need to make, plant, create (even children). But he also kicks the table: “Not all of us can sit cross-legged like Buddhists, day and night, meditating on sublime matters (…) However, I don’t want to just continue serving a sentence, as before.” What if after all this the time has come to do nothing?

The suffering

In ‘Suffering like Mel Gibson’ he moves from a meme about Gibson and the actor who played Jesus Christ in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ the idea of ​​absolute suffering. The caption of the photo read: me (mel) explaining to my friend with children (jesus) what it feels like to be confined alone. Of course, when faced with this, the children put their hands to their heads: what do you know, how hard it is to carry this with children under six years of age. The novelist refutes the question: pain belongs to everyone “and suffering has little to do with privilege”, since, if that were the case, “the daughter of the rich businessman would never go hungry nor would the movie star shoot himself ”.

“Suffering has little to do with privilege”, since, if it were, “the daughter of the rich businessman would never go hungry”

These types of conversations -like those of the meme- surely took place during the confinement in the houses. With complaints for all tastes. The urbanite suffering from being alone; parents for losing privacy. Zadie Smith points out that since suffering is absolute, why not complain. Allow yourself it because even if you take it perfectly well, “when the bad day of the week finally arrives -and we all have it-, that moment in which your sufferings, however insignificant they may be in the general plane, fall on you as if Had they been purposely designed to destroy you specifically, it may be worth allowing yourself to acknowledge the reality of suffering. That is to say, that everyone wears it as best they can.

Third World USA

Among these texts there are also brush strokes of New York characters and situations that become strange if they are observed from a European point of view in which there is a Welfare State and this type of thing (such as unemployment). More than strange they seem third world. Like when he relates the hours of that nail salon that does not stop from Monday to Sunday and everything that will have to be invoiced to pay a rent on Sixth avenue below Fourteenth. “So much so that the Barnes & Noble bookstore location continues with the blinds down for a decade now,” he writes.

That man who shouted down the street that Covid-19 was “a cold. Wash your hands and they’re damn it! “

Or that denialist man in a wheelchair who, just as Smith and his family were leaving home on their way to the airport to go to London, shouted down the street that the COVID-19 thing was “a cold. Wash your hands and they’re damn it! “. Or that eighty-year-old neighbor, smoker and dog-walker who told him that everything would be fine if they stayed together (not knowing that Smith was about to leave the apartment). Or the computer kid who works at New York University and who barely can afford to live, like almost all young people: “Long before this crisis they were already living with little hope in the support of institutions or the system, dealing with hazardous futures, unaffordable debts, fear “. And some still worry about whether they wear dreadlocks when “style is the only thing they have”, ditch Smith referring to that phrase by Susan Sontag that pointed out that “style is the means to insist on something.”

The madness

“This confinement is driving people crazy,” the mother tells the novelist. Smith later remembers a guy standing in a plaza with a banner that read “I am an Asian who hates himself. Let’s talk!”. The anecdote gives him to talk about hatred and hate crimes, an expression that exasperates him since he considers that it gives him an aura of power that abjection and evil do not possess. Hate, he says, shouldn’t give a special aura.

But this also leads him to point out that there is a distortion of reality in this self-hatred, that is, madness. And he wonders precisely how those who already see everything somewhat distorted have handled all this. “What is it like to have your mind on fire at a time like this?” In summary: how it felt that one who, having the apocalypse in his head every day, went out one day to the streets in New York (or in some other city) and saw the desolate, empty and silent streets. He still felt saner than ever in his life.

The scorn virus

Most of the time under words like ‘racism’ in reality what underlies is ‘contempt’ (in other so many times class and economic). For Smith, as dangerous as a virus, because it is easily inoculated and lasts for generations. In the UK, he elaborates, there was a well-known contagion: el asesor de Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, who just a few days ago walked out the back door of Downing Street. A guy who believed that the people “are there to be governed; to handle it, play with it, put up with it, tolerate it, ridicule it ”. And always feeling group immunityWhatever you do – like skipping lockdown, which is what Cummings did – nothing is ever going to happen to you.

Zadie Smith en 2014 (EFE)Zadie Smith en 2014 (EFE)
Zadie Smith en 2014 (EFE)

That of immunity is what, says the writer, is in the US with respect to the black population. And it explains what happened in Minneapolis (during the hardest time of the pandemic): nothing could happen to a white cop who puts his knee to the throat of a black boy because nothing ever happens. The problem, insists the writer whose mother is from Jamaica, is that this virus of contempt has not only inoculated Republicans but also observed it among Democrats. Because it has more to do with poverty than with race.

many “democrats” are content to put a “fade to black on their social networks for a day, read books by black authors

“Why is it that even in the states that vote the most for the Democratic Party in the United States, they put so much effort in ensuring that their children do not go to school with the children of those people whose lives supposedly matter?”, He asks, criticizing that many “democrats” are content with putting a fade to black on their social networks for a day, reading books by black authors, and educating themselves on issues that concern blacks, as long as this education do not materialize in black children attending their schools”.

The writer, however, like the black writer Chester Himes, has for everyone: the virus of contempt also has it the blacks themselves, “As any black citizen who has been pinned to the ground by a black policeman can attest.”

The final list

Towards the end, Zadie Smith offers a certain X-ray of herself. What remains of this exploration. From their tastes -very similar to everyone born in the mid-seventies- such as Neneh, Madonna, Salt and Pepa, Grace Jones or Isabel I (the one they called a virgin queen) or vital issues such as “being considered ugly when I was young and pretty later. That when the opinion of others changed, it was already too late ”; “May my fear be stronger than my desire, including my desire to hurt myself”; “That my physical and moral cowardice has never been put to the test until now.”

Until now. As has happened to many.


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