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Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair – Brain Pickings
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2013: Hope or Despair?
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Smith reframes the question of her shift in literary sensibility not as a decline toward defeatism but as an evolution toward greater complexity and more dimensional awareness of existence:. The art of mid-life is surely always cloudier than the art of youth, as life itself gets cloudier. But it would be disingenuous to pretend it is only that. I am a citizen as well as an individual soul and one of the things citizenship teaches us, over the long stretch, is that there is no perfectibility in human affairs.
This fact, still obscure to the twenty-one-year-old, is a little clearer to the woman of forty-one. Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror.
No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.
Smith supplements these grounds for hope with a sobering counterpoint to the historical nostalgia so alluring to the hegemony and so ruinous to the rest of us:. Meanwhile the dream of time travel — for new presidents, literary journalists and writers alike — is just that: a dream. And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too. For a black woman the expanse of livable history is so much shorter.
What would I have been and what would I have done — or more to the point, what would have been done to me — in , in , in , in ? I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West African ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors.
Related Possibility: Essays Against Despair
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