Zadie y Julio, or Ignorance is Bliss

March 12, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 5 3 min read

zadie smith

Writers can be a saturnine bunch. While most are not as fatalistic as Bolaño — “I am among those who believe that man is doomed,” he once told an interviewer — the scars of poverty, political persecution, unrequited love, disillusionment, and/or exile (pick one!) are all over the canon as well as the cult classics. After all, sadness is often what prompts writers to record their thoughts in the first place; otherwise, it’s as French novelist Henry de Montherlant said: “happiness writes white.” So if the life of the writer — for whom writing offers the only solace from vicissitudes of life — is so miserable, how is Zadie Smith so happy?

In her essay “Joy” published in the January 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, Smith says she “experience[s] at least a little pleasure every day. I don’t think this is because so many wonderful things happen to me but rather that the small things go a long way.” The pleasure she describes often comes from food — little treats that have the transcendent power to momentarily lift her from the stresses of life: “Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.” These pleasures — which she distinguishes from “joy,” an intensified pleasure also fraught with terror (e.g. raising a child/doing ecstasy) — result from a lack of discernment, and Smith is aware of this. “Whatever is put in front of me, foodwise, will usually get a five-star review,” she writes. This comes with some cost, for “where there is no discernment there can be no awareness of expertise or gratitude for special effort.”

coverIn her blissful critical indifference, Smith recalls Julio Cortázar. In his essay “Only a Real Idiot,” (originally published in Spanish as “Hay que ser realmente idiota para…” and collected in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds), Cortázar reveals the ostensible secret to his contented existence: his stupidity. By stupidity, Cortázar refers not to some sort of deficiency in his faculties, but rather his similar lack of discernment. Briefly, in the essay Cortázar relates a scene from the theatre, where his more sophisticated friends inform him that the Czech mimes and Thai dancers he’s so enamored of aren’t exactly anything special — in fact, they’re highly unoriginal, poorly directed, and ordinarily outfitted. And yet — “even though I understand perfectly how right they are and that the show was not as good as it had seemed to me…I was simply transported, idiot that I am…”

By stupidity, then, Cortázar is talking about his ability to suspend judgment, his ability to regard the Czech mimes and Thai dancers as the beau idéal of theatre; he’s talking about his ability to be swept up by the beatitude of the banal. He rhapsodizes about this sort of minutiae, saying,

My enthusiasm was not just aroused by the duck but came from something that was given material form in it, that might also appear in a dead leaf balanced on the edge of the bank, or in an orange crane, enormous and delicate, framed against the evening sky, or in the smell of a train car as you enter with a ticket for a trip of several hours when everything will rush by, stations, a ham sandwich, the buttons for turning on and off the lights (one white and the other violet), the automatic ventilation system…

Cortázar watching theatre is thus like Zadie Smith eating a pineapple popsicle. There’s a romanticism at the heart of both of their personalities that reminds them to be mindful of the all-consuming beauty that surrounds them — in fact, in Cortázar’s 1984 Paris Review interview, he admits, “I have to be rather careful when I write, because very often I could let myself fall into…an exaggerated romanticism. In my private life, I don’t need to control myself. I really am very sentimental, very romantic.”

These flourishes of happiness are ephemeral. The curtains close on the Czech mimes and Thai dancers, and only the wrapper of the pineapple popsicle remains after eight minutes. These are but individual moments of glee that sustain the rest of their day, moments that offer a respite from something — what exactly I’m not sure. Writing? Not writing? Reality? The demanding fictive realms in which — wait, I think I’ve just heard an incredible name. The horizontality of the “Z” beautifully balances the verticality of the “I.” It’s assonant. And when lowercased, almost all the letters are the same height!…Forgive me, I’ve been overcome by the aesthetics of the beautiful name I’ve just heard. Names, like words, make me happy. The mimetic sibilance of “fissiparous” or “susurration.” Spanish nouns — including “la idiotez” — with z’s to die for…I’m sorry, where were we? Ah yes. I’m still not sure if these moments Smith and Cortázar speak of serve to magnify pleasure or to offer succor to the stressed. Don’t ask me — clearly, I’m just another idiot.

Image via David Shankbone/Flickr

has contributed articles and essays to the New York Times, The New Inquiry, Guernica, and Sports Illustrated. In the fall, he will be a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Yale.


  1. I’m w Bolano on this one.
    Also: why does Z.S. still have to looks so stunning? The injustices of the world know no end… :)

  2. …didn’t she just have a baby? Pretty sure she just had a baby. This could very possibly explain her swerve into “Joy.”

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