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Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to his best friend at the peak of WWII. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Caught in the maelstrom of the moment, we forget this cyclical nature of history — history being merely the rosary of moments the future strings of its pasts. We forget that the present always looks different from the inside than it does from the outside — something James Baldwin knew when, in considering why Shakespeare endures, he observed: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” We forget that our particular moment, with all its tribulations and triumphs, is not neatly islanded in the river of time but swept afloat by massive cultural currents that have raged long before it and will rage long after.

I have long believed that critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Where are we to turn for lucid hope, then, in cultural moments that inflame despair, which so easily metastasizes into cynicism? That is what the inimitable Zadie Smith explores in a piece titled “On Optimism and Despair,” originally delivered as an award acceptance speech and later adapted for her altogether fantastic essay collection Feel Free (public library).

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

Two days after the 2016 American presidential election, Smith — a black Englishwoman living in the freshly sundered United States — was invited to give a speech upon receiving a literary award in Germany. Traveling from a country on the brink of one catastrophic political regime to a country that has survived another, Smith took the opportunity to unmoor the despair of the present from the shallow waters of the cultural moment and cast it into the oceanic context of humanity’s pasts, aswirl with examples and counterexamples of progress, with ideals attained and shattered, with abiding assurance that we shape tomorrow by how we navigate our parallel potentialities for moral ruin and moral redemption today.

Nearly half a century after the German humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm asserted that “optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair” and a turn of the cycle after Rebecca Solnit contemplated our grounds for hope in dark times, Smith addresses a question frequently posed before her — why her earlier novels are aglow with optimism, while her later writing “tinged with despair” — a question implying that the arc of her body of work inclines toward an admission of the failure of its central animating forces: diversity, multiculturalism, the polyphony of perspectives. With an eye to “what the ancient Greeks did to each other, and the Romans, and the seventeenth-century British, and the nineteenth-century Americans,” Smith offers a corrective that stretches the ahistorical arc of that assumption:

My best friend during my youth — now my husband — is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

Echoing the great Czech dissident-turned-president Václav Havel’s reflection on the meaning of human rights in a globalized yet divided world, she adds:

I find these days that a wistful form of time travel has become a persistent political theme, both on the right and on the left. On 10 November The New York Times reported that nearly seven in ten Republicans prefer America as it was in the fifties, a nostalgia of course entirely unavailable to a person like me, for in that period I could not vote, marry my husband, have my children, work in the university I work in, or live in my neighborhood. Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others. Meanwhile some on the left have time-travel fancies of their own, imagining that the same rigid ideological principles once applied to the matters of workers’ rights, welfare and trade can be applied unchanged to a globalized world of fluid capital.

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.

In consonance with Austrian-American sociologist Peter Berger’s classic humanistic antidote to cynicism, Smith locates our reasons for optimism by widening the pinhole of the present:

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. If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now, it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. 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 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960? 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. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.

But neither do I believe in time travel. I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history.

Applying the tenth of her ten rules of writing“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.” — to life itself, Smith adds:

We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Speaking from the German stage, Smith recounts visiting the country during her first European book tour in her early twenties, traveling with her father, who had been there in 1945 as a young soldier in the reconstruction:

We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.


He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful.

This is the world I knew. Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.

One of William Blake’s engravings for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s insistence on the moral responsibility of the writer and Ursula K. Le Guin’s conviction that “an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community,” Smith concludes by considering the writer’s role as a bastion of collective memory and an instrument of what is most symphonic in human nature:

People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

In the remainder of the thoroughly resplendent Feel Free — which includes the fantastic “Find Your Beach” — Smith applies her formidable mind in language to subjects as varied as music, the connection between dancing and writing, climate change, Brexit, the nature of joy, and the confusions of personhood in the age of social media. Complement this particular part with Simone de Beauvoir on moving beyond the simplistic divide of optimism and pessimism, Toni Morrison on the artist’s task through turbulent moments, and Albert Camus on how to strengthen our spirits in difficult times.


Literary Witches: An Illustrated Celebration of Trailblazing Women Writers Who Have Enchanted and Transformed the World

From Sappho to Toni Morrison, an homage to writers who have wielded the power of the mind in language with uncommon virtuosity.

Literary Witches: An Illustrated Celebration of Trailblazing Women Writers Who Have Enchanted and Transformed the World

“The absence of the witch does not invalidate the spell,” Emily Dickinson wrote. So great writers bewitch us with their work long after they have absented themselves from the world. The enduring bewitchment of thirty such titans and trailblazers of the written word, Dickinson herself among them, is what author Taisia Kitaiskaia and artist Katy Horan honor in Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers (public library) — a lovely compendium of impressionistic sketches, fusing biographical facts with flights of the invocational imagination to celebrate such enchantresses of literature as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Octavia Butler, Sappho, Audre Lorde, Anaïs Nin, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O’Connor, Anna Akhmatova, Toni Morrison, and Emily Brontë — women born “before they invented women,” as Ursula K. Le Guin put it in her brilliant unsexing of literature.

Accompanying Kitaiskaia’s wondrous spell for each writer, reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s word portrait of the love of her life, are a haunting painted portrait by Horan — a fine artist specializing in folkloric, fairy tale, and mythological art — and a brief list of recommended reading for an initiation into the respective writer’s world. What emerges is a most unusual memorial of talent and a vibrant testament to Toni Morrison’s wisdom from her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Anaïs Nin (1903–1977). Art by Katy Horan from Literary Witches.

Anaïs falls asleep in her sunken glass ship. As she dreams, her many selves rise from her body. They have dark owing hair, and eyes blink slowly all over their faces, chests, and arms. Some collect seashells, others chart the sun’s movement. Some keep house, make lace, pursue lovers. Another operates a printing press. Before dawn, the selves gather around the sleeping Anaïs, kiss each other’s eyelids and mouths, and dive back into the single body like the mermaids they are.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941). Art by Katy Horan from Literary Witches.

Crossing the street on a rainy day, Virginia leaps easily from one pool of consciousness to another. She loves these puddles, the creatures wrapping around her ankles in each. But before she can get to the next street, Virginia sees her own pool: it floods with rain, rises higher, becomes a deep, turbulent river. She will not survive this one.

Carried along in her river, Virginia’s body becomes a lighthouse — a tower of perception with one large eye, illuminating all she sees with rich, buttery vision, transforming bottom-feeding fish and debris into objects of beauty and meaning.

Before Virginia is pulled under forever, a wolf cub leaps from the lighthouse’s eye, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. This is Virginia’s only child. The wolf daughter fights her way to the bank of the river. She survives.

Emily Brontë (1818–1848). Art by Katy Horan from Literary Witches.

When she brushes the carpet, Emily imagines she is smoothing the moors for Heathcliff’s perfect feet. He’ll come in, Emily dreams, like the winds she walks against — muscular gusts, clenched hands snarling under her coats.

What do the ants whisper to Emily as they climb the ruined trees outside? She puts her ear to the bark and listens. She will join their palace… She will be their ant queen… She will pit them against other ant queendoms… She will watch their love and war play out.

Emily makes a telescope from ice and twine. Through this tunnel, she stares into her own eye until she sees a galaxy, and through the galaxy until she sees a stranger’s eye.

Octavia Butler (1947–2006). Art by Katy Horan from Literary Witches.

Octavia takes a break from writing to water her plants. The potted heads, of various races and humanoid species, totter on thick stems and wave their leaves at her as she enters the greenhouse. She feeds them from her pitcher.

Buying groceries, Octavia looks around at the people putting cabbages and apples into their carts, and sees what will one day overtake the innocent scene: communities overpopulating, mutating with violent need for food, power, and sex.

Walking back from the store, Octavia covertly tosses the seeds she always keeps in her pockets into her neighbors’ yards. Seeds that won’t save us but urge, We can do better.

Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966). Art by Katy Horan from Literary Witches.

After Stalin threatens her family, Anna fires up the cauldron: in go the ripped pages of forbidden manuscripts. The sodden papers become bandages for the wounded. The bitter broth — gulped down, so the words are never forgotten.

The deaths of Anna’s people are woven into her shawl. She sucks on these silver threads during the famine to stay alive.

Anna waits in line for rations of potatoes, cabbage, and milk. When it’s her turn, the government official slips Anna a strange object. “You must tell our story,” she says. Anna looks down and sees a golden egg. She can hear the wild heart of her nation beating inside.

Sappho (630–570 BCE). Art by Katy Horan from Literary Witches.

Sappho is the hot green insect in every jealous quarrel, zinging between you and your lover, agitating the ions, biting your skin and making you seethe, raising the hair on the cat’s back.

Sappho is the beautiful woman you lock eyes with across the party. She has a garland and a sweet voice, and no matter how many times you try to get closer, she eludes you. Finally, she approaches, only to push a piece of papyrus into your hands and slip out the door. All you can make out is you burning in perfect handwriting. The rest of the words are illegible.

Sappho is a pair of wings — pearling between pigeon blue, moody emerald, and golden white — smoldering in a hidden cave. The wings disappear from time to time, reappearing in young girls’ closets. How seriously each girl puts these wings on in the mirror, readying herself for the pain and pleasure of love.

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946). Art by Katy Horan from Literary Witches.

Gertrude is a spider, weaving a web of funhouse mirrors. Flies trap themselves by staring at their warped reflections, which repeat, repeat, repeat.

For Gertrude, each word is a hedgehog in a metal cage. Gertrude bangs at the cages with a stick; the noise is deafening. The hedgehogs grow feathers, slink into worms, shrink into dragon flies — anything to get out. Only then is Gertrude satisfied.

You can still catch glimpses of Gertrude in miniature, living on in her salon’s paintings. There she is, holding hands with Alice B., hobbling off into the shadow of a Cézanne apple. Skiing down the curvy hip of a Matisse nude, yelling with high-pitched glee.

Toni Morrison (b. 1931). Art by Katy Horan from Literary Witches.

Queen Toni sees — cleaving from the skin of every person — the child they were, their parents, great-grandparents, all the way to the first human. She can see this ancestor’s original hurt, carried around in the generations like a splinter in the spleen.’

With her mind, Toni ferries her people’s unsettled ghosts across hostile rivers, carves smooth blue boats for them to travel in. Builds shelters to cradle their rest before the great migration.

Toni is at velvet ease at her throne. Her supplicants line up to present offerings of rubies, roast duck, wild flowers. But one approaches empty handed: he tells Toni a joke instead. Everyone gasps. Finally, Toni lets out a big, rumbling laugh and joy flushes through the palace.

Complement Literary Witches with an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women in science and artist Judy Chicago’s iconic tribute to women in creative culture, then revisit the picture-book biographies of remarkable women whose work has transformed our world: Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Nellie Bly, and Virginia Woolf.


Thoreau on Knowing vs. Seeing and What It Takes to Apprehend Reality Unblinded by Our Preconceptions

“We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.”

“No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings,” physicist David Bohm wrote in examining the nature of creativity, “unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.” And yet, stranded in the purgatory between objective and subjective reality, we are often too blinded by our preconceptions to receive facts as we encounter them, the raw material of reality — something Galileo considered the greatest enemy of critical thinking as he was launching his epoch-making crusade against delusion.

Perched in time between Galileo and Bohm is an improbable kindred spirit: Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862), who contemplates what it takes to shift from knowing to seeing, from prejudgment-primed interpretation to apprehension of pure reality, in a passage from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — a book I continue to consider an existential Bible of secular scripture, replete with the great transcendentalist philosopher and poet’s wisdom on the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

In a journal entry from the thick of winter in 1860, just before he became bedridden with what would be his final illness, the forty-three-year-old Thoreau writes:

A man receives only what he is ready to receive… We hear and apprehend only what we already half know. If there is something which does not concern me, which is out of my line, which by experience or by genius my attention is not drawn to, however novel and remarkable it may be, if it is spoken we hear it not, if it is written, we read it not, or if we read it, it does not detain us. Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and traveling. His observations make a chain. The phenomenon or fact that cannot in any wise be linked with the rest which he has observed, he does not observe. By and by we may be ready to receive what we cannot receive now.

Complement this particular portion of the endlessly rewarding Journal of Henry David Thoreau with Hegel on the peril of fixed opinions and electromagnetism pioneer Michael Faraday on curing our propensity for self-deception, then revisit Thoreau on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, the spiritual rewards of winter walks, and how to use civil disobedience to advance justice.


Eleven Kinds of Blue: Werner’s Pioneering 19th-Century Nomenclature of the Colors, Beloved by Darwin

“It is singular, that a thing so obviously useful, … should have been so long overlooked.”

Eleven Kinds of Blue: Werner’s Pioneering 19th-Century Nomenclature of the Colors, Beloved by Darwin

“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her lyrical love letter to moss. And so it is: Description and observation entwine in the consecrating act of paying attention — the act that swings open the gates of perception and allows us to know the world as it really is, not as we have been conditioned to see it by our narrow frames of reference. Our frames of reference broaden only as we enrich the vocabulary by which we describe, label, and classify what we see — in science, in art, in life.

When Georgia O’Keeffe first arrived in the Southwest, she was arrested by its colors — so utterly novel, so rich and wild and ablaze with hues she had never seen before, that she could not describe them; she could only paint them, igniting the explosion of creativity that made her one of the world’s most influential artists. Long before they could vote, the women of the Harvard College Observatory pioneered a star classification system based on color, which scientists still use today. In her splendid essay on the color blue, Rebecca Solnit celebrated it as “the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not.” There is, of course, not one blue but many — perhaps as many as there are emotions. To name each one is to confer reality and validity upon its essence, to burrow deeper into its meaning.

That is what the pioneering German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner (September 25, 1749–June 30, 1817) set out to do two centuries ago, not through the contemplative lens of philosophy but through the observational lens of science.

Abraham Gottlob Werner

Werner’s life is a supreme testament to how science works — how it unpeels reality layer by layer, syncopating missteps and leaps as theories are proffered and disproven to narrow down and pave the path to truth. While working as an inspector of mines and a professor of mineralogy, Werner developed a theory known as Neptunism — after the ancient Roman sea god — which held that rocks emerged from the crystallization of salts and other minerals in Earth’s primordial oceans. It was a radical counterpoint to creationist mythology and a stepping stone for later theories of evolution. Although Neptunism was later disproven and replaced by the theory that rocks originated from magmatic activity — a theory known as Plutonism, after Pluto, the ancient ruler of the underworld; alternatively, as Volcanism, after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and volcanos — Werner expounded his theory with enthusiasm so electric that he ignited a widespread passion for the study of geology and planted the seed for the understanding that Earth’s crust is composed of different strata layered over time.

In the final years of his life, by then one of the world’s most prominent geologists, Werner embarked upon a thoroughly different project — the development of a detailed nomenclature of colors. Born within weeks of his compatriot Goethe — who at the selfsame time was hard at work on his theory of color and emotion — Werner devised a classification system based on the colors of minerals that gave a whole new vocabulary of describing the natural world in an era predating the invention of photography, when the written word was the most precise vehicle for conveying visual detail. “It is singular,” Werner wrote in considering the necessity for a nomenclature of colors, “that a thing so obviously useful, and in the description of objects of natural history and the arts, where colour is an object indispensably necessary, should have been so long overlooked.” Nothing like it had existed before — it was not merely a scientific handbook but a field guide to the very art of seeing.

A Scottish botanical painter, Patrick Syme, was so moved by Werner’s classification system — full of lyrical color names like “Flax-Flower Blue,” “Saffron Yellow,” and “Skimmed-milk White” — that he used it to create a series of color charts. Painting each hue alongside Werner’s mineral description, Syme provided one example of the color from the animal kingdom and one from the plant kingdom. Under “Scotch Blue,” for instance, he offers “throat of blue titmouse” and “stamina of bluish purple anemone.”

The result was Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts (public library | public domain) — a book so unexampled in concept and usefulness to both art and science that naturalists and painters flocked to it, Novalis extolled its taxonomical genius, and Darwin brought it on his epoch-making Beagle voyage.

Suspended between art and science, Werner’s original descriptions of the colors — precise yet lovely — could be prompts for writing poetry, an embodiment of Goethe’s assertion that “science arose from poetry, and… when times change the two can meet again on a higher level as friends.”


  • Snow White, is the characteristic colour of the whites; it is the purest white colour; being free of all intermixture, it resembles new-fallen snow.
  • Reddish White, is composed of snow white, with a very minute portion of crimson red and ash grey.
  • Purplish White, is snow white, with the slightest tinge of crimson red and Berlin blue, and a very minute portion of ash grey.
  • Yellowish White, is composed of snow white, with a very little lemon yellow and ash grey.
  • Orange-coloured White, is snow white, with a very small portion of tile red and king’s yellow, and a minute portion of ash grey.
  • Greenish White, is snow white, mixed with a very little emerald green and ash grey.
  • Skimmed-milk White, is snow white, mixed with a little Berlin blue and ash grey.
  • Greyish White, is snow white, mixed with a little ash grey.


  • Scotch Blue, is Berlin blue, mixed with a considerable portion of velvet black, a very little grey, and a slight tinge of carmine red.
  • Prussian Blue, is Berlin blue, with a considerable portion of velvet black, and a small quantity of indigo blue.
  • Indigo Blue, is composed of Berlin blue, a little black, and a small portion of apple green.
  • China Blue, is azure blue, with a little Prussian blue in it.
  • Azure Blue, is Berlin blue, mixed with a little carmine red : it is a burning colour.
  • Ultramarine Blue, is a mixture of equal parts of Berlin and azure blue.
  • Flax-Flower Blue, is Berlin blue, with a slight tinge of ultramarine blue.
  • Berlin Blue, is the pure, or characteristic colour of Werner.
  • Verditter Blue, is Berlin blue, with a small portion of verdigris green.
  • Greenish Blue, the sky blue of Werner, is composed of Berlin blue, white, and a little emerald green.
  • Greyish Blue, the small blue of Werner, is composed of Berlin blue, with white, a small quantity of grey, and a hardly perceptible portion of red.

Complement Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, which is in the public domain but has been handsomely reissued and color-restored by Smithsonian Books, with Frida Kahlo on the meaning of the colors, Goethe’s diagrams of color perception, and The Black Book of Colors — an empathic invitation to experience the world’s hues as a blind person does.


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