Filling Time

Zadie Smith’s Intimations have been reviewed so many times by much acclaimed book reviewers that I don’t really see what more could be added. Just that the booklet is tiny, but does not necessarily make it a quick read, unless you merely scans what she has to say, which would be an absolute pity.

The by now well known fact that Smith wanders the streets without being glued to a smartphone might be one of the factors to why she picks up so much around her. Intimations could equally be observations.

My favourite was the piece about filling time. Smith refers to the many essays written under title “Why I write” and concludes that writing is merely a way to have something to do. To fill time. Like baking a banana bread, or its posh cousin, poshly called focaccia art (bread decorated in an infuriatingly complicated manner, photographed and then shared on social media).

Hers is a refreshing take amidst the many self-aggrandising elaborations where a person could not survive were it not for his/her art. Few people like to call their craft, sorry, art, merely as something to do. (Smith does acknowledge that she writes not just to pass time, but also because it is the only thing she can do, which also is an understatement. Anyway.)

(Fran Lebowitz, who is also referred to in Intimations, concluded the following about art in a recent-ish interview in the Amanpour & Company programme: “Everyone’s an artist now. People use the word art now so unironically. To me this is the world going backwards. The world is becoming more and more corny, more and more square. You know, everyone says they’re an artist, people refer to the most mundane kind of chores as “their art”. The word “creative” is a noun. That’s pretty striking to me.”

I’m veering off topic. Smith’s meditations about doing time struck a chord. “In the first week (of lockdown) I found out how much of my old life was about hiding from life. Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure, I had almost no idea of what to do with it.

I’m sure most of us share this feeling, and given that the start of my now legendarily ill-timed sabbatical coincided with the Belgian lockdown almost to the day, I can resoundingly concur with the above statement. How much of my old life had been carelessly fantasising about having time to do whatever whimsical crap happened to take my fancy on any given day. Turns out, I had probably rubbed the magical lamp a tad too vigorously as the bloody genie went absolutely overboard by rewarding me with a global standstill – time to sort out my sticker collection well and proper, eh?!
(You can rest assured I learned my lesson and know to be more careful with the remaining two wishes.)

But yes, the notion of hiding from life. Smith attempts at finding meaning to the time that supposedly is life, and references Ottessa Moshfegh’s words “without love, life is just doing time”. And how Love does not have to be seen in a romantic sense, but as something that you don’t do, but instead experience and go through.

But I guess Smith’s main point of the essay is that we cannot stop filling time even if we could – we are like little pugs lifted out of a body of water, our little limbs pumping on as they did when we were hurrying off to our workplaces.

Watching the manic desire to make or grow or do ‘something’, that now seems to be consuming everybody, I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.”

And yes, Smith also had me reach for Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Like the rest of the world.

I have added wild forest mushrooms in the picture as decoration. I do not pick mushrooms to fill time. I pick them because around August I develop another personality, which is that of a eerily manic mushroom picker.

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