Saturday, February 14, 2009

If you've got an hour, this could cheer you up

Today I heard a wonderful thing. It was a lecture called "Speaking In Tongues" given by Zadie Smith in New York. I'm too stupid to be able to capture any more than ten per cent of what she has to say but I found even that percentage inspiringly sane. She starts with what it was like to be a girl from Willesden who went to Cambridge and came out with a different voice and goes on through Eliza Doolittle's desire to get a new voice in order to work in a florist via Cary Grant's transformation from Archie Leach to Pauline Kael's "the man from Dream City" to a timely examination of Barack Obama's brilliant way of knowing how to adopt different voices to speak to different elements of America. (She could have added Bob Dylan's transformation from Jewish storekeeper's son to the eternal hobo outsider but that would have just been for me.)

In the second half she celebrates equivocation and looks at how our greatest poet, Shakespeare, was forever nipping back and forth over the frontiers of belief. (In this she credits Stephen Greenblatt's "Will In The World" which you should read if you have the slightest interest in, well, that kind of thing.) She wonders why we expect politicians to exhibit the very certainty which is our least appealing characteristic.

I don't know what the weather is going to do tomorrow but if it's anything like fine I think you should download this recording of her delivering this lecture, put it on your iPod and go for a walk long enough to listen to it. If you don't come back feeling slightly better about mankind, well, at least you'll have had some exercise.


  1. Fascinating - but if she had to make a living as a speaker, she'd be in trouble (as she essentially confesses at the beginning). Not so much speaking as reading, she sounds bored, which in turn makes her almost boring. It's odd how often Cambridge does this to people, scratching diamonds.

  2. I didn't think she sounded bored, or was at all boring. In fact our dog benefited from an extra long walk just so I could get to the end of it (having already listened to the Word Podcast).

    I've never read any of her fiction, but if it's half as well written as that I'm it's certainly going in the next Amazon order. I thought I'd start with White Teeth. Anyone read any of her other books?

  3. I don't want certainty from my Politicians or the bankers either. I want people to say we don't know. I think Obama just said we don't know what will work but we do know if we wait it will get worse.

    It's a start. I shall listen to podcast as you have encouraged me/us to do :)

  4. I love Zadie Smith. She is brilliant and brilliantly funny. I started with White Teeth but my heart lies with On Beauty--remarkable. Enjoy!

  5. 'On Beauty' is her best*, 'White Teeth' is great but falls apart at the end and I don't know anyone who's read 'The Autograph Man'

    *Though the fictional setting is so obviously Harvard and Cambridge, MA I don't know why she bothered disguising it.

  6. I read and enjoyed The Autograph Man. I actually preferred it to White Teeth.

    Meanwhile, very much enjoyed the lecture. Thanks for the pointer.

  7. Thanks for the heads up on this -it was fabulous. I actually cried in parts -though not sure if I could say why. Something about the change she was describing. I hope she's right.

  8. Really enjoyed this, David, thanks. You might be interested in what Judith Butler has to say about identity - namely, that it is all a series of performed gestures based around what we constitute to be genuine; when, actually, there's no such thing. We are all composites of multiple identities, and that's fine.