Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Zadie Smith's Academic Tomato-Meter

Rembrandt, "The Anatomy Lesson"

I really enjoyed Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. It seems more mature and better-controlled than White Teeth, and I think part of its success is its relatively narrow focus and frame: it's a less ambitious novel than White Teeth, and that's actually a huge relief. Part of Smith's new humility is her explicit embrace of literary and philosophical precedents. Besides Forster’s Howards End (Etext here), which influences the novel’s structure and style in dozens of ways, Smith is also clearly thinking quite seriously about current controversies in theories of art and aesthetics. At the opening of one chapter she quotes Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which gives the novel its title and perhaps also provides the bedrock of Smith’s broader argument on academia and aesthetic beauty. Here is the quote from Elaine Scarry used by Smith as an epigram:

To misstate, or even merely understate, the relation of the universities to beauty is one kind of error that can be made. A university is among the precious things that can be destroyed.

It's difficult to do much with this quote without getting into the ins and outs Scarry's interesting little book, which I took a stab at some years ago, when Scarry came to give a talk at Lehigh. For now, let me just say that I find it very provocative to think about the university not just as a workplace, but as a beautiful object unto itself.

One other thing, her acknowledgments, Smith also cites Simon Schama’s definitive book on Rembrandt, Rembrandt’s Eyes. (Here's an excerpt, and a review on

* * *
This novel is written with startling fluidity; reading it, one feels sure that Smith will, provided sufficient ideas and inspiration, be one of our most important writers in the years to come. Admittedly, I’m one of the book's ideal readers, a liberal academic schooled in poststructuralism and theories of hybridity, who identifies strongly with the ‘Belsey’ side of things in the book. Like Smith’s character Howard Belsey, I’ve been trained to place works of art and literature in historical context, and deconstruct cultural keywords, like “beauty,” “truth,” and “authenticity.”

But I’m also an ideal reader because I’m not satisfied with the aggressive deconstructive posture that argues that all beauty is culturally constructed, or that truth is always relative. I’m willing to keep an open ear to Smith’s character Monty Kipps, who plays a black British cultural conservative. Kipps is an academic superstar in England who takes a year to teach at "Wellington College," loosely modeled on Harvard.

Zadie Smith leans liberal politically, but On Beauty encourages readers to take seriously both liberal and conservative attitudes about beauty (which might be more precisely labeled deconstructive and positivist attitudes; it doesn't really make sense to describe an aesthetic theory as "liberal" or "conservative"). Indeed, while politically Smith is clearly liberal, anti-elitist, and enthusiastic about racial hybridity, she clearly finds the deconstructive posture on beauty a bit absurd. Belsey, her main purveyor of deconstructive thinking, appears deeply delusional about his own relationship to beauty and art. While he rigorously "interrogates" the myth of Rembrandt's "genius," his susceptibility to female beauty in particular leads him into a series of disastrous affairs, which bring down his marriage. But he is also shown to be profoundly susceptible to beautiful music, particularly choirs and glee clubs, which always provoke in him a mysterious, embarrassingly promiscuous weeping.

While some of this is played for farce, it does raise a question: is it possible to imagine a nexus of aesthetics and politics that combines progressive politics (and multiculturalism) with a positivist attitude towards aesthetic beauty? In earlier eras (and in the world of Forster’s novel), there was no contradiction there at all. The social divide between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels in Forster is along the lines of liberal, egalitarian art-lovers (the Schlegels) vs. conservative, elitist, bourgeois Philistines (the Wilcoxes). To love art at all is seen as a somewhat liberal-slanted endeavor. Since the advent of postmodernism and the rise of the neo-conservatives, that relationship has been somewhat reversed.

Why can’t poststructuralists admit they love the art and literature they study and teach? Why is the possibility of a sincere affective response to art drained out of "theory"? Smith addresses the question in of the wittiest moments in the entire book, namely Howard Belsey’s refusal to "love the tomato." The "tomato" is a kind of skeptics' shibboleth for the rhetorical object that defines various Humanities classes at Wellington:

‘Professor Simeon's class is 'The tomato's nature versus the tomato's nurture,' and Jane Colman's class is 'To properly understand the tomato you must first uncover the tomato's suppressed Herstory’ . . . and Professor Gilman's class is 'The tomato is structured like an aubergine,' and Professor Kellas's class is basically 'There is no way of proving the existence of the tomato without making reference to the tomato itself,' and Erskine Jegede's class is 'The post-colonial tomato as eaten by Naipaul.' . . . But your class – your class is a cult classic. I love your class. Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato.'

Of course, for Victoria Kipps the deconstructive refusal to like the tomato isn’t even a flaw. She goes on to suggest (though it’s possible she means it ironically) that Belsey’s passionate scrutiny of an artist he says he doesn’t like (Rembrandt) is her idea of "rigour":

‘Because that’s the worst thing you could ever do in your class, right? Because the tomato’s not there to be liked. That’s what I love about your class. It’s properly intellectual. The tomato is just totally revealed as this phoney construction that can’t lead you to some higher truth – nobody’s pretending the tomato will save your life. Or make you happy. Or teach you how to live or ennoble you to be a great example of the human spirit. Your tomatoes have got nothing to do with love or truth. They’re not fallacies. They’re just these pretty pointless tomatoes that people, for totally selfish reasons of their own, have attached cultural – I should say nutritional weight to.’

This sounds like flattery, not mockery, though it’s probably dangerous to take Victoria Kipps’s arguments as truly sincere given that she’s Monty Kipps’ daughter (Monty Kipps being the black conservative superstar mentioned above), who is about to have a disastrous affair with Belsey -- her father's arch-rival. At the beginning of this conversation, Belsey's refusal to love the tomato was proposed as a challenge; by the end, Victoria's enthusiasm for Belsey's "rigour" is closer to flirtation.

However we interpret the tone of the passage, what we're left staring at is the tomato, a figure of speech that humanities teachers and scholars should take as a serious provocation. It's hard to be sanguine that such a simple metaphor could provide an effective index by which to characterize our intellectual pursuits. One might be tempted to resist Zadie Smith, but it might be more productive to see the prevalence of tomato-based thinking, and fight the temptation to take shortcuts and apply reductive formulas in our scholarship and teaching.

So is Smith arguing that we should learn to love our respective tomatoes, whatever they may be? Or are we to disavow all traces of reductivist thinking, and throw out our tomatoes altogether? That's the part I haven't quite decided on yet.

Francoise Eliaissaint, "Erzulie" (Haitian spirit of love, beauty, jewelry, dancing, luxury and flowers)


Bidisha said...

Thank you for pulling Smith's best fruit (the tomato!) off of a book that can only come off as withered and brittle when placed next to Howard's End.

Smith's book features far too many instances of professors having affairs with nubile students and fragile poetesses for my taste. Both the liberal and the conservative professor are depicted as sexually hypocritical; while this is certainly wretched, such behavior shouldn't become the default way to gauge or disparage the university's beauty. But, in Smith's hands, it does.

In fact, in Smith's book, apart from being a hotbed of petty sexual hypocracy, the university also seems to squash complex, novel, or interesting ideas rather than encourage them. This seems at odds with her proposed project of defending the university as "precious thing."

There is far too little about Belsey's own relationship to Rembrandt and way too much about his ogling of Victoria Kipps. And Carl, the *hot* young black man whose autodidactic path leads him to develop an extremely interesting theory about Mozart's relationship to mash-ups, soon loses all interest in theoretical work after securing a cushy job at the university's music library.

Indeed, Carl, who serves as a counterweight to Forster's Leonard Bast, is drawn with much less finesse than Bast. He seems almost indistinguishable from the appealing but ultimately reductive diamond-in-the-rough characters in 'Finding Forrester' and 'Good Will Hunting.'

I far prefer Forster's impish humor, his central female character, Margaret, his complex depiction of female friendship, and his nuanced treatment of the city vs. the country. While 'On Beauty' has its pleasures (and thanks again Amardeep for pointing them out) I'd encourage everyone to read or reread 'Howard's End.'

4:04 PM  
Rani said...

I found Smith's characters in ON BEAUTY to be almost knock-offs of her characters in WHITE TEETH. In other words, it seemed that each character in her new book had a counterpart or model or whatever in her previous. (I gave AUTOGRAPH MAN a miss.)

Magid = Carl
Samad = Howard
Samad's wife = Keke

Am I the only one who saw it this way? Thus, because I found her characters as non-organic and mearly voices for whatever she was trying to "say", I was pretty luke-warm about the book.

5:43 PM  
Archana said...

I just started the book the other night, and haven't delved too far into it yet - thank you for your comments, Amardeep. I will keep my eye out for the issues you mention. Being a product of liberal academia myself, I'm already enjoying the professor-family scenes. I already had the reaction that Rani did (some of the characters seem so familiar to White Teeth), but hopefully Smith will refine these familiar characters as the book continues...

6:52 PM  
Amardeep said...


Actually I didn't think it was so much like White Teeth, partly because the issues on the table have less to do with religion than with 'beauty'. But I think I can sort of see what you mean: both books feature siblings going off in different directions socially and intellectually, and children who rebel against the tendencies of their parents. Both books also feature interracial/biracial households.

But I think she does all of that a bit better in this book... it's tighter somehow.

And Bidisha, I can completely see what you mean about Howards End. Two days ago I reopened Forster's novel, and I was a little shocked by how closely Zadie Smith follows it in terms of plot and theme. (The more I looked into it, the less I liked "On Beauty") It is worth remarking, however, that for her to resituate Forster's two families in a black cultural context is quite an impressive feat. Still, some of the best ideas in her book are basically variations on Forster...

There is one thing that is definitely new. I think the reversal of Forster's art vs. money dynamic that I alluded to in the post is one of Smith's most interesting gestures: high art is now a bourgeois pastime, while bohemians tend to get lumped in with the 'Philistines'. The kinds of things Margaret Schlegel says about art in Howards End are rather similar to what Monty Kipps says much of the time in On Beauty.

Archana, hope you enjoy the book! I'll look forward to your review on Hindu/Christian/Jew when you've gotten through it. (That is, if you feel like it.)

7:03 PM  
Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

Why can’t poststructuralists admit they love the art and literature they study and teach?

This comment in your review really struck out for me. I don't think I can find a single professional astronomer who wouldn't unabashedly admit great love and reverance for things they study. Is it seriously the case that many people in the English department hate the objects of their study? I had heard from someone who did her Ph.D. on Anthony Powell and then left the field, she hated him so. I was shocked to hear that, not only because I liked Powell, but also that she had done her Ph.D. on something she didn't like. Astronomers leave the field for sure, I nearly did. But I haven't heard of someone ending up hating it.

7:38 PM  
Amardeep said...

It's not so much that poststructuralists don't love art, it's that they don't allow themselves to think of the appreciation of the aesthetic value of a work of art as an important part of intellectual work.

This sometimes leads scholars to teach and research work they don't find to be particularly inspiring as art (but which might be socially interesting because the author is black, or female, or gay, etc.), while more famous, major works might get ignored.

It's also fashionable to be a bit blasé about 'great' art. It's hard to get excited about Hamlet for the 500th time. But many people who affect this attitude are posing...

8:20 PM  
zp said...

"He seems almost indistinguishable from the appealing but ultimately reductive diamond-in-the-rough characters in 'Finding Forrester' and 'Good Will Hunting.'"

Comparison of Howards End and On Beauty appeals to me, but comparison of Carl, Bast and Good Will Hunting is BRILLLIANT!!

But most of all I love Scarry's Dreaming by the Book . . . a flower in the head? Maybe her head, but it's still a strange and tidy book.

5:04 PM  
Patry Francis said...

After all the lukewarm reviews I read, I had almost decided to skip ON BEAUTY. You just changed my mind.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous said...

Can anyone show me a black female character in Ms. Smith's book that is not either a slut, earthy or fat. Ms. Smith may yet develop into a good writer in say 10 years for now she did herself and other women a great disservice with this shallow and almost racist rendition of black women.

6:45 AM  
tamasha said...

I'm thinking very much about this issue about loving art. I was at the Neue Galerie to see the Klimt show a few weeks back and there were two kinds of people there: art snobs and tourists (great for business, bad for snobs). Over and over again I would see groups of colorfully dressed, mostly blonde women ooh and ahh over the gold and the details and it pleased me to see these people at this small museum. The snobs turned up their noses and smirked and noted in too-loud voices all the reasons Klimt is "not that great anyway" and I thought... why are you here then?

I went to see what all the fuss was about. I had studied Klimt in some depth as an undergrad, and had always liked his work, but was ashamed to admit it. It would have been akin admitting that my favorite painting at the MFA in Boston was a Monet (it is! the horror!); like how it's not hip to enjoy mainstream music anymore, everything has to be an obscure band no one's ever heard of.

I found myself transfixed by the beauty of his paintings (I hadn't seen many in person prior to this visit). That was it, they were just beautiful, and that's all they needed to be. And I've decided that that's ok. Sounds cheesy, I suppose, but I wonder how much more lovely I would find the world if I looked at it in this way.

And, by the way, I loved On Beauty. I read Smith for her turn of phrase, more than anything else, and she seriously delivered on this one.

9:01 AM  
Rashmi said...

A bit late in the day, but happened to chance into the discussion on Zadie's books - courtesy Google. While she payes homage to the 'influence' of Forester, especially Room with a View - it's a rip-off of Howard's End.Right from line 1 - the letter, the misannounced engagement, the goof-up on the way (aunt turns into Dad!).Unfortunately, Howard's had a brilliant protagonist - which Zadie's book seems to lack most!Its an opal mehta equivalent...if only she was smart enuff to 'pay homage' early in the day!

7:25 AM  

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