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The Self and The Other: Identity and Existentialism in NW

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Co-authored by Frindle

Zadie Smith begins and ends her novel, NW, with each half of a friendship. The novel opens with Leah, grown up and on her own, listening to a radio that at some point mentions what it is to define oneself. The novel closes with Keisha (now Natalie), going through an existential crisis. A large portion of the middle of the novel is devoted to the events that lead to the beginning and the end of the novel, toward the adulthood of these characters. In this way, the book appears to almost grow from the inside out, which parallels the theme of existentialism throughout the novel. Existentialism is the idea that one is defined through one’s own actions; what one chooses to do internally is observed by an “Other,” who then is able to define the other. In this way, one cannot be defined without an Other (in this case, a close friend). When one loses their Other, they also lose a large part of their identity and fall into despair, which leads to an existential crisis. This can cause one to try to find meaning in sources apart from their Other or to abandon the search for identity completely.

A major concept of existentialism is the sense of the “Other,” one who “Looks” at you and defines you based on what they observe. In the third section of the book, Host, we see that Leah and Keisha are defined by each other. As Jean-Paul Sartre, an existentialist, writes in his essay Being-for-Others, “The profound meaning of my being is outside of me, imprisoned in an absence…I am proof of the other” (Solomon 224). This applies to Leah and Keisha: they are not themselves without their Other, the one who sees them for who they truly are, the each is ingrained in the other. Therefore, when Keisha’s mother bans her from seeing Leah, Keisha doesn’t know who she is. She finds that “In the absence of Leah [she] felt herself to be revealed and exposed. She had not noticed until the break that the state of being “Leah Hanwell’s friend” constituted a sort of passport, lending Keisha a protected form of access in most situations” (224). Everyone had defined her as being “Leah’s friend,” and when she loses Leah she loses both the half of her that is in Leah and the half of Leah in her. This leaves her with no one to reflect, and no one to be reflected in. In the beginning of the novel Leah writes “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me” (Smith 3). From Satre’s view, however “the Other’s existence reveals to me the being which I am without my being able either to appropriate that being or even to conceive it” (224). Simply by being there Leah shows Keisha who Keisha is, something Keisha cannot do by herself. Without Leah, Keisha no longer knows who she is, and falls into a sense of despair.

If existentialism is founded upon the idea that an individual becomes who they are based on what they choose to do, then despair in existentialism would be despair as a reaction to losing one’s self or one’s identity. By the end of the book, we can see that both Keisha and Leah feel a sense of despair about their lives. They are both conflicted about their relationship with the other, and they seem only to find ways to escape their despair when they’re with each other. In accordance with Sartre, “the Other is…simultaneously the one who has stolen my being from me and the one who causes ‘there to be’” (Solomon 245).  Keisha’s identity is based on Leah’s, so in a way, Leah has prevented Keisha from being “the sole author” of her own identity. Throughout the arc of their friendship, Leah and Keisha go through the motions of coming together and pulling apart several times, and each face issues that mirror the state of their relationship. Sartre writes, “While I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is trying to free himself from mine; while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me. We are by no means dealing with unilateral relations with an object-in-itself, but with reciprocal and moving relations…Conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others” (Solomon 245). As Keisha goes through her identity crisis, giving herself the name Natalie, she is actively trying to free herself from her old identity, which was dependent on that of Leah. Despite this, she can’t find fulfillment in her life, because her true identity is still Keisha, and still depends on her Other, Leah.

After Keisha loses Leah, she finds herself searching for another way to find herself. She soon turns to the next thing that is expected of her: having children. A close friend tells Keisha that giving birth is “‘like meeting yourself at the end of a dark alley’” (Smith 323). Keisha begins to hope for a moment like this, for “…an experience large or brutal enough to break [the image system at work in the world] open completely” (Kierkegaard 322). Keisha hopes that her child will be a replacement of Leah, that her child will become her Other. And in some ways, she has a similar experience. When she gives birth to her first child, she finds that “there was…a moment…that she almost thought she possibly felt it. She looked into the slick black eyes of a being not in any way identical with the entity Natalie Blake, who was, in some sense, proof that no such distinct entity existed. And yet was not this being also an attribute of Natalie Blake? An extension? At that moment she wept and felt a terrific humility” (Smith 323). Keisha’s child is proof of Keisha herself, an extension of her outside of her body. This is the only moment in the novel that Keisha recognizes one of her Others, recognizes that there are other people who reflect who she is back to her.

Unfortunately, Keisha comes to believe that her babies stop being her Others once they grow into children. She thinks “A child. Children. Not babies, not something to be merely managed any longer. Beautiful, unknowable, and not her arms or legs or any other extension of her” (Smith 399). Keisha stops seeing herself in her children, and, once again finding herself without an Other, she searches for another way to find herself. This time, instead of turning to people close to her, she looks for people who have no relationship with her. She attempts to have sex with strangers, perhaps believing, like her first child’s birth, that she will be able to meet herself at last. Even after going to multiple houses, though, she realizes that “‘I don’t think this is going to really happen…’” (Smith 343). She wants only to find herself, but the means through which she tries to accomplish this is never working. Even so, she is caught by her husband after many failed attempts. After the confrontation, she leaves her house silently, and he yells at her, asking her “where the fuck she thought she was going. ‘Nowhere,’ said Natalie Blake” (Smith 355). When Natalie says this, she is talking about not only where her feet are taking her, but also where she is going in life. She feels stuck in place, and the only way she can think to become unstuck is to find herself. Ever since Leah left, however, she has been unable to do so.

This search for her inner self culminates with Keisha on top of a bridge frequently used for suicide. She looks down over the edge, deciding that “Here nothing less than a break –– a sudden and total rupture –– would do. She could see the act perfectly clearly, it appeared before her like an object in her hand  –– and then the wind shook the trees once more and her feet touched the pavement. The act remained just that: an act, a prospect, always possible” (Smith 384-385). Keisha is looking for an experience to break the world open, she believes that suicide might be the best option. In that moment between life and death she will finally be able to feel, to know who she is. Kierkegaard suggests that “…anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs in this that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap…” (61). Keisha sees suicide as just another means to find herself. It is this possibility of death, the knowledge that she could jump off the bridge that allows her to find herself. In that moment, she has changed. She has found herself.

On the other hand, instead of trying to define her identity, Leah  “is on the run from herself” (Smith 38). While Keisha looks for an Other in other people, Leah attempts to fill the void by giving up herself for others.  She tries to find meaning in her own life by giving meaning to others. She seeks out ways for people to rely on her, such as in the beginning of the book, caring for Shar when no one else would. Leah gives her tea and money and does her best to help. And later, Leah gets married for her mother’s sake, and because it is “Important to [Michel] and he wants to. It’s what people do innit” (Smith 286). She doesn’t ever say that she wanted to get married, because she doesn’t want that, and by extension the rest of her, to matter. She wants to lose herself, her identity, because she is afraid of being her own person, “She fears the destination. Be objective! What is the fear? It has something to do with time and age” (Smith 27). It is for this reason that she is also afraid of having a child. She fears the full moments of “meeting herself in a dark alley” that Keisha so desires, because she isn’t sure of who she’d be meeting. This is the same for Keisha, but instead of seeking that person, her identity, out, Leah does her best to avoid it. Instead, she tries to convince herself that her identity is based on how she is to other people, writing, “I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY” (Smith 37). When they were children, Keisha relied on Leah’s sense of self, but at their split, they each lost their Other. As Keisha stops relying on her, Leah loses that sense of self, and spends the rest of the novel trying to gain a new Other, so that indirectly she is able to have a meaningful identity.

When Keisha’s relationship with Leah is severed she loses her identity, which results in her existential crisis. But, if Keisha is Leah’s Other, why did Leah not fall into despair as well? Can we really ever choose to change our identity, or is it already so ingrained in our Other that we change very little throughout our time with our Other? If existentialism is dependent upon an Other, what happens when one doesn’t have an Other? Are we all doomed to fall into  some sense of despair when we inevitably lose the one person who knows us better than anyone? Why do some people turn to more drastic measures than others? Why are some people so intent on finding themselves while others are intent on finding anything but?

Works Cited:

Kierkegaard, Søren. Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin.     Trans. Reidar Thomte. Ed. Albert Anderson. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. Print. Vol. VIII of Kierkegaard's Writings. XXVI vols.

Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.

Solomon, Robert C. Existentialism. 2nd ed. New York: Modern Library, 2005. Print.