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Smith Meets Kierkegaard: Existentialism in NW 2

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Smith Meets Kierkegaard: Existentialism in NW

            Chapter number 138 in the section titled Host, in NW by Zadie Smith, is titled with a long URL. The URL, when typed into the web address bar of a browser, is merely a Google search on Søren Kierkegaard. The chapter itself is not about Kierkegaard at all. It is short, only 60 words:

Such a moment has a peculiar character. It is brief and temporal indeed, like every moment; it is transient as all moments are; it is past, like every moment in the next moment. And yet it is decisive, and filled with the eternal. Such a moment ought to have a distinctive name; let us call it the Fullness of Time. 303

What exactly this moment is, is somewhat unclear. The preceding chapter talks about the difference between a moment and an instant, but does not mention any particular type of moment that Smith might be describing now. If ‘Such a moment’ is all moments as opposed to instants, then it might describe the “special awareness” that beauty invokes in Natalie. “The fullness of time,” on the other hand, is rather easier to understand and to relate to the title: it references a Bible verse, Galatians 4:4.5, describing the timing of God sending Jesus to Earth.

Søren Kierkegaard was a Christian existentialist philosopher, and an examination of his particular philosophy may aid in an understanding of the various character arcs of NW. Kierkegaard envisioned three planes of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. A person on the aesthetic plane is concerned with pleasure only. Theoretically, such a person would eventually realize that this is not a fulfilling existence, and make a jump to the ethical plane. The ethical plane is somewhat oddly defined by whatever is the cultural norm at the time. Finally, a person on the ethical plane realizes that even this is not enough, and, though a leap of faith, jumps to the religious plane, which is marked by a surrender of one’s destiny to God and putting the will of God before society’s ideas of right and wrong (ethics) and pleasure (aesthetics) (Kierkegaard).

The first character mentioned in the book is Leah. Leah seems to still live on the aesthetic plane. She marries Michel because they had been having sex for a while, and it was expected. She believes the best in Shar, and constantly defends her. She has not explained to anyone that she doesn’t want children, despite Michel’s assertion that it is the next step, and so has to resort to abortions and birth control in secret to keep from having them. Her being ‘stuck’ is emphasized by the fact that, although Keisha/Natalie, her best friend, has studied hard in college and become a barrister, Leah is in essentially the same position that she’s always been. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says of the aesthetic life, “It is a despairing means of avoiding commitment and responsibility. It fails to acknowledge one's social debt and communal existence. And it is self-deceiving insofar as it substitutes fantasies for actual states of affairs” (Kierkegaard). All of these describe Leah’s life refusing to discuss children with Michel.

The reader sees only a small part of Felix’s life, but he appears to have gotten it in order. He has settled down into a career which he seems to be good at. He has kicked his drug habit. During the course of the book, he decides to officially make the girl he loves his girlfriend, and so returns to an old fling to break up with her. His sleeping with Annie, the fling, is the only reason to suspect that he may not be exactly where he wants to be. Possibly he has not reached the religious level yet, but is on the ethical. Still, Felix’s wholehearted choosing of Grace seems to be some form of change in level. Perhaps, then, his return to her to tell her this would have been his leap of faith leading to the religious level, had he lived that long. Felix even spells this leveling out for the reader: “Next level. People can spend their whole lives just dwelling. I could spend my whole life dwelling on some of the shit that’s happened to me. I done that. Now it’s time for the next level. I’m moving up in the game. And I’m ready for it.” Annie has an interesting shutdown to this idea: “Life’s not a video game, Felix—there aren’t a certain number of points that send you to the next level. There isn’t actually any next level. The bad news is everybody dies at the end. Game over” (181). She cites Nietzsche and Sartre as agreeing with her. Felix, though he doesn’t know it, is following in Kierkegaard’s footsteps. This philosophical debate is being played out in this London flat.

Aesthetics, ethics, and religion are all mixed up for Keisha/Natalie, despite the fact that her life is defined by two very clear breaks. The reader meets Keisha as a young girl. A young child is almost inevitably on the aesthetic level. Keisha seems to move up a level of some variety when she changes her name to Natalie; at least, many things change. Very quickly, she moves from being interested in Rodney to being interested in Frank. She notes that she has “no self to be” (246), and becomes “crazy busy with self-invention” (247). It is not clear that she is now on the ethical level, as she takes out a loan and spends “it only on frivolous things.” However, her course of life seems to move smoothly and end up in an inevitable place. No major life change occurs from this time to the time when she does pro bono cases for death row inmates, which is not an aesthetic choice, but an ethical, and possibly religiously motivated one. Again, no major leap occurs between this section and the point where she begins cheating on her husband. The second break occurs when her husband finds out she is cheating on him, and she runs away, meets Nathan Bogle, contemplates suicide, and decides to implicate Bogle for murder.

As Natalie does not die before this can occur, her ‘leap’ is far more detailed. She is extremely rattled—she leaves the house in impractical shoes, taking nothing with her. The first sentences afterwards are all short, many of them fragments—a not uncommon literary device for depicting tension in the character while inciting it in the reader (Kamath). She is making a “queer keening noise, like a fox” (359), and though she seems to know what she is doing, she doesn’t seem to know why. By the time Nathan finds her, she is trying to get through a wall, hands shaking. All of these experiences easily fit under the label of ‘anxiety.’ Anxiety was an important concept to Kierkegaard, important enough to write an essay about it. He saw three main types of anxiety. First, anxiety is the natural product of being faced with choice, free will.  Men must then use this free will to make a decision. Should they choose sin, the sin itself produces the second form of anxiety (Storm, “Philosophical”). Finally, anxiety is a necessary condition for the final leap of faith. The movement between the ethical and the religious levels would not be an easy or reversible one, but an anxious struggle with doubt culminating in the conscious choice of faith, “deeply individual, without any guarantee of success, and made with total commitment” (Storm, “Concept”, Oregon).  What, then, is the cause of Natalie’s anxiety? If she is truly approaching the point of a leap of faith, logically, she would be exhibiting the third type. Without a direct conduit into Natalie’s thoughts, though, it is difficult to tell for sure. She is in this state as a result of her husband’s discovery of her infidelity, so she might be exhibiting the second type. In fact, faced as she is with the certainty that she must make some decisions and that her life will deviate from its current path no matter what she chooses, she could well be exhibiting the first type.

Since the religious level is marked by decisions made because of the will of God and not by rationality, Keisha/Natalie, in condemning Bogel to death, could be argued to be acting like Abraham in the Bible—doing something that is on first glance morally reprehensible because of faith that it is the right thing to do. However, due to the lack of real evidence for Nathan being the killer, in addition to the extreme vagueness over the source and type of Natalie’s existentialist anxiety, it seems that if Keisha/Natalie’s three stages of life are meant to represent Kierkegaard’s three stages, they do so in a way meant to twist Kierkegaard’s original intentions, perhaps skewing the very paradigm of goodness to reveal the innate selfishness and aestheticism present in all of us.

Leah and Felix are clear examples of Kierkegaard’s ‘leveling’, but Keisha/Natalie subverts the concept by blurring the lines between the levels. Perhaps Zadie Smith is trying to impress upon her reader the absurdity of the belief that any paradigm can apply to everyone, even Kierkegaard’s.


Kamath, Elizabeth. Lightning Lit & Comp: American Lit Early-Mid 19th Century. 3rd. ed. Washougal, WA: Hewitt Homeschooling Resources, 2011. Print.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 27 July 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.

Oregon State University. “Kierkegaard: Leap of Faith.” Great Philosophers. Oregon State University, 2002. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.

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

Storm, Anthony. “Philosophical Fragments.” Dr. Anthony Storm’s Commentary on Kierkegaard. 2011. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.

—. “The Concept of Anxiety.” Dr. Anthony Storm’s Commentary on Kierkegaard. 2011. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.




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I found out after writing this paper that the entire chapter of NW is actually a quote from Kierkegaard.