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Smith Meets Kirkegaard: Existentialism in NW

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Smith Meets Kirkegaard: 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’s 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 aide in an understanding of NW as a whole. 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. So he is not on the religious level yet, but probably the ethical. 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, and decides to implicate Bogle for murder. Since the religious level is marked by decisions made because of the will of God and not by rationality, Keisha/Natalie could be argued to be acting like Abraham in the Bible—doing something morally reprehensible on first glance by faith that it is the right thing to do. However, due to the lack of real evidence for Nathan being the killer, 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. 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.


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

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