The Artist and the Anguish of the American Dream: Zadie Smith’s Love-Hate Letter to New York
“The greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization.”
By Maria Popova
With his philosophy of happiness as a moral obligation, it is no surprise that Albert Camus is intellectual America’s favorite European export. The American Dream is built on the pursuit of happiness, but Camus amplifies it from a mere right to something more, something better aligned with the modern condition of compulsive pursuit — of happiness, of productivity, of self-actualization. Indeed, this is a paradoxical culture where the Self reigns supreme, even though we know it is an illusion; a culture built on hard-headed, hard-bodied, hard-and-fast individualism, even though we don’t know how to be alone. Ours is an era built on the legacy of the age of anxiety, the pathology of which we’ve perfected to a virtuoso degree.
Some weeks ago, I attended Amanda Stern’s excellent Happy Ending music and reading series. The magnificent Zadie Smith, she of great wisdom on the craft of writing and the psychology of the writer’s mind, read an enchanting essay she had just written — about Manhattan, about our modern compulsions, about the artist and the anguish of the American Dream. The essay, titled “Find Your Beach,” is now published by The New York Review of Books. With unparalleled humor and humility, Smith explores the essential hubris of our age, not without admitting her willful participation as an ambitious cog in the machinery of compulsive self-actualization.
She opens with a view of a billboard across from her university housing in Soho — a beer ad, “very yellow and the background luxury-holiday-blue,” captioned “Find your beach.” Smith finds the text — almost a command — perfectly, tragically emblematic of American culture. She writes:
It seems to me uniquely well placed, like a piece of commissioned public art in perfect sympathy with its urban site. The tone is pure Manhattan. Echoes can be found in the personal growth section of the bookstore (“Find your happy”), and in exercise classes (“Find your soul”), and in the therapist’s office (“Find your self”).
Smith considers the ad’s particular placement in Soho — “home to media moguls, entertainment lawyers, every variety of celebrity, some students, as well as a vanishingly small subset of rent-controlled artists and academics” — at once paradoxical and telling, a kind of self-aware eulogy to those vanishing bastions of culture:
Collectively we, the people of Soho, consider ourselves pretty sophisticated consumers of media. You can’t put a cheesy ad like that past us. And so the ad has been reduced to its essence — a yellow undulation against a field of blue — and painted directly onto the wall, in a bright pop-art style. The mad men know that we know the Soho being referenced here: the Soho of Roy Lichtenstein and Ivan Karp, the Soho that came before Foot Locker, Sephora, Prada, frozen yogurt. That Soho no longer exists, of course, but it’s part of the reason we’re all here, crowded on this narrow strip of a narrow island. Whoever placed this ad knows us well.
Even the language of the caption, Smith notes, is odd — “faintly threatening mixture of imperative and possessive forms, the transformation of a noun into a state of mind” — and reflective of the undulating cult of the Self. Where alcohol ads used to promise the illusion for communal fun, she notes, they now sell the illusion of solitary bliss:
Here the focus is narrow, almost obsessive. Everything that is not absolutely necessary to your happiness has been removed from the visual horizon. The dream is not only of happiness, but of happiness conceived in perfect isolation. Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if — as in the case of this wall painting — it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go. The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty.
One can’t help but think of E.B. White’s 1949 ode to Gotham, perhaps the finest and most enduring portrait of the city ever committed to paper. White writes of “the essential fever of New York,” a city populated by strangers who have come “seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail,” a city filled with “the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.” For White, writing a decade before social psychologist Abraham Maslow established self-actualization as a cultural fetish, New York’s singular proposition was one of promise. For Smith, it seems to be one of peril — one that, perhaps like the bibulous billboard’s imperative to “find your beach,” is toxic but nonetheless alluring, inescapable. She writes:
In an exercise class recently the instructor shouted at me, at all of us: “Don’t let your mind set limits that aren’t really there.” You’ll find this attitude all over the island. It is encouraged and reflected in the popular culture, especially the movies, so many of which, after all, begin their creative lives here, in Manhattan… Our happiness, our miseries, our beaches, or our blasted heaths — they are all within our own power to create, or destroy…
The beach is always there: you just have to conceive of it. It follows that those who fail to find their beach are, in the final analysis, mentally fragile; in Manhattan terms, simply weak… To find your beach you have to be ruthless. Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment — as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything — not even reality — to impinge upon that clear field of blue.
Once again, White’s Manhattan comes to mind, with its gift of “insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute,” as Smith lament’s Manhattan’s existential imperative:
There is a kind of individualism so stark that it seems to dovetail with an existentialist creed: Manhattan is right at that crossroads. You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day. When I am in England each summer, it’s the opposite: all I see are the limits of my life. The brain that puts a hairbrush in the fridge, the leg that radiates pain from the hip to the toe, the lovely children who eat all my time, the books unread and unwritten.
This, perhaps, was what 36-year-old Italo Calvino felt when he recorded his first impressions of America, “the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little.”
Smith observes the centripetal force with which New York, every time she returns, pulls her into its vortex of unrelenting beach-finding:
I have to get used to old New York ladies beside themselves with fury that I have stopped their smooth elevator journey and got in with some children. I have to remember not to pause while walking in the street — or during any fluid-moving city interaction — unless I want to utterly exasperate the person behind me. Each man and woman in this town is in pursuit of his or her beach and God help you if you get in their way.
But what makes Smith’s essay so compelling is that the Soho tower from which she observes the “Find your beach” billboard is by no means an ivory one — her lament is rooted not in an onlooker’s static judgment but in a participant’s dynamic self-awareness:
I suppose it should follow that I am happier in pragmatic England than idealist Manhattan, but I can’t honestly say that this is so. You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality. “A reality shaped around your own desires” — there is something sociopathic in that ambition.
It is also a fair description of what it is to write fiction. And to live in a city where everyone has essentially the same tunnel vision and obsessive focus as a novelist is to disguise your own sociopathy among the herd. Objectively all the same limits are upon me in Manhattan as they are in England. I walk a ten-block radius every day, constrained in all the usual ways by domestic life, reduced to writing about whatever is right in front of my nose. But the fact remains that here I do write, the work gets done.
Even if my Manhattan productivity is powered by a sociopathic illusion of my own limitlessness, I’m thankful for it, at least when I’m writing. There’s a reason so many writers once lived here, beyond the convenient laundromats and the take-out food, the libraries and cafés. We have always worked off the energy generated by this town, the money-making and tower-building as much as the street art and underground cultures.
And yet, Smith mourns the loss of the underground creative energies that made Manhattan — those of Walt Whitman’s Bohemian coterie and of Patti Smith’s starving-artist circles — replaced now by something more ominous, something sterilized by the relentless pursuit of self-actualization:
A twisted kind of energy radiates instead off the soulcycling mothers and marathon-running octogenarians, the entertainment lawyers glued to their iPhones and the moguls building five “individualized” condo townhouses where once there was a hospital.
It’s not a pretty energy, but it still runs what’s left of the show. I contribute to it. I ride a stationary bike like the rest of them. And then I despair when Shakespeare and Co. closes in favor of another Foot Locker. There’s no way to be in good faith on this island anymore. You have to crush so many things with your mind vise just to get through the day…
The greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next.
What emerges, then, is the notion that happiness is to be allowed rather than attained, a notion closer to Alan Watts than to Camus. But Smith’s essential lament is that such gentle surrender is one of which we beach-hungry moderns, whether New Yorkers by residency or by geographically unmoored temperament, seem incapable. And yet isn’t this awareness — awareness Smith crystallizes with far crisper eloquence than most are capable of, yet one most of us experience in a perpetual cycle of reconciliation — already a dissolution of that “sociopathic illusion”? She concludes:
I can see my own beach ahead now, as the children grow, as the practical limits fade; I see afresh the huge privilege of my position; it reclarifies itself. Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.
It is such a good town in which to work and work. You can find your beach here, find it falsely, but convincingly, still thinking of Manhattan as an isle of writers and artists — of downtown underground wildlings and uptown intellectuals — against all evidence to the contrary. Oh, you still see them occasionally here and there, but unless they are under the protection of a university — or have sold that TV show — they are all of them, every single last one of them, in Brooklyn.
Smith’s full essay is well worth reading, as is her 2009 collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.
Published October 6, 2014