How to Feel Something
Overlaying large-scale world tragedy with the minutiae of everyday life, Ali Smith’s new novel Winter conjures the emotional feat of remaining sensitive.
I spent Christmas in my grandparents’ house in the woods of southern Indiana. While my grandpa searched for the photocopy I’ve actually seen many times of a 1983 feature on this home in the local Courier-Journal’s magazine headlined “Home Sweet, Owner-Built Solar-Home,” I noticed something else I’ve probably seen many times but never really looked at before: a small, framed painting done by my uncle. In watery colors and a carefree style more hopeful (naive?) than one might expected from a kid in his late teens, a grey cooling tower of a nuclear power plant rises up from behind large, green, leafy trees and a thick, bright rainbow. On the lower left-hand side, in confident red capital letters is painted, GOOD WORK MOM! Below that, in black cursive, Thank you! On the right, thick black caps read SHINE ON DAD! A rectangular red sign in the bottom right corner reads MARBLE HILL NUCLEAR-FREE ZONE.
There wasn’t any date but I knew it was from the late 70s. The Marble Hill Nuclear Power Plant of Jefferson County, Indiana was the most expensive nuclear power plant ever abandoned, halfway built after $2.5 billion and six years spent. My grandma was an early environmental activist arrested in 1978 for trespassing. Grandpa held the ladder as she and other members of her anti-nuclear group scaled the construction site’s chain link fence in order to occupy the property. Her work with the Paddlewheel Alliance, a direct action organization, undoubtedly made an impact in building a popular front against Marble Hill and the proliferation of nuclear power plants in the Ohio River Valley. However, the partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island Station in 1979 helped significantly sway public opinion at the national level against nuclear power. Ultimately, public health and safety concerns never carried the weight that investor returns did; Marble Hill folded in 1984 because of enormous construction costs and lack of money.
As we drove north to my uncle’s house for Christmas dinner, I asked my grandma about the painting and her antinuclear days. Radiation, thermonuclear war, and ecological collapse are all classic staples of our holiday diet, this is a typical conversation. This time, though, I was observing our dialogue even as I participated in it, doing double-takes of tiny details like framed childhood art from the 70s.
Since reading Scottish author Ali Smith’s most recent novel, Winter, I’ve developed anespecially reflective stance towards my people, whom I recognized to an unsettlingly degree in her characters. The highly anticipated second installment in a four-part series follows its predecessor Autumn inform, style, and themes, but in an entirely new cast. It’s a new season, a new cycle.
The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp of Berkshire, England, a famous nuclear weapons protest that began shortly after my grandmother’s arrest and lasted nearly 20 years, provides a backdrop for the story of a family attempting to survive a Christmas together in Cornwall, England. Smith layers multiple scales of life with a deft touch, gathering together mental interiors teeming with hallucinations and the abstract public sphere of geopolitics. Winter follows the often fraught relationship of aging sisters – Sophia, a retired business woman haunted by a friendly severed head, and Iris, an environmental activist and unwelcome guest at Christmas. Sophia’s son, Art, is a self-involved blogger whose partner leaves him just before the holiday. He shows up to his mother’s with a woman he hires at the bus stop to pose as his ex. They all struggle to manage lives lived at disorienting intersections of political and personal issues: nuclear war, estranged relatives, modernist sculpture, climate change, and Christmas dinner. Winter is structured as a playful curation ofscenes cutting fluidly between different times, locations, and narrators in a way that feels indebted to visual media. The frequently lyrical phrasing, repetition, and musical quality of the dialogue strongly recall Smith’s beginnings in theater and accomplishments as a playwright.
The arrangement of fictional lives, histories of activism, and bits of breaking news allow us to feel the infrastructures of politics in their enormity and chaos as quotidian exchanges, inessential and even fabricated memories. Autumn and Winter are heralded as being so very post-Brexit, truly of the climate change era, and even the harbinger of a bright literary future, because of Smith’s ability to conjure an experience of the vast and multiple scales in which a single life exists. How to manage the great distances is what everyone in Winter disagrees on.
Sophia spends her life considering Iris’s leftist politics a “bloody liability” and resenting what she sees as her sister’s incessantly bleeding heart. She dryly notes that in the long list of causes which ultimately drive Iris out of their childhood home – gases used against student protesters in Paris and Northern Ireland, seals washing up dead on beaches with their eyes burned out, British weapons factories – “None of these things is happening here. They are all happening far away, elsewhere.”
Sophia’s logic is one that resonates with the nationalist rhetoric that dominated Britain’s decision to split from the European Union in 2016. Echoes ring across the Atlantic, in the United States’ congressional attempts at immigration reform, efforts at banning people, capturing, detaining, and deporting them. “They may as well be,” Iris replies at Sophia’s dismissal, “What does here mean anyway, I’d like to know. Everywhere is a here, isn’t it?” But Sophia is exhausted by Iris’s unrelenting concern for large-scale problems, and that feels genuine; it’s the way I feel by the end of my family’s Christmas dinner. Once we have all the signs of environmental apocalypse laid out on the table before us, all that’s left to do is stare at them for as long as possible without blinking. It’s an anxious rehearsal that can feel disingenuous and unrealistic. It is not difficult to see how, in contrast to Iris, Sophia adopted a numbed position, and why it only thaws briefly when she wonders how her ghost friend came to be beheaded: “It hurt her to think it. The hurt was surprising in itself. Sophia had been feeling nothing for some time now. Refugees in the sea. Children in ambulances. Atrocities. Nothing.”
The French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil famously commented that generosity in its most rare and pure form is embodied as attention. She wrote in Gravity and Grace that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” In 1943, Weil refused to eat more than the residents of German-occupied France were allowed, in solidarity, despite being bedridden in England with tuberculosis. When it caused her heart to fail, the coroner reported “she did kill and slay herself.” Weil lived in extreme accordance with the suffering she was aware of regardless of proximity, stretching enormously to perform large-scale politics within her own body. In Weil’s worldview, this was related to divine love.
In both Autumn and Winter, attentiveness is also a redemptive force, appearing as the pinnacle of vitality and love. For Sophia, the best sex of her life, which only occurs once, is “not like sex.” Instead, “It’s like she’s been heard, seen, paid attention to,” and “made roofless like a house after a gale by it and the walls all down.” It’s like being “made open.”When Art reflects on his breakup with the partner he belittled for internalizing the brutality of the British political landscape (that Smith at one point sums up as “Panic. Attack. Exclude”), he regrets not being the kind of guy who would reassure her, “and know to pretend to be a surgeon with an imaginary metaphysical needle and thread and to mime sewing up the zigzag divide. Even just the gesture of stitches. It would at least have been a paying of attention.”
Smith’s brief scenes from contemporary parliamentary politics heighten the weariness of remaining attentive. Smith recounts British MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh questioning UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s dogged “special relationship” performance for the recently elected US president in January 2017. “It is a reasonably balmy Monday,” Smith writes, “9 degrees, in late winter a couple days after five million people, mostly women, take part in marches all across the world to protest against misogyny in power. A man barks at a woman. I mean barks like a dog. Woof woof. This happens in the House of Commons.” Its true, Ahmed-Sheikh was interrupted by the grandson of Winston Churchill, MP Nicholas Soames, barking at her. Soames offered what he described as an apology, Ahmed-Sheikh accepted, and the news cycle went on its way. Smith captures the relentless weight of this moment in how lightly it’s treated.
Is relief from this abrasive political climate and the unseasonal meteorological one possible? In Winter I found a soft “yes” to this question. Sensitivity is a multipass; those that can bear to pay attention stand to uncover beauty, which Smith often conveys in art or nature. At the center of Winter’s only scene of romantic love are a pair of stone figures made by the famous Cornwall-based modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth: “It would be good to be full of holes,” Sophia says to her lover, “Then all the things you can’t express would maybe just flow out.” Flowing water is an inevitable reference in such smoothly worked stone, but the negative space of these sculptures is an invitation just as much as it is some kind of leak, and maintenance of a porous membrane is precisely the greatest challenge for those interested in allowing politics to remain sensible to their bodies.
Of course Hepworth meant her holes to invite touch, and the most hopeful image from Smith’s novel is that of winter as a carapace, a place and time in which it becomes possible to find things touching. In 1917, German architect Bruno Taut sought to give the Alps their “artistic form” in a book about a utopian city called Alpine Architecture. Taut claimed the lasting deepest imprint of the Ice Age on human development was aesthetic. In his essay “Origin of a Sense of Beauty in the Ice,” German filmmaker Alexander Kluge explains that Taut thought the deprivation of this era sharpened human powers of discernment, and the memories of this cold was sealed into the human hearts that survived it. “There, according to Bruno Taut, it is often mistaken for the sense of beauty.”
Winter is a meditation on the stakes of these powers, the costs endured by those who retain it, and the losses suffered by those who don’t. It is difficult to remain discerning and attentive. My instinctive reaction to my teenage uncle’s assured palette and loyalty to his parents’ activist legacy was derisive – “Wouldn’t it be nice if a rainbow appeared and birds flew and everything was watercolor? What an idiot,” I sneered. Smith’s method of overlaying powerful political forces with the minutiae of personal and familial life encourages reexamination of moments like this, because it’s not always obvious that dismissals can be rooted in disappointment and the fatigue of caring. My frustration came at the end of an incredibly deadly year for environmental activists. I had just read Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of Nuclear Disaster, and the news on the radio that morning was of the President Donald Trump’s tweeted threat of nuclear war with North Korea. But how does one remain sensitive? Perhaps, as Winter seems to suggest, there is value in revisiting the mythic power of vulnerability, which is in the end, a very old take on the Christmas story.