Like both of her celebrated and startling memoirs, Patti Smith’s new book pursues the meaning of art through death as much as through life. Unlike Just Kids and M Train, though, Devotion far more overtly murmurs answers that are fundamentally acts of faith.
Mystery, transcendence, providential coincidence yielding a sense of Plan that lets us bear chaos as the existential norm, are all familiars of her vocabulary as poet laureate of punk. Yet ever since Smith, in the immortal words of her fellow New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen, “ripped this holy night” with an early 1970s genre-birthing concert at St. Mark’s Church, her stance toward formalized faith has been a lover’s defiantly wavering detachment.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” she famously breaks off negotiations in the opening line of “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo” on her first album Horses.
Her follow up album was called Easter. It was no cover for mere ironic cleverness, which she evidently detests. All these years later, clearly comfortable in her skin as undisputed title-holder for the Unquestionably Coolest 70-year-old On the Planet, she offers us Devotion.
“The ancient Greeks dreamed of their gods. Emily Brontë of the moors. And Christ? Perhaps he did not dream, yet knew all there was to dream, every combination, until the end of time,” she writes early on.
It strikes the reader’s eye as something overheard from the lips of between speculative conversationalists as we pass them on our way out of a café, leaving us seized with the temptation to run back to their table and ask for more such words including, if it’s not too disruptive, something like a fuller explanation. Devotion does, in fact, give us a great deal more. Smith, sharing the wisdom figure’s gracious good humour that makes everyone fall in love with her, gives us the fuller explanation as disruption.
Prime evidence of such disruption is Devotion itself. Launched this week in New York City, it is formally part of Yale University’s Why I Write series. Its surface purpose is to explore and explain the creative process in general, and Smith’s personal literary workarounds in particular. Smith just doesn’t do surface.
What she does instead is what she wants to do, which is what she’s inspired to do. Inspiration, for Smith, is a portmanteau of the “activist mystic” Simone Weil’s gifted discovery that “faith is the experience that the intellect is enlightened by love.” The way wine contains water, Weil’s words contain Smith’s description of the tumultuous working relationship with producer John Cale on the recording sessions that would ultimately become Horses. “Inspiration doesn't always have to be someone sending me half a dozen American Beauty roses,” she has said. “There's a lotta inspiration going on between the murderer and the victim. And (Cale) had me so nuts I wound up doing this nine-minute cut that transcended anything I ever did before.”
Fittingly then, she rejects the approach of conventional Paris Review style questions and answers about why writers write. Instead, she transcends her required task of explaining writing by leaving her apartment in New York and alighting in Paris itself. From there, she soon sets off for the small French Mediterranean city of Séte. On the journey, the inspiration for Devotion arises.
She travels south by train, falls asleep, and has a dream, later sourced from a television program she’d earlier chanced on, that provides her with the substance of a long short story called “Devotion.” But the story “Devotion” is only part of Devotion. It is a demonstration that shows, rather than tells, why writers write and, indeed, why artists create.
Synoptically, “Devotion” unveils the parable of a young Estonian refugee named Eugenia who devotes her life to skating in brilliant circles on a frozen pond in an isolated forest. As spring arrives, she pounds the ice with a rock out of fury for its need to melt.
A stranger who encounters her sees her as a “petite Simone Weil” and proceeds to befriend her, rape her, enrich her, and make her a captive of the heart. The ensuing Faustian bargain is more tacit than negotiated. Still, Eugenia, renamed Philadelphia – i.e.,“Freedom” – must ultimately murder her captor-lover to escape and return to the forest, to the pond of ice, to the brilliant circles cut with the blades of her skates.
Bracketing the story, creating a triptych, are passages that are less didactic explanations from Smith than her inspired thoughts on the continuous pilgrimage of preparation for the writing life.
At its most straightforward, Smith says, the task of writing is to compose work that communicates, parable-like, on multiple levels, all vigilantly protected from the stain of cleverness. Beneath that surface onus, she says, lies the writer’s dream of producing sentences that are better than the self, that atone for personal trials and indiscretions, and that prove the existence of God.
But something lies still further below.
“Why do I write?” Smith writes. “My finger, a stylus, traces the question in the blank air. A familiar riddle posed since youth, withdrawing from play, comrades and the valley of love, a beat outside.
“Why do we write? A chorus erupts.
“Because we cannot simply live.”
No, we cannot. Yet we must, simply must, die. Here, Devotion becomes a deep delve into writing (art) as an end of life, yes, but, infinitely more importantly, as something like an answer to the seemingly implacable conundrum of the unavoidable reality of the artist’s inevitable non-existence.
At the risk of looking backwards through a telescope and what is as what has always been, it seems justifiable to regard Smith’s own life and work as preparation and pilgrimage to provide just such an answer. In 2010, Just Kids examined intensely the facets of life and the facts of death about her long ago lover and creative comrade-in-arms, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989. Five years later, M Train tendered glorious witness to the spirit of her musician husband Fred “Sonic” Smith who died of heart failure in 1994 after lengthy illness. Few of her contemporaries in music or in literature have touched the bourn of human frailty more directly or painfully, more bravely or beautifully.
Because of Smith’s profound experience of grief that gives way to the intellect enlightened by love, it would be understandable if her Devotion argued for art as pure memento mori. If we must create because we cannot endure life as simply life, is it not enough that art is seen as the purest way to fill the world with the artist’s leave-behinds, legacies, residues? Yet nothing in the 93 pages of Devotion hints that she would ever make such an argument, much less stand idly by while art is buried in the shallow grave of posthumous vanity.
Instead, winding path pilgrim that Smith is, she passes through the streets of Paris, “a city that one can read without a map.” She photographs Voltaire’s statue in the square Honoré-Champion. She pulls up a pew at Jean-Paul Sartre’s Café de Flore hangout to have a plate of ham and eggs. She listens to a boys’ choir in Saint-Germain and feels “a familiar desire to receive the body of Christ” but limits herself to lighting a candle for the parents of children killed in the November 2015 massacre at the city’s Bataclan nightclub.
She leaves Paris for Aix-en-Provence where she plumbs the mysteries of Albert Camus’ writing room. The final leg of her journey takes her across the Chanel to London in search of Simone Weil’s grave.
Weil, Jewish by birth and Catholic by sensibility though never a convert, was one of the finest French philosophical minds of the interwar generation. She was 34 when she starved herself to death in a British hospital in 1943 out of solidarity for the suffering of the Second World War. Smith comes to make her homage to Weil, and is dropped off a cemetery gate before she realizes she hasn’t a clue where to find the burial plot. She goes in circles, seeking.
“I walked up and down paths, somewhat daunted. The light was low. Only noon, yet more like sundown. I took a few photographs. An embedded cross. An ivy crusted tomb….It continued to rain….I found many likenesses of Mary, but no trace of Simone.”
Demoralized, holding small bits of lavender she has brought from Séte to mark Weil’s love of France, she sits alone and entreats her late brother Todd to help her search. The day happened to be his birthday. He had a daughter named Simone. There is a sense of his hand guiding her to a small wooded area.
“I stopped. I could smell the earth. There were larks and sparrows, a small shaft of light that appeared, then disappeared. I turned my head with no exalted pause and found her, in all her modest grace.”
Smith makes an act of art. She photographs the grave with the old bellows camera she carries everywhere. She follows the art with an act of faith.
“As I knelt to place the small bundle beneath her name, words formed, tumbling like a nursery song. I felt helplessly at peace. The rain dissipated. My shoes were muddied. There was an absence of light, but not of love.”
No, never an absence of love, for love is the enlightenment of the intellect to the experience of faith. It is, as Patti Smith herself shows time and again, the murmured answer to the mystery of why writers write, musicians play, painters paint, dancers dance. It is the source of the dreams from which art arises, the dreams that Christ, who conquered death, knows completely, every combination, until the end of time.
Another name for it is freedom. And by another still, it is called devotion.
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