Patti Smith Is Some Messed Up Kind of Saint

Perhaps what Smith's Devotion teaches us most easily is the virtue of hubris.

It’s completely unfair to compare Patti Smith’s new book, Devotion, to her previous two, Just Kids and M Train. Just Kids and M Train are memoirs. While Devotion purports to be non-fiction, it’s not strictly speaking a memoir. Devotion is actually the title of a short story, which takes up most of the scant hundred pages in this book. It opens and closes with Smith’s reflection on how the short story of “Devotion” came to be written. What we really have is the first piece of fiction by Smith, and her accompanying thoughts on how it was made. She knows there’s no great secret to this work: “I push aside my computer and cast a ruling upon the uneven plaster ceiling: we pillage, we embrace, we know not” (6). Yet it is still the greatest of mysteries, how writers transcend to their writing space: “I linger, content to be with the ghosts of writers who have passed into this same perimeter” (14).

In the short fiction of Devotion, she sometimes inserts a cliché. Smith knows when she’s inserting clichés and favors them because of her profound love of detective stories. In detective stories, you can always find clichés because the truth is that often times it’s enough to say “the man sat down in the chair”. We don’t always need to know what kind of man nor do we need to know what kind of chair, or how he sat. At other times, the telling detail is a more psychological one that paints no proper image at all: “He was a solitary man, in his late thirties, of unusual control, hardy and virile, yet uniquely sensitive, having already negotiated the spectrum of academics, risk, art, and excess” (45). This is likewise an apt description of Smith, though she is twice as old as her character.

Sometimes it’s enough to know it was a dark and stormy night. Great American literature is riddled with dark and stormy nights, so why shouldn’t Smith take advantage of those same telling, clichéd psychological details? Her story, “Devotion”, contains: a promising ice skater, the aforementioned mysterious man, a frozen lake, a small cabin in the woods, some trains and passports, and a good deal of feeling. Feelings include: surprise, gratitude, lust, and a death wish. Smith is telling it her way, but also in the ancient way. It’s recognizable to readers for its mythic proportion, accessible to all kinds of people for its brevity and intensity — and yet, it’s still distinctly Patti Smith. 

Of her effort to write about writing, we might say that Smith ends up saying what a lot of writers who write about writing might say: that it is a calling, that it is done out of necessity, that it aims to improve the world, that it aims to show the best of its author, that it’s hard, that it’s joyous, that it’s under the influence of everything in the author’s life, and that it’s an influence on everything in the author’s life.

Smith is some messed up kind of a saint. On the one hand, she is shrouded in the darkness of Gotham, hard boiled and sharp shooting. She loves her trains and her camera and her coffee. On the other hand, she glides along the clouds of lapsed Catholicism, Innocent and ethereal. I’m uncertain about whether we should refer to her as lapsed. Because the fact is Smith seems both closer to herself and to her God than most mere mortals. Her influences are so clear, so near: “Initially I wondered what prompted me to write such an obscure, unhappy tale. I did not wish to dissect with a surgeon pen, but as I reread I was struck by how many passing reflections and occurrences had inspired or permeated it. Even the most insignificant reference I saw clearly as if highlighted” (24).

There’s a dash of Paul Auster about her: “Theirs was a story that could not resolve, only unravel. […] One that turned in on itself, leaving only a transparency. […] When does it cease to be something beautiful, a faithful aspect of the heart, to become off-center, slightly off the axis, and then hurled into an obsessional void?” (59). There’s a spoonful of Walter Benjamin: “Most often the alchemy that produces a poem or a work of fiction is hidden within the work itself, if not embedded in the coiling ridges of the mind. […] I can examine how, but not why, I wrote what I did, or why I had so perversely deviated from my original path. Can one, tracking and successfully collaring a criminal, truly comprehend the criminal mind? Can we truly separate the how and the why?” (27-28). And there is the spirit of Edna St. Vincent Millay: “We must write, engaging in a myriad of struggles, as of breaking in a willful foal. We must write, but not without consistent effort and a measure of sacrifice: to channel the future, to revisit childhood, and to rein in the follies and horrors of the imagination for a pulsating race of readers” (87).

In Devotion in particular, Smith repeatedly returns to those tensions of paradox found in a more flattened form in Camus: “She experienced in horror the potential bliss of unrequited desire. […] They were at once dogs and gods” (69). One of her characters is reading The Myth of Sisyphus and has a violent reaction that expresses Smith’s admiration for the human predicament: “The text posed a philosophic examination of the question of suicide — Is life worth living? He had written in the margin that perhaps there existed a deeper question – Am I worthy of living? Five words that shook her entire being” (73). A psychological cliché is no more or less than a symptom of the human condition.

Perhaps what Devotion teaches us most easily is the virtue of hubris: “But slowly I discerned a familiar shift in my concentration. That compulsion that prohibits me from completely surrendering to a work of art, drawing me from the halls of a favored museum to my own drafting table. […] That is the decisive power of a singular work: a call to action. And I, time and again, am overcome with the hubris to believe I can answer that call” (92). It’s hubris to write a short story in answer to the call in one’s heart. It’s hubris moreover to analyze one’s own short story for signs of the writerly. Of course, as the critic, to comment on her commentary about her own story is a feat that takes place at a dizzying distance. In our human folly, we realize we have hardly any choice — for the world is right there around us, and how dare we not respond to it?

We write because we respond because we dare because we dream: “What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exists” (93). The writer steers the wheel when she can: “Fate has a hand but is not the hand. I was looking for something and found something else, the trailer of a film. Moved by a sonorous though alien voice, words poured” (27). And we must imagine that she is happy. Isn’t this what Camus taught us?

Pushing the rock up the hill is a writer’s work: “Having no past we have only present and future. We would all like to believe that we came from nowhere but ourselves, every gesture is our own. But then we find we belong to the history and fate of a long line of beings that also may have wished to be free” (74). Readers of any writer may recognize a certain rock or a particular hill, but Devotion is the certain rock and particular hill that belongs to Patti Smith. Devotion is at its root an expression of ownership of the rock and hill that comprises any life: “That is my final conclusion, one that is absolutely meaningless” (28). Hers is an existential glory served straight up, no chaser.

She believes she is doing God’s work, and the question of any agreement about her Catholicism notwithstanding, I’m inclined to approve simply by echoing Smith’s gratitude toward her own influences: “One could not help but thank the gods for apportioning Camus with a righteous and judicious pen” (91).

RATING 9 / 10