In defence of Patti Smith: a rebuttal to Ian Penman in the LRB

Ian Penman’s tiresome review of Patti Smith’s book M-Train in the London Review of Books ends with this withering paragraph:

“Smith’s wish-upon-a-star bohemia is all in her head, or up on her bookshelves. It doesn’t, it couldn’t, exist out in the workaday world: the rents are too high, and social media is too quick to smother the first tender shoots of difference. The likes of Harry Smith, Robert Frank or Sun Ra (or indeed 1970s Smith herself) wouldn’t stand a chance of a slowly nurtured career in the New York of today. M Train is fixated with the mourning process one case at a time, but there is surely cause for a wider social mourning that Smith doesn’t begin to voice or articulate. She was 15 in 1961, and her airy worldview is anchored in that time: it’s a mix of cool beatnik empathy, early rock’n’roll hysteria and (still) the idea of those supernaturally funky folks on, uh, the dark side of town. (Don’t get me started on her rap about how she learned to dance with all the funky ‘spades’.) T.S. Eliot once said of Baudelaire that he was ‘in some ways far in advance of the point of view of his own time, and yet was very much of it, very largely partook of its limited merits, faults and fashions’. Virginia Woolf said of another great street philosopher, Thomas de Quincey: ‘He shed over everything the lustre and the amenity of his own dreaming pondering absent-mindedness.’ So it is with Patti Smith: you just have to take the rough with the smooth. She is great at reminding us all of our own youthful dreams; it’s just a whole lot tougher to make them coincide with reality these days than she suggests.”

Penman seems to think there is a moral failure in an artist describing an inner world that butts heads with the consumerist culture of our times. As if it is somehow pollyannaish, quaint and childish. The subtext of his review seems to be that an artist should agree with reality (whatever that is supposed to be), that an artist has a duty to get in line with the times.

What Penman has seems to miss however, is that Patti Smith’s art has always been an attempt to fight the prevailing nihilism which she witnessed growing around her in the early seventies. The idealism of the sixties turned into a commodity, and we are still living in the shadows of that glorious revolution. Like all revolutions it has its “year zero” and that could be said to be 1977.

Penman’s career began around this time, and he describes his disappointment at realising that far from being the goddess of punk nihilism that he and his contemporaries yearned for, Patti Smith had all along been a devotee of the “Electric Church” spirituality of the hippies, and the “typewriter-is-a-holy-cock” sacredness of the Beat poets.

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Ian Penman’s attempt to burst the boho bubble of Patti Smith and her fans reveals the dangers of the punk conceit: that meaningless is safer and more reliable than any notion of the sacred

The punk aesthetic immediately assumes that iconoclasm is more “authentic” than a sacred image. That tearing down heroes is more truthful and honest than venerating one’s elders. The punk conceit is that believing in nothing is more grounded in truth than holding the world to a set of ideals that may not yet exist.

If this attitude had prevailed throughout history, we would not have the speeches of Pericles, the Buddha’s eightfold path, the Italian Renaissance, the American constitution, the British reform acts or rights for women.

That the 20th century disillusioned us of the dignity of man can’t be doubted. But the eventual recourse of punk was to abandon any belief in human goodness, in the hope of coming to some basic therapeutic peace with the tragedies of war, genocide and totalitarianism that haunted the post-war generations.

The punk conceit is that hope is the cause of misery, because hope is almost always disappointed. Far better to face the selfishness and degradation of human beings, than it is to believe oneself or anyone else capable of rising above the “nasty, brutish and short”.

While presenting itself as the world-weary wisdom of plain-speaking, puritan individuality, the punk conceit of people like Penman actually betrays a Soviet-style ready deference to the prevailing chaos of the times. Rather than admit that it is in fact individuals that create history, the likes of Penman prefer to see these forces as faceless, inevitable and always bent on destruction and meaninglessness.

That is why a book like M-Train is such an affront to what became of the punk movement. It is a movement that we are still living in the shadows of. Freedom becomes chaos, emancipation becomes selfishness, and the only defence against toxic ideology becomes nihilistic cynicism.

Could there be any better breeding ground for consumerism than the anti-ideology of the punk conceit?

Could mass corporations who want to illicit thoughtless responses in their “target markets” hope for a more pliable, perfectly formed audience than the post-marxist nihilistic millennial, who believes any amount of idealism and hope is a sign of a weak will?

Rather than being the picture of a woman living in the clouds, M-Train is a witty journey into the joyful eccentricities of a lonely hippy. Some of the book’s strengths are the stories that seem to fall away without ending, the mini-disasters and foibles that give this book its human texture.

Whereas Just Kids did seem to depict an idillic bohemian love story – one that hipsters long to imitate in their Shoreditch flats and overpriced Brooklyn bedsits – M-Train actually gives you the picture a woman whose domestic rituals and habits of everyday worship are the mark of true defiance.

Ian Penman needs to put down the post-structuralist theory books and go and read some William Blake. At certain points in history, when industry, war and inequality turn human beings into willing machines, the most powerful form of rebellion is the pastoral or the sacred.

At times, Penman’s review simply contradicts itself. He chides Smith for claiming to be “of the people” when in fact she has supposedly long been a high living rock star, detached from ordinary people (like Ian Penman) in her own personal Abbotsford of bohemia. Later, however, Penman mocks Smith for being a devoted mother in Michigan daring to have dreams of Jean Genet and Baudelaire. Which is it that he dislikes the most? The dreamy, wannabe Symbolist poet of downtown Manhattan? Or the wannabe mother peeling potatoes in Detroit?

What really seems to bother Penman is Smith’s catholic tendency to worship and praise. His distaste for Patti’s follow-up albums to Horses, Easter and Radio Ethiopia probably exists because they rely on religious imagery, homage and worship.

Yes, Ian, she did grow up catholic, and far from being a contradiction to her rock and roll claims, Smith’s religious tendency could be viewed as her greatest contribution to the form. Following on from her Beat mentors, Smith’s brand of rebellion shuns riotous icon defacing, for the more imaginative, empowering and truly threatening art of relighting the votive flame of individual consciousness.

M-Train begins where Just Kids left off – and it is all the better book for it. In M-Train, Smith reveals how she maintains her optimism and relish in human life, even in the face of random acts of meaningless destruction like Superstorm Sandy, or a horrible, humiliating vomiting spree in Mexico. She shows how she maintains her sweetness in the face of bullies and cynics, and how that sweetness usually wins out.

But above all M-Train is a book about everything that punk rock could have been, had it not given way to the cocky nihilism that Ian Penman seems to prize so much. It is a book about how one individual can live life as they see fit, not as the world tells them they should. How the small, habitual details of our lives can become political weapons in the hands of a writer in command of her craft.

True rebellion, and therefore the true life of an artist, is the ability to harness one’s individual peculiarities to make a general statement about human life. The stubborn bohemianism of Patti Smith is not an anachronistic delusion. Rather it is a testament to the prosaic defiance of living your life your own way, of being exactly who you are, without compromise.

The strange and sinister truth behind the fetish for Penman-esque nihilism, is that it seems to affirm individual intelligence while promoting compliance to faceless social forces. Therein lies the big threat of Patti Smith’s humble but dangerous little book.

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