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The Violence of the Impossible: Patti Smith’s Blakean Conversations

By Richard Marshall.

Patti Smith in Conversation with Geoff Dyer (organised by IQ2).
All pictures by Michael Eleftheriades.

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William Blake drew a boundary around his occult enterprise. The scientist Newton was used as the contrasting line. This use of Newton was partly propaganda as Newton was an occultist too. Blake drew him as a submerged geometrician that occluded this. Thus the distinction between art and science was a sharp-line drawing of something more unfocused than that in reality.

The boundary between an individual and her environment is sometimes unclear. Patti Smith grew up as a Blakean Beat punk New Yorker. Her environment was Coltraine jazz. It became Richard Hell’s Television. Blake, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Hendrix, Burroughs, Dylan et al who seethed their mercurial presences throughout a mystical Chelsea Hotel potage. Seeing her now, she’s taken this environment inside her. Does the Beat in her maintain that an environment is always unique for each individual? Only up to a point, because she makes points of contact with others as sharers of the same environment. ‘Environment’ is used to pick up a uniform field for cooperation, comparison and contrast.

Doing so allows for unexplained mysteries that the poet writes to. Poets have a hard time being heard in our times. This is partly because anti-occult science is thought to explain everything. But the simple broadening of the scope of ‘environment’ undermines the possibility of scientific explanations of everything. Poetry takes delight in the embarrassment of science in this respect. This is Blake’s attitude to Newtonian science. Smith traces herself in a direct Blakean lineage.

Science responds by denying that anything serious hinges on poetic reality. Philosophers like Craig Callender think poets and metaphysicians have lost track of science. He thinks the embarrassment is on the other foot. Mereology is the metaphysics about the relationship of wholes to parts. If I make a fist with my hand, does this bring a new object into the world? Callender thinks this is not of interest to science. Others disagree. If it matters how many things there are in the universe, deciding the mereological question matters. Callender denies that the question is more than trivial because folk-concepts like ‘things’ haven’t been used in science since cave men.

But if ‘environment’ is scoped to allow for general facts, then science is unable to explain them. Other specific facts will also be beyond the ken of science, facts such as particular events in an individual’s life, including the time of their birth and death. The philosopher Jonathan Schaffer wants science to take mereological issues as serious science. So Smith disagrees with both Callender and Schaffer. She doesn’t think everything can be understood by science. She tells her stories in the Blakean tradition that knows that our individual facts, and the generalities about them, are for the artist.

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So poetry is not translating science into a different idiom. Smith knows that there are many things about being human that science can’t know. The existential object, the phenomenological impulse of her sensibility, doesn’t lose track of science because it isn’t trying to stay on track in the first place. Her dispute with science is other than disputes with science from within science. Reichenbach thought that many disputes within science were merely notational. For example, he didn’t think the dispute between proponents of curved space-time and non-curved space-time amounted to anything more than a different way of talking about the same facts. Metaphysical realists like Jonathan Schaffer disagree and think metaphysical speculation about things like the existence of the fourth dimension and mereological issues are about the possibility of different facts. But Smith believes that disputes between science and poetry are genuine because she thinks there can’t be a metaphysical equivalence between the claims of art and those of science. I say all this by way of introducing the idea that on the rainy night at the Royal geographical Society in London it was a poet we were listening to.

Smith is worried about lying stories about her because she fears that a pseudo Smith, a false Patti is being conjured up. She accuses Victor Bockris’s biography of doing this. It is a book that gets too far away from the truth. She spoke vehemently against the book’s distortions. Idols are facsimiles of live beings. An idol is soulless. Cynthia Ozick thinks an idol has four characteristics. It is indifferent to others and the world. It always relies on a precursor predating its worshipper. It cannot imagine history. It is pitiless. This last characteristic is the source of the second commandment in the Bible. Idol makers are exposed when they are asked to bring them to life. Bockris is accused in these terms. Talking about the artists and musicians of her early New York period, she stressed the spirits motivating them, the creativity and lust for life and the fullness of them. The pressure was poetry and creativity, not glamour and fame. Smith’s fine concern is to ensure her poetry, music, stories and life are not created idols but rather are capable of the life.

Part of the Beat mythology is that of the journey. Sometimes this might be connected up to eschatologies and Biblical talk of the Fall and redemption. By travelling through and travelling on, the poet changes, and the process is mysterious. Other times luck is seen as a controlling agent of this movement, sometimes taking the form of fate. Biology can’t account for luck. Luck and fate have been downgraded since the Enlightenment because science is uninterested. Astrology, for example, doesn’t elicit the same discussion as quantum mechanics and its use of chance and probability. There, probability is substituted for knowledge. Calculations are rigorously mathematical. The laws of chance are exposed and well understood. But in art, fate is not a matter of calculated probability. Lady Luck is a dark goddess that can be fearful, the character Coleridge knew in his dreams. She is occult inspiration.

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Is Smith lucky? There’s a sense of her being so when she talks about being lucky to be growing up when and where she did. There’s no false pride in her. When asked about fame, she not only says it makes her inarticulate but as she expresses the thought words genuinely fail her. She is close to embarrassment about her own success, but rightly proud of what she has done and what she is doing. Her lovely modesty records a sense of dependence in her occult dream forces.

The inarticulacy about her fame suggests that she has a righteous blindspot about this subject. Just Kids, her book about Mapplethorpe, ends before she becomes famous. We gather in a vast number to listen to her talk. She is famous. But we see her, not her fame. Her fame is not an object in its own right. This is why Bockris is given short shrift. Just as the point of a dagger is not an object, her fame is not an object either. Bockris’s lies and distortions treat fame as an object, but it is merely a feature. A feature is parasitical and so denies reification. The MTV generation and the celebrity culture that now dominates Western culture mistakes the feature as the object and is sucked into fallacy.

Maybe we see Smith clearer now because of this change. What she is about, the poetic sensibility that Keats called a negative capability, became clear to everyone in the hall through its contrast to the dominant celebrity culture swirling around us. The complication of this is poetry’s — and by extension — Smith’s invisibility. This invisibility is due to absence. Removing herself, as all Blakeans do, from the sensible, the causal, the mechanical, the quanta, she takes form as a directly perceived absence. The great vortex of celebrity fame helps us pick out this absence. She is the hole of fame, visible through contrast.

Listening to her stories was like travelling down a railway track to a vanishing point. As we’ve just said, a point isn’t an object but a feature, and it’s invisible, and it’s absent. On top of this, as the philosopher Roy Sorenson has instructed us, the complication of the vanishing point is not just invisibility and its absence but also its indexicality. Sorenson says “it shifts as I move”. In his essay on “Literary technique and the Beat Generation,” Ginsberg writes, “A basic Buddhist idea from 150 A.D. is that ‘Form is no different from Emptiness. Emptiness no different from Form’. That formulation is one that Keats and all subtle poets might appreciate. The American poets Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Kerouac and Burroughs in their work do appeciate this ‘highest perfect wisdom,’ both in their own intuition and from their study of Prajnaparamita texts.”

Her stories to Dyer give direct treatments of her topics, a clear seeing attentiveness.’ Ezra Pound thought of poems as pictorial. His idea of poetry as hieroglyph would prove a corrective to “… the conceptual vagueness and sentimental abstraction of Western poetry,” an idea he developed in his essay, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” and linked to techniques used by Dante, Jules Laforgue, Tristan Corbière and Rimbaud. The idea of poetry as pictorial also links with Carlos Williams’ “No ideas but in things” and (in “Patterson”) “No ideas but in facts”. William James talked about “the solidity of specificity” and Kerouac, “Details are the life of prose”. Walt Whitman instructed us to “Bring the muse into the kitchen, Drag the muse into the kitchen? She’s there, installed amidst the kitchenware”.

Patti Smith talks so that we get a sense of the edges of her field of vision. Listening in, the question-and-answer format of the event framed the stories and asides. But the frame is invisible too. If we actually saw it, we would need a frame for that too. And then another to frame this second device. An infinite sequence threatens to overwhelm us. So her stories don’t reveal their narrative frame but reveal their absence. They showed us who she was. The stories about love and mourning, her fearlessness and courage, were inner limits to her expressibility. Sorenson points out that in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the vanishing point is the right eye of Jesus. But the vanishing point is not shaped like an eye. Smith’s autobiographical talk wasn’t a form of gossip but rather a Blakean revelation of self-identity. Smith was there and not there because her identity was the absence, invisibility and indexicality of her stories as she talked.

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We can speculate about the role of these autobiographical tropes that figure so large in the Beat/Blake/punk sensibility. This is sometimes thought of in terms of the nakedness of the confessional. But perhaps it is more an attempt to reduce down to minimal visibles. Minimal visibles are attempts to make sensible the least required in any perception. Minimal visibles are usually discussed in terms of actual physical seeing. But here we use it in a metaphorical, occult sense, where a mystic poetic eye may also have a smallest possible requirement. When poets and prophets capture the universe in a grain of sand they are using the idea of a minimum visible in an extended sense to change all our values, make the world new again, and turn it upside down. “You’ll find out when you reach the top, you’re at the bottom,” sings Dylan in “Idiot Wind”, transforming this idea into rhyme, and when in the same song he sings a rhyme buckling “Grand Coolie Damn” to the “Capitol” he is showing how the poet’s occult powers can, in a single rhyme, conjure visions of a whole sacred America.

Blake found wonders in contemporary discoveries of microscopic life. His contemporary George Berkeley held that, in terms of visual fields, the mite has the same minimal visible as a human. Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” has “To see a World in a Grain of Sand
/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/
And Eternity in an hour”. Dylan’s gospel song “Every Grain of Sand” picks up the Jesus of Matthew and Luke counting sparrows and hairs numbered which, according to Dylan in 1985 “was an inspired song that came to me”. Smith’s great friend the poet Ginsberg, who picked her up at a coffee bar thinking she was a beautiful boy, so cherished the Coolie Damn/Capitol line that Dylan invited him to join the Rolling Thunder Review tour of the seventies. William Carlos Wiliams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”, which Ginsberg calls “the totem modern poem” is the classic example of this directness, of Blake’s “Labor well the Minute Particulars, attend to the Little-ones”.

So Smith’s Blakean Personal Jesus reveals her canny awareness of minimum visuals used in the occult way to flesh out her representational minimals. If her autobiographical stories are maps, they are Mercator’s, incapable of completeness. The Royal Geographical Society room where she talked had the names of Mercator’s great explorers high up all round its walls. Geoff Dyer began the evening by linking Smith to them, making an explicit analogy between their geographical explorations and her poetic and artistic ones. These explorers proved the possibility of the globe and thus the impossibility of Mercator’s 2-D geometrical grid representation of its poles. His maps are hedged impossible objects.

What Smith does is become a presence that can still remain true to notions of the infinite occult requirements of being human. Leon Battisti Alberti pioneered grids to model perspective, possibly based on map-makers. Smith’s perspective models a solipsistic nerve, where the autobiographical is the constructing centre of the whole world, colliding and colluding with a base reality that simultaneously denies the egocentricity. It is the delicate balance of the Blakean artist who models her perceptiveness on ideas of the geometrical eye rather than the physical one.

The geometrical eye is understood in terms of frames. The vanishing point is its inner frame, its inner limit. It is connected to Wittgenstein’s discussion of death as something that is a frame. It lies outside experience like the edge of a visual field is itself not experienced. Her tender discussions of Mapplethorpe and her late husband suggested Wittgenstein’s explanation that “… Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. In the same way as our visual field is without boundary, our life is endless…”.

We asked earlier whether she is a lucky person. ‘Luck’ is poetic. For example, natural selection can’t operate on luck, even though some people are luckier than others when it comes to reproduction. The reason for this is that luck has got nothing to do with the intrinsic character of the individual. This is why Smith is interested in everything in her environment. She knows that the friends you make are the matter that will matter to you, but that they are not you. Relationships depend on many things, and luck is one of them. Chance meetings are centre stage in many of her stories. Fate, happenstance, the cards being shuffled randomly and out of her control. Fate keeps her humble. She talks about herself as someone having a lot of nerve and a lot of good luck. There’s always a great deal hanging on luck and it allows for the expansion of soul.

Good luck and bad luck are equally capricious. The meritocratic principles of the modern technocratic state are loosened by this view. Equality is transferred to a deeper level than the way things seem because inequalities are just about random fortune smiling only on some. The idea of justice is modified. If the poor person is just unlucky we owe her the same conferred dignity as the rich. The corroding idea of the ‘deserving poor’ is dismantled. Luck as an unprincipled, un-law-like force putting the way things will turn out beyond predictability supplements the belief in respecting the lowly. This links to Burroughs’s edict: “Be just and if you can’t be just, be arbitrary”.

Luck gives us an unpropitious condition for finding a simple stability of meaning, for any sort of guarantee. With luck you can’t bet on a guaranteed outcome. We listen in with the sense that her stories are transitory and that, as in Goethe’s Faust, “everything transitory is but a parable”. This links up with the Beat metaphor of the road that captures the transitory spirit as a spiritual journey. The journey, the road, the process rather than destination reached is also the metaphor of the poet and of the artistic imagination. Its prototype derives from Exodus, the journey from slavery into exile’s freedom. Kerouac thought of this in terms of pure feeling, “that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing… — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies” (On the Road).

The Beats propose travelling will result in acquiring new spirit properties. Their idea of travel often works in negatively reorientating relationships with parents, distant ancestors, a more generalised sense of an older generation. Beats walk away from their past, even away from time, and begin with their own hands on a personal mythology. “Behind us lay the whole of America and everything Dean and I had previously known about life, and life on the road. We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic” 
(On the Road, Part 4, Ch. 5). The journey is often recast in terms of liberation. Smith said she had vivid dreams and they were the basis of several songs. This reminded us that the metaphor of the road and its corollaries are also productively extended into dream metaphors. Smith reminded the audience of the strong spirits involved in her endeavors; I thought of Burroughs: “There couldn’t be a society of people who didn’t dream. They’d be dead in two weeks”.

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Smith didn’t talk about parents but talked about being a parent, about her children from her marriage to a much-loved late husband, and the absence of talk about her own parents and descendants strangely works the usual Beat trope backwards. She permitted a more conciliatory relationship with the past, and so in the absent figures of her parents she grounded herself in the prototypical process of travelling but in reverse, as if returning.

Always better at reconciling her constant movement with past traditions, the talk reminded us of Smith’s USA perspective. She contrasted the punks of New York with those of London. She recognised that The Clash and the Sex Pistols represented themselves as cauterizing agents, severing themselves from any past. John Cooper Clarke takes this kind of line, thinking of the severance in terms of a backlash against a “…rot… between 1968 and 1975 when the airwaves seemed to be clogged with the overmanned combos of cheese-cloth shirted bozos with names like Supertramp, John Hiseman’s Colosseum, Barclay James Harvest, Emerson Huntley and Palmer and Yes, to name but too many”. Cooper Clarke includes the New York scene as part of the origins of this. Cooper Clarke links the punk revolt origins to a four-man gang from Queens NYC called the Ramones that Smith reviewed around 1976. “The Ramones became a major force and wrote clever lyrics about moronic subjects, rather than the other way around. In an age where guys looked like Open University lecturers and even your uncle wore flares, The Ramones came in like a breath of fresh Carbona, inspiring Mark (Alternative TV) Perry from South London to launch Sniffin Glue. First of the fanzines it featured the more realistic rock scene. The Damned, The Stranglers, Eater, Venus and the Razorblades, Hammersmith Gorillas, Slaughter and the Dogs, the lot”. Cooper Clarke assumes all punks were slashing away from the past in a nihilist orgy.

Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces writes in a similar vein: “The Sex Pistols’ sound was irrational — as a sound , it seemed to make no sense at all, to make nothing, only to destroy, and this is why it was a new sound, and why it drew a line between itself and everything that came before it, just as Elvis Presley did in 1954 and the Beatles did in 1963, though nothing could be easier, or more impossible, than to erase those lines with a blur of footnotes”. Smith knocked around with the Pistols, but insisted it was the Clash that she saw first. Of course it is part of punk legend that Strummer was turned on to punk by the Pistols. “Yesterday I thought I was crud,” he would later say, “Then I saw the Sex Pistols, and I became King”.

But in answering Dyer’s question, Smith made explicit that she didn’t think the New York punks were interested in blasting away the past; saying that it was a scene much more happy to see continuity in its febrile energies than the crazies across the water. But my putting it like that is too crude. There is surely something in Marcus’s claim that “The question of ancestry in culture is spurious” because “Every new manifestation in culture rewrites the past, changes old maudits into new heroes, old heroes into those who should have never been born”. Marcus takes an activist approach to this process, claiming that “new actors scavenge the past for ancestors, because ancestry is legitimacy and novelty is doubt — but in all times forgotten actors emerge from the past not as ancestors but as familiars”.

Smith’s access to such familiars seemed less like a scavenging about and more like a supreme chaotic passion, beyond control, a wild listening to voices. When writing about Monday night readings at New York’s St Mark’s, Ginsberg writes about an audience tuning ancestoral links to the modern countercultural explosions: “Let’s say Robert Creeley comes and reads a special poem dedicated to Rene Ricard, or I read an epilogue to ‘Kaddish’ in the form of ‘White Shroud’, hearers know these texts resonate with old history, because everyone’s familiar with earlier texts and styles”. And here Patti Smith comes in. “In later years St Mark’s became a cradle for some higher rock’n'roll, New Wave, and performance language. Patti Smith, Jim Carrol, William Burroughs, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Phillip Glass, Steven Taylor — all were at one time either apprentice poets at St Mark’s or participated in year-round activities or performed occasional work… Interestingly enough, St Mark’s was only ten blocks away from CBGB’s, the bedraggled punk mecca of the early eighties”. According to Smith, it is continuity with the past that is the US punk theme; it’s just that it discovers a different, liberating past.

This is perhaps inevitable given her sensibility of a literary, poetic genealogy. It creates an enduringly odd relationship between herself and her audiences. She is many things simultaneously and they seem to contradict themselves. Her electric wildness is also a quintessence of backwoods earth fem. Her physicality is a compelling presence, touching and touched, but so is her unearthly spirituality that makes her seem to shimmer like a half-light ghost, always out of reach. And looking round on the night it was interesting to see her audience is dominated by women. The sometimes forbidding maleness of Beat sensibility is recast by Smith into something oddly tougher and more attractive.

Things can happen that are not constrained by the speed of light when they don’t depend on a signal being sent. Her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe instantaneously changed her. Trivially, this happens all the time if you think, like Cambridge philosophers McTaggert and Russell did, that an object changes whenever some new statement about it becomes true. But the instantaneous changes in Smith were not trivial changes. Mapplethorpe changed her in important ways. At the moment of meeting, and through to his death, she became many things as a result. No signal needed to be sent, for these things were true merely on account of the relationship. External inheritance is not a causal event. It is therefore something science rightly is indifferent about. The philosopher Peter Geach is motivated by science’s indifference in his dismissal of Russell and McTaggert’s view. We dismiss Geach back.

We can imagine now a different universe because of Smith, one that we hear at the end of the evening when she pulls out a guitar she claims she is hardly proficient with and sings: “In my Blakean year such a woeful schism/ Pain of our existence was not as I envisioned/ Boots that trudged from track to track worn down to the sole/ One road is paved in gold, one road is just a road”. This is where we meet, full-on, what she is. Her voice pursues both deep space and rounded volume and then conjures a flattened-out alternative. Her voice is at times an angular Russian icon, a tender cheek-to-cheek embrace of impossible thin closeness, a simple overlap of plane-point vowels. But then the oily power-depth of her timbre breaks through the flattened-out surfaces, giving every phrase a joy that creates the impossible bite of her voice, both thin and fat.

Tom Lubbock writes about the Bruegel the Elder painting The Strife of Lent with Shrovetide as containing the equivalent of an impossible object. There he notes forms drawn as both voluminous and flat. A starving figure bites a fat friar during carnival. The friar’s face is both fat and thin. “Its near, unbitten side is solidly chubby flesh. But the bitten side, within that narrow bite, is given a shallow, rim-like shading around the cheek and jowl, to make it as flat as a pancake.”

It’s not only the act of someone eating another’s face that gets to you. This sudden jump from solid to flat, within the same object, is a piece of violence itself.’ The violence of the impossible is what is so moving about her performing voice.

This weird violence in Smith takes up the idea of carnival. Carnival comes from ‘carne vale’ meaning ‘goodbye meat’. Modern literary theories have made much of the carnivalesque as revolution, as turning the world upside down. The punk transformations of the seventies have been analysed by some as such an event, notably in Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus, although Stewart Home warns against taking his approach too seriously. My interest is the way that Smith’s voice presents a logical contradiction, a simultaneous fatness and thinness, that should require that it doesn’t really exist.

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But she is singing to us. So surely the voice is possible. Therefore the analysis of the voice as logically impossible is defective. A truly logically impossible voice couldn’t be sung. But perhaps we should listen to Smith’s voice as a voice reporting the belief in the existence of an impossible voice. Here the mystical significance of Blake’s poetics, and the way the Beats and Rimbaud suggest voices from elsewhere, as records of occult sounds and understandings that break through into the physical world from elsewhere, bears down on what is heard. It picks up the old traditions of the artist as seer, prophet or shaman. It is also an East Coast Puritan weirdness that Smith’s voice emerges out of, and the disturbances can creep fearfully out of existential terror. Melville in Moby Dick writes: “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright”.

It reverberates ideas expressed by the other East Coast weirds, such as Poe and HP Lovecraft who in his story “The Call of Cthulhu” writes that “The most merciful thing in the world…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far”. But, of course, Lovecraft’s version turns the energies into horrors, which would mischaracterize the life-lust that is a big spark leaping a gap, a detonator of zesty explosions when these atmospheres are applied to Smith.

Yet she is one of the Blakean poets cast as receivers of occult worlds and words embodying a daemonic crisis, a crisis of the sort Yeats writes about in the piece “At Stratford-on-Avon: Ideas of Good and Evil”, when considering the myths of the Greeks. He writes: “… myths are the activities of the Daemons, and that the Daemons shape our characters and our lives. I have often had the fancy that there is some one myth for every man, which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all he did and thought”. Ted Hughes wrote of Shakespeare’s obsession with the Goddess of Complete Being in these terms, and it’s a rich tradition.

All this reminds us that Smith has a bifurcated image, one of crazy fem poet as well as wild punk. An example is given in a Mark Perry Sniffin’ Glue review of her album Radio Ethiopia where he makes explicit the distinction between poet and band; “Whatever the meaning of any song on the album it’s still a goodie. Touches of heavy-metal, pop, reggae, sci-fi and of course — punk! The real thing I get from this is the feeling of the band, as a whole. The thoughts of listening to a crazed NYC poet are gone, they’re now a killer punk-band — probably the best in NYC” (my italics). And now, in 2011, she talks out and it’s the poet again who is talking and then singing.

But it is not as simple as either/or of course. Hughes writes in his vast book on the Goddess of Complete Being that “The sinister peculiarity of Aphrodite is that, like Inanna before her, she has a ‘double’ in the Underworld, who shares with her the dying and resurrected god. In effect, the two goddesses are the two poles of the one Great Goddess. In Tiamat they were united. In every epiphany of the Goddess the two aspects are present — one latent behind the other. In the foreground they appear to be two, and opposites, but in the background they are one”. The conversation placed her in her own background, giving an appearance of a unified complex of everything.

Werner Herzog’s film The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner is a film about answerability to God that portrays the same mystical complexity. Herzog wrote a final statement for that film; “I ought to be all alone in the world. Just me Steiner, and no other living thing. No sun, no culture. Myself, naked on a high rock…. Then at least I wouldn’t be afraid”. Steiner was a Swiss world ski-flying champion at the same time as Smith was making her New York scene in the mid-seventies. The mystical, strange quality of the film’s scenes, often captured in slow-motion shots accompanied by weird music by Popl Vuh, creates meanings that can’t be captured, an elusive euphoria that extends into the limits of human existence. Smith’s voice has this same compelling and disturbing power as Herzog’s visionary filmmaking. Smith’s background modesty and humility conveyed the raw sadness in her memories of her late husband without sentimentality and with strange, uncanny powers.

Geoff Dyer had the hardest job of the evening. He was ultra cool, asking questions that were trim and doubling, capable of provoking just enough traction to encourage Smith’s good-natured and beguiling interest. Afterwards, she stood by the stage and was surrounded by excited, slightly awed fans picking up signed copies. I joined them but just watched her and then left.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 5th, 2011.