Smith’s Contradictions As Seen Through Bakhtin

Patti Smith is well understood with a focus on duality and contradiction. It is fruitless to try and understand her solely as a modernist-influenced poet, a neo-romantic rocker, an anti-feminist gender-bender, or a musician of and for the masses, etc. She is all of these things, true enough, but it doesn’t even take a second glance at that list to realize that those terms stand in stark contradiction to one another. Perhaps the most obvious instance of this is her explicit and longstanding admiration of Arthur Rimbaud, a man she refers to as “compatriot, kin and even secret love”. How can a rock musician who idolizes and extols modernist writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud (artistic elitists with a well-documented hatred of the stupid “masses”) also be a champion of the people, a performer who depends on these same “masses” for her livelihood? How can a woman who, in no uncertain terms, claimed“ I ain’t no women’s lib chick” be the same one who “speculated on a new definition of ‘female’, redefining women’s subservient position in rock. Variously, she projected herself as lesbian, androgyne, martyr, priestess, female God”, inspiring countless number of future female musicians and performers? How can she claim, with an extreme amount of arrogant sincerity that “ I’m outside of society.  I’m an artist…I don’t give a shit” and, in the same interview claim that the power of her performance comes in part from her ability to “submit” to the audience? She has by turns “indulged in pretentious notions” as well as “stripping pretension from the form, humanizing it”. Either Patti Smith should be diagnosed a confirmed schizophrenic or there is something else entirely going on here.  One way of understanding the presence of such contradictory aspects is to concede that Patti Smith, as an autodidact, notoriously misappropriates the (largely male and modernist) sources of her ideas toward art. Another way of making sense of it though is to take such contradictory aspects at face value, to let them both exist, and then to see what effect this has, both in the context of Smith’s work and in its later cultural impact. Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of polyphony, although rooted in literary analysis, is nonetheless helpful for understanding what affect this presence and, more importantly, interplay of contradictory elements achieves in reality. Bakhtin defined the polyphonic novel as one that “repositions the idea of the novel, its truth, within multiple and various consciousnesses rather than a single consciousness” . This idea of a unified but multiply-influenced truth is again stated in Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics: “It is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousnesses, one that cannot in principle be fitted into the bounds of a single consciousness, one that is born at a point of contact among various consciousnesses”  Such an interplay produces a “dialogic relationship” which, when understood and embraced, produces an openness to learning and benefiting from difference. It is not, of course, to be assumed that Patti Smith has had any such theory in mind throughout her career. Any consciousness or intentionality on her part does not concern me. What does however is the cultural effect that the presentation of contradictory statements and actions has had. What this achieves and how it achieves is much more interesting to me than why Smith seemed to contradict herself at every turn. This lens of duality is essential for studying Smith. Her dual nature is the main thing makes her so singular and unique within rock culture and part of what has contributed to her lasting cultural impact. She must be studied as a whole with a special focus on what affect her contradictions have had. Over the course of her career, Smith has “toyed with several different personas and images, which are sometimes hard to separate”, as Joe Tarr puts it in The Words and Music of Patti Smith. What I want to emphasize, however, is that while it is necessary to acknowledge the existence of these different personas, it is not necessary to separate them. Both in practice and in effect, her contradictions and Patti Smith herself cannot “be fitted into the bounds of a single consciousness” but must be understood as the sum total of “various consciousnesses” in interaction and relationship with one another. The best way to understand this totality is to look at the instances and cultural effects of Patti Smith’s contradictions.


One thought on “Smith’s Contradictions As Seen Through Bakhtin

  1. When Smith concedes that she submits to the masses through her song lyrics, I think what she is trying to vocalize is that although she is “outside of society…an artist,” perhaps more intellectually/creatively capable than the general public, she shares the same human emotions as anyone else. In other words, we all operate from the same origin- our humanity.

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