Patti Smith's Incantatory Worldliness
by Nicholas Gamso
One irony in the turn to authoritarian governments in the West is that liberalism — democracy’s duplicitous ideology, decried by the hard right and radical left alike — has again assumed a transgressive aesthetic appeal. So undemocratic is our politics that any gesture of benevolent inclusion seems worth a second glance. Even Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize.
Dylan’s conflation of politics and aesthetics has been for a long time part of a general framework for processing the anguish, and indeed the adventure, of worldly injustice. He emerged from a period of turmoil to become both an icon and an industry (in both cases only partially of his own making, and something he apparently regrets). Dylan over the years wrote beautiful words, but he has attained worldly largess only because his message was minimized. He achieved success by reducing justice from a philosophical problem to a stylish evocation of eternal truth and universal beauty — exactly the kind of non-ideas that have saturated liberal culture and politics in America throughout my life, and which those of us who study transnational cultures in a critical register are by now practiced in decrying.
Scholars have watched this banalization occur not only in Dylan, who us elsewhere castigated as a “sellout,” but among others of his generation, which was quickly and thoughtlessly absorbed by the cynicism of the century’s (neoliberal) end. This may sound like a familiar Marxist riposte: claims of good will, humanitarianism, compassion — or what the popular Tibetan Rinpoche Chogyam Trungpa called “idiot compassion,” associated with condescension and neurosis — are weak gestures, solipsistic, and not reflexive, accounts of structural injustice or oppression. And many counter-cultural icons, in evoking such sentiments, become moral adjuncts to the nefarious but affirmative projects of the west. Dylan’s performance of “Chimes of Freedom” at the 1993 inauguration of Bill Clinton, and a series of subsequent attachments to the sanitized wing of the American left, suggested as much, and so, indeed, does the prize.
To Dylan himself, this role bas come about as an accident of fame, unintended and unwanted. When the prize was announced Dylan stayed silent, even while critics rushed to ridicule him, envisaging his appearance, in a white tie and tuxedo, to accept yet another accolade. His work would lose whatever edge it had left, some suggested, accommodating the largest public one could imagine.
The feeling of liberal déjà vu had everything to do with the Nobel’s constant efforts, in the words of the literary critic Pascale Casanova, to “develop explicit standards of universality.” The prize has for a century sustained itself by promoting a small coterie of prominent writers whose work reflected regional aspirations to a modern, shapeless globality. Prizes have been awarded writers who evoked “a continent’s destiny and dreams” (in the case of the Pablo Neruda) or who illustrated the “clash and interlacing of cultures” (in the case of Orhan Pamuk).
Dylan, too, was cast in this way. He “created new poetic expressions with the great American song tradition,” and for this reason deserved the accolade. His worldliness came through an officialdom of global culture, in other words, but he gave shape to the world through his mastery of the American idiom.
Of course, Dylan was already highly venerable and “global” in the traditional formulations. The poetry of his early work — a form that comes as much from the British and Scotch lyrical traditions as the abject lamentations of American working life — was richly diverse in origins and intentions. The Academy’s gesture of divine inclusion was unnecessary. It was, in fact, a kind of debasement of the work’s inherency, just as Dylan’s rise to fame and associations with US politics was similarly debasing. One could not help but feel that the whole situation — like Obama’s 2008 Nobel Peace prize — had sullied both the prize and the man.
Perhaps this is why Dylan decided not to attend the ceremony, citing “pre-existing commitments.”
When Patti Smith arrived to accept the prize instead, I took note. Smith means something much more to me — which is not to say that she has more value, but that as a window to posterity she has shown me far more than most living writers. Her writings on Rimbaud and Blake, on Robert Mapplethorpe, are pleasures of an intimate scale, even as they are connected to vast histories of literature and photography. Moreover, Smith’s indecision between poetry, photography, music, and memoir has shown her to be a richly problematic figuration of literary alchemy and ambivalence. Only recently did she win the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids and become a figure of interest in old and venerable literary communities.
Smith recognized that what was to be salvaged of Dylan was less his persona than the simplicity of his songwriting. This was reflected in her choice to sing his 1963 dirge “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” a primitive ballad full of cryptic experiential images: “I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans / I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,” read the lines, which are delivered to a “darling young one,” a “blue eyed son.”
With its torrent of metaphors, the song pretends to existential dread. Though it was written at the apex of the cold war’s reckless “humanitarianism” — coinciding with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the nearing threat of nuclear apocalypse — it bore in and of itself no explicit referents to that historical moment. It was timely, but not topical, and, though it was based on the border ballad “Lord Randall,” was highly, fearsomely modern.
As Smith sang the words, she appeared a disused vessel, ruined by the trauma of modernity. Her eyes were in a squint, her collar, a prairie preacher’s, was plain. She looked as though she was in mourning. The election, she admitted later, accounted for some of this affect. So did a memory: Dylan’s song was the favorite of Smith’s husband, the musician Fred Smith, who died in 1994.
Overcome with emotion, Smith faltered as she sang, forgot the words. The music stopped and she apologized — “I’m sorry, can we restart that section, I apologize, I’m sorry, I’m so nervous” — before the crowd erupted in supportive applause. She started singing again.
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
Smith closed her eyes, shook her head. She keened the words as Dylan would. Her tone, its glaring imperfections, sounded from the hot smoulder of worldly violence.
When she finished, the ovation was long and thunderous. It was a moment of sublimity that drew tears — maybe one of the only such moments of performative anguish and reciprocal love that has ever occurred during that august ceremony in Stockholm.
I make this point in light of the many works by contemporary critics of world literature who have tried to identify such forms of value. To some of these critics, the Nobel prize is an object of global literary culture that provides a legible infrastructure of attitudes and transnational concerns. Others, fatigued by the weight of the global scale, have asked us to pay no attention to the prize, and look instead to vernacular cultures and “embedded” epistemologies — which are perhaps more genuine and assuredly more interesting ways to interpret transnational writing. Emily Apter, for example, has lamented the globalizing technologies of translation and conglomerated publishing; the Nobel and its attachments to the market are cast, here, as antagonists to local literary culture and wellsprings for homogenized bourgeois globality. What Apter proposes instead, a kind of breakdown in the process of a work’s transmission, is characteristic of Smith’s performance.
Smith, an outsider, had the task of representing another outsider whose discomfort with institutional finality was suggested by his own absence. Her relative smallness — not as an artist, but as a literary figure — was on full display. She was after all so very nervous.
Yet she was welcomed in ways that were both wholesome and strange. The dialogics of her performance, which brought the space into a kind of “sensory community,” were in this way destabilizing and, in their moment, deeply worrisome. The audience, sensing the anxiety, expressed love for Smith the outsider and thus offered a new frame for assessing Dylan lyrics.
As she completed the song, she brought attention to each word and phrase as it emerged into the room, as if spoken for the very first time. This gave the lyrics a startling clarity and, in this way, illuminated the complimentary difference between reading and speaking, or between literature and performance, a difference of which Dylan himself made explicit note; In a letter that was read aloud before the Nobel banquet, he wrote, “not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’” Playwriting and lyric poetry, he said, are not strictly novelistic or discursive, but are relational and performative, collaborative and in this way also, rather inherently, of the world.
This observation is of course a way to help us better understand the ways literature is worldly, what it can do, how it becomes an object of attachment and affiliation, the very substance of relationality.
The great critic of literature and music Edward Said offers an explanation for this kind of relational worldliness in his influential tract The World, the Text, and the Critic. The world, he says, lives in the attachments of an art work, its viscosity, the commentary, the talk it generates, how it responds, sometimes in advance, to this commentary. Such talk is likely to concern a stylistic crisis over the place of a work, or an idea, between players — a crisis over the roles of author and reader or over the unwanted but basically unavoidable reciprocity of these roles. Said illustrates this crisis by describing the idiosyncrasies of the classical pianist Glenn Gould, who admitted in an interview that he had stopped performing live concerts because he could no longer contain a kind of relational energy. Gould — the most eminent player of Baroque piano, whose interpretation of counterpoint was, in Said’s words, “almost visual” — found himself distorting certain moments in a Bach partita, bending the tone, delaying his delivery, “so that he could more effectively ‘catch’ and address his listeners in the eighth balcony.” Gould could not go on performing public recitals, so strong and so illicit was his desire to let the work live, incorrectly, in the relational space of a concert hall. His gestures had to be suppressed because of their imperfection, the threat of failure, the ways they arrested the time and transformed the space, of high art.
Smith’s momentary failure was much the same, I think, in so far as it demonstrated the fragility and the necessity of the dynamic relation between a work and its reception, an artist and her public. So, as a kind of situationist tactic, was Dylan’s controversial decision to play an electric guitar at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Indeed, Smith was channeling a whole history of relational art practices, many of which appeared around that time, the 1960s, and others of which had long brewed in the space between literature, music, and theater. Her performance was an incantation, as Antonin Artaud advised, a call for us to no longer “observe our acts and lose ourselves in consideration of their imagined form” but instead to be “impelled by their force.”
The force here illuminated the prize’s worldly context, turning overbearing questions of the evening — why Dylan? and why Trump? — against each other in an absurd confrontation. Smith was situated at this interface in its arrogant, indeed violent surreality. She dared to reveal this violence amid the contrived solemnity expected of any one who crosses that stage. And she did so magnificently, as the words left her and came back again.
“I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me,” Smith wrote later, “I was simply unable to draw them out. This strange phenomenon did not diminish or pass but stayed cruelly with me.” The cruelty was, indeed, disorienting. Yet it resonated so broadly and majestically that a politics seemed implied.
As I suggested at the start, I am aware of the dangers of an implied (especially universal) politics. And I admit that this scene served, because of these politics, as parody of the liberal enlightenment and its outsized, not to say ridiculous, failures. This is perhaps why the performance carried such weight. It was a compliment both to Dylan’s apparent ambivalence over the prize and to the frightening exigencies of the moment.
Many of us find the condition of our world staggering. Despite the illusions of progress, ours is a world that has not changed much, not sufficiently, in the years between 1963 and 2017. My own anxiety over the state of the world was crippling, remains crippling, in the aftermath of the presidential election. So dreadful is the specter of the future, so glaring is the reemergence of fascism and the horrible, pointless evocation of White America. The realization that these circumstances are not new, but have always been at the center of liberal society, is crippling, too
It was this fearful reality, and not only, I think, the despondency of the winter ahead, that Smith’s performance brought to light. She gave it the force of a unique and haunting expression, and did so as the words escaped her. In short, she excavated something from Dylan’s work, made its language doubly, newly an object of the world.
 Chogyam Trungpa, Collected Works, 538-539.
 Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, Cambridge: Harvard, 2004, 148.
 “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1971,” Swedish Academy; “The Nobel Prize in Literature 2006,” Swedish Academy, October 12, 2006.
 “Bob Dylan has decided not to come to Stockholm,” Swedish Academy, November 16, 2016.
 Rebecca Walkowitz, Cosmopolitan Style, New York: Columbia UP, 2006,
 See Apter on “oneworldedness,” Against World Literature, London: Verso, 2013, 17-20.
 Jacques Ranciere’s term. See “Communism: From Aactuality to Inactuality,” in Dissensus: On Aesthetics and Politics, edited by Steven Corcoran, London: Continuum, 2010.
 Bob Dylan, “Banquet Speech,” December 10, 2016.
 Edward Said, The World the Text and the Critic, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.
 Ibid, 31-33.
 Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double, New York: Grove, 1954, 8; see, on other such movements, Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells, London: Verso, 2013).
 Patti Smith, “How does it feel?,” New Yorker, December 14, 2006.