Saints and Artists

Paul Ford posted a great piece on the death of Elliott Smith that is all the more timely given the impending release of that Sylvia Plath film. If I ever teach Plath — not likely, but she’s all over the 20th century American lit anthologies — I might teach Ford’s essay alongside her. Talking about that mysterious relationship between the artist and her audience is tough; it’s even tougher when that connection is forged, at least in part, by some recognition of shared misery. I don’t deny the power of Plath’s or Smith’s poetry, but I worry when they (or others like them) are transformed into romantic heroes because of suicide. Ford goes a long way in confronting the dynamics of this experience:

No story can reconnect the artist to what the artist created. But we believe one can and write biographies accordingly. Thus, the title of the Elliott Smith biography will be “Figure 8,” or “Miss Misery’s Groom,” and it will detail drug abuse, terrible acts, violences, punctuated by in-studio redemption. Everything about Smith, including anecdotes from his friends, indicated that he lived hard and left a trail of pain and shit along with his songs. So his life will become a tale full of cautions and insight about the tragedy of genius, and become the beatification of a rock saint. . . .

For the audience, is it that our heroes are monstrish with their skin peeled away, their flaws shown, and their work is thus tainted, our pleasure diminished? Or maybe worse, that they are great in spite of their normalcy, in spite of their mundane, selfish, uglinesses, and when we witness their weakness we, also weak, are put on the hook ourselves, and must acknowledge that these flawed, wife-beating drunks, these lunatic head-in-the-oven suicides, these otherwise useless men and women, were capable of greatness, of dipping their hands into history and altering the flow, while we mill about our cubicles and curse our boredom?

Grieving does nothing for the dead. We grieve for ourselves, for what we can no longer have. Elliott Smith got exactly what he wanted, and we can give and take nothing else from the man. Because it provided a sense of approval and connection, Smith’s old concerts can now be remembered as sacred events. But what a failure of the imagination: all moments are equally rare, whether someone is playing a guitar or not, whether Smith is alive or dead. Those on the message boards who are grateful they saw him perform live are fully vested in the lie that somehow the story, the man, and the experience of the music are all bound together, that the aggregate pleasure of thousands can be summed up into one living soul, one ex-addict with a beating heart, and now his entirely solitary act—seppuku without the second—can be seen as some kind of communion, a concluding act to his oeuvre of bitter depression. A pair of round cracked eyeglasses on an album cover, and a ticket stub from 1998. A bit of cloth dipped in his blood, a fragment of the true cross. It’s all about
the easy way out
for you,
I suppose.