There’s something mesmerizing about Patti Smith’s narrative style in her memoir, Just Kids, which won the National Book Award this year.  I’m caught, I think, by her silence. 


The book covers her development into adulthood from the time she decides, in her twenties, to live with her lover and soulmate, Robert Mapplethorpe.  They set out to be great artists one day, in the wild atmosphere of the era, surrounded by their heroes like Andy Warhol and Janis Joplin.  But they go about it very differently. 

Smith tends to be silent. Or she watches the world around her with a sort of wide-eyed expectancy and a reluctance to impose her own voice too soon.  She respects what she sees and is also oddly unflappable, like a child who takes life in but feels little emotion.  As she waits for her own artistic style to emerge, she’s willing to try whatever’s at hand—painting, collaborating with a theater when they ask her to—without a need to name herself “painter” or “writer.”  For Smith has the sense that experience will probably, at some point, congeal.  Her silence seems to represent a reluctance to speak-over the intelligent world that’s unfolding.


Mapplethorpe is a beautiful man and brilliant, and a bull in contrast.  From his early teens, he names himself a visual artist who’s destined for fame.  And while Smith subjects herself to daytime jobs at bookstores and to other activities that might waste her time but could inform her in unexpected ways, Mapplethorpe refuses to spend time on anything that does not explicitly relate to his visual art.  He names his ambitions loudly.


The different ways in which those lovers moved to their fates make me think of two ways in which artists can be.  I think of Smith as the artist of emersion.  The artist of emersion is someone who’s unlikely to quickly analyze things around her; it takes her a while to identify herself as distinctly one thing or the other.  In contrast, Mapplethorpe would be the artist of self-determination.  He’s at home when he’s planning a life course from the inside, out.  He feels some pressure to identify his talents early, and to compare himself to others.  He orients himself in the world that way.  An artist of self-determination like Mapplethorpe tries to peek into his future by making comparisons and so changes his tactics accordingly.  The artist of emersion is, perhaps, more comfortable with chance, with spontaneity and with self-expression that comes out without being named “art” at all.  The artist of self-determination is more likely than the artist of emersion to keep to one predetermined work schedule, to trust in his conscious will to kick his sometimes-reluctant body to the top.


I’m not sure what would determine why different people would work in these two different ways.  It can’t be all about confidence: Lots of people who are shy to say, “I am a writer,” lack the confidence to do so, but lots of people who spend all day declaring “I am a writer!” are also doing it because they don’t feel secure or loved when they are not making those bold declarations.  Maybe the difference has more to do with trust or lack of trust in your own conscious thinking.  Some people (self-determiners) trust that the individual must consciously form his own experience; other people (emersion types) trust that the outside world has its own intelligent or powerful sway.  They might be called the “imposer” versus the “absorber.”


For the outside, it might seem that emersion types are more flexible, more open to working in different media and listening to different voices.  Maybe the self-determiner comes off as more arrogant or pretentious.  Perhaps the emersion type looks like she has less need for public praise, as if her process is as important to her as her product is. 


You can probably tell from this post—from my need to name two distinct types—that I’m a self-determiner who would love to get more in touch with her emersion side.  Yes and yes.  The emersion type seems to have a lightness in her.  I love the image with which Patti Smith opens her book.  She’s very young, walking with her mother past a beautiful bird she doesn’t know the name for.  Patti’s mother says it’s a “swan,” and Patti doesn’t think a word captures the feeling that that creature gives her.  “The sight of [the bird] generated an urge I had no words for,” she writes, “a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beat of its wings.”  She has “a desire…to say something” but does not want to designate the thing as a “swan.”  She has an experience without yet knowing the words that adults use; she feels something light, swift, and still, and wants to dwell there before words congeal the feeling into something more like life’s long planning.  She enjoys an instinct not yet congealed into words.  And, intermittently, we self-determiners have a desire to fly to that spot, too.


Have you read Just Kids?  Does this dichotomy make sense to you?


Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.

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by on ‎12-03-2010 06:47 PM

No, and yes.  These words are new to me - Emersion/self-determiner.  You want to define, and find an answer, but I don't think there is a hard edged one.  I think I know where I land in this one, today.  But, with every decade, this seems to change. 


Maybe childhood mostly predetermines that need.  I don't know.  I constantly see the word 'patience' popping into my mind.  I've drilled that word into my head from the days when I would  take on responsibilities, and sometimes fail.  I've failed at some of these things out of impatience in myself, and in others.....and from that "failure", I decided it was less hazardous to my sensitive-self to stand back a little ways from the flack. 


I've handled failure, but I prefer it in small doses.   If I do what I want to do [without ripping and tearing, going forward at full speed, unconcerned with the world around me], I usually will be handed what I want, eventually.  It's always a surprise to me, how I end up where I am, because my focus has been elsewhere, on the process.  It's obvious I'm a process person. 


There are a lot of things that happen to us, that can regulate our processes.  It can be scary when unforeseen roadblocks come up.  In this way, I definately don't like surprises.  I get handed enough of those!  How each of us gets from point A to point B, and still be standing to tell about deeper than the average bear....Yogi would have something to say about this, I bet! 

by on ‎12-03-2010 09:14 PM

I sometimes hate reading over my posts. I seem so general in the words I use.  So vague.  I'm not specific, not defined......Maybe I expect people to read between the lines, make up whatever they want it to say...apply these words to themselves, if they can, or can't.


Living in such a way, I would suppose, that would go against the grain of someone who lives for a purpose each day.  I have no desire for fame or much recognition.  My purposes seem to be on a daily basis.  I make very few plans.  Some weeks are full, some not.  I tire easily when I'm not in a good mood.  I get bored easily with people.


The question is....from point A to point do you change, from one to the other?  My answer would be, I don't want to.  At least, not today.

by on ‎12-05-2010 06:41 PM

Trying to find some info on this subject -  doesn't exist for an 'emersion-self' or personality...

Maybe the following would work for 'self-determiner'.  (Can't get the 'insert link' to work...)

Happy reading.


Towards a Sbstantive Theory of Rights...James Griffin

by on ‎12-07-2010 11:33 AM

Not really sure what this Substantive Theory of Rights was all about.  Theories are always rather like clouds,  you see them as solid, but you can pass your hand right through them.  And that's what I'm going to do....pass my hand through it....


I was thinking on this theory, and wondering how you can apply it to these two types of character analysis.......sort of an exaggerated thought......


What if a child was allowed to dress however they liked, wear their hair however they pleased, did whatever they felt like doing? 


What if a child was told what to wear, how to look, what to do, every minute of every day?


Encouragement vs discouragement?


Would there be a substantial difference in these personalities, to mark one as "emersion", and the other as "self-determiner"?  Would the sex of the child have much influence on these two characters?  How much would each parent influence a male child, or a female child?  Are expectations to excel an influence?  And if it is, how much of that expectation is self-inflicted?  Or, the lack of expectations?


When my oldest daughter was a child, I once told her she could do anything she wanted, be anything she wanted, and she took it as if I were saying, I didn't care about her.  What I should have said was, she was capable of achieving whatever she set her mind to, and I would be proud of her, and love her, no matter what she decided to do with her life.  It's interesting how children hear/interpret what you say.  Our words go into their small minds, and come out nothing like what was intended.


Well, I'm again not sure if this has anything to do with anything.....except to say that development is precarious, to say the least.

by on ‎12-09-2010 10:05 AM


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