Being an artist is not what makes you a special kind of person. Being a special kind of person is what makes you a great artist. One of those traits I believe every exceptional artist has is being able to experience a certain kind of love. A kind of love that makes you understand rather than just see. The Impossible Love Story between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe is a perfect example of that. They were more than lovers, they were more than friends and they were more than just kids. What they had just was. Unlabelled, but if anything: love.
“What will happen to us?” I asked.
“There will always be us,” he said. (145)
As you may know, Patti Smith married someone else in the end and Robert Mapplethorpe turned out to be gay. But still they had this very special connection until death did them part, literally. All this time they loved each other in some way or another, always being them. How does this work? What does it mean? And why am I so interested in this? Why am I sitting here writing about a romantic relationship – again?! – when there are so many other interesting aspects of Just Kids that I would like to talk about as well?
Because this love is different. Because it is the essence of what I think love really means. Because this is what I believe art is made of. Just look at those photographs. You can see it, right?
So for now, let’s focus on this special kind of unconventional love, shall we?
The opposite of star-crossed…
As anything considering Patti Smith, this relationship came to be by a strange whim of fate. There is so much chance involved in their becoming companions that it seems like quite an ordinary love story. You see, if this story was fictional, you would probably consider it preposterous. What makes it so magical is its realness, its really-having-happened-like-this:
A young Patti Smith landed in Manhattan with no money left in her pockets, planning to stay with friends. When she got there, her friends had moved to another place though. At this moment of helplessness she met a fair-skinned youth with a mob of black hair and a boyish grin who led her to the new address. It wasn’t until weeks later that she met him again in the bookstore where she worked. He bought a necklace, which was her favourite as well. On their third chance encounter she asked him to pretend to be her boyfriend to get her out of a threatening situation with an older man. They spent the whole evening and the whole night together, telling each other childhood stories and realizing that they made their commitments to becoming artists the very same day.
I understood that in this small space of time we had mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust. (…) Wordlessly we absorbed the thoughts of one another and just as dawn broke fell asleep in each other’s arms. When we awoke he greeted me with his crooked smile, and I knew he was my knight. As if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together (…). Nothing was spoken; it was just mutually understood. (40-42)
Sure, it was fate leading them to one another but it was themselves deciding to stay together intuitively instead of overthinking it too much. Could you imagine two millenials just staying together naturally after a one-night-stand without all those should-I-text-hims and why-isn’t-she-answerings? Because I honestly cannot. I am afraid my generation lacks certain tendencies towards romance. Thank God for stories like Just Kids where you see people embracing their connection rather than running from it. Let’s reintroduce this kind of romance!
This romantic one-night-stand soon became a vibrant companionship that went far beyond the usual fling you see between two twenty-year-olds still in search of themselves. They were there for each other, taking care of one another, providing what they needed to live, to create, to be, even if that meant setting aside their own needs from time to time. Their relationship worked so well only because they could trust each other not to be selfish and to give back when their time came.
The premise was simply that one of us always had to be vigilant, the designated protector. (…) In the beginning I faltered, and he was always there with an embrace or words of encouragement, coercing me to get out of myself and into my work. Yet he also knew that I would not fail if he needed me to be the strong one. (51)
What started out as a lifeline soon turned into a guarantee for creative productivity. Patti and Robert were like Yin and Yang, one constantly balancing out the other, light vs. darkness, movement vs. stillness, chaos vs. order…
Robert would come to my side of the loft and scold me. Without his arranging hand, I lived in a state of heightened chaos. (152)
Smiled upon by fate, but unfortunate nonetheless
During their time together they shared better moments and worse and eventually became their rescue, over and over again. Yes, there was also pain, there was betrayal and even resent at times. However, one could always trust in the other to be there, if need be. Their affection for each other was so genuine, the intensity of their relationship so electrifying that nothing could destroy it, not even breaking up and getting back together and breaking up again and spending half a lifetime in different relationships.
The energy between us was so intense that it seemed to atomize the room, manifesting an incandescence that was our own. (267)
At some point, Robert discovered his homosexuality, which did not mean he loved Patti any less. Something had to change, though. They both struggled with this in different ways but in the end they found each other again in this unconventional kind of love.
His drives towards men were consuming but I never felt loved any less. It wasn’t easy for him to sever our physical ties, I knew that. Robert and I still kept our vow. Neither would leave the other. I never saw him through the lens of his sexuality. My picture of him remained intact. He was the artist of my life. (157)
Patti knew, no… she felt that love had many faces. She understood that love does not have to live up to anyone’s expectations, that love is not either this or that, it just is. And most importantly: It exists deep within ourselves and only if you listen carefully, you will be able to silence those expectations.
They silenced these voices that wanted to tell them that how they felt could not be right. What Patti and Robert heard within themselves might have sounded like “this man betrayed you with another man, so be hurt and leave him” or “you cannot be with this woman if you crave another man’s love” or “you cannot love a man who leaves night after night to earn money from hustling.”
Oh and here is another one that you might have even heard yourself: “You cannot have sex with your friends.” You might also have heard “it’s not love, if there are not a thousand sparks at every touch” or “ban it from your life if it doesn’t make you feel good all the time” or “you may get hurt, so better cut it off before something happens.” You see, I could go on like this forever.
My point is: Patti did not give in to those voices and neither did Robert. Although Robert seemed to struggle more with his demons than Patti did, they managed to stay close until he died – and probably even beyond. For them, it never ended. Their relationship was less sexual or not even physical at all when they settled down in partnerships with other people, but it never really ended.
Even though so much time had passed, we were as we had always been, breathlessly finishing one another’s sentences. (266)
They were not meant to be the loves of their lives in the more popular sense of being a married couple. What they were destined for, however, was being the artists of their lives and I think this is probably more than anyone could wish for.
Why is an Impossible Love Story something you should strive for?
It makes you step way out of your comfort zone and later turns into a comfort zone itself. It has the power to simultaneously make you feel euphoric and melancholic. It might bring out the best and the worst in you. It definitely makes you vulnerable but also stronger. It lets you discover new perspectives of the world and yourself. It will show you who you are.
But be careful: it is not this kind of relationship that you should strive for, rather than the kind of love that lies beneath it.
Why do we break ships (relationships, partnerships, friendships, you name it) just because things get a little complicated from time to time? When did we become so caught up in ourselves that we stopped taking in other people? Avoiding those who make you feel things you do not understand only prevents you from growing. Especially if you want to create something meaningful this ability to love unconventionally is essential. If you really want to be a great artist and an even better human, do not venture out to find a lover like Robert. Instead, look within yourself for the ability to love like Patti.
Now let me tell you one last thing: This is just a tiny fragment of what Just Kids means to me and there is so much more that you could learn from Patti Smith. Take your time to read this book carefully and listen to what it has to tell you personally because trust me, it will speak to you in its very own way.
I am definitely going to bother you with more posts about Just Kids, but until then let’s connect via Instagram: Send me your DM’s or leave me a comment, I appreciate the love as much as the critics. <3
Side note – English is not my native language so please excuse any mistakes or even better: Point them out to me so I can correct them 😉