The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice by Greil Marcus. Farrar Straus Giroux $25.00. 322 pages.
Greil Marcus' latest excursion down the backroads of American culture tackles an interesting premise: America is a land of prophets, religious and secular, not just foretellers of doom (although there are plenty of those) but seers and wisemen and artists, articulating the rift between the promise and reality of American life.
Promise is the key word for Marcus, as the idea of America as noble and blessed is less a fact than an ideal against which it judges itself. John Winthrop, addressing (presumably) the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1632, saw America as a New Jerusalem led by a benevolent but angry God -- a "citty upon a Hill," and "if we shall deale falsely with our god" then God will "withdraw his present help." That sense would linger 230 years later, as President Lincoln watches a country devoted to liberty and justice rip itself apart over slavery. "In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God," he wrote. "Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time." In another century, speaking from the Washington Monument, Martin Luther King, Jr. would remind America that it "has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked `Insufficient Funds."
The disconnection between the two -- the America that promises liberty and justice and the America that denies it -- is, for Marcus, both the country's identity and its story. "Since Lincoln," he writes, " the drama in which the country judges itself, what it really is, what it is for, measures the promise by its betrayal and the betrayal by its promise, has been played out most intensely in art."
In his former post at Rolling Stone, Marcus was among the first to lead rock criticism out of the Dark Ages, to say it's okay to take the music way too seriously, much in the way James Agee and Otis Fergusun did with film criticism in the 1930s. As a cultural critic, he always goes after the big mural; film, music, literature and the daily news, connecting the specific, the temporary, the totally-unthought-of with the general and the eternal. In his influential and often brilliant Lipstick Traces, he connected the dots between punk music and rebel art movements throughout history, from Dada and Surrealism in the 1920s and 1930s to the Lettrists and Situationists in France in the 1950s and 1960s. He's also written extensively on Bob Dylan, particularly in his book Invisible Republic, which positioned Dylan and the Band's The Basement Tapes as a reflection of what he has famously dubbed "that old, weird America" that comes burbling up through the history of the blues.
In fact, I don't think he's ever gotten Dylan's music out of his head. Like Dylan, he has an obsessive love of his own voice, sometimes seems to be wandering through the pea-soup-thick fog of his own thoughts, cross-pollinates between the most far-flung allusions and literary references, and often makes weird, wonderful sense. He makes a persuasive and, so far as I can tell, original argument that John Dos Passos' USA trilogy prefigures Philip Roth's 1990s literary trilogy -- American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain -- all of which he sees as broad canvases about American re-invention.
He is, also, as intense and imaginative film critic: he can hear volumes of intent in phrasing, excavate great lost cities of meaning in the pause between words or the passing glance or the hint of a smile. David Lynch's actors in particular give him a lot to work with. Bill Pullman in Lost Highway, playing a man who may or may not have killed his wife, has a face "so ordinary, so forgettable ... that if anything it has stood for a country that has no need to recognize itself." Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, as the late Laura Palmer, raped and murdered by her own father, looks like America, too, a country "where promises are made for the pleasure to be found in betrayal, where it is only the betrayal of a promise that proves the promise was worth making, where innocence is killed because it is an affront to the rhythms of the nation's story and cannot be tolerated."
Marcus can get so wrapped-up in his own thoughts or blow-by-long-winded-blow analyses that he can leave the reader in the dust; I'm still not exactly sure what he sees in bands like Pere Ubu or Bikini Kill, but maybe that's me. His theory as a whole gains an accumulating, aggressive power. It becomes a prophecy all its own.