You know the famous story about Freud and Einstein? Freud writes to Einstein, sending him one of his books and asking for his opinion of it. Einstein writes back, saying he enjoyed the book very much, that he thought it was outstanding, exemplary even, but that, alas, he was in no position to judge its scientific merits. To which Freud replied, if Einstein couldn’t judge its scientific merits, then the book could hardly be judged exemplary. About this, Freud, as in a number of other things, was gloriously and absolutely wrong.
Greil Marcus is no scientist, but we shouldn’t hold that against him. Books like Mystery Train (1975), Lipstick Traces (1989) and Invisible Republic (1997) are all undoubtedly brilliant, though sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly how or why or what on earth they’re being brilliant at or about. Mystery Train is ostensibly about rock n’ roll, Lipstick Traces about punk rock, Invisible Republic about Bob Dylan, but Marcus blends his music criticism with sociology and anthropology and psychology, film studies and literary criticism to produce a sickly-sweet, thesaurus-rich kind of a brew that leaves you both baffled and exhilarated. His method he neatly summarised way back in Mystery Train, explaining that he was not ‘capable of mulling over Elvis without thinking about Herman Melville’ (some people, it should be said, are not capable of mulling over Greil Marcus without thinking about the Emperor’s new clothes). He is a jive-talking one-man Cultural Studies department.
Most cultural criticism is of course a wretched sort of a thing — embarrassing, obfuscating scholasticism. Practitioners who make it interesting and worthwhile — one thinks perhaps of the hilarious hyperactive Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek — are those who take it to its most absurd and amusing limits, without fear of ridicule. Marcus, like Slavoj Zizek, doesn’t so much write as throw stuff around the page, to see what sticks. Texts and ideas and phrases come unexpectedly together, seeking meaning in and among themselves. The resulting tumult is sometimes enlightening, sometimes just a mess.
The Shape of Things to Come is unusual among Marcus’s work in that it possesses a clear, striking central argument: ‘America,’ he writes, ‘is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion, crime and liberation, lynch mobs and escapes; its greater testaments are made of portents and warnings, Biblical allusions that lose all their certainties in American air’. This invented and scripted nature of America, he claims, is what constitutes its appeal and its vulnerability, and as the American story is retold and its dreams and promises betrayed and undermined, so the great American drama continues. The Shape of Things to Come is an attempt to describe the ways in which American artists and writers have responded not to the American Dream, but to the nightmare.
Thus he writes about Philip Roth, and David Lynch, and an all-girl punk band called Heavens to Betsy, leaning heavily on the insights of D. H. Lawrence throughout, the Lawrence who claimed, ‘At the bottom of the American soul was always a dark suspense.’ It’s Marcus’s usual bravura writing, which like the subjects he chooses is busy inventing itself, making itself into whatever it wishes to be. He does detailed textual analysis of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on 28 August 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; he does long, involved plot summaries of television shows; and he does an analysis of the works of Philip Roth which manages to be both wildly hyperbolic and deadly accurate: ‘In terms of ambition the task Roth set himself might be comparable, as a plain statement of purpose, only to the totalistic remaking of America announced in November 1994 by Congressman and soon-to-be Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on the occasion of the routing of the Democ ratic majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate by a new, morally rearmed Republican army.’
Naturally, he overreaches. Describing a song by the band Pere Ubu, he dubs it ‘the Rosetta stone scribbled in crayon on a supermarket bag’. Nope. This is a book which shares absolutely the characteristics of the phenomenon it describes — ambitious, disturbing, a terrible grievance.