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A Wonderful Kind of Mess:
GREIL MARCUS: An online exclusive interview

An online exclusive interview

The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


Saturday, December 09, 2006

By Kathryn Knight

The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, Greil Marcus’s latest book, demands to be put down. And picked up. And put down. And picked up. I had to force myself to read on not because the writing was shabby — quite the contrary — but because every sentence, paragraph and page is full of Marcus’s tangential observations on American film, music, literature and politics, all of which led this reader, inevitably, to reflection, rumination and largely lolling about in a chair, unexpectedly reeling from the surprising relationship between, say, Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer and Bikini Kill.

Consider the following list of people, taken at random, from pages 48-49: Philip Roth, John Dos Passos, Kenneth Rexroth, Jay Gould, Henry Fonda, Richard Speck, Ishmael. Here are a handful of dots dexterously connected by Marcus, all in the name of explicating America, which Marcus characterizes as an impossible marriage of self-invention and tradition, non-conformity and acquiescence, where “every blessing contains its punishment.” Regardless, Marcus’s reflections on the American paradox incorporate neither cynicism nor stuffiness. There’s a genuine tenderness present, a kindness, as he characterizes America’s confused, inward-looking and, at times, incomprehensible cultural legacy. His book is as much a part of the American paradox as it is an analysis of it. Such highly subjective cultural selections as John Winthrop, Riot Grrrl and Allen Ginsberg are passionately employed to posit complex judgments about all Americans.

If reading 300-plus pages of perpetual associations and footnotes sounds exhausting, then, by all means, avoid this book. However, if you are the sort of reader who delights in a writer who can (beautifully, intelligently) bracket lines from a Tennessee Ernie Ford tune together with Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, then go seek out this book and a chair to slouch in. Together, you and Marcus will contemplate the great American myth — which is, of course, America.

The following conversation lasted for 33 minutes and 33 seconds, facilitated by modern cellular telephone technology. His first name, by the way, rhymes with “reel,” not “rail.”

Stop Smiling: Let me start with the title of the book. You never mention it’s also the title of an H.G. Wells book.

Greil Marcus: Well, there is that illustration at the beginning of the book, which is from a movie made of the H. G. Wells story. So it was kind of a nod to it. But really it’s because I just love that picture. It didn’t have any real referential meaning. I chose the title simply because it’s a great title. It’s just a good title, even though it actually contradicts what the argument of the book is. Because the argument of the book is that prophesy is not about predicting the future, and obviously The Shape of Things to Come applies to this.

SS: The title resonated with me as I read the book — how it relates to Wells and songs by the Ramones and the Yardbirds, and the fact that there are these threads that run throughout the book and circle back on themselves.

GM: Well, also, there are threads that I didn’t even think of. I mean, I love the Yardbirds song, but it didn’t even occur to me while I was writing the book. Somebody mentioned it to me a couple of weeks ago and I said, “Oh! Of course!” But I hadn’t even thought of it.

SS: Reading your book reminded me of what happens when I wander through a record store or a bookstore and I’ll make seemingly disparate connections: I’ll look at the Nabokov interviews and turn around and see Gravity’s Rainbow and maybe say, “A-ha!”

GM: Sure. I think that’s the way people’s minds work. And yet, so often in books or essays there’s a segregation that’s maintained. People are afraid to trust their free associations as actually being true connections.

SS: Why do you think that’s the case? Is that the unfortunate structure of the way that we’re taught: that we have to be afraid to get really emotionally involved in thinking critically or afraid to go on a limb or even off the deep end in some cases?

GM: Well, I do think that. I think that we’re taught that ‘this belongs here and that belongs there, and that furthermore this is important and that isn’t.’ And you can’t mix them. One review of this book that I recently saw said that there are all of these American heavyweights: Winthrop and Lincoln and King, and then there are all these lightweights who are supposedly playing out the themes that [the heavyweights] introduced, like Philip Roth and David Lynch and David Thomas. And I’m thinking, That’s just so baffling. The idea that these people are lightweights because of the realm of endeavor they’re engaged in; that by definition, they can’t be as interesting as Lincoln or Winthrop or King. I think that’s utterly absurd. Yet people cling to those divisions the way they cling to a life preserver in the sea, because they’re afraid of drowning in too much noise, in too much information, too many ideas.

SS: I think you’re right. But it also seems that we’re not so much drowning in ideas, but swimming and rolling around in them. Americans are so immersed in pop culture, it’s as though we’re constantly wading through noise. So it doesn’t make sense to avoid thinking about, say, Law & Order and only think about so-called artsy films.

GM: Exactly. I love Law & Order. I love watching it. I love watching re-runs, as most Law & Order fans do. The re-runs are really successful and they have been for years. In some cities you can pretty much watch Law & Order all day long, if you have enough channels. I’ve never read anything, nor have I written anything either, about why that show works so well in re-runs for episodes that you’ve seen for maybe weeks at a time. And yet, there’s something going on there that maybe speaks to our best instincts or maybe our worst: I don’t know. But, nobody takes it as anything other than a kind of marketing phenomenon.

SS: That’s interesting — like all of the other things that you may think of as throwaway, like graphic novels, which some people write off as just “comic books,” even though there is so much more to them.

GM: The books that I re-read the most are Auntie Mame, which is a comic novel from the Fifties; Eric Ambler’s spy novels from the Thirties and Forties; and Raymond Chandler’s mysteries from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. Those are the books that I re-read by far the most. I don’t think it’s because I find something new in them — just the opposite. They always work to take me into a place that is complete and closed and shuts out the rest of the world. Whereas, Firesign Theatre records from the Sixties, the album making comedy group, I listen to their records, or three or four of my favorite ones, I don’t know how many times. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. And every time I hear something different, something that I never heard before. I don’t know how that happens. But I don’t think that’s what draws me to keep playing them. That’s what I use for distraction.

Walter Benjamin once wrote about how to write, what you need to write, which in some ways was really dumb. [He said] that you must have all of your pencils very well sharpened. I mean, he wanted his pencils well sharpened, but you or I may not need them well sharpened. But, he said one interesting thing, and that is that if you are playing music or something, you don’t want anything that will actually intrigue you or be any kind of forced gravity — you just want something that will be white noise, a little noise that will distract you so that the burden of having to think about what you are doing will be slightly lessened. You’ll just be a little bit distracted as you concentrate. And I find that that’s really what I always do. Putting on a Firesign Theatre record and listening to the voices chattering in the background and I’m vaguely aware of what they’re saying, it just works perfectly. It also feeds into what I am doing. You were talking about looking at Nabokov and then going to Gravity’s Rainbow — this works like that, too. They’ll say something about an old minstrel show and I’ll start writing about a minstrel show.

SS: I think that’s some of my favorite writing. I love the idea of making these connections from something so seemingly incongruent, and yet it’s not at all.

GM: That’s the fun way to do it.

SS: You talk about the prophetic voice in your book, and that made me think also about the everyday voice, and how they’re essential to one another. The play between the two voices is so important. For example, the poetry of Rilke: He’ll start out with something mundane like a wall, a street, a violin player, and then switch images to something like a tower or looming clouds.

GM: Yes. What it made me think of, as I was trying to understand what you meant, was thinking about Otis Spann’s reaction to Martin Luther King’s assassination, which I write about a little bit in the early part of the book. A Chicago blues piano player recording a song about King’s assassination the day after it happened. He is just an ordinary man on the street, speaking in the way that you speak, about hearing the news. And yet he manages to achieve a tone of seriousness and grandeur, even though he’s, in a sense, a man on the street, he uses King’s rhetoric in his own way.

SS: Yes. Something I saw in your book was the idea that American identity, on the one hand, has this prophetic voice that’s simultaneous with this very everyday, standing-at-the-window-looking-at-your-laundry-while-doing-the-dishes kind of voice. And, also, what you refer to as a “sense of portent and doom” that is present along with a kind of slapstick humor.

GM: Oh. Exactly. I can’t remember how the connection came up in the Bill Pullman chapter, where [in David Lynch’s film Lost Highway] there is this absolutely horrendous depiction of his character having murdered his wife, and it’s presented in complete desperation and insanity and self-hatred and just a maelstrom — and then you have this Forties country song by Riley Puckett, his version of “Nobody’s Business,” where he’s singing in the most jaunty, happy voice: “Sunday morning gonna wake up crazy, kill my wife and slay my baby.” And he’s saying it like: Sunday morning gonna put on my top hat, get in my Ford, go out and catch some fish. It’s exactly the same tone. That is as American as any voice could be. The way he sings those words and the words he is singing. Also, if you think about it, you realize that it goes right to the heart of what it means to be an American. Taking the idea that we’re all guaranteed the pursuit of happiness to the ultimate extreme. It’s about what makes me happy and about the way I find gratification — and it’s nobody’s fucking business if I do. That’s what he’s saying. Now, of course that’s totally insane; you can’t base a society on that — except in a lot of ways we have.

SS: We have, and then we turn around and laugh that we’ve done it. You see that a lot in punk music. Or, reading about Pere Ubu in your book, where you have musicians playing angry, screeching sounds and then they’ll stop to tell a story about, say, fried chicken.

GM: Right. Pere Ubu started as a band of rock critics who wanted to put on some kind of satirical performance art. Peter Laughner was a rock critic, David Thomas was writing record reviews in Cleveland, and that’s how they started. The idea of actually being a real band, real musicians, that wasn’t part of it at all, but very, very good when they found out that what was supposed to be a joke wasn’t a joke at all. It was far more serious than they ever imagined. So right through their very first records they were doing great, great things. David Thomas said that “we discovered what this all could be, and we never got over it. We could never settle for anything less.” The hunter got captured by the game.

SS: Is there anything that you felt you left out of your book?

GM: Well, yes, I just kind of sequestered myself to just three or four essays in the middle of the book. I was going to focus on three or four people, though actually it was more than that: Philip Roth, David Lynch, Bill Pullman, Sheryl Lee and David Thomas. Dos Passos comes in, too — lots of people come in, Bruce Conner comes in. But just in terms of the major focus, I felt the book would dissipate if I was saying, “But what about here, and what about there.” And, also, this book grew out of a class that I first taught at Berkeley and at Princeton a few years ago called “Prophecy and the American Voice.” And there’s a lot of stuff in that class that is somewhat even more central to the idea that I have and what I ended up writing about. There were three versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers that the class looked at and talked about. [It included] a novel by Lee Smith called The Devil’s Dream, which is about music as really being the Devil’s music, fiddle music as being a curse that will only destroy people. It included Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, and a lot of other material that I would have loved to have built this book around. But I just didn’t have enough to say, I don’t think, about those things. Whereas I at least I thought I had more to say about what I did end up writing about. That’s just the way it works: you can’t include everything. Even my book Lipstick Traces, which was 500 pages long, doesn’t include everything. It leaves out a whole lot.

SS: You’re teaching now, aren’t you?

GM: Yeah, I’m at Princeton now. I’m teaching a version of a class that I taught there four years ago on cultural criticism. The idea of the course is that when people write about stuff that other people really care about but that’s not supposed to be very important, like movies or music or restaurants, stuff like that, they are freed from the burden of significance and self-censorship and protecting their reputation from that seriousness. And so that you can write much more freely about absolutely anything then people who are supposedly writing about more serious things. For example, in restaurant criticism, you can find criticism of a society or a city; you can find criticism of manners or of fashion, of architecture, of racial and ethnic and social discrimination. You can find criticism of our whole sense of what the past is and whether we’re implicated in it or liberated from it in movie criticism. So, what the students do, they’re looking at the work of regular critics, people who write weekly or monthly or even daily, who are studying a subject again and again and again, so it’s kind of ordinary language, ordinary critical language.

SS: That sounds wonderful. I’m a fan of M. F. K. Fisher, who wrote: “When I’m writing about food, I’m really writing about love and human relationships.” Or, like the essays by Lester Bangs in the collection you edited, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.

GM: Well, that’s one of the first things the class is reading.

SS: Do they respond to it in unexpected ways at all?

GM: Well, I don’t know. We haven’t had that class yet, so I’ll find out. But, when I used that book four years ago, so much of the music was just as distant or unfamiliar to a lot of the students as it will be today. But, nevertheless, they could respond to his writing. Lester could bring music to life on the page, so you didn’t necessarily have to hear it. Or, he could make you go out and get the music and listen to it yourself, whether you had heard it at the time he was writing or not, and whether you heard it now. So, we’ll see if that’s a problem. But, I have students who are 19, 20, 21, and they have much more unpredictable musical and literary tastes than you’d ever think. They know a lot of stuff that I’m always just stunned by. And sometimes I’m amazed by the backward-looking worlds they construct out of their own view. I was having office hours yesterday at Princeton, and one student said to me: “Were you really at the Last Waltz” — the concert by the Band in 1976 — and I said: “Um, yeah, why?” And she said: “Oh, that’s my favorite band ever, the Band.” And then she said, “Do you think there will ever be a reunion? Do you think they will ever play together again?” I said, “Well, two of them are dead. I don’t think so.” You know, here’s a 20-year-old student, and this is music to her. This is the best it ever gets. Not that that’s bad in any way at all. But it’s not what you would expect from someone with a narrow perspective, and I think all of us sometimes go into situations with narrow perspectives, and so I was just surprised. All that told me was: Don’t ever take anything for granted. Don’t ever presume that this group of students knows this and doesn’t know that, or cares about this and doesn’t care about that. You don’t have any idea.

SS: Have any of your students introduced you to something you’re now crazy about?

GM: I can’t think of anything right at the moment, but that happens all the time. All of the time. That’s what it’s all about. That’s all we’re talking about — different forms of conversation, when people are connecting back and forth, and that’s what we’re doing. That’s all writing a book is. It’s trying to imagine that you’re having a conversation with the people who are reading you, and that they’re having a conversation with you, which may be, “God, you’re so full of shit, how could you have said that?” But then that’s the neat thing with conversation, because then you can say, “Well, here’s why I said it.” Either the writer comes to doubt what he’s written or the reader comes to doubt his intolerant, unfair reaction.

SS: I guess that brings me back to where I began this, talking about Gravity’s Rainbow, where at the end he writes “all together now…”

GM: Right. But, you know, here’s an example of connections that we might assume that aren’t real. I’m not talking about you, but people have always assumed that I’m a huge Pynchon fan, and stuff I’ve written has often been compared to Pynchon, though often it’s like: “What a pale imitation.” But nevertheless … The only Pynchon books that I’ve ever been able to get through are The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland. I didn’t like either one. I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow, I haven’t read Mason & Dixon. I’m not proud of it, but I just haven’t. You know, if that connection is there, it’s coming through osmosis and not through anything direct.

SS: I’ve never heard your work compared to Pynchon, and that was just an accident.

GM: I think part of it has to do with there is a sprawling mess aspect to Pynchon in his longer books, and people think there’s a sprawling mess aspect to my books.

SS: But it’s a wonderful kind of mess.

GM: Well, I hope so.


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