The Dream and the Curse

9-11 is an absence in Greil Marcus's The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice -- an absence that gives the book its structure, just as in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 it was a black screen and montage of screams, and in Oliver Stone's World Trade Center an engulfing shadow. It's the thing that isn't shown, that cannot be shown, but which draws in and defines all that is shown. In those two movies, the attack is a physical event; in The Shape of Things to Come it is a miasma, red death over a landscape crawling with acts and artworks that seem at first unrelated to the tragedy. Marcus invokes 9-11 and then leaves it to drift as -- to use a favored Marcusian image -- a curse, one that resonates with the prophesies voiced at the very founding of our country.

The book's premise is simple: “There is no American identity without a sense of portent and doom.” The founding Americans defined themselves as a chosen people, possessing God's sanction and deserving of his favor. Therefore God's justice would be all the harsher should America betray its covenants as set down in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. But rather than judge our nation on its sworn ideals, we've justified each betrayal, conquest, massacre, and enslavement in “a voice of power and self-righteousness” -- i.e., our public voice, the one we transmit to ourselves and to the world.

In opposition to that is the private voice speaking publicly, acting symbolically, carrying out that original prophesied judgment of American doom in “speech and acts that begin with a single citizen . . . saying what he or she has to say.” Marcus hears that voice in the later novels of Philip Roth (self-satisfied American discovers the hidden history of his century), the films of David Lynch (splatter art in the small town of the American mind), the performances of actors Bill Pullman (self-loathing highway existentialist) and Sheryl Lee (figure of innocence both corrupted and corrupting), the music of Pere Ubu vocalist David Thomas (avant-ranter and social outcast), and the poetic incantations of Allen Ginsberg (gay Jew chanting Midwest mantras from the back of a van).

Marcus's M.O. has always been to begin with a work -- film, novel, song, career -- and draw circles of reference outward to see where that work touches other works, other careers, other arts; and then how it implicates and is in turn implicated by the politics, crimes, and blunt facts of American life. As the breadth of that referential radius widens, connections snap and abstractions are jolted awake. Pretty soon the work (Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes) or career (Elvis Presley) becomes an active nerve center, its far-flung tendrils -- factual, poetic, metaphorical -- casting up sparks.

The sparks can be big or small, silent or sizzling. They're there in the way Marcus, digressing on avant-garde artist Bruce Conner, spots a diagram on a blackboard at the far end of a room reflected in a mirror in a brief shot in a Conner short film most people have never heard of and fewer will ever see, yet makes that diagram seem like enough of a key to something that you'll need to see it for yourself -- or, failing that, to invent a memory of having seen it. It's in the way the book's many footnotes -- some quite long, most a congeries of fantasies and facts about murder, torture, and lies, parents and children, husbands and wives, masters and slaves -- form a sordid Boschian under-story of their own. It's in the way Marcus can propose, via a cameo appearance by film critic David Thomson, that film noir really began not in post-World War II Hollywood, but in the basement of the Dallas Police Department on November 24, 1963.

There are a number of these Oh my God moments in the book, moments when the connections Marcus has been tracking suddenly edge into view and you realize, with force, what this thing here has to do with that thing there, though the two things may be as far apart as seashores or centuries. It is a conspiratorial impulse, our need to see such connections, and in that sense very late-20th century, very post-JFK. But it's also a mythical impulse, a desire to feel the universal and apprehend the everlasting in human stories, and so as old as our recorded history. As tellers, listeners, secret sharers, we have always sought that instant in which all is illuminated and we may say, believer and atheist alike, Oh my God.

Marcus's reading of Sheryl Lee as Lynch's prom queen-murder victim Laura Palmer, and of Laura herself as an American archetype, is the apogee of this referential-radius approach, of the book, and maybe of Marcus's career thus far. Starting with a few images of Lee's face twisted into expressions so extreme they remind him of silent-film physiognomy, Marcus patiently braids strands of narrative and traces dynamics in dust, setting out patterns so tenuous they threaten at any instant to unravel or blow away. But his writing is cool, vivid, fixated -- and you see what he sees. He lures you in with a scene-by-scene description and analysis of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch's most despised and misunderstood movie, in which Lee's Laura undergoes a program of degradation that is excessive and incomprehensible only if you don't see how it poetically strips bare an essential American story: the slaughter of the innocent.

As Laura's story unfolds, you might glimmer upon a stray quote Marcus culled from a Philip Roth novel 100 pages earlier (“The extreme innocence was the corruption”), and appreciate how he made nothing of the connection, allowing you to stumble upon the payoff like a poison toadstool. Marcus leads you deeper -- into Nathaniel Hawthorne's demon-ridden Puritan forest; into the 1990s hysteria over Satanic ritual abuse; and into the amazing history of the riot grrrl movement, a woman-powered grassroots-punk blast of brutal sound and agit-prop statement that sought to expose America's sickest sexual myths. Step by step, reference by reference, the braids have tightened and the dust has turned to forest loam two centuries old. Nowhere in his work has Marcus been more fiendish in extracting subtext from divergent works and events, or more compassionate to those whose true stories the subtexts contain.

You think back on where this began -- Laura Palmer's face -- and suddenly the meaning that was never there in Fire Walk With Me, even for a Lynch fan, is there. As is so much else. Oh my God, you realize, innocence is the cancer that must be cut from the American heart. For how can you maintain a myth of innocence, of righteousness, when the real thing is there to dog your corrupt moves, check your facts, ask “Why” as you lie and dissemble? This one insight explains all the murder ballads wherein a devoted bride is stabbed in the heart and thrown in the river, usually by a lover unable to fathom his own motives. It speaks to our unholy fascination with JonBenet Ramsey, Michael Jackson, Laci Peterson, Terry Schiavo -- all stories of innocence perverted, exploited, brutalized. It says something for all the women raped and murdered in a phallocentric nation unable to confront its sexual pathologies because doing so might mean dismantling much of the national identity. And like a bath of acid, this insight covers you in the book's vast, painful theme: the degree to which America's history is really the history of America's corruption of itself.

When John F. Kennedy was killed, Malcolm X didn't join in the mourning. Like most black Americans, he'd never bought the American line -- “land of the free,” etc. So to him, the exploding of the president's skull was not a tragedy; it was “the chickens coming home to roost.” That's been a view of 9-11 since it happened, and not only in the rhetoric of Noam Chomsky. Many of us still wonder if history, so forgiving of America so often, finally struck back -- leaving, as history usually does, none slaughtered but the innocent.

Even to suggest that in some world-historical sense we deserved 9-11 (“We”? But “we're” still alive) remains, five years later, a dangerous move -- partly because it is, for anyone inclined to ask questions of and about this country, so unavoidable. But Greil Marcus, cultural speculator and aesthetic detective, is in the suggestion business, not the answer racket. Without pushing the we-asked-for-it judgment, he implies it as a legitimate dread implanted in the American mind by our most revered speaker-thinkers -- Jefferson, Lincoln, Douglass, all those who foresaw the doom of the republic if it failed or betrayed its promises -- and as a possibility inherent in living American discourse.

Too referential, reviewers will say of The Shape of Things to Come, as they often do of Marcus. Too allusive, imaginative, mystical, intellectual, unscientific, eccentric. “Is it brilliant or just baffling?” A very long duhhhhhhh sounds behind the customary complaints, as if Marcus's critics were always waiting for consensus to fall before committing themselves. I will commit myself: the book is brilliant. Frightening, exciting, sickening. It brings you alive as an American. There is indeed such a thing as “too referential,” but not when the references are focused by vision; not when the referential radius leads you outward to questions, conclusions, and curiosities that are yours alone.

Most critics looking at a speech or novel, movie or poem or song, see a monolith. Marcus sees a mansion with many rooms. He takes you over every corner of some, shows you mere glimpses of others. Then he leads you outside and points to the shack behind the mansion. From there, you see the stream, and the stream meets the river, and the river runs back in time. Where it leads, you won't know until you get there -- and that part of the journey is yours, not his.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard) and a regular contributor to The American Prospect Online.

* * *

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.

Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.