For the sake of convenience, let’s divide world of criticism into three levels. The first level is the most base, the easiest, and perhaps the most valuable—the thumb. A thumbs up or thumbs down? This is the criticism of a friendly recommendation; this is the criticism of year-end lists, whether they’re constructed by some blog or by The New York Times.
The second, slightly higher level of criticism is that of specific, aesthetic analysis. How does this particular piece of art work? How does it function as a radically constructed whole? (Or how does it not, and why?) This is, I’ll admit, rather undergraduate-heavy—art seen through a lit seminar, where students pop open the hood of a sonnet to see how it works.
The third and highest level of criticism, in my radically simplified piñata here, is criticism as cultural interpretation, where a piece of art is situated in a larger cultural context, both compared to other pieces of the culture, and prism-like, made to shine in the various rays of that culture. I think this third type of criticism is the most complex of the three, the one that rewards the most re-reading, the one that soars above mere book reviewing (this was about that, and it was good), and speaks to what it means to be alive right now in this crazy, kooky world we live in, etc. But I also think these three types of criticism can’t exist separately. The highest needs the lowest and both need the middle, the way a roof needs a flat foundation built on solid soil and good strong studs, spaced a precise 16 inches apart.
This third type of criticism is the type of criticism Greil Marcus practices in The Shape of Things to Come. He’s not particularly interested in “grading” works of art, be they pop or high (though he does manage to utter a few wildly hyperbolic judgments along the way). Instead, the pieces of culture he includes in The Shape of Things to Come are approved simply by the act of including them in his analysis. He’s also not especially interested in analyzing how individual works of art work as works of art. He does capacious readings of his chosen texts, but it’s always in service to this third, higher goal, the criticism of culture. For reasons I will attempt to illustrate, this blind spot turns out to be a crucial flaw in this book. Without criticizing how these pieces of art work as art, he doesn’t fully convince me on how they work as pieces of culture.
The Shape of Things to Come is framed as a post-9/11 work of cultural analysis. It begins, Moby-Dick–like, with an assortment of quotations, both uttered in the aftermath of the attacks (there’s the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s finger-pointing at the gays, pagans, and the A.C.L.U.) and uttered much earlier (Herman Melville himself). He then sets up his thesis, which is provocative and convincing: He says that the template of America can be found in the Children of Israel from the Book of Amos; America is a nation based on a covenant, a nation based on an idea. But unlike Israel, which made its pact with God, America has made its pact with itself. It’s a nation that made a promise to itself to uphold an idea of itself. “More than any other place on earth,” Marcus writes, “America can be attacked through its symbols because it is made up. It is a construct, an idea. . . . The nation exists as power, but its only legitimacy is found in a few pieces of paper.” This self-appointed symbolism is what was attacked on 9/11, Marcus says.
Part of America’s covenant with itself, Marcus says, is that the country will produce those who must judge the country. Without a judging God, a country’s own citizenry must perform the task. “To be obliged to judge the country is also to have the right to do it.” This judge becomes a certain type of American hero. Marcus’s goal in this book is to follow the “throng of selves” that make their way through American culture and “to listen to what they say—and as much to attend to how they say what they say, to attend to a conversation of gestures, exclamations, whispers, dams and praises and jokes.” He’s searching for the prophets in the throng.
The frame up, Marcus begins filling in his argument. He focuses first on John Winthrop’s speech from 1630, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” which contains the famous “city on a hill” metaphor, followed by Lincoln’s second inaugural and Martin Luther King’s speech from the 1963 march on Washington, D.C. These prophets are the precursors for the real meat of the book, which contains analyses of Philip Roth’s novels, specifically American Pastoral, Bill Pullman in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Sheryl Lee (as Laura Palmer) in Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and David Thomas of the band Pere Ubu.
These are the main hinges of his argument but Marcus manages to touch on just about everything along the way. He strides through the great salad bar of American culture, picking some toppings here, some dressing there, and you become impressed simply by the rhetorical locomotion, even if you’re skeptical that a satisfying meal will come together back at the table.
I have no problem accepting Marcus’s arguments at the macro level, the idea that Bill Pullman’s face embodies Roth’s “American berserk” underneath its placid everydayness, for example. It’s the micro level that dampens my enthusiasm. I feel that Marcus has too energetically mined his material for the cultural rather than the aesthetic, that he has made high cultural claims before he has answered the mid-level claims. For example, his view of American Pastoral—which he connects to other late Roth, Hawthorne, John Dos Passos’s U.S.A., Fox’s 24, and (via The Plot Against America) Upton Sinclair—is complicated by the fact that I find Pastoral unsuccessful, not one of Roth’s better works.
About Roth Marcus writes, “He was setting a standard against which his own work, his own good faith as a writer and as a citizen, would be judged.” This is true enough. Though Pastoral has been almost universally praised, as have most of Roth’s late novels, American Pastoral is actually, in my opinion, more of an allegory than a convincing novel. It works more as notes toward a novel, notes toward a novel about the fall of American innocence (the innocence that is also its corruption!), but it doesn’t actually dramatize this. It sets up the pieces of the game, but doesn’t move them. It declaims its importance, but it doesn’t convince. And though I’m as excited as the next reader to see Roth back out of himself as a subject and address the nation as judge, I’m not willing to forgo dramatic persuasion. I’m not willing to forgo what Roth can do best—the particular enlivening rage of a Peter Tarnopol walking to his shrink or a Mickey Sabbath trudging around a graveyard or a younger Zuckerman imagining a fetching co-ed as a resurrected Anne Frank.
Marcus doesn’t have anything for aesthetic quibblers like me—indeed, he has bigger critical fish to fry—but the resulting cultural analysis feels more like the pickings from a scrap heap than an assemblage of prophetic voices that show us America’s past/future. Sure, the work of David Lynch and Philip Roth touches on the American iconography and subterranean river of metaphor that flows under the country. Sure, there are elements of prophetic judgment—the mild-mannered clerk out on the lost highway of the American territory where an individual’s right to violence is primordial. Yes, I agree, yes. But couldn’t the same be said of so many other works? Why these works? Why focus on Lost Highway, generally viewed as clunker, as opposed to the much more widely praised Blue Velvet? I’m not saying that Lost Highway is not worth the analysis—and maybe it does deserve Marcus’s attention over Blue Velvet—but I’d like to see Marcus make the distinction. All of which really is a long way of saying that I’d like Marcus to pay more attention to the second type of criticism in an effort to bolster the strength of his higher cultural criticism.
Or let me use a different analogy. What if, for the sake of argument, I happen to think that punk music is, both sonically and politically, rubbish, and no amount of analysis or cultural shimmying can make up for its shoddy construction? Is it still prophetic? How can a prophet speak to you if you aren’t tuned into the frequency of that prophet? It’s like Ham radio: I’m sorry, but I just can’t get that station. But perhaps in this example, punk music, and the culture at large, works like a modern urban sewer, floating under our feet, unseen and unappreciated, there and working whether you know about it or not.
There’s a breathlessness to Marcus’s book, a hyperactive game of cultural freeze tag. At times, Marcus doesn’t seem to be so much concerned about baking an argument as he does in endlessly whipping his ingredients together. In the last chapter he moves from an obscure two-issue comic book (Uncle Sam) to John Grisham to Allen Ginsburg to Boz Scaggs to the documentary The Fog of War about Robert McNamara. Ultimately, it reminds me of the Beastie Boys. It’s music made of cultural junk, which is why I thought (and still think) that the Beastie Boys are important; they took the accrual of cultural detritus and showed an adolescent white kid what he could do with it. Marcus seems to want to sing the same song. But I can’t dance to it.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Barrett Hathcock