Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rummaging Through the Dustbin: Greil Marcus's The Dustbin of History (1996)

For all the value we assign to history, both as a field of study in school and for understanding the ways of the world, it's also dead meat. Our best friend's marriage ends and we say it's history. Sports commentators, eager to create an air of finality, always remark: "With that goal in overtime, the playoff series becomes history." One goal and everything that came before it is now superfluous. The winning team moves on; the losing team is history. History might even be worse than dead meat because (to paraphrase Johnny Rotten) it's got nooooo future. It's history.

In high school, we often treated the subject as a function of correcting mistakes. The teacher told us that if we studied what took place back then, then maybe we could prevent it from happening again. Know it and you can control it. History was something you could beat by simply having all the right facts. With certain truths on your side, you could stop time itself in order to properly dissect it. But why should history's dustbin become such a convenient dumping ground for facts left behind like last week's garbage? This is the central question in Greil Marcus's uneven, yet fascinating book The Dustbin of History (Harvard University Press, 1996), which sets out to provide a road map to find some answers.

With a title taken from Leon Trotsky's famous dismissal of the Mensheviks during the Russian Revolution in 1917 ("Go where you belong from now on – into the dustbin of history"), what the reader (and Marcus) discovers is that the dustbin isn't some solid steel container sucking up data, but more an intersection where popular culture and art can meet political change. As a cultural critic, Marcus has often positioned himself at that crossroad. His first book, Mystery Train (1975), put forth a plausible rationale for American pop artists  – Elvis Presley, The Band, Randy Newman, Robert Johnson, Harmonica Frank and Sly Stone  – leaving as defining a mark on their culture as Abraham Lincoln did in his Gettysburg Address, or Thomas Jefferson in the founding of the country's ideals. With his second foray into art and politics, Lipstick Traces (1989), Marcus created a credibly drawn, hidden history of the 20th century, linking the Dadaists, who shocked middle-class complacency during the ravages of the First World War, to the emergence of the punk culture of the late Seventies, who were doing some complacency shaking of their own in Thatcher's England.

In The Dustbin of History, Marcus sets out in passionate pursuit of what he calls "work that doesn't decay in the making;" events that "can sustain a sense of history – of time and its affairs passing, accumulating...clearing like a storm breaking." By doing so, he refuses to draw a linear line through history; instead he takes essays and reviews he's written over the past 20 years and denies them their chronological shape. History is disavowed its designation of a past, present and a future. Everything discussed in The Dustbin of History seems to be happening all at once. As a result, an eclectic range of subject matter over a large body of time seem in a perpetual state of dialogue with each other. That subject matter includes Thomas Gifford's frightening anti-fascist thriller, The Wind Chill Factor (1975); Bob Dylan's elliptically cryptic masterpiece "Blind Willie McTell"; Camille Paglia's sweeping and dramatic cultural tome Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990); a magically evocative box set of recordings about – and by – the Beat Generation; a fascinating archetypal view of John Wayne's movie career; and concluding with a touching essay on Deborah Chessler, a white Jewish woman from Baltimore, who wrote "It's Too Soon to Know" for Sonny Til and the Orioles, perhaps the greatest black R&B song in the canon with one of the most poetic lyrics about romantic ambivalence ("Am I the fire/Or just another flame").

author Greil Marcus
But what could all these radically diverse artefacts have to do with history, or even have in common with each other? Marcus suggests that the manner in which we view history – as something consigned to the past – freezes out the people who make it. The only way history can find its living voice, he argues, is in the cultural artefacts that speak to each other through the continuum of time whereby they can transcend finality. This bold strategy of random selection also allows us the fascinating task of comparing Marcus's observations at the times he wrote the pieces to what we now perceive of those events in the present. His narrative plan, in other words, opens up the opportunity to juxtapose his criss-crossing insights.

In the case of the Nazi-hunting thrillers he explores, links are drawn to concerns about "American pop culture's colonization of the subconscious power of post-war West German youth," raised by the German film director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) in his book, Emotion Pictures (of which Marcus includes a review). History even turns into a fractured, spinning glass ball travelling through time in Marcus's discussion of John Frankenheimer's film version of Richard Condon's Cold War novel, The Manchurian Candidate (a film Marcus would return to in more depth years later in his BFI book on the picture), wherein an American soldier is brainwashed into becoming a political assassin. In a hall of mirrors moment, Marcus writes with wit and urgency about a film that clearly defied the dustbin. This unsettling, controversial work gets released in 1962, while set in the aftermath of the Korean War in 1954, gets suppressed shortly after President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, to finally find a new audience during the sleepy Reagan era in 1988, an era with the expressed aim of making us believe that the Sixties never happened.

The tactics employed by Marcus in the book, though, occasionally backfire, as in his 1975 essay on Robert Altman's Nashville and E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime. When Marcus expresses puzzlement that Altman could include in his film the "unmotivated and all but incomprehensible" assassination of a pop star, he apparently didn't see that Altman was cleverly and perceptively showing us how politics and celebrity culture were beginning to merge in America in the mid-Seventies. This uneasy nuptial would culminate five years later not only in the election of former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan as President in 1980, but also the assassination of John Lennon, a pop star with political caché. (Marcus's similar dismissal of Altman's inclusion of populist candidate Hall PhillipWalker also misses the sheer prescience of a picture that would anticipate the coming of Ross Perot on the political landscape in the years to follow.)

Robert Altman's Nashville (1975)
Yet maybe the funniest and most ironic link to come out of that particular essay might be in the fact that a few years after Marcus wrote the piece, Robert Altman almost came to direct the film version of Ragtime. It seems that Altman – and Doctorow with his keen eye for the panoramic way pop shapes our perceptions of history – provides more proof of Marcus's intuitive claims than even he himself recognizes. Yet, in spite of its periodic flaws in judgment, The Dustbin of History never suffers from a failure of the imagination. Marcus, to paraphrase a point he makes about author Peter Handke, never imposes symbolism on history; he instead tries to comprehend the symbolism history inevitably imposes on us.

In Greil Marcus's hands, thankfully, history never comes to represent dead meat. If anything, in reading this highly entertaining book, you can finally consider the dustbin open for business.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's  Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

No comments:

Post a Comment