Prophecy and personal culture

When I decided to read Greil Marcus’ The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy in the American Voice, I didn’t do so with the intent to get an AMV post out of it. Reflecting Marcus’ particular progressive brand of cultural theory, the book focuses on the work of Philip Roth, David Lynch and David Thomas (Pere Ubu) and, of course, in doing so Marcus brings in works and moments from American politics, music, literature, history, film, etc. I’m not sure exactly why I picked it up (well, checked it out from the library) — what is was that I read that made me add it to my reading list. And, for sure, I only really got the title. I didn’t realize what it was exactly going to be about. And I’m not really equipped to summarize the book. It is a highly idiosyncratic work.

And as confused as I am about what exactly Marcus is saying about America, I did find moments where the collision of theory and analysis of artistic products hit a nerve.

This is one of them (the set up is discussion of film noir and then the JFK assassination and then the moment when Jack Ruby shot Oswald):

The assassination of President Kennedy, and then the removal of that event from the realm of what could be known to the realm of mystery, to a realm, where one felt what could not be known as a rebuke and an oppression, to a realm where to be a citizen was suddenly to be a party to a conspiracy you could not even be certain existed at all — all of this was the future film noir had, film by film, betrayal by betrayal, death by death, remembered.

Back to the Tomb

Look at art this way and all sorts of hidden, forgotten, ephemeral, seemingly meaningless experiments in culture, the mistakes of the past, loom up as something other than incidents in which people tried to discover a new world and failed — or even, in moments, succeeded. When such experiments are given the magic carpet of “a dream is a memory of the future” to ride, they come forth as well as warnings. They are warning that to fail to imagine a different world, and act it out, is to abandon the very language of making a world one wants to live in, or refusing a world one does not want to live in.

Here movies, records, concerts, novels, poems, paintings, can seem to vibrate with an energy repressed but not stolen by time. You begin to discover what it is you truly love. Like David Thomas with the walls of his skull decorated with pictures of Ghoulardi, Captain Beefheart, Sky Saxon of the Seeds, Alfred Jerry, and a hundred more, you begin to create a personal culture of maps and talismans, locks and keys, within the greater culture of which you are a part of whether you want to be or not. When you approach the greater culture with a personal culture, you do so with the knowledge that the greater culture can never satisfy you, and the knowledge of what an earthquake it would be if it did: if the greater culture could, even for an instant, truly satisfy anyone, and then nearly everyone, as, on occasion, with the emergence of Charlie Chaplin or the Beatles, it has. Look at it this way, and the music Rocket from the Tombs left behind might begin to speak.” (page 227)

The transition is a bit abrupt. And the examples are a bit unconventional. And I admit that I am in no way cool enough to name drop Pere Ubu or Rocket from the Tombs. I know them only as names in the proto-punk/punk/post-punk constellation that I should be vaguely aware of but never sought out.

And yet in some weird way, I identify with this passage. Probably not all of it. Probably just the talk about maps, talismans and keys. And, of course, the sentence: “When you approach the greater culture with a personal culture, you do so with the knowledge that the greater culture can never satisfy you, and the knowledge of what an earthquake it would be if it did.”

In some ways, all of Mormon culture can be viewed in this way in relation to American culture. But even more so, I think there are works that perform the same function in relation to Mormon culture. And this is where I yet again invoke the name of Bela Petsco and Nothing very important and other stories. This and other works reflect a double estrangement. There are also works that estrange themselves in such a way as to become perhaps part of the greater culture (Neil LaBute, Brian Evenson, Brady Udall). And those are fine. But it is works like Petsco’s that I find the most interesting. And this is the great promise of Mormon culture, I think. This strange religion with a history and texts and a community. This uneasy attempt, never quite fulfilled, at integration with American culture. This worldview with its attendant paradoxes. This yearning for a culture that satisfies.

7 thoughts on “Prophecy and personal culture”

  1. Yep. Greil Marcus goes on and on about Twin Peaks and Lost Highway and somehow the riot grrrl group Bikini Kill gets mixed in. The David Lynch part was the one I found the most baffling.

  2. Marcus’ “Mystery Train” is a great book of American literature. I kid you not. It opened my eyes to many aspects of American history and culture that were unfamiliar and fascinating to me. I think he started to lose it a little bit when he got so obsessed with punk rock in the late 1970’s. But even that obsession produced “Lipstick Traces” a truly weird masterpiece of cultural anthropology that reminds me in all kinds of inappropriate ways of LDS thinking on Restoration and Dispensations. I tink he even mentions Joseph Smith at one point; and in one of his old essays in “Rolling Stone” magazine he talked a bit about the book of Mormon, though I can’t remember the exact details.

  3. I may be way off but are the references to Rocket from the Tomb supposed to be references to Rocket from the Crypt? I’m not incredibly well versed on the subject, but I used to have a few Rocket from the Crypt albums.

    Also, William, can you shed a little more light on his take on Lynch for me. I had all but written him off after Eraserhead until I was so dazzled by Inland Empire. But I’m trying to rethink his work now. He’s also a very important figure in the city I’m living in since he’s poured millions of dollars into the city and its film industry. I’m very interested in him as an American figure.

  4. Thanks, R.W. You’ve sparked my interest and I may just check some of his other work out.


    Yes. And either that’s a mistake or it’s Marcus using Rocket from the Tombs to refer to Rocket from the Crypt and Pere Ubu and other similar bands. I’m afraid I had to return the book to the library so I can’t go back and check at the moment. But I seem to recall that he used the “from the tombs” idea to encapsulate that whole Cleveland thing.

    Regarding, Lynch. He deals most heavily with Twin Peaks and Lost Highways. It’s hard to summarize because his work is so idiosyncratic.

    With Lost Highways he focuses on Bill Pullman’s face and how Lost Highways deconstructs the terrors of success and individualism and the Western and the rage that lies behind the placid surface. It’s about displacement and memory and the open road.

    And I don’t really remember what he has to say about Twin Peaks.

    I can point you to some interesting reviews, though:

    Quarterly Conversation

    The Guardian

    Flak Magazine

    NEw York Times

    For what it’s worth, I found the section about Roth to be the most thought-provoking but boring and the section about Pere Ubu the most interesting and entertaining.

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