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.