by Johannes Goransson on Feb.08, 2011
Greil Marcus gave a talk at Notre Dame yesterday and that made me think about him and his work for the first really in quite a while. I read and loved a lot of his books in the mid to late 90s. In fact, he and his “invisible republic,” his “weird, old America” (invoking DH Lawrence’s great book on “classic American literature,” another of my all-time favorites) of mysterious folk songs, cannibalistic underground singers and occult punk artists made up for me – and I hope this doesn’t sound too sentimental – a kind of readership at a time when nobody read my poems and I didn’t read much poetry; an imagined, ideal readership.
In his talk, Marcus discussed the history (hundreds of years!) of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” and seeking to understand how such an over-the-top, seemingly so complete song could generate so many versions; and in some way seeking to understand how people could refer to “the Dylan version,” when he supposedly wrote it. The history goes back to a ballad from the 1600 and goes up through various incarnations in Dylan’s song book, including, importantly, the weird version he sang at the Grammy’s in 1991. (I couldn’t find it on youtube but you can imagine: totally incomprehensible, near sound poetry….)
The answer to the question of how this song could permutate through so many “versions,” to becoming so “version-y” that even Dylan’s “original” is now just one “version” (“the original Dylan version”, he’s got several himself) is two-fold. The first part of the answer seems to be the final verse, when the singer says that he hopes the “masters of war” will die and that their death will come soon. This ruins the predictability of the song, opens it up, makes it dangerous, almost a death threat (as it was later perceived when a high school band played it and right-wing talk radio blew up the performance into a death threat against Bush).
Although Marcus doesn’t talk in great detail about the connection, this oddness seems to open the song up, not just ruining the wellwrought urn of its “protest song” status, but also seems to open it up in time – back to Appalachian songs, British ballads, and forward to the high school band version. And this oddness bring in Marcus’s favorite idea of cultural transmission: songs (and icons, texts, other cultural artifacts) are the best when they work fetishistically, magically, occultly anachronistically. The songs turn into parasites: they possess different people (even an older, wiser, supposedly sick-of-protesting Bob Dylan), and these artists possess the song. The idea seems to run both ways (the song as parasite, the artist as parasite).
And this is why Marcus in “Dead Elvis” refers to himself as a “collector” as much as a “critic.” Art is fetishes: objects with magic properties to move through time. For example, in her autobiography “Just Kids,” when Patti Smith buys a “Baudelaire coat” she becomes a maudit poet. Likewise, Marcus collects the fetish objects that for him define a kind of weird, underground America (an American that I love).
It seems to me that there is an essential connection in Marcus’s thinking between this parasite metaphor and his love of dead-end songs, like Dylan’s “I’m Not There” or Geechie Wiley’s songs: songs that don’t make it, monstrous aborted songs, songs that barely survive on odd old records, morbid fan art devoted to Elvis, obscure Minneapolis (!) punk songs from the 90s (!) etc. It is the noise that is almost eliminated, yet remains strangely central – to America, to Bob Dylan etc. As Michel Serres wrote, the parasite is noise.
Marcus is not interested in “Blowing in the Wind” because there’s so little noise in its afterlife. Likewise he’s not interested in the pop hits that gets played over and over because they generally tend to have too clean of an exchange, I think. He’s interested in a lot of lowbrow stuff, but it has to contain this element of noise.
Translation is noisy the same way, interests me in the same way as these possessions.
By the way, I asked Marcus over dinner if he ever thought about kitsch and he said (something like this): “No, that idea never enters my mind. I always thought my role as a critic was to introduce people to interesting art, not to condemn art.” I think this is a pretty great attitude, and it’s why I keep criticizing people (Tony Hoagland, Ron Silliman, Kenny Goldsmith etc) for using the anti-kitsch rhetoric.
However, I do want to say, since people generally don’t seem to get this: when I talk about kitsch, I’m not talking about any particular mass-produced trinkets. And I’m not talking about any ironic appropriation of bad taste. I’m talking about a kind of space – a foreign body lodged in the overall system of art, as Herman Broch put it (though he saw this as negative, I see it as interesting) – where art reveals itself as fetishistic, counterfeit, “version-y” (to go back to Marcus) exactly the things that anti-kitsch rhetoric tries to protect against.
That is to say, I don’t dislike Carolyn Forche’s Against Forgetting for being kitschy, but for trying to avoid being kitschy. I like Sylvia Plath’s or Aase Berg’s atrocity kitsch because they don’t try to prevent, protect against this fetishism, they engage with it.
Plath’s fetishistic iconicity, her afterlife, has proved incredibly powerful, but critics have generally either used it against her or sought to divorce it from her poetry (as if to rescue her poetry from the bad taste of her cult of personality). But what I think is great about a book like Dead Elvis is that Marcus is fascinated exactly by this afterlife and its many strange incarnations. Maybe I’ll write a book called Dead Plath, which of course will include grave-stone graffitti and Aase Berg’s Dark Matter and protests at Ted Hughes readings and various teenage seances.