Greil Marcus: Bob Dylan, fetishism, kitsch, Elvis, Plath

by 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.

12 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Quite bracing Joh, right on GM, and I will be printing this out and taking it to class in a few mins.

  2. Aaron Apps

    I like that you (and how you) defined kitsch, here.

    It seems like the subversive, but it isn’t defined as existing in a space where it is wholly excluded (nor is it an excluded body that is abstracting itself in order to grate against and establishment). I’m picturing a big block of cheese with a few small slivers falling off, at best. Kitsch (here) feels more like a knife taken to the block. That’s how I feel about the Plath, especially. The Bell Jar, especially.

    I know that you aren’t the one that posited this, but I do wonder exactly how Elvis would be an embodiment of your definition. I’m thinking that the sparkle-covered versions of Elvis tend to glare an absurd mirror back at capitalism. But I’m also tempted to go to the lyrics of Chuck D:

    Elvis was a hero to most
    But he never meant sh** to me you see
    Straight up racist that sucker was
    Simple and plain
    Mother f*** him and John Wayne

    The point here (in the lyrics) isn’t that Elvis himself was racist, but that he appropriated a cacophony of wonderful music generated in black communities into the mainstream and made it palatable for white (explicitly racist) audiences. The stuff he is ripping seems more like the ‘stuff that didn’t make it’ to me. Maybe there is something essentialist about going back to those texts? I don’t think they are essentialist in the face of a racist military-industrial complex.

    Just because something moves through time in the way you figure, is that enough? I’m very skeptical of this. Sure, the well wrought urn is cracked and possibly used as a bedside piss bowl, but one would think that reading through time would involve being selective about which bodies of text the reader pushes. Some stream over with their minor qualities. Yet, there are some (rare but deeply minor lit) texts that build the urn, splay it out and throw it into time. Those are always pretty amazing. I don’t think most of contemporary poetry engages in that attempt (the carapaces of tiny light covered beetles in ford trucks are liminal, or something, or so I’ve heard… especially when lathed into so many numena).

    But maybe I’m misreading your figurations a bit.

  3. Johannes

    Marcus actually discusses the “racist” critique quite a bit, maybe even mentioning the PE song. Maybe I’ll dig up that bit from Dead Elvis. It’s a pretty key moment if I remember correctly, and actually his defense brings up a whole host of issues. So I’ll try to dig that up when I’m finished grading. Not sure I understand what you mean in the last paragraph. I’m generally very interested in the “minor qualities” of art, and it seems to me that Marcus is too – even Elvis and Bob Dylan are for him most interesting in the dead-end moments, what I call the “noise” moments, the parasite moments.


  4. Aaron Apps

    I’m interested in the argument he makes. I look forward to reading it.

    I was just making a fairly basic thought about something like Shakespeare who I believe Deleuze mentions in regards to minor literature (or some of the Clarice Lispector stories I’ve read recently, and so on), and how a work of that nature is capable of pushing into a multitude of registers (both within and outside of itself). Shakespeare makes well wrought plays that have wonderful dramatic moves (Urn-y stuff), but the plays also are conceptually smashed (confused and not moralistic especially, at their best), and include lots of low registers and slang/bar talk (especially of the talk of fools that breaks apart the concepts often present in the assumptions of the rest of the characters). The plays also get re-figured endlessly through adaptations, of course. The dead slang (that needs footnotes) and notes that subvert steady concepts seems like the good stuff in Shakespeare to me. I’m also starting to appreciate how he complicates historiography (via John Watkins).

    I was being a bit questioning of the cosomological singularity and ubiquity of kitsch you posit, I suppose. Kitsch almost feels like Hericlitian flux.

    And in applying that to the writing of poetry, I was focusing more on the well-wrought-ness of the urn than the “truth is beauty, beauty is truth” stuff (Wittgenstein’s ethics and aesthetics are one, that is, both bullshit modes of analytical thought founded on false premises). The artifice of the urn’s skill as something to lodge minor complexities and the desire to rework. The urn as an atlatl. The complexity and minor-ity that ‘building’ can give as opposed to loft/greatness/genius (Shakespeare just might be a Jewish woman).

    I was also poking fun at typical american ‘lyrics’ that suppose a well-wrought-ness, but that just regurgitate a particular line of simplicity. I don’t read them as well-wrought whatsoever, even though they claim it (in theory that isn’t theory since they don’t want to talk about theory more often than not).

    I also like to remember that Keats respected Thomas Chatterton deeply. Chatterton might have been the first conceptual poet. But as I think about this, in what might be an aside, I think he might have the same sort of stuff that Plath and Elvis have after death. Chatterton’s poetry was well-wrought to the point of forgery.

    These aren’t the most well formed thoughts, admittedly.

  5. apsiegel


    Can you elaborate on what you mean by the noisiness of translation? I would love to see this, but I can’t — to borrow one of Marcus’ favorite metaphors, Manny Farber’s distinction between white elephant and termite art, I tend to see almost all translation as white elephant — call it “product,” rather than art. Craft. Of course, I’m in favor of a world in which translation is the termite — I think many of us who do it out of a desire to bring messy, interesting, exciting, weird material to a larger audience would subscribe to that view. Maybe I’m being unconsciously Anglocentric, but I cannot think of any significant translation project that doesn’t incline toward the white elephant. Could it be that there’s a paradox at work here? No matter how messy or transgressive one’s interests and attitudes, when one sets out to translate “literature,” one implicitly reads it within the context of national literature or body of work, which means that one’s selection choices and translation strategies tend toward the canonical, and…well, what would the opposite of “noisy” be here? The noiseless, the grainless, the frictionless.

  6. Johannes


    Re-read Dead Elvis. Marcus doesn’t talk about PE’s song but he does does about Alice Walker’s story where the white guy steals the song from the black woman. Calls it a simplification – sees it as part of a rhetoric of trying to make Elvis less – less intelligent, less interesting. Though most examples of this is found among white critics. For Marcus, Elvis is a tremendous figure, a tremendous key to America, and its’ a key that is discomforting and complex. So he sees all these critical attempts of simplifying Elvis as trying not to deal with the complexity of Elvis – as a singer, dancer, cultural icon etc.

    Yes, for me “kitsch” is not a thing itself (trinkets), but something much more amorphous.


  7. Johannes


    I like the Farber article as a model for translation. I am not sure why you think translation is white elephant. To me translation almost inherently emphasized a movement – texts going through languages and cultures. Can you explain a little more of what you see as the white elephant of translation?


  8. Aaron Apps

    How is complexity within itself an end?

    Why isn’t this guy writing about Chuck Berry? Marvin Gaye? Tupac?

    I think all of the Plath stuff (conflicting biographies, silenced poems, feminist appropriation) is interesting because of the way it stands against and rips open white suburban culture and its conceptions of the female body.

    What is Elvis doing? Why is ‘he’ worth reading? He seems like little more than a cultural figure that re-establishes white norms and prevents any confrontation with the culture that this work is coming from. It is explicitly the fetishistic versions of Elvis that perform this–he no longer is an early rock and roll figure among several(he is a white body for white audiences).

    I know it isn’t your work on Elvis, I just think it is any interesting question in terms of what you posted above.

  9. Johannes


    “Complex” was my word; it stands for: a lot of stuff, often contradictory, often mysterious; it has to do with class, race and “the american dream.” It’s what the whole book is about. You’ll have to read it! In many ways it functions like Plath’s afterlife. It’s these kinds of afterlives, or seance-like cultural moments that Marcus is interested in.

    I think your reading of Elvis is way too reductive: Elvis didn’t merely “steal” black culture; he’s his own weird thing and a lot of different stuff goes into that icon: class not the least.

    Not to mention a fantastic singer and performer!

    One thing Marcus analyses is in fact these conventional ways of talking about Elvis: he’s just a thief, he’s just the voice of the poor, he’s just this or that. Marcus moves away from that to find something more interesting.

    Also, I think it’s mistake to split this into Marcus writes about Elvis instead of Chuck Berry. Marcus has written about a whole host of singers, many black, some even from Minneapolis. It’s also a mistake to see this monolithic “whiteness” and that the only opposition to this whiteness is blackness, I think that falls back, as you stated earlier, into a kind of authenticity/essentialist trap (as often happens in translations discussions as well).

    If you’re interested in this issue, I recommend the book.


  10. apsiegel


    I should be more specific: the culture of translation preferred by the culture industry is the white elephant, the “expensive hunk of well-regulated area.” Some links that say more than I could:

    or even

    Two of Farber’s most salient quotes seem not to apply to any culture of translation that has any currency in this country:

    “The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.”

    “The best examples of termite art … where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsmen can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke are and not caring what comes of it.”

    When I referred to translation as craft, I had forgotten (if I ever knew) that Farber was explicit in acknowledging the craft-worker as termite.

  11. Aaron Apps

    Have the book on order.