Sep 4, 2006

stuck in the wilderness with the American prophet

Eben Harrell reviews Greil Marcus's new book, The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice. Writes Harrell,
John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and Martin Luther King are all cited by Marcus as early examples of the American prophetic voice. They all warned America that it was threatened with disappearing into the gap, the abyss, between concept and reality. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln compared the Civil War to a war of judgment and claimed that if America were to be destroyed it would be "just and righteous", such was the betrayal that led to a war in which "every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword".

But in the 1960s, something happened, Marcus believes. The prophets fled from politics. Prophecy was thrown out like outdated language. But in the gutter where it fell, America's underlings were waiting - the artists....

If the prophetic voice has diminished, that does not mean those who adopt it speak any less powerfully. The majority of The Shape of Things to Come is spent assembling the motley crew of artists whom Marcus wants to raise to the level of prophet. They are an obscure, subversive bunch, part of what Philip Roth would call "the indigenous American berserk". The prophetic voice is heard in the rants of Allen Ginsberg; sensed in Philip Roth's American trilogy, particularly American Pastoral; felt in the fractured American dreamscapes of director David Lynch; heard in the punk rock of David Thomas and his band Pere Ubu; and, in Marcus's most remarkable argument, it can be seen in the face of the actor Bill Pullman, which for all these works acts as cynosure.
David Lynch I could almost buy, if it weren't for the lazy mysterium of Mulholland Drive. David Thomas I know not, which cements my place on The Outside with Jackie Harvey.

But Bill Pullman? Obscure and subversive? Bill Pullman of Spaceballs? Of Independence Day, the first and only pre-9/11 9/11 film? Bill Pullman of Scary Movie 4?

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