If pop culture teaches us anything, it's that what's most unexpected can come from anywhere, and that mere entertainments can have startling undercurrents. Look at Babe, perhaps the most charming movie of last year. But beneath the charm is the deeply subversive message that there's no reason to believe anyone who tells you, "This is the way things are, and there's nothing you can do to change it" -- implying, "This is the way things ought to be."
A cultural critic best known for his work on music, including the seminal Mystery Train, Greil Marcus understands in his bones that good work can be around any corner, and that things are very seldom what keepers of the status quo tell you they are. The subjects of his latest collection of essays, The Dustbin of History, include German novelists musing on how the Berlin Wall has affected that country's self-image, a Bob Dylan song about a forgotten blues singer, Susan Sontag's Europhilia, the emotional truths of Nazi-hunting thrillers, the woman who may have written the original version of the Pentateuch, the idea of citizenship expressed in The Manchurian Candidate, Camille Paglia's transformation of the history of Western art into an "epistemological charnel house," and, of course, rock and roll. The theme that ties these pieces together is a variation on the one Marcus explored in the mind-blowing and thoroughly entertaining Lipstick Traces: the struggle of people, in a variety of times and places, to be subjects -- rather than objects -- of history, and how those people are written out of official history -- which, Marcus argues, is almost always tied to power. "The idea that history might have its own directions," he writes, "that it's a force to be understood rather than a set of facts to be manipulated -- is missed. History will be what we say it is . . . if only we could agree."
If history -- meaning people's ability people to catch a truth about their country, their era, their lives, a truth that runs counter to all accepted notions of what is supposed to be -- is expressed in things like a spy thriller, the ghostly graying of John Wayne's hair in Red River, a TV-movie about Jan and Dean, the work that a young Jewish woman named Deborah Chessler did with the seminal doo-wop group the Orioles, then what hope do they have of escaping the dustbin of history -- history being defined as statistics, dates, events of officially sanctioned importance?
Marcus is keenly aware of the way facts are manipulated to create new meanings. If Mario Savio's words at the beginning of the Free Speech Movement -- "When the operation of the machine becomes so odious . . . you've got to indicate to the people who run it . . . that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all" -- can be commonly misquoted as "SHUT THE MOTHERFUCKER DOWN!", it can serve not only as a myth for the left but also as justification for the right. In the case of early-'60s California, that was the right that elected Ronald Reagan governor and set in motion his ascent to the White House.
But Marcus also knows how rigorous adherence to facts alone can deny the meaning of events. In perhaps the finest piece here, "Götterdämmerung after Twenty-One Years," he writes about how historians of Nazism who attempt to deal with their subject entirely by fact are building a bridge over an abyss (his metaphor), even as some Nazi-conspiracy thrillers and the memoirs of real-life Nazi hunters stir up the sense of the inexplicable, the unprecedented, that's essential to any understanding of what the Nazis did.
What links Marcus to the artists he most prizes is his utter lack of embarrassment about his emotional or intellectual responses. Unlike critics who insist (wrongly) that art is about ideas, he can't work up excitement for ideas not animated by pleasure, rage, a sense of discovery. Here he is describing a group of aging doo-wop singers: "The singers are older now, their voices rougher, but it doesn't matter; if they've lost love's wings they've found love's body." For a critic with such an active sense of dread, Marcus almost always cheers me up by offering what the best critics are capable of: the exhilaration of hearing unspoken or unarticulated thoughts given voice. His most recurrent metaphor for art is a conversation. As a critic, he extends his readers the chance to enter into that conversation, the chance to discover the freedoms his subjects have created for themselves.
Marcus is a little like the guys who, in my father's childhood, hawked decoder rings on the radio. Only what he's selling is no gyp. In his review of American Hot Wax, he says the movie makes ordinary life seem no longer ordinary: "It seems like a gift." After reading Marcus, you're ready to seek out the meanings lurking in newspaper reports, pop songs, the language of politicians, movies so familiar their content seems exhausted. And ordinary life no longer seems ordinary. It seems like an adventure.