The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice

The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice

by Greil Marcus

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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year

A London Times Literary Supplement Best Book of the Year

In this exhilarating and kaleidoscopic investigation of American identity, Greil Marcus traces the nation's fable of self invention from its earliest Puritan beginnings to its successive retellings in the work of diverse contemporary artists. Marcus considers the birth of America as a New Jerusalem, a place of promises so vast that they could only be betrayed—and how from that betrayal emerged the nation's prophetic voice, the voice that calls America's citizens to self-judgment. Over the course of our history, Marcus finds that the prophetic voice has sounded less and less in the political realm—where it can be heard in the words of John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—and more in the work of individual artists, including Philip Roth, David Lynch, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, Allen Ginsberg, the band Heavens to Betsy, Bill Pullman, and Sheryl Lee.

In The Shape of Things to Come, the past and the present merge in the most extraordinary and surprising ways. Greil Marcus presents a stirring, and frightening, portrait of our country, our ideals, and ourselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312426422
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/21/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 8.06(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Greil Marcus is the author of nine previous books, including Lipstick Traces, Mystery Train, and The Dustbin of History. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Read an Excerpt

The Shape of Things to Come

Prophecy and The American Voice
By Griel Marcus

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2006 Greil Marcus
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-10438-7



These are the voices I found when, a few days after terrorists attacked American cities, I was asked to write about what happened. It seemed presumptuous to say anything, and in any case I had nothing to say. I listened instead.

"Where is the building? Did it fall down? Where is it?" -Joe Disordo, on the collapse of Two World Trade Center, describing his escape from One World Trade Center, New York Times, 16 September 2001

* * *

Looking down they could see the last convulsions: the lights of the cars were darting through the streets, like animals trapped in a maze, frantically seeking an exit, the bridges were jammed with cars, the approaches to the bridges were veins of massed headlights, glittering bottlenecks stopping all motion, and the desperate screaming of sirens reached faintly to the height of the plane ...

The plane was above the peaks of the skyscrapers when suddenly, with the abruptness of a shudder, as if the ground had parted to engulf it, the city disappeared from the face of the earth. It took them a moment to realize that the panic had reached the power stations-and that the lights of New York had gone out. -Ayn Rand,Atlas Shrugged, 1957

Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon. The sky was blue. The birds were singing. And the bastards were finally going to get what was coming to them.

I say "I" even though I didn't actually bomb the Pentagon-we bombed it, in the sense that Weathermen organized and claimed it ...

Some details cannot be told. Some friends and comrades have been in prison for decades; others, including Bernadine, spent months and months locked up for refusing to talk or give handwriting samples to federal grand juries. Consequences are real for people, and that's part of this story, too. But the government was dead wrong, and we were right. In our conflict we don't talk; we don't tell. We never confess.

When activists were paraded before grand juries, asked to name names, to humiliate themselves and to participate in destroying the movement, most refused and went to jail rather than say a word. Outside they told the press, I didn't do it, but I dug it. I recall John Brown's strategy over a century ago-he shot all the members of the grand jury investigating his activities in Kansas. -Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days, September 2001

"You don't know where she is?" I asked again. He shrugged again, and I said, "OK." I let the automatic dangle from my hand as I waited for the sound of a jet making its final approach over the motel. "Last chance," I said before the noise got too loud for him to hear. He shrugged again. "You know I'm not going to kill you, don't you?" I said. He shook his head, but his eyes smiled. He might be a piece of shit but Jackson had some balls on him. Either that or he was more frightened of his business associates than he was of me. That was a real mistake on his part. When the landing jet swept over the motel, I leaned down and pumped two rounds into his right foot.

"You didn't have to shoot him twice," Trahearne said.

"Once to get his attention," I said, "and once to let him know I was serious." -James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss, 1978

* * *

The terrorist attacks were major atrocities. In scale, they may not reach the level of many others-for example, Clinton's 1998 bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people. -Noam Chomsky, 11 September 2001

Over the years since the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, the [American] public has become tolerably familiar with the idea that there are Middle Easterners of various shades and stripes who do not like them ...

With cell phones still bleeping piteously from under the rubble, it probably seems indecent to most people to ask if the United States has ever done anything to attract such awful hatred. -Christopher Hitchens, Guardian (London), 13 September 2001

What we saw on Tuesday, terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve ... The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy forty million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen." -The Reverend Jerry Falwell, The 700 Club, 13 September 2001

The responsibility for violence lies with those who perpetrate it. -Salman Rushdie, In Good Faith, 1990

* * *

The water was rising, got up in my bed

Lord, the water was rolling, got up to my bed

I thought I would take a trip, Lord, out on the days I slept. -Charley Patton, "High Water Everywhere Part II," 1929

I was stranded in Chicago until late last night. On the runway in Newark on Monday at 8 a.m.-that was OK by one day; on the runway at O'Hare on Tuesday at 8.30-that wasn't so great. The airport shut down, and we were left to make our way into a chaotic Chicago of semi- evacuation. After three days and five plane reservations cancelled, I finally found a car and drove home. Eight hundred miles of flags, licenses from everywhere and bumper stickers like MY PRESIDENT IS CHARLTON HESTON and HOW'S MY DRIVING / DIAL 1-800-EAT-SHIT. With my finger on the pulse of the nation, I pulled in about 10 p.m. -Hal Foster, Princeton, New Jersey, e-mail, 15 September 2001

For the first time in America, except during the Civil War and the World War, people were afraid to say whatever came to their tongues. On the streets, on trains, at theaters, men looked about to see who might be listening before they dared so much as say there was a drought in the West, for someone might suppose they were blaming the drought on the Chief! ...

Every moment everyone felt fear, nameless and omnipresent. They were as jumpy as men in a plague district. Any sudden sound, any unexplained footstep, any unfamiliar script on an envelope, made them startle; and for months they never felt secure enough to let themselves go, in complete sleep. -Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here, 1935

Gloom and sadness and bereavement just hang in the air. My local firemen were killed, and the whole area is plastered with missing- people flyers: someone's little daughter who had accompanied her mother to work, endless husbands and wives and daughters and sons and best friends; destroyed people. -Emily Marcus, Charles Street and Greenwich Avenue, Manhattan, e-mail, 15 September 2001

High water rising, rising night and day All the gold and silver are being stolen away Big Joe Turner looking east and west from the dark room of his mind He made it to Kansas City, Twelfth Street and Vine Nothing standing there. -Bob Dylan, "High Water (For Charley Patton)," September 2001

* * *

"The ship? Great God, where is the ship?" -Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, 1851

The Barking Dog

America is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion, crime and liberation, lynch mobs and escapes; its greatest testaments are made of portents and warnings, Biblical allusions that lose all their certainties in American air. "A dog, a dog," as David Lynch wrote in a song called "Pink Western Range," "barking like Robert Johnson."

The story of America as told from the beginning is one of self-invention and nationhood, and before and after the formal founding of the nation, the template, in its simplest, starkest terms, came in the voice of God from the Book of Amos, calling out to the Children of Israel: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." From John Winthrop in 1630, with "A Modell of Christian Charity," describing the mission of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Company, to Abraham Lincoln in 1865, delivering his Second Inaugural Address, to Martin Luther King, Jr., ninety-eight years later, speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, America has told itself that story. Whether America has heard itself in these prophetic voices-voices that were raised to keep faith with the past, or with the future to which the past committed their present-is another question.

The Children of Israel made a covenant with God, to keep his commandments, obey his rules, and follow the path of righteousness; the covenant and nothing else made them a nation. The promises they made were not made to be broken; because one people and no other had made a covenant with God, the stakes were much higher. The promises were made to be betrayed, which meant that when one betrayed the promise, one betrayed God. In the Israel of Isaiah and Jeremiah, as the land fell into misery and sin, prophets stepped forward to speak in God's name, to warn the people that as in their covenant they had been promised God's greatest blessings, should they betray their covenant they would suffer the greatest torments; as they had offered themselves to his judgment, so they would be judged. America began as a reenactment of this drama, Amos's words echoing over Fitzgerald's phylogenetic American memory of "a fresh, green breast of the new world."

The Puritans carried the sense of themselves as God's people to America as they found it; that sense, armed, is what is called American exceptionalism. It re-creates the nation as a voice of power and self- righteousness, speaking to itself in a message broadcast to the whole world. This is an original and fundamental part of American identity; there is no American identity without it, which is also to say there is no American identity without a sense of portent and doom. This is the other side of the story: the urge of the nation, in the shape of a certain kind of American hero, to pass judgment on itself. Israel had the comfort of knowing that should it betray its covenant, God would be the judge; in America, a covenant a few people once made with themselves, a covenant the past made with the future and that every present maintains with both the future and the past, passing that judgment on America is everyone's burden and liberation. It's what it means to be a citizen; all of citizenship, all taxes and freedoms, flows from that obligation. To be obliged to judge one's country is also to have the right to do it.

This story, once public and part of common discourse, something to fight over in flights of gorgeous rhetoric and blunt plain speech, has long since become spectral; it is now cryptic. To the degree that it is worth the telling, it is a story told more in art than in politics, even if it is at the heart of our politics-our ongoing struggle to define what the nation is and what it is for. In the nineteenth century, along with Melville and Hawthorne, Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass and Edgar Allan Poe, politicians and preachers asked if the country understood the nature of its covenant. They asked if the country understood the price that would be paid if the covenant were to be broken, or the price to be paid if the fact that the covenant had already been broken, a fact buried under generations of patriotic speeches and prayers, proved to be impossible to hide.

The Jews Are Not the Only People Who Built the Tombs of the Prophets

"At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?" Abraham Lincoln asked the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, early in 1838. He was just short of twenty-nine, a first-term representative in the state legislature; he was addressing a self-improvement society.

Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

He went back to his question: "At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."

From long before Lincoln's time, up to our own and certainly past it, pious and self-promoting denunciations of the corruptions breeding within the republic have been and will be part of the republic's speech: Unless we rid ourselves of this stain, those parasites, this perversion, these impostors of virtue who claim to speak in our name-then doom, goes the litany, and deservedly so. The old story-and the heart of what Lincoln was to talk about that night. He was right, as anyone is right when he or she raises this flag. But finally, after more than a century and a half, during which the United States became a world power, and then the most powerful nation in the world, he was proven wrong.

"U.S. Attacked," read the headline in the New York Times on 12 September 2001, and it was a remarkable choice of words. It was no matter that the attackers were not Lincoln's army of Europe, Asia, or Africa, but a mere nineteen Muslim terrorists directed from a mountain retreat in Afghanistan. The writer understood that a brilliantly planned conspiracy, an almost perfectly executed, astonishingly spectacular assault, the hijacking and then smashing of planes into the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York, a third into the Pentagon, with the last plane, headed for the Capitol, brought down in Pennsylvania by its passengers after they learned what had already happened, was first of all symbolic. The writer understood that the deaths of thousands of people going about their business, whatever that might be, were necessary to validate the symbolism, and that the intent of the perpetrators was to instantly reveal mere buildings as representative of the country, and thus symbolically enact the destruction of the nation itself. More starkly, more truthfully than any of those who over the next days and weeks gave speeches, wrote essays, or delivered sermons, whoever composed the headline captured all this as if in a two-word poem.

More than any other place on earth, America can be attacked through its symbols because it is made up. It is a construct, an idea, and as from the beginning to this day it is still seeking to construct, to shape, whoever finds himself or herself on its ground. The nation exists as power, but its only legitimacy is found in a few pieces of paper. Take away the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and perhaps various public speeches that lie behind those documents or pass them on, and as a nation you have little more than a collection of buildings and people who have no special reason to speak to each other, and nothing to say.

If the nation is a construct, though, as it was made up it can be unmade; the September terrorists may have understood that. As a construct, America exists by means of its symbols, and if those symbols are destroyed-destroy one, destroy them all, the American way, buy one, get one free-the idea is suddenly exposed as nothing more than that. A few agreements made more than two centuries ago make up the contract that binds all Americans to each other and to the nation as such, which is to say they are all that binds them, that they are all the nation is. The notion that people can validate themselves through a few words denying tyranny, affirming equality, and insisting that any individual has rights no power can grant or take away-what we call freedom-is itself as much a symbol as it is a way of life, and so it too can be attacked as a symbol. It's a crude, backward reading-If your power can be denied so terribly and so swiftly, what is the power of your idea?-though not so far from our own primitive, backward translation: Behold our power, tremble before our idea. In their emptiness, both versions make plain how unlikely and odd the idea is.

The idea is that of a country inventing itself, staging the old play about a chosen people and their covenant with their god-but as the country took shape and announced itself as a nation, the ground shifted. America became a country that was a nation because it had made a covenant with itself. It made certain promises about who its citizens might be, how they might live, and for what purposes. Though the blessings of God were called upon, and intimations of his judgment summoned, it was never about God. If the country betrayed its promises, it would betray itself; each citizen would find himself or herself betrayed by every other.


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