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Greil Marcus Talks War

Always thinkin', that Greil Marcus

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Greil Marcus -- Rolling Stone magazine’s first reviews editor in 1969 -- appeared before a crowd of mostly middle-aged smart types at Books and Books late last month in Coral Gables to read from his latest, He leapt to the back of The Shape of Things To Come for the subject of his reading, to a chapter called “Kansas,” where he describes a performance Allen Ginsberg gave in New York, in 1994. Marcus writes about the vortex Ginsberg found in Kansas in 1966 — one of national energies, diffuse and swirling fears, resentments and values in the midst of social upheaval and angst about Vietnam — which Ginsberg harnessed in the back of his car to create his own vortex, the poem, and which appeared in vortex form yet again at Books and Books. Liking Ginsberg to an Old Testament prophet, Marcus sounded like one himself.

“So stanza after stanza, Ginsberg raises his arms to that god. The mosquito that appeared ten minutes back is now an eagle. ‘Language,’ Ginsberg says again and again, every time, in 1994, pronouncing the word delicately, sensually, running his hands over the syllables, letting them run down his body like water and soap, like the hands of a whole city of imagined lovers: ‘The war is language.’”

When the time came for Q&A, Vietnam was still in the room, and the talk was mostly about war. The smarties in attendance wanted to know, Why is public outrage at such a low ebb? Why aren’t the kids doing anything about the terrible mess the country’s found itself in?

“In 1963, ’65, ’66, and far into the 70’s,” said Marcus, “the United States was coming out of something that could only be called ‘social revolution.’ That was the Civil Rights movement. It had mobilized the imagination of the country . . . and the idea that ordinary people could go out to speak in public, to do anything possible to change their society — that was alive. That was taken for granted. That was part of the language that was spoken then. And that was a long time ago. There is no comparable movement, despite protests against globalization in Seattle or anything of that sort.”

Is it a question of art? Not enough Ginsbergs around?

“We have lost the language of outrage,” he said. “And one of the reasons is, right at this moment, we don’t have anybody who’s written a poem, sung a song, made a film of this power. But remember, this poem that I’ve read about — this is something that Ginsberg composed, really, riding around in the back of a VW bus. He read bits and pieces of it at the time and over the years, but that night in 1994, almost thirty years after he wrote the poem, was probably the first time he ever performed it as a thing in itself. In other words, written at the time — and the words not changed, not edited, not made stronger or anything like that — but not really coming to life until so long after.”

Which is to say, who knows what bombs people are planting right now? Who knows how many bombs are waiting to detonate twenty or thirty years hence, when the world’s finally ready to watch them explode? There’s bound to be a few. --Brandon K. Thorp

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