Umbah-Umbah

Jerome McGann

  • Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century by Greil Marcus
    Secker, 496 pp, £14.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 436 27338 1

Around 529 BC the armies of the Persian Empire tried to conquer a mysterious and reclusive people who lived somewhere to the east of the Caspian Sea – to this day we do not know exactly where. The Persians acted simply because of Cyrus the Great’s overweening ambition. As it turned out, Cyrus’s armies were defeated and he was killed in the battle. The Massagetae, left once again to themselves, slipped back out of monumental history: back to their unusual customs of sex and death, to the horses for which they were famous, to their sun worship.

Practically all we know of the Massagetae – which is precious little – comes from a few pages in the first of our Western monumental histories, Herodotus. Later historians do not spend much time on a people who lived so resolutely, not to say religiously, at the margin, and who would soon be swallowed up in the quick abyss of time. We know the Massagetae must have had a rich culture from their brief and undesired appearance in one of our imperial histories. Nevertheless, the true history of the Massagetae has escaped us. It remains a closed book, a secret history.

Greil Marcus’s ‘secret history of the 20th century’ does not mention the Massagetae. His principal subjects – the Sex Pistols, Dada, the Situationist International – send him plunging back into earlier epochs for proleptic and analogous movements and events: the Catharists, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Lollards, the Ranters, John of Leyden and the French Commune. Marcus draws these and others into his secret history of the 20th century because he is interested in revolution and apocalypse: the kind of secret history which moves not in a world elsewhere, beyond the periphery of our dominant apparitions, but inside those apparitions, the ghosts within the ghostly machines of the social worlds we know.

Revolution and apocalypse are hardly secret or non-monumental topics. Indeed, the modern world – let us say the past four hundred years – has been fairly dominated by the revolutionary impulse and event. But monumental revolution is not much to Marcus’s taste either. We hear little or nothing about the English Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, nothing about the Soviet or the Chinese Revolutions. These are all out of court because Marcus is after something at once more catastrophic and more insignificant: the Sex Pistols, Dada, the Situationist International.

What these three phenomena embody for Marcus is a peculiarly 20th-century preoccupation: ‘art and revolution playing [themselves] out in a realm of amusements and commodities’. From the vantage of (any) realpolitik, Johnny Rotten, Guy Debord and the Cabaret Voltaire represent brief epiphenomenal waves on the powerful surge of human events – at most minor indices of greater and more important human struggles. Indeed, they customarily do not figure very largely in those monumental sub-histories which might otherwise have paid them homage: the history of music, art, poetry.

Dada or Surrealism; the Sex Pistols or Michael Jackson; the Situationist International or – well, if nothing bears comparison with it, few would have any trouble establishing the scale on which to measure the importance of Guy Debord and his band of angels. The comparisons themselves are eloquent enough, for in none of these cases are we dealing with ‘serious’ art or culture. Perhaps Surrealism has at last gotten a ticket to ride. In Marcus’s book, however, Surrealism emerges as the debased product of Dada just as Michael Jackson is the farcical return of the (repressed) Sex Pistols.

Lipstick Traces is an attempt to explain the significance of the Sex Pistols. It is a highly personal book, a kind of quest by America’s most acute citizen of pop culture to elucidate ‘the secret the Sex Pistols didn’t tell’ – ‘which they only acted out’. Toward the end of his book Marcus explains that the ‘secret’ is in fact a certain kind of (hi)story: ‘I found a tale composed of incomplete sentences, voices cut off or falling silent ... a tale of recapitulations staged again and again in different theatres – a map made altogether of dead ends ... And so, pursuing this story, when I finally came across Debord’s homily on the ephemeral ... I was drawn to it as far as I was drawn to the noise of punk: to his frank and determined embrace of moments in which the world seems to change, moments that leave nothing behind but dissatisfaction, disappointment, rage, sorrow, isolation and vanity.’

As Marcus knows, this is fundamentally a religious story, and at several points in his retelling he discusses the Gnostic idea that the ordinary world is ruled by Satan. Lipstick Traces is the study of a war in heaven fought between the princes of this world and the raging, outrageous heroes of a pitiless antinomian God. Johannes Baader, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gabriel Pomerand, Colin Donellan, Michel Mourre, John of Leyden, Sid Vicious, Poly Styrene: these and many others are the ragged doomsters of Marcus’s secret history. To track their explosive and erratic careers he uses whatever maps he can find: the theoretical writings of Isidore Isou and Guy Debord, Larry Clark’s pictures, Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, Theodor Adorno (in particular his great and mordant Minima Moralia), Christopher Gray’s Leaving the 20th Century, Abiezer Coppe, Georges Bataille. Oddly, the name William Blake never passes the lips(tick) of this book.

Marcus uses as well the reminiscences and recapitulations of various people who were swept up in the storms raised by these people: for example, Henri Lefebvre, Michele Bernstein, Richard Huelsenbeck, Malcolm Maclaren. Having abandoned or been abandoned by their fiery flying rolls, each of these memorialists re-entered the satanic world – denouncing (Lefebvre), slandering (Maclaren), regretting (Bernstein), or fleeing (Huelsenbeck) their former passions and attachments. Marcus treats them all with respect, even the crass and amusing Maclaren, for Marcus is fully aware that antinomian saints like Johnny Rotten, Debord, Ivan Chtcheglov are spiritual absolutists for whom René Char’s question is a living demand: ‘how can we live without the unknown before us?’ The answer is ‘we’ cannot, and that impossibility contains an awful series of catastrophic microhistories – madnesses, suicides, ruined souls and ruined bodies for whom, in Guy Debord’s words, ‘oblivion is our ruling passion.’

Through it all Richard Huelsenbeck emerges as one of this book’s most fascinating minor characters, and probably, in the end, functions as Marcus’s shadow self. An early member of the Dadaist group, he arrived on the Zurich scene shortly after the Cabaret Voltaire opened. He caused pandemonium when he mounted the stage and began reciting his ‘Negro Poems’, his Negergedichte, which were – as he knew – ‘hopeless fantasies, not even fakes’. His fraudulent poetry was matched by his fraudulent Dadaism, for even as he was ‘creating chaos’ in the Cabaret Voltaire, Huelsenbeck was betraying his new faith:

Reciting his poem ‘The End of the World’, he stalked the stage and slashed the air with a riding crop, spitting out his meaningless sounds as if they were apocrypha straight from the lost gnostic Gospel of Truth... It was still a fraud but no one knew: ‘I secretly went to the University and started studying medicine,’ he told the audience at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1971. ‘I couldn’t say it to anybody because they would have thought I was a terrible liar and bourgeois.’ In the morning he goes to the University and at night he makes umbah-umbah.

This is the ‘figure who appears in this book again and again’, Marcus says. ‘Johnny Rotten/John Lydon is one version; Guy Debord is another. Saint-Just was an ancestor, but in my story Richard Huelsenbeck is the prototype. God only knows what he was like as a psychiatrist.’

Cruel, intransigent, hysterical, violent, and – most of all – finally a failure and a ruin. In Huelsenbeck’s case, the failure is there from the start, in his fraudulent Dadaism (which is perhaps, as Marcus would agree, a tautological phrase – and in that very fact the ‘secret’ of Dadaism’s importance). Soon enough Huelsenbeck will live out that fraudulence, which is to say he will abandon Dadaism and take up psychiatry. Huelsenbeck leaves Europe and turns his quest for the New Jerusalem into a trip to the United States, where he enters the New York psychoanalytic community and begins living an ordinary satanic life under a new name, Dr Charles R. Hulbeck. ‘“And so as a doctor I was a success,” he wrote in 1969, five years before he died, “and as a dadaist (the thing closest to my heart) I was a failure.”’ But Marcus turns on this regretful reminiscence and exposes its shameless and shocking truth. The point is not to ask what Huelsenbeck meant by this ex post facto confession: ‘that was his business. The point is to ask what it would mean to live with that kind of phantom in your heart.’

This is clearly the central question of Marcus’s entire book, for he goes back to the scene of that question on his final page:

There is the certainty of failure: all those who glimpse possibility in a spectral moment become rich, and though they remain so, they are ever after ever more impoverished. That is why, as I write, Johnny Rotten is a pop star who cannot make his fans forget the Sex Pistols ... and why, a few years before he died, Dr Charles R. Hulbeck again became Huelsenbeck, left the USA and went back to Switzerland, hoping to rediscover what he’d found there fifty years before (not believing for a minute that he would), trying, he said, ‘to go back to some kind of chaos’, half-convinced that ‘liberty never really existed anywhere.’

It is a superb moment. An emblem of Marcus’s clear and yet passionate prose, a summary of his book’s central subjects, the passage is equally an answer to the earlier question posed for Huelsenbeck. To live with ‘that kind of phantom in your heart’ is, in Marcus’s case, to write this kind of prose. For Marcus, like Huelsenbeck, makes a confession in his final pages, when he tells us that his book, like Huelsenbeck’s reminiscences, is an effort to come to terms with the antinomian message of Johnny Rotten, Guy Debord, the Brethren of the Free Spirit: how does one live with the knowledge that ‘our situations will be ephemeral, without a future: passageways’? ‘I was drawn to this message,’ he says ‘coded but not stated in punk, because in a small and anonymous way I lived it out myself. In the fall of 1964, in Berkeley ... I was, day after day, for months, part of the crowd that made up the Free Speech Movement. In that event, which began as a small protest over rules and regulations ... everything was at stake and everyone took part.’ ‘For better or worse,’ Marcus adds, ‘this event formed a standard against which I judged the present and the past ever since.’ ‘This event’ was, however, the entire trajectory of the Free Speech Movement, from its small beginning, through its high and spectacular moments, to its final resolution ‘in a great, formal debate by professors over rules and regulations’. That dying fall is the sign of the ruin and failure under which all of these ‘events’ always take place. At once a failure and a judgment, it goes on to live a various and secret life, not least in the secret hearts of those who experienced the ruination as part of their own incapacities:

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

For Marcus, as for Byron, the ‘rest’ comes with the writing, where the original moments of intensity and truth are recovered in a mode recognised to be minor. But the fate of loss and diminishment secures its romantic revenge, as we see repeatedly in Marcus’s book. He calls ‘revolution’ that ‘moment in which people say no, enter into festival, are then in one way or another pushed out of history’, and watches as ‘their moment drop[s] down into a footnote, or [is] left to float free as an anarchist myth’ (my italics). In fact, that last conjunction should be ‘and’, not ‘or’. Though Lipstick Traces professes to be no more than ‘a book about movements in culture that raised no monuments, about movements that barely left a trace’, Marcus clearly believes that such ‘movements’ represent what is truly important. Not only are they movements and moments that ‘explain most of American culture’, they are finally even ‘the source of all values’, the ‘cleared space’ where every worldly and quotidian betrayal is at last renounced for good. That final abandonment comes, however, not at the hands of the troops from Versailles who entered Paris in 1871 and massacred the 25,000 Communard saints. It comes from within.

For Johnny Rotten it came on that triumphant (and disastrous) night at Winterland, the end of the nine-months’ wonder that was (and is) the Sex Pistols:

On stage all one saw was an ugly, unlikely youth declaring that his time as a pop star had come to an end: you could see it happen, hear him deciding to quit. ‘Ah, it’s awful,’ he said in the middle of ‘No Fun’ ... even his loathing leaving him: ‘It’s no good.’ The disgust that the band had been built to talk about had finally, so quickly, overtaken the one whose job it was to talk about it. The show had gone far enough. All one saw was a failure; all one saw was a medium. The hall shook: it shook like a seance table in 19th-century Boston, Paris or Petrograd, when the devotees sat waiting, ready for the dead to come knocking on the horizontal doors. The show had gone as far as a show can go.

For Marcus, however, this moment of (romantic) failure is not so much nostalgic as inspiriting – what he elsewhere hears as the stylistic emblem of punk itself, ‘the note held until disgust turns to glee’.

Marcus finds the theory of this kind of perception in two key ideas of the Lettrist International (the immediate precursors of the Situationists, who applied them in thoroughgoing ways): dérive, or ‘the technique of displacement without goals’, and détournement, or the technique of ‘applying the reversible connecting factor to any posited subject or object’. In each case there is a movement ‘to seize the familiar and turn it into the other’; for ‘making meaning – or unmaking it – [goes] hand in hand with making history.’ This ‘method’ of making history, however, sets in motion the fate of its own reversal. As an ‘aesthetic occupation of enemy territory’, it necessarily – being an aesthetic or ‘mirroring’ assault – becomes what it beholds. The satanic world, which includes those who carry out the revolutions of the world, remains, as Adorno would say, ‘in untruth’. But the translation of this untruth into the realm of the aesthetic (for Marcus, this means into ‘amusements and commodities’, including the commodity of his own book) turns the entire world upside down, turns it all to ashes (‘Ah, it’s awful’). The consequence is the revelation of pure desire, of Byron’s ‘love’ which, carried to its mortal exhaustion (or betrayal), comes thereafter to haunt the vacant appearances of the known world – the evidence of things not seen.

In such a project there will be no redemption, only the recurrent emergence of John the Baptist denouncing the wickedness of the world, or – as Blake would put it – keeping the divine vision in a time of trouble. Seen in this way, the project involves a desperate revelation, and perhaps – though Marcus would not say so – a revelation of despair. Marcus makes a distinction early in the book between ‘negation’, which carries an activist salient, and ‘nihilism’, which for him is passive and yielding. It is not clear that, from a political vantage-point, this is a distinction that makes any real difference.

As a distinction in and for the writing of history, however, and especially the writing of secret history, the distinction is extremely useful. We can see this best, I think, by applying Marcus’s description of the writings of the Situationists to Marcus’s own book: ‘At the heart of the essays on Watts or fallout shelters, the arguments are dressed in the armour of facts and scrupulous research, of history and sociology, but they are armed with the dispensations of poetry – the poetry of a title like “The Geopolitics of Hibernation”, of its orchestration by an ad for the “Peace o’ Mind” fallout-shelter company. As the symbolism of the shelter expands to take in Brasilia, a capital city protecting itself from its own country, or a state-sponsored non-alcoholic discotheque protecting its patrons from themselves, there is finally no ordinary argument at all, only an unstoppable recontextualisation of anything an argument might touch.’

The passage perfectly describes the work which Marcus himself has written, with its wonderful poetic title from a Benny Spellman song of 1962. The ‘unstoppable recontextualisation’ goes on because Marcus positively negates the great historical convention of narrative – not by avoiding narrative altogether (as in an almanach), but precisely by setting narrative(s) in motion and then running them all at each other along strange diagonals. The ‘secret’ of Marcus’s ‘history’ is therefore its poetry, which appears most dramatically in the book’s cut-up and paratactic structures. Through these forms widely separated persons and events call out to each other and ‘connect’ precisely because so many of ordinary history’s casual and syntactic arrangements have been positively negated.

Lipstick Traces means to be a ‘revolutionary’ book, and – judged on its own terms – it is. But its success is achieved in the mode of romantic irony. One inevitably thinks of Richard Huelsenbeck’s judgment of himself: a success as a doctor, he was a failure as – the thing dearest to his heart – a Dadaist. Marcus, successful as a writer and historian, discovers the failure of his revolutionary heart – which now burns all the more fiercely for its sins.