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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Is History a Myth Shaped by Our Wants? : THE DUSTBIN OF HISTORY by Greil Marcus ; Harvard University Press $22.95, 240 pages

November 03, 1995|LEE DEMBART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Usually when I finish reading a book, I know whether I liked it or not. I know whether I'm going to write a positive or a negative review.

Not so with "The Dustbin of History," a collection of essays by Greil Marcus, a rock critic and cultural commentator who has many interesting things to say, but unfortunately surrounds them with an equal number of uninteresting things.

As a result, I find myself uncomfortably poised on the razor's edge, unable to fall to one side or the other.

First, the good stuff:

Marcus starts off with a bang. He will tell us, he says, that history is not in the past; it is constantly being remade.

It is not so much about wars and elections and people in power as it is about smaller people who step on the stage for a moment or two and then disappear.

His essays, he says, "are about the way history is cheapened and restricted; about those people, acts and events that are casually left out of history or forcefully excluded from it, and about the way much of history finds its voice or bides its time in artworks."

He is aware that all statements leave out as much as they include, that reality overflows our ability to speak about it.

There is always nuance that words do not capture.

"When an event takes place outside the strictures of power," he writes, "it is swallowed by the imperatives of history, which are partly the imperatives of myth. History is a story: We want a story that makes sense, is poetically whole, that fits what we already think we already know."

The world, it has been said, consists of wrigglers and sticks-in-the-mud.

Marcus is a wriggler. He is decidedly and unapologetically contrarian, with a healthy dislike for Susan Sontag, Umberto Eco and the movie "American Graffiti."

Of the Beat Generation poets, he says pointedly:

"They wanted to be larger than life. They wanted success. They wanted fame. They wanted everyone to be like them--which is not the same as wanting to change the world."

*

Most children are taught, "You get along by going along." Marcus never learned it. So it is challenging and unsettling to watch him think.

His writing is rich and textured, though at times it is so textured that I couldn't understand what he was talking about. But I'm willing to call that my failing, not his.

He has many good lines.

On first listening to an album by blues singer Robert Johnson, he says, "It was one of those moments when you get your life changed--like picking a college course that leads you to think for the first time, or walking thoughtlessly into a room and falling in love."

Of the Berlin Wall, he writes, "The West gained at least as much from it as the East did. The East got to keep its people, and the West got to gild its symbols."

Mixed in with the good insights are some more flatulent ones. "Though the world seems to be only as it is," he writes, "the world is not what it seems."

And, "There are no limits on the mind's demand for meaning once the perception and representation of meaning have become the basis of life."

Huh?

Most important, the title and promise of the book are never realized. More than most collections, this one doesn't hang together. To bind these essays between two covers under one title is a stretch.

Some of the individual pieces are strong.

See, for example, the Robert Johnson essay or the one on "The Manchurian Candidate" or the one on Deborah Chessler, who wrote songs in the '40s that were a precursor of rock 'n' roll.

But whatever the strength of the individual pieces, they do not demonstrate that history is a myth or that its story is shaped by those with the power to get it "written, published, censored and taught."

I'm prepared to believe that claim. But Marcus merely asserts it, which doesn't count as proof.

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