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Spring 2008

Tied to History

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Greil Marcus

I'm going to talk about a doubled memory. It's a memory of an actual incident, but inside that memory is another memory—a false memory, an attempt to remember something that can't be found.

I was ten in 1955; my family had just moved into a new house in Menlo Park, California. There was a big radio set up, and I'd play with it at night, trying to pull in the drifting signals from stations from across the country: from Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, even (once or twice) New Jersey. One night a few lines came out. "When American GIs left Korea," the radio said, "they also left behind countless fatherless babies. Once everyone talked about this. Now, nobody cares."

The words bothered me at the time, but I put them out of my mind. Or so I thought. For the next twenty years, that incident would reappear— crashing into whatever I was thinking like an invisible meteorite. As I got older, I realized it was an echo of something other than what the words from the radio actually described—I knew it was an echo of an absent memory of my own father, whose name was Greil Gerstley, who was lost in a typhoon in the Pacific when his destroyer went down. Those were all of the facts of the event present in my head at that time: no date, no details, no story. I was born Greil Gerstley, but when those words came out of the radio, I wasn't Greil Gerstley anymore. And though those words made me an echo chamber for the memory they called up, I had nothing to remember: the memory that was called up was blank.

Still, we all have memories of things we did not experience: cultural memories that have taken up residence in our minds, built houses, filled them with furniture and appliances, and commanded that we live in them. These sorts of memories come from all sources, but especially from movies—and so, before I come back to the blank memory I started with, I'm going to talk about David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

The famous opening of this 1986 picture seems to parody the American fantasy of home, peace, pleasure, and quiet—that is, the all-but-trademarked American dream—but what's most interesting about what's happening on the screen is that it may have no satiric meaning at all.

The title sequence has shown a blue velvet curtain, slightly swaying from some silent breeze, casting back to the black-and-white velvet or satin backgrounds that provided a gloss for the title sequences of Forties B pictures. The opening theme music for Blue Velvet is ominous, alluring, at first suggesting Hitchcock's Vertigo, then a quiet setting where predictability has replaced suspense, then horns cutting off all hints of a happy ending. Bobby Vinton sings "Blue Velvet," his soupy number-one hit from 1963—but with the sound hovering over slats of a white picket fence with red roses at their feet, the song no longer sounds soupy, or for that matter twenty-three years in the past. It sounds clean and timeless, just as the white of the fence and the red of the roses are so vivid you can barely see the objects for the colors. For an instant, the viewer is both visually and morally blinded by the intensity of the familiar; defenses are stripped away.

In slow motion, a fireman on a fire engine moving down a well-kept middle-class street waves at you, a warm smile on his moon face. Another picket fence, now with blazing yellow tulips. Children cross a street in an orderly manner as a middle-aged crossing guard holds up her stop sign. There is a house with a white picket fence and a middle-aged man watering the lawn. Inside the house two middle-aged women sit on a sofa; there's a Pierrot doll on the lamp behind them. They're drinking coffee and watching an old-fashioned TV set, a small screen set in a blond wooden box with legs, a set from the Fifties, when a television was sold as a piece of furniture, in this case an object reflecting values of taste and modesty: the box looks Swedish Modern, and also simple enough that the man in the yard might have made it himself.

Outside, the man watering the lawn seems to sway with Bobby Vinton; the camera shows the faucet where the garden hose is attached leaking spray. The hose catches on a branch. The sound of water coming from the hose and the faucet rises to a rumble that seems to be coming out of the ground; every predictable act is about to explode from the pressure it is meant to hide. The man clutches his neck and falls to the ground. He drops the hose. A dog rushes up and, planting its forefeet on the prone man, drinks from the spray. The rumble grows stronger, and the camera goes down to the ground, beneath the grass, to reveal a charnel house, the secret world, where armies of hideous beetles, symbols of human depravity, of men and women as creatures of absolute appetite, banishing all conscience, appear to rise up and march out of the ground to take over the world like the ants in Them! Then the hero finds an ear in a field and the detective story that will take up the rest of the movie begins.

But it's the pastoral that stays in the mind, not the nightmare bugs and things-are-not-as-they-seem. Lynch's picture of things-as-they-ought-to-be is elegant. It feels whole, not like a cheat—for its moment it feels like a step out of the theater and into an idea of real life. Watching it again, you can see that the slightly stiff nature of Lynch's framing and timing of the fireman, the children, the crossing guard, the too-bright images of the fences and flowers, are not a matter of making the familiar strange, but of getting at how familiar the familiar actually is.

These shots don't play like a dream, and they don't play like the beginning of an exciting new story. They play like memory, and they stay in the mind like a common memory laying itself over whatever personal memories a person watching might bring to the images— because what the sequence seems to be showing a viewer is a proof that the notion of personal memory is false. The details of the sequence could, perhaps, be excavated to match specific details of Lynch's own boyhood, but what is striking about these quiet, burningly intense images is that nothing in them is specific to anyone. They are specific— overwhelmingly specific—only as images of the United States.

Anyone's memory is composed of both personal and common memories, and they are not separable. Memories of incidents that seem to have actually happened, once, in a particular time, to you, are colored, shaped, even determined, which is to say fixed in your memory, by the affinities your personal memories have to common memories: common memories as they are presented in textbooks and television programs, comic strips and movies, slang and clothes, all the rituals of everyday life as they are performed in one country as opposed to the way they are performed somewhere else.

The images that open Blue Velvet are images of things anyone watching a movie made in the U.S.A. can be presumed to have seen before, and to have remembered as if he or she waved back at the fireman or picked up the hose—as if whatever it is that makes the image significant was determined by the person remembering it, and no one else. But this is not true—and you can take it farther. If personal memory is false, what happens when you try to construct a memory of something that, in fact, you do not remember, but should—that you desperately want to remember?

I think I always knew that the words about the Korean orphans, left behind and forgotten in the United States, lay behind what I ended up doing with my life: rewriting the past, pursuing an obsession with secret histories, with stories untold—with what, to me, were deep, fraternal connections between people who never met: such people as the Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck in Zurich in 1916, the revolutionary theorist Guy Debord in Paris in 1954, and the punk singer Johnny Rotten in London in 1976. But I did not pursue the secret history, the unremembered history, that lay behind the words from the radio.

One can of course remember what one has not experienced. Older people tell children, This is what it was like, this is what he was like, how he laughed, how he walked, the team he rooted for. You absorb that: you meet someone who in fact you will never meet, and so that person, never present, becomes part of your memory. But in my case, none of that was true.

I was born six months and a day after my father was killed in the Second World War—I know that now, but growing up, I never had a date to work with. My mother is from San Francisco; Greil Gerstley, in 1944, at twenty-four, second in command on a destroyer named the Hull, was from Philadelphia. They hadn't known each other long when they married in San Francisco in September. My mother went with my father to Seattle, where the Hull shipped out.

I was left with the name, which became, for me, a talisman and a mystery. In 1948 my mother remarried, to Gerald Marcus, and he adopted me, and my name was changed. I don't remember myself as Greil Gerstley, but Greil was an unescapable name—I always had to explain it, but I really had nothing to tell. The story of the Hull was not told in my family. There were no pictures of my father Greil Gerstley in my house. When I visited my Philadelphia family, there were pictures, but I felt furtive, unfaithful, criminal, when I looked at them, and no one ever offered me a picture of my own to keep. There were memories—I was visiting my father's older brother and his older sister. There was even a professionally shot home movie, showing my father in his dress Navy uniform—in the way he looked, in the casual, commanding way he leaned back in a chair, so much a match, now, for John F. Kennedy, that the footage is hard to look at—but none of that was shared with me. It must have been that to tell the story of who my father was, what he had done, what happened to him and to so many others would be too much for a small boy to take in—or that to tell me such things would be, somehow, a breach of faith with my new father, or with my mother, in her new life.

The situation never changed. When I grew older, the habit of not speaking about the past became a kind of prison. I didn't know how to break out of it. I didn't ask, and nobody told. Like many children, I sometimes fantasized that I was not the child of my parents—but in my case, it was at least half true. Or more than half true: though I always knew I had had a different father than my brothers and sister, my mother might never have lived the life I came from. When, at first, I asked about my father, she would say she didn't remember—their time together was so short, she said. The letters he wrote to her from the Hull—he was in charge of censoring mail, which is to say he could write what he pleased —were thrown out. He might have told her that, one night, preparing a navigation chart, he renamed a star for her; if he did, she never told me. My mother gave her wedding book to her mother—and when, sometime in the late Fifties, my grandmother took it out and paged through it with me, she told me never to tell my mother she had showed it to me.

So in times of childhood or teenage unhappiness, the fantasy that I might have lived a different life, been a different person with a different name, was more a fact than a fantasy: if my father had lived, both my mother and I would have lived very different lives. But it was the kind of fact that, when you try to hold on to it, slips through your fingers like water.

Thus I developed my obsession with the past; I used the cultivated mystery of my own past as a spur to reconstructing events both as they happened and as they didn't—as they might have. I became a writer, and this is always the route I've traveled, whether writing about Elvis or Bill Clinton, Bob Dylan or Huey Long, John Wayne in Rio Bravo or Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. I never expected my untold story to actually appear, as real life—to challenge, as real life, the fantasy that has always been the foundation of my work.

But the story did appear. A few years ago, my father—my second father —called to say there was a documentary on the Hull on the Weather Channel. I watched it, alone; when my wife came home, I said, "I just saw my father die." He wasn't in the film: rather, survivors from the Hull spoke over stock footage and still photos of the typhoon that destroyed over eight hundred men from their ship and from the two more that went down in the same storm. You saw their Navy photos, as they were in 1944; you saw them now, smiling, laughing, sober, crying, speaking of the countless men who made it into the open sea with life jackets, and who, when they were found, had nothing of themselves left below the waist—countless men eaten alive by sharks.

Then, two years ago, a writer named Bruce Henderson got in touch with me. He was looking for information about Greil Gerstley for a book on the Hull. Was I perhaps named for him by a friend? Was I a distant relative? Was there anything I could tell him?

The story he told, based on interviews he had conducted with survivors and people in the orbit of the ship, was terrible. The Hull had been at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but was not damaged; its captain then—the man who trained my father, who became the Hull's executive officer—was respected and trusted. In Seattle, he was replaced by a martinet from Annapolis, a man so vain and incompetent, so impatient with advice from experienced sailors and sure of his own right way, that, when the Hull set sail for the South Pacific, twenty men went AWOL, certain that to ship with this man was a death sentence.

With the typhoon looming, Admiral Halsey ordered the fleet to sail into it —"to see what they were made of." With the ship trapped in a trough, with waves on each side a hundred feet high, the captain determined to power the engines to full throttle and smash his way out, while his officers vainly tried to tell him that, in a trough, you cut the engines and wait. The captain panicked; he issued contradictory orders, rescinded them, issued them again. Other officers, who survived to tell the story to Bruce Henderson, begged my father—who was trusted as the captain was not, admired as the captain was reviled—to seize the ship: to place the captain under arrest, take command, and save the ship, in other words to lead a mutiny. There was no mutiny, but The Caine Mutiny was inspired by what happened in this typhoon, and by what might have happened.

My father refused. In the history of the Navy there had never been such a mutiny, he said. He knew, he said, that if he took command he would be court-martialed, and if he didn't, he and everyone else would probably die.

The ship was pitching at angles of seventy degrees. My father was thrown against machinery, breaking ribs, bones in his back, and the bones of one hand. Another sailor got a splint on his hand. The ship pitched over ninety degrees—and after that the only direction it could go was down. With the ship flooding, my father was pulled from a hatch into the open sea. One survivor says he said to a sailor who approached him, "Don't try to help me, I won't make it"; another remembers him asking for help, and the men near him knowing he had no chance.

As it happens, long after the war, when enough time had passed for those who had been part of it to talk about it, the survivors of the Hull began to hold reunions. In December 2006, in Las Vegas, they held what they determined would be their last, and one of my daughters went. She looks like my father, as I don't; my mother, in a rare unguarded moment, was the first to see it. The people in Las Vegas saw it. They told her stories, some of them as terrible as the one Bruce Henderson told: that when the original captain of the Hull was told, by one of the survivors, that if he had still been the captain the ship would never have gone down, he shot himself.

So now I know these facts, or I have heard, second or third hand, these stories. I have a story I can tell. If it had been told to me when I was a child, I might have, in a deep and true sense, remembered it as if I had been there when it happened, with at least the same instantly recallable immediacy with which I can summon up the exploits of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, who of course I never saw. But these facts, severed from the family history that might have given them flesh, are, really, no more mine than the images that open Blue Velvet.

I can make sense of them, or hold them in my mind, only as scenes from movies—the likes of The Cruel Sea, Victory at Sea, the documentaries The World at War or Why We Fight—or from the movie that, someday, someone might make (since the facts ap-peared my wife and I and our daughters and our friends have been casting it). But if any such movie were ever made, the story that I have, as a personal story, would be even less mine than it is now—and the truth is that, now, it isn't mine at all. It is a contrivance—it is a story that I might now remember, but don't. What might have been a personal story dissolves into the public domain of a much greater story, of the War, of heroism and stupidity, arrogance and decency, and hundreds of thousands of the dead—and in that sense, whatever personal memory might be found here, the common memory rightly takes away.

Greil Marcus is the author of Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, Invisible Republic, and many other works of cultural history and criticism.

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