What’s up with the weird wonder?

11 10 2011

I blame Greil Marcus.

Yes, Lynda Barry kicked off this theme for the blog, by my ears were first pricked reading Marcus in The City Pages, which is when I first encountered the notion of “weird old America”.

Weird old America: what a wonderful phrase.

Now, does it matter that the actual phrase was “old, weird America” and has something to do with Bob Dylan and basement tapes and an invisible republic? From a librarian point of view, yes, but from the necessity of having one’s ears pricked and interest piqued and thought provoked, not really.

In any case, it gave me an insight into this country that I had never previously considered: that this is a profoundly strange joint, and that maybe, just maybe, I could ease up a bit in my assessments of the US of A. Or maybe not “ease up” so much as “open up”, to let myself see beyond the cold, clear lines of politics and carefully sculpted narratives into the brambles and crannies of these American cultures.

I knew Americans weren’t necessarily more rational or normal than any other people, but that’s how we talked of ourselves, as Americans. To be American was to be free and brave, to live the American Dream, be all we could be, etc. It is a narrative of striving and effort and independence and normality, and while there might be plenty of individuals and maybe even “subcultures” which members deviated from this clear bright line, those deviants were no part of the culture.

Marcus’s phrase (in my misremembering) helped me to see that, ehhhhn, all of those individuals and subcultures who wonder away from that line are also America. They aren’t artifacts or zoo creatures, “outsider artists” who exist to confirm the rightness of conformity or who may only comment upon, but not participate in, this American Life, but are themselves woven into the warped woof of our cultural fabric, that the normal is as warped as the rest of it.

I’m getting too cute with words (one of the side effects of dipping into weird wonder); I mean to say, Marcus fucked with my sense of direction and perception. I took this nation’s superpowerness for granted and Marcus said, quietly, not quite. He undermined my view from above, and with the invocation of “weird old America” gestured toward all these pieces of our lives that don’t quite fit a clean narrative but fit, nonetheless.

You can still be angry, he allowed, but you can be affectionate, too. Open up, enlarge yourself, appreciate what’s there.

Some folks need to stiffen their spines, need a reminder to squint at what they’re told or take a hammer to what is, but I need the nudge to take it easy. I like hard lines and sharp angles and interrogations and prosecutions; to think is to critique.

Except that it’s not, not the whole of thought; that’s where the wonder comes in.

And the weird, the weird can be the lever that cracks open the wonder.

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