Between Utopia and Dystopia: Encountering Marshall Berman and Mike Davis
by Andy Merrifield
I remember buying City of Quartz at the Museum of Modern Art bookstore in December 1990. A big-formatted, glossy hardback, hot off the press, what a thrill it was. I was visiting New York from Baltimore. In the latter place I was spending a sandwich year at grad school, at Johns Hopkins, between my stint at Oxford. David Harvey told me I should go to Baltimore, study it; the city, he said, once deemed ‘the armpit of the East,’ would make a good dissertation comparison with Liverpool, my hometown. David lived and taught in Baltimore for decades before moving to Oxford, and still kept his house there, near Homewood campus, in Hampden. Part of the house was vacant. He said I could stay there if I wanted. I did want.
When I came to New York that Christmas I got a ride off another grad student with a car. We blasted up Interstate 95 one Friday night in the pouring rain. He dropped me off on the Lower East Side, along Avenue A. For some reason I’ll always remember the music playing in the car as we cruised the East Village’s dark and wet streets – John Coltrane, his 16-minute lead-out number, ‘Africa,’ from the 1961 experimental album Africa/Brass. Those menacing syncopations of Coltrane’s tenor, hooting like frantic car horns, will always remain evocative of that evening, with its wild jungle feel, an unknown chaos, an impending doom, demonic and threatening. Coltrane’s sax and the brass section, the drums and piano and bass, all worked against each other, in a disruptive cacophony, perfect for the kinetic sound of the city that evening, a brilliantly inventive jazz that forever plays in my brain when I think of New York, pulsating with an energy at once scary and invigorating.
To call it scary and invigorating was about right then because the Lower East Side was scary and invigorating. I stepped out of the car with Tompkins Square Park immediately before me. In those days it was tent city for New York’s ever-expanding homeless population, hundreds of residues and displacees of Ed Koch’s mayoral years. Everything was soggy and tense that night. Conditions were gruesome; lots of angry shouting and growling dogs, chained to trees, frothing at the mouth, as well as a heavy-handed police presence, similarly frothing at the mouth, patrolling the perimeter of the twelve-acre park; an odd commingling of Sesame Street, Hooverville and Haight-Ashbury, someone called it. For a while the space had been highly contested terrain. Homeless populations, housing advocates, and East Village anarchists regularly clashed with the NYPD.
This stark dystopian backdrop prologued my New York City visit and set the tone of the urban zeitgeist. Mike Davis caught this zeitgeist in City of Quartz, gave it a dazzlingly new narrative form. It was his style that I’d found so captivating. Mike could really write, had tremendous storytelling gifts. He wove together cultural history and politics, economics and literature, film and music, capturing the whole city, the whole implicate order, while keeping his nose close to the street, pacing the sidewalk, cruising the freeway. A giant city like Los Angeles was laid down solid on the page, in print. This wasn’t dry scholarship. It was the real thing, he was the real thing, a gritty urbanist after my own heart, one I wanted to emulate. I even loved the stagy flap image of him, hugging himself under an underpass, coming on like Bukowski’s doomed younger brother – as Marshall said! There were plenty of places in Baltimore where I could similarly hug myself, affect the same DT pose.
Mike amalgamated all the things a 30-year-old grad student, struggling to write an academic PhD, could only dream about. I wanted to pull off a similar scam myself, but knew I couldn’t. Not as a PhD. I knew it would take me someplace else, someplace beyond academia. I was envious and admiring of Davis in equal measure. He’d blended together Blade Runner with Antonio Gramsci, hip-hop gangbangers with Scientologists, critical urban theory with Raymond Chandler; Cal jazz legends Art Pepper and Ornette Coleman shared airtime with novelist Thomas Pynchon. This was a Marxism beyond my wildest fantasies, and I wanted more. It was dramatic and exciting. When Mike spoke about the jazz and literature I loved, his prose soared: ‘Living in Skid Row hotels, jamming in friends’ garages, and studying music theory between floors during his stint as an elevator operator at Bullocks Wilshire, Ornette Coleman was a cultural guerrilla in the Los Angeles of the 1950s.’ Meanwhile, Art Pepper ‘studied bebop on Central Avenue, did graduate work on heroin in Boyle Heights, and became emeritus at San Quentin.’ As for Thomas Pynchon, his Crying of Lot 49 (1965) ‘provided the ultimate freeway-map ontology of Southern California.’ ‘As radically “decentred" as any contemporary Althusserian could have wished, Crying of Lot 49 wastes no time grappling with the alienation of its subject.’
The street-fighting, tough guy persona you got from Mike wasn’t really Marshall’s shtick. But he’d appreciated how Davis had carried off something special. Davis wrote beautifully, Marshall said, ‘about less glamorous places and themes of LA’s; about its industrial ghost towns, like Fontana, where Davis was born in 1946, full of shattered dreams and awaiting new development.’ ‘Fontana probably has more wrecked cars per capita than anywhere else on the planet,’ Davis said. The town is full of wrecks.
‘Scattered amid the broken bumper cars and Ferris wheel seats are nostalgic bits and pieces of Southern California’s famous extinct amusement parks. Suddenly rearing up from the back of a flatbed trailer are the fabled stone elephants and pouncing lions that once stood at the gates of Selig Zoo in Eastlake (Lincoln) Park, where they had enthralled generations of Eastside kids. I tried to imagine how a native of Manhattan would feel, suddenly discovering the New York Public Library stone lions discarded in a New Jersey wrecking yard. Past generations are like so much debris to be swept away by the developers’ bulldozer. In which case it is only appropriate that they should end up here, in Fontana—the junkyard of dreams.’
‘Narratives like these,’ Marshall said, ‘not only show Davis at his best but also, I believe, show Marxism doing what it can do best: bring us closer to the historical long waves that drive and wreck our everyday lives; force us to see ourselves and one another and our whole society and all our inner contradictions in depth face to face. If Marxist thought can do that, I think it has plenty to be proud of.’ Still, Marshall knew that for some Marxists this isn’t enough, never enough. ‘They feel Marxism has to provide a transcendent revolutionary zap. It has to bestow the powers that Jim Morrison pursued—to break on through to the other side, to bring on the end—or else it isn’t worth anything.’
Marshall’s great insight into City of Quartz was also an insight, I know now, into myself. I’d shared then, perhaps without even recognising it, the two souls that dwelled in Mike Davis’s own breast. Davis had a yearning for this ‘Big Bang’ zap; a radical concerned citizen, Marshall said, both humane and humanitarian, ‘who wants to grasp the totality of city life’; and yet he’s equally ‘a radical guerrilla aching to see the whole damned thing blow.’ Is he embracing the whole city or telling it all to go to hell? Doubtless he’s yearning for both, maybe at the same time. This is perhaps what makes City of Quartz so enthralling. ‘Who will he be, try to be?’ Marshall wondered, ‘Whitman or Céline? Davis sounds unsure, but I’m rooting for Whitman.’
Marshall was good for me. He was a generous soul when I sometimes wasn’t. He was a guy who tried to see the good in the bad, seeing positivity beyond negativity. I had a lot of negativity in me, frequently without much positivity. It wasn’t like I was a pessimist; I mean, I wasn’t. I was angry somehow, an angry optimist, a dark optimist. He was gentle spirit, a hugger rather than a puncher, a man who saw the power of love frustrating the power of hate. He was a partisan of happiness, of joy over misery, a Whitman rather than a Céline. Joy will give people more power to change the world for the better, Marshall said.
In Marshall I saw my shadow self. In Mike Davis I recognised my angrier part, the undertow that tugged with my Marshall part, the loving part. These were the two souls dwelling in my breast, dwelling in my feeling and thinking about cities as well. I was more dystopian than utopian. Funnily enough, this is what I wanted to discuss with Marshall, who’d become a friend. We’d agreed to see each other, to talk about a letter he’d sent me about an article I’d sent him.
Both letter and article were about Marx’s and Dostoevsky’s concept of suffering and freedom, why their concepts might be important for urbanists. It was another way to frame the Whitman and Céline split. Marshall thought it a great idea, told me so in a wonderful letter, handwritten in his handsome cursive, in blue felt-tip pen, on Gothic sepia notepaper, rimmed by gargoyles and demons, by lions pulling tongues and deformed monkeys looking like crippled humans. It was trippy, little green man notepaper, spookier than you’d imagine coming from Marshall. Maybe this was his shadow self on display?
In his letter, Marshall said I should send my article to Dissent or New Left Review. ‘It’ll look great in print!’ he said. I did send it to Dissent who quickly passed, and afterward to New Left Review, who likewise weren’t smitten. They weren’t so fast. I’m not sure they ever got back to me. We’ll be in touch, they said. Which meant they’d never be back in touch. What counted most then was Marshall’s affirmative response, that handwritten letter, worth a million referees’ reports. ‘Your Marx-Dost piece immediately disappeared into one of the hundreds of stacks of paper,’ he’d written me, ‘and I just retrieved it a couple of days ago. I enjoyed it a lot! I’ve always looked for a way to juxtapose that ‘suffering’ passage in M+D, but I’ve never figured out how. So now I’m both a little envious and a lot relieved—you’ve done it, weight’s off my head.’
‘One place where you can bed down M+D,’ Marshall said, ‘is the desire to overcome mechanical, closed-society models of the good life. M’s romance of “free development” is meant as an alternative to classical and medieval closed societies. Marx enjoyed Utopian thought, ripped it off plenty, and stayed friends with Moses Hess (who may have even written some of the Manifesto). But he dissed it because all its models were Crystal Palaces. So you could see M+D both engaged in imagining critical + radical forms of an Open Society.’
This was Marshall’s vital life-spirit there in print, in a preciously handwritten letter, to me, revealing as much about his own model of the good life as ‘M+D’s.’
For years, I’d been a big fan of Dostoevsky’s novella from 1864, Notes from Underground, even considered myself a bit of an Underground Man. The book had kept me going in Liverpool after I’d quit high school at sixteen, when I was reluctantly forced to engage with the overground. Dostoevsky spoke about a long-suffering ‘underground’ character. This Underground Man had a ‘hysterical craving for contrasts and contradictions’ and wondered whether human beings liked something else besides prosperity. Maybe, the Underground Man said, we like suffering just as much? Suffering meant doubt, meant negation, and ‘what would be the good of a Crystal Palace if there could be no doubt about it?’
In the Crystal Palace, there’d be ‘nothing left to do’; you’d not be able to stick your tongue out at it, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man said, nor ‘thumb your nose on the sly.’ What worried him most wasn’t whether abolishing disorder and conflict was possible but whether it was desirable. He hoped people would only love Crystal Palaces ‘from a distance,’ invent them as fantasies but not want to inhabit them in reality. For living in them meant the end of novelty, of adventure and fantasy, the end of Mike Davis’s dystopian panorama in City of Quartz. Everything would become routine, the death knell of the spirit. Passion would be throttled, and from where, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man wondered, would intensity of experience, that sole origin of consciousness, then emanate?
I’d said, in my article, that this concern chimed with the young Karl Marx. I knew, when I said it, Marshall would be on my wavelength, perhaps the only person on my wavelength! After all, he’d pioneered the whole frequency in the first place, tuned me into how Marx, in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, framed things strikingly similarly. Like Dostoevsky’s, Marx’s point of departure was that humans are endowed with ‘vital powers.’ Vital powers, Marx said, exist in us as ‘dispositions,’ as ‘capacities’ and ‘drives.’ We come to know ourselves by passionately using these vital powers to feel and see and comprehend the external world all around us, a world simultaneously ours and one which incorporates other people. Passion, Marx said, is our ‘essential power vigorously striving to attain its object.’
‘To be sensuous is to suffer (to be subjected to the actions of another).’ (The italic is Marx’s.) Suffering is an ‘integral human essence,’ Marx said, ‘an enjoyment of the self for man.’ The Underground Man couldn’t agree more! This was Marx affirming the primacy of “free conscious activity” in the ‘species-character of man,’ the vitality of free will and individuality – features so dear to Marshall’s own heart, to his own species-character. It was why, too, Marx indicted capitalism so ardently; not simply because it makes people suffer – of course it makes people suffer – but that it makes people suffer in a particularly crippling manner. The senses are numbed rather than stimulated; the parameters of free individual development are restricted, despite what capitalists say about freedom. Marx, like Marshall, yearned for a society where people fully express their individualities and desires. Both men were into positive suffering, without injustice, wanted a society where each human sense – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, contemplating, sensing, acting, loving (the list is Marx’s) – could blossom as ‘organs of individuality.’
When we suffer we feel, we learn things about ourselves intellect alone can’t discern. It’s a learning process, ‘an integral human essence.’ It happens to everybody, everywhere, at all times, whether we like it or not, whether we confront it or not, acknowledge it or not. Strangely, we need it somehow. Painful encounters offer an intensity of experience that help us become whole people; paradoxically it may even make us feel, in Dostoevsky’s language, ‘more alive,’ helping us stave off what Marx called ‘one-sided individuality.’ All told, it seems, we, as human beings, crave a society where both positive and negative passions need to get played out and worked through, openly and honestly, and here the city comes into its own, makes its life-form so compelling as a life-force. Because there, and maybe only there, can people vigorously strive to attain their object. So it was as Marshall had said in his letter: Marx and Dostoevsky – or M+D – remain existential bedfellows. They challenge us to imagine critical and radical forms of an Open Society – just like Mike Davis’s City of Quartz.