This piece originally appeared in Jacobin. Modernism in the Streets and all available books by Marshall Berman are 40% off until Saturday April 29th at midnight UTC. Click here to activate your 40% discount.
In the early 1990s, when I first met Marshall Berman, he told me he was working on a book called Living for the City — “after the Stevie Wonder song.”
He’d been thinking about this book for a long while, ever since finishing his masterpiece, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. The problem was he hadn’t written much of it — hadn’t been able to, was paralyzed somehow, blocked.
He’d continued to teach, up in Harlem, at CCNY, and at the CUNY Graduate Center, and plenty else poured out of him — essays and reviews, in the Nation, the Village Voice, and Dissent, discrete pieces written with great verve. But all looked like a pile of fragments, he said, commissioned by some editor or another. Nothing added up. Nothing came from his inner depths, had the psychic immediacy and wholeness of a “book.” Nothing solid stuck as the years since 1982 melted away.
Living for the city had been rough during the 1980s. Marshall’s town, New York, was still blighted by fiscal crisis, deindustrialization, decline and hard drugs, even while banks and Wall Street piled up spectacular profits. It was a bonfire of the vanities that Mayor Ed Koch ran with aggressive bluster and meanness.
“It felt as if he poisoned the air every time he opened his mouth,” Marshall said.
The decade started off personally very badly, too. In 1980, Marshall’s five-year-old son, Marc, died. Then Marshall got sick himself, nearly dying of a brain abscess. Surgery left him with gaping holes in his forehead. Seizures plagued him thereafter, as well as sleep apnea.
But he had another son, Eli Tax-Berman; got remarried, to Shellie Sclan; kept on keeping on. Soon they had a kid, another son, Danny. And so here Marshall was, in the 1990s, doing just enough for the city. His fifties, he told me, were looking a whole lot nicer than his forties.
We were sitting across from one another in a booth at one of Marshall’s favorite eateries, the Metro Diner, on Broadway at West 100th street, on the Upper West Side. Marshall insisted I faced eastwards, so I could watch his beloved Upper Broadway, the central artery of his neighborhood.
The Metro Diner had been my first New York port of call with Marshall; unbeknownst to me then, two decades later, on September 11, that tragic New York day, in 2013, it would be his last. He’d keeled over in the morning, his heart giving out (like his father’s had in 1955), breakfasting with old pal Mel Rosenthal, a photographer and fellow Bronx primitive.
Marshall was seventy-two. Like a long line of New York Jewish intellectuals — Paul Goodman, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Grace Paley, Henry Roth, Maurice Sendak, Meyer Shapiro, Kate Simon, Lionel Trilling — Marshall never forgot his old neighborhood, his old Tremont neighborhood in the South Bronx, a neighborhood devastated by Robert Moses’s “meat ax,” not even to his dying day.
After our Metro Diner encounter, Marshall invited me back to his apartment. I schlepped slowly around the corner with him, up the gentle incline of West 100th street, past the Ansche Chesed Synagogue he sometimes attended, and the Morningside Montessori school Danny would go to, then right on West End Avenue, to a building older than most of the neighborhood’s, constructed in 1901, frayed yet with a strikingly ornate façade.
The first thing that hits anybody entering Marshall’s crammed apartment was books. Copies and assorted translations of All That is Solid were stacked overhead in the coat closet; novels filled shelves in the main passageway; a hidden revolving bookshelf contained a voluminous Marx and Freud collection, “needing security clearance for access,” he’d joke.
Books burst out of the cupboards, lined the walls of an adjoining room, where, in a little niche in the far corner, adjacent to a window, peering down onto the street, lurked Marshall’s work desk, his intellectual cockpit, arm’s length away from a vast stock of books on New York. (In later years, as he wrote, he could see Danny playing down below in the school yard, on the synagogue’s roof.)
Marshall took off his shoes and socks and encouraged me to hang out with him on the living room floor, next to the sofa — not on it. Soon his curious mind was gently pumping me full with questions: who was I? What did I love? Whom did I love? It was our own secret little be-in.
I was thrilled. I’d read him for years; now, I was slouching next to him on the rug, in his world! It was a newfound land for me. He’d made each little room an everywhere.
Marshall’s untimely death left more unfinished business — another book, likewise incomplete, similarly in fragments: The Romance of Public Space, extracts of which now appear in Modernism in the Streets, a wonderful collection of Marshall’s “life and times in essays,” a treasure trove of five decades’ living and writing for the city, lovingly consecrated by Dissent and Nation editor David Marcus, all done with the blessing of Marshall’s widow, Shellie. At last those books-in-progress have been consummated as an organic whole; the incomplete has been posthumously assembled in One Bright Book of Marshall’s Life.
“Modernism in the streets” was a label coined by one of Marshall’s old teachers, the great liberal critic Lionel Trilling, a staunch anti-communist whose classes Marshall took as an undergraduate at Columbia in the late 1950s. For Trilling, “modernism in the streets” was something pejorative. In 1968, when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) occupied the university campus, protesting the Vietnam War, Trilling despaired: modernism was spilling out of the classroom, out of great texts, into the streets, and an “adversary culture” was taking hold, imposing its will through violence rather than decorum.
As ever, Marshall forgave Trilling his faults and often spoke of his love for his “shabbily genteel” teacher. “Lionel was uneasy, brooding, melancholy,” Marshall said, almost describing himself, “full of Beckettesque hesitation about communication (it was in seminars, in small groups, in dialogue, that he opened up and soared)…[He] forced us to read modern literature in ways that made us wonder whether we could live at all.”
Marshall loved the irony and used Trilling’s term himself, typically positively. After all, one of his modernist heroes from All That is Solid, James Joyce, claimed modern history was really “a shout in the street,” a “Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!” And so, too, for Marshall: to be modern meant growing up in public, in the street, his primal symbol of modern life.
David Marcus unveils this big, four-hundred-page canvas of Marshall’s low modernism, contextualizing it, setting it off with an introduction that provides a helpful taster of what’s in store. The book unfolds thematically rather than chronologically, grasping Marshall’s outpourings for what they were: a mixture of the personal and the political, the city and the self, literary criticism and urban experience, Great Books and Big Thoughts brought to bear on ordinary daily life, all infused with Marshall’s special brand of Marxist humanism, his “Marxism with soul.”
And yet, as Marcus explains, “the personal is political” felt like something more for Marshall than the clichéd, flat-tire turn of phrase, “something more nuanced.”
Indeed, “the personal should be personal,” Marcus says, because, for Marshall, politics should be more personal, more felt; “a radically different type of criticism, a criticism that formulated not just social complaint but also psychic and spiritual pain. It was a criticism — a politics, really — of feelings.”
Marshall’s politics affirmed a very different Left “structure of feeling,” a creative self-committed to social revolution, to wanting the world and wanting it now. Marshall was “the master at finding meaning in the face of ruin and emptiness,” Marcus says. “He insisted that politics not only be one of feeling but also addressed the world as it was. It must seek out … the best of all possible worlds.”
Marcus also has his own little Marshall tale. After a Dissent editorial meeting in Soho, not long before Marshall died, they both
walked up to the #1 train together. As we trod Wooster’s cobblestones, Berman kept pointing at various buildings and remarking on the artists who once lived there. Everything, he said, changed in the 1980s. Art became expensive — to make, to buy, to view. The art community was replaced by a financial one. On cue, a group of people passed: a clatter of heels, a scent of cologne. Embarrassed for my generation, I said, ‘It’s a shame it’s all gone’. ‘No’, Berman said, ‘it’s back. Look at all the young people.’ ”
A Delicately Intimate Marxism
This was the Marshall I knew, too — the purveyor of a warmer Marxism, without commissars and bureaucracies, a Marxism could help people flourish through delving into the ideas themselves, making them matter in concrete practice, not just in abstract theory.
His Marxism wasn’t so much hyper-critical as delicately intimate, grounded in real human experience, positive and generous, forgiving, giving everybody — capitalists included — the benefit of the doubt. When we hear about capitalism’s penchant for “creative destruction,” we can be sure Marshall would be rooting for its creative side. He wasn’t bothered with flows of capital or “objective” political-economy; his vision fleshed out subjectivity, expressed happiness and joy, and usually he’d translate this experience through his own dialectical self.
He’s always there somehow, as we can see in Modernism in the Streets — in the dialogue, in the narrative flow, converting Empson’s seven types of ambiguity into the poetry of his own tormented self.
Maybe more than anything else, Marshall thought Marxism should be an adventure — an adventure wherein the self inevitably got “caught up in the mix.” This tagline frames Modernism in the Streets as an “Origin Story.” It begins with a young and precocious undergraduate discovering the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of a similarly young and precocious scholar, “Karl Marx before he became Karl Marx.”
Here was a text that can help us figure out how we’re all thrown together in the mix, and how we can fight for the power to remix, doing some mixing ourselves. “I’ve got to have this book!” young Berman demanded of the calm “white-haired clerk” at the Four Continents radical bookstore, the official distributor for Soviet publications near Union Square, now of course long gone. “Right there my adventure began,” Marshall said.
Almost before he started reading the thing, Marshall began proclaiming: “It’ll show you how our whole life’s wrong, but it’ll make you happy, too.”
“Caught Up in the Mix” first appeared in Marshall’s earlier collection of essays, Adventures in Marxism, from 1999, with its zoot-suited, dancing Marx on the cover. Just before the book came out, I remember hearing Marshall read this essay out aloud, as he customarily did with his work, at the now-defunct Brecht Forum, located then in a grungy loft space on West 27th Street.
The crowd that night was sparse and on the older side. Marshall spoke with enormous poignancy about his father who’d worked himself to death — wasn’t even forty-eight when he died — and how business partner, Dave, ran off with the earnings of their small garment firm, Betmar Tag & Label Company, near Times Square. Each time Marshall read a line from Marx’s Manuscripts, as a direct quotation, he’d raise his hand and put on a serious drawl so the audience knew it was Karl rather than Marshall talking.
Later that year, in the fall, I actually heard Marshall read this piece out again, this time in Cambridge, at WordsWorth bookstore in Harvard Square (also now defunct), after Adventures in Marxism had been released.
At the time, I was teaching at Clark University, not far away in Worcester. So I decided to corral a bunch of grad students to tag along. I told them this guy was the real thing, and they should come and see. I said arrive early, because, given it was Harvard, Marshall’s alma mater — where he’d written a doctoral thesis on Rousseau and Montesquieu (the basis of his debut book, The Politics of Authenticity) — there’d likely be a sizeable crowd. Seating would be limited.
This period was also something of an intellectual high point for me, for that very week my review of Adventures in Marxism had featured in the Nation; even better, Marshall loved it, and was telling everybody about it!
You can imagine my shock, then, when we arrived at WordsWorth to find nobody there apart from us, Marshall, and his moderator. After a while, a couple more stragglers showed up, totaling about ten people in all. Without me, and my little posse of fellow-travelers, it would have been almost an empty house. I was naïve back then: I hadn’t recognized how Harvard was an institution full of professional and wannabe-professional academics; their careers were much too important to be bothered to show up for a humanistic poetry reading.
I was catching on how Marshall was an amateur outcast, a scholar who loved ideas just for the love of those ideas. All he ever wanted was to share this love with the world. But that wasn’t what made academia tick. Perhaps it never did. There was nothing in it for those Ivy League pros. Marshall, on the other hand, didn’t have an instrumentalist bone in his body.
Afterwards, he told me he wasn’t surprised by the lack of turnout. After all, he said, he was the “Fritz Lang” of urban studies, a cult, arthouse draw, never a guy for the straight-laced. He was a chip off the old block of where academia was headed, and he knew it. His personality, his style of criticism, his jargon-free rap, his “jaytalking,” as he called his conversational style — all seemed far off the conventional university radar.
Marshall worked really hard on his prose, poured over it, writing and rewriting and rewriting some more. He’d often carry his essays around with him in a file, as if they were the most important thing in his life then, annotating and revising them with trademark Paper Mate felt-tipped pen. He was particularly fond of pink, purple, and green, and most days you could tell which color he’d been writing with because they’d stained his hands.
He crafted his writing in a way few academics would, or could, and his love of vernacular and snappy, almost-child-like sentences would never make it into their staid peer-reviewed journals. At the same time, Marshall’s passionate embrace of complex concepts, his play with ambiguity and contradiction, his dialectical flow, were usually too much for his work to be trusted by plain-talking journalists.
Marshall wrote some of the best intro paragraphs ever. Take his essay on Kafka, “The Jewish Patient,” a review of the cultural historian Sander Gilman’s eponymous monograph, reprinted in Modernism in the Streets. Few works that Marshall reviewed ever matched his review:
When I first encountered Franz Kafka, as a high school student in the mid-1950s, there was a real romance of Kafka in the air. People talked about him with hushed reverence then, as some sort of modern saint: His books were infernos — but sorry, no paradise, because in the modern world God Is Dead, haven’t you noticed, stupid? — allegories of sin and grace, sublime but doomed quests for the Holy Grail. Allegory was the correct way to read him, because although his fiction was full of realistic detail, it existed on a plane of pure spirituality far beyond the crude world of readers like us, teenagers worried about getting into college and getting laid.
Hardly the stuff of the American Political Science Review, the official mouthpiece of Marshall’s formal “discipline.” Marshall was a jaytalker and jaywriter, which, for him, meant “to talk back; to talk against the lights; to talk outside the designated lines; to talk like our great American Blue Jays, small birds who emit loud and raucous cries that no one can ignore.”
Jaytalking was a squawk that took Marshall elsewhere. We can hear it for ourselves in Modernism in the Streets with his brilliantly imaginative remixes of an array of writers and thinkers, Marxists and Marxisants, orthodox figures like Georg Lukacs and fleeting fellow-travelers like Edmund Wilson, as well as heterodox, conflicted and tormented free-spirits — thinkers perhaps closer to Marshall’s own heart and who hold the key to his impulses and yearnings: Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin and Isaac Babel. En route, we encounter other characters, like Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, who, Marshall thinks, helps us imagine greater meaning to our life.
Even in a story of religious violence and unfulfilled love, like Pamuk’s Snow, where Ka and Ipek are plotting to escape to freedom together yet never make the train, their hopes and fantasies doomed, we hear Marshall reading them as “the archetypal couple” in the “history of modern culture,” following Romeo and Juliet and Papageno and Papegena from Mozart’s Magic Flute.
“Maybe Pamuk thought it would be a better story this way, Marshall wrote, “and if he did, who knows, maybe he was right. Maybe stories of love crushed are more poignant than stories of love fulfilled. Or maybe the best story is love crushed after it’s fulfilled.”
But then Marshall changes gear, brings this insight to bear on our culture, and his, giving it his own inflection; he wonders whether modern history, rather than modern literature, is more open than this, more optimistic: “A great many people have got out of nightmarish situations all over the globe,” he said,
and America has given them space to breathe. On any Saturday or Sunday afternoon, at Herald Square, on Telegraph Avenue, in shopping malls in all sorts of American places I and Pamuk have never heard of, you can find couples that look like Ipek and Ka, schlepping their babies around in ultra-modern snugglies, overflowing with new life.
Imagining greater meaning, and overflowing with life in spite of it all, was something Walter Benjamin and Isaac Babel tried to do in the first forty years of the twentieth-century. Each succeeded admirably yet perished for his insights.
Benjamin, the messianic Marxist whom Marshall called an “angel in the city,” held a peculiar Marxist stance — full of Brechtian vulgarity and urbane sophistication, thriving on “the contradiction between the doom in his soul and his joy on the streets.” These tensions were never quite worked through: Benjamin took his own life in 1940, stranded at a Spanish border crossing, fleeing the Gestapo, his heart giving out, unable to go on.
Alas, Benjamin wasn’t the only Marxist “not allowed to finish.” We hear these tragic last words uttered by Isaac Babel, one dark night in 1939, as Stalin’s NKVD came to take him away. Nobody knows when exactly, but it seems that Babel got a bullet in the head in a labor camp during 1940, the same year that Benjamin OD’d on morphine.
For years, Babel’s whereabouts were mooted. Was he alive? Which camp was he in? Could he still write? Babel’s second wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, did not give up hope until sometime in the late fifties, when she guessed the awful truth.
Marshall pictured what might have been. He imagined a lovely scene where Babel and Benjamin, alive and safe, are now old men in New York City, enriching the city’s Jewish intellectual culture, strolling down Central Park West with IB Singer and Bernard Malamud.
One of the best, and funniest, essays in Modernism in the Streets is perhaps Marshall’s least known: “Underground Man,” an appreciation of comic-book legend, Harvey Pekar, first appearing in the Village Voice in 1983. In fact, Marshall’s piece actually helped Pekar emerge from the underground, maybe not quite into the limelight but certainly into the spotlight for a while. It took one underground man to relate to his other, to a fellow artist who mixes “self-reflection and self-mockery, gallows humor and laughter through tears.”
Pekar, who died in 2010, worked in the Russian samizdat tradition, Marshall said, self-publishing his graphic novel American Splendor in his spare time, usually late at night, listening to jazz. By day, Pekar was a file clerk at Cleveland Public Hospital. He lived in a crummy neighborhood, “full of down and outs yet rich in human vitality for those who know how to look.”
Pekar’s grim everyday life became grist to his creative mill; his life was a relentless war of attrition, a losing battle to survive. Many of Pekar’s all-too-human autobiographical stories and dialogue were illustrated by the more famous Robert Crumb in a mode of presentation, Marshall said, “that oscillates between two classical Russian archetypes”: on the one hand, the Turgenevian Superfluous Man, the sensitive, lovable, passed-over eccentric, apt to be rejected and victimised; and, on the other hand, the Dostoveskian Underground Man, a similarly rejected spirit who seethes with rancor and resentment and who’s determined never to be victimized.
“Pekar knows both,” Marshall wrote, indeed was both.
In one episode of American Splendor, it’s a lovely day, “and Cleveland’s apartment houses as well as its foliage are ablaze with color.” Harvey’s friend, Marshall explained,
has stopped his English bike for a dialectical chat. “It’s hard enough,” the fellow says, “to convince people that socialism is a good thing, without basing your argument on some abstract theory of human nature. Plato tried and failed, Fourier tried and failed, Marx tried and failed, Sartre tried and failed.” Harvey’s hair is turning gray, his shoulders slump, he has a paunch, he is physically more decrepit than his friend; yet spiritually he is more youthful, springy, as he stretches himself and says, with a cracked grin, “Well … maybe I c’n learn from their mistakes.”
Another episode from American Splendor, “Grub Street, USA,” from the early 1980s, says a lot about Marshall himself, about how he was a passionate New Yorker but never a complacent one. New York was his all, yet somehow it wasn’t his everything: Marshall was an American who knew about America, too.
Harvey dreams of New York, of basking in Big Apple success, in its fame and fortune. When he hears that playwright New Yorker Wally Shawn is coming to town, visiting Cleveland to promote this new movie My Dinner with André, Harvey wants to see him — the more so because he’s heard that Wally really likes his work.
“Harvey imagines New York as one great orgy,” Marshall said, “and yearns to become part of the action: ‘Half the city of New York’s putting on plays, an’ I’m here in Cleveland sitting with 25,000 comic books I can’t sell. Oy gevald! the world is passing me by.’ ”
But when he finally meets Shawn, whom Harvey likes, and listens to him griping about how he can’t pay his credit card bill, and how girlfriend Debbie works as a waitress so they can make the rent — My Dinner With André portrays Wally’s real life woes! — Harvey soon realizes that this man doesn’t have magical powers after all, and neither does New York. It’s a real place, like Cleveland, “a scene of endless, unremitting struggles.”
Suddenly, Harvey begins to accept his own town, and his own lot, with all its limitations, “our limitations,” Marshall wrote, with “our own hung-up and worn-out selves. It may not last, but it’s real: It’s the real American Splendor.”
The Sloppy City
Marx’s vision of modern life “is hard to sustain,” Marshall often said, “if you’re not grown up.” And “if you are grown up, and attuned to a world full of complexity and ambiguity, then Marx may fit you better than you thought.”
Marshall’s own vision of public space is likewise hard to sustain if you’re not grown up. The public space he rallied for was what he called “open-minded,” where “the gates are open all through the night.” Open-minded public space internalizes all sorts of dissonance and conflict and is characterized by trouble and strife. “But that’s exactly what we’d be after,” Marshall said.
Public spaces should be where the city’s loose ends hang out, should be where society’s contradictions express themselves without repression. The ancient Athenian agora tolerated a certain openness to its public space, a certain “sloppiness,” and this can inspire our own public space today, Marshall said, someplace where people dress down and social distance is minimized. Here, everybody can actively engage with themselves and with others, actively engage with the sufferings of the world together, and, as they do so, transform themselves into a public.
Such sloppiness and openness, needless to say, begs lots of questions to which Marshall provides only partial answers. I remember in On the Town him recalling one incident from 1980 on 42nd street, after teaching an evening class at the CUNY Grad Center, then overlooking Bryant Park. He
saw a man crack another man’s skull with a club that looked like a prop from The Flintstones. The man went out like a light and spurted blood all over the street, from which everybody disappeared. I yelled “Help!” and found myself totally alone. I couldn’t find a cop, no one in any nearby shop would let me call one … I’ll take the uniforms, thanks, so long as they know how to keep people on the street alive.
And yet, later in On the Town, in its epilogue “Reuters and Me,” in a wink to Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, another “fat man” finds himself threatened by a security guard, this time outside the Reuter’s building at 3 Times Square. Marshall himself is standing around one summer’s afternoon, taking notes for his book, sketching the people and signs around him, in his shorts and trademark tie-dye tee-shirt, when a security guard told him he wasn’t allowed to stand in front of the building. Taken aback, What? Marshall exclaimed. There were other guys around, in fancy suits, standing and talking. What about them? They’re not shooed away? If he didn’t leave, the guard said, he’d be “forcibly removed.”
Marshall’s dialogue here sounds like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man tormenting himself about stepping aside to let the military officer walk through him on the Nevsky Prospect. Why did he let himself get moved on? Marshall asked himself afterward. “Why didn’t I stand up for my rights,” his right to the city, ordinary peoples’ right? “I felt terrible, and I still feel terrible, that I just let it be.”
Once again, as so often, contradictions of open and policed public space get internalized in Marshall’s own dialectical self. What kind of policing can keep people alive on the street without moving them on? And how open and sloppy should open-minded and sloppy public space be? How much of a “protected enclave” can still ensure democracy?
Marshall never tells us straight. We come away still having to deal with these ambiguities and contradictions ourselves. He lets us glimpse these contradictions, problematizes them in the public light of day, makes them human and intimate through himself. Yet answers are always negotiable and never given by him categorically. We have to work them out through him.
“Berman Has Been Somewhere Else”
In a way, it’s not hard to criticize Marshall’s work on public space, nor his ideals about what modernity constitutes, nor anything he ever said about life, democracy, and cities. He opened himself up to trouble and criticism, like Allen Ginsberg taking off his clothes in the 1960s, expressing authenticity through nakedness, exposing himself, converting emotional honesty into immense vulnerability.
But that was Marshall’s dear point. And that was why he was the most vulnerable person I ever met.
Almost everything Perry Anderson voiced in his famous New Left Review critique of All That Is Solid, “Modernity and Revolution,” is thus correct: Marshall failed to “periodize” modernism adequately; there are limits to self-development; “Berman’s version of Marx, in its virtually exclusive emphasis on the release of the self, comes uncomfortably close…to a culture of narcissism”; Marx held that any revolution would be punctual, “an irreparable break with the order of capital” — not something that would inexorably keep melting things into air; “the vocation of a socialist revolution would neither prolong nor fulfill modernity, but abolish it.”
All doubtless true. But the crucial point is that Marshall’s head lay someplace else, on another ontological plane, in another state of Being and Becoming. He spoke in a different register, wasn’t like other academics or Marxists.
And there will never be another academic or Marxist like him. His sensibility was different. He uttered a highly personal structure of feeling. Whenever Marshall talked about books, he was really talking about life. Whenever he talked about life, he was really talking about books.
Somebody who got this more than anybody else was the late John Leonard. The one-time literary editor at the New York Times and the Nation, Leonard commissioned many reviews from Marshall for the latter magazine throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Even as he criticized Marshall, Leonard expressed admiration. Marshall, Leonard said, “is the man with the kaleidoscope eyes.”
Reviewing All That is Solid Melts into Air in the New York Times in 1982, Leonard said: “I’ve read Goethe, Marx, Baudelaire, and Dostoevsky” — central subjects of Marshall’s book. “I’ve been to Leningrad. Berman has been somewhere else.” His work of non-fiction, Leonard said, “is secretly a novel. I love this book and wished I believed it.”
So Marshall was secretly a novelist, not a social scientist; a creator, not just a commentator; an artist as critic. He operated on a kind of Spinozian “third level of knowledge,” dealing in intuitive knowledge, in often mystical and existential knowledge, rarely with facts. He was somebody who brought his own vivid imagination to illuminate texts, to make them better than the originals themselves.
Marshall traveled, as he himself said of Andrei Biely’s masterwork Petersburg, on a “shadow passport.” As we read him in Modernism in the Streets, he can take us to someplace not on any street map we’ve hitherto encountered, not even on Manhattan’s grid plan. With Marshall, we can leap into spectral spaces, journey across boundaries and transgress frontiers, including academic disciplinary frontiers, bypassing border patrols en route. That’s what his shadow passport can bring us, will always bring us.
That’s what he has passed on to us, passed on to me. I’ll keep my “official” passport in my jacket inside pocket, but Marshall’s shadow passport will always be in some secret sleeve, out of authority’s sight, beyond their ken, even beyond their strip searches.
And with this shadow passport, we might discover another sort of citizenship, one that helps expand and enlarge ourselves, something less toxic than a citizenship based around flag and nation. It’s a citizenship expressed through our connection with cities, “an open and shared identity by identifying with cities.”
This was Marshall’s great romantic dream at the very end of his life. It’s a vision that goes back to the Old Testament, yet ironically informs our own times, too, coming closer to home than perhaps even Marshall himself imagined.
The Old Testament wrote of “cities of refuge” set aside as sanctuaries for people, as spaces of asylum to protect innocents — and sometimes the guilty: “These towns will be cities of refuge,” the Book of Numbers says, “for the sons of Israel as well as for the stranger and the settler amongst you.” Marshall recognized, in his valedictory essay, “The Bible and Public Space,” that Adam and Eve were “the world’s first refugees.”
He also recognized how the Hebraic tradition acknowledges the right to an urban immunity and hospitality that goes beyond mere particularism, beyond a search for unique refuge: it offers a divine hope for a form of urban sovereignty where people can become wholly human. “Is there some sort of place,” Marshall wondered, “that can nourish people’s sense of identity without crushing other people’s identity?” Yes, he said: “The way is the city” (Marshall’s emphasis).
Fast forward several thousand years. A number of US cities — Los Angeles, Austin, New York, Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Providence — all recently pledged not to cooperate with Donald Trump’s promise to deport millions of illegal immigrants. To varying degrees, across the United States, “sanctuary cities” are gearing up to oppose federal government and its immigration agents.
At the prodding of immigrant rights and other groups, urban bastions have reaffirmed their intention to defy the Trump administration. At the risk of losing millions dollars in federal support, they have pledged — with varying degrees of firmness and with various amounts of trustworthiness — to act as bulwarks against mass deportation. These cities have no power to bestow “official” rights to people, but they have the power to resist. Against a crisis of national political legitimation, the specter of urban solidarity looms.
In a way, we now need to read Marshall’s posthumous Biblical work as a paean to the “city of refuge,” as his final dream-thought for a new status for the city, a new right to and of the city, a will to live for the city. Can we reimagine the city not only giving us spiritual rewards but also political re-enfranchisement? Marshall hinted at an urban citizenship where people didn’t “let it be,” where we refuse to be moved on — whether by beat cops on the street or ICE agents at the door.
In the end, Modernism in the Streets makes Marshall whole again, keeps him living, and gives us a new beginning, a genesis. His living for the city can now become our romance of public space, a yearning for a “place for us,” somewhere that safeguards the downtrodden and disaffected, that offers asylum “for the stranger and settler amongst us.” We have someone and something to live up to, to follow: the great bearded prophet who reimagined “a renewed garden of Eden that will be open, and shared, and that will really be a public work.”
Andy Merrifield is author of numerous books, including Magical Marxism, The Wisdom of Donkeys, and The New Urban Question. His latest book, The Amateur: The Pleasures of Doing What You Love, will be published by Verso in May. This piece was originally published in Jacobin.
Modernism in the Streets and all available books by Marshall Berman are 40% off until Saturday April 29th at midnight UTC. Click here to activate your 40% discount.