Is your mind a turntable? Are your emotions imitations? Are your orgasms filed under the Dewey decimal system? Do you look both ways before dying?

The answer to your life, friends, is simple. Blame it on God. Blame it on the Spectacle-Commodity Economy. Blame it on yourself. Blame it on the bossa nova.

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century is a very strange book. Greil Marcus, polymath critic, savvy veteran of innumerable patrols into the free-fire zone between high and low culture, lucid prose stylist of the speedburning-erudite Beat school, has written a 447-page book about people who blamed the world for the fact that they weren’t God. And did something about it.

Sui generis works like this deserve eccentric descriptions. Henry Fielding, not sure exactly what he had written, called Tom Jones a “comic epic in prose”; Michel Foucault described his life’s work as an “archaeology of silence.” Lipstick Traces merits an even more Germanically extravagant subtitle: perhaps “a cautiously hallucinatory meditation on the history of certain randomly selected (anti) aesthetic assaults on the Absolute.”

It is a brilliant, irritating, silly, and important book–and those four adjectives apply, often simultaneously, to just about every one of its many pages. Lipstick Traces is an essay without a thesis, a history without causality, a confession without intimacy, a prophecy without belief. Above all, it is a dream of cultural violence: a kind of violence that emerges from nowhere, flickers for a moment, and disappears again. In pursuit of that dangerous chimera, Marcus constantly circles his subject–until, in the end, the act of circling itself almost becomes the subject.

The end of Marcus’s book is in its beginning. On the margin of the first page is a cartoon showing two women in a tea room, staring at a strange, shabby figure outside. “I yam a antichrist!” he says. The caption: “It is seventeen long years since Monty was spotted in the gutter outside Malcolm MacGregor’s Sex ‘n’ Drugs shop . . .” The shabby antichrist with the Popeye diction is a barely fictionalized Johnny Rotten, a strange London street character who was discovered by Malcolm McLaren, a hip Machiavellian entrepreneur, and turned into the lead singer of the Sex Pistols.

That is the beginning; it is also the end. “Listening to [the Sex Pistols’] ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ years ago,” Marcus writes at the end of the book, “all I wanted to know was why the record was so powerful.” A few pages later he gives his answer, citing Guy Debord, founder of the consummately strange intellectual-aesthetic movement called the Situationist International: “‘our entire program . . . is essentially transitory. Our situations will be ephemeral, without a future: passageways.’ I was drawn to this message, coded but not stated in punk,” Marcus goes on, “because in a small and anonymous way I lived it out myself.” Marcus was part of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964, and there he experienced an epiphany that he’s been chasing to this day. “For better or worse–it wasn’t my choice–this event formed a standard against which I’ve judged the present and the past ever since. . . . Time passed and I tried to hold onto it, as an incomplete but indelible image of good public life.” On the last page of the book, the cartoon of the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten appears again. “It is seventeen long years . . .”

These sentences and images–violence from nowhere, ephemera, the good life, all circling mournfully–constitute the alpha and omega of the book. It begins and ends with a shattering blast of electric rage–the Sex Pistols–and everything in the end returns to that self-consuming sound. Lipstick Traces is about many things, but in the end it is an act of homage to punk–the most eloquent and erudite apology conceivable.

Why punk? Marcus is terrified and hypnotized by punk because it came out of nowhere and celebrated nothing. “Nothing,” a soon-to-be-mad king once said, “will come of nothing.” And that baffling void is not just punk’s subject: it is its essence. The punk moment, for Marcus, is the moment when Nothing collided with history.

This is the moment–he calls it “negation”–that Marcus stalks, dreams about, hallucinates, creates. He wonders: Did anyone else emerge from nowhere? What is “nowhere”? Does it have its own history, its own voice? So he sets off in search of punk’s unknown precursors–those “secret” individuals or groups who, like the Sex Pistols, just appeared one day, hurling their blank, dreadful message at a world that immediately forgot about them–if, indeed, it ever registered their existence. He concentrates on three 20th-century avant-garde movements, one well-known, two relatively obscure: the dadaists, the Lettrists, and, above all, the Situationists.

Lipstick Traces is, in one sense, just a strange narrative about strange people who held strange ideas: a flawlessly written piece of hip aesthetic sociology, a microwave blast thawing out some deep-frozen ontologies, some cool tales from the modern crypt. But Marcus is after bigger, stranger game–he’s pursuing the unicorn of the absolute. His whole enterprise is an obsessive search; it is suffused with yearning for a return to a primal scene, a founding intuition, a rupture, a hit–a moment he experienced during a few strange days in Berkeley a quarter-century ago. By finding the aesthetic heart of these movements, Marcus hopes to find the blank secret of modernism itself–a secret he cannot escape. (“It is 25 long years since Greil Marcus spotted himself outside the window of his personality . . .”)

It’s a book of looking back. And what’s strangest about it is what Marcus is nostalgic about–moments of constructive darkness that emerge from, or skirt, nothingness and nihilism. It’s a little like looking back on a frightening acid trip and saying “The golden days when I believed in Hell!”

But Marcus is no friend of nihilism: rather he champions negationism. In his story, the moment that nihilism becomes conscious it ceases to be nihilism; it becomes a tactic, a positive force. Radical negation, unlike nihilism, is not just a big No: it is a big No that turns into a Yes. And there are times in history, Marcus argues, when saying No is the only way to say Yes.

In the exhausted late 70s, the defiant roar of the Sex Pistols was essential, the only possible way back to rock’s anarchic roots. Lipstick Traces is about people and groups like the Sex Pistols–people who ripped things apart, who saw the world as something they could fight. Without knowing what would follow, knowing only that what appeared in front of them was false, they found their freedom in striking at reality. They were not nihilists, because they intended to make a better world. And their tactics were based on a philosophy of therapeutic hatred.

The negationism/nihilism distinction is interesting but difficult. For the two form a continuum; one is constantly turning into the other. The No can become too reactionary, too obsessed with the critical–a slave reaction, for all its violence, forever playing out a kinky S-and-M dynamic with Mistress Power. That vicious circle is also a form of nihilism. But Marcus, who tends to romanticize rejection in all its forms, rarely addresses these problems.

In pursuit of his intimate and messianic thesis, Marcus takes extravagant stylistic chances. He is given to the fast-and-loose metaphor–a taste that sometimes leads to overwriting. Talking about the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” he says “A guitar lick ripped the song and whoever heard it in half.” (As P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster would say, “What a frightful idea.”) In a brilliant blow-by-blow description of Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner,” he describes a signature change as “an act of pure violence.” (It isn’t.)

This overheated, Manichaean rhetoric can grow tiresome. But despite these occasional excesses–and also because of them–Lipstick Traces is a superbly flexible and lyrical piece of writing. One must admire the freedom, the audacity, the willingness to gamble for high stakes in the pop idiom, that allows Marcus to describe the last Sex Pistols concert as being “as close to Judgment Day as a staged event can be.” Marcus’s thesis may in the end amount to no more than a guided tour of cultural detritus. But he understands that detritus so well, and he writes about it so eloquently, in machine-gun epiphanic bursts and long, illuminating, graceful digressions, that one forgets for a while that the emperor sometimes doesn’t have any clothes.

Marcus’s principle of selection, as he scans history looking for punk’s kindred spirits, is rigorously hallucinatory. His wild journey begins with the Gnostics, those early Christian radical dualists who rejected the created world as evil and, in certain cases, proposed that members of the elect could not sin. From these shadowy domains Marcus zooms forward to the Middle Ages, where he finds the Brethren of the Free Spirit, heretics of a gnostic bent who captured a city and had fun, fun, fun, indulging in what are usually termed “unspeakable orgies” until an irate Daddy, in the form of the patriarchal church fathers and their troops, took their city away and had them drawn and quartered. Come then the Ranters, one of the anarchic sects spawned by the English civil war; they are followed by a stopover at the Paris Commune of 1871, another brief, besieged, utopian delirium.

But it’s not until his merry-prankster time machine smashes into the 20th century that Marcus strikes creative-nihilistic paydirt. His contemporary sources and references are just as eccentric as his older ones. He compares the impact of “the last Sex Pistols concert” (the title of the longest section in the book) to the Apocalypse, but also to Five Million Years to Earth, a remarkable British horror film of the late 60s; he follows the life of one Michel Mourre, who in 1950 ascended the altar at Easter Mass at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris to proclaim the death of God; he peers admiringly in at the drunks and prophets holding forth in Zurich’s legendary Cabaret Voltaire. Above all, he meanders through the labyrinthine theoretical corridors of the Situationists, a group best known for furnishing many of the cryptic slogans that suddenly appeared on Sorbonne walls in May 1968.

Odd bedfellows. What these groups all had in common, Marcus argues, was a commitment to a practice–not just a theory–based on an absolute, willed negation of social reality. They denounced all law, morality, and culture as enfeebling and useless constructs only believed in by fools or weaklings.

“Received cultural assumptions are hegemonic propositions about the way the world is supposed to work–ideological constructs perceived and experienced as natural facts,” Marcus flatly asserts in (apparently) orthodox Freudian-Marxist tones at the beginning of the book. The Sex Pistols, in Marcus’s view, broke through this wall of “false nature”; they subverted not just the limited field of pop music but daily life itself–the commute, the conversation, the lovemaking. Pop music, most despised and mundane of cultural formations–perhaps precisely because it was so despised–opened a door into a dangerous, a transformative reality.

Marcus, then, is an unapologetic modernist: the old war cry “epater le bourgeoisie” echoes through his sentences. None of your attenuated postmodern game playing for him: he’s after revolution.

The Situationists, with whose theories Marcus is most congenial, believed that the project of radical negation had to start from the thesis that reality is constructed. One of the great virtues of Marcus’s book is that it forces us to take this idea seriously, to confront its profoundly shocking, even psychotic implications.

The thesis is brutal. Everything we do at every moment of our lives is unreal; our imagination belongs to the Man. Our task is to unconstruct the nature of things, awaken from our trance. (Not to deconstruct them: deconstruction, which denies you can ever wake up, has approximately the same allure for a romantic low-modernist like Marcus as a clove of garlic does for a vampire). The project is dialectical: the blank face of “the real” must be seen as human, as alterable and free, while our “individual freedom” must be seen as paltry, mechanistic, imprisoned.

When this metaphysical agenda comes down to earth, in Marcus’s fable, the atmospheric change transforms it into a razor-wielding thug. A dangerous consciousness, frightened by its new edge, cuts the world with a jagged slash: but this consciousness is itself the world, so in its attack it cuts itself loose from even the motivation of its own rebellion. It has become a pure edge. No subject, no object: nothing but the gesture, nothing but the razor, slashing.

This explains the rhetoric Marcus uses to describe his mythical Ur-hero–personified in the book by dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck. “His instincts are basically cruel; his manner is intransigent. He trades in hysteria but is immune to it. He is beyond temptation, because despite his utopian rhetoric satisfaction is the last thing on his mind.” Not a fellow likely to turn up in Joseph Campbell.

There is no time for art in this extremity. Allegedly the province of human autonomy and dignity after God was towed away, art has become a crutch, a phony myth, used by the guardians of what is to preserve a theological illusion. “As a trick art must be suppressed, and as a promise it must be realized,” said the Situationist Guy Debord. Lora Logic, saxophonist for the punk group X-ray Spex, sang “Antiart was the start.”

“Art as a trick” is art that does not question its own status–a status, according to the Situationists, that is simply a privileged part of what they called “the spectacle.” The spectacle is the last, best stitch in that old quilt generally known as the “seamless web of capitalist domination.” It is the conversion of everything into an image: reality itself turns into a commodity to be passively consumed. The act in which even the most subversive aspects of culture are transformed into mere parts of the spectacle is known as “recuperation.” A vulgar example of recuperation is the use of John Lennon’s “Revolution” to sell Nike shoes. But the Situationists conceived of it in much broader terms: the existence of art itself as a separate province, with its museums and masterpieces, was already a recuperation. For, as Marcus says, “the spectacle was itself a work of art, an economy of false needs elevated into a tableau of frozen desires, true desires reduced to a cartoon of twitching needs.” Art as such could not escape the spectacle.

The game plan of the Situationists, which Marcus argues was carried out with kamikazelike fervor by the Sex Pistols, was to exploit the weakness, hit the Achilles heel of constructed reality. The weakness exists within culture itself, in the form of certain desires, dreams, and deliriums called up by “entertainment,” mass culture, by certain types of antiart. Like everything else, these desires are converted into spectacle, but there is also something excessive about them, something that goes beyond the ruling order’s dogmas. The existence of these desire-toxins makes possible the strategy of exploiting the “reversible connecting factor”–unconstructing reality. Creating a minute breach in the wall of the spectacle by inserting various metaspectacles into its weak points, the Situationists then planned to pour into that tiny gap a stream of chaos, poisonous and transformative and seductive.

In practice, the program comprised two main techniques, or “interventions,” as the Situationists termed them. First was the derive, a “creative drift” through city streets in which the practitioners pursued surreal juxtapositions (they were great fans of the metaphysical painter De Chirico), strange emotional-memory rushes, etc. The derive is related to the notion of “psychogeography,” a grandiose fantasy of transforming urban architecture into external realizations of intimate moods, fears, hopes, and so on. The other practice was the so-called detournement of comic books or billboards. This fancy term meant removing their texts and substituting in their place wacky, subversive, metaphysical Situationist jargon. In other words, graffiti.

Not exactly an overwhelming oeuvre. But–with an optimism far more surreal than any of their productions–the Situationists believed that this program would arouse new desires; one day the slumbering masses would awake and scream “My life is boring!”

Viewed as theory, this is pretty second-rate stuff. Like all Marxist-tinged culture critiques, the Situationists’ is plagued by the dogmatic rigidity of the base-superstructure paradigm in which art is reduced to a kind of “growth” on the existing order, incapable of transcending it. Of course, as late-Marxist theorists of “desire,” the Situationists knew better than to let anyone actually see their social utopia: it remained conveniently offstage. Malevolent “forces” control reality–but what are these forces? The “fetishization of the commodity”? Please.

The truth is that the whole critique is metaphysical: it can never be linked up with any system of economic production. When Jimi Hendrix groaned “Ah, there ain’t no life nowhere” over an iridescent wall of feedback, he wasn’t thinking of a social utopia. But since the Situationists disavow all metaphysics (that would be “nature,” and they want “history”), they’re trapped. The power of the No screamed out by the Sex Pistols and pedantically (sometimes poetically) advanced by the Situationists collapses the instant it turns into a Yes of any kind.

But Marcus is drawn to this project precisely because it is impossible, and the Situationists knew it–yet they kept at it. It’s that obsession, that excess, that monstrous infantilism, that fascinates Marcus. It’s a high-wire act: how do you write about the impossible? Marcus is constantly performing an alchemical feat: turning the pure gestures of No into historical moments, analyzing the inchoate as if it were a text–converting the dream, in other words, into a spectacle.

Some spectacles are good, some bad. Marcus is drawn to punk because it lived over an abyss that it created itself. “Like its rhythm, the punk voice was always unnatural: speeded up past personality into anonymity, pinched, reduced, artificial. . . . The sense of risk one can hear in punk is a distrust of the punk moment itself. It is the will to say everything cut with the suspicion that to say everything may be worth nothing.”

Marcus captures the consummately strange intensity of certain punk songs brilliantly. His description of the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun” is a tour de force; he leads the listener through its terrors and beauties, its stunned grace, its vertiginous self-consciousness. Although in his drive to make an aesthetic link with the Situationists Marcus gives insufficient weight to the peculiar British socioeconomic determinations of punk, in the end one can’t simply collapse this music into an economically inspired rant, or a self-conscious, phony antiart statement. The amazing thing about listening to certain songs by the Sex Pistols is that the music really does seem to emerge from a genuine and limitless rage: an irreducible No.

Is Lipstick Traces an ethical book? A world run by the Sex Pistols would be a frightening world, and indeed some reviewers have attacked Marcus on moral grounds–“How dare you write this paean of praise to these bad people!”

Reconciling anarchy and justice is indeed difficult. Modernism is an absolutism. Artaud said “all absolute thought is of the Void”; Marcus quotes the Marxist historian Henri Lefebvre, who said “modernity . . . carries within itself, from the beginning, a radical negation.” But radical negation is axiomatically corrosive. In the end, one can only hope that after the ground has been leveled (perhaps literally), after “new desires” have been created and unleashed, that justice and democracy–“good public life”–will prevail. Opening the door that leads beyond good and evil is opening a Pandora’s box: amoral power may share the same path for a while with a Freudian-Marxist critique of the repressive moral code of the ruling order, but in the end their paths may diverge.

Still, the charge of wickedness is unfair; it rests on a primitive definition of morality. Lipstick Traces opens the ethical question. It does not have to close it.

But rather than approaching aesthetics through ethics, let’s follow Marcus–“suspend” ethics and assume that the aesthetic value of a movement is its ethical value. So what about the Sex Pistols? Are they as good as Marcus thinks? Was punk as good as Marcus thinks?

In my view the answer to both questions is no. The Sex Pistols appeared at a moment of rock ‘n’ roll exhaustion. A powerfully leveling voice of rage, they created a whole new style; they were originals. But they closed a chapter rather than began one.

Punk was too reactive in its essence. It screamed against a hypostasized Order, but it created nothing: neglecting to shore its own fragments against our general ruin, it was only a warning. The gesture of rage, viable and blood-quickening for a wild moment, froze almost instantly into dogma. It had to. Its formal roots were too shallow, its pose too absolute.

Punk relied on the myth of No. Disdaining artistry, it swung its crudeness like a sword. But a No requires the same artistry to achieve as a Yes–and in the end punk was too lazy. Refusing its own form, refusing to play within the fatal closure of form, it suffered the fate common to avant-garde art. It became a mere representation of an absolute gesture. As a result, it collapsed into either a kind of baroque nihilism or a just-plain-stupid rant. Marcus, who stays pretty much on British punk, avoids talking about the moron-variants of punk that popped up in America. Yet these were in a direct line of punk descent; their stupidity and brutality were not an aberration.

Of course Marcus is not looking for “great art”–he’s looking for history, for speech, for events or artifacts that communicate with their time. For him, any work, no matter how “aesthetically” dreadful, can be redeemed by placing it in a historical context. On the other hand, formally successful art that does not engage its time holds no interest for Marcus. He is a 60s modernist: the highest “art” is reality.

The tendency to worship history was evident way back in Mystery Train, Marcus’s famous book about certain archetypal American pop-culture figures–Robert Johnson, the Band, and Elvis among them. Writing out of the Leslie Fiedler tradition that assumes a dialectic between the national soul (a hybrid of Ahab and Huck) and its art, Marcus argued that 60s rock was a dangerous but a vital expression, still connected to culture and society. The book was a brilliant exercise in aesthetic populism–a dark populism, but populism nonetheless.

What happened? Burned by the age of Reagan, by MBA-chasing youth and dead-end rock, Marcus turned away from his Whitmanesque faith in mainstream culture. He ended up, by an impeccable process of logic, embracing radical rejectionists.

Marcus went from one extreme to the other because his central belief–in a sociocultural context that empowers art–never changed. In Mystery Train he valorized the role of cultural context (the artist as archetypal spokesman for “America”)–but the story had a happy ending. In Lipstick Traces, he still valorizes it–but we’re in the George Bush era, and there is no happy ending in sight. So Marcus embraces antiart.

Marcus buys history and loses art. There’s nothing wrong with that: aestheticians lose history. You pay your money and take your choice.

But if Marcus’s judgment of art is framed by history, Lipstick Traces is not itself a history. It is, rather, a tale about a moment. The various movements and philosophies Marcus examines are connected only insofar as they share in that moment.

Nothing could be more audacious, even bizarre, than Marcus’s attempt to unify these movements. They are separated by logical type (theory, music, memory of emotion), by time, by historical context. In his obsessive search for unity, Marcus scants their differences. And in the end he can’t put them together. His murky network of causal correspondences is like a spider’s web: it looks exquisite, but you can walk right through it.

In one sense, this is irrelevant. For the “historical” framework of Lipstick Traces, such as it is, is only an excuse for a meditation on the void and its children. In fact, the enormity of this internal distance gives Lipstick Traces much of its free-associative rhetorical force, its occasional sinewy, scratching sublimity.

But it is also what reduces its value as history. A “secret history,” as Marcus well knows, is an oxymoron–there’s a dissonance at the heart of the project. A founding intellectual dissonance can be a very fruitful thing–it can explode into fiction, or it can be the sand grain around which theory forms into a pearl–but Marcus has not chosen to follow those paths; Lipstick Traces is neither a free-standing work of the imagination nor a rigorous work of theory. Rather it is the impressionistic history of an absolute gesture. Haunted by the long shadows of fiction and theory, it is pretty rather than beautiful, and its wisdom, in the end, is the stammering wisdom of nostalgia.

But ultimately Lipstick Traces does what it sets out to do. It makes us remember, or anticipate, or fear, a certain moment.

It happens now and then for no reason. It’s a special kind of (anti) epiphany. It’s a moment when someone is stunned by possibility. In a window, a cloud, they catch a glimpse of something that doesn’t exist, and if the wind’s just right they’re suddenly taken out of themselves. Right then, they reach out their fingertips toward an idea that can’t be, and almost is.

It’s in the almost, that’s where the stretch comes, there–and then it vanishes, into silence.

That silence will be their only legacy. Whatever they say and whatever they do, it will always only be the tracing, the imprint of silence.

Marcus calls this moment “the unsettled debt of history.” It is a debt that can never be settled. Someday, in a book more intimate than this one, perhaps he will explain why he is obsessed with repaying it.

It appears, in the imagination, as an endless long whispering across time. The whisperers hear something; they don’t understand it. They whisper it to themselves, perhaps tentatively at first, and as the words form they still don’t understand, but a fear and an exaltation grow in them, and they begin to speak louder, the words drifting, fading, returning–

“God is dead. Pass it on. God is dead. Pass it on. God is dead . . .”

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century by Greil Marcus. Harvard University Press. $29.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.