As much as On the Town is cultural studies, it is also shamanism. Marshall Berman makes us see things. He has a “superabundance of meanings” to dish out about Times Square as carnival and crossroads, as self-discovery and inclusion, as sex and “semiotic overflow” in urban space. But his ideas mushroom and metastasize. He will start out, for instance, discussing the Eisenstaedt photograph of the sailor kissing the nurse on V-J Day. But immediately he roundabouts, riffing on an after-beat. Sailors, he tells us, have had a symbolic relationship with democracy since the fifth century B.C. He insists that we dream along with him from ancient Athens to the Winter Palace, from Billy Budd to Jerome Robbins. We ship out with Tocqueville, Eminem, and Nabokov. We land-ho at Liz Phair and Sex and the City. Mention is made in the same acrobatic paragraph of Vietnam, Randy Quaid, and Kafka’s Castle.
As Nicely-Nicely said to himself in Guys and Dolls, “Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat.” But boat-rocking is Berman’s specialty. If sailors and democracy are not what you want to read about in a Times Square book, his chapters on showbiz, women, advertising, and architecture detour into and free-associate about crossover dreams and Abstract Expressionism, Edward Hopper and Betty Boop, Naked Lunch and Sister Carrie. Berman is on this town from 1904, with the opening of the Times Tower, to the day before yesterday, when a security guard at Broadway and 42nd told him that he couldn’t stand in front of the brand-new Reuters Building, taking notes on people and signs like some kind of terrorist. Using scholarship and literature as mooring lines, and photographs and billboards as trampolines, and passionate politics and personal memoir as leitmotifs, he scats and jams.
Ethel Merman’s Gypsy reminds him of Moby-Dick. Jane Dickson paints a Times Square where multimedia consumerism leaves us “all running around constantly in heat.” An Isaac Bashevis Singer short story—in which the neon signs announce “in fiery language the bliss to be bought by Pepsi-Cola, Bond suits, Camel cigarettes” and a four-story half-naked woman holding a gun is the most modern of paintings and also “our God”—suggests to Berman that the Square is the real Museum of Modern Art. There are apposite quotes from Pascal, Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Hegel for Stanley Kubrick, Gene Kelly, Robert De Niro, and Al Jolson. When Jolson’s Jazz Singer puts on blackface and looks in the mirror, the Swanee River turns into the Jordan: “Putting on someone else’s face is enabling him to recognize his own. By being someone else, he can become himself.”
This, says Berman, is “the magic realism … at the heart of modern mass culture.” This is what happens in Times Square. Roundabout by roundabout, through identification, projection, and morphing, we arrive at the Big Mix—“integration but also intercourse, blending and fusion that change everybody. In the Square, the mix is insistently there, it’s on the street, it’s in your face. When you are in the mix, under the Square’s spectacular light, ego-boundaries liquefy, identities get slippery.” You end up asking not only “Who are these people?” but also “Who are you?”
Clearly, to describe Berman as a professor of political science at CUNY is to dim his lights. It’s not just that he picks up where novels like The Big Money and Ragtime, biographies like Neal Gabler’s Winchell and Jimmy Breslin’s Damon Runyon, and social histories like Jackson Lears’s Fables of Abundance and Ann Douglas’s Terrible Honesty leave off. It’s that he seems to have inhaled these books, and hundreds more, all the while rapping with the Beastie Boys. Like the Square itself, the choreographer of this neon Leaves of Grass is a hybrid of styles and genres, of page, stage, screen, and jazz. He is up in the air, like Ruby Keeler on top of a taxi. He is dancing in the street, with Martha and the Vandellas. A Pied Piper, Johnny Appleseed, and Sergeant Pepper, he leads us into movie houses, libraries, juke joints, temptation, and transcendence.
As a little Bronx boy, Berman saw Ethel Merman on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun for his 8th birthday. Until his father died, they went to lunch at Lindy’s. If he grew up at Bronx Science and then Columbia, what he saw in Times Square—rainbow colors, unveiled women, social mobility, “a bath of light,” and showtime—sealed him in his democratic faith. This “humanist affirmation” is already there in his first book, The Politics of Authenticity (1970), in which Montesquieu writes a novel that will teach Balzac all he needs to know about the modern city. And in his second, the magnificent All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982), in which Baudelaire, Dickens, Mandelstam, and Dostoevsky homestead Paris, London, and St. Petersburg, while Robert Moses destroys New York. And in his third, Adventures in Marxism (1999), in which Edmund Wilson and Studs Terkel hang out in a deli with Isaac Babel and Walter Benjamin.
Because he hasn’t forgotten the deindustrialized, dope-dealing, pornographic seventies—when the professor had to escort his female students to the subway after class—Berman is “suspicious of the discourse of nostalgia, including my own.” So he may not like the gigantic new termite mounds for Disney, Bertelsmann, Condé Nast, Reuters, and Viacom, but the Square survived Giuliani, and he finds today’s “exploding lights and multicultural crowds as hot and sexy as any I’ve ever known … maybe, if we can get people to feel good and dirty again, they will see what a terrific somewhere they’re in.”
Yes, his deep reading of the sailor in Sex and the City reminds me that some of the essays he has written, often for magazines I edited, made certain cultural artifacts sound more interesting than they really were. But this is just Berman reading himself, and he’s deeper than most texts. The fact is, I can no longer see Times Square on my own. I am looking at some splendid magical-realist Macondo from inside the head of a man with kaleidoscope eyes.
On The Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square
By Marshall Berman. Random House. 304 pages.