More About Bob Dylan in America


My last post was about Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America, but I don’t think it did justice to the book. Wilentz started as an historian, but later began writing about the arts, so he’s dug into everything he can find about what Dylan’s performed and recorded, as well as what he’s said about what he’s done and where he got his inspiration. And what others have said too.

The result is a vast amount of data. Dylan always absorbed a LOT, anything that came into his field of vision, Wilentz says, and his vision has extended wider and deeper than most people’s.

Ambiguity seems to be a big part of how his art works. Song gives a fuller view than text alone, since songs can be sung and inflected in different ways. The same song can be happy or sad, disdainful or ironic, depending on its performance. His music has always been music of reference: he stole tunes and put other words to them, stole familiar words and phrases to evoke other songs or poems, and/or to inspire other connecting lines. So he builds a song allusive but elusive that might mean something definite, but remains open to interpretation. In this way he’s similar to a lot of other artists, but different from some others.

Ayn Rand was an artist very definite about what she meant, and insisted that what she had to say was true, verging on insisting it was the ONLY truth. In this she had plenty of predecessors, from the Roman Catholic Church (power politics mode) up through Hitler and Stalin. She despised anyone who believed in nonabsolutist relativity, but her values were most important to her, and in defending them she went on offense, tryhing to impose them on others, as her predecessors had done.

That vision is a desperate dualistic one in which it is necessary that good absolutely triumph and evil be absolutely defeated. Others cannot be allowed their own visions or interpretations.

Maybe there is such an absolute world, but I don’t think it’s where she believed it was, which is not to say her vision was absolutely untrue. She believed in a world of heroes, but not everyone sees heroism where she did, and even if it does exist in the world, as in her vision, it isn’t unmixed.

Perception creates the world each of us lives in, and a higher deeper perception can lead us to live in a higher deeper world than others. One form of heroism might be to cultivate that perception and then work to follow and implement one’s resulting vision. And this can take other forms than Rand’s vision.

Rand absolutely rejected traditional religion, and like many others, labored to create her own, as absolute as what she rejected.

George Gurdjieff, on the other hand, spoke of a relative local morality, where something absolutely prohibited (say cannibalism, or various forms of sexuality) in one place, may be thought a virtue somewhere else. That doesn’t exclude the possibility of a Cosmic morality valid everywhere at every time, nor does it mean that anyone knows everything about that morality. More of it always remains to be discovered, as Quakers thought, in their doctrine of Continuing Revelation.

That’s the problem with absolutism, whether practiced by Hitler and Stalin or by Christianity, Islam, Rand, or other variants. It tries to freeze a fluid and dynamic process that calls for different actions at different times that may seem crazy. Thus a formulation that’s liberating at one time becomes imprisoning later. That’s the kind of thing Bob Dylan’s always stood against, whether applied to him or others.

His art seems to say that there may be no new thing under the sun, but there are always new ways to see what is, and that there are connections to truths underlying the visions that others try to sell us or impose on us.

As he was just beginning his career he was also reading widely, not just in literature (ancient, modern and in between), but in history. Particularly he was fascinated by the American Civil War, both sides of it, and not as a righteous section of the country defeating the unrighteous one, but as a monstrous flood of passion and suffering that “literally” put the country on the cross and resurrected it. William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”, particularly true of the Civil War, which we seem poised to repeat.

The French Revolution tried to erase history and create Utopia, but lacked our present technology (not that they were the first to try this) and institutions to create a hypnotic virtual reality. Two hundred years ago our ancestors lived much closer to the natural world, which can correct certain kinds of mistakes in ways technology cannot. The French tried to escape a certain kind of imperfection, followed by many others. But at the same time a new way of life and doing things had begun, which created greater wealth spread more widely, bur brought another kind of imperfection no less brutal, but possibly even more insidious.

According to Camille Paglia, movies and TV incited pagan worship. But so did much other technology, as well as the various kinds of knowledge it brought. The modern world is the picture of Faust, who wants all knowledge and power, only to fail at human relationships, and thus be more destructive than most human beings could otherwise be.

In spite of this there remains human truth, which isn’t unreachable, if we want to reach it. Dylan said he found it in the songs more than anywhere else, more than from any preachers or other dogmatic figures. There are other ways to reach it too, but we have to want to do it. Fascinating as it may be, it’s also hard work, and one can easily get lost.

But Dylan spoke of the process as traveling towards home, reminiscent to me of a game my cousin and I used to play when we were children. We saw ourselvs as old, traveling through a wilderness, and suddenly coming on things now buried in trees and weeds that we recognized anyway as things relating to the homes we’d left behind.

Perhaps we had stumbled on an archetype of human experience: the necessity to leave home (which many of us may be too frightened to do in many ways), and then return more consciously and deeply than we could as children.

Dylan’s method was to break down distinctions in his art between high and low, black and white, North and South, past and present, and create his vision of an American continuum containing everything, which corresponded with the reality he saw underlying the stories the media and powerful figures told us and the stories we told ourselves.

The past was still present, maybe especially in the New York he was then living in, but all through the country and the world. We may desperately wish to change it, but it still remains. Getting a different perspective on it, or MANY different perspectives, may be a good way to guide us to our own decisions or actions.


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