Bob Dylan Essay - Dylan, Bob (Pseudonym of Robert Zimmerman)

Dylan, Bob (Pseudonym of Robert Zimmerman)

Dylan, Bob (Pseudonym of Robert Zimmerman) 1941–

Dylan, an American singer, songwriter, and poet, is considered the founder of the folk-rock revolution in popular music. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)

We don't have many wise men left, you know. We have seen our incredible confidence and our surfeit of intelligence lead us only to loneliness and rationalization. We are able to be so much, yet we are so little able to understand what it is we are supposed to be. We are learning to run faster and faster. Into the abyss. And we are leaving behind the few who might give us a hint of what to do when we get there.

Like the rest of us, Bob Dylan faces a universe that science discovers to be more and more a deterministic unity no part of which has meaning without reference to every other part. To the dispossessed this universe seems to be inhabited not by free agents in a world of free will, but by the living, irrelevant effects of an infinite number of causes. To a man who yearns for meaning, the thought that life is merely playing out directions imprinted before birth, or given in childhood, or decreed by an alien society, is intolerable unless it is a part of a master plan. The songs of Bob Dylan, a few of them, speak of such a master plan.

Bob Dylan is a mystic. His importance lies not in the perversion of his words into a politicism he ridicules as irrelevant or in the symbols that once filled the lesser social protest songs of his late adolescence. His only relevance is that, in a world which has lost faith that it is infused with godliness, he sings of a transcendent reality that makes it all make sense again.

The mystical experience is, by its very nature, indescribable. Dylan's genius is that he is able to give us some clues. (p. 43)

[The] mystical truth that "life is pain" is not in the slightest nihilistic, but an acknowledgment that all the separate joys that this world has to offer contain the basic pain of our seeming separation from the One. Only the mystical experience, an experience which I believe pervades all that Dylan has written in the past six years, can overcome that basic pain. Only in the life that is illuminated by the afterglow of this experience is there the possibility of salvation.

Salvation means many things in Dylan's songs. On one level it is the conquest of guilt, ambition, impatience, and all the other obsessive states of egotistic confusion in which we set ourselves apart from the natural flow of things. On another it is the supremely free flight of the will. On still another it is faith, an acceptance of a transcendent, omnipresent godhead without which we are lost.

This is why Dylan merits our most serious attention. For he stands at the vortex: When the philosophical, psychological, and scientific lines of thought are followed to the point where each becomes a cul-de-sac, as logic without faith eventually must, Dylan is there to sing his songs. (pp. 43-4)

It was not until 1964, when he wrote "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" and "My Back Pages," that Dylan gave indication that he was about ready to discard the security which one can find in symbols….

It was at this point that Dylan was preparing to become an artist in the Zen sense; he was searching for the courage to release his grasp on all the layers of distinctions that give us meaning, but, by virtue of their inevitably setting us apart from the lifeflow, preclude our salvation. All such distinctions, from petty jealousies and arbitrary cultural values to the massive, but ultimately irrelevant, confusions engendered by psychological problems, all the endless repetitions that those without faith grasp in order to avoid their own existence—all of these had to be released. The strength, the faith, necessary for this release was to be a major theme of Dylan's for the next three years. In "Mr. Tambourine Man," an invocation to his muse, he seeks the last bit of will necessary for such strength.

In "Gates of Eden" Dylan is well into his own parade. He has found his mystical fixed point and is attempting to illuminate it. As is the case with the other songs on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan's vision has developed at a far more rapid rate than has his talent. As a result, his cosmology is stated more concretely (if not as poetically) than in his later songs. In "Gates of Eden" Dylan's kinship to Blake becomes apparent. Like Blake, Dylan relegates experience to eternal subordination to innocence….

Dylan's conception of a transcendence that flows through man is similar to Blake's, and the compassion it generates is later to suffuse Dylan's work with a humanity it lacks at this point. For now Dylan is struggling to express his newly discovered Oceanus….

Those who are particularly concerned with a separation of form and content are most likely to look unfavorably upon Dylan's poetry. It is difficult to imagine, however, any poet more capable of speaking to his given time than is Dylan, or a time more in need of someone capable of speaking to it.

With respect to form, Dylan faces the same problems that face all artists. His creations must give form and order to apparent chaos. In an attempt to catch the tune of a universal melody, mere awareness of the melody is not enough. (p. 44)

Dylan does not teach, neither does he proselytize. At most he merely affirms the existence of The Way. His effect is limited, of course, by the inherent inadequacy of words that inevitably prohibits communication of the mystical experience. It is further limited by the fact that, while we are all capable of salvation, it is a relatively rare man who is an embodiment of the particular complex of psyche, intelligence, sensitivity, courage, and coincidence from which the mystical experience and salvation can erupt. Dylan can effect only the last; "take what you have gathered from coincidence," he tells Baby Blue. At most all that any artist or prophet can hope for is to ignite our faith. Dylan, perhaps more than any other contemporary poet, is capable of the words that can ignite this faith. If language's impotence is in its inability to convey the melody of the universe, its strength is its power to reproduce the harmonics at least of that infinitely beautiful melody. (pp. 44-5)

While Dylan was not to achieve the complete suffusion of vision with compassion until John Wesley Harding, in Highway 61 Revisited he did begin to feel that the eternally incommunicable nature of the religious experience did not render human contact irrelevant. If his attentions were not loving, at least he was attempting to reconcile man's existence with his vision…. "Like a Rolling Stone," which is probably Dylan's finest song and most certainly his quintessential work, is addressed to a victim who has spent a lifetime being successfully seduced by the temptations that enable one to avoid facing his own existence. (p. 45)

There are no "messages" in Dylan's songs, neither is there ideology. The flight of a supreme imagination, the ability to tap into the highest levels of truth, preclude the artist's accepting the simplistic artificiality that is necessary for ideology's goal of widespread acceptance. If an artist is capable of no greater vision than the rest of us, then of what value is he? By imprisoning Dylan's songs in a context of political ideology we play the barbarian as surely as if we were to hammer Rodin's Thinker into a huge metal peace symbol. Dylan may well be upset by contemporary America; on one level "Tears of Rage" would seem to indicate this. Much of Dylan's anger, however, is directed not at any political entity (politics must forever play a secondary role in his universe) but at the young themselves—many of whom have used his words to avoid fighting the battles of their own existences. It is ironic, but not surprising, that Weatherman, a group of individuals who channel their own confusions into violence, take their name from the song of a man who ridicules all forms of escape through symbol and evasion.

In itself, Dylan's political philosophy is irrelevant; he sees both philosophy and politics as evasive concern with the repetition of cause and effect that can never lead one to the Light which shines within him. Indeed, Dylan ridicules all codes and moralities that claim holy sanction. His vision concerns the God within and without. Society is left to shift for itself.

It is quite conceivable, therefore, that, when he bothers with politics at all, Dylan's political outlook is conservative. His emphasis on personal, as opposed to societal, salvation could very possibly leave him feeling most at home with a political philosophy that emphasizes the individual's right to be left alone to his own search for God. (pp. 45-6)

I must admit to skepticism concerning how many of Dylan's youthful followers have even the vaguest conception of what he is singing about. Many look no deeper than the level of his very fine rock music, while others are merely in the market for political slogans…. No doubt many of them are at least aware that Dylan is sending out clues. Dylan's art is capable of igniting their faith. In any age that is a considerable artistic achievement; in the lonely world of the contemporary young it would seem almost a miracle….

As the final step in Dylan's search for God,… [Nashville Skyline] is a lovely paean, Dylan's acknowledgment of the joy of a life suffused with compassion and God…. He has heard the universal melody through the galaxies of chaos and has found that the galaxies were a part of the melody. The essence that Dylan had discovered and explored is a part of him at last. There will be no more bitterness, no more intellectualization, no more explanation. There will be only Dylan's existence and the joyous songs which flow naturally from it. (p. 57)

Steven Goldberg, "Bob Dylan and the Poetry of Salvation," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 30, 1970, pp. 43-6, 57.

Dylan's view of the world, and his expression of that view, are powerfully coherent and richly complex. At the risk of oversimplification, we can say that the issue central to Dylan's work is that of trust in the universe, generally expressed through the metaphor of love. Will those Chimes of Freedom chime? Will God, humankind, or your lover desert you? Once deserted, how do you deal with the then apparently hostile universe? How does one love (as one must) in an apparently loveless cosmos? These are the questions that Dylan deals with, and his changing attitudes and answers, moving from the backed-off irony of Desolation Row to the personal commitment of "If Not for You," serve to trace his personal and artistic development.

Steven Goldberg [above] describes Dylan as a mystic poet, and while I am not altogether happy with that description,… the term "mystic" is certainly applicable, at least to the extent that it describes the poet's ability to hold contradictions calmly in the palm of his hand, to discover unity in chaos. The surrealistic lines that we tend to remember ("She knows there's no success like failure/And that failure's no success at all") strike us at once as being logically absurd, and philosophically correct. Dylan's poetry is often a poetry of negative statement, and his language is frequently the language of silence. Indeed, "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" provides a dialectic of silence ("My love she speaks like silence"), pitting the talkers against the whisperers and winkers. The lines quoted above (success/failure) present opposite conceptions of reality, opposed approaches to the possibilities for action in the world. To fail in mundane dime-store/bus-station terms is to succeed in fire and ice terms; yet the world is one of ideals, violence, quotations, promises, and dime-stores; fire melts ice; ice extinguishes fire; and failure remains failure, no matter how faithful or true one might be. (p. 55)

Opposed to [a] vision of universal violence is a vision of universal love. The reference to the nativity ("all the gifts that wise men bring") recalls the limitless love of the song's title, love minus zero, love lacking nothing, love complete. The relationship between the singer and the loved one is implicit throughout the song, and we have no doubt that the wounded bird will be cared for, and that at least some human beings are capable of the kind of selfless love symbolized by Christ.

The dialectic of silence involves a double vision of life in the world, and yet there is a third viewpoint, a third voice present. One can be trapped in meaningless and self indulgent social chatter, like the banker's nieces, or one can remain silent, like the lover, or one can sing about silence, like the poet (by which I mean the poet as character in the poem, not necessarily Dylan himself). Thesis (sound) and antithesis (silence) give way to synthesis (song). There is music to be made out of discord (this song ["Love Minus Zero/No Limit"] is melodically one of Dylan's finest, powerfully and insistently self assured), and apparent chaos gives way to concrete form. Thus what appears at first as a paradox becomes a hymn to the orthodox. But, like Bergman, Dylan does not allow orthodox ideas to become bad art. The song may imply Christian love as an answer, but there are no illusions left us. The threat made by a success and money oriented society is fully envisioned, fully experienced, and thus positive value is tempered and made valid by the presentation of negative reality, which is what I meant when I said that Dylan is a poet of negative statement. (pp. 55-6)

[Goldberg leaves] unclear his definition of Dylan as a mystic in the Zen tradition. There are certainly striking similarities between Buddhist thought and Dylan's songs, but Buddhists generally know they are Buddhists, and I doubt Dylan would acknowledge or accept any such specifically ideological or religious labels. (p. 57)

Leland A. Poague, "Dylan as 'Auteur': Theoretical Notes, and an Analysis of 'Love Minus Zero/No Limit'," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1974 by Ray B. Browne), Summer, 1974, pp. 54-8.

We were so much older then, when Bob Dylan first impinged upon our consciousness. Our view of the world was the view held by those before us.

But Dylan changed all that with his songs, with his poetic images. "Chains of flashing images" he called them. He made us dream everything, as Sainte-Beuve said poetry must do.

So one after another they came, those songs by the Minnesota minstrel, and they changed our lives, even in ways we have yet to understand….

As I have said before, I think it literally true that no one who absorbed that first body of work—jigging veins of rhythmic mother wits, as Marlowe once described poetry—was ever again to view the state of the union and its history in the old, classroom civics course terms. Dylan changed that.

But there came an end, not only to the overt message, but in a deeper sense to the dramatic contrast that message could make. In one way, Dylan was a victim of relativity. He had trained an audience to wait for cataclysmic revelations and then he gave them simple beauty instead. They were not ready.

Dylan's situation now is that great numbers of his former audience have abandoned him, convinced he is a sell-out to commercial interests, his creative flame gone and able only to echo his old achievements.

There are some among us, though, who continue to find his work of deep, even expanding impact, a living thing that defies description but still contains "those brave translunary things" once said of Marlowe's poetry. It is increasingly interesting how, for every echelon of audience which leaves him, Dylan seems to attract a new one, and—this is no accident—it is an audience more interested in poetry than in politics, for all the two may ultimately meet.

Ralph J. Gleason, "The Blood of a Poet," in Rolling Stone (© 1975 by Rolling Stone Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 13, 1975, p. 22.

After years of cold war and cold poetry, Bob Dylan, in the appropriately titled Bringing It All Back Home, decided to earth the lightning in himself. Following the homeopathic poetic principles of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, he absorbed and refined the poisons of subterranean homesick life, inoculating himself with the disease in order to protect himself from it….

Like few other persons of the mid-Sixties, however, Dylan was right in time with the times. People used his poisons as a tonic and elixir, finding safety in his sickness. The fact that some even took enough courage from his songs to explore new ways of dealing with the world led them to picture Dylan as a bellwether for the Sixties counterculture.

But Dylan, unlike Rimbaud, did not want to transform the human condition—"giving blind advice to unknown eyes," as he once wrote in 11 Outlined Epitaphs. Having become his own sacrifice, he was both "exposed" and a subject of countless exposés. And in response to one too many slanted questions and reporters' whims—as Dylan himself complained in Epitaphs—he made his famous pronouncement: "My songs don't mean nothin'." (They had, of course, come to mean "everything" to his admirers.) And it was just at the moment of his greatest cultural (if not commercial) influence that Bob Dylan rejected the poison, sheared himself of his Blonde on Blonde personality, and—choosing neither to build bombs (like the Weathermen) nor to run guns (like Rimbaud in Africa)—withdrew in the style of the landed gentry to Woodstock, New York.

Dylan had learned that in order to bear the word, one must be totally bare: "A poem is a naked person," he had written on the liner notes for Bringing It All Back Home. And it is interesting—especially for someone whose songs meant nothing—that during this period of retreat or reintegration (depending on your perspective), Dylan, in my opinion, must have been meditating on the images and themes of Shakespeare's King Lear, the play in which "something" comes exactly from "nothing": on the naked king and his wheel of fire, who banished the true and preferred the false; on blind Gloucester, who ended his life between joy and grief; and on the loving Cordelia, a soul in bliss, whose word of rejection—"Nothing"—ultimately reveals the world of truth….

For those who had valued Dylan for his attentiveness, for the exacting ways in which he described and charted the feelings, as Kafka put it, of being "seasick on dry land," his change of heart, as represented by Self Portrait, signaled Dylan's contraction and withdrawal from the world and from himself—much as Jewish mystics had pictured God withdrawing from his creation, leaving both himself and man in exile. This cosmic drama took a turn for the comic when someone like A. J. Weberman began to rifle the husks of Dylan's garbage, thinking he could redeem Dylan from his exile. (p. 43)

Dylan has always understood the contradictory nature of the truth and his best songs resulted in part from the acceptance of this awareness, his worst from his denial of it. Those songs mostly took the form of pictures of a world of family and country solitude that he called peace. There is, of course, a great pastoral poetic tradition that succeeds in conveying exactly this kind of repose, but Dylan's extraordinary gifts as a romantic and visionary poet often went against the grain of this gentler mode. (p. 45)

Rarely has Dylan's presence seemed so full and moving as on Blood on the Tracks…. Dylan's candent and wonderfully phrased harmonica, mandolin and guitar work and … his beautifully articulated and glowing lyrics [are] strengths … much like those of the 13th century poem whose book of verse he reads in "Tangled Up in Blue"….

Could it have been the verse of Guido Cavalcanti the singer was reading, the verse in which images become particles passing through the chambers of the mind; or the poetry of Dante, written when he was in exile both from his home and from his rejecting lady—knowing that sublunary love itself is a form of exile—and inescapable…? (p. 47)

Jonathan Cott, "Back Inside the Rain," in Rolling Stone (© 1975 by Rolling Stone Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 13, 1975, pp. 43-7.

The story of Dylan's art and poetry in the 1960's is the story of a personal quest and dialogue in which Dylan led an entire generation of American and Western European youth toward the realization of a pastoral vision of life—a vision in which man would live in harmony with himself, with his fellows and with his natural environment. But Dylan's quest was most essentially a search for personal identity carried out as an ever-expanding dialogue between the many facets of his own personality; between Dylan and his various audiences; between Dylan and American myth; and, on the highest level, between Dylan and those poets and visionaries who have recognized man's universal and tragic fate. (p. 696)

The fascinating thing about reviewing Dylan's career is that we have in his music and poetry a virtual moment by moment account not only of his own quest, but also of the quest of an entire generation of American and Western European youth toward a renewed vision of authenticity and human dignity. Music and poetry have often played an important, if not essential, role in a people's self-definition, especially when they are setting out on new historical or revolutionary roles. Thus primitive Christians created their own music, Luther wrote hymns for the Protestant Reformation, and the Puritan Revolution was fueled by the poetry and music of its visionaries. The youth of the 1960's, no less than primitive Christians, Lutheran reformers or Puritan revolutionaries, was on a quest for redemption and salvation—a quest individual, collective and communal that was heralded and reflected in the changing musical modes of that decade. (p. 697)

Dylan and other artists of the counter-culture have drawn upon non-middle class, non-Anglo or non-liberal sources for their visions of renewed possibility. Dylan like his forebears the Negro Bluesmen and the country-western singers, accepts the ultimate mystery and tragedy of life. Like Huck Finn and Ishmael, he accepts daemons and death as integral aspects of life. And like Hawthorne, and Melville, and Faulkner, Dylan and other artists of the counter-culture are telling us that if there is no historical progress, if man cannot achieve salvation through the ever-escalating domination of self, fellows and nature, then the important thing, the essential thing, the only truly human and noble course is to attempt to live a flawed life in communion and harmony with one's fellows and one's natural environment. (p. 703)

From the benign co-opting of hippie fashions to the malignant exploitation of hard drugs; from the fact that the music and the musicians had to be packaged, produced and marketed, to the knowledge that the flower children participated as narcissistically in self-destruction as their elders (though their style was different), one recognizes that the "counter-culture" exemplified all the con, hype, aggression and hostility of the dominant liberal technocratic society. (p. 704)

Dylan certainly was the vanguard of the counter-culture. But if the counter-culture is only a sub-cultural variant of the dominant society, then Dylan becomes some thing other than a revolutionary prophet or transcendent visionary. He becomes one of the leading or cutting edges of the dominant society.

It is difficult and perhaps unjust, to draw a line between Bob Dylan and Archie Bunker, but when one assesses Dylan's material since John Wesley Harding—the aggressive maintenance of the status quo, the concern for the personal, the celebration of things past—one is left with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. It is even possible to acknowledge now that "Watching The River Flow" no longer brings to mind images of Siddhartha, but is more akin to Louie Armstrong's "Gone Fishin'."

Certainly there is a consistent and important strain of mysticism in Dylan's music that becomes more pronounced with John Wesley Harding ["an apocalyptic album in which Dylan realizes his pastoral vision," according to Campbell] and completely dominates New Morning. Perhaps this mysticism is essentially Jewish and possibly even Hasidic as some have attempted to document. But one does not have to be Hasidic or even Jewish to employ Biblical metaphors and syntax—witness, William Faulkner, Herman Melville or William Blake. When we assess Dylan's mysticism since 1968, however, we are left neither with a sense of Blakeian transcendence nor Job-like wisdom, but rather with a stoical acceptance if not affirmation of the status quo that has always been indigenous to both the blues and the country-western traditions. Dylan was a cowboy before he recognized his Jewishness, and perhaps like Elliot "Ramblin' Jack" Adnopoz, he will remain more a cowboy than a Jew. (pp. 704-05)

Dylan's genius is now quiescent. The pastoral vision is now swamped in a malaise of complacency. But perhaps this is only to acknowledge as William Irwin Thompson has postulated, that historical development is more like a switchback than an escalator. Perhaps this is only an incubation period; a time when we are generating and nurturing those values that will allow us to meet the challenge of the twenty-first century.

In all this conjecture, one thing is becoming increasingly clear. By challenging the dominant American style of power, arrogance and hubris in the 1950's and 1960's, Bob Dylan and the flower children called America back to that which was most worthy and essential in its tradition and left an artistic statement and an ethical legacy worthy of Melville, Twain or Faulkner. We can ask no more of any individual nor of any generation. (pp. 705-06)

Gregg M. Campbell, "Bob Dylan and the Pastoral Apocalypse," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1975 by Ray B. Browne), Spring, 1975, pp. 696-707.

Dylan…, more than anyone else, saw how to go beyond copying the pop staples of blues, ballads and country in order to create a newly distinctive idiom.

Dylan's role in the '60s was to expand the limits of popular song. He stood beyond the pale and called us to an outlaw reality. But now he's returned to deepen rock's cultural center. Quarreling with society in personal terms, he simultaneously sings of self and society in a way that profoundly enriches all our anguish about being separate from—yet within—our inevitable institutions. His new songs are about continued anger and acceptance, about continued hatred and love, and about "the howling beast on the borderline that separates" his lover from himself, his audience from his voice, his country from his ideas [or vice versa], and audiences everywhere from performers everywhere. When he kisses that howling beast goodbye, as he says he finally has, the gain is not a solipsistic turn to himself and his lady alone. Rather he turns to a mature knotting with his audience and the sensibility he helped create: a stand-off embrace. (pp. 23-4)

W. T. Lhamon, Jr., "A Cut Above," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 5, 1975, pp. 23-4.