The first time I read Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, I thought it was about historical vision. Time and life as the fox sees them are many things. In the course of a day, a fox needs to find and catch its meals and avoid becoming a meal. This lifestyle requires covering a lot of space, and having vision like a cursor, ceaselessly parsing the world’s bits. Time and life as the hedgehog sees it is one big thing. The hedgehog claims a very small territory and day after day hunkers down until Something blots out the sun for good, or, if his luck holds, the sky is not blotted out. The point of Berlin’s book is Tolstoy, who knew time and life as an ultra-fox, but anguished to know a pattern, a moral and ultimate purpose, lying behind all the microcosms. Tolstoy took to a historian, Joseph de Maistre, who offered a strong pattern that appealed strongly to Tolstoy, and who is the sort of writer people who are likely to read Tolstoy today would find a disturbing and primitive figure. First time around, I left-brainedly followed Berlin’s meticulous account of the development of Tolstoy’s historical vision through Maistre to christianity. And when I reread Berlin’s book just recently, I thought the book was about Tolstoy. About a man who could see and then replicate a microcosm in every moment of present human life, and yet who couldn’t stand the inadequacy of his gift. it would seem his conscience begged for a moral gravity and intention to the infinitude of real experience. Vladimir Nabokov famously included this question on the final exam he gave his undergraduate students: what was the wallpaper pattern on the Karenins’ bedroom wall? This is supposed to illustrate Nabokov’s unreachable standard of close reading, but in reality, it seems impossible for even an ordinary reader to miss seeing the detail of those violets , and not to remember them forever. This was exactly the problem for Tolstoy–he could not endure seeing everything at once and as it really is without apprehending The Geometry behind it. The lesser among us would choose the fox over the hedgehog, and Tolstoy teaches us to beware what we wish for. Beware the gift of seeing everything, and then hearing your conscience demand an explanation.
I once heard Sean Wilentz say that Bob Dylan is a great “historian.” That was the very word he used. Historian. I thought, “What has Bob Dylan taught me about history?” Heaven blazin’ in my head, I–I dreamt a monstrous dream. Now here is a history lesson: the past assaults a person, and if the person is vulnerable to memories that exceed their own time and place, the person may endure a condition we can call historical visionary. The gift of being a historical visionary makes dreadful demands on its chosen ones. There is appalling mystery–something came up out of the sea. There is far more of the world visible than the mortal eye can take in–the ravaged land lies for miles behind. There are atrocious accidents–killed outright he was, by his own men. There is the witness’s claim on his one inviolable and unprovable and lost moment–stars fell over Alabama/I saw each star. There is the singular and commonplace grief that can easily seem, given the fullest field of vision, to be the entire purpose of human actions–he’ll never get better, he’s already dead. Bob Dylan is a historian because he delivers to me the burden of historical vision–the ineluctable, particular, unchangeable and inexplicable past. Just moments after Sean Wilentz declared Bob Dylan to be a great historian, he shared with us that he never liked ‘Cross the Green Mountain.
Bob Dylan in America is a book way out of joint, and this is exactly why it should be read with urgent and minute attention by anyone who wants to know what history is. Much of the material has appeared elsewhere in different contexts that require different attentions to the passage of time, and in his introduction Wilentz addresses the way the book is and is not a collection of writings. Forget about the introduction, and read the book as exactly an experience of the incompatible experiences of time that constitute history.
The early chapter on Aaron Copland barely grazes Bob Dylan. We read Wilentz’s story of Copland’s innovations and outsiderness, his explicit originality welcomed right straight into the modernist inner circle, then followed by the turn to more accessible forms and a popularity disdained by that inner circle. Wilentz wants to stretch Copland into Dylan via the obvious: the fairly recent use of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man or Appalachian Spring to tell us (in harmony with the scent of Nag Champa) that the Show and Concert is about to begin. But the real connection is deeper–Dylan is the riseform in this chapter about Big Letter Modern hierarchies and categories of art, Dylan lurks just offstage in Copland’s story about the Popular Artist Pleasing The Groundlings and the Radical Inventor Ringing In The New. We can read and hear Dylan through the scrim of Copland’s story and here is one way that times are layered upon each other.
The Copland chapter is textbook history. We relax into the authority of factual accuracy and properly weighed and evaluated material. But then there are the chapters of Witness, in which subjectivity is king and we know all that’s truly present passes and changes in an instant, so we pray for a Truth more solid than the Facts. Wilentz attended the Philharmonic Halloween concert when he was 13, and then a Rolling Thunder show in Connecticut when he was a young man. The schoolmarm in me believes that 13 is far too young to be exposed to almost anything at the Halloween show, and If You Gotta Go is the very least of it. And in these chapters, Wilentz marvelously demonstrates the hopeless uncrossable divide between memory and history: he has a fiction writer’s ability to get everything wrong consciously and meaningfully, and he reminds us of the tremulous impossible weirdness of asking personal memory to be the staple ingredient of history. At the Rolling Thunder show, he hears a song called Ices, and reading his account, you also hear a song called Ices. The energy, the edginess, the mystery of the whiteface and masks–those of us not there can know all that from recordings and footage, and the Witness confirms that what we know is what was there. Witness is Really Wrong and Really Right. Nothing like textbook history. And to face down the past, you have to face down both.
Oh dear, there is a third kind of history. I call it homesickness, which I think is more to the point than nostalgia. It’s the fact of youcan’tgohomeagain but you go there anyway and endure the condescension of everyone who sneers at your quaintness. Or, if your vision and your voice is strong enough, you bring people back with you. Right there is a problem–we’re not supposed to retreat, we’re supposed to advance. Wilentz takes on Dylan’s magnificent and radical retreat, starting with the two lookback records, Good As I Been To You, and World Gone Wrong. His differing opinions of each I can’t agree with (I think they are both intoxicating), but that’s no matter. Wilentz specifically takes on Lone Pilgrim, which helped him know how he felt about losing his own father. Now we are back to textbook history–the accurate and scrupulous and ordered account of What Happened–but assembled in a strange backass personal scramble. Bob Dylan sings (no, he breathes the song, as Wilentz describes correctly) about a buried fellow talking to a sad living fellow visiting his grave, and in this fiction there are plenty of facts and Wilentz does the sweaty work of dusting them off and presenting them clean and correct. He does this BECAUSE Bob Dylan’s breathing of this song many many decades after the facts that underlay it helped a historian know how he felt about the recent loss of his father. This is pawning history for truth–the owner, the past, can still reclaim it, but meanwhile the owner does not own it. You can’t teach this history. And you corrupt it by schlepping it into the present to impute meaning and feeling to conditions it knows nothing about. I’m going to say that the Bob Dylan we have known for the last nearly 20 years, is where we go to learn the Truth of this errant schlepping. Fitzgerald’s image of boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past is beautiful and illuminating, but to be in one of those boats, stowing my oars and surrendering to the current, that’s something else.
No one will ever write the book on Bob Dylan and America or Bob Dylan and history. Read Sean Wilentz’s book anyway, to think hard about Bob Dylan, America, memory, and history. I’ve got a spoiler and a dedication now. You can find my name at the way bottom of pages 141 and 269 in Professor Wilentz’s book, at the end of the footnotes. A far greater testament to his scruples as a scholar than to anything I did. And I dedicate this post to Mr. Chum Lee, a man who knows something about the solid and liquid value of the past, and who bumped fists with Bob Dylan. Chum Lee– I am absolutely certain that your signed copy of Self Portrait will impress women.