This Matisse drawing makes me think of the sleeping woman in I and I, which is how I might start the post I need to write about sprightly and prestigious scholar-about-town, C. Ricks, who is taking his hot new Misogyny show on tour. But I actually only wanted to convey the dull torpor in this here garden, gone recently to weed. I see that languor and torpor are not the same, but it’s a lovely drawing, so enjoy it anyway.
I teach adjunctly at Fordham University, which is a few blocks from Carnegie Hall, and I was asked if I wanted to give a talk on Bob Dylan as part of a little lecture series in April. I could talk about anything I liked. This was like asking me if I would like a suitcase with a million dollars in large bills or would I like two suitcases with a million dollars in small bills. The answer is yes, thank you.
I like to go with my first unexamined intuition when it comes to Bob Dylan decisions like this–whatever wafts into my attention unbidden, that’s what I’ll talk about. So Every Grain Of Sand wafted grittily, and I went with that. I was glad for the challenge, since I have generally found this song uncharacteristically…much of a muchness. Sand is a polishing agent, and the song is greatly polished. It is transparently magnificent, which really is not what I want or relish in Bob Dylan’s music. So this talk would be a chance for me to spelunk into a song that I thought I had spelunked well enough.
I’ll print a texted-up version of the talk here, and include some of the slides I showed. On the images which show lyrics from other songs, I wanted to make the point that there are webs of imagery through his work, but I am not sure the audience was familiar with the other lyrics. After the text of the speech, I shall ponder what I did learn from doing this, which has to do with Bob Dylan’s casual comparison of himself to John Keats, in an interview response discussing the song with Paul Zollo.This talk was open to anyone who could get to the 12th floor of Fordham at 230 on April 4, therefore it’s addressed to people who may have been unfamiliar with the song, and unfamiliar with its context in his career. I shall use this photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton speaking in public to introduce the text of my talk, just to show misogyny is still on our minds:
Cira Vernazza, the dean of the department of liberal studies, composed the phrase “the enduring art of Bob Dylan” for this talk, and happily the word enduring is just right in different ways for what I hope to get across here. I’ve chosen to focus on one song, called Every Grain Of Sand, that is largely about endurance, and then bring in briefly a second song that’s a foil to the first one. And Every Grain Of Sand has had an enduring life in Bob Dylan’s career—it was first released in 1981 and performed numerous times in the past 30 years, and he gave an especially potent and moving performance of it in 2010. In addition, one line of Every Grain Of Sand has continued, over 30 years, to be a painful vexation to many listeners.
Henry James’s essay The Art of Fiction contains what’s become a familiar image of the house of fiction. “The house of fiction has many windows,” James writes. He pictured a writer at each window, he even gave each one a telescope, and used this metaphor to describe fiction as a solid formal structure with room for all these apertures to accommodate many unique views of the land of experience—as many windows as there are writers’ visions. The years I’ve spent attending voraciously to Dylan’s work, writing about it, teaching it, have convinced me that his work is a house with some formal solidity to it, and with innumerable windows, a different Bob Dylan peering through each one and telling us what he sees. We’ll listen to Every Grain Of Sand, and look through a window or two.
I picked Every Grain Of Sand because it is timely and relevant. The song deals with confession and conscience, and the demands of admitting transgressions while still preserving an inviolable inner life. Bob Dylan is one generation older than I am, and something I get very deeply from his art is ways of thinking of myself as the last generation to have grown up without the ubiquitous and, now, unstopping erosion and confusion of the boundaries between public life and private life. Much of Bob Dylan’s work is morally flaying, morally intimate, without being indiscreet. This is becoming a lost art.
He recorded this song for a record released in 1981 called Shot Of Love. You may be familiar with Dylan’s severe turn to evangelical Christian content in his music in 1979-80—during that period he recorded and performed only material in this gospel vein. He released two exclusively evangelical oriented records, Slow Train and Saved, and in 1980 he reintroduced his older songs into his live performances, and in 1981 he released Shot Of Love, which is often very carelessly considered—by people listening perhaps with one or half of one ear to the songs it contains—to be his “3rd” gospel record. Even the religious-inflected songs on this album have an indirection or an ambiguity to them that is very different from the material on the previous two records. [We all listen to the Shot Of Love studio version of the song, with varying degrees of pleasure and inspiration. I was provided with an excellent boombox, the song filled the room.]
Bob Dylan once griped that the vastly beloved Beatles’ classic, Yesterday, “doesn’t go anywhere.” Dylan began his musical life mainlining folk songs and ballads, and absorbed the principle of a song as a narrative of some kind—the songs from which his own sprouted were generally songs that unfold in time, either as actual plot, or the development of a theme around a refrain. He’s carried this principle throughout his career—his songs as a rule unfold feelings, ideas, dramatic episodes. Every Grain Of Sand will carry us through a reflection on the condition of confession, in which a person can be dangerous, venial, and also hold a larger ethical vision of their actions.
Jerry Garcia once famously declared that Bob Dylan didn’t know how to begin or end a song—Garcia meant that onstage, Dylan’s songs generally start when he’s ready to start singing, and they stop when he decides the song is done. Although the Name that Tune Game is very exciting for fans at concerts, Garcia had a point. But this doesn’t apply lyrically.
Always listen closely to the opening lines of Dylan’s strongest songs—this is the door that opens into the song. Here he tells us right off that this is the time of his confession, not the confession itself. It’s the hour when his need—for what? Relief? Absolution? Just an ear?—is deepest. And what is the condition of this time of confession? His tears of remorse are so copious they flood every newborn seed. The suffering of his conscience has made him barren. And of course a barren singer must have a dying voice—no one can hear, it’s only reaching somewhere. And this dying voice calls from two sources: morals and the dangers of despair. Despair is both destructive and instructive to the spirit.
So we are introduced to a voice singing from a troubled conscience which knows the difference between right and wrong, and still does and knows harm. This voice is split between right and wrong—and that should be the very nature of a confession. And this divided self can be heard in Dylan’s enactment of the lyrics: his voice snarls and also lightens. He is appealing, and he is harsh. There’s a contrast between the voice that sings quite poignantly and carefully that he sees the master’s hand, and the voice that states boldly he gazes into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame. Never ask Bob Dylan to sing notes. Instead, listen to the way he performs words.
In the 2nd verse, he is unrepentant, deceiving, and also arrogant to the point perhaps of blasphemy—he identifies with the mythical first murderer, Cain, and his slippery language shows us we are dealing with a character who both knows right and wants wrong. We can’t know whether the Cain who has to break the chain of events is the Cain before or after he murders Abel. Will crime free him from the chains of his inheritance, or does he wish to repent his criminal past? The fury of this confusion of arrogance and conscience is interrupted by a fairly conventional image of redemption. He sees “the master’s hand.” He sees Nature commanded by an omniscience through whom all is transparent and ordered.
So the song should end here—he sees the large scheme of things, and hasn’t the master’s hand stilled his fury? Well, no, and the language tells us why: his vision occurs in the fury of the moment, it doesn’t resolve it. Perhaps suddenly he has an awareness of that dying voice being heard. So on he sings.
The trembling leaf seems to lead him to a further lament of his own shortcomings: flowers of indulgence, weeds of yesteryear—the poor little leaf has grown into a rotten garden poisoned by the singer’s licentiousness and wasted time. There’s a thread of plant life in the song that carries the moral growth—the drowned seeds , the trembling leaf that signals the awareness of omniscience, then the rotten garden he reflects on with regret. We can be reminded of Hamlet’s world-garden, unweeded, flourishing only with life that is rank and gross.
These failures of will, his indulgence and idleness, figured as the moribundity of the drowned seed, persist into the 4th verse. The lovely tricky language speaks again to his dividedness. His humility is strong and affecting. But of course, nothing forces a person to gaze into the doorway of temptation, and indeed it’s essential to all our temptations that they have our own names on them. He comes again to a vision of transcendent order, but his phrasing is odd. Every hair is numbered. Your days are numbered, and so are mine, as he will sing 30 years later. To be numbered is also to be doomed.
In the 5th verse he can see a wider vision, and he reflects largely and lyrically on a portrait of the artist seen through the dark light of morals and despair. By 1981 Bob Dylan had indeed gone from rags to riches in sorrow, in violence, in summer and winter and day and night. These images are allusive and personal and also in a grand poetic register—E.g., the violence of a summer’s dream may refer to a season of abandon and fecundity that’s his private experience to recall, and it is also sufficient as an image generally suggesting wild and aggressive life. A partner to this image may be the song In The Summertime, which is also on Shot Of Love. In this string of images, there’s a sense of inexorable fortune that seems indistinguishable from cycles of grief, and you can hear the fatigue of the repeated hollow profit from these cycles.
And then the bitter dance of loneliness. The bitter lonely dance of life on the stage, and the awful dance of solitude. Remember that Bob Dylan had already given us one of the most enduring images of the artist as a solitary dancer: to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free. So 17 years prior to Grain Of Sand, he danced the dance of the liberated, inspired artist. It matters that the dance hasn’t stopped, but it has soured.
I want to come back to the image of the broken mirror of innocence.
We’re at the end. After this very noble and rather gorgeous verse lamenting the artist’s life, he concludes the time of his confession. And does so by borrowing drivel. Even in 1981, Footprints in the Sand was much reproduced and familiar. (While we’re on the subject of stealing and Bob Dylan, note that when young Mary Stevenson wrote this in 1936, she knew nothing about copyright laws and lost the chance to profit from her creation.) He turns the little homily inside out: He mentions the sea, which delivers and removes all the sands on all the beaches, and unlike Stevenson’s Everyman, who meets the invisible holy companion only when he arrives at the end of his journey, the singer keeps turning to see if he’s alone, uncertain, like Orpheus. There’s faith and doubt in Dylan’s image here, turning again and again. And he does not tell us who his silent companion is.
The song ends without absolution, but with the destination of this time of confession. Hanging in the balance of the reality of man. I love the lovely vowels here. The singer is exactly where he began, mortal, and conscious of his mortality. Nothing more or less. Balance here is tension—a tantric balance we must maintain ourselves. And we’ve seen this very tension throughout the song, in the dividedness of the character, and in our own relation to him as we are repeatedly seduced by beautiful language that is deceptively humble and self-aware.
Here’s the problem: Of all the versions of this song Dylan has recorded or performed, only the one you heard has the line hanging in the balance of the reality of man. Every other version contains the line Hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan. The difference is dramatic: one is the balance of permanence and poise, it is an absolution, and it excludes those of us who do not recognize perfect finished plans, and the other is mortal, inclusive, and the balance of tension. And the difference is entirely about the relation of the listener to the song. Which do you prefer? Which brings the song closer to you?
Now I want to zoom in on the language. Allen Ginsberg once celebrated the early Dylan for restoring the long line to American poetry. In this song you can hear something of that. It’s the density of syllables that creates the rhythm of the song, and becomes almost invisible, an aural illusion in which we barely notice that including the words indulgence, criminals, yesteryear so close together is not easy to do metrically, and a line like broken mirror of innocence, 8 syllables packed together lucidly in a line of melody—it just does not sound effortful.
The internal rhymes create a mobile of sounds and allusions.
There is the strangeness of meaning in the language, I’ll focus on the line, broken mirror of innocence. In the upcoming issue of Montague Street, we’ve got an excellent essay by Ditlev Larsen on Dylan’s use of collocations, which are images composed of elements that seem unexpected, or more deeply ambiguous than a first reading suggests. Paraphrasing broken mirror of innocence becomes quickly a house of mirrors: Whose innocence? The singer’s or the lost companions? Is our innocence a function of how we are seen by others—companions become the mirrors of my innocence, and their disillusionment is the broken mirror? Is innocence itself a mirror? Each of these questions is suggestive and leads to interesting thought, and none and all are identical to the lyric. Instead of analyzing and parsing, consider that the conditions of innocence, disillusionment, corruption, violation, and forgotten companions are held together in a field of meaning. Work with the idea that a field of meaning is not the same as an argument. We feel the relation among these, and we can’t set them up neatly. You can say this is part of the nature of all poetic language.
I’m going to finish with another window in the house of Bob Dylan, from the opposite side of the house perhaps. I’m going to bring in here another song as a counterpart to Every Grain of Sand. It’s always good to hear Dylan talking to himself, contradicting himself, across songs and years and decades. He converses with life through his songs, and here’s a little taste of that conversation. This song is called Tell Me, and it’s rather the opposite of Every Grain Of Sand. Here, the singer is begging someone to confess to him. He sings as a person whose happiness depends on someone else’s morals and conscience. He suffers from his lover’s hidden moral life, or what he believes is his lover’s hidden moral life and shows the incompatibility of love and privacy. From the lyrics of the song, there’s really no reason to assume the woman has transgressed, he is generating his fear and anxiety from her silence. People tell me it’s a sin to know and feel too much within, as he sings elsewhere. In Tell Me, he’s submissive, even pathetic, we are on his side even though we can’t know the woman’s side. This is the entire point of the song, which feels seductive and sympathetic. We’re not going to examine it verse by verse. I’m going to play the outtake version of the song because the more polished version has nauseating male backup singers on it, and the unpolished version has one of my favorite lines he’s ever written. [Rough Cuts' Tell Me fills the room.] I point out my favorite line, Which means more to you, a lap dog or a dead lion? and comment on the Biblical reference, “Bob Dylan is a master of wittily eroticizing the spiritual,” I say, and figure I’d better stop right there. So I did.
I did talk about the allusions in the song–St Augustine’s sand, Blake’s sand (happily aided by the excellent John Gibbens who supplied me with the reference to every grain of sand in Jerusalem), Hamlet’s garden and Fleurs de Mal. I have always seen the Spanish Steps in steps of time, only because the translucent, and opulent, and intimate language puts Keats in my mind. But preparing this talk, I came back to the trembling leaf again and again, and heard Forlorn! again and again. What both moments share for me is the thrill of the present play of thought. Keats dreams of faery lands dreamily forlorn, and we swing with him as that word awakens his consciousness to the mortal forlorn. The pretty commonplace image of a single trembling leaf reminding one that a master’s hand reaches to the very smallest morsel of creation carries the singer’s thought back to the corrupted natural world that his despair has irrigated. These moments feel something different from the work of making allusion and connection among the parts of a text–these moments feel like the writer’s thought is once again physically active within me as I swing on that forlorn and that leaf from one state of mind to another. That is the best I can do, and anyway, we’re back in C. Ricks territory, so I’d better quit until next time.