Hard is the Fortune of All Womankind

images-1Below I’ve pasted in full Richard Goldstein’s April 2006 essay in The Nation which exposes  the limitations to Bob Dylan’s art, the flaws in Bob Dylan’s character, and the follies of Bob Dylan’s fans,  who are unable to judge his work with real critical acumen because they see him through the dark glass of idol worship. Goldstein punctures the Dylan myth through what could be the most sustained and impressive feat of critical shadow-boxing I’ve come across.  He avoids close readings of songs themselves, and depends on hyperbolic generalizations to describe what we talk about when we talk about Dylan, and obviates argument. There is no point in arguing with a man who sees “consecration”  instead of “appreciation” in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There: he is welcome to consider consecration a kind of misguided excess. And I certainly was brought up short by the observation that drugs are not mentioned in either No Direction Home nor Chronicles. True in both cases–so much swept under the rug! There goes credibility! If Richard Goldstein claims that  people  consider Joey to be “of a piece” with Like A Rolling Stone, then I am sure he has met these people and confirmed their opinions and we now have solid evidence that these two songs are “of a piece.”  Renaldo and Clara is “endless and tedious.” This statement I understand to have the same truth value as “Renaldo and Clara was shot in color and its cast includes Joan Baez and Harry Dean Stanton among other performers.”   Goldstein notes that at the time of his writing, Amazon.com listed  398 books about Bob Dylan, and Goldstein refers to this quantity as “Rolling Tenure Review.”  I assume that earning tenure through published critical studies of Bob Dylan is further evidence that his work has been elevated far beyond what it merits on its own, and this proposition is unique to Bob Dylan’s work. He uses Alex Ross as an ally in his contempt for this kind of work, and quotes Ross as damning the excess to which Dylan’s work inspires some critics. The many kinds of registers in which people have tried to write about Dylan’s work is an interesting topic that says something about conventional boundaries between popular, academic, colloquial, formal, and personal languages of critical writing. But Goldstein asks us to see that an essential weakness in Dylan’s work  is responsible for some floundering discussions of it.  

images-3Goldstein feels  that Dylan criticism–and Christopher Ricks is the unfortunate standard bearer–deflects attention from other popular musicians because it creates a force field of elitism around Dylan’s work and then by default keeps all others out of the inner circle. Dylan is more “literary” than Joni Mitchell according to an elitist and conventional definition of literary, therefore he deserves the kind of scrutiny a man who built his professional reputation on studies of Milton and the Romantics gives him. Goldstein creates the definitions and standards he needs to ridicule Dylan’s status and then boldly carries out his circular arguments.

Well this is all fun so far, and then the fun stops very quickly when Goldstein arrives at  moral high ground.

images-4 It is me Richard Goldstein wishes to rescue from Bob Dylan! He asks the  question “Is there any great artist who appeals to only one sex?” and I just have time to consider all the presumptions (starting with the presumption that sexual difference is clear and essential)  he collapses into this preposterous question before I am lectured, with paternal compassion and urgency, on Bob Dylan’s hostility to women. 

images-7Now, Goldstein’s arguments here are, simply as rhetoric, no stronger than the ones he marshals in the first portion of the essay. For one, he shows the same meager knowledge of Dylan’s songs. In a funny display of Goldstein’s carelessness, one of the two lyrics he quotes are the lines from Sweetheart Like You which appear in Lyrics, yet are not the words Dylan sings in the recorded versions of the song, commercial or bootleg.  Has he listened to this song? He also claims that one of Dylan’s themes is “suspicion of worldly women–and therefore the world”–this is the kind of  elementary rhetorical error that nullifies an argument. When Goldstein starts in on When He Returns, and writes,  “The rod of ages he clings to–and his worshipers cling to–is a phallus,” we all need to fan ourselves and take a little rest. 

images1But I want to stop here with any counterarguments of my own. Taking his points on his terms is something I wish to avoid. If I start opining that the women in Dylan’s songs are not submissive, I am only acceding to Goldstein’s definitions of sex and sexism and also to his disingenuous offense on my behalf. This of course is a familiar position in the intellectual and political  worlds, when one group condescends to protect another group perceived as vulnerable. I’m not going to stand outside  my own responses to Dylan’s work  as a female fan and prove that I live up to Richard Goldstein’s standards of raised consciousness. 

He plays into my hands, though,  when he asks another awful question ‘What do women think of this shit?”– here he is riffing on a writer he admires, Greil Marcus, and the opening line of Marcus’s notorious review of Self-Portrait. Goldstein is right when he says we don’t really know, since rock criticism is dominated by men, Bob Dylan criticism is dominated by men, and Bob Dylan audiences have often been dominated by men. And indeed we are talking here about straight men who may see Bob Dylan enjoying an embarrassment of the kind of riches they are accustomed to coveting: the love of millions, the esteem of the cultural elite, piles of women, uncountable wealth, a near-guarantee that his work will endure long past his life, an intense and productive lifelong struggle with  the most profound questions of human existence. Historically, these have been men’s territories to fight over and claim, and this fact affects what men talk about when they talk about Bob Dylan.

This is where I call out to, well, non-straight-men as awkward as that sounds, to weigh in with new voices describing deeply felt relations with Dylan’s art, which really has been corralled by a certain demographic. How do you hear and feel and think about these songs, if indeed they have been important to you? What kinds of intellectual and sensory attention do you bring to hearing these songs that can show us different ways of hearing them? It’s not about whether the female presences on Blood on the Tracks are or are not submissive, but how you relate to the songs, not being a *brother* to the singer. I am sure someone will take that last sentence as an example of the wretched excess of Dylan-criticism, but I’ll take my hits and keep on going.

Goldstein is right when he recognizes hero worship in Dylan’s fans, and his essay is an important invitation to new voices in Dylan writing, he’s just himself unnecessary in what he has to say about the topic. And I am simply very sorry for him that he will never hear the version of Born in Time on Under the Red Sky the way I do. Richard, you are never going to hear the lines “Not one more night, not one more kiss/Not this time, babe, no more of this” the way they should be heard, and I pity you. 



That voice, softened by the erosion of age but still the sensate rasp that Joyce Carol Oates once compared to sandpaper singing. Even when it’s prattling on, that voice reaches into the synapses of my youth. I’m a Dylan baby; I trekked down from the Bronx to hear him in his Greenwich Village hootenanny days, and I still have the program from his 1961 Carnegie Hall debut. E-bay beckons, but I won’t sell it, or forget the moment when I first heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” on Top 40 radio and realized that the times were…need I finish the line?

Now it’s trickier. There’s Dylan the artist in cap and gown, and Dylan the brand, hyping the new line at Victoria’s Secret; Dylan the Nobel Prize nominee, and Dylan the franchise whose product is being diversified into a tribute musical by Twyla Tharp. And now there’s DJ coming to the XM pay-radio network. Starting May 3 he’ll go head to cred with Howard Stern, chatting up guests, answering e-mails and spinning platters of his eccentric choosing around selected themes (e.g., weather, dancing, whiskey). Those who knew him as the most inspirational voice of the 1960s can tune in to reconnect with their memories through this show. Those who fell away when he found God can hear what’s most admirable about Dylan now: his musical erudition and his bond with what critic Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America,” the land of dusty 78s and desperate dreams. XM is betting that Theme Time Radio Hour With Your Host Bob Dylan will draw a very desirable demographic: haute boomers who are used to paying for premium channels and premium everything. 

You could do worse than pass the drive time with one of America’s most important pop artists. But to describe Dylan as merely important may seem paltry, even philistine. To his most fervent admirers he’s not just another artist, certainly not a song-and-dance man, as he’s often called himself. He’s the emblem of his generation’s splendor. Beatified in his youth, he’s cruising toward sainthood today.

Like any holy man, Dylan is surrounded by a cultural guard that sings his praises and keeps his secrets. His recent autobiography,Chronicles, Volume One, doesn’t deal with drugs (though they were abundant in his entourage), and neither does Martin Scorsese’s definitive Dylan doc, No Direction Home (2005). That’s the kind of tell-some treatment Dylan expects, and he’s always gotten it from artists who hone and honor his myth. Todd Haynes is making a film with four actors playing avatars of Dylan. This is a sign that something other than appreciation is at work. We’re witnessing a consecration.

As Dylan’s original fans age, some feel a need to make the icon of their youth into an eternal object of worship. Things that last forever aren’t subject to ups and downs, so the former consensus about Dylan–that his later work is quite uneven–has given way to a conviction that his oeuvre is one unbroken flow of genius, a gospel. Prophets don’t have flops, and neither should Dylan. His woeful ode to assassinated mobster Joey Gallo (“What made them want to come and blow you away?”) has to be of a piece with his master song “Like a Rolling Stone.” His endless and tedious 1978 film Renaldo and Clara must be seen as an underrated masterpiece. This failure to distinguish between awesome and awful Dylan is evidence that his reputation rests less on his recent music than on his enduring status as a fetish.

Dylan has always inspired an awe that obtruded on and ultimately betrayed his songs. Back in the tie-dye days, those lyrics were read like the entrails of a certain sacred bird. No one searches his garbage anymore, but the frenzy of interpretation remains. The result is Saint Dylan, the patron of bitter boomers. He sings of their retreat from utopian dreams, of their disdain for politics, fixation on domesticity, resentment toward demands that intrude on their prerogatives; he speaks to their longing for order, their love-hate relationship with their fathers and with God the Father; and he does this with a mastery of ambiguity that can dazzle when it doesn’t dismay. Those who once soared with Dylan and now face a sour senescence may be looking to leave something other than real estate for posterity. What better monument than the man who traced their changes?

No one who ever set finger to fret has inspired the scholarly fixation that Dylan now does. Amazon lists 398 books by or about him–not just the usual photo relics, back stories, bios and ex-girlfriend memoirs but competing encyclopedias, philosophical treatises, bar-by-bar deconstructions and syntactical Baedekers galore. Welcome to the Rolling Tenure Review.

Can Dylan’s work sustain high scrutiny? Yes, if it’s placed in a particular cultural context. Dylan’s is a hybrid art, as Robert Christgau has observed. Synthesis is the key to its vitality. High and low are one; fishermen hold flowers. The best Dylan critics–e.g., Christgau, Marcus, Tim Riley–situate him in a musical/social tradition that includes, most notably, the blues. But there have always been intellectuals who insisted on yoking Dylan to the fine-art cart.

Consider Aidan Day’s analysis of the song “Visions of Johanna”: “a reduction of form to primal elements–as in an image that itself displaces Marcel Duchamp’s rendering of the Mona Lisa in the painting LHOOQ.” The music critic Alex Ross cites this groaner as an example of the wretched excess Dylan can inspire in inquiring minds. He always did. But lately this adoration has spawned a whole new school of Dylan crit, all the more powerful because it’s based in the academy. Young Bob should have wailed: Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you in a syllabus!

The dean of this veneration scholarship is Christopher Ricks, an important critic of (mainly British) poetry. Like many acolytes, Ricks admits that Dylan is an obsession. But unlike the garbologists of yore, he has the intellectual means to venture a close textual analysis of the work itself. The result is Dylan’s Visions of Sin, a formidable study whose flaws epitomize the problems with the discipline I’ll call Ph.Dylanology.

It’s a formalist school, and as such it privileges the syntax of the songs over their context. Taking this approach, Ricks finds not just hidden intricacies but significant connections between Dylan and the great poets, especially the Symbolists and Romantics. There are such connections, as there are for a number of rock artists from the 1960s. Consider John Lennon’s link to Surrealism or Jim Morrison’s debt to the Beats. Certainly Dylan is the most literary of songwriters, and he synthesizes the metaphorics of blues with the Western literary tradition in a remarkable way. It’s one thing to acknowledge this achievement, quite another to maintain that it makes him the singular genius of his generation. But the point of Ph.Dylanology is to render him as an exceptional artist who communes with the immortals and stands apart from the creative processes of the crowd. Elitism is a dirty word in formalist circles, but that’s what this is. And it doesn’t get at Dylan’s greatness.

He hasn’t had much influence on literature. Few contemporary poets write like him. Dylan’s major impact is on pop music, and his innovations–expanding the lyric line and infusing it with expressive, ambiguous imagery–are a mainstay of modern song. In pop, the sensual surface is every bit as important as the subtext, maybe more so. If you’re going to tackle the Book of Revelation, you’d better make it rock. These values set a standard for pop-culture criticism: erotics over hermeneutics, to channel Susan Sontag. But most Ph.Dylanologists are oblivious to the ways of pop–and they ignore the “old, weird America,” where Dylan’s imagination resides. Overlooking this tradition does a grave disservice to the collective genius of American music. And it removes Dylan from the company of 1960s song-poets like Lennon (whose late style is every bit as primal and more radical), Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon (all of them wiser about the vicissitudes of intimacy). Because these artists are less literary than Dylan, they are presumed to be less worthy, and a whole aesthetic movement is dismissed.

I once saw Ricks lecture on the poetics of unstressed (or “feminine”) endings in an early Dylan song called “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” He never acknowledged that such upbeat endings are common in American song, or that the “axial moments” in a Dylan lyric–when an image encompasses its opposite–appear often in rock. Indeed, ambiguity is central to the sixties sensibility, and not just because of Dylan’s sway. Ricks is hardly the first critic to be stuck inside of Mobile with the William Empson blues again, and I wouldn’t be so hard on him if his pop illiteracy weren’t the sign of a larger problem.

There’s a reason why formalism flourishes in conservative times. It stops the discussion of ideology. The appeal of this approach to Dylan–and the reason it’s taken hold, I’m convinced–is that it exempts his devotees from dealing with the troubling politics of his later songs: those reactionary attitudes and that unctuous, unforgiving theodicy. Formalism tells us that these values are not the source of Dylan’s power, that it’s all in the tropes. But there’s more to his lyrics than subtext. There’s a plain meaning, and it matters.

I’m not suggesting that a reactionary artist can’t be a great one–remember Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower. I am saying that failing to confront the plain meaning of Dylan’s music as well as its morality is a sin of its own.

Is there any great artist who appeals to only one sex? This question shouldn’t be incidental to the Dylan discussion, but it is. Though most critics acknowledge his sexism–as in, So what else is new?–there’s been no real examination of his sexual politics and its relevance to the rest of his politics. Hostility to women is a recurring motif in Dylan’s songs, from “Like a Rolling Stone” to “Idiot Wind.” His love songs, and there are many, bask in feminine submission, as in the ballad on Infidels (1983) that asks, “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?” and answers “You know a woman like you should be at home/That’s where you belong/Watching out for someone who loves you true/Who would never do you wrong.”

What do women think of this shit? We don’t really know, since rock crit (like lit crit) is such a male preserve. But it’s safe to say that Dylan’s current public is skewed toward the (straight) male end of the sexual spectrum. His heroic persona is a big reason why.

Take Dylan’s trademark elusiveness: The self is masked; nothing is revealed. This stance is a major signifier of machismo in American culture, always has been. Think of all those masked superheroes, or the hard-boiled guys in film noir whose eyes are shown in shadow. Think of Noah’s son, cursed because he saw his father naked. Dylan is steeped in that saga. He’s a keeper of the patriarchal flame.

Consider this roster of Dylan themes: suspicion of worldly women–and therefore the world; rejection of modernism, especially when it threatens old values; rigid, sin-burned religiosity; the falsity of social life; the corruption of love; and, lately, the perversion of divine order. These values resonate with the paranoid tendency in machismo. When Dylan was younger, they were tempered by his rebellion against oppressive (white male) power, but now it’s the disruption of godly rules and hallowed hierarchies that he rebels against, “infamy on the landscape,” as Dylan writes in the liner notes for World Gone Wrong(1993). He doesn’t work on Maggie’s farm; he lives there.

I don’t claim that Dylan is determined by machismo–there’s much more to him than that. But I will say that he reaches many men of a certain age and status on precisely these grounds. He digs beneath their ambivalent embrace of sexual equality, the insistence that they acknowledge their interests as a sex, and he proposes that these demands insult the fundamentals. Liberals won’t accept that regressive message when it’s wrapped in conservative politics, as it often is in country music. But because Dylan is as critical of injustice as he is of liberation, he overrides such reservations. And if you take a purely textual approach, it’s possible to forget that his mystique rests substantially on his sexual politics. Dylan is a liberal man’s man.

Nostalgia for the patriarchy becomes acute for many men when they age, as their fathers diminish and die. For Dylan this yearning is a kind of prayer. “The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod,” he sings in “When He Returns.” The rod of ages he clings to–and his worshipers cling to–is a phallus. I’d say that’s the key to the cult of Dylan. He’s the holy writ in a phallic rite. It’s why he’s always inspired obsessive codifying and deciphering missions and why his songs are treated as sacred texts. They aren’t just poems; they’re parables from the mouth of… the prophet.

Faced with the nasty aspects of this artist, Ricks urges “faith in Dylan,” adding, “this needs to encompass his faith and our having faith in him.” That’s not criticism; it’s hagiography–and it violates the best of Dylan’s subterranean homesick injunctions, the one I think of whenever I sit down to write a piece:

Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parking meters.

The most honest way to look at Dylan is the way his young fans do. They admire him, but they don’t adore him. And they understand that his career over four decades has had dramatic ebbs and flows. Between 1975 and 1987 he produced some memorable songs along with many otiose ballads and those hymns aptly described by Alex Ross as “snarling gospel.” The best you can say about these experiments is that they were sincere. But they suffered from the enervation that comes of disengagement.

As a young man, Dylan withdrew in rage from the burdens of progressive politics, and that rebellion galvanized his most important work. But as he aged, he withdrew from the social world itself, and his gift was lost in the ether of salvation. Then, somehow, Dylan found the world again, and in 1997 he created a wonderful album of spare, melancholy songs, Time Out of Mind. He was back, though as he’s said, you can’t come back in the same way again.

Now a new generation has discovered Dylan, but not for his late style. They flock to his concerts to hear the early songs, those still-gripping sagas of alienation and outrage written when Dylan was lost in the wilderness, and they come to hear how Dylan will sing those songs today, since he always performs them differently. They know Dylan as he should be known–as a striving, fallible artist, not a saint.

I’ve learned not to overestimate the dude. That sandpaper voice still stirs the passions of my past, even when it’s singing of a present that would stifle me. But I don’t believe in Dylan. His words are not the Word. And I come not to worship him but to complicate him.


2 thoughts on “Hard is the Fortune of All Womankind

  1. Thanks first of all, for this delightful site! Some of the best commentary on Dylan I’ve ever encountered.

    Goldstein makes some good points, despite the harping, negative tone of his essay. For example I would like to read more discussion about the role of drugs in Dylan’s work than I have read. But like many another critic he’s trying to shoehorn Dylan into a mold, and as usual the fit is less than perfect.

    Taken as a whole, Dylan’s work is nearly impossible to classify. And while there certainly are elements of the mysogenistic in it, of the patriarchal, the reactionary…or what have you…these elements in no way add up to a totality of the effect that Dylan has created.

    Goldstein takes umbrage at the fact that Dylan’s work has recieved so much more attention than that of Lennon, Cohen, Simon, Mitchell, et. al. I agree these are all superb singer-poets, deserving of more attention than they’ve had, but they aren’t in the same league as Dylan. I’d be prepared to back up this assertion, but it would take a lot more writing than I’m willing to do at the moment.

    There has always been a strong prophetic element in Dylan’s art, an almost Old Testament aspect to it. But this aspect no more defines it, than many other elements define it. Compassion, humor, rage, humility, sensuality, delicacy, brutal honesty…all coexist within the canon. To regard this entire body of work (which as a whole is both maginificent and self-contradictory) in light of just one or two ideological stances, misses the point of it.

    It seems to me that here, Goldstein is conflating Dylan (as a man) with Dylan’s art. Many critics do that, but it’s a mistake. An artist’s work (if he is a good artist) stands wholly independent of his person. Or in Dylan’s case, that would be personae.

  2. Thank you so much for this comment–I’m going to respond to it at length in another post.

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