Below I’ve pasted most of a comment made by Schuyler Lake (hope I didn’t blow the name here) in response to my post regarding Richard Goldstein’s 2006 essay on Bob Dylan. I like so much the emphasis here on the error of pigeonholing any aspect of Dylan’s work, and the description of this work as a totality that is “both magnificent and self-contradictory” is simply terrific. Magnificent and self-contradictory–the deeper and longer one listens to Dylan the more transparent this becomes, and it is exhilarating work to engage the contradictions without trying to resolve them, and also without making the sophomoric mistake that the contradictions add up to one big nihilism. I love the catalog here “(c)ompassion, humor, rage, humility, sensuality, delicacy, brutal honesty…all coexist within the canon.” They all coexist in Idiot Wind.
These comments strike at something crucial to me in Dylan’s art–it may be experienced as a collage of emotions and values, in which love or faith or time or honesty or compassion or humility are viewed in hundreds of different lights, from hundreds of different perspectives, and listeners form their own narratives from the glimpses. I think the challenge is to accept the “totality of effect” of this collage of songs and performances, and not see it as a Magic Eye game in which some fundamental and essential shape–Bob Dylan’s political disillusionment, or Bob Dylan’s real religious belief, or Bob Dylan the American icon–emerges for you and everyone else has got to see it too. If I start squinting around for the naked parts in Duchamps’ painting, I’ve stopped seeing with Duchamps’ eyes.
Let’s say I consider this painting misogynistic. The women here flaunt a sexuality that’s unconstrained, enticing, intimidating. Can’t compete with this. At the same time, they live in a treacherous world of sharp edges and their faces are devolving into masks that make their heads primal, grotesque, emblems of savagery, ritual, desire that is obscure and forbidden. This female sexuality is both snare and weapon, it is pictured as idealized and dangerous, and it’s the women’s own fault for being so….so much what they are. Misogyny–as opposed to the reactionary or the patriarchal–seems to me to happen when the feminine is depicted as treacherous and destructive at the same proportions as it is seductive. It makes women feel shitty. It can make women feel both inadequate and toxic at the same time. This feeling is not something I find much of at all in Bob Dylan’s work. I find it often in Leonard Cohen, and in Philip Roth, for comparison. Is it in Sara? The real woman turned into a fantastic mystical-mythological ideal and set repeatedly against images of motherhood and actual ordinary life? Is it in Man of Peace, where the singer introduces a silent and apparently trapped woman to the evil lurking in the world, and brings himself to the brink of identifying with that evil, all as a kind of seduction?
Most often I feel women something like this in Dylan’s songs. Women who are yearned for, supplicated, spurned, cajoled, and who remain their silent selves, in important ways free of the singer and of the song, as Hopper’s partly undressed, exposed woman is both offered to the viewer and protected in her psychological space. Dylan’s women travel to Spain or Tangier without him; they sleep and dream their own dreams while he watches them; they have faith stronger than his that he craves like love; they don’t even look anything like their own passport; they are on their way out the door, leaving him behind.
What Schuyler Lake’s comments here helped me think about is pretty much this: if you don’t want the whole messy awful gamut of human life, best leave Bob Dylan alone. You’ll find plenty there that’s not very pretty, and it’s tempting to start thinking you’re too good for the ugliness. That’s when you’ve missed the whole boat.
HERE’S THE PORTION OF THIS COMMENT THAT WAS POSTED ON JAN 12 AT HARD IS THE FORTUNE OF ALL WOMANKIND. THANKS AGAIN.
“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.