Darkness Was Everywhere, It Smelled Like A Tomb…. Thoughts on recent comment by Schuyler Lake

images3Thanks again to Schuyler Lake for a provocative and uncannily well-timed comment regarding how to do justice to the demands of listening to Dylan, when one of those demands becomes an irresistible urge to describe the experience of what all this listening is doing to one. When I was in Hibbing for Dylan Days in 2007, the library there had a small exhibit of artwork inspired by Dylan. I loved the range of things on that wall: portraits of Dylan, literal illustrations of lyrics, figurative and abstract drawings and paintings that expressed some response the artist has had to Dylan’s work. Much of what I saw were ardent and intimate attempts to somehow get out a feeling about a song or songs.  I could sympathize strongly with the impulse I felt behind these paintings and drawings: this visceral urge to make something of your connection with immeasurably strong art. “Why it almost DEMANDS serious discussion.” I agree, and I agree–troublingly–with the comment that Dylan “upends” the academy. 

images-13 There is a  promiscuous and uncategorizable  intelligence  at work in his songs that excites the mind, and I find that the more stuff I’ve stuffed into my own head, the more my mind is excited by Dylan.

  1. images-23 In a  New York sessions recording of Idiot Wind, the tempo is slow and dolorous, the vocal is musing and pensive in its pain and bewilderment. In this version, the singer has never known springtime to turn so quickly into autumn. In the official Minnesota session recording of the song, the listener can barely keep up with the wild energies of the song,  the vocal is a marvel of Sturm und Drang elocution (this is a vile phrase, but as I’ve said elsewhere, I’ll take my hits), and the singer has never known springtime to turn so slowly into autumn. In both versions, this lyric gets across the singer’s self-absorption, anguish, alienation from the ordinary world, time passes for him according to his madness, it is arresting and vivid that in the dirge-like version, time is too fast, and in the whirlwind version, time is too slow. The antonyms are not interchangeable, but they deliver the same affect.  In the Biograph studio version of Abandoned Love, the singer tells the woman to “take off your heavy makeup and your shawl,” in the live  Other End recording of the song, he tells her to “put on your heavy makeup and your shawl.”   Put on your costume; take off your costume; disguise yourself; reveal yourself. Both lines get across the terrible conflicts between desire and freedom, and truth and illusion, that run through this song, and the lines are both powerful images of command and surrender, and, again, the antonyms are still not interchangeable. I am glad for the time I spent studying Saussure, and Wittgenstein, and Austin: these theoreticians of the arbitrariness of language give me a way to think about Dylan’s brilliant, artful, reckless use of language. His quickly and slowly prove what I am happy I knew before I ever listened to Bob Dylan, which is that art precedes theory—you can always experience in art itself the conditions described by theorists. His quickly and slowly  make theories of signifiers and language games into uniquely ingenious and expressive art. What are for him fleeting moments in the work of composition or performance, are lit up for meas marvels of intuition because of what I’ve learned, and I’m grateful.
  2. images-32“I’ve been here all day, watching the shadows lengthen, I want to sleep but it’s too hot–and even in my inertia, I know time is slipping away . I know my lover’s letter is true and honest–and even so, she hasn’t moved me. I’ve lost my sense of humanity, whatever it is that binds me to other people–but I still know that everything beautiful hides pain. Sometimes what I am seems unbearable–but here I am, achieving the impossible and making you feel my numbness.” This summary of Not Dark Yet tries to get across the condition that governs so much of his later work: the moment in which reaching out and turning away are the same gesture; the state in which vitality and torpor are one feeling. And I’m so grateful that I’ve read and studied Beyond the Pleasure Principle, because Freud’s vision of life  caught between two relentless calls–to come forward to more life and to go back to the inorganic–helps me see more clearly the strange and inimitable effects of Dylan’s late work, in which desire and apathy, energy and inertia can never leave each other alone.
  3. images-42I simply find that because of all the time I’ve spent studying, teaching, and writing about art and literature and theories about both, the more sheer fascination Dylan’s work excites in me. Every  idea I’ve  dealt with, every sensory experience I’ve enjoyed, every moral and spiritual turn I’ve taken through art–his work illuminates or challenges or upends, usually all at once. I am grateful that the strength of all this illumination and challenge and upending is in proportion to how much I’ve got in me for Idiot Wind and ain’t Talkin’ to work against.

197452731It’s easy to be anti-academic about Dylan, and I think it is not so easy to be anti-intellectual about him. Among my  favorite writers on Dylan are Paul Williams, Christopher Ricks, and Stephen Scobie: they try to do justice to what is complex and allusive and challenging in his work by finding critical voices that are ardent and  supple and responsive. They take risks with how they write about Dylan, instead of trying to prove his value by forcing him into the canon with conventional academic language. (I realize that Paul Williams is technically the odd man out here, but just about everything he’s written on Bob Dylan has been a model to me of thoughtful and informed passion.) 

images-51I’ll have my chance to try to prove that Dylan can be served righteously in an academic setting: I’m scheduled to deliver a paper on Bob Dylan on a panel during the upcoming Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Boston in February. I was invited to do this by David Gaines of Southwestern University in Texas, and we’ll be joined by Nick Smart of the College of New Rochelle. David Gaines and Nick Smart are both serious Dylan listeners, impressive scholars, fine minds, this whole thing is an opportunity and challenge to me that way exceeds anything I’ve done in my measly professional life. It really is a test to me of whether I can do justice to Bob Dylan in a setting that I agree confines his work.  I’ll be working on drafts of this talk here, and welcome every single comment and criticism anyone offers, and will of course cite properly any help I get.




The very fact that it is so hard to classify, that it transgresses so many boundaries, and yet is so obviously influential and important, is what makes it worthy of serious discussion. Why it almost DEMANDS serious discussion. If that is, one is of an academic persuasion, which you have confessed to being, and which I have rambled around the edges of being, my life long. Dylan himself is most emphatically NOT academic. He has made a point of deliberately divorcing himself and all his work from anything that even has a whiff of academia to it. It might even be reasonably said that his work is a kind of spit in the face of academia. No wonder then, that it is so hard to analyse from a traditional platform. He simply overwhelms the academy, he upstages it, he upends it, and they don’t know where to put him. That alone


1 thought on “Darkness Was Everywhere, It Smelled Like A Tomb…. Thoughts on recent comment by Schuyler Lake

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