A house divided against itself makes a most beautiful Bob Dylan song

Rope Breaking on Man Holding Stone Heart on HillsideBob Dylan and his heart speak a real language to each other  that Bob Dylan is then able to translate into songs. Think of him as the sibyl of his own heart.

Heart of Mine is a clever conceit, a piece of playful and self-aware hypocrisy until the line “so malicious and so full of guile.” His heart frightens and threatens him. It will create feeling to cause pain. He is his own enemy, and how well he knows his own enemy! The song, with its lyrical title, is indeed a lovesong to the heart itself, the heart which should be content to rest within its home, which is the singer alone. But the singer knows everything about his heart. It needs more than its very own self, it needs to roam, it needs to speak itself to someone else, it can’t be fed by its own life.  We come to feel as certain as he does in the lie that the heart is a restless, hungry, free creature. We come to believe that Bob Dylan’s heart is his familiar.

Heart of Mine is a whimsy compared to Forgetful Heart, which gets across a kind of self-estrangement that is a dark and awful mirror. The recording sounds ancient from the very opening, scratchy and hissing as though we’re listening to something excavated and barely restored. There are only four verses, and the song is one of those that is over before you’ve had time to know it.  The words are utterly simple and the vocal clear as stones beneath water, and the cadence has a simple and peculiar charm. There are  short equally stressed syllables and then the words that rise on those currents of feeling that break through in different places: “the times we knew” “when you were there” “…that life could give”– the words themselves carry no more weight of meaning than other lines in the song, but the voice surges through them and it is in those surges that the coldness of forgetting opens up into the pain of forgetting.

images-2No longer the singer’s companion in love, his heart is now a shadow in his brain. Think about the heart as a shadow–an outline, nothing but the shape of something blocking the light. Sometimes you can read what a thing might be in its shadow, that’s all you can do. And no rest for his brain always awake, always tormenting itself by reading that lifeless shadow in the absence of the feeling he once shared with his heart. 



The door has closed for evermore. That’s a lovely lyrical convention, a well-chosen metaphor for time sealing up passion’s memories. If indeed there ever was a door.   This is radically witty. It makes a real door.  

Bob Dylan can make me believe that forgetting and remembering are conditions and not willed actions.  Bob Dylan can make me believe that a heart is a familiar, an inseparable companion, and not simply his feelings as they happen to him. Then he can make me believe that feelings themselves have Being and are not  fleeting and arbitrary impulses. He can make me feel pain that someone might call a self-inflicted fiction. He can make me feel he is never alone when he is alone, that he is intrinsically and often excruciatingly in perpetual conversation with an other that is the same.

519RKRQNPXL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_415YD84QF8L._SL160_AA115_51y80+hPK-L._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_Forgetful Heart is an unhealthy and unnecessary visit to pain we don’t have to have. When people complain that Bob Dylan’s songs are not as “relevant” as they would like, I wonder what is more relevant than being reminded of the truth of our hapless, sorry condition, and how deeply we relish being reminded of our sorriness via beauty. We are self-defeating and truth-seeking creatures in a terrible real world. “Welcome. And enjoy,” says  Forgetful Heart.


3 thoughts on “A house divided against itself makes a most beautiful Bob Dylan song

  1. This is all very well said–each sentence offers food for pondering. The one thing that puzzles me is that you need to be “convinced” that remembering & forgetting are “conditions and not willed actions.” I thought they were! I mean, we can try to forget, or try to remember, but we have to work hard (and often unavailingly) to alter the way they work. Or am I missing your meaning?

    Also, one comment: Don’t both these songs remind you a bit of Whitman’s dialogues between self and soul (heart)? And don’t they both seem like perverse (if that’s the appropriate word) upsettings of the tenor of these dialogues in Whitman?


    1. I think I confused myself as well as my percipient reader here: free and unerring selectivity among memories would be a kind of paradise, wouldn’t it. It would pretty much redefine the human condition. Hard and unavailing work to alter this indeed. I think I hear in the song a sly playfulness with this condition–he laments that his heart is responsible for this falling-off of passion; his heart has lost the access….the energy….the will….for the “good times” they once shared. Not an amnesia for incident, but for feeling itself? An intensity of feeling? It is the way he plays with displacing this forgetting that makes this song so rich for me. Love for the singer is become the old friendship with his own heart. I hear the presence of this addressee–I hear the presence of his heart–as he sings the song.

      Funny you mention the Whitman. I recently shared an excerpt from Whitman’s dialogues with a writing class I was teaching to the elderly residents of a nursing home. They all are frank about the discomfort, immobility, pain they endure regularly, their bodies largely become burdens or prisons to them, and they responded with real enthusiasm and sympathy to the idea of the self and the spirit accessible to each other, but also liberated from each other. And definitely I hear this in Forgetful Heart and other later Dylan.
      Thank you so much for your comment.

  2. How about setting us up with

    “Every little detail…. “(cliche alert my brain thinks)

    Only to knock us back with

    “….You don’t remember at all. ”

    Do you know anyone else who can do that?


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