Cultivation. Cult. Culture. Agriculture. Got a head full of ideas and they’re driving me insane. Our guest in Bob Levinson’s class this Tuesday, week 2, was writer-theologian Stephen Hazan Arnoff. I’ve had the pleasure of learning from him the last time I attended this course, and also in correspondence outside of class. He roots Bob Dylan in time-out-of-mind traditions of religious visionaries, oral and textual expressions of faith and doubt, and the strange new worlds some few people in all of time have taken the rest of us to show us how far we can go. From these roots, Hazan-Arnoff sprouted a lecture on cultivation: the “intention” and “technique” of Dylan’s art that produces the harvest of Dylan’s transformation of culture. The tools, the material, the seeds and I would say ultimately the fruits are Man, God, Law.
We started with Maggie’s Farm, where cultivation is trampled by power, and the false vain paranoid power that’s the enemy of the free person’s loyalty to truth and to right. Nothing cultivated on this farm, and the abused and exploited singer is the only person who gets what a farmer is supposed to do: supplicate nature so things will grow. Maggie’s Ma comes on to the servants with man and god and law, but only the singer is using the language of prayer.
What is growing on the farm? Hazan Arnoff offers “salvation” as the answer, and used the clip from I’m Not There, where Allen Ginsberg pulls alongside Jude Quinn on the highway, asks Jude what’s next, Jude looks heavenward and says “salvation.” What could be left for the artist who is spading through culture all the way to bedrock? A bigger audience? Better reviews? Salvation….? Stephen turned to Desolation Row as both the labor and the harvest of this cultivation. Stephen calls Desolation Row the ‘secret history of Maggie’s Farm.”
It’s important to remember that there really were postcards of the hanging. You really could buy souvenir lynching photos. So the song is launched from a world where atrocity is commodified as culture. It’s launched into the singer’s imagination where every category of meaning–every form of culture that humans have invented to make ordered sense of themselves and the world–is inverted, exploited, manipulated into the one vision and voice of the young singer leaning into Desolation Row. Politics, literature, religion, pop culture, myth and folklore, history, science and the industry it spawns–these forms are all playthings for the artist whose vision is strong enough to see that indeed all of culture has been a matter of humankind playing with life in order to “unlock its secrets”, to quote Stephen.
So the song cultivates culture, and its tools are certain gifts of composition and performance granted to one Bob Dylan, and the harvest is pretty close to the secrets of this universe: we find out that the great unending work of culture has been an odyssey along desolation row, as idols and texts and stories and discoveries and lovers too, are fighting and destroying each other to win the high ground of Truth. I have to reap the awe-ful bounty of the singer’s labor but what’s the cost for him? He’s really done the work, I’m just buying his goods at this produce market.
Well, he doesn’t feel too good. Somehow the doorknob broke and he’s trapped and alone, don’t ask him how he’s doing, you’ve already heard the song for crying out loud. He’s spent and sick from the labor and harvest of his own song, and unless I get it, unless I get that from selling postcards of lynchings to worshipping Noah’s great rainbow to building ships that sail the ocean and then sink in it, to making a song called Desolation Row, we’re all cultivating together, he doesn’t want to hear from me.
Stephen went on to talk about Augustine of Hippo’s own conversion at the voice of a child, and Bob Dylan’s cold and angry and frightening vision of I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine, and the not-so “secret history” of Dylan’s song: I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill. Stephen talked about the world without martyrs that Dylan feels he’s discovered in his dream, and he explained the root of this word: witness. And what’s the cultivation the artist can do in a world without martyrs or witnesses? He can offer us, for starters, the nightmare vision of those purposeless, darting, fearful people on the watchtower, who see approaching towards them what has already happened. He can offer us the nightmare image of a jury crying “for more”–more what? justice? drama? facts? All a jury has to do is follow the law–isn’t that enough? Ah, but the law is just what we set up in a fallen world where we can’t see our way by nature’s fair light.
The human mind can only stand so much. It’s hard to win with a losing hand.
And down the highway, down the tracks–Stephen discussed man and God and law in Senor and Franz Kafka and Highway 61 Revisited and Hasidic traditions and Lord Protect My Child and then the 2 hours were up and I had to get on that train and ride home.
On the #4 train, I thought about how much Stephen’s lecture is going to fertilize the happy idle hours I spend digging around in Ain’t Talkin’– “There’s no one here, the gardener is gone”–that line is already sprouting all manner of weird new shoots thanks to Stephen’s cult/culture/cultivation/agriculture…..
(And that insolent drawl he gets in his voice on Maggie’s Farm–how the hell did he pull off exactly the right voice for that? Like I haven’t listened to BIABH 263 times, and I’m only hearing this now? I give up.)