Writers and Critics Rolling Soul to Soul

imagesOne reason I left the academic world is because I didn’t think it was a place I could learn to write about literature without capturing meaning and feeling and housing them in a solid edifice, and then placing my little house in a neighborhood of more or less similar houses. This makes me sound like I’m aggrandizing myself into a  Romantic free spirit idealizing Passion and Profundity, unwilling to sacrifice Beauty for Reason. I’ll take that hit, and offer only in my defense that I am probably too lazy to have worked towards the voice I wanted in a professional academic setting.  I turned right from that world smack into Bob Dylan, and found a stronger reason than I could have imagined for finding that voice. I’m always so happy to find that I’m not completely alone in my quest,  A recent comment here by Robert Reginio expressed  frustration with Christopher Ricks’ style in Visions of Sin, as opposed to his arguments. Mr. Reginio writes,

Ricks’ exhausting punning-for-the-sake-of-punning style suggests a lack of “seriousness” about the endeavor. Why not write about Dylan as he writes about Beckett or Keats or Milton, i.e., in a style he finds fit for a “great poet.”?

images-1Why did Ricks choose a voice which gave readers the impression that writing about Bob Dylan is a vacation from writing about John Milton?  Absolutely true that someday the wheel may turn, and Ricks’ tone in Visions of Sin may become a standard for a kind of playful fellowship between critic-scholar and reader. Right now, I’m with Mr Reginio: Ricks isn’t speaking to me, soul to soul, through Dylan’s music.

413BQ6F8M5L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_George Steiner, who wrote the book pictured here, Real Presences, shares my quest in some fashion and I’m pretty certain he wouldn’t want me on his journey. I speculate that George Steiner is not familiar with the work of Bob Dylan, but I like to think that, given an hour, I could encourage him to see that Dylan delivers what I think  he wants from art: the highest moral  stakes, the severest doubt, the most intolerable mystery, beauty’s awful truth of  how sweet life can be. This book is a plea to rescue art from the *linguistic turn*  where the catalog in the previous sentence is pretty much dissolved into the boundless instabilities and illusions of language. Steiner would recreate the transcendent in our relation with art. Though this sounds here awfully reactionary, he gets the poststructuralists on their own terms, and he ultimately wants a new relation with art that can manifest real presence,  not Romantic nostalgia.  However, I personally am exempt from this experience, not because I’m a Bob Dylan fan, but because of something much less subjective and you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is

On I go in my search for writing about art that has real hineini in it. Hineini is “Here I am,” and it’s how Abraham answered Isaac on the way up Mt. Moriah. Just that–here I am.

Here’s an example that helps me identify what this voice looks like: http://www.slate.com/id/2229224/.  I’m not going to summarize it because I would rather people read it for themselves. What I like best about this piece that Ron Rosenbaum doesn’t presume Nabokov’s significance. He doesn’t write the essay from an implicit agreement with the reader that Vladimir Nabokov automatically merits this kind of attention. Instead, he works out his relation to Nabokov in this public forum, as the motive and justification for the essay. How is my attention an instrument for Nabokov’s prose? is the question Rosenbaum answers, and from that singular attention grows the curiosity and labor that produced an essay most worth reading.

IMG_0926 If you can’t keep making the language to get across how your attention is a living instrument for the art you’re describing, then find other art that hasn’t exhausted its ability to play through you, to other people. Soul to soul.



9 thoughts on “Writers and Critics Rolling Soul to Soul

  1. I must say: I’m liking this blog more and more: George Steiner *and* Mr. Peabody and Sherman in the same post, naturally.

    I am, unlike our author, still ensconced in academia and do wonder what my attempts to make Dylan “part of the syllabus” means. A big issue. One for which I feel Ricks’ kind of criticism (and I do mean criticism with a capital C) is not much help. But Dylan’s language, his art, I feel embodies a full confrontation with “the severest doubt;” I take him to be a great artist of doubt. And, to be Ricksian, he makes us doubt great artists, the notion of “great artist.” In that, Dylan’s not completely incompatible with the linguistic turn. It’s why I like Aidan Day’s “Jokerman,” and why I’m interested in his own turn away from that book.

    I am currently teaching a seminar on Dylan for undergraduates, and am just now beginning to think about how to begin talking about how to write about Dylan. The qualifications in that sentence suggests I still scratching my head.

  2. Robert:

    I’m not sure why you say Ricks makes us doubt great artists. I do think he has a different, somewhat old-fashioned, even neoclassical notion of what makes greatness in art. He’s interested in poets, and he sees the poet as a maker whose greatness (if he has it) is in the ingenuity and aptness of the making, where “aptness” is defined in terms of a known range of human experiences and emotions When he dealing with Romantic or post-Romantic poets, this can result in some odd (though I’ve found usually oddly illuminating) fits, e.g. “Keats and Embarrassment” (one of his books) or, yes, “Dylan’s Visions of Sin.” The recursive punning that irritates most readers is a feature of all his criticism, but it does often get out of hand in the Dylan book, not, I think, because he takes Dylan less seriously but because as he grows older he indulges himself more.

    I personally think there is no ONE way to talk & write about Dylan. You can approach him any way you want–as long as your method is connected to and in continuous conversation with your own experience listening to (and/or singing) the songs, your own experience listening to (and/or singing) the songs.

  3. John:

    I meant to say Dylan makes us doubt intimations of “greatness;” not that there aren’t works, personages, recordings even that Dylan returns to again and again and in so doing reminds us of their greatness. (His “late style” of collage or pastiche works in two ways: to put the present in the light of the past [“great” or otherwise] or to chip away at–theft by theft–the same edifice, the pedestal he stands on as “a great one” included). I find in the hyperactive punning of “Visions of Sin” a symptom of some sort of hesitancy about the project of “doing Dylan.”

    BTW: I caught your excellent presentation on “Isis” at Dartmouth some years ago (Ricks too was at the conference) and I want to re-tell you how much my wife and I both enjoyed it (we briefly met you then).

  4. Do please carry on, gentlemen. Myself, I think Dylan makes the act of doubting greatness an ongoing conversation in his work. Will Henry Timrod be memorialized as part of the palette of *great* art? Then there’s poor superannuated Einstein and his funky electric violin, Charles Darwin a fugitive finally run down on Highway 5. When will someone finally discover the precise Minimum Daily Requirement of Originality for great art?

    I like a lot the image of Dylan sawing away and watering, at the same time, with his own voice and his own songs, the branch of musical and artistic tradition he’s sitting on. He does this in the method of his composition now, as he did it in the content of his lyrics in the 60s. What Desolation Row was about is now the way he writes songs. Sitting in the Great Tree of Tradition, sawing and watering all at once.

    I agree there is no one way to talk about Dylan. There better not be. For me, in all writing about any inexhaustible topic, I find there are resources, companions, and honored antagonists. Ricks is a resource to me. His exegesis of Handy Dandy alone is worth the price of admission, and looking at what’s going on in songs like On a Night Like This is a gift also. The voice he manufactured for this still too easily invites condescension as a holiday from his *real* work. I can’t fault him for this, just wish he hadn’t decided to *play* with Dylan.

  5. Robert:

    Ah, I see now I misread you (I was thrown off by “to be Ricksian,” which I now see to mean “to speak Ricks’s language but from the point of view Dylan encourages). Anyway, I see what you mean, but I would rather say “Dylan asks us to re-orient what we mean by greatness,” since ( to me) “greatness” is an inescapable concept/category, although a movable one. I.e., I am capable of saying (feeling) “Roy Orbison is great” and “William Carlos Williams is great” and would never think they are both in any sense in the same bin (except, I suppose, in the bin of my life’s sustaining pleasures, which of course is no insubstantial bin).

    I’m glad you enjoyed my “Isis” presentation, though I am embarrassed to say I don’t recall meeting you. That weekend was quite a whirlwind for me–I was in the midst of deadline week at my paper, worked Friday morning, got on a plane Friday afternoon, gave the talk Saturday a.m. (way earlier that I am usually truly “awake”), got back on a plane Sunday afternoon, and was back at work Sunday evening. So I remember only wishing it had gone on for a few days more!

    And one last word on Ricks: one of the things I value about him is that he is TOTALLY unlike me. Everything I would have to say about a Dylan song is unlike anything he would have to say–maybe except for 1/2 of 1 percent. But what that means is that he shows me things I would never otherwise see. And I am grateful for that.

  6. Ricks may have written in a more colorful, light tone because this book was aimed at a larger audience, no?

  7. When it was released, it was the cover story on the online NYT.

  8. The big problem with Dylan’s Vision of Sin is that it doesn’t address Dylan’s vision of sin. The thesis is fundamentally frivolous: I don’t for one moment believe that Ricks believes that Dylan believes in the seven deadly sins as realities.
    We think of certain psychological terms, “guilt”, say, or “aggression”, as having an independent reality: they are the same thing at work in multitudes of different people, and although the people all have different faces the psychological forces have faces and characters of their own. We feel we could draw up a “profile” of guilt, say, or aggression. And this is how the medieval theologians, and those who believed them, like Dante, saw the seven sins.
    Ricks’s use of the seven sins, four virtues and three graces as hooks to hang his mainly pre-composed Dylan writings on is a literary game. No sin in that, let’s say charitably. But I bet it is not an approach the professor would take to, say, Milton.
    Let’s say charitably, the professor is suggesting that the artist has a world-view, but he modestly doesn’t claim to know the categories in which the artist thinks, so he’ll playfully give him a ready-made set that comically don’t fit him. Is this an approach the professor would take to any other poet he took seriously?
    If it was Milton’s Vision of Sin, we would expect the book to seriously pursue that very serious term in Milton’s thought. And there may be a case to be made that sin is a real and important, living creature for Dylan, that he does indeed see it – but not in the “pointed shoes and bells” dress that it’s in here. Judgement, law, money, crime, honesty, passion, God, the Devil, martyrdom… There’s some of the strings that I’d expect a song about Dylan’s vision of sin to play on.
    So I don’t think Prof Ricks found the way to be serious about that man who’s made nothing but comedy records. Which, if he wasn’t the most eminent critic in English literature, wouldn’t be a serious matter.

  9. Touche. Ricks’ flippancy is deeper than his style. Bob Dylan is a severely moral artist: there is suffering in sin, and accountability may be the only redemption available in a fallen world. The desire for grace is a very difficult condition to express, and Dylan is transparent in his desire for grace. And so he does what we ask artists to do: he makes these conditions real, despite the concept of morality I am comfortable with, and that I bring readymade to the songs. Dylan sings of a place where “angels play with sin,” and if I cannot hear that this is a terrible, perhaps irredeemable place, then I am not listening fully to the song.

    Is Ricks a man who knows the pain of corruption or the solace of redemption or temptation’s angry flame when he takes on Milton? And not so much when he pirouettes with Bob Dylan’s songs, albeit skillfully and with real feeling?

    “Judgement, law, money, crime, honesty, passion, God, the Devil, martyrdom… There’s some of the strings that I’d expect a song about Dylan’s vision of sin to play on.” Exactly. There is a real nightmare in the different judgments in Seven Curses, there’s vigorous abjection to rival Augustine’s in Every Grain of Sand, there’s a uniquely subtle and strange portrait of innocence in Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. There are so many places in Dylan’s work–uncountable places!–to hear and feel the moral life, and I don’t find that in Ricks’ book either. He really is in a position to put his ardor for Dylan and his acuteness as a critic to work, and play out the same depth of encounter and the same potential for real personal transformation that we ask from a Milton or a Keats. This is nothing like the endless tedious middlebrow arguments about whether Desolation Row is poetry–it’s a kind of modeling of the richest encounter with art. That’s what I want.

    So that’s my longwinded way of saying “thank you!” and carry on…

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