“Tell Me About It”–Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks On The Psychiatric Couch, Sort Of

Well, I was all ready to wax and wane on The Inventions of Bob Dylan, a talk featuring Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz, sponsored by the august Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.  The discussion ranged from Tennyson to Timrod to mortality to the essential blasphemy of great religious art to Whitman to Hebraism/Hellenism. I got all my notes right here at my elbow. And then I saw the video for Must Be Santa. God bless us all–the wig, the dancing,  the who-threw-the-glass, the cigar.  Two eminent scholars discuss this  artist of unparalleled fecundity and complexity, whose expressiveness illuminates single syllables and whose vision transforms our experience of the spiritual life.  And here he is, in a platinum blonde wig, doing what could be the hora.  And smoking a cigar, which, like a bell, tolls us back to the land of Freud and couches.


The Philoctetes Center holds its talks on the top floor of a brownstone on East 82nd St. There was much to occupy one’s attention while waiting for the talk to begin. On the walls of this room were enormous metal decorations, like monstrous bundt pans.  People scurried about with great purpose, doing things with microphones and chairs. Someone scurried in with xeroxed papers and laid them on four chairs. Each paper read in large bold capital letters: RESERVED FOR GREIL MARCUS. I had just figured out  that the other three chairs were being held for Mr. Marcus’s food taster, juggler, and punka wallah, when a fresh scurrying broke out and I heard one staff member whisper to another “He’s not coming. Not coming.” And the papers were whisked off the seats, freeing them for ordinary buttocks of the realm. Professors Wilentz and Ricks manifested themselves, Prof. Wilentz quite as affable and comfortable as he was in the much more informal setting of our class at 92Y, and Prof. Ricks wearing a suit and no tie, which always has that Cosa Nostra look. They took places on facing couches, had little microphones clipped to them.

The gentleman introducing the talk explained proudly that the bundt pans were left over from the previous talk, in which author Brian Greene and scholar Elaine Scarry discussed the beauty of mathematics. There is nothing lightweight about the Philoctetes Center, as you can see.  I’m sorry I missed that talk, for what better way to introduce Bob Dylan than with a conversation on Facts, Truth, and Beauty with experts on physics and philosophy. The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone, or something like.

Profs. Ricks and Wilentz are a contrast in forms of amiability, and that kind of quick wittedness that is able to find exactly the object it needs at any moment without rummaging about. Prof Wilentz brings up Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd in connection with Christmas in the Heart, while Prof Ricks quotes Blake on the topic of appropriation (“Though they are not mine, I call them mine”).  Prof Wilentz plugs his son’s Web site, while Prof Ricks stands up to act out what happened when his elderly father attended one of his talks.  Those of you who’ve seen and heard Prof Ricks might agree with me that Christopher Ricks is ideally cast to play Christopher Ricks in The Christopher Ricks Story. I want to state here that Ricks in person is a welcome counteragent to the narrator  Ricks, whose  riffing and punning characterizes so much of Visions of Sin, and  pushes the book towards an archness that can leave those who don’t listen deeply to Dylan complacent in their resistance to his art.  In conversation, watched by a clock, there are checks and balances to Ricks’ riffs, there is his visible emphasis on the seriousness of what Dylan does and has done. The talk that ensued was well-served by  their matched wits, different styles, and a shared commitment to the self-replenishing work of listening closely to Bob Dylan’s music and finding things to say about it. The topic of The Inventions of Bob Dylan, moderated by Matthew von Unwerth, a scholar and a psychoanalyst-in-training, was supposed to be about “Dylan’s ongoing conversation with tradition.”  von Unwerth barely recited his introduction when Prof Ricks, not unamiably, put the kibosh on “inventions.” “Dylan doesn’t invent, he discovers.”  And so began a fine and discursive ramble through Perhaps The Discoveries of Bob Dylan and Other Things. There were swells of insight and feeling and a steady command of our attention.  A few of the swells:

Ricks says to von Unwerth, who related his affinity for Bob Dylan: “You didn’t discover Dylan, he discovered you. As he discovered all of us. Bob Dylan is not afraid of being just like everyone else.”  I like this twist on the commonplace of art’s universality. We hear ourselves named by great art, don’t we. It recognizes us as ourselves.



Wilentz:  “Bob Dylan is an historian unlike any other.”  And this comment refreshed the by-now tedious discussion of Bob Dylan’s channeling the vocabulary and music of bygone bygones.  How is he a historian? Because he can make the conditions of the past present in my attention. The world of Together Through Life summons a world that just doesn’t match up to the world I’m sitting in while I play the record. Village priests and ships in harbors and memories that overtake this moment right now, and Houston seems incredibly far away–one thing a historian can do is simply make you believe that the conditions of the past were  actual and livable, not the quaint compromises or ignorances of people who knew and had so much less than we do. Eliot came up a fair amount during the afternoon, so we can pull him in here too, with his famous comment on our knowing more than what people knew in the past–“yes, and they are what we know.” Perhaps one thing a historian can do is make this palpable.  Wilentz meant this in a less abstract way, of course, and he praised Dylan’s concrete historical knowledge: “Factually, he’s pretty good.”

Ricks claimed the Christmas album is not really “religious” and a woman quickly pointed out that the album ends on the word “amen.” “But it still does not have the depth of really religious songs,” said Ricks. Which led him to this fascinating observation: “All great religious art has to be accusable of blasphemy.”  Now this seems to satisfy the notion that great art ignites revolutions in consciousness. Great art is not safe, it is not more-of-the-same-me-in-the-world. In Ricks’ view, these revolutions would be “discoveries” and not “novelties”, not the intoxication of a trick, but real blasphemy–a calling into question of received truths. I admire very much, I enjoy and learn from, writing on Dylan by authors whose religious lives are fed by his work, in ways that are different from my own spiritual life. I’m thinking of Stephen Webb, Michael Gilmour, Stephen Hazan-Arnoff. And while these writers feel their religious consciousnesses are animated, or refreshed, or challenged to new ways of being religious, they do not see themselves in contest with Dylan’s songs. I venture to say that Ricks’ idea appeals to atheists who wish to make good sense of the sensuous power of great religious art. If I can feel that the Sistine Chapel, George Herbert’s poems, and Bob Dylan’s songs rouse and transform me, despite that the traditions called upon in these works do not themselves answer the big questions of my life, it would be consoling and aggrandizing to believe that these works are somehow deeply transgressive of the traditions. I say take up a maybe (maybe not) harder challenge, and start with the human commonality (Prof Ricks likes this word) from which springs the spiritual impulse and the Sistine Chapel and In the Garden.

Wilentz: On the issue of appropriation/plagiarism, Prof Wilentz is wonderfully–inspiringly–irritable. Bob Dylan “inhabits” everything he steals. Foreign material becomes his. Prof. Wilentz talked of Confessions of a Yakuza, “My old man’s  like some feudal lord, he’s got more lives than a cat.” Well, the phrase “feudal lord” refers to something in Japanese  culture and history that is “completely different” from what it would mean to an American audience. This seems obvious, but I think Wilentz is pointing to the way an alien twig, when grafted onto one of Dylan’s songs, needs a botanist to show us where the graft begins and ends. The phrase calls attention  to itself, while it also scans and rhymes along with the other verses, and then supports the images in Floater of the fatigue that power can induce. Prof Wilentz did say he sometimes wishes Bob would credit some of his sources some of the time.

There was more, much more, to this winding road, and I was told the talk was streaming on YouTube but I can’t find it there. A Q&A session that, like all question and answer sessions, had almost no comments worth the interruption of the featured speakers.

Here’s the moment I’ll not ever forget. Christopher Ricks held up the paperback of Visions of Sin, and made great witty sport of the fact that the photo of Bob on the cover, in the stairwell of Cafe Wha? I believe, was also used in the CD of No Direction Home-and the cigarette in his mouth was airbrushed from the reproduction on the CD. We all had a good laugh at that Puritanical nonsense, and then Sean Wilentz said, with a warmth both mild and serious, “I wish he would quit smoking.” And Ricks’ wit left him for one moment–you could see it leave his face–and he said, “Yes, I do too, I wish he would quit smoking.”  And that, my little Neptunian, is what it looks like when you actually share the same time-space continuum with an artist whose work can marshal the forces of the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination: you are blessed in ways you can’t find words for, and you’re too close to mortality for comfort.

And I feel certain that both Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz would have much  preferred to be cast as extras in the Must Be Santa video than be asked to explain Bob Dylan. Watch it yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLZ8LPIh4Xc&feature=player_embedded


2 thoughts on ““Tell Me About It”–Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks On The Psychiatric Couch, Sort Of

  1. As always, gratias.

    Wilentz & Ricks are both (in different ways) walking talking advertisements for the value of going to college (just as as B. J. Rolfzen was for why not to drop out of high school) but (alas!) my impression is few undergraduates in most colleges these days are allowed anywhere near professors of their ilk, saddled instead with confused TA’s (like the one I once was).

    One phrase I especially like is “the self-replenishing work of listening closely to Bob Dylan’s music and finding things to say about it.” “Self-replenishing” is the key word. And if you were to read back over your posts to this blog, you would find that this is a theme you keep returning to–and always eloquently–the theme, that is, of the power of Dylan’s work (and implicitly, great art generally) to rouse our acutest attention and conversely the role of that attention in making real–realizing–what Dylan has created (or if you will, discovered–etymologically “invention” and “discovery” are synonymous anyway). In one of the prefaces to Leaves of Grass (the 1856 one, I think–could be 1860) Whitman defines this as the nature of his work and implicitly of poetry in a democracy. (It’s a sentence that goes something like “The proof of my poems is that they are absorbed as affectionately by America as I absorb it”–except much more eloquently than I can either remember or fake.) Back in the early days (Dylan-wise) rock critics often (ignorantly) cited this phenomenon–that the depth of Dylan’s songs appeared only in our rapt responses to them–as evidence of his essential quackery–that he was merely a master faker, the emperor of prestidigitation. But you know better, and based on what you’ve already written, I think there’s a book–or at least a major essay–waiting for you to write it.

  2. You’re right that Wilentz and Ricks are good advertisements for college–they show that conversation can be sport that leads you out of the vacuous flippant volleys that pass for witty conversation. Forgetting about Bob Dylan, hearing Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks consider each other’s comments, and commit themselves to their own comments, was itself a great pleasure.
    You’re very generous in your comments, but anyone reading your book, Like A Complete Unknown, would find right away that you yourself listen to Dylan with an openness that matches the matter. I once visited a beach in New Zealand where hot springs run below the sand. Any reasonably fit person with a shovel can dig in the sand for a few minutes and strike the hot water and create a small hot tub right then and there, as big or small as you like. Dylan’s songs are like that hot water beach: strike them anywhere, from any direction, and they will give back. That’s how I imagine self-replenishing. This he shares with Shakespeare, and that’s a party of 2.
    I like your comparison to Whitman so much because Whitman’s generosity is key, and that is so often ignored or abused in Dylan, his generosity and his inclusiveness. Wilentz and Ricks both touched on this.
    And ,oh the Philistines he has called out of the shadows over the years. The Death-Eaters, that’s what Philistines are ultimately, I think.

    Thank you as always, and everyone else, please read Mr Hinchey’s book.

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