I read an article in the New York Times just a few days ago about a blogging theme that’s becoming popular: people photograph and document every single bite they eat. The people who do this report that scrutinizing and publishing their own most ordinary activities can offer unexpected insights. When Web-readers like us are sated with these insights, we can resume what sociologists centuries from now will likely describe as a defining social bond of our generation: waiting for a person who doesn’t know we exist, and whom we know only through images and broadcasts, to admit to secret crimes and/or sins whose incontrovertible evidence is already universal public property. Also, the institution that sacralized confidence and trust into a ritual, seems in fact to operate according to necessary principles of corruption and hypocrisy.
Our theme this morning is confession, and really, it was the thing about the food blogs that got me started, not Jesse James or the Catholic Church. Crime and sin and how every new generation of sinners thinks they won’t be found out like the fools of yesteryear–this isn’t a sea change in human life, although perhaps how I may consume and participate in their dramas is. But the fact that potentially everyone can pour their image, their words, their actions into this infinitely widening stream where I type right this minute, and turn all their banalities and depravities and insights and achievements into formatted, standardized, reproducible media for the free consumption of, well, everyone else that there is–here is where confession ends. Doesn’t a confession mark boundaries between public and private, self and other, Now and Then, secret and witness, license and accountability? No, of course, a confession does not mark these boundaries, the boundaries don’t actually exist. We use confession to declare a desire for these boundaries, now dissolved in the ocean into which I pour these very words. I want these boundaries, and the country mapped out by them is the size of a grain of sand.
Here is a photo of an artificial indoor beach in Japan. We’re starting our tour of this grain-of-sand-country in Japan, where Bob Dylan, in the city of Nagoya, recently offered a performance of Every Grain of Sand that is awfully close to perfect, and so I envy the people of Japan their chance to experience sand in such remarkable ways. Dylan’s most splendid vocals feel to the listener like thought, as though the sound of the words is transmitted directly to my attention, without the cumbersome mechanics of singing and hearing. His most Dylanish vocals seem unmediated by air. Also true is that in the best performances, I find I forget that I know every word to the song. In this Every Grain of Sand, you must hear the way he creates space around each word, so that it hangs almost visibly, and almost visibly evaporates. You need to hear how his voice dies with “the dying voice within me.” You need to hear how he makes “despair” alluring, and “decay” decaying. You need to hear his voice slip occasionally and almost forgetfully into the sound of ordinary beauty, and then you need to hear the strange deliberate growls as though he is counting exactly how many grains of sand he needs to voice this one syllable. And then you need to hear his conversation with the harmonica–it breaks into lines of the song as though it has confessions of its own to make. And the band so loving and intent, it cannot be easy to play patiently and ardently at the same time.
Every Grain of Sand is not like other Dylan songs, and maybe not quite in the way that all his greatest songs are their own worlds. If one of those deaf dullards with sods for ears complains that Bob Dylan can’t sing, I suppose I’d just play them the Wild Mountain Thyme from Isle of Wight and then send them on their way. Similarly, if one of those Philistine dullards demands to know whether Bob Dylan passes the Poet test, I suppose I’d hand them the lyrics to Every Grain of Sand and send them on their way. There is a peculiar and conventional majesty to these lyrics: there is a strong impression of a regular meter, and a consistent and reassuring rhyme scheme. Even more distinctive, there’s a gravity, an elegance, a picturesqueness, a refinement to the lyrics throughout the song: this singer speaks to us in a sustained elevated register. In the glancing allusions to Blake, to Baudelaire (I always hear flowers of evil behind the indulgence), to Shakespeare’s sparrow, to Augustine, and then to Dylan’s own boy-artist self (from the boy’s free wild dance beneath the diamond sky to the man’s bitter dance of loneliness), it seems as though in this song Dylan is falling back, graciously, into tradition and history that can welcome his confession and creation.
It’s a confession that’s naked and forbids voyeurism. It’s a confession that is fathomlessly personal and not autobiographical. It’s a confession that purifies and does not absolve. The time of his confession is when he hears a dying voice, struggling against the silence it should have learned from despair. A dying voice within me is not yet my own voice is it, and perhaps the confession is the coming-to-know that the voice struggling against despair really is mine, along with the despair. I love the line “Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake”–it’s bitter and arrogant and plays so cleverly with inclination, incline, leaning back into the dead past. There’s a mighty flaunting in the identification with Cain, who sees himself not as the puppet of a destiny already written for him, but a maker of history. Then the Master’s hand appears, apparently to remind the singer that every atom of his world is the work of The Infinite Unseen, and we seem to be back in the world of Saved, where consolation awaits every sinner who submits his will to Jesus. And so the song should end when our despairing and raging singer is recalled to the order and purpose of even a leaf and a grain of sand. But it doesn’t end. The singer isn’t consoled, he has more to tell us about….well, what it’s like to be human. Regret and weakness destroy conscience and happiness, we must go on regardless, the steps of time carry us forward, we’re restless creatures even though “the memory of decay” is the curse of being human and bearing the knowledge of mortality. And the glimpses of this singer’s life, the rags to empty riches–disillusionment, “the violence of a summer’s dream” that burns itself out, and the awakening to “the chill of a wintry light.” The loneliness and the history of the loneliness. Then the reference to Footprints in the Sand, the greeting card cliche/poem, and here perhaps is our own Bob Dylan winking at us through all the Blake and Shakespeare and wings of poesy. By this time in the song, the singer’s isolation and sorrows should have touched us deeply enough that the cliche is alive and moving.
Why is this song not of a piece with When He Returns or Solid Rock? Why is it not a commonplace consolation? When I am at my most pessimistic and self-loathing, I remember that God made me and everything according to his plan for a perfect universe and if he knows how many grains there are on every beach, then he knows my purpose also, even if I don’t. The song may contain this sentiment but not at this simplistic level. A sparrow, a grain of sand, a leaf cannot confess, cannot know regret and sorrow and history. Yet each one hangs in the balance of its own reality–each thing on the earth hangs in the balance of its own inviolate reality. And onward in his journey, our singer comes to learn that the memory of decay, the loneliness, the felt passage of time, the morals of despair–these are the reality of man. There is no absolution for this knowledge, only endurance. The song is the sound of endurance and not of consolation. I am amongst the ones who wish he still sang of the reality of man and not the perfect finished plan, although the image of “hanging in the balance” still holds on to the essential uncertainty and mystery of the song. There is still a suspension, still a balance–hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan is not the same as hanging on to a solid rock. I still miss the magnificent syllables of “reality.”
A great performance of this song is a lesson in patience and attention. The song can teach you how a word occupies space like a planet does, and how you may witness a person’s soul without invading their privacy. Nagoya could be an unsurpassable performance. Now we may return to searching the Internet for photos of celebrity cellulite and discussions among total strangers about their spouses and diseases.
Before I go, I want to hand this bouquet of flowers to the wonderful person who assembled the compilation of highlights from the Japan shows, Made in Japan 2010. It’s got 27 tracks culled from the tour, great sound quality, a gorgeous selection of some really marvelous performances–terrific versions of the new arrangements of Man in the Long Black Coat, Shelter from the Storm, and Tom Thumb, a beautiful Blind Willie McTell, a Love Sick that makes me want to kill everyone in the audience with jealousy. We like to have everything, of course, but this compilation is a labor of love and a real treat and my warmest thanks to whoever put it together.