Hanging In The Balance Of

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.

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9 thoughts on “Hanging In The Balance Of

  1. it was one of the wonderful post i’ve seen…
    outstanding balance of stuffzz….
    Amazing work….

    Visit mine and plz plz plz post your comments…

    Thank you…i’ll b in touch….

  2. I love this post, too, but I wish I knew what you meant by the “magnificent syllables” of the “reality of man.” I (sort of) prefer that version myself, but I say “sort of” because the phrase–and especially the word “reality” here–feels ugly to me, somehow deformed as sound. In fact, when I first heard the record it seemed so conspicuously ugly that I assumed it was meant to, as if the “reality of man” was something that marred an otherwise “perfect” creation, marred it by its very unresolvability and unfinishableness. In revising it (or as I recall the textual evidence suggests, returning to what he originally wrote), Dylan chose to reverse things and make the perfection explicit and the imperfection unspoken.

    My view now is that Dylan never did find the “right” ending for his song, and the closest we’ll ever get to that “right” ending is to keep the alternate version in mind when hearing any particular performance of it. I think what he’s trying to get across–or what he succeeds in getting across for me, whether he wants to or not–is both the sense that the human imperfect is part of God’s perfect plan and our human discomfort with that sense of our destiny.

    You compare this with the Slow Train and Saved songs, and note the difference, but I think the differences are even greater than you allow. Those earlier songs were personal–they registered his surprise and joy to discover that he (or all people) had been saved. They were quite sophisticated in their sense of why he (like all of us) might need to be saved, and very intriguing (at the least) sense of how Jesus Christ (and his Dad) might figure in that redemption, but they were rather naive about what it might mean to be saved. “Every Grain of Sand” offers a very chastened, even forbidding, vision of human salvation.

  3. Dear Sami Alam–Thank you very much for taking the time to comment, and I’m happy to visit your site. All the stufffzzz is Mr. Dylan’s sttuuufffzzz, I think. Conclusion: We think with Great art, we think about Good art, and we choose our friends based on their agreeing with us on which art is Bad.

    Dear John,
    Maybe now I know why I love the “ree-al-i-tee of maaan”– that prolonged, fastidious enunciation (which I find immeasurably unugly, but this could be a matter of taste, like sushi or movies about French people) turns the word into a solid object made of parts, a technical reality, that only makes more clear the riddle or secret or vacuum of the phrase, “reality of man.” In order for me to appreciate the phrase “perfect finished plan,” all I need do is Believe. And since I don’t, I’m excluded from the phrase, all I can do is enjoy the sound of Bob Dylan’s voice. There ain’t no neutral ground, and perhaps Bob Dylan would say that the appeal for me in the infinite sapphire depths of mystery of the phrase “reality of man” , is just a drug.

    Yes, you’re right about keeping the 2 endings in mind whenever I hear the song–and that’s an unbidden action of my brain every time I hear it, which is interesting. I don’t do that with other alternate versions of songs. But these 2 lines do make that moment of the song hang between them when I hear it. Isn’t that something.

    I get the concept that our imperfection is part of a perfect plan, and it is not easy to reflect upon that idea without absolving oneself of one’s imperfections, or indeed relishing one’s failings. The song does pull that off, it’s a moral vision that never fails to move me and inspire me. I think for me, personally, the deep chill at the bottom of what is “chastening and forbidding” in Every Grain of Sand is more….alive?…..visible?….than the arguments of the salvation music of 79-80.

    Thank you so much for weighing in.

  4. A fabulous post. I like John’s point about the personal aspects of those Saved/Slow Train songs–they do have a kind of “expendable” immediacy: bursts of inspiration, tongues on fire, etc. I’m not as convinced of their complexity overall though.

    A “chastened” sense of faith, as John suggests, accounts for eruke’s great description of the slowly played out structure of this song. I’m attracted to it for it’s strange evocations of memory and remembering.

    Not a song of anticipation, this, but retrospection, and unlike St. Augustine, who can sense that perfect finished plan when thinking about how memory works to redeem a whole self, the singer here is without that sense of consolation as eruke notes.

    I was struck in this post by the strangeness of phrases like “memory of decay” which, when you dig into it, “decays,” or falls apart in your hands: is this our discrete memory of the specific examples of decay–large or small–we have seen? Our memory of “decay” as existential fact? Is this memory as being of, or proper to, “decay”?

    The song has a consoling melody, rhythm and meter, but this consolation is never yet fulfilled (as eruke notes, it’s a *human* experience we feel), and this vestige or memory of decay comes in lines like this:
    “I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night[…]
    In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.”

    That last line is an Escher-like, nautilus-shell spiral: for space’s sake, I’ll assume it is the “broken mirror of innocence” that is literally “on” each forgotten face (and avoid figuring out whether it’s the brokenness that makes the mirror innocent…), but I am always intrigued how the singer can *see* a face that’s forgotten. One can’t “see” a forgotten face–it wouldn’t be forgotten–so he must assume those faces are broken mirrors (here’s one thing he can say unequivocally he has faith in!) But it seems to me a brilliantly compact evocation of forgetting–again, not what it is but what it feels like–we *can* see a forgotten face, we can sense its contours, know it is lost, call up a name and know a face *is* there, but cannot make memory yield a moment of recognition.

  5. Nina:

    I agree that Dylan’s enunciation of “reality of man” is quite breathtaking, and were I to listen to you describing it long enough, maybe I’d come to like the phrase, but “reality” keeps striking me as too squishy a phoneme to serve the purpose for which it is enlisted. But this is such a subjective thing–maybe my relation to the phrase just got off on the wrong foot, and there’s no getting back to square one.

    I don’t see why you would feel shut out from (or by) “perfect, finished plan,” except in the sense that we all do, including (or even especially) Dylan. “God’s plan” is just a way of naming “the way things are,” which means, as Dylan told an interviewer a few years ago, the first thing to know about God’s plan is that it’s “arbitrary.” And whether or not it makes sense to you to call the way things are “God’s plan,” to identify it as “perfect, finished“ is hardly consoling, or even much of a stretch. It hardly claims more than that the world was made before we got here and it will still be here when we’re gone. “Finished” is redundant with “perfect” in a way that undercuts whatever claim of moral righteousness “perfect” at first seems to hold out. God’s plan is “perfect” in the narrow, literal sense that it is all done, finished. If it is in any sense morally perfect, that sense is sub specie aeternitatis, but not in any readily identifiable human sense. After all, God & man famously don’t see eye to eye, although they are said to be obscurely connected. It’s the adequacy of that uncertain connection that’s “hanging in the balance.” This, of course, is precisely where Christ (hanging in the cross!) is supposed to come in, and the fact that he doesn’t show up at all makes this feel like a post-Christian song. But in any case, the imperfection the song addresses–and confesses–is not any moral failure but something intrinsically human. I would gloss the song with the animal wrangler’s rant in Masked & Anonymous: Humans don’t know who they are because they are by nature always their own work-in-progress, and in some inescapable sense our human creativity is a challenge to, an affront to the divine creativity revealed in God’s perfect plan, where every hair is not just in place but “numbered.” As Jack Fate says, “it ain’t easy being human.”

    Robert:

    I don’t know if I seemed to imply that I found “complexity” in the Slow Train/Saved songs, but I didn’t intend to. Indeed, their whole thrust seems to be simplify, simplify! I guess “sophisticated” was not the best word to use–I probably would have said something like “canny.” I think Dylan shows himself to be very good at sniffing our his own (and our) narcissism. I’m thinking of lines like “You can mistreat a man, take hold of his heart with your eyes.” (I hope I’m quoting that correctly). Dylan reminds me a lot of Thoreau in the Slow Train songs–very shrewd and very cold, a very deep self-knowledge turned into a weapon of satire. And I am intrigued by Dylan’s feeling for the Christian myth. It strikes me as very fresh and in that sense original. But it’s also very oblique, making it very hard to put your finger on just what it was about Jesus that made him seem to Dylan like just the guy he wanted to talk to. But I do think that if you had never heard of Jesus before encountering him in these songs, you’d think he was some kind of trickster.

  6. John: You can’t say Christ doesn’t show up in ‘Every Grain of Sand’ when verses 2 and 3 both end with quotes from him: “that every hair is numbered”, (“the very hairs of your head are numbered); “like every sparrow falling” (“one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father”); and “It is finished”, which is what he says when he is hanging.
    Verse 1, on the other hand, ends with Leviticus, which in Dylan’s “next” song will be one of the Jokerman’s “only teachers”: “And upon them that are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them”.

  7. John:

    Yes, you’re right. But I would say that Jesus–if indeed he was the first to say these things, appears only as a sage, not as a savior–not as the figure who, as Dylan elsewhere put it, showed the way that “God and man” could be “reconciled.” And I say this an one of what I take to be the minority of Dylan fans who is not unhappy with his affection for Jesus. I don’t think “Every Grain of Sand” is an anti-Christian song, but I do think it’s a song in which he acknowledges that Jesus (or anything else) can not save him from being himself–which is to say that, no matter what his religion, his ( or any human’s) salvation is forever at risk. To me, it’s just a very sobering song.

  8. While I agree this song is clearly after the excitement of conversion, I still don’t hear it as “post” Christian. (“I don’t care how rough the road is: show me where it STARTS.”)
    These lines surely refer to God: “In the fury of the moment / I can see the Master’s hand / In every leaf that trembles, / In every grain of sand.”
    Jehovah, the Lord, is never called “Master” in the Old Testament. Jesus is often called “Master” by his disciples, and refers to himself in the same way.
    With respect to the “fury of the moment”, when Jesus is arrested this is the term Judas uses as he kisses him: “Hail, master”.
    It is also the term that Peter, baffled and afraid, uses in the strange scene of the Transfiguration, when three disciples glimpse Jesus’s divinity as he converses on a mountain with Moses and Elijah: “Master, it is good for us to be here.”
    It seems unlikely to be a “sage”, such as Socrates or Confucius, that the singer says he sees in every leaf and every grain of sand.

  9. John:

    You might be right, but that’s not how I hear the song, so let me try to clarify what I think I hear. First, it’s true (as far as I know) that in a biblical context, “master” evokes Jesus, but 2 millennia have passed since the New Testament was composed, and neither the Jewish nor Christian traditions have confined themselves to biblical tropes, or to the bible’s use of its own tropes. The “master hand” in Dylan’s song is (I feel) the God executing the “perfect, finished” master plan, and that God seems to me to be the creator, the one Christian’s call God the Father and Jew’s call Yahweh (though for all I know, some Christians and/or Jews call him both, and other things–I don’t follow that sport very closely any more.) Now I remember Dylan once explaining something to the effect since he was only a man, he needed Jesus, also a man as well as (possibly–I’m not sure Dylan ever takes a position on this, and there are even Christian traditions against it) also a God, to show him how to get to, connect to, reconcile himself with God. In short, the Jesus he emphasizes is Jesus the Intercessor between God and man (an aspect of Christ that in the Catholic Church I grew up in was, for all practical purposes, largely transferred to the BVM). But there is no intercessor between God and man in this song. The singer stands beneath a naked sky (or on a barren Whitmanesque strand at the edge of the sea) where the Master plays peek-a-boo with him. That’s what I mean by calling it post-Christian: as is evident from other songs Dylan was writing at this time, Jesus is still a hero to him, but his faith in Jesus doesn’t seem to have accomplished, and from the evidence of this song, is no longer looked to to accomplish, all that if first seemed it might. Now I suppose one could read the “master’s hand” as Christ stretching a helping hand to him (rather than the creator’s shaping hand), but until someone shows me what else in the song upholds that sense of an Intercessor’s presence, even a veiled or abandoned presence, I can’t buy it.

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