From the shadows to the marketplace. I see that Doctor A.T. Bradford has published a book diagnosing Bob Dylan with “reactive depression” and applying this diagnosis to understanding Bob Dylan’s songwriting after 1990. In addition to having the unfortunate condition of reactive depression, Bob Dylan “has committed Jewish-Christian faith.” Maybe reactive depression is the sentence for this crime Bob Dylan has committed? Reactive depression occurs when a misfortune causes a person to have very low spirits. In Bob Dylan’s case, personal misfortune apparently caused him to have Time Out of Mind. Religion, family woes, mental illness, Not Dark Yet–Dr Bradford is on the case. He’s got me thinking about what we do with other people’s miseries.
When people ask me, “What did you write your doctoral dissertation on?” and I answer, “Holocaust literature,” I often want to apologize to my new acquaintance for making them feel obliged to do a hairpin turn in a pleasantly empty chat. Their brow furrows, their gaze darkens, and their voice drops as though I’ve mentioned a personal misfortune. “Holocaust literature. That must have been depressing. How could you stand reading all that tragedy?” I generally say, “I was a fully funded graduate student on one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation. I spent most of each day in a terrific library reading and writing and thinking in peace, with few cares of my own.” Sometimes people think I’m flippant, or worse, I’m sincere and my comments just go to prove that academics are posturing ironic jerks. The facts are that I benefited from devoting five years to books on the Holocaust . I learned from the topic and advanced my career with the work I did. My studies did no harm, but relieved no pain either.
And if you’ve ever done this work on any topic, and you’ve spent those years readingreading, then you know that every third book or article is a rabbit hole of ideas and names you have to chase, and down you go, following trails of six more books and eight more articles, and one or two of those will open another rabbit hole, and three days go by before you’ve written a useful sentence. In all those merry and exhausting detours, some stuff remains to keep you company long past their use as footnotes or that one transition paragraph you never thought you’d find the right material for. Some ideas and names never stop breathing questions and feelings into you.
Primo Levi’s death stayed with me in this way. He apparently committed suicide in 1987 at age 67, 42 years after being liberated from Auschwitz where he had spent eleven months, February 1944 to January 1945. Apparently he threw himself over the railing of the central stairwell of his apartment building in Turin.
In Levi’s early days in Auschwitz, he once found himself terribly thirsty in a barracks whose outside eaves hung with icicles. Reaching through a window to break off an icicle for its water, he’s stopped by a guard. Still operating as though this place belonged to the world, Levi asks the guard, “Warum?” Why? And the guard explains Auschwitz to him in four words: “Hier ist kein warum” Here there is no why. Levi’s description of his time in Auschwitz bears out the minute-by-minute torturous collisions of warum and kein warum. After his liberation, Levi continued to write from warum. For 42 years, he shared what it can look like when a self mutilated by Auschwitz continues to find human life and the physical world worth investigating and worth inventing new ways to describe.
So Levi’s suicide worried me. His curiosity and invention convinced me that his life, the world, and sharing both with anonybody readers like me mattered. It all mattered. This would be unlike Jean Amery, whose writing says to me, get down in the hole that I’m in–there’s no air or light here, is there? until the reader is quite thoroughly infected and comes to feel a sick complicitness in Amery’s suicide just by reading At the Mind’s Limits.
Levi’s suicide showed me how little I can know of another person’s life, and how persuasive the work of their life can be. The work of a person’s life can be a most potent and infiltrating transparency, and then we forget the life is inviolable. When I read that new examinations of Levi’s deadly fall suggested that perhaps the pitch over the railing was not a suicidal leap, I forgot my sobering lesson and cheered up in the grotesque fantasy that an elderly man fell to an ugly death by accident. He didn’t perhaps exhaust his endurance. He wasn’t perhaps suddenly and finally seized by the dirty trick of existence and the only way to seize it back was put a quick end to the whole thing. Not depressed, after all, perhaps. Why on earth could this matter to me?
Don’t reach out for me, can’t you see I’m drowning too. But she’s wrong, the woman in High Water. We’re all drowning together and flailing around and then holding on. I don’t expect I’ll read a word of Dr A. T. Bradford’s diagnosis, but maybe he’s just reaching out in his own way, trying to make something matter to himself in his encounter with Bob Dylan’s songs. It’s a way I dislike, because it’s about stamping and labeling, and it’s about owning the difference between normal and sick, and it’s about cavalierly doing someone the favor of showing them where it hurts, when they never asked you in the first place.
And so this all made me think of my choice for Bob Dylan’s saddest song. The song where the singer reaches out drowningly and in my sorrow and pity, I’m the only one who gets saved. For me it’s Red River Shore. And the saddest line in the song is, “I had to pull back from the door.” In Shelter from the Storm, there’s a living lovely woman in the doorway. She invites him in, and time and time again he refuses or leaves, deluded by the call of the world outside, seduced by the storm. He can sing all the ways this lovely person reached out to him with “Come in…” and still he keeps leaving. And that’s a world where people demand answers from him, and where he’s seen for himself the span of lives, and where salvation may be bought and sold but there are people doing the buying and selling. The storm happens in a solid world and can really do a person in–on trails and cornfields and in swamps, a person can be blown out, ravaged, hunted. Again and again, in a door, she beckons. He’s close enough to see the flowers in her hair.
Red River Shore is phantom succor in a phantom world. The girl never beckons to him, in fact she tells him to go home. She turns him out with the advice to save himself with a quiet life, the nymph of Shelter from the Storm somehow reversed. The girl remains a shade, unseeable and ageless and eternal on that shore. He rambles, he takes risks, he survives the black winds, he’ll get a song when the hills are generous–written out, it sounds like a life, and sung, it sounds depleted, barren and beautiful. Salvation isn’t even a game played by hard opponents, it’s a dim and useless myth of really nothing more than the gruesome magic of raising corpses. And his memory of the girl is an anchor of loss that never fails him.
I’ve had to pull back from the door. We never see the door in Shelter from the Storm, we just see him turning away, striding away. But in Red River Shore, he confesses: he was that close, the door he made in his loneliness was so close, he was clutching it already. Here’s the only exhausting work in the song. The strain of pulling himself away from this phantom shelter. This horrifies me every time. It’s the power of sadness to concoct figments of consolation and then refuse your own inventions.
Bob Dylan sings us into his world of shadows and loss and all the on-and-on of a long life. How potent and self-defeating and brave all at the same time our imaginations are. Why is this lesson always worth learning, and why does it feel like a reaching out, every time I hear the song? Perhaps Dr A.T. Bradford can offer advice for becoming one of the lucky ones who can live/laugh in the moonlight shooting by when we turn off the lights.