I Don’t Need Your Organization, Part 3–What Does It Matter?

The painting above is Napoleon in the Wilderness, by Max Ernst. If you can see in this little reproduction, there is a donkey-like creature in a hat resembling Napoleon’s, and in a pose we know from portraits of Napoleon. And so Napoleon does rule the fantastical world of Ernst’s vision here.The real has infiltrated the impossible, and not just any real, but a titan of power. A very seductive and disturbing painting and the only one that says Changing of the Guards to me. You can see it in MoMA now, on the 5th floor.

The problem with the spiritual clamor of Changing of the Guards is that is not the same as the ostensible thrills of anarchy.  And it’s not a witches’ sabbath that inverts and orgifies moral order. The signs in Changing of the Guards all point to identifiable fictions or histories of ordeal, sacrifice, and meaning. And the signs can’t cooperate to do their work of creating a coherent allegory for the singer/captain to inhabit and rescue or conquer. He challenges the organization–all the organizations–he’s abandoning with the warning to “get ready for elimination” or “your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.” And remember our hero himself has only the facsimile of a heart.  And it’s after this warning that the song explodes into quite a monstrous vision  where it seems that peace yoked peacelessly to the wheel of fire is prophesied, and a fearful eternal life is promised when a mightily armed and stateless King and Queen defeat Death and apparently assume his rule.

This song captivates me because I can navigate this landscape and get nowhere by following its old signs that are loaded and emptied and frustrating.  And it captivates me because it ends on its own terms–there’s no retreat to the world before the song, where the singer, in a thoughtful and tired voice, could measure and recall 16 years of lived mortal life. Death surrenders, the singer does not. So the song ends in a kind of solitary madness. It does not end inviting the listener to feel that we’re all in this together.

About four years earlier, Dylan sang, “Nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts,”  in a song that also destroys linear time, and also confounds and inverts symbols of meaning and order.  There are rich links between Shelter from the Storm and Changing of the Guards: the movement from being hidden or lost to being found, wilderness to shelter and shadows to marketplace; self-proclaimed heroism or martyrdom; the burden of unasked-for authority, people who think he’s got the answers, and entire organizations who expect miracles and service from him. But there is an intimate scale to Shelter from the Storm: love is a shelter, a “place that’s always safe and warm,” love will remove crowns of thorns and turn the martyr into the human, and love speaks comfort here, instead of begging to be rescued as it does in Changing of the Guards. In Shelter from the Storm, the singer speaks directly and not unkindly to anyone who wants an Answer from him, “Do I understand your question, man? Is it hopeless and forlorn?” And he does give an answer, of course, and a responsible one–he returns to his own story because that’s the only one he knows.

The world in Shelter from the Storm spins something off orbit, but it still has an axis: love offered, love recognized, love spoken, love mistook, love rejected, love out of time. The world in the empty guardbox is afflicted, and love is silent or wretched. I think this is where Street-Legal starts.


I started this with part-grumbling and part-wondering about Occupy Wall Street, which at the time was in full swing and now seems to resemble an arena rock show right after the lights come on–people talking and whooping to keep the excitement going while stepping over all the now-visible litter all over the floor. I sound snarky and don’t mean to be, since a good deal of this now-visible stuff is in the form of deeply lost human beings like a man named Ray Kachel who is profiled with dignity and care by George Packer in the most recent New Yorker.  Kachel joined the settlement in Zuccotti Park after his self-fashioned modest and solitary life doing freelance computer and other desultory work in Seattle collapsed with the economy.  In more or less equal parts of despair and a “sense of adventure,” Kachel traveled exhaustingly and frugally by bus to New York. A modest and solitary life does not prepare a person to find themselves with no money, sleeping outdoors in a large city surrounded by strangers. In Ray Kachel’s case, it was not the hardship that astonished him, but the simple fact of experiencing community for the first time in his life. He admits in the article that he did not know his neighbors in the apartment building where he lived for years, and in Zuccotti Park he learned that people will freely share food and clothing and sleeping bags, and daily contact with people in the same circumstances as yourself can lead to friendship. Kachel’s life could not have been more modest in Zuccotti Park, but it was no longer solitary. He comes to regard the occupiers he’s befriended as “comrades,” and when the settlement is dispersed, he is without the means to return to Seattle–without the means to buy a cup of coffee or get on the subway–with no home, and no indication in the article whom he intends to vote for in 2012. Packer also profiles local New Yorkers with jobs and homes who find themselves  participating in OWS and excited by the collectivity, the sheer energy of lively life apparently addressing conditions that demand address. The momentum of lively life, of animated talk and music and lots of movement and spontaneous song or dance or affection, and signs of charity–it is infectious and self-sustaining. Even George Packer writes

No one should expect this protean flame to transform itself into a political organization with a savvy strategy for enacting reforms and winning elections. That’s someone else’s job.

Indeed!  Thank goodness for Lyndon Johnson taking on the job of civil rights reform after the protean flames of the March on Washington? Relish collective energy for providing a flame that will ignite someone else to make practical change. And how low am I sinking to remember that otherwise (or previously) decent and rational visitors to the Nuremberg rallies were infected by the collective energies and protean flames thereof?

My copy of the Sunday New York Times arrived last week with an advertising insert for London Jewelers, who announce on the insert that they are celebrating their 85th anniversary. So London Jewelers has survived the Depression, and World War II, and the upheavals of the 1960s, such as they were, and intervening recessions and the current crisis. Page 20 of the insert features a watch that costs $68,500. Isn’t this an utterly banal observation I’m making? When has the world been different? Where is the time and place in history when it has not been the case that the most people have lived awfully in order for  the least people to live splendidly? Do new generations learn the ugliness of income inequality as though it has only happened to them, the way teenagers believe no human beings prior to them and their friends have ever fallen in love or enjoyed the effects of drugs and alcohol? And here’s something worse–if Ray Kachel learned the bonds of human community  only after he was abandoned by a system that once supported his solitary complacent life, is that not a richer lesson than grass roots political activism? But doesn’t the transcendence of human fellowship give the guys in their Hugo Boss suits looking down at Zuccotti Park from their office windows the chance to say, as Power has so often said, “Look–they’re all hugging and singing and giving each other blankets! Love wins! Let’s get back to business! Have you seen my new watch?” And Ray Kachel is now a homeless man who’s learned the meaning of fellowship.

I think the empty guardbox reminds me something of the commotion of all these questions, but with some difference, because there are still the signs and whispers of history in the limbo where the guards are changing. We can hear young and protean Bob Dylan singing Only A Pawn In Their Game, and When The Ship Comes In, a tiny flame on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial stepping forth and ringing in a vision of a new world, and then what?


3 thoughts on “I Don’t Need Your Organization, Part 3–What Does It Matter?

  1. Your 3-part excavation of “Changing of the Guards” is a lot to absorb, which I haven’t entirely. But I’m a bit uncertain about where and when you think, as you put it, that the guard box stands empty. Throughout the whole song? Or beginning at some point within it? My own somewhat uncertain sense is that it is not emptied until the break before the final verse, which offers a view from an unguarded consciousness. The preceding two verses seem to present the single dramatic action of the song, one that amounts to a dismissal of the guard, while the first six verses strike me as a sort of retirement ceremony, or funeral, for the monarch it has been guarding. Those first 6 verses strike me as the most overtly occult thing Dylan has ever written, much more radically occult than their Tarot symbolism can account for. Indeed, the use of the Tarot in this song has always felt to me to be somewhat mocking, as if Dylan were already saying to the Tarot cards, “Gentlemen, I don’t need your organization.” By the time they arrive, the “King and the Queen of Swords” feel like images that have been fully liberated from their origins in the Tarot.

  2. I thought a great deal about this, about when the guardbox empties–when the frame of meaning empties but leaves the frame awaiting the next shift. I do think it happens exactly when he breathes out “Sixteen years…” I hear in that breath’s moment the burden of that 16 years, and and the suffocation of having to provide meaning for invisible hundreds of thousands of people while living a conscious and uncertain life himself–“Do I understand your question, man? Is it hopeless and forlorn?”–in those 3 syllables I hear the guardbox emptying, and immediately following is the fantastic battlefield, the armageddon exhausted, men and women are desperate, the Good Shepherd himself mourning this one man’s abyss. But I do see your story very clearly, and I like that you bring “the monarch” into the picture. A dismissal gives him more power, while I want to hear surrender and vulnerability. It’s incredible to me the way this song can evoke these different responses, the clarity and the intensity of your reading, which does justice to some kind of similar responses I had, and still tells a very different story, a personal and potent story. It has always been a strange insurmountable disappointment to me, sort of heartbreaking, in fact, that Paul Williams just dismisses this song as confused. When Clinton Heylin dismisses Caribbean Wind as the moment when Bob Dylan lost mastery of his craft, this means nothing at all to me, not even worth the one-sixteenth of a calorie it would take to roll my eyes. But when Paul Williams, one of 2 or 3 Dylan writers whose words feel, to me, written in his soul, etcetera–when he can’t get close to a song that lights up every electron in the air every time I hear it. my heart breaks.

  3. Nina:

    This is funny, because my first thought on reading your original posts was that I agree with you completely and what you’re saying has almost nothing in common with my own feeling for the song–a weird combination. I should explain that I used the word “monarch” because there has to be someone for the guard to be guarding. I, too, hear “surrender and vulnerability,” but the vulnerability of this monarch–who is the singer-poet’s deepest self–does not manifest itself until the final verse, when he opens himself to the “King and Queen of Swords.” The song’s first six verses comprise the history of the guards being ejected from the guardhouse–i.e., the monarch’s superannuated ego. And all their suffering and vulnerability is ancient history: those first six verses read like friezes decorating the interior of a mausoleum. The singer-poet first finds himself ejected from the mausoleum (once his castle) at the beginning of the 7th verse (“She wakes him up…”) [a verse that has always reminded me of a shipwrecked Odysseus being rescued by Nausicaa], and after resisting a final temptation to take charge, he dismisses his courtiers and faces the pitiless dawn. One final thing: I might have come to agree with Paul Williams that the song is confused had I not heard Dylan sing it in Philadelphia in October, 1978: the vocal on Street Legal does seem confused, or just uncertain, or maybe even clueless about the song’s emotional burden, but that night in Philly, Dylan took it with a ferocious clarity.

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