“The most I said was that he was not a woman’s poet…”

I missed this:


BU professor visits Barnard, discusses Bob Dylan and misogyny

Teresa Shen / Spec
By Katherine Rietberg

Last night, Christopher Ricks, professor of English at Boston University (and Bob Dylan enthusiast), lectured on the major music icon to a full house in Sulzberger Parlor on the third floor of Barnard Hall. Spec’s Katherine Rietberg sums up the main points of the talk after the jump.

Ricks started off his lecture with a quote (from a 2006 New York Times article written by a woman), “No woman really loves Bob Dylan. His music is something that women pretend to enjoy to please men, like camping or golf.” We’re so fixated on saying we want to abolish stereotypes, but how are we defining terms like misogyny?

“Art has to be able to contain ugly feelings,” Ricks said, “You can’t ever create great works of art by playing it safe.” 

I reprint above the beginning of the article printed in the Columbia paper, which you can read for yourself.

“It is not supposed to be the nature of woman to rise as a general thing to the largest and most liberal view.”  Indeed. Professor Ricks shall do it for us, gently and wryly leading us to the difficulties of great art from a comment by a “woman writer” who weighs in on the merits of Bob Dylan’s 50-year career.  I hope Dylan fans in the audience shared a chuckle with Prof. Ricks before getting on to the serious business of disarming the word takes in Just Like A Woman. (The photo of what looks like the inside of a tent is in fact a model of where Jane Goodall managed to endure the ickiness of camping. The real thing might have had bugs! Yuck!)

We pay lip service to abolishing stereotypes, but we can work harder to define misogyny. A good place to start would be stamping our delicate little feet and raising our little fists and warbling something like: Misogyny isn’t a term you can own, Professor.  It’s not even really a term you can sublet while the owner is out of town, maybe on a camping trip. Misogyny is an act, rather than a device. Pray do not  help me see when I have or have not been reviled or excluded. And the women in the audience, they can tell you when they have been misogynized. Reviled, excluded. And they, we,  know when we aren’t sure if we have been. Not being entirely sure whether I’ve been misogynized is troubling but it’s not a job for Superman. It’s rather a demand for me to contemplate more closely  my own relation to whatever could or couldn’t be reviling me.  And we know when being misogynized is at odds with pleasure and meaning we also get from something, and that means more hard contemplation. 

 “The world, as I say, had recognized Jeffrey Aspern, and… I had recognized him most.”–Thank you very much, Professor Ricks, for your expertise  and your support. But we need to take care of this ourselves. We  even invite on board the poor New York Times lady writer. She is at best witless, and at worst, pandering to a stereotype of femininity  that’s even too stale for Cosmopolitan magazine.  I should apologize for my cheap snarky shots at her. 

“…but the situation had been different when the man’s own voice was mingled with his song.  That voice, by every testimony, was one of the sweetest ever heard. Orpheus and the Maenads! was the exclamation that rose to my lips…”

What is it to be the women in the songs, and what is it to be captured by the singer who’s creating these women? When does a song revile or exclude me? 

So I’ll start with Louise who depresses me, personally,  gynecically, more than any other Dylan gal. Because Louise is what women have to endure: being just all right because, well,  you’re real and you’re within arm’s reach. The singer does his best in the drab world of heated apartments,  until restlessness overcomes an imagination that exceeds all the material world, and a vision called Johanna appears. Louise is just too human–she’s  familiar and knowable, another human person–her presence resembles looking into a mirror, not the fathomless fire of inspiration.  Louises hold  handfuls of rain.  Meager and ordinary nature is all we can offer.  There’s a universe of mystery and invention and fantasy in that man’s brain, and meager and ordinary nature can’t compete. Louises can see these magnificent complex creatures–the men in the room with us–realistically. You can’t look at much, can you, man–no magnificent complex creature wants to hear that shit.  Women know all this. That offering nothing more fantastic than another actual human being, who is here and now, who wants, and who talks, and who sees you for what you are, is often enough for men The Great Disappointment.   We’re not supposed to want to be Louise, de facto and insufficient. And the song shows everyone why. Depressing.

 Wedding Song troubles me. The lyrics spin a cocoon around the woman who disappears within all that she has been for the singer: his savior, his completion, the bearer of his children, the unbounded source of passionate energies that exceed  nature (more than the sea) and reason (more than madness). The song on paper offers some kind of modern vision of Das ewige Weibliche, and the greatness of the composition is matched by the exhausting litany of  female quintessences that serve and inspire and rescue and madden men. The woman here is invisible through the flames of the singer’s rampant, exalted memories and visions. And  in the dark ardor of the vocal performance I hear that same  impulse that creates Sirens and Selkies and belle dames sans merci: this needs all his energy, this passion for an ideal he himself is creating will destroy or at least deplete him. It’s very old work, this. It’s buried so deep in how women see themselves reflected. I despise this and I’m seduced by it. I do hate myself for loving this song, in ways I somberly propose are inaccessible to Prof Ricks. I’ll call this misogyny, while Just Like A Woman feels like child’s play.

“Almost all the Maenads were unreasonable, and many of them insupportable…”

Just one more for now. Not misogyny, just…two banks separated by a river, maybe.  There’s nothing like the live Abandoned Love . You’re in a cave under a river with Orpheus who’s trying out something that’s just come to him. Of all the places I am lucky enough to be able to stroll past any day of the week–Cafe Wha, the Gaslight,  the Rutolos’ apartment building, the crummy hotel–the Bitter/Other End on Bleecker Street feels charged to me every time I pass it.  The room still has that energy in it from the one performance. And every time I listen to it I dislike the laughter that erupts from men in the club when he sings “I love you but you’re strange.”  You know it, Bob,  is completely audible in their laughing, we’ve all been on that wild ride. Right there, every time, I’m shut out of the fraternity. No complaints, just the feeling that the song does run like a river between me and the men laughing with their friend the singer.

PS–If you want an even better sort-of mashup between Bob Dylan and Henry James’ The Aspern Papers, please read Nick Hornby’s novel, Juliet, Naked. It’s not just the best parody of Dylan fans, it’s the only really good parody of Dylan fans. And it’s not an affectionate parody, either. Hornby’s no fan himself. But he’s too smart and too humane and too funny a writer for me not to applaud and enjoy his doing justice to all this.



11 thoughts on ““The most I said was that he was not a woman’s poet…”

  1. As depressing, disappointing, inadequate, and ordinary as Louise is, there can’t be Johanna without her. Louise is bound, trapped in relativity, time, disappearance. She’s the object of dissatisfaction. But she’s also the opportunity to see Johanna’s absolution and freedom from longing, suffering.

    Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
    Are melted into air, into thin air:
    And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
    The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on; and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep.

    The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158

    1. There can’t be spirit without flesh. There can’t be divinity without gravity.

      1. I wouldn’t know what divinity requires, but thank goodness that gravity requires nothing like divinity. At this point in my sojourn, I think there can’t be consciousness without flesh, and without consciousness, there’d be nothing to ponder or invent spirit, so I’m almost with you there.

      2. I guess your sojourn is a physical one?

        Invention of spirit by way of a material brain as something that conceives and knows of itself as a material brain that invents things. If this thing that is doing the thinking can invent divinity, maybe it can invent other things, too, like the notion of a static thinker. How can you account for this fact (abstract assumption) that the mind is an observable thing outside of itself? Sounds like an endless regression. My flesh thinks to itself, “Where does my mind end and where does the thought start?”

        Maybe I should have said, “There can’t be the eternal without the transient.” so it didn’t sound so literal?

        Also, I haven’t said this yet and I want to. I love this blog with all my heart. My figurative heart. Although it does get it beating pretty fast sometimes.

      3. Yes, our flesh thinks to itself and we understand next to nothing of this. Harder work to contemplate not-knowing than to fantasize phantoms that can fake knowing for us/ “Where does my mind end and where does the thought start” is a koan, which isn’t the same as an answerable question, and hallelujah for that. And thank you for your kind words.

    2. I thought for a moment you were trying to lecture me on the aesthetic necessity of female archetypes/stereotypes, or perhaps reprimand me for confusing Art and Life. But I was just being testy. You’ve got an arguable summary of the song here, and yes indeed we are such stuff as other people’s dreams are made on.

      1. Heavens. I can’t lecture anybody on the aesthetic necessity of anything. And as far as the art police go, I have the cooties, not the baton.

        Your commentary started me thinking on the relationship between Louise and Johanna. Louise does seem to inhabit the mundane aspects, the limitations and boundaries of existence, but all that give and take, all that “entwinement” evaporates and merges into the refrain, and Johanna, seamlessly. Actually, it’s hard to say that Louise merges into anything at all, because she and Johanna are ultimately inseparable, “are now all that remain.” Johanna doesn’t try to either own or forsake Louise.

        If “everything’s been returned which was owed”, what was there to take in the first place? What was there to turn off?

      2. But…but… Johanna is a vision, she’s conjured up from solid and noisy Louise. If they have a relationship, it’s the relationship between the eternal and the transient, between the deep romantic chasm and the floorboards of the room Coleridge woke up to after imagining he was visiting the chasm. The relationship between the Abyssinian maid and her lovely dulcimer and a tired draggle-haired serving girl perhaps stumbling past Coleridge’s window with heavy market parcels. Not a relationship as an interaction, but a sort of contingency in which one element is unreal and the other element may not even know they are necessary for this relationship. If Louise and Johanna are inseparable, they are united in the singer’s mind, then in my mind as I listen, and Louise herself doesn’t need any of us to keep on keepin’ on. And men creating phantom women, birthing them out of their marvelous skulls, phantoms no talky Louise can contest….this is a primordial business and women know being bone-tired of it. It’s not an interpretation. It’s bone-fatigue.

      3. One thing. Johanna is not a vision. Johanna is visions. She’s a name for the visions, the nameless forms and bangs and sparks, very very quicksilver. Maybe Johanna is the name for the singer’s grappling with Louise and the time-sensitive dust of the world that the singer isn’t excluded from. The solidity, the objective reality of the singer’s relationship with Louise is dubious throughout the whole song. Johanna could be the name describing the phantom quality of existence, the liquid thieving of it’s myriad appearances, one of which, or some of which are Louise. It’s not that, or it doesn’t have to be that Louise can’t live up to the singer’s unspeakable and unreachable visions (you are right, that WOULD be depressing!). She could be identical with those visions. Do we know whose bones of whose face it is that the ghost of electricity is howling in? I feel like everything that precedes the refrain, is, in one form or another, a tossing and turning vision of Johanna. By the end the singer has stopped saying what the visions are doing TO him, conquering his mind, taking his place, keeping him up past the dawn, making it all seem so cruel to him, he no
        longer sees himself as separate from the visions. He is those selfsame visions, just like Louise. Maybe Louise and Johanna don’t have a relationship at all, Johanna doesn’t sound like someone, or something, that could relate TO anything. She’s more like a quality. She could be the inexpressible “how” of how the singer, Louise, and everything else in the universe relate as a whole.

  2. Louise making it concise and clear that Johanna is not here. Not here doesn’t necessarily mean unreal and in the singer’s mind. Not here could mean ungraspable. Like, in tending to the relationship with Louise, it becomes naturally, viscerally observable that it can’t be gotten a hold of. Like, the humanity of it can’t be ignored.

  3. Doesn’t the word Johanna sound like Jehovah?

    A Revelation in the Visions of Jehovah Seen by William Blake

    (Engraved 1822)

    To Lord Byron in the Wilderness:

                    WHAT doest thou here, Elijah?
    Can a Poet doubt the Visions of Jehovah? Nature has no Outline,
    But Imagination has. Nature has no Tune, but Imagination has.
    Nature has no Supernatural, and dissolves: Imagination is Eternity.

    Here is the rest of it


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