We’re late but we’re here.
The old-fashioned use of the term *Dylanesque* refers to jazzy/hallucinatory/obscure/dense/kookily allusive figurative language–finger-snapping and mind-blowing turns of phrase. But that’s not my Dylanesque. My Dylanesque is terrifically illustrated by the true-enough account of the real origin of Valentine’s Day. You are the 3rd century emperor of Rome, Claudius the Second and you are faced with a challenge. An imperial empire is neither created nor maintained by compassion, compromise, and mercy. What you need are many many armed men to serve as your imperial prosthetics. What’s happened is that you don’t have enough of these to really get the hard work of being emperor done, The nuisance is that it’s not for lack of men who can wave a sword around just the way you like it. But some of your soldiers find that getting married and having families takes the edge off their amor patriae and conquistador spirit. You are Claudius the Second: There are no problems, only solutions, and this solution is embarrassingly easy, the matter of five minutes and not even a whole piece of parchment. You decree that marriage is out, so dust off those swords. A priest named Valentine decides this law is unjust. Injustice is a concept which, when misinterpreted, is a festering nuisance to imperial empires. You briskly solve another problem, what a week this is turning out to be…..Valentine is clapped in a dungeon where he awaits his own beheading as soon as someone can get around to it. His body imprisoned and imperiled by tyranny, his soul remains unfettered, and in this state of tragic purity, he falls in love with the dungeon master’s daughter whom we imagine toting dirty buckets of water to the prisoners. Before he is executed, Valentine gets a note to the girl. He signs it …”your Valentine.” Now who among you spared a thought for the courage of righteous martyrs or for Roman tyranny when you stood frowning in Hallmark, wondering whether things with the person you have the most sex with have reached the emotional level of the $3.99 card in your hand? You see? That is how history works.
Innocence, tyranny, law, justice, love, battlefield, hearth, sacrifice, and then eternal fame that gets it all wrong. The circle dance of power and grace and pointless/destructive/common/redemptive love is unbreakable and relentless. That’s my idea of Dylanesque.
Tin Angel is right for a Dylanesque Valentine. It’s a black rose of a song, gruesome and lovely, and more important, it’s all liminally natural and unnatural in prickly ways…
- “Hangs me a golden chain from heaven, and lay hold of it all of you, gods and goddesses together—tug as you will, you will not drag Jove the supreme counsellor from heaven to earth; but were I to pull at it myself I should draw you up with earth and sea into the bargain, then would I bind the chain about some pinnacle of Olympus and leave you all dangling in the mid firmament. So far am I above all others either of gods or men.”
- …another World/Hung ore my Realm, link’d in a golden Chain
Homer gives Zeus a golden chain to link the heavens and earth. This chain is a toy in Zeus’s terrible reminder that his dominion is entire and final and his will is entire and final. Milton takes that chain between heaven and earth and makes it a figurative link between the creator and the created, between the numinous and the material. In Milton’s theology, to mistake this golden chain for a rope ladder is to think like Satan: it is the severest mistake of believing that a connection between nature and its creator can be traveled via the physical world. As reader, I have to be very careful not to mirror Satan’s mistakes.
It’s this deceptive golden chain the Boss climbs down to see in inseparably linked flesh what he knew he would find, and thus begin the song’s strange destruction. It’s fantastic inseparables that compose this song’s world. A boss with a king’s throne who still has to buy men to serve him on his vengeful quest and they break the contract anyway. He starts out in a gentleman’s coat and tie and somewhere on that broad highway he becomes an antique warrior–a Crusader no less–with a sword and a helmet and at that moment renounces faith and God. Remember Milton’s description of the path laid out between Hell and Earth: from Hell to this World to and fro, they pave a broad Highway or Bridge over Chaos, according to the Track that Satan first made. In a world of buckskin mares and helmets, there is still an electric wire. Our man shifts from a peculiar boss/king/gentleman to a crusader /heretic and immediately is described as having all the nobility of an ancient race that we are invited to name. Circles of power and status and history collide, and then the talking starts.
The drama itself draws its intricacy and its beauty too from Milton’s Satan and Eve. The Boss is now Husband, although with the power to bring the stars and planets down for his wife’s pleasure, if she only knew their worth. “Bow the heart, if not the knee,” could be among the most beautiful lines Dylan’s written: if you can’t submit to a power greater than yourself, submit to the truth you already bear in your heart. The wife glows and snaps with adulterous pride, her lover steps up to the plate and does what lovers ought to do–eliminate their rivals. And in that moment, the wife hands the apple back. She bows to the ancient law of wedding oaths, completes her husband’s revenge, and understands that other ancient laws of justice and passion demand her to pay for her lover’s life with her own. Betrayal and honor and lust and law all end up in a pile of stinking bloody corpses. And what do we, the bit players, the audience to this farce/tragedy/bloody mess do? We offer obeisance and torches and processions.. We bow our heads. We make songs, ballads, stories. We get it all wrong and don’t know any other way to do it and we call it history.
Remember what Eve does when she listens to that sibilant tin angel and reaches her arm out to that tree: she starts all of human history. Keep listening. Do justice to this record, it’s got all that stuff and more. Happy Valentine’s day. I couldn’t find where the dungeonkeeper’s daughter loved Valentine back or not.