Down Where The Vultures Feed

indexAround 1:20 in the afternoon on Friday the 26th, I sat with my back against a wall at the edge of Hoboken while I waited for the gates to open and launch the stampede to the Pier A stage. Other people sat alone or in twos or threes to either side of me; I was the 15th or 20th person from the front of the line. A man pushing an empty stroller ambled past us followed by his tiny flaxen daughter. She stopped, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed,  in front of nearly every one of us who sat facing the street and she returned every smile we gave her by ramping up her expression of expectant wonder. I realized that all of us sitting down came to just her height and when had she ever seen one friendly adult after another after another who was her own size? That was the last agreeable encounter and completely relaxed moment  I had for the next 10 hours. This is my fault. For me, the  point of GA shows is that nothing but my will and effort prevent me from getting as close to the stage as possible. If I can’t get in the first rows of a seated concert, I submit to fortune and fate. But there is no fortune in General Admission, there is only the art of war–the back of the field is for the weak, the lazy,  and the contented pacificist. I respect the pacificists and sometimes believe I can go to a GA Bob Dylan concert with just that Zen quality but when the day comes, the fire burns, and I suffer for it.

imagesSee, I want whatever passes for readers in centuries way down the line to understand that AmericanaramA, or any summertime general admission Bob Dylan concert, is not all about whether Charlie Sexton showed up (he did), or whether the new arrangement of She Belongs to Me is more majestic than playful (it is), or whether Duquesne Whistle  is a little disappointingly too fast (it is).  How are these vacuum-sealed comments, all these considered and sensitive responses, plausible when I’ve stood in the sun, then under stars, on lumpy grass for 10 hours?  The stiff limbs and the tension of staking and defending my tiny square foot of ground against barbaric invaders whose banners always read “My friend’s holding that space for me.”  How after a while I begin to feel that the world has always contained nothing at all but a cluttered stage curtained in cheap black fabric, and the My Morning Jacket t-shirt and Celtic tattoos on the man–too old for either–who is only inches from me and has for years and years been only inches from me. The three young people inches behind me are able to keep up their arch banter for so very long, as though in a contest to see who will run out of irony first. A middle-aged couple, discussing where they parked their car, is in front of me at the rail, with their son who’s about 14.  The boy is trying to look not unhappy. He has shaggy hair which likely makes more of an impression in Scarsdale than it does here among ear gauges and body art. He’s in a tough spot–this is technically a rock concert, and he still  has to spend the entire day with his parents in full view of other teenagers smoking pot and talking about Jim James. A woman on her own, about my age, stands her ground right next to me and reads the Times with patience and dignity. She owns her spot. I would love to befriend her but she’s mastered the noli me tangere of the concert pro and although I think of myself as a pro, I’m too high strung to be noli me tangere. A fat girl holding a can of beer over her head shoves past me and I look her right in the eye and say “Kiss my ass.” I am old enough to be her mother, I think. Unrepentantly.

Ryan Bingham was unexpected–I thought I’d just have to hold on through My Morning Jacket and Wilco. Mr Bingham’s got the alt-country hipster thing down and his first song expressed thoughts about heroin and depression in a big hoarse voice. It was a hard 45 minutes for me because the front of the stage was filling up with aggressive young Morning Jacket fans–I had to work hard to hold my inch of land without violence that would work against me. I was very surprised by Jim James. I knew him only from his appearance in I’m Not There.  All this time I’ve considered his magnificent (no other word for it) version of Goin’ to Acapulco to be one of maybe 4 covers of Dylan songs of all time that I consider keepers. And here was this strutting leonine person with all these filters and echoes distorting a fine voice. When he put on that circus smock with the gizmo hanging around his neck he looked like a mental patient under the delusion of being a Con Ed employee. I did like seeing the fans around me in love with this, knowing every word,  taken out of themselves. It’s a *festival* after all, and I high-handedly gave the children their moment.

I don’t know from Wilco, but I liked Jeff Tweedy’s stage self: this was clearly a man who’d been around the block and fallen down on the curb a few times and is still able to work hard and  laugh about what he’s seen and done. My territory, though, deteriorated badly during their set. It takes only one tall pogo-ing man shouting the name of every song, and shouting along with every song, jumping and shouting, to hijack my tiny window of sight and sound.


Worn and thirsty and aching and tense from my selfish voluntary ordeal, I watched some people I recognized and some I did not setting up Bob Dylan’s stage. Up close, it is something to see how agilely and cooperatively the roadies and technicians work–never getting in each other’s way, and always generous about stopping whatever they’re doing to help a colleague with a glitch.  I blinked and that whole piano was in place.  I miss the portentous ritual of the Nag Champa, the Fanfare for the Common Man, “Ladies and Gentlemen…” but Stu’s entrance nowadays is always startling and makes for a surge of attention in everyone that’s exciting.

And after the collective awakening to the beginning of Dylan’s set, we disintegrated back into our bits of jostling and sniping and texting and photo-ing and jabbering. Everything Bob Dylan does reaches me through fissures. External fissures–when tall jumping people stumble enough for me to regain a sight line to the stage; when people stop shouting the name of each song to their neighbor so I can hear the lyrics. Internal fissures–when I can break away from my tired legs and thirsty head and foul selfish mood occluding the precious spaciousness I like to think I bring to Dylan concerts–when I can break away from my own occluding self and let the performance demand its space. So in these fissures and glimpses here is what got in:

  • The *story* of the setlist is such a tug of war between Yes and No.  He tells us right off not to want anything, he used to care but…. and describes with great care not caring. He tells us that being sick of love is being sick with love. He extols a woman for being free and self-sufficient. . .and who belongs to him. He joins a violent, threatening, anarchic band of kings and gets us to surrender to him waving our handkerchiefs in the air. He leads us into two very different intimate visions back to back, Hard Rain‘s prophesying and Blind Willie McTell‘s historical lament. Finally he pulls back the curtain and reminds us it’s all theater. Something’s happening. Don’t think you can name it and know it. But take it, you can have it, and good night.
  • I feel about Duquesne Whistle the way I feel about Beyond Here Lies Nothin’–rocking beauties that say everything about that tug of war between staying and moving on. I’ve been waiting to hear him make  Duquesne Whistle bite the air like he does with live versions of Beyond Here. But this was too fast and rushed for me, I lost the words themselves and then the delectation of the words that I love on the record. So that thing happened where the recorded version retreated in me into a protected space where the version Bob Dylan is singing right now for me can’t reach. You know when a live performance of a song gets farther in than the recorded version, and you know when it doesn’t.
  • Early Roman Kings live has the what the hell is that? factor that makes Bob Dylan Bob Dylan and everyone else everyone else. It’s not a song. It’s a whole show, a whole theater, a whole oratory. Every word hammers out that menacing and burlesque world and only Bob Dylan can control it.
  • Don’t like the Jerry Lee Lewis standing at the piano thing. When he sits at the piano, there’s more concentration to his playing.
  • Hatless, the ferocious mess of his hair is just right for the show’s energy.

The crowd for all its density dispersed so fast  after the show. We couldn’t wait to get away from each other. The field looked like a landfill of crushed beer cans and food containers and newspapers and some trampled sunglasses and even cellphones. Some of us had to get home and prepare for Jones Beach the next night. A few on line reviews of that Jones Beach show guessed that we got no fun encore like Friday’s The Weight singalong because we didn’t deserve any. That we were a dull audience Saturday night and being punished for it. Well, a good few of us were very very tired.

Play on, Bob. On and on. Of course you have more moxie than all of us put together. We just try to keep up from our own tiny patches of this earth you’re roaming. Some of us are flawed creatures and keeping up doesn’t bring out the best in us.  And as always:


If They Ain’t Already There


Friday I’ll be spending over 11 hours en plein air in Hoboken, New Jersey, to earn a two-hour general admission Bob Dylan concert. No, I know he won’t play for two full hours. We have been having a summer of brimstone and deluges in the northeast so I am nervously hoping these 11 hours will be merely torrid. Discomfort, impatience, anxiety, then Bob Dylan. I also hate the city of Hoboken.

imagesHoboken was the place where I spent my first Bad Year, at age 24-25. If you’re old enough to know what I mean, then you understand that our first Bad Years don’t entail the calamities and tragedies that become the turning points in our life stories. Not the terrible loss or pain that we continuously narrate to ourselves as reminders of Why We Are The Way We Are, and save up as the Special Thing You Need To Know About Me that we relate to new acquaintances. Your First Bad Year is that mess of disappointments and failures and unpleasantness you simply believed you were never destined for.


I spent 1986 in Hoboken, in the rented part of the first floor of a shambled house at the far end of Harrison Street, where the twee brownstones decayed into no-name auto-body shops with heaps of indistinguishable twisted rusted metal on the sidewalk. In a black and white photograph, our neighborhood would have had a  post-apocalyptic charm. But then there were the pollerias:  three-sided shacks offering floor to ceiling cages of live chickens for sale. The stench from a polleria lays siege to your entire consciousness. The space my boyfriend and I rented was a large shapeless room with an unfinished buckled and splintery wood floor. Our windows looked out onto a small vacant lot housing a crew of feral dogs who howled at night until bottles were thrown at the noise, and then managed to transfer fleas into the rented room–have you had flea bites? You scratch until you bleed, then scratch more, then make a funny story about the sores on your legs when you go to work the next day in a clean office with clean people. One evening after work I came back to the rented room to find  things gone: the television, my boyfriend’s guitars, much of the clothing in my closet. I went upstairs to the other tenant in the house whom we had not yet met because finding the neighbors felt instinctively right after being robbed. The upstairs door was opened by a big woman in a tank top who placed the sharp of her elbow up on the doorframe and watched me talk while she smoked from the cigarette she dangled comfortably near her face. I saw behind her were 4 cheap small messy cots lined up barracks-like, with at least one small child on each cot staring at the scene in the doorway with big eyes and closed mouths. When I was done sharing my alarm and concern about the burglary, the woman said “No habla Ingles,” and closed the door. At that moment and to this day it has seemed incredibly important to me to believe that all those children were actually her own. My boyfriend and I took badly to keeping house (such as it was), took badly to being adults together, to paying bills, to my deciding I didn’t want to keep defining fun as drugs, and to living away from New York. If you have been born and raised n New York, you know that it is an absolute condition. You are there or you are not.

All the good of that entire year belonged to the Mets. I left Hoboken and my boyfriend with a numb and stained kind of relief: I had grown up nice, with bedspreads and carpets and doormen and several unavoidable cockroaches who lived in fear of my mother, and parents who never raised voices to each other. I was not supposed to know fleas and burglars and frightened children on sloppy cots and romance that turned ugly and shitty and ended. In a real Bad Year, you find out you’re not special and you just want it to end.


So the hell with Hoboken.  I never wanted to set foot there again.  I don’t even know this new venue where I’ll be uncomfortably on foot shifting my weight for hours, sweating, indifferent to the opening bands, waiting for Bob Dylan to toe-step onto the stage, with his usual peculiar combination of the  irascible, the  humorous, and the efficient, and sing and play to us.

I know what I’m bringing in my attention to Hoboken. Lousy memories, the march of time, en plein air discomfort, and my own usual spacious light of pre-Dylan no-expectations expectancy. To everyone, remember remember that we don’t pay attention, we bring it. Paying attention is the same as any transaction–you dully hand over your cash and expect to be handed something of equal value. No, no, no. You bring your attention to the encounter of a concert: your attention is animate, it is appetent, it is responsive, it is made of this very moment shared with everyone else hearing the same harmonica notes, and entirely your own language of everything past and present you alone are bringing to those harmonica notes. Just as you know when Dylan is and is not entirely right there in that song, that line, that word, you know when you are and are not as well. If the way you bring full-selfed attention to a Bob Dylan concert or anything here-and-now is through the screen of your telephone, then. . . just please hold the phone away from my sight-line.

I will be so grateful if he doesn’t give up on Duquesne Whistle come Friday–it’s everything I’m writing about here.  That whistle blows and blows and a man hears childhood, love, faith, fate, the end, the beginning–the stations of his life going by right on time, like they do for all of us. Be there. I mean–be there.


Don’t Forget That You Are White

Hector_brought_back_to_Troy-500x344So I wanted to write about what’s happening as I read Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer and Tempest keeps shining through. The first bolt came in Book 4 of The Odyssey, with “cooped up on an island far too long,” and then flash after flash in both Odyssey and Iliad: pay in blood, ship you down to the house of death, hit the skies. . . More and more than that. You can read Scott Warmuth’s tidy and thorough “Tempest Commonplace” on his Pinterest board. I give him full credit for a tidiness and thoroughness you won’t find here, but I promise I found these bonbons on my own reading. And if you haven’t done it yourself, I recommend it–it’s a headier feeling of tiny time-travel wormholes even than Confessions of a Yakuza.

And what I wanted to think and write about is death and life in The Iliad, and death and life in Tempest. Every death in The Iliad matters. From the puniest chariot driver to the god-infused magnificences of Hector and Achilles, you feel the shock of life speared or sliced or trampled out of a man’s body. You feel and see the moment when each body voids its life, and there’s no attrition to the way your attention cringes with each of these deaths. Often enough Homer manages to insert, right along with the spear blow, the names of the dying soldier’s father or grandfather or the lovely island home whose soft hills he will never see again while his parents weep for his loss–Homer can send your imagination to the soft hills and desolate mother and father in the space of a man’s last breath.

I wanted to write about the way individual death matters in Tempest, in that song and in Roll On John. Then I wanted to write about the Greek hero. The man who is marked by the gods and then has to bear up under more-than-mortal gifts and ordeals until he dies exactly as all men die, once and for all. We tend to love Odysseus because he has genius that we recognize: his wit plays with his fate.  Odysseus seems to create his way through every tribulation.  He has an artist’s spirit as other Homeric heroes do not and as Romantics we love him for that and often pay not enough attention to Odysseus’s own persistent awareness that his gifts are his mortal destiny and not the way around death and the gods’ prerogatives. I hear that in Tempest, in Duquesne Whistle, in Pay in Blood, in Scarlet Town— the vitality whose playfulness and potency are born from no-bullshit mortality. Like noon at the break of darkness.

Well, I had things to say about life and death that now would ring just about as *true* as the Roman frieze at the top here showing the harrowing glories of dead Hector in unbroken stone. Then I heard about George Zimmerman’s acquittals and I didn’t expect the air to get as knocked out of me as it was. Well, I didn’t expect the acquittals themselves and the moment I heard I had one of those immediate thoughts that Homer uses to describe the speed of a god’s passage from here to there.  The only point of this event is that a black man’s life matters less than a white man’s fate.  The intricate instructions given the jury on differentiating between manslaughter, degrees of manslaughter and murder–these seem to me instructions on the value of Trayvon Martin’s corpse to George Zimmerman’s life. The jury decided what mattered.

So, if you are white like me, instead of contemplating life mattering in The Iliad and Tempest, listen for the thousandth time to …Hattie Carroll, and reflect on that rag.


72 Gypsies File Past


Imagine one rootless gypsy per year, each of them carrying a sign reading “Now This Way.”

As my birthday wish, I have a true story. When I worked as a cashier at Barnes and Noble #1979, one of our regular customers was a fellow with a soft moonface who wore every day a neat drab shirt with a nearby address embroidered over the pocket, and neat drab slacks that jangled with a large key ring. He was the maintenance man for a large apartment building in the neighborhood and liked to visit the bookstore on his breaks. Whichever of us was not occupied with a customer he’d approach with the little smile of a guileless child about to demonstrate a card trick: “Do you want to hear a joke?” he would ask every time. The first time unnerved each new cashier because of the possibility the joke would be obscene, but it never was. “Why are fish so smart?” was one I remember hearing four or five times myself. “Because they live in schools!” And I would make the  “You got me!” face and laugh just enough and then ring up his purchase which was either another inexpensive little wordplay book or an inexpensive blank book. There were days when I couldn’t bear my own pity imagining this lonely simple life; there were days when I suspected that a moonfaced simple man might be more aware than he let on of his ability to command indulgence from someone like me; there were days I was glad for a simple cheerful encounter especially when I couldn’t figure out the punch line.

My supervisor at the store was a mensch who allowed me to decorate the cord of my name tag with little buttons: one with Bob Dylan’s high school yearbook photo, one with the cover of The Times They Are A-Changin’, one simply stating Bob Dylan… One day I was the cashier available for a joke, and when the janitor approached, I looked up with the ritual grownup encouraging smile.  But this time he said to me, “Do you know what my favorite Bob Dylan song is?” I froze—half disoriented and half expecting to hear “Blowin’ in the Wind” and preparing a politely impressed response to that.  The janitor smiled his mischievous child smile and said. . . “Everything is Broken.”  The moment split open wide and I burst out– “Because you fix things every day!”

Martin Buber wrote, “…everything broken points to the unbroken…”

Happy birthday, dear Mr Dylan.  Keep your distance. Try not to underestimate us, and we’ll try not to underestimate each other.


We’re So Alone. And Life Is Brief


Feeling low and bleak in this winter that’s been keeping cold and dark into March, I went to an Allman Brothers concert. Gregg Allman (only his friends call him Gregory), a man not at all young, close to frail, powered by the liver of a stranger who is certain to be still mourned,  rang out a fine Tears of Rage on March 5. He matched word after word of this long and unsimple song with more heart and breath than robuster bodies could have summoned–he filled the old Beacon with the very sound of keepin’ on keepin’ on.

Tears of rage is already a state of being that demands heart and breath that have little to do with a body’s strength. Tears of rage demand a set-to with something in the world  worth the rage to shake tears out of you. Withdrawal, bleakness, retreat–you can’t know tears of rage from  down in those ditches. And remember that Tears of Rage is simply about saying I know, and meaning it, to the suffering caused by falseness and cruelties and errors.


Bleakness and falseness. Have you come across this book helpfully diagnosing Bob Dylan as a depressive?  Have you ever seen what happens when you Google *Bob Dylan Autism*? The result is the search engine equivalent of overturning a log in the forest and disturbing a nest of centipedes.

Pros or amateurs diagnosing in public any man who hasn’t called their receptionist for an appointment are just etiquette problems.   But if Dr X or just-plain-Joe try to take their  blunt tweezers to the old chestnut *Mental Illness and Art* then we have philistinism, which for me outplays rudeness.


Above  is Van Gogh’s first portrait of a Dr Gachet. The white-scored blue world that can only carelessly be called a background because it is actually above, behind, and within Dr Gachet, is why I like this version best: it is one of Van Gogh’s places where gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through. You stop for this painting because you see not that the quiet and dignified pain in this man’s eyes exceeds his body’s strength but that this body has very long been unable to scaffold this sadness, as strong as his hands seem to be, this is what they do–they hold on.  And you see that the flower seems to lean along with the man in some kind of organic sympathy, it may actually, while its own vigor has to be ebbing away in that glass,  be desperately reaching towards those golden books mistaking them for the sun. And you see that the blue around Dr Gachet is waves or skies or planks, the blue can be inside or outdoors, it can be layers of heaven growing lighter as they rise or just an old wall behind the cafe table; and you see that the scoring on the blue seeps from the scoring on Dr Gachet’s jacket–the world above and behind and of him is the same sorry stuff all atomic and restless. And you see also a world that’s concrete, jubilant, and promising in the cheery green and red tablecloth and those glowing buttery books whose facts or philosophies or verses seem not just inviting but edible. They are what this cafe is serving up! And there’s really nothing here but Dr Gachet’s eyes whose sadness beats out of the canvas like a color of its own; and the sadness is Dr Gachet’s blindness to this entire world he’s holding on to without seeing. Van Gogh gives equal weight to the yellow and blue and red and purple real outer world of upright tables and walls, and to the power of the inner world to obliterate and derange the concrete and the upright stuff and the whole spectrum as well.

van gogh

Van Gogh’s vision can do both, without canceling itself, and without redeeming. He finds the way to give equal weight to the real out here and the disordered in here, without insisting that you choose. And the punch line, if you don’t know it, is even better than you could have expected: this Dr Gachet was Van Gogh’s own physician who gave the painter digitalis for his epilepsy, which proved not a remedy.  The artist examines and tends to the doctor who could not cure him. We carried you in our arms on Independence Day.


Insanity smashing against my soul, Bob Dylan the Singer sings in a song that’s such a requiem for the spirit that I wasn’t surprised to learn I was not the only person to go cold all over when hearing that Bob Dylan the Person had bought a tract of land in the Scottish Highlands: the Romantic Gloommeister, the fearful fatalist in me imagined this real estate investment was A Sign of the Final Retirement.

What’s not a clinical symptom in Highlands? Pessimism. Self-loathing. Inertia. Isolation. Loss of libido and appetite. Moral indifference. Purposeleness. Humorlessness. Vain fantasies of escaping an unendurable present. Inability to experience pleasure. Highlands the song is an ordered and vivid and vital and droll thing that describes a bitter and dark and life-denying vision. Bob Dylan’s care in singing it should not be able to exist in the heart of the narrator he created.


So be very careful when talking about depression–anyone’s–and art. Dr Gachet and Highlands are precious and abiding things in the world that deliver pretty indelible experiences of the uniquely human ability to feel the world darkly and worthlessly.  To take these things as either symptoms, or as redemption is both all wrong. All they can do is give you a place to stand and for a moment feel that the disordered, dark, and worthless in here is somehow made of the same stuff as the precious and abiding out here. Hold that mystery. . .just one more moment…then as you were.


If I Can’t Work Up To You


This is Virupaksha, the Buddhist protector-deity who is the Guardian King of the West. He and his three brothers of the compass stand at the four corners of temples as sentinels and defenders. This Virupaksha no longer serves his temple and instead is himself safeguarded at the Rubin Museum on 17th street in Manhattan, where I encountered him during a class I took on Buddhism and Buddhist art. I learned in this class about the ritual that sacralizes a sculpture and transforms it from an object into a Being. It’s the moment the artist places the glass or stone eyes into the face of a piece of wood or metal or stone in the shape of a person-like creature. Eyes make Being.  It’s an elaborate and charged ritual; you can read about it.

I was attracted to the wooden Virupaksha in his glass house in the Rubin because he is larger than most of the sculptures in the museum, and uncharacteristically made of wood and also painted. From the side, with his head turned away from me, he looked a lot like Tenniel’s grotesque Duchess, fierce and big-bellied and big-headed.  His crown resembled her headdress. When I got close enough to angle round and see his face, I stopped being amused and curious and felt something else.  You can’t see it in this reproduction, but the glass eyes in the sculpture are almost taxidermy-grade realistic with milky whites and irises that are not blank brown discs but shaded like yours or mine, and the pupils are the right size. The naturalistic eyes would make an eerie enough impression on a realistic sculpture, and they suddenly do awaken this fantastic antique foreigner.  You have to make one of those visual-cognitive efforts that feels muscular–like switching figure and ground in those profile and vase figure-ground tricks–to remember that this glass can’t see you too, that this wooden sculpture is not looking and thinking.

One moment of seeing glass eyes seeing me, and I got a whiff of the effable threshold of the ineffable. The point for me was that denying sentience to the realism of those glass eyes was the act of will, albeit fleeting and conscious. Now, to continue manufacturing the illusion of sentience after that moment is revealed and it’s passed–that’s depleting and futile. The toil of manufacturing the ineffable and hammering it into the real is where I see the internal business of religious belief and the external business of religious ritual.


In life, for me, depleting and futile. But in art, I’m captivated feeling this work in action in the hands of strong artists. The most powerful religious art teaches us the concentration and ingenuity and ardor required to light on fire that effable threshold of the ineffable. I think this is the thrillingest extremity of imagination. So this brings us back to eyes. Above is a pair of downturned mortal eyes whose clabber is sentient and sightless, and the living center of the painting just as Virupaksha’s glass eyes were the living center of his wooden body.   It’s John Milton and those awful rolling orbs. I like to think he got dressed up nicely as he is here in order to dictate to his indentured daughters and didn’t just throw on some grimy stained dressing gown before he cleared his throat phlegmily and said “Where was I?”  There’s a lot of Paradise Lost in Tempest, but somehow I aim to get from Paradise Lost’s effable thresholds to the one in  Man Gave Names to All the Animals. 

diagrammedMilton has an extraordinarily difficult task in his poem besides the grand moral quest he set himself to justify the ways of God to man. Which famous quest, by the way, I think ends up a little disingenuous. The poem is one long lesson reminding me that reflection is not reality, and image is not truth–reminding me of the imperative difference between what I see before me, and what I discern with the God-implanted reason that needs no lamps…no eyes. Paradise Lost very well may justify the ways of a God to his creation named John Milton who, at 43, lost the ability to see anything at all of God’s other creations until his death 23 years later.


Milton’s other extraordinarily difficult task is artistic and really more interesting to me. He has to show an unfallen world with the language we have to make do with on the other side of the fall. I have to take in a plausible Adam and Eve, I have to believe in them and visualize Eden, before their corruption and I have to do this without the hideous pride of casting off my own inheritance of their corruption. I have to believe in Milton’s Adam and Eve and without making a terrible error:i.e.,  I can know them as they knew themselves before the fall.  For the religious reader this conundrum is a moral challenge, for me this problem is a most fascinating intellectual challenge.   How can Milton help me see that something I already consider a chimera is indeed a conundrum?   He will do it with English syntax and semantics as his little glass eyes. Here is a tiny sample of the parsing we do hundreds of times throughout the poem:

The key of this infernal pit by due,/And by command of heaven’s all-powerful King,/I keep; by him forbidden to unlock/These adamantine gates (Book II, 850-854; Sin)


. . .some great behest from heaven/To  us perhaps he brings. . .But go with speed,/And what they stores contain bring forth (Book IV, 311-314; Adam)


And with retorted scorn his back he turned/On those proud towers to swift destruction doom’d. (Book V, 906-7; Narrator referring to Abdiel)


Milton’s syntax is famously constructed of reversal and inversion, but something happens to me when I repeatedly must make order of subjects and predicates reversed, of prepositional phrases preceding the elements they’re modifying. Repeatedly, I wait to learn what I need to learn to trace meaning. Through these continual deferrals and suspensions of finding out what something is, or what something is doing, Milton disciplines me to a patience and and alertness unlike any other reading identity I can think of. But that’s not the point. This is a book about the problems of consciousness, it’s not a book that’s going to stop at cultivating my consciousness. Milton’s grammar gets at the quick of the difference between transparent immediate knowledge and the haze and labor of mediated constructed knowledge. The difference between Adam and Eve’s sweet untaxing husbandry of Eden’s fruits, and digging an irrigation ditch in the rain. It’s the difference between unfallen life and fallen life. Unmediated, Edenic apprehension of the way things are, and the tortuous straining to find out how things are here outside Eden. And so, without demanding that I accept a chimera as a real thing, without demanding that I *believe* in Adam or Eden, Milton makes me into a piece of his fiction and thus I feel for myself the world he’s created by living it through reading it. The effable threshold of the ineffable, via 9th grade grammar.

linnaeusHow nice to find that the man who did name all the animals, Linnaeus, had such a cheerful friendly face! As well he should–even in Bob Dylan’s song, before everything goes to hell (har har),  naming the animals is a fun activity. This is one of the songs whose lyrics, no matter how often I hear them, I never can remember–this is the bear? the bull?  On an album with phrases like “masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition,” or “surrender your crown on this bloodstained ground,” suddenly this writer can’t do better than descriptions of cows and pigs that would be laughed out of kindergarten. And that’s the point. For Adam, naming his companions in Eden is the same kind of wonderful play-work as gently untangling the vines. Adam delights in their growling and their not-too-short horns and the milk and wool–he doesn’t need to understand the animals any better than he does in the harmonious peaceable world he shares with them. And he gets to name each one! After his artless little observation of an animal, we hear the word coming up through the Adam’s own growling I, and emerges as something that simply rhymes with the last word of his description.  Here’s another animal….it’s not too big. . .big. . . it’ll be a . . .pig! How easy and fun is that!   In this game, we hear exactly what matters about  original unfallen speech: it’s embodied, immediate, and unambiguous. In Eden, the arbitrariness of language does not mask or confuse reality, instead what looks like the arbitrariness of “bull” or “sheep” is a creative, loving, ordering action, like naming a child.

pipeIn the last verse, the language changes and a new namer does the work, which is no longer immediate and playful.  Now the language is not childish and vague, it’s focused and artful. The sibilance in smooth/glass/grass/disappear represents the animal it describes. Slithering is quite many grade levels above the vocabulary in the previous verses and also participates in the sound portrait.  Even before I’m tricked at the very end, I know I’m in a world where language manipulates for effect, and traps me in its effects: as soon as I hear smooth as glass, I know what’s going on. This is not another barnyard pal, it’s not even an animal as the cow and bear are. I know who it is. And when he disappears, Adam does not name him–I do. If you listen to the last verse of Man Gave Names to All the Animals and do not speak in your mind or even out loud–I think I’ll call it a snake–then congratulations, you are uncorrupted and miraculously unfallen. But the rest of us finish the song because we occupy the world on the other side of that tree, we see the animal that’s disappeared, we already know its name, there’s no hope of an unbidden act of innocent creation from our throats. We hear this verse, and we feel immediately the trap of snake, we feel the word taking shape in our bodies. It is and always has to be snake, just as we feel the free fanciful play of rhyme burbling up Adam’s throat into bull and sheep. We’re stained with the knowledge Adam doesn’t have yet, and we can’t protect him from knowledge or fall, and every time we hear the song, we witness our own fall.

P1000056And now Bob Dylan has made me part of the myth of the fall, which is no more nor less real to me than the Sirens and Horatio, through manipulating the ordinary work I do paying attention to words and sentences, as Milton manipulates me to the same end. Look for these thresholds–they may be places where people who feel they have abysmally different visions of life and the world can meet each other, even if for only a moment.

[PS: The essay collection Bob Dylan and Philosophy has a valuable article on linguistics and theology in Man Gave Names. . by Ruvik Danieli and Anat Biletzki;  this book has a good deal of worthwhile reading in it and a sorry fact it is that it belongs to a series including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy. ]