[lit-ideas] Re: Anisotropic Time: It was 47 Years Ago Almost Today

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 1 Sep 2012 13:12:20 +0100 (BST)

 From: David Ritchie <profdritchie@xxxxxxxxx>
"Now he [Dylan] sounds like a Rolling Stone singing Immanuel Kant."

>Searched my memory banks, trying to make sense of this metaphor.  Nope. 

Imo, David is right to treat this metaphor with caution. Its sense is perhaps 
no more than this (a) Kant = something profound and difficult and abstruse 
intellectually, so it is like those oiks in the Rolling Stones singing 
something intellectually profound etc. (b) there is something incongruous about 

It is a poor metaphor if taken seriously, for in H61R Dylan is not seeking to 
be more profound, difficult or abstruse intellectually than the folk and blues 
tradition from which he is drawing his strength:- though widely thought, it is 
more a matter of appearance than reality if Dylan appears to express himself in 
a difficult or abstruse way - for while he is more difficult and abstruse than 
the typical 'popular song', he is not much more abstruse than folk or blues, 
since the reality is that folk and blues often work with a kind of coded 
language that is perhaps not clear to the uninitiated (a particularly ripe 
example is how sexual desire and mores and acts are expressed, even in 
something as innocent sounding as Hares On The Mountain; a ballad like Matty 
Groves is a typically coded critique of the loveless hypocrisy and cruelty of 
the powers-that-be). Dylan takes this to further levels of complexity and 
development of form and expression, framing his
 language in the codes of contemporary slang and 'cultural references'; but it 
is a mistake to take his POV as intellectually superior, or seeking to be - it 
is more a matter of artistic and moral development of the form. The achievement 
of H61R remains artistic and moral rather than intellectual.

For example, to view Like A Rolling Stone as Dylan speaking down from a 
position of intellectual superiority [a common impression] is to mistake the 
POV of that song which is that everyone is like a complete unknown, on their 
own, a rolling stone etc. [i.e. the outlook of ancient folk and blues is here 
correct]; and the excoriated mistake - moral and intellectual - is to think you 
are or should be one of the "pretty people, drinkin', thinkin' they got it 
made". Throughout H61R Dylan uses the persona of a cynical streetwise hipster 
to attack cynicism and hipsterism as well as a host of other false idols; to 
unmask that "you're just like me/I hope you're satisfied" as he put it later in 
Memphis Blues. One of the reasons Dylan's view remains fresh is that, at the 
point he was the most important single voice of the counter-culture, he was 
railing against the counter-culture's own self-importance, pretension, 
self-deception and snobbery - as much as against
 the straitjacket, hypocrisy and corruption of straight society. What is 
intellectually alert, and morally alert, is that Dylan's art confronts how 
difficult it is not be corrupted either from within or without - and in this 
way these songs are politically more serious than some of his earlier protest 
songs in avoiding the suggestion that there are pat solutions to our problems 
or that moral wrongs arise from a 'them' being bad to 'us' etc. We might debate 
whether Dylan paints in an overly pessimistic way on H61R, but at least he 
cannot be accused of naive optimism or finger-pointing.

Among the things that happened was that Dylan's impact led to 'message-hunting' 
in his lyrics of a vain kind ["Who is Mr. Jones?" etc.], and that a song like 
Desolation Row offered much more material for the poseur than How Much Is That 
Doggy In The Window? [albeit post-modernism may have led the poseur to latterly 
argue Doggy is in fact better, on every level, than Row]. These things weren't 
Dylan's fault and they cut against both the intent and immense achievement that 
is H61R, which happened to be in the eye of fashion but was putting a POV that 
was against the fashionable, the "phoney" and the corruption of chasing false 
idols. Michael Gray's description gets it right in pointing out how Dylan was 
allying the poetic power of folk and blues idioms with the raw energy of rock 
and roll: it was a great alliance but no one had done it before and no one has 
surpassed it. At a time when many self-imposed barriers existed in music, it 
opened the door to many
 other important 'alliances' that came after [some also became fashions] from 
psychedelia to country-rock to punk. What is staggering is how 
undated/contemporary H61R seems: from its opening salvo against the complacency 
of its likely audience to a world where merchants "heave their plastic" or the 
"blind commisioner" has "one hand..in his pants". 

That last line is from Desolation Row which begins:-

They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor's filled with sailors
The circus is in town

Whether this is poetry or not, it is better use of language than the vast 
majority of poetry: to those who feel it is sixth-form poetasting and clumsy 
surrealism, they should at least know it moves from historical fact when it 
speaks of "selling postcards of the hanging", as indeed they did at the last 
lynching near to where Bob Dylan grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota. Not so 
incongruous then.

Almost losing his thread

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