Cadillacs and Owls
By Richard Marshall.
Bob Dylan Tempest, Columbia 2012
‘Magical activity is a kind of dynamo supplying the mechanism of practical life with the emotional current that drives it. A society that thinks that it has outlived its need for magic is either mistaken in that opinion or else it is a dying society, perishing for lack of interest in its own maintenance.’ – R.G. Collingwood
Bob Dylan gives popular music a sense that it is serious and not ‘a matter of courtesy.’ If the following fragments are just sensations, then I’m going to be prone to illusions. But if I start making judgements then I’m going to get things wrong. Such are the risks. Robert Bresson said that an actor draws from himself what is not really there. This is the condition of the artist working in the unrealised future. ‘Unrealised future’ is what originality gestures towards. It’s when you stop listening to the same thing over and over again. All of Dylan is the event that happens if you never hear a piece of music more than once. His solution has been not to imitate anyone. He rather uses comparisons to untie worlds. His voice is a fugitive. If asked whether Beethoven looked like a musician Dylan might drawl, ‘Of course she didn’t.’
Dylan’s ghost America is its future where beauty is skin deep in places where people have to exit twice to leave a shadow. And it’s all about beauty. To outwit potential forgers, he might keep changing his signature, on the principle that you can always make things a little worse and sell at a higher price. Dylan’s single gesture is to avoid triviality, first and last, so as to clear the ground for the future. Of course these days,as ever, no good deed remains unpunished.
If sociology is the history of the present then folk songs are obituaries. Religion is the world’s way of corrupting the spirit and created man out of its own offal. Some have tested whether religion has a biological value. Navajo Indians believe coyotes sing the world into existence. Dylan’s flavour of provincialism is both in that and his simple prosodic wakefulness to Elvis who knew that being modern is just about twisting. ‘Long and Wasted Year’ nails the matter.
Tempest is a story pretending to be an object, and vice versa. It’s title gives you a clue to what shape the songs are in, at the very least. You know what he’s saying, you really do, but you can’t tell it. It’s like, ‘how can you tell your left from your right in the dark?’ Dylan’s using an alphabet of 63 letters. This means he says more even though, curiously he uses no new words. But it gives him greater powers of discretion by having to expand what stays unsaid. Dylan wakes up the future because it is always beginning somewhere in his mind.
The first Romantic elements of poetry in America cover more fluid dates than its British counterparts. After the Revolutionary War the first generation poets made Romanticism visible. A contrast between these early pioneers and their British counterparts was the American’s focus on the vast new landscapes. In Britain the French Revolution and the Reform Acts of 1832 were redefining a political and cultural landscape in dramatic and unpredictable ways. Rapid industrialisation was the deeper setting for these struggles as Britain began to develop its technological base that would transform it into a world power. War with post-Revolutionary France – with Napoleon an iconic and divisive figure for British intellectuals and poets – and the emancipation of the Catholics granting religion freedom were important features of this time.
The great poets of these times in Britain were central to the formation of a peculiar self consciousness. Keats’ ‘Fall of Hyperion’, Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ stripped down to the naked imagination and its process. Keats describes the moment of ‘negative capability’ in a letter.
‘I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.’
So ‘Negative Capability’ is that state of the imagination that lives with uncertainty and strife. It’s a quality of a certain tribe of poets. Keats writes of Dilke, not of the tribe but rather ‘…a man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his mind about everything. The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts, not a select party. The genus is not scarce in population: all the stubborn arguers you meet are of the same brood. They never begin on a subject they have not pre-resolved on. They never begin on a subject they have not pre-resolved on. They want to hammer their nail into you, and if you turn the point, they still think you are wrong. Dilke will never come at a truth so long as he lives, because he is always trying at it. He is a Godwin methodist.’ The Godwin Methodist is a preferred mode for our scorched days.
Keats, in ‘Sleep and Poetry’ writes: ‘ …I must pass them for a nobler life / Where I may find the agonies, the strife / of human hearts.’ Milton, of the same tribe, writes: ‘She disapeared, and left me dark: I waked / To find her, or for ever to deplore / Her loss, and other pleasures all abjure.’ Dante writes his Comedia whereby reading it becomes a spiritual quest journeying through the uncertainty and illusions of a cold mysterious desert.
Dylan rewrites Dante as a type of Orasmus Turner life cycle, the woodsman thing, a rapid eye movement that gave you the essence of pioneer life – kids arriving, neighbours, a railroad getting laid – four intervals – six months, two years, ten years and then a lifetime all coming into his head in a great water chute of energy – like, if you don’t know where you’re going then all roads are going there – mills, water-powered, single-bladed, and friction feeds, edgers, drying kilns, logs hauled to the river’s edge, splash dams, slender logs, crooked logs, rotten logs, sunken logs fished up from the river bottom, beams that made railway bridges, rafters in Gothic cathedrals, shingles, spools, pail handles, veneers, wooden furniture pegs, hemlock bark for the tannery, combing brains for reclamation, trees, doors, blinds, sashes, massive stumps, steep slopes, firewood, furnaces, charcoal, Hanging Rock, Allegheny Valley, Juniata, Scioto, Jackson, Vinton Counties, Ramapos Mountains, steamboats, steam engines, steam locomotives, where to imagine America without trees is to imagine another world. In this is ‘Scarlet Town’, his damned Titanic, New York, everything.
Memory and the soul collide in Dylan. Memory draws us back into time when the soul seeks release. The great tension in Dylan is awareness of the time coming where time ends. His consciousness of the history of this process is of ‘Two trains running side by side, forty miles wide… I think when my back was turned the whole world burned… we cried because our souls were torn, so much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years.’ There is a flicker of Burke’s warning. He warned: ‘ … people will not look forward to posterity who never look back to their ancestors.’ Dylan’s ancestral Lithuanian proverb adds: ‘Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye. Ignore the past and you lose both of them.’ It reaches to the splendid abundance and infinite melancholy of Gatsby wherein Fitzgerald wakes us to ‘ … the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.’ In ‘Tempest’ that same green is a dress Mary is wearing near midnight where a two-timer is dating the Fairy Queen.
Complex contradictions circle us in Dylan. The new landscape, a new revolution of sensibility, its great moment in America of transcendentalism as in Thoreau, Emerson and Fuller and the strange unconventional religion of Blake, Coleridge, Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, all occupy the past. So a mixture of Romanticism and Transcendentalism via catholic and non-conformist Protestantism is an ancestry of Dylan’s future capitol.
In an earlier epic, Dylan links through rhyme the industrialised power of a transcendent USA with its brand new Roman republic through the Great Coulee Damn and Washington’s Capitol in ‘Idiot Wind’. In ‘Scarlet Town’ Uncle Tom’s still working, running crimson lines in a bloody thread of evil that runs through this Edenic vision and calls up Hannah Moore and Olaudah Equiano and the governance of slavery, racism and desolated class war.
The Zen nun Ryonen of the transcendentalist times wrote ‘Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing / scene of autumn / I have said enough about moonlight, / Ask no more. / Only listen to the voice of pines and cedars when no / wind stirs.’ Memory is a virtue of history but a danger. It draws everything into time. Dylan’s potent sound is moving on burning bright and rolling on, looking to the future that obliterates time by clearing away the past. Like Empodocles Dylan sings: ‘I am an exile from the gods, a wanderer, placing my trust in MAD STRIFE.’ Adoring Aphrodite, he is wary of Aphrodite’s trap. Aphrodite’s trap was harmony. In one of the songs the protagonist roars ‘Our nation must be saved and freed’.
The deep romantic chasm in Dylan expresses the unsettling changes rendered in his recovery and invention of a national identity. Dylan is nothing if not a poet of empire. His creativity moves a direct commerce in this realm along with Shakespeare, another empire man. When the European neo-classicists compared Racine with Shakespeare it was a fundamental distinction. The great rationalist aestheticisms of Germany looked to the French classicist as the embodiment of an Aristotelian rational art. Reason conquers and fills the universe with its light.
But Shakespeare was hearing the Duquesne whistle blowing, ‘Blowing like she ain’t gonna blow no more…Blowing like the sky is gonna blow apart.’ That reckless sense of dark unconstrained powers is the insane passion and desire that rings Renaissance England with Carolingian America in its sublime crown of strife. It is the ‘Idiot Wind’ that blows through. Dylan here records both the sense that there may never again be such poetry and also the awesome, sublime moment when poetry expresses itself. The condition of poetry’s glory buckles to the drama of its time and place its gilded monstrosity. Dylan’s voice has never sounded more apt and bold.
Shakespeare, at the height of his powers found his power coinciding with the potency of Elizabethan nationhood. In his doubling intelligence, he wrote into the teeth of impending doom: Empire’s fall. This link, between everything and nothing, is clear where the potency of the land and place is clasped by the poet. The Duquesne whistle is both being born and is busy dying in the opening song, ‘sounding like she’s on a final run…’, ‘blowing like she’s never blowed before.’ It’s still there blowing right through to the end. Dylan stares at the ruins of what had been one of the largest blast furnaces in the world, a symbol of the industrial muscle that marked the USA’s domination of the whole world and sees in it a sign of a coming end, where the empire falls and the promise of its originality too. The Titanic metaphor is a hundred American chances going under.
Aristotlealian notions of the tragic were exploded by Shakespeare and Spencer et al. The world explodes when reason admits there’s too much for it. Escaping from the formal constraints of Reasons’ classical shadows, Blake and Keats created literary forms that are epic in scope but modern in form and found their model in the example of the great republican poet Milton.
Dylan has nourished himself on just such meat. The ‘Early Roman Kings’ are both one of the gangs of New York and also the Miltonic Roman Republic epic form of ‘Paradise Lost’. America has this spirit yolked to its expansive, bloody, empire-soaked self consciousness. Whitman’s ‘Song Of Myself’ and Melville’s Moby-Dick swim through the hell and slaughter of this kind of poetry. There’s ‘all the nobility of an ancient race’ deep and settled in Dylan’s work.
The authentic voice is more complex and tricky than it is sometimes taken to be. Dylan is often written about as if merely nostalgic, or attempting to return to history to find a voice modernity has lost. But this is to ignore the fakery that is authentic to this tradition of revolutionary voices and newness, a fakery that haunts itself with elegiac voices that were sprung from contemporary traps. Consider the case of James MacPherson’s translation of the ancient Scots poet Osian in the 1760s that were influential on Goethe and Thomas Jefferson. Consider ‘Fingal’ translated from ancient Gaelic. Romanticised Celtic and Scots poems of mythic origins were invented to feed the Romantic mood and the nation builders need for heroic history. An invented history avoids the traps of truth. Sir Walter Scot invented tartan as ancient Scots gear. Clan colours are all fakes of nineteenth century tourism.
It is an error to misunderstand this as betrayal of authenticity. This fakery is a short cut, revealing what the authentic sign hopes for. It functions to paint the scenery of your mind. Consciousness of the Genocide of the native Americans has largely been overcome by using a faked authentic vision of America as empty when the Europeans arrived. The empty landscape was faked up as an Eden, contrasting it with the cynical, tired and ancient sophistications of teeming Europe. Shelley’s ‘Ozymandius’, Keats’ ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’, Byron’s ‘Curse of Minerva’ frame a romantic consciousness in relation to a ruined empire. If Dylan’s epic title song ‘Tempest’ is nothing else, it is here that it finds its companion pieces. America’s built on the blood of old civilisations wiped out by its new original men. Coming from the East and then spreading down, and from the South, up through Mexico the original men destroyed the genuine originals.
This is the secret in the land, that everything is based on that. So too the civil war, and the African slaves, like the Jews in Europe, and all the anti-labour stuff, it places a burden on speech, on thought, on joy. There’s a price needs paying yet. America the beautiful has a lot to own up to. And the crushing of the working figure, the millions of blue collar workers, the proletariat, eaten alive to despair in the heart of the new world but fed the Great American Dream in compensation. What are these slaves, the vast millions, the poor and hungry and destitute? Nuclear canaries? ‘Tempest’ is spleen.
In it, the USA is like that great angry ape playing fantastic tricks before high heaven to make angels weep, as Shakespeare almost said, ‘angels who would with our spleens all themselves laugh mortal.’ The ruined industrial landscape Dylan travels through here is where the empire’s powers betray the dreams of its own. Poor Americans are victims of a dirty State power where politicians pump out the piss and angry beggars blow kisses. Dylan’s ire is complete: his America is at once the hope of originality and Blake’s forest of the night.
There’s never been a moment when all the secrets get revealed in Dylan. The whole scene is given over as mystical secret, a bargain of the spirit. Indians in New Mexico didn’t complain when whipped by the Spanish priests. You figure why? Priests used to whip themselves too. Whipped themselves hard enough to draw their own blood. So they reckoned there was a truth in what the priests were up to. This is the kind of interpretative justice we might give, like in ‘Scarlet Town’, paying in blood (but someone else’s). The humour here is dark and dry. And integrity beyond just the usual process, beyond mankind, the body, ordinary pain and language is fashioned with loose and lovely ingenuity. And so ‘Que no haya novedades’ – secrets were to be kept – ‘let nothing new arise.’ That’s what is happening in these hollered terrifying and gorgeous songs.
The locus classicus of this imagination, one seeking the land beyond the corruption of dying empires, old ways, long and dreadful hours, is in the sublimity of landscape. As if we might have forgotten the role of landscape and his imagination Dylan again has signaled his understanding of this. He draws together the notion of the sublimity of a nature that overpowers and is too much for human civilization and history with both the history of his own empire and his own consciousness. Like Wordsworth on Snowdon, Shelley on Mount Blanc, Whitman by Blue Ontario shore, Turner as Vesuvius explodes, Dylan’s poems roam out in a way Shelley saw in Byron: ‘Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong / They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’ In the use of rhyme and slippery, sly humour and his own status as not quite a poet but something like one, he approaches the saturnalian reputation of Byron playing with the Byronic flavor that there’s always something marvelously inauthentic there. In Dylan’s arsenic music, especially his reaching back to days of American yore, he’s breaking free.
Is this possible? Even to imagine it? There are precedents. Thomas Chatterton, the ‘marvelous boy’, forged a medievalism that inspired Wordsworth to write ‘Revolution and Independence’. Chatterton’s suicide and the cult of genius unconstrained and natural isn’t something that directly announces its trickery, if trickery is indeed what it is. Ballads and songs from rural backwaters and the link to labouring classes is of course the ground of Burns, Clare, Bloomfield, Hogg whose reputations are those of primitives working with untutored genius and sublime sensibility. Blake’s revolutionary supernaturalism burns bright in this too, and its no surprise to find him and his ‘Tyger’ surfacing in the last song to John Lennon, one where Lennon is encoded in an elemental and sublime code of honour, understood as a fallen hero grasped as an unpolished, rooted in ancient elements that burn out all civilised history. Those seeking a historical reanactment of mourning will be baffled, mistaking Dylan for someone else. Dylan is working like Keats in ‘Lamia’: ‘Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings.’
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 28th, 2012.