by carl wilson

It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Blogging)

John Turtletop continues the Dylanorama today. Because he's called out some heavy gunships - hey, hey, Jan Kott is my homeboy, John - we'll carry on, but you have to be careful with this stuff. If Chronicles tells us anything, it's: Don't feed the Dylanologists, man, they'll chew off yer arm.

John says: "I think he overstates when he says that Dylanís latching onto the strongest images in a politically engaged story 'is not how a political person thinks'."

Are you really saying a political person thinks the best way to write a song meant to help get a guy off death row is to start with the most vivid image of the prisoner committing a series of brutal rapes? No, a political person would start with a vivid image of the gas chamber he's condemned to. Or a vivid image of the guy's deprived childhood. Anything but those red lights. It's the songwriter who knows the red lights would be the best way to make a myth and lets the moral fall where it may.

Comparing that to the kind of stagecraft we saw at the Republican clusterfuck in August illustrates in soaking wet red paint just how far apart from convention-al politics Dylan is. [...]

More plausibly John says: "if we apply a deeds-not-words approach to ethics in our view of Dylanís activist period, we see that Dylan took part in the 1963 March on Washington and played for free with Pete Seeger at a concert sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi as part of their voter registration drive."

If I wanted to be glib I'd say, hey, these were good gigs. But no, I agree Dylan went to these events wholeheartedly on-side with their causes. But this kind of engagement was a product of where he was at and the people he found himself surrounded by and the irresistible drama of these causes, which were clearly ones that called out for a singer, for a bard, to write the songs that would usher them into that other reality, the folk-song reality, in which Dylan was most fully immersed and alive. The politics were real but always secondary.

You'd be misreading me if you thought I was saying Dylan didn't - and doesn't - believe in anything. Or even that he is not a person intrigued and compelled by politics, and much more so one who is moved and outraged by injustice. I think he is all of that. I just think that he saw (and maybe sees) them through a scrim that his audience mostly didn't get, as events within what Greil Marcus calls The Invisible Republic (a phrase Dylan adopts and endorses in Chronicles, and so much better a phrase than "the old, weird America," to which Marcus dumbed-down his book title in paperback). The invisible republic being the mythopoetic America of Pretty Boy Floyd and Jesse James and Paul Bunyan, the folk-song parallel universe Dylan discusses at great length in the book. So I'm suggesting that when he sang Hard Rain he understood and cared about its relevance to the nuclear threat, for instance, but just as real to him was the "blue-eyed son" to whom every verse is addressed, that character out of old Scottish ballads, and the pagan-biblical mystic he went out into "where black is the color, where none is the number."

And finally, John says, "the opposition of 'political contexts' and 'ever-rearranging puzzles' remains unnecessary, although puritanical activists and disengaged aesthetes would disagree with me" - which almost got me feeling busted. (Till then I got confused which one I am - maybe a disengaged activist? or a puritanical aesthete?) But no, the point is - work like Dylan's or Willie the Shake's is ever-rearranging to suit different political contexts, it adapts itself to varied perspectives, to radically altered times - and this is not to say it's not political. It's just to say that its creators' eye for the knit of politics into reality was broader, perhaps, than their audiences were or are or could be at any given time, which renders them ever our contemporaries.*

To turn Jan Kott back on John in most unsporting fashion, here's a bit from the great Polish theatre critic that works well as a portrait in plain D., not of an apolitical man but as artist for whom politics quickly become something supersized from politics - who may start by watching the cannonballs fly but always ends up staring into the wind. Lazy critics are always counterposing the "trickster" image of Dylan to the "protest" image, but in any cosmology, culture or creative work worth a tinker's damn, that's really no opposition at all:

The Fool ... does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good. Lear, insisting on his fictitious majesty, seems ridiculous to him. All the more ridiculous because he does not realise how ridiculous he is. But the Fool does not desert his ridiculous, degraded king, and accompanies him on his way to madness. The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognize this world as rational. - Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary

* Edited to add: Not to forget our recent Derrida dalliance, you can argue that all songs, all texts, inevitably work that way. But not all so easily, so insistently, so richly gladly beyond.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 21 at 01:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


Zoilus by Carl Wilson