Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, July 28, 2004


While camping in Canada last week I reread “The Counterfeiters,” Hugh Kenner’s odd and wonderful book of cultural criticism from 1968. In the book's epilogue from 1985, Kenner, who’s best known as Ezra Pound’s best explicator, says that “The Counterfeiters” was his favorite of his books (at least up to that time); that it had baffled librarians as to how to categorize a 150-page essay that threw Buster Keaton, 17th and 18th century poetry and prose, and artificial intelligence into the air and kept them all aloft with deft rhetorical juggling; and that he shared the librarians’ bafflement.

Nowadays we’d say it’s about the history of ideas, or the history of consciousness. (“Hiss con,” I heard it called when my friends studied it in grad school -- the only academic field to have a name to rival "cult studs.") Kenner would probably prefer “history of ideas,” since he observes that after the 17th century Cartesian revolution, poets no longer conceived of poems as being a representation of a man speaking, but of a consciousness observing.

The opposition of “a consciousness observing” and “a man speaking” helped me get at my Bob Dylan problem. As a teen-ager, 10 years after Bob’s glory years, I thrilled to the rock-rollin’ energy noise of his first classic folk-rock records -- loved the sound of the bands, loved the noise of his voice & harmonica. It was only later that I got into his words, and the satires blew me away -- still do. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is probably my favorite -- just an amazing song -- freaked out, funny, vivid and teeming. He’s the greatest epigrammatist of the 20th century, and a great satirist, and a great great singer, one of the great masters of phrasing and a wild innovator and experimenter in timbre. That said, I’m not much of a fan of his love songs, with some “Blood on the Tracks” exceptions, and some Tin Pan Alley-esque exceptions (“If Not For You”; “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”). Nor do I care for his hate songs, though they usually seem more inspired. “I love and I hate” summarizes the “I-Thou” field of the lyric mode, which is the genre of a person speaking par excellence. When Bob presents himself as a person speaking to another person (I love you, I hate you), more often than not I don’t like him. Nothing to do with his biography -- the “him” in his songs -- or the “I” -- is whom I don’t like. Richard Rodgers was said to have been an arrogant jerk; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Johnny Mercer are reported to have been mean drunks -- but in their works they sway me with their charm charm charm -- charm and wit and beauty. And it’s not that I recoil against hate songs per se; hate is real stuff; but when Bob’s contemptuous I almost always get the impression that his disdain and anger are out of proportion to the offense. But Dylan’s consciousness -- his smarts, his insight, his doesn’t-miss-a-thing vision -- well, that spectackles me, in the satires. The observing consciousness in the contempt songs is mightily impressive too -- “Like a Rolling Stone” is brilliant, but the meanness tires me; and “Idiot Wind” is brilliant too, and for once the contempt ends up leavened with compassion and self-examination.

The only Bob album I listen to much is “Self-Portrait,” where he nakedly reveals the maskishness of his masks. When in his cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” his smooth “Lay Lady Lay” voice duets with his raspy “The Times They Are A-Changin’” voice, it sends me. The man is an artist. Dylan wrote songs I love more than anything on “S-P,” but none of his other albums stand up as albums for me. On “S-P,” he honestly presents himself as a chameleon and a con. It’s his free-est record.

When the post-17th century Cartesian dissociated consciousness splits off from a person’s whole humanity, the heart, the emotions, and the imaginative sympathy can get left behind. Kenner’s “Counterfeiters” gives plenty of examples of resulting poetical catastrophes, mostly borrowed from Kenner’s acknowledged inspiration, Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee’s amusing 1930 collection “The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse.” What the dissociated consciousness observes are dissociated facts. Hence Kenner’s title: once the Cartesian consciousness reduces experience to a more-or-less comprehensive collection of facts and behaviors, a person, according to the Cartesians, becomes counterfeitable. Kenner argues that humanity goes deeper than observable facts and behaviors -- the wellsprings of imagination and desire-for-learning and emotion lie beneath what the eye can see. Kenner makes some by-the-way allusions to Cicero’s definition of humanity as bound up in culture and learning and sympathy and character. These asides reveal his book to be surreptitious philosophy: he loves wisdom.

Dylan in his songs doesn’t reduce people to observable facts and behaviors, but too often his songs fail in sympathy and humanity. For me, he’s the Picasso of rock -- brilliant and shattering and showing a deep mean streak. I love him when his humanity breaks through his arrogance and cruelty; I love him for bringing surrealism into rock; I love him for his singing and for his mid-’60s bandleading. He’ll do fine without my unconditional love.

While thinking about this I googled Kenner and learned he died last November at the age of 80. I’m glad I read his book in Canada, because he was Canadian. RIP, and thanks for the great read.

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