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

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Carl Wilson is no doubt right when he argues that even Dylan’s political songs show more concern with aesthetic values than political effectiveness, but I think he overstates when he says that Dylan’s latching onto the strongest images in a politically-engaged story “is not how a political person thinks.”

Are aesthetic concerns opposed to political concerns? Political aesthetes always consider the most effective aesthetic presentation of their politics. The Republican convention proved that, if nothing else. Their statescraft people repeatedly evince cluelessness, but the Repubs got some wily stagecrafts people.

Carl disagrees with my assertion last night that Dylan was a “good sincere liberal activist for the time that he was,” and his rebuttal makes me rue that unknowable word “sincere” -- again, with Dylan, less knowable than with most. But if we apply a deeds-not-words approach to ethics in our view of Dylan’s 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. These are the actions of a good liberal activist, regardless of aesthetic ambitions, or sincerity -- this is not a disengaged aesthete.

Carl’s more subtle argument that Dylan always viewed his “political” or “topical” or “engaged” songs as “the first lilypad when he wanted to hop skip and jump across the Styx” is evocative of what may have been Dylan’s vision at the time. It’s an interesting thesis, that Dylan’s vision was there in potentia from the beginning. I used to know the great poet Alice Notley, back when I was a poetry student, and I remember her arguing with another student in somebody’s kitchen during that week that she was on our campus, that we should love Dylan’s Christian period too, because any great artist infuses their whole being into each work, from any period. Not quite the same as Carl’s argument, but similar. I don’t really agree, though part of me wishes I did. The fatalistic visions of “Memphis Blues Again” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” suggest that Dylan might.

And while Carl is certainly right that many people may “forget whatever political contexts Shakespeare’s plays come from, obvious as they once might have been, and take them for the ever-rearranging puzzles that they are,” the opposition of “political contexts” and “ever-rearranging puzzles” remains unnecessary, although puritanical activists and disengaged aesthetes would disagree with me. The wealthy English Marxist Terry Eagleton and the late anti-Communist Polish activist Jan Kott got my back.

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