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

Tuesday, October 19, 2004


I agree with Carl Wilson of Zoilus: “A writer friend of mine says she wishes she could lie to interviewers, give them legend rather than the literal, but her guile fails her. Bob Dylan's never did: This Tricksterman's untruths were truer than true, the exact reverse of a politician's platitudes.” Carl’s review of Dylan’s new book, “Chronicles,” is one of the best things I’ve read about Dylan. It elegantly insists on Dylan’s tricksterism.

Alex Ross confirms a belief in his half of a Slate e-mag dialogue on the book: “On page after page he's sitting back and watching others. He himself is often merely an incidental character in the narrative.”

On July 28 (you have to scroll down) I wrote a post called “My Bob Dylan,” which started out by discussing a book I had just read by the literary essayist Hugh Kenner, in which “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.”

Both Carl and Alex are persuasive that Bob’s consciousness contains more loving sympathy towards his fellow sojourners than I had come to believe from the songs.

Given Dylan’s deep tricksterism, Carl’s question about the sincerity of Dylan’s political period is more vexed than such questions usually are. I’d bet he was a good sincere liberal activist for the time that he was. Woody Guthrie was his God -- no exaggeration -- scroll down and check out his virtuoso poem written about the same time as his political songs. The recording of his recitation of his poem shows Dylan was a kick-ass slammer 25 years ahead of time. It also shows that his worship of Woody misses Woody’s point. Woody had a healthy ego, but he believed in the people, individually and collectively. The Dylan of this poem believed in Woody. It represents an enormous diminishment in scope, in the Harold Bloom-ian sense, if not in talent. My hunch is Dylan did the political thing -- sometimes brilliantly and always hugely influentially -- because Woody had. Sincere, but not really him. “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” he sang in his disavowal of politics. In 1964!

Nobody should be surprised at Dylan’s vast booksmarts. In my July 28 post I called him “the greatest epigrammatist of the 20th century,” meaning, the greatest I know of. (2nd thoughts -- ONE of the greatest. e. e. cummings would have to be in there. I’m sure there are others.) It’s lines like these that I was thinking of -- a brilliant literary epigram:

And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow

Pound’s life’s work, the “Cantos,” opens with a quote from the Odyssey, the original of which features a beautiful love nymph named Calypso. Eliot’s greatest poetic bombshell, “The Wasteland,” is based largely on the myth of the impotent Fisher King, and his number 2 bombshell, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” closes with the narrator despairing that the mermaids, whom he has seen and heard singing, will not sing to him, and were he to swim with them, human voices would wake him and he would drown. Dylan’s six lines skewers Eliot’s decadent despair -- life is teeming, the wasteland is blooming, music abounds, and the mermaids are lovely -- and, worse, Ezra and T. S. could have known all of this had they stopped bickering and climbed out of their tower.

Well, when it comes out in paperback, I’m sure I’ll enjoy Dylan’s book. He’s always been a rippin’ beat proser.

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