Aestheticism and Faith: the Bob Dylan Case
Jerry L. Sherman, Ph.D.
Could you ever be true?
I think of you
and I wonder
Why do the most gifted and creative among us tend to resist God's truth so effectively? And if they do respond to it, why do they often fall away mid-course? In particular, why did Bob Dylan embrace Christianity in his music and his life but soon turn away and cease to bear witness to the Lord, both as a song writer and as a public figure? In 1979 through 1981 Bob Dylan made three explicitly Christian albums, but none since, and in a 1997 Newsweek interview he could not be pinned down on spiritual matters but said, "I believe the songs." How did the gospel he experienced so vividly seemingly lose its grip on him?
His own answer is instructive: he believes the songs he is creating, and now he is not creating Christian songs. Art makes it hard to hold on to truth, because it has a will of its own. I want to expand on this theme through an examination of what I call Aestheticism, which is a life style, a pathology, and a world view very common in the Twentieth Century and exemplified in Dylan. Aestheticism does not just inhibit faith but interferes with commitment and can even make personal identity a slippery thing, so that Dylan is one of the most difficult people in public life for the public to know. Possibly he has difficulty knowing himself. Yet any aesthete necessarily puts himself on exhibit, not directly, but aesthetically, so there is a huge amount we can know about Bob Dylan and his faith or the lack of it by listening to his music. I believe there is quite a surprising untold story that has been sung over the past two decades. It will show not only how aestheticism does its paralyzing work but how genuine faith can ultimately pierce the aesthete's armor and set him free.
Aestheticism is a life style, a pathology, and a world view. I first heard of it as a life style when I was a sixties college kid in Madison, Wisconsin, and a psychiatrist on the faculty-Seymour Halleck, if I am remembering rightly-said that we students were "stylists." We did not care so much what we accomplished but how it looked and felt. This of course would make it hard for us to make commitments. The aesthetic lifestyle becomes pathological when extreme. There was a period in my life when I saw myself as a character in a novel I was writing. I was already a Christian then, and I did not sink too deeply into that self-removal, but art was definitely not helping me to cope with what really mattered in life, for instance the marriage that would fail in a few years. Art and wine and light drugs were all culprits in my failure to engage with life and other people, and the chemicals were serving the art. I see this non-engagement around me now, as in the student in "Contemporary Moral Issues" who told me how he sits back in class with a smile and takes in the irony of our discussions. Are we dealing with important social issues or putting on a show? For him it is a show, to be aesthetically enjoyed for its irony. The world has seen the worst of this problem in Kierkegaard's "Mr. A," in "The Diary of a Seducer" from Either-Or. He was totally amoral while toying with the aesthetic possibilities of his actions.
Aestheticism as a world view appears in Friedrich Nietzsche, especially his early Birth of Tragedy. In section 9, he writes, "The artist's delight in what becomes, the cheerfulness of artistic creation that defies all misfortune, is merely a bright image of clouds and sky mirrored in a black lake of sadness." Note the "merely": aesthetic cheerfulness lacks truth value; the sadness is the truth of the matter. Still, art is what justifies life and all that can justify it. Earlier in section 9 he writes, "the bright image projections of the Sophoclean hero . . . are necessary effects of a glance into the inside and terrors of nature; as it were, luminous spots to cure eyes damaged by gruesome night." The point is made broadly in the fact that existentialism sees reality in a negative way but sees it beautifully. We humans put value into a meaningless reality by our brave attitudes toward our disillusionment, and these attitudes become beautiful for us, perhaps only because we narcissistically enjoy our own image as those who have stood up so well to such torture. Usually, though, we need art, our own gifts or those of others, to put a lovely facade across our misery. Intellectuals can make everything perpetually interesting, if not beautiful, and we can all buy beautifully sad songs.
At the bottom of aestheticism there is a kind of alienation. This word is used in many ways in existentialism and related Twentieth Century mindsets, but it works well as a Christian idea: the world looks so bad and needs artistic repair because we are alienated from its goodness. It is good, but something in us keeps us from perceiving its goodness. But the existentialist would say it is not good and we must cover it over with a goodness we create. So there is an argument over who gets blamed for the way the world is and who gets the credit for saving it. People on both sides of the argument might use the word alienation, but only the Christian is likely to see it as our fault. If we do see alienation as our problem, then we are on the way to having it cured, but the other point of view produces a stand-off between us and God. We know there is a problem, but we can't see that we are the problem, so the problem is left for us to solve, which is impossible. Aestheticism steps in at this point; art assuages us and gives us a sense of control while keeping heart issues at arm's length. When aestheticism tempts a Christian, the existentialist way of blaming God is probably at work, perhaps just psychologically, as narcissism or self-pity. A problem within oneself is being dodged, while the negatives of life and one's brave response to them are beautifully painted.
Two other Nietzschean concepts enter into this problem, suspicion and deconstruct. Nietzsche takes the argument over the source of evil and its solution to a new level. For him our artistic re-creation is the only way to redeem life, and he would claim, furthermore, that if you see goodness in life, then you are not aware of how you have placed that construct upon it yourself, and he is pleased to inform you of this, to disillusion you regarding your cheery world view. This is called Nietzschean suspicion. Since Kant, it has been possible to find a human element in what were once thought objective realities, and Nietzschean suspicion sees the human will, the will to power, behind cherished things like morality, which we thought was an objective feature of reality. To discern the will's constructive action behind such realities is to deconstruct them, that is, to show that they are in fact constructs of ours, which means we cannot trust them as we did.
Now, Nietzsche did not exactly deconstruct art, because it was his final refuge, a part of life he loved rather than scorned. But he did admit that art does not tell the truth about reality, which really is negative, no matter how well we recreate it in art. And so he did in principle make it possible to deconstruct the aesthetic experience, that is, to see our beautiful construing of things as our work, rather than as contact with an objective reality. In this way, aestheticism becomes a two-edged sword of deadly power. First it blocks us from faith by making our alienated state bearable; then, if we do reach out for a transcendent reality like the grace of God, it can soon tell us that we did not contact anything at all, but we did it ourselves, we made it up. The confirming experience is seen aesthetically, as an experience, and it loses its authority. This is exactly what I think has happened with Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan is not a philosopher, and the remarks above about aestheticism and alienation are not ideas he consciously expresses. But they do describe a pattern that can be discerned in his work. For him, though, theological alienation is a dim motif on the fringes of his songs, while he sings with amazing directness about social alienation. Dylan is known as a prophet of youth rebellion, but he is far more a prophet of tortured relations among peers. His own public life began with an intensely charismatic appeal mixed with a reputation as a difficult person to know, and today he is an eccentric and reclusive figure. But these tendencies have made him a daring lyricist. The music-listening world expects a certain amount of intimacy in negative feelings about the opposite sex, the did-me-wrong genre, and Dylan makes these a mainstay. (I'll explain later how songs of this type fit into his artistic and spiritual pilgrimage.) But what is amazing in Dylan is that he also sings intimately--even bluntly--about the embarrassment of not being cool, or being rejected by the clique.
Much of Dylan's social alienation theme can be heard on a single album, his first Greatest Hits. In "It Ain't Me, Babe," Dylan describes the perfect loving partner, but It ain't him. He shows the problem of the artist who cannot commit himself to a relationship:
"Go melt back in the night, everything inside is made of stone
There's nothing in here moving, and anyway I'm not alone."
He touched upon the problem early, in 1962, with "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," where disappointment and anger are expressed while being denied. "Just like a Woman," on the "Greatest Hits" album, starts out in the third person, talking about a woman, but then switches to talk of his own pain and resumes singing to her, in the second person, ending with, "You break just like a little girl." In this progression he draws a little closer, reveals more, but still ends up making "You" statements--projecting the problem onto others.
Dylan extends this angry intimacy to people of unnamed gender, too. "Ballad of a Thin Man" is chilling in this way, and notable on the "Greatest Hits" album is "Positively 4th Street":
"You've got a lot of nerve, to say you are my friend.
When I was down you just stood there grinning."
It goes on in that vein, and it ends with a shocking bluntness:
"I wish that for just one time, you could stand in inside my shoes,
and just for that one moment I could be you"
-we hope for empathy and understanding, but he goes on:
"Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes;
you'd know what a drag it is to see you."
This is painful stuff, and I get comfort from a remark Dylan made to biographer Scaduto that he was beginning to see how he might have been addressing himself in some of those songs. Maybe his "you" statements are spoken into a mirror, and self-alienation is at the root of the social alienation.
Dylan's Greatest Hits contains two songs, back to back, that nearly tell the whole story by themselves. If Dylan had to be remembered by a single song, many of his listeners would certainly pick one or the other of these as the quintessential Dylan piece. The first is "Like a Rolling Stone." It is a social alienation song addressed to a woman but going beyond the battle of the sexes and cruelly highlighting the downfall of anyone who once thought she had the world wrapped around her finger.
"You've gone to the finest school, all right, Miss Lonely, but you know you only used to get juiced in it.
Nobody's ever taught you how to live out on the street and now you're going to have to get used to it."
The images of toppled narcissisms go on and on in this song, and the derisive voice somehow drags up feelings that people desperately want to express. Much later, when Dylan was set on singing about God and righteousness, his fans angrily wanted this song. This was the Dylan who had captured their hearts. A recent television show on Rock history rated this song the fourth greatest rock song ever.
The second song is "Mr. Tambourine Man." This is the aestheticism song par excellence. It is not a beautiful song about social pain, but a song about beauty itself. Dylan is known to order his songs carefully on his albums, and even this Greatest Hits (which has some new work) shows that mark, because in the center of the album he goes from his most vivid statement of alienation to his best statement of escape, a flight into a world of pure beauty. (This song is addressed to a man, which hurts my analysis a little, since later I will talk about the Dylan muse, a female figure. A less known song that addresses aestheticism in her feminine form is "Shelter from the Storm.")
"Mr. Tambourine Man" might have been a drug song once, for it does suggest the feeling of having been up all night, in the "jingle-jangle morning" when "evening's empire has returned into sand." But whatever happened last night, the call now is to music- "play a song for me"- and to the escapism of beauty. He is left with "Ancient empty streets too dead for dreaming," so he asks of Mr. Tambourine Man, "Cast your dancing spell my way, I promise to go wandering." The song is perhaps Dylan's best poetry, and the music he uses to extol music itself carries him "far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow."
Music may have been the great escape for Dylan, but it did not solve his spiritual problem. Instead, he turned suddenly and dramatically to Christianity, inspired, I have read, by a cross left on the floor of a concert hall. In 1979 he produced Slow Train Coming. The opening song, "Gotta Serve Somebody," is not theologically explicit in a Christian way, nor is the title song. Instead, they bring back the Dylan who loves to play the religious prophet, but with a dead seriousness, a willingness to use the stark language of biblical morality at the expense of whomever listens. In the same vein, "Strengthen the Things that Remain" says things like,
"You got some big dreams, Baby, but in order to dream you've got to still be asleep,"
"Do you ever wonder Just what God requires?
You think he's just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires?"
It ends with,
"There's a man on the cross and he be crucified for you.
Believe in his power, that's about all you have to do."
The title song, "Slow Train Coming," asks of his friends, "Have they counted the cost it will take to bring down all the earthly principles they're going to have to abandon?" The pronouncements are bold, and people were surprised and disappointed to hear these things from him, and in some personal encounters he was blunt and moralistic. But this was not just Dylan the musical prophet adding a Christian twist. Other songs on the album are heartfelt confessions and commitments. "Precious Angel" and "I Believe in You," make it clear that Dylan has thrown in with Jesus and plans to stay that way. Part of "I believe in You" has these affirmations:
"I believe in you even through the tears and the laughter,
I believe in you even though we be apart I believe in you even on the morning after.
Oh, when the dawn is nearing
Oh, when the night is disappearing
Oh, this feeling is still here in my heart.
Don't let me drift too far,
Keep me where you are
Where I will always be renewed.
And that which you've given me today
Is worth more than I could pay
And no matter what they say
I believe in you.
A year later Saved appears, and the title song here is very explicit:
"I was branded by the Devil, born already ruined,
Stone cold dead when I stepped out of the womb."
But now he's "Saved!" "By the blood of the lamb!" It is a great Christian rock song, fast-paced and totally to the point. Everything on the album is like that, with titles like "What Can I Do for You?"--a response to God's grace--"Solid Rock," "Pressing On," "Saving Grace," and "Are You Ready?" For instance, he asks in this last song,
"Have you decided if you want to be in heaven or hell?
"Are you ready for Armageddon,
Are you ready for the day of the Lord?
In another year the third album appeared, Shot of Love. It continues the Christian testimonial but with some ragged edges showing. One is inclined to think his Christian honeymoon is ending. He needs a shot of love. But the problem is more serious than that, for Dylan's Christian trilogy was at an end, and nothing written since clearly expresses Christian faith.
Given what has happened, we might ask if he really did become a Christian. He clearly said the right things, and if we ask if was sincere, well, the passion of the songs seems to speak for itself. And his conversion occurred in real life, not on the stage; he was baptized and attended training at Vineyard fellowship. Still, in the Bob Dylan case the reality of the conversion experience becomes a slippery matter. Possibly this was an artist's fad, but with people in general we usually say that sincerely speaking the words of the gospel brings salvation, and then God goes to work to make the whole life conform to them. God need not exclude those whose motives were mixed or understandings shallow. He works on us, rather than screening us out. Otherwise, who could stand? But some apparent Christians do fail to persevere. When that happens, rather than saying, "Well, he wasn't serious enough or sincere," I believe we should ask how the adversary dragged him off the field. In Dylan's case, it is the aestheticism, and the Nietzschean suspicion that goes with it.
Bob Dylan the lyricist put his trust in the Lord. But this is where the trouble appears. Who is this person, Bob Dylan? What if those songs defined him then, but something else defines him now? That is essentially what he said when asked about religion in 1997 by Newsweek. Watching his musical pilgrimage since 1981, one learns there is a near-fatal risk in being a lyricist, an artist, and in being able to create such beautiful expressions of faith. The threat is that his faith will seem to him to have been just the work of a song writer, and his passion just a musical skill. Thus his faith is undermined, as he sees himself having produced what he first thought was an encounter with the transcendent God. His confirming Christian experience is reduced to a work of art with no authority for him.
The album that follows Dylan's three Christian albums is Infidels (1983). There is no title song, and we don't know just who these infidels are, but they certainly are not a well-defined religious group thought by Dylan not to be following God. This is an inside job, and these are Dylan's infidelities, and yours, and mine. The suspicions that silenced Dylan's Christian testimonial are on display here. The first song, "Jokerman," is about someone who can't shed his skins fast enough to escape a "persecutor within." It's a filled with nihilistic self-images like "manipulator of crowds," "dream twister," and "false hearted judges, dying in the webs they spin." "It is only a matter of time," Dylan writes, "until night comes stepping in." In the end he says to himself,
"Oh, Jokerman, you know what he wants;
Oh, Jokerman, you don't show any response."
The most important song on Infidels, the song that gets explicit about the Nietzschean suspicion behind Dylan's loss of faith, is "I and I." I see the title as a deconstructed "I and Thou"; the relationship with the Transcendent has become a game one plays with oneself. The chorus reads,
"I and I, in creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives
I and I, One says to the other, `No man sees my face and lives.'"
Both sides of the human-divine relationship have become human, and neither one either honors or forgives; God's expression of his holiness becomes just the "I" speaking to the "I." This happens "in creation," because the creation by itself, without its Creator, is naturalistic and monistic, and things like the forgiveness of a personal God have to be explained from within that closed system, by treating them as a human projection or construction. Thus Dylan has seen his religious experience as a work totally within the human self. This is about what both Nietzsche and Freud tell us about our faith.
Between these choruses Dylan tells a sad story of having slept with a strange woman, of wanting to go for a walk while she still sleeps, to avoid her wanting to talk, "especially about whatever was." Christians hoping for a fourth Christian Dylan album will be very alert here, because we do want to talk about "whatever was." He is nearly explicit about Christianity in saying that he took an "untrodden path," where "the swift don't win the race." But it took a stranger, he sings, to teach him to look into "Justice's beautiful face, and to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." From this one might conclude that Dylan slipped from Christianity back into a law-keeping kind of Judaism, which is part of the story, perhaps. He has, since his Christian period, been more openly interested in his own Jewish identity. But rather than make this a matter of two religions, I see him like any other young Believer finding that he simply cannot live up to his own expectations of the spiritual life. For some this is a crisis, for others a nagging burden. But it is also an opportunity to backslide, to cease trusting. And one very handy way to do that is to see one's experience with God as something else, a mistake, a project of one's own, a work of art. So Bob Dylan's faith becomes, for him, Bob Dylan's Christian music phase. At the end of "I and I" Dylan writes,
"Someone else is speaking with my mouth, but I'm listening only to my heart
I made shoes for everyone, even you, but I still go barefoot."
He tells us that as much as we Christian fans loved to hear him sing about the Lord, it did not work for him. He is in bed with someone else, though he is not happy about it.
So who is this woman, this rival for his faith? My title suggests she is Art, because aestheticism works against faith. In this song he notes how sweetly she sleeps and "how free must be her dreams," and he says, "In another lifetime she must have owned the world or been faithfully wed to some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlight streams." It's a beautiful picture, but since she is a strange woman in his bed, and since his Christian phase seems to be slipping away, we get the picture that he was running with Christianity and now has found himself in this infidelity, sleeping with this stranger. If she is Art, then Dylan joins Nietzsche in calling art an infidelity. It can make life beautiful, and perhaps that is the best we can do with life, but the goodness that art creates is not the truth. And thus the beauty of this man's Christian experience was not the truth either.
On the other hand, Dylan might think the Christian experience itself was the infidelity. She was a surprising new experience of surpassing beauty, and she was "faithfully wed to a righteous king." But now he does not want to talk about "whatever was," as if "last night"-his Christian experience-were a mistaken tryst. So "I and I" could be saying that Art lured him away from Faith, or it could be claiming that Faith was an artistic experience and nothing more. But either way, Art has undermined Faith. And both could be true: Art becomes more interesting, so the artist leaves Faith behind, but Art seals the bargain by killing Faith with suspicion, deconstructing it by construing it as nothing more than Art.
The album jacket for Infidels has a drawing by Dylan in which a man is kissing a woman on the cheek, while she does not look at him. He is devoted to her, but she perhaps has interests that don't center on him. Such a figure can be seen as a Muse, a goddess of the creative life. He might worship her, but she will not necessarily cooperate, any more than any goddess will cooperate with a man. Of course, I am reading huge amounts into a simple sketch, but I do so because Dylan has written many songs that carry on this theme, in which a woman is the object of some sort of profound search. At one level, it is just the search for a happy love, but the songs usually go beyond that. They began early in his career (for instance, "She Belongs to Me"), and they occupy an important place in this pivotal Infidels album. Then, for the rest of his career to date, this woman takes center stage, especially in his most recent album, Time out of Mind. Through her Dylan says something remarkable to the world, for those who have ears to hear. He says that the Christian life did not work for him, but since he glimpsed the beauty of the gospel nothing else will ever be the same. He says all that in the genre of the failed-love song, so it is easy to take these songs much less seriously. But for believers wondering if Dylan's Christian experience was real, these songs tell us that it was, that it is stalled out or sidetracked, but that, in his own words (on Empire Burlesque, 1985) "I ain't never gonna be the same again!"
Beauty was once an escape mechanism for Dylan, but if this Muse of his were to show him an ultimate and transcendent Beauty, after which nothing else would appear beautiful at all, then he would have no choice but to remain with her. And yet, Dylan's whole witness now is that she has disappeared. In her absence, nothing else will ever satisfy.
If the feminine "you" to whom so many of Dylan's songs are addressed is a real woman, his ex-wife, perhaps, then he has fallen hard and not gotten over it in 20 years. Or he just knows the value of the done-me-wrong love song genre for selling albums. But it seems something much more profound is going on, and if these songs are addressed to the goddess of beautiful music, that begins to account for it. If she showed him Something that nothing else could ever equal, then the long-standing pain that is in his music begins to make sense. And it even turns out that Dylan could be singing to God himself, but in disguise, perhaps even disguised to himself. He then turns out to be the only Christian singer that does not know he is one. But we need to look at these songs.
At the start of his Christian period, on Slow Train Coming, Dylan sings "Precious Angel," and says,
"How was I to know, You'd be the one,
To show me I was blinded, to show me I was gone,
How weak was the foundation, I was standing upon . . ."
Is he saying he is surprised that he found the truth through music? The refrain is,
"Shine your light, Shine your light on me
Shine your light, Shine your light on me
Shine your light, Shine your light on me
You know I just couldn't make it by myself,
I'm a little too blind to see"
Is "Precious Angel" his musical Muse, who has shown him a Light he never expected to see? Or is he just writing about a girlfriend that helped him find the Lord? Well, Dylan is never subject to rigid interpretation. He will give mixed messages about who this woman is. In Saved, he sings "Covenant Woman," which would make you think , if you didn't know better, that he was happily married to a woman sharing his faith. On the third Christian album, Shot of Love, where the cracks are beginning to show, he sings "Heart of Mine," and he fervently warns his own heart about an impending infidelity:
"Heart of mine go back home.
You've go no reason to wander, you've got no reason to roam."
"Don't let her see that you need her
Don't put yourself over the line, Heart of mine."
But whatever he feared might happen, on "Infidels" he is singing about it. He shows how the strange woman I am calling Art took the wind out of the sails of his faith.
Two other songs on Infidels are addressed to this enigmatic woman. "Sweetheart like You" asks, "What's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?" How can beauty exist in a world like this? Melancholy has set in, but Beauty is present still. The album ends with "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight," which laments the breakup of a relationship, or perhaps the breaking down of a wonderful experiment in unheard of beauty, the beauty of the gospel. He sings there these lines suggesting the breakdown has a purifying purpose behind it:
"Let's try to get beneath the surface waste girl,
No more booby traps and bombs, No more decadence and charm,
No more affection that's misplaced, girl,
No more mudcake [murky?] creatures lying in your arms."
But neither Dylan nor his listeners probably had any concept of how long this purifying process might go on.
Then we Christian Dylan fans wonder what will come next. Shot of Love was losing its joy, and Infidels was dark indeed. Two years later (1985), Dylan produced Empire Burlesque. The title suggests that the "Jokerman" problem has not been solved, that insincerity is still in control. Again, there is no title song for this album. The first song, "Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen my Love)," begins with an elegant female chorus saying, "You've got a tight connection to my heart," and then Dylan begins with an imperious male complaint about how he did what he had to do, and yet his hands are sweating, so he is not in control, and then he begins his refrain, the parenthetical subtitle of the song, "Has Anybody Seen My Love?" So the song and its titles come from two directions, the confident female voices suggesting, if you will, the doctrine of eternal security, and the plaintive Dylan voice calling out, "Has anybody seen my love?" It is an intricately structured song, and the two points of view end up mixed together so you can't say which wins. Early in the song, though, we Christians, waiting hopefully since Infidels, are crushed to hear Dylan say,
"I go along with the charade, Until I can think my way out.
I know it was all a big joke, Whatever it was all about.
Someday, maybe, I'll remember to forget."
The infamous whatever was has been brought up again, and dismissed. At the end of the song he says,
"Never could learn to drink that blood, And call it wine,
Never could learn to hold you love, And call you mine."
He seems to be singing still about Christianity gone sour.
I experienced Empire Burlesque in two stages. First it just came and said bluntly that Dylan was not making Christian music anymore. The most clearly post-Christian song is "Trust Yourself," which has some wisdom, like, "Don't trust me to show you beauty, When beauty may only turn to rust," and, "Don't trust me to show you truth, When truth may only be ashes and dust." But the recommendation, "Trust Yourself," is non-Christian, especially when he adds, "Well you're on your own, You always were, in a land of wolves and thieves." He may mean only that you shouldn't trust him, the rock star, shouldn't make him a prophet. But nowhere on this album or any other since "Shot of Love" is there any recommendation to put faith in the Lord.
So the album disappointed me as the hopeful Christian Dylan listener, and at the time it did little for me musically. I knew some Dylan material is difficult and needs to be learned, given time, but I went past this album thinking it didn't have much potential for me. Five years later Dylan produced another album of original material, Under the Red Sky, which failed utterly for me, and does even now. In those five years and for most of the years to follow in the nineties there were other Dylan releases, but he mostly was recording traditional songs and the work of others on albums like World Gone Wrong and Good as I been to You." He was singing the blues.
In 1989 Dylan produced Oh Mercy, which is new work that I missed, thinking it was another blues arrangement. It is probably just as well that I did miss it, because I probably could not have understood it then. I say this because I had already missed the real meaning of Empire Burlesque. Eleven years after its release I saw another side of this music. I had gone from age 38 to age 49, and now I saw not just the post-Christian messages, but the pain. I began to study this music anew, and I marveled at the plaintiveness of it, the vocal qualities that were difficult to adjust to because of their pain, which I hadn't even heard the first time because I was unwilling in 1985 to feel that way. I decided it was a difficult but brilliant work, put together with great care, and focused. Other than "Trust Yourself" and one political song ("Clean Cut Kid"), it is a sustained exposition of the pain that comes from losing a love that cannot be replaced. "Tight Connection" says,
"You're the one I've been looking for
You're the one that's got the key.
But I can't figure out whether I'm too good for you
Or you're too good for me."
Christian love is the one true thing, but either he made it up and it's not real, or he can't attain to it. "Seeing the Real You at Last" is another break-up song in which honesty and naked truth make it impossible to go further. In "I'll Remember You," Dylan says,
"You to me were true
You to me were the best,"
"Didn't I, Didn't I try to love you?"
"I'd never say that I done it the way that you'd have liked me to."
He couldn't live up to this beautiful possibility that he'd glimpsed.
The last three songs continue this theme. "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky" is chillingly nihilistic:
"It won't matter who loves who,
You'll love me or I'll love you
When the night comes falling from the sky."
Whatever this troubled love affair with God was all about, whatever questions it leaves, these will be swallowed up when life ends. "Something's Burning, Baby" is almost a direct question to the Muse:
"What's your position, baby, what's going on?
Why is the light in your eyes nearly gone?"
"But where do you live, baby, and where is the light?
Why are your eyes just staring off in the night?"
He ends with "Dark Eyes," a gentle, simple song that ends with these words:
"A million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes."
Standing out among these woeful songs is one that sums up my whole point about the female Muse, the one with the irreplaceable vision that has been pulled away. Here are the first and last stanzas:
"Now you're here beside me, baby,
You're a living dream.
And every time you get this close
It makes me want to scream.
You touched me and you knew
That I was warm for you and then,
I ain't never gonna be the same again.
"You taught me how to love you, baby,
You taught me, oh, so well.
Now, I can't go back to what was, baby,
I can't unring the bell.
You took my reality
And cast it to the wind
And I ain't never gonna be the same again.
By 1996 I had finally heard this message, and I listened to it and meditated on it into 1997, and I wanted to write about it, but I was discouraged because we were 12 years beyond this album, and Dylan seemed stalled out and not doing anything very exciting musically. But then Dylan was in the news. He sang before the Pope; he nearly died in a sudden illness; and he had a new album of original songs, Time out of Mind. He was interviewed in Newsweek, where he could not be pinned down on the status of his earlier Christian experience. The slipperiness of his religious identity shows clearly in the following excerpt from that interview:
So what were the songs saying now? I wondered if there would be any connection to the Empire Burlesque songs I had just gotten to appreciate. I went on the internet and played the first clip that Rolling Stone Online had to offer, and there was Dylan saying exactly the same thing, as if 12 years had been just a moment. What I actually heard right then were these words:
In fact, he seems near the edge of his comfort zone talking about why he's not talking about one of his most illegible back pages: that conservative, born-again-Christian phase that blindsided his liberal, secular fan base some 15 years ago. "It's not tangible to me," he says. "I don't think I'm tangible to myself. I mean, I think one thing today and I think another thing tomorrow. I change during the course of a day. I wake and I'm one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I'm somebody else. I don't know who I am most of the time. It doesn't even matter to me." This cracks him up.
Then he says, "Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like `Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain' or `I Saw the Light'--that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs." (David Gates, Newsweek, 10/6/97)
This paper began for me with a long and personal open letter to Dylan,
written in the second person and named, "You and You: an open letter to Bob
Dylan about our 'Infidel'-ity." I called it "You and You" in response to "I and I"
and because he uses the pronoun "you" so often and leaves us wondering
to whom he is speaking. It was by accident that the phrase matched these words: "it's you
and you only I've been singing about." But when I first discerned those
words in this slightly foggy song, I was sure he was talking to God, and had
been for the whole fifteen years since his Christian honeymoon ended.
This of course is my interpretation of his interesting and open-ended words. I want to argue not that he clearly said this and would stand by it, but that the Muse spoke this through him, that his faith in God is alive in his creative imagination even if he himself cannot hear it.
The final song on Time out of Mind is "Highlands," and it may tell us why Dylan seems unable to hear the ongoing proclamation of the gospel that is subliminally present in his 15 year long lament. At the same time, it may show us Dylan heading toward the kind of knowledge that could let his "Precious Angel" shine her light again.
This could very well have been Bob Dylan's last song, since he fell grievously ill in May of 1997, with this album already recorded. If this had been his parting song, we Christians could have comforted ourselves with the thought that his heart was in heaven, because he sings,
"My heart's in the highlands, wherever I roam.
That's where I'll be when I get called home."
This is not about drugs or Scotland. In an unrecorded song from Slow Train Coming, "Ain't No Man Righteous, No Not One" (printed in Bob Dylan, Lyrics 1962 - 1985), he writes, "When I'm gone don't wonder where I be. Just say that I trusted in God and that Christ was in me." "Highlands" joins that confession, though not openly. He says his heart is in the highlands, and it's the "only place to go." But he says he will go there when he feels good enough to go, and we Christians could jump in with a little sermon about faith, fact and feeling. In the end he says,
"There's a way to get there, and I'll figure it out somehow.
But I'm already there in my mind, and that's good enough for now."
So if this had been his last song that might have been good enough for us. Still, the last song is as thoroughly melancholic as the rest of the album: "Same ol' rat race, Life in the same old cage." The theme of a life ruined by the glimpsed beauty of the gospel continues here, too. Near the end he writes,
"The sun is beginning to shine on me,
But it's not like the sun that used to be.
The party's over, and there's less and less to say.
I got new eyes. Everything looks far away."
It is no wonder that this album was respected but not loved by Dylan's public. It's a very terminal sort of album, and it shows us nothing on earth to worship, least of all Dylan, himself. David Gates of Newsweek wrote "Yet he's proud of having registered his ambivalence and alienation so nakedly." He then quotes Dylan: "I don't think it eclipses anything from my earlier period. But I think it might be shocking in its bluntness. There isn't any waste. There's no line that has to be there to get to another line. There's no pointless playing with somebody's brain. I think it's going to reach the people it needs to reach, and the ones it doesn't, maybe they'll come along another day." He seems to feel that nakedly showing his alienation is important. Even though he is still composing and singing, he is not dressing up his grief in cute clothing. "No more decadence and charm," as he sang in "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight." If we aesthetes ceased to be enchanted with ourselves, we might be delivered.
The point at which this disenchantment sets in most thoroughly is in a long talking bridge in the middle of "Highlands." It is a strange story, perhaps best interpreted as if it were a dream. He enters a restaurant in Boston, and a waitress with a pretty face and long, shiny legs approaches him. He doesn't know what he wants, or maybe he does, but he's not sure. So he either doesn't know or he doesn't know if he knows. He asks her what he wants, and she suggest he wants hard-boiled eggs-and you get the feeling he's making this up as he goes. He agrees to the hard-boiled eggs, but she says she doesn't have any. She then says she knows he's an artist, "Draw a picture of me." He says he doesn't do sketches from memory. She says she is standing right there, "or haven't you looked?" He says okay, but he doesn't have his drawing book. She supplies a napkin, and he says he doesn't have a pencil. So she gives him the pencil behind her ear and says, "All right now, draw me, I'm standing right here." So he makes a few lines and shows it to her, and she throws it back and says it doesn't look like her. He insists that it does, and she says he must be joking, and he says he wishes he were. She then says he must not read women authors, and they argue about that, and he says he reads Erica Jong. She goes away for a moment, and he slides out of his chair. He sings, "I step outside to the busy street, but nobody's going anywhere." Then he resumes his "My heart's in the highlands" refrain, and he adds a few more melancholy comments and brings the song to an end. There are a few Dylanesque images in the closing lines, like "crossing the street to get away from a mangy dog," and one reviewer perked up his ears at that and thought he heard a little of the old Dylan. But that is just what everyone found so intriguing about him: his alienation was clothed in cool images that tickled our narcissistic fancies. But in this album, as Dylan understood it, and in this song, the alienation is naked. And in this talking bridge with its dreamlike story the alienation stands out in a fairly plain, ugly way. There is nothing cute about it. The lyrics have a touch of the arbitrary, like "hard-boiled eggs," which just rhymes with "long white shiny legs," but they are too plain, lacking personality, and they become a little annoying. The encounter ends arbitrarily, too; he simply slides out of his chair and leaves. So I see the elusive Dylan showing himself here not elusively and mysteriously, but plainly, yet showing the avoidance, the non-commitment, and the failure to connect, which are the dysfunction of the aesthetic life. The narcissist is beginning to see himself plainly. It is not a pretty story.
The story gets more interesting if we think of it symbolically. Dylan has been singing for several decades and dozens of songs about the lost love, the perfect woman, who took his reality and cast it to the wind, and about how her loveliness has wounded him, how he's reeling from the blow, how he will never be the same. Now she stands right in front of him, in this restaurant, asking him to draw her picture. But he makes every excuse in the book before making "a few lines," and then he slips away. After singing about this woman for many sad years, he can't face her, can't draw her. The object of his unrequited love is standing before him, begging him to relate to her, but he can't see her.
I am not going to offer a hard and fast interpretation of this. I think that Dylan's lyrics and the images of dreams have meaning that one needs to roll around in the mind and meditate upon. The only clear fact is that she was there for him and he was still slipping away to walk his lonely path. There is one more new Dylan song since this one, "Things have Changed," which he composed in 1999 for the sound track of "Wonder Boys," a Michael Douglas film. Title aside, it indicates that nothing has changed, as far as the spiritual melancholy is concerned. And he says near the end, "All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie. I'm in love with a woman who don't even appeal to me." There is a profound ambivalence here, the same doublemindedness that shows in the restaurant encounter. He says in "Times have Changed," "I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can." That is at least an admission of escapism. And he says in this song, "I hurt easy, I just don't show it. You can hurt someone and not even know it." There is perhaps an increasing vulnerability becoming conscious in this music. The muse who once would carry him away on a "magic swirlin' ship" has dragged him slowly closer to a mirror to see himself. The struggle is not over, but at least the struggle is visible. We who listen are invited witnesses to a lengthy "moment of truth," but one still in the making.
And this is how I think that aestheticism can perhaps be pierced by the truth. Art itself can be drawn into the service of the King. In my own life, it is autobiographical narrative that enchants me and tempts my narcissistic impulse. But with God at work I could tell a story that escapes the narcissism and shows it, rather than operating from within it. At certain points, this would not be a pretty story. Dylan's account of his slipping away from the waitress is not a pretty story. He is shown in an ugly light. But he did pray, eighteen years earlier, "Shine your light, Shine your light on me!"
But can art itself shine the light that pierces the armor of aestheticism? In the Bob Dylan case, can the Holy Spirit enter into the artistic pilgrimage of this aesthete and bring him face-to-face with God and the whole truth of himself? To consider this, and to get some perspective on Dylan's pilgrimage, I would like to look finally at Dylan's 1989 album, Oh Mercy. As I said, I missed this album at the time of its release, and I might have "missed" it anyway, like I did Empire Burlesque, which was too sad for my pre-midlife soul. It is the album I am living with now, as I am finishing this essay, and it is convincing me that the Spirit is at work in Dylan's musical pilgrimage. There is Christian fruit here.
First, the album is not humanistic, with titles like "Everything is Broken," "The Disease of Conceit," and "What Good am I?" "Political World" describes human life in images like,"Love doesn't have any place," and "Mercy walks the plank," and "Wisdom is thrown into jail." "Peace is not welcome at all, it's turned away from the door, to wander some more, or put up against the wall." But Dylan has never been the humanist who buys into everyone's hopes of how to change the world. His political activism was short-lived. Joan Baez wrote "For Bobby" seemingly to address his withdrawal from activism, theorizing, "Perhaps the pictures in the Times/ Could no longer be put into rhymes." She theorizes rightly, I think, because Art was always more important to Dylan than anyone's plan to meet anyone's need. In his congenital suspicion of every human program he is like Nietzsche. But he has also been like Nietzsche in taking refuge in the aesthetic and narcissistic representation of self, which has made him a humanist after all. This is what makes, "What Good Am I?" such an important song. It is Dylan's penance for "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Positively 4th Street," and for the arrogance on display in "Don't Look Back." In this song he writes,
"What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die,
What good am I?"
It has a theological dimension, too:
"If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin' sky, What good am I?"
It is remarkable that this was written by the Man who sang "Like a Rolling Stone" and others of that genre. A musical repentance is happening, and the social alienation is losing its grip.
But Oh Mercy is still preoccupied with the failed love affair or the withdrawn Muse. We could string together "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" from Infidels and "Tight Connection to my Heart" from Empire Burlesque, along with "What Was It You Wanted?" from this album, and then top it off with almost anything from Time Out of Mind, but especially "Million Miles," and we would have a good picture of Dylan's Jeremiad against the Precious Angel he is seeking. "What Was it You Wanted?" starts off with the idea that he could get it back together with her, if he knew what she had wanted, but the song is almost completely made of questions, and they get harder as the song progresses, and the last one is, "Are you talking to me?" By then it as if he a were a song and dance man moving back and forth and retreating to the back of the stage, disappearing, as the aesthete does, while blaming God for being invisible. So the problem of who withdrew from whom is still unsettled. Yet, in "What Good Am I?" Dylan goes so far as to say,
"If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?
So he begins to take responsibility for his withdrawal.
"What Was it You Wanted" is reminiscent of Infidels, because he asks what she wanted when she was kissing his cheek, reminding me of the chaste kiss drawn on the cover of that album. There he is kissing her, not her him, but either way it suggests the aesthetic relationship, not the romantic. And in this song he wonders if someone else was there when that kiss happened, if someone was in the shadows. He is theorizing about mixed motives, false gods, if you will, that have interfered with the relationship.
Dylan's feelings about his lost love are expressed tenderly in "Most of the Time," a masterful understatement. If you remove the title words, "Most of the time," this song because a positive statement of independence and victory over the past. He is clearly focused, with his feet on the ground, and everything makes sense. He slips in references to her almost as if they just happened to supply the rhyme he needs. "I can handle whatever I stumble upon, I don't even notice she's gone," he assures us, and "I can survive, I can endure, and I don't even think about her." He doesn't even remember what her lips felt like on his, and he adds, "I can't even be sure, If she was ever with me, Or I was ever with her." He wraps up this declaration with, "I don't even care if I ever see her again." But before and after each one of these affirmations, fourteen times in all, he adds that crushing qualification, "Most of the time," and everything turns into a negation.
My impulse, when I hear this, is to ask again where one goes when his or her joy has dried up, and then to seek the solution in the therapeutic expression of sorrow, which is where Dylan will head after this 1989 album, singing the blues through the early nineties and finally producing Time out of Mind. On Oh Mercy he has one delicate song that steers us that way, "Where Teardrops Fall."
"Far away in the stormy night,
Far away and over the wall,
You are there in the flickering light
Where teardrops fall."
At the end he sings,
"I just might have to come see you
Where teardrops fall."
But I became suspicious of my leaning toward sorrow. The problem with these beautifully sad songs is that they are too beautiful; one could live indefinitely in their delicious atmosphere, but this experience is not therapeutic. They are a way of being sad without being sad, that is, without losing control. They may indicate spiritual fruit in their writer's life, and they may be, as I am wanting to show, a profound witness to the poverty one encounters on earth, once one has glimpsed the milk and honey of faith in God. But as a way of regaining Christian joy, they miss the mark. This was my intuition as I had this musical experience of Dylan's search. Joy won't come because we present our sorrow beautifully, but because we finally stare plainly into the face of the villain. This is why the restaurant episode in "Highlands" is significant, because it presents baldly (even though musically) the escapism that keeps people like Dylan from clear-headedly embracing the truths of the gospel.
One of Bob Dylan's thoroughly enigmatic songs appears on Oh Mercy, and it points to what I think is the alternative to floundering in beautiful heartache. It is called "Man in the Long Black Coat." The feminine figure appears in absentia through mention of "a soft, cotton dress, on the line hanging dry," but right alongside it are apocalyptic images, like,
"Window wide open, African trees,
bent over backward from a hurricane breeze."
The problem appears immediately:
"Not a word of goodbye, not even a note,
She gone with the man in the long black coat."
"Somebody seen him hanging around
At the old dance hall on the outskirts of town,
He looked into her eyes when she stopped to ask,
If he wanted to dance, he had a face like a mask.
Somebody said from the Bible he'd quote
There was dust on the man
In the long black coat.
This dusty, biblical figure seems to me to be Guilt himself, the accuser. Where did Dylan's artistic experience of the joy of the gospel go? She went with the man in the long black coat.
Dylan gets theologically explicit for just a moment, when he tells us of a Preacher (the Man in the Long Black Coat, or someone else talking about him?) who says
"every man's conscience is vile and depraved,
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it's you who must run to keep it satisfied."
We theists tend to speak favorably of conscience, but the New Testament looks closely and reminds us that the consciousness of guilt does not empower us for joyful and spiritual living. When we are "running" to keep our conscience satisfied, then we are "in the flesh." We live then in a mixture of guilt and pride, pride to the extent that we feel we have done well, and guilt where we have not. Neither one is spiritual, and neither one gives us any joy. This is the basic story behind the loss of joy for just about every believer. The honeymoon ends because the novelty of the message of salvation wears off and we begin to consider how to live this new life, and then we always begin wrongly, trying to do it ourselves. Gradually or through crisis, we can hope to relearn the good news about how God does what we cannot do, but often there is a bogging down, with a dull mixture of pride and guilt lasting through one's entire earthly sojourn.
How is this pattern affected by the aesthetic element? The artist typically is of a sensitive and melancholy temperament, not likely to live in overt religious pride. Yet pride and guilt form a complex, a two-sided coin, both present, regardless of which is visible. The religious person claims to have done God's will, while the artistic person--especially if he has existentialist leanings--admits he has not, but protests: How could I have? I wasn't given enough information! (Or the world was not made right.) As Dylan puts it, "What was it you wanted?" That kind of self-justification blocks real repentance, though failure is admitted. To claim that one has done all one could have done is to produce a stalemate between one's will and the will of God, and art, I am sorry to admit, perpetuates the stand-off, because it makes it tolerable. Beauty actually reaches its height in the tension of that standoff, and one can live on beauty, though it is not the abundant life.
The aesthete, then, has a beautiful way to live in the flesh, that is, to stay in control. I argued in my doctoral dissertation that Nietzsche did not overcome nihilism, even though he understood it was a product of a controlling, religious and moralistic mentality, because art, too, is a way of keeping things under control. Surrender is the way out, the path of joy. Sorrow would seem to be leading us toward surrender, but sad songs may never get us there. They are the artist's way of handling his sorrow.
There is, however, a special kind of good news associated with this man in the long, black coat. In the New Testament, a believer does not win the battle against guilt, but loses absolutely, and then is resurrected in the life identified with Christ. In the words of Galatians 2.19 (NIV):
"For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God."
If Art "gave her heart to the man in the long black coat," then she was led off to her death. But in Christianity that is not the end of the story.
As I was finishing this essay I had a strange and revealing experience with an image of the Muse. She is "Jill Layton," who appears in "Brazil," a dystopian fantasy film. She comes out of the dreams of "Sam Lowry" and meets him in his real life. Near the end of the movie, after he has been tortured and possibly killed, but then rescued, he finds himself in a little house on the back of a large truck, which she is driving, carrying him out of the torturous city to an idyllic resting place. I got this movie on a DVD to play on my computer, so I could capture a still picture of her, looking over her shoulder from the driver's seat and giving him a wink. I got the still picture on screen and hoped to paste it into a photo program, but I got a totally black picture. I tried again and successfully pasted a picture of Sam, distraught and terrified on the back of the truck, but I could not capture her image. The next day I tried again, and somehow I did get the picture of Jill pasted into the photo program and saved. I captured several other scenes from the movie and saved them as .jpg files, and I saved these to the disk and called them up again, to be sure I was really getting them. I even pasted one into a Word document. But as I continued this experiment, opening these files, I was amazed to see each one of them turn into the picture of Jill. And then all of them turned to black squares! I opened every file that should have had these pictures in them: nothing but blackness! Even the Word file, which I would have thought stored the picture separately as part of the document, contained only a black square.
I seriously considered whether this was a natural event or supernatural. I have now replicated it and consider it an anomaly of the system. Data that appears to be named and written onto the disk is in truth still in RAM and fluid, able to change, to be replaced and to disappear. But a natural explanation does not remove the meaning of the event, and I believe God can manipulate the vagaries of a complex system to say things. This said to me that the Muse is appointed to die.
The effect of my meditation on the black squares that were supposed to be pictures of the Muse, was a flattened affect toward the whole process of writing. It was difficult to finish this essay, for nothing in it pleased me much. In Dylan's last new song, "Things have Changed," he tells us he is "standing on the gallows with my head in a noose." He used to care, but things have changed. He's in love with a woman who doesn't appeal to him. The self-avoidance pictured so blatantly in the encounter with the waitress seems still to be staring him in the face. He can still be self-deprecating and coy, singing, "Don't get up gentlemen, I'm only passing through," but this aesthetic waif may be dying to his ability to contain his alienation in a song. It may be that the beautiful woman of Dylan's dreams and mine is headed for the chopping block. In just what form she will be resurrected remains to be seen.
Jerry L. Sherman