By Tim Stark
” … I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature.” –
Bob Dylan, Nobel Lecture Intro, June 4, 2017 (emphasis added)
“… keep your hand on that plow / hold on …” – “Gospel Plow,” Bob Dylan, 1962
In Bob Dylan’s recently released Nobel Prize lecture, there are clear indications he is still pressing on and hanging on to a rock-solid belief in a Chief Commander of the Universe, and this foundation provides him a base on which he builds a verbal construct from the educational blueprint mapped out in his schoolboy years and extended into his modern times.
Whatever else (along with the times) might be shakin’ and rattlin’ and rapidly agin’ and fadin’ and a-changin’, his deference to and reverence toward the One Who oversees all and makes now’s loser into later’s winner has been, seemingly – from his earliest days – steady, persistent and pervasive.
This evident fact of Bob’s life is named by Scott Marshall in a nimbly-turned phrase, “Bob Dylan’s Unshakeable Monotheism.” This essential aspect of his person and personality finds expression in ongoing spiritual curiosity, his tangible actions as a “seeker” who was (is!) also a “speaker” (and “true believer”) who shares his investigations and insights into the Person/Creator/Prime Mover – including his eventual introduction to the One Who was and is and is to come (ref. Revelation 1:4-8).
His tributes to three classic, tour de force works of literature situate his own writings as reflections on their themes and tropes, but these “rambles” come after a very detail-rich recollection and celebration of the life and art of Buddy Holly. The dense descriptiveness of both what he saw and what he was feeling during the one time he saw Buddy in concert hints at Dylan’s highly developed – even as a late-teenager – observational skills, intra-personal intelligence, and self-awareness. His vivid recounting of those moments all these years later also suggests that those traits and talents are still functioning at full capacity. It seems to have been a transformative event in his life, and there is a strong indication that the epiphany presented him with a kind of “Oh, so that’s how it’s done!” recognition of a pattern he could and would emulate.
“He looked me right-straight-dead in the eye.” The intensity of this personal connection with Buddy (which he also says helped crystalize his sense of destiny), though on a merely human level, brings to mind the testimony Dylan would give years later of his life-changing vision of the person of Jesus Christ. At the very least, this part of the lecture provides clear evidence that Robert Zimmerman’s life is enriched by a willingness, an eagerness, to “make the most of every opportunity” in order to understand “what the Lord’s will is” (ref. Ephesians 5:15-17) by carefully, intently watching, listening, and learning from master craftsmen on the stage, on the page, and “down in the grooves.”
Were this presentation made by anyone but Dylan, we might be inclined to question as cliché the steady use of “Christian lingo.” In his acknowledgment of Leadbelly’s influence, he says his record “illuminated” him as though he’d been “walking in darkness” before hearing it and that its effect was “like someone laid hands on” him.
There are other ways to express these thoughts, but these phrases seem to be part of his normal, natural vocabulary – taken as givens, not taken for granted. He says he treasured that recording and that of other similar artists as “vibrant” and “true to life” without commercial pretense. Those people and their songs resonated with what he describes as his “principles and sensibilities, and an informed view of the world” derived from “grammar school.” The sources were fiction – delusional-but-idealistic Don Quixote, chivalrous Ivanhoe, determined Robinson Crusoe, adventurous Gulliver, Dickens’ two-city contrasts and comparisons. But the lessons gleaned were facts with which to make sense of and venture out into a fallen but opportunity-filled world. The characters struggled, but they modeled hopefulness and perseverance and an over-arching sense of joy in the journey of life through all its ups and downs.
These highs and lows of human experience are noted in the three works he considers in more detail.
“American history is largely the story of what Americans have done with the Bible, to which, as I’ve noted, the how-to genre is traceable. … It fell to American imaginations to maintain the great tradition of Jehovah and Homer.” – Hugh Kenner, “The Wherefores of How-To,” Mazes, 1989 (originally published in Harper’s, March, 1984, emphasis added)
“Moby Dick” is deconstructed as a perception-expanding whirlpool of orthodox and pagan belief systems applied with individual integrity in life-and-death struggles. Each character freely risks success and failure, seeing the world and his place in it according to personal custom, cultural heritage and theology, and each one “goes down to the valley” of the shadow of death to sing his own song and pursue justification and purpose in his own way.
We might decide to see in “Moby Dick” a connection between New England Puritan social norms and religious perceptions as they relate to Old Testament-ish concepts of “justice over mercy,” vengeance, and wrath as being exactly in line – ramble-free – with the unwavering – “unshakeable” – monotheism premise at the base of Marshall’s book and other researched writing about Dylan’s faith-life.
While accomplishing many other interesting things, Dylan’s Nobel Lecture also reinforces the central assertion of “Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.” That is, Dylan has, perhaps for some/much of his entire adult life, blended the Old/New Covenant realities in ways which reflect early church belief and practice (ref. Acts Acts 2:46, 3:8, and 5:42 for examples of studying-following-serving-proclaiming Jesus while meeting weekly and daily in the temple at Jerusalem – definitely Christ-imitators and also definitely practicing Jews!) and that he identifies with Melville’s development of these themes (and the somewhat hyperbolic characterization of Puritanism as something like a Jesus-conscious version of hardline, Pharisaical Judaism).
It’s worth noting that Dylan contextualizes all of this seeming spiritual confusion and complex syncretism in a very binary view of right/wrong, good/evil, truth/self-deception. Dylan’s analysis appears to be based on the idea that, while we all have been graced with personal agency and free will, there is objective truth and reality behind and beyond all of our “through a glass dimly” efforts to find it for ourselves, though each of us will, in this life, only “see in part” until we are face to face with our Creator (ref. I Corinthians 13:12). Polytheism, animism, idolatry, atheism, mental illnesses, greed, obsessive compulsions, hurtful self-indulgences, and self-righteous, dictatorial distortions of Christian belief abound in this maritime New England masterpiece, but Dylan seems to suggest that he, along with Melville, sees the whole web of our inter-connected life stories playing out on the stage of the Author of Life, the One Who has the whole world in His hands.
Just as he says, Dylan’s lyrics and performative energy have roots deeply embedded in the rich soil of this Great American Novel, and the facts of life displayed in Melville’s fiction can also be easily identified in Dylan’s own history and “historical” songs, especially in creative non-fiction pieces such as “Hurricane,” “The Death of Emmett Till,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol” and “John Wesley Harding” (just to name a few), which highlight the disgraceful abuses and shameful desecrations of the gift of free will found in the cruel, heartless actions of some blessed with power and privilege against the comparatively innocent and more defenseless among us.
“Through this open world I’m a-bound to ramble / Through ice and snow, sleet and rain I’m a-bound to ride that mornin’ railroad / Perhaps I’ll die upon that train Your mother says that I’m a stranger / A face you’ll never see no more But here’s one promise to ya / I’ll see you on God’s golden shore” – “Man of Constant Sorrow,” Bob Dylan, 1962
“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a fascinating second choice on Dylan’s short list of influential works. Before Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” offered us the “idealized” example of an emotionally-numbed anti-hero, this book exemplified the utter bleakness and resigned despair of existential angst which can likely come only from the cultural dynamic of 1920’s German Expressionism. At the same time, it beautifully humanizes World War I German soldiers and effectively engenders sympathy and empathy for them and their lost youth, wasted potentials, and doomed, near-hell-on-earth plight.
On the surface, this is “just” good writing, but what a marvel it is that this book was assigned to “grammar school” students in post-World War II Minnesota, and, more than that, it was offered to and embraced by young Master Zimmerman – a 1950s-era Jewish teenager. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that Dylan makes no mention of this being any kind of issue in relation to appropriate, post-war disgust toward the atrocities of National Socialism – then or now. He relates to the characters and the story as people, not as a race or nationality or political group. This kind of commonality and willingness to identify with “the Other” suggests an amazing, paradoxical level of humility and sophistication (as much on the part of the school system which included it in the curriculum as of Dylan himself).
There is an unspoken, subconscious and standardized quality of graciousness and forgiveness built into this part of the presentation which reflects – by conscious choice or community socialization or both? – distinctively Christ-like traits and teachings. Matthew 18’s focus on a willingness to pursue and make peace with enemies and adversaries culminates in Jesus’ response to Peter’s request for a limit on forgiveness – “up to seven times,” he offers tentatively. “Seventy-seven times,” Jesus replies decisively.
Dylan says the book is “a horror story” by which a person can “lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals” when readers inhabit the characters’ personas, but the exterior, real-world result of the book can deepen the ability of readers to see beyond ourselves into the pains and needs of others, even to the point of choosing the inherent value of individuals – including the tremendous capacity for individual heroism, bravery, and self-sacrifice, especially in battle – over any misguided notions of the “glories” of war (a point he reiterates later in relation to “The Odyssey”).
Worth the price of admission for this 27-minute monologue: the descriptive detail pulled out of the text – “… skulls where butterflies perch on teeth.” Here is a line that is archetypically Expressionistic in its graphic juxtaposition of human degradation and innocent, fragile, natural beauty (a nature, Dylan insists, which is neither disturbed by nor compassionate toward human cruelty and suffering). It is also very poetically Dylan-esque (not to mention Bruce Cockburn-esque, another poet/singer/songwriter worthy of Nobel consideration … some other time, perhaps).
In the midst of the book’s relentless, soul-crushing carnage, Dylan envisions the central character as a kind of sacrificial Christ-figure. And this appears to be his own metaphor, since no such description is found in a searchable version of an English translation of the book itself: “You’re on the real iron cross, and a Roman soldier is putting a sponge of vinegar to your lips” (ref. Matthew 27:34).
The ramble continues as Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness process but also as a connective theme. From a pell-mell, round-the-world revenge-saga of an deranged sea-captain to the senseless shambling of a despairing soldier to the “Odyssey’s” crisis mismanagement on the part of the conquering-hero-come-home-to-chaos, Dylan pulls this “no direction home” thread through each tale as case studies of the axiom, “choices have consequences.” Choices which are in our power to make but usually involve consequences well beyond our means to control.
“I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling.” – Jehovah, II Samuel 7:6 (New International Version, emphasis added)
“Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'” – Matthew 8:20 (New International Version)
“I’m a travelin’ man / I’ve made a lot of stops / all over the world …” – Ricky Nelson, “Travelin’ Man”
“What does it all mean?” Bob asks in conclusion. He says he doesn’t have to know or try to understand what his own writings mean, but he has clearly spent a significant amount of time thinking about the meanings of other works of literature, and he seems to be deliberately engaging with the sacred heartbeat of/in the secular body of mass culture (particularly here, the American literary culture and the Western Canon). There are good reasons to think that this is to our mutual benefit and to be glad that the Nobel committee saw his work as worthwhile and purposeful, no matter how roundabout.
What a blessing it is that Dylan has this opportunity to share his own very unique perspective through the auspices of the Nobel committee. Who else could manage to make a convincing single-degree of separation linkage between Odysseus and Ricky Nelson? Who else has delivered a Nobel lecture, by the way, with a light-jazz piano accompaniment?! Who else can so bluntly, yet without smug condescension, contend that heroes can and do sin, and so do we?
He doesn’t need to name names when mentioning the moral failures of drug abuse and “having the wrong woman in bed.” Many can relate – from King David to a non-heavenly host of rock stars and other celebrities, maybe even a person we’ve been permitted to call Zimmie. We are all, as individuals and as a worldwide population, imperiled by the temptations “such as are common to man”: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life (ref. I Corinthians 10:13 and I John 2:16).
We can, if we choose, give in to sanity-sapping vengeance, trauma-induced manic-depression, and hubristic self-indulgence and self-justification. The path leading to these destructive dead-ends is broad and heavily-worn. Great works of literature offer us intricate, repeatable “how-to’s” for ruining ourselves, our families, and our world in these ways. On the other hand, we also have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others, as Dylan implies, and take “the road less traveled by.” Both paths are difficult in their own ways, but the first guarantees needless tragedy. Faith, hope, and love provide the only certainties on the other path, but there are tremendous prospects of a much different, much better outcome at its final destination. Come to think of it, trains (slow and otherwise) happen to run on narrow paths, don’t they? Might be a good idea to look for one comin’ round the bend and then get on board. Could it be that, in the process, we might hear some good words set to music “in whatever way people are listening to songs nowadays”? We might even decide to listen to the muse and sing along, loud and strong.
“I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired …” – Psalm 77:6 (New International Version, 1978)
Tim Stark has spent the last three decades, along with many other occupations on the side, as a Bible student, youth pastor, college English Instructor and freelance writer/editor. For even longer than that, he’s been grateful to the Lord for music in general – and Dylan’s music and testimony – in particular (May God bless and keep Bob always!).