October 19, 2016

“Let Us Not Talk Falsely Now, The Hour Is Getting Late”: Literature, the Nobel, and Bob Dylan


By Stuart Mitchner

Sure was glad to get out of there alive. — Bob Dylan, “Day of the Locusts”

The “there” Dylan’s referring to is Princeton on the sweltering June day in 1970 when he received an Honorary Doctorate, a month after the shootings of students at Kent State. Hearing himself described as “the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America,” he “shuddered and trembled but remained expressionless.” In the words of his memoir, Chronicles Volume One (2004), “It was like a jolt …. There it was again. I couldn’t believe it!” He’s thinking “this kind of thing” could set “the public perception” of him back “a thousand years.” Yet he’s glad he came to get the degree. He “could use it. Every look and touch and scent of it spelled respectability and had something of the spirit of the universe in it.”

There it is again — there he is again. At this writing, almost a week after the news from Stockholm was announced, Bob Dylan has yet to make public how he feels about receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Forty-six years on the other side of “Day of the Locusts,” it’s possible that Dylan’s mind is still attuning itself to such things as “public perception,” “respectability,” and “the spirit of the universe.” As glad as he was to get out of Princeton alive, he made the most of it. Not only did the occasion inspire one of the characteristically ambiguous tropes that make his memoir itself a prize-worthy literary work, it gave him the seed of a song: the locusts that were singing for him are still singing for us.

“Disease of Conceit”

At a time when the virtual universe is buzzing over Donald Trump’s rocky horror picture show, there’s something reassuringly improbable about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. People have quibbled. My only quibble is that the Nobel committee confined the author of Chronicles to “the great American song tradition.” There’s a moment in the book when he hasn’t written anything “in a long while” and “never expected to write anything ever again.” One night “all that changed” and he wrote 20 verses of “Political World.” The breakthrough happened to coincide with “a heated presidential race.” Since the songs that came to him were recorded between February and April of 1989, the race in question would have been the Bush-Dukakis-Willy Horton-Roger Ailes debacle that gave America Clarence Thomas.

“A song is like a dream,” Dylan tells us, speaking of that night, “and you try to make it come true.” He’s not talking about song traditions or politics or “current events.” He’s talking about the act of writing: “From the far end of the kitchen a silver beam of moonlight pierced through the leaded panes of the window illuminating the table. The song seemed to hit the wall, and I stopped writing and swayed backwards in the chair.”

The only songs from that particular writing session that I’ve lived and driven around with, great songs brilliantly produced by Daniel Lanois, are “A Series of Dreams” and “Dignity,” where “Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed/Dignity never been photographed.” You can almost hear that one hit the wall.

Where’s “a song tradition” when you’re going after a single word with a world of meaning in it? “Disease of Conceit” was written in the same session. At the time Dylan had in mind Jimmy Swaggart, the defrocked Baptist preacher who’d been “linked to a prostitute,” but what he says about the concept has a definite ring to it in mid-October 2016: “A conceited person could be set up easily and brought down accordingly. Let’s face it, a conceited person has a fake sense of self-worth, an inflated opinion of himself. A person like this can be controlled and manipulated completely if you know what buttons to push.” But then, once again, a song can be so much more than music: “The song rose up until I could read the look in its eyes. In the quiet of the evening I didn’t have to hunt far for it.”

Dylan left a few verses behind, including the sample in Chronicles that seems so darkly in synch with the day of the final debate: “There’s a whole lot of people dreaming tonight about the disease of conceit, whole lot of people screaming tonight about the disease of conceit. I’ll hump ya and I’ll dump ya and I’ll blow your house down. I’ll slice into your cake before I leave town. Pick a number — take a seat, with the disease of conceit.”

Elsewhere in Chronicles, Dylan shares the motive behind the dream: “You want to write songs that are bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen.”

“You’re a Serious Poet”

One of the virtues of Dylan’s memoir is that he tells you straight up where he’s coming from. The same chapter that describes graduation day in Princeton and his impatience with being labeled “the conscience of a generation” begins with a meeting with Ernest Hemingway’s old friend Archibald MacLeish. Though Dylan refers to him as Archie, he clearly respects the man he calls “the poet of night stones and the quick earth.” The amount of space he gives to MacLeish, a Librarian of Congress and three-time Pulitzer-Prize-winner with “the aura of a governor, a ruler,” has some relevance to the recent news from Stockholm. The two discuss Pound and Eliot, and MacLeish talks about Stephen Crane who sounds to Dylan like “the Robert Johnson of literature.” Mac
Leish tells Dylan to his face that he’s “a serious poet” whose work “would be a touchstone for generations,” a “postwar Iron Age poet” who had “seemingly inherited something metaphysical from a bygone era.”

It almost sounds as if Dylan’s anticipating the Nobel naysayers. He’d rather be a touchstone than a conscience, it seems.

Writers and Women

I just reread the closing paragraphs of the chapter in Chronicles about New York City in the early 60s. After passing the building Whitman lived and worked in, Dylan stands outside Poe’s house “staring mournfully up at the windows”: “The city was like some uncarved block without name or shape and it showed no favoritism. Everything was always new, always changing. It was never the same old crowd upon the streets.” In the chapter’s closing paragraph, Dylan describes stopping at a Spring Street coffee shop, where he gives special attention to the waitress at the counter with her “blue-black hair covered with a kerchief and piercing blue eyes …. I was wishing she’d pin a rose on me. She poured the steaming coffee and I turned back towards the street window. The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.”

One among Dylan’s stories-in-song where you can feel the presence of the Spring Street waitress is “Tangled Up in Blue,” in which a woman opens a book of poems written by an Italian poet from the 13th century and every word “rings true” and “glows like burning coal pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you.”

Going Places

Ray and Chloe, the couple Dylan lived with when he first came to New York, had a deep and unusual library that he made the most of (“I read a lot of the pages aloud and liked the sound of the words, the language”). Citing the Book of Martyrs, Tacitus, Thucydides, Gogol and Maupassant, Hugo and Dickens, he tells us he read all of Byron’s Don Juan and Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, and has companionable feelings for Balzac (“He wears a monk’s robe and drinks endless cups of coffee”). Speaking of Milton’s “Massacre in Piedmont,” he says, “It was like the folk song lyrics, even more elegant.” The Russians “had an especially dark presence.” He goes on to name Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, and later in the book refers to the entire album he recorded based on Chekhov that critics thought was “autobiographical,” most likely Blood On the Tracks.

The day Dylan left Ray and Chloe’s apartment for good, after Chloe “slapped some steak and onions” on his plate and said, “Here, it’s good for you,” he put on his hat and coat, grabbed his guitar and started bundling up. “Chloe knew that I was trying to get places. ‘Maybe someday your name will get around the country like wildfire,’ she’d say. ‘If you ever get a couple of hundred bucks, buy me something.’”

Two Riders Approaching

Lately I’ve been listening to some Dylan albums I know less well, like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), an early record I feel humbled by, having set it aside for decades due to my rock-besotted indifference to traditional folk songs; now the words and music and singing in “Hard Rain” (“I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken”) and “Masters of War” (“Like Judas of old you lie and deceive”) sound pure and prescient.

“I’ll never finish saying everything I feel,” Dylan tells Nat Hentoff in the liner notes, “but I’ll do my part to make some sense out of the way we’re living, and not living, now.”

I wonder what sense Dylan’s making of “the way we’re living, and not living, now.” Listening these days to “All Along the Watchtower” from John Wesley Harding (1968) gives me chills. The quibbles about Dylan’s qualifications for the Nobel remind me of the people who point out that princes can’t possibly be keeping the view along a watchtower. For a writer whose songs are bigger than life, the watchtower can be 10 miles long and a hundred miles wide if he so desires. And those two distant riders approaching as the wind begins to howl, what news are they bringing from the other side of the first week of November?