by Perry Meisel
Over the years, describing this full effect has been less of a problem than defining it. No one knows where to start. The tradition of descriptive Dylan criticism is for this reason the most distinguished; it requires no choices and a surfeit of splendid adjectives. Dylan's earliest observers – Paul Williams is probably the best example – combined exquisite observation with an interest in fact. All of the biographies are reasonably good because their aims are limited to portraiture and storytelling. None presents a case for much of anything, including those by gifted critics like Robert Shelton and Bob Spitz. Interpretive books about Dylan are no match for them. Whether they come from the academy or the academy-in-exile of rock criticism, such books are reductive to a fault.
Even a brief survey is dispiriting. For Dylan's political observers, everything is social allegory. Mike Marqusee's Chimes of Freedom (2004) turns Dylan's work into a quest for the "unconventional"; David Hajdu s social history of Dylan in the Village, Positively Fourth Street (2001), turns it into a conversation among friends. For Dylan's formalist observers, things are taken in hand in less obvious ways. The goal of Neil Corcoran s effusive anthology of essays, Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors (2002), is self-congratulation. Betsy Bowden's Performed Literature (1982), originally a doctoral dissertation in the Berkeley English Department, regards Dylan as a performance artist. Bowden does not wish to be reductive, but her notion of performance casts Dylan as a performing poet whose words come first despite their rock-and-roll frame. The English composer Wilfrid Mellers's A Darker Shade of Pale (1984) remains singularly provocative for a good reason: it is holistic, half musicology and half poetic analysis. (Mellers read English as a Cambridge undergraduate.) But this division of Dylan in two undoes the sense of unity that Mellers wishes to create; he can find no dialectic in Dylan's double enterprise.
Perhaps one way to read Dylan, then, is not directly – not at first, anyway – but through his critics, particularly through their lapses. Reception histories are often unexpectedly revealing. More basic to Dylan's reception than the superiority of the descriptive to the analytic is that there is much agreement about Dylan's coherence as a majestic musical figure in his High or Classic phase. Everyone knows Dylan's early musical history. In his recent documentary, even the contentious Martin Scorsese suggests that the consensus about its shape and texture runs deep and true. We can feel the roots that clutch. A high-school rocker, Dylan became a ruggedly self-conscious folkie when he landed in Greenwich Village in 1961, exchanging Woody Guthrie for Muddy Waters and Dave Van Ronk for Bobby Vee. When he shocked the world with an electric band at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Dylan was only returning to the wider theater of rock and roll, which the folk mode had allowed him to reimagine as more porous musically and more amenable to lyrical prodding.
Half of the fans booed. For them, plugging in was a fall from grace. The music had nothing to do with this fall, and neither did the lyrics. So central is this moment in the history of rock and roll that it is easy to overlook its real significance: Dylan was being read typologically. In fact, the idea of the Christian Dylan was already in place at Newport in 1965, well before Dylan's actual conversion to Christianity in 1979. Typology is a pervasive mode of thinking, introduced by Tertullian's Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible and trickling down into popular assumption as the Church Fathers, beginning with Augustine, made it the best way to find hope and solace in life when faced with its difficulties. As a doctrine of interpretation, typology regards events of the Hebrew Bible as prophesying or prefiguring their repetition and completion in other spheres of action in the Christian Bible. "The persons and events of the Old Testament," wrote Erich Auerbach in 1944, "were prefigurations of the New Testament and its history of salvation." The Fall of Man from the Garden is its most familiar example; Christ's suffering both repeats and redeems it. Conversion narratives bring home the truth of typology for everyman. Augustine's great conversion scene occurs, in a splendid literary flourish, in a Roman garden. The pagan garden is fallen, but just as Augustine is redeemed by grace, so is the garden. Formally speaking, Augustine's conversion redeems his narrative's mise-en-scène and his soul in the same typological gesture. In other words, later events, in Scripture or in life, gain their meaning by being repetitions and fulfillments of earlier ones. Rhetorical rather than theological in its classical origins, and variable even in its later Christian schools of practice, figura nonetheless came to obey its typological shape. Auerbach's history of the use of figura in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages shows just how deeply typological thinking informs the foundations of Western judgment, giving to newly converted peoples such as the Goths and the Celts, for example, "a basic conception of history," as Auerbach puts it, superadded to and following from their new religious beliefs.
Typology, or figura, structures both Dylan's popular reception and his critical interpretation. Its key trope emerges again and again: the trope of the fall, which Dylan follows, or seems to follow, with exceeding regularity, like a Christian soldier marching, inevitably, to the earlier Jewish drum. The fall from acoustic to electric at Newport in 1965 repeated the biblical fall from innocence to sin. Whether or not Dylan could redeem himself from this fall became the paradigm for thinking about him, for lining up with or against the devil's party. It not only set a standard of judgment with which to follow Dylan's career, but also gained additional weight from Dylan's American context. Typology's most familiar American pattern is, to use Leo Marx's phrase, the fall from the garden to the machine, a form of both progress and lament every bit as double edged as the one Augustine secured. Its secular terms describe Dylan's own presumable fall – plugging in – but in doing so they reveal once again their religious roots. Countercultural thinking reflects this doubly sedimented history with particular vividness, setting nature against culture at the level of value no matter the idiosyncratic experience of individual listeners.
Nor, after Newport, was there long to wait for an encore. The following summer Dylan fell off his motorcycle near Woodstock and cracked a bone in his spine. The die was cast: Dylan was always falling. Scorsese's film concludes here, not because he wishes to serve this religious paradigm – he never does – but because he wants to describe its tenacity. In his view, John Wesley Harding (1968) is Dylan's last great recording, and one of its characters, Augustine, is as "alive," sings Dylan, "as you or me." Afterward came the Dylan Wars, wars of religion that have continued for almost forty years, pitting progress against decline, Dylan the mortal god against Dylan the mortal man. Forty years should be enough, at least according to the paradigm.
Is there any help for the Dylanologist amid these typological ruins? The myth of Dylan requires Dylan to fall in order to continue being a myth. This is an apparatus, obviously, not an assessment. Marqusee is a typologist, even though he approves of Newport; his paradise is the freedom that Dylan leaves behind when he becomes a Christian. Bowden is a typologist; her paradise is Dylan's putative expressiveness. Mellers is a typologist; his paradise is a Europe with blue notes in its own folk music. There are alternatives to the lapsarian account of a fall from grace. The first Dylanologist, A. J. Weberman, scoured Dylan's garbage on MacDougal Street for clues to the meaning of Dylan s work. Weberman was a phenomenologist, not a typologist. Dylan chased him away nonetheless, objecting to Weberman's assumptions about intent: they did not take the unconscious into account. But Weberman came back, again and again, sometimes with demonstrators, sometimes with coffee. Michael Gray, Weberman's upscale counterpart, an academic-in-exile living in the English countryside, also prefers information to revelation, although of a tidier kind. Gray's encyclopedic Song and Dance Man III (2000) is superficially thorough, cataloguing Dylan's various sources as they flow through his songs and anatomizing both lyrics and music against this historical scrim. Weberman may have been tough, but Gray is a disciple of F. R. Leavis. Gray, like Leavis before him, believes that a careful reading of great poets will ensure the health of culture. For Leavis, it was T. S. Eliot; for Gray, it is Dylan. Almost typological, but not quite. For Weberman and Gray alike, a figure like Dylan is worthy of studious love not because of his pieties but because of his excess.
If typology is reductive, however, excess is intractable. Gray has no argument to make; Weberman had arguments only on the street. All is lost. What is the pilgrim to do? Is there another trend in Dylan's reception besides typology and excess? Two figures are left standing, and they predominate as readers of Dylan because they are the only ones with unified critical programs and sustained critical approaches. Dylan's best reception is the imaginary conversation between them. One is an academic; one is an academic-in-exile. One is a close reader; one is a cultural critic. One is interested in the lyrics; one is more engaged with the music. But they share a diligence and a penchant for systematic thinking that makes their ostensibly different approaches to Dylan two parts of a larger, single perspective.
The academic-in-exile is Greil Marcus, a critic for whom all emanations of American culture are the same. Mystery Train (1975) established this critical terrain long before Marcus embarked on his study of Elvis (1991) and on his first study of Dylan (1997). In Mystery Train, Robert Johnson and Jonathan Edwards resemble one another because they share a preoccupation with solitary reflection. So, one inevitably observes, does everybody else in American culture, from Thomas Jefferson to Madonna. One appreciates the permission to be self-evident, but too little regard for context obscures the fact that such similarities arise from different historical circumstances. In Mystery Train, Marcus's ease of purpose allows him to range widely over the cultural terrain without being specific. Marcus's cultural criticism shares the goals but not the procedures of the academic New Historicism with which it is contemporary. Rock criticism recapitulates literary criticism's modes of reading, and one of the reasons for this is simple: many jazz and rock critics have studied in major departments of English at defining moments in the history of literary-critical method. The early jazz critic Martin Williams learned New Critical close reading at the University of Pennsylvania; the rock critic Christgau learned close reading decades later at Dartmouth University. Marcus himself may have fled graduate school at UC Berkeley, but he got a sip of early New Historicism when he was there as an undergraduate.
It is only the New Critical approach to Dylan, however, that has an overtly academic affiliation. Its avatar is Christopher Ricks. Although Ricks has lectured on Dylan for many years, his book, Dylan's Visions of Sin, appeared in the United States only in 2004. Ricks is most concerned with the extraordinary perfection of Dylan's work when it is viewed simply as verse. Unlike the many rock critics who eschew an affiliation with the academy, Ricks is an ex-Cambridge don who now teaches at Boston University. He is a fine critic of English and American poetry, particularly of Milton, and one whose work has remained useful over the years despite historical changes in critical method. The resonances of Marcus – and the grander tones of Dylan himself –stand out best if Ricks introduces them.
Ricks's attraction to Dylan is idiosyncratic, an outgrowth of his love for poetry, not for rock and roll. He isn't really a rock critic, but despite his obsequious charm and disingenuous avuncularity – he must appeal to the rock critic as best he can – Ricks has a good deal to say. He makes no apologies for not talking very much about Dylan's music. Odd as it may seem, he does not regard it as his job. With the enthusiasm of an honors schoolboy, Ricks reads Dylan as poet, and in enormous technical detail, even if his exegesis – more so than that of Milton, Keats, and Tennyson in his earlier books – is often tiresome and unnecessarily digressive. He shows how richly structured Dylan's verse, considered as verse, really is. Dylan is not only a genuine English poet, argues Ricks, but as major a poet as Shakespeare or Milton.
Although it is grandiose, Ricks s claim is less implausible than it may appear. Ricks never explains why he believes Dylan to be comparable to Shakespeare or Milton – he thinks that showing us the often astonishing patterns in Dylan's writing is proof enough – but the reasons for the comparison reside in a simple assumption. It is an assumption to which Ricks himself may or may not adhere because it takes us well beyond the study of poetry itself, and makes any claim for Dylan as poet alone inexact in conception. However stunning his verse may be, Dylan's own highly organized materials come from a quantitatively larger and denser database than that of literature alone. They include musical and literary tradition, as well as the iconography of the singer-star, a very different and expanded kind of achievement compared to that of the traditional poet, playwright, actor, or musician. With the exception of Freud, who mixes literature with science and philosophy rather than with music and iconography, Dylan's only technical counterpart in this quantitative respect is Shakespeare, who recombines, with a wider formal scope than the capacious Milton, more received knowledge than any writer before Freud. That Dylan combines musical and literary achievement might lead a critic less modest than Ricks to even more grandiose conclusions.
Ricks's belief that apology is unnecessary serves him well. It allows him to work unimpeded by anxiety or by critical polemic, and to begin where we all begin with Dylan: our impressions. We all have our favorite Dylan tunes, our own sense of what a Dylan band sounds like, or what Bob sounds like bent over his guitar, alone. There is no "white-hot center" to Dylan, to use Paul Nelson's words (1976), but a specific "world of Dylan" that each of us has in our minds. No wonder it is folly to give pride of place to one phase of Dylan's career over another. No moment in Dylan's itinerary is any more or less Dylanesque than any other. The Christian conceit in Ricks's title – Dylan's Visions of Sin – has no reductive impetus; its only job is to get Ricks going. Ricks is not a typologist; he is a dogged reader. No matter its vicissitudes, Dylan's imagination, he shows, is highly organized, and works on the same principles, early and late. They proceed from a formal predilection in Dylan's way of writing songs, especially Dylan's use of rhyme. The play of masculine and feminine rhymes, for example, throws a stutter into Dylan's language that is unusual for a poet, but compelling for a rocker. Masculine rhymes land on the downbeat. But feminine rhymes – participles, for example, or rhymes using the copula "is" – fall a syllable short of a line's last poetic foot. This allows, of all things, a syncopated upbeat – a rock-and-roll beat--to emerge in the silence so created.
Rhyme, however, has another pattern that serves Dylan's purposes even more: rhyme's curious way of creating repetition and difference in sound simultaneously. Ricks calls these moments "imperfect alignments," and argues that they represent Dylan's central formal strategy as a poet. Dylan's songs, says Ricks, are "founded on ... deviations, where a pattern is created and respected but then finds itself modified." Dylan's songs modify their patterns "by waiving," says Ricks, the "antithetical predictability" that they set up. On "Lay, Lady, Lay," from Nashville Skyline (1969), "a perfect continuity is intimated" by "lay" and "lay"; it foreshadows a presumable union between the poet-singer and his beloved. But then a singular pair of non-rhymes ("begin" and "love") breaks up this expectation in the third stanza. "Day of the Locusts," from New Morning (1970), where Dylan pronounces "singing" as "sanging," is a denser example. Here the same word does different things at the same time: Dialect ("sanging") exudes the raw timelessness of folk tradition, while usage ("sing" and "sang" are different tenses) distinguishes clearly between past and present. Ricks can also resurrect less canonical songs from the later period of Dylan's career to show Dylan's continuity of purpose. "Disease of Conceit," on Oh Mercy (1989), can serve Ricks as a Dylan template, too. The song asks an instructive question, which Ricks translates as "How do you vary the unrelenting?" This is not a self-help question, argues Ricks; it is a technical question that reveals what is interesting about rhyming, particularly Dylanesque rhyming. The song's anaphoric repetitions – "down the highway," "down the line," "down for the count" – carry "differences of weight," shifting their presumable equivalence in meaning on the very ground of their similarity in sound. "Do Right to Me Baby," on Slow Train Running (1979), illustrates what else Ricks has discovered: The pairings "touch/touched" and "judge/judged" are not, as semantic items, identical either. "Judging" and "touching" are dissimilar.
The repetitions of which rhyme is composed, in other words, are never exact. Rhyme is a good example of what Ricks calls (simplifying Wordsworth) "similitude and dissimilitude." The difference between "similitude" and "dissimilitude" is the "fraction," as Ricks puts it, that guides Dylan's poetic project. But it guides more than that. Beneath Ricks's trilling lurks an argument of very considerable power. Dylan's rhymes and the verbal arabesques to which they give rise are a miniature version of the wider patterns that organize Dylan's work as a whole. These do not include theme –Ricks remains a consistent formalist – but they do include the last thing one expects Ricks to explain: the relation of the music to the lyrics. In Dylan's songs, Ricks suggests, the music searches for the poem even as the poem searches for its music. The perception of "similititude and dissimilitude" is the key to this relationship. "Dylan is always," Ricks claims, "playing his timing against his rhyming." "Dylan's vocal punctuation," he says, "is dramatically other than that of his page." Ricks argues that Dylan's voice is, as a rule, "thrillingly disagreeing with itself." This disagreement creates an effect that Eliot called, in relation to Swinburne's poetry, "diffuseness." Ricks acknowledges that in Dylan's songs, as in Hardy's poems, this "diffuseness" has a technical spur. Obliquity or directness of pronunciation are both open to – are functions of – vocal performance, even in the reader's mind. Dylan's songs juxtapose voice and page, warble and diphthong, yaw and pentameter.
Ricks is no typologist, and, for him, such juxtapositions do not point to an opposition between nature and culture. Dylan weaves the elements of song – text and voice, poetry and music – into endlessly "imperfect alignments" in order to generate a hum of multiple relationships among them. "Melisma" is the technical name for the "fraction" or difference between performance and the page that sets it all in motion – "Something in the timing," according to Ricks, "that cannot be rendered by placing and space." The difference between text and performance is the subject of Betsy Bowden's Performed Literature, but melisma plays no part in her analysis. She believes that the text is somehow "realized," as though it were a stable object subject to transmutation. For Ricks, by contrast, stable textuality is always the function of indirectness or "diffuseness." "Otherness" – a "dissimilitude" – is the perpetual shadow against which "similitude" comes into the light.
Melisma offers a way to understand the reciprocal relation between Dylan's words and music, between sound and sense. Dylan's voice is not simply an expressive medium for his page, nor is his page simply a dirigible excuse for him to sing. Rather, meaning emerges from the differential weave between text and voice. "Love Minus Zero" on Bringing It All Back Home (1965) is a good example: "My love, she's like some raven / At my window with a broken wing." The grammar of this sentence remains unclear until the last word of the second line. Will "broken" modify "window," leading us to expect "pane" at the end of the line instead of "wing"? Grammatical relationships among words are suspended, as in Latin, until the sentence is finished. We are most familiar with this kind of problem phonetically alone in a poet like Hardy. Thematically, we are most familiar with it in Whitman, who dissolves the very self he sings as the best way to celebrate it. Dylan, in the spirit of Whitman, does the same, dissolving signifier and self alike into the weave of language that gives each their moorings. Here, too, is the secret connection of aestheticism to historicism: The dissolving aesthetic self dissolves as a rule into the components that make up its specificity as a historical subject.
Dylan's Latinate syntax recalls Milton's, but this does not prompt Ricks to link his study of Dylan with his first and best book, Milton's Grand Style (1963). Ricks's Milton book successfully countered a tradition of Milton criticism that acknowledged Milton's power while denying his exactitude. Ricks showed that Milton's language in Paradise Lost is, like the language of Dylan's songs, deeply and delicately systematic. Both poetic systems are based on exposing how easily language can shift its sense, and both topple the pretenses of the typologies that try to repress this linguistic play or, as Ricks calls it, "sliding." For Milton, this "sliding" is a basic consequence of the fall; for Dylan, it suggests that there was never an Eden from which to fall. Like Dylan, who, as an artist, says Ricks, takes "the path of most resistance," Milton, said Ricks in 1963, "writes at his very best only when something prevents him from writing with total directness." This "something" is "sliding," which shows how "directness," like Wordsworth's "similitude," is a function of indirectness or "dissimilitude." Milton's "greatest effects," like Dylan's own, "are produced," says Ricks, "when he is compelled to be oblique as well as direct." Milton (whose father was a composer) does within poetry what Dylan goes on to accomplish in the relation between poetry and music. Both Milton and Dylan are of the devil's party because their poetic practices deconstruct the typology they mean to serve. This is not a mere effect of either s work, but the decided focus of each one. In Milton's case, it proceeds from his antithetical relation to the history of Christian doctrine. Language, not just poetic language, is necessarily fallen. What are the terms of its use when figuring divine or just things? In Dylan's case, this focus proceeds from his antithetical relation to the history of rock and roll. How can you chant freedom on the shoulders of muses like Woody Guthrie or Muddy Waters? The problem is one of influence, and, like Milton, Dylan can find freedom only in tradition.
Musically, melisma is the source of Dylan's debt to gospel, soul, and early rock and roll. For Little Richard, bending the signifier applies equally to both sense and tonality. Rock and roll is not a semiotics of drama, in which performance interprets the text. Here the point is to sunder altogether the link between signifier and signified, although only – inevitably – to rejoin them. The arbitrariness of their relationship goes hand in hand with its social determination. This form of irony is particularly African American, especially raw in a majestic figure like Otis Redding. The minstrel myth of the "natural" black man is both sustained and exposed by the easy rupture of sound from sense. How do you pronounce "dock of the bay"? How many syllables does each word contain? What phonetic requirements are necessary for them to emerge as phonemes? Changing sound while retaining sense – Redding's song paints a memorable scene – is both outrageous and precise. The social norms of language are the only norms it has; all the rest is silence.
Melisma – this unmooring of sound from a meaning that is left in place – brings us not only to the heart of Dylan's technique. It also raises difficult issues surrounding Dylan and his cultural status. Dylan may be "diffuse," as Ricks says he is, but he is also, in this sense, well, dirty. Not just his voice, but his clothes, his hair, his manners. He is one of Whitman's "roughs." But even his offenses to civility hold in prudent reserve a more recalcitrant one buried deep in the American grain. While it may be a critical commonplace to assign the cause of racism to sexuality, racism is more primarily a question of cleanliness, and of the establishment of proper borders. Anthropologists like Mary Douglas have shown that it is the fear of otherness that prompts cultures to indulge in rituals of purification. The segregated water fountains of the American South made this link abundantly clear. Psychologically, such practices create a common identity or sense of sameness by stamping someone or something else as dirty or unclean. Jacques Derrida likes to pun on the word proper – what is clean is also what is one's own. Dylan's scholarship is good; he names a recent album Love and Theft (2001) after the title of Eric Lott's deconstructive history of minstrelsy (1993). Lott shows that, after 1830, blackness had to be invented as an "other" in order to produce the "sameness" of whiteness. This hidden dynamic is the abiding irritant in American life and the one that Dylan, chief among rockers, has addressed by making miscegenation or hybridity the technical precondition of his sound.
If melisma – the difference between performance and page – raises questions about signification, it also raises questions about the status of the singing self, or, rather, about the self that sings. What is it? This is the bailiwick of cultural criticism and the subject of Marcus's most recent study of Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone (2005). Invisible Republic (1997), Marcus's study of Dylan's Basement Tapes (released in 1976), began the trend in Marcus's career that has crystallized in Like a Rolling Stone: the focus on a single text. Here the text is Dylan's 1965 hit single. Marcus's strategy creates a singular critical effect, suggesting his new theory of Dylan, which, however uneven its gait, is far more systematic than any Marcus has presented before. Because Invisible Republic involved Dylan's recuperation from his motorcycle accident, it flirted with typology. But as a result of its greater sensitivity to form, Like a Rolling Stone is not typological at all. Its descriptive terminology has a precise, analytic power. Like Ricks, Marcus is interested in Dylan's "diffuseness," although from a musical rather than a poetic perspective.
Marcus's book evokes the musty recording session of "Like a Rolling Stone." Key to Marcus's description of the song is that it is "unstable." In the context of its later history, the song is always being revised when it is it heard again, read, inevitably, against a fugitive original hearing. Marcus's book, in other words, reconsiders something that is itself always being reconsidered. This is a superb mode of critical plotting. In order to produce the effect that will vouchsafe his contention, Marcus reduplicates in his own text what happens to Dylan's song over time. What is particularly illuminating about the approach is that it begins with a typological assumption – the belief that "Like a Rolling Stone" is "the greatest record ever made," the heart and soul of Dylan's work – that it goes on to disrupt, again and again. The superlative is what most superlatives tend to be: a type, as it were, of the typological, a very particular kind of rhetorical assessment and critical valuation. Unlike comparatives, superlatives posit an origin from which anything else is a fall, judged historically. The "greatest" is, as a trope, the baseline of history, not history itself, its defining rather than differential measure. For Marcus, "Like a Rolling Stone" is Dylan at his purest or most exactly original. The song is central because it is "the secret" of Dylan's "kingdom."
But the mechanism of listening that Marcus identifies – the way in which later hearings redact earlier ones in order for both past and present listenings to take their proper, and unstable, places – makes such claims inappropriate. "Like a Rolling Stone" is significant not because it is Dylan when he is most himself, but because it capaciously exhibits the spectrum of Dylan's influences and the range of his purposes. It is just this capaciousness that puts in question the song's centrality. The song's porousness overwhelms and renders tentative any singularity it may be said to have. No wonder Marcus describes the many changes to which the song is subject, both on repeated hearings of the recording and when it is performed live. Such repetitions of the song are "utterly displacing," making the song the same and not the same. These changes are Marcus's real subject, not simply the song and the session at which it was made. Whatever these displacements do, they never allow the song to "play" simply "as a memory." Something else always happens.
Marcus refers to Freud's notion of the uncanny to describe this double effect, in which something is at once familiar and strange. Adept at descriptive criticism, Marcus goes on to show what mechanism in Dylan's work determines this effect or feeling, and how it is identical with both theme and technique. It is, in Wordsworth's own words, "similitude in dissimilitude." The Freudian name for this mechanism is deferred action. Later events and impressions revise earlier ones, making memory a remastering, not a recording. In Freud, the primal scene the Wolf Man observed as a child becomes sexual only after he has gained a knowledge of sex and is able to revise the memory accordingly. This is typology demystified. Freud's target, like Dylan's, is a central interpretive paradigm in Western culture that he wishes to reveal and disrupt; targeting it reflects both the seriousness and the Jewishness of Freud and Dylan alike. In Marcus's Freudian reading, Dylan's song, like the Wolf Man's primal scene, is put in place by its later hearings over the years, not, as in a Christian reading, for once and for all in a moment of determining grace. The song can remain the "greatest" only if, like the more agonistic or classical epic hero, it can be judged again and again.
This approach has its advantages. The early doesn't really predict the later; the later requires it to have occurred. It is a send-up of typology, a revelation, not of its truth, but of its mechanism. The early – as it is in Christianity, too – becomes both foundational and obsolete. This insight animates Eliot's familiar description of poetic history: "When a new work of art is created...something...happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it." The endless changes that "Like a Rolling Stone" undergoes as one listens to it over time illustrate what both Freud and Eliot describe: the emergence of things against and only against a field of time. The present reinvents what precedes it: "The future," sings Dylan on Love and Theft, "is already a thing of the past." The famous lines on "My Back Pages" on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) describe this structure exactly: "I was so much older then, / I'm younger than that now." Any moment in Dylan is provisional rather than definitive, indexical rather than absolute.
Like Shakespeare's art, and like Milton's, Dylan's is not one of statement. It is an art of "instability," to use Marcus's word, or of endlessly modulated "diffuseness," to use Eliot's. Like Shakespeare's plays, Dylan's songs are subject to any number of possible readings, all of them, however plausible, limited by their wish to foreclose further interpretation. Very recent, very readable, and very droll, Dylan's autobiographical Chronicles (2004) is both a description of this kind of textual behavior and a fine example of it. Chronicles does what Marcus cannot do in a wholly conscious way: dramatize Dylan's own labor. Of course, Dylan is not wholly conscious of himself either, but that is just the point. Dylan, like his critics, must also take himself as his own subject. He refers to other critics of his work as though he were part of their scholarly community. This is deadpan Dylan at its best, ironic and straightforward at the same time. Chronicles is important not because it is Dylan himself who is writing, but for the opposite reason. The man who has the seat on the stage is, like his critics, scratching his head, too. Dylan must also approach himself as a critic, puzzled, on the outside looking in. Even Bob Dylan wants to know who Bob Dylan is. The lesson of Chronicles is that because of the intractable porousness of his work, Dylan is as distant from himself as the rest of us are.
Dylan's work both is and is about this dislocation within the self, especially as he grows older. Dislocation is not inhibitive; it is enabling and productive. Temporal movement or deferred action is Dylan's active principle both poetically and musically, the very nature of his labor. No wonder Dylan, Marcus, and Ricks all recur to the uncanniness of hearing old Dylan songs played in concert many years later. That experience is the most palpable example of the self-revision with which Dylan is concerned. This apparently formalist assessment sharpens our sense of his central theme: the passage of time. This theme has become especially important in Dylan's later career. "It's not dark yet," he sings on Time Out of Mind (1997), "but it's gettin' there." Dylan's achievement is in league with time, not time's rival or enemy. As with different performances of the same songs, says Dylan, "circumstances never repeat themselves." Neither does the self that they endlessly reinvent. Dylan's career is not one of progression or decline but of retrospection. This is not a Christian or typological Dylan; this is a Freudian – a Jewish, a Talmudic – Dylan.
For a text that documents how the unconscious works, Chronicles is supremely self-conscious. Self-revision – and the porousness that requires it in order for both the self and the work to cohere – is Dylan's endless preoccupation. Whether he is reading himself or others, Dylan describes diffuseness in both music and poetry with nonchalant ease. Roy Orbison, he says, writes songs that have "songs within songs"; Dylan himself also writes songs that contain any number of possible relationships among their elements harmonically. As in Orbison, chord progressions inevitably stir unexpected relationships with harmonic patterns not included in the song's text. They also make new intertextual connections. "Blowin' in the Wind" is a previously unwritten bridge for "We Shall Overcome." An example of Dylan's determination by folk tradition, the song is also an example of Dylan's debt to Buddy Holly. Like Orbison, for whom he was the principal precursor, Holly wrote tunes defined by their propensity to spin such additional harmonic implications. That they spill into the songs of others is another example of their unlikely labor. Poetically, Dylan's songs do the same thing, both individually and as a body of work. An appropriate analogue here is D. H. Lawrence's poetry. Amit Chaudhuri has suggested that the chief activity of Lawrence s poems is their own rewriting, a motivating element in Lawrence's poems that Chaudhuri calls, following Ruskin, the Gothic. Dylan shares this stance with Lawrence and with Ruskin himself, the master of self-revision in English.
This instability has its technical counterpart in Dylan's deliberate use of melisma. In Chronicles, Dylan recalls discovering "a new vocal technique" in 1987, but this phrase is only a clarification of how he'd been singing since way back when, including on "Like a Rolling Stone." Dylan is quick to distinguish this "new technique" from "improvisation," which it somewhat resembles. As in scat, there are phonetic units to honor, not just phonemic ones. The point, however, is not to worry about the link or suture with what is signified, but to let it bleed. This blues technique is, in fact, melisma – the bending of the signifier, whether in pain, delight, or some combination of the two. Chronicles also provides an explanation of the anxiety that arose between the young Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, which was about hijacking melisma. Van Ronk, observes Dylan, "never phrased the same thing the same way twice." The only other nonjazz singer to merit this description in Chronicles is Woody Guthrie, who "would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it." Here the canonical precursor Guthrie masks the more burdensome, and accidental, precursor Van Ronk, who happened to be a contemporary.
Dylan resolves a larger problem of influence in a similar way, once again because of the advantage that retrospection and self-revision provide. When he arrived in New York in 1961, he traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic one. This was not the bland decision of a folk enthusiast, but a keenly dialectical act. It reversed Muddy Waters's founding gesture in blues history when Waters moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1944 and exchanged his acoustic guitar for an electric one. His transition to electric was not a fall from grace, but a liberation from a pernicious myth – half sentimental, half oppressive – about how natural black life is in the South. Dylan turned Waters on his head. His acoustic guitar symbolized a musical history with which Waters himself was unconcerned, and one that allowed Dylan to reimagine nature through the lens of an additional kind of folk stance: the tradition of Guthrie and Van Ronk that stretched back to English and Celtic hymn and jig. (These regionalist and religious traditions count also among Shakespeare's sources.) Dylan's history, including the history of poetry in English to which it is adjacent and which it informs, is the supplement Dylan carries with him when he goes on to negate his negation of Waters with a screaming blues band of his own at Newport in 1965. Rhythm and blues had already synthesized blues, jig, and hymn into one music, as had country swing, but without Dylan's literary perspicacity. Bluesman and Anglophile, Dylan brings rock and roll into its classic phase by becoming wholly transatlantic. At Newport, the dialectic is complete. He crosses the Atlantic of the Middle Passage with the Atlantic of the Grand Tour.
Who, then, is Dylan himself? The one who sings or the one who writes? The electric Dylan or Dylan unplugged? Is the real Dylan the one at Newport in 1965, or the Dylan on Scorsese's screen in 2005? The real Dylan is both at once, especially when we see him at Newport in Scorsese's film. If Marcus deconstructs Dylan by showing him to be a weave of past and present, Ricks deconstructs Dylan by showing neither Dylan's words nor Dylan's music to exist except in their interrelationship. The endless rearticulation of these relationships is Dylan's chief activity. The later Dylan is beneficiary to the clearings felled by Dylan early. It is one measure of Dylan's power that he inspires critics like Marcus and Ricks to write powerful books about him.
Originally published in Raritan, Winter 2007