Monday, May 18, 2009

Dylan's Virtues

From a recent profile of Bob Dylan (who has a new record out):
After that evening’s show at the Heineken Music Hall — at around 11:30 p.m. — I interview Dylan again. Because it is Easter weekend, I decide to push him on the importance of Christian Scripture in his life. “Well, sure,” he says, “that and those other first books I read were biblical stuff. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. Those were the books that I remembered reading and finding religion in. Later on, I started reading over and over again Plutarch and his Roman Lives. And the writers Cicero, Tacitus and Marcus Aurelius. … I like the morality thing. People talk about it all the time. Some say you can’t legislate morality. Well, maybe not. But morality has gotten kind of a bad rap. In Roman thought, morality is broken down into basically four things. Wisdom, Justice, Moderation and Courage. All of these are the elements that would make up the depth of a person’s morality. And then that would dictate the types of behavior patterns you’d use to respond in any given situation. I don’t look at morality as a religious thing.”
Now, there is a lot that could be said about this. What precisely he's trying to say here is, needless to say, less than entirely clear. Indeed, it's never an easy matter to untangle Dylan's utterances – although he is making more sense here than he often does. (One prominent Orthodox theologian wrote me a few years ago to ask what I made of Dylan's recent lyric "I been to St. Herman's church and I've said my religious vows." My reply was that I wouldn't advise making too much of it, given that the rhyming verse was "I've sucked the milk out of a thousand cows.") Is he simply trying to avoid a direct statement on his current religious beliefs? Is his point primarily to separate religion from morality, or simply to rehabilitate the notion of morality? I doubt we'll ever know, and I rather Dylan himself knew exactly what he was trying to say. All that said, I can't help but register my admiration for any rock star who can correctly list the four classical (or cardinal) virtues.

One of the most intelligent pieces about Dylan I've read, this review by Louis Menard of a collection of interviews with Dylan, makes an essential point about making sense of this odd man. Excerpt:
The discrepancy between Dylan the interview subject and Dylan the musician is not an artifact of celebrity. It seems to have been part of the deal from the start, and it’s almost the first thing that people who knew him mention when they’re asked about their initial impression. “I wanted to meet the mind that created all those beautiful words,” Judy Collins told David Hajdu for “Positively 4th Street,” his delightful group biography of Dylan, Richard Fariña, and Joan and Mimi Baez. “We set something up, and we had coffee, and when it was over, I walked away, thinking, ‘The guy’s an idiot. He can’t make a coherent sentence.’ ” The first time Joan Baez heard Dylan sing one of his own songs—he played “With God on Our Side” for her—she was floored. “I never thought anything so powerful could come out of that little toad,” she said. She proceeded to fall madly in love with him, and bought him a toothbrush.

People who have this experience with Dylan tend to conclude that he is a complicated human being, but the logical conclusion is the opposite one. Shelton, for his biography, interviewed a man named Harry Weber, who knew, and didn’t especially like, Dylan in Minneapolis, back in 1959, when Dylan was a student (sort of) at the University of Minnesota. “Dylan is a genius, that’s all,” Weber said. “He is not more complex than most people; he is simpler.” On most subjects that normal people talk about, Dylan seems either not to have views or to have views indistinguishable from the views of everyone else who’s hanging around the coffeehouse. His conversation is short and not always sweet. But there is one topic he does like. He is a songwriter. He likes to talk about songs. When interviewers figure this out, the work gets easier.
As long as we're on the subject of Dylan generally and Dylan interviews specifically, I feel compelled to cite an interview from February, 1966, in which he addresses the point of wearing one's hair long:
The thing that most people don't realize is that it's warmer to have long hair. Everybody wants to be warm. People with short hair freeze easily. Then they try to hide their coldness, and they get jealous of everybody that's warm. Then they become either barbers or Congressmen. A lot of prison wardens have short hair. Have you ever noticed that Abraham Lincoln's hair was much longer than John Wilkes Booth's?
Asked if he thought President Lincoln wore his hair long to keep his head warm, Dylan replied:
Actually, I think it was for medical reasons, which are none of my business. But I guess if you figure it out, you realize that all of one's hair surrounds and lays on the brain inside your head. Mathematically speaking, the more of it you can get out of your head, the better. People who want free minds sometimes overlook the fact that you have to have an uncluttered brain. Obviously, if you get your hair on the outside of your head, your brain will be a little more freer. But all this talk about long hair is just a trick. It's been thought up by men and women who look like cigars - the anti-happiness committee. They're all freeloaders and cops. You can tell who they are: They're always carrying calendars, guns or scissors. They're all trying to get into your quicksand. They think you've got something. I don't know why Abe Lincoln had long hair.
As a matter of fact, support for at least one or two points that Dylan makes here (about the connection between hair and warmth and brains) can be found in the prayers for the tonsure at the service of Baptism:
Master, Lord our God, who honoured mortals with your image, furnishing them with a rational soul and a comely body, so that the body might serve the rational soul, you placed the head at the very top and in it you planted the majority of the senses, which do not interfere with one another, while you covered the head with hair so as not to be harmed by the changes of the weather, and you fitted all the limbs most suitably to each one, so that through them all they might give thanks to you, the master craftsman.
I've sometimes thought, certainly a bit perversely, that Dylan's arguments could be used in the debate about whether Orthodox clergy should wear their hair and beards long. It would, at the very least, add a bit of color to the discussion.

UPDATE: Aaron, in the comments, rightly chides me for my failure to link to Esteban's relevant (and wonderfully discursive) post.


aaronandbrighid said...

I was hoping you'd link to Esteban's interesting comments about Dylan here:

aaronandbrighid said...

Oh yeah, and Dylan's list of the 4 virtues was indeed impressive. I'm surprised that there's a rock star who can list any virtues at all!

Felix Culpa said...

I think rock stars generally prefer to follow Mae West's immortal maxim: "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."

Esteban Vázquez said...

Paul Simon is infinitely superior to Robert Zimmerman, as I shall conclusively demonstrate once my wretched keyboard regains functionality.

aaronandbrighid said...

Esteban> Speaking musically, I suppose I'm not qualified to judge. But I do wonder: can Paul Simon (I'm sure Art Garfunkel can) list the 4 cardinal virtues?

Felix Culpa said...

While I'm sure that Art has encountered these virtues in a book or two he's read, my impression is that he'd be too stoned much of the time to remember.

(What's the point of reading all those books if you're going to wipe out your short-term memory simultaneously?)

aaronandbrighid said...


Esteban Vázquez said...

Father> Your impression would be quite right. I imagine the point of those extensive book lists is to have a tangible record of everything he can't remember.

Aaron> Since, as you know, Paul Simon is the Chief of Two Witnesses, I am quite certain that he could recite several lists of vices and virtues, both Ancient and Medieval, and discuss their various relationships with Dante's schemata of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in The Divine Comedy. He also sweats rose water and never gets food particles stuck in his teeth.

JaySchiffres said...

Bob Dylan has been pulling our legs for years. To paraphrase Robert Frost

It takes all kinds of schooling
To understand my kind of fooling

Enough Said

Jay Schiffres

JaySchiffres said...

Bob has been fooling us for years, in short to paraphrase Robert Frost

It takes all kinds of in and outdoor schooling to understand his kind of fooling.

enough Said
Jay Schiffres