Sunday, February 24, 2008


You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks
They really found you.

High on the walls of my classroom I have a number of posters from the Apple "Think Different" series. My high school students generally recognize the portraits of Pablo Picasso, Amelia Earhart, and Mahatama Gandhi. A few may recognize Bob Dylan from the poster reproduced at above, but very few indeed, have spent any time listening to him, seen any footage of him in concert, or have any sense of how much of an impact his music had on his era—and, indirectly, our own— much less any sense of what it is that has made him an iconic American original for close to fifty years now. I've spent part of the day putting some materials together for them to look at, and I've been thinking again about Dylan.

There's a very interesting sequence in Martin Scorsese's film No Direction Home in which footage of Dylan singing "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" in concert is crosscut against an interview with Allen Ginsburg in which Ginsburg says

Around that time he asked me if I wanted to go with him to this gig in Chicago, did I want to come along. What struck me was that he was at one, or he became identical, with his breath, and Dylan had become a column of air, so to speak, at certain moments, where his total physical and mental focus was this single breath coming out of his body. He had found a way in public to be almost like a shaman, with all of his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath.

If you study the video footage from that performance, it's not hard to see what Ginsburg is talking about. The guitar unobtrusively sets the rhythmic and melodic framework for the words arise from within him and ride on his breath, pouring forth in long concatenated phrases delivered with an uncanny self-assurance and unity of impression. It's a performance, yes, but it doesn't seem like a performance, it seems more like an event of nature: it has the unity and integrity and trajectory of sound of a rainstorm or a set of waves breaking on the shore:

Ginsburg is right, I think, to connect it all to breath. Breath has always been understood as the vehicle of spirit: the Latin verb for "breathe" is "spiro," from which we get such words as respiration and expiration and aspiration and inspiration and, of course, spirit itself. If the goal of most spiritual practices is to bring the soul into contact with the divine, the two preferred means of doing so have been meditation, which begins with concern for and attention to breath, and prayer, which begins with a concern for and attention to finding the right words.

There are times when as individuals we are able to unify our person and our breath and our words and our sense of ourselves in such a way as to arrive at a certain kind of, well, integrity. Those moments are often and perhaps of necessity private moments. Our greatest artists are often the ones who find a way to manifest that kind of integrity, as Ginsburg says of Dylan, in public. Not always, of course, no one could bear that burden, but in their moments of artistic transcendence. In so doing they draw us out of ourselves and into something deeper. The paradox is that that something deeper is something that has been in us all along, latent and yet undeniable. Listening to Dylan I hear him, yes, but my felt experience is that he is embodying something already so deep within me that it comes as a kind of recognition. Even when the lyrics as such don't necessarily make paraphrasable sense, I know exactly what he is talking about. The words are, like breath, like prayer, the vehicle of spirit, and spirit lies within us.

The implicit challenge here is that of the example that he provides us. Here is a young man who at the age of twenty was a figure of national importance whose words helped to galvanize a generation of young people to "think different" about themselves, to challenge the accepted wisdom, to question authority, to create something new out of one's voice and one's actions and one's breath. Even when he went on to repudiate the music he made when he was younger, when he chose to slip out from under the burden of the expectations that the cultural critics placed upon him, when he changed and changed and changed again, his journey was driven by his determination to be true not to what others demanded of him, but of what he demanded of himself. If we never see his likes again, it will be no one's fault but our own.

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