Friday, April 6, 2012

Dance. Dylan. Dionysus.*


One of the dangers of overexposure is that even what began as something startlingly original comes to be seen and felt as cultural cliché. Familiarity breeds contempt, which in turn breeds neglect, not to say amnesia. From the point of view of 1980, much less 2012, the very name of Bob Dylan elicits a thoroughly predictable range of stock responses, at least in those who remember him at all. (This is despite the fact that he is, amazingly, still writing and performing.) Songs that at one time were anthems are now thought of as being quaint, comic, even trite. It's hard even for diehard fans to listen to "Blowin' in the Wind" without a tinge of embarrassment, the internal equivalent of a patronizing smile. And perhaps that's well-deserved. Even Dylan at one point said he wished he had never written that song. "Mr. Tambourine Man" is a different case entirely. Yes, just the mention of the title conjures up visions of a longhaired guy on a barstool in a tie-dye shirt playing a guitar to an audience of stoners. But try wait. Before you blow him off, take another look the some of the words he actually wrote in that song:

…take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

If there is a more elegantly modulated and evocative sequence of sequence of words in popular music, I don't know what it would be. (Nominations, anyone?) There's a certain state of mind that each of us experiences—some more than others, perhaps, but nevertheless a universal longing—that responds to the gap between what our lives are at a given moment and what we might wish them to be.

Digression I: When I was growing up—this was in the early 50's—my mother was told, by her doctor no less, that she was working too hard. He suggested that she take a cigarette break several times a day. So she got in the habit of sitting down for a smoke. I can still remember that moment, when, heaving herself up from her chair, she would smile somewhat ruefully and, presumably quoting someone—although I haven't been able to find out who—say "Duty calls, and I must answer." I got the part about duty calling, even then. What used to give me, and I must admit, occasionally still does give me pause, is the "must" part. Must we in fact always answer?

The sixties are famous for being the time when the "must" was called into question. The paradigmatic example was the response to Lyndon Johnson and his call to duty in the Vietnam war, which was, for a significant and highly visible minority (who were later chastised by those who thought of themselves as "the silent majority") was "Hell, no, we won't go." Why not? Well, there were a lot of reasons, some political, some personal, some philosophical. But there was also this gut feeling, enhanced no doubt by the ready availability of psychotropic drugs, that there was a higher value than duty, a higher principle than the reality principle. Why be realistic when you can be ecstatic? Why go for delayed gratification when the only time you ever really get to experience is now? That's the layered sentiment that Dylan captures here, the mixture of elevated awareness and longing for escape, combined with the impulse "to dance beneath the diamond sky" forgetting about (the imperatives of) today until tomorrow.

Not that this impulse of is exactly new to human experience. The ancient Greeks embodied the opposing human tendencies in the two of the primary figures in the pantheon: Apollo, god of the sun (and therefore of reason and sober, mature judgment), and Dionysus, the god of wine and impulse and oblivion. The very word "ecstatic" is a Greek coinage: ek stasis means, quite literally, to leave your body (or place) behind, to "stand outside" yourself.

Digression II: in college there was a student in freshman year in college whose dorm room closet was filled with jumbo plastic garbage bags filled with various kinds of marijuana, some of which he sold, but a great deal of which he consumed himself. This student, whose real name I never learned, was seldom seen in class or doing anything that might have been called work. It's perhaps unsurprising that he did not return for his sophomore year in college. But, still he was a legend of sorts, and among many of his more duty-bound classmates a figure inspiring awe and a wistful kind of envy. He was known to all by his nickname: Dionysus.

As the Greeks knew all too well, there is something of the Apollonian and something of the Dionysian in all of us. We all like to think of ourselves as reasonable, responsible people. We all feel a sense of duty to something. Even Dylan himself, in a later song, said "You've gotta serve somebody." But is there any on of us who, as a student in school or an adult at a desk, has not at one time or another stared out the window wishing to be anywhere but where they are, doing something…. else? Something unbounded, something liberating and engrossing, something to take us out of body and place and time. Dylan's figure on the beach, dancing.

(Black and white drawing by Yours Truly, January of this year.)

* Supporting cast: Danger. Discrimination. Disarmament. Decriminalization. Death and his descendant consort Discontent.

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