December 21, 2016
Dylan embraces the ghost of Shakespeare (1564–1616)
These have been strange days; in Trumpland (or America Inc.) every impending appointment in the cabinet brings (mostly) men who will head departments in which they do not believe or wish to abolish; energy, environment, education, national parks, social housing, labor fairness, women’s reproductive rights are all vulnerable and under threat. Quite recently the Energy Secretary candidate is a Texan man and former Presidential candidate, who wants to abolish the Energy Department, though he could not remember its name in his list of abolitions. The world of Trump governance seems to be a world turned upside down — an Alice-in-Wonderland conflation with the novel, Brave New World. It is a free for all for all corporate entities to pillage the planet for maximum profit, while ignoring or trampling on human rights.
And as the days pass, we are all alarmed: what kinds or messages are being slowly unleashed across landscapes and peoples, many who do not realize that they are the implicit targets of these changing times?
Wafting through this almost surreal news, uncannily, comes Bob Dylan’s “And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall,” stirring “memory and desire,” in several generations who have listened to this ballad. Sung by Patti Smith at the Nobel Ceremony on December 10, this SONG is like a Ghost bearing witness to humanity’s dystopian conditions in the recent past, but now returning to stand along side us in comforting solidarity. Structured along the lines of 17th century ballads, it is a lyric of accounting and testimony within poignantly surreal, dystopian landscapes and settings:
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin…”
The second stanza continues in the same vein in surreal images, uncannily evoking the violence and war of today:
… I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Broadcast across the world from the Nobel Ceremony on December 10, in which the absent Dylan received the Prize, his Song sung by Patti Smith haunted us with its renewed timeliness:
Smith sang soulfully, with depth and passion, and despite one slip and do-over, her haunting rendition left many among the bejeweled guests in tears. And the words had an prophetic resonance in our present times, as we await the assaults on lands, on the environment, and on the vulnerable — refugees, people of color, women — casting their shadow on our collective imaginations.
I will not speculate on why Bob Dylan chose not attend to the ceremony in person. Why do we need to appraise and judge? I would like to imagine that, perhaps, he wants to distance himself from his celebrity persona, or simply does not feel he can entirely inhabit a grandiose triumphant public Self.
But I want to reflect on another ghost evoked by Bob Dylan’s “spectral” presence at the Nobel Ceremony: After “And its a hard rain’s gonna fall,” Dylan’s acceptance speech (read by the American Ambassador) wryly invoked William Shakespeare as a kindred spirit. In this speech, he imagines Shakespeare not as a lofty figure producing elite art, but as a practitioner, a dramatist creating plays for a audiences of a popular public theatre –concerned as much with the structures and staging of his plays such as Hamlet, as with worrying about “mundane tasks” such as”where am I going to get a human skull?”
Artistic creation, he reminds us, for both Shakespeare and Dylan, is contingent and provisional, involving a journey of varied and rich discoveries for the creators as well for those who witness and engage with their words, rhythms, ideas.
Dylan partly evokes this process as he recounts the moment when he heard of his Nobel award:
I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”
...like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.
Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.
Artists like Dylan or Shakespeare may not consider their works in terms of fixed labels like “literature” and I think the award to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” is also a celebration of the vital, lived experience of artistic creation, rather than of “bookish” artifacts. For instance, the lyric tradition itself, going back 25,00 years to Homer and Sappho, and later given rich form by Roman poets, produced vivid, emotionally charged poetic works sung to music. And while many may consider Shakespeare’s books scholarly and bookish, the rich poetic language, often iambic blank verse, he brought to life on stage to audiences, as well as the sonnets and long poems like “Venus and Adonis” dedicated to a mysterious young man continue to have a live emotional charge . Embodied words come to life on the stage in the characters of his plays — in endlessly shifting permutations of nuance in meaning and emotion. And in Renaissance England, sonnets were sent and exchanged as messages of love, desire, tribute, often to an addressee whose identity may be hidden, even while they may have had some public circulation.
We have no evidence that Shakespeare received national, public accolades such as Dylan’s Nobel prize. He was able to achieve the moderate success of getting a family coat of arms, and buying a property in his home of Stratford-Upon-Avon. In keeping with the life conditions of his times, he died at the shockingly young age (for our time) of 52. ( Thus, more troubling for him than a missing skull would have been the outbreaks of Plague in the late 16th centuries, which decimated large numbers of populations, reminding him (and us) of the the central fact of his times, namely the threat of death being constantly palpable beyond what we can imagine)!
Bob Dylan’s “ghostly” evocation of Shakespeare’s Ghost at the Nobel Ceremony is timely and poignant in our troubled times;
In Hamlet’s voice, (perhaps his most philosophical protagonist) we hear about the instability that is intrinsic to the human condition:
- [about] The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
- That flesh is heir to.
Representations of unstable, shifting landscapes, of human perplexities, as well as rich affective bonds that make us human in the works of Bob Dylan as of Shakespeare take us on rich, but complex, often dissonant psychic journeys- as go these lines from Dylan’s song about “Hard Rain…
- I met one man who was wounded in love
- I met another man who was wounded with hatred
In our post-election world of simplistic demagogic slogans, of the ruthless logic of divisiveness, we can comfort ourselves with such ghostly lyric “fragments” that we have surely “shored against” our ruin. (T.S. Eliot).