Another Side of Bob Dylan

In Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan, Andrew McCarron faces an excess of material about his subject, not to mention more than 50 years of investigation, speculation and exegesis by obsessive fans, writes Scott McLemee.

February 8, 2017
 
 

In lists of winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, an asterisk sometimes appears next to the name of the entry for 1964. That year Jean-Paul Sartre declined the award because, among other things, a writer must “refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution.” The refusal cannot be called all that effective, in part because Sartre already was an institution (on an international scale to which, so far as I know, no author today really compares) and in part because the Swedish academy did not give the award to anyone else that year. He remains on the list, marked as a sore winner.

That same year, a future Nobel laureate issued his third and fourth albums, The Times They Are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan. The second title in particular hints at the ambivalence that the songwriter formerly known as Robert Zimmerman was beginning to feel toward his most ambitious creation -- to whit, “Bob Dylan,” a persona shaped in part through his own borrowings from various folk-music legends (especially Woody Guthrie) and in part by the felt need of segments of the American public for someone to embody the voice of his generation. In acquiring an audience, he took on the weight of its expectations and demands. (Reasonable and otherwise: Dylan had what in 1960s were not yet known as stalkers.) “By many accounts, he’d shed his boyish charm and had become moody, withdrawn and dismissive of those who either stood in his way or who wanted something from him,” writes Andrew McCarron in Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan (Oxford University Press). In public he sometimes had to wear a disguise, just to be left alone.

A connection can be drawn between Sartre and Dylan not only through their shared Nobel status (something of a coincidence almost, given the literature committee’s caprice in recent years) but because Light Come Shining belongs to a genre to which Sartre devoted a great deal of attention over the years: the psychobiography. Indeed, McCarron’s whole perspective on Dylan’s life and work shows the influence of concepts from Sartre’s “existential psychoanalysis,” especially that of the project. McCarron, who heads the religion, philosophy and ethics department at Trinity School in New York City, draws on quite a few more recent developments in psychology. But the Sartrean component is central enough -- and nowadays unusual enough -- to be striking.

Psychobiography in this sense should not be confused with the hunt for formative family relationships, childhood traumas, personal secrets, etc.: the sort of diagnosis at a distance, licensed or otherwise, practiced by many if not most biographers over the past century. It combs the available information about a subject’s life -- especially his or her own recollections and interpretations of things -- not for symptoms or concealed truths but, McCarron writes, for “the themes and structures of a life narrative that shed light on the mind and life-world behind the story.” An inaccurate memory or an outright lie may prove more revealing than what it distorts: “Appropriating, embellishing, misrepresenting, fantasizing, projecting and contradicting are all par for the course within the narrative realm. … The psychological truth that a given story conveys is considerably more valuable from a study of lives perspective than its historical truth.” The search is for the deep pattern in how the subject has understood life and tried to steer it (accurately or not) in certain directions. The psychobiographer is interested in “what [someone] succeeds in making of what he has been made,” as Sartre put it in a passage McCarron quotes.

Bob Dylan has been famous for his massive changes of direction, both in songwriting style (folk to rock to country, on to every permutation thereof) and personal identity. Early in his career he claimed to have been a carny and a hobo, among other things, and his interviews across the decades have often been performances, deflecting questions as much as answering them. More dramatic even than his shift from anti-war and civil rights balladeer to introspective surrealist -- with the two albums from 1964 marking the transition -- was Dylan’s conversion to Christianity in the late 1970s. For a while his concerts became confrontational, both from his refusal to play old songs and his impromptu fire-and-brimstone preaching. Whatever his religious affiliation now, the proselytizing phase did not last. He’s had his quota of marital and romantic drama and career downturns. Light Come Shining was finished before Dylan received the Nobel, and it’s possible he has not seen his last metamorphosis.

The psychobiographer, then, faces an excess of material with Dylan, not to mention more than 50 years of investigation, speculation and exegesis by obsessive fans. McCarron sifts through it and finds “variations on a repetitive plotline” coming to the fore with particular clarity at a number of points: “I have lost my sense of identity and purpose. I feel anxious and vulnerable to death and destruction. I turn to the songs and artists of my youth for guidance. I feel a redeemed sense of self and purpose. I reflect upon the change and understand it as the process of developing into who I’m supposed to be.”

One case of anxious and unmoored feelings was Dylan’s sense of being crushed by celebrity circa 1964 -- a period culminating in his motorcycle crash in 1966. (If that’s what really happened, rather than a stint in rehab, for which there seems to be more evidence.) McCarron identifies similar phases of great personal strain in the late 1970s and ’80s, followed by, respectively, his religious conversion and the major revival of his creative powers shown in Dylan’s songwriting in the 1990s. At each turn, he escaped desolation row by reconnecting with his musical roots: the blues, gospel, Western swing, the sounds of New Orleans, the memory of seeing Buddy Holly a few days before his death.

“All of Sartre’s studies of lives reveal features characteristic of traditional religious narratives,” wrote Stuart L. Charmé in Meaning and Myth in the Study of Lives: A Sartrean Perspective (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984). And that makes sense insofar as what the psychobiographer looks for in a subject’s life is a kind of private mythology: the self’s innermost sense of its origins and its course. (As mentioned earlier, Sartre calls this a project; perhaps “projectile” also fits, since there’s a definite sense of movement, of throwing, or being thrown, into the future.)

If what McCarron identifies as Dylan’s psychobiographical bedrock might also be called a story of death and resurrection, that’s not necessarily because of the songwriter’s midlife experience of being “born again” and driven to evangelize. A great deal of the music that Dylan loves and immerses himself in echoes biblical language and themes, and it turns out that any number of songs about worldly pleasures and follies were written by performers who did a bit of preaching, too. Dylan absorbed musical traditions so deeply that they became part of himself, then projected them forward, in constant awareness that -- in a lyric that McCarron oddly never cites -- “he not busy being born is busy dying.”

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