Thursday, September 23, 2010

12: The Return (III)

III: Mercury

I don't really think that Bob Dylan lyrics are impervious to analysis.

I think that Visions of Johanna works as a lyric because Dylan has chosen to put particular words next to other words. Those words – their sounds, their meanings, the way other writers have used them – affect the listener in particular ways. If he had chosen different words, the words would effect us differently.

I don't think that you can decode the songs and say what they mean. I don't think that Bob set out to tell a naturalistic story about how he was once in bed with a prostitute named Louise but was all the time thinking about a former girlfriend named Johanna, but decided, for some reason, to present the story in the form of a riddle. I don't think that Mr T.S Eliot wrote a story about a bank clerk who felt depressed after the First World War and / or the Quest for the Holy Grail and decided, for some reason, to present the story in the form of a cryptic crossword clue. (It is at least arguable that Mr Don Mclean did set out to write about the history of American pop music since 1959 but chose to present it under a series of oblique symbols, which is why Visions of Johanna is a work of genius and American Pie is a quite good pop song.)

I think that Dylan's poetry is driven by sound, not meaning; and by association of images; not logical or narrative structure.

I think that the only possible answer to the question "Why can't the jelly-faced woman find her knees?" is "Because freeze rhymes with knees."

I think that this is a very risky strategy for a lyricist to adopt. We can just about see why Bob's girlfriend Angelina made him want to listen to the music of the concertina and that she looks like a goddess with the head of a hyena, but when she turns out to be the most beautiful woman between here and Argentina and Judges start issuing subpoenas, we are inclined to think that a certain amount of the piss is being taken. (Which may have been why Dylan didn't release "Angelina", of course.)

I think that it is very hard to write convincing gibberish. Dylan comes up with lines like "The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" which appear to make sense, but don't. If you or I tried it, we would write "Skin yourself alive, learn to speak Arapaho / Climb inside a dog, and behead an Eskimo" which makes the wrong kind of sense and is therefore funny, but not very

I do not think that any logical process connects "Outside the museum, infinity goes up on trial" with "Voices echo: this is what salvation must be like after a while" and "Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles". I do think that the strong rhymes make us look for, and therefore find, the non-existent connections. 

I think, but only tentatively, that the words ghost, electricity, howls, bones, face are best thought of as an unconnected series of images and sounds, and the words "the" "in" and "of" are there to lull us into thinking that they must make some kind of sense.

I don't think that if we attend to them in the right spirit, possibly under the influence of Freud or illegal substances, we will be able to discern the secret language of Dylan's imagery, in which "Johanna = Buddy Holly", "Louise = Your Mum" and "Country Music = The Oedipus Complex."

I think that as soon as our mind is confronted with a sequence of words, images or sentences, it starts to look for connections between them, tries to find a way for them to mean something, tries, as 'puter geeks would say, to "parse" them.

I think that lyrics of this kind drive a wedge between words and the meanings of words. 

I think that lyrics of this kind put us in a state of mind where we feel that words don't just mean one thing, but lots of things. When Bob tells us that "Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule" we find that we can't make the words attach themselves to anything so they flap around in our heads until they find something to latch on to. 

I think that this induces a state of mind in which all sorts of interesting idea and emotions which Bob himself didn't and couldn't know about, leap into our head. 

I think this is probably what Mr William Wordsworth meant about the vernal brook

I think that once we have spotted that this is how Visions of Johanna and I Am the Walrus Work, it becomes scarily possible that this is how Moby Dick and Rom: Spaceknight and The House at Pooh Corner work, as well. And Star Wars. Especially Star Wars. 

Mr C.S. Lewis thought that it was silly to pretend Hamlet was a real person, and then try to explain is behaviour realistically. He thought it made more sense to look at the actual words which Shakespeare gave the actor to speak, and to consider how those words generate a particular kind of ambiguity whereby everybody who reads Hamlet creates their own Hamlet in their heads but truly believes that he found that Hamlet, and only that Hamlet, in the poem.

If the doors of perception were opened every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. I think Abraham Lincoln said that.

The question to ask about a poem is not "what does it mean" but "how does it mean"? I said that.


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Rich Puchalsky said...

Visions of Johanna is actually a good illustrative case for the whole question of whether stories are universal or not. Not in the Campbell sense, which I'm just going to ignore, but in the ordinary-writing-poetry sense.

Yes, the song is not a naturalistic story. But it's not a set of rhyming words either. Dylan very quickly establishes the story that we are going to hear the song through. The second line "We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it" says that this a song about universal experience, not some particular experience of the singer. And the listener soon understands that it's a song about thinking of a former lover. Which may not be precisely universal -- not everyone has a former lover, I suppose -- but almost everyone thinks of some part of the past wistfully.

That's the context for all of those rhyming words. Once the listener has been put into a universal story, they'll find their own associations. But they have to be given a context first.

It's also a strongly gendered song, and participates in universal stories that way. And because it's a good song, participates in them questioningly. Louise is as insistently present through the song as Johanna is absent. And at the end, with:

But like Louise always says
“Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?”
As she, herself, prepares for him
And Madonna, she still has not showed

It's the tired old Madonna / whore thing, set out neatly -- she's "preparing for him" one line before the Madonna comes up -- but at the same time, she's allowed to deflate the buildup of the song with that "ya can't look at much", recasting romantic obsession as escapism.

lanth said...

"How" invariably leads to "what." You can argue there are an indefinite number of "whats" something can mean, and many of them overlap and melt into each other. Naturally, some will be more believable or granted greater credibility. A psychological reading of something is just that, to risk tautology. The same with a mythic or new critical or Marxist or cultural materialist reading.

But "how" is very important, and it's a good skill to develop. Every text, visual or otherwise, has dozens of potential centers wherein you can arbitrarily assign meaning for the text. Star Wars is melodrama, space drama, heroic Campbellian myth, a romance, a war story, a pastiche of the pulps and serials, a coming of age story, anti-authoritarian, escapism, and so forth and so on. If you only allow for one center, you close off all other possible "whats" for the text when all of those "whats" are happening at the same time. Some of those readings are more applicable or accessible at certain points within the film and within the cultural moment the audience experiences it.

But then, this is basically what deconstruction is about, if you want to go the route of jargon.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I don't think that "this is basically what deconstruction is about." (See wiki if anyone reading this is unfamiliar with the term.) It's what almost all of 20th century interpretation is about. Long before deconstruction, people were not reading lyric poetry as if it told a naturalistic story and had a single meaning. The concern with how the text works and with centers within the text seems more like a New Criticism thing.

I'm not bringing this up just to be picky, but because it starts to point out some of the problems in going seamlessly from Visions of Johnanna to Star Wars. The new criticism always was at its best with lyric poetry. If you want to read Visions of Johnanna as a poem, and ignore the music for the moment, you can apply this kind of reading. But that doesn't mean that it works equally well as you go to a different genre and medium. Something like Star Wars is going to look like crap, aesthetically, by these standards. Is that because it's a bad work, or because you're trying to read something as not being a story when it was really designed to be a story?

Gavin Burrows said...

”I think that it is very hard to write convincing gibberish. Dylan comes up with lines like "The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" which appear to make sense, but don't.”

I wonder if ’Visions of Johanna’ makes a little more in the way of sense than you suggest here. Certainly we’re talking bendy sense - it’s loose and allusive and metaphysical, and people who go looking up the meaning of the name ‘Louise’ are achieving nothing beyond amusing the rest of us. But all the nonsense does add up to make a cumulative kind of sense. Many people have commented that a chief theme of ’Blonde on Blonde’ is ‘strandedness’, as if Bob has got himself stuck somewhere and is trying to sing his way out, but can’t. ’Visions of Johanna’ is positively purgatorial, with an all-important title character who never actually shows up (“Madonna, she still has not showed.”) And of course the theme fits the form here, if all that’s happening is Bob and his imagination are stranded then there’s really no narrative to spin.

Gavin Burrows said...

Nevertheless, I am yet again nitpicking, for I know exactly what you mean, I just think there may be better examples. I’ve long been a fan of Mark E Smith of the Fall, for example. The entirety of his talent may well be to write convincing gibberish, spouting torrents of nonsense so urgently you figure it must all mean something somehow. It’s rather like the way a skilled artist can make a flat drawing look three dimensional, one part of your brain flags up that there’s no actual depth there but another continually rejects the information. The effect on me is often a kind of addiction. If the lyrics to a song explain how the boy wanted the girl and eventually got her, the subject from that point on seems closed. But there’s Fall songs I must have listened to thousands of times without a clue what Smith is ranting on about, yet forever sure it’s only slightly outside my grasp...

”I think that once we have spotted that this is how Visions of Johanna and I Am the Walrus Work...”

Here we do disagree. I think of ’I Am the Walrus’ as something much more like the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear, or “behead an eskimo.” One of the things I’ve always liked about the Goons is the way they don’t so much tell jokes as make language itself suddenly seem funny. Isn’t there something intrinsically hilarious about ’The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler of Bexhill-on-Sea’ or ’The Case of the Mukkinese Battle Horn’? But this is to deny meaning, to make language simply decorative. It’s not quite the same thing as making meaning elusive or ambiguous.

...anyway, what I really wanted to ask was how this fitted in with the Campbellian thing? Good piece as it is, it seems a little like a left turn from everything else. Are there more installments to come?

lanth said...

Call it post-structuralist, deconstruction, or what have you. It's about the slipperiness and multiplicity of language, troping, and symbolism.

The thing with New Criticism, meanwhile, is that it tries to exclude everything but the text, which isn't possible even in itself. And the New Critical tradition tends towards its own brand of essentialism: the text means this because this is what it says and that one interpretation is correct while all others are false. Okay, this is probably truer in the American tradition with its tendency for the big thinkers that promoted it to use more evangelical language rather than the more "philosophical" folks in Britain (which is a big generalization in the first place). That said, the tools of new critical inquiry--close reading and paying attention to what's actually there and how it's presented--are necessary for any of the more modern approaches.

And "design" and what someone intends something to be or mean is nice, and all, but that's not how it works. We can make certain allowances for intention, it can shed light on certain aspects of the text, but it's how the text intersects with varying spheres of culture, experience, and education that ultimately results in the actual effects. Authorial control only goes so far--pretty much to the point where it's handed off to the editor, publisher, or consumer.