The Chronicle Review
April 8, 2012
Consider this an apology. And a lesson learned.
There are too many lessons to learn, especially the ones learned from experience, the mistakes you can't fix, the ones you just have to apologize for. I hate those. This is one.
It has to do with when and whether it's right to get in people's faces with awful truths you believe in—but which you know (or should know) are going to hurt their feelings. Or rob them of their consolatory protective mechanisms. We all need consolatory protective measures. But who's to decide how important it is to strip them away from other people for the sake of forcing them to face the purported truth? Even in academe, is truth the only value?
It's taken me a while to realize where I went wrong. The inciting incident took place at the end of last year, when I gave a guest lecture at Stanford. The occasion was an angry outburst during the question period. Not so much a question but an anguished, enraged protest.
For the record, I'm not an academic (I'm a Yale-lit grad-school dropout); the lecture invitation grew out of a book I'm writing on Bob Dylan for Yale University Press's Jewish Lives series. The title I gave my lecture was "Bob Dylan's God Problem—and Ours."
I had a theory about Dylan and God, Dylan and the Holocaust—and the impact their conjuncture had on American culture. I'd argued that Dylan and his impact had been misconstrued by most Dylanologists; that he should not be situated with rustic pastorals or popular-front folkies, but with the urban, mostly Jewish, mostly literary "black humor" movement of the 60s, which ranged across genres, from Lenny Bruce to Bruce Jay Friedman, Joseph Heller to Stanley Kubrick. A movement whose absurdist nihilism—which reaches a viciously eloquent peak in Yossarian's denunciation of God in Catch-22 —was a response to two holocausts: Hitler's, still only 15 years past, and the nuclear holocaust that seemed—especially after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—just a shot away.
Dylan and Hitler? Was I forcing a conjunction? Some time before the lecture, I made what I thought was an important discovery in a pizza parlor. Well, it was while reading in a pizza parlor that I came across a line Dylan had written about Hitler that hardly anyone seemed to have noticed before. Yes he'd referred at least once in his lyrics to the Holocaust (in "With God on Our Side"), but I had no recall of an explicit mention of Hitler in the songs, and never in such a compressed and deeply expressive way.
I think no one had paid attention to it because it was hiding in plain sight—obscured in the thicket of incomprehensibility that is the text of Tarantula, Dylan's "novel." (I say this as an avid admirer of the thrilling clarity of his later memoir, Chronicles: Part One .) Or maybe antinovel is the better term for Tarantula . It's the one that he'd written or unwritten (what do you call a piece of unwriting except unwritten?) in 1965 or 1966, when he needed to fill pages with words to fulfill what was then a lucrative book contract. I think—to give him credit—he must have known it was (mainly) gibberish. At best a prank—a send-up of surrealism, perhaps. Yes, there are a few shards of sentience and wit to be found, scattered about, but in no particular context. Tarantula is the prose equivalent of John Ashbery trying not to make sense. I'm tempted to theorize that it was designed to defeat any attempt to read it all the way through. In fact, I wonder if I'm the only one who's read it all the way through. (A subsequent Google search turned up one blogger's reference to that particular line about Hitler, and one writer who obtusely dismissed it as a reference to the "Great Man Theory of History.")
Why else had no one realized the shocking directness and profound ramifications of the passage about Hitler and history in Tarantula ? Eight words that constitute a jolt to the cortex, and explain all too plainly just what Dylan's God problem was, at least back then.
Dylan has since gone through several shifts in his attitude toward God (many believe he's returned to a form of Judaism), but back in the mid-60s he was writing at the very moment of his maximum cultural impact. Indeed, our culture today still echoes with the seismic reverberations of the sensibility that created Tarantula . Which makes its strange Hitler reference all the more worthy of the attention it has failed to receive.
In any case, this discovery—which I'll spell out momentarily, I promise—seemed to be worth disclosing in my Stanford lecture, since the lecture began with Dylan's "God problem" and expanded into a critique of post-Holocaust Jewish theodicy—"our God problem."
Theodicy, as I feel it's useful to remind people, is not theology per se; it is rather a subdiscipline of theology that deals exclusively with the question of evil and God: How can a God who is worshiped as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving deity who is able to intervene in history be reconciled with the vast amounts of murderous suffering and evil that God permits to prevail on this earth?
It's a problem that's been around ever since the notion of such a God was invented. It is a question called forth by the experience of Jews in particular; the pious prayer said every Passover tells Jews that in every generation, evil men have risen up to destroy us, but you, God, have stretched out your hand and delivered us.
The victims of pogroms, crusades, blood-libel lynch mobs, and inquisitions may have some quibbles with that, of course, but the Holocaust focused the problem for our age, perhaps for all ages. When Hitler rose up to kill the Jews, there was no divine intervention, nothing, for six years of slaughter, a million children's heads smashed.
Where does Dylan come in to these grave matters? It is often forgotten that—according to some genealogists—his father lost family in the Holocaust. Even though Dylan wrote about it in only one song, he wrote about it with such graphic literalist fury—"They slaughtered six million/in the ovens they fried"—a searing, barbaric, even offensive image clearly designed to break the frame of distancing abstraction that "the ovens" alone had become. (Yes, I know, the crematoria were for the dead, as did he, I'm sure.)
He wrote about it in a way that burned through the fabric of the music and lay waste to everything around it. Which is why I situate Dylan differently from the reigning Dylanological theories. While I admire Greil Marcus for his astute and perspicacious writing on culture and music, I have a problem with the way he's come to look at Dylan—through the lens of The Basement Tapes —as heir to a tradition of pastoral rustics in overalls in backwoods hollers and other wanderers from "the old, weird America."
This can marginalize the urban Dylan, the frenzied, formative early-60s context of his New York milieu (read Chronicles ). Nor did I find much illumination in Sean Wilentz's recent attempt to make Dylan an avatar of politically correct, popular-front culture, pairing him up with Aaron Copland.
The black-humor movement derived its bitter absurdist laughter from the pretensions of propriety and respectability, from the self-satisfied conventions of purportedly civilized society in general, from its apprehension that all this was a sham to cover up a slaughterhouse—that we were in the absurdly tragic position of being captive in a universe caught between two holocausts.
Or, as Dylan seems to suggest in "Stuck Inside of Mobile Memphis Blues Again": "An' here I sit so patiently/waiting to find out what price/you have to pay to get out of/going through all these things twice."
How absurd and willfully blind that humans pretended to be "civilized," smugly congratulated themselves for their elevation from barbarism, in the face of this murderous self-destructiveness, this apocalyptic savagery. It was this pretense that black humorists mocked, and you can hear that mockery in Dylan, a mockery that made him the Meistersinger of sarcasm, the bard of Bad Attitude.
It was this sneering contempt for polite society's thinking of itself as holding up civilized values that was the indelible mark Dylan left on our culture's consciousness. That made sarcasm our default attitude, our skeptical response—"oh, sure"—to the pieties of American exceptionalism and other platitudes. His impact during this period was not limited to the record-buying, radio-listening public. The number of other artists, writers, and filmmakers who ramified this attitude over the years is incalculable. It is the heart of his legacy.
But Ron, some might say, what makes you so sure Dylan was responding to Hitler, the Holocaust, and God's failure to intervene in history? Here I told the Stanford lecture audience my Tarantula pizza-parlor story. I had found reading Tarantula so difficult and disorienting—it was an almost deliberate attempt to drive you into a dizzy state of incomprehension. (It reminded me of the "difficult" experimental novel in Martin Amis's The Information —the one that causes those who try to read it to suffer severe brain injuries.)
So my strategy was to handle the little book this way: I'd let myself get really, really, really hungry and then tell myself that I could go across the street to a pizza parlor that served great penne bolognaise and treat myself to a plate of it, if I pledged to get through just 10 pages of Tarantula while eating.
It was hard, but it worked. I don't know how many pounds I gained, but I wouldn't have discovered the Hitler poem buried within Tarantula otherwise. In fact, I think I missed it the first time. Here's the paragraph that precedes it, so you'll understand the difficulty:
"... as the whole band groaning and throwing away measures & heartbeats while it pays to know who your friends are, but it also pays to know if you ain't got any friends ... Like it pays to know what your friends ain't got—it's friendlier to got what you pay for."
Got that? I wouldn't even call it stream of consciousness. I'd call it a leakage of consciousness. Makes a little too much sense for surrealism, a little too little for Ashbery's verbal abstract expressionism. But then, suddenly, what follows is a 14-line poem that contains those eight searingly powerful words, plain as day, clear as a bell. I will quote from only the first three lines:
"down with you sam. down with your answers too. hitler did not change history. hitler WAS history ... "
Whoa. Those eight words: "... hitler did not change history. hitler WAS history"! Where did that come from? In the 10 years I spent writing a 500-page book called Explaining Hitler (Random House, 1998), not one of the historians, philosophers, artists, or other sages I spoke to or read ever made as white-hot an indictment of humanity as that. An indictment, implicitly, of God as well.