The Book Club

Eight Unanswerable Questions?

Dear Alex,

Since we only get a few rounds here, and I’ve got no end of things to say, I’ll let Christopher Ricks settle the Chekhov question and pose a few instead.

Midway through this memoir, Dylan complains that critics have disliked songs of his that “didn’t seem to be autobiographical.” His response? “The stuff I write does come from an autobiographical place.” True enough, if only in the sense that all writing is autobiographical. But in Chronicles, the autobiographical passages come at you sideways, creep into places where you least expect them to be, and—yes—often raise more questions than they answer.

Take the example you mentioned: The passage starts with the sound of ships on Lake Superior, and zooms in on a young, asthmatic Dylan, wheezing in his bed. Here, and elsewhere, Dylan’s picaresque, panoramic perspective suddenly gives way to precise, single-point self-portraiture. As any psychotherapist can tell you, the manner in which personal details are revealed tells us as much as the details themselves—but do you think it’s telling us anything here? Or is Dylan writing haphazardly, catch-as-catch-can? (I can’t help thinking that Dylan’s used the same effect in many of his songs—songs like “Idiot Wind,” in which a half-baked soldier’s story serves as a smokescreen for Dylan’s most searing personal observations.)

Then, of course, there’s the all-important question of how much reading-into we should be doing in the first place. Take Dylan’s description of his own, early performances in Greenwich Village nightclubs: “What really set me apart in those days was my repertoire,” Dylan writes. “My template being hard-core folk songs backed by incessantly loud strumming. … Most of the other performers tried to put themselves across, rather than the song, but I didn’t care about doing that. With me, it was about putting the song across.” Personally, I think Dylan’s aware of the MacKayesque overtones a phrase like “hard-core” conjures up. But is it too much to claim that the latter part of the passage is a very close paraphrase of John Keats’ “negative capability” letter, which ascribes the very same ego-negating qualities to Shakespeare? (If so, what might that tell us?) Is it going too far to note, in Ricksian fashion, that there’s a certain similarity between Tarantula’s opening, which I quoted earlier, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’* great poem “The Windhover“?

More questions present themselves: What do we make of the book’s structure? There are five sections, three of which trace Dylan’s Minnesota upbringing and arrival in New York, two of which center around the recording of New Morning and Oh Mercy, respectively. The descriptions of Dylan’s early years make perfect chronological sense. But with 40-something records to pick from, why did Dylan concentrate almost exclusively on the recording of two relatively minor works? (Perhaps it’s that he was testing the waters in this, the first of three volumes, before tackling his greater albums?) Or is Bob’s idiosyncratic approach to musical theory just another smokescreen? (You’ve gotten further in unraveling it than I have.) Care to hazard a few guesses? 

Before signing off, I’ll mention two things that stick in my mind, and might point a way to at least a few answers. One is Dylan’s weird sense of time: Sitting in the reading room of New York’s research library, the young Bob Dylan “reads articles in newspapers from 1855 to 1865.” That time “wasn’t like another world,” he thinks, “but the same one, only with more urgency.” In some ways, he concludes, the Civil War itself was “a battle between two kinds of time.” Another is Dylan’s aforementioned ability to look past personal boundaries—to identify, to the point of self-erasure, with every character he runs across, reads about, or otherwise encounters: “Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, Montesquieu, Martin Luther,” he writes. “Visionaries, revolutionaries … it was like I knew those guys, like they’d been living in my backyard.” Could it be that Dylan’s great strength, in any medium, stems from his unwillingness to separate his person from the vast American panorama? From his ability to, ahem, contain multitudes? Or have I gone off on my own personal Ricks kick, and ended up posing eight unanswerable questions of my own? Either way, it’s been a pleasure.

In a while, Crocodile,

Correction, Oct. 19, 2004: An earlier version misstated the name of the poet of “The Windhover.” It’s Gerard Manley Hopkins, not Gerald Manley Hopkins, as was originally stated. Return to corrected sentence.