December 24, 2010


Wilentz, Sean, Bob Dylan in America (New York: Doubleday, 2010) (A faculty member, of the school paying my mortgage, wanted to make a compilation of the faculty's 'favorite' songs. I do not know whether the project went forward, but my contribution/suggestion was then, and would remain now, Bob Dylan's "Gates of Eden." Here is Wilentz writing about the song. "'The Gates of Eden,' as [Dylan] called it that night, took us furthest out into the realm of the imagination, to a point beyond logic ad reason. Like 'It's Alright, Ma,' the song mentions a book title in its first line, but the song is more reminiscent of the poems of William Blake (and, perhaps, of Blake's disciple Ginsberg) than it is of Tolstoy's War and Peace, vaunting the truth that lies in surreal imagery." "After an almost impenetrable first verse, the song approaches themes that were becoming familiar to Dylan's listeners. In Genesis, Eden is the paradise where Adam and Eve had direct communication with God. According to 'Gates of Eden,' it is where truth resides, without bewitching illusions. And the song is basically a list, verse after verse, of the corrosive illusions that Dylan would sing about constantly from the mid-1960s on: illusions about obedience to authority; about false religions and idols (the 'utopian hermit monks' riding on the golden calf); about possessions and desires; about sexual repression and conformity (embodied by the 'gray flannel dwarf'); about high-toned intellectualism. None of these count for much in the final verse or even exist inside the gates of Eden." "The kicker comes in the final verse, where the singer talks of his lover telling him of her dreams without any attempt at interpretation--and at times, the singer thinks that the only truth is that there is no truth outside the gates of Eden. It's a familiar conundrum: If there is no truth, isn't saying as much really an illusion, too, unless we are all in Eden? ('All Cretans are liars,' says the Cretan.) What makes that one truth so special? But the point, as the lover knows, is that outside of paradise, interpretation is futile. Don't try to figure out what the song, or what any work of art, 'really' means; the meaning is in the imagery itself; attempting to define it is to succumb to the illusion that truth can be reached through human logic. So Dylan's song told us, as he took the measure in his lyrics of what had begun as the 'New Vision,' two and a half miles up Broadway from Lincoln Center at Columbia, in the mid-1940s. Apart from Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso may have been the only people in Philharmonic Hall who go it." Id. at 99-100. Few get it, even now.).