This morning, we learned that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” I’m delighted in particular for Dylan, and in general for the proposition that a medium like popular music has been deemed worthy of one of art’s highest honors. His win is also an opportunity to discuss any number of subjects in which a certain presidential candidate, blessedly, has no place: the status of politics in popular music, what makes for a classically excellent singing voice as opposed to an emotionally effective one, and the nature of anonymity and blurred identity in art, a topic supercharged by the recent outing of the woman behind the Elena Ferrante pseudonym.
But because moments of pure pleasure seem rare in these tortured days, today’s news gives me an opportunity to go back and listen to some of my favorite Dylan songs and to reflect on the thing that has always touched me most deeply about his work. The Nobel committee honored Dylan for “poetic expressions,” but I love him best as a writer of short stories.
Take “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” a song from “Blood on the Tracks.” Running at almost nine minutes, it traces the events leading to the death of Big Jim, a diamond-mine owner who is married to the long-suffering Rosemary and is having an affair with Lily, a dancer who is also taken with her former lover, the Jack of Hearts, a clever and charming bank-robber. The song is simultaneously specific and unmoored in time: It could be the conclusion of a season of “Deadwood,” David Milch’s grubby show about the rise of a new society in the Dakotas, or of “Westworld,” HBO’s new series about a simulacrum of the Old West.
But for all those similarities, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” draws unique power from the fact that it’s a song, rather than a television show or movie. The inflection in Dylan’s voice when he tells us that “Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair” after the murder of her lover, the execution of his wife and the vanishing of the Jack of Hearts captures everything we need to know about her impending transformation.
“Desolation Row,” from “Highway 61 Revisited,” is more sprawling; it’s simultaneously a collection of vignettes and an act of literary criticism. In this world, where Cinderella knows who Bette Davis is and imitates her gestures, Einstein imitates Robin Hood’s puckishness, and Ophelia sees Noah’s rainbow made manifest as she contemplates her suicide, Dylan shows us how we understand the world by fitting great people into old archetypes and how we shape our fairy tales to contemporary circumstances.
His final warning to the listener — “Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no / Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row” — is an eerie image of a narrator passing from the real world into one of metaphor and allusion. He has achieved what so many have dreamed of and found his own way into the fairy tale, but going into the woods obscures as much as it reveals.
Dylan can work with greater economy, too. “Simple Twist of Fate” is a story about a one-night stand that comes to assume enormous significance for the narrator, who begins to wander the docks where he met the woman he believes “was my twin,” hoping “Maybe she’ll pick him out again.”
Here, Dylan doesn’t need a device like Cinderella, or a Hanging Judge or the Senator wandering the streets in “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” to achieve the proper magnitude of feeling. And he doesn’t fall into what Ellen Willis once described as Dylan’s “prolix verses, horrendous grammar, tangled phrases, silly metaphors, embarrassing clichés, muddled thought.” He just explains that “People tell me it’s a sin / To know and feel too much within.” We’ve all felt that heaviness, the weight we put on other people, who are ultimately exhausted by the magnitude of our feelings.
“I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’s fabulous, fluid biopic of Bob Dylan, which features six different actors — Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Marcus Carl Franklin — representing different aspects of Dylan, works because it captures these same qualities as Dylan’s own best short stories. It’s simultaneously elliptical and direct, fragmented and whole. “I’m Not There” forces you to stop looking for a singular, real Dylan and encourages you to try traveling down the different, divergent paths his work offers you.
At one point, the Arthur incarnation (Whishaw) explains that he has “Seven simple rules of going into hiding: One, never trust a cop in a raincoat. Two, beware of enthusiasm and of love. Both are temporary and quick to sway. Three, if asked if you care about the world’s problems, look deep into the eyes of he who asks. He will never ask you again. Four, never give your real name. Five, if ever asked to look at yourself, don’t. Six, never do anything the person standing in front of you cannot understand. And finally seven, never create anything. It will be misinterpreted, it will chain you and follow you for the rest of your life.”
Dylan’s Nobel Prize probably won’t help with that last problem. But it does suggest that love and enthusiasm may be more lasting than Arthur expected.