“The Broken Cup: Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s ‘I Want You'”

by Sam Buntz

“I Want You” is a frequent choice for both the avid and casual Dylan fan’s favorite— and rightly so.  Leading Dylanologist and lauded literary critic Christopher Ricks says it’s his, for one thing.  Yet, it’s also easy to get caught up in the perfection and catchiness of the song—it’s sheer likeability—and interpret it as being thematically little more than a love song or, more accurately, a song about sexual desire.  It is, of course, about that—but if we look at the images Dylan uses in the song, we start to sense deeper implications.

We start off, afloat in a sea of troubles, where “the guilty undertaker sighs” and “the lonesome organ grinder cries.”  The singer faces a problem: he really wants this girl, but time and tide seem to be against him.  “The cracked bells and washed-out horns / Blow into my face with scorn / But it’s not that way / I wasn’t born to lose you.”  Why are the bells “cracked” and the horns “washed out”?   As in the late ’80s Dylan track, “Everything is Broken,” the ages have worn them down—it seems too late in the day, too deep in the jaded decades of the mid-to-late 20th Century, to have an authentic love-connection or mighty, passionate desire for someone else.  Yet, Dylan snubs time—he wasn’t born to get overwhelmed by the way history’s heading, because he knows what he really wants.

What he really wants is explained directly in the chorus: “I want you…so bad.”  In the next verse, however, we’re back in the sea of troubles again, where drunken politicians oppress the people and fool them—the fact that mothers are weeping in response to this might very well indicate that their sons have died in Vietnam or in any other misguided war effort.  But the next lines, I think, are some of the most interesting in the entire song—though they can easily zoom by without the listener suspecting anything.  Dylan sings, “And the saviors who are fast asleep, they wait for you / And I wait for them to interrupt / Me drinking from my broken cup / And ask me to open up the gate for you.”

I sincerely hope you don’t find this theory too crazy—because I’m rather proud of it, and the images and metaphors, to my mind, seem direct enough.  Dylan isn’t just talking about a girl now—or, he is and he isn’t.  At any rate, I think he’s almost certainly using the language of Jewish longing for the Messiah to express his passion… Yeah, that’s right.

In the Jewish mystical tradition, it is believed that there are, in every generation, thirty-six righteous people on earth, called Lamedvavniks in Yiddish. Throughout World Jewry, people are pretty commonly aware of this, so it’s not unlikely that Dylan had, by the time he was recording Blonde on Blonde, absorbed the idea. The Lamedvavniks go about their lives performing acts of goodness, though they themselves have no idea who they are—they’re hidden, from the world and from themselves. Their goal is to repair the world, which Jewish mysticism imagines as being like a glass that God intended to hold his Light, before it shattered with the Fall of Adam.  The Lamedvavnik’s existence consists in picking up the pieces of this glass, and putting it together.

As I interpret the song, Dylan—like Matisyahu singing in the Hasidic-rap classic, “King without a Crown”, “I want Moshiach, now!”—is saying that he wants this girl as bad as some people want the Messiah to come back.  It will be that big of a revelation for him—though maybe, in another sense, he really is saying that he wants the Messiah to come back.  The ambiguity helps make the song more powerful…

At any rate, the saviors who are sleeping are all the Lamedvavniks of all the ages—to be revealed to themselves and to everyone else when the Messiah brings about the “World to Come”—and the broken cup from which the singer is drinking is our yet unrepaired world, which he continues to enjoy despite its fractured state.  But the saviors—these perfectly righteous people—are going to remind the singer of what’s truly valuable.  He’ll put down his cup, and by performing one good deed, one mitzvot or another, he’ll help open up the gate for the Messiah—or, at least, get with this girl he’s after.

In the bridge and the next verse, Dylan talks about lacking love and counterfeit love.  His forefathers went without “true love” in the past, and their daughters today chide the singer for not thinking more about it.  This is almost comprehensible if it’s just about how much he desires this girl he’s after, without it being true love, but it makes more sense if you interpret it, again, through Judaism: in the past, so many of Dylan’s ancestors went without their love or longing for the Messiah being reciprocated by God, and the good Jewish girls in the present era are chiding him for not taking this all more seriously—which he perhaps somehow feels he should do, although he isn’t doing it yet.  I’m not saying this is the only way of interpreting the song—again, it’s my personal theory.  But it makes sense, considering the particular Jewish cultural associations of the images and metaphors Dylan chooses (especially with the saviors and the broken cup).

After talking about how the chambermaid of the Queen of Spades is good to him, and knows a lot about him, he says that it doesn’t matter—because he has this more authentic desire for another woman, whoever she may be.  In the final verse—which could easily be dismissed as classic Dylanesque nonsense, although it isn’t—he sings, “Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit / He spoke to me, I took his flute / No, I wasn’t very cute to him, was I? / But I did it, though, because he lied / Because he took you for a ride / And because time was on his side / And because I . . . want you.”

The dancing child is a false prophet or false Messiah or, simply, an inferior poet and songwriter.  Whatever he is, he’s wasting the girl’s time, drawing her in with insincerity and un-truth, and—in a higher sense—seducing and monopolizing the attention of the world-at-large.  He’s every slick operator who digests other people’s attention without giving them anything real in return, and his suit is Chinese because it might look nice, but it was made for cheap and is likely of a lower quality than it appears to be (certainly no offense to the Chinese intended on my part—this is simply what Dylan’s metaphor, in a perhaps un-P.C. manner, indicates).

So, the singer smashes the phony’s flute, and replaces this impostor’s music with a more genuine song—this song, in fact, entitled “I Want You”.  The tune of the “dancing child”—this immature winker-and-nudger—is one with the voice of the cracked bells at the beginning, since time seemed to be on their side too: it’s the voice of cynicism, the voice of personal and societal corrosion and, ultimately, despair.  But the singer’s ardent desire overrides all this—fate, time, history, the entire package–and all because he wants this unnamed girl, so bad.

“Incantations”

by Sam Buntz

I’m starting to wonder if the way people—particularly teenagers— communicate signals a particularly odd twist of the historical spiral.  If you look at your Facebook profile, or check out Snapchat or Vine, you might suspect that people in the Western World, and large parts of the Eastern World, aren’t really communicating with each other through purely written or spoken language to the degree that they once did—captioned pictures, memes, videos, comics, and other mixed visual-verbal forms of communication seem much more common than they’ve ever been in informal correspondence.

It’s almost like a new form of hieroglyphics—language that is also pictorial.  Interestingly enough, this lines up with the predictions of the 18th Century Italian philosopher, Giambattista Vico:  Vico saw civilization as going through three distinct phases, followed by a period of chaos and confusion, after which it proceeded through the same phases again.  These big cultural and social phases also coincided with changes in the way language is used.

In the initial stages of civilization—in places like ancient Egypt, Israel, Greece, Vedic India, and, really, everywhere else, regardless of the level of material “development”—people believed that language was magically powerful.  People thought that their scriptures and myths—whether in the Vedas of India, the Hebrew Bible, the texts of Greek mythology, or in any number of oral traditions—didn’t only communicate truths about the divine, but had a direct mystical relationship to those truths.  To a surprising extent, I think we can see this practice evident even today, in Orthodox Jews who bind pieces of scripture to their bodies, Sufi Muslims who create charms from Koranic passages, certain Buddhists who believe they can attain good karma simply by flipping through a Sutra without reading it, and in American forms of Evangelical Protestantism, where the Bible isn’t just a book about God, but a source for experiencing His presence directly.

Yet, it isn’t just the magical attitude (a cocky Marxist would say the “fetishistic” attitude) to scriptures that characterizes this early period.  The people who actually wrote or spoke the scriptures—whether prophets or inspired poets like the Homeric singers of Greece or the bards of Celtic countries and pre-Islamic Arabia—were believed not to speak and write with their own imaginations, but with the voices of good spirits, evil spirits, gods, or—in the case of Hebrew prophets, and later the Prophet Muhammad—God Himself (as the reader no doubt knows).  Language, at its highest cultural levels, wasn’t just a tool for speaking about reality—it was a way of channeling higher realities or creating new realities through magic. It didn’t just describe reality: it helped determine reality.  Hence the exceedingly high positions assigned to poets and prophets in so many ancient courts.

One can see this in certain Vedic incantations, which, for example, attempt to call the “yellow” quality out of a patient suffering from jaundice, ordering the color yellow back into the naturally yellow things that populate nature—yellow birds and mangos and so on.  When, in the Hebrew Bible, God gives Adam the responsibility of naming the animals, and when, in the Koran, God actually teaches Adam the true names of all the animals, similar assumptions about the power of language are at play.  God isn’t just giving Adam a way of describing the natural world—he’s giving him the tools to control it, and to a certain extent, to reveal its deeper nature.  This was true for spoken language as well as written language—of which, William Blake wrote, “[God] in Sinai’s awful cave / To Man the wondrous art of writing gave.”  Vico calls this era’s language “hieroglyphic”, because of its ancient magical associations, but also because of its ability to summon realities directly, as in the images presented by hieroglyphic writing.

But, according to Vico, language gradually metamorphosed to new uses.  By the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was more a way of communicating truths about reality, than in calling forth or creating new realities (although the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance had plenty of magicians and would-be prophets).  In this time period, language still had a transcendental meaning and function—it couldn’t create reality, but it could turn the reader’s attention to Powers lurking beyond the merely material world.

Yet, in the next twist of time—around the 17th and 18th Centuries—language became increasingly “demotic” in its usage, meaning that it served to describe physical realities that were already present somewhere “out there”.  Anything that went beyond this rather scientific task could be safely filed in the realm of fantasy.  As Northrop Frye has observed, this is really the way language was used historically most of the time anyway—in doing ancient banking transactions and writing receipts and so forth.  It simply hadn’t been the preferred cultural usage of language in the highest spheres of power and education until recently.

Now, I’m beginning to wonder if we haven’t already forded through Vico’s period of linguistic chaos and are beginning again in a new, yet very different, “hieroglyphic” era.  The ancient way of using language has long been present in the underground, and has even, perhaps, been embraced by the majority of the world’s populace—there are tons of religious people who, today, still assign this kind of magical power to words (as evidenced by the examples given earlier).  Since Vico believed that his cycle was recurring, is it possible we are entering a new period where language isn’t just descriptive, but has the power to make and unmake reality in a more literal sense?  The fact that we pour so much writing  and speech into creating visual products—movies, videogames, tv shows, youtube videos, posts on Vine, whatever—indicates that language might be returning to its incantatory function, its ability to seed and grow new realities—or, as the case may be, virtual realities.

It’s easy to get hyped up about this and view it either as a symptom of cultural degradation and barbarism, or of some sort of impending technological singularity where we’ll all be immersed in a perpetual flow of helpful and benevolent information, merging with our machines in cybernetic bliss.  I mean to suggest neither of those hysterical alternatives, only to observe the change that seems to be occurring—and to suggest its relation to Vico’s theories.  Whether these alterations in the use of language end up being creative or just contribute to the endless amount of white noise with which we’re continually bombarded is, of course, up to us.

Rather than predicting that the chips fall squarely on one side or the other, I expect people will use these new forms of language in both creative and utterly wasteful ways.  Perhaps contributing to the static will be the more common and obvious route… but when have things ever been all that different?  This is my prediction, neither wholly optimistic nor particularly pessimistic: serious reading and writing need to survive, and will survive, because without them, the Culture of the Screen goes bankrupt, and the mixed visual-verbal form of communicating collapses too.

All these virtual realities would have their seams pulled free, with no written design underpinning them.  Special effects and flashing lights and gunning down pedestrians in a videogame can only hold people’s attention for so long—they won’t in themselves suffice (at least, they won’t suffice for some people).  I don’t believe they’ll totally crowd out the other, more creative uses of language, and the writer and poet’s midnight candle will still burn—bright or dim as the season bids it.  The Word will continually re-assert itself, mastering territory that once seemed to have been ceded to Chaos.  But we can’t yet predict what artistic forms it will assume in accomplishing its task…

“Glimpses of the Pattern: Thoughts on ‘True Detective’”

 

by Sam Buntz

[WARNING: If you’re not up-to-date with the show, there are a couple of spoilers.]

The Arabian Nights includes the first murder mystery ever written; with the innocuous title “The Three Apples”, I assumed the tale was going to involve home-spun folkloric hi-jinks, perhaps involving the theft of some apples (which it later does, as the story progresses).  But, being somewhat familiar with the Nights, I should’ve known better: it’s actually, primarily, about a Baghdad-area fisherman who pulls a locked chest out of the Tigris river, and delivers it to the Sultan, Harun al-Rashid.  Upon breaking open the chest, the Sultan discovers that it contains the dismembered corpse of a young woman.  Outraged, he gives his vizier Jafar (not to be confused with the malevolent character from Aladdin) three days to crack the case, after which, if unsuccessful, Jafar will be put to death… But to find out what happens, you’ll need to read the story (or, at least, a detailed summary of it like I did).  It’s not really much of a “detective” tale, since Jafar himself plays almost no conscious role in cracking the case, but it gets pretty shocking, nevertheless.

To get to the point, I’ve been watching the show True Detective recently, and—while utterly different in almost every other way—the HBO series still retains the same basic prompt as “The Three Apples”, the original whodunit: a young woman is graphically murdered in a ritualized manner, leading someone to initiate the counter-ritual of solving it and putting the culprit to death.  In making this observation, I’m slightly indebted to the Canadian literary magus, Northrop Frye, who claimed that every murder mystery is “a sacrificial ritual in a moral context”, meaning that it satisfies a weird, primal urge in us to witness a ritual death, coupled with the socially acceptable need to see the ancient sacrificial ritual transformed into a moral ritual by adding a second murder, the death of the killer— thus bringing the plot in line with the ancient Mosaic code’s prescription of “an eye for an eye.”  Imaginatively, we become like ancient Israelites, rooting for capital punishment against pagans who’ve been sacrificing babies to Moloch (or, in this case, sacrificing a young woman to another dark deity).

I’d say this is broadly true for the vast majority of detective stories, and obviously True Detective isn’t an exception.  But the show provides, in its particulars, a rich experience.  On the one hand, Woody Harrelson’s Marty and Matthew McConaughey’s Rust form a classic cop pairing:  Marty is, as he puts it, “just a regular guy with a big-ass dick”, and Rust, while a complex character not easily susceptible to stock-character generalizations, is “smart,” the Brain.  He’s got a stack of criminal justice and psychology textbooks sitting against the wall in his sparsely furnished home, and although he believes the universe is essentially a product of Chaos, he’s still moved to categorize and use “ten dollar words”—to try to fit the evidence he sees into a logical pattern.  He even possesses a nickname befitting such a counter-homicidal logician—“The Taxman,” inspired by the ledger-sized notebook in which he scribbles down clues.  As with so many cop duos, the ghost of Watson and Sherlock Holmes hovers—however distantly—overhead.

But McConaughey’s character is clearly a darker and more troubled figure than Sherlock Holmes ever was—to say the least.  Sherlock Holmes didn’t, after all, believe that human consciousness was accidental or that Chaos lay at the root of the cosmos (at least, I don’t believe he ever publicly articulated such beliefs).  But Rust, in Marty’s words, says “odd shit” like this pretty frequently.  His bleak worldview stems from the death of his two year-old daughter some years earlier, and the ensuing dissolution of his marriage.  Compound that with years as an undercover narc, forced by his profession to take numerous drugs in the line-of-duty—consequently leading to persistent hallucinations and flash-backs—and you have a character with a rather “unique” way of looking at things.  (McConaughey is extraordinarily good at conveying Rust’s tangled, tortured inner self—for one thing, he knows how to avoid eye contact with the other characters in a somehow very convincing way.)

Yet, despite the fact that Marty is the more “normal” one, the series thus far strongly implies that Rust manages to get closer to The Truth—perhaps because of his abnormalities.  The deranged level of existence Rust inhabited for so long—and still, mentally, inhabits—has taught him about the fundamental insanity of the world, giving him a quicker insight into the real nature of situations and characters.  On the other hand, Marty is ruining his family through his own infidelities, looking and acting ridiculously (like when he storms into his girlfriend’s apartment), despite his identity as the “regular guy” in the pair.

In a stray comment, Frye connects the excitement of detective stories with the excitement of playing cards or chess, stating that the logical pattern for which readers and players both search is “part of a haphazard chance chaos with fitful glimpses of pattern—runs of luck, etc.—running through it.”  This is spelled out symbolically on the show when Rust thinks he sees a flock of departing birds suddenly form the occult, spiral design that was tattooed on the back of the victim.  Frye’s observation plays directly into Rust’s philosophy as well—as a cop, he’s always on the look out for the logical pattern running through and arising from the fundamental Chaos that he believes constitutes reality.  Whereas Marty claims to believe in the basic order presented by his neighbors’ Christian worldview, his actions only immerse him in Chaos, whereas Rust consciously and intentionally immerses himself in the Chaos of biker gangs and the criminal underground for the purpose of discovering a hidden order.  These facts may or may not have entered Nic Pizzolato’s mind at the level of direct intention—but they’re definitely there.  (Pizzolato is the mystery writer who created the show and authored every episode.)

Yet, we can’t predict how True Detective will develop this dynamic between its characters.  In the “present day” part of the show, it seems Rust may be the suspect in the copycat killing based on the murder he and Marty investigated and apparently solved back in 1997—since the detectives interviewing Marty say that they’re particularly keen to understand how Rust proceeded in uncovering the case, in addition to asking him about Rust’s behavior outside of work.  It makes me think about a Swiss mystery novel I once read, where an old cop who works from his gut, using a deep experiential knowledge of human nature, is able to crack the murder case, while his partner, a young devotee of modern scientific detection, turns out to be the killer, who uses his up-to-date methods to frame someone else and obscure the dark desires that truly drive him.  So, there’s always the risk that the Logician is the real danger—more murderous than the Beast. (The Beast, incidentally, is a scary guy marching around in his yard wearing naught but a gas mask and white briefs at the end of Episode Three.)

Speaking of “The Beast”, Frye says that the goal of the detective story is usually to show “how the energy of moral evil can be outwitted by the logic of moral virtue.”   In this case, the Beast—Reggie Ledoux—is evil “energy”, which runs rampant by torturing and murdering young women, in addition to manufacturing meth and LSD.  Rust, on the other hand, represents good logic—though that might yet prove to be a screen masking greater reservoirs of evil “energy”.  The natural course for the show to follow would be for Rust to be accused of the copycat murders–then, he and Marty, now reunited as a team, would need to uncover the real killer.  (Of course, I expect the show will try to deviate from that expected path to some degree).

In a higher sense, that’s the core conflict of the detective story—good logic against wicked passion.  On the other hand, there are genres of narrative where good passion overwhelms wicked logic (The Matrix, to provide a contemporary example—though Christ’s “Passion” in overthrowing Satan, “The Prince of This World”, might be the archetypal version of this alternative pattern.)  But, aside from some intentionally contrarian examples like the Swiss mystery I mentioned—and “The Three Apples”, where the pattern is discovered through near-miraculous coincidences—this is the way the detective story usually tends to work…  At any rate, I look forward to seeing how Pizzolato manages to toy with these expectations.  I don’t think he’ll base the labyrinth’s layout on a prefab pattern.

“Judging Woody”

by Sam Buntz

Despite the fact that the Internet grants access to such vast reservoirs of information, it simultaneously permits people to restrict the sources from which they obtain that information—to only read articles from a highly limited and selective number of websites, refusing to see other perspectives or complicate their own viewpoints.  I think I see this tendency asserting itself in the online chatter regarding the recent sexual assault accusations Dylan Farrow publicly made against Woody Allen.

I keep hearing the following opinion expressed: if you don’t have full faith in Dylan Farrow’s accusation, then you believe that women who accuse men of rape tend to be liars.  I think that’s a wholly bizarre conclusion.  The people defending Woody Allen, or suggesting that Dylan’s account might not be the truth, aren’t saying that Dylan is consciously making anything up.  Allen’s defenders, as I understand them, are saying that, in the heat of the separation proceedings between Allen and Mia Farrow, the story about Allen molesting Dylan developed as Mia attempted to find more evidence to prove that Allen was generally a horrible person.

This doesn’t even mean that Mia consciously lied—it just means that, in attempting to look for evidence in favor of Allen’s depravity, she may have repeatedly asked her daughter whether Allen had touched her inappropriately (or whatever), gradually implanting the idea in her seven-year-old daughter’s mind.  After all, the Yale-New-Haven medical team which first investigated the accusation—and which Farrow’s lawyers later attempted to discredit—concluded at the time that Dylan was not molested.  False accusations like this do, I’m told, frequently come up in the midst of divorce or separation cases–so this isn’t an utterly fantastic notion.

Given all that we know about false memories, and the kind of false (or, for that matter, true) accusations that surface during separation and divorce cases, this is not an implausible story, and, at the very least, it needs to be seriously considered.  I’m not personally saying that this is what happened—Allen could very well be guilty.  I’m merely stating that people shouldn’t rush to judgment on Allen before they’ve determined whether his story is coherent or not.  I, for one, think it actually is quite coherent:  I just don’t know if it’s true.

To provide another example: Guns n’ Roses’ front-man, Axl Rose, believes that his father molested him when he was a child.  However, it turns out that Rose’s accusation stems from “past-life regression therapy”—which is a very, very, very unreliable method of obtaining information about the past or about anything else.  Dylan Farrow’s allegations, obviously, don’t involve past-life regression therapy—and I don’t mean to try to discredit them by pointlessly linking them to another, more dubious case.  My point is just that Rose’s accusation seems credible on the surface (and there’s still a chance it might be true, anyway), but when you look at the underlying reasons for it, you discover that it’s not so credible, despite Rose’s sincerity.

The people who are assuming that Allen is guilty of molesting a seven year-old girl because he dated a nineteen year-old girl (who was also his former partner’s adopted daughter), haven’t fully considered Allen’s side of the story, or looked at the other ways false memories can be formed, or attempted to apply them to the case.  This would be a reasonable way of proceeding, given how much time has passed between the initial case and Dylan’s public allegations in the present day.  Asking these questions before, say, comparing Allen to Roman Polanski (who actually admitted to the rape he committed, and is guilty ten times over), would be common sense.  This is clearly quite different from doubting any, all, or most rape accusations, or believing that women are unreliable witnesses—or whatever other rather tenuous arguments bloggers are making about the accusation.

Again, I’m not saying that Allen is innocent.  I don’t even know enough about the history of the accusations to make that judgment—if there’s enough evidence to make it, in the first place.  I perhaps slanted this article towards his side of the story mainly to make my point—there may be good reasons for doubting the conclusions of the Yale New Haven medical team, and time may reveal that Dylan’s accusations have a lot to back them up.  I only object to interpreting the evidence in a superficial way, and making cheap arguments against Allen.

Believe me—I have no special attachment to Woody.  I’m writing this because of the tendency I see on Facebook and the blogosphere to rush to judgment, to refuse to consider different perspectives, and to use a spurious methodology when forming an opinion on a particular issue.  Dylan’s accusations shouldn’t be evaluated entirely in light of  the fact that the vast majority of women who make accusations of sexual assault are telling the truth, with the automatic assumption that Dylan’s accusations must therefore be true, as well.  If such a principle were applied legally, it would destroy the notion of being “innocent until proven guilty” and the general impartiality of the law.

The unique circumstances of the case—the length of time between then and now, the extraordinarily bitter separation proceedings, the possibility of false memories being involved—all need to be considered.  The very complexity of the Internet and the overabundance of information it offers apparently provoke people to retreat into their own, carefully sealed compartments, selecting only the information they want to hear—to actually reduce the level of complexity to which they are exposed.  That’s understandable, but it’s also a very dangerous tendency—injurious for liberal democracy and the notion that we’re a “republic of laws and not men”.  Of course, this is a small instance of that tendency—but, because of the public attention involved, an important one.