by Sam Buntz
Blood on the Tracks is probably Bob Dylan’s most popular album. You don’t need to be up for Rimbaud-style strangeness to appreciate it, and you can find its songs of heartbreak immediately affecting. It’s the most widely-appealing because you’re able to know “what it is” with relative ease, which wouldn’t be true for, say, Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, albums that trade heavily in the cryptic (not that Blood on the Tracks is lacking in cryptic moments, of course; “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” is one solid 8 minute and 52 second crux). At any rate, it’s susceptible to definition. Basically, it’s a break-up album.
Four tracks in, we find “Idiot Wind,” clocking at 7 minutes and 47 seconds, making it the second-longest track (after “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” obviously). Like most of the songs on Blood on the Tracks, it seems to bear a definite relation to Dylan’s impending divorce from Sara Dylan, the goddess-muse presiding over his work from Blonde on Blonde onwards. Whereas tunes like “Simple Twist of Fate” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” are melancholy and tender lamentations, “Idiot Wind” is one of Dylan’s greatest, caustic kiss-offs: “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth / You’re an idiot babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” So far, so clear, but the title itself presents us with a puzzling poetic image (not that wind really has an “image”). What is specifically wind-like about idiocy and the means by which it is spread?
It’s not only a force that’s ruining his relationship with Sara, probably the most important relationship in his life, both artistically and literally speaking, but one responsible for broader societal and cultural dysfunction. The track’s actual music is uplifting, as soaring organs and up-tempo drums provide an ironic contrast with the biting lyrics, indicting the malign effects of this “idiot wind.” Insidious tabloid rumors and persecutions become emblematic of its effects: “They say I shot a man named Gray / And took his wife to Italy / She laid hands on a million bucks / And when she died, it came to me / I can’t help it if I’m lucky… / People see me all the time, and they just can’t remember how to act / Their minds are filled with big ideas / Images, and distorted facts.” The idiot wind blows through the collective mind, wilting and corrupting it, the intellect perishing, flowers withering as they make contact with this poison breath. It’s not the “breath of life,” but its opposite, a wind conducive to senility and decay, and hence to death.
The symbol isn’t unique to Dylan. Seth Rogovoy locates its origins in The Talmud (Jewish Tradition being a perpetual source of inspiration for Dylan), where Rabbi Reysh Lakish says, “No one commits a sin unless the wind of idiocy (ruach shtus) enters him.” (Seth Rogovoy. Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet. New York: Scribner, 2012. 167). But we can go back even farther, and analyze the Biblical sources of the symbol, as well. The term for “wind” in this Talmud quote is actually ruach, which is a Hebrew word frequently translated as “spirit” in the Bible (spiritus being the Latin word for “breath”). Hence, when we read in 1 Samuel 16:14 that “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him,” we’re metaphorically witnessing an evil wind or breath take possession of Saul; in this case, not a “wind of idiocy” but a wind of depression and despair. It’s a good metaphor for domination by an undesired feeling: a person falls subject to despair or idiocy in the same manner that wind controls a dry leaf. While the spirit or breath of God possesses and directs human action in a definite and positive way, this opposing, alien, and evil wind forces human action into undesired channels.
We can further trace the genealogy of the symbol into English literature, isolating one example among many: while John Milton doesn’t specifically reference an “idiot wind” or “wind of idiocy” in his great elegy, “Lycidas,” he uses the symbol of a corrupting breath to indict Britain’s clergy. He compares them to shepherds playing on pipes which fail to lead their sheep (the congregants) on to satiety and more life: “when they list their lean and flashy songs / Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw, / The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, / But, swoll’n with wind and the rank mist they draw, / Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread […]” Instead of generating spiritual life, the breath blown through the shepherds’ pipes just makes the sheep swell with gas.
Leaping ahead roughly three hundred years, we find that Dylan is already using imagery related to the wind and the spirit in “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As Rogovoy and others have observed, “The answer is blowin’ in the wind,” can mean either that the answer to society’s ills has been sadly lost in the breeze, or that this answer is a truth conveyed by the spirit, by the “breath of life.” This more positive reading doesn’t seem egregiously out-of-step with the song, either… It’s similar to D.H. Lawrence’s great line, “A fine wind is blowing the new direction of time.” But on “Idiot Wind,” Dylan laments the absence of this purer spirit. We really are lost in the breeze: “Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol / Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth / You’re an idiot, babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” The literary critic Christopher Ricks observes that the idiot wind wraps around the singer’s head and around the Capitol, which is the metaphorical head of the country (since “capitol” literally means head). This buffers what was said earlier, that Dylan is considering the idiot wind’s effects on scales both personal and societal. (http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/bob-dylan-im-poet-and-i-know-it)
If he stopped there, Dylan would simply be calling his soon-to-be ex-wife an idiot. He would be doing it eloquently, of course—but it would still seem a bit harsh. Yet, as the song concludes, he indicts himself, equally: he’s been possessed by the idiot wind, too. He sings, “You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor all the pain I rise above / And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love / And it makes me feel so sorry… / Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats / Blowing through the letters that we wrote / Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves / We’re idiots, babe / It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.” His self-humbling elevates the song from being a mere kiss-off in the vein of “Positively 4th Street” to something tragic and searching.
The problem is communication. That’s what the idiot wind disrupts. It breaks down comprehension and receptivity, creating destructive mental distance between people. Dylan sings, “I kissed goodbye the howling beast / On the borderline that separated you from me,” meaning that he’s not going to try to communicate anymore, the separation is final, and the idiot wind has done its work. (Actually, later on, he and Sara nearly reconciled and even considered remarriage.)
After Milton discusses the workings of the same wind in “Lycidas,” he concludes with one of the most famous puzzles in English Literature: “But that two-handed engine at the door / Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.” These two lines have been debated over and over again, with no settled conclusion. Yet the fact that the engine is “two-handed” seems to imply something significant: to break down the idiot wind’s power and counter its effects will require a total effort, and, what is more, an individual effort, a kind of self-cultivation. Once the victory is won, and the ability to communicate has been re-established, the struggle really will be finished. The engine smites no more. But for Dylan, the tragedy of “Idiot Wind” is that the break is absolute. He needs to start over.