Friday, August 27, 2010

The Sixties According to Dante:
A Meditation on "Desolation Row"

The first in a series of Friday essays on various poetical topics

"You know nothing of my work." -Satan

Rivers of ink have solidified into tar parsing Bob Dylan's inscrutable ultimate (and last to be recorded) track on his 1965 homage to Charley Patton Highway 61 Revisited but, as usual, nothing has really been said. The bulk of the effort seems to be devoted to proving that characters like Dr. Filth and the riot squad are actual people, and that actual people like TS Eliot and Einstein are fictional characters. Part of that of course is in the nature of aesthetic experience, which is much like Monty Python's sketch about the funniest joke in the world, in that even a few stitched together words - the smallest hint that things are actually connected - would make the listener die of laughter. So much easier for a critic to say "I like those clever LSBs" (little surrealistic bits), but "I think those LSBs protest too much." It's also understandable in a song that seamlessly tells all but leaves no clues, even amidst the wreckage of a society that hadn't yet been broken up and wistfully sold into carnival parts, that no one is lining up at the door to proclaim it his Apr├Ęs moi, le deluge moment (well, some people, invariably, are - "when I say there's no cannibalism in the British Navy, I mean there is some," per Monty Python in another context).

The best that has been said about this song is that it comes as a surprise. After 10 different ways of disguising disgust behind cool shades and cantankerous barrelhouse piano, slide whistle and soap opera organ, this one kicks the calliope way down – to an almost aristocratic dryness – the opposite of, if I may say so, Poe, who would require even a bleeding finger to atone by hurtling into some fool abyss as if the wound came from the devil’s pitchfork itself. The song’s strange cornucopia of American jetsam – enough objectively to scare the bejeebus out of any red-blooded American idealist of wealth – Dylan lays out like a suit the night before a funeral, denying us the privilege of his special brand of editorializing (often mistaken as attitude at the expense of word or vocal talent). “Here comes the blind commissioner,” he intones with quivering irritation at the banality of the image, “…one hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants,” as if that dizzying picture of the nature of corruption was the most painfully obvious resolution to this character being placed without our permission and seemingly Athena-like into our badly knocked-upside heads. One of the few hints of emotion occurs shortly afterward, the genuine compassion for a riot squad that "needs somewhere to go." What to make of the calmness of it all – we’re seeing the very gears roll, greased with cyanide, kerosene, screaming ambulances, heart attack machines and broken doorknobs, crushing hopes and children, none of it displaying any intelligence that it is in control in any way of what's going on, that it knows anything outside of its own circumscription. How easily the townspeople enjoying the traveling circus turn into literary characters, how smoothly those characters turn into the agents of all our sexual, political, religious and economic nightmares, and how logical it seems that this dramatic progression would make the narrator shut his doors on the whole affair. It seems as if normal life enlarged and sped up by massive amounts of drugs has finally become pedestrian again.

The soothing voice is there to suggest there's nothing to stop this endless wheel of numb repetition, because the insight to transcend it is still cruelly denied, because we can’t bring ourselves to step outside our own primitive psychic space to wear others’ less-than-commodious skin. Instead we want to jump inside Dylan’s, who knows this, who needs this, who says, with Western mock-heroic grace “you’re in the wrong place, my friend, you better leave” – his lilt urging us, of course, to do anything but. We have to look, though we be blind, like Homer and Lemon Jefferson, or less than that, for we lack Milton’s “Invisible Rose” except through the medicine-man medium-ship of Skipper Zimmerman, who can only call the youth-stricken faithful to a raging bonfire – as a charlatan entertainer – not a Rabbi’s son who must learn to read the braille of Mississippi cotton fields in a baked potata sun. So, instead of being the prototypical reluctant messiah, he embraces the role, a true rebel prodigal, the kid with the motorcycle to be envied, with skeleton keys to ward off ignorant furies, selected by secret quorums to serve an historical moment, that one shining instant when Cinderella was a princess and was able to look at the “desert of the real” with a certain longing. “The Good Samaritan … getting ready for the show” is eagerly ponying up to the squalor called home by America’s invisibles, as a tourist of the senses. Here, the romantic pathos of taking actual joy in the pain of others, pain they've already forgotten was once theirs, is toxic desire, the devil mark of the individual.

Satan metes out proper punishments for such hubris, to Casanova if not to the skinny girls who have been, after all, unlike Adam, warned. As has been our generous narrator, who knows the one thing we don’t, that it is the fame of Johnny Angel (aka Einstein) and not the disguise (aka Robin Hood) that burns – the falsely won, not the MKUltra iconography – that is the karmic cost. No wonder the street is empty.

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