Tag Archives: W.B. Yeats

Hope and Bob Dylan

About a week before Bob Dylan was honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature,  a mighty powerful thought came to me. I had been talking to a friend about the way we often distort our thinking. Suppose a loved one appears to betray us and we begin to think people in general aren’t worth trusting, or we wave to an acquaintance and she doesn’t wave back and we believe she has for some reason decided not to like us. And so on. Many of us think like this now and then or every day. Long ago, I read a fine book about such “cognitive distortions”, and I still recommend it: Feeling Good, by David Burns.

The powerful thought came when I woke up feeling lousy and didn’t particularly want to roll out of bed because a voice like a dementor from Harry Potter told me that the day promised nothing worth rising for. Then out of nowhere a voice like an angel told me, Hey, something good is going to happen today.

I jumped up (well, maybe not jumped), eager to learn what the good thing would be.

Every day since then, as soon as I awake, I tell myself that something good is going to happen. And when I look back at the end of each day, I realize something good has happened. Today, for instance, Zoe pitched masterfully and her team almost beat a great team from a national championship organization.

That day when the angel first urged me to look for the good that would happen, Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize for Literature. Now the only way the Nobel committee could have pleased me more is if they had chosen me, and not only was that not likely to happen, it would’ve have seemed quite right.

I don’t attend a lot of concerts, but I have gone to watch Bob Dylan about a dozen times, in venues small and large. The best ever was in Tucson, Arizona when he performed all Christian songs backed up with a group of six or seven gospel singers. I returned for the second performance the next day.

For at least two reasons, I’m delighted that Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize. One, he has done wonders for America by adapting several American art forms, our folk tradition, our topical (protest) song tradition, and the blues, and made them his own, which is what artists do best, build on what’s come before. Also, he has given us an honest Christian voice.

During his “Christian” period, surely, (I think of it as his churchgoing period, before he probably got disillusioned by churches as many of us do), but also before and after.

The best way to make sense out of one of his earliest hits, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is to view the wind as the Holy Spirit: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8; “And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Acts: 22

Here’s a deft analysis of “All Along the Watchtower”: “… a riff on the prophecy from Chapter 21 of the Book of Isaiah, where two watchmen on a watchtower see two riders approaching. ‘There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief. ‘There’s too much confusion/ I can’t get no relief.” The first stanza is about existential angst, about the futility and violence of the modern world. “Businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth./ None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” In this consumerist world, we drink, we steal, we work, but nothing seems of real value.

“’No reason to get excited,’ the thief he kindly spoke.’ Who is the thief but Jesus Christ who describes himself as returning to Earth “like a thief in the night’? Indeed, ‘the hour is getting late,’ the thief informs us, another Biblical catchphrase about the return of Christ. [He continues]‘There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke./ But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.’ The seeming futility of life is something that we need to rise above… “Which takes us to the third and fourth stanzas: “…Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” This is a prophecy from Isaiah 21. The two messengers are announcing the fall of Babylon…. also a theme in the Book of Revelation, referring to Christ’s Second Coming.”

One of my favorites of his later songs is “Highlands” in which he sings in accord with W.B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”, a poem I consider strikingly Christian in its preference for pursuing the eternal over clinging to the earthly. If you haven’t read it, please do. You might want to augment it with a movie (from a novel) that played off the poem’s opening line: “That is no country for old men.”

As this is about twice as long as most of my messages, I’ll end it here with the hope that you haven’t already, you will now click some of the links. The linked version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is most excellent.

Demons?

Edward Hirsch’s book The Demon and the Angel is devoted to enlightening us, often through the insights of master writers. about the spirit that moves us.

Hirsch reports that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Journals, “Blessed is the day when the youth discovers that Within and Above are synonyms.”

He informs us that Garcia Lorca referred to the spirit he sought, so that he could ask it to inhabit his poems, as the duende. He believed the duende was associated with the spirit of earth, visible anguish, irrational desire and enthusiasm, and a fascination with death. He held that the duende will not come unless he sees death is possible.

Writers seeking Lorca’s duende ought to heed an admonition of Master Jeong, under whom I studied Tae Kwon Do. “Don’t fight unless you’re willing to die,” he warned us. A writer might translate, “Don’t write unless you are willing to die (or risk everything).”

I’d like to know whether Lorca’s duende is a spirit of creation or of destruction. Czeslaw Milosz might ask the same question. Milosz, who attests that poems are dictated to him by the spirit, concludes his ars poetica “with the hope/that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.”

I’m convinced that both good and evil spirits exist. Hirsch quotes poet Charles Simic (from Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell), “…one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it.” And “Making art in America is about saving one’s soul.” I would scratch “in America,” insert “on earth” in its place, and argue that the mythic conflict the Faust legend presents, in which a creative person meets with the temptation to exchange his soul for powers granted by the devil, is a theme present in each of our lives.

Perhaps blues singer Robert Johnson as well as Fredrich Nietzsche, Garcia Lorca, the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudalaire got inspired by the spirit that granted Faust’s wish. Then the duende could be another name for what Dostoyevski’s Ivan Karamazov calls “the dread spirit.”

In The Brothers Karamazov, Satan is talking to Ivan. “Listen, in dreams and especially in nightmares, from indigestion or anything, a man sometimes sees such artistic visions, such complex and real actuality, even a whole world of events, woven into such a plot, with such unexpected details from the most exalted matters to the last button on a cuff, as I swear Leo Tolstoy could not create.”

Artists can get addicted to such visions. Emerson confessed, “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget our-selves, to be surprised out of our propriety, and to do something without knowing how or why.”

W.B. Yeats believed spirits need us as much as we need them. He agreed with Irish folk tradition that the spirit may offer us wisdom but only humans can deliver the wisdom. Which implies the same spirit (or spirits) we’re looking to access is looking to access us.

Maybe all artists are possessed.