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  • Andrew Field

Bob Dylan, Genre, and Ekphrasis


Bob Dylan in 1969, at a festival at Woodside Bay, Isle of Wight


I was reading Alexander Nehamas's Nietzsche: Life as Literature, and he brought up the fascinating question of the pluralism of Nietzsche's style. And this started me thinking, what is the difference between style, genre, and art form? We often use these words when we discuss art - these are categories that we assume are fairly stable, in which we can fill with out dreams of content, however unstable or incoherent or penetrating or insightful, but I wonder if we have clear enough definitions of differences between these terms, so I'm going to try in this blog post, for myself and anyone interested, to describe some differences as they seem to me, and then use these differences to talk about Bob Dylan's work.


Maybe the most obvious way to say this, before diving into more textured descriptions, is that style is the smallest Russian doll, genre the next smallest, and art form the least smallest, and that they fit into each other in a kind of holistic way, at least categorically, if not in practice. Art forms are music, literature, visual art, and genres within music are country, or hip hop, or rock n roll; genres within literature are graphic novels, or poetry, or short stories; genres within visual art are sculpture, or painting, or installation art. And then, within these genres, there are individual styles.


Sometimes there will be movements, within a genre, claimed by a critic, say, or a group of poets, to possess a similar enough variety of styles or interests or values to suggest a movement of whatever sort: think of the New York Poets, or the Abstract Expressionists, or the Dark Room Collective, or the Bloomsbury Group, or the Romantic poets. These movements can be on larger scales or smaller scales, and they can share generic similarities, but a movement suggests both a collection of friends and something with wider cultural significance; genre suggests the conventions, the permeable walls, the bendable rules, in which the styles of the individual artists of these movements apply their characters, wills, passions, and intelligences.


I think if we have a better understanding of these definitions, on a basic level, then we can begin to understand the accomplishment of someone like Bob Dylan, for example, who I think is the most important singer-songwriter of the 20th century, and who does not any peers in the 20th century that reach his greatness. I think Dylan's main greatness lies in his melodies, his unbridled experimentation in things like arrangement, his genius for performance, the manner in which he raised lyrics themselves to an art form within the parameters of song, and his voice, which is like nothing that came before, and which, through its astonishing degree of iterations, breaks new ground for what is possible in music. But in addition to these achievements, which are difficult to wrap one's head around - Dylan is to my mind one of the most ungraspable artists, like Whitman - Dylan also assimilated every imaginable genre of the American popular tradition, with the exception of jazz, and made them his own. He made folk his own, he made rock n' roll his own, he made country music his own, he made gospel his own, and he made something, in his later works, that we don't have a name for, with a style that is somewhere between prophetic, Roman, bristling, where we can hear lyrics like "two timing slim, who ever heard of him, I'll drag his corpse through the mud" and feel as if we are encountering someone who stands between being a general, a mafia boss, Ezekiel, and Mozart. How do we even begin to talk about this?


The truth is that, when we discuss Dylan, terms like art form, genre, and style both lose meaning and take on new meaning, and no matter what context we attempt to situate him in - rabbi, Christ, poet, artist, shaman, outlaw - he will always elude these contexts, since he is always one step ahead of us. We can read Greil Marcus's The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, and get a flavor for the uncountable number of rich and pungent and lovely and unforgettable influences that poured into his work, by the most obscure to the most famous to the obscurely famous to the famously obscure. And of course, this is apropos, because Dylan is an enigma, like Kafka, and like Shakespeare he represents a kind of "Love Minus Zero," meaning a sort of blankness, an emptiness, something Buddhist and indescribable, someone who actually attained a form of universality, and therefore a form of idiosyncrasy that was never here before him, like Einstein or Jay Wright or George Herriman. And describing Dylan's style is very difficult, not only because music is the hardest art form to write about, but because the multifarious nature of his style - its multitudinousness, to invoke Whitman and Shakespeare - is beyond categories, like his description of his own music as "that thin wild mercury sound."


Language is made out of categories turned into concepts turned into words turned into sounds, or something like that, I don't know the process exactly. And for this reason, literary criticism is a great fit for literature, or at least most genres of literature, not including exactly the graphic novel, since literary criticism is primarily words about words. Art criticism is also an okay fit, since words about words, and therefore language that addresses metaphor, is not too far from words about images, and therefore language that addresses visual perception, since visual perception is also metaphorical because it is interpretative and proceeds from commonalities and uncommonalities, similarities and differences. The as if of a form in a painting or nature that morphs based on how we see it is not very far from the interpretation of tone in a poem, say, for in both it is feeling, affect, that shapes how we interpret or perceive, and therefore how we imagine. But language about melody is almost impossible, because melody is something that, by its very nature, resists conceptualization almost successfully. And that is the nature of Dylan's music, the nature of melody, for as soon as we try to pin it down with words, it has escapes, is somewhere else, and we turn into laughable lepidopterists, obsessive hobbyists, or merely people whose lives could not proceed without his music, in any form whatsoever.


Dylan is therefore also an artist interesting for thinking about in the context of ekphrasis, for he paints, and welds, and makes movies, and draws. His music itself, its arrangements, the way the stage might be set up for a performance, the moods, the sources he draws upon, the radical in-betweenenss of his quest, all of this seems like poems about paintings raised to a new pitch, or art about life raised to a new level, a new dimension, a different way of imagining what is possible in the arts and life. I write about Allen Grossman a lot, and his comment that art is important for many reasons, one of which is that it allows us to tap into our own inner violence in a safe way through representation rather than history, meaning the representation of history rather than repeating history. But I wonder if, when we are very clear about the difference between catharsis and history, if art and life themselves become more inextricable, untangleable, since dialectic has to produce some kind of complicated synthesis to produce a new dialectic, say. Dylan twangles traditions, mangles them, completely reimagines them, sifts them through the impossibly large character of himself, which can move from an ancient haunting Blues register, like a Jewish Robert Johnson wandering in the desert, to moments of such poignancy and tenderness - I'm thinking of a version of "Tomorrow is a Long Time," or "One Too Many Mornings" on "The Times They Are A-Changin'" - that we have to start thinking about not only art forms, or genres, or styles, but registers, tones, and what Gary Saul Morson calls "tiny alterations of consciousness," since every moment of life is a kind of navigation, in which the feelings change, grow, shudder, flourish, sink, rise, expand, grimace, and Dylan's music, through his performances and albums, is something, like his music, that we do not have words for, because the magnitude of his ability to create by following a kind of intuitive alteration of consciousness as it navigates each moment, is as unprecedented as Shakespeare in poetry and play, and there is nothing in the world of music that he did not change.





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