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  • Andrew Field

Shamanism, Twinship, Meaning, and Proteanness in Bob Dylan, Jay Wright, and William James


William James


There is an aspect of the critics and thinkers and artists I love - and a particular aspect to them, though perhaps not as much of a dominant note in other thinkers, or artists, or critics - and that aspect has to do with a protean quality that I think is worth considering. To be protean is to be impossible to grasp, and one might invoke the Greek myth of Proteus, but one also might invoke the Dogon myth of Nommo, to capture the slipperiness of this quality I want to describe and represent as a kind of high virtue in the best works of scholarship, or criticism, or art we have. To exemplify what I am attempting to describe, and to touch upon the theme of shamanism as well, which to my mind is inextricable from this quality of being protean, let me talk about three artists and thinkers who are not mentioned enough in the same breath: William James, America's greatest psychologist and philosopher and one of the most important religious thinkers, Bob Dylan, America's greatest singer-songwriter, and Jay Wright, one of America's greatest poets.


A life in thought or art is a kind of trajectory, and along that trajectory are nodes, portals, openings, gateways, phases, and each of these entrances and exits are ways the self-image itself changes, in a sense, why retaining some quality of character that is indicative of a strong person, like an acorn. In some sense, the most protean artists - protean itself not being interesting per se in art or thought, but powerful proteanness, meaning artists who remain strong in each of their phases or, better put, seem to become stronger as they become different, in the way Harold Bloom discussed Wallace Stevens or Thomas Hardy - have the strongest characters, and in some sense the strongest morals therefore, even if (especially because) they are outlaws, and I think this outlaw quality, an ungraspability, like an outlier receding, is what makes interpretation of their works so polysemous as to court an impossibility, a quixotic state of affairs, and begin to ask questions about the meaning of meaning.


I think meaning is a form of twinship, by which I mean that it is not an isolated thing but happens via the aim of interpretation towards an object, and the fruits thereof. The harvest depends on the strength of the angle of the slant, the fit of the slant on the subject, and therefore a kind of twinship, by which I mean an intimate kinship, between interpreter and content. Content is like dream material, which is to say, it can be as ordered as Hegel, as unsystematic (they say) as Kierkegaard, as psychotic as psychosis, or as onrushing and bafflingly fantastic as Ashbery, but the fruits of the content - what it means - is equally as important as the object itself, since what it means is how it is passed down, even as what it means changes over time. Therefore, when we begin to discuss canons, an outdated term, I suppose, though something to my mind worth thinking about - for isn't Dylan, or Louis Armstrong, or Ella Fitzgerald, or Jay Wright, contributors to a kind of canon, the same Harold Bloom championed all his life (and was a great fan of jazz) - it is helpful to think about them in the context of meaning(s), and in doing so we can acquire a better understanding of the importance, the necessity, the urgency, of criticism.


Nietzsche championed a form of aesthetic perspectivism, which is a kind of Cubism based on the nature of human perception, and the way in which, when we look at someone, they look right back, as does a dog looking up, a bird looking across, a child at his mother, a grandfather at his son. And every moment involves these forms of cross-hatchings. But when we honor this fact, which is indubitable, and undeniable, and inescapable, then we have to begin to think about meaning in more complex ways, because of this is the nature of human existence, the meaning itself is not a river, or a mirror, or a lamp, but something we probably don't have words for, in terms of its infiniteness. Perhaps it is this very infiniteness which Richard Rorty described through his use of "contingency." And I think these ideas might take us closer to understanding the nexus of things like meaning, shamanism, twinship, and proteanness in the works of Jay Wright, Bob Dylan, and William James.


How so. It is not only the trajectory of their works that is interesting, but the weaving of styles, genres, registers, tones, meanings, the variety not only of their interests but the harvest of their interests, their ability to move strongly through different phases, and the ungraspability of their performances across or along this trajectory - how would we even represent this visually (line, circle, squiggle, curve, you get my gist) - that makes each of their works, and their works as a whole so far, so resistant to easy definition. If we really brood about Dylan, or James, or Wright, we find ourselves embarking on the best kind of endlessness, because the meanings in their work is inexhaustible, and in some sense their very lives, their very characters, are also, in the best and most responsible forms of biography, like Boswell's Johnson, also provide opportunities for discovering one's own trajectory, the possible nuances of one's own meanings' lifeblood, and how one can find or create meaning out of the vagaries, the vicissitudes, of suffering, pain, and time.


We move towards artists and thinkers that appeals to us, because a quality in them meets a quality in us ("in every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty," in Emerson's words), and thoughts is a useful term here, because we often associate it with things like philosophy, or psychology, which makes sense, but it is equally applicable to music or poetry if we have a capacious enough understanding of thought as something intuitive and almost melody-like. Bloom was fond of quoting Nietzsche's "That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking," and this is a marvelous swerve away from Nietzsche, since the one quote emphasis a kind of glorious receptiveness, and the latter a disgust at the difference between unconscious meaning and language, or symbol and language, or polysemy and language, or experience and language, or intuition and language. Poetry is a kind of religious act, just as philosophy is, just as music is, and all three are united by a form of shamanism, which is a form of twinship, which itself suggests a protean quality about the strongest acorns and the incalculably beautiful and lasting works of nature they become.

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