It seems like the only time Søren Kierkegaard is linked to Bob Dylan is when Fear & Trembling is referenced to what God and Abraham said to each other in Dylan’s“Highway 61 Revisited.” But there’s more to tell about how the Danemay inform theAmerican poet-musician’s lyrics. This seminar addresseshow hearing Dylan’s songswith constant reference to Kierkegaard may illuminate a deeper understanding of and appreciation for both writers.
Dylan isn’t knownas having spent much if any time reading Kierkegaard. Like some haunting acoustical illusion, however, many of his sentiments harmonize with Kierkegaard’s, and the two poet-philosophers may be heard in stereo as compatible lyricists, ethicists, critics of personal-social-cultural deceptions and self-deceptions, and penitent religious voices.
As a Christian voice, Dylan’s overtly evangelical/religious period (1979-81) has its place. Along lines of Kierkegaard’s indirect forms of communication, however, the more intimate and nuanced humanity and pathos of Dylan’s sense of the religious are perhaps more evocative indirectlythroughout his authorship. Not unlike Kierkegaard’s more pseudonymous authorship, Dylan’s authorshipon either side of 1979-81 is rich and diverse—one that, in so many extraordinary tones and half-tones, both separates and fuses elements among the erratic-erotic immediacy of artistic estheticism, the reasonable-resolved commitment of a judge’s ethics, and the sin-conscious suffering of the penitent’s religiousness.
Alliances Among the
Stages on Life’s Way
What Judge William says to the young man in Kierkegaard’s second volume of Either/Or may help address one way to consider Dylan and Kierkegaard in duet: “If you cannot manage to see the esthetic, the ethical, and the religious as the three great allies, if you do not know how to preserve the unity of the different manifestations everything gains in these different spheres, then life is without meaning.” Like Kierkegaard’s own voice, Dylan’s voice perfects such alliances, especially (but not exclusively) later in his career—alliances that not so much offer what Judge William optimistically considers as a “preservation of the unity” among Kierkegaard’s famous stages as much as exhibit the preservation of a constant, dramatic, inward, dynamic striving toward some certain unity.
Like Kierkegaard, Dylan is neither preacher nor apostle, although both bend toward the prophetic and the religious. Dylan also knows he is“without authority” and one who ethically, philosophically, and religiously is not unhappy to “die in the gutter” like the poet in “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”—just as the physically frail Kierkegaard was not unhappy thinking himself dust (read: nothing before God) after falling at a party near his life’s end: “Oh, leave it—let—the maid—sweep it up—in the morning.”
Poets of Mighty Opposites—
A salient side of Bob Dylan, especially since the late 1980s,is how he navigates between the world’s mighty opposites as effortlessly as a swan on a glassy lake. Amid this century’s grey dawn and more than ever before, his glide represents the “infinite sweep of humanity” he appreciates in the songs of American folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie (1912-1967).How Dylan describes American blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson (1911-1938) is not a bad descriptor of the profile Dylan himself cuts on stage, for he and his lyrics meet his audiences as if “immune to human dread….neither forlorn or hopeless or shackled.” And if any words of his offend (as if hoofing it through 40 years of America’s modern cultural wilderness didn’t yield a misstep), another side of Dylan these days—his repentance—is plain.
Played along side the works of Kierkegaard (another penitent-lyricist of mighty Hamletian opposites), Dylan’s more arcane non-sequiturs and imaginary constructions become clearer and sharper. For Kierkegaard, like Dylan, strives—with a penchant for dialectics and paradox—to fuse all dualistic elements into integrated, restlessly striving wholes. Such a movement is not unlike how Dylan claims that visual artist Red Grooms “incorporated every living thing into something and made it scream—everything side by side created equal.” It’s also not unlike how Kierkegaard’s Judge William finds meaning in life by seeing “the esthetic, the ethical, and the religious as the three great allies.”
Like Kierkegaard (and with the tone of a penitent),Dylan respectsboth dialectics and paradoxical alliances: hopeless romantic love with divine love from above; savage violence with light gambol; black despair and sin with softly-beating hope and faith; molten nonbeing with subterranean homesick being.
Just as Kierkegaard did in the 19th century, Dylan charts a map of the blind back alleys where virtual and real 21st-century worlds linger—that dual habitation in the present age that Dylan dubs in liner notesforWorld Gone Wrong (1993) as “the New Dark Ages.” With Oh, Mercy (1989), Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2006), Dylan comes to fully inhabit these worlds without being of them; he permeates the dual existence without tipping the ever-unsettled balance. His lyrics are like how he describes Robert Johnson’s words: they “were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture. It’s not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can’t. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence.”
As he sings in “Thunder on the Mountain,” he “don’t need any guide,” he “already know[s] the way.”Fortunately, he remains (like Kierkegaard) as guide for all of us who are left walking the back alleys blind: “Remember this, I’m your servant both night and day.”
Along the lines of fusing mighty opposites and in the spirit of Kierkegaardian alliances among stages on life’s way, Dylan’s treatments of and relationships between worldly love (preferential/ Elskov,including erotic, demonic, immediate, romantic, temporal, courtly, platonic, and conjugal love) and ethical-religious love (nonpreferential/ Kjerlighed, including neighbor love and agapé) are dialectical and paradoxical. Troubadour Knight-errant Bob wanders and resignedly commits and suffers a Romantic heart whileKnight of Faith and Lone Pilgrim Bobis contrite and faithfully committed to a suffering Christian heart—and then there is the seemingly effortless two-part harmony played out between his sense and imagery of doomed Romantic love and his sense and imagery of absurd Christian love. The upshot: in matters of the heart, Dylan and Kierkegaard areequally minstrel-troubadours and Christian penitents.They discriminate between estheticand ethical-religious aspects of love—not, however,to leave the categories separate, but to envision them as allies, “to separate what is inseparably joined,” as Kierkegaard writes, “in order to put it together again.”
A passage from Either/Or I (derived from a letter to Emil Boesen by 25-year-old Søren) describes pseudonym A/Kierkegaard’s yearnings as a fledgling author, something with which Dylan at about the same age could sympathize: “What I need is a voice as piercing as the glance of Lynceus, as terrifying as the groan of the giants, as sustained as a sound of nature, as mocking as an icy gust of wind, as malicious as echo’s heartless taunting, extending in range from the deepest bass to the most melting high notes, and modulated from a solemn-silent whisper to the energy of rage. That is what I need in order to breathe, to give voice to what is on my mind, to have the viscera of both anger and sympathy shaken.—But my voice is only hoarse like the scream of a gull or moribund like the blessing on the lips of the mute.”
In Chronicles, Dylan’s descriptors of musical voices he respects and eventually commands are comparable to young Kierkegaard’s descriptors:
Of Woody Guthrie: “His voice was like a stiletto [and he] tore everything in his path to pieces.…” He was “the poet of hard crust and gumbo mud…. Each [of his songs] seemed like a towering building with a variety of scenarios all appropriate for different situations.… They were totally in the moment, current and even forecasted things to come.”
Of Roy Orbison: “His stuff mixed all the styles and some that hadn’t even been invented yet. He could sound mean and nasty on one line and then sing in a falsetto voice like Frankie Valli in the next. With Roy, you didn’t know if you were listening to mariachi or opera.… It was all about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop…. He made you want to drive your car over a cliff.… He sang like a professional criminal. His voice would jar a corpse.”
Of the visual artist Red Grooms: “Everything he did crushed itself into some fragile world, the rickety clusters of parts all packed together and then, standing back, you could see the complex whole of it all…. His work cut like it was done by acid.… [and] announced its presence in glaring details…. [Red] incorporated every living thing into something and made it scream—everything side by side created equal—old tennis shoes, vending machines, alligators that crawled through sewers, dueling pistols, the Staten Island Ferry and Trinity Church, 42nd Street, profiles of skyscrapers. Brahman bulls, cowgirls, rodeo queens and Mickey Mouse heads, castle turrets and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, creeps and greasers and weirdos and grinning, bejeweled nude models, faces with melancholy looks, blurs of sorrow—everything hilarious but not jokey.… Grooms used laughter as a diabolical weapon.” (Note how this laundry list of images is not unlike the famous cartoon intended to parody both Kierkegaard and, apparently, the creation of light. Rays emanate from all sides of the author, illuminating and transferring life to orbiting celestial and worldly bodies. Those satellites include the sun and other stars, the earth, the moon, an angel, people, faces, churches, a house, other buildings, a horse, a donkey, a bird, a crown, a boot, bottles, rocks.)
Of Robert Johnson: “The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window.… He could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor….” His songs “felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition…. The compositions seemed to come right out of his mouth and not his memory…. [They were] big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction—themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease…. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future. ‘The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out,’ he sings. Johnson is serious, like the scorched earth. There’s nothing clownish about him or his lyrics. I wanted to be like that, too…. There [was] a fast moving story going around that he had sold his soul to the devil at a four-way crossroads at midnight and that’s how he got to be so good. Well, I don’t know about that. The ones who knew him told a different tale and that was that he had hung around some older blues players in rural parts of Mississippi, played harmonica, was rejected as a bothersome kid, that he went off and learned how to play guitar from a farmhand named Ike Zinnerman, a mysterious character not in any of the history books…. [I saw] Johnson for myself in eight seconds’ worth of 8-millimeter film shot in Ruleville, Mississippi on a brightly lit afternoon street by some Germans in the late ’30s…. He’s playing with huge, spiderlike hands and they magically move over the strings of his guitar. There’s a harp rack with a harmonica around his neck. He looks nothing like a man of stone, no high-strung temperament. He looks almost childlike, and angelic looking figure, innocent as can be…. He looks nothing like a man with the hellhound on his trail. He looks immune to human dread and you stare at [him] in disbelief.”
Use of Pseudonyms
Also describing Robert Johnson, Dylan writes: “Johnson masked the presence of more than twenty men.”
Of Dylan’s own use of pseudonyms: You may call him Terry, you may call Timmy, you may call him Bobby, youmay call him Zimmy, you may call him R. J., you may call him Ray, you may call him anything, but no matter what you say, you’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be thedevil of many Faustian faces or it may be the Lord of angelic narrative voices, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
In the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous, the singer-songwriter protagonist, played by Dylan, is named Jack Fate. In theTraveling Wilburys CDs that Dylan cut with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Tom Petty, Dylan is Lucky Wilbury in the vol.1 CD and Boo Wilbury in the vol. 3 CD (there is, fittingly, novol. 2).
And so the gift and the penalty of the multi-faceted voice of Bob Dylan, né Robert Zimmerman, is simply that Bob renders himself masked and anonymous time and again—which, for anyone in the public eye as he is, is also fitting; masks renderthe likes of Dylan impervious to anyone attempting tofalselyhype him or objectively type him in order to make him feel that he must be exactly like them. He was up to this old trickeven beforethe 1964 Halloween Night concert at Carnegie Hall in New York,when the singer famously informed the audience that he has on his Bob Dylan mask.And so, Dylan can say along with Kierkegaard that “in a certain sense I began my activity as an author with a falsum [deception] or with a pia fraus [pious fraud].”
Aside from his 1970 album Self-Portrait (in which Dylan sings more songs written by other people than in any other album he has produced), the most salient carnivalof pseudonyms with Bob Dylan’s persona is the 2007 musical film I’m Not There. In that film, six different actors (one an African American who calls himself Woody Guthrie and another a woman who calls herself Jude Quinn) portray Bob Dylan across the sundry iterations of his singing career.
In Chronicles, Dylan recalls girlfriend Suze Rotolo introduce him in the 1960s to the poetry of French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. “That was a big deal, too,”Dylan writes.“I came across one of his letters called ‘Je est un autre,’ which translates into ‘I is someone else.’ When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier.”Kierkegaard couldn’t agree more:“An author certainly must have his private personality as everyone has, but this must be his inner sanctum…as the entrance to a house is barred by stationing two soldiers with crossed bayonets.”
Among Kierkegaard’s own cavalcade of pseudonym-soldiers with bayonets crossed are A, the Esthete, Johannes the Seducer, B, Judge William, Johannes de Silentio, Constantin Constantius, Hilarius Bookbinder, William Afham, the Judge, Frater Taciturnus, Vigilius Haufniensis, Nicholaus Notabene, Johannes Climacus, Inter et Inter, H. H., and Anti-Climacus.
And if Bob Dylan can have a Bob Dylan mask, can’tKierkegaard have an S. Kierkegaard mask? Does it really matter much in the end? Or: Is somethingreally happening here and we just don’tknow what it is?
The man with the long black coat in Dylan’s song with the same title may hint a possible answer, for he is described as having a “face like a mask”—a simile that may reveal more than conceal the general nature of personhood. This is especially evocative when the etymology of “person” is considered, recognizing as it does the fundamental role that appearances and masks play in being human.Howard Hong writes: “the Latin persona means a mask used by actors to identify the character represented and as an aid in projecting the voice. The word itself is derived from per, meaning ‘through’ and sonare, ‘to sound.’ Therefore a person is the one who sounds through the mask or the various masks seen by others. The person is not the mask of function, type, class, or social-economical-political relations but is the agent, the responder, the thinker, one who acts…, one who bears the external mask or masks that others see. The mask is indeed the person’s mask but the person is not synonymous with the mask and is not exhausted by the aggregate of his masks.”
Although a person remains separate from the masks, masks nevertheless exist in legion, with words being a person’s greatest source of masks. At least a half-dozen times in his writings, Kierkegaard cites French statesman Talleyrand as allegedly having said that “man did not acquire speech in order to reveal his thoughts but in order to conceal them.”Words and speech nonetheless may equally prove revelatory—especially to the astute reader and observer of either demonic or penitent users, cheaters, and six time losers. In the end, an intimate understanding of language is, according to Hong, “our best means to get behind the masks.”
Endless Emptiness: Dylan and Despair
Especially in the latter half of his career, Dylan’s images of despair are prevalent, piercing, penetrating, and remarkably relentless.Equally remarkable, however, is how the singer just keeps on keepin’ on like a bird that flew, and how the despair he articulates floats along the surface of his oceanic literary corpus like so much flotsam and jetsam, or like howQueequeg’s coffin burstsforth for air from oceanic depths to serve as Ishmael’s life-buoy and salvation at the end of Moby-Dick. There are, in other words, abysses that, like the universe in Dylan’s “Cold Irons Bounds,” has the look and feel and actuality of one massive black hole capable of swallowing whole both the whole of existence and the hole that is a human’s abject and eyes-tight-shut despair. And along side those abysses grow upin strife equally prevalent peaks of wisdom fit for Job or Solomon (powerful, therapeutic moments of self-examination, clarity, illumination, and possibility)—peaks that transcend and oversee the abysses even as their very existence frames with rock and wallthe abysses themselves, peaks like invisible prayers that hang like clouds in the air. Meanwhile, a survivor of the common shipwreck sings:
Well, my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinking
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
I got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed
Despite formidable critics (e.g. Darwin“trapped out there on Highway Five”), gratitude, hope, and an authentic sense of tragic optimism exist in Dylan’s lines amidutter tragedy, failure, and loss. Ethically considered, a claim to no future and no past establishes a powerful present for onewith no direction home. It informs the hope for what Kierkegaard calls “infinite humiliation and grace, and then a striving born of gratitude.”“God help the one who had no predecessor and no successor,” Kierkegaard writesshortly before his death. “For him life truly becomes what it…is supposed to be: an examination in which there can be no cheating.”
And even if such striving is against all odds amid an indifferent universe that swallows people whole, if the striving is genuine, then it’s not cheating because it doesn’t have to cheat. It is a striving of the relational phenomenon that is thehuman self, which strives to integrate itself with itself andwith some other. It is the striving to live in the world without being of it, which requires knowledge of the world’s vast corruptions and sadnesses; the alternative is disintegration and despair’s dire disconnect. A strivingknowledge and faithmaintains goodness and joy; it’s also the ethical demand placed upon each human being.
By “practice[ing] a faith that’s been long abandoned,” Kierkegaard and Dylan know despair at its most elemental level. Such faith is representative ofa philosophy of hope built upon a bedrock of despair. It is also a philosophy that may best be summarized by Hong as one “that has to do with human nature, with anxiety and despair, which we don’t like, but nevertheless are signs of the potential greatness of every human being. This is what it is to be human in the context of a philosophy of the future that redeems the past, a philosophy of possibility where there is no human possibility, a philosophy of hope in the midst of despair.”
How Kierkegaard and Dylan’s like-minded philosophies balance extremes of nihilistic despair (universe-as-meaningless jest) and expectant hope (universe-as-meaningful gesture) may be the fulcrum of their shared genius. What Dylan thus essentially understands about the nature of human beings is what Kierkegaard essentially understood. And what Kierkegaard understood, according to Hong, was “human beings in their possibilities of depths and heights. In the face of humankind’s common disease, despair, he would agree with Pascal that ‘the greatness of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable. A tree does not know itself to be miserable. It is then being miserable to know oneself to be miserable; but it is also being great to know that one is miserable.’ [Such] despair…is a negative mark of being a creature of possibility, intended to become genuinely human.”
Bob Dylan’s Works of Love
Kierkegaard writes: “In heaven no work can be pleasing unless it is a work of love: sincere in self-renunciation, a need for love itself, and for that very reason without any claim of meritoriousness!”
They may say it’s impossible that the works of most great poets ever could be considered “works of love” in the strict sense that Kierkegaard defines the term above. They especially may say it’s impossible when Kierkegaard’s definition is applied to Dylan. Given, in other words, how Dylan’s notoriety sweeps and spans the world’s horizons 1001 times over and over the course of an extraordinary half-century-and-counting poetical-musical career, how is it possible for him to be so sincere in self-renunciation, have a need for love itself, and for that very reason be without any claim of meritoriousness? —And yet there’s that single individual himself, who, perhaps by virtue of the absurd, might sing along with one of his many narrative voices: “I believe in the impossible, you know that I do.”
Dylan’s works of love (and not just his overtly Christian-poetic works of love—Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981)) ever strives toward the Danish poet’s religious sense of what works of love ought to be—particularly positive love ethics as articulated in his Works of Love. The match is made not so much because the two poet-authors share positions in their respective times as Socratic ethicists and critics of cultural and personal machinations (deceptions and self-deceptions large and small). Nor is the match made so much because their voices alternate between the personae of Old Testament prophets and New Testament evangelists that span across the trajectories of highly prolific authorships. The match is more personal, more inward than that. It is a match evidenced when we (either as skeptical critics, indifferent bystanders, or adoring fans) compare their similar sympathies toward the socially integrated and concrete you or I that is emblematic of the believing single individual that both Kierkegaard and Dylan champion. In addition, it is a match that is evidenced when we also compare their similar antipathies against the socially deviant, worldly, and ever-present abstract they that both Kierkegaard and Dylan themselves are nevertheless also commanded to love as neighbors—even when “things ain’t goin’ well” and especially when “they [the Abstract Public, the Crowd, the Press, the System] stone you just a-like they said they would.”
Something About Dylan, Kierkegaard, and Claims of Anti-Semitism
Eric Ziolkowski (The Literary Kierkegaard) recently informed me that “examining a Jewish-to-Christian convert (let alone one as famous as Dylan!) through Kierkegaardian lenses might naturally be read by some—whether rightly or wrongly—in the light of the controversy…. stemming from Peter Tudvad’s book charging Kierkegaard with anti-Semitism.” Ziolkowski also noted that Tudvad is not the only recent author who has taken an interest in Kierkegaard’s relation to Judaism; Ron Green has spoken and written on the subject, and is currently, Ziolkowski surmises, working on a book devoted to the subject.I have read neither Tudvad nor Green, and so can’t comment one way or another regarding the charges, but I can surmise aboutDylan’s conversion.
Critical accounts and speculations of Dylan’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity are in abundance, and yet none or few offer much substantive illumination—perhaps because Dylan himself says little on the issue. As he is with virtuallyeverything outside the purview of his published work, Dylan is generally evasive at best. The only real hint of anti-Semitic posturing I’ve come across in Dylan (aside of course from his act of conversion, which in a broad sense may be perceived as an act of anti-Semitism) is this:
“People are going to be running to find out about God, and who are they going to run to? They’re gonna run to the Jews, because the Jews wrote the book, and you know what? The Jews ain’t gonna know. They’re too busy in the fur business and in the pawnshops and in sending their kids to some atheist school. They’re too busy doing all that stuff to know. People who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now as if he was here. That’s my idea of it, anyway.… It’s all there in black and white, the written and unwritten word. I don’t have to defend this. The scriptures back me up. I didn’t ask to know this stuff. It just came to me at different times and from experiences throughout my life. Other than that, I’m just a rock ’n’ roller, folk poet, gospel-blues-protest guitar player. Did I say that right?”
As to why he converted, the issue is also complex. I consider that his total immersion into American folk musicand blues—with its ubiquitous presence of Christian themes and references—moved him toward conversion ever since his boyhood in a dominant Christian culture. Then there’s his own claim: “What Jesus does for an ignorant man like myself is to make the qualities and characteristics of God more believable to me.… You can look on the desert and wake up to the sun and the sand and the beauty of the stars and know there is a higher being, and worship that Creator. But being thrown into the cities, you’re faced more with man than with God. We’re dealing here with man, you know, and in order to know where man’s at, you have to know what God would do if he was a man.”
As for Kierkegaard, I have (like most, I suppose) focused little on Kierkegaard’s own anti-Semitism. To my limited scope of vision on the topic in this early 21st century, Kierkegaard’s comments on Jews seem not unlike anti-Semitic comments made by Dostoevsky and various characters in his books—namely, all sorts of stupidly (or at least weirdly) unreflective assertions that may go simply undetected in 19th century northern European culture, where bigotries like what we now call anti-Semitism are bred so deeply in the bone that they managed to escape the Socratic radar of self-deception at the time. As such, perhaps Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky’s epithets appear more like Tourette-like utterances—i.e., involuntary (yet for all that, still stupid from a contemporary point of view).
A few years ago, while visiting the Vatican, I witnessed a Catholic priest kicking with gusto a Gypsy. Our tour guide, who seemed a rather thoughtful and liberal Italian, encouraged us to do the same if we were ever confronted by a Gypsy (“Kick them!” he advised with equal passion. “You kick them!”). I never took his advice—and yet I wasn’t entirely surprised at either his or the priest’s words and actions. I suppose that the possibility of offense is never far from being enacted by any human being in any time in history—which is no doubt another reason why Kierkegaard spent so much time with the concept. In addition, all human beings (including geniuses and apostles, priests and tour guides), by virtue of their humanity, have blind spots, are sinners, and do things that require forgiveness and judgment.
I don’t want to be considered dismissive regarding the conversion controversy here. But we are talking about human beings and I don’t exempt anyone, no matter how famous or brilliant, the possibility of offense as well as the fallout of acting stupidly in thought, word, or deed. If nothing else, grace—if you believe in that sort of thing—hinges upon such blessed, cursed human ignorance. Love hides a multitude of sins. And, Hey! Some of my best friends are ignorant, stupid Christians—even me! As Ishmael notes in Moby-Dick: “Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”
In the end, Dylan’s own faith journey is perhaps the sum of so many dynamic, conflicting experiences (his conversion from Judaism to Christianity included)—out of which works of love emerge. In Dylan’s overtly Christian songs, he speaks mostly of the need to love God. In the rest of his canon, the focus is mostly on the indirect possibilities of neighbor-love through lyrical expressions of so many human actions that lack neighbor-love. “When [he’s] lost in the rain…and negativity don’t pull [him] through,” Dylan ultimately recognizes that we regularly fall short and are in need ofsomething, call it what you will—grace, forgiveness, love. Dylan’s job as a Christian-oriented poet is to, like Kierkegaard (and in the words of Howard Hong), “pound sand into every evasive rat hole of double-mindedness and typically leave the reader to work out the implications of the clues to the nature of the good.”His Never-Ending Tourthat Dylan is still on (that’s the title of his 100-gig concert tour per annum since he gave up naming tours some annums ago)forever attendstoaddressing the mysterious mixture that is the human. It’s what poets like Dylan and Kierkegaard do.
[Reporter:]Do you sing protest songs?
[Reporter:] What do you sing?
[Dylan:] “I sing love songs.”
The Backstage Manager
Pacing All Around By His Chair
(or Kierkegaard Reviewing
Dylan in Concert)
“Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”
(“Everybody Must Get Stoned”)
Very early and very thoroughly [I was] initiated into the secret that mundis vult decipi [the world wants to be deceived]. (Point of View, 58)
If I were to wish for something, I would wish not for wealth or power but for the passion of possibility, for the eye, eternally young, eternally ardent, that sees possibility everywhere. Pleasure disappoints; possibility does not. And what wine is so sparkling, so fragrant, so intoxicating! (Either/Or I, 41)
In one’s youth a person has plenty of expectation and possibility; they develop by themselves in the youth just like the precious myrrh that drips down from the trees of Arabia. But when a person has become older, his life usually remains what it has now become, a dull repetition and paraphrasing of the same old thing; no possibility awakeningly frightens; no possibility rejuvenatingly enlivens. Hope becomes something that belongs nowhere, and possibility something just as rare as green in winter. Without the eternal, one lives with the help of habit, sagacity, aping, experience, custom, and usage. Indeed, take all this, put it all together, cook it over the slow or the merely earthly blazing fires of passions, and you will see that you will get all kinds of things out of it, a variously concocted tough slime that is called practical sagacity. But no one ever got possibility out of it, possibility, this marvelous thing that is so infinitely fragile (the most delicate shoot of spring is no so fragile!), so infinitely frail (the finest woven linen is not so frail!), and yet, brought into being and shaped with the help of the eternal, stronger than anything else, if it is the possibility of the good! (Works of Love, 250-51)
“Mr. Tambourine Man”
Where the rays of the sun do not reach, the tones still manage to come. My apartment is dark and gloomy; a high wall practically keeps out the light of day. It must be in the next courtyard, very likely a wandering musician. What instrument is it? A reed pipe?…. What do I hear—the minuet from Don Giovanni. Carry me away, then, you rich, strong tones, to the ring of girls, to the delight of the dance. —The pharmacist pounds his mortar, the maid scrubs her kettle, the groom curries his horse and knocks the currycomb on the cobblestones. These tones are only for me; only to me do they beckon. Oh, thank you, whoever you are! Thanks you! My soul is so rich, so hearty, so intoxicated with joy! (Either/Or I, 41-42)
“Love Minus Zero/No Limit”
Humanly speaking, the truly loving one, the sacrificing, the self-giving one who loves, totally self-denying in all things, is humanly speaking the injured one, the most injured of all, even if he himself makes himself that by continually giving himself. (Works of Love, 268)
I have often pondered how a painter might portray mercifulness, but I have decided that it cannot be done. As soon as a painter is to do it, it becomes dubious whether it is mercifulness or it is something else.… The truly eternal cannot be painted or drawn or carved in stone, for it is spirit. (Works of Love, 325, 417)
“Series of Dreams”
What is it that binds me? From what was the chain formed that bound the Fenris wolf?It was made of the noise of cats’ paws walking on the ground, of the beards of women, of the roots of cliffs, of the grass of bears, of the breath of fish, and of the spittle of birds. I, too, am bound in the same wayby a chain formed of gloomy fancies, of alarming dreams, of troubled thoughts,of fearful presentiments, of inexplicable anxieties. This chain is “very flexible, soft as silk, yields the most powerful strain, and cannot be torn apart.”(Either/Or I, 34)
“My Back Pages”
Strangely enough, it is always the same thing that preoccupies a person throughout all ages of life, and one always goes just so far, or, rather, one goes backwards. In grammar school, when I was fifteen years old, I wrote very suavely on demonstrations for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, on the concept of faith, and in the meaning of miracles. For my examen atrium [student examination], I wrote a composition on the immortality of the soul, for which I was awarded præ ceteris[distinction or first honors]; later I won the prize for a composition on this subject. Who would believe that in my twenty-fifth year, after such a solid and very promising beginning, I would have come to the point of not being able to present a single demonstration for the immortality of the soul. From my school days, I especially recall that a composition of mine on the immortality of the soul was extravagantly praised and read aloud by the teacher because of the excellence of language as well as of the content. Alas, alas, alas! I threw away this composition long ago. How unfortunate! My doubting soul perhaps would have been captivated by it, by the language as well as the content. So this is my advice to parents, superiors, and teachers—that they urge the children in their charge to keep the Danish compositions written in the fifteenth year. To give this advice is the only thing I can do for the benefit of the human race. (Either/Or I, 34-35)
The inconsistency in this [first] stage [of the erotic] seems to be suggested by this contradiction; the desire is so vague, the object so little separated from it, that what is desired rests androgynously in the desire, just as in plant life the male and female are in one blossom. The desire and the desired are joined in this unity, that they both of neutris generis [of neuter gender].(Either/Or I, 77)
“What Good Am I?”
There is not a single person in the whole world who is as surely and as easily recognized as the neighbor. You can never confuse him with anyone else, since the neighbor, to be sure, is all people…. [You need] to be able to find him lovable despite and with his weaknesses and defects and imperfections. (Works of Love, 51-52, 157)
and “Eternal Circle”
Look, there he [Don Giovanni] stands in the forest shadows; he is leaning against a tree and accompanies himself on a guitar, and look, over there among the trees a young maiden is disappearing, alarmed like a startled wild deer. But he is in no hurry; he knows that she is seeking him. Or if I were to say: there he rests on the lake shore in the luminous night, so handsome that the moon stands still and relives the love affair of its youth, so handsome that the young maidens of the town would give everything in daring to sneak over and make use of a moment of darkness to kiss him while the moon is rising again to shine in the heavens—if I did that, the alert reader would say: See here, there he has spoiled everything for himself; he himself has forgotten that Don Giovanni is not to be seen but to be heard. Therefore I do not do that but say: Listen to Don Giovanni—that is, if you cannot get an idea of Don Giovanni, then you never will listen to the beginning of his life; just as lightning is discharged from the darkness of the thunderclouds, so he bursts out of the abyss of earnestness, swifter than the lightning’s flash, more capricious than lightning and yet just as measured. Hear how he plunges down into the multiplicity of life, how he breaks against its solid embankment. Hear these light, dancing violin notes, hear the intimation of joy, hear the jubilation of delight, hear the festive bliss of enjoyment. Hear his wild flight; he speeds past himself, ever faster, never pausing. Hear the unrestrained craving of passion, hear the sighing of erotic love, hear the whisper of temptation, hear the vortex of seduction, hear the stillness of the moment—hear, hear, hear Mozart’s Don Giovanni. (Either/Or I, 103)
“Who Killed Davey Moore?”
Our age is sufficiently depressed to know that there is something called responsibility and that this means something. Therefore, although everyone wants to rule, no one wants to have responsibility. It is still fresh in our memory that a French statesman, when offered a portfolio a second time, declared that he would accept it but on the condition that the secretary of the state be made responsible. It is well known that the king in France is not responsible, but the prime minister is; the prime minister does not wish to be responsible but wants to be prime minister provided that the secretary of state will be responsible; ultimately it ends, of course, with the watchmen or street commissioners becoming responsible. (Either/Or I, 142)
“Boots of Spanish Leather”
If a person possessed a letter that he knew or believed contained information about what he had to consider his life’s happiness, but the characters were thin and faint and the handwriting was almost illegible, then, presumably with anxiety and agitation, he would read it most passionately again and again and at one moment derive one meaning, at the next moment another, according to how he would explain everything by a word he believed that he had deciphered with certainty, but he would never progress beyond the same uncertainty with which he had begun. He would stare, more and more anxiously, but the more he stared, the less he would see. His eyes would sometimes be filled with tears, but the more frequently this happened to him, the less he would see. In the course of time, the writing would become fainter and less legible; finally the paper itself would crumble away, and he would have nothing left of tear-filled eyes. (Either/Or I, 191)
“Property of Jesus”
and “You Changed my Life”
In a certain sense it does not help to speak to a person about the highest, because an entirely different revolution than any talking can produce must take place. In other words, if you want to be well off and yet easily manage to become something, then forget God, never let yourself really become aware, never let it become really clear to you that it is he who created you from nothing; proceed on the presupposition that a human being does not have time to waste on keeping in mind the one to whom he infinitely and unconditionally owes everything. But one is never entitled to ask about that; so forget it and be noisy along with the crowd, laugh or cry, be busy from morning until night, be loved and respected an esteemed as a friend, as a public official, as a king, as a pallbearer. Above all, be an earnest person by having forgotten the one and only earnestness, to relate yourself to God, to become nothing. (Works of Love, 102-03)
“Lay Down Your Weary Tune”
Lake Gurre is at its most beautiful when a soft breeze ruffles its blue surface and birdsong accompanies the whistling of the reeds; the only accompaniment to the sea is the hoarse shriek of the solitary seagull. The former (the sea) is like a Mozart recitative, the latter like a melody by Weber…. Never before have I seen how such a scene looks when not only the grass but a whole forest is set in motion by these gusts of wind (these trumpet calls that announce the judgment).… Often, as I stood here on a quiet evening, the sea intoning its songs with deep but calm solemnity…while on the other hand the busy hum of life grew silent and the birds sang their vespers…. I felt so much at ease in their midst, I rested in their embrace, and I felt as though I were outside my body and floated about with them in a high ether—until a seagull’s harsh screech reminded me that I stood alone and it all vanished before my eyes, and with a heavy heart I turned back to mingle with the world’s throng—yet without forgetting such blessed moments.—I have often stood there and pondered my past life and the different surroundings that have exerted power over me. And before my contemplative gaze, vanished the pettiness that so often causes offence in life…. I felt at one and the same time how great and how insignificant I am. Those two great forces, pride and humility, amicably combined. Fortunate is the man for whom this is possible every moment of his life…. From this spot I have seen the sea ruffled by a soft breeze, seen it play with the pebbles; from here I have seen its surface transformed into a massive snowstorm and heard the bass voice of the gale begin to sing falsetto; here it is as though I had seen the world’s emergence and destruction—a sight that truly enjoins silence. (Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks I, 7, 8, 9, 10)
Either/Or II, 147. N.B.Kierkegaard citations are from Princeton’s Kierkegaard’s Writings series and Indiana’s Journals and Papers (JP) series.
JP VI, Notes, 647.
Chronicles, v. 1, by Bob Dylan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 244.
Chronicles, 287, 286.
Either/Or II, 147.
 From Modern Times.
Eighteen Discourses, 160.
See Letters and Documents, 54.
Either/Or I, 24.
Chronicles, 244, 245, 247.
Chronicles, 282, 283, 284, 285, 286-287.
JP VI, 27.
Two Ages, 99.
Howard V. Hong, “Trying to Do the Right Thing,” Reece Report (Northfield MN: Richard Reece) 7/1 (January 1992) 18.
Irony, 253. See also Anxiety, 108; Stages, 339; JP I, 253; JPIII, 7; JPIV, 22.
Hong, “Trying to Do the Right Thing,” 18.
 From “Mississippi” (Love and Theft).
JP I, 434.
Late Writings, 354.
 From “Ain’t Talkin’ (Modern Times). Kierkegaard says the same thing.
Howard Hong, from an interview by Ben Alex in Søren Kierkegaard: An Authentic Life (Kelowna, BC Canada: Northstone Publishing, 1997) 52.
Hong, “Trying to Do the Right Thing,” 9, 18 (Pascal passage quoted from his Pensees, no. 397 (New York: Dutton, 1931) 187).
Works of Love, 4.
 From “Something’s Burning, Baby” (Empire Burlesque, 1985).
September 1985 interview; Out of the Dark Woods, by A. T. Bradford (London: Templehouse, 2011), 237.
May 1981 interview; Out of the Dark Woods, 235.
TheEssential Kierkegaard, ed. Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000), 269.
 Los Angeles (16 December 1965); Bob Dylan in His Own Words, 53.