Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan

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That Dylan flirts to a degree with nihilistic ideas in his songs and other writings of the nineteen-sixties is beyond question: it is at least implied in the ‘vacuum of [the mystery tramp’s] eyes’ and in the line ‘when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.’ The archetypal ‘existential crisis’ – ‘You say you lost your faith’ – is mocked in ‘Positively Fourth Street’, while Bringing it all Back Home contains the line ‘There are no truths outside the Gates of Eden,’ which could be taken to imply either a fully nihilistic stance or its opposite, depending on whether the listener takes ‘Eden’ to be a non-existent ‘fairy tale’ construct or a (spiritually) real place. The same album includes the line ‘It’s alright, Ma, it’s life and life only’ as the climax to what is possibly Dylan’s most overtly existentialist lyric. In a similar manner, Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding includes a song which draws much of its content from the Prophet Isaiah, followed immediately by another that concludes with the pointedly nihilistic line: ‘Nothing is revealed.’ Based on the evidence of his song-writing in the nineteen-sixties, then, Dylan cannot be described as a nihilist per se, but he often writes on, or close to, the threshold of nihilism. For the true existentialist, thresholds must be crossed; Dylan remains balanced on the razor’s edge. Indeed it is unlikely that his own philosophy of life developed much in this period beyond the ideas he expressed in the conclusion to ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie’ in 1963:

And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

In these lines, Dylan takes his audience to a crossroads between ‘two kinds of roads’, ‘two kinds of windows’, ‘two kinds of doorknobs’ in words that clearly evoke a threshold experience – specifically, his journey to Brooklyn State Hospital to see Woody Guthrie in 1961. In writing of this liminal experience two years later, it is notable that God is still a real presence for Dylan: he can be found ‘In the Grand Canyon/ At sundown’ as well as ‘in the church of your choice’. This is obviously not nihilism, but a kind of democratisation of ontological and spiritual experience that is both very American, and also reminiscent of the ‘negative capability’ that John Keats famously found in the poetry of Shakespeare. Keats’s idea posits that the greatest writers pursue their vision even when it leads ‘to being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’. Romanticism can certainly be seen as one of the forebears of nihilism, specifically in Keats’s idea and in a host of other ways, but to remain on the threshold is a different thing to crossing over into the absolute certainty of nothingness. Such is the space Dylan evokes in his image of ‘the holy slow train’ – one that is between worlds and with no origin or terminus. It is a place where, according to ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’, even a locomotive bound to a set of steel rails can become ‘lost.’

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the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

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The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul