Whereas the beats, exemplified by Jack Kerouac, seemed to Bob Dylan to be obsessed with liberating themselves from the constraints of the prevailing order, Dylan apparently found this liberation to be a necessary, but ultimately incomplete endeavor, a mere rejection of what modernity had become without offering a viable alternative. Rather, Dylan was drawn to old songs, stories, and modes of thought that preceded his immediate context, for Dylan saw the way out of the current stalemate that the beats decried not in a rejection of the past, but in a more complete embrace of tradition, an “archaic revival” of a history so deep and mysterious that it seemed radically novel in the current historical context. For Dylan, having immersed himself in profoundly different ways of seeing the world characteristic of earlier times, generally constellated around mythic “enchantment” (as opposed to the “disenchantment” characteristic of modernity posited by Weber), the folk songs that encapsulated these modes of experience really did seem to evoke a “parallel universe,” as he writes in Chronicles, “a reality of a more brilliant dimension.” Indeed, the “principles and values” that folk music portrayed were literally “archaic” because, in folk’s general focus on liminal figures from American frontiers, the “outlaw women, super thugs, demon lovers and gospel truths,” and the “Stagger Lees, Pretty Pollys and John Henrys,” Dylan found a window into predominantly premodern epistemologies, persisting well into modernity in the forgotten borderlands and rural routes of America.
It was a mythologically oriented “invisible world” whose “archetypes” seemed more real to Dylan than the scientific knowledge of distant cities and universities. Whereas for Dylan, the late modern subject was alienated from his (for it was always “he” that was referred to) labor, his culture, and even his body, the archetypal denizens of folk songs were “filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom,” precisely evocative of the epistemologies so effectively repressed by the predominance of rationality in postwar America. Indeed, while the individual in late modernity seemed small and peripheral, merely a commodified and insured sack of flesh and bone with a list of marketable skills and a net worth, the figures in folk songs seemed to Dylan to defy this reductive view of human nature by their participation in the “full spectrum” of “life magnified” through these other modes of being in the world, “each demanding a degree of respect.” Whereas in the late modern visions of the existentialists and the beats, the world seemed vacated of meaning, the folk tradition was the repository of a mode of thought in which the world was an epic place of profound significance inhabited by larger-than-life characters. Dylan, not just academically interested in this mode, seems to have lived his life in the light of the mysterious world view that he describes, though mitigated somewhat by the intellectual self-consciousness forged in modernity that had not yet been fully individuated in premodernity. As Dylan puts it: “I was beginning to feel like a character from within these songs, even beginning to think like one,” though always with the self-awareness of one who seeks out this premodern mode as a reaction to his culture rather than being born into it without access to mediating rationality.
But certainly, as Dylan notes, at that moment in the early sixties, “there wasn’t enough” of this archaic way of thinking available in the main streams of culture. The mode of consciousness exemplified in folk music had been buried so effectively, expunged from collective awareness by the predominance of pure reason in the central nodes of American culture’s discursive networks, that it was a titanic labor archaeologically to unearth the evidence of this repressed way of relating to experience. To be sure, the older mode was there to be found, but “it was out of date, had no proper connection to the actualities, the trends of the time,” for the American ideal had long been reconstellated around an entirely different center of gravity focused on paradoxically individualistic conformity, with scientific repeatability and the efficiency of the machine as the governing metaphors. The repressed modes were “a huge story” because, as William James and Alfred North Whitehead explicitly suggest, they had been the primary mediators of human experience prior to the seventeenth century, as the modes of thought characteristic of science had not yet been systematically differentiated from archetypal and teleological cognizance based on formal and final causation. However, it is a testament to the adaptability of the human mind that, only a few hundred years after the Enlightenment, the mode of constructing experience that had defined human culture for so long “was hard to come across.” Dylan discovered that these were modes of explanation that could account for the vital, animate, meaning-infused quality of human experience in the animal body. If these forms of consciousness had no connection to the “trends of the time,” at least those predominant in the main streams of culture, then Dylan would just have to start new trends and, in order to perform this epochal role, he found it necessary to cut himself off from the sovereign discursive milieu so that he “had little in common with anyone not like-minded.” Dylan’s intuitive revulsion at explaining himself to journalists and other gatekeepers of the principal cultural hierarchies seems to stem directly from this need to maintain consciously the new mode that was constituted in the integration of an archaic mode with the critical awareness more characteristic of his time. Ultimately, Dylan was an artist, not a philosopher, and he did not have the time or energy both to concretize his world-transforming visions and explain them to skeptics, which is probably one of the reasons why so many books have been written about him: The musical and mythological narrative he created is profound and can bear the weight of such explanation.
[This is a (slightly modified) excerpt from my book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]
Bob Dylan, Chronicles (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005) 235-6, 240.