This article was last updated on May 27, 2022
Bob Dylan in the cross-hairs – Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks take sides
By Stephen Pate – 4th in the series. Dylan historian Sean Wilentz and Dylan poetry critic Christopher Ricks square off, the historian versus the poetry scholar. The earlier and 4th article in the series is Bob Dylan Plagiarism Controversy Is Silly.
Part 5 – Bob Dylan – Fact Or Fiction
Sean Wilentz – Some historians are artists, actually. I don’t know that he’s (Dylan’s) not a historian. He’s an artist, to be sure.
There are artists who are historians, and there are artists who are not. There are historians who are not artists, and there are historians who are.
I think he’s one of those people who’s both. He is a very numerous character. I’m not going to say if he’s not a historian.
Christopher Ricks – I think what I’m doing is praising an artist, but I praise artists for the opposite reason from you.
I think artists are people who are as interested in the past as in the present, and who think that the present is in terrible trouble, and thus is profoundly interested in the past, primarily because you don’t have a notion of the present, except by contrasting it with something.
“Blonde on Blonde” is one of his best jokes, not only because it’s about one woman after another, but because it’s about the difficulty of perception. If it’s “Blonde on Blonde”, it’s damned difficult to see. It’s like a whiter shade of pale.
I think you characterize the artist … I think you mischaracterize the artist when you say the artist … “relevant to the presentt” was a modification, wasn’t it? You started by saying, “interest in the present.”
Yeah, I don’t know, but I think we have a disagreement about the number of things that will go to the making of art because you said “the one thing”. I think there’s never one thing.
Matthew Arnoldattacked the idea that there was one. There’s never one thing. Artists are people who understand the extraordinary number of compounds there are.
My students will often say, “Such-and-such is more important” but the analogy would be, as it were, that hydrogen was more important than oxygen in water, because there’s twice as much of it. No, it isn’t; hydrogen and oxygen are equally important in water. There being twice as much has nothing to do with it. It’s an extraordinary compound.
Dylan always answers the question about words or music by going around. He knows perfectly well the extraordinary compound of the words, the voice and the music, so that … Maybe the disagreement isn’t much.
Sean Wilentz – You said something interesting in response.
Christopher Ricks – Thank you. One does one’s … one travels all this way, one does one’s best.
I think that contrast of conduct … There are some people who make too little of conduct. I sometimes think that my children have insufficiently appreciated how good the conduct is of the people who are their boyfriends or girlfriends, or husbands or wives.
You can say, “All he does is always take out the trash,” but that’s very good. Just so you know … Clears the table and so on.
Arnold is right to say that he puts a different figure in. Is that three-quarters of life? Is it two-third of life? It’s tough to put a figure on it, but it’s true that you need something else.
You need spontaneity of consciousness. You need a certain kind of culture. To see that people will have life and “to have it more abundantly”, if I can quote the Good Book, is not a moral or conduct matter. To have life more abundantly is a spiritual matter, not an ethical or a moral matter.
I think Dylan is very good at never subduing any one of these things. You know how people will say, “Well, that may not have been entirely accurate, but it’s true.” Hang on a minute; accuracy and truth have to have a closer relation than you’re allowing there, but not so close that you identify truth with accuracy.
That must be a question for historians, mustn’t it? You’ll find, this isn’t really accurate. Gibbon isn’t accurate, but there are truths that Gibbon gets hold of about what empire is, despite … Does that make sense?
Sean Wilentz – Absolutely. Some of his readings of the American Civil War are bizarre, but he ,through that bizarreness, he can, as I say, inhabit the time and the place, better than any historian can.
It is actually thought, as far as facts go, just facts, he is factually pretty good.
Even the memoir, the memoir is factually. I read the book, and I went back down MacDougal Street, just to see if those things were there, and they are, or they were, and I can remember that they were.
Where is he? In Malibu or something, remembering all of that. He is factually, his handling of history is factually there, it’s just that that’s not the important thing.
Christopher Ricks – I wanted to … I think sometime “to get you facts, and someone attacks your imagination.(1) “Facts”, “attacks” is a good rhyme, but we can’t, we mustn’t be people who only believe in facts, or only believe in imagination.
It would be like believing in a mill, and not believing in any grist to go through it. You’ve either got … You need the mill, and you need the grist to go through it, or you might as well not have a mill.
I think he’s wonderful at keeping these things in …
Sean Wilentz – I think that’s right. He has more facts, too, than most people do, absolutely.
(1) Ballad of a Thin Man from Highway 61 Revisited
Next – Bob Dylan Words and Music
Sean Wilentz is the author of Bob Dylan in America, the highly regarded book about Bob Dylan’s place in American history.
Christopher Ricks wrote the definitive book on Bob Dylan’s lyrics – Dylan’s Visions of Sin, one of my favorite books on Bob Dylan. Ricks is also the editor of the extra-large art book The Lyrics: Since 1962 containing all Bob Dylan’s lyrics with variations.
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By Stephen Pate, NJN Network