Thursday, May 24, 2012

On Bob Dylan and The Soul’s Code

I'm back. Here's my present for Bob, on his 71st birthday.  

“You’re walking in dreams, whoever you are . . .”
                                    — Bob Dylan, “’Cross the Green Mountain”

            In 1997, the Jungian psychologist James Hillman published The Soul’s Code,  an analysis of human motives based on the idea that each of us enters the world with an innate purpose.  Hillman’s book has cast a new light my own biography and my life-long relationship to the art of Bob Dylan. The Soul’s Code has also helped me understand why Dylan’s music is compelling and intensely intimate to the lives of so many. Hillman, who died last October at age 85, proposed that each individual has a calling, an image of a life’s work that is neither a product of nature or nurture. In Hillman’s “acorn theory,” the origins of behavior are outside standard conceptions of human development and even outside a mortal idea of time. Rather, they are contained within a seed of potential carried over from the invisible world of myth. There are many hints of destiny in the theory, but none of predetermination. The growth of a person’s acorn is up to the character and choices of that individual.
In this essay I can only give glimpses of Hillman’s beautifully realized ideas, so I send the reader back to the source for essential detail. My intention here is to show how Hillman’s concept of the daemon, or soul-companion, provides insight to the artistry of Dylan, to the individual fan’s perception of that art, and to my own peculiar relationship to Bob’s music.  My intention is to show that Bob Dylan, in all his guises and personas — folkie, rocker, bluesman, small town boy, family man, story-teller, liar, thief, Christian and Jew, etc . . . — fulfills the purpose of his own acorn by creating an essential array of psychic images for his listeners. Across the planet, on a simple stage in plain sight, Dylan sings songs that contain multiplicities. Because we can not say exactly who he is in all the stories, we call him an enigma. Still, Bob Dylan is directly before us, perhaps in your town tonight. He makes shoes for everyone and still goes barefoot.
            The acceptance of a world independent of time, that can not be seen by physical eyes or explained by rational means, is essential to Hillman’s theory. The psychologist matter-of-factly includes the soul in his model of psychology. Dylan has demonstrated throughout his career that he subscribes to such a notion. In his lyrics, from the stage in song, and even to Morley Safer on the set of “Sixty Minutes,” Dylan has confessed allegiance to an invisible power. I am sure however, that many of his fans, despite their love of Bob’s music, are unable to share his spiritual convictions. My aim is not to convert anyone. There are a thousand angles and perspectives on Dylan and any attempt to squeeze him into a particular frame is a crucial mistake. My argument requires no set geometries of belief. Bob Dylan, above all, requires the strict application of an open mind.
One well-known biographer divides the singer’s career into a time before his Christian conversion, when Bob was looking for a  unifying theme, and the time afterwards, when he has been refining that spiritual consciousness. The man has a good point but I would put it differently. I would not point to a dividing line, but say instead that the ancient and invisible world of myth and folktale is necessary to any discussion of Dylan, as necessary as the traditional songs of Woody Guthrie. You do not need to have religion or spend your days in metaphysical contemplation to like a good story, which is truly Dylan’s stock-in-trade. Cynicism, however, is a liability. if the tale is compelling, you must be able to suspend disbelief.
With Dylan, we are nearly always walking in the borderlands of the known and the accepted. There are countless examples of this and you can choose your own, because all the points I want to make are about personal motives and personal relationships. Many people have had the irrational yet powerful sensation that Bob wrote a particular song about their particular life. I also feel that Dylan’s music has been with me every step of the way — as described in the title of his last record, “Together Through Life.”
Despite Bob’s constant touring and his visceral effect on so many fans, he remains essentially unknowable. This drives some people crazy but is exactly as it should be. For the most part, Dylan has managed to escape the cult of celebrity. Like most true artists, he realizes that nothing of value is shared by a superficial view of a star’s life. The details of the day-to-day can only obscure the more important picture told in lyric, performance, interview, and prose. What we get in these media is not the mundane or titillating, but the images a deeper part of the listener, the soul-companion, might understand. Dylan is walking through modern times in near perpetual disguise, even as he stands before us singing a simple song. As a fan, I am able to connect with the artist as he delivers the art, without the clutter of the trivial.
Often I read a particular blog that offers fascinating research into the many thefts and cryptic allusions made by Dylan for recent work, mostly from “Love and Theft,” and the memoir Chronicles. Because of these fictions, the author seems to regard any straightforward acceptance of Chronicles as naïve. He is probably correct about many of the fabrications and allusions. But I doubt that it matters much. I believe in the “truth” of the overlaid story, despite the theft. When I read Chronicles, I see Dylan’s mind moving through New York in 1962 and I see Dylan’s imagination in New Orleans in the 1980’s. Clearly, Dylan’s “personal” reflections are never to be taken at face value. But why is that surprising and why does it matter? It is an illusion to believe we could ever know day-to-day life as Dylan experiences it. For that matter, it is difficult enough to empathetically experience the moment-to-moment of our dearest friends and family, even as they attempt to explain themselves carefully. But what we can know and feel is our soul’s response to another soul’s ideas, the pictures that form in our own mind when someone shares a story they care about. I don’t need to know the true names of Dylan’s early hosts in NYC, but his thoughts on the Civil War are gripping and speak to my sense of humanity. Bob is constantly telling us, in Chronicles and in song, that the important changes are happening below the surface of things. Which leads us back to James Hillman and the invisible.
According to the archetypal psychologist, each person arriving on earth carries a unseen daemon as a guide and link to his life’s purpose. Other words he uses for this companion, depending on context, are character, fate, genius, calling, soul, and destiny. The word genius is not meant in today’s popular sense, as a person of remarkable and exceptional talents. In that connotation the word is practically meaningless anyway, tossed around easily on surges of trend and fad. In that sense it is only occasionally used on someone who actually deserves the title, like Dylan or Picasso.  In Hillman’s acorn theory however, a genius is not the exception in human affairs, but the norm. A genius is not a particular person but the particular purpose of each person. Everyone has a multi-faceted image that provides a reason for living. For some, like Dylan and other artists and leaders, discovering and using this call is an inescapable journey. For many, it is a gentle tug, a voice that leads us on.   
Hillman also expands the common understanding of imagination. I used to think of it as a creative ability, using paints or words or clay, on a blank background. Hillman, however, speaks of the soul’s code, the image we carry and desire, as both subject and object of a creative life.  Usually, when the artist’s talent in a particular medium is exceptional, we say he or she has a gift. Hillman writes that the acorn is a singular gift possessed by every person. Imagination does not create something from randomness. Imagination returns again and again to the soul’s image and reveals its need. The people you are born into and the places you find yourself, as strange and foreign as they may seem, are the canvas. The image is the gift, whether it says you are a painter or a schoolteacher. Everyone has a genius and we are all artists, born with brush in hand.
Usually we think of human development along a timeline: the innocence of childhood, the naïveté, recklessness and passion of youth, the productive prime of life, the wisdom and infirmities of age.  Each of these stereotypes contains a kernel of truth. But Hillman has a more exciting idea. We are not simply mortal, travelling from one weakness to another kind of weakness, or from one strength to another kind of strength, or even from birth to death. Instead, we move in circles around an expanding idea of purpose. Human development is a progression not of the body but of the imagination.  Our mission is to reveal new facets of our individual soul, share what we find and use our gifts on the ground. Time is merely the soundtrack of a movie, providing context for particular scenes. Time provides parenthetical marks for our bodies but has no real bearing on our purpose. 
A cliché I read a lot these days is “magical thinking.” People usually write “magical thinking” when they think you will agree, as all intelligent adults must, that magic is only a game for children and those who write for children. I believe instead that having a mind open to magic is a necessity. Magical thinking is mythical thinking and a natural part of the creative mind. Magical thinking is imaginative thinking, a higher feature in early humans and a vital tool in evolution. We are still more primitive than we like to think, a quality both positive and negative.  The magical mind is the unlimited one that takes us forward, unbound by time. 
I agree that magical thinking can be naïve and treacherous. You can set yourself up for all kinds of hoaxes. Hillman writes that a Puritan attachment to “innocence” is a gateway for those seeking power, for those who would like to exploit the lives of others. Another part of our ancient brain, the reptilian brain, is the exploiter. The lizard brain holds God like a club, smashing to the top over a pile of bodies.  Religions manipulate fear of the Mystery to keep their followers worried and obedient. A magical mind, however, can not be cowed by this cynical strategy, because its distinguishing feature is freedom and its over-riding motivation is imagination: the discovery of innate potential. 
Obeying the summons of the genius — finding your gift — can be wrenching however, even for those who are not called to any position of great influence or art. Even the most ordinary of people and talents might need to overcome circumstances of parenting and society to discover a way to unlock imagination. Finding my own destiny was a struggle because it pointed in a direction 180 degrees away from the culture of my birth and the family I was born into.
Bob Dylan’ s art is a creation of the unbound mind. He has never been “the voice of a generation,” but he has always worked with the essential images of our age. While still a teenager, paying attention to the art of Bob Dylan opened my head to the magical, to the invisible, and less esoterically, but just as vitally, to a life outside the mainstream. Like many thousands of others, I began to find images in his work that fit, like pictures of a jigsaw, into the idea of my own destiny. From the romantic story poems of “Blood on the Tracks” to the anti-romantic free verse of “Street-Legal,” Dylan’s songs pulled me forward into life. When I first heard these records I had no experience of life that could help me make sense of them, Nonetheless, the poetic ideas within them germinated within me.  I wanted the intensity of “Sara” and I even wanted the lost love of “ If You See Her Say Hello,” before I had had any real love at all. I knew these things meant being fully alive.  I am sure these examples from Dylan’s mid-seventies resurgence are common to many. “Street Legal” is less relatable to some fans — but my soul seized upon it as well. For reasons hidden at the time, I needed the crazy edges of its vision. I needed my mind to smash open, beyond mere romance.
For other fans, a decade earlier, “Highway 61” had done a similar trick. But for me, a teen of the addled seventies, “Street Legal” offered more pertinent images. “Street-Legal” was  liberating for my imagination even though it had no answers, only glimmering symbols and troubling questions. Unlike “Highway 61,” no counterculture could seize upon it as a manifesto to be followed. No one who could feel the crazy depths of the Dylan’s crack-up album could be too surprised when Bob went all “Judas” again on his fans, ironically, by turning to Christ. When Bob found Jesus, his older fans were outraged because it seemed Dylan had defected to “the other side.” But they were behind the curve. If they had been listening carefully, they would have realized that “Street-Legal” wasn’t a message about the individual in the morass of society, looking for a team to believe in. It was about an individual alone in his own brain, looking for his soul.
I could relate to that. So, as a young adult, Dylan cracked my brain like an egg. In 1978, at his massive concert in the south of England called Blackbushe, metaphor became reality. I split my head on a rock and my true nature came leaping out into the open. I departed from the rationalism and conservatism of my upbringing and became a late period hippie.  The first part of this new life was about romance and dissolution of that romance. Basically, I lived two years of ecstatic highs and then despair, in a distillation of Dylan’s late sixties and seventies music. All I skipped was the happily married child-rearing years. Of course I was not emulating Bob. I was just living my life.
I have told this story already in a memoir. Strangely, I wrote that book before I knew about the theories of Hillman. Intuitively, I included a soul companion in the story, discovered that night in the earth of Surrey. I called it and my book after an image from a fairy tale: The Golden Bird.
Just being a rebellious hippie, however, was not enough. Understanding that you have a daemon is not the same as understanding what it wants, or how to get there. The circumstances you are born into put obstacles in the way. Perhaps overcoming these barriers strengthens  the soul. My parents had a very compelling story, nearly mythical on it’s own, and it was huge wall to my own development. My father was a self-made man, an American success story. My parents were refugees from the poverty and ruins of bombed out, 1940’s London. They escaped the bitter austerity of post-war England to create a well-made life in the new world. During my teenage years in the 1970s my father was rising to the very pinnacle of corporate success. He was an overpowering and commanding presence. Many aspects of my Dad’s life and values, apart from his disavowed British heritage, were strange and repellant to me. In order for my own daemon to break the husk of the acorn, to breathe freely, I needed a strong story of my own. I needed my own myth.
Once again, Bob led the way. In the fall of 1979, while lounging bitterly around a friend’s flat in London, nursing my romantic wounds, I first heard “Slow Train Coming.” I heard it as an affirmation of a transcendent possibility, as an opportunity. Plus it rocked. The restrictions I heard in the lyrics, that so many of the sixties’ fans objected to, were not being imposed by an authoritarian church, but by an individual conscience trying to find a bearing. The record reassured me that my own spirit was still my strength. The woman who had disappointed me and the birth family I didn’t relate to and the free enterprise system I was unwilling to work for were not the arbiters of my fate. Indeed, my fate was still to be discovered. “Slow Train Coming” meant freedom, not obedience to any authority but the “authority on high.”
In May of 1980 I dropped my liberal arts studies at the University of Oregon and began wandering the highways of America with an ascetic Christian cult. Up until that time I had not been much of a joiner, having successfully evaded boy scouts, summer camp, high school clubs and collegiate political groups. Neither had I previously committed to religion. My disposition since puberty was that of an outsider. I was an impulsive young man however and without guile. My parents would have used the words willful and gullible. On the spring evening that I exchanged my jeans and t-shirt for a white cotton sheet sewn into a robe, I gave myself to a complete unknown, an idealized reality. I transmuted powerful romantic and sexual inclinations into allegiance to an invisible God. I alchemized my disdain of my own father into a reverence for the higher concept of Fatherhood.
The archetypes of my ideal assumed the form of a popular myth. Jesus appeared to me in a university bathroom. I truly thought this fellow with the reddish beard, glistening eyes and coarse hands was the Man. I was very stoned and it made perfect sense that He had crawled out of the books, out of my yearnings and into the flesh. He told me He was Christ and I had not a reason in my head to doubt. At a vulnerable and idealistic time in my life I dropped everything normal and routine to immerse myself in a ancient story. I became a character in a fable taught to children as truth. For nearly a year, the gap between story-time and ordinary reality closed.
In my cult experience, I opened myself to the invisible, so that my daemon might walk through the door and gain a foothold in the physical world. At the time I couldn’t know it, but my calling was not really to be a disciple of Jesus or an ascetic for life. Christ, rather, was strongest link in my cultural background to the unseen world. It is true that I had a spiritual yearning. But a more accurate way of  saying the same thing is that I had finally activated my imagination. I began finally to circle my life’s purpose, even though it appeared I had gone totally nuts. My imagination allowed for the fantastical and the magical because only these things could create the incontrovertible change demanded by my  daemon. Hillman says, “Christ is a bridge, because the Incarnation means the presence of the invisible in the common matter of walking-around human life. A god-man: visible and invisible become one.” I chose the extremes of a cult not as an allegiance to a particular ideology, but as a kind of palate cleanser of the soul, a way to fully rid myself of the culture and nurture of my birth family. The nonviolence and non-materialism of the Christ family was an extreme but necessary strategy of my genius to counteract and nullify the extreme and prejudicial atmosphere into which I was born, an environment that was largely a product of my parents’ war experiences and my father’s corporate ambitions.
So, was my own turn to millennial Christianity caused by Dylan’s? Not exactly. But Dylan had done he always does in a fan’s life: provided a mirror of essential and hidden images. When Dylan had brought the vehicle of Christ into the open, it made it more real for me than the Episcopal church ever had. Months later, when I met a copy of Jesus in a college bathroom, my imagination seized upon the opportunity to uncover its own desire, its purpose, its genius.
Only after I had subsumed myself into the image of Jesus and purged all of the absorbed personality of my childhood in His name, could my own true nature begin to reveal itself. In fact, I only lasted ten months in the cult, because my true nature involved a sexual attraction to a young woman, which was not allowed under our ascetic code. Our love never took a physical form but this didn’t matter. As soon as this love became obvious I was swept back into the world on a strange tide of events, a bizarre blend of the metaphysical and the carnal. The details are in my book. My true destiny required I give up the white robe and take part in society. 
When I came back to the world, I was a different person. I had cut the template of my birth family irrevocably from my life. I turned my attention away from the heavens and toward the earth. I became a gardener and later a teacher of young children, occupations I couldn’t have fully conceived in my prior life. I became a father with far different priorities than my own Dad. Of course, some of these things might have happened without such an extreme excursion into the land of myth. Perhaps. All I know is that I am still working on uncovering the images of my destiny and it took a profound shock to begin.
But what about Dylan? I can’t claim to know what purpose was served in Bob’s own life by his Christian period. Probably he needed a cleansing of his own recent troubles, as seen by the records from “Blood on the Tracks” to “Street-Legal.” In the music of recent years we have heard a less obvious, but more deeply burnished sort of spiritual conviction. The only thing I am sure of is that by continuing to write songs and perform them, new and old, Dylan answers the call of his own daemon. Any further conclusions about his personal life is a fool’s game. The real question, in all things Dylan, is not what the songs mean to him, but what does it mean to the images within me, to the soul-companion within the listener? Dylan’s acorn has grown to be the mightiest of oaks, providing shade and sustenance for many thousands of other souls. And the journey continues . . .



  1. Thanks for the interesting read. If you look closely at Chronicles: Volume One you'll find that Dylan uses material from Jung's writing on dreams.

  2. Good piece, thanks for sharing! Always felt that Bob came straight out of the pages of The Soul's Code. Remember when he told Ed Bradley he couldn't quit because he had promised to sing those songs. Love his way to stay true to calling. The part of Jung that Hillman followed was the activity of Psyche; to fantasize and attend to the images that emerged.

  3. Thanks for reading and thanks for the comments. I put a lot of time into this essay, so I am grateful when folks check it out and reply. And Mats, I don't know if you realize, but you correct a mistake I made. I referred to Dylan's interview on "Sixty Minutes" with Morley Safer, but you are correct, it was Ed Bradley of course.