«It’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of doing. These songs of mine, I think of as mystery plays, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been traveling on hard ground.» (Bob Dylan, Musicares Person of the Year Speech, 2015)
I must admit – I’m really not qualified to review this book in full, given the author’s overwhelming overview of world litterature and philosophy in general, modernism and the chosen literary voices especially. Still I have the urge to recommend the book, for several reasons. Then you consider if it might be of interest to you.
Poetry, at it’s best, is about transcending words, transcending language, to explain the inexplicable or to use language as a tool to express a thought or feeling, to clarify or help us understand or accept the obscure or what’s hidden behind the curtain, for us, as in persons, or for us, as in humans. Or it gives us a mirror. It’s helping us to understand ourselves as well as others, it’s giving us a language, giving us words to describe what we might have given up to be able to articulate by ourselves – thoughts or feelings, problems, observations or mysteries – beyond words. In his Nobel lecture Bob Dylan says: «If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means.» I agree, but I also know that I can go to that song because it moves me, and because it represents a feeling or maybe a light that shines beyond the words used. It’s a mystery or part of the mystery itself.
Glenn Hughes’ book «From Dickinson to Dylan», with the subtitle «Visions of Transcendence in Modernist Literature», spans up a big canvas to shed light on how six modernists in different but related ways, address transcendent reality, both in secular and religious approaches. Hughes brings Dylan up where he belong, in company with some of the greatest in Modern Literature. He closely and carefully examines how each and one of them relates to the inexplicable perspectives of human life, the things we can’t know for sure. Or as Hughes himself explains his goal:
“The present book is concerned with an often overlooked element in the wisdom literature of Modernism: its exploration of human beings as consciously related to a “beyond” of meaning, timeless and possibly divine, which reveals itself to consciousness in its struggle to comprehend existence. One could describe this as the theme of spirituality in the authors discussed – Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, and Bob Dylan – though the terms “spiritual” and “spirituality” have in modern parlance become increasingly vage. It would be more precise to identify the topic at han as visions of human involvement with, or immersion in, a mystery of sacred, transcendent meaning.”
Hughes invites us into both the mystic and the mystics in an impressively modest way, given all his knowledge. Then again, the book’s greatness is secured exactly because of this fine touch, leaving further exploration to the reader, both believers and non-believers will find this read rewarding. Hughes gives us a language for speaking about mystery as something real, but unreachable: “It is a depth of meaning in which humans know themselves to be involved but which is understood to transcend the full human comprehension. True mysteries are realities in which we are involved, discerned at the border where they disappear beyond human capacities for insight.” Actually, in a way, there is nothing “mystic” about mystery. It’s life, and life only.
The six authors attacks the challenge of mystery in different ways, some of them in different ways in different parts of their writing or lives, all of them making a kind of scale from the secular agnosticism of Beckett to T.S. Eliot’s religious faith in an interventionist God. Further questioning will always stop us in the end, and then we have to stop asking, or give ourselves an answer or a non-answer we can live with. Mankind has been digging into those questions since humanity started wandering the Earth, and it’s always been a main theme in art, as love and loss, war and peace.
Then what about Dylan? Hughes masterly describes the unique mix of words, rhymes, poetry, musicality and vocal performance, which together make up what really is Dylan, though combined with his talent, all his wellsprings of inspiration, from his own history and observations, from tradition, from the “American songbook” in all meanings of the word, from literature, from the Bible and all kind of books, it all comes together in Dylan and in Dylan’s art. Hughes shows us several examples of how the main theme in “From Dickinson to Dylan” is sprinkled through also Dylan’s song lyrics from the beginning till this day: “Some of Dylan’s finest songs express, at once, an acute sensitivity to the eschatological tension in human existence; a sense of the inescapability of divine judgment, awareness that the outcome of human spiritual longing remains a mystery; hope – frail or confident – in some kind of ultimate redemption, and a careful use of imagery “to make the present and the past feel like each other”, thus evoking both the concrete sweep of history and a constant “flux of divine presence” in human affairs.” With Dylan it isn’t, at least not always, important “what the song really means”, it’s more about putting the song across, make it feel right. Still, the core of the songs are very often the eternal questions, as we know, and as Hughes exemplifies. Dylan’s answers are, as we know, often blowing in the wind, and through his songwriting he is sometimes closer to Beckett or Proust, like me, than to Dickinson or T.S. Eliot. Then again it’s the gospel songs, and his exploring of Christian faith. He had it all. He is a wayfaring stranger on a mystery train, born a long way from home, always and still trying to get to heaven, or “Heaven”, or to the “Highlands” or to “Key West”, before it’s too late.
Hughes’ writing is eloquent and virtuoso, at best he too is making poetry out of philosophy, handling the weight of complexity with a light hand of simplicity and a humble approach, inviting us all in to participate in the great conversation about the inexplicable, for many of us surely on a higher level after reading this book. A higher tolerance for mystery and a de-mystifying of the actual core of mystery, is, for me, an important part of Hughes’ book, an important contribution in our time of alternative facts, mistrust and polarization. As Hughes himself writes: “… to remember transcendence is to remember the limits of human knowing and human power.” In this time of darkness that’s a useful reminder.
And me myself, as Dylan – I believe the songs.
“I got both my feet planted square on the ground
Got my right hand high with the thumb down
Such is life, such is happiness
Hibiscus flowers, they grow everywhere here
If you wear one, put it behind your ear
Down in the bottom, way down in Key West”