I and I / Bob Dylan – an alternative vision

by Joost Nillissen

The song starts with one of the greatest riddles in the Hebrew Bible. I and I is one of the possible translations of “ehyeh asher ehyeh” (Ex. 3:14). Other translations are: “I am who I am”, “I am I”, “I am who I shall be”.

God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and Moses asks him how he should call him. His people will want to know. And God’s answer is: ehyeh asher ehyeh. The trouble lies in the word ‘asher’ which can mean any number of things depending on the context, but God does not provide a context. A great number of books and essays have been written on this mysterious introduction.

I and I
In creation where one’s nature neither honours nor forgives
I and I
One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives

 

Well, what can I say, this is God talking. He created heaven and earth, man and beast, honouring no one, for there is no one above him, and forgiving no one, for that’s the kind of God he is. It’s a jealous God. An invisible God.  “For there shall no man see me, and live” (Ex. 33:20).

Been so long since a strange woman slept in my bed
Look how sweet she sleep how free must be her dream
In another lifetime she must have owned the world or been faithfully wed
To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams

So we can fairly assume that Dylan was in a Biblical mood when he wrote the song.

He sets the stage with a strange woman in his bed, who might have been faithfully wed once to a righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams. The image this evokes is of King David, who traditionally, but not historically, is credited with writing most of the psalms, but there is a problem:

David was hardly a righteous king. He was a warrior who sent Uriah the Hittite into death on the battlefield so he could marry Bathsheba, Uriah’s beautiful wife. The righteous king must be King Solomon who, like his father David, slept with any number of women and wrote songs.

I think I’ll go out and go for a walk
Not much happening here, nothin’ ever does.
.
The imagery is still Biblical in these first two lines. God going for a stroll in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8), looking for Adam and Eve who are hiding because they have become aware of their nakedness after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. We all know what happened next, they were sent East of Eden,  “by the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food; I will greatly multiply your pain in child birth.” How’s that for an unforgiving God?
.
Besides, if she wakes up now, she’ll just want me to talk
I got nothin’ to say, ‘specially about whatever was.

 

Slowly Dylan lands on earth, but not quite. He recalls the woman in his bed and doesn’t feel like talking. He’s got nothing to say, especially about the past. That’s God again who hasn’t said a word since his thundering speech from the whirlwind (Job 38-41). From then on it’s prophets only, true or false.

Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don’t win the race
It goes to the worthy, who can divide the word of truth.
Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face
And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

 

Dylan is on solid ground now and recalls the days when he studied the Bible (an untrodden path) and brought out his last three, very Christian, albums (Slow train coming, Saved, Shot of love). He went looking for some deeper meaning and found a stranger to show him the beautiful face of justice. One of the earliest formulations of justice is the next line, the well known ‘eye for eye’. Again it is from the book of Exodus and it is truly a beautiful concept: one should be punished with measure and in relation to the crime committed.

Outside of two men on a train platform there’s nobody in sight
They’re waiting for spring to come, smoking down the track.
The world could come to end to night, but that’s all right.
She should still be there sleeping when I get back.

.

As Dylan continues his walk, a haunting image of two men waiting for a train, or spring, tells him life goes on no matter what, we’re all waiting for something to happen and he realizes that the world could end right now, right here, and there is nothing you can do about it. It’s not in his hands. And if somehow, sometime he does return, she will still be there sleeping. It’s okay.

Noontime, and I am still pushing myself along the road, the darkest part
Into the narrow lanes, I can’t stumble or stay put.
Someone else is speaking with my mouth, but I am only listening to my heart.
I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot.

.

He’s been walking all day and now reaches the darkest part, the narrow lanes. Perhaps he is thinking of the evangelist who warns us: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction” (Matthew 7:13), and maybe he remembers Proverbs 4:12 “When you go, your steps shall not be impeded; and when you run, you shall not stumble.”

He realizes that no matter what he sings or says, people will put words in his mouth (exactly what I am doing now), but that’s alright, he’ll only listen to his heart. He doesn’t mind making shoes for everyone, but he chooses to go barefoot, because it is written: … put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. (Ex. 3:5).


 

Our first review of this song appears here:  I and I: God finds out Dylan thinks He maybe isn’t almighty after all.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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13 Responses to I and I / Bob Dylan – an alternative vision

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Romantic poet Coleridge appears to grapple with the I and I enigma: If one could completely know another, one’s individual identity would die:

    For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face
    (Frost At Midnight: (Coleridge)

    Alas, the older one gets, the more that any possible feeling of unity with others seems to recede….I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.

    Of course, most of you guys out there don’t have an identical twin brother (lol).

  2. I feel united with myself and that’s quite an accomplishment. I am my own identical brother, we get along fine, most of the time.

  3. Ed McEowen says:

    I love this and agree Dylan songs can be opened to majestic interpretations. I just wonder, though, if his grasp reaches as deep as many think when he writes. I arrived at a more basic understanding of this piece, but always felt there were allusions to the mystery that lies beneath all. I initially thought – I and thou. My ego (I), your ego (also an I) – and never the twain shall meet. We all know people who will never admit they are wrong. They are stubborn, as if they are God himself/herself. One can never fully know them because they won’t open up – they fear discovery. This is the problem of man – we don’t want to admit we are all truly one. We want to be separate and maybe not equal.

  4. Ed McEowen says:

    Just a thought . . . the two men on the train platform? I always wondered if Dylan was alluding to “Terrapin Station” by the Greatful Dead.

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    Ed, agreed as to your first comment…… but “never the twin shall meet” you surelyy meant to write?….sorry!…that’s my pitiful attempt at a joke….

  6. Richard Ettinger says:

    I and I. The duality of Dylan’s life. A very famous public I and the very private I of the inner voice. Clearly there’s biblical references to ponder, but this piece is about Dylan’s journey. Don’t forget, shoes cover the sole.

  7. Ed McEowen says:

    O.K., I laugh. It works.

  8. Stanley Jenkins says:

    “I and I” is a Rastafarian term to express the unity of God and every human being. It can also be used instead of “You and me” to express the unity of all under Jah. I’m guessing that was in the mix for Bob too.

  9. Ed, you’re right. The song works on many different levels and there is really no need to go in as deep as I did. I just read another commentary on this song on another website and guess what… he links Dylan’s lines to quite different quotes from the Bible. So we should not presume to know where Dylan get’s his stuff, nor what it is he really wants to say. In the meantime I have great fun digging.

  10. Ed McEowen says:

    We are diggers. The twin thing may be it – Dylan, famous Gemini, who said, “I fought with my twin, that enemy within . . .”

  11. “We are WELL read, it is WELL known,
    but we don’t know what it is, do we, Mr Ed?

  12. Ed McEowen says:

    Ouch!

  13. Larry Fyffe says:

    He’s got a lot of nerve to say that he is your friend (lol).

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