Bob Dylan And Gnosticism (Part II): Johnannine Visions

By Larry Fyffe

Part 1 of Dylan and Gnosticism appears here

Many of the lyrics in Bob Dylan’s song lyrics are doubled-edged, laced with images both dark (devilish) and light (godly) – simply because the existence of very troubling conditions on earth belies the the dreamy idealism expressed by writers like the Romantic Transcendentalist poets

The visions of these Transcendentalists failed to overcome the darker Judeo-Christian position, ie, that humans lose their utopian Paradise on Earth because they (represented by Adam and Eve) unwisely decide to disobey the commands of God and think for themselves.

The vision of an earthy utopia foreseen by the Romantic poets could not be taken seriously in a world clouded by darkness, especially in modern times with the threat of thermonuclear bombs exploding everywhere:

And it came to pass on the third day in the morning,
That there were thunders and lightenings
And a thick cloud upon the mount
And the voice of the trumpet, exceeding loud
So that all that was in the camp trembled
(Book Of Exodus: 19:16)

Hence, dualistic images of foreboding darkness and divine light in the songs of Bob Dylan. Influenced by the pre-Romantic poet William Blake, Dylan seeks the deeper Spirit that lies beyond the God of the Judeo-Christian Bible.

According to the Gnosticism, the likes of Apollo, the bow-carrying son of the Sky God of Thunder in Greek mythology, and Jesus, the son of the Sky God of the Old Testament, mediate between their fathers in the heavens and the people inhabiting solid Earth.

The sons, closer to Earth than their fathers, possess within themselves diamond sparks from the light of the far-away Spirit God. The physical inhabitants of Earth are not so fortunate. Angelic these sons be, and beyond their sky fathers they see. Jehovah and Zeus, penetrated by too many sparks of anger, alienate themselves from Mankind.

Their spirits sparkling, fueled by artistic imaginations, the likes of Apollo and Jesus intuitively keep in touch with the ultimate Spirit of Goodness.

With their assistance of such intermediairies, earthly inhabitants try to kindle any faded sparks they happen to possess.

In the Holy Bible, there is John The Gnostic’s vision of a city of light:

And he carried me away in the spirit
To a great and high mountain
And shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem
Descending out of Heaven from God
Having the glory of God
And her light was like unto stone most precious
Even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal
(Book Of Revelation 21: 10-11)

Under the influence of Swedenborg’s updated Gnosticism, poet William Blake pens a tribute to the Gnostic author of the Book Of Revelation, the aforementioned John, who slings sparkling light into the darkness on Earth:

And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills
Bring me my bow of burning gold
Bring me my arrows of desire
(William Blake: Jerusalem)

Likewise, does Bob Dylan in a song:

You burned so bright
Roll on, John
Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
(Bob Dylan: Roll on, John)

Other ancient writings by John The Gnostic that go further and imagine Jesus likened to mythological Apollo – a song-and-dance man, so to speak – are not allowed into the official Judeo-Christian Bible; most are burned:

Glory to thee, Word; glory to thee, Grace
Glory to thee, Spirit; glory to thee, Holy One
Glory to thy glory, we praise thee, O Father
We give thanks to thee, O Light
Wherein darkness dwellers not …..
The Whole on high hath part in our dancing
Who danceth not, knoweth not what cometh to pass
I would flee and I would stay
I would adorn and I would be adorned
I would be united and I would unite
(The Acts Of John)

Dylan sings a similar hymn to sparks of light:

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Drowned driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget today
Until tomorrow
(Bob Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man)

Perhaps lamenting the disposal of Gnostic writings by those who use the sign of the fish, Bob Dylan sings a Gnostic-like song about Johanna who now is not here:

And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape on the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes everything’s been returned which was owed
On the he back of a fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are all that remain
(Bob Dylan: Visions Of Johanna)

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this 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

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.



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