Bob Dylan: Mixed-Up Confusion


by Larry Fyffe

Writings on the subject of ‘Gnosticism’ are an entangled mixed-up mess , even more confusing than writings about religious beliefs considered to be orthodox.

Fragments from the ruins of the Gnostic balcony remain in the Judeo-Christian Bible:

So God created man in his own image
In the image of God created he him
Male and female created he them
(Genesis 1:27).

Interpreted by some readers that the essentially unknowable God be an Hermaphrodite; by others that from man (Adam), whom God created, woman (Eve) is cleaved. The first interpretation is the Gnostic view, whether of the Jewish or Christian variety.

The orthodox biblical understanding that mankind’s disobedience of the Almighty God is responsible for the existence of evil contrasts with the Gnostic view, or at least some variations thereof, that man is trapped in a corrupt physical world created by a God lesser (said by some Gnostic writers to be the Jehovah of the Old Testament) than the Absolute Spirit of Goodness.

In relatively recent times, Emanuel Swedenborg came up with a scientific theory that develops into the modern “nubular hypothesis” – that planets surrounding a sun result from the re-solidification of gases thrown off by the explosion of a huge star.

Swendenborg transforms this scienitific theory into a modern version of Gnosticism – the corruptrd physical world of Earth that heretofore has above it spirits akin to Apollo, the sun-God, and Diana, the moon-goddess, is now enveloped by the ever-present loving spirit of Jesus, committed to the reformation of his wayward Bride.

Swedenborgian mysticism is detected in the dark Romantic (not sunny Transcendental) poem below that depicts mankind as forged in the image of a Deistic God, more masculine than feminine:

Cruelty has a human heart
And jealously a human face
Terror the human form divine
And secrecy, the human dress
The human dress is forged iron
The human form, a fiery forge
The human face, a furnace sealed
The human heart, its hungry gorge
(William Blake: A Divine Image)

Rather like the image presented in the following song about a man who seeks to rise above above his corrupt material body that has been forged; a song that references ‘To see the world in a grain of sand’ (Blake), and ‘And I hold within my hand/Grains of golden sand’ (Poe):

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break …..
I gaze into the doorway of of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way, I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey, I come to understand
That every hair is numbered, like every grain of sand
(Bob Dylan: Every Grain Of Sand)

According to Gnosticism, from this world corrupted by material values, an individual’s physical body may find relief with earthly death:

Swooning swim to less and less
Aspirant to nothingness
Sobs of the world, and dole of kinds
That dumb endurers be –
Nirvana! absorb us in your skies
Annul us into thee
(Herman Melville: Buddah)

As indicated by the pun in the title of the story of ‘Billy Budd’, Melville speaks not of nihilism, but of nothingness – ie, the unknowable God of the Gnostics:

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released
(Bob Dylan: I Shall Be Released)

It’s a view long expressed in the double-edged song lyrics written by Bob Dylan, lyrics that are so often interpreted (twisted and turned by Kees de Graaf, for example) as simply following orthodox Christian thought – the ‘Madonna And Child’ painted yet again, as it were.

Then along comes Edgar Allan Poe, whose symbolism is often alluded to by Bob Dylan, ie in ‘Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts:’

The rosemary nods upon the grave
The lily lolls upon the wave
Wrapping the fog about its breast
The ruins moulders into rest
(Poe: The Sleeper)

Poe, the poet, transforms the Gnostic-like mysticism expressed in his poetry into ‘scientific creationism’ in a long prose poem of his – like a Swedenborg-in-reverse who turns science into mystic spiritualism. The modern scientice -backed ‘Big Bang’ of a ‘singularity’ that reverses into a ‘Big Crunch’, is clearly suggested:

From the one Particle, as a centre, let us suppose
to be irradiated spherically – in all directions –
to immeasurable but still to definite distances
in the previously vacant space – a certain inexpressibly great
yet limited number of unimaginably yet not infinitely minute atoms
(Poe: Eureka)

And so it is sung:

It was gravity which pulled us down
And destiny which broke us apart
You tamed the lion in my cage
But it just wasn’t enough to change my heart
(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)

Johnny has mixed-up the medicine:

Well, my head’s full of questions
My temperature’s risin’ fast
Well, I’m lookin’ for some answers
But don’t know who to ask
(Mixed-up Confusion)

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order at the foot of 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

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.



  1. Humourous references to Moby Dick and Captain Ahab:

    I yelled out to Captain Arab
    I have you understand
    Who came running the the deck
    Said, ‘Boys, forget the whale
    Look on over yonder”
    (Bob Dylan’ 115th Dream)

    As as to the Irish writer Joyce’s Molly Bloom of “Ulyssess”:

    ‘What’s the matter Molly, dear
    What’s the matter with your mound?’
    “What’s it to you, Moby Dick?
    This is chicken town?”
    (Lo And Behold)

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