Bob Dylan And The Heart Of Darkness: Joseph Conrad (Part ll)
By Larry Fyffe
In ‘Lolita’, Valdimir Nabokov defies his readers to unravel whether he’s writing about something that happens in real life, or feeding to his readers a fantasy composed in the mind of the author in order to mock the literary genre that includes Joseph Conrad’s “Victory: An Island Tale”.
That work is a psychological-based ‘romance’ story in which the main character, alienated by ‘civilization’, retreats to an isolated island in the East Indies only to become entangled in a tragic love affair – Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” updated to fit the alienation wrought by modern times.
Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan’s mocking pokes at the orthodox creeds of organized religions, and even individualistic spiritualism albeit to a lesser extent, ought not to be taken that, for him, nihilism has been loosed upon the contempory world. No less literary figures than Geoffrey Chaucer, William Blake, and Joseph Conrad have done the same thing.
In a song on his “Tempest” album, the singer/songwriter references a previous song -“The Titanic”, a dream about the ship’s sinking:
The watchman was a-dreamin' Was dreamin' a sad, sad dream He dreamed Titanic was sinking Out on the deep blue sea (Carter Family: The Titanic)
The Dylan song references a romantic movie about the ship’s hitting an iceberg, and theist John Calvin whose concept of a “predetermined elect” rocks the religious establishment; so is the preRomantic poet William Blake mentioned; he’s the preRomantic poet who critiques both John Calvin and Emanuel Swedenborg for their separating the material and the physical world. And perhaps too is the Marxist-leaning poet Edmund Wilson. None come back to tell what becomes of them after they die, after they ‘disembark’ from the here-and-now:
Calvin, Blake, and Wilson Gambled in the dark Not one of them would ever live To tell the tale of disembark (Bob Dylan: Tempest)
It does not pass muster that the Dylan song asserts that there’s no meaning to existence except that given by organized religion, by theists like John Calvin and Emanuel Swedenborg. Dylan’s use of double-edged diction indicates many humans, including perhaps the singer/songwriter himself (his persona anyway), intuitively feels that some plan exists behind it all – no matter how deep, mysterious, and unfathomable that plan be.
In the following song both the Holy Bible and the poet William Blake are alluded to – black humoured the lyrics may be:
I hear the ancient footsteps like the the motion of the sea Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times, it's only me I'm hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand (Bob Dyan: Every Grain Of Sand)
Writes a Beat poet:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness .... Hallucinating Arkansas, and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war (Allen Ginsberg: Howl)
Which brings us back to the Indies (both East and West), and the anti-colonial writings of
Joseph Conrad that includes “Victory: An Island Tale” with its alchemic Blakean ‘Satanic Mills’ symbolism, and a Universe that’s disinterested in mankind’s trials and tribulations – the Tropical Belt Coal Company along with “the dark, cool early morning-blue of Diamond Bay” (Part IV, ch. 1):
Bob Dylan’s “Desire” album mixes up the medicine – “And the prince and princess/Discuss what’s real, and what is not”.
On the back cover of the album is pictured Joseph Conrad, and inside a song that features the sinking of a whole island (heretofore the Titanic is recognized as the world’s biggest metaphor):
As the island slowly sank The loser finally broke the bank in the gambling room The dealer said, "It's too late now You can take your money, but I don't know how You can spend it in the tomb" (Bob Dylan: Black Diamond Bay ~ Dylan/Levy)