by Larry Fyffe
The three Abrahamic religions more or less agree that that God has a plan, not yet fulfilled, that will eventually unify all mankind into a Oneness filled with the spiritual light of His Love; God’ s not that far away, and He’s looking out for His physical creations; have faith in Him, and out from the darkness into which human beings have fallen they will come.
On the other hand, Gnosticism, unlike light-oriented Zoroastrianism, depicts humans locked tightly in their physical bodies, and the material world; they’re destined to whirl around and around in a fragmented world of darkness. Only a few are able to ignite the latent spark within, and make their way up the tangled steps toward ‘gnosis’ in order to keep alive the spirit of Love sent out to them from the far-away Monad:
Singeth songwriter Bob Dylan:
I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin' I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest ..... Where black is the colour, where none is the number And I'll tell it, and think it, and speak it, and breathe it And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it (Bob Dylan: A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall)
The Romantic Transcendentalist poets, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley, are influenced by Gnostics, and their anological associations conjured up with ancient alchemy experiments that involve the basic ‘elements’ of earth, wind, water, and fire. PreRomantic poet Blake does somewhat the same thing though he dismisses Swedenborg’s depiction of a spirit-world that’s quite separate from the physical.
Alchemic symbols used by Gnostics that are associated with the steps that must be taken to achieve self-knowledge include the raven, the swan, the peacock, the pelican, and the phoenix, symbols still embedded in the language of today by way of the songs and poems of yesteryear.
Prior to his experimenting with Christianity, and after, Bob Dylan writes and sings a number of songs that reference these symbols. Indicated in these songs is that the steps toward hermetic enlightenment are blocked for most people in a world that’s under the control of industrialization and capitalism. There’s little chance of experiencing any revelation of the need to turn one’s life around by coming in contact with the dark forces within one’s inner being, or with the light that’s beckoning the way out. The raven’s behind the window pane with a broken wing, and the white swan glides right on by.
The symbol of the peacock, its once white feathers now aglow in the colours of the rainbow, is there in song too. The Blake-like lyrics below depicts a narrator whose not yet ready ‘to go clear’ in the search for ‘gnosis’; he’s willing to help others, but he himself is blocked from displaying peacock feathers as he walks up the steps of alchemic progress:
The cry of the peacock, flies buzz my head Ceiling fan broken, there's heat in my bed .... And them Carribean winds still blow from Nassau to Mexico Fanning the flames in the furnace of desire And them distant ships of liberty on them iron waves so bold and free Bringing everything that's near to me nearer to the fire (Bob Dylan: Carribean Wind)
In the following lyrics one finds that the old alchemic symbol associated with sacrificing oneself for the good of all – the pelican that’s thought to drink it’s own blood – is replaced by its biological relative, the albatross, a symbol for good news which is employed by Coleridge.
The mariner’s moving up the ladder in search of the golden of rule of ‘gnosis’, but he has no intention of carrying with him someone else’s burden while doing so:
Well, I had to move fast And I couldn't with you around my neck I said I'd send for you, and I did What did you expect? (Bob Dylan: Close Connection To My Heart)
A line borrowed from a film noir:
I said I got to move fast. I can't with you around my neck (Humphrey Bogart: Sirocco)
The narrator in the above song lyrics is not going to unwaveringly follow in Christ’s footsteps; he’s not willing to die, figuratively or otherwise, to save someone else:
Never could drink that blood And call it wine Never could learn to hold you, love And call you mine (Bob Dylan: Tight Connection To My Heart)
The phoenix is a mythical bird, not a real one like the others. By way of Gnostic analogy that’s drawn from the failure of ancient alchemy to turn lead into gold, it symbolizes rebirth from the ashes of an old social order to a new one, a cycle that keeps repeating itself. The new order is not necessarily one of progress for the good of mankind, bound as it is to become corrupted by the dark world in which everything is broken.
Thus spake Zimmerman.
Part 2 of this article is now available here