Bob Dylan And The New Historicism

by Larry Fyffe

In ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, Thomas Hardy, with black humour abounding, romanticizes the values of Victorian country life by referencing the ancient mythology of the aristocratic Trojan War.  The heroine of Hardy’s story is sexually attracted to, and marries, a rather amoral soldier named Troy. At the end of the story, she returns to her shepherd friend. He’s attuned to the workings of the natural world and has the good Christian name of Gabriel, the angel who appears to the Virgin Mary. The Realistic aspects of rural living take hold; she ceases her selfIsh indulgences and follows the human inclination to help one’s neighbour.

Time marches on, and the approach to literature known as the New Criticism comes to the fore; it has little regard for the economic, political, and sociological events happening in the era in which the literature being studied is written. Pseudo-Marxist New Historicism of the post-modern age reacts to the claimed ‘objectivity’  of the New Criticism and focuses on how subjective elements in both history and literature interact with one other.

The academic process used by the intelligentsia lends itself to satire and burlesque by writers and artists not only from within but especially by those from outside this social group. In effect, the approach is like a dragon that’s trapped in a capitalist cavern and is eating its own tail.

Back to ideology-driven mythology. Theseus is the wise and honourable ruler of Athens who gives the people of the city the right to govern themselves. He marries Phaedra who falls in love with her stepson. Theseus’ son loves danger, not woman, and he rejects her. Phaedra commits suicide but leaves a letter that tells her husband that his son violated her, and he believes it. The son is banished, and he gets killed. His father, needless to say, is heartbroken when he finds out the truth.  Up to her old tricks, Aphrodite has put a spell on Phaedra in order to get back at Theseus’ son. He had the audacity to spurn the advances of the goddess of love and sex, known to the Romans as Venus.

The song below, examined through the mirror of the New Historical perspective, burlesques the above mythology, and derivatives formulated therefrom over time, by employing a mixture of what is usually considered ‘low’ art, and what is usually considered ‘high’ art:

Well, Phaedra with her looking glass
Stretching out upon the grass
She gets all messed up, and she faints
That's 'cause she's so obvious, and you ain't
(Bob Dylan: I Wanna Be You Lover)

In the following lyrics, though its relative moral outlook is put not asunder, the New Historicism with its disregard for what is considered by many to be ‘basic human nature’ is mocked:

I hurt easy, I just don't show it
You can hurt someone, and not even know it
The next sixty seconds could be an eternity
Gonna get down low, gonna fly high
All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie
I'm in love with a woman who don't even appeal to me
(Bob Dylan: Things Have Changed)

Below, the singer/songwriter, pretending to belong to a class that he isn’t, takes on a persona akin to that of a hobo from the times of the Great Depression:

I am a lonesome hobo
Without family or friends
Where one man's life might begin
Is exactly where mine ends
I have tried my hand at bribery, blackmail, and deceit
And I've served time for everything
'Cept begging on the street
(Bob Dylan: I Am A Lonesome Hobo)

The next song satirically inverts the capitalist creed that the economic structure provides the prospect of prosperity for everyone:

You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats
And the railway bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew
And of whiskey too ....
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
(Pete Seeger: Big Rock Candy Mountain ~ traditional folk song)

The suppositions of New Historicism be summed up quite nicely in the following song; Christian values usurped and corrupted by the wealthy and powerful take a beating:

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
Well, it may be the devil, and it may be the Lord
Both you're gonna have to serve somebody
(Bob Dylan: Gotta Serve Somebody)

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 594 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

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, links back to our reviews

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