Not Dark Yet II: Lucy

Not Dark Yet part 1: But Shadows Are Falling appears here.

By Jochen Markhorst

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

It is an ineradicable but fertile myth, the myth that we only use a small percentage of our brains. It does inspire often amusing advertisements, books, comics and films – in which, incidentally, usually thanks to a drug, the “other brain areas” are unlocked, after which the protagonist acquires extreme perception and intelligence (Limitless, 2011) or superhero powers, usually psychokinesis.

The most successful, and perhaps the most philosophical adaptation of the subject is released in 2014: the film Lucy by the French filmmaker Luc Besson. Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) accidentally is exposed to an absurd dose of a new synthetic drug, gradually unlocking larger and larger parts of her brain. In addition to all kinds of more and less spectacular abilities, this also leads to what we, with our limited insight, would call “inhumanity”; for example, Lucy realises that we never “really” die – and can, therefore, kill completely insensitively. Besson, through Lucy, defines it as a loss of humanity:

I don’t feel pain, fear, desire. It’s like all things that make us human are fading away.

Dylan’s protagonist in “Not Dark Yet” has reached a similar state of detachment, and Dylan suggests that this is due to advancing insight as well. Fortunately, not by something as childish as a fictional, brain-unlocking drug, but by life experience.

The narrator begins with his conclusion, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain, followed by the brilliant, melancholy aphorism behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain – a poetic variant of the ancient wisdom that an unhappy childhood is the artist’s goldmine, that behind every great work of art there is a Great Suffering.

The examples of artists giving witness to this are numerous. Frida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh, Kafka, W.H. Auden… all of them are artists who claim with some right to a say that only suffering can produce Art. From The Kinks’ Ray Davies is the quote “I call it suffering and pain, they call it entertainment” and that is practically the same as Dylan’s own observation, in the radio interview with Mary Travers, 26 April 1975.

MT: And one of the things I enjoyed about Blood On The Tracks, as an album, was that it was very simple.
BD: Hm, hm. Well that’s, you know, that’s the way things are really, they are basically very simple. A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, you know, people enjoying the type of pain, you know.

Yes, indeed – behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain. Granted, the message is not too earth-shattering, but is beautifully, poetically expressed.

However, the true brilliance of the song poet Dylan only begins to shine now, in the next line: she wrote me a letter – and suddenly the song is tilted.

Until this ninth verse line we listened to the farewell words of a reflective, resigned narrator on the threshold to death. The choice of “one day” as a metaphor for the whole of life, although old-fashioned, remains moving. These first eight lines also neatly follow the classical composition from personal (I’ve been here all day) to universal (behind every beautiful thing), so that the very intimate, very personal outpouring in verse 9 contrasts all the more sharply: the narrator has apparently just received a so-called Dear John letter, the letter in which his lover puts an end to the relationship.

The tone of the letter is well chosen. He is “kindly“, lovingly, dumped – the Dylan fan involuntarily thinks back to the tone of “If You See Her, Say Hello”. It may soften the blow, but it remains crushing; with the loss of her, the narrator loses all zest for life (I just don’t see why I should even care) and, as we understand now, the light of his life – it is getting dark when she disappears from his life.

It is a classic stylistic tool to which Dylan often resorts, contrasting the private with the universal. Usually very successful, such as in “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”, “Slow Train”, “Changing Of The Guards”, but rarely as crushing as in the exceptional masterpiece “Not Dark Yet”.

The prop letter to force a plot twist is not new either. In “Boots Of Spanish Leather” the narrator receives such a Dear John Letter, but there, the attentive listener had already seen it coming. In “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky” and “Where Are You Tonight?” the letters are indeed not much more than props, they don’t tilt the plot, but in “Desolation Row” we see a similar impact and a similar change of perspective as here in “Not Dark Yet” – although in Desolation it doesn’t seem to be a farewell letter.

Here it is. The blow robs the narrator of his sense of humanity, time runs away from him, his “soul turns into steel”, he can’t sleep and just sits there staring, the poor soul.
I don’t feel pain, fear, desire. It’s like all things that make us human are fading away.

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  1. John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and ” La Belle Dame Sans Merci” are obvious sources – the poet also writes letters in which he speaks of ‘negative capability’, the artistic ability to depict seemingly paradoxical positions rather than holding one rigid philosophical outlook without being disturbed thereby.

  2. It never occurred to me that when I delete my channel, I´ll lost possibility to write to you. I miss that possibility. It’s not about writing comments of songs, it isn´t important for me.
    Thank you for your uploads, words and rare “bells”. I´ll come, I love you, I want you! But very please you, advise me how to cross the covid border?!

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