The Mississippi-series, part 15: Gaze into the abyss


by Jochen Markhorst

Like earlier “Desolation Row” and “Where Are You Tonight?”, “Mississippi” can’t really be dealt with in one article. Too grand, too majestic, too monumental. And, of course, such an extraordinary masterpiece deserves more than one paltry article. As the master says (not about “Mississippi”, but about bluegrass, in the New York Times interview of June 2020): Its’s mysterious and deep rooted and you almost have to be born playing it. […] It’s harmonic and meditative, but it’s out for blood.


XV       Gaze into the abyss

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Friedrich Nietzsche most certainly has a thing for music. As early as at the age of fourteen he writes:

God gave us music so that we, first and foremost, will be guided upward by it. All qualities are united in music: it can lift us up, it can be capricious, it can cheer us up and delight us, nay, with its soft, melancholy tunes, it can even break the resistance of the toughest character.

He remains faithful to music throughout his life, studying music theory and piano with zeal, writing some seventy classical compositions (mostly for piano), and even playing with the idea of becoming a professional composer – but both Wagner and Hans von Bülow advise against it. He’s just not talented enough. Von Bülow’s rejection, after Nietzsche sent him his “Manfred-Meditation”, has an entertaining, Nietzschean cruelty, by the way:

“I could not discover in it the least trace of Apollonian elements, and, as for the Dionysian, to tell you frankly, it made me think of the morning after a bacchanalian orgy rather than of an orgy itself…. Once again — don’t take this too badly — you yourself say your music is “detestable” — it is, actually, more detestable than you believe.”

And a little further on Von Bülow even calls the piece a “rape of Euterpe”, a rape of the muse of flute playing and lyrical poetry.

Well, that might be a little too rich. Nietzsche’s music really isn’t that awful. “A gifted amateur” is the friendlier, and a better qualification. And with the miraculous, enchanting “Das Fragment an sich” (The fragment by itself, 1871) Nietzsche actually writes, twenty years before Satie, the first piece of minimal music in music history. Moreover, in 1896 his philosophical and literary work inspires Richard Strauss to write the overwhelming symphonic poem “Also sprach Zarathustra” (which will become the soundtrack to the endless emptiness in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and inspires Gustav Mahler to write music to “O Mensch! Gib Acht!” (O man! Take heed!) from his greatest work, the Third Symphony; hardly insignificant contributions to classical music, all in all.

An important part of his modest oeuvre consists of songs. And although Nietzsche certainly is a great poet, he prefers to set other people’s poems to music – which often have similarities with Nietzsche’s thinking and works. Like “Aus der Jugendzeit” (From the times of youth), by Friedrich Rückert, in which emptiness is the theme, the emptiness one experiences upon the realisation: you can’t go back all the way:

Ist das Herz geleert, ist das Herz geleert,
Wird’s nie mehr voll.

(Once the heart is emptied, the heart is emptied,
it never becomes full again.)

The French phenomenon Jules Michelet (1798-1874), who like Dylan in his later work tries to recreate the past, is touched by Rückert’s poem and incorporates parts of it in his poem “L’Hirondelle” (The Swallow, 1861):

Mais le vide du coeur reste, mais reste le vide du coeur,
Et rien ne le remplira

(But the heart’s emptiness remains; its emptiness remains,
And nothing will make it full again)

… which again is picked up by Vincent Van Gogh, who quotes it when he tries to express in his letters to brother Theo how much and why he is touched by the endless emptiness. This one example is from the letter to Theo of 10 April 1882, but emptiness and endlessness is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for Vincent throughout his creative life, as well as an image of doom, as can be seen with increasing frequency from the letters just before his end:

“I can’t precisely describe what the thing I have is like, there are terrible fits of anxiety sometimes – without any apparent cause – or then again a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the mind.“

Vincent writes this to his sister Willemien a year before his death. Thematically similar to one of his last letters, two weeks before his suicide:

“Knowing clearly what I wanted I’ve painted another three large canvases since then. They’re immense stretches of wheatfields under angry skies, and I made a point of trying to express despondency, extreme loneliness.”

It is of all times, the fascination for the Void, the endless emptiness and the Nothing. The Nothing has occupied philosophers since Democritus, twenty-five centuries ago, most religions begin with a Nothing from which a world is created and it inspires artists like Ovid, Homer, Dante, Blake with his obsession for “the abominable void”, “the endless abyss of space and the curtains of darkness round the Void”, it inspires Baudelaire staring from his balcony into the espace profond, into the deep void, Rimbaud, whose Season in Hell is a “fall into the void” and Kerouac, who tries to ward off the void on almost every page of Desolation Angels.

But closest to the poet Dylan is, of course, Allen Ginsberg:

not even the human
imagination satisfies
the endless emptiness
of the soul
                ("Over Kansas", 1954)

For this last quatrain of “Mississippi”, Dylan only borrows that image of the endless emptiness, without further thematizing it – just like the following cold as clay is an atmospheric and melodic, but hardly eloquent cliché. They are fragments that, as Dylan says in that beautiful New York Times interview, “write themselves”, floating around somewhere in that stream-of-consciousness and now surfacing.

The word combination cold and clay then probably entered Dylan’s vocabulary via “Tom Dooley” a long, long time ago:

I dug a grave four feet long, I dug it three feet deep,
Throwed cold clay o’er her, and tromped it with my feet.

“Tom Dooley” is the Kingston Trio’s biggest hit in 1958 (estimated sales between four and six million singles), and according to music historians, John Fogerty and Joan Baez is the spark that ignited the folk revival. The song is an arrangement of a nineteenth-century folk song about the Southern soldier Thomas C. Dula, hung in 1868 after the murder of his fiancée Laura Foster. The impact of that story on him, or at least the impact of the song, Dylan does not hide; as early as 1965 he mentions Dooley in the liner notes of Highway 61 Revisited:

when tom dooley, the kind of person you think you've seen before, 
comes strolling in with White Heap, the hundred Inevitables all say 
"who's that man who looks so white?"

…and in 2020 the old murder ballad is apparently still floating around in that stream-of-consciousness: Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung, says Dylan in “Murder Most Foul.” And he’s not the only one who is struck by Tom Dooley and that cold clay. Elvis Costello lends the image for even two songs, as he tells in his autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink:

“I could point you to lines in my songs that use the language of folk songs: from the allusion to Barbara Allen in I Want You to the cold clay pulled out of Doc Watson’s rendition of Tom Dooley, which turns up in Suit of Lights and then again in Tramp the Dirt Down.”


The poet Dylan’s grandeur shines in the sequel, setting those half-known images of despair into the crown borrowed from Henry Rollins: You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way. After all, the emptiness remains – an emptied heart never fills up again.

Or, as Nietzsche would say: if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Nietzsche – Das Fragment an sich: 



To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part XVI, the final: Between Point Dume and Oxnard

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold.  His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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  1. Didn’t Nietzsche add lyrics to his fragment?:

    “Hang down your head, God Holy
    Poor goy, you’re bound to die”

  2. “Ye who enter here, abandon all hope” ….

    Ant-f*ckers are lurking everywhere!

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