Dignity part IV: I contain multitudes

by Jochen Markhorst

Previously in this series

 

Herodotus finds it worth mentioning in his Histories. The father of classical history reports on the rise of the Persian Empire in Book 1.

With, as always, an eye for the peculiarities that make his work so worth reading. But often they also bear witness to some arrogance – such as paragraph 139:

“There is another peculiarity, which the Persians themselves have never noticed, but which has not escaped my observation. Their names, which are expressive of some bodily or mental excellence, all end with the same letter- the letter which is called San by the Dorians, and Sigma by the Ionians. Any one who examines will find that the Persian names, one and all without exception, end with this letter.”

…Herodotus really thinks he is the first to notice that all Persian names end in an s. “The Persians themselves have never noticed.”

Funny, but more interesting is his observation on the Persians’ funeral rites: “the body of a male Persian is never buried, until it has been torn either by a dog or a bird of prey.” Herodotus is the first to inform us of the existence of the Towers of Silence, the remote structures where the corpses are laid down for the vultures. For centuries the place where the vultures feed. The practice still exists today; in Mumbai and in Karachi, for example. But the population of vultures has been severely depleted, due to urbanisation and antibiotics (especially diclofenac in the corpses is toxic to vultures), so after thousands of years there seems to come an end to this rite.

However, in the 1980s, when Dylan writes “Dignity”, with that chilling verse I went down to where the vultures feed, there are still some 80 million vultures in India (a few thousand today) – so the protagonist may have gone via Mumbai, on his quest. But the sequel of this quatrain shows that the stream of consciousness of the poet has not yet reached the subcontinent, not even the Orient, but is still in Asia Minor, in Ephesus, to be precise:

I went down where the vultures feed
I would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me

The tongues of angels and men… that is quite unmistakable. The “Excellence of Love”, 1 Corinthians 13, from the First Letter of Paul to the congregation of Corinth: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels”. Then those vultures probably are biblical too; Jesus’ answer to the question of the disciples where the wicked shall be taken. “Where there is a dead body, the vultures will gather” (Luke 14). Now, that is again a part of the New Testament where Jesus does his utmost to answer even the simplest questions with cumbersome and ambiguous parables, but this much is clear: it’s not a place the local tourist bureau will advertise, this place where the vultures feed.

In any case, they are beautiful, mysterious and sparklingly poetic lines. At first, however, the poet himself does not seem to attribute much expressiveness to them. On Tell Tale Signs we hear them in version #1, but they have been bluntly removed from version #2. They do return, fortunately – also in the live performances; up to and including the most recent version (Fuengirola, 2019) the searching protagonist goes to the vultures.

This also applies to the two preceding verses – they differ from version to version, and only seem definitive after Greatest Hits 3. In the end, the poet decides in favour for:

Blind man breakin’ out of a trance
Puts both his hands in the pockets of chance
Hopin’ to find one circumstance
Of dignity

I went to the wedding of Mary Lou
She said, “I don’t want nobody see me talkin’ to you”
Said she could get killed if she told me what she knew
About dignity

… a mysterious tableau with a blind protagonist and the elegant, ambiguous catechises pockets of chance, followed by a classic dialogue from a film noir, including ungrammatical double negation, a sinister content and a wedding, the cliché decor of any mafia film.

Nothing wrong with it, intriguing and poetic, but with the choice of these verses we unfortunately lose the fascinating quatrain VI from version #2:

Don Juan was talking to Don Miguel
Standin' outside the gates of Hell
There ain't nothing to say, there ain't nothing to tell
'bout dignity

 That can only be Don Miguel de Manara, the Don Miguel who lived in Seville in the seventeenth century and became known under his nickname Don Juan … indeed, the shameless womanizer and fighter. Not the Don Juan, obviously (who was a fictional figure, after all), but after seeing Tirso de Molina’s play, The Trickster Of Seville or The Stone Guest (presumably 1616), the primeval version of all Don Juan stories, including the very greatest, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, it is said that it became Don Miguel’s vocation to be “Don Juan”. And he succeeded in getting there. Later, after many scandals and even a murder, he enters a monastery and, bizarrely enough, one year after his death in 1679, he is nominated for canonisation in Rome. The Vatican meticulously examines his life and, after ten years of research, finds that the life of Brother Don Miguel de Manara is edifying enough to make him a Venerable, the preliminary stage of beatification or canonisation – the case is still ongoing today.

It’s a beautiful Dylanesque image, the trickster Don Miguel talking at the gates of Hell with his alter ego Don Juan – a twin with an enemy within, a Jokerman who contains multitudes, a Satan who has become a Man of Peace, a monk and a Casanova… this one line of seven words from a rejected verse of “Dignity” brings together archetypes from more than fifty years of Dylan songs.

But it clashes, as the lyricist Dylan perhaps thinks, with the following bridge, with the place of action where the vultures feed, the place where according to Jesus the wicked go – also Hell, that is. So, Don Juan and Don Miguel can go to hell – Dylan ruthlessly deletes the stanza. The lieder poet being on steam anyhow, effortlessly dashing off the verses, as well as the archetypes; “the list could be endless.”

Still, pity.

To be continued. Next up: Dignity part V

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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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