I Contain Multitudes: Je est un autre


by Jochen Markhorst

The Martian is a blood-curdling 2015 film by director Ridley Scott, and science fiction in the true sense of the word. The manned journey to Mars and subsequent catastrophe that leaves Mark Watney (Matt Damon) alone to survive on the inhospitable planet, is set in 2035 and is – of course – fiction. But this survival and the rescue operation from Earth are scientifically well-founded; a team of NASA scientists have checked the facts, cooperated and put forward ideas. Apart from a few details (sound in space, a violent storm on Mars), in which the need for suspense outweighed the truthfulness, the film is not only fiction but also real science.

This is due to the successful novel that underlies it: the 2011 novel by the American Andy Weir, The Martian, in which Weir does his best to get the facts scientifically correct. Not necessarily his modus operandi.

In circles of science fiction aficionados, Weir has been a big name since he published the short story “The Egg” on his own website Galactanet in 2009. That is a brilliant story, more fiction than science, which is raging all over the world in a short space of time; enthusiastic readers have already produced 32 translations, from Finnish to Hebrew to Korean to Bulgarian to Chinese, all of which are published on Weir’s website. In the short story (a thousand words), which largely consists of dialogue, a God-like creature (“I”) tells a recently deceased earthling (“you”) about the meaning of his existence, just before he sends him back to his next life: a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.  “You”’s bewilderment about this becomes even greater when “the God” reveals that he is every life, in all times until the end of mankind. “There’s no one else.”

All needed, explains “I”, to grow, to become a “God’ in the end – “you’re my child”. And you only become an adult when you have lived all the lives, experienced all emotions, gathered all knowledge and performed all actions. You only become a God, in short, when you contain multitudes.

It is a beautiful, thoroughly poetic, re-readable story, which is marvellously animated by the Munich artists’ collective kurzgesagt at the tale’s tenth anniversary in 2019. Within a year the animation has already been viewed 17 million times.

 Weir’s story is an attractive extrapolation of Walt Whitman’s “Song Of Myself”, the source of inspiration for Dylan’s song too. Commentators and analysts all rightly point to the middle stanza of section 51;

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

… but those same analysts then stick to the rather lazy explanation that Dylan expresses here his own complex personality, or produce superficial interpretations in the same vein. “I Contain Multitudes lays out a wry but proud assessment of his own songwriting and personality,” says The Guardian (Ben Beaumont Thomas, April 17, ’20). “Dylan has always contained multitudes,” writes Paste. Professor Scott Peeples analyses for Salon that Dylan “almost wistfully explains all he contains,” and even Dr. Christopher Rollason, who is usually wise enough to eschew biographical interpretation, takes the short-cut: “I Contain Multitudes can be approached from multiple perspectives: Bob Dylan has always contained multitudes” (on his Bilingual Culture Blog, April 18, ’20).

There are exceptions, such as the sympathetic English Dylan blogger David Weir (“As with many Dylan songs, however, it’s not always clear how many narrators there are”). But most commentators are so superficial to miss, or ignore, what Dylan has been saying for almost sixty years now: “Je est un autre, I am not the “I” in my songs”. And then stubbornly, sometimes with misplaced pride, present the “find” that Dylan is actually talking about himself here – ignoring again Dylan’s most recent, umpteenth statement that I ≠ I, in that wonderful New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley (12 June 2020):

“I Contain Multitudes” has a powerful line: “I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” I suppose we all feel that way when we hit a certain age. Do you think about mortality often?

“I think about the death of the human race. The long strange trip of the naked ape. Not to be light on it, but everybody’s life is so transient. Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death. I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.”

This one time, however, paradoxically, they might end up, at a higher level, being a little bit right, those unimaginative interpreters who think with every “I”: I = Dylan. After all, this one time the equation is: I = everyman = (also) Dylan.

The source, Whitman’s poem “Song For Myself” already plays with the notion, with the slightly hippie-like notion “we were, we are and we shall be all one”, on which Weir elaborates so eminently. Already Whitman’s opening is quite explicit, as far as that is concerned:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

…and like this, Whitman makes a point of it in almost every one of the 52 sections, that I is not I, Walt Whitman, but something like “every man”, or perhaps “the human race”. “I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,” (section 5) for example, and “I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,” (section 7) and

In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,

And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

… which returns quite literally in Weir’s “The Egg”, and somewhat less literally in Dylan’s “I Contain Multitudes”.

In this sense, the unimaginative commentators, who conveniently deduce that every “I” in Dylan’s songs is “I, Bob Dylan”, are somewhat right: the I in “I Contain Multitudes” is also Dylan.

In the song we see more Whitman echoes. Not too surprising, if we follow Dylan’s own statement about the process of becoming:

“I didn’t really have to grapple much. It’s the kind of thing where you pile up stream-of-consciousness verses and then leave it alone and come pull things out. In that particular song, the last few verses came first. So that’s where the song was going all along. Obviously, the catalyst for the song is the title line. It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state.”

With the Whitman line as a “catalyst”, it is understandable that this stream-of-consciousness first flows past this very poem. The beautiful, archaic verse line Everything’s flowing all at the same time is a same denial of linear time progression as Whitman’s Here or henceforward it is all the same to me, I accept Time absolutely as well as Whitman’s I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured, like Whitman’s No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before resonates in “The Egg”’s plot and in Dylan’s all my past lives.

The same applies to fascinating lines such as I sleep with life and death in the same bed. In “The Egg”, “You” realises, to his dismay, that he is also Hitler – and the millions he killed. In Whitman it is almost a chorus: The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time, and then later,  the living and dead lay together, and And as to you Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths – in this poem of more than fifteen thousand words, there are more examples in which the poet expresses how life and death are not contradicting conditions.

But the fact that Whitman’s words are the catalyst for Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness is particularly evident in Dylan’s – wonderful – opening words Today and tomorrow and yesterday too; a paraphrase of the opening words of the same section 51 that provided the refrain line and title:

The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

The stream then swirls in all directions, much to the delight of the many diligent Dylanologists who work hard to catalogue all references. With amusing by-catches, such as the excitement around the name-check of the Irish village of Bally-Na-Lee, the amazement about the triplet Anne Frank – Indiana Jones – Rolling Stones, and the rapture induced by the eloquent put-down

You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart
But not all of it, only the hateful part.

“It’s the way I actually feel about things,” Dylan says about the song – again opening the gateway wide for the lazy exegetes to interpret biographically.

It is a beautiful song and it’s picked up surprisingly quickly by Emma Swift, who records a wonderful cover for her lovely tribute album Blonde On The Tracks (2020). On her YouTube channel she releases the recording, with a simple, tasteful clip, as early as 27 May 2020. And words her love for the song:

“When Bob Dylan released “I Contain Multitudes” this year, I quickly became possessed. It’s magnificent and heartbreaking, a love letter to words and art and music, to all that has been lost and all that might be redeemed. To me this song has become an obsession, a mantra, a prayer. I can’t hope to eclipse it, all I hope to do is allow more people to hear it, to feel comforted by it, and to love it the way I do.”

The charming Australian knows how to express her admiration very elegantly. And has a great, goosebumps-inducing voice. And an impeccable taste. And is the partner of Robyn Hitchcock.

The devil always shits on the big pile, as our German friends say.

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

12 years of Untold Dylan

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