Gates of Eden part XI: Forever Young

The story so far…

XI         Forever Young

Leaving men wholly, total free t do anything they wish but die
And there’s nowhere t hide inside the gates of Eden

The first public company in history, and the first multinational for that matter, was the VOC, the Dutch East India Company. Founded in 1602, and still the largest and richest company that ever existed (at its peak eight times larger than Microsoft is today). It was not a gentle enterprise. The original aim of the VOC was political, to put the Spanish and the Portuguese at a disadvantage, and total, aggressive control of all trade with East Asia was an excellent way of doing this. The fact that it turned out to be extremely profitable was actually a bonus.

On a Sunday morning somewhere around 1680, when the VOC is experiencing an economic peak, Captain Willem van der Decken is arguing with his wife in Terneuzen. It is Easter Sunday and she does not want him to set sail on the Lord’s Day. Besides, the weather is bad. But there is a power struggle going on to reach Batavia (present-day Jakarta) as quickly as possible, and the eager, ambitious Van der Decken goes. It is a difficult, arduous voyage and the low point is reached at the Cape of Good Hope. The stormy weather makes it impossible to round the Cape and the crew begs the captain to take shelter in Table Bay. Van der Decken loses his head, throws the helmsman overboard and shouts: “God or the devil … I will round this Cape if I have to sail until Judgement Day!”


The outcome is known. The Devil strikes, and the Flying Dutchman has been sailing the Seven Seas ever since, slightly above the water with blood-red sails. Sometimes he sends a sloop out to a passing ship to pass on letters – letters to long-dead relatives and loved ones.

It is an ancient, archaic curse, immortality. And so cruel that even a Very Angry God, who is not at all reticent when it comes to cruel and unreasonable punishment, only imposes it very rarely. In apocryphal variants of the Creation story Cain is punished with it, and a few thousand years later Cartaphilus, the gatekeeper of Pontius Pilate, for beating Jesus, but that’s about it.

It seems that God himself is a bit ambivalent about immortality. Is it a curse or a blessing? On the one hand, His son recruits followers with the promise of “eternal life”, and one time He is so very pleased with His prophet Elijah that Elijah does not have to die, but is taken up directly into heaven (2Kings 2:11). On the other hand, an ultimate abomination is: “And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them” (Revelation 9:6).

This duplicity is already present at the other end of the Bible, in Genesis. It appears that Adam and Eve are originally intended to be immortal. There is only one tree from which they may not eat: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:17). The Lord even states explicitly that they may eat from all other trees (“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat”) – thus also from the Tree of Life. But after Eve’s blunder the Lord feels He must punish them, and the final punishment is banishment from Eden, “lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” (Gen. 3:22). Immortality, in other words, is seen by God here as a blessing. Or at least as a favour, a favour that the disobedient Adam and Eve have now forfeited.

In the Arts, the question of curse or blessing also remains undecided. There are hundreds of stories in which Eternal Youth and Immortality are pursued. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, the Elves in Lord Of The Rings, the Eight Immortals from Taoism, all the myths surrounding the Fountain of Youth in the Alexander novels, in Pirates Of The Caribbean and at Herodotus, the alchemists who seek the elixir of life, Highlander… But then again, there are just as many stories in which that same immortality turns out to be a curse. The Flying Dutchman, the struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels, Ahasveros, Simone de Beauvoir’s Tous Les Hommes Sont Mortels, the Greek myth of the pitiful Tithonos… all of them are extremely unhappy immortals – especially those who do not die, but still do age.

Dylan has struggled with this ambiguity before. In “Seven Curses” (1963), the last, the toughest curse that befalls the corrupt, lying judge is “that seven deaths shall never kill him”. But there the bard solves it pragmatically; the judge may be immortal, but that endless life becomes a long, unending torture of incurable diseases and social isolation (healers will not heal him, eyes will not see him, ears will not hear him). Dylan cannot resort to a comparable escape here; after all, we are inside the gates of Eden – he can’t make a kind of Hell on Earth out of that, obviously.

Still, one other curse from “Seven Curses”, the fifth, does seem to be transposable at first: “That five walls will not hide him” becomes here, in the original manuscript, “And there’s nowhere t hide inside the gates of Eden”. Apparently the poet, who writes down “Gates Of Eden” in one inspired flash also makes, probably unconsciously, the connection not be able to die – judge from Seven Curses – nowhere to hide. But before October, before the song’s premiere, the line is deleted and changed:

To do anything they wish to do but die
And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden

In the first place because of the inner contradiction, presumably. “To do anything they wish but die” clashes of course with nowhere to hide. And secondly, to avoid repetition; at the moment, “Seven Curses” is just over a year old, so it’s still rather fresh in the memory.

Anyway, the rewrite is quite radical. “There are no trials” is quite loaded, especially when the setting is “inside the Gates of Eden” – after all, that is where the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is. If there is one place in the universe where good and evil are distinguished, where trials must almost by definition take place, it is here. But according to the poet, there are no trials, from which follows the inevitable conclusion that there is no more Good and Evil inside the gates of Eden. God has, evidently, lifted the guard from the Tree of Life and transferred the Cherubim with the flaming sword to that accursed Tree of Knowledge. Thus Dylan’s Eden resembles Nietzsche’s ideal of a paradisaical, or at least desirable, world: a world Beyond Good and Evil.

Which at the very least for one unfortunate soul is good news. Captain Willem van der Decken and his ship with tattooed sails await salvation. He should be heading for the Gates of Eden.

To be continued. Next up: Gates Of Eden part XII: Plato and that sort of thing

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

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  1. No fair trials anyway.

    Keys to the ignition are left in “The Tree of Knowledge” parked on Garden Street; Eve jumps in behind the wheel and after she picks up her boyfriend, the doors lock.

    Both Adam and Eve are sentenced by the High Judge to life terms, who keeps “The Tree of Life” for himself in his own garage, under the watchful eye of a sword-carrying security guard.

    The sentence is under yet another appeal by self-appointed lawyers Robert Dylan, Friedich Nietzsche & Associates.

    Dylan’s girlfriend tells him he’s just wasting his precious time.

    Even Robert starts to believe that there are no truths outside the Gates Of Eden.

  2. If the ‘cowboy angel’ is the flaming sword-holding Cherubim, the Bible says cloud-rider now stands guard ‘ neath the Tree of Life in Eden, not the Tree of Knowledge that Adam and Eve already tasted thereof after being told not to, for which they got locked out .

    But Adam and Eve now have, for better or worse, the outside kingdom of experience – of the senses, including sex – from which to learn even though
    ‘at times’ words are not adequate to explain it all.

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