Gates Of Eden part XII: Plato and that sort of thing

by Jochen Markhorst

XII        Plato and that sort of thing

At dawn my lover comes t me an tells me of her dreams
At times I think / there are no words, but these t tell 
   no truths,

Episode 6 of Season 1, “Crazy Hand Full Of Nothing” is the episode in which Walter White is definitely breaking bad. Until then, he has been a chemistry teacher with a cancer diagnosis who is desperate to make money to cover his medical  bills by producing drugs; crystal meth to be precise. Reluctantly still, and he demands of his accomplice, his former pupil Jesse: no bloodshed. But now Jesse is in hospital, beaten up by drug dealer Tuco who has also stolen their just-produced pound of meth. Walter fills a bag with pieces of highly explosive fulminated mercury, goes to the lion’s den, blows up half the joint with only one piece, threatens Tuco with the rest and leaves with his money, plus compensation and the promise that Tuco will take two pounds of meth next week. Walter White’s transition is marked by the name with which he, for the first time, introduces himself at Tuco’s: “Heisenberg”.

At first glance, the name seems oddly chosen. Heisenberg was a physicist, not a chemist. But it is actually a very poetic choice; Walter White has become someone else – this is the same episode in which he shaves his head for the first time – and chooses “Heisenberg” perhaps because of a poetic interpretation of his Uncertainty Principle, which states that you can never see the whole truth. Agreed, a poetic simplification of this pillar of quantum mechanics (Heisenberg proves that measuring, and indeed any observations at all, influence the system, and the outcome is therefore different from the same process without observation), but White’s train of thought is easy to follow. Fitting also to Walter’s musings on his own discipline: “Technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change […] It is growth, then decay, then transformation.It is fascinating, really.”

Elvis Costello: Chemistry Class:

And a beautiful, elegant consequence of Heisenberg’s roots, as Werner Heisenberg himself analysed in an interview conducted by David Peat and Paul Buckley in the early 1970’s, as part of a CBC radio documentary series entitled Physics and Beyond: “My mind was formed by studying philosophy, Plato and that sort of thing. This gives a different attitude.” With which Heisenberg expresses his susceptibility to the conclusion of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, to the idea that we can never perceive the truth, but only shadows, reflections and echoes of reality – there are no truths in our world, in the world outside the gates of Eden.

In the remainder of the interview, Heisenberg builds a second bridge to the beautiful final couplet of Dylan’s song:

“The most important step was to see that our language is not sufficient to describe the situation. A word such as path is quite understandable in the ordinary realm of physics when we are dealing with stones, or grass, etc., but it is not really understandable when it has to do with electrons. […] The decisive step was to see that all those words we used in classical physics – position, velocity, energy, temperature, etc. – have only a limited range of applicability. The point is we are bound up with a language, we are hanging in the language. […] Words as position and velocity and temperature lose their meaning when we get down to the smallest particles.”

there are no words, says Heisenberg, but these to tell what’s true. Language is even “a dangerous instrument”. Following Plato, Heisenberg thinks that only a retreat to the “language of mathematics”, to mathematical schemes, is pure enough to describe reality. And thus, coincidentally or not, touches on Dylan for the third time: “My songs are all mathematical songs.”

Unlike the first eight verses, the final couplet did not arise from one inspired flash. The manuscript reveals that Dylan has an overarching punchline à la “Desolation Row” and “Tombstone Blues” in mind, and also that he wants to make the lyrics “round”; after the opening line with “the truth does twist”, he wants to finish off with “no truths”. In fact, that is already fixed; the two lines remain unchanged in the end, the concluding “no truths” is already secured as well. Apparently, those two lines plus the outline absolutely have to be included, and at the moment the poet has no more time, or no more inspiration, for the completion of the lines in between. Anyway, somewhere between June and October ’64 it will eventually be finished:

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden

It is a poetic ruse Dylan often uses, these mercurial years. In the last verse, the narrator is suddenly linked to a “you” or, as here, to a lover in the third person, and a possible overarching narrative is offered. In “Tombstone Blues”, he plays with the notion that all the preceding stanzas are incitements to a song to his beloved:

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane

…as in “Desolation Row”, again out of the blue, a “you” appears plus the suggestion that all of the above is a letter to that “you”;

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame

… and like that, this last verse of “Gates Of Eden” suddenly introduces “my lover”. And as elsewhere the poet offers “song” and “letter” as the binding factor, here he offers the key: “she tells me of her dreams” – the cowboy angel, the iron claws, the Golden Calf, the lonesome sparrow, the motorbike black Madonna, the pauper and the prince… all of them dream images. Perhaps even from Heisenberg’s dream, the dream of the Unified Theory, the theory that unites the fundamental theories; all the lies in the world added up to one big truth.

To be continued. Next up: Gates Of Eden part XIII: Where did you sleep last night?

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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