Love minus zero/No limit part VI: Fair is foul

by Jochen Markhorst

VI         Fair is foul

My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all


It’s a bright cold day in April in London, and the clocks are striking thirteen, when we are introduced to Winston Smith. Every one of us knows the book, and it is still one of the most read books in high schools – Nineteen Eighty-Four is firmly entrenched in our collective consciousness. “Big Brother” is a household concept, “newspeak” does not need to be explained, the Trump era lead to a new sales spree and the return of the word “doublethink” in the newspapers, and anyway: the countless references in books, films, newspaper articles and music are effortlessly keeping Orwell’s masterpiece alive.

This anchoring in the collective consciousness is also demonstrated by the work of songwriters from the 1960s onward, about from the time when these songwriters ticked off their reading lists at school – which, in addition to 1984, are usually graced with Animal Farm as well. Stevie Wonder (“Big Brother”), The Kinks, David Bowie, Radiohead (“2+2=5”), Rage Against The Machine (“Testify”), Alan Parsons, Eurythmics… in every corner of the record shop there are A category artists who have based at least a verse, one song, and often more, on Orwell’s work.


Dylan cannot escape Orwell either. 1983’s “Man Of Peace” breathes 1984, as does the political reality in Dylan’s film Masked & Anonymous and as does the superhumans couplet from “Desolation Row”. Mr. Jones (“Ballad Of A Thin Man”) is the name of the farmer from Animal Farm who sees that something’s happening, but doesn’t know what it is, and here too, on Bringing It All Back Home, more than one Orwell bell rings.

“Napoleon Bonaparte” in “On The Road Again” is a first, accidental one (Napoleon is the name of the pig, of the protagonist in Animal Farm), and the opening line of “Gates Of Eden” a second.

Winston and the reader are from Chapter 1 onwards continuously confronted with the official party slogans war is peace, ignorance is strength and freedom is slavery. The first of these we hear in “Gates Of Eden”: Of war and peace the truth just twists – of course, the line becomes extra remarkable because of the second part. After all, Winston Smith works at the Ministry Of Truth, the ministry where thousands of civil servants have a day job to distort the truth, to rewrite history. Especially the truth about war and peace; when the war changes again, when Oceania reconciles with Eurasia and now goes to war against Eastasia, Winston has to go into the archives to rewrite the old news into this new truth; of war and peace the truth just twists.

The third Orwell bell on Bringing It All Back Home then rings in this second verse of “Love Minus Zero”, through the best-known aphorism of the song, and one of the more beloved Dylan quotes at all: there’s no success like failure.

There are – of course – plenty of analysts and Dylanologists who see a deep truth in the paradox. Most of them come up with self-help management book wisdoms like “if you don’t learn from your mistakes you will never be successful” and “many false steps lead to the road to success” or similar clichés. Shelton sees “a reflection of the isolation of the American writer”, and the esteemed Professor Louis A. Renza once again takes the crown with the inimitable interpretation: “Dylan’s aphorism bespeaks an existential truism: one’s failure at social projects can lead one back to oneself, but only if one does not use such failures to judge existence as such, for then they turn into yet another wave of failure” (a book token will be raffled off among those who send in the correct solution).

Professor Renza even beats Dylan himself, who, encouraged by a young, attractive lady journalist, actually provides some kind of explanation:

But what does it really mean? He smiles that faraway, enigmatic smile again “When you’ve tried to write this story about me if you’re any good you’ll feel you’ve failed. But when you’ve tried and failed, and tried and failed – then you’ll have something.”

… from which, well alright, a kind of clarity emerges. Which a presumably startled Dylan then immediately tries to blur again:

“Look.” He’s sitting up again, intense, eyes bright. “If I met you in a bar somewhere, or even at a party, I could tell you more, we could talk better, I know it. But you’re a reporter, you’re here for your interview – and where will it all get either of us? Nothing will happen. You’re not even writing this story under your own conditions. And how much can you say? How much room would you have to say it in, even if you could say it?”

(Margaret Steen interview for The Toronto Star Weekly, November 1965)

However, despite all the euphony, classical brilliance and suggested profundity, the aphorism fails the critical test, especially thanks to the second part (“… and that failure’s no success at all”); it just don’t fit, to paraphrase another great Dylan song.

In spite of this (or because of it), the phrase remains popular, even with Dylan himself. In 2001, at the press conference in Rome, he plays with the notion in response to an Italian journalist’s question:

Q: Thinking about your 43 records, which one do you think was the most successful from your point of view?
A: Successful? To tell the truth I never listen to them. I’m sure they were all successful in their own way and I’m sure in their own way they were all failures.

… as Dylan did over twenty years earlier, in 1978, in the interview with the French journalist Philippe Adler for L’Expresse:

PA: Did you say that failure was preferable to success?
BD: Yes, because failure engenders success, whereas success is the end of the line. I’ve never had the feeling of having succeeded and I’m very happy about that. If I had had that feeling, I would no longer be around. Already long gone.

But undisguised and unprovoked is the poet of “Love Minus Zero” a year before that, in Ron Rosenbaum’s wonderful Playboy interview in 1977, when Rosenbaum subtly and value-free moves Dylan to comment on his bizarre motion picture Renaldo & Clara:

BD: I am the overseer.
RR: Overseeing various versions of yourself?
BD: Well, certain truths I know. Not necessarily myself but a certain accumulation of experience that has become real to me and a knowledge that I acquired on the road.
RR: And what are those truths?
BD: One is that if you try to be anyone but yourself, you will fail; if you are not true to your own heart, you will fail. Then again, there’s no success like failure.

Dylan wisely swallows the second, nonsensical part of the aphorism. But then, a little later, another Orwellian bell rings when Dylan elaborates on the importance of failure with an equally loaded one-liner: “You fail only when you let death creep in.” Rosenbaum, as throughout the interview, is alert enough to keep asking:

RR: How does death creep in?
BD: Death don’t come knocking at the door. It’s there in the morning when you wake up.
RR: How is it there?
BD: Did you ever clip your fingernails, cut your hair? Then you experience death.

At first glance, it seems like a rather hysterical definition of death, but on second thought, it suddenly seems to illustrate the idea that Orwell, war is peace, “Love Minus Zero”, 1984 and failure is success are situated somewhere in the same corner of Dylan’s creative brain:

“Can you not understand, Winston, that the individual is only a cell? The weariness of the cell is the vigour of the organism. Do you die when you cut your fingernails?”
(from the last chapter, the torture scene with O’Brien and Winston)

But then again, Orwell, for his part, is also just one more child of Shakespeare, who like all of us had to read Macbeth at school;

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

… when the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won – the love for the paradoxical antithesis has been in our system for centuries.

To be continued. Next up: Love Minus Zero/No Limit part VII: Your silent mystery

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:





  1. The problem with the ‘It’s All Nonsense School’ of Dylanology is its underlying criticism of the songwriter for not being didactic, not being straight-forward enough, – always changing, not being static enough.

    For example, Dylan’s not saying outright in “Love Minus Zero” that the accepting of a political slogan like ‘war is peace” as absolute truth turns a person into a machine of the State – destroys the self, turns one figuratively into a dead person.

    Worse still that the assertion that the ” nonsensical part” – ‘failure’s no success at all” – makes the Dylan aphorism meaningless through its contradition, and therefore, I guess, supposedly Orwellian-like.

    Instead, I’d counter that Dylan, as an artist, follows Keats’ concept of ‘negative capability’ in an effort to come to terms with the mystery of existence.

    A reader/listener, or an interpreter of the lyrics by Dylan may find the aphorism unclear and confusing, or not, but that does make it nonsensical.

    Anyway, human language is the tool of the devil …. beauty is truth, truth beauty, and that’s all you need to know (lol).

  2. Louis Renza takes the view that Dylan’s songs often express the songwriter’s semi-autobiographical post-structuralist endeavour to confront and give meaning to a ‘desolate’, meaningless existence.

    Like many Dylanologists, he imposes his own rather overly wordy interpretations on Dylan’s lyrics to back up, ‘to fit’, this view – even unto the extent of suggesting the last line of “Desolation Row” could be an ‘anagrammatic homonym’ to this end.

    Thereby blowing his didactic ship clean out of the water before it gets the chance to strike the iceberg.

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