by Jochen Markhorst
- Crossing The Rubicon part 1: A hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-fighting guy
- Crossing The Rubicon part 2: That day I’ll always remember
- Crossing The Rubicon part 3: So many things that we never will undo
- Crossing The Rubicon part 4: Red River Shore 2: The Guy Strikes Back
- Crossing The Rubicon part 5: One step from the shadow kingdom
- Crossing the Rubicon part 6: I got my head on straight
- Crossing The Rubicon part 7: Je est un autre.
- Crossing The Rubicon part 8: And let his children be fatherless
IX For a moment they fell back
Put my heart upon the hill where some happiness I’ll find If I survive then let me love - let the hour be mine Take the high road - take the low, take the one you’re on I poured the cup and I passed it along and I crossed the Rubicon
In the novel there is only one brief phase when Jean-Baptiste Grenouille finds some happiness: halfway through, in Part Two, in a cave high upon the hill. Well, a mountain actually, “on the peak of a six-thousand-foot-high volcano named Plomb du Cantal”. And it’s a bit more than “some happiness”, to be precise;
“He erupted with thundering jubilation. Like a ship-wrecked sailor ecstatically greeting the sight of an inhabited island after weeks of aimless drifting, Grenouille celebrated his arrival at the mountain of solitude. He shouted for joy.”
Grenouille, the protagonist of Patrick Süskind’s brilliant masterpiece Perfume – The Story of a Murderer (1985), will spend seven years in his mountain lair. In the Auvergne mountains, in eighteenth century France, at the farthest point from other people, alone with all the scents he has stored in his mind, living off a minimal diet of dripping meltwater, grass and the occasional dead bat. Seven years upon the hill, seven years of soulful bliss… Put my heart upon the hill where some happiness I’ll find;
“Never in his life had he felt so secure, certainly not in his mother’s belly. The world could go up in flames out there, but he would not even notice it here. He began to cry softly. He did not know whom to thank for such good fortune.”
Coincidence, of course, but curiously enough, the rest of this fifth verse of “Crossing The Rubicon” also skims along the plot of Perfume. Grenouille barely survives his years on the mountain, decides to go in search of love, literally takes the high road (over the mountains) and then the low road (to the sea), reaches the hour is mine, experiencing his hour of ultimate victory in Grasse, and finally dies, literally, by pouring a cup. Well alright, by pouring a little glass flacon of his perfume. Which, by the way, can be counted as one of the most spectacular suicides in all of world literature.
Grenouille even survives his execution years after the hardships on the mountain, but will never experience love. Frustratingly, he does inspire love, excessive love even – and that will eventually kill him too. “Love” is, as a matter of fact, the last word of the book:
“They were uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of love.”
Exactly halfway through the song, in this fifth verse of the nine, the song poet introduces a fermata, a grand pause in the rollercoaster of emotions. It’s not really a stylistic feature in Dylan’s oeuvre, but every now and then his poetic instinct seems to move him to such a break. We know it from songs like “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest”, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” and “Hurricane”, long songs with a more or less chronologically told story, usually filled with a hectic accumulation of events. In which, just like in the better action films and literary thrillers, the story gains strength from a breather, a stillness, a phase of reflection just before the final sprint. Like that second just before the murderers, selected by Grenouille to kill him, complete their bloody task:
“For a moment they fell back in awe and pure amazement. But in the same instant they sensed their falling back was more like preparing for a running start.”
The parallels with Perfume in terms of content or plot development are, of course, only coincidental, but the stylistic ones are not; both Süskind and Dylan are craftsmen. And both have a poetic instinct that tells them when the fermata should come.
Descriptions of idyll, like the opening line of this fifth verse, are effective on that front. Put my heart upon the hill where some happiness I’ll find and the continuation with love and let the hour be mine are not much more than psalm-like wishes of salvation, and take the sting out of the previous, ferociously aggressive stanza. Just as the word-playing third verse, Take the high road – take the low, take the one you’re on, has a cooling, don’t worry be happy-vibe. Inspired, probably, by Gordon Jenkins’ American Songbook evergreen “Good-Bye” (1935), which Dylan has been singing along to for the past 60 years in Sinatra’s rendition on Sings For Only The Lonely (1958) – the album that is situated somewhere at the front of Dylan’s inner jukebox;
But we'll go on living Our own way of living So you take the high road And I'll take the low It's time that we parted It's much better so But kiss me as you go Good-bye
… although it might be more appealing to hope that in this case Dylan’s inner stream flows past Dennis Wilson, past his heartbreaking “Farewell My Friend”, one of the many highlights on his 1977 masterpiece Pacific Ocean Blue. And all the more heartbreaking as it is also the song that will eventually be played at the Beach Boy’s funeral, 4 January 1984.
Farewell my friend My beautiful friend Farewell You take the high road And I'll take the low road And we'll meet again Farewell my friend
But without these text-external, sought-after associations, a dramatic tension in Dylan’s middle stanza actually only flares up again in the final line, in the chorus line with the next link in the chain of metaphors that all express something similar to “crossing the Rubicon”: I poured the cup and I passed it along.
A loaded and slightly provocative metaphor. After all, the Jesus reference is inescapable – both at the Last Supper (And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it) and in the Garden of Gethsemane (O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me), Jesus uses the image of the passed cup in a farewell setting. And to make matters worse, it’s not the first time Dylan suggests identification with the Messiah. In “Shelter From The Storm”, the narrator makes remarkable, blasphemy-bordering statements like “she took my crown of thorns” and “they gambled for my clothes”, also loaded images borrowed from the biblical account of Jesus’ last days.
Thus, the accumulation of equivalents of crossing the Rubicon is already becoming a quite colourful list:
– couplet 1: I painted my wagon – I abandoned all hope
– couplet 2: I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls
– couplet 3: I embraced my love put down my head
– couplet 4: I pawned my watch and I paid my debts
– couplet 5: I poured the cup and I passed it along
Wild West, Dante, gospel, country, blues, Socrates and Matthew, and we are only halfway… Dylan takes the high road and takes the low road, and crosses three-quarters of Western cultural history.
To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 10: They’re written on plastic
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:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master