by Jochen Markhorst
XVI Have at it, ladies
Get lost Madam - get up off my knee Keep your mouth away from me I’ll keep the path open - the path in my mind I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind I play Beethoven sonatas Chopin’s preludes . . . I contain multitudes
“Bob Dylan’s new book is revealing, misogynistic and a special kind of bonkers,” headlines the LA Times in October 2022, above its review of The Philosophy Of Modern Song. And in proving the misogyny, journalist Jody Rosen falls into the same trap as so many reviewers, analysts and fans before her: she, too, equates the narrator with the writer. Extra naïve in this case, as Dylan explicitly introduces each discourse with a “you” on which the impact of the song being discussed is projected (she’s your protector, your guardian. Puts a jinx on your enemies bewitches your competitors, turns your opponents feeble, and any rival that’s hostile to you, to quote just one random example – this one is from “Black Magic Woman”), and explicitly not with an “I”, that is. On top of that, the indignant Jody Rosen is guilty of an unfortunately popular but nevertheless rather underhanded way of arguing: cherry-picking.
Rosen cites thirteen examples of passages in which women are belittled or insulted, but conveniently ignores the dozens of passages in which ladies are portrayed as powerful, energetic, admirable. As in the above “Black Magic Woman” example, or in the awe of “Long Tall Sally” (she was built for speed, she could run like a deer), in the respect for the self-confident “Money Honey” who kicks her loser-lover’s ass out the door (I gave you money, but you gambled it away, now get lost). Just as the journalist, in her disdain for Dylan’s words on polygamy, conveniently ignores his emancipatory disclaimer: “When did I ever posit that the polygamist marriage had to be male singular female plural? Have at it, ladies. There’s another glass ceiling for you to break.” Not to mention all those despicable male losers passing in Dylan’s book – it will probably draw the accusation of misandry in a subsequent cultural climate, we may fear.
Still, the LA Times journalist is certainly not the first, nor will she be the last. “Misogyny” we have been hearing since “Just Like A Woman” (1966), and remains a theme in the decades since. “Can you cook and sew make flowers grow?” Jonathan Cott quotes from “Is Your Love In Vain?”, then slyly asks:
JC: Is that the kind of woman you’re looking for? BD: What makes you think I’m looking for any woman? JC: You could say that the song isn’t necessarily about you, yet some people think that you’re singing about yourself and your needs. (Rolling Stone, 16 November 1978)
It’s a layered interlude in the interview. Bob Dylan probably should now start explaining for the umpteenth time that je est actually un autre, but apparently some kind of fatigue is gradually prevailing – instead of explaining that the “I” in his songs is not “I, Bob Dylan”, he opts for the assertive counterquestion: “What makes you think I’m looking for any woman?” Cott’s rebuttal is at first to the point (the song isn’t necessarily about you), which vaguely has an I stand corrected tone, but the journalist spoils it again immediately afterwards by hiding behind the cowardly Some People Think argument, only to claim a right that is wrong either way, that I = Bob Dylan himself.
Fortunately, Dylan does not care. He continues to bring in misogynistic, chauvinistic protagonists (“Sweetheart Like You”, “Sugar Baby”, “Rollin’ And Tumblin'”), seemingly indifferent to the ill-founded reproaches it will generate again. Which, once again, “I Contain Multitudes” demonstrates as well. Slightly amplified, even: the opening of the closing couplet, Get lost Madam, Dylan copies from the Mother of All Misogynists, from Juvenal’s Satire VI, written between the end of the first and the early second centuries A.D.:
“I’d far far sooner marry a penniless tart than you, Cornelia, Mother of Statesmen, so haughty a prig for all your virtues, your dowry weighted down with triumphs. As far as I’m concerned you can take your battle-honours – Hannibal, Syphax, the whole Carthaginian myth – and get lost with them, madam.”
(in Peter Green’s 1967 translation)
Suggesting, by the way, that Dylan didn’t just browse through a collection of Juvenal quotes to choose that bizarre The size of your cock won’t get you nowhere from Satire IX for “Black Rider”, but actually took in Peter Green’s entire translation.
Satire VI is one of the better-known, and by far the longest of the sixteen Satires; over seven thousand words, 695 lines, almost twice as long as the second-longest Satire – Book II of the five-volume Satires consists solely of this verbal explosion of sophisticated, misogynist hatefulness. Including the famous one-liner “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – but who will guard the guards?”, with which Juvenal wants to warn that locking up those ever-horny sluts won’t do either; then they’ll just have sex with the guards.
Seven thousand words in which the speaker seeks to dissuade one Postumus from marrying, by arguing for seven thousand words what an untrustworthy, adulterous, backstabbing, money-hungry, sadistic (it’s her lover’s torments that give her real pleasure), quarrelsome, squeamish, superstitious and toxic gender they constitute, those females. Friendly commentators may try to argue that Juvenal is expressing his concerns about the moral decay of the Roman Empire with hyperbolas, and that he does in fact snipe at male Romans as well, but that truly is a bit all too friendly; Satire VI is really an eloquent, broad-based carpet of shrapnel grenades targeting the female sex. Moreover, on the last page, Juvenal implores conflict-averse, harmony-seeking interpreters of his tirade not to characterise it as hyperbole; “Do you think this is melodrama?” he asks rhetorically, “how I wish it was nonsense!” To conclude swiftly, before the closing point, with yet three more examples of repugnant female behaviour, to convince the groom-to-be Postumus to cancel the wedding.
All in all, it is certainly an amusing image, the fantasy of how Dylan, with a raised eyebrow no doubt, takes in Satire VI, puts a check mark in the margin at line 171, at get lost, madam, and briefly considers having a copy of Book II delivered to the editorial staff of the LA Times. To the attention of Madam Jody Rosen.
To be continued. Next up I Contain Multitudes part 17: An inarticulate proposition
Mississippi, Desolation Row, Crossing The Rubicon, Where Are You Tonight, Tombstone Blues… Some songs are so rich and multicoloured that they deserve their own book . I fear that almost every song on Rough And Rowdy Ways is going to claim that right. The book of this series is now available.
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
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic
- Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music
- Nick Drake’s River Man: A very British Masterpiece
- I contain Multitudes: Bob Dylan’s Account of the Long Strange Trip