I Contain Multitudes part 18: Thou art at last—just what thou art


by Jochen Markhorst

XVIII    Thou art at last—just what thou art

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

“Your mind well trained and cased / In Spanish boots, all snugly laced, / So that henceforth it can creep ahead / On the road of thought with a cautious tread.”

Werner Heisenberg, the brilliant physicist with philosophical depth, is a fan of Goethe’s Faust, and quotes with approval from Mephisto’s dialogue with a student. He appreciates (and probably recognises), the sarcasm of the Devil, who, like Heisenberg, knows that the path of reason, language, can never lead to Truth – language is rather limited, and can only describe inaccurately and vaguely. “Gray, worthy friend, is all your theory,” as Mephisto says.

A word like “path”, for example, has been a popular and seasoned metaphor in every culture and religion for centuries. But for theoretical physics, it is far too inaccurate, incorrect even, as Heisenberg regretfully but lucidly explains to us. “All those words we used in classical physics,” he explains to interviewer David Peat in the early 1970s, “position, velocity, energy, temperature, etcetera, have only a limited range of applicability.” Illustrating that frustrating limited range using the word “path”:

“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. In a cloud chamber, for instance, what we see is not the path of an electron, but, if we are quite honest, only a sequence of water droplets in the chamber.”
(Buckley & Peat: Glimpsing Reality: Ideas in Physics and the Link to Biology, 1979)

Heisenberg is not only a brilliant physicist, founder of quantum mechanics and father of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but also a fascinating thinker. The above quote is from a long interview, in which, among other things, he dwells at length on the inadequacy of language, insightfully demonstrating his affinity in that area with philosophers such as Plato, Wittgenstein and Kant; “Even in the old times philosophers realized that language is limited” –the interview is in fact a manageable summary of his brilliant 1958 essay Physik und Philosophie.

In that essay, he is slightly more nuanced about language. Its limitations, as both Heisenberg and Dylan realise, concern the extent to which words “correspond to reality,” as Heisenberg says, “whether they fit reality or not”;

“A secondary meaning of a word which passes only vaguely through the mind when the word is heard may contribute essentially to the content of a sentence. The fact that every word may cause many only half-conscious movements in our mind can be used to represent some part of reality in the language much more clearly than by the use of the logical patterns. Therefore, the poets have often objected to this emphasis in language and in thinking on the logical pattern, which – if I interpret their opinions correctly – can make language less suitable for its purpose.”

Dylan and Heisenberg are kindred spirits. His “philosophical treatise” The Philosophy Of Modern Song (2022), his autobiography Chronicles (2004), and interviews over the decades show that it continues to fascinate him – the inadequacy of language, the pitfalls of ambiguity and its mysterious camouflage capacities. “Robert Johnson’s code of language was like nothing I’d heard before or since,” for instance, and “it was as if he was saying something to me in a foreign language,” as he notes in Chronicles – between the many descriptions of his attempts to master the “lingo”, or “language”, or “rhetoric” of admired writers and artists.

But tricky it remains, Dylan analyses in Philosophy: “Language isn’t the only bar to understanding each other—there is inflection and implication,” as he also shows an awareness of the danger in the No Direction Home interview (2005) with Jeff Rosen, putting Dylan completely in line with Heisenberg’s 1958 words:

“Words have their own meaning, or they have different meanings and words change their meaning. Words that meant something 10 years ago don’t mean that now. They mean something else.”

“Language is a dangerous instrument to use,” Heisenberg even says. But does – of course – have value nevertheless. Language can have an integral, a complementary function to talk about, say, the uncertainty principle or about the structure of atoms. Then language is “quite satisfactory”, Heisenberg argues,…

“… since it reminds us of a similar use of the language in daily life or in poetry. We realize that the situation of complementarity is not confined to the atomic world alone; we meet it when we reflect about a decision and the motives for our decision or when we have the choice between enjoying music and analyzing its structure.”

And it is just as much a pleasant characteristic, of course, the ambiguity and the different meanings and the changing implications. Which a poet like Dylan, who is so good at keeping things vague, as Joan Baez says, exhausts to the full. Heisenbergs “path” is a good example indeed. In Dylan’s oeuvre, we encounter that term, or synonyms like road, way, row, street dozens of times. From the early 60s (“Paths Of Victory“, My pathway led by confusion boats from “My Back Pages”), and the 70s and 80s (a pathway that leads up to the stars in “Where Are You Tonight?”, an untrodden path in “I And I”, a path of retreat in “Angelina”) to the twenty-first century (the pathways of life in “When The Deal Goes Down”, for example). Metaphorical it pretty much always is, but here, in this last verse of “I Contain Multitudes”, path takes on an almost metaphysical charge:

I’ll keep the path open - the path in my mind
I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind

… “the path in my mind”, or “die Gedankenbahn, the road of thought”, as Mephisto calls it in Faust, over which you, encased in Spanish boots, go to find the Truth – where word choice lends a well-nigh Buddhist vibe to these concluding words. At least, trendsetters like both Siddharta, who tries to clear his mind;

“He walked the path of eradication of ego through meditation, using thought to empty the mind of all its notions.”  (Hermann Hesse, Siddharta, 1922)

… and John Lennon in his exercise in Eastern mysticism, “Across The Universe” (Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind) coin the connection. Which gives Dylan’s ambiguous follow-up line, I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind, a slight push towards a positive interpretation. On paper, written, a blunt, resentful final line under a relationship, from a spiteful ex-lover looking back on the just-broken relationship without any affection. But the Buddhist might read: “I am setting off to find my better self, taking all my love with me. Nothing is left behind” – a reading that seems to be confirmed by Dylan’s peaceful, unshaken recital.

On which – of course – Mephisto has another sarcastic opinion:

Thou art at last—just what thou art.
Pile perukes on thy head whose curls cannot be counted,
On yard-high buskins let thy feet be mounted,
Still thou art only what thou art.                                                                               (Goethe, Faust I, 1808)

You can, he means, go away and leave everything behind – but you’ll always take yourself with you.

To be continued. Next up I Contain Multitudes part 19: Burping and belching and other bodily functions


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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