Thus Spake Robert Zarathustraman: exploring Bob Dylan’s lyrics


by Larry Fyffe

Within the song lyrics of Bob Dylan is found a mixture of Zarathustrianism, Gnosticism, and Judeo-Christianity – the last, a mixture of the other cosmological visions. Broadly speaking, Zarathustrianism conceives of an external and almighty God of goodness and light, accompanied by an earthly evil and darkness, personified as the ‘devil’, whereas Gnosticism envisions darkness coming about, and being trapped on earth, due to ignorance.

Along comes Frederich Nietzsche who sees all moralizing as an attempt to create order out of chaos by mankind himself – striving to be an ‘overman’ by exercising his will to power through his inborn ability to reason, to feel, to intuit, to dream, and even to lie and deceive – like everybody – with the wannabe ‘overmen’ having the zeal, cunning, and wherewithal to establish a morality that dominates the less resourceful, and turns them into robots and slaves; where priests, as ‘middlemen’, in an effort to please their masters, peddle the idea of happiness for the masses in the hereafter, not in the here-and-now.

A cycle of historical recurrence results as the middlemen themselves seek to overpower their manipulative masters by pandering to worldly discontent among the masses. There develops conflict and struggle over what is considered ‘dark’ and what is ‘light’ -the needy should be pitied and taken care of in the present, say the priests, lest there be trouble. The masters bend their knees to maintain conformity.

In a nutshell, there be no universal truths:

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempt 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
(Bob Dylan: Gates Of Eden)

Frederich Nietzsche seeks a way out of the nihilism that permeates modern society as a result of the clash between supposed values and actual behaviour. The transcendental God he puts to rest, and attempts through his writings to infuse the Almighty’s shadow into every man until a true ‘overman’ cometh who can straighten out the mess.

Says Nietzsche, to be a master or a slave, it’s an existential choice – best at this time to seize the moment for yourself alone, and embrace Dionysus, the mythological earth-god of joy and chaos – at festivals that celebrate Apollo, the sky-god of truth and order.

Nietzsche, seeking to escape nihilism, shows up dancing in the following song:

Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’
madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky, there are no fences facin’
And if you hear vague traces of of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing
(Bob Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man)

Thus spake the magical alchemist of secular Gnosticism:

Without music, life would be a mistake
(Nietzsche: The Twilight Of The Idols)

The following verse reflects Nietzsche, who, in works of his own, focuses the artistic lens, not on Apollo, the mythological god of reason who seeks out truth and light in the dark, but instead on Dionysus, the ‘god’ of the earth, and of fire and rain; the God of the Vine who fears not to embrace the impermanence of the present because he knows how to transform pirates into dolphins:

And Ezra Pound And TS Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

And how to transform outlaws into good guys:

John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He travelled with a gun in every hand
All along this countryside
He opened many a door
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man
(Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding)

Ironically, the Nazis twist Nietzsche’s individualistic proclivity to serve their perverted conception of a nationalistic super-race. Dylan turns his back on Ezra Pound because the poet actively supports fascism, but on the artistic and Romantic creativity of Nietzsche, he turns it not.

In Dylan’s song lyrics, one hears Nietzsche voice over and over, the author of ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’, wherein the secular Gnostic writes that he’s just a different kind of animal that’s forced to walk on a metaphorical tight-rope,
half-monkey, half-god:

Man is a rope, tied between the beast and the overman
A rope over an abyss
A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back
And a dangerous shuddering and stopping
(Nietzsche: Thus Spake Zarathustra)

Thusly, man has only one hand waving free:

Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

A true artist knows that s/he shouldn’t look back lest s/he stumbles and falls:

She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist
She don’t look back
She can take the dark out of the night-time
And paint the daytime black
(Bob Dylan: She Belongs to Me)

Says Nietzsche, the goal is one of becoming, and to fall in the process is no sin at all, but a worthy sacrifice in the urge to be an overman, if not the overman.
Ask Jesus about it:

Some speak of the future
My love, she speaks softly
She knows that there’s no success like failure
And failure is no success at all
(Bob Dylan: Love Minus Zero )

In Dylan’s song lyrics, Nietzsche and chaos are here, there:

Tweeter and the Monkey Man were hard up for cash
They stayed up all night selling cocaine and hash
To an undercover cop who had a sister named Jan
For some unknown reason, she loved the Monkey Man ….
Jan jumped up outta bed
Said, ‘There’s some place I gotta go’
Took the gun out of the drawer
Said, ‘It’s best that you don’t know’
(Bob Dylan: Tweeter and the Monkey Man)

Apparently, Jan hooked up with William Shakespeare – ‘Jan got married at fourteen to a racketeer named Bill’ – though the playwright in real history be quite the younger of the couple when he got hitched.

Nietzsche, who claims conformity to be a calamity, is everywhere:

Rosemary started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife
She was tired of the attention, tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife
She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide
She was lookin’ to do just one good deed before she died
She was gazin’ to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts
(Bob Dylan: Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts)

Tricksters, the Monkey Man and the Jack of Hearts, run away from the circus …they exit their way.

In the song below, the Nietzschean concept of ‘eternal recurrence’, of a ‘wheel within a wheel”, of ‘spiritual’ progress doubted:

Too much of nothin’
Can make a man a liar
It can cause one man to sleep on nails
It can cause others to eat fire
Everyone’s doin’ somethin’
I heard it in a dream
But when there’s too much of nothin’
It just makes a fella mean
(Bob Dylan: Too Much of Nothing)

What else is on the site

1: Over 460 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews



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