Bob Dylan And Emanuel Swedenborg


By Larry Fyffe

The Romantic Transcendentalist poets (in particular, mystics Samuel Coleridge and John Keats) are influenced to varying degrees by the Christian Gnostic Emanuel Swedenborg. The Transcendental Romantics claim that the guiding voice of the Absolute One can be heard whispering in the wind, and that the warmth of His heart can be felt pumping throughout the physical Universe. The Almighty Creator be present first to spread comfort and love to the creatures that will live there.

Swedenborg is a stranger to them, however, in that he holds that nearly all earth-bound inhabitants are incapable of knowing anything about the nature of the Absolute One. According to Swedenborgian mysticism, the darkness of individual self-interest comes to obscure much of the light that reaches the material world . The weight of matter is out of balance: for example, women and their angelic spirits are not able to correspond.

Fortunately, Jesus is the emanation, the morning light, and manifests on earth as the messenger from the Unknowable God; Jesus, One with God, restores the balance as it once was on earth. Swedenborg’s Gnostic picture is not painted all black. Jesus departs the physical world having given its inhabitants inspiration to choose goodness over hell-on-earth. And He ain’t coming back a second time.

Gothic poet Edgar Allan Poe frowns on those Transcendentalists whom he considers to be over-the-rainbow clowns – who hide their faces in masks in order to shield themselves from the horror of darkness and death that exists in the material world:

Out -out are the lights – out all
And, over each quivering form
The curtain, a funeral pall
Comes down with the rush of a storm
While the angels, all pallid and wan
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, ‘Man’
And it’s hero, the Conqueror Worm
(Edgar Allan Poe: The Conqueror Worm)

Within many of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics lurk the dark shadows of Poe’s poetry. In some, Dylan mocks the Romantic Transcendentalists’ optimistic assurance of a better world in the offing:

The widow’s cry, the orphan’s plea
Everywhere you look, more misery
Come along with me, babe, I wish you would
You know what I’m sayin’, it’s all good
All good
I said, it’s all good
All good
(Bob Dylan: It’s All Good – with Hunter)

Taking into consideration that they criticize Swedenborg for underestimating the power of the creative imagination, William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe are influenced quite a bit by Swedenborg’s writings. So too is Bob Dylan, and he gets to mix the dark view of humanity portrayed by canonized Judeo-Christianity with modern surrealistic images taken from those who write about the subconsciousness mind, i.e., Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Bob Dylan employs Swedenborg-influenced Carl Jung’s archetypal symbols like Eve ruining the harmony that once existed in the Universe. The image of a caring woman returning to an Edenic home where Adam lives safe from hell-on-earth is typical of Dylan:

Now there’s spiritual warfare, and flesh
and blood breaking down
You either got faith or you got unbelief
and their ain’t no neutral ground
The enemy is subtle, how be it we are so deceived
When the truth’s in our hearts, and we still don’t believe
Shine your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
You know that I can’t make it by myself
I’m a little too blind to see
(Bob Dylan: Precious Angel)

In the song below, Dylan’s persona sounds like a Puritan preacher spitting brimstone and hellfire at a wayward woman:

You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder you still know how to breathe
After reachin’ yesterday, I said there might be
some fodder at the well
Peace and quite’s been avoidin’ me for so long
It seems like a livin’ hell
There’s a lone soldier on the hill
Watchin’ the fallin’ rain drops pour
You’d never know it to look at him
But at the final shot, he won the war
After losin’ every battle
I woke up on the hillside
Daydreamin’ ’bout the way things sometimes are
(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)

Bringing it all back home to the oft-Gothic Romantic:

I saw their starved lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide
And I awoke and found me here
On the cold hill’s side
(John Keats: La Belle Dame Sans Merci)

Like the Swedenborg messenger John Chapman (‘Appleseed’) who seeds the country with the goodly light of unselfish and peaceful behaviour, the singer/songwriter shines some humourous light on the ideal woman who understands what a man realy needs:

But in love, crazy love, you get straight A’s
In history, you don’t do too well
You don’t know how to read
You could confuse Geronimo
With Johnny Appleseed
(Bob Dylan: Straight A’s In Love)

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