Bob Dylan And Emanuel Swedenborg (Part II)
by Larry Fyffe
Many of the song lyrics of Bob Dylan show the influence of Emanuel Swedenborg, William Blake, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Swedenborg envisions a separate spiritual world at odds with the material world – the microcosmic world of the individual human only corresponds to its intended formulation by God. According to Swedenborg, the Word of God tells us this is so: the secret to knowing the goodly purpose of our being in the Universe is to have someone chosen by Absolute One to uncover the hidden meanings in the Word of God (since human language is inherently unclear).
The rationalism and empiricism of the Deistic Enlightenment banishes the biblical God of Judeo-Christianity from the the workings of the Universe. Intuitive insight tells Swedenborg, a scientist himself, that he’s been divinely selected to bring God back home to the inhabitants on Earth.
Swedenborg decodes the Holy Scriptures to mean, for instance, that the Sun is a manifestation in the material world which corresponds to the mysterious life force of the far away Godhead; its light be His Love. Thusly decoded, the Scriptures tell us that, in the human form of Jesus, God becomes manifest on Earth for a time.
Humans are left by God with the choice to think for themselves through the employment of language in various formats, i.e., deductively, inductively, intuitively, imaginatively, whatever. Sometimes individuals act in mischievous ways, and sure enough, William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe fog things up again. Since neither claims himself to be a ‘prophet’, it’s difficult to fathom whether Blake and Poe are expanding on Swedenborg’s ideas or making fun of them.
The material world for Blake is not a flawed reflection of some separate and better spiritual place, but a world in and of itself that is an entangled mixture of dark and light forces where individual humans themselves bear the responsibility for balancing devil-like physical urges with angel-like altruistic love that they also harbour.
Blake compares the ‘it’s either back or it’s white’ moralists like Emanuel Swedenborg to Satan, and changes the name of Swedenborg’s ‘Heaven And Hell’ to ‘The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell”:
I saw a serpent rise ….
Vomiting his poison out
On the bread and on the wine
So I turned into a sty
And laid me down with the swine
(William Blake: I Saw A Chapel)
Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, with a bottle of whiskey called ‘Heaven’s Door’, in his hand, is content to lie down in a similar ‘Hell’ :
Right now, I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Unless you mail them
From Desolation Row
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)
The Gothic poet of repulsion and attraction renounces Swedenborg’s isolated spiritual world and copes psychologically as best he can with the physical world in which Swedenborg claims that Man is trapped:
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven
Went envying her and me
Yes – that was the reason (as all men know
In the kingdom by the sea)
That the cold wind came out of the cloud by night
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee ….
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling – my life and my bride
In her sepulchre there by the sea
In her tomb by the sounding sea
(EdgarAllan Poe: Annabel Lee)
And Bob Dylan, with black humour, advises Swedenborg’s angels to stay right where they are:
Now all the authorities
They just stand around and boast
How they blackmailed the sergeant-at-arms
Into leaving his post
And picking up Angel who
Just arrived here from the coast
Who looked so fine at first
But left looking just like a ghost
(Bob Dylan: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues)
Dylan explores the teachings of more conventional Christian offshoots than Swedenborgism in gospel songs that he’s writes. Christian-oriented Dylanologists tend to turn a blind eye to the influence of Blake and Poe’s poetry lurking there in the song lyrics of Dylan – so much the worse for understanding Bob Dylan’s artistic genius.
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