Bob Dylan and Antonin Artaud


by Larry Fyffe

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan naturally distances himself from Ezra Pound and his Imaginistic poems because of the American poet’s association with Fascism. Instead, he looks to Antonin Artaud, a French poet and dramatist who goes further than Canadian media analyst Marshall McLuhan.

Artaud contends that neither spoken language, aimed at the ear, nor written language, aimed at the eye, is adequate to capture the shock and cruelty of human existence – humans be trapped in their bodies, a physical cage of limited duration from which their ‘spiritual’ minds yearn to escape.

Marked by the emblems, totems, and symbols like the writings of Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederich Nietzsche, William Blake, Ezra Pound, William Shakespeare and the Bible, Antonin Artaud’s poetry involves the sense of taste; touch; smell; sight; sound; motion; stillness; and time (past, present and future) that the conscious and subconcious human mind mixes together. Artaud embraces the external world of chaos, and, in his poetry, he draws upon discordant rhythm and Vorticist imagery to present a surrealistic world of synchronicity, unbound from the chains of conventional language:

Spin the eddies of the sky inside these black petals
Shadows have covered the earth that bears us
Open a pathway to the plough amongst the stars
Enlighten us, escort us with your host
Silver legions, on the mortal course
Which we strive towards at the core of night
(Antonin Artaud: Black Garden)

The Plough is the constellation also known as the Big Dipper.

Ezra Pound give us a whirling image of William Blake, a negative pictorial since Pound contends that the preRomantic poet seeks tranquility behind the locked gates of an imagined Eden, and advocates finding a proper balance among the elemental fluids of earth, air, fire, and water within his body as Blake’s blown about like a rose “in the howling storm” of physical existence:

And the running form, naked, Blake
Shouting, whirling his arms, the swift limbs
Howling against evil
His eyes rolling
Whirling like flaming cart-wheels
And his head held backward to gaze on the evil
As he ran from it
To be hid by the steel mountain
(Ezra Pound: Canto XVI)

In the verse above, Pound undresses Blake, says that he, like the later Romantic Transcendentalists, cloaks himsef in what Frederich Nietzsche labels the ‘morality of slaves’ whereby the Christian ethos of compassion demands that corrupt institutions like slavery be abolished, and masterful ‘over-men’ be labelled ‘evil’.

Ezra Pound undoes himself by showing favour to Italian Fascism and German Nazism, severe authoritarian creeds said by many literary scholars to have corrupted Nietzsche’s original intent of providing spiritual support for creative Dionysian individualism, artists who launch their their metaphorical ships upon unknown waters, far from the mundane shores of contemporary society in search of everlasting Beauty – even though Beauty may turn out to be a Beast:

Tell her that sheds
Such treasure in the air
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour
Braving time
(Ezra Pound: Envoi)

Bob Dylan gives Frederich Nietzsche the benefit of doubt, and displays, not Pound’s, but Antonin Artaud’s Gnostic and alchemical union of the creative energies of Nietzsche, Pound, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Poe, and Blake:

I say what I have seen, and what I believe
Whoever says that I have not seen what I’ve seen
I will now tear their heads off
Because I am the Beast who cannot be forgiven
And it will be that way until Time is no longer Time
Neither Heaven nor Hell, if they exist
Can combat the brutality that they have forced on me
Perhaps in order that I will serve them. Who knows?
(Antonin Artaud: Apocalypse)

Highly influenced is Bob Dylan by the French Postmodernist’s plays and poems – he replies:

But you gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the Devil, it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
(Bob Dylan: Gotta Serve Somebody)

Artaud foresees no Blakean balance in the offering:

The fire in the water, the air in the earth
The water in the air, and the earth in the sea
They are not maddened enough
They are not unleashed enough, one against the other
And the more furious they are, and the more enraged
The closer and more intimate they become
There where the mother eats her sons, power eats power
Without war, no stability
(Antonin Artaud: Apocalypse)

As with Antonin Artaud, so with Bob Dylan – action speaks louder than words, whether written or spoken:

There’s smoke on the water, it’s been there since June
Tree trunks uprooted beneath the high crescent moon
Somebody is out there beating on a dead horse
She never said nothing, there was nothing she wrote
She gone with the man in he long black coat
(Bob Dylan: Man In A Long Black Coat)

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