Bob Dylan, Fyodor Dostoevsky, And Alexander Pope: Give Me Somthing, Not Nothing
by Larry Fyffe
One interpretation of the song below is that Bob Dylan takes on the persona of a bespectacled student assigned to write a brief book report on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s long novel ‘Crime And Punishment’, the report to be written from the point of view of the main character. Student Dylan does his assignment though he gets some minor details wrong.
Fyodor Dostoevsky depicts modern Russia as succumbing to a ‘nihlistic’ culture of Existentialism – God be dead, and traditional Christian morality is being lost; the essence of Russia is fading away, now with cities dirty, and young people stranded at the crossroad with no pre-existing values to guide them; there’s too much of nothing.
Bob Dylan’s book report:
Well, I knew I was young enough
And I knew there was nothing to it
‘Cause I’d already seen it done enough
And I knew there was nothing to it
(Bob Dylan/Jim James: Nothing To It)
In the novel, Rodion, an improvised ex-student, sees around him no social group worth joining, and decides it’s his responsibility to do something about his predicament on his own – he thinks about murdering an unscrupulous pawnbroker to get money so that he can do charitable deeds:
The was no organization I wanted to join
So I stayed by myself and took out a coin
There I sat with my eyes in my hand
Just contemplating killing a man
Conflicted though he be, Rodion envisions himself a victim of circumstance – it’s not really his fault; any action is excusable:
For greed is the one thing I couldn’t stand
If I was you I’d put back what I took
A guilty man’s got a guilty look
Heads I will, and tails I won’t
As long as the call won’t be my own
That the pawnbroker wears a silver cross, but does not put Christian charity into practice allows Rodion to justify his actions – his virtuous friend Sonya turns to prostitution to help her family:
Well, you don’t have to turn your pockets inside out
But I sure you can give me something
Well you don’t have to go into your bank account
But I am sure you can give me something
The book report is left incomplete by the student persona in that Rodion is lucky to get away with his crime: he bungles the robbery after killing a witness, and his conscience bothers him terribly after the double murder – that is, until Sonya convinces him to confess.
Symbols play be a important role in Dylan’s song lyrics – the ‘coin’ represents luck – good or bad – one of many factors that affect one’s life. Poet Alexander Pope agrees. The master of the high burlesque, an imitative technique that portrays common routine, such as a middle class business activity, in an eleveled manner:
Come, fill the South Sea goblet full
The gods shall of our stock take care
Europa pleased accepts the Bull
And Jove with joy puts off the Bear
(Alexander Pope: An Inscription Upon A Punch Bowl)
In Classical Mythology, the maiden Europa is carried away by Jove (Zeus) disguised as a bull (a rising stock market), and the jealous wife of Jove turns another maiden, after which the greatest of gods lusts, into a bear (a falling stock market).
Bob Dylan, under the influence of poems by Pope, low burlesques the Book of Genesis:
He saw an animal that liked to growl
Big furry paws and he liked to howl
Great big furry back, and furry hair
‘Ah, think that I’ll call it a Bear’ ….
He saw an animal that liked to snort
Horns on his head, and they weren’t too short
It looked like there was nothin’ that he couldn’t pull
‘Ah, think that I’ll call it a Bull’
(Bob Dylan: Man Gave Names To All The Animals)
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