Bob Dylan and Ayn Rand


By Larry Fyffe

Frederich Nietzsche, a Dionysian neoRomantic in many ways, depicts contemporary society as possessing a ‘herd mentality’, a pessimistic place of conformity that puts any hopes of meritorious reward off until the aferlife -a ‘slave morality’ exists amid the masses, a supposedly God-bestowed morality that’s really based on emotional resentment, and views the lion-like rich and powerful as ‘evil’ – the latter, including the greats of art, possess a ‘master morality’ that portrays feeble sheep as deserving of their position because they are morally ‘bad’.

Along comes shepherdess Ayn Rand, a grandchild of the secular Age of Enlightenment that casts God outside of the Universe. There be no room for two-tiered Nietzschean morality with its potential to fall into the hell-hole of nihilism and hedonism: morality is objective when viewed through the lens of Reason that’s unimpaired by any of the thoughts of ‘the collective’ (such as presented by the likes of the Transcendental Romantic poets) – according to Rand, the senses present to us a world that’s ruled by the self-interest of the solidary ‘individual’, and any altuistic thoughts wrought by the emotions interfere with the evolutionary progress of the creative human being:

Achievemnt of your happiness is the only moral purpose
of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence
is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof of your
loyalty to the achievement of your values
(Ayn Rand: Life, Happiness, Integrity, Achievement)

In the following lyrics, singer/songwriter Bob Dylan presents Ayn Rand’s view of any collective stifling the creative individual:

No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more
Well, I try my best to be just like I am
But everybody wants you to be just like them
They say sing while you slave, and I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more
(Bob Dylan: Maggie Farm)

PreRomantic Gnostic poet William Blake counters the secular slant of Enlightenment thinkers whom he says fragment the unity of the individual psyche by placing reason (Urizen) above emotion (Luvah) in their structuring of the institutions of society – human behaviour is still defined by the rational secularists in terms of what’s “evil” and what’s “good”:

Every substance is clothed, they name the good and evil
From them they make an abstract, which is a negation
Not only of the substance from which it is derived
A murderer of its own body, but also a murderer
Of every divine member: it is the reasoning power
An abstract objecting power, that negatives everything
This is the spectre of man: the holy reasoning power
(William Blake: The Emanation Of The Giant Albion)

Dylan likewise derides the binding of the energy of youthful individuals, but he does not hold Ayn Rand’s negative view of the emotions; instead, Dylan takes an optimistic viewpoint, like Blake, of the benefits derived, not just from the head, but from the emotional desires that dwell within the human heart.

No words more Blakean were ever spoken – except by William Blake himself – than those below:

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract thoughts, too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking that I had something to protect
Good and bad, I defined these words quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now
(Bob Dylan: My Back Pages)

Expressed in many of the song lyrics of Bob Dylan is the recognition that personal emotions allows a freedom-loving individual to be a slave to another since following one’s emotional desires fulfills one’s happiness – at least for a while:

Come baby, shake me, come baby, take me, I would be satisfied
Come baby, hold me, come baby, help me, my arms are open wide
I could be unravelling wherever I’m travelling, even to foreign shores
But I will always be emotionally yours
(Bob Dylan: Emotionally Yours)

In the song lyrics above, Bob Dylan, like Hamlet, does not dismiss the possibility of a Christian afterlife:

But the dread of something after death
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns
(William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act III, sc.I)

Emotional pain and suffering, Dylan considers to be unavoidable as one travels the road of life:

Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me gracefully and took my crown of thorns
‘Come in’, she said, “I’ll give ya shelter from the storm”
(Bob Dylan: Shelter From The Storm)

Dylan’s lyrics are so very often double-edged: one can be bound by iron bracelets, and by silver ones too.

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  1. I read Anthem a long time ago, and I’ve wondered since then whether a line in Subterranean Homesick Blues is in reference to this novella. When Dylan sings (or raps) “better jump down a manhole, light yourself a candle” refers to Rand’s main character escaping society in a tunnel and read by candlelight, so he could read and discover all that’s been kept from him. It seems to fit with the tone of that verse and with Dylan’s shift in the mid 60s. Thoughts?

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