by Larry Fyffe
Which side of the big Titanic metaphor is singer/songwriter Bob Dylan on?
Do his song lyrics reflect a Hermetic view of the cosmos, or a Gnostic one? It’s a question many an examiner of Dylan’s music ask, but few forward a convincing answer. And no wonder since the two philosophical points of view have become so entangled with one another over the centuries.
Basically, most followers of the Hermetic school hold that there is an Absolute principle governing the Universe, and that it’s discoverable through reason and intuition; that is to say, science and religion are not really incompatible: there is a unitary plan to be found within the workings of the Cosmos.
Many of the orthodox religions, including the Abrahamic ones, call it “God’s plan.” Whether Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed, they be messengers sent from the transcendental God behind all of Creation to assert that physical matter is a divine inspiration designed for the benefit of mankind.
At first, earth, air, water, fire are conceived by humans to be the basic elements of the Universe, and then the development of the ‘science’ of alchemy and magical fluids shifts the focus more and more to man’s reasoning ability. For example, preRomantic poet William Blake seeks to balance modern Reason with earlier Spiritualism.
Later, Transcendental Romanic poets sense the presence of a vitalistic spirit pervading the physical world. Optimism, symbolized by light, and founded on a better understanding of the Oneness of the Universe becomes the order of the day. Science be not a demon, nor sexual desire a sin.
On the other hand, most forms of mystical Gnosticism, at least for the unenlightened, place a dark cloud over the sun. There is a transcendental God of sorts; however, the Absolute One is even more distant than the Supreme Clock-Maker Being conjectured by the Deists of the Enlightenment Age. Not only is the Monad far removed from mankind, but fragmented, and unknowable to all but a few lucky ones – interplanetary traveller Emanual Swedenborg, with his neoGnostic doctrines, being one of them.
According to these Gnostics, the ‘spiritual’ world of goodness is basically closed off to mankind because she or he is trapped in physical existence – confused, and ignorant, if not downright evil and sexually obsessed.
Knowledge for the most part becomes existential, and pessimistic. Why? Because the Creator of the physical world is far from a benevolent God – instead, He’s a demiurge.
To make matters worse, getting in touch with the goodness of the Absolute Monad with help from the lucky ones who have broken through to the Other Side ~ who are in communication with the shape-shifting, and often mythological, messengers emanating from the Male/Female Monad ~ is extemely difficult for most earth-bound human beings to achieve.
At times, Bob Dylan, or at least his persona, with the help of the right kind of female essence, displays a Hermetic Transcendentalist side:
If not for you My sky would fall Rain would gather too Without your love, I'd be nowhere at all Oh, what would I do If not for you
(Bob Dylan: If Not For You)
At other times, Dylan recognizes a much darker Gnostic side:
Idiot Wind Blowing through the buttons of our coat Blowing through the letters that we wrote Idiot Wind Blowing through the dust upon our shelves We're idiots, babe It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves
(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)
Common to Bob Dylan (and poet William Blake) is the use of the figurative device known as ‘anaphora’ – the repetition of the same words at the beginning of successive lines of a poem or song.
In conclusion, Bob Dylan mixes messages in his magical medicine bottle that float back and forth between the positive Hermetic and the negative Gnostic poles of musical electricity.
Take a sip – it’s all good.
You might also enjoy “Idiot Wind – the meaning of the music and the lyrics”
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