Saturday, June 3, 2017

Puzzles and the Ambiguity of Bob Dylan

Puzzles by their nature imply solution. We don't buy an 800-piece puzzle and wonder if it'll go back together again. When I was a kid my dad used to bring home bent nail puzzles like these that we'd struggle over, having to take apart or put back together. It was assumed that they're going to resolve, whether it's taking these nail things apart or whatever.

So it is with mystery stories. Whether Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes, it's essentially a given at the outset that Hercule Poirot will learn whodunnit by the end of the story, or that Holmes will solve the mystery that has stumped Scotland Yard. The fun, for readers, is trying to take the clues one is being fed by the writer and "get it" before our hero does.

How about real life? A lot of situations we find ourselves in leave us feeling puzzled, and there appears to be no resolution. The puzzles of life are often more complicated than those bent nail puzzles. We're tested, fail and in the end left confused. It would be nice if everything we stumbled into were as neatly packaged as the crossword puzzles we find in our daily paper. The crosswords may be challenging, but I've yet to see our newspaper publish one in which there was no solution whatsoever. Real life problems, like finding employment, have no real assurances. At least the newspaper prints the answers to the Crypt-O-Gram and the Word Jumble and the daily crossword puzzle.

This is an intriguing feature of Bob Dylan's career as a songwriter. Because of our experiences as readers of Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others of their ilk, we approach song interpretation much the same as we would a mystery. We search for clues, and we assume that there is a solution to the problem of interpretation.

What Dylan does in many of his songs is more like life. It doesn't come neatly packaged. It is not a math equation like 2 + 2 = 4. It is when we try to dissect his lyrics rationally that we at times run into problems, because occasionally the song is intended to be engaged emotionally, or on some deeper level. The composition intrigues the mind, but the texture of the images touches us in other ways than we ourselves can articulate. The effect of the lyrics is heightened by the musical accompaniment to create moods and sensations.

The direction modern art took with abstract expressionism and minimalism was off-putting to many people because when they attempted to engage the work intellectually and rationally. Kandinsky opened the door to alternative ways of viewing a painting, the emotional/aesthetic path. Dylan explored this as well as he strove to get the right sound to wrap his words and ideas around, words that did more to veil interpretations than to reveal them.

All this to say that Dylan's ambiguity is more like the puzzle that is life than it is the jigsaw puzzles we sometimes occupy our time with. The puzzle of life has pieces that don't always fit so neatly together.

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If you do like puzzles that have solutions, here's a cool site to try out: Jigsaw Planet. Or try out this British site with other varieties of puzzles.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Engage it. 

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