Sunday, July 28, 2013

Edges, Boundaries and Dylan's My Back Pages

Crimson flames tied through my ears 
Rollin' high and mighty traps 
Pounced with fire on flaming roads 
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I 
Proud ’neath heated brow 
Ah, but I was so much older then 
I’m younger than that now 
~Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

A word I've been thinking a lot about lately and that I want to key in on here is edges. We use it a lot, but in a variety of ways. The edge of the table, the edge of a knife. It's often used to describe where people are at as in "She's on the edge" or "He's over the edge." In that context the edge is a dangerous or risky place to be, hence we're warmed when young to stay away from it as in the old Negro spiritual "Children, Keep in the Middle of the Road."

At one time people believed the world was flat and thus one could fear, when going off to sea, that they might encounter the edge of the world. The sea was a dangerous place not only bedeviled by sea monsters and storms, it had an edge from which there was no return.

In "My Back Pages" Dylan sets up two personas, the overly exuberant, self-confident attitude of youth, and the older, more seasoned veteran of life. The irony here is that the youth thinks he knows everything, but the older man has become younger by recognizing life is not an easily navigated channel, and thus in aging he becomes less all-knowing and more open, softened and teachable.

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Now here's some further irony. The older wiser man knows life is not black and white, but the young person knows it, too. "Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull." And there's a bit of remarkableness in this statement which shows that both of them know something, but in different ways. The parrot may know the lines of a poem but not really understand what he's saying.

In our day and age we've become almost flippant about wisdom. For example, enlightenment is not getting the correct answer to "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" When we're young we might know the answers but know nothing about living the answers, if there are answers. The goal is not to ace a test, it is to understand what the purpose of the test was and why we had to face it in the first place.

Another word for edges is boundaries. The edge of my property borders a cow pasture, a road, a neighbor and a swamp. Internally we have boundaries, too. Some of these are fixed moral boundaries. Others are regions of ourselves that collide with one another because they are polarities. We have conflicting belief systems. For example, a desire to be transparent, and a desire to protect ourselves. Or a desire to stand up and speak out versus a feeling of insecurity about drawing attention to oneself. And then there is the dichotomy between risk-taking and safety that beguiles us in both relationships and careers. Life is the process of working it all out, making it work.  

John Hinchey, in his book about the poetry of Bob Dylan's songs, had pretty harsh words for "My Back Pages", calling it "one of the only two songs on the album [Another Side of Bob Dylan] to fall flat" and worse, "a song for which Dylan and most of his fans retain an unfortunate fondness." On the following page Hinchey calls it "perhaps the most extravagantly self-indulgent song Dylan has ever gotten away with." 

But I liked it then and like it still. Here are the closing stanzas:

In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand 
At the mongrel dogs who teach 
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy 
In the instant that I preach 
My pathway led by confusion boats 
Mutiny from stern to bow 
Ah, but I was so much older then 
I’m younger than that now

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats 
Too noble to neglect 
Deceived me into thinking 
I had something to protect 
Good and bad, I define these terms 
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow 
Ah, but I was so much older then 
I’m younger than that now 

Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music

There really aren't any edges between adolescence and maturity, not any clean ones anyways. Yet we know from experience how differently we viewed the world at that time, and the special challenges that time of life harbored. The strange thing is that this song is as applicable today, nearly fifty years later for baby boomers in their years of declension as well. It takes a lot of growing up to stay young, to remain teachable, to remain open to new ideas, to re-examine one's own edges and boundaries, and to face uncertain futures with unshielded eyes.

Let's keep pressing on.


Anonymous said...

I do agree with your comments here, but it is still difficult to believe a 23 years old had been through enough life to understand and write so deeply on this dichotomy of understanding.

Lisleman said...

I'm so glad to have found your post on these lyrics. Dylan certainly has deep meaning in most of his work.
"The goal is not to ace a test, it is to understand what the purpose of the test was and why we had to face it in the first place." - I plan on quoting you on your wisdom in a future post. Great line.