Saturday, April 4, 2015

Not Dark Yet: Reflections on Dylan’s Song of Despair

‘This thing I feel, I can’t name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?’ — this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. – David Foster Wallace, “Octet”

Something I’ve often wondered is why we’re so fascinated by things that frighten us. When I say “we” I do not mean to suggest that this is universal, but it does seem fairly pervasive. When sitting around a campfire we enjoy ghost stories that succeed in actually scaring us. We get a rush out of the horrors that give us nightmares. It’s a strange thing when we’re forced to choose between competing desires, whether to cover our eyes or to stare.

Sometimes I wonder if Death, or what is euphemistically called the Void or the Grim Reaper, is the real horror behind many of these stories and thereby the thing that fascinates and frightens us most deeply. Just as Victor Frankl identified the search for meaning as man’s ultimate quest, so it is that death renders all our quests meaningless. Meaninglessness is the close companion of Despair.

Despair is a scary matter that has been part of the human condition from the beginning. The Bible addresses this strangely suffocating mindset in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. From the outset the tone is set: "Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Many of the passages in this book were so devoid of hope that Martin Luther wanted to extract it from the Sacred Scriptures.

And yet, the despair found in Ecclesiastes may well be one of the foundation stones of wisdom.

There's something compelling about despair in a certain sense. It's akin to resignation, a resignation to fate, to a recognition of one's powerlessness and life's futility, a futility that may be the first step toward the humility that gives birth to wisdom. It's the ultimate undercutting of one's sense of self-importance, as Borges lays out in A Yellow Rose.

"Not Dark Yet" speaks directly to this matter.

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day 
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away 
Feel like my soul has turned into steel 
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal 
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere 
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Christopher Ricks in his Dylan’s Visions of Sin begins his fifteen-page discussion of this song with a one-word summation: Apocalypse. I can see this and he easily demonstrates that an apocalyptic theme is a recurring thread throughout Dylan's five decade career, explicit examples a-plenty beginning with "A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall" and "All Along the Watchtower" to "Whatcha Gonna Do When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky", and now here in "Not Dark Yet".

A portion of his segment on this song deals with how much Dylan’s "Not Dark Yet" corresponds with Keats’ "Ode to a Nightingale", a poem that attempts to put into words what one senses when standing on the precipice, at the edge of the abyss.

As Ricks puts it, “'Not Dark Yet' seeks – in the great phrase from Freud – to make friends with the necessity of dying.”

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain 
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain 
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind 
She put down in writing what was in her mind 
I just don’t see why I should even care 
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

There’s that written letter again. You may recall it from the last stanza of "Desolation Row". Something about seeing it in writing cuts us more deeply than just hearing it. We hear it, and then somehow alter it so we don’t quite hear it the way it was meant, or in some way we conveniently forget, or soften it, or dismiss it because… well, she was just frustrated and didn’t mean it. Now it’s right there, in ink, and it can’t be denied or ignored.

It’s the reality of the thing that especially hurts, causing us to distrust the beautiful, to recognize the ways in which we deceive ourselves when things seem good, forgetting that nothing ever really lasts. We’re outside the Gates of Eden now.

Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree 
I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea 
I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies 
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes 
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear 
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Yes, this is what Camus wrestled in his essay on Sisyphus. “Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear.” And what’s the use in looking for hope in someone else’s eyes at this point of the game. Death will render all my achievements meaningless in the end anyways.

‘This thing I feel, I can’t name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?’ — this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. – David Foster Wallace, “Octet”

For two years or more one of the websites to which I returned for thought stimulation was The Floating Library, which appeared to be hosted by a man named Dr. Sineokov. I had always assumed this was some elderly Russian philosopher who migrated to the West, something akin to a reclusive Solzhenitsyn in New England. What a surprise, and shock, to one day visit The Floating Library only to find that the caretaker/webmaster of this literary site was a young man of 27 who now committed suicide, at age 27.

The shock hit me more deeply than I expected. In part, because I identified with so many of the quotes he seemed to unearth on such a regular basis. Nevertheless, there were clues here, too, as toward he end they seemed to be especially bleak. Quotes from Orwell, Pessoa, Virginia Woolf, Yeats, Louise Glück, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and E.M. Cioran's The Trouble with Being Born.

In what we have agreed to call “civilization,” there resides, undeniably, a diabolic principle man has become conscious of too late, when it was no longer possible to remedy it. — E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born

Dylan reflects similar sentiments in the final stanza.

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will 
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still 
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb 
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from 
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer 
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

“Suddenly I was alone with . . . I felt, that afternoon of my childhood, that a very serious event had just occurred. It was my first awakening, the first indication, the premonitory sign of consciousness. Before that I had been only a being. From that moment, I was more and less than that. Each self begins with a rift and a revelation.” — E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born

For Dylan this rift and revelation occurred early in life. You don’t write songs like "Hard Rain" as a jester.

But Ricks takes a different tack here. He examines this song in a chapter titled Fortitude. In spite of the apparent futility of our life situation, our human condition and circumstances, we press on. Camus concluded that Sisyphus can choose to live for those special moments of relief from eternally rolling that boulder up the hill and utilize his time sauntering down the hill to take in the fragrance of the flowers, to absorb the splendor of the vista before shouldering his burden again.

Despair is a fiercer companion for some than for others. This is why a wise man exhorted us to "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

Four centuries ago one of the foundation stones of the Reformation was the profound insight that “the just shall live by faith.” That message delivered countless millions from the burden of a crushing works-based medieval Catholicism. But in our modern/postmodern world it would seem to have become an overused coin, and two other “heavenly graces” have become even more necessary and needful: hope and charity.

In a world full of lies, in a world as dark as ours, hope is a miracle whose source is unseen, for what we see is a sinking twilight.

Artwork on this site is produced by ennyman


Anonymous said...

Stunning piece,thank you so much especially on this Easter Sunday.

Anonymous said...

Thank you

Stephen Jarvis said...

Great piece. You may be interested in the news that the line from Not Dark Yet "Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain" appears at the start of my new novel "Death and Mr Pickwick", which tells the story behind the creation of Charles Dickens's first novel The Pickwick Papers. A few years ago, I heard Dylan read from The Pickwick Papers on his radio show, and I wrote to his management company for permission to use the lyric - and to my delight, permission was granted! The line perfectly accords with the theme of my novel - because although The Pickwick Papers might be considered "a beautiful thing", the novel's creation was accompanied by tragedy, including the suicide of the novel's illustrator Robert Seymour (who is my main character.) Anyway, if you are interested, Death and Mr Pickwick will be published in May by Random House (in the UK) and in June by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (in the USA) Further info is at: Best wishes Stephen Jarvis

Ed Newman said...

Thank you for the comments. Your novel sounds intriguing. Send me your email address. I am interested in hearing more.
ennyman at northlc dot com

Stephen Jarvis said...

Hi - I have just sent you an email. Here, by the way, is a link to the first pre-publication review, from the American book trade journal Publishers Weekly:

That will give you a quick overview of the novel. Best wishes Stephen Jarvis

Phil said...

John Bushey's favorite song down the stretch . . .