Friday, June 24, 2016

I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine and Thoughts On Being Human

This past two weeks I've been carrying this song around in my head, letting it swirl, percolate, produce something to share here. As Dylan fans know "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" appeared on his John Wesley Harding album, his first album of new songs after the infamous motorcycle accident that terminated his world tour with The Band.

What was striking about the album was how it signaled another change in direction for Dylan as an artist. His previous three albums rocked a lot of foundations and shook up a lot of the fans he'd acquired during his folk days. Now, it was a scaled back sound that featured simple tunes, an acoustic guitar and harmonica. John Hinchey called this album the "comeback of all comebacks." In describing it, he cites Dylan's own comment on comebacks from Love and Theft: "You can always come back, but you can't comeback all the way." Perhaps this was considered a comeback only because he'd come out from a long period of silence, veiled from the public eye.

This song was the third cut on side one. Interestingly, he performed it 39 times between 1969 and 2011. As many writers have pointed out, "I Dreamed" opens with a tune and structure similar to the classic folk song about the union organizer Joe Hill.

"I dreamed I saw St. Augustine, alive as you or me"
Compare: "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you or me..."

It's easy for me to hear Joan Baez singing that line as it rises, whereas Dylan's version, with similar cadence, falls at the end of the line.

What we hear in this song is a tale about a strange dream featuring this significant fourth century theologian/philosopher tearing about "in the utmost misery with a blanket underneath his arm and a coat of solid gold." The blanket is a symbol of comfort, the gold a symbol of purity and perfection, not earthly wealth. As the Proverb states, "The crucible is for silver, the furnace for gold, but the Lord tries hearts." In the narrator's dream, St. Augustine is searching for souls. The second stanza elaborates on why Augustine is so concerned.

“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own
So go on your way accordingly
But know you’re not alone”

David Pichaske, in his Song of the North Country, writes "John Wesley Harding is pervaded with sin and redemption, and associated with concerns for the health of the soul." Of this song Pichaske notes that the singer is "lamenting the death of prophets and martyrs in this modern American wasteland, and offering his own message of comfort: 'Know you're not alone."

The third verse comes with another twist.

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried

In the narrator's dream he discovers that he is amongst the ones who put the martyr to death. When he wakes, he is shaken to the core.

At this point it would make a good segue to do a little study of the various dreams by which God spoke to characters in the Bible, from Jacob and Job to Jonah and Joseph. But that's a study you can do on your own.
* * * * 

My thoughts this morning fall into alignment with another book I'm reading, Francis Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future. The question of the moment is this: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a soul? The questions have been generated by recent reading about robotics and artificial intelligence. (AI).

In 1980 I wrote a paper analyzing contemporary culture, attempting to bring order from the chaos of our times. On pages 22-25 I spotlighted two of the most influential dystopian novels of the previous fifty years, Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. Despite the the seemingly disparate images of our future -- a totalitarian state so complete that Big Brother is everywhere vs. a ghastly, genetically pre-programmed human race where artificial happiness reigns -- the two "visions" of the future have something in common. Both point to a dehumanized humanity, devoid of mind, will and emotions and soulless.

Fukuyama opens his book with a discussion of these very same works. The nightmare more frightening to Fukuyama is Huxley's because "it's easy to see what's wrong in the world of 1984," but in Orwell's story the evil is not so apparent. Everyone gets what they want. Humanity is seduced rather than compelled to be less than human. (In my paper I also compared these two with That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis.)

If everyone can be happy, what's wrong with this picture? Leon Kass states, "Unlike the man reduced by disease or slavery, the people dehumanized a la Brave New World are not miserable, don't know that they are dehumanized, and, what is worse, would not care if they knew. They are... happy slaves with a slavish happiness."

What does it mean to be human? What is it that sets us apart from the rest of creation? Conscience is part of it. How we treat our brothers and sisters is central to it. All this is tied, as theologians explain it, to the imago dei, the image of God in us. But many modern scientists deny the existence of this part of our species. Instead religious experiences, they suggest, are generated by our own genetic dispositions. It's nothing more than a illusion, albeit compelling.

Fukuyama argues that this corrosive postmodern smog was foretold by C.S. Lewis in his Abolition of Man (1943). Lewis saw what was happening in public education which had begun teaching relativism and the denial of objective truth. Huxley only detailed the manner in which this de-humanizing would occur.

Dylan keyed into the matter of conscience in a number of songs on this album, including Dear Landlord, I Pity the Poor Immigrant and this one, among others. I appreciate the straightforwardness of its simple ending. When the narrator of I Dreamed awakes he's shocked, saddened, broken by what he's seen. He's seen himself.

Fukuyama's concerns here are how features of contemporary biotechnology need to be given ethical restraints before the real damage is done. It's not just about the side effects of pharmaceuticals that should concern us. What Huxley predicted in the 40s is unfolding faster than anyone back then could have imagined. 

The frightening part is that what's taking place in biotechnology and pharmacology is so nuanced and complex that we don't even know how to argue against it. The "progress" taking place in these and other fields, like neuroscience, genetic engineering and A.I., will change us in ways we can't fully foresee and with benefits that no doubt create other unintended consequences.

My thoughts here are full of loose ends. Just trying to sort something out, I suppose. 

For more on the significance of Augustine, visit my 2009 blog post here


Eric Gilliland said...

A really thoughtful article. I've always felt there was some mystical power on JWH, I never tire of listening to it. I will have to check out the Fukuyama book. It disconcerting seeing everyone so engrossed in their technology - lots to ponder here.

hans altena said...

You really touch on what is really basical in our evolution now. Dylan had expressed the essence of our relativism in modern Western thinking and nihilistic living through his famous trilogy, and on JHW he started to channel the search for the saving of our souls that are at peril these days.

Unknown said...

The crux of the song, what it turns on, for me, is the last line of the last verse: "I dreamed I was amongst the ones that put him out to death." As the listener, you have to make a decision here: is Dylan referring to Augustine Webster, or to the more famous and literary Augustine of Hippo? The former was figuratively "put out to death," the latter was the author of his own "Confessions," and "City of God," and a great deal more likely a subject for a song by someone as literary as Dylan. Augustine of Hippo died of an illness, and was not a martyr.

It only matters if you choose Webster: then the song abandons the pattern of assemblages rural, mythopoetic, American, and biblical that makes up the rest of the album. It doesn't fit as well. It becomes something more structured, closer to a proper narrative.

It's likely that none of these songs--or any of Dylan's songs--lends itself very well to this kind of analysis. Once he'd shed the folk structure, then the neo-surrealist structure, Dylan remained an expressionist for most of his career. The exception being the devotional music made from Slow Train Coming through Infidels. And that's why Saint Augustine is important: if it's about Augustine of Hippo, who had a dramatic conversion, it can be read--although not, perhaps, accurately--as a simple question: how much of what our muse tells us should we listen to, and how much from our spirits? Did Dylan have a moving dream about the second-most noted conversion in all of Christendom twelve years before his own conversion? And what does the line about Augustine's death tell us? A sense of guilt, mindlessness, woe? Is his expressionistic side presaging the pain he was feeling being separated from Christ?

If we are to take the song at face value, and accept its Christian (or at least devotional or faith-based) allegory, then we can't possibly ask questions like "what does it mean to be human," or "what is happiness," without considering Boethius: Unity with God is the ultimate happiness, God is the ultimate happiness, the only purpose and end of life is unity with God.

Dylan may have found somewhere in his curious wanderings the martyred Augustine Webster; but I think its more likely that he found Augustine of Hippo in The Confessions, or City of God and also found there a premature conversion that he rejected. The song may be the expression of the confusion that resulted from that rejection. We do, after all, know how it ended for Dylan and Jesus.

Unknown said...

I like the way Bob makes "prayed" & "cried" the end another cool Zimmerism that he completely inundated Blonde On Blonde with. Data compression algorythm at it's best.

The Bob Dylan Project said...

Readers may be interested in You can listen to every version of every song plus notable covers. Join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Popular Posts