Thursday, May 20, 2021

Dylan Weighs In on the Disease of Conceit

There’s a whole lot of people suffering tonight
From the disease of conceit
Whole lot of people struggling tonight
From the disease of conceit
Comes right down the highway
Straight down the line
Rips into your senses
Through your body and your mind
Nothing about it that’s sweet
The disease of conceit

Conceit is a word we don't hear used that much anymore. We say things like, "He's full of himself," or "He's got a big head." We also hear quite a bit about narcissism, frequently in the context of dating advice. "Five Signs to Help You Spot Narcissistic Behavior" and "11 Signs that You're Dating a Narcissist" are on the first page when I Google this.

The word narcissism comes from the Greek tale of Narcissus who fell in love with his reflection in a pond. Dylan incorporated this tale into the last verse of "License to Kill" (Infidels):

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled
Oh, man is opposed to fair play
He wants it all and he wants it his way

Narcissus by Caravaggio
Dylan's imagery hit me like a zap from a 220 volt copper wire the first time I heard it in 1983. What is it about our nature that inclines us to self-deceit and an overweening sense of self-importance?

The opening line of the song sets the stage: "Man thinks 'cause he rules the world he can do with it as he please..." 

Another word that can be used interchangeably with conceit is arrogance. Psychologist Karen Horney (Freud's first female student) in her book Our Inner Conflicts (A Constructive Theory of Neurosis) asserts that the greater the variance between our idealized self-image and our real self, the more amplified our neurotic tendencies. She writes:

"Precisely to the extent that the image is unrealistic, it tends to make the person arrogant, in the original meaning of the word; for arrogance, though used synonymously was superciliousness, means to arrogate to oneself qualities that one does not have, or that one has potentially but not factually."
--Our Inner Conflicts, p. 97

What Dr. Horney goes on to say is that our self-inflation is not something we do consciously. That is, arrogant people are unaware of how divergent their real behavior is from their idealized version of themselves. This is what makes it so tragic and troubling.

Dylan's "Disease of Conceit" breaks it down in some interesting ways. The first stanzas describe the results of conceit. People are hurt. It causes heartbreak. People are crying, and even dying because of it. "There's nothing about it that's sweet, the disease of conceit." 

Then comes the bridge in which he describes conceit as something of a mystery. (Life has many mysteries, doesn't it?)

Conceit is a disease
That the doctors got no cure
They’ve done a lot of research on it
But what it is, they’re still not sure

The song's last stanza is a reminder that we are but dust, a warning to beware of "delusions of grandeur" because ultimately we all await the very same fate. 
There’s a whole lot of people in trouble tonight
From the disease of conceit
Whole lot of people seeing double tonight
From the disease of conceit
Give ya delusions of grandeur And a evil eye
Give you the idea that
You’re too good to die
Then they bury you from your head to your feet
From the disease of conceit 

* * * 
In 1937 Salvador Dali produced a painting that he titled The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. If you Google the word Narcissus and click on images, most of the images will be of a yellow flower called the Narcissus, though more commonly called the daffodil today. 

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (Salvador Dali) Tate Museum
© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2020
Though Dylan's "Disease of Conceit" ends with a rather bleak prognosis (buried from your head to your feet), there's a seed thought in the tale of Narcissus which Dali captures in his painting (currently on display at the Tate Museum in London). Here is a portion of the text that accompanies this image:

Narcissus was a youth of great beauty who loved only himself and broke the hearts of many lovers. The gods punished him by letting him see his own reflection in a pool. He fell in love with it, but discovered he could not embrace it and died of frustration. Relenting, the gods immortalized him as the narcissus (daffodil) flower.

The Disciple
Oscar Wilde's ironic twist on the myth of Narcissus

When Narcissus died, the pool of his pleasure changed from a cup of sweet waters into a cup of salt tears, and the Oreads came weeping through the woodland that they might sing to the pool and give it comfort.

And when they saw that the pool had changed from a cup of sweet waters into a cup of salt tears, they loosened the green tresses of their hair, and cried to the pool, and said: "We do not wonder that you should mourn in this manner for Narcissus, so beautiful was he."

"But was Narcissus beautiful?" said the pool

"Who should know better than you?" answered the Oreads. "Us did he ever pass by, but you he sought for, and would lie on your banks and look down at you, and in the mirror of your waters he would mirror his own beauty."

And the pool answered: "But I loved Narcissus because, as he lay on my banks and looked down at me, in the mirror of his eyes I saw my own beauty mirrored."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks ED, this was very inspiring. Instead of the disease of conceit I would say the sin of conceit. It might even be the "original sin" which is overwhelming. Fortunately, before he wrote this song, Bob Dylan also wrote a song called "Trust yourself" in his "Born again" period when he was more optimistic! And in 2019 he also re-wrote "when I paint my masterpiece" in a more biblical way.
If we are ruled by the original sin we also received some help. Praying and making Art are some good ways to fight against it, though it's only a consolation because the road is long but, humming "Someday, everything's gonna be different when I paint my masterpiece" in the morning helps a lot!

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