Chipping at the Pedestal

Presumably all critics initially find their subject interesting and worthy of attention,  though they may detect peaks and troughs.  They may well find they lose enthusiasm whilst continuing, endlessly, to plough the furrow.  I have no real idea of what it would be like but resilience must be required especially if the subject carries on working and creating beyond all reasonable temporal expectation.

Like most Dylan enthusiasts, I've read quite a bit about him and his work over the years.   He inspires creativity in his listeners, so there's an embarrassment of material.  And I've really enjoyed, beyond most things, Michael Gray's Encyclopedia.  He has made me roar with laughter, and then reel back, entranced by a clever description or a bold shaft of analysis.  And he has researched widely and deeply, and his book is the best of companions.

Plus, in response to an overture of mine, he sent me the most charming email.  I was thrilled and touched.

Obviously I'd detected a certain amount of disaffection with Dylan in Michael Gray's work.  He makes it very clear what passes muster and what doesn't.  He permits himself some rather surprisingly personal characterisations, not only about Dylan.  The Encyclopedia is fascinating partly because of the vim of the opinions.  I haven't minded that, though, I haven't felt the last word has been spoken, rather I've been stimulated to think about particular songs, or films, or albums, or interviews.  And I like a laugh.

But now I'm feeling a bit different.  Only because I attended his talk, last autumn, in Canterbury.  And I don't know, something's changed.  He was affable, self-confident and slick.  But I felt he wanted to diminish my interest in and enthusiasm for Bob Dylan's work and that wasn't really what I was hoping for.  Perhaps I would have felt better about a more deeply engaged, honest account of a view that may have changed, or be changing.  But that didn't seem to be on offer.

The world of Dylan obsession would suck perspective out of anyone over time.  So I understand why questions and discussion were not allowed.  All the more interesting to hear a proper, considered, hard-fought-for point of view from the speaker perhaps. 

What was clear was that all loss and change was attributed unilaterally to Dylan and his currently failing product. Not so much a critical assessment, more of a hidden assumption underlying the presentation.  Gray seemed to speak in sorrow rather than anger, breaking some simple facts to us.  Facts which were in some cases only judgements, matters of taste.  He's surely aware that most listeners to Dylan have strong opinions and feelings themselves, but he gave the impression that he did not consider them worthy, for he laid out his own stall as our patient, weary, better-informed superior, delivering the sad news that we've all been a little bit duped.

The talk felt a little bit tired, tired out, tired of the whole thing, though I enjoyed the piece about Hibbing.  And that is perhaps a good example of hidden background assumptions, he managed to make a connection between the sparking of a student's imagination and the provision of ambitious, eloquent surroundings. At that point in the talk he wasn't taking a sneaky whack at Dylan's abilities or character, or whether his work is worthy of interest any more.  It was a relief.

Of course it must be difficult to pitch such a talk appropriately, some listeners will be passionate obsessives, some just passing through, knowing much less.  I count myself a grateful and engaged fan.  The speaker has to embrace us all, so this may have been the best that was possible.

Here's a pompous little phrase that floated through my head this afternoon - this is what I want, a narrative of disaffection, I want to know why Dylan now sounds lazy, empty and trite to Mr Gray, but the answer won't be that it is simply because Dylan's work is now lazy, empty and trite, it'll be something more complicated, something that the critic must own or at least be prepared to explore, getting down in the dirt with the rest of us, and accepting that valid alternative opinions exist.  Perhaps it would be a fruitful way of looking at the openness and ambiguity of Dylan's work.  If you don't feel like paying attention there truly will be nothing there.  But that has always been the case with Dylan I think, one of his most continuous characteristics has been the quality of engagement required from the listener. 

The moralistic accusations of laziness to the art, cynicism etc. bother me most in the book now. Such a position is not really defensible, it supposes that Dylan could do much better if he worked harder and more sincerely.  That just doesn't sound like a reasonable criticism to me.  His sincerity has always been in question on some level.  He is who he is and we are where we are.

And where I am, at the end of this, is much more forgiving than I expected.  I still love the book, I still love to read it.  It's staying on my list, I've written myself out obviously.  But I don't think I'd go to another talk.


1 comment:

  1. Good afternoon!

    My name is Katie Kutsko, and I work at Weeva. We put together art-quality books, and one of our current projects is called "Letters to Bob Dylan." Here is a link to the project:

    The goal is to get as many fan letters as possible, so we can send the book to Bob this May for his 75th birthday. Interested in writing a letter, or helping us share this project with other Dylanologists?

    Please let me know if you have any questions or if you would like more information. Thank you so much for your time!

    All the best,