Dylan's birthday present: Free Bob from the Bobolator cult.

Scrutinizing culture.
May 16 2011 10:31 AM

Dylan's Birthday Present

Free Bob from the Bobolator cult.

See our Magnum Photos gallery on Bob Dylan.

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I don't mean to be sarcastic—actually, to tell the truth, I do. As a matter of fact, as a more positive birthday contribution, I'd like to pay tribute to Dylan's sarcasm. A rhetorical mode that has been somewhat taken for granted, underrated aesthetically, confused with irony and cynicism. We take it for granted because it's become embedded in the consciousness of our culture, the sarcastic "Yeah, right" is our default attitude. For which Dylan can claim much credit and deserves much praise as far as I'm concerned, since I believe you can never be too skeptical of received wisdom.

And I think people get sarcasm most wrong when they confuse it with irony. Irony is most often the detached observation of the disjunction between word and world ("Like rain on a wedding day," etc.). But sarcasm is more earnest; sarcasm may be intended to hurt but almost always because he or she who utters it has been hurt, feels hurt. Cares. Irony pretends to detachment, cynicism knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, but sarcasm is earnest in its own mean-spirited way, and cares enough to hurt back. Most of all it doesn't like being lied to.

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We weren't always, but America is now a nation (with many reasons why) that assumes it's always being lied to, whose default response now is that two-word compression of all sarcasm: "Yeah, right." And the case can be made that America wasn't a "Yeah, right" nation before Dylan came along. Parts of America still are not, but most of America has that precise attitude problem toward authority. I remember seeing a great T-shirt on the downtown subway at Union Square: "I ♥ my attitude problem." I ♥ America's wised-up wise-guy attitude problem. And I ♥ Dylan for expressing it so well that he altered the national attitude.

It's not his only attitude: He's written some of the best love songs ever, and some of the only ones that incorporate sarcasm. (What would you call the final line in "Boots of Spanish Leather" if not heartbroken sarcasm?) The sarcasm was there in the gritty rasp of Dylan's voice whatever he was singing. The voice itself was a polemic against prettiness, but not opposed to beauty.

Where did that come from? The fashionable thing to think these days is that the roots of what made Dylan Dylan are to be found in the distant past either in the old weird America of coal mines and Appalachian hollows and hollers or in the Popular Front politics of the prewar '30s. Aaron Copland—yeah, right.

The Bobolators think that it somehow enhances Dylan's stature to place him in the vast rural American backwoods landscape with these other rootsy "authentic" folk figures or in the "Popular Front" movement whose politics exalted "the people." Make him one with them. All of which makes him little more than a weirder Pete Seeger, a figure in a vast Thomas Hart Benton landscape rather than the idiosyncratic genius he is. It's not that he doesn't have influences, just that trying to reduce him to his influences, please. … These meta theories of Dylan have the effect of making him a less startling distinctive figure, more derivative.

They rob him of what made him such an intriguing and original force, not just a figure in the societal landscape that we're supposed to think more of because he's more like everyone else who came before but as a distinctive departure from what came before.

It's there, some of it, sure. But I think if you want to place Dylan in a cultural landscape, it is more accurately located in the urban "Black Humor" movement of the late '50s and early '60s: Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller and Catch-22, Terry Southern and the Dr. Strangelove script, Burroughs, Mailer.

And that the attitude of ridicule toward authority and propriety in all of them can be traced to their temporal location between two holocausts: the one Hitler perpetrated (but which people still didn't want to talk about) and the nuclear holocaust that seemed imminent, particularly after the Cuban Missile Crisis of '62. It was in '63 that Dylan wrote "Talkin' World War III Blues."

Just what is it that the twin specters of two holocausts, past and future, have to do with sarcasm? Well, an awareness of the human predilection for greater and greater mass slaughter, now push-button extermination, was at odds with the pretensions to piety, propriety, rectitude, and legitimacy that the official culture claimed for itself. Made one snicker and sneer at its claims to moral and ethical righteousness, their Pollyanna vision of human nature, founded as it was on tolerance, even enabling of extermination.

And it's too often forgotten that Dylan wrote a horrifically chilling Holocaust verse for one of his most brilliantly sarcastic songs, "With God on Our Side," which is in effect a sarcastic tour of official American history as intermittent slaughter, rationalized by religion, by "American exceptionalism," and climaxed by the aftermath of the Second World War, after which Dylan sneers about the way we forgave the Germans even though "They murdered six million/ In the ovens they fried/ The Germans now too/ Have God on their side." Killer.

He didn't forgive the Germans, or forgive the forgiving, and it's all there in that deliberately raw, ugly, in-your-face barbarism, "In the ovens they fried." No one wants that image, that metaphor made (burning) flesh conjured up before their inner eyes. We're usually content with speaking in hushed tones about "ovens." Dylan wasn't satisfied that we were satisfied.

I don't think I'm exaggerating his connection to the black humor movement or the origin of the black humor movement in a kind of displaced discourse about the absurd evil of the Holocaust(s). Dylan would, much later in his career (1981) on one of his "Christian" albums no less, write a tribute song to Lenny Bruce. Very sincere for the most part, as if he's looking back and seeing his younger sarcastic self in Bruce. And then—as if freaked out by his earnestness—he couldn't resist what sounded like a bit of sarcasm at Bruce's (and his own) expense. After praising him for having the insight to "rip off the lid before its time," he recounts his one meeting with Lenny, a taxi ride:

"Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months." You can picture it.

But not all sarcasm is necessarily harsh or Holocaust-related, thank God. Dylan is a master at evoking the subtle shades, gradations, and nuances of sarcasm. The potential tenderness of sarcasm.

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