Bob Dylan and Petrarch
Three preliminary remarks before praising “Die Stimmen aus der Unterwelt”, an excellent book written by University professor Heinrich Detering:
1. My German is good but far from perfect. I hope I didn’t misunderstand any crucial passage.
2. Detering contradicts a previous article of mine featuring Dante as the unidentified Italian poet in Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue”. He proposes Petrarch instead, and his arguments — admittedly — make a lot of sense.
3. Detering expands on previous research carried out by Richard F. Thomas, whom I consider the highest authority in the field of Dylan’s involvement with Greek and Roman classics. My article will not deal with this aspect.
“Workingman’s Blues #2” gets a lot of attention, in Detering’s work, as a perfect example of a song where Dylan shows his dexterity in breaking down distances between highbrow and popular culture, theater and song, film and literature. Drawing from different sources Dylan establishes a set of rules where Merle Haggard’s country music, biblical references and Henry Timrod, a poet from the 19th century, converse in a heterogeneous polyphony beyond the boundaries of space and time. Borderlines between old European traditions and the American present disappear thanks to a powerful amalgam invented by shape shifting Bob Dylan.
“Die Stimmen aus der Unterwelt” rightly highlights Dylan’s chameleon-like qualities. And yet shouldn’t we start looking at his achievements as an artist from a different point of view? Symbiosis between rock and literature also works the other way around. Thanks to Dylan popular music is gaining respectability. In Salman Rushdie’s latest novel “The Golden House”, for example, the author is dealing with co-protagonist Petya and writes at page 206 of the hardback version: “Petya moves on, the tambourine man, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow…He begins to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.” In other words, literature is now increasingly borrowing from Dylan songs too. So who is copying whom? Rushdie, a serious candidate for the upcoming Nobel prize, pays homage to Dylan and does so in a novel full of references to sex scandals, America, and the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
Something strikes you when you listen to Merle Haggard’s version of “Workingman’s Blues”: however hard his life might be, at the end of the day the protagonist has got a job and has never been on welfare. Dylan’s version of the song, on the other hand, is dedicated to a man who lives on rice and beans and tries to avoid becoming a criminal. Call it globalization or the need “to compete abroad”, Detering interprets “Workingman’s Blues #2” as a downbeat masterpiece and sees the same scenario in “Masked and Anonymous” — a film co-written and interpreted by Bob Dylan in 2003.
“You know when the Roman Empire fell? You know what Caesar and the rest of them Romans were doing when the barbarians were at the gate? Shooting craps and gambling”, says one of the characters in the movie. “Masked and Anonymous” takes place in an unidentified American country which is going through an economic crisis of Weimar proportions. Criminals and big corporations divide and rule. Civil war is looming. No one seems to care while human beings are sacrificed in the name of profit. A journalist in charge of covering a benefit concert — the nucleus of the film — comments that “sexuality is more revolutionary than any ideology”. But the charity event fails and there isn’t much sex involved.
In order to unveil the key to Dylan’s relationship with eroticism and love, Detering suggests we look no further than “Shadows In The Night” — a 2015 album where Dylan revisits Frank Sinatra’s standards and offers a disenchanted view of woman’s redeeming power. Unfortunately, the door leading to Heaven is now closed and there is no sexual healing. A disillusion that many centuries ago had also been worded by Petrarch in the following verses to Laura: “I find no peace, and yet I make no war / And fear, and hope: and burn, and I am ice”.
When in the mid-seventies Dylan finds new inspiration and a new muse, he sings about her in “Tangled Up in Blue”, and reveals that she is married when they first meet. In the same song we discover she is working in a “topless place”, probably as a strip-tease dancer. In the following album “Desire” the same archetypal lady appears under different guises — as Oriental goddess, mistress, sister and wife. Or is she a different woman each time? Detering’s point is that Petrarch’s muse Laura De Sade was also married when he fell in love with her. In his sonnet “Piovonmi amare lagrime dal viso” Petrarca openly acknowledged his “ardent wishes” towards Madame De Sade whose sweet smile “rescues me from the martyr fire”. In other words, thanks to her intervention, he was “saved” from “desire”.
Similarly, before and during his born-again period Dylan doesn’t shy away from explicit erotic lyricism. In “New Pony” his lady “knows how to foxtrot, lope and pace”. In “Precious Angel” she is the “queen” of his “flesh”, while in “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” she is an expert in the art of love who can even do “the Georgia crawl”. Sex and religion are strictly intertwined. Detering shows in his book how the spiritual dimension and secular needs are not mutually exclusive and how importantly they define Dylan’s art.