Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Mythology of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen IV: Gods and Angels, Battles and Journeys

This summer at Shalem College I am teaching a course entitled New Skin for the Old Ceremony: The Music and Mythology of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I am posting key songs, texts, and comments from each of the eight sessions on this blog. Read about previous topics with a click on Creation MythsMasters and Teachers, and Dreams and Visions.

Gods and Angels
Dylan and Cohen's Dreams and Visions produce social critique like "Democracy," a new forecast for the future like "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and escape like "Series of Dreams." In taking on Gods and Angels, the mythic water gets a little deeper.

Like any myth makers, Dylan and Cohen populate their stories with figures with unworldly powers who aid, prod and trouble them as they travel up and down the ladder between this world and the other one. Brief reviews of the opening scenes of The Canterbury Tales, The Inferno, the medieval drama "Everyman," and Paradise Lost as well as a surrealistic story from the Zohar demonstrate how the people and creatures a heroic figure encounters serve as vessels for a tests and expressions broadcast by a higher power.

Dylan and Cohen do not typically learn esoteric truths from the Zohar's mules, hermits, or children channeling the voice of Elijah nor from "Everyman"'s living card deck of characters embodying Christian dogma. But they do meet many kind of angels energizing, enriching, or challenging relations with the divine. Consider the ethereal woman of "Shelter from the Storm" in which Dylan's wanderer wishes "he could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born" and Cohen's Holy Trinity of angelic waifs in "Sisters of Mercy:" 

Oh, the sisters of mercy, 
they are not departed or gone
They were waiting for me
when I thought that I just can't go on

So too, "Angelina," one of Dylan's most vivid descriptions of an angel personified (or a women anglicized.) Asked to name fifty reasons he loved Bob Dylan in honor of Dylan's 50th birthday, Bono said one of them was that Dylan "mixes up God and women." The song "Angelina," like "Changing of the Guards" which we also listened to in context of Gods and Angels, produces a figure who blurs boundaries between human, animal, and the divine. A party somewhere in LA includes a man "worshiping a god with a body of a woman well endowed/And the head of a hyena." Then "Angelina" ends with a jarring image of a hero cracking the threshold of upper and lower worlds:

I see pieces of men marching; trying to take heaven by force
I can see the unknown rider, I can see the pale white horse
In God’s truth tell me what you want and you’ll have it of course
Just step into the arena
Beat a path of retreat up them spiral staircases
Pass the tree of smoke, pass the angel with four faces
Begging God for mercy and weepin’ in unholy places
Oh, Angelina. Oh, Angelina

The arena where gods and people meet is one Leonard Cohen also describes often. In 1984 he released the book Book of Mercy, a fifty-chapter series of mini-narratives describing journeys amid the higher orders of the soul. Fifty is not a random number, representing only the things Bono likes about Dylan. It also contains the stages of the Counting of the Omer--which happens to have a particularly feminine mystical aspect--that bridge between the Israelite exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Here, like Dylan, Cohen describes a meeting with an angelic form on high.

After searching among the words, and never finding ease, I went to you, I asked you to gladden my heart. My prayer divided against itself, I was ashamed to have been deceived again, and bitterly, in the midst of loud defeat, I went out myself to gladden the heart. It was here that I found my will, a fragile thing, starving among ferns and women and snakes. I said to my will, ‘Come, let us make ourselves ready to be touched by the angel of song,’ and suddenly I was once again on the bed of defeat in the middle of the night, begging for mercy, searching among the words. With the two shields of bitterness and hope, I rose up carefully, and I went out of the house to rescue the angel of song from the place where she had chained herself to her nakedness. I covered her nakedness with my will, and we stood in the kingdom that shines toward you, where Adam is mysteriously free, and I searched among the words for words that would not bend the will away from you.

In the blur of faces, creatures, and nakedness both artists also recognize that vividness of images does not necessarily confirm the truth behind an angelic form. This is a classical experience of mystics. Sometimes what remains shielded or what a seeker must avert his or her eyes from--as in Dylan's "I and I" paraphrasing the arrangement between Moses and God that "no one sees me face and lives"--carries the truth both most confounding and indescribable.

This is the "pale ghost retreating/Between the King and the Queen of Swords" in Dylan's "Changing of the Guards" or the unnamed visitor in Cohen's "Who by Fire." This song is based on Jewish liturgy from the Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, in which humans--fasting, refraining from sex, asking for forgiveness from God and each other, and praying all day--are said to be most like angels. After a string of verses tracing human connection and decline, a faceless Grim Reaper wraps on the door as the singer asks, "And who shall I say is calling?"

Journeys and Battles
Joseph Campbell--a generation after Freud and Jung and Durkheim and Weber, big guns of grand theories of humanity that set-up much of what twentieth century humanities talked about--still very much believed in a grand theory that could explain his entire field. After years of ferocious reading of the traditional literature of the world, he presented a popular theory of the core arc of all mythic traditions called monomyth. It looks like this:

The 17 Stages of Joseph Cambell''s Monomyth from www.davidrjolly.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/monomyth.jpg.
All of the songs we have listened to so far carry elements of this seventeen station template of a mythic heroes' journey. But when you jump into the actual journey songs the connection between the interests of Cohen and Dylan and the interests of myth as described by Campbell become even clearer.

Consider "Isis" (and it is worth checking out the lyrics here) which adapts a goddess of the ancient near east for a new tale. Dylan once introduced "Isis" by saying "This is a song about marriage." Maybe so. But Dylan's technique for describing his love is a skillful reshuffling--surely instinctive rather than planned--of nearly all of Campbell's monomythic stations.

Though slightly less sharp in their redeployment of received myths to conjure up new ones, we also listened to "Up to Me"---one of Dylan's best songs which somehow remained unreleased until the Biograph retrospective--and Tryin' to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door. Both feature a lyrical hero like Odysseus, traversing a long and seemingly endless journey over rough terrain, unrecognized for who he is by his low and willing to tough it out alone until he gets back to who he is meant to be.  

For Cohen, there are also many battles and journeys of the mythic kind. In "There Is a War" he calls out every social division from the most intimate to the most broad as a battle in which no person can be a tourist; everyone must be a warrior. "First We Take Manhattan" also plays on a war motif with the phrase "First we take Manhattan/Then we take Berlin" and a litany of violent, provocative imagery. There is a war--cultural and political--that is at the same time intimate. A sister is wronged, a woman is stolen, and a man is imprisoned for trying "to change the system from within." It is intentionally unclear whether "within" indicates the private world of the singer-prisoner or the entire corrupt society that traps him "within" it.

The dialogue of intimacy as a journey is Cohen's mythic specialty, perhaps nowhere more poignant and unfinished as in 1967's "Suzanne."

And Jesus was a sailor 
When he walked upon the water 
And he spent a long time watching 
From his lonely wooden tower 
And when he knew for certain 
Only drowning men could see him 
He said "All men will be sailors then 
Until the sea shall free them" 
But he himself was broken 
Long before the sky would open 
Forsaken, almost human 
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone 
And you want to travel with him 
And you want to travel blind 
And you think maybe you'll trust him 
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind. 

A person's body and fate intermingle with a journey both towards and away from a woman who cannot be obtained. But the comfort of this lonely journey in a lonely song is that the singer is accompanied by someone who has already sailed this voyage and walked this path before--none other than Jesus, perhaps the most compelling and influential mythic figure of the past two thousand years.

Next Up: Places, Sacred Stories and the Law

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