Sun, Sep 21, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Academic disappears up his 'catharshole' over Dylan

By Sean O'Hagen  /  THE OBSERVER

Given the deep well he has to draw from, why is Ricks' book such a frustrating read? Why, to put it bluntly, is it such a mess? The answer, I think, is contained in the opening lines, perhaps the least inviting introduction to a book on music I have yet read: "Any qualified critic to any distinguished artist: All I really want to do is -- what exactly? Be friends with you? Assuredly. I don't want to do you in, or select you or dissect you or inspect you or reject you."

What is wrong with that opening paragraph is what is wrong with this big, misguided book: it is too knowing, too clever, too clumsily conversational. Its tone lies somewhere between academese and what I suspect the author thinks of as casually hip. It assumes too much -- about the casual or curious reader's knowledge of Dylan's lyrics -- and imparts too little. Not a great start for a book of scholarship.

This scatter-gun approach is defeating in itself, but worse still is the style. Ricks quotes, for example, an uncharacteristically forthcoming Dylan on the writing of Positively Fourth Street, which the singer says "is extremely one-dimensional ... I don't usually purge myself by writing anything about any type of quote, so-called, relationships."

From this fragment of illumination, Ricks then constructs a

thicket of academic obfuscation. "Two-dimensional, not-one dimensional, this Fourth Street, and although one-sided, it is two-edged, a two-handed engine that stands ready to smite more than once and smite some more ... catharsis, the ancient critical metaphor, in Dylan's phrase, `purge myself,' would be one way of getting rid of the catharsole and of the waste matter that is pretence."

"Tragedy makes you cathart" Oh, how we chuckled. I mean, I know academics are retiring types, but does this guy ever leave the study? This kind of thing was embarrassing when Leavis ruled the roost in lit-crit studies; now, misapplied to a popular artist, it is simply risible. Indeed, Ricks is in danger throughout of making a complete catharshole of himself.

The writing of this book was, I'm told, a labor of love and, as such, I am pained to point out how defeated I was by its ungainly style. Perhaps it's an academic trait, but Ricks seems unable, or unwilling, to write clearly for the "common reader.

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