Academic disappears up his 'catharshole' over Dylan

By Sean O'Hagen  /  THE OBSERVER

Sun, Sep 21, 2003 - Page 19

Bob Dylan is fast becoming rock's equivalent of James Joyce, his singular and continuing body of work increasingly picked over by academics and biographers.

Last year, for instance, saw the publication of a collection called Do You, Mr. Jones?: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, in which the former, particularly Simon Armitage and Paul Muldoon, made much more sense of Dylan's work than the latter.

This may simply be artistic empathy, or it may be that poets sense what scholars seem to have trouble accepting: Dylan is a singer-songwriter first and foremost. His poetry is contained in the wholeness of his art: the convergence of melody, line, turn of phrase, nuance, drawl, and, famously, electricity. His one book of published prose, the amphetamine-fuelled fragments that make up Tarantula, makes the Beats look disciplined and restrained.

Interestingly, Christopher Ricks, formerly professor of English at Cambridge, now professor of humanities at Boston, is conspicuous by his absence from that last volume. Which is odd considering that he is, with the American, Greil Marcus, the academic most associated with Dylan. Indeed, he was the brain behind the "Is Dylan Better Than Keats?" faux debate more than a decade ago, on Dylan's lyrics, and which splutters on from time to time, usually when Dylan finds himself the bemused recipient of yet another honorary doctorate.

The Dylan/Keats question could only have been asked by an academic and it forms the unstated subtext of Ricks's grandly titled book, Dylan's Visions of Sin. Here, he attempts to scrutinize Dylan's lyrics in the same way that he would scrutinize Keats's poetry. For the purposes of this book, then, Dylan is first and foremost, a poet.

It begins with an epigraph, not by Rimbaud, the patron saint of rock n' roll visionaries, but by Kingsley Amis, whose only possible connection to Dylan is that he, too, made an art of extreme contrariness in the latter stages of his career. "Of the seven deadly sins," Amis senior writes, "Roger considered himself qualified in gluttony, sloth and lust but distinguished in anger."

The quote, from One Fat Englishman, handily introduces Ricks' conceit, which is to use the model of the Seven Deadly Sins, and, indeed, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Heavenly Graces, as the guiding principle for his study of Dylan's lyrics. Already, though, we are on shaky ground. The Amis quote suggests, wrongly in my opinion, that anger is Dylan's main creative driving force, rather than, say, disgust, of which he is a master, or spite, which, as Positively 4th Street illustrates, he once excelled at, or world weariness, which underpins much of his later work from, say, 1989's No Mercy album to the relentlessly downbeat, Time Out of Mind, from 1997.

Nevertheless, sin, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, is a great linch-pin for an investigation of Dylan's great songwriting adventure. His songs, even those from his protest period, are steeped in biblical allusion. In his second great creative rebirth, he emerged with 1968's austere and allegorical John Wesley Harding, written with the Bible and the Hank Williams' Song Book as its guiding principles. In the years since, he has dallied with both orthodox Judaism and, more problematically, evangelical Christianity, most dramatically on 1979's ragged and vengeful Slow Train Coming, the first of his triumvirate of "born-again" albums.

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.