Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Review of “Tragedy and City” – Deborah Boedeker and Kurt Raaflaub

pages 109-127 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author(s) Blurb

Deborah Boedeker is Professor of Classics at Brown University. Her research focuses on archaic and classical Greek religion, poetry, historiography, and especially the confluences among these areas. Recent publications include essays on Euripides, Herodotus, Simonides, and Sappho, as well as a number of edited volumes, including Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens (1998, with Kurt A. Raaflaub) and The New Simonides: Contexts of Praise and Desire (2001, with David Sider).

Kurt Raaflaub is David Herlihy University Professor, Professor of Classics and History, and Director of the Program in Ancient Studies at Brown University. His main areas of interests are the social, political, and intellectual history of archaic and classical Greece and the Roman Republic. His most recent publications include The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece (2004), an edited volume of War and Peace in the Ancient World (2007), with Josiah Ober and Robert Wallace. He is currently working on a history of early Greek political thought in its Mediterranean context.

“Tragedy and City”

In the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, political interpretations of Greek tragedy were the rage. Aeschylus’ tragedy Suppliants (from 462 BC and set in Argos) says something, scholars argued, about Athens’ political ties with Argos. Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus rex (set during a plague in Thebes) says something, scholars argued, about the plague of 430 BC in Athens “The character Oedipus,” they said, “is based on the Athenian statesman Pericles.” Some scholars went so far as to claim that tragedians would advocate specific political policies through their plays.

In this article, Boedeker and Raaflaub argue that these political interpretations derive their authority from the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes’ 405 BC hit Frogs. In Frogs, the god Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back a tragic poet to save the city: “I came down here for a poet … so that the city may survive and keep presenting its choral festivals. So whichever of you is going to give the city some good advice, that’s the one I think I will bring back.” By “whichever of you,” Dionysus refers to Aeschylus and Euripides, who proceed to argue over who benefitted Athens more (Sophocles is also in Hades at this point, but the competition is beneath his dignity). Scholars cite this duel as evidence of tragedy’s political function.

While allowing that tragedy has a civic function, Boedeker and Raaflaub suggest a middle ground in this article:

We maintain [that] the plays generally were not created to support or oppose a specific person, policy, or decision. Whatever he may have thought personally about such issues, in our judgment Aeschylus’ purpose in Eumenides was not primarily to recommend a treaty with Argos [in Suppliants] or the restoration of the Areopagus Council’s powers [in Eumenides].

Plays would explore political themes, but would stop short of advocating one standpoint over another. A good example Boedeker and Raaflaub cite is Aeschylus’ tragedy Persians. The tragedy dramatizes the aftereffects of the Battle of Salamis from the Persian perspective: it is a grievous loss. The cause of the loss is Xerxes’ hubris in bridging the Hellespont to join Asia and Europe, two land masses nature had ordained in her unwritten laws to keep apart. While the play is conventionally read as a patriotic piece celebrating Athens’ victory, Boedeker and Raaflaub ask: does the play have a tacit political purpose? In 472 BC, Athens was trespassing in the other direction into Asia, attempting to take control of the Anatolian coast. The play, while not advocating foreign policy, asks the Athenians to consider their actions in light of Xerxes’ trespass in a subtle, unspoken manner.

The Process of Artistic Creation

Classicists are gifted in analysis. They come up with their conclusions and support their arguments after long and careful deliberation. They pick their words carefully and precisely. When they see artists use political terms or language in their works, classicists ascribe to the artists this same level of analysis and precision. If a poet, for example, writes about a political decree, the poet must have a position on what it takes to formulate decrees. If the poet writes about decrees, the poet has thought about decrees the same way a classicist would have, were the classicist to have published an article on decrees. Nothing is chance. Innuendoes in the text are deliberate. But is this the case?

What Boedeker and Raaflaub argue, and I think that it is an excellent point, is that this isn’t necessarily the case. Why? The answer is simple: poets and creative writers are not classicists. In fact, poets and creative writers are quite the opposite. They write under inspiration from the Muses. Some of the time, the idea comes to the artists so quick that they can’t jot it down fast enough, and what they’ve left unwritten is forgotten. Inspiration is like that dream you had this morning when you said: “That was so vivid, I will never forget it.”

But then, why do the writers and poets so frequently talk about politics or contemporary events? The reason is that it’s in the air. As they work on their creations, the things they hear on the streets, in the barbershops, and at the markets get incorporated into their works. In addition to asking classicists and philosophers what works of art mean, we can also ask the artists how they create. This gives us a valuable second opinion. In a 2017 interview with Bill Flanagan, artist Bob Dylan talks about how he incorporates everyday experiences into his works:

You could have some monstrous vision, or a perplexing idea that you can’t quite get down, can’t handle the theme. But then you’ll see a newspaper clipping or a billboard sign, or a paragraph from an old Dickens novel, or you’ll hear some line from another song, or something you might overhear somebody say just might be something in your mind that you didn’t know you remembered. That will give you the point of approach and specific details. It’s like you’re sleepwalking, not searching or seeking; things are transmitted to you.

Are tragedians writing plays with hidden political meanings for future classicists to examine? Dylan also offers scholars a word of warning in his 2016 Nobel Prize speech:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

This goes to show, if you ask a classicist whether a play has a political dimension, the classicist will answer as though the playwright were a classicist. But if you ask an artist if a play has a political dimension, the playwright might answer different.

The moral of this story is that we measure others with the same scales we measure ourselves. This works if “We” is equal to “Them.” But if it is “Us” and “Them,” then, when we measure them as if they were us, misunderstandings arise. Perhaps what we really need is a classicist who is also an artist.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

PS this has been a fun review to write: I was a student of both Boedeker and Raaflaub (a husband and wife team), and, additionally had a chance to help TA one of Raaflaub’s Roman History classes. What an amazing experience those Brown years were. The glory days where I stood shoulder to shoulder with the giants. Sometimes I have to shake my head to believe I was actually there, it was so much like a dream.

Review of WHY BOB DYLAN MATTERS – Richard F. Thomas

2017, HarperCollins, 358 pages

Book Blurb

Classics professor and renowned Dylanologist Richard F. Thomas makes a compelling case for moving the iconic singer-songwriter out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and into the pantheon of classical poets, based on his wildly popular Bob Dylan seminar at Harvard.

Author Blurb

Richard F. Thomas is the George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard University, a Bob Dylan expert, and the creator of a freshman seminar at Harvard on Bob Dylan. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Dylan and Transfiguration

In a 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore, Dylan says: “I went to a library in Rome and I found a book on transfiguration.” This is one of the most interesting points in the book, as Dylan never makes it clear what transfiguration actually is. The dictionary definition of transfiguration reads:

transfiguration: 1) The dazzling change in the appearance of Jesus when on a mountain with three of his disciples (Matthew: 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36); a picture or representation of this. Also, the church festival commemorating this event, observed on 6 August. 2) The action of transfiguring or state of being transfigured; metamorphosis.

Dylan tells Gilmore that he’s been transfigured, but when asked what he means by transfiguration, Dylan is characteristically recalcitrant. Instead, he gets Gilmore to read some passages out of Ralph “Sonny” Barger’s book–cowritten by Keith and Kent Zimmerman–Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. The pages Dylan has Gilmore read concern the motorcycle death of a Bobby Zimmerman.

The interesting thing is that Bob Dylan was born Bob Zimmerman. And like the Bobby Zimmerman of the book, Dylan too had a horrific motorcycle accident in Woodstock. A puzzled Gilmore then asks Dylan: “Are you saying that you really can’t be known?” Dylan replies enigmatically:

Nobody knows nothing [of course Dylan is a fan of the double negative]. Who knows who’s been transfigured and who has not? Who knows? Maybe Aristotle? Maybe he was transfigured? I can’t say. Maybe Julius Caesar was transfigured. I have no idea. Maybe Shakespeare. Maybe Dante. Maybe Napoleon. Maybe Churchill. You just never know because it doesn’t figure into the history books. That’s all I’m saying.

Gilmore presses further, and, like Iago in the Shakespeare play, all Dylan says in response is: “I only know what I told you. You’ll have to go and do the work yourself to find out what it’s about.”

If I were to hazard a guess, Dylan has a powerful imagination. Most people, when they listen to a folk song, they don’t hear or understand the words. They just like the music. Then they’re those people who are more analytic. They hear and understand the words. On the next level up, there are the people like Thomas, Harvard professors who analyze the words and their meaning. Then there are the few who become part of the tradition. Their imaginations are so powerful, they enter and live out and are part of the songs they sing. Transfiguration, if I were to hazard a guess, is Dylan taking on the personae of the people and places he sings about. It’s a process of metamorphosis.

If you ask Dylan, he wasn’t born in Minnesota. He was born in Rome. And he had the wrong parents. What is more, he wasn’t born Bob Dylan. He was born Robert Zimmerman. One of his favourite lines from Rimbaud is: “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”). In a Halloween performance, he tells the audience that he’s wearing his Bob Dylan mask. He has a fluid personality that he reinvents. Perhaps “he” even is too concrete a word for a man who sings, in a song released a few weeks ago, that “I contain multitudes.”

When Dylan saw Buddy Holly a few days before the plane crash, he recalled that:

Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.

Compare this to what Dylan said decades later in 1997, after the release of his comeback album Time out of Mind: “On some night when lightning strikes, the gift was given back to me and I knew it … the essence was back.” And then compare that to how he describes his songs as something “that has been there for thousands of years, sailing around in the mist, and one day I just tuned into it.” There is no Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is a conduit, a lightning rod for the Muse of song that sometimes comes to him and sometimes deserts him. When Dylan says “transfiguration,” he means that the Muse has come to him, inspiring him to take on the spirit that once moved Homer, Virgil, Dante, Woody Guthrie, and the other singer of tales.

The songs that Dylan sings have a life of their own. Through the centuries, they find different hosts: one time they would find expression through Ovid, another time through Dante. In these modern times, they speak through Dylan. When Dylan says he’s transfigured, I take it to mean that he’s taken on the persona through which the tradition can speak out. In the 60s he was the folk singer, the original hobo. In the 70s he became the rock star. In the 80s he became the preacher. In the 90s he went back to his storytelling roots. And most recently, he’s been the mouthpiece of the Great American Songbook. Each time he changes, that’s when he’s transfigured and infused with a new jolt of energy just like that time when Buddy Holly zapped him in the 60s or in the 90s when lightning struck and the gift was given back.

I say all this about transfiguration because I’ve experienced it as well, once. I was in my early twenties. I found a book about transfiguration. There actually is no such book. But there are books that can transfigure you, and I think that that’s what happened to Dylan in Rome: he found a book he felt such an affinity towards it changed his life. The book that transfigured me was Homer’s Iliad.

I read the book in three days. Skipped out of my college classes. Didn’t eat. Didn’t sleep. Everything in it made sense to me. I grasped it all at once, and intuitively. Homer relates in the book how everything happens over and over, how the heroes duel again and again in an eerily similar sequence. I got it all: the power of fate, even over the gods. It all clicked: the fatalistic heroes who were caught in the hierarchical power of the heroic code, a zero-sum game. “When my time comes,” they say, “I’ll breathe my last. But until that time comes, I am.” I was struck by the theodicy of the poem: we suffer to become a song for the singers of the future. I was transfigured, transported into a heroic world that had more sense than today’s wild world.

When we are transfigured, we enter into the world of literature or the world of the song. But there is no point explaining the experience of transfiguration to the non-believers. The non-believers will say we cannot experience what has happened so long ago: the long ago was stranger than we think. We can only experience what we thought it was like. But Dylan, I argue, would say different. At the end of the song “Duquesne Whistle,” he tells us that we come back again and again in an eternal recurrence:

The lights of my native land are glowin’

I wonder if they’ll know me next time around

I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing

That old oak tree, the one we used to climb.

I’ll see you down the road, the next time you come around. It could be tomorrow or a thousand years from now. Homer, Achilles, Dylan, Catullus, and the Jack of Hearts are all incarnations of their underlying forms and archetypes. They have been, and will be, again and again, transfiguring and metamorphosing in an unbroken dance.

Why Bob Dylan Matters

“Why Classics matter” has been a rallying cry in Classics departments for some time now, so it’s of little surprise that a classicist would call his book on Bob Dylan Why Bob Dylan Matters. In the words of Thomas:

This is also a book about how Dylan’s genius has long been informed by the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and why the classics of those days matter to him and should matter to all of us interested in the humanities. We live in a world and an age in which the humanities–the study of the best that the human mind has risen to in art, music, writing, and performance–are being asked to justify their existence, are losing funding, or are in danger of losing funding. At the same time, those arts seem more vital than ever in terms of what they can teach us about how to live meaningful lives.

I’ve always been of two minds when I see the question framed in this way: “Why the Classics matter,” “Why religion matters,” “Why the humanities are important,” and so on. In one way, I see that it’s a natural question to ask, and one that will draw viewers. But in another way, I don’t like the question, because it’s asked from a standpoint of weakness. In ages where the Classics, religion, and the humanities were strong, no one would frame the question that way. Their importance would be axiomatic. No justification required. So the book title, while appealing in one way, is distasteful in another in that it presupposes that Bob Dylan–like the Classics, religion, and other institutions under fire of late–needed the help of academics. Bob Dylan is just doing fine.

Painting Blood on the Tracks

There isn’t enough material on Bob Dylan’s affinity with the Classics to fill an entire volume. Thomas gets around this by integrating his own growing fascination with Dylan over the years into the book’s narrative. Thomas was born in 1950. Dylan, born in 1941, was nine years his senior, the right age to have influenced young Thomas. For example, Dylan’s first original album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan would have come out when Thomas was thirteen. That’s about the right age when your ears are alert for brave new songs to follow.

Some of these non-Classical asides are gems. When talking about Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, Thomas quotes Dylan giving props to a painting teacher he had found in New York in 1974:

I was convinced I wasn’t going to do anything else, and I had the good fortune to meet a man in New York City who taught me how to see. He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt . . . when I started doing it the first album I made was Blood on the Tracks.

To illustrate the principles of fine arts in songwriting, Thomas quotes the lyrics of “Simple Twist of Fate:”

A saxophone someplace far off played

As she was walkin’ by the arcade

As the light bust through a beat-up shade where he was wakin’ up

She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate

And forgot about a simple twist of fate.

The Hibbing High Years

Did you know Dylan, then called Robert Zimmerman, grew up in small town Minnesota? He was born in Duluth and grew up in Hibbing, where he attended Hibbing High. As you would expect, Thomas covers Dylan’s membership in the Hibbing High Latin club as well as the escapist sword and sandal movies popular at this time. While Hibbing lacked many of the cultural perquisites of future world-historical figures, it gave Dylan two things: a performance venue at the Hibbing High auditorium–a gorgeous 1805 capacity facility where he would play with his band The Shadow Blasters–and a desire to get out. Dylan would later capture his boyhood memories in song:

They all got out of here any way they could

The cold rain can give you the shivers

They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee

All the rest of them rebel rivers.

The Mesabi iron range–one of the world’s largest open pit mines–was a source of wealth in Minnesota, and one of the reasons why Hibbing High had such a grand auditorium. The mine must be awe-inspiring: it is also a topic in one of Springsteen’s songs of desolation “Youngstown.”

Dylan and Catullus

One of Thomas’ aims is to discuss not so much Dylan’s direct allusions to the writers of antiquity but rather the techniques of storytelling Dylan uses that go back to the ancient writers. One of my favourite points of discussion was how the Roman poet Catullus and Dylan use similar techniques. Thomas compares, for example Catullus poem 11:

You who are ready to try out

whatever the will of the gods will bring

Take a brief message to my old girlfriend

words that she won’t like.

Let her live and be well with her three hundred lovers,

Not really truly loving them

but screwing them again and again.

to Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello:”

If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier

She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear

Say for me that I’m alright though things get kind of slow

She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so.

From the 1st century BC to 1975, the poem is a messenger. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Closing Thoughts

The aim of the book was to connect Dylan with the pantheon of classical poets. One question the book left me with: does Harvard Classics professor Richard F. Thomas perhaps enjoy Dylan even more than the classical poets? Perhaps…

There’s more to Thomas’ book than what I’ve described. He goes into Dylan’s set lists, Dylan’s affinity with the road-weary Greek hero Odysseus, and Dylan’s Nobel Prize. This is a book that I’ll be rereading down the road. Would that all books by Harvard professors were such a delight.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.