The Transfiguration of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has an interview in Rolling Stone that is confounding some people for bringing back that whole religion thing.  You can’t read it online without a subscription, but David Zahl at Mockingbird posts some highlights:

Do you ever worry that people interpreted your work in misguided ways? For example, some people still see “Rainy Day Women” as coded about getting high.

It doesn’t surprise me that some people would see it that way. But these are people that aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts…

People thought your music spoke to and reflected the 1960s. Do you feel that’s also the case with your music since 1997?

Sure, my music is always speaking to times that are recent. But let’s not forget human nature isn’t bound to any specific time in history. And it always starts with that. My songs are personal music; they’re not communal. I wouldn’t want people singing along with me. It would sound funny. I’m not playing campfire meetings. I don’t remember anyone singing along with Elvis, or Carl Perkins, or Little Richard. The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has..

[When you talk about] transfiguration, you mean it in the sense of being transformed? Or do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?

Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966… Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it’s happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like incarnation–or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future.

So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time…

So live performance is a purpose you find fulfilling?

If you’re not fulfilled in other ways, performing can never make you happy. Performing is something you have to learn how to do. You do it, you get better at it and you keep going. And if you don’t get better at it, you have to give it up. Is it a fulfilling way of life? Well, what kind of way of life is fulfilling? No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed…

You said that you originally wanted to make a more religious album this time–can you tell me more about that?

The songs on Tempest were worked out in rehearsals on stages during soundchecks before live shows. The religious songs maybe I felt were too similar to each other to release as an album. Someplace along the line, I had to go with one or the other, and Tempest is what I went with. I’m still not sure if it was the right decision.

When you say religious songs…

Newly written songs, but one that are traditionally motivated.

More like “Slow Train Coming”?

No. No. Not at all. They’re more like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”…

Has your sense of faith changed?

Certainly it has, o ye of little faith. Who’s to say that I even have any faith or what kind? I see God’s hand in everything. Every person, place and thing, every situation…

Clearly, the language of the Bible still provides imagery in your songs.

Of course, what else could there be? I believe in the Book of Revelation. I believe in disclosure, you know?

There is more at The Transfiguration of Robert Zimmerman, or Just a Closer Walk with Dylan | Mockingbird.

The interview has other revelations, or at least disclosures, about Dylan and his work.  For example, we see that he is still irked at the  folk purists who charged him with betrayal when he started playing an electric guitar:

These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified…

This comment about the relationship between the artist, emotion, and the audience is a revelation:

The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has.

Exactly!  And this is what many would-be artists don’t realize.  Art of whatever kind is not about just vomiting up your inner emotions.  Music, poetry, fiction, acting, painting, film, and other art forms require intense discipline, concentration, and objectivity.  An artist can’t just go up and go berserk in front of an audience.  (Performers who seem to do that are just acting.)  Art does indeed involve emotion, but it isn’t primarily the artist’s.  What all of those objective techniques do “is make people [the audience, the listeners, the readers] feel their own emotions“!

Thanks also to David Zahl for appending this sampler from Dylan’s new album, Tempest:

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Michael B.

    “Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966… Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it’s happened to, or why.”

    In terms of science, psychology is still in its infancy stages. For many of the drugs that are prescribed, scientists have shown they work, but they really don’t understand quite why they work. And it is true that people have these mental experiences that seem to transcend reality. Science doesn’t really recognize these experiences, let alone explain them. Religion on the other hand is great at recognizing and validating these experiences, and I think it’s natural that people turn towards it when they have these experiences.

  • Michael B.

    “Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966… Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it’s happened to, or why.”

    In terms of science, psychology is still in its infancy stages. For many of the drugs that are prescribed, scientists have shown they work, but they really don’t understand quite why they work. And it is true that people have these mental experiences that seem to transcend reality. Science doesn’t really recognize these experiences, let alone explain them. Religion on the other hand is great at recognizing and validating these experiences, and I think it’s natural that people turn towards it when they have these experiences.

  • Pete

    I’m not sure you can ever trust anything Dylan ever says in an interview. He has a long history of testy relations with interviewers although the tone of of some of his more recent ones has been a touch more sincere.

  • Pete

    I’m not sure you can ever trust anything Dylan ever says in an interview. He has a long history of testy relations with interviewers although the tone of of some of his more recent ones has been a touch more sincere.

  • Dan Kempin

    Dr. Veith,

    “Art does indeed involve emotion, but it isn’t primarily the artist’s. What all of those objective techniques do “is make people [the audience, the listeners, the readers] feel their own emotions“!

    Aww, come on, man! Just when I feel that I am beginning to keep up with the conversation about art, you throw me something like this at me and I feel like I am right back as square one!

    If an artist does not express his own emotions, then how can he know what he is expressing? And if a performer, ideally, is some sort of a mirror for the audience, then that just seems creepy. It’s a bit like the annoying type of counsellor who responds to your question by saying, “Well, what do YOU think.”

    This whole notion just makes me feel so frustrated . . . and . . .

    Hey.

    It makes ME feel frustrated. It makes ME feel like I’m back at square one. . .

    Looks like someone is using his literary skill to make the reader “feel his own emotions.” I get it. I . . . I . . . . I feel better now. (There it is again!)

  • Dan Kempin

    Dr. Veith,

    “Art does indeed involve emotion, but it isn’t primarily the artist’s. What all of those objective techniques do “is make people [the audience, the listeners, the readers] feel their own emotions“!

    Aww, come on, man! Just when I feel that I am beginning to keep up with the conversation about art, you throw me something like this at me and I feel like I am right back as square one!

    If an artist does not express his own emotions, then how can he know what he is expressing? And if a performer, ideally, is some sort of a mirror for the audience, then that just seems creepy. It’s a bit like the annoying type of counsellor who responds to your question by saying, “Well, what do YOU think.”

    This whole notion just makes me feel so frustrated . . . and . . .

    Hey.

    It makes ME feel frustrated. It makes ME feel like I’m back at square one. . .

    Looks like someone is using his literary skill to make the reader “feel his own emotions.” I get it. I . . . I . . . . I feel better now. (There it is again!)

  • fjsteve

    Dan,

    I’m not sure about Dr. Veith but I believe Dylan is speaking specifically of paid performance artists. Either way, I don’t necessarily agree, but at least it makes more sense that way.

  • fjsteve

    Dan,

    I’m not sure about Dr. Veith but I believe Dylan is speaking specifically of paid performance artists. Either way, I don’t necessarily agree, but at least it makes more sense that way.

  • dust

    Dan….have you ever seen Dylan’s act? or any other so called performance artist?

    there’s a good reason why the call it an act :)

    cheers!

  • dust

    Dan….have you ever seen Dylan’s act? or any other so called performance artist?

    there’s a good reason why the call it an act :)

    cheers!

  • Steve Bauer

    I think what Dr. Veith is getting at is that the artist focuses on doing his/her all to enhance the truth and beauty that is already in the external work being “performed” rather than using the work as a conduit for his/her own inner state. Of course, he could tell me that I am completely wrong.

  • Steve Bauer

    I think what Dr. Veith is getting at is that the artist focuses on doing his/her all to enhance the truth and beauty that is already in the external work being “performed” rather than using the work as a conduit for his/her own inner state. Of course, he could tell me that I am completely wrong.

  • Cincinnatus

    . . . to enhance the truth and beauty that is already in the external work being “performed”

    Wait, so we’re not talking about Bob Dylan then?

  • Cincinnatus

    . . . to enhance the truth and beauty that is already in the external work being “performed”

    Wait, so we’re not talking about Bob Dylan then?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    I guess I’d say that the artist’s emotions might be material that can be used in the art–building blocks, raw material–but they aren’t the art itself, or even necessarily engaged all that much while the work of art is being created. The 19th century Romantics did more with their own emotion than almost anyone, but the major initiator of that movement, the great William Wordsworth, said that the poet employs “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Not direct emotion, but remembered emotion, and that in a non-emotional “tranquil” state of mind.

    Dan, I do like your metaphor of a mirror, which recalls someone whom Cincinnatus and others might consider more authoritative than Bob Dylan; namely, William Shakespeare, who says something similar about his own art form of drama:

    “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
    special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature:
    for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
    end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
    mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
    image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
    pressure.” Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 17–24

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    I guess I’d say that the artist’s emotions might be material that can be used in the art–building blocks, raw material–but they aren’t the art itself, or even necessarily engaged all that much while the work of art is being created. The 19th century Romantics did more with their own emotion than almost anyone, but the major initiator of that movement, the great William Wordsworth, said that the poet employs “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Not direct emotion, but remembered emotion, and that in a non-emotional “tranquil” state of mind.

    Dan, I do like your metaphor of a mirror, which recalls someone whom Cincinnatus and others might consider more authoritative than Bob Dylan; namely, William Shakespeare, who says something similar about his own art form of drama:

    “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
    special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature:
    for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
    end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
    mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
    image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
    pressure.” Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 17–24

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