Music

Wednesday Mini Book Review: Bob Dylan and Philosophy

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With enough time to assemble a backlog of recently published books I've finished, the Wednesday mini book review is back.

Bob Dylan and Philosophy , edited by Carl Porter and Peter Vernezze (Open Court, 2006). There's a grimly relentless series of these "[Pop Culture Item] and Philosophy" books from Open Court. This is the first that hit my own pleasure/obsession zone close enough that I bothered to check one out (Check this list). I doubt I'll be returning. The book is a collection of philosophy professors, most without many books for laymen of their own behind them, doing what the title I guess makes so concise and so clear: relating Dylan's views of love in Planet Waves to those in Plato's Symposium, and Kierkegaard and Camus' existentialism to latter-day Dylan lyrics; musing over Dylan's implicit theories of moral agency (what will all that "pawns in their game" guff); explaining how Dylan's social vision shifted from the Enlightenment to postmodernism (more popularly read as his retreat from polico-social commitment post-1965); and, my favorite, an extended analysis of "Man Gave Names to All The Animals" as Dylan's attempts to reclaim the holy power of logos.

Most of it, though, is pretty tedious matching of interpretations of Dylan lines with interpretations of philosophers. While temporarily amusing to those obsessed with thinking about Dylan (and here I cannot be fool enough to protect my real identity), it's the kind of fanboy pleasure that's pretty indulgent and empty-calorie intellectually. The essays generally just circle around, discoursing ramblingly, striking one as people pretending that they're so smart, bringing nothing particular to the table in terms of surprise or wit or, Dylan forbid, wisdom. It's all redolent of a bit too much useless and pointless knowledge.

Perhaps counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of my thoughts, but I believe I say this, not out of spite or anger, but simply because it's true. (Although, as Michael Chiariello notes in this book, to understand "truth" in Dylanesque terms requires "a consistent way to maintain the ideal of objective truth as the standard of belief without denying uncertainty or the freedom to change one's mind. I would venture that the position outlined by Sextus [Empiricus] provides us with one such view." So, there you go. Now is the time for your tears.)

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  1. Why bother? There is no truth outside the gates of Eden.

  2. How about writing a “Mark E. Smith and Philosophy” book, Brian?

  3. This strikes me as exactly the kind of book that Dylan would scoff at.
    I’m a pretty big fan, but I’ve never understood the people who try to find some deeper meaning in his lyrics. I think a lot of them are just nonsense. Nonsense that conjures up some cool images, but nonsense just the same.

  4. Agreed, Dylan.
    Hey, you’re not THAT Dylan, are you?

  5. JasonC –

    Yup.

    Dylan McKay at your service.

  6. You were such a rebel on 90210.

  7. I’ve always admired Reason‘s skillful readiness to break down the false dichotomy between “high” and “low” culture. I respect Doherty’s honesty in admitting that this particular experiment in bridging the gap bored him. But if interpreting Bob Dylan’s work is “the kind of fanboy pleasure that’s pretty indulgent and empty-calorie intellectually,” then Reasonoids must say pretty much the same thing about interpretations of Shakespeare and Beethoven (as opposed to Shakespeare and Beethoven themselves, that is).

  8. Thanks to Doherty’s mini-review, I may have to re-read Oscar Wilde’s platonic dialogue “The Critic as Artist.”

  9. The best thing about these books is that they finally give a definitive answer to the question “What could be a greater waste of time than contemporary academic philosophy?”

    On the other hand, it’s a gig for young scholars and faculty fanboys, so WTF. In that vein, we should recommend new titles.

    How about “Reality Television and Philosophy: What Is Reality?”

    “Game Shows and Philosophy: How Would von Neumann Play Survivor?”

    “Paris Hilton and Philosophy: Existential Inauthenticity Reexamined”

    And, of course, “URKOBOLD & Philosophy: The concept “”troll is not a concept” (A little Frege humor in honor of the Germanic motif.)

    Etc, etc. I’m sure others can do better.

  10. Mr. Sorgatz–Not at all. I’ve found some interpretive writings on Dylan–Michael Gray’s and Paul Williams’ come to mind–to bring enough erudition, insight, writing skill, and wit to bear on the topic that I could honestly recommend them to any intelligent reader. It’s just that this particular collection of interpretive writings on Dylan for the most part have none of those things, and provide ONLY the pleasure of “I’m reading about Dylan, and I sure do love my Dylan.”

  11. I’ve read several of Open Court’s and Blackwell’s “Philosophy and Pop Culture” books, and they’re definitely hit-or-miss, but I usually find at least one or two papers in each one that makes it worthwhile. Shameless plug, I wrote about these books in my newspaper column back in April. (Of course, I haven’t read the Dylan book, which doesn’t interest me in the slightest.)

  12. Most of it, though, is pretty tedious matching of interpretations of Dylan lines with interpretations of philosophers.

    The “U2 and Philosophy” book was the same.

  13. There’s a retired businessman named Red, cast down from heaven and he’s out of his head
    He feeds off of everyone that he can touch
    He said he only deals in cash or sells tickets to a plane crash
    He’s not somebody that you play around with much
    Miss Delilah is his, a Philistine is what she is
    She’ll do wondrous works with your fate
    Feed you coconut bread, spice buns in your bed
    If you don’t mind sleepin’ with your head face down in a grave.

    Well, there ain’t no goin’ back when your foot of pride come down
    Ain’t no goin’ back

  14. I like Fidel Castro and his beard.

  15. Dylan’s deeper meanin’ for that ex-best-friend that you wouldn’t spit on the best part of. Divinely inspired.

    I wish that for just one time
    You could stand inside my shoes
    And just for that one moment
    I could be you

    Yes, I wish that for just one time
    You could stand inside my shoes
    You’d know what a drag it is
    To see you

  16. Brian, As with wine, I am but a simple Commonsewer of Dylan’s music. I like it.

    Therefore, I appreciate the connoisseur you are and the great stuff you put up about Dylan.

  17. Brian Doherty,

    I read both Buffy The Vampire Slayer And Philosophy and The Matrix and Philosophy. For someone not familiar with say the “brain in the vat” notion which undergirds at least the first Matrix film they are probably good introductory texts to some of the major problems associated with philosophy.

  18. D.A.R.,

    The best thing about these books is that they finally give a definitive answer to the question “What could be a greater waste of time than contemporary academic philosophy?”

    Don’t you think that is a little harsh?

  19. Speaking of the ever popular brain-in-the-vat, here is your final exam question. No cheating!

  20. Yep, Dylan had some good lines. Then he also wrote lines like, “Dogs run free, why can’t we?”

    Why not a Britney Spears and philosophy book?

  21. Grotius, yes, but only a little. Besides, I am unconvinced philosophically that there is anything wrong about wasting time.

  22. DAR, I didn’t even have to read that b4 LOL.

  23. I am unconvinced philosophically that there is anything wrong about wasting time.

    Time is one thing I’ve got plenty of.

  24. Maybe the treatment of Dylan by Christopher Ricks is better?

    http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/profile/story/0,11109,1259480,00.html

  25. I read the introduction and maybe the first article in the Matrix and Philosophy book at Half-Price Books one evening. I enjoyed the talk of Socrates and stuff, which was novel and curious to me. I would categorize most of the line as light perusing material while at the store, but not to take home.

  26. I read the book and found it quite amusing. The funniest thing was in the credits at the end where the authors of the essays were identified under the heading: “The Mongrel Dogs”. Philosophers DO have a sense of humor!

    (P.S. I was a philosophy major in college.)

  27. Bob F’in (act like its the expletive) Dylan.

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