Sunday, January 2, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

Sean Wilentz, in his new book Dylan in America, writes the following: "Anyone interested in Dylan’s body of work must face the challenge of owning its paradoxical combination of tradition and defiance." I love this statement, especially the "paradoxical combination of tradition and defiance" bit. As I noted in my last post on preaching, a vivid, living voice always combines both strong elements of continuity and discontinuity. There has to be both traditional and subversive elements. I like Wilentz's choice of the word defiance in this regard.

We have no choice about the tradition part. None of us are born free of the moments or movements that come before us. Some of us live under the illusion of being the first human (e.g. Alexander Campbell's desire to read Scripture as if no one had ever read it before), but I would argue that those persons who are tagged with the adjective "original" are often those most acutely aware of how they stand in relation to what has come before. In fact, what is new is often not the evasion or usurping of the old, but the fusing of various traditions.

What we do have some say about is our relationship to the traditions we receive given our level of awareness. Some of us are content to stay within the smooth banks of what has been handed to us. Though even this represents some form of change, since we never do the same thing in the exact same situation--we never wade into the same stream, it is always moving. The meaning of the event, even for those content with simply mimicking, is therefore never the same. One can never go home.

Using some of the same logic, the decision to be subversive or "defiant" is also ironically what keeps a tradition vital and alive. Subversiveness extends the life of a category. And Dylan does this well. Even when Dylan "plugged in," he still saw himself extending the musical influences that had brought him to that moment. According to Wiletz, he is acutely aware of himself as a minstrel, a vaudevillean, a troubador. He is keeping these traditions alive by blending them, bending them, and even defying them. He is original precisely because he is so vitally aware of various historical streams.

So, here's my hypothesis: the more thickly construed one's sense of the world inherited, the more articulated that sense is, the greater the possibilities for creativity, for newness, for originality. More, the greater we understand how we have been thrown into the reality we now occupy, the more likely our acts of defiance and subversion will be life giving.

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