Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Handfuls of rain: Bob Dylan, female objectification and the nuances of the male experience

One of the themes of Bob Dylan's seminal album Blonde on Blonde, is the idealisation of women, as a form of self-transcendence. But before anyone jumps into defensiveness and misinterpretation, it has to be said that this idealisation is not objectification. At least, it is not like objectification in the sense denigration, or reducing individuals to pieces of meat. On the contrary, the album is full of nuance and vulnerability, the various voices occupying a tentative helplessness, despite the bravado and bitterness that voice hides behind. 
Beauty and truth: Bob Dylan's treatment of human relationships far outclasses most of the material dealing with similar issues in contemporary popular music 

Just Like A Woman is often brandished by semi-educated feminists as an example of objectification, a dig at female empowerment. They seem to think it is everything that the Beyonces of this world are supposed to be ranging against. It's viewed as a kind of sexist reactionary outburst. 

That interpretation is as wildly off the mark as saying that Springsteen's Born In the USA is an endorsement of Reaganite foreign policy, or that Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs is an idealisation of the 'boys' club' mentality. 

In all these convenient misinterprations, you find there's something missing. An irony, or even satire in the poetic voice being employed. In the case of Dylan, the voice is so ironic as to be self-hating. 

Just Like A Woman famously opens with 'Nobody feels any pain..'. And as Robert Shelton pointed out in his brilliant biography/musicological study of Dylan, the song proceeds to detail impossible hurts , elusive nostaligias for instances that may or may not have happened, vagueries of emotions and, above all, disappointments. But is the 'woman' to be blamed for her disappointing her lover? Or is it the lover herself? Is this really about a woman at all? Could it be, as is more likely, an examination of the masculine assumptions about what constitutes a woman? 

The truth is probably more abstract than even that. The song is about a person, regardless of gender, making an about turn and facing up to the role their own lies have had on the fall-out of a relationship. No one is guilty, but everyone is to blame, and this is the running theme of the whole album. 
So many times we enter into the blandness of a 'you said this, and I did this, and you hurt me and you were such a cruel fucker but then so was I and I now realise my role here' headspace. 

These tales are not real events, they are the refractions of a consciousness waking up to itself. The moments of truth that the lies we tell ourselves eventually bring about. 

The three masterpieces of this album, Stuck Inside of Mobile, Visions of Johanna, and Sad Eyed Lady, are all songs about transcendence and idealisation. In all of these songs, even 'Mobile', you get a refrain of longing, an appeal of the broken courtier, begging for a woman's love as if that will offer some kind of redemption. 

If ever there was a poet who understood the ironies of his own romanticism, it was Dylan. 'Ohhh maaaamaa, caaan thiiis reeeeally be the eaaaannd?...'

Yes, the poetic voice knows the futility of this appeal, and indeed of longing for an ideal mother figure to bail you out of existential ridicule and redeem humanity's loss of meaning. 
In Visions of Johanna, the same longing is examined more painstakingly. In this song, the need for transcendence is not satirised, so much as explored. The poet's 'visions' are at once sustaining, as well as being the source of of his stasis and heartache. The song is as much about idealism and hope, as it is about women, and femininity. 

It also brings out of the unmentionables of male sexuality. The longing for death in life, for immortality through lifelessness. The way that sexuality can easily usurp religion as a quest for meaning and completion and the horrors of giving in to that very temptation.  

Drawings: Women as 'power figures'
The longing itself, however, is not a purely negative thing. The poet's sustenance is in the desire for transcendence itself, rather than the actual achievement of transcendence. In this song, Dylan hits on the subtle irony of male sexuality, one that we all know intuitively. That desire is exhilarating for its own sake, and that fulfillment of of our desires is nothing compared to the experience of that hope and promise and mystery our desire affords us. 

The searching, the yearning and, yes even the rejection and depression, are the fruits that nourish us. Not only is this the cruelest of truths, it is the very foundation of poetic beauty. 
The 'Johanna' of the poet's visions, is a similar motif to the Grecian Urn of Keats's famous ode. She is unreachable. She's more than just a woman she's the manifestation of a life force. She's Whitman's 'procreant urge.' 

One of the more tiresome and repetitive critiques that comes from the half-witted pseudo-feminist pedaled into popular culture through MTV gender politics, is the idea that every time a male poet or artist raises a particular woman, or idea of a woman up, it is necessarily a form of oppressive objectification. 
This is misandry at its most acutest, because it fails to offer any multi-dimensionality  to understand the masculine experience. The kinds of women that riff on male sexuality in this way hide only ignorance behind their prolific harping. It's an insult and it is dangerous and, ironically, objectifies men in far more abusive ways that the very men they profess to be criticising. Objectification by nature, removes the inner experience from a person. It obliterates the personal and subjective from the public dialogue. 

Archaic notions of female beauty do this in order to enslave feminine sexuality. But now, post-feminism, which is an economic default ideology, rather than a movement, is doing it to men. 

Dylan's 'Johanna' is beauty itself. It has nothing to do with any particular woman, nor is it even the ideal of the Goddess. The Gravesian idealism is brought into the song through the Madonna, and the Mona Lisa 'with the highway blues' in her smile. And as you know, she 'still has not showed.' 

'Johanna' on the other hand, is the poet's own femininity, the female locked inside of him. The longing he feels is for the expression of a femininity that cannot be expressed. In that sense, 'Johanna' is anything but objectification. If she symbolises anything at all, which she really does not, it would be the poet's own battle against objectifying himself. His own yearning for authenticity. That this yearning is for a female, only goes to show the poet's impossible desire of transcending his sexuality and his gender. 

Crude and simplistic and self-serving feminist criticisms have no place here. Such critiques are really just forms of hatred, and a resentment of men. In Dylan's song, the longing is so starkly a longing directed inward. It's the opposite of objectification, it's the Keatsian imperative of preserving the integrity of the subjective experience, and of holding onto it for dear life, regardless of the pain and heartbreak that comes with it. 
Sad Eyed Lady, is really much more straight forward. It's a basic love song, stretched to its absolute limits. However, the song is also a counter-example to narrow minded false-feminist reductionism about male sexuality. 

Rather than idealising the Dark Lady, Dylan is reacting out to her, professing vulnerability and trying to place himself as a potential lover in such a way that shows him in a different light from all the inauthentic Kings and Paupers and Losers that populate the song. The refrain is mysterious and comes in broad strokes. But perhaps its meaning is simple. It is the poet, despite the flower lyricism of the song, promising to set aside his baggage, his past, his bravado, his masculine triumphalism, in order to prove his loyalty and his worthiness as a faithful fellow traveller. 

Each verse focuses on the Sad Eyed Ladies durability, the sustaining quality of her soul. Her strength. This is not a testmament to female beauty. It's not about sexuality. It's a song about a man who has been stopped in his tracks by the graceful humanity of a woman, and who simply has to admit to himself and her, that he needs her. 

What does he need? He needs her strength and her grace. That is, he needs her ability to face the slings and arrows, the cruelty of life, and her ability to do all that with quiet dignity. His longing for her love and companionship, is an implicit admission of his vulnerability and his limitations. 

He needs her, but not to fulfill his ego. Not as a trinket. Not as a token. Where shall he leave his Arabian drum? He will not chase. He will not climb Rapunzal's tower. He will not perform any masculine gymnastics, like the rest of Penelope's pathetic suitors. He'll simply stand guard and wait, if that's what it takes. 

The song is really about love in the truest sense. That is, a love born out of the deepest human respect and loyalty. The kind of love where the lover sees him or herself in the other, but recognises that the one they love is perhaps more successful, and stronger in their ability live with life's curses. 

When we look at the glory of a sunset, do we idealise that sunset? Or do we simply abandon ourselves to it? To admire the beauty of something is not to cheapen it, especially if that which we admire and love, gives us something sustaining, something nourishing. 

It has become very, very fashionable to see every instance of male admiration for women, as a form of objectification. Post-feminists utter the word with a poisonous self-congratulation, and it has become a wearying cliche. 

Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde is one of the few popular music albums to explore relationships on a symphonic level. like the erratic musicianship of the performances, the themes expand and fade away... and they reemerge as something new. The complexity and frustration of the male voice, the contradictions and schizophrenic struggles that such a voice endures on its search for love, beauty and authenticity, have never been captured better. And sadly, probably never will. 

Dylan's women are fallible human beings, but they are also figures that justify a poet's longing, figures that warrant longing and praise and scorn, because they expose the poet to himself, and the lies he tells himself to survive. 

Blonde on Blonde is album that peels away superficiality. But it also redeems the ideal of beauty, and in doing so redeems masculine sexuality, by drawing out the depth and complexity of the male experience. It does so, whether fake, disco-feminism wants to admit it or not. 

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