David Lehman asked me to “talk about the opening of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ in relation to the chapter in Genesis that is its source. This re-telling of Abraham's ‘binding’ of Isaac reminds me a little of Wilfred Owen's poem in which the massacred soldiers of World War One are the victims of a bloodthirsty god and an obedient Abraham on Mount Moriah.”
The Owen poem is “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” The poem draws a parallel between the well-known Biblical story (Genesis 22:1-19) in which Abraham feels called to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, but an angel stops the sacrifice.
The ending of the poem departs from the Biblical text.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Owen’s bitterness stems from his view that the older generation of European leaders sacrificed the youth of Europe rather than any national pride.
In “Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan finds a contemporary version of Mount Mariah in American life. Highway 61 is a place where people who kill their own children, losers, con men, incestuous parents, and warmongers go for safety. It is a place where American values have been sacrificed in the name of lust and power and greed.
The real Highway 61 runs from New Orleans to Minnesota. Before 1991, it went through Duluth, where Dylan was born. Additionally, in Dylan’s song, God tells Abraham, “Kill me a son.” Dylan’s real father was named Abraham, so the story is not abstract to him.
There is an irony to both the Owen and Dylan references. The Biblical text was written to protest the common practice of sacrificing the firstborn son by showing that such a practice was counter to God’s moral code. Unfortunately, the historical context has been lost and its moral progress has come to be seen as a near act of barbarity. Still, despite the inaccurate comparisons by both Owen and Dylan, their larger points remain poignant. How often have governments refused to admit mistakes but resorted to violence in which the young die? And how far does one have to look to see decency sacrified on the altar of desire?
-- Lawrence J. Epstein