One of the charms and one of the dangers of listening to Bob Dylan is that you begin to substitute his language for your own. Sometimes an image is so startling that you attach it to your own perception of the world. Certain songs are chains of such images, as in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" or "Mr. Tambourine Man." Sometimes one of his cries from the heart serves as a perfect expression of our own anguish. Think of "Oh, Mama, can this really be the end/to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again."
For whatever reason, my mind tends to retain Dylan's aphorisms. He compresses what had been either an intuitively understood but unarticulated truth in the listener's mind or a novel observation into memorable, poetic language often containing alliteration and rhyme.
Dylan's aphorisms evolved. They started out as fierce statements about the political world, as in "For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled." This aphorism is a warning, a species of "finger-pointing," as Dylan called his protest songs. These aphorisms were aimed at altering the world. Dylan later created aphorisms aimed at transforming the individual, both Dylan himself and his listeners.
Sometimes the aphorisms Dylan produced were like proverbs or maxims, a type of wisdom literature. "Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you" is an uncompromising call for an independent spirit, a warning that if you see your path you've got to be willing to follow it alone. It's a cruel maxim, in part, calling people who don't go the way you do the "dead." But the cruelty is meant to provide the listener with emotional backbone, a determination to escape from the territory of the normal.
Dylan provides life lessons in these aphorisms. "Take what you have gathered from coincidence" teaches that events appearing as accidental can form a pattern. Dylan calls for self-awareness followed by self-examination followed by self-construction. Without a pattern there is anarchy in our lives; we simply step from one experience to the next without absorbing appropriate lessons.
Many of Dylan's most memorable aphorisms included an irony in them. Often these provided life lessons as well, such as "He not busy being born is busy dying." This is vintage Dylan, imploring us to keep moving forward, to try constant re-creation, not to back off from the novel because it's frightening. It is a call for courage to test ourselves against life's limits. It is a call to drive through when our mind signals caution.
Consider another lesson: "To live outside the law you must be honest." This is a call for morality. Some people are moral, Dylan asserts, because they are scared of breaking the law. Rather, we should realize that whatever standards we live by we must be good.
Dylan famously annoyed some fans at each stage by going to a new place and then abandoning it. The annoyance is misplaced. There are times I thought Dylan was leading me astray, exploring a path that was not right for me. I didn't follow him down those paths.
But that's the point. That's the great lesson I learned from Dylan's aphorisms. The independence he championed, the emancipating proclamation of the self's right to be free, meant at the end that the real understanding of Dylan precisely meant not following him, but rather finding my own language.
For information about my book, Political Folk Music in America From Its Origins to Bob Dylan, see http://lawrencejepstein.com/folk
I've started a new blog called Jewish Observations. The first post is titled "The Meaning of Judaism." The URL is: http://jewishobservations.blogspot.com