At first I felt a profound disappointment, and some anger, when I heard the reports that Bob Dylan had allowed Chinese authorities to censor his setlist for a recent concert in China. There would be no answers blowin’ in the Chinese wind. At a time when progressives in this country are leaderless and de-energized, when “the left” and “the far left” seem more like scare terms of the right than realities, Dylan’s seeming accession to the demands of the Chinese autocracy was even harder to understand and accept.
Particularly in light of the arrest and disappearance of the mesmerizing Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei, whose courage in the face of despotism is truly inspirational. If you have not been following the Ai Weiwei story, there is an abundance of discussion going on. My friend Michael Lally, for one, has been highlighting the case of Ai Weiwei on his blog Lally’s Alley.
Ai Weiwei was arrested by Chinese authorities on April 3rd, and has not been heard from since. News updates are readily available on-line (see, e.g., this piece). Frontline also offers an excellent short film delineating Ai Weiwei's life and career.
By now, I had begun to feel the need for further reflection. One focus of mine was Dylan's attraction to the strange turn, especially in the last 10 or 12 years. Highlights include:
■His awkward and extended appearance on "Dharma & Greg" in 1999.
■His bizarre Victoria's Secret ad in 2004
■His arrest in New Jersey in 2009 essentially for being an "an eccentric old man" wandering around with no i.d.and wearing two raincoats.
■ And my personal favorite—the video he did of "Must be Santa" to promote his 2009 Christmas in the Heart album.
Dylan is clearly playing by his own rules, and I find myself coming around to his side. Is there really a censor in China who could capably de-code Dylan’s performance to ensure his songs wouln't rock the rule of the authorities over there? I think not. I begin to suspect tricksterism. Dylan clearly feels no obligation to be a spokesperson for anything or anyone. He’s made that very clear for a long time. He doesn’t want anyone dictating his behavior as an artist. I find myself thinking that his alleged cave-in to Chinese regime is not worth taking seriously. He likes to confound. As does Ai Weiwei.
Whose father was a famous poet named Ai Qing (1910-1996), exiled during the Cultural Revolution and forced to clean toilets. “To live is to struggle,” he writes in this 1978 poem:
With such agility in your movements,
Such buoyancy in your strength,
You leaped in the foam
And swam in the sea.
Unfortunately a volcano's eruption
Or perhaps an earthquake
Cost you your freedom
And buried you in the silt.
After millions of years
Members of a geological team
Found you in a layer of rock
And you still look alive.
But you are now silent,
Without even sight.
Your scales and fins are whole
But you cannot move.
So absolutely motionless,
You have no reaction to the world.
You cannot see the water or the sky,
You cannot hear the sound of the waves.
Gazing at this fossil,
Even a fool can learn a lot:
There is no life.
To live is to struggle
And advance in the struggle;
Even if death is inevitable.
We should use our energy to the fullest.
(for a selection of Ai Qing's poems, visit this site.)