Imagination takes precedence over intellect for Bob Dylan. David Dalton tries to trace the career of that remarkable imagination in his book Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan (Hyperion) which is being published today. Dalton, a founding editor of Rolling Stone, originally titled his work Bob's Brain. I suppose he did this because he wanted to attempt the impossible: a provide a written MRI of the creator of what some people claim to be the best songs ever written.
Bob Dylan's identity is, to understate the point laughably, elusive, starting with his Jewishness. Karl Shapiro, in his work In Defense of Ignorance, wrote: "The European Jew was always a visitor...But in America everybody is a visitor. In the United States the Jewish writer is free to create his own consciousness." But the Jewish writer has a more complex identity than other American writers. In Ravelstein, Saul Bellow noted that "As a Jew you are also an American, but somehow you are not." That was Dylan's status. He was an outsider as a Jew in America, but doubly so in Hibbing, Minnesota. As a rural Jew, he was, in Dalton's phrase, "an outsider in a community of outsiders."
This status led him to be free to invent a self while simultaneously feeling outside of any genuine self. In one sense he had no identity at all. In 1976 Allen Ginsberg said about Dylan: "I don't know him because I don't think there is any him. I don't think he's got a self."
Dylan rebelled against his birth self in every possible way. He changed his name. He changed where he lived. He believed he had been born into the wrong family. He looked for a direction to his real self and could not find it. Robert Zimmerman had a profound sense of disquiet. And so, when he got to New York, he invented stories to everyone who would listen. He was an orphan, a circus performer, a Native American. He was anybody but a small town son of a Jewish appliance dealer.
But accompanying this all--inclusive self-rejection was an intense belief in himself, a sense that Fate had cleared a path in life for him that would lead to his being the most important singer in America. For me, this juxtaposition provides an approach to Dylan's identity: to look at the rapport and the rancor between his private and public selves. To do this, I think it's useful to consider Dylan as an actor. Lies are the truth for an actor. The world has facts, but for Dylan those facts didn't explain inner turmoil, the ever-moving, ever-changing, often closely-related feelings of desire and loathing, the ways that words and sounds just came to him, often when prompted by a song that moved him. He loved those songs, and then stole them, and then made them his own, inevitably vastly improving them.
Actors are frequently alienated from themselves. (The best book I know about this is Simon Callow's Being An Actor). They often can't find a real self. That was Ginsberg's point about Dylan. To overcome these dreadful feelings, actors have to think the thoughts of others, in their cases the imaginative characters created by dramatists and screenwriters. Dylan absorbed the imaginative characters of American popular music. He was the hobo and the troubadour, the endless traveler and the misunderstood artist. As with actors, he was far more comfortable on stage than off. But unlike actors he didn't have a Shakespeare who had written for him. He tried. He had Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie and the whole of American popular music. But eventually he discovered he needed to sing songs that didn't yet exist. Eventually he became his own dramatist and screenwriter and created the songs and then acted them out on stage. He was the writer, the actor, and the director. And, some say, he became his own Shakespeare.