Language Music

Reading Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonely” with Respect to Ancient Concepts of Love

Some objects enchant us throughout our lives. We think of them and wonder: how could such sublimity be the creation of a mere mortal. The idea that their are muses, providing divine inspiration, solves the problem–though in our scientific times only few of us believe in them.

Here a link to a nice version from Dylan himself. The younger singer, Madeleine Peyroux offers a rendition I find equally brilliant, with a stylistic plainness that goes beyond jazz to achieve a universal sound.

One such object–one of my personal wonders of the world–is this love song, one of Dylan’s Finest, and, I think one of his “most on target, most direct.” But what I want to show in this article, is how this artwork has a deeper understanding of love, one we might best understanding by looking at the history of the idea. Far from remaining stable across history, the human understanding of love has undergone great changes. The term we currently use is incredibly broad. It’s prototypical usage–what we usually think of when we think of love–evokes narratives of romantic relationships, the combination of sexual fulfillment, strategic alliance, and moral support which we wish we could find in marriage.

The ancient division of this idea into a number of related concepts, however, reminds us that we must respect the difference between this kind of ideal romantic love, and models based on other human relationships, such as sibling-hood, the relationship from mother to child, father to child, and the reversals of these; we also must recall friendship, and the relationship between man and an animal he cares for. The spectrum of terms in antiquity is broad enough to refer to most of these. We find at least four concepts/words: Agápe, Éros, Phillia, and Storge.

These four concepts all reveal aspects of love which the single term offered by English may hide. Agápe refers to love of children for their parents, to a general desire for well-being of another, and–later, in the Christian tradition–to love for God. Philia and Storge also refer to selfless forms of love, to those among friends seen as equals, in Philia, and to the love between child and parent, in Storge. We might translate Philia as “brotherly love,” the familial affection between siblings.

The outsider among the four is Éros, and this status, this feeling that our term “love” is a great departure for it, stems from love’s prototypical evocation as of a relationship which is sexual, erotic, while also referring to all the other kinds. What makes Éros feel so foreign and outdated, is that it sees a contradiction to those forms of familial or divine love which have been integrated into the modern concept. The erotic, these days, is conceptualized as part of the unity of love our single concept implies. But back then, it was seen as intense passion, manic or approaching mania, a temporal love based on sexual desire for the body, a drunkenness with beauty, one of our least spiritual and most fleeting aspects.

So this contradiction is hidden by the unification of at least four concepts into the single, modern term we call love. My thesis, here, is that Bob Dylan’s song respects and realizes this distinction; it discovers what our current language tends to hide. And this is why it’s a brilliant song, and not a mere stylistic flourish. So let’s have a look at the lyrics themselves: like very few songs, they enchant us even when we forget the actual music, for a moment, and read as if we were reading poetry.

“I’ve seen love go by my door
It’s never been this close before”

This first line gets right to the point. Love is fleeting, hard to find–and never, perhaps, to capture. The second line changes, moves from sadness to happiness. The songwriter, the poetic soul, has never reached this nearness to the force which binds us and what we need. This movement between joy and sorrow, between the fleeting nature of love and how sweet it’s fulfillment may seem, lies right at the center of my reading: the lyrics are always moving between these poles, between happiness and sadness.

Never been so easy or so slow
Been shooting in the dark too long

Here the listener encounters a similar oscillation, between security, the promise that love might overcome it’s temporality, and the acceptance and remembrance that it will not last. “Shooting in the dark” is an image of what it’s like to try to find “love” in its completeness–the swiftness of the arrows, shot, here, by cupids dart, which cause the temporal mania, the love of a young body ripe for reproduction, which Éros, in Antiquity, entailed.

And on and on, we go through phases of joy and sorrow. We oscillate between fulfillment and frustration.

“When something’s not right it’s wrong
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”

There’s a lot going on in these lines. The first of them is as brilliant as a diamond, and the sparkle is the little contradiction hidden there. We are not sure whether it’s morally sound to enjoy erotic love. We are not sure that it must be right just because it doesn’t feel wrong. The line is must always be echoed by it’s complement, which doesn’t appear in the text, at least the version I’m reading: “If something ain’t wrong it’s right“: this would be the optimistic equivalent, the claim more akin to the freedom and goodness seen in the human being as portrayed by the counter-culture. But the actual line “When something’s not right it’s wrong“: this is more akin to Christian belief, to St. Augustine’s notion of original sin. And then, the refrain, the claim that she will leave him–assuming a heterosexual relationship, which fits Dylan’s biography–admits the temporality of erotic love, but places the blame on the partner. It’s subtle irony: he preserves his innocence–though the empirical songwriter doesn’t feel innocent at all–by blaming the failure of erotic love on the partner.

The song continues in this fashion, on and on, oscillating between joy and sorrow, between the feeling that one has found a unified love, one which includes all of the four Greek terms, but which then fails us once again.

And we know that what is actually happening is bound deeply to reproduction:

“Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy”

The flowers shoot their pollen or receive it into their stamina without any rational thought. Their bodies are made to create more flowers! “Bloomin’ crazy,” of course, is a pun. The English say somebody is “blooming mad”–and it just means “very crazy,” and connotes insult: a failure of rationality which might go so far as to suggest that the insulted person is less than human. This is the same madness that befalls you when struck by cupid’s arrow. But the overall meaning of the pun, is that we see that the madness of the flowers–reproducing with out thought of, say, which children will thrive–is completely mad, but part and parcel of human life: a madness to which we are all subject. So there is acceptance, but criticism of bodily love, in the text.

If I were to look out a bit further, beyond the specificity of love, I see first of all, a reference to career. His relationship has been like “Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.” This refers, I believe, to the sad, passionate nature of the artist, and to the role’s susceptibility to immorality: did Verlaine try to set his wife’s hair on fire, throw his baby against the wall? How could we forgive that? He was looking for the absolute. And we think, he must have done this, again, because of erotic passion: homosexual men, one who had a fictitious marriage. How would you not be angry at the family? They represented, to Verlaine, those who didn’t allow him to engage his passions which those whom he wished to. He had to take care of his family, and doing so was a lie needed to upkeep appearances. They also were under pressure not to engage in the fantastical risk of sorrow involved in the artist’s life. The claim can’t go beyond conjecture, but Dylan’s mentioning of these two figures suggests that he had found others who had gone through sorrow because, they desire perfect, complete love–an ideal concept which unites all of the Greek terms, but which we fail to find in the empirical world.

And, as a closing thought: if Dylan’s song goes beyond the scope of the failed romantic relationship in his criticism and analysis of the modern concept of love, and begins to look at artistic careers, biographies of the gifted–I think he goes a bit further. I believe the song tries to show us that the world may be more spiritual than many of us, intellectuals in secular milieus, believe.

For his imagery moves into realms which are as far distanced as possible from the human, without eclipsing the horizons of our experience of the world. The flowers, blooming mad, I mention above, are much farther away from our own way of being than would be, say the birds–those other aesthetic creatures, caught by the tricky, maybe even deceptive, perception of beauty. And the rivers, and the sky, while these suggest a deeper form of cyclicity than our movement from love to loneliness and back again. They suggest that cyclicity is of nature on its grandest scales.

The river feeds the ocean, water evaporates from the surfaces of the seas, and falls, as rain, to feed the rivulets, beginnings of rivers, in the mountains. This image, of oscillation, suggests–and perhaps I am going a bit too far in my reading–that such cycles are an aspect of nature as a whole.

We live in an age in which intellectuals tend to be atheists, to disbelieve in souls and gods, to believe that life passes away forever. But the artist’s vision of cyclicity suggests something different. We know that physics never believes in destruction, just in the preservation of energy, and matter, as these take different forms. This is why, I feel that it’s folly to become an atheist just because we have been able to learn so much about matter. Rather, modern physics, and the works of art we love best, suggest continuity and change, the preservation of the soul as it moves through different states, whether these states are all “incarnations,” or go beyond them to something like heaven.

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