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THE MISSIONARY TIMES


     
Like Ice, Like Fire
(Addressing The Night in ‘Visions of Johanna’)

by J. R. Stokes

 

Part 7. Two Georges and The Forbidden Zone

Things have changed…at Marks & Spencer. They had to really; the food was always wonderful of course but Crimplene eventually made the thirty somethings cringe and the notion that Marks was a spent force eventually caught on. Looking through the shop windows and seeing only Church Wardens in the aisles made the shoppers who really count, i.e. those with a handsome monthly pay cheque, just stay away in droves. What made it worse was that the PLC took a battering too so that if you retired this year and your pension portfolio included a stack of Marks shares, you could forget that bungalow by the sea. Then along came George Davis, a Saviour without stigmata, and he turned that old roll neck sweater into the new rock ‘n’ roll. Hail George, you of Next and Asda, you with the retail ‘knack’, you have made it cool to shop at Marks again. Hurrah!

 

I don’t know if Saint George was actually responsible for the festive advertising campaign for the new Marks & Spencer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was because it is quite a cute one. It goes like this: ‘describe Christmas in three words’. Think about that eh? Well the advertisers surely did and, whilst chewing hard on their Havanahs, they came up with the image of various celebrities spouting verbal triplets like ‘The Queens Speech’ or ‘Turkey and Tinsel’ or ‘Eaten too much’ or Morecambe and Wise’. Then, to round it off, we have the Thunderball;  yes, you’ve guessed it: MARKS AND SPENCER – that’s Christmas in three words isn’t it George?

 

Actually it’s quite a good game this, go on, have a go: describe Christmas in three words. I am terrible at punctuation, I can never get the right usage for the word ‘it’s’ (if there is such a word), so I am ignoring the full title and saying that my description of Christmas in three words is: ‘A Wonderful Life’. You must remember this: ‘Buffalo Girls can’t you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight?  Buffalo Girls can’t  you come out tonight? Aaaaaand dance by the light of the moon’ – and all that. Call me sentimental, call me a sissy ‘cos I believe in angels but there is something about an unshaven James Stewart realising his blessings that gets to me, time after time.

 

Ok. Ok. Don’t be so impatient. I haven’t passed over my obsession with 'Visions of Johanna' this month; I was getting there. The link between this reduction of something as enormous as Christmas to just three words is similar to my ‘Visions’ task this time around because I have been concentrating on one of the longest pieces of writing on the song and wondering how on earth I can do the piece justice in the time and space allotted to me here. The text under consideration is contained in chapter 7 of the book ‘Jokerman. Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan’ by Aidan Day (AD)(64) in which  the author has his way with the song for over 4000 words. I am not sure what my word tally will be when I eventually sign off from this life event but I can safely say that my words will be somewhat different to AD’s because I simply do not have the command of language that was readily available to the author who was, at the time that he published his book, a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. That’s not said though to diminish the value of either AD’s writings, or indeed mine own, it’s just to point out that they are expressed differently, that’s all. And I cannot possibly prècis the piece into just three words, it’s going to take much longer than that.

 

Jokerman. Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan’ is a book that may not fit terribly well with the 90% of Dylan fans who possibly don’t like their songs to be analysed, deconstructed or turned into some academic thesis. These fans, who go to the concerts, buy the albums, collect the cdrs etc., know exactly what the songs are about, they don’t have to be preached at by the great and the good. (I am neither great nor good by the way, so I can say what I like!). Having said that, those same Dylan fans have probably got a copy of this book somewhere in their collection yet, if so, it is possibly largely unread and yet, if so, it is possibly largely unfathomed. Of course I may have got it all wrong, I could be underestimating my fellow Bob fans, it could be that ‘Jokerman’ is the Dylan book that the majority of Dylan fans turn to upon waking for elucidation and enjoyment, especially as the jacket notes of the book promise that the text will make ‘intelligible much that seems obscure and difficult’ in Dylan’s lyrics. To achieve that state of absolute blessedness with regard to the understanding of what Dylan’s lyrics are really all about, you will have to go back to the book and try again. I have just been there and, apart from my own theories which are clear to me but more like a swamp to others, things are still pretty obscure and difficult. Never the less, the book is greatly demanding of attention.

 

The title to Chapter 7 of the book which, as I have said, deals with 'Visions of Johanna' is called ‘That Forbidden Zone’ and AD initially sets out to explain the reason for this title:

 

‘The simultaneously thrilling and forbidding complexion of spaces beyond the limits of the social and the rational, and the confusion of gratulation and desperation involved in transgressing those limits were hinted at by André Breton when he spoke of the unconscious as ‘the forbidden zone’.(65)

 

The author then brings Dylan into to the picture by referring to the lyric change in the  Brussels 1984 version of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ thus: ‘So now I’m going on back again/ To that forbidden zone’ . Considering that: ‘The Brussels version had framed the account of desire for a condition beyond the pale of self and narrative’ AD concludes his introduction:

 

‘The disconcertions touched on in the Brussels formulation are the overriding concern of many Dylan lyrics. And, not least, of the 1966 Blonde on Blonde lyric, 'Visions of Johanna'.(66)

 

This, generally then is where the author appears to be coming from: that there is an element of the ethereal, a state of cerebral other worldliness attached to the song. But it doesn’t take over 4000 words just to tell you that, for there is much more to this text as I will endeavour to show. From the ‘the forbidden zone’ that represents the unconscious, AD starts with a summary of the song that concerns the consciousness of the poet:

 

'Visions of Johanna'  violates the logic of consecutive statement more cruelly than perhaps any other Dylan lyric. A summary of the work might say that it presents a consciousness engaged – during what is, at least in the early stages of the lyric, a night-time vigil – in reflecting upon various matters that concern it. Perspective and objects of attention slide and transform themselves throughout. But there is a constant in that the consciousness returns at the end of each of the five stanzas to its experience of certain visions which threaten to overwhelm – and, indeed, by the conclusion of the lyric do overwhelm – all other considerations’.(67)

 

The author then carefully moves through the song, bringing to the fore and into the reader’s own consciousness, images arising from his observations of the lyrics. This, in relation to the first line of the song:

 

‘Implications of trickery and mischief, involutions of illusion and deception……….’(68)

 

And with regard to the introduction of the ‘night watchman’ in the second stanza:

 

‘The line between reason and unreason upon which the constructions of logic depend is blurred for the night watchman just as it is blurred in the surrealistic register of the lyric’s language.  The sense of suspension of rational measure and control is emphasised even by the image of the night watchman clicking his flashlight. The detail of the flashlight invokes the metaphor of a light shining in the darkness and raises the possibility of explanation and clarification. …. But the stock metaphor is called up only as a ghost of itself. It is raised only to be parodied. For the image of a light flashing works here not to celebrate enlightenment but to confirm a greater darkness, a larger unintelligibility. All’s not well with a world where the watcher upon the night , the guardian of the day’s order through the hours of darkness, has lost his bearings.(68)

 

This larger unintelligibility, this violation of logic, this zone of understanding that appears forbidden, this matter of confusion is taken further when AD concentrates on the fourth stanza which he considers ‘offers one of the lyrics most relentless imaginings of the breakdown of recognised and sanctioned form’ .(69) Quoting the following four lines of this stanza:

 

‘See the primitive wallflower freeze

          When the jelly-faced women all sneeze

Hear the one with the moustache say, ‘Jeeze

I cant find my knees’.

 

The author observes: (these) ‘four lines of this stanza envision a reduction of form to primal elements………even gender difference becomes confused and human contour and feature are erased’, before continuing: 

 

‘As unaccommodated forces dissolve contour and feature, so too the certainties of nominal identity are usurped … The game of blind man's buff, serves as a touchstone of the disorientation of consciousness that pervades 'Visions of Johanna'. Disturbance of the surface structure of the self is implied throughout the lyric in the elusiveness of the point of view from which it is spoken. Throughout, the speaker’s self is splintered and reconstituted in a multi-faceted assemblage of personal pronouns and names. An apt analogy for the effect would be the perspectival incongruity of a cubist painting’.(70)

 

I must say, I do like the juxtaposition of 'Visions of Johanna' and cubism which is something that I may possibly return to later (thank you AD for that insight). It is, in fact, with this in mind that  I turn to the authors commentary on the final verse, in particular as it relates to the role of ‘the female’ in the lyric. AD considers that the ultimate energy of the visions ‘sweeps away’… ‘ worldly encumbrances and appearances’…and this ‘includes certain stereotypes of women’. He goes on:

 

‘If woman as lover has been stripped of life by the visions, and if woman as ‘master’ piece has been unfixed, the fifth stanza has the power of those visions exposing not only the countess, not only woman as rich dissembler, but also woman as sanctified mother… Invoked, that figure simply fails to appear as mediator or sustainer of the self under stress…Whatever may be thought of Johanna, hers is again the ‘feminine’ that is not to be caught within positions prescribed for the female’.(71)

 

As I have said, there is much more to Chapter 7 of AD’s book than I can set out here, but I hope that I have brought into  focus something of the his imaginative view of the song. It is a view that is further demonstrated in the authors somewhat scary conclusion :

 

'Visions of Johanna' raises a dread that the daemonic charge that ‘howls in the bones’ of Louise’s face and plays with the ‘skeleton keys’ may be not only humanly intolerable, but intolerant of the human.. Visions of the anima, visions of the forbidden zone, may amount to visions of Gehanna, glimpses into a zone that for the mortal self spells only relentless pain’.(72) 

 

So there we have another consideration of the song with the  setting of Brettons (and Dylan’s ) ‘forbidden zone’. I have set aside a year of my life to study this song and to consider what others have written about it before concluding with my own thoughts. This is part 7 in the series of my articles, 7 months of mental strife with 'Visions of Johanna' in mind. There is so much more to consider that I wonder if I have bitten off more than I can chew.  Ah, but the taste is so sweet and, still, every time I listen to the song I can feel the juice running down my leg. Forgive me, just hand me a box of tissues and let me get on with it!



Bye George
 

 

You know some people always seem to say the wrong thing, and others have the gift of getting it just about right. I was pushing my trolley towards the check out at Waitrose  when I got side tracked by the late George Harrison looking out at me from the cover of  the December issue of Hello! magazine.  It was George fully fringed, smartly groomed, circa ’64 and he was just looking straight at me. I couldn’t resist it so into the trolley went the magazine with its ‘15 page tribute to George Harrison. 1943–2001. The Youngest Beatle’. Whilst queuing to pay for my raspberry yoghurts and trimmed sugar snap peas I quickly thumbed through the tribute pages and found that the entire spread didn’t really amount to a hill of beans but I bought the magazine anyway.

 

The thing about Hello! is that it’s the image that counts, first, last and every time. And the image of course has to be recognised: it’s a 21st Century pick-up point for saddos like me who just love images whether they be on a Christmas card, a tube station wall or on the cover of a glossy magazine.  So the ‘tribute’ to George largely consisted of photographs of the easily identifiable with little captions underneath, quoting the words that these heads had expressed in  their moments of grief. There were photographs of fellow Beatles; a Knight of the Realm; a red headed scouser; a well known comedian; the Prime Minister; the weird woman that John Lennon got involved with and one of QE2 wearing her Remembrance Day hat. Underneath this particular photo were the words: ‘Saddened by the news – HM The Queen.’ Aaahhh. As the Sex Pistols once said : ‘God save The Queen’.

 

To capture some words that were more appropriate on the demise of one of my heroes I turned to his nearest and dearest because the feature also included the following statement issued by George’s family:

 

“He left this world as he lived in it, conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace, surrounded by family and friends. He often said, ‘Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.’”

 

The ability to string words together in a way that is meaningfully fit for the occasion is surely a gift. I should have known better: I should have gone straight to Dylan to unwrap his gift of words on the death of his friend George Harrison. Not printed in Hello! (his current craggy features wouldn’t enhance the cover of any magazine ) but found elsewhere, this is what Dylan had to say: 

"He was a giant, a great, great soul, with all of the humanity, all of the
wit and humour, all the wisdom, the spirituality, the common sense of a man
and compassion for people. He inspired love and had the strength of a
hundred men. He was like the sun, the flowers and the moon and we will miss
him enormously. The world is a profoundly emptier place without him."

That wonderful string of words ‘He was like the sun, the flowers and the moon’, in conjunction with George’s own ‘Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait…’ created something of a stir and for some strange reason known only to that part of me that has no image whatsoever, I went to my bookshelf and took down a small volume on the subject of  Tarot cards. The book was a little dusty which indicated that I probably haven’t felt a mystical need for quite some time but clearly, as the book was in my hands, a need had arrived that just had to be satisfied.

 

Now, I’m not big on the Tarot, I can’t even remember the place or the purpose for buying this little book but on looking through the pages I realised that the Tarot was scattered with identifiable images too, the difference being that these images represented symbols of a state or circumstance that were capable of being interpreted.  With the impatience of George’s ‘search for God’  in mind, part of the introduction to the book was interesting:

 

‘The Ancient Greek injunction ‘know thyself’ is capable of reaching it’s supreme fulfilment  in us through a dedicated search for the eternal truths hidden in the Tarot. The 22 Tarot trumps are ideal for this purpose, for they correspond to the 22 Paths on the Qabalistic Tree of Life which chart man’s pilgrimage via created matter to the uncreated Divine Being’.

 

An investigation of the images on those ‘22 Tarot trumps’ became even more interesting, in particular when I came upon  two of the cards in the Major Arcana pack which are named ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Moon’. With Dylan’s words on George hanging in the air, I read further. This, relating to the images that are shown on the card named ‘The Moon’:

 

‘An interesting point worth noting in connection with the card is that on it are shown…tiny jets of ascending flame. These are spirits of the departed hovering between earth and the moon, to which they were believed to pass before returning earthward for reincarnation, or else passing on to the sun.’

 

Then this, relating to the card named ‘The Sun’:

 

‘The Sun now shines forth in its full brilliance. After the moon tide of its despair, the soul emerges into the light of a brighter day. Man must awaken to the realisation of how great is the darkness encompassing him, feel how near he is to blindness, before he can look with new eyes upon the world. It is always darkest just before the dawn.’

 

There remained the question of ‘the flowers’ in Dylan’s tribute. This was the hardest to grasp and yet, because of that, was probably the most significant. I continued reading the explanations given relating to the images on ‘The Sun’ card:

 

‘On the other side of the wall are to be seen the heads of sun flowers. As the sun flower always turns its face towards the sun, so must the soul of man ever look upwards to the Celestial  giver of light’.

 

On reading those words I realised that my own narrow search through the confusion of this episode was almost at an end. I closed the book and reached for another which just happened to be a book of poems from the 18th Century written by William Blake who somehow always managed to see the sun, the flowers and the moon in every man. It was a more well thumbed and more well read book and indeed in its pages I have found, on many occasions, what I perceive to be the correct answers to some eternal truths.  The poem I turned to concerns the search for salvation, both in this life and the next. The title to the poem is, of course: ‘Ah Sunflower’: 

Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time,

Who countest the steps of the Sun,

Seeking after that sweet golden clime

Where the traveller’s journey is done;

 

Where the Youth pined away with desire,

And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow,

Arise from their graves and aspire

Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Whether, in death, George’s search for his sweet Lord has ended or continues, only he now knows. What we know is that his spirit became weary of time here and that his travels on the long and winding path of life are now truly done. What he has left behind is music that has, and will forever, accompany many millions of people along the paths they have to take until, they too, become weary of time and their journeys are also done. I am just one of those many millions of people. Your music has been great company, George. 

 

It is a very long and winding path indeed that leads from William Blake, Mad Mystic of the 18th Century to Abba, Scandinavian popsters of the 20th, but, what the hell I am going to take that path anyway. For, I ask in all honesty, what would life be? Without a song and a dance what are we? So, George, I say thank you for the music, for giving it to me.

 

 

(64) ‘Jokerman. Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan’ by Aidan Day. Published in hard back in 1988 by Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford.UK.

(65) ibid., page 110.

(66) ibid., page 111.

(67) ibid., page 112.

(68) ibid., page 113.

(69) ibid., page 115.

(70) ibid,. page 116.

(71) ibid., page 121.

(72) ibid., page 124.

 
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