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THE MISSIONARY TIMES


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

by J. R. Stokes

 

Part 15. A Matter of Heat and Light

In part 14 of this series of articles I endeavoured to add some flesh and some colour to the bare bones of the landscape that I had previously provided in my writings about Dylan’s song ‘Visions of Johanna'; and that endeavour found me forming various characters into the picture. In particular I mentioned the Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin who with his outspoken, and sometimes outrageous, views on certain aspects of Dylan’s career, I nailed as a colourful character. This time I want to add some colour of a different kind. Real colour. Colour that dazzles and blinds. The colour of fire and the colour of a bridal gown. Brilliant red and brilliant white: the kind of colour that made ‘Dulux’ and ‘Crown’ household names.

In his highly acclaimed book ‘ Fearful Symmetry – A Study of William Blake’(96) Northrop Frye attempts the almost impossible – he submits an explanation of Blake’s thought in conjunction with a commentary on the poetry of the great Visionary. I have of course myself referred to some thoughts of William Blake, which have been something of an inspiration to me, not only in this epic study of ‘Visions of Johanna' but also in the epic contraflow of my life generally(97). Northrop Fye however takes the matter of Blake’s thoughts into an entirely different realm.

Frye heads chapter 7 of his book ‘The Thief of Fire’ and in this chapter the author deals, among other things, with the work ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, a collection of poetry and prose that Blake completed in 1789 when he was in his early thirties. ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ is part of a series of illustrated, or ‘Illuminated’ books, the title page to which is engraved with images of human forms being carried in flames from what Blake considered to be ‘hell’ to his ‘heaven’. In essence however Blake was writing about a philosophical heaven and hell (and I suppose most are, really) and the images represent a transition of attitude rather than an incident that harms or changes the human form. This transition of attitude, Blake calls an ‘apocalypse’ and a ‘resurrection’ and this basically involves a new way of seeing things, remembering of course that Blake himself was able to see angels in trees! According to Blake, if we experienced our own apocalypse and resurrection, the doors of perception would be cleansed and we would be able to see a world in a grain of sand. Fry describes Blake’s philosophy a little more graphically:

‘We are still living in an age of giant stars just as the ants are still living in an age of giant ferns; the natural man is a mole, and all our mountains are his molehills. In the resurrection of the body the physical universe would take the form in which it would be perceived by the risen body, and the risen body would perceive it in the form of paradise.

The complete conquest of nature implied by the words ‘resurrection’ and ‘apocalypse’ is a mystery bound up with the end of time, but not with death. To the imagination physical death isolates the part that lives in the spiritual world; but as that world is the real here and the real now, we do not have to die to live in it…… Similarly, the apocalypse could occur at any time in history if men wanted it badly enough to stop playing their silly game of hide-and seek-with nature. Visionaries, artists, prophets and martyrs all live as though an apocalypse were around the corner, and without this sense of a potentially imminent crisis imagination loses most of its driving power.(98)

Fry then goes on to explain the way Blake interprets the Bible to support his view of man coming to real terms with what actually surrounds him, through an ‘apocalypse’ and a ‘resurrection’; if only, of course, man would wake up:

‘That is why in the Bible the apocalypse is often referred to as a wedding, a union in love in which the relation of man to nature becomes the relation of the lover to the beloved, the Bridegroom to the Bride.’(99)

Then we come to the aspect of fire and the reasoning for the heading of the chapter of ‘Fearful Symmetry’ to be called ‘The Thief of Fire’. Frye continues to consider Blake’s idea of resurrection:

‘And as the risen body perceives the new world, the old one perishes in flames. Why flames? Because fire is the greatest possible combination in this world of heat and light, and the risen body lives in the greatest possible combination of the spiritual forms of heat and light: energy or desire, and reason and vision. Fire destroys the solid form of nature, and those who have believed nature to be solid will find themselves in a lake of fire at the Dies Irae. But the imagination cannot be consumed by fire, for it is fire; the burning bush of God which never exhausts its material’ .(99)

Frye then places this subject of fire into the general perspective of ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ whilst at the same time reminding his readers that that Blake was pretty unorthodox in his views:

‘Orthodox theology tells us that in the eternal world the fires of hell have heat without light, and that heaven is a blaze of golden light, the question of heat being slurred over. Remembering that passion and desire are spiritual heat, such doctrines tell us symbolically that desires are hellish and that we shall be tortured forever for having them, whereas those who have emasculated their passions will be admitted to a heaven in which the kind of divine love they enjoy, whilst its exact nature is unknown, is certain to be something very, very pure. Like forest animals, the orthodox have a fascinated horror of fire and its torments, and when we come down to the sceptical obscurantism of the ‘new philosophy’ the element of fire is quite put out. What is coming (according to Blake) is the union of heat and light, a marriage of heaven and hell. By ‘hell’ Blake means an upsurge of desire and passion within the rising body so great that it will destroy the present starry heaven, and he calls it ‘hell’ because that is what the orthodox call it.’(100)

So the chapter is entitled ‘The Thief of Fire’ because it refers to Blake using the imagery of fire to illustrate his unorthodox philosophy. And fire is the union of heat and light. In fire, heat and light become one. In fact, one on one. Or ‘Blonde on Blonde’.

Now why, you may ask, have I side tracked you into Blake Avenue for so long a time, and what has all this got to do with ‘Visions of Johanna’? Well again here I take my cue from Clinton Heylin who also uses the imagery of fire to describe Dylan: indeed as Northrop Frye used the metaphor of a ‘thief of fire’ when referring to William Blake, so Clinton Heylin uses this same metaphor: ‘a thief of fire’ when referring to Bob Dylan. And this comes in the chapter of Clinton’s biography headed ‘1965 – 1966: Seems Like A Freeze Out’.(101) (‘Freeze Out’ being of course the original and alternative title for the song ‘Visions of Johanna’).

I have in fact previously mentioned the section of Clinton’s biography where he refers to Dylan as ‘a thief of fire’ (102) but as a reminder, the description relates to the period when Dylan had just put the finishing touches to ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and before he embarked upon the 1966 world tour. The passage is coloured with some words from the French poet Arthur Rimbaud that Clinton applies to Dylan’s prevailing personna. I am compelled to repeat the extract here:

‘He was once again required to be a thief of fire, to play before unknowing eyes in Hawaii, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, France, and then England again. As he boarded the plane in L.A., he perhaps recalled Rimbaud’s sobering thoughts about confronting the unknown: “(When) the poet makes himself a seer…..he reaches (into) the unknown and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them!”. It seemed the crazier Dylan became, the more durable the visions that remained.’(102)

Now although in this article I have, with the assistance of two respected biographers, drawn together William Blake and Bob Dylan as being thieves of fire in respect of their visions, I am not meant to be writing here about the visions of either William Blake or Bob Dylan at all, I am meant to be writing about the visions of Johanna. So, to get me back on track, I need to refer to the mainstay character of my view of ‘Visions of Johanna’, namely Joan of Arc who, in death, was of course a virgin consumed by fire. And here I again refer to those colours of the brilliant red of the flames that licked the flesh from her body to leave only a skeleton state and the brilliant white that represents the purity of her virginity, a state that was of such importance to her. In those colours is found another union, this time of flame and purity which I see as resembling Blake’s union of heat and light. The union produced by fire; that very same fire that consumed Joan of Arc.

The matter of fire is very much bound up in the story of Joan of Arc because every one knows that she was ‘burned at the stake’ and everyone knows that being ‘burned at the stake’ means that a fire is lit under you and that you are burned alive. In his book ‘Joan of Arc’ Edward Lucie-Smith(103) gives a somewhat chilling account of Joan’s last moments:

‘The fire was lit, and the flames and smoke began to envelop the victim until she was almost hidden from view. Joan took some time to die, so long that the executioner afterwards said that the execution had been exceptionally cruel. Since the scaffold had been built so high, he could not climb up to despatch her, as was usual, and he was therefore forced to leave her to the fire……As the pyre blazed up, she cried for holy water.’(104)

It is this image of the death of Joan of Arc, this matter of being burned alive, that I want now to introduce into the picture of ‘Visions of Johanna' that I am endeavouring to paint, for in my view this image illuminates one of the most baffling, intriguing, and yet wonderful lines Dylan has ever written. But first, let me refer to William Blake’s union of heat and light for these elements are not only an exquisite combination produced by fire, but they are also used in the first verse of Dylans song:

4th line : Light (s) flicker from the opposite loft
5th line: In this room the heat pipes just cough

If we burn away all the intervening words so that those two elements stand next to each other we have a fire - which is ‘the greatest possible combination in this world of heat and light’.

I have already likened he opening scene of ‘Visions of Johanna' to the epilogue of Shaw’s play Saint Joan(105) and in particular by cross-referring Dylan’s ‘lights flicker’ to Shaw’s more drawn out setting:

The walls are hung from ceiling to floor with painted curtains which stir at times in the draughts. At first glance the prevailing yellow and red in these hanging pictures is somewhat flamelike when the folds breathe in the wind’.

It is in those moving painted curtains that Shaw wants his audience to see flames and it is flames that I see when Dylan sings about the lights that ‘flicker from the opposite loft’ in ‘Visions of Johanna'. The flame of a candle perhaps, the flame of a lighted match, but a flame and not an electric light. And of course, to get a flame you must have fire.

There is another use of ‘light’ in ‘Visions of Johanna' and it comes in the third line of the second verse:

‘We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight

In my picture of the song, the important word in this line is not however ‘flashlight’ but it is ‘click’. A ‘click’, when used in this sense, denotes the turning ‘on’ or the turning ‘off’ of something. We are not told however whether the night watchman’s flashlight is currently ‘on’ or ‘off’, that is left to our imagination, we are only told that that the ‘click’ of turning the flashlight ‘on’ or ‘off’ can be heard. So, what do you think: is it ‘on’ or is it ‘off’? It could go either way!

What cannot go either way is the question of whether the radio station, which plays country music in the 6th line of the first verse, is turned (or ‘clicked’) ‘on’ or ‘off’. It is obviously turned continuously ‘on’ because ‘there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off.’

I have previously mentioned that the word ‘click’ is important to my picture of the song and its importance is attached to the combination of electricity and fire. When I referred to the ‘lights’ that ‘flicker’ in the fourth line of the first verse I said that I saw those lights as flames. Clearly however, the appliances – the flashlight and the radio - that can be turned ‘off’ or ‘on’ in the subsequent lines are powered by electricity. But what happens if you leave an electric fire turned continuously ‘on’? It will eventually burn the house down and the flames that ensue become the ghost (the aftermath or afterlife) of electricity.

In his 1948 film ‘Joan of Arc’ Victor Fleming had Ingrid Bergman playing the role of Saint Joan. There is a classic ending to the film, shots of Joan being burned at the stake, flames enveloping her distraught character. As the flames grow higher, she starts to cough from the heat and the smoke before she is lost from view and the fire burns the flesh from her face. In relating this stark perception of Saint Joan burning at the stake to ‘Visions of Johanna' I want to bring some images of physicality to certain lines of the song: the lights that flicker in the fourth line of the first verse are, in my picture, from the pyre that has been lit under her; the heat(ed) pipes that ‘ just cough’ in the 5th line are Joan’s own vocal chords that are affected by heat and smoke; and that intriguing, baffling and wonderful line

The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face’

represents the image of the flames burning the flesh from her very bones.

Being thus absorbed by such interpretations, my brush strokes become more furious: if you stand very close to a fire, you cannot look into the flames because of the heat and the glare. In the second line of the final verse of ‘Visions of Johanna' the question is asked Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?’ and this could have been a question asked of everyone standing close to the fire that devoured Joan of Arc. She, who wore a cape in battle and was acclaimed victorious by peasant and gentry alike ( ‘her cape of the stage once had flowed’) and she who was subsequently imprisoned and only released to be burned alive ( ‘we see this empty cage now corrode’).The wood for her funeral pyre had been loaded on to a truck (‘on the back of a fish truck that loads’); the executioner (‘fiddler’) steps up to light the fire ( the fiddler, he now steps to the road) and, in lighting the fire, he knows that soon Joan will soon be turned to ashes and dust from whence she came (‘evry’ things been returned which was owed’). Then, as the fire takes her, an explosion occurs, an instantaneous combination of heat and light that completes her execution (‘while my conscience explodes’). And a skeleton will be all that remains. All graphic images. But that is what my picture is all about. I am turning the song into a visual study of movement and colour.

In my previous research about what others thought of ‘Visions of Johanna’ I mentioned Stephen Scobie’s 37 page booklet on the song(106) and I noted that he said that the line ‘the ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face’ was ‘his favourite Dylan line’. I also mentioned that Stephen Scobie drew attention to the author John Herdman who likened this line to French Symbolist poetry by writing:

It ‘finely exemplifies Baudelaire’s theory of correspondances and might well have been written by Rimbaud’.

I also remarked on how Stephen Scobie enthused further about this particular line:

‘It is a beautiful line; it is a terrifying line. Perhaps it speaks of a ravaged, hollowed-out beauty in Louise’s face; but it also speaks of death and imprisonment’.

I agree, the line has solid connotations to the physical states of both death and imprisonment. In my view however, it also expresses great colour: the brilliant red of flame and the brilliant white of pureity. These colours, together the images connected to the other lines I have mention form a whole. And that whole represents, in the corner of my canvass, Joan of Arc burning at the stake.

 

(96) ‘Fearful Symmetry – A Study of William Blake’ by Northrop Frye. First published by Princeton University Press in 1947. Published in paperback by Princeton Paperbacks in 1969.
(97) Freewheelin’ 203. Part 13. Like Ice, Like Fire’.
(98) ‘Fearful Symmetry’ paperback. Page 195.
(99) Ibid. Page 196.
(100) Ibid. Page 197.
(101) Behind the Shades: Take 2. Paperback edition. Page 243.
(102) Freewheelin’ 189. Part 1. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’.
(103) Joan of Arc by Edward Lucie-Smith published by Allen Lane in 1976. Publishes as Classic Penguin in paperback 2000.
(104) Ibid. Paperback. Page 283.
(105) Freewheelin’ 205. Part 14. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’.
(106) Freewheelin’ 199. Part 10 ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’

 
 
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