Standing Inside the Rain

by Patrick J. Webster

1204 words on

signifiers and signifieds


One of the interesting features of reading Freehwheeliní is to perceive of the way Bob Dylanís work is continually encoded and decoded in a refreshingly untheorised way. It is refreshing because my work causes me to look at literary texts in a consistently theoretical way. Now I donít want to comment again on the merits of literary theory - of a postmodern or poststructuralist approach to cultural objects. Michael Grey much disparaged such an approach in his book, Song and Dance Man III - in what I thought was mostly an unfair and biased manner, what I thought culminated into an almost philistine decrying of a set of ideas that are - I should add - not without some virtues and some redeeming features.

One of the central concepts of theory is structuralism, and one of the main tenets of structuralist thinking is that the linguistic connection between the signifier and signified is completely arbitrary. To put that into English: structuralist theory states that there is no correspondence between a word and the thing the word signifies; for example, there is no sense of catishness about the word cat and the small animal with fur and whiskers that goes ĎMeow!í.

Thus I want to take one word - one signifier - and look at it from a structuralist and at least a quasi -poststructuralist perspective - an exercise that I hope will demonstrate how we can view Bob Dylanís work in a theoretical context. I have attempted to do this before in Freewheeliní, much to the irritation of some members of the club - however, seeing we now have a different collection of writers - writing for the magazine - I thought I would see if I would get any takers.

One of the primary advantages a theoretical approach offers is to permit a view of Dylanís work from a perspective outside of biographical interpretation. Perhaps I should state my position here: the work of Bob Dylan bears no relationship at all to the life of the person we know as Bob Dylan - none whatsoever. I do not wish to appear arrogant but the many pieces written inside of Freewheeliní in the last fifteen or so years, (and the many books, essays, papers, articles and so on outside of Freewheeliní over the last forty years) that attempt to link DylanĻs life to his art are wholly and completely specious. To take such an approach reveals nothing of any value. We are able to witness almost nothing about Bob Dylanís life, we are able to witness almost everything about Bob Dylanís art. We can never really know the truth about a personís life. Consider this, consider yourselves, does anyone know the truth about your sex-life other than yourself? It is my belief that the many biographies of Bob Dylan merely betray the repressed fears and desires those authors have towards themselves and their subject - they reveal only the fractures and aporia in the hero worship of one man by an audience of (primarily) other men.

Thus I want to look instead at Dylanís work purely as a textual creation. To consider one word, the seemingly simple signifier rain and then go on to consider the multiplicity of encodings and decodings we can perceive within it.

It is a word that occurs throughout Dylanís work in a range of significantly privileged ways. The word, is defined via the OED as follows: Ďcondensed water droplets falling visibly from the skyí. This we would all probably agree on, however from a structuralist point of view the linguistic utterance of the word as spoken, the shape of the four letters: r a i n, have little to do with that definition - there is no quality of rain in the word rain. But of more interest, the word in Dylanís work rarely employs such a literal encoding. If one looks at this word - we are required to decode it in a metaphoric and at times even a symbolic way - if we want to strive to fully understand its meaning.

For example, the word has a range of oppositions, interestingly it is often placed in binary opposition to the word love:

Everyone is either making love or else expecting rain
Father of love and father of rain
Walk out in the rain ... if you donít want my love itís a pity
Rain would gather too ... without your love Iíd be nothing at all

I am confident this readership can place all the above quotations into the relevant sources. A structuralist listener to Dylanís work would thus be striving to make some oppositional connection here. He and she would also be aware that the word often has connotations of physical violence:

They threw his body down a gulf amidst a blood red rain
A hard rainís a gonna fall
Your wifeís screams a stabbing you like the dirty driving rain
I donít mind the pain, donĻt mind the driving rain

Furthermore, and this is moving towards a more metaphorical discourse, the word at times (notably in the mid-1960s) ostensibly appeared to have connotations concealed within a range of drug cultural references:

Louise holds a handful of rain
The rainman comes with his magic wand
Now the rainman gave me two cures
Tonight as I stand inside the rain
When youíre lost in the rain in Juarez and its Eastertime too

So what can we say about this? We have a range of uses of a signifier within a body of textual creations wherein the signifier is rarely used in a literal way. Could we presume this is of conscious or unconscious design? And how do we, as listeners, make sense of such a range of complex messages?

I would maintain that we can perceive of a clear and consistent ideological design here. The word rain, the seemingly simple signifier rain, is used by Dylan to set up a richly social and symbolic world of oppositions. The notion of rain becomes consistently negative, it suggests a loss or a lack of a love object, it suggests a violent outcome, it suggests a world in which recourse to drugs leads only to a state of prolonged deprivation.

Of course the word is also used in a literal sense, as in:

And the rain beats down and the cranes fly away
On the fifth day of May in the drizzling rain
Standing in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck

But these are the exceptions, rather than the norm. Perhaps what Dylan is really doing is something much bigger - perhaps Christopher Ricks is right in his opinion that Dylan is the greatest living user of American English - perhaps Dylan is simply documenting his times - perhaps we need to attend to the vast range of complexities Dylanís work offers and to refrain from attending to the physical being as some kind of homosocial icon.

Next month I will return to the reading of ĎBoots of Spanish Leatherí, however, I merely attempt here to try and set the proverbial record straight - fully aware of multiple range of encodings and decodings in all those diverse signifiers - record - straight - reading and so on.

Dylan to DylanDylan to Dylan