1283 words on


 by Patrick J. Webster


To continue: the question that arises from the argument I began to explore last time might, one supposes, point as to whether one could see travel in itself as a gendering experience, in other words to travel gives one the essence of assuming a particular gender. A number of cultural theorists have explored the issue; for example, Janet Wolff has argued that ‘the practices and ideologies of actual travel operated to exclude or pathologise women’ and that there is ‘something intrinsically masculine about travel’.(1) As to what extent this is true is, it seems to me, problematical to ascertain, but it would seem hard to accept that travel is in itself intrinsically gendered. It would seem too simplistic to say that men naturally travel simply because they are men; and, in any case, women do travel, both in life and in art.(2) 

It would appear that historically the ability to travel has as much to do with such issues as wealth and class as it has to do with gender. However, on the other hand, it would seem true to say that there is a biological imperative at work here. In a certain sense women have not been as empowered to travel as men, in so much as the experience of the vast majority of adult females for a large part of human history has consisted primarily of pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing. Furthermore, it has been suggested that much of the travelling undertaken by men is stimulated by a reproductive motive. Eric J. Leed has described this desire to travel as a ‘spermatic journey’, that travel is ‘stimulated by ... a search for temporal extensions of self in children, only achievable through the agency of women’(3) In other words, men travel to spread their genes whilst women, because of practical necessities, do not. 

In a similar vein Erik Erikson has argued that it is: ‘The physical design of the human body; the inner space of the womb and the vagina, which signifies women’s biological, psychological and moral commitment to motherhood, and the possession of the penis predisposes men to be concerned with achievement and exploration’.(4)

The idea that many girls tended to make enclosed domestic scenes, led Erikson to claim the importance of  ‘inner space’ for women, something that was ‘deeply rooted in their biological construction’.(5) Thus, the physical design of the body: the inner space of the vagina and womb, contrasted against the outer projected penis, offers a predisposal to the gender roles within society. In other words, women stay at home and men push out into the wilderness, at least this would appear to be the conclusion of Erikson’s argument.

However, it would seem to me that such a view is overly reductive, I would argue against such a deterministic point of view. I would suggest, in the light of these arguments, (particularly of Janet Wolff’s), that travel, rather than being seen as gendered in some way, could itself be seen as a gendering experience. In other words, by travelling one actually derives or performs some sense of masculinity or femininity, and the fact that, within the discourse of Dylan’s work, there is a consistent reference to masculine travel raises a number of significant issues. Some of these issues are played out in an early, unreleased Dylan song,’Rambling, Gambling Willie’ (1962); a title that, in itself, could be seen as a pun on movement, freedom and male sexuality.(6) In the song a likable character called Willie O’Conley spends the entire narrative rambling and gambling around America, doing those things a man presumably has ’gotta do’. Willie has had ‘twenty-seven children but never had a wife,’ however, he has supported his children and ‘all their mothers too’,(7) or at least he has in a material sense, for he is unwilling or unable to be present with them in person for any length of time. The reason why Willie cannot be present is unstated in the song, one assumes that Willie is too busy out in the rambling, gambling world of men, where, unsurprisingly, he eventually suffers a violent death at the hands of another man. 

Thus the narrative of the song can be seen as suggesting not only a need to be on the road, but also a need to escape from a feminine and familial sphere of influence. This is, I would argue, a significant constituent in reading the performative element present within the construct of masculinity in Dylan’s work. The men in Bob Dylan¹s songs have a continual desire to leave women in order to confront a wilderness of which women are not a part; in one sense at least this is what it means to be a man.

This idea is readily discernible throughout Dylan’s canon. For example, in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ (1975), the male narrator feels compelled to seek the wilderness, to confront his inner self in the song’ s ‘great north woods’.  In ‘Up to Me’ (1975) the masculine narrator tells the woman he is involved with: ‘One of us had to hit the road I guess it must be up to me’,(8) and one notes, of course, that it is the man who must do this.

The road is, I would argue, one of the most important symbolic tropes in Dylan’s work. It becomes a way of life in itself: ‘My life is the road that I walk’, Dylan told an interviewer in the early 1960’s.(9) In the construct of  Dylan’s work the road also turns out to be a way of life. One way of escaping the dilemma of life is to keep travelling, to keep on moving, to ‘keep on keeping on’ as Dylan puts it. The men in Dylan’s songs live on ‘lifes hurried tangled road’(10) they are ‘still on the road heading for another joint’(11) they are ‘walking the road, living on the edge’(12) they are ‘still pushing themselves along the road’(13). 

‘I’m still very patriotic to the highway’, Dylan told Playboy magazine in  March, 1966,(14) and, in an interview from the 1960s, Dylan appeared to encompass the whole issue when he said: ‘What hangs everybody up is the fact that I’m not stopping’.(15) This is, I would argue, a significant remark; like Dylan himself the men in his songs are not stopping, and the idea of constantly resisting containment becomes a template on which to draw a sense of the self, specifically the sense of the self as a man; a performative way of constructing a sense of a gendered identity. 

To be continued ...

1.  Janet Wolff, Resident Alien: Feminist Cultural Criticism (Cambridge: Polity Press. 1995) pp 115,122
For example, consider the diverse range of women travellers delineated in The Virago Book of Women Travellers, ed Mary Morris (London: Virago).
Cited in Wolff, p.123
Cited in Gerda Siann, Gender, Sex and Sexuality: Contemporary Psychological Perspectives. (London: Taylor and Francis 1994) p.29
  Cited in Peter Schwenger, Phallic Critiques: Masculinity and Twentieth Century Literature (London : Routledge, 1984) p.2.
Whether an American writer would be aware of this word play is questionable. However, this is a reading that could be made of the text.
Lyrics, p.11
  Lyrics, p.371
Transcribed from a tape recording of an interview with Studs Terkel WFMT FM Radio Chicago 1 May 1963
  ‘Ballad of Donald White’ Lyrics, p.31
‘Tangled Up In Blue’ Lyrics, p.359
‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’ Lyrics, p.342
‘I and I’ Lyrics, p.481
Reprinted in Craig McGregor, Bob Dylan: A retrospective (New York: William Morrow, 1972), pp 124-145 (p.143)
Robert Shelton, No direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (London: New English Library. 1986) p.358