1427 words on

 The Solitary Hero and Isis

 by Patrick J. Webster


To continue: in ‘Isis’ we find a man acting out the solitary nature of the archetypal Wild Western hero, a hero who is self-reliant, independent and, above all, free of female dependency. This is apparent from the beginning of the narrative, wherein the hero marries an exotic  woman (whom, for reasons not clearly defined, has the name of an Egyptian goddess), but then, for reasons unexplained, feels compelled to leave her:


I married Isis on the fifth day of May,

But I could not hold on to her very long.

So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away

For the wild and unknown country where I could not go wrong ...  


The song itself offers little in the way of a direct answer to the question: why this man cannot stay with this woman, why he could not hold on to her for very long. It merely expresses a need for the woman, but also expresses a need for adventure and freedom, together with the paradox of needing them both at the same time.


From his public comments it would seem that Dylan perceives the song as having marriage at its core. In concert performances he often prefaced the song by referring to it from this perspective: 

Listen closely, this is a true story, it could happen to any man. This is about the marriage ceremony between man and woman, it’s what happens when you get married. It’s called ‘Isis’.

However, this would hardly seem to be Dylan’s actual intent, if the song is about marriage it would seem to be about marriage of a wholly different kind. Thus, far from being a song about a conventional marriage, the song seems more concerned with what  the narrator of the song does after he has married the woman called Isis, with what happens when he is absent from the company of women, and what happens when he is in the company of other men. One might recall here Leslie Fieldler’s phrase ‘the holy marriage of males’ as portrayed in American literature, and this, I would suggest, is closer to the actual nature of marriage within the song. 


The first thing the narrator does after removing himself from Isis’s feminine influence is to cut off his hair. A number of critics of Dylan’s work have speculated over the meaning of this. To Aidan Day it implied a loss of creative energy and a sense of purification; similarly, Stephen Scobie saw it as undergoing a ritual purification.  Wilfrid Mellers perceived the removal of the hero’s hair as asserting a male dominance before embarking on male adventure. Whilst to John Herdman the act was  a shedding of complexity, a way of seeking simplicity. All these readings would seem valid, there is certainly a ritualistic element to the act; and it would seem fair to say Dylan’s hero cuts off his hair to prepare himself for the ordeal ahead, as if he were a penitent readying himself for the trials to come. However, I would see the act as ultimately pointing to a masculine stereotype, since it is culturally the norm for men to have shorter hair than women. The cutting of one’s hair, and especially shaving, demonstrates a control over one of the main visible masculine indicators of maturing sexuality; shaving is an initiation into manhood. Thus, in a sense, the act can  ultimately be seen as emphasising (or performing) gender identity.


The narrator may have decided to leave the heterosexual embrace of a newly married wife, but - like the act of cutting off one’s hair - the song seems to have a continual anxiety to hold to the dominant ideology of a ‘normal’ heterosexual identity. As the first verse tells us, the narrator rides straight away, and whilst he may be heading for a wild unknown country (arguably the wild and unknown country of his sexuality) there is still the insistence that he cannot go wrong. In other words, one reading of the song suggests the hero is determined he will not stray from a rigidly defined heterosexual structure, an idea emphasised in the second verse: 

I came to a high place of darkness and light.

The dividing line ran through the centre of town.

I hitched up my pony to a post on the right

Went into the laundry to wash my clothes down ...

There are oppositions apparent here: darkness and light, high and low places, right and left, or perhaps even right and wrong. However, what seems crucial is the fact that the hero chooses the right hand option. In other words, he is insistent on following the rational, dominant and conventional ideological route. To choose the post on the right might be read as suggesting the normal over the perverse, and hence, at least within the context of a ‘Fieldlerian’ reading, it might be seen as suggestive of  further restating an insistence to maintain a loyalty to a heterosexual structure. Furthermore, the narrator goes into a laundry to wash his clothes down; this, like the cutting off of his hair, could be seen as a way of suggesting cleanliness and righteousness; in other words the opposite to any kind of transgression.


In the laundry an encounter occurs which greatly augments the narrative: 

A man in the corner approached me for a match.

I knew right away he was not ordinary.

He said, ‘Are you lookin’ for somethin’ easy to catch?’

I said, ‘I got no money.’ He said, ‘That ain’t necessary.’

The nature of the meeting is redolent with ambiguity, the words ‘match’ and ‘catch’ both seem to possess dual connotations. On a literal level the word ‘match’ suggests the stranger may merely want to light a cigarette, but on another level it could be seen as a blatant proposal to enter into a relationship of a reciprocal kind. In a similar way, the word ‘catch’ resonates with an equivocal intent. In one sense it is an economic invitation to make a quick profit, but the word also  resonates forward in time to a line later in verse eight; ‘When he died I was hopin’ it wasn’t contagious’. The song was written in a pre-aids universe of 1975., but it nonetheless retains a subversive quality. There is still the sense of infraction in the words ‘contagious’ and  ‘catch’, of some kind of unknown exchange having taken place, an exchange that has implications for both of the men concerned. There is certainly a feeling of tension within the relationship between the two men; these men are not ‘two drifters off to see the world’. There is a sense of  anticipation, a sense of anxiety that points towards something both hermetic and impenetrable.


It should be noted that few critics of Dylan’s work have, as yet, shown an awareness of the ambiguous tensions in the song. However, Paul Hodson is an exception, and has written that: ‘  “Isis” is one of several [Dylan] songs shot through with sexuality about men’ and, furthermore, that ‘ the relationships between Dylan’s men are complex, developing and rarely summed up. I would agree with this statement, and, in the light of this, Jane Tompkins’ description of the repressed, covert sexuality between men in Westerns might be seen as applicable to the two men in the song: 

‘... the hero frequently forms a bond with another man - sometimes  his rival, more often his comrade - a bond that is more important than any relationship he has with a woman and is frequently tinged with homo-eroticism.’

Thus, I would argue it is possible to see a connection between the actions of the men in Westerns and the men in Dylan’s song. As Hodson suggests, the relationship between the two men in ‘Isis’ (as with many other men elsewhere in Dylan’s work), is rarely summed up, there is an ambivalence that the reader or listener can never actually define.


To be continued