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THE MISSIONARY TIMES


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

 by J. R. Stokes

 

Part 22. Love & Marriage & the Cruelty of Visions

If I ignore the voice of the poet and do look back then I have to say that, actually, I am not sure if the way that I have tried to interpret Dylan’s classic song ‘Visions of Johanna’ over the last 21 parts in the mega-series has really worked. I appreciate that it is all a bit late now to have doubts and second thoughts, especially as all of those 21 parts have been published in one form or another, and thus I can’t adopt the tempestuous stance taken by many an artist of  tearing it up, ripping it apart and starting all over again.

My problem is that I have endeavoured to interpret the song in a pictorial sense and in pursuit of some kind of artistic perfection, or at least some kind of satisfaction, I have introduced numerous characters and images into my portrayal of the song so that, ultimately, all those individual images will make my complete picture.  Unlike you, I can actually see that picture in front of me: I know the colours I have used, I know where I am  and I know what moves I have to make to continue and complete. My doubts and second thoughts arise, not from my perspective of the interpretation, but from yours, dear reader, and in particular those dear readers who, when faced with any interpretation of a Dylan song (let alone a pictorial one) scramble to the top of their hill to wave a banner which shouts: ‘YOU CAN THINK FOR YOURSELF’. How can I possibly expect you to see like me, feel like me and be like me? Hey, you’re probably not getting it all! 

A fundamental difficulty in the way I have been endeavouring to interpret ‘Visions of Johanna’ is that, with a picture, the viewer can look at every ingredient in one instant. Every brush stroke that has been used, every colour, every aspect of light and shade, every nuance of movement is frozen to be witnessed at just one glance. In a literary interpretation on the other hand, and especially one that has, to date, involved 21 parts, those brush strokes, those colours, those aspects of light and shade, those nuances of movement are buried deep within the words contained in those 21 parts. After all, colours are colours and words are words: the two are mutually exclusive. But, I repeat: I can actually see that picture in front of me and it is made up of the words I have used. 

So what do I do? Do I cut off my ear and abandon my picture of ‘Visions of Johanna’ right here and now just because you are not getting it? Or do I trust myself and follow a course which may have been set for me in some foggy web of destiny, believing that my time is well spent no matter what you say with your banner. And let me just say that money doesn’t come into it for no price could be put on the time I have honestly taken. What kind of life is this anyway where everything has to measured in pocket change? This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco. I’m not here to make money and get laid.  And, sure as hell, this ain’t no GUFF! So what do I do? 

(Sometime later – after dark). Well, bugger that. I am not doing this for you anyway. So this jumble of words, this unframed canvas, this septic file, may be discarded in the corner of someone’s attic or it may be hung in the Royal Academy. It matters not. I am here to do what must be done. And when I put down my pen and my brushes and say ‘It is finished’ let the devil decide if I was right or wrong. 

Now the foregoing may have either cleared the air or got me into deeper shit, but I am still left with that dilemma of bringing into focus some images that have been buried deep within my 21 written parts. In fact, the images to which I now wish to refer, in continuing my pictorial study of ‘Visions of Johanna’, are contained in Part 15: a part which had the sub-title  ‘A Matter of Heat and Light’. For the purpose of completing the corner of the canvas that currently confronts me, those previous images which relate to (a) fire; (b) marriage; and (c) heat and light contained in part 15 must, for the benefit of my readers without a  banner, now again be coloured in. 

The  image of ‘fire’ in my Part 15 mainly centred upon the use of the expression ‘Thief of Fire’ as adopted by the critic Northrop Frye when referring to the works of William Blake and also used by the author Clinton Heylin when referring to Bob Dylan at about the time that Dylan recorded ‘Visions of Johanna’. Dealing firstly with Mr. Frye, I included  extracts from his book ‘ Fearful Symmetry – A Study of William Blake’ (148) and  I mentioned that this critic headed chapter 7 of his book ‘The Thief of Fire’. I recorded that, in  this particular chapter, Frye dealt, among other things, with the work ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, a collection of poetry and prose that Blake completed in 1789. Joining together this idea of a ‘marriage’ or a ‘wedding’ being linked to ‘fire’ and to a ‘union of heat and light’, I  observed the following:

‘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.’  

‘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’ . 

So much for Mr. Frye, when I came to Mr. Heylin, I reported his use of the expression, ‘ a thief of fire’ when referring to Dylan as follows: 

‘….. 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.’ (149) 

I then went on to take these references to ‘thieves of fire’ a little further and put them into the context of my picture, or at least the stage of my picture that I had reached in part 15. I wrote as follows: 

‘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.’ (150) 

To make this current part 22 of my series even more vivid I could quote further great chunks of part 15 relating to (a) fire; (b) marriage; and (c) heat and light but one can get tired of all this repetition and you will just have to believe me when I say that I set out various lines from ‘Visions of Johanna’ that related to these matters. Believe me, or go back to Part 15 and read it again. Either way, the fact is that that was then and this is now, and all this preparation has been for the purpose of presenting another face into this particular corner of my canvass. So let me introduce you: 

6. Enter Leonard Cohen 

There is in fact a direct link between the works of face number 5 (Charles Baudelaire. French poet born in 1821) and face number 6 (Leonard Cohen, Canadian poet and singer born in 1934) that I have painted into this corner of my canvas. When, in the last part of this series, I brought the image of Charles Baudelaire into the frame, I dealt at some length with his collection of poems Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) and I quoted an extract from ‘The Martyr’ a poem in this collection. I likened certain verses of ‘The Martyr’, which concludes as follows, to  Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’: 

Far from the ravening courts, and the crowds,
      And the scurrilous world,
Stunning enigma, sleep peacefully now,
      Hermetically sealed.

He roams the earth, and your immortal form
      Lies with him where he lies –

The constant bride beside her faithful groom,
      To the end of his days.’

The ‘direct link’ which  I have previously mentioned is that Cohen took the  title to one of the songs of his debut album ‘The Songs of Leonard Cohen’, released in 1967,  straight from the title to a poem in Baudelaire’s collection Les Fleurs du mal. The song in question is ‘Sisters of Mercy’, and, like Baudelaire’s poem of the same name involves images of family, flowers and sin! 

There is a stunning version of ‘Sisters of Mercy’ on the album ‘Cohen Live – Leonard Cohen in Concert’ released in 1994. The songs on this album were recorded live in Canada in 1993 and just two steps away from  ‘Sisters of Mercy’ on the album is another song that appears on the 1971 album ‘Songs of Love and Hate’. It is a song that has all the ingredients that were contained in Part 15 of this series and to which I have previously referred namely (a) fire; (b) marriage; and (c) heat and light. One of the aspects that strikes a match in me about this song, when specifically putting it alongside Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’ however is that, in the conclusion of the song, Cohen refers to the images of ‘love and light’ as being ‘so cruel’ which, is exactly how Dylan saw the visions of Johanna in the penultimate version of his song. The Cohen song in question has the title ‘Joan of Arc’ and I now set out the verses of the song in full. 

Now the flames they followed Joan of Arc
as she came riding through the dark;
no moon to keep her armour bright,
no man to get her through this very smoky night.
She said, "I'm tired of the war,
I want the kind of work I had before,
a wedding dress or something white
to wear upon my swollen appetite."

Well, I'm glad to hear you talk this way,
you know I've watched you riding every day
and something in me yearns to win
such a cold and lonesome heroine.
"And who are you?" she sternly spoke
to the one beneath the smoke.
"Why, I'm fire," he replied,
"And I love your solitude, I love your pride."

"Then fire, make your body cold,
I'm going to give you mine to hold,"
saying this she climbed inside
to be his one, to be his only bride.
And deep into his fiery heart
he took the dust of Joan of Arc,
and high above the wedding guests
he hung the ashes of her wedding dress.

It was deep into his fiery heart
he took the dust of Joan of Arc,
and then she clearly understood
if he was fire, oh then she must be wood.
I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself I long for love and light,
but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?’

So I have likened certain senses in Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna' to both Baudelaire’s ‘The Martyr’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Joan of Arc’ (who was probably the most famous martyr that has ever lived). There is however another link between ‘The Martyr’ and ‘Joan of Arc’, and this in the references to marriage; both ‘victims’ of the works being referred to as brides:

Baudelaire:

‘He roams the earth, and your immortal form
      Lies with him where he lies –
The constant bride beside her faithful groom,
      To the end of his days.’

Cohen: 

"Then fire, make your body cold,
I'm going to give you mine to hold,"
saying this she climbed inside
to be his one, to be his only bride.
And deep into his fiery heart
he took the dust of Joan of Arc,
and high above the wedding guests
he hung the ashes of her wedding dress.’

So where is the business of marriages and brides leading? Let me bring Dylan back into the frame. There is a recorded instance when Dylan and Leonard Cohen became relatively close. It was during the Rolling Thunder tour and, to be exact, on the 4th December 1975 at the Forum De Montreal, in Quebec, Canada. During the show that night Dylan performed the song ‘Isis’ and, as has already been pointed out by the insightful Patrick Webster. (151) Dylan introduced the song thus: 

‘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’. 

Dylan dedicated the song to someone in the audience and as his wife Sara was siting in the front row, and as this couple had just a week and a half before celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary, it would be natural to think that he dedicated the song to her.  But no, it was dedicated to someone else in the audience, someone who had himself sung about a mystical marriage and the cruelty of love and light. On that particular night Dylan dedicated the song to Leonard Cohen. (152) 

In my eyes, all  these connections from Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’ to Baudelaire’s ‘The Martyr’ to Cohen’s ‘Joan of Arc’ and all that has gone before represent instances of relative colour; aspects of light and shade;  nuances of movement and circumstance that are woven fine into the final picture. It matters not to me that the sum total of these connections do not have the power to tear down the banners of the disgruntled, for such banners are barriers to the imagination in any event. The centrepiece of my study not only physically tore down the banners of those who opposed her but also crossed the barriers that had restrained those of her kind.  But then she was favoured with a special power: the power of She. 

And, finally……….next time……

 

(148) ‘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.

(149) Behind the Shades: Take 2. Paperback edition. Page 243.

(150) Freewheelin’ 206. Part 15 ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’.

(151) Freewheelin 215. Isis Part  V.

(152) Behind the Shades: Take 2. Paperback edition. Page 429.

 
 
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