1542 words on

 Isis and the Search for the Pole

 by Patrick J. Webster


To continue: the two men begin their journey:

We set out that night for the cold in the North.
I gave him my blanket, he gave me his word.
I said, ‘Where are we goin’?’ He said we’d be back by the fourth.
I said, ‘That’s the best news that I’ve ever heard.’

One notes that the two men leave at night and that they head for the cold and the north, these being harsh, masculine images that stand in opposition to Isis’s feminine southern world of lightness and warmth. There is a sense that these are men braving the elements, undergoing ordeals that exact superhuman effort. As in the Western, what is at stake here is a getting away from the triviality of life into something that seems real, something that calls ‘the whole soul of man into being,’ into a sense of action that ‘totally saturates the present moment,’ that totally absorbs the body and the mind, and directs one’s life to ‘ the service of an unquestionable goal’. The goal of the two men in ‘Isis’ would appear to be a search for treasure, but, within the  discourse of the adopted Western genre, the goal could be interpreted as having a greater significance. To borrow from Tompkins, the two men are in: 

‘... a world without God, without ideas, without institutions, without what is commonly recognised as culture, a world of men and things, where male adults in the prime of life find ultimate meaning in doing their best together on the job.’

Further to this, the sense of bonding between the two men, as they look for an ultimate meaning together, is enhanced by the exchange of possessions, quoted above, in verse four. The narrator gives the stranger his blanket and receives in return the man’s word. The gift of a blanket suggests a certain sense of intimacy, what might be seen as almost a feminising gift indicating comfort and warmth. Whilst the gift of ‘his word’ offers a further element of ambiguity. In a sense the song could be read as a tract concerning the male ownership of language. One man giving another man ‘his word’ could be read not merely in the sense of swearing a promise but also describing the ownership of language itself. Allen Ginsberg may have described Isis as a ‘Lady Language Creator,’ however, the discourse of the song - and our theoretical construct of language - betrays this idea. Whilst it is interesting to note that the narrator can remember other information about Isis, (the way that she smiled - in verse thirteen) he cannot remember her words, her use of language, (he cannot remember the best things she said - in verse six). Isis, as a woman, does not own language, her gender lacks the universal signifier of language and thus her words are relatively unimportant and are easily forgotten, whereas the male gift of ‘the word’ is of significance.  In a symbolic and a literal sense both men possess the phallus, Lacan’s universal arbiter of sexuality, the key signifier of meaning, the ultimately privileged signifier. Thus there is a sense here in which men own language, they give each other their word, and use language to control women. 

In the fifth verse a materialist motive for the journey is suggested:

I was thinkin’ about turquoise, I was thinkin’ about gold,
I was thinkin’ about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace.
As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold,
I was thinkin’ about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless.

As indicated previously, there is an implication that a quest for treasure, for fabulous wealth, may be the real purporse of the journey, putting the song within a common genre of adventure story. However, material greed is an incidental incentive, far from   a prospect of gold and diamonds, it is the idea that Isis will find the narrator ‘so reckless’ that is of primary importance.  Once again a contradiction is inferred, the male narrator may have achieved his wish of finding himself within an exclusively masculine environment, but nonetheless his thoughts are still concerned with the female presence he has left behind. 

The two men continue their journey and eventually reach the pyramids, which are, somewhat improbably it must be said, buried in ice. It is at this point that the narrator’s companion reveals that it is a body he is really looking for. There is an ambiguity and a tension to the line, when the narrator informs us: ‘Twas then that I knew what he had on his mind.’ However, as to what the man may have actually had on his mind is left unspoken. In a conspicuous gap in the narrative, an elision, an aporia, in what one might describe as an ‘Iserian blank’, the stranger dies and the narrator quickly buries him. At this stage the narrative becomes overtly compressed and the cause of the man’s demise is not disclosed. All we can discern is an anxious concern on behalf of the narrator with the cause of the fatality, and a hope that it is not communicable. 

The narrator then returns to Isis, to tell her he loves her, which is not quite the same, one notes, as actually loving her. Isis is in the meadow where the creek used to rise. There is further subtle phrasing here, the phrase ‘where the creek used to rise’ might be seen as suggesting a lost fertility, pointing to a number of possible readings. If one continues to read the song within the Western genre, then the sense of sexual deprivation found in the Western can be perceived, as Tompkins puts it:

Like the absence of greenery, it (the cowboy’s denial of sex) is a turning away from fertility, fluidity, propagation and an affirmation of what is hard and dry and takes a long time to come to fruition.

However, the song is also rooted in a narrative of Egyptian myth, and, if only on a much reduced level, the dry creek evokes the dried-up Nile of the original Isis-Osiris story. In the original myth it was a failure of fertility that called for a sacrificial death and rebirth. Seth, the son of Isis and Osiris, killed his father and scattered him in fourteen pieces up and down the Nile. Isis searched until she had found thirteen of the pieces to rebuild her husband, lacking only the fourteenth piece, the phallus. 

It is thus interesting to note that when the narrator breaks into the tomb he finds the casket empty: ‘There were no jewels, no nothing…..’. The word nothing could be deconstructed in Shakespearian terms a ‘no thing’ in other words no phallus. In a sense (like the aforementioned search for the pole) the song becomes a search for the phallus. There is no thing, there is an empty tomb, and there is a dried up creek. Dylan’s technique here is to use a complex overlay of different myths, to suggest a sense of sexual aridity present just beneath the surface of the lyric. 

Roger Horrocks, writing about masculinity in the Western, noted that the desire men may feel for each other within the genre can be attained only through violence and death, when there is nothing to lose in betraying one’s true feelings. The Western novel  and film are ‘phallic discourses’ taken to an end point. They are discourses in which the only thing that one man can give another is death, a dissolution back into the universe, a merging with everything else. As Horrocks puts it: 

Men yearn for death. And they yearn for death in each other’s arms, finally babbling of their forbidden love for each other.

Something of this can be felt in the emotional interchanges between the two men in ‘Isis’.  There is an unspoken, undeveloped attraction between the two men, that can only be alluded to via the death of one of them. This would seem to raise the notion that a lack of a sexuality in ‘Isis’ goes some way into defining the masculine narrator.           

To be continued


Dylan/Joan Baez